Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A conversation with Chris Dodd

Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, a former national Democratic chairman and prospective ‘08 presidential candidate, stopped in Philadelphia yesterday to stump for some House candidates and seed some terrain for himself. His people asked if I was interested in a sitdown, and I said sure. With Democrats trying to run this fall as strong national security stewards, even while being undercut by independent hawk (and Dodd colleague) Joe Lieberman, it seemed worthwhile to sit on a hotel terrace and kick this stuff around.

I asked whether he thought that his friend Lieberman would complicate the Democrats’ task this fall by messing with the party message. Lieberman, in the early days of his independent bid to retain his Senate seat, has been echoing the Bush-Cheney argument that liberal Democrats are soft on terrorists. Isn’t Dodd concerned about that?

“Not at all,” he said, which is what we would expect him to say. Yet he did appear genuinely confident that Lieberman and his new best friends are on the wrong side of the issue, given the fact that the ongoing woes in Iraq have nearly erased the traditionally lopsided GOP advantage on national security. Dodd said, “If I was advising Joe, I’d say, ‘This (Democrats are softies charge) is not a good argument to make. Get back to talking about being a good senator, and having good constituent services.’” He thinks that Lieberman’s embrace of the Bush administration line is “politically dangerous.”

Dodd made these remarks, however, shortly before the release of the latest USA Today-Gallup poll that suggests a Bush bounce in the aftermath of the terrorist arrests in London. The survey reports that 55 percent of Americans like the way Bush is handling the terrorism issue, with 43 percent dissenting. And 67 percent say they have a great deal or moderate amount of confidence in the Bush administration’s ability to protect Americans from future attacks. Today I spoke to one Republican pollster who is somewhat wary about those rosy numbers, yet it’s also true that, in recent weeks, CBS News and Newsweek polls have both reported that Republicans are still (narrowly) preferred over the Democrats as protectors of the homeland.

The wiretap issue is also a potential Democratic vulnerability. It’s noteworthy that most prominent Democrats were mute last week when a federal judge ruled that Bush’s warrantless surveillance program was in violation of the U.S. Constitution and statutory law. Only two ‘08 hopefuls, John Kerry and Russ Feingold, praised the ruling. Clearly there’s a fear that standing up for civil liberties is a loser on the stump, especially when pitted against visceral concerns about personal safety.

I asked Dodd about that fear. He said: “It takes several sentences to explain to people what the Democratic position is” -- and that’s an eternity in today’s sound bite politics. Dodd explained that, yes, Democrats think that wiretaps are essential in the war on terror, but that, no, they should not to be conducted without warrants or without approval from the special federal court established by law in 1978...“See, I’ve already taken several sentences to explain it to you,” he said. “That’s one reason why Democrats aren’t anxious to jump on that issue.” He suggested that perhaps it’s preferable to just let the judge’s ruling speak for itself. As Dodd sees it, “Sometimes the best sermon is not to say anything.”

But, in reality, saying nothing is probably not an option. The GOP message machine is already road-testing one of its autumn accusations -- that Democrats are wimps who won’t use all the necessary tools to combat terrorists -- and that will warrant a response. So how would Dodd, as an ‘08 hopeful trying to earn IOUs in ‘06, boil down those sentences?

Dodd replied: “Begin the conversation by saying, ‘We’ll do everything to be secure, but the idea of letting the president do whatever he wants to is dangerous.’ Maybe I’m being naive, but I don’t think so.”

Actually, there are tougher issues for Dodd right now, most notably some of his bona fides as a prospective presidential candidate. The shorthand goes like this: Why would the Democrats want to nominate another New England liberal senator, just two years after John Kerry tanked? And why indeed would they want to nominate a senator at all, given the thousands of floor and committee votes that are ripe for GOP cherry-picking, and given the fact that only one sitting Democratic senator (JFK in 1960) has ever captured the White House?

Dodd, a Senate denizen since 1981, thinks that, post-9/11, voters want to see experience and a track record; therefore, “the liability becomes an asset in this window (of time).” As for his Connecticut pedigree, he thinks it’s unfair to penalize a northerner: “We’ve done Jimmy Carter and Al Gore (losers in 1980 and 2000, respectively), yet I don’t hear people saying we shouldn’t have another southerner.”

He argues, “People don’t lose because of where they’re from. They lose because they don’t connect with (voters)...The voter wants to know, ‘does this individual know what I’m going through?’..You either have that (empathy) or you don’t.” A presidential campaign, he said, “is not just rational, it’s primal...If people don’t like you, they won’t care what your ideas are.”

Those remarks can easily be read as knocks on Kerry and Gore; neither of those guys would ever win the award for Mr. Warmth. Nor would Hillary Clinton be a contender for Ms. Warmth; on this score, she lacks her husband’s skills. Dodd, by reputation a more garrulous people person, clearly thinks he can better connect with the average citizen’s hopes and pains (notwithstanding his 31 years on Capitol Hill). He tried an historical analogy, telling the story about how a mourner for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945 had remarked, “I didn’t know him, but he knew me.” (House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi uses the same story in speeches.)

But the ‘06 campaign takes precedent for now, and that brought me back to the Joe Lieberman factor. Here’s a guy who is not only using the Bush-Cheney message, but, in his active trolling for Republican votes in Connecticut, he has just hired, as his pollster, the veteran Republican Neil Newhouse, whose top clients include Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum. So I asked the devil’s advocate question: What are the Democrats going to do about that? If Lieberman wins re-election, why would you Senate Democrats allow him to caucus with you?

Because, he essentially replied, winning power takes precedence over holding grudges, and pragmatism trumps purity. If Lieberman’s presence in the caucus gives the Democrats the one-vote margin for taking power in the Senate, then nothing else matters.“Hey, we used to want (pro-Bush Democrat) Zell Miller to caucus with us,” said Dodd. “If we can get a Senate majority, then I get to be chairman of the Banking Committee...And then we can really slow those (Republicans) down.”