Friday, October 05, 2007

Assessing the cult of Ron Paul

What are we to make of Ron Paul, the libertarian antiwar gadfly who wound up raising $5.1 million this summer for his quixotic GOP presidential campaign? Is this guy a budding phenomenon, or is he destined to be a footnote?

The feisty Texas congressman has enjoyed a bit of a media boomlet during the past 48 hours, primarily because he nearly matched uber-hawk John McCain in the third-quarter '07 money sweepstakes. But that story line says more about McCain's embarrassing decline than about any incipient Ron Paul juggernaut. The truth is, the odds of an antiwar candidate winning the Republican nomination are roughly equivalent to the odds of George Steinbrenner wearing a Red Sox cap.

To put Paul's achievement in proper perspective, consider this: The top four GOP presidential candidates (including McCain) all basically support the Bush crusade in Iraq. Together, they raised roughly $34 million during the third quarter. Paul is the lone GOP hopeful who opposes the war; for that (and for some other reasons; see below), he garnered $5.1 million.

There is definitely some antiwar sentiment within the ranks of GOP conservatives and conservative-leaning independents. Libertarians, as a matter of principle, resist the idea of big government fighting foreign wars, and Pat Buchanan-style conservatives are instinctively isolationist, as well as skeptical about ambitious dreams to democratize the Middle East. One conservative magazine contended last June that Americans are "tired of the warfare state." But, if the total money tab is any gauge of the overall Republican mood, it's clear that Paul's out-now message appeals only to a limited market.

And I suspect there is only a limited GOP market for a candidate who wants America to pull out of the United Nations (despite the fact that Republicans like to bash the U.N.); who wants America to pull out of most international trade pacts; who wants to eliminate FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, phase out Social Security, and end the federal war on drugs. Mainstream Republicans might indeed dislike the incessant Giuliani/Romney/McCain flip-flops, and many are fighting to stay awake as Fred Thompson continues to underwhelm, but this hardly means they will embrace Ron Paul's inviolate convictions.

In all likelihood, Paul has the potential to make a modest amount of mischief during the early primary season - particularly in a state like New Hampshire, where independents are free to vote in the GOP contest, and where iconoclastic candidates have often been well rewarded (antiwar Democrat Eugene McCarthy, 1968; conservative populist Buchanan, 1992). The war aside, he could serve as a protest vehicle for small-government conservatives who are fed up with Bush's red ink and runaway spending.

And since he has already demonstrated an ability to attract online donors (reminding some observers of Howard Dean), and raise a lot of heck via his presence on YouTube and MySpace, there's always the possibility that Paul could live off the land long after the GOP contest is over - by resurfacing as third-party candidate. He ran once before, in 1988, as the Libertarian party candidate. The party will meet next spring to choose a standard-bearer; in 2004, it was on the ballot in 48 states.

The long-term danger, for the GOP, is that Paul could exploit the fractures in the conservative camp, and attract enough disgruntled voters to undercut the Republican candidate's victory prospects in November '08. This can be accomplished with only a relative handful of voters. Just ask the Democrats about the 2000 race and the role of Ralph Nader.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

He knows which way the wind blows

Since I finished yesterday with Bruce Springsteen, why not begin today with Bob Dylan? As the bard once wrote, "You don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows."

And that explains Pete Domenici, who has now become the latest Capitol Hill Republican to hoist a wet finger and declare himself gone.

By my count, the New Mexico senior senator (who is expected to bow out officially later today) will be the fourteenth member of his party to opt out of the 2008 election season - five in the Senate, nine in the House. These imminent retirees clearly see no reason to stand and fight, only to risk becoming fresh casualties of the Bush era. Indeed, there are reports that as many as 18 other House Republicans might head for the lifeboats. (The current Democratic retirement tally: None in the Senate, two in the House. The two House guys are leaving in order to run for the Senate.)

Domenici's decision to bail is a fresh blow to Republicans, whose main aim in 2008 is to hold their potential congressional losses to a minimum. They already have to defend the seats of retirees in Virginia, Nebraska, Colorado, and Idaho. And with Domenici off the ballot, the Democrats have a heightened opportunity to stage a competitive race in New Mexico, which has slowly been trending blue - thanks in part to a burgeoning Democratic-friendly Hispanic electorate, and a popular Democratic governor (current presidential candidate Bill Richardson).

With Domenici off the ballot, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (the GOP's strategy headquarters) will have to fight a lot harder just to keep that seat - at a time when the NRSC is raising a lot less money than its Democratic counterpart. And, conceivably, Richardson himself could seek the Democratic nod. According to the filing calendar, he wouldn't have to make a decision until after the early presidential primaries.

The antiwar lobby is trying to take credit for Domenici's departure; as a spokesman for Americans Against Escalation in Iraq crowed late yesterday, "Sen. Domenici is yet another political casualty of the war in Iraq." But that's all wrong. Domenici is actually a political casualty of a separate Bush disaster: the politicization of the Justice Department, as evidenced by the prosecutor purge scandal. At a time when voters are concerned about lax ethics in Washington, Domenici certainly isn't well-served by his key role in the firing of a U.S. attorney, David Iglesias, who had refused to give the GOP a partisan boost at election time.

As we now know, at least eight Republican-appointed U.S. attorneys were bounced from their jobs during the past year, apparently because Bush loyalists in Washington deemed them to be insufficiently enthusiastic about tailoring their work to the needs of the GOP (despite the fact that U.S. attorneys, by definition, are supposed to be nonpartisan in their duties). Domenici, currently the target of a Senate ethics committee probe, was one of the most flagrant offenders.

Shortly before the highly-contested '06 congressional election, in which Domenici protege Heather Wilson was fighting to hang onto her GOP House seat in New Mexico, Domenici called Iglesias at his home. Domenici had sponsored Iglesias, a fellow Republican, for the U.S. attorney post back in 2001. Now he was apparently calling in his chits. He wanted to know whether Iglesias - who was in the midst of a local corruption case - would be ready to indict some local Democrats in time for the election. As Iglesias later recalled under oath to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the conversation went like this:

Domenici asked, "Are these going to be filed before November?" Iglesias replied that he "didn't think so." To which Domenici said, "I'm very sorry to hear that," and then the line went dead. (Such calls are highly improper. When Iglesias went public about this exchange, Domenici at first said, "I have no idea what he's talking about." Shortly thereafter, his amnesia disappeared. He acknowledged making the call, and said that he regretted it.)

But back to the chronology: Right after the '06 election, Domenici complained to Karl Rove at the White House, demanding Iglesias' ouster. Lo and behold, Iglesias' name turned up on a Dec. 7 list of U.S. attorneys targeted for firing. And out he went.

Domenici has some health problems, which undoubtedly contributed to his decision. But politicians weigh all kinds of calculations. If Domenici was reasonably confident that he could cruise to victory in his usual manner, he would not have to test his stamina. But the prospect of becoming a poster boy for the purge scandal...well, that's probably enough to make anybody feel old. And so would the prospect of returning to Washington as a member of the minority party - a factor that other Republicans are weighing, as they channel Dylan and chart the prevailing winds.


Following up on Monday's post:

Religious right leader James Dobson surfaced today on, of all places, the op-ed page of the New York Times (the epitome of what Dobson likes to call "the secular news media"). He sought to renew his threat, first voiced last weekend, to bolt the GOP (presumably, in the company of his brethren) and back a minority-party or third-party candidate if the party chooses an '08 nominee who supports abortion rights (presumably, Rudy Giuliani).

He said he cares most about whether the Republican candidate can pass his litmus test; he is far less interested in whether the candidate is electable. In his words, "Polls don't measure right and wrong; voting according to the possibility of winning or losing can lead directly to compromise of one's principles...Winning the presidential election is vitally important, but not at the expense of what we hold most dear."

The Christian conservatives, over the years, have issued many such threats, only to stay in the fold at crunch time. Nevertheless, I well recall 1992, when they assailed President George H. W. Bush as a compromiser who had slighted their agenda, and vowed to vote for him in underwhelming numbers. They followed through on that threat, Bush lost his re-election bid, and a Clinton was elected. Dobson's threat this morning - and similar sentiment from many in the GOP base - could be good news in the end for another Clinton.


And speaking of Republican retirements, here's an update on the Larry Craig chronology. The toe-tapping sex sting defendant - who first vowed not to resign, then declared his intention to resign, then decided not to resign pending his bid to overturn his summer guilty plea, then said he would resign by Sept. 30 if his guilty plea was still in effect, then said he would not resign by Sept. 30 because the plea had not yet been ruled upon - has now received his ruling.

A Minnesota judge has upheld the guilty plea (no surprise there), trashing Craig in the process: "The defendant, a career politician with a college education, is of at least above-average intelligence. He knew what he was saying, reading and signing."

So now Craig will obviously please his embarrassed Republican colleagues and make good on his various promises to resign...


Craig just posted this on his website: "I will continue to serve Idaho in the United States Senate...I have seen that it is possible for me to work here effectively...When my term has expired (in January 2009), I will retire and not seek reelection."

His GOP colleagues might want to get that statement notarized.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

With the right pedigree, war is good business

The unfolding Blackwater USA saga shines a spotlight on many lamentable aspects of the Bush administration's war in Iraq - the lavish dispensation of U.S. taxpayer dollars ($1,222 per day for each Blackwater mercenary, which is roughly six times the daily pay of an average army soldier); the wasteful deaths of unarmed Iraqi civilians (at least one of whom was shot in the back while trying to flee during the Baghdad Square incident on Sept. 16); and the predictable dearth of accountability (not a single Blackwater employe has ever been prosecuted under U.S. law, because, as a State Department official testified on Capitol Hill yesterday, the legal issues are "very murky").

But today I'll just focus on the political dimension. Blackwater is a textbook case of how war can be good business for those who invest wisely in the right politicians.

Let's start by revisiting a comic moment in yesterday's congressional hearing on Blackwater. California GOP congressman Darrell Issa, in his questioning of Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, was clearly intending to assert that Blackwater conducts its business in a non-partisan way, free of any ideological agenda. But, on his way to making the argument, he goaded Prince into putting some interesting facts on the record. (My annotations are in parenthesis.)

Issa: "Let's go to one area that hasn't been discussed...Is your sister's name Betsy DeVos?"

Prince: "Yes it is."

Issa: "And was she a former Michigan Republican party chairwoman?"

Prince: "Yes she was."

Issa: "And was she a former Pioneer for Bush?" (i.e. a major fundraising bundler in the '04 Bush campaign)

Prince: "I don't know. Could be." (she was)

Issa: "OK, was she a large contributor to President Bush?"

Prince: "They probably were."

Issa: "And raised a lot of money for President Bush?"

Prince: "Could easily be."

Issa: "Went to the Republican conventions in 2000 and 2004?"

Prince: "I would imagine they did, yes." ("they" is an apparent reference to Betsy and her husband Richard)

Issa: "Isn't it true that your family, at least that part of the family, are very well-known Republicans?"

Prince: "Yes."

Issa: "Wouldn't it be fair to say that your company is easily identified as a Republican-leaning company...You don't have to speculate overly, but isn't that something you generally understand?"

Prince (after conferring with his lawyer): "Blackwater is not a partisan company. We execute the mission given us...Yes, I've given political contributions. I've done that since college, I did it when I was an active duty member of the armed services, and I'll probably continue to do that forward. I didn't give up that right when I became a defense contractor."

Issa: "I think you're exactly right. That while being identified as partisan Republican, that in fact your company appears to have done what all companies do, which is in fact to do the job they're doing in a non-partisan way, and I would hope that this committee and the public takes note that labeling a company as 'Republican' because of family members is inappropriate, and I would hope that we not do it again."

Chairman Henry Waxman (delivering the punch line): "Well, the only one who has done it is you." (laughter in the room)

Issa inadvertently performed an important public service. On the way to making an irrelevent argument - nobody is suggesting that Blackwater has guarded Republicans better than it has guarded Democrats - he managed to highlight a key facet of the Blackwater success story: The Prince family's longtime cozy financial ties with the party that ultimately gained power and enabled Erik Prince to make a pile of money in Iraq.

Issa cracked the door open in public, so let's swing it wide: Prince and his wife, since 1989, have rung up $263,150 in political contributions - virtually all of it to Republicans and conservative political action committees. Prince himself, a White House intern under George H.W. Bush, was later a founder of the Family Research Council, a prominent religious conservative group. Sister Betsy raised $100,000 for Bush-Cheney in 2004; brother-in-law Richard was the '06 GOP gubernatorial candidate in Michigan. The DeVos wing of the family over the decades has donated tens of millions to conservative causes.

When asked yesterday whether his family connections, longtime activism, and lavish beneficence to the GOP had in any way helped him land his lucrative government contracts in Iraq (thereby enabling him to profit from the Bush team's partial privatization of the war), Prince replied in the negative.

But let's line up these two financial figures: Before George W. Bush took office, Prince's umbrella company, Prince Holdings, had reportedly received less than $1 million in federal contracts. In the years since Bush has been in office, Prince Holdings, sometimes aided by non-competitive bidding, has received more than $1 billion in federal contracts. (And how does that translate into profits? Prince replied yesterday: "We're a private company, and there's a key word there - private.")

That's a pretty big tab for the American taxpayer, especially considering Blackwater's reputation for alienating the Iraqi citizenry - and yet another example of how the neoconservative dream has gone wrong. As the Boss sings on his new CD, "The wise men were all fools."

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The fluidity of the Republican field

Following up on yesterday's post about dissatisfied Christian conservatives, it's no wonder that they can't find a clear favorite in the '08 Republican field. Republican voters in general can't seem to find one, either. This GOP presidential race is unusually fluid - a rare departure for Republicans, who typically coalesce early around an anointed frontrunner - and the latest fundraising figures have done little to clarify the situation.

The money stats for the third quarter of 2007 won't be officially known until Oct. 15, but it's already clear, from the early reports, that none of the top GOP candidates are outdistancing the competition during the run up to the roller-coaster primary season. The state of play currently looks something like this:

Rudy Giuliani, buoyed by his national name ID, leads in most national surveys of likely Republican primary voters, but he is trailing in the polls that assess GOP sentiment in the early primary states. Mitt Romney is lagging badly in the national polls, but he is the top dog in most of the early primary states (Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire), although not in others (South Carolina). Fred Thompson has debuted in second place in the national polls, but his summer fundraising numbers are reportedly unspectacular, and his performance on the stump (see below) continues to be underwhelming. John McCain, the one-time frontrunner, is said to be $2 million in debt, but he's still breathing, even though it's tough to see where he will break through. Mike Huckabee is winning plaudits for his communication skills - he has performed well in the debates - and he's getting some early vice-presidential buzz, but he's still not raising the requisite money for an extended primary run. And so on.

The only clarity this week is that Newt Gingrich has finally ended his long, slow tease and announced that he will not run for president after all (no surprise there); he's blaming the campaign finance laws.

So what happens next? That all depends...

On whether Giuliani can hang on to his broad national support, once conservative GOP voters learn more about his liberal stances on gay rights and abortion rights.

On whether Giuliani can persuade those conservative voters to ignore his liberal stances and focus on his potential strengths in an autumn faceoff with Hillary Clinton.

On whether Giuliani can do sufficiently well in the gatekeeper primaries (especially Iowa and New Hampshire), and thus position himself to win on friendler turf (Florida, with its transplanted northeasterners on Jan. 29; New York, California, and New Jersey on Feb. 5).

On whether Romney can finesse his well-earned reputation as a flip-flopper, overcome Christian conservative skepticism about his Mormon faith, hang on to his early poll advantages in the gatekeeper primaries, and thereby allow him to ride a wave of momentum, and media coverage, into the aforementioned Giuliani-friendly states.

On whether Thompson can show a pulse and get a clue (the other day, echoing the well-known Bush delusions, he appeared to insist that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in 2003, then insisted later that he was referring to the 1980s), both of which might help make a case for his electability.

On whether Thompson can stay alive in the earliest primaries, at least until he gets to friendler South Carolina, a state that he, as a southerner, can ill afford to lose.

On whether McCain can somehow find a way to score a big surprise in the New Hampshire primary - a daunting task, considering the fact that GOP conservatives still distrust him, and considering the fact that the state's swing-voting independents (who can choose to participate in either the GOP or Democratic contest) appear far more motivated to cast ballots in the Democratic race this time around.

No doubt there is a Republican spinner somewhere who will insist that this unusual fluidity is symptomatic of a vibrant and vigorous party (although I have yet to hear anyone say that). And, actually, Giuliani's attempts to downplay his liberalism on social issues by trumpeting his electability is shaping up to be a heckuva story. (A Giuliani strategist does some trumpeting here, under the "2008 General Election" heading.) But to put Republican prospects into perspective, consider this:

Mitt Romney, the GOP's fundraising champ this year, is expected to report about $10 million in new donations for the third quarter. Whereas, on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is now reporting, for the third quarter, $27 million. All told, Democratic presidential candidates have raised nearly twice as much money as their Republican counterparts during 2007. As a snapshot of the national mood, that comparison says it all.


Speaking of Hillary, however, she might have bought herself a bit of trouble last Friday when she said this: "I like the idea of giving every baby born in America a $5,000 account that will grow over time, so that when that young person turns 18, if they have finished high school, they will be able to access it to go to college, or maybe they will be able to make that down payment on their first home.”

A "baby bond"? With the federal government ponying up four figures for each birth? Hillary floated a version of this idea in a 2006 speech, although, at the time, she was suggesting $500. A new poll has already reported that 60 percent of Americans oppose the idea, as well as a plurality of Democrats.

And talk about conservative catnip - how hard will it be for the GOP to frame that as a "government handout," an ignonimous successor to George McGovern's 1972 idea of giving $1000 to every American? (For instance, here's blogger Phil Klein at The American Spectator: "She's still the radical college student fantasizing about establishing a leftist utopia.") Despite the Republicans' current woes, nothing buoys their spirits more effectively than being served up a fat pitch down the middle of the plate.

Meanwhile, from another angle, I questioned Hillary in my latest Sunday print column.

Monday, October 01, 2007

All is not heavenly for the Christian right

Back in May of 2000, I learned first-hand that James Dobson is a tough man to please.

Dobson, the prominent Christian conservative who believes that his religious brethren have the God-given right to vet Republican presidential candidates, invited some political journalists to dine with him at his headquarters in Colorado Springs. As we silently forked our pasta salads, in his oak-trimmed boardroom, Dobson explained why he was so disappointed in frontrunner George W. Bush.

Bush, apparently, was not sufficiently conservative, because he had not yet categorically renounced the idea of choosing Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge as his running mate. Ridge was a defender of abortion rights, and this triggered Dobson's ire. Basically, he was threatening to bolt the GOP and take his followers (four million listeners, six million on his email list) along with him.

That day, he told us: "A (party) that abandons the unborn child would send a significant number of people to look for another party to represent them...It wouldn't take much. You cannot contradict, you cannot insult the base of your support...I know the Christian community. I hear from 280,000 of them per month. I know them probably better than anyone else does. I know there are some things that set them on fire, and the unborn child is one of them...When you say to (Christian conservatives) that, 'We can compromise on somebody who is a heartbeat away from the presidency,' there's a lot of agitation about that...If you stand for everything, you stand for nothing."

Bush, of course, did not choose Ridge, and Dobson stayed in the fold. But you get the idea:

Dobson (and a number of his allies) will vet only those GOP candidates who are deemed to be true believers. Political compromise is for the sinners.

Which brings us to the present moment, an unhappy one for Dobson - and for all his religious right compatriots. They just can't seem to find an '08 Republican candidate who conforms to their ideals, and they are squabbling with each other about what to do. And this is potentially significant, because Christian conservatives comprise roughly one-third of the GOP electorate; it's rough for a Republican to win a general election if that much of the base is dissatisfied and therefore unmotivated to vote en masse.

Over the weekend, in Salt Lake City, the religious-right leaders conducted a private emergency meeting, in the hopes of sorting out the situation. Dobson reportedly flew in. The upshot: They're threatening to bolt the GOP, and urge their followers to do the same, if abortion-rights defender Rudy Giuliani wins the nomination next year. They signed onto a resolution stating that "if the Republican party nominates a pro-abortion candidate, we will consider running a third-party candidate."

Democrats, of course, would be thrilled if Dobson and his friends follow through on their threat, and split the Republican electorate in time for the autumn '08 finale. But that prospect is a long way off. What's noteworthy right now is that religious right leaders are dividing into two camps: the purists and the pragmatists. That, by itself, signals that spirits are low within the GOP coalition.

The purists, in search of a savior, find fault with most of the current GOP crop. Many of them dislike Fred Thompson, for instance, because he once did some lobbying for an abortion rights group, because he seems insufficiently committed to supporting a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and because he seems insufficiently church-going. As Dobson railed in a recent email to his followers, "He has no passion, no zeal...And yet he is apparently the Great Hope that burns in the breasts of many conservative Christians? Well, not for me, my brothers. Not for me!" (Here's where it gets real complicated: Some of the purists do like Thompson, and believe that Dobson is being unfair; last week, another leader, Richard Land, told Christian Broadcast News, "I’ve received phone calls and emails from Southern Baptists about Senator Thompson. They are all furious at Doctor Dobson.")

Anyway, he purists don't like Giuliani either, for the aforementioned reason, and because he has a messy personal history. They don't like John McCain, because he has warred with the religious right leaders in the past, and also seems to have insufficient zeal for their issues. And they're wary of Mitt Romney, because of their suspicions of his Mormon faith, and because Romney now professes to be for their issues, after years of being against their issues.

But the religious right leaders can't even agree among themselves on how to proceed. The pragmatists include Gary Bauer, who joined the weekend summit by phone and reportedly warned that he and his colleagues should refrain from infighting, lest the nation wind up with Hillary Clinton in the White House. (Indeed, some grassroots Christian conservatives seem willing - at least according to the polls - to ignore Giuliani's social liberalism, and focus on his potential electability, if only to stop Hillary.) On the other hand, Bauer also made some purist noises, by agreeing with his colleagues that if an abortion-rights defender wins the nomination, "it will blow up the GOP."

At this point, there's probably only one thing that Giuliani can do to tamp down this incipient revolt. He'll probably need to address the assembled religious right leaders, and conveniently arrange for his cellphone to ring midway through:

"Excuse me, I need to take this...'Hello? Hiiiiiii....Well, I'd love to talk, but I'm kind of busy right now...I'm talking to the defenders of the faith, isn't that wonderful? Can I call you back later, tell you how it went?...Great...Can't wait to talk to you privately, just you and me...Yes, I love our relationship, too...Love you, bye.'....Sorry for the interruption, folks. That was God."