Friday, October 19, 2007

Auditioning for the blessing

It's a travel day around here, so I'll keep it pithy:

Over the next several days, at the "Values Voter Summit" in Washington, the '08 Republican presidential candidates will be vying for the blessing of religious conservatives. Those traditional gatekeepers of the GOP nomination remain frustrated that they can't seem to find anyone who satisfies their purist sensibilities.

The auditions should be fairly predictable.

Rudy Giuliani will play down his liberal past on social issues, by invoking 9/11 with some frequency and vowing to appoint conservatives to the Supreme Court; Mitt Romney will spin his flip-flops (from liberal on abortion to conservative on abortion) as some sort of spiritual awakening, and brag a lot about his family (in a veiled contrast to all the divorced guys in the race); Fred Thompson will say he has always been a consistent conservative, and overlook his own past lobbying efforts on behalf of an abortion rights group; Mike Huckabee will play up his previous life as a pastor, and skip over the fact that donors still don't seem to want to give him any money; John McCain, who's hoping in vain that his listeners have forgotten his 2000 dismissal of Christian conservatives as "agents of intolerance," will paint himself as a man of conviction by contrasting himself with Romney's flip-flops.

(Indeed, here's an excerpt from McCain's speech today: "I have been pro-life my entire public career....That is a personal testament, which you need not take on faith. You need only examine my public record to know that I won't ever change my position to fit the politics of the day.")

Meanwhile, there's one other development that should displease the religious right. The departure today of Sam Brownback - the Kansas senator, plagued with microscopic poll ratings, is dropping out of the race - translates into a rise in the percentage of Republican candidates who actually believe in evolution.

With Brownback in the race, the EA (evolution average) was .556...meaning, only five of the nine candidates said they endorsed evolution. But with Brownback gone, the EA will climb all the way to .625. No wonder the religious conservatives feel that their decades of political toil has yielded insufficient satisfaction.


But even though Rudy Giuliani continues to have problems with the religious right, there is ample polling evidence that he is a popular with another sizeable segment of the population:

The factually-challenged.

I know that sounds harsh. But, as I mentioned several weeks ago, there is still a huge pool of people who inexplicably persist in believing - despite all the massive empirical evidence to the contrary - that Saddam Hussein plotted 9/11. Last month, a New York Times/CBS News poll determined that 33 percent of Americans believe Hussein was “personally” involved. And last June, a polling firm sponsored by Newsweek put that percentage at 41.

And, according to Times/CBS, take a guess which '08 candidate most strikes their fancy. The pollsters asked these clueless Americans to rate all the candidates in terms of favorability, and the winner was Rudy Giuliani - who has already proved to be a master at rhetorical sleight of hand, by repeatedly implying, a la the Bush administration formula, that all bad guys are indistinguishable...a tactic that also conveniently excuses the Bush team for its ill-fated decision to invade Iraq.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dreamy Democrats, traveling through time

No wonder the Democratic Congress is saddled with a microscopic approval rating (11 percent, in the latest poll). Consider this week's misadventure:

At a time when the public is hungry for real solutions to a slew of contemporary crises - for starters, the war in Iraq - the House Democrats have been dithering for days about whether they should stand tall and make a courageous statement...about some atrocities that were perpetrated by a country that no longer exists, in an era long dead and gone.

The Ottoman Empire. In 1915.

Needless to say, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with the desire to take a moral stand against genocide; indeed, the Armenian-American community has long been urging Congress to officially acknowledge the mass killings of their ancestors, at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, during World War I. And many Democrats, including the current party leaders in Congress, generally believe that American foreign policy should be guided by fixed moral principles - as expressed in their pending House resolution condemning as genocide the Ottoman Turks' behavior 92 years ago.

But, for Democrats, the problem with standing tall against an injustice that transpired 92 years ago is that it makes them look clueless with respect to sensitive national security developments that are unfolding in the here and now. And, with a national election looming, the Democrats can hardly afford to look clueless in the national security realm.

Democrats incensed about the Ottoman Turks of 92 years ago might be better advised to simply rent the DVD of Lawrence of Arabia, because this doesn't appear to be a propitious time to take a moral stand. The pragmatics argue against it. Turkey is a stalwart Muslim ally, a NATO ally that allows us to resupply American troops in Iraq from military bases on its soil. Turkey is also viewed by Israel as a stabilizing force in the region. Turkey is also a crucial player in the movement of oil to the West.

Turkey is also ticked off at America these days, because it doesn't think we have done enough to stop Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq from crossing the border and attacking Turkish civilians; yesterday, in fact, the Turkish Parliament authorized sending Turkish troops into northern Iraq to pursue the rebels - a direct slap at America, which officially lists these rebels' group, PKK, as a terrorist operation.
It's fair to argue that - regardless of the Turks' complicity in the Armenian killings, and regardless of their obstinate refusal to acknowledge same - this is not the best time to be ruffling their feathers.

Such are the complications of realpolitik. When all those security pragmatics are taken into consideration, the Democratic leaders, with their gazes fixed on 1915, come off looking like pie-eyed dreamers.

It should also be pointed out that their moral outrage is fueled in part by domestic political pragmatics. The Armenian-American community has been good to the Democrats, and now they want to cash in some IOUs. (Perhaps if Native-Americans had the same kind of electoral clout, we'd now be seeing resolutions condemning Andrew Jackson for what he did to the Florida Seminoles.)

Armenians vote heavily in Nancy Pelosi's California district, and it's no accident that one of the key resolution sponsors in Adam Schiff - another California Democrat who was elected in 2000 with heavy support from the burgeoning Armenian electorate in Glendale and Burbank.

I can attest to that, because I covered Schiff's race; that race drew national attention, because the incumbent was James Rogan, a key GOP player in the House Republican effort to impeach Bill Clinton. At one point, I had lunch with one of the key political operatives in the district - an Armenian named Eric Hacopian. He spelled out the importance of the Armenians as a local swing vote (10 percent of that district's electorate); he talked at length about the 1915 killings, and their desire to back a candidate who would push for a congressional resolution. In his words at the time, "This is a blood issue for all Armenians, it is extremely personal."

Well, Schiff is still pushing the blood issue - it was passed by the Foreign Affairs Committee last week - and it appeared that the resolution could reach the House floor any day now. But suddenly the Democratic leaders are wavering. With some Democrats bailing out, and with others stressing the here and now (Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat: "These are real-life situations, and sometimes your heart has to give in to your head"), Pelosi is now saying that action on the resolution "remains to be seen."

Behold the congressional Democrats: First they come up with a symbolic toothless gesture of idealism that threatens to play havoc with geostrategic realities...then they wobble over whether to pursue their own gesture. That 11 percent approval rating should be safe for awhile.

But to really gauge their performance on this matter, consider the response of President Bush. Speaking yesterday at a press conference, he said this: "With all these pressing responsibilities, one thing Congress should not be doing is sorting out the historical record of the Ottoman Empire. The resolution on the mass killings of Armenians beginning in 1915 is counterproductive. Both Republicans and Democrats, including every living former Secretary of State, have spoken out against this resolution. Congress has more important work to do than antagonizing a democratic ally in the Muslim world, especially one that is providing vital support for our military every day."

Talk about ineptitude...The Democrats have managed to make even Bush sound wise and sensible.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Rudy and Hillary and Larry

So many developments, so little time:

Rudy Giuliani, whose social liberalism continues to be a drag on his Republican nomination prospects, dearly wants GOP conservatives to ignore that inconvenient truth and focus instead on his national security machismo.

That was the drill yesterday, when he soared like a hawk at the Republican Jewish Coalition confab in Washington. He said, with respect to Iran and its nuclear ambitions, that it's very important for America to keep all its military options on the table. Then he said, for emphasis, that it's very important for America to keep all its military options on the table. He also stressed, in case nobody heard him, that America should keep all its military options on the table. He also wanted everybody to know that "if I am president of the United States, I guarantee you, we will never find out what they will do if they get nuclear weapons, because they're not going to get nuclear weapons," and that's because he'll keep all military options on the table.

He never did address the thorny issue of consequences - such as the likelihood that the cost of a barrel of oil would soar in the aftermath of a U.S. military attack, and that such costs would be passed along to American motorists - but Rudy wants to stay focused right now on looking tough and stoking emotions and playing the 9/11 card in all its permutations...anything to potentially distract conservatives from his tolerant track record on social issues.

But I doubt that his rhetorical willingness to bomb Iran will get him off the hook this Saturday, when he is slated to address the religious conservatives' Values Voter Summit in Washington. Those folks are well aware of his longstanding support for abortion rights and gay rights, and many are already threatening to bolt the GOP if the party nominates a pro-choice candidate. They're clearly less than thrilled about Rudy; a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reported that only 39 percent of evangelical Christians view him in a "somewhat positive" light, and that only 20 percent intended to back him during the primaries.

If Rudy renounces his pro-choice past, he'll look like just another flip-flopper, and undercut his straight-talking image; if he doesn't renounce it, he risks further alienating a lot of the GOP base (indeed, one Christian right leader endorsed rival Mitt Romney yesterday, pointedly saying that Romney, despite his Mormon faith, fills the bill "both personally and ideologically").

Rudy's intraparty quandary helps to explain why he's focusing so much these days on bashing Hillary. For instance, on Fox News last night, he said: "Honestly, in most respects, I don't know Hillary's experience. She's never run a city. She's never run a state. She's never run a business. She has never met a payroll. She has never been responsible for the safety and security of millions of people, much less even hundreds of people."

That's actually not a bad line of attack, especially coupled with his national security machismo. But it won't necessarily sell with those in the GOP base who see his social liberalism as a deal-breaker. The success of his candidacy will ultimately hinge on whether he can somehow becalm the base without alienating the socially tolerant GOP moderates who predominate in the big early primary states - notably California, New York, and New Jersey.


Speaking of Hillary-bashing, Barack Obama is pocketing his halo and ratcheting up the rhetoric. Yesterday he basically dismissed her as a poll-driven, conviction-free Machiavelli: "If every move you’re making is based on a static politics where you are looking backwards and 'this is what the polls tell me, this how much room we have to maneuver'’ll be a vast improvement over George Bush. But you are not going to deliver on the major challenges, and you are not going to set a broad vision for the country."

He's only doing this, however, because of his ongoing slide in the surveys of likely Democratic primary voters. Hillary's lead continues to widen; in one new poll, she is the favorite of 50 percent of likely Democratic voters - a fairly impressive figure, considering the large field of candidates.

I'd argue that Hillary has Obama right where she wants him: in a box. If he stays above the fray (his preference) and continues to advertise himself as a new kind of non-partisan pol, he'll continue to lose ground. But if he descends into the fray and tries to assail her directly, he'll look like just another partisan candidate - while exposing himself to Hillary's counterpunches.


Is Larry Craig secretly working for the Democrats, or what? The GOP's albatross surfaced yet again last night (on Matt Lauer's NBC show), and again this morning (on the Today show), defending his john habits, pleading convenient memory lapses, and wallowing in lame denials. At least Mark Foley was wise enough, last year, to quit his House seat and disappear. This guy, by sticking around and keeping himself in the news cycle, threatens anew to damage the battered Republican brand during the runup to '08.

"Matt, I use bathrooms for bathroom's sake...False rumor and innuendo...I go to the bathroom to use the bathroom for bathroom's sake...The facts have just got covered up...It didn't happen...I don't recall that...I don't agree with the (gay) lifestyle. And I've said so by my votes over the years..."

One hour of this. But my favorite part was when Lauer asked whether his fellow senators were shunning him. Lauer asked, "They're not parking in your parking spot?"

Craig: "They better not."

What better metaphor can there be, for an entrenched Washington politician who has pled guilty, has refused to accept the ruling of a state judge, and has compromised his party's purported "family values?" What could be worse for GOP morale than to have a tainted entrenched incumbent fighting in defense of his parking spot?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

You're next, Bethany!

Supporters of SCHIP expansion – translation: the grassroots activists who want Congress to override President Bush's veto of the popular, bipartisan State Children's Health Insurance Program bill – are trying once again to put a human face on the issue. They are spotlighting a modest-income Florida couple whose 2-year-old daughter, Bethany Wilkerson, was able to get life-saving heart surgery in 2005, thanks to the SCHIP program.

But, considering how the conservative media/blogosphere assailed the first publicized youngster – 12-year-old Graeme Frost, who received SCHIP-financed hospital care after a serious car accident, and whose parents were promptly slimed by false innuendo about their personal finances – we can only assume that Bo and Dara Wilkerson are psychologically prepared for what might happen next. Perhaps it will be something like this…

TUCKER CARLSON: “Good evening, and welcome to this Fox News emergency special, 'The Wilkersons: Threat or Menace?' I am joined here in the studio by my guests, Bill Kristol – hi, Bill, you look happy, glad the war is going so well – and best-selling author Ann Coulter. Ann, I must say, that dress is good TV. You look absolutely fetching tonight. Where’s the party?”

COULTER: “You mean the Socialist party? I’d be interested in knowing why these Wilkersons are behaving like Socialists. And as for that name - 'Wilkerson’ - doesn't that sound Jewish to you?”

KRISTOL (beaming): “Not necessarily. And, Ann, please remember that I’m Jewish.”

COULTER: “Well, Bill, I’ve always said that you need to be perfected. Would you like to start the Christianization process? Come to church with me?”

(Laughter, crosstalk)

KRISTOL: “Frankly, Ann, I think it’s the Wilkersons who need to get religion about our priorities in this country. First, let me say that this is a great time in America to be a conservative, to stand up for smaller government, to advocate for a muscular America abroad, and surely, as Americans, the Wilkersons should agree with that. The president decided to veto this bill, which, if enacted, would waste billions that could be better spent to aid our fighting men and women in Iraq, as well as our freedom workers at Blackwater. So what the Wilkersons are doing is irresponsible. The key question to consider is, why is their toddler against the troops?”

COULTER: “And when you consider who these Wilkersons really are – it’s a disgrace. I’ve been scanning the blogs, and there are many commenters who say they know this couple, and did you know that the Wilkersons pre-enrolled sweet little Bethany in a posh preschool program, and that they have a chauffer-driven limousine and a vacation home in the Cayman Islands?”

CARLSON: “Really, let’s be honest, it is truly a disgrace that these people have decided to exploit their own child for partisan political propaganda, and that certainly doesn’t speak well of their personal family values, or their skills as parents. I also suspect that a lot of people in St. Petersburg vote Democratic. But with respect to the personal information you just mentioned, that’s amazing! Where did you hear that…”

COULTER: “It’s just out there, for anyone to hear about.”

CARLSON: “…Because I read a quote yesterday from Mr. Wilkerson - Bo Wilkerson is his name - saying that the family income is only around $34,000, and that he has only $67 in his bank account.”

COULTER: “Well, the rest of the money could be in his Cayman Islands account, couldn’t it?”

KRISTOL (beaming): “Conceivably, Ann. But I’d like to get back to this issue of patriotism, and whether the Wilkersons think it is a disgrace that Al Gore won the Nobel Prize. I understand, from news reports, that Bo Wilkerson claims to have only one car, and he refers to that car as a ‘junker.’ First, we don’t know if that’s true, he could have stashed his Audi somewhere so that his daughter could qualify for her socialist heart operation. But if it is true, let’s remember that junkers are not fuel-efficient. Which means they contribute to global warming. It is Bo Wilkerson’s right to pollute if he chooses to. And if he continues to remain silent about Al Gore, if he refuses to speak out and condemn Gore for meddling with the rights of junker drivers, I think that tells us a lot about Bo Wilkerson.”

COULTER: “And I’d like to get back to this name thing. What kind of name is ‘Bo,’ anyway?”


CARLSON: “You know, there’s a website – and this is true – which says that ‘Bo’ is a popular Scandinavian nickname for both boys and girls.”

COULTER: “Well, that figures, doesn’t it? The Scandinavian countries have long been a hotbed for socialist, welfare-state thinking. Sweden, for instance. That tells us all we need to know.”

KRISTOL: “Not just Sweden, either. Norway is a Scandinavian country. The Nobel Prizes are awarded in Norway. Do the Wilkersons believe that George W. Bush rightfully deserved to win the peace prize this year, for his liberation of Iraq? More importantly, does Bethany believe that?”

COULTER: “Is Bethany walking yet? Or still crawling? And what does that say about her parents? I also notice, in the YouTube ad, that Bethany is shown on a beach. So why is the family beach house conveniently out of camera range?”

CARLSON: “And did you notice that Bethany had her heart operation in a Florida hospital in 2005 – the same year that Terri Schiavo was allowed to die in another Florida hospital? I’d like to know, do the Wilkersons believe that Terri had the same right as Bethany to live a full and healthy life? But we’re out of time. Bill, take us to commercial break.”

KRISTOL (Beaming): “Join us tomorrow night, for a special investigation of the Wilkersons’ political beliefs. Have they put their daughter’s interests ahead of winning the war on terror? Thank you for joining us.”

Monday, October 15, 2007

Al Gore and his aversion to toxicity

Al Gore’s fans are dreaming if they actually believe that he will choose, at this late date in the campaign calendar, to parlay his Nobel Prize into another White House bid. Notwithstanding the requisite buzz, he doesn’t need that kind of grief.

He has long indicated that he has little appetite for the toxicity of modern politics. He undoubtedly remembers the 2000 presidential debates, when the media dwelled on his audible sighs, and he remembers the campaign itself, when he was successfully painted as a serial liar. (George W. Bush had a line in his standard stump speech about how Gore once claimed to have invented the Internet - but that was the actual lie, because Gore had only claimed that as a senator during the ‘80s he had taken the “initiative” to develop the technology. Which was the actual truth.) And he'd rather not be reminded how he outpolled Bush on election day by 543,000 votes, only to lose the presidency when a 5-4 GOP-dominated Supreme Court stepped into a state dispute and stopped the crucial recount.

Speaking of toxicity, Gore can’t even win the Nobel Prize without taking retaliatory heat from conservatives who can’t abide the notion that he has been vindicated. Witness Bill Kristol’s predictable quip yesterday on Fox News, where he sought to discredit Gore and the Nobel Prize in the same sentence (“It’s a prize given by bloviators to a bloviator for nothing”), although he was quickly topped by conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, who – big surprise – used the occasion to question Gore’s patriotism (the Nobel committee awards its prizes “to people whose politics are either anti-American or anti-Bush”).

But, as a candidate, his foes on the right would’ve been the least of his problems. His primary headache would have been Hillary Clinton.

Taking her on would be tough enough just in terms of the horserace; she is lapping the track at the moment, Barack Obama and John Edwards both having failed to slow her momentum. Even if Gore felt a strong urge to take a late plunge, his prospects for toppling such a well-financed, well-organized frontrunner would not be promising. Indeed, a Gore ally said as much to CNN last Friday.

And, horserace aside, taking on Hillary would immediately alter the Al Gore media narrative. Right now, he is “Al Gore, seer and international icon.” If we was to challenge Hillary for the nomination, the story would quickly become “Al Gore, politician, seeking to settle old scores and avenge his grievances with the Clintons.” That’s a giant step off the pedestal.

It has long been known – and I did a few such reports of my own, back in ’99 – that Al and Hillary were never the best of buddies. The vice president and the First Lady dueled for influence in the Bill Clinton White House for most of the ‘90s, and guess who generally won. Gore was also overshadowed when he ran for president in 2000, because Hillary at the time was making her initial Senate bid, and she soaked up most of Bill’s time, attention, and fund-raising energies. A new Vanity Fair article points out that between June and December of 1999, Bill staged 20 White House events in order to boost Hillary’s political profile, while staging only one event to boost his vice president.

In June of that year, I spoke with ex-White House aide David Gergen about Al and Hillary, and he spoke of “a natural friction” between the two. He said, “As long as the Clintons remain on the stage, it’s difficult for Al Gore to be on the stage, too.”

Little has changed since. Gore has come too far, in terms of rehabilitating his image and reputation, to want to risk it now by crowding the Clintons on the political stage and resurrecting the “Al versus Hillary” media narrative.

The same problem will complicate his impending decision about whether to endorse one of the current Democratic candidates. As an “outsider” who yearns for a new political paradigm, he would probably lean toward either Obama or Edwards, both of whom are painting Hillary as an establishment insider who would ultimately do little to change the Washington fundamentals. But, if he does tender a non-Hillary endorsement, his decision still risks being dismissed as sour grapes from a guy with grievances against the Clintons. And I have long felt that political endorsements are overrated, anyway. I seem to recall that Gore’s endorsement of Howard Dean, on the eve of the ’04 primaries, didn’t exactly sway the Democratic grassroots on the issue of Dean’s electability.

Nor am I convinced that Gore can use his Nobel status to put his environmental issues front and center in the 2008 campaign. The public generally applauds his efforts, but the overriding concerns are still Iraq, the economy, and health care. And no Democratic candidate is so anxious for a Gore endorsement that he or she will agree to endorse the Gore plan for combating global warming (a political suicide agenda that would hit Americans in their wallets).

It would appear, therefore, that Gore’s best option is to continue to lead his current life, with the expectation that he would play a strong educational role in any ’09 Democratic administration. Given the traumas that he was forced to endure seven years ago, that’s not such a bad deal.


Speaking of political toxicity, emailers have been asking me lately why I have neglected to comment on Rush Limbaugh’s denigration of antiwar Iraq veterans (whom he has derided as “phony soldiers”), particularly in the wake of the conservative attacks on, for its “General Betrayus” denigration. Today, I address the whole issue in my latest newspaper column – although I doubt that my perspective will please those who are caught up in this game of rhetorical tit-for-tat.


And for those of you who prefer the national game - that would be baseball, of course - today I offer something completely different, a freelance obituary on the New York Yankees.