Friday, December 01, 2006

An annual Washington ritual: spinning the unknowable

One venerable Washington ritual is the post-election confab, in which various strategists and spin doctors sit on a stage with their bottled water and ponder the lessons of the latest vote tallies, while opining about future events that are essentially unknowable. It’s fair to say that, within 48 hours, virtually everybody will have forgotten what was said, which is a blessing in a way, at least for the speakers, because it insulates them from embarrassment when subsequent events prove them wrong.

For instance, I spent much of yesterday at one such annual ritual, the American Democracy Conference, co-sponsored by the University of Virginia (specifically, political swami Larry Sabato) and The Hotline (an online newsletter that is catnip for those political junkies who can afford the steep subscription tab). And I kept reminding myself that, since most of the folks on stage were spinning for one prospective ’08 presidential candidate or another, it means that almost all of them would turn out to be wrong.

As Steve Murphy sees things, for example, the ’06 midterm results prove that Bill Richardson – the ex-Clinton UN ambassador, now the governor of New Mexico – would be the perfect Democratic presidential candidate in 2008.

Murphy, a Richardson consultant, argued that since the Democrats made some serious gains in the interior western states (Colorado, Arizona, Montana), it behooves them to nominate a westerner – someone, like westerner Richardson, who doesn’t “look down” on blue-collar voters, the way that eastern Democrats typically do. Plus, Richardson has cut taxes in New Mexico, he’s “pro-growth,” and he’s “pro-gun.” Plus, because of his Clinton era foreign policy creds, Richardson “has dealt with the bad guys” and wouldn’t hesitate to go face down Kim Jung Il and threaten “to cut off his toes.”

Murphy omitted some interesting material, but, since good cheer abounds at these kinds of events, his rival flaks didn’t bring it up. Such as the fact that Richardson, while serving as Clinton’s last chief of the Department of Energy, was slammed by Democratic senators for security breaches in the nuclear program at Los Alamos (a scandal that may have persuaded Al Gore not to tap him as the 2000 running-mate). And the fact that, in 1995, Richardson, during a stop in Iraq, had his picture taken with Saddam Hussein (and reportedly said, “This picture is going to cost me votes”).

But Murphy wasn’t alone as a spinner. Anita Dunn, a consultant for Senator Evan Bayh of red-state Indiana, said that the ’06 results – which showed some big gains for Democrats in the Midwest - vividly demonstrate why a midwesterner (specifically, Bayh) would be the perfect Democratic nominee. She noted that 10 of the 29 new Democratic seats are located in the Midwest, three of them in Indiana. What she wouldn’t say, of course, and what others on the panel were to polite to point out, is that there are many Democrats who privately say that if Evan Bayh was a Baskin Robbins flavor, it would be vanilla.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, I heard consultant David Kensinger hint strongly that one of his clients, Kansas senator and religious-right favorite Sam Brownback, is exactly what Republican voters are looking for – “a consistent, principled, Reaganite conservative.” He also said that, ’06 results notwithstanding, most Americans still view the GOP as “a natural governing party at the presidential level.” But he didn’t bother to explain how an outspoken social conservative who opposes legal abortion and embryonic stem-cell research would play well in the Northeast and Midwestern suburbs, where the party suffered heavy losses in the ’06 election and badly needs to recoup.

Then there was Jan van Lohuizen, a pollster for Mitt Romney, who scoffs at the notion that any voters have a problem with the fact that his client is a Mormon: “(People) will hear questions about the Mormon thing until it’s ridiculous…The question will wear itself out. There’s no answer to it, because the question is a weapon.” While he clearly sees America as a tolerant land, he omitted the fact that, last June, a Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg poll found that 37 percent of Americans wouldn’t vote for a Mormon; and that, in a Rasmussen poll two weeks ago, 53 percent of Christian evangelicals - a key group in the GOP primaries - said they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon.

And, lastly, there was longtime strategist Rich Galen, making the case for why the post-’06 landscape is fertile turf for Newt Gingrich – maybe as a presidential candidate, maybe as backstage policy maestro. In Galen’s words, “Newt will go just go out and do what he does….He wants to be in a position not so much to be President of the United States per se, but to frame the debate for the nomination process.”

The Gingrich pitch these days is that congressional Republicans tanked in the ’06 elections because they have fatally strayed from their core values, notably clean government and conservative reform. Yet I have been waiting for somebody somewhere to note the fact that Newt is probably ill-suited to lead the charge for this message – because, after all, he was one of the first to violate those core values.

In 1997, just two years after leading the conservatives to power, he became the first sitting House speaker in history to be reprimanded by the chamber for an ethics breach. Nailed by the House Ethics Committee for financial improprieties and for twice providing the panel with false information, he finally admitted, “my actions did not reflect creditably on the House.” And not long after, a band of House conservatives tried to stage a coup to remove Gingrich from his post – on the grounds that he was betraying the conservative faith. One of the ringleaders: Tom DeLay.

Given the restive national mood, the wide-open nature of the ’08 race, and the flaws that nag virtually all the major party candidates, perhaps the day’s most intriguing remark was uttered in passing by Doug Sosnik, a former Clinton White House aide who has signed up with ’08 Democratic hopeful Christopher Dodd. He said that “there’s a reasonably high chance of a third-party candidate.” Later, he elaborated: “Take a look at any of the polls. Neither party is held in particularly high esteem. Most voters at this point aren’t emotionally attached to either of them.”

Indeed, there is persistent backstage buzz about New York mayor Michael Bloomberg perhaps spending half a billion from his personal fortune on an independent bid, selling himself as a bipartisan technocrat who can repair the broken political process. Much ink has already been expended on this scenario. But is America ready for a divorced billionaire urban Jew? Frankly, I’d give a Mormon better odds.