Friday, February 08, 2008

Conversations with myself

What a week. My head hurts. So let's wind down with a Q & A.

Q: How come Mitt Romney decided to cut and run, hours after he had promised to soldier on?

A: Because, thinking like a businessman, he came to the conclusion that he was a bad investment. (Makes sense to me. He wound up spending roughly $125,000 for each delegate received - and that's money from his own pocket.) Yesterday, he claimed that he was leaving the GOP race only because he wants to stop the Democrats from winning the White House and staging a "surrender to terror." But that parting blast of demagoguery can't mask the truth, which is that he surrendered his candidacy because the conservative base judged him to be a flip-flopping fraud. It was clear to me, way back last summer during the Iowa straw poll, that he was weak on his right flank, and he remained so. Thinking ahead, he has probably calculated that McCain will lose this year, allowing him to retool himself for 2012 as Ronald Reagan 2.0.

Q: So what about a John McCain-Mike Huckabee ticket? Doesn't the Huck bring along the conservatives that the Mack lacks?

A: Not necessarily. If we assume that running mates help at all (and I sometimes question that premise), then Huckabee potentially pulls in the religious conservatives. But, lest we forget, he is anathema to a lot of fiscal/economic conservatives, as well as traditional big business/Wall Street conservatives. The latter faction doesn't like Huckabee's populist rhetoric against corporations. The former faction doesn't like Huckabee's record as governor of Arkansas, where he raised a lot of taxes and increased government spending. And I wonder whether independent swing voters would be charmed by the idea of positioning, a heartbeat away from the presidency, a guy who doesn't believe in evolution.

Q: OK, but what about Hillary Clinton hooking up with Barack Obama, or vice versa? There's all this buzz about a Democratic dream ticket.

A: Dream on. If Hillary wins the nomination, why would she want to pick a silver-tongued partner who overshadows her every time he opens his mouth? Why would she want to trump her own narrative, about breaking the gender barrier, with an arguably more compelling narrative, about breaking the racial barrier? Besides, why would Obama want to be her understudy? Perhaps the worst job in the world, aside manning a highway toll booth, would be vice president in Hillary's White House - because you'd actually be the number-three official, with Bill as number two. Meanwhile, if Obama was the nominee, why would Hillary want to play second fiddle? She has already spent decades as backup to a charismatic male, so what's the upside of potentially spending yet another eight years waiting her turn?

Q: How come, all of a sudden, Hillary is saying that she wants to have lots and lots of TV debates with Obama, starting with a Fox News invitation on Monday night? Don't frontrunners generally want to debate less, not more?

A: Several theories. (1) She truly believes that she has lost her frontrunner status, and now she's thinking like a scrappy challenger. (2) She privately believes that she is still the frontrunner, but wants people to view her as a scrappy challenger because the latter image is more appealing. (3) She genuinely feels - not without justification - that she is the better debator, more substantive on policy issues. (4) With Obama holding the money advantage, she needs the free media exposure. The bottom line is that Obama, acting like a frontrunner, has indicated that he will not debate her again until the end of the month.

Q: McCain's support among independents is truly bizarre. All the polls have long shown that independents are strongly opposed to the war in Iraq...yet here they are, showing the love for a Republican who strongly supports the war. The exit polling, during the primaries, have verified this. McCain has repeatedly scored well with voters who are unhappy with the war. What gives?

A: Personalities trump issues in our mediagenic age. Even when one of those issues involves the expenditure of $10 billion a month to sustain one of the worst foreign policy miscalculations in American history.

Q: Will you please explain who the heck these Democratic "superdelegates" are, where they came from, why they exist, and how come they may become pivotal if Hillary and Obama are still stalemated when spring yields to summer?

A: I told you, my head hurts. I'll deal with the superdelegates early next week. In the meantime, entertain yourself with The New Yorker's primary season pop quiz, courtesy of the ever-witty Paul Slansky. It's designed for junkies only. And the wrong answers are the most amusing of all.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

John McCain, in the lion's den

The putative Republican presidential nominee sought today to mollify all those angry conservatives who have essentially declared that they would rather set fire to their hair than follow his lead. I wonder whether he did enough to hose them down. He did not apologize for any of his past heresies. Nor did he promise not to commit fresh heresies in the future. His basic pitch, at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, boiled down to this:

I agree with you most of the time, and that should be good enough. And besides, the Democrats are way worse than me.

One speech won't be enough, of course, but he did take one small step down the long road to reconciliation. And for McCain to be fully competitive this fall, reconciliation is required. His vaunted popularity among independent swing voters won't mean squat if he fails to unite and energize the GOP's conservative base.

Indeed, his CPAC speech this afternoon reflected, in part, his need to strike a delicate balance. He had to reach out to wary and hostile conservatives, but he didn't want to pander shamelessly and risk alienating those independent voters.

His first task was simply to show up at all. He wryly noted at the outset, "It's been awhile since I've had the honor of addressing you." Gee, why is that? Left unsaid was the fact that for years McCain has deliberately skipped this annual gathering of right-leaning activists, the biggest event on the conservative calendar. Which is one reason why conference sponsor David Keene remarked the other day that McCain "has pretty much blown his credibility with these people."

But these McCain speech passages were key: "Many of you have disagreed strongly with some positions I have taken in recent years. I understand that. I might not agree with it, but I respect it for the principled position it is. And it is my sincere hope that even if you believe I have occasionally erred in my reasoning as a fellow conservative, you will still allow that I have, in many ways important to all of us, maintained the record of a conservative....We have had a few disagreements, and none of us will pretend that we won't continue to have a few. But even in disagreement, especially in disagreement, I will seek the counsel of my fellow conservatives. If I am convinced my judgment is in error, I will correct it. And if I stand by my position, even after benefit of your counsel, I hope you will not lose sight of the far more numerous occasions when we are in complete accord."

Some of his conservative critics might have a problem with that. For starters, they think McCain has done more than "occasionally err," given his deviations from conservative orthdoxy on all kinds of high-profile issues: his support for federal regulation to halt global warming (which some of them believe is a hoax anyway); his law that set up federal regulations designed to curb campaign spending; his opposition to waterboarding the bad guys; his attacks on the U.S. pharmaceutical industry and his support for lower-priced drug imports from Canada; his opposition to the original Bush tax cuts; his opposition to a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage; and many more. He didn't cite any of those stances in his speech today, much less apologize for them.

But his broader point, in the excerpt above, is that he's making no promises about toeing the conservative line in the future. He wants conservatives to judge his record "as a whole" (a phrase he used several times), and that gives him plenty of wiggle room to decide issues in accordance with his own view of the national interest - at the expense of ideological purity. I can't imagine that his vague reassurances will satisfy the likes of Rush Limbaugh and James Dobson.

Nor did his reassurances satisfy the Club for Growth, an influential conservative group. Within minutes of McCain's speech, it emailed this statement: "He will need to go beyond talking about those issues on which he agrees with conservatives, and address those areas in which we’ve had strong disagreements. More specifically, he will need to reassure conservatives regarding his vision on tax policy; political speech during campaigns; global warming remedies; and his general approach towards regulatory matters."

McCain did mention one sensitive issue today. He started this way: "I have held other positions that have not met with widespread agreement from conservatives. I won't pretend otherwise, nor would you permit me to forget it. On the issue of illegal immigration" - whereupon he was interrupted by a cacophony of boos and catcalls, despite the fact that conventioneers reportedly had been urged in advance not to boo him. They would have loved a full pander on this issue; if McCain had then said that he regrets having championed a path to citizenship for illegals, he would have captured their hearts.

But no. Instead, he said only this: "I respect your opposition, for I know that the vast majority of critics to the bill based their opposition in a principled defense of the rule of law. And while I and other Republican supporters of the (path to citizenship) were genuine in our intention to restore control of our borders, we failed, for various and understandable reasons, to convince Americans that we were. I accept that, and have pledged that it would be among my highest priorities to secure our borders first, and only after we achieved widespread consensus that our borders are secure, would we address other aspects of the problem in a way that defends the rule of law and does not encourage another wave of illegal immigration."

Translation: His "failure" was not his support for a path to citizenship, but merely his communication skills, in not sufficiently stressing his concern about the border. He did not renounce his support for a path to citizenship, nor did he promise not to pursue the issue in the future. On the contrary, he referred to the issue in code, as the need to "address other aspects of the problem."

But if he was a tad light on the red meat, he may have helped himself during the second half of his speech, when he focused on the Democrats. In essence, he was giving them a taste of his autumn campaign stump speech, and inviting them to put aside all differences in recognition of the common enemy.

And so it went, with pages seemingly torn from the standard GOP playbook: Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will be soft on Islamic extremism ("their resolve to combat it will be as flawed as their judgment"); that they will stress "the muddled thinking of large and expanding federal bureaucracies"; that they'll try to bring health insurance to every American via "big government," and raise your taxes to boot. And, on issues of life and death, he said that his war-hero background trumps the life stories of both Democratic rivals: "There is no other candidate for this office who appreciates more than I do just how awful war is."

I'm sure that elected conservative leaders will continue to fall in line. But some key activists seem less than thrilled by McCain's speech. Richard Viguerie, one of the founders of the modern conservative moment, emailed this statement: "After the last eight or ten years, in which Republican leaders were elected with conservative votes, but then betrayed conservative principles, grassroots conservatives are not so willing to take John McCain at his word. He is an honorable man, but, given the record of the Republican Party and given his own record, conservative rhetoric is not enough to convince people. Conservatives will not be so trusting this time."

He wants McCain to hire prominent conservatives for his campaign staff, and he wants to see McCain pick fights with "Washington establishment liberals," rather than just talk a good game. And if McCain doesn't act soon, "conservatives will start writing off the presidential race. Yes, most - not all – will vote for him, if he is the Republican nominee. But they will not make telephone calls, send out e-mails and postcards, go door to door, contribute money, and do all the hard work that makes victory possible in November."

Given McCain's potential as an estimable autumn candidate, Democrats had better hope that these grassroots conservatives sit on their hands.

John McCain, hat in hand

This afternoon, John McCain will deliver a major speech with one purpose in mind: to convince his many conservative critics that a guy with a solid conservative voting record deserves to be viewed as sufficiently conservative.

The highlight of the conservative calendar, a magnet for 6000 activists and movement leaders, is the annual CPAC conference in Washington. McCain did not speak to the group one year ago. But now that he appears destined to be crowned as the Republican nominee, he needs these people. Or, at a bare minimum, he needs to defuse their ire.

So he'll trumpet their shared values, and urge them to join him in focusing on the common enemy, the Democrats. I also anticipate that he will hew to the conservative catechism and invoke the name of Ronald Reagan at least a dozen times.

I will write about this late today, after McCain finishes his remarks.

EARLY AFTERNOON UPDATE: And now McCain's remarks seem more crucial than ever, given Mitt Romney's late-breaking announcement that McCain won't have him to kick around anymore.


For the moment, I'll just leave you with these statistics, teasing out the aggregate popular vote in all the Democratic primaries and caucuses that were staged on Tuesday...

For Clinton: 7,347,971
For Obama: 7,294,851

She got 50.2 percent, he got 49.8 percent. Out of 14.6 million votes, the national margin was a mere 53,000, roughly the size of a capacity crowd at one ballgame. We've never had a primary season like this one. I plan to double-check my hotel reservation for the Democratic convention in Denver.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Bill Murray primaries

I pore over the myriad tallies of Tsunami Tuesday, and all I can hear, in my imagination, is the comedic actor Bill Murray, delivering one of his droll pronouncements:

"This is one...nutty...campaign."

There’s no other way to say it. This date on the political calendar was supposed to clarify the two races, not confuse us further. Nothing decisive has occurred. There has been no finality, only the hint of fresh skirmishes ahead. Frontrunners have not closed the sale. Challengers and upstarts have found ample reasons to soldier on.

Take the Republican race, for starters. The guy in the lead, John McCain, racked up a series of big-state victories in places like New York, New Jersey, California, and Illinois – thereby cementing his top-dog status in the delegate hunt. The problem is that those states generally vote Democratic in November. In other words, McCain is strongest with moderate Republicans (the type of Republicans who are populous in blue states), but still can’t seem to draw well among red-state conservatives who comprise the base of the party.

Which brings us to Mike Huckabee, who seemed to have vanished after winning Iowa way back on Jan. 3 – only to surface last night as the favorite of red-state southerners who yearn for an authentic conservative. He defeated McCain in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Tennessee. And remember, the Republican party has long considered the South to be its home region. By performing well at home, Huckabee has every incentive to stay in the race and squeeze McCain on his right flank.

Yet while Huckabee vividly demonstrated that McCain is still weak with the base, he also did McCain a big favor. He has thwarted Mitt Romney’s greatest desire, which is to take on McCain in a two-person race and unite all anti-McCain conservatives under the Romney banner. Huckabee swiped an enormous share of those voters. He is weighing Romney down, to the point where it’s fair to wonder why Mitt would want to keep spending his children’s inheritance.

At this point in the calendar, Republicans are generally united behind a front-runner, but the results last night and this morning argue against closure. They’re stuck at the moment with sectional and ideological strife. Broadly speaking, it appears right now that Huckabee is the candidate of the south, and the candidate of religious conservatives. McCain is the candidate of the northeast and big blue states, while Romney…what is he, anyway?

He’s the guy who demonstrated, on the biggest night of the primary season, that he can win the state where he once governed (Massachusetts) and the state that serves as headquarters to his Mormon faith (Utah), while cobbling together a few caucus victories here and there (Alaska, Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, and North Dakota). And as for California, the main event, Romney missed his biggest opportunity. As I mentioned yesterday, the California GOP electorate is quite conservative; indeed, the exit polls last night reported that 6 in 10 Republican voters identified themselves as conservative. Yet Romney drew only 39 percent of those people, with Huckabee, again, draining away 14 percent. Clearly, Romney’s reputation as a weathervane – and perhaps his Mormon faith – continue to undermine his candidacy, and his condition is critical.

Bottom line? McCain isn’t strong enough to unite the party, because the base has yet to accept him. For the final word, let us turn to the sage who gave us George W. Bush. I am referring, of course, to Karl Rove. He said on Fox News last night: "The unity issue and the enthusiasm issue both have to be addressed by whoever the nominee becomes in the coming months. And I don't mean in August, September and October. I mean in March, April and May." Translation: We’re a mess.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, the picture is far murkier. This is great news for political junkies, who relish the idea of a protracted competition between Hillary and Obama. It’s not so great for the party insiders, who fear that a long guerrilla war for delegates will risk creating fissures among Democrats, pitting race against gender, and potentially embittering millions of young people who have taken the leap for the first time.

Hillary and Obama both racked up a lot of wins last night – eight for her and 13 for him - and no doubt each will try to spin the victories as proof of momentum. She can cite her victories in a slew of the most delegate-rich states (most notably California), and boast with justification about her institutional strength within the party, particularly among female voters who continue to power the high party turnout. He, meanwhile, can trumpet his national reach in places as far flung as Connecticut, Georgia, and bellwether Missouri; he can argue for his electability, since he won contests in nine red states, versus four for Hillary; and he can even point out that he beat Hillary among white voters in California. (My favorite bit of spin from last night: At 11 p.m., Hillary sent out an email congratulating herself on winning Missouri, "this important tossup state," yet within an hour, Obama surged ahead and stayed there.)

But it’s misleading, of course, to focus on the popular vote victories. Unlike the Republicans, who generally favor the "winner take all" delegate formula, the Democrats award their delegates in rough proportion to a candidate’s share of the popular vote. So, for instance, even though Obama lost California, New Jersey, Massachusetts and New York, he’ll gain delegates in all four; and even though Hillary lost Illinois, Connecticut, Georgia, and Missouri, she’ll get delegates in all four. California in particular will take some time to sort out, because the Democrats award most of the delegates according to performance in each congressional district, and that state has more districts than any other.

And since Obama has finished within striking distance of Hillary in the delegate count – her own people peg Hillary's lead at only around 80 delegates, and outside surveys confirm this – he’s in good shape going forward. The next round of contests features Louisiana this weekend, and Virginia and Maryland on Feb. 12 - all of which have large black electorates. (As opposed to large Latino electorates. It should be noted that Obama failed last night to undercut Hillary’s strength among Latinos in key states such as California and Arizona. It appears that the Ted Kennedy endorsement was of limited utility. Kennedy, a hero to Latinos because of his immigration reform work, was supposed to help deliver Latinos. Heck, he couldn't even deliver his own state of Massachussetts. Goodbye, Camelot.)

Obama clearly has the money to lavish attention on the next round of states, having raised a stunning $32 million during January, the largest monthly haul on record; Hillary’s tally, for the same month, was $13 million. But if they cancel each other out next Tuesday, by essentially splitting the next batch of delegates (and that's very likely), and if Wisconsin doesn't bring clarity on Feb. 19, they’ll just move on to Ohio and Texas on March 4. And if Ohio and Texas don’t bring clarity...dare we suggest that Pennsylvania, six weeks later on April 22, could actually become the pivotal state? It would, in fact, become the new Iowa, a state that gets national attention for more than a month, because there are no other Democratic primaries in April.

And it is no longer fanciful to talk about Pennsylvania. Indeed, based on my conversations today, it is clear that there are serious plans afoot to contest Pennsylvania and to raise new money for the effort. There is already talk in the Hillary camp, for example, that the state's demographics (lots of suburban women, working-class whites, senior voters) are ideal for her.

Other maneuverings are likely to take place before Pennsylvania, of course. There will be much attention paid to the "superdelegates" — the hundreds of Democratic officials and activists who have delegate status, and who can support any candidate regardless of how the states have voted - and right now Hillary has the edge there. Will Obama give them incentives to switch over? That might depend on how well he performs over the next month. Meanwhile, Hillary's campaign wants to seat the delegates from Florida, which had its delegates taken away because the state scheduled its primary too early. This is backstage stuff seemingly from another era.

But still...Pennsylvania would be ripe for a little attention. It has been 16 years since Democrats cast a meaningful primary vote, and even 1992 was a dull, low-turnout affair dominated by the new kid on the block, Bill Clinton. His sole competition Jerry Brown, a former California governor with a flaky reputation, yet he wasn't getting much respect. At one point, he was stumping with Mayor Ed Rendell in Philadelphia’s Italian Market when a heckler across the street yelled out, "If you cheated on your wife, what would you do to the country?" Clinton smiled weakly, then turned his rapt attention to the broccoli on display.

Surely Pennsylvania is ready for some new primary season experiences, perhaps some that might prove to be historic. Although the way this Democratic race seems to be going, perhaps the final verdict will be rendered by the voters who bring up the rear of the calendar. Many of them live in Guam.


I had further thoughts this morning, during an hour-long discussion on Philadelphia's NPR station. It's archived here.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

My Tsunami Tuesday scorecard

Welcome to the most historic primary day in American political history. That's no hyperbole.

Consequential contests are being staged from coast to coast, two dozen in all, featuring three of the five biggest states (California, New York, Illinois), featuring tossup races in autumn bellwether states (Missouri, Arizona), with a passel of questions begging to be answered (will the large pool of undecided Democrats break for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton? will conservative Republicans slow the John McCain bandwagon and breathe life into Mitt Romney?), with roughly 40 percent of the delegates in each party slated for allocation, and with both nominations still hanging in the balance.

To make sense of the multi-dimensional maze, here's what I plan to track tonight (more specifically, here's what I plan to track in the wee morning hours, with caffeine administered via an IV line):

Cahleefoneyuh (to use Arnold Schwarzenegger's pronunciation). The land of milk and honey is the linchpin of Tsunami Tuesday - no other state awards as many delegates - although easterners will have to burn the midnight oil to find out what happened in the popular vote.

The California stakes are huge in both parties. On the Republican side, Romney's candidacy is probably doomed if he loses to McCain. Unlike the Democrats, the GOP awards all its delegates to the winning candidate. Unfortunately for McCain, however, the California GOP primary is open only to Republican voters; they're traditionally a very conservative crowd, and, given all the time spent in traffic, they listen to talk radio. That electorate drove a stake into McCain's first candidacy eight years ago. California's talk-radio conservative hosts are currently agitating against McCain, and the late polls suggest that Romney has a real shot. If Romney can win California, he'll be tempted to keep writing himself checks.

But the real drama is on the other side. The Clintons have been working California successfully since the '92 campaign, schmoozing with Hollywood big shots and Silicon Valley entrepeneurs. When Bill was president, the care and feeding of California (and lifting it out of its early-'90s recession) often seemed to be his first domestic priority. Hillary was ahead in the polls by double-digits not long ago; now she is reportedly tied with Obama, and perhaps even trailing in the wake of his late surge. (Is this due to voters people switching over? Undecideds breaking for Obama? Latinos being swayed by the Kennedys?) If Obama wins here, as a "change" candidate in the state where "change" often starts and then rolls eastward, the symbolic message will be huge.

It's a complicated situation - the delegates are awarded in accordance with how the candidates perform in each congressional district, and those results won't be known right away - but the winner of the popular vote will attain what I call 7-Eleven clout...meaning, what Obama wants is to have Americans drop by their local 7-Eleven for coffee and a newspaper, and see a giant headline announcing, OBAMA WINS CALIFORNIA. Needless to say, it's the same for Hillary, and, as I mentioned yesterday, she may have an advantage with the early-voters (an estimated 33 percent of the primary electorate) who cast their ballots before Obama took off.

Illinois and New York. The latter is Hillary's base, the former is Obama's base. I'll want to know which candidate is more succcessful in winning at home. For instance, will Obama's victory margin in Illinois exceed Hillary's in New York (or vice versa)? Right now, the polls suggest that Obama will win bigger in Illinois than Hillary in New York. This is important because of the way delegates are allocated, basically in proportion to how the votes are cast. If the polls are right (a big if, these days), then Obama will pick up more delegates on Hillary's turf than she will pick up on his turf. Whoever invades more successfully tonight will have some bragging rights tomorrow.

Missouri. Another state with strong symbolic value for the Democratic candidates. The state borders Arkansas, where Hillary once reigned as First Lady; on the Democratic side, it also has a mix of black voters (in the cities and suburban St. Louis County) and rural white conservative voters. The polls are virtually even. Whoever wins this high-turnout affair will probably spin the victory as a statement of autumn electability, because Missouri is one of our most durable bellwethers. In the last 104 years, it has voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election, with the sole exception of 1956.

Republicans in this primary season have lagged behind the Democrats in turnout, but the GOP race in Missouri is hot enough to bring people out. Romney needs to stop McCain here, because the state awards 58 delegates to the winner (a larger number than Missouri normally gets; the national party has given Missouri extra clout because it voted for Bush in 2004). The problem for Romney, however, is Mike Huckabee, who, according to the polls, is swiping religious conservatives away from Romney in southern Missouri, depriving Romney of the chance to unite all anti-McCain conservatives under his banner. (If this happens tonight, Huckabee will have further polished his political credentials to be McCain's running mate).

New Jersey. The nation's most suburban state, which has become fertile turf for Democrats in autumn elections, was once assumed to be strong for Hillary, its neighbor to the north. But polls suggest that Obama has been rapidly ascending here as well. If he can win in her territory - or, more likely, finish close enough to rack up significant delegates - the spin will be big. The same is potentially true in Massachusetts (where Hillary started way ahead, but where Ted Kennedy's pro-Obama clout will be tested), and Connecticut (where 13,300 former independent voters have re-registered as Democrats, and another 17,500 new residents have signed up to vote as Democrats, prompting me to wonder which Democrat has most motivated them to do so).

On the reverse side, Obama is expected to win big in Georgia, where the electorate is expected to be around 30 percent black; but Hillary can spin that state favorably if she does better than expected, and we'll know that early tonight because Georgia will be one of the first states to post results.

Arizona. Obama reportedly has been lagging badly with Latinos nationwide, and Latinos will comprise roughly 25 percent of the Democratic primary electorate. In polls not long ago, Hillary was ahead by a 2-1 margin. But, again, the gap has been narrowing, and this race could be a test of the Democratic governor's powers of persuasion. Janet Napolitano has endorsed Obama, so we'll see whether she has sway with other white women in the Democratic electorate.

All told, McCain seems well positioned to put a headlock on Mitt, notwithstanding the last-ditch opposition on his right flank (indeed, Christian conservative leader James Dobson announced today that if McCain gets the party nod, "I simply will not cast a ballot for president for the first time in my life").

The Democrats seem destined to fight onward. Maybe Obama was lowballing expectations this morning when he predicted "a split decision," and maybe Hillary spokesman Howard Wolfson was lowballing a few hours later when he said, "I don’t think that either side is in a position to win appreciably more delegates than the other." But, considering the way in which Democrats allocate their delegates, in rough proportion to the candidates' share of votes, it appears they are a long way from closure. Which might be good news for the hotels and restaurants in Ohio and Texas, in the first days of March.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. An obsessive evening awaits. And for those of you who are already craving some news, any news at all, here's a hot tip: Some of the earliest Democratic returns should be available by 7 p.m. EST...from American Samoa.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Falsehoods and embarrassments

Sensitive Sunday issues, a three-act play:

John McCain may well become the GOP's putative nominee after the smoke clears on Feb. 5, but he's still anathema to many conservative soldiers. I was reminded of this last night, after suggesting in a Sunday print column that the anti-McCain forces, by refusing to embrace him and theatening to sit out the election, might wind up undercutting the only electable Republican.

The emails were scalding, and I almost had to call the fire department. Calie Stephens, a conservative in Texas, wrote of McCain: "He has drunk the Kool Aid on global warming. He is wrong on freedom of speech issues such as McCain-Feingold. He is wrong on Guantanamo. We do not trust this man. A Republican cannot win the general election without the base. The base ain't gonna show up on election day. They say that an alcoholic or drug addict must hit rock bottom before he learns his lesson. The nomination of John McCain, to myself and millions of principled Republicans, is a strong indication that we have hit rock bottom..."

A conservative in Arizona, who knew McCain years ago, writes: "He was a true Reaganite then. But he has changed over the years and gotten bitter. He now represents the liberal side of the GOP, not the conservative side. He has stabbed the mainstream republicans in the back over and over again. And you expect us to just roll over and play nice to a man that will continue to stab us in the back as president? I will not be voting for John McCain ever. And if the conservatives in this party know what's good for them, they won't vote for him either."

I'll spare you the numerous personal attacks on McCain; apparently, it still bugs some conservatives that he ended his first marriage and wedded a rich young woman nearly 30 years ago. Suffice it to say that, if he's the nominee, his prospects in November are nil if he can't galvanize the conservative base. If George W. Bush had failed in that task back in November 2004, he would have been a one-term president.

The problem is, McCain keeps acting as if he doesn't have a problem. Yesterday, on Fox News Sunday, he said this: "We're doing fine with conservatives...In Florida, we got, as you know, a majority of the Republican voters in a Republican-only primary."

That's a fresh twist on his favorite falsehood. A couple weeks ago, he was publicly insisting that he had won a majority of Republican voters in the open primaries of New Hampshire and South Carolina, whereas, in truth, he hadn't even won a plurality of the Republican voters in either contest. Now comes his claim about the Florida primary - and, again, he was not being accurate. The exit polls show that he won only 33 percent of the self-identified Republicans, while Mitt Romney pulled an equal share. And among those who called themselves conservative (6 of 10 primary voters), only 27 percent favored McCain.

Meanwhile, Fox News nailed him on an issue that conservatives continue to hold against him. As I have noted several times lately, McCain keeps insisting that he voted against the Bush tax cuts back in 2001 only because there no corresponding spending cuts. But Fox News found McCain's Senate statement of May 26, 2001, explaining why he was opposing the Bush cuts. Here's what he said at the time:

"I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us at the expense of middle-class Americans who most need tax relief."

He didn't say a word about the lack spending cuts. Instead, he echoed what many Democrats were saying at the time - and what Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are saying today.

Confronted yesterday with his own words, McCain insisted that he had complained about the lack of spending cuts "many, many times." But he was stuck with the statement that Fox dredged up, and that's one reason why so many grassoots conservative are loath to compromise. We'll see whether he can melt their hearts, when he speaks Thursday at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, a gig he has skipped in the past.


Speaking of falsehoods, Hillary Clinton yesterday contributed one of her own. While also appearing on Fox News Sunday, she said: "We've had six contests. I've won four of them."

The factual record is that, of the four fully contested caucuses and primaries (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina), she and Obama have each won two. She was including, in her victory tally, the two states (Michigan and Florida) where Obama had agreed not to campaign, because they had been stripped of delegates by the national party, as punishment for scheduling their primaries too early. Obama wasn't even on the ballot in Michigan (Hillary "won" by defeating Uncommitted), and he stayed away from Florida (where Hillary "won" by getting her supporters to run up the score, at least for symbolic value).

She exaggerated yesterday, claiming a sense of momentum via smoke and mirrors, perhaps out of concern that the opposite may be true. The final polls seem to suggest an Obama surge in key Feb. 5 states (including California and New Jersey), and he has apparently pulled even in the latest polls of Democrats nationwide. In California, where Hillary was once ahead by 25 points, the latest survey shows her topping Obama by only three.

I wonder about those California numbers, however. The state permits early voting, and apparently there was a huge early turnout - back when Hillary was the clear favorite. This might mean she is stronger than the current numbers suggest, and that the eleventh-hour sentiment for Obama might not be enough to stop her.

Still, the late sentiment for Obama, in California and elsewhere, is worth tracking. I suspect that some of it reflects Democratic concerns about a Clinton co-presidency. And that issue surfaced anew yesterday, during Hillary's appearance on Fox News.

She was asked about the recent New York Times story (which I referenced last Friday), showing how her husband had done some business deals with the anti-democratic despot who runs Kazakhastan, and how Bill had championed the despot for an international job that involved promoting global democracy - even while Hillary was on record in the Senate attacking this despot for his human rights abuses.

Fox News asked her a reasonable question: "If you're president and he's the former president, and he's conducting and making statements that are out of step with your policy, isn't it going to be awfully confusing?"

She at first tried to change the subject: "Well, Dick Cheney also went to Kazakhstan and praised the current regime." (Don't Democrats always complain when Bush's defenders try to change the subject by talking about Clinton?) Then she tried this: "You know, you sometimes have to use both carrots and sticks to move these regimes to do what they should be doing." (So, is she suggesting that, in a Hillary White House, Bill would play the carrot to her stick?)

I doubt that most Democrats watch Fox News Sunday anyway. But this whole Clinton co-presidency issue has yet to be sorted out. If the race extends beyond Feb. 5, as now appears likely, it will flare again.


Speaking of sensitive issues, Barack Obama got off easy yesterday. During his appearance on CBS' Face the Nation, he was not asked about the embarrassing story that ran in The Times one day earlier.

He's been claiming on the campaign trail that as a senator he has fought to require that all nuclear plant owners - including the biggest firm, Exelon Corporation - notify state and local officials of even small radioactive leaks, so that the affected communities would know what was going on. Obama said in December that this was "the only nuclear legislation that I’ve passed."

But this claim was false, on two counts. The legislation never passed. And the final version that went into limbo contained no such requirement. It was repeatedly watered down by Obama's office, to meet the demands of Senate Republicans and - more importantly - the demands of Exelon....whose top officials happen to be major donors to Obama, backing him financially ever since he was a state senator.

In exaggerating his record, Obama was merely using the familiar legislative nomenclature: as he told a Nevada newspaper, he "led an effort" to require disclosure of radioactive leaks. You see that wording in candidate brochures all the time; when a politician says that he or she has "led an effort," it generally means that the effort itself went nowhere.

Fortunately for Obama, he wasn't asked yesterday about his Exelon connection. One of Bill Clinton's biggest beefs is that the national press has been easier on Obama than on his spouse. Maybe, in terms of the big picture, that's just sour grapes; but at least with respect to the latest Sunday shows, Bill was right.