Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Hagel plays Hamlet, Thompson plays Reagan

Chuck Hagel’s non-event yesterday was perhaps the worst case of bad hype since Geraldo Rivera found zip inside Al Capone’s vault.

You have to feel bad for Dana Bash. The CNN correspondent, obviously believing that the Republican senator from Nebraska was primed to announce the GOP’s first antiwar presidential candidacy, shlepped herself out to the Cornhusker State, got her crew to the University of Nebraska meeting room, set up the equipment to get Hagel on CNN streaming video, sat there while Hagel flattered her by saying how he hoped she had found a good steak the night before…whereupon he proceeded to announce that he wasn’t making any news.

He basically spent the past week ratcheting up interest for an important announcement, and that announcement turned out to be that he had nothing to announce, except maybe the news that he might decide to make news with a candidacy announcement at some future date. (If his behavior seems puzzling, just remember that this is the same senator who recently co-sponsored an anti-Surge resolution – and then proceeded to vote against allowing the full Senate to debate it.)

Anyway, Hagel punted for a number of reasons (he’d be starting from zero in the money chase, he has virtually no national name recognition despite his constant presence on the Sunday TV shows), but I’d bet he is most sensitive to the fact that a Republican running on an antiwar platform would probably be as popular in the ’08 GOP primaries as Dick Cheney at an ACLU convention.

There is still a limited market for a GOP candidate who opposes the Iraq war; the latest CBS-New York Times poll shows that grassroots Republicans – in contrast with the general American electorate – still support their president. Seventy five percent applaud George W. Bush’s performance, including his handling of Iraq.

Those numbers bear watching. If Hagel ultimately changes his mind and decides to take the plunge, you can assume that he has found evidence that disenchantment with the war has finally begun to ripple through the Republican rank and file. Indeed, one CBS-NYT statistic does suggest a possible future mood shift: 58 percent of likely GOP primary voters said they would prefer a candidate who exhibits some flexibility on when to withdraw U.S. troops – as opposed to a candidate who thinks we should stay in Iraq until we succeed. Only 39 percent said they would prefer the latter stance (which has been adopted by virtually all of the announced Republican candidates). Conceivably, that gap could widen, and overall support for Bush’s war performance could slide, if his troop escalation strategy fails to pay off. But this seems unlikely, which is why Hagel may well spend the rest of the year in Hamlet mode.

Most Republican primary voters would prefer to find a “real” conservative who meets all the litmus tests, including steadfastness on the war. (Hagel’s voting record is actually quite conservative, but his record is trumped by his high antiwar profile). And given the fact that most of the leading candidates have flunked those tests at one time or another – including Rudy Giuliani, who in 1989 declared “there must be public finding for abortions, for poor women” – these voters are still looking for the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan.

Which brings us to Fred Thompson, the actor/ex-senator who has played so many government authority figures in the movies - including a president - that a lot of Americans probably can’t tell which ones were real and which were fictional. (Actually, I liked his role as the air traffic control chief in Die Hard II: “Pack ‘em and stack ‘em!”) He’s flirting with a presidential bid, to fill that conservative niche, as he made clear on Fox News the other day, much to the delight of the conservative punditocracy. He would easily trump Hagel on name recognition, a key commodity these days, because the money chase and the front-loaded primary schedule dictate that only celebrities need apply. Esp[ecially those with Reaganesque communication skills. More importantly, he passed all the litmus tests that were thrown his way on Fox News.

Iraq? Check. (“I would do essentially what the president's doing.”)

Gay rights? Check. (“Marriage is between man and a woman,” and civil unions is “not a good idea.”)

The right to bear arms? Check. (“I’m against gun control generally. Check my record.”)

Abortion? Check. (“I think Roe versus Wade was bad law.”)

Pardoning Scooter Libby? Check. (“I’d do it now.” In fact, he’s a member of Scooter’s Defense Fund.)

He isn’t perfect; as a Tennessee senator during the ‘90s, he opposed conservative efforts to crack down on lawsuit damage awards, and he was deemed by conservatives to be insufficiently aggressive during his ’97 probe of Bill Clinton’s campaign finance practices, but Fox was kind enough not to question him about either. Yet the fact that he looks good to grassroots conservatives is evidence of their disenchantment with the rest of the GOP presidential field. Six in 10 Republicans tell the CBS-NYT pollsters that they still want more choices.

Whether swing-voting Americans are also hungry for a “real” conservative is another matter. Sticking with Bush on the war may be popular inside the GOP bubble, but it is not popular on the outside. Pardoning Libby might be popular on the inside, but it is not on the outside (in the latest CNN poll, 69 percent of Americans say they are opposed). The burgeoning Bush administration scandals, particularly at the Department of Justice and the FBI, have the potential of further taxing swing voters’ patience for Republican governance. Whoever ultimately snags the nomination will still need to somehow finesse the gap that separates the Republican base and the rest of America.