Friday, December 14, 2007

Attack and apologize, Hillary style

In an alleged debate yesterday, the Democratic presidential candidates largely confined themselves to familiar themes and talking points; thanks to the tight Iowa format, nobody was substantively challenged - neither by a rival, nor by moderator Carolyn Washburn, who, for the second straight day, made it clear that her idea of a follow-up question is "Thank you."

A decent roundup of the high and low points is here. I'm more interested in what transpired off stage, in the latest case of Hillary hardball.

As you probably know, Billy Shaheen, the co-chair of Hillary's national campaign and a Clinton family favorite whose wife Jeanne is running for the Senate in New Hampshire, apparently acted alone on Wednesday, in a show of excessive zeal, when he brought up rival Barack Obama's youthful experiences with marijuana and cocaine. (Obama has previously volunteered information about those experiences in a memoir.) In an interview, Shaheen cited the drug use as purported evidence of Obama's unelectability:

"The Republicans are not going to give up without a fight...and one of the things they're certainly going to jump on is his drug use....It'll be, 'When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?' There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It's hard to overcome."

The story sat out there for 24 hours, gathering national attention (shorthand: Obama = drugs), until Shaheen announced yesterday that he was quitting the campaign, that he had mistakenly lashed out on his own, that Hillary had not authorized him to say any such thing. Then Mark Penn, Hillary's chief strategist, went on Hardball late yesterday to engage in the ritual distancing: "He was never a part of this campaign. It was unacceptable."

It's not hard to figure out what really happened here. Hillary's campaign is spooked by Obama's surge in the polls, notably his erasure of Hillary's once-daunting lead in New Hampshire. And when her people feel threatened, they are fully capable of playing the game rough. The drug story is a classic example: you impugn your rival for a day or so, then you switch to apology-and-resignation mode - which makes it appear that you're back on the high road, but, in reality, only serves to keep the damagibng story in the news a little longer.(Witness Mark Penn yesterday on MSNBC, perpetuating the drug stuff while seeming to knock it down: "The issue related to cocaine use is not something that the campaign was in any way raising.")

Moreover, Billy Shaheen isn't exactly some overzealous junior aide. He and Jeanne, a former New Hampshire governor, have long been close pals with Bill and Hillary; they reportedly had dinner together a few months ago. Shaheen, lawyer and power broker, at this point has an instinctive understanding of the parameters of Clintonian politicking. He didn't need Hillary to "authorize" any attack on Obama's past drug use. He spoke out because he knows full well how the Hillary camp plays the game when the pressure is on.

And his argument was specious anyway. He basically said, We don't think it's a big deal that Obama used drugs in the past, it's those evil Republicans who will successfully make it a big deal. I doubt that Shaheen, or anyone in the Hillary camp, truly believes that. I haven't seen a shred of polling evidence that suggests Obama is electorally vulnerable because of what he did as a young man; perhaps religious conservatives would view his drug use as a moral deal-breaker, but they wouldn't vote Democratic anyway.

It's also worth remembering that Bill Clinton admitted to marijuana use in 1992 (doing it in his classic fashion, claiming that he "didn't inhale," and that he only did it outside America's territorial waters), and I don't seem to recall that his youthful experiences doomed him at election time. If the Republicans couldn't invoke drugs as a "dirty trick" nearly 16 years ago, I doubt they'd succeed in 2008, particularly when the prevailing political winds appear to be against them. And the Hillary people are savvy enough to know this.

But, apparently, the Hillary people are not savvy enough to realize that when they impugn a rival in this fashion, they risk further alienating those Democratic voters who are fed up with polarized politicking. Or perhaps the Hillary people, hard-wired for combat, simply can't help themselves.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A snoozefest more potent than Ambien

I'm addressing this question to all the heterosexual guys out there:

Have you ever been dragged to a chick flick - the kind where Helena Bonham Carter makes a pot of tea and swoons endlessly about the Victorian gents whom she fancies - and within 30 minutes you're surreptitiously tracking the second hand of your wristwatch as it ticks ever so slowly onward?

Well, that's how it was yesterday, at the Republican presidential debate in Iowa, the last showdown before the Jan. 3 caucuses.

It's not so easy to transform a galvanizing political race into a soporific yawner, but moderator Carolyn Washburn was clearly up to the job. Doing her best imitation of your fourth-grade substitute teacher, Washburn, the editor of the Des Moines Register, made it clear from the outset that the rules would not permit any outbursts from the unruly boys in class.

There would be no talk of immigration (which is merely the hottest issue in the GOP race). There would be no talk of Iraq (which has cost the lives of nearly 4000 Americans and drained the treasury of roughly half a trillion dollars). There would be no opportunities for the candidates to directly address each other (this, at a time when the candidates have started to do so, in their TV ads). Rather, there would be a series of ponderous policy questions (with scant time to respond in any detail), coupled with an opportunity for each candidate to make a "free statement" about himself (which resulted in the usual talking points, which added nothing and illuminated nothing). Worse yet, the GOP field was larger than ever, thanks to the inexplicable inclusion of Alan Keyes, who was somehow let onto the stage despite his zero percent popularity - as measured in a November Iowa poll.

(I felt bad last night for the Des Moines Register reporter who had to cover this event. In his story, he called it as "a free-wheeling forum," which is akin to equating a chick flick with a Die Hard sequel. Maybe he felt compelled to take one for the team.)

This exchange basically summed up the whole affair:

WASHBURN: "I want to take on a new issue. I would like to see a show of hands. How many of you believe global climate change is a serious threat and caused by human activity?"

FRED THOMPSON: "Well, do you want to give me a minute to answer that?"

WASHBURN: "No, I don't."

THOMPSON: "Well, then I'm not going to answer it."

WASHBURN: "Okay."

MIKE HUCKABEE: "How about 30 seconds?"

WASHBURN: "No, I -- you know, I want --"

You get the idea. She wrestled with her unruly boys all afternoon, trying to keep the lid on spontanaeity. And the upshot was that, in the end, Mike Huckabee benefited the most.

I hesitate to name a "winner" in any debate, particularly in a heavy-lidded affair such as this, but clearly Huckabee had the best day. He entered the event at the top of the polls in Iowa, and he left the event largely unscathed - again, because the tight format did not encourage any of his rivals to take him on directly. The result was that he got off easy, especially when some of his remarks cried out for rejoinders.

At one point, Huckabee made a pitch for his so-called "fair tax" - his proposal to scrap the progressive income tax, and replace it with a flat national sales tax. He claimed that this levy would benefit most Americans. In his words, the Huckabee tax system "means that the rich people aren't going to be made poor, but maybe the poor people could be made rich. That ought to be the goal of any tax system - not to punish somebody, but to enable somebody so that they can have a part of the American dream. The fair tax does just that."

It just so happens that many tax experts, and many Republicans, view the Huckabee plan as downright nutty - because it would do precisely the opposite of what the candidate claims. Some studies have already concluded that a flat national sales tax would actually worsen the tax burden for most people; the richest Americans, in the top fifth, would see their tax rate fall by 20 percent, while the other 80 percent would pay more.

But none of Huckabee's rivals were willing to defy the lofty vibes and refute him. It would've been like rolling a stink bomb down the church aisle. Which is also why Mitt Romney, when asked whether the next president should be an economic conservative, passed up the opportunity to discuss all the taxes that Huckabee raised while he was governor of Arkansas. Which is also why nobody dared bring up the latest developments in the case of Wayne Dumond, the convicted rapist who was pardoned with the encouragement of then-Gov. Huckabee, only to murder a woman in Missouri. (The conservative press is far less reluctant to view Huckabee with the appropriate skepticism.)

Yesterday, the only candidate willing to take on Huckabee, however fleetingly, was Tom Tancredo - who probably figured he had nothing to lose, given the fact that his prospects for becoming president are roughly akin to Kevin Federline's. Noting that Huckabee has in the past voiced compassion for illegal immigrants but now talks tough about border security, Tancredo asked, "how are you going to convince America that you, in fact, changed your mind on the issue of immigration from when you were a governor? That's all I want to know."

Whereupon Washburn, invoking her rule about no immigration talk, stepped in to ask Ron Paul for his favorite New Year's resolution.

If I were Huckabee, I know what my New Year's resolution would be. I'd send that woman a thank-you note for helping him lock down his Iowa lead. Unless he has already concluded that she was an instrument of God's will, and that such a note is therefore not required.

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This is noteworthy: The Hillary Clinton campaign has released a new Iowa TV ad, featuring the candidate's mother.

Dorothy Rodham says, "What I would like people to know about Hillary is what a good person she is. She never was envious of anybody — she was helpful. And she’s continued that with her adult life with helping other women. She has empathy for other people’s unfortunate circumstances. I’ve always admired that because it isn’t always true of people. I think she ought to be elected even if she weren’t my daughter."

Translation: Hillary is bleeding. Support from women has dropped in early primary states, and skepticism about her character persists. Hence, mom to the rescue.

Will the ad work? Don't expect any discussion during today's Democratic debate in Iowa.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The perfect is the enemy of the good

The Republican presidential candidates debate again today, in Iowa. Meanwhile, this is perhaps the oddest aspect of the fluid Republican presidential race: The most electable candidate remains broadly unpopular within his own party.

That would be John McCain, who's still breathing after having been given up for dead not too many months ago. I'm tempted to wonder whether Republicans are so fixated on punishing illegal immigrants that they would prefer to lose the '08 election rather than nominate an electable guy whose talk of compassion flunks their litmus test.

The latest national survey, released yesterday, reports that McCain is currently the only GOP candidate who stacks up well against Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. He leads Hillary by a couple points, and he's tied with Obama - unlike his rivals, many of whom would lose to either Democrat by a landslide.

I wasn't totally surprised by those numbers; McCain is often cited by many Democrats as the only palatable candidate in GOP camp (despite his staunch support for the Iraq war). His enduring appeal (attributable to his strength of character) was evident last week, when he was singled out by a number of participants in a Democratic focus group in Philadelphia.

Hence this question: Given the glaring flaws of the other GOP candidates, why haven't grassroots Republicans gravitated to McCain - who may be ideologically imperfect, from their perspective, yet nevertheless might be most qualified to keep Hillary out of the White House?

One could make an easy case for his assets: He has sustained a more consistent conservative record on the social issues (abortion, gay marriage) than either Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani. On fiscal issues, he has been inveighing against wasteful pork-barrel spending far longer than any of his rivals. He has staunchly supported the Iraq war, and has been willing to say so out loud, unlike most of his rivals - and one would think that this would appeal to grassroots Republicans. And, unlike Mike Huckabee, he won't potentially scare off independent swing voters by acting as if he was running for the job of pastor-in-chief.

Yet McCain still lags behind the field - even in New Hampshire, the state that boosted his upstart 2000 campaign. The latest CNN poll shows him far behind Romney, despite the latter's ongoing imitation of a weathervane.

And there's another factor that could complicate McCain's quest to become the GOP's comeback kid: the mood of the independents. Under New Hampshire rules, registered voters unaffiliated with either party can choose, on the day of balloting, to participate in either party primary. This year, the majority of those voters might opt to join the Democratic contest in order to vote for Barack Obama.

So McCain is left with the task of wooing the party base, but the immigration issue apparently remains a deal-breaker. He gets no points for being consistent in his belief that illegals can't simply be shipped home ("these are God's children as well, and they need some protections under the law and they some of our love and compassion"), nor for his willingness to state his belief in front of hostile Republican audiences. For many grassroots Republicans, hostility towards illegal immigrants has replaced hostility towards abortion providers as the ultimate litmus test.

But maybe McCain is providing Republicans with the ultimate test - between pragmatism and purity. What's more important next year: Is it better to punish McCain on this issue, and risk not fielding the most electable candidate?

As Voltaire warned a few centuries ago, "The perfect is the enemy of the good."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

We interrupt this program

I'm off duty today, traveling. Back tomorrow.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Huck and the Holy

In the latest church news – excuse me, Republican presidential campaign news – we have some fresh developments concerning GOP prospect Mike Huckabee and his running mate, God. (Or perhaps it's the other way around.)

Over the weekend, the Associated Press reported that Huckabee, during his unsuccessful 1992 bid for a U.S. Senate seat, had willingly shared his concerns about gay people. He told an AP questionnaire, “I feel homosexuality is an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle, and we now know it can pose a dangerous public health risk.” Since presidential hopeful Huckabee stressed just the other day that his convictions are “deeply held, consistent, authentic,” we can only assume that today he still sees gay people as he saw them in 1992 – although his ’92 biblical admonition seems at odds with the sunny image he’s currently seeking to project.

His ’92 judgment on gay people – and the fact that he said nothing this weekend to distance himself from that judgment - certainly won’t hurt him in Iowa and South Carolina. He needs religious conservative voters to sustain his insurgent campaign, and they generally share that judgment anyway. But it’s hard to imagine that, if he somehow snagged the ’08 GOP nomination, his views on gays would endear him to the centrist swing voters who are crucial to winning in November. Swing voters tend to be fairly tolerant of gay people, and generally averse to biblical admonitions. And polls indicate that young voters under the age of 30 are even more tolerant; their demographic supports the concept of gay marriage more than any other.

But what voters in general tend to dislike is a double-talking politician. Consider Huckabee's response yesterday on Fox News, when asked about his other ’92 statement that gays should be quarantined from the general population in order to contain the AIDS epidemic. (Never mind the fact that, seven years earlier, the federal government had publicly concluded that AIDS was not spread through casual contact.) Huckabee, in his response yesterday, engaged in some evasive wordplay that would have put Bill Clinton to shame.

Here’s what he had said in 1992: “If the federal government is truly serious about doing something with the AIDS virus, we need to take steps that would isolate the carriers of this plague....It is difficult to understand the public policy towards AIDS. It is the first time in the history of civilization in which the carriers of a genuine plague have not been isolated from the general population…”

When asked about that statement on Fox News, here’s what he said: “I didn’t say that we should quarantine.”

Well, actually, that’s exactly what he said. His ’92 phrase (“we need to take steps that would isolate the carriers of this plague”) is synonymous with “should.”

But Huckabee, clearly sensing yesterday that he’d taken the wrong tack, didn’t try to parse his words any further. Rather than continuing to try to weasle out of what he said in '92, he quickly reverted to consistent-conviction mode, and declared that he would stand by his old comments rather than try to “recant” them. So, with respect to pleasing his growing fan base on the religious right, he probably emerged unscathed from that episode.

And on the topic of nurturing that fan base, perhaps he did his best work the other day at Liberty University, the school founded by the late Jerry Falwell. When a student asked him to explain the reasons for his rapid ascendance in the Republican presidential polls, here was Huckabee’s diagnosis:

“There's only one explanation for it, and it's not a human one. It's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of five thousand people. (Applause) That's the only way that our campaign can be doing what it's doing. And I'm not being facetious nor am I trying to be trite. There literally are thousands of people across this country who are praying that a little will become much, and it has. And it defies all explanation, it has confounded the pundits. And I'm enjoying every minute of them trying to figure it out, and until they look at it, from a, just experience beyond human, they'll never figure it out. And it's probably just as well. That's honestly why it's happening.”

Translation: He thinks he’s rising in the polls because it is God’s will.

How na├»ve of me to believe that presidential candidates rise or fall on things like, you know, issues and positions and other earthly factors such as character and image. The Huck seeks to instruct us that the real explanation is “not a human one.” His basic message is that secular empiricism is so last century.

Again, if he gets the nomination, let’s see how centrist swing voters respond to a guy who apparently sees himself as God’s instrument. Given the current White House occupant's insistence that he too was guided by the Lord (regarding his decision to invade Iraq, President Bush told Bob Woodward, "I was praying for the strength to do God's will"), that kind of claim might not be viewed as an asset this time around.

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In print yesterday, I assessed the GOP debates via the satirical/absurdist route, although that kind of format is not designed for the humor-impaired.

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Last Friday, I wrote here about a Democratic focus group, and its misgivings about the '08 Democratic field. Other journalists watched the proceedings as well. Here's another account, by the Washington columnist Al Hunt.