Saturday, March 01, 2008

Bush flummoxed, Hillary aides stumped

We interrupt your leisure time to bring you the latest chapter in the Lame Duck Chronicles.

While finally getting the chance to scan the transcript of President Bush's Thursday press conference, I was struck by his response to the question about rising gasoline prices. Economic analysts, as well as spokespeople at AAA, have been predicting that the '08 price of a gallon in some states could hit close to $4. This has been well reported, but, not surprisingly, one particular person didn't have a clue:

Q: "What's your advice to the average American who is hurting now, facing the prospect of $4 a gallon gasoline, a lot of people facing -- "

THE PRESIDENT: "Wait, what did you just say? You're predicting $4 a gallon gasoline?"

Q: "A number of analysts are predicting -- "

THE PRESIDENT: "Oh, yeah?"

Q: " -- $4 a gallon gasoline this spring when they reformulate."

THE PRESIDENT: "That's interesting. I hadn't heard that."

If Bush wants to at least appear to be in touch with the concerns of the average American (who, unlike Bush, needs to fill a car tank on a regular basis), he might request that his aides beef up his briefing books. Failing that, maybe he should borrow the index card that his father used on the stump in 1992. It was a reminder that the senior Bush needed to exude empathy. The card said simply, "Message: I Care."


A priceless moment yesterday, during a conference call between Hillary Clinton aides and reporters:

In the wake of the new Clinton TV ad - one of those "red phone" motifs, where we're asked to believe that this is the candidate best equipped to handle a 3 a.m. national security crisis - a reporter asked, "What foreign policy moment would you point to in Hillary's career where she's been tested by crisis?"

Had somebody hit the mute button? The three aides were tongue-tied for six long seconds. Finally, strategist Mark Penn said this:

"Well (throat clearing), I think that she has been tested, you know, throughout her life, uh, in so many matters. I think that she, again, has the experience and the strength that people see through her work on the Armed Services Committee, uh, and her work extensively on the military matters. I think it was a moment of test when she was in China (in 1995) and stood up and said women's rights are human rights, that she showed the kind of, the kind of, wisdom that it takes to know when to, when to, push basic elements, uh, basic elements in difficult circumstances. She has highlighted, you know, participated, in a number of international things."


"A foreign policy moment? Sorry, we're stumped."

Friday, February 29, 2008

Memo to Dems: Don't pop those corks

Grassroots Democrats who are giddy at the prospect of taking on John McCain might be wise to consult the results of two new national polls.

The general assumption, on the blue side of the national divide, is that McCain is highly vulnerable because he has so vigorously aided and abetted the biggest foreign policy disaster of our generation, thereby making it easy for Democrats to brand Iraq as a "Bush-McCain" production. After all, as the polls have noted for several years now, most voters view the war as a mistake, and believe that Bush's sales pitch was fraudulent.

And yet, the latest New York Times-CBS News survey tells a far more nuanced story. Despite McCain's staunch cheerleading for the war; and despite the fact that he has suggested that U.S. troops may have to remain in Iraq for 100 years; and despite the fact that senior Pentagon figures are publicly complaining that our military is being dangerously stretched because of the war, 58 percent of the surveyed registered voters said, nevertheless, that they have confidence in McCain to make the right decisions about Iraq. That's one point higher than Barack Obama (whose antiwar stance is supposedly more in sync with general public sentiment), and eight points higher than Hillary Clinton.

In the same poll, 56 percent said they had confidence in McCain's ability to deal wisely in an international crisis. That's nine points higher than Obama, and 17 points higher than Clinton. And when asked whether McCain "would be an effective commander in chief of the nation's military," 80 percent said yes. That's 11 points higher than Obama, and 26 points higher than Clinton.

The latest Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll shows similar results. Among independent voters - who have been strongly antiwar for the past 18 months - the hawkish McCain is still viewed more favorably than either Obama or Clinton. When all respondents were asked which candidate would best protect the country from terrorists, McCain beat Obama by 37 percentage points. When asked who has the "right experience" to be president, McCain beat Obama by 31 points. When asked who would "best handle the situation in Iraq," McCain still won, beating Obama by 13 points.

This tells us several things: (1) Voters' base-line respect for McCain's character trumps whatever string disagreements they may have with his Iraq stance. And (2) Democrats who are pumped for the autumn election would be well advised not to pop the champagne corks prematurely, because McCain's abiding popularity among independents could make some of the blue states more competitive. In other words, this race could be very close.


Speaking of McCain, his new best friend is John Hagee, founder and senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas. McCain flew into town the other day to garner Hagee's endorsement, and said how proud he was to receive it. No doubt McCain believes that Hagee will give him some evangelical street cred with recalitrant Christian conservatives.

But here's a sampling of what Hagee really believes. In his 2005 book, entitled "What Every Man Wants in a Woman," Hagee wrote this: "Do you know the difference between a woman with PMS and a snarling Doberman pinscher? The answer is lipstick. Do you know the difference between a terrorist and a woman with PMS? You can negotiate with a terrorist." And he wrote in 1992 that the feminist movement was "a rebellion against God's pattern for the family."

During an NPR interview in 2006, Hagee blamed gay people for Hurricane Katrina: "All hurricanes are acts of God, because God controls the heavens. I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they are -- were recipients of the judgment of God for that. The newspaper carried the story in our local area that was not carried nationally that there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came. And the promise of that parade was that it was going to reach a level of sexuality never demonstrated before in any of the other Gay Pride parades. So I believe that the judgment of God is a very real thing. I know that there are people who demur from that, but I believe that the Bible teaches that when you violate the law of God, that God brings punishment sometimes before the day of judgment. And I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans."

In that same interview, he also said that all Muslims, by definition, are enemies of America because "those who live by the Koran have a scriptural mandate to kill Christians and Jews." But apparently only some Christians are acceptable; in other venues, Hagee has taken aim at the Catholic Church, calling it "The Great Whore," and a "false cult."

So here's what I want to know: Given the fact that Hagee has made insulting remarks about women, gays, Muslims, and Catholics, are McCain's friends in the media going to insist that he denounce and reject Hagee, just as Obama was asked this week to denounce and reject Louis Farrakhan?

Update...Here's what McCain said today: He lauds some of Hagee's ideas, but "that does not mean that I support or endorse or agree with some of the things that Hagee might have said or positions that he may have taken on other issues. I don’t have to agree with everyone who endorses my candidacy. They are supporting my candidacy. I am not endorsing some of their positions."

I guess that counts as a semi-denunciation.


The Clintonian spin these days is downright dizzying. For weeks, Hillary's people (starting with the First Spouse) had been telling us that the candidate absolutely needs to score solid victories in Texas and Ohio next Tuesday in order to remain viable. But today they have moved the goalposts. Now they're telling us that if Obama doesn't score solid victories in those states, as well as in the two minor contests (Rhode Island and Vermont), it means that he is the one in trouble. Here's the word, from strategist/pollster/spinner Mark Penn:

"Should Senator Obama fail to score decisive victories with all of the resources and effort he is bringing to bear, the message will be clear: Democrats, the majority of whom have favored Hillary in the primary contests held to date, have their doubts about Senator Obama and are having second thoughts about him as a prospective standard-bearer."

In other words, they're trying to establish a rationale for staying in the race even if they extend their losing streak to 15 consecutive contests. It now appears that they're prepared to say, in essence, "Obama may have beaten us by a few points in some of these states, but since we don't consider those results to be decisive, we will soldier on."

Or, as Bill might have said it, "It all depends on what the meaning of the word decisive is."

Thursday, February 28, 2008

William F. Buckley, an appreciation

I want to mark the passing of William F. Buckley, intellectual godfather of the modern conservative movement, who died on Tuesday night at the age of 82. But rather than offer the standard celebration of his wit and significance and contentious iconoclasm, I prefer to resurrect a long newspaper profile that I wrote about Buckley 22 years ago, around the time of his 60th birthday. I spent a delightful day with him in New York, and one of the last things he said to me - a quote which I used to close this article - now seems apt. "Heaven," he opined, "is a place where you cannot be unhappy."

If you don't know much about Buckley, here's one place to start. From the Philadelphia Inquirer, April 17, 1986:


"Hhhaaa, hhhaaa, hhhaaa ..."

William F. Buckley Jr. was indulging his languorous laugh in the rear of his limousine as it whisked him through Central Park - past the cabbies with their caustic tongues and the vendors with their leather lungs.

Not one dissonant decibel intruded on Buckley's trip; the windows took care of that. With nary a nod at the world beyond the glass, the celebrity conservative sank into the cushions and pondered the meaning of life and death.

"I wouldn't want to be 30 again," said Buckley. "It's the exertion. It's the fatigue, too. It makes me think of the last letter Whittaker Chambers (the communist who became a conservative scholar) wrote to me before he died. 'I'm fatigued, Bill,' he said. 'It hasn't hit you, but it will. History has hit us like a freight train. We've tried to put ourselves together again, but at a price - weariness.' No, I couldn't bear to do it all again."

His immediate destination, on this April day, was a radio talk show - just another episode in the never-ending adventure of being Bill Buckley, of buffing and polishing the image of the aristocrat in overdrive, at turns affable and acidic, with nose tilted skyward as if straining to sniff the sea at Nantucket.

He just turned 60. His magazine, National Review, is now 30, and his TV show, Firing Line, is now 20 - both surviving in a world marred by what the magazine calls "liberal degeneracy." History, with its clash of ideologies, has hit him like a freight train, but he perseveres. His Cold War rhetoric still soars like a hawk. He still thinks some Americans are too dumb to deserve the vote. And now he thinks AIDS-virus carriers should be tattooed on their buttocks.

There are conservatives who say his influence has waned, but he has never been known to cede ground to his critics. He has a lust for the last word, and he will get it at all costs, as fecund dictums drop like overripe fruits from his darting tongue, and woe to the listener who cannot invoke the words of saints and scholars six centuries dead.

"I don't stoop to conquer," he quipped, while lounging in the radio station lobby. "I merely conquer."

As he spoke, his talk-show host was already on the air, announcing Buckley's arrival. The original plan was for Buckley to plug his latest spy novel, but instead the host was now telling listeners that his guest would be on to defend "the Buckley treatment" of AIDS carriers.

"Uh oh," said Buckley. "Did you hear that?" There was a glint in his eye, like a diamond turned toward the light, and he flashed a naughty grin that gave him the look of a schoolboy who'd just been caught clipping the wings off the family parakeet. He could hardly wait for the scolding to commence.


But one cannot say that Bill Buckley, with all his wealth and fame and friends in the White House, is a happy man. It's more complicated than that.

An hour before the radio show, he was ruminating on this in his Park Avenue maisonette, sipping coffee brought on a silver tray by a servant.

"You must screen 'happiness' through the Christian understanding of the word," he said. "In G.K. Chesterton's biography of St. Francis of Assisi, he concludes that St. Francis was happy when he died. But it was ambiguous whether St. Francis was happy due to a retrospective view of his life, or whether it was because he was nearing an imminent reunion with God. Happiness, in the form of a (temporal) 'high,' is not reconcilable with Christian orientation."

So to avoid melancholy, he just stays busy. He said, "I probably inherited that from my father, who was very successful and very industrious." Indeed, William Buckley Sr. was a self-made oil magnate and devout Catholic who loathed socialism and embraced elitism. ("The mass of people have not the ability to think clearly," he told a Senate panel in 1919, referring to a Mexican revolution that hurt his oil holdings.)

Young William wound up at Yale, where, upon graduation, he wrote a book charging that the teachers were anti-God and "collectivist" in their politics. In 1955, he founded National Review to provide a forum for right- wing thought - thus plowing the intellectual ground for a resurgent American conservatism. In 1966, he launched Firing Line, proving that conservatives can be witty, too. This was no small achievement; said Richard Brookhiser, a National Review colleague, "Buckley broke the liberal monopoly on style." At one point in 1971, during a taping break, he leaned over to a long-haired guest and whispered, "Hhhowww's the revolutionnnn?"

John Judis, who has spent 30 hours interviewing Buckley for a forthcoming biography, says: "Bill was brought up to be at odds with the outside world. There was a sense of being embattled. That's why Bill was best in the '50s and '60s, when he thought liberals controlled the country. I don't think he functions as well when things are going his way (politically)."

Nevertheless, Buckley remains vexed by much of modern life. After all, this is a man who plays harpsichord music on a tape deck while sailing the Atlantic. Back here on dry land, he complains that democracy has become . . . how shall he put it . . . debased.

"All you have to do is exist, at age 18, in order to get the vote," he lamented, sipping his coffee. Recalling an old poll, he said that "apparently 30 percent of the American people have never heard of the United Nations. I'd say those 30 percent are not ready to vote."

The cup was lowered to the silver tray. The eyes flashed, inviting a challenge. So it was suggested to him that the universal franchise is, by definition, a pillar of democracy. But he said, "You know, when the Statue of Liberty was erected 100 years ago, blacks were only nominally franchised, and women weren't franchised at all. And yet it didn't occur to a great many people that it was a fraud to hold her up as a symbol of liberty." Besides, too many voters care only about their "personal economic enhancement."

He cited Jose Ortega y Gasset - a Spanish philosopher who, in 1930, charged that "the masses" were debasing government and the arts. This was no surprise; Ortega y Gasset has long influenced him. As Buckley now put it, ''Ortega said the sin of the masses was their remoteness from their own patrimony. People get all these books to read, beautiful pictures to look at, beautiful music to listen to - but without awakening in them a sense of reciprocity. We have to do something for society in return."

Minutes later, he was bound for his limousine, knotting a rep tie around his throat in midstride. Ah yes, the limousine. When he first wrote about this car three years ago - about its dual-control air conditioning ("for driver and driven") and its palatial proportions - his critics howled, and a Buckley friend had to explain to the puzzled pundit that a limo is an offensive symbol to the average urbanite.

But Buckley cherishes his custom-made cocoon. He composes letters on the Dictaphone. He makes calls on the telephone. In short, he stays busy; he does not permit quietude in his life, because what he fears most, he says, is the thought, which might steal upon him in an unguarded moment of contemplation, that he has somehow failed to measure up in the eyes of his Maker.

All of which prompted former Sen. Eugene McCarthy to quip, on a recent Firing Line, that, "When I first met Bill, he was pursuing God. God's been running from him ever since."



He greeted the talk-show callers as if they were old schoolmates joining him on a sailing cruise. But many were not amused by him. They'd just heard Buckley insist that AIDS-virus carriers be tattooed. "I suggest the buttocks and the upper forearm," he told his host, Barry Gray. "Matter of fact, you might call this a gay right." Healthy gays, he said, had a right to be protected.

He fenced effortlessly with his choleric callers - until one woman declared: "There were tattoos in Germany in World War II, and it doesn't seem right. . . ."

"I honestly resent that," he broke in. "I do wish you'd be a little more sensitive." Later, in the downbound elevator, the barb still smarted. "I'm sensitive about that (a Nazi analogy)" he muttered. "People should guard against that." When Gore Vidal made a similar analogy in 1969, Buckley sued and won.

Outside, his limo was waiting on West 56th Street, right where it was supposed to be. The next stop would be a restaurant; intellectual Irving Kristol and New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal were waiting. That night, he was due at a party for his spy novel. The next day, he would introduce a Mozart concert.

His is the life of a gadabout, and not everyone is charmed. Garry Wills, the writer, who got his start at National Review, calls Buckley "a dandy" who is "applauded for striking poses." Biographer Judis says, "He goes very fast on the surface of life, and he doesn't try to figure out what it all means."

"Not many people have spent more time than I have, writing on a central theme, and have seen a change in the political climate," Buckley said of his critics, as the mute traffic slid by the window. "I'm not uniquely responsible for that change, but I certainly had something to do with it. So for people to say they think of me as a sailor or a showman is the lazy way out."

He boasts that he writes his column in 20 minutes; critics say it reads that way. But he sees no reason to slow his pace. "Boredom is an enemy," he said. "When Sir Harold Nicholson (the English historian) was 75, his friends gave him a gift of a voyage on a steamer. But he wound up writing a book, because he couldn't find relaxation by spread-eagling himself to the sky."

Besides, there's still so much to take umbrage about. For one thing, he said, "the public sector is still marching." For another, too many gays ("sexual aberrants") are spreading disease. Too many people, even churchmen, are making moral judgments about nuclear weapons, whereas what's really important is to "risk death in pursuit of Christian life." And he can no longer lecture to high-schoolers, he confesses, because "I'm not particularly skilled at picking up their idiom."

As for being happy, he prefers to await the afterlife. "Heaven," he said, as the limo pulled up to the restaurant, "is a place where you cannot be unhappy. When I was a schoolboy in England, a Jesuit told us about an old lady who once told him, 'If my dog Fifi can't go to heaven, I won't be happy there.' He then said to her, 'If it's really true you won't be happy without Fifi, then that means he'll be there.' But, don't you see, he was implying that she might not even need the dog once she got there. Hhhaaa, hhhaaa, hhhaaa!"

But until then, he will content himself with his sailing - a master of his fate on timeless waters where the freight train of history cannot intrude. "It gives you such a strange sense of power," he said, oh so seductively. "You decide on the course, you decide what to do in a storm. It is such a distinct sensation, really, to be totally in charge of one's own destiny."

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Defusing, deflecting, deferring, disarming

Hillary Clinton delivered a decent performance last night, as she and Barack Obama shared a debate stage for the 20th time. With the exception of one or two cringeworthy episodes, she was assertive without being strident, and she managed to score a few points at Obama's expense. But I question whether the voters in Texas and Ohio (particularly the former) will pave the way for a 21st meeting.

The problem for Clinton was that Obama seemed basically unflappable. He played defense for the most of the debate - such is the lot of frontrunners; it's the downside of success - but never seemed to break a sweat.

Compelled as he was, by both Clinton and the questioners, to explain himself on a number of fronts (his flighty rhetoric, his health care plan, his lack of foreign policy experience, his allegedly insufficient distancing from Louis Farrakhan), he even cheerily conceded a few points, defusing and deflecting and deferring and disarming at every turn. Particularly the latter. Taking various opportunities to flatter Clinton ("Sen. Clinton is right"..."Sen. Clinton speaks accurately"...Sen. Clinton is a "magnificent public servant"), he went into magnanimity mode to take the wind out of her sails. If her goal was to rattle him into making a game-changing error, she failed.

He was comfortable in the role of counter-puncher. When she noted (accurately) that she and Obama have basically the same Senate voting records on Iraq, and that, for all the foresight of his pre-Senate antiwar position, "he didn't have the responsibility, he didn't have to vote," Obama calmly countered with the kind of soundbite that viewers remember. On their Iraq similar voting records: "Once we had driven the bus into the ditch, there were only so many ways to get out." On Clinton's '02 war authorization vote: "The question is, who's making the decision initially to drive the bus into the ditch?"

When she explained why she believes that Obama lacks the requisite experience to run our foreign policy, he countered by saying, "Sen. Clinton equates experience with longevity in Washington. I don't think the American people do" - and, indeed, voters have long demonstrated that they will elect outsiders, such as Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Clinton's spouse in 1992. Not to mention Woodrow Wilson in 1912, a governor of New Jersey and ex-professor who wound up running World War I.

When she squeezed him on Louis Farrakhan (who, unfortunately for Obama, has tendered his endorsement), it appeared for a moment that he might get defensive. But no. The episode began when Obama was asked whether he would accept this anti-Semite as a supporter. Obama sounded a tad shaky on the matter, even to the point of temporarily losing his gift for articulation: "I am very familiar with his record, as are the American people. That's why I have consistently denounced it...I obviously can't censor him. It's not support that I sought...I can't, uh, say to somebody that he can't say that he thinks I'm a good guy."

Clinton countered with an effective response that was firm without sounding too sanctimonious. Recalling an incident when her Senate bid was endorsed by an anti-Semitic party in New York, she said: "I made it very clear that I did not want their support...I thought it was more important to stand on principle....There's a difference between denouncing and rejecting...We've got to be even stronger."

Whereupon Obama, rather than taking the bait and digging in, simply responded this way: "I don't see a difference between denouncing and rejecting. There's no formal offer of help from Minister Farrakhan that would involve me rejecting it. But if the word reject Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word denounce, then I'm happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce."

Clinton declared, "Good, good, excellent," as if she had just taught a pupil to shape up, while scoring a major victory. But Obama seemed to convey, with faint bemusement, that this political wordplay was not worth fighting about, all the while appearing conciliatory. I doubt he suffered any damage in this episode.

Clinton was articulate, as usual, on the issue of universal health care, but Obama hugged her on that as well ("95 percent of our health care plans are similar"). When she complained - accurately - that some of Obama's mailers have distorted some features of health care plan, he shrugged off the matter by saying that the Clinton campaign has sent out, or condoned, a fusillade of negative attacks, yet "we haven't whined about it because I understand that's the nature of these campaigns."

She nailed him on one point, however. While defending his foreign policy credentials, he mentioned his membership on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But Clinton pointed out that, even though Obama chairs a subcommittee with jurisdiction over NATO and Afghanistan, "he's held not one substantive meeting" during his chairmanship. Obama's response: "I became chairman of this committee at the beginning of this campaign, at the beginning of 2007. So it is true that we haven't had oversight hearings on Afghanistan." Perhaps he gets kudos for acknowledging this without sounding defensive, but it does arguably prove the critics' point that Obama is a young man in a hurry who hasn't done sufficient spadework in the trenches.

Nevertheless, Clinton had her own shaky episodes. She has repeatedly refused to release her joint tax returns, and when asked about this last night, she said she would do so upon becoming the nominee, "or even earlier." Given the possibility that her candidacy could be effectively over by next Tuesday, that isn't much of a time window. Meanwhile, at another point in the debate, she tried to paint Obama as a reckless naif by claiming that he wants to "bomb Pakistan" - whereas, in reality, he has said no such thing. He has repeatedly made it clear that he's talking about special operations (last summer: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will"). Clinton's erroneous charge was literally out of the John McCain playbook.

But her worst moment, a self-inflicted wound, occurred in the 17th minute of the debate. The timing itself aggravated the injury. A rule of thumb in these events is that it's unwise to screw up during the first half hour, when the TV audience is biggest and when the journalists are still writing for deadline. Clinton has a habit of delivering leaden one-liners, and this was no exception. Asked a question about NAFTA, she started to whine about being picked on, claiming that debate hosts always "seem" to ask her questions while Obama can hang back and respond. "I don't mind," she said, although she clearly did, which was why she brought it up. "I'm happy to answer it," although she wasn't, thereby telegraphing insincerity.

Then came the pre-scripted clinker: "If anybody saw Saturday Night Live, maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow," a remark that predictably drew boos, all the while demonstrating that Clinton was prepared to hang her hat on a comedy show - which, while taking her side the other night, has just as often depicted her in skits as the queen of entitlement.

I doubt she shifted the dynamic of this contest; at this late stage, the trend lines are probably impervious to the impact of a single debate. For instance, the latest Quinnipiac poll in Pennsylvania now shows that Clinton leads by only six points in her alleged stronghold - assuming the race even goes that far. These pollsters attribute the narrowing of the Pennsylvania margin (from 16 points just two weeks ago) to young voters, and last night Obama the Unflappable did nothing to imperil their devotion.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The behavior of unhappy campaigns

Tolstoy wrote that "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." In American politics, however, it's the unhappy campaigns that are all alike. In their growing desperation to stave off defeat, they tend to behave in very similar ways. And the Hillary Clinton campaign is currently a textbook case, for three reasons:

1. The candidate is exhibiting multiple personalities, mellow one day and volcanic the next, seemingly incapable of settling on a consistent tone and approach. Last Thursday night, she said she was "honored" to run with Barack Obama; yet on Monday, she painted him as a clueless Bush-style naif who would imperil America in a dangerous world. All this reflects the fact that her advisors have no clue what will work best to slow Obama's ongoing momentum. When a candidate is reduced to throwing everything but the "kitchen sink" (in the words of a Hillary advisor), it's a sign of weakness. Which Hillary will show up at the Ohio debate tonight?

2. The campaign is blaming the media for its woes. Spokesman Howard Wolfson whines that "the press has largly applauded (Obama)...that is a fact of life we labor under," and surrogate/Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell grouses that "the media doesn't like the Clintons for whatever reason." Scapegoating the messenger is standard practice for losers. But the scapegoaters seem to have amnesia. As recently as last summer, Hillary's detractors were complaining that the media had already anointed her as the inevitable nominee, based on her universal name ID and the alleged prowess of her political machine. (To cite one of many examples, here's New York Times blogger/professor Stanley Fish, writing last August: "It’s time to start thinking seriously about Hillary Clinton’s running mate...this one is over before it’s over.") I don't recall the Hillary people having any problems with the coverage at that point in time. Their argument today, apparently, is that the media should ignore or downplay the fact that Hillary has lost 11 straight contests, all by landslides. That losing record is really the "fact of life" that they labor under.

3. Another standard practice for losers is to try and explain away primary defeats as either statistical flukes or aberrations. The Hillary people have been trying this all along, shrugging off caucus losses as unrepresentative of general Democraric opinion (whereas, in reality, their failure to organize for these grassroots events has been vivid proof of their ineptitude), and blaming a string of primary losses on the presence of independent voters (as if Obama's strength with independents is a bad thing).

Now it's happening again. The other day, the ever-helpful Bill Clinton began to pre-spin the next potential defeat, this time in Texas. That key state, which votes a week from today, has a complex arrangement - a primary all day and a caucus in the evening; delegates are awarded in acordance with both sets of results. Referring to the caucus, here's what Bill told a crowd yesterday: "The doors open at 7 (pm) and they close at 7:15. It would be tragic if Hillary were to win this election in the daytime and somebody were to come in at night and take it away."

Translation: Bill is pre-spinning the primary as legitimate, and the caucus (where Hillary's organization, as we know, is far weaker) as illegitimate. So if Obama wins Texas narrowly, thanks to the caucus results, the Clintons are prepared to say in effect, "Well, this loss doesn't really count either, because she won it fair and square until the Obama people came in under the cover of night and took it away."

And one other thing: Bill told a falsehood about the hours of the caucus. The doors don't open at 7 and close at 7:15. According to a spokesman for the Texas Democratic party, the doors actually open around 7:15 and close at 9. Did Bill misspeak on purpose, narrowing the caucus times perhaps in the hopes discouraging voters from showing up? Gaming the system is also a standard practice for losers.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Ralph Nader, tragedy and farce

In the apparent belief that he has not sufficiently damaged his own legacy, Ralph Nader now seems determined to wield the wrecking ball one more time.

Havng told himself - and the nation yesterday, on Meet the Press - that Americans are clamoring for a third-party candidate in 2008, Nader has decided to offer himself as the purist alternative. Even though, as Gallup makes clear, there is little empirical evidence that Americans are clamoring for a third-party candidate in 2008.

Nader is the living embodiment of the Karl Marx dictum that "history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce." The tragedy for Democrats, of course, is that Nader (despite his persistent denials) played a pivotal role in the ascension of George W. Bush eight years ago. The math speaks for itself; Bush officially won Florida by 537 votes over Al Gore, while Nader drained away 97,488 Floridians. And exit polls showed that, if Nader had not stumped to be on the Florida ballot (while telling Floridians that there were scant differences between Gore and Nader), his voters would have favored Gore by a 2-1 margin.

The farce is what's happening now.

Nader had argued in 2000 that Gore was a corporate stooge, tethered to the centrist compromises of the Bill Clinton era. Nader had argued in 2004 that John Kerry was a corporate stooge, tethered to the compromises of the Democratis establishment. And Nader is now arguing that the new kid on the block, Barack Obama, is also a corporate stooge ("he has leaned toward the pro-corporate side of policy-making"), one who refuses to measure up to Nader's high standards because "his better instincts and his knowledge have been censored by himself."

No doubt many issues are getting short shrift in this campaign, and Nader plans to highlight them, from a liberal perspective, on what he calls his new "exciting, informative, participatory website." But he is badly misreading the national mood.

Consider this Gallup statistic: When voters in January were asked whether any of the '08 candidates would make a good president, 84 percent said yes - the highest share in 16 years, and nearly twice the share recorded in 1992, when Ross Perot ran as a third-party hopeful. Gallup's Frank Newport concludes that "the environment (in 2008) would not be nearly as propitious this year as it was for Perot that year. It is true that Americans are broadly dissatisfied this year with both the state of the nation and the economy, as they were in 1992. But Americans at this juncture seem much more willing to say that the current crop of candidates running in the major parties have discussed good solutions to the nation's problems, and, as a result, there is a high level of satisfaction with those currently running."

Indeed, while Nader was busy yesterday talking about how voters feel "shut out, marginalized, disrespected" (without, of course, acknowledging his own role in helping to install a president who has left voters feeling shut out, marginalized, and disrespected), he conveniently overlooked one of the key factors that potentially distinguishes 2008 from its electoral predecessors: Voter enthusiasm.

It stands to reason that if voters were truly yearning for Nader or another third-party candidate, they would not be storming the ballot box in record numbers during this primary season. Thanks largely to Obama's presence in the race, Democratic turnout has broken all previous party records, and has dwarfed the GOP turnout. If Obama does win the nomination, young voters and first-time voters are likely to marginalize Nader further. Even in 2004, the record turnout for John Kerry (who drew more votes than any losing candidate in history) overwhelmed Nader, reducing him to 0.38 percent of the popular vote, and reducing him to a non-factor in every state. It's hard to see how he would improve on that percentage in 2008.

What's truly sad is that the young Obama fans are likely to dismiss Nader as merely a cranky contrarian; the relatively few who study political history will see him as a parody of the perpetual also-ran, a latter-day Harold Stassen. They will remain largely unaware that Nader has favorably impacted their lives every time they drive their cars in safety; it was Nader, more than any other American, who helped pad their dashboards and strap them in.

But it is Nader himself who has consigned this estimable legacy to the mists of memory. And that is not farce, it is tragedy.


Speaking of turnout, and the impending Democratic primaries in Texas and Ohio, here's a statistic worth noting in the Lone Star State:

Texans are already casting ballots for the crucial March 4 contest, thanks to the state's early-voting law. So I took a look at the state turnout figures thus far. I was stunned by what I saw.

I'll just focus on Collin County, in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth, reputedly the richest county in Texas. It's a place where Democratic voters have been virtually invisible in recent years. For instance, during the first three days of early voting in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary, only 503 people bothered to do it.

Yet for the same time period in 2008, here's the turnout number for Collin County:


That's nearly 12 times the previous number for Collin County. And the pattern is similar elsewhere in Texas; for instance, in Harris County (Houston and adjacent suburbia), the '04 early turnout was 2392; today, it's 26,729. That's more than 10 times the early tally of 2004.

Are we to believe that Hillary Clinton, in her dire hour of need, is the candidate driving this turnout?