Monday, November 26, 2007

In flagrant breach of the Reagan commandment

Yeesh, whatever happened to Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment, "Thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican"?

Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani spent the holiday weekend speaking ill of each other...wait, let me amend that. Each guy spend the weekend insisting that the other guy is a fraud and a hypocrite. Mitt basically said that Rudy is Hillary lite, a closeted liberal on social issues, a friend of the sleazy (Bernie Kerik), and a lousy role model in his personal life. Rudy basically said that Mitt was a closeted liberal on social issues, a mediocre governor, a softy on violent crime, a wimp on taxes, and Ted Kennedy lite (Rudy hit Mitt again this morning, on MSNBC: "He was the one as governor of Massachusetts who was likening himself to Ted Kennedy, this guy didn't even support Ronald Reagan").

You're free to wade into the crossfire and determine which guy has the better case; be advised that Mitt also accuses Rudy of "making up facts," which is a polite way of saying that Mitt thinks Rudy is a liar. I'm mainly interested in Rudy's decision to go after Mitt in this manner. Earlier this autumn, Rudy was publicly signaling that he planned to obey the Reagan commandment ("It’s my intention not to attack any other Republicans"), yet now he appears to be fully engaged.

The Giuliani camp says that Rudy is assailing Mitt simply because (to paraphrase a line from the late screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky) he's mad as hell about Mitt's hits and he's not gonna take it anymore. But clearly it's more than that.

Despite what Rudy's aides have been saying lately - that Rudy will be fine even if he loses the gatekeeper contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, that Rudy will simply bounce back in the big states - they obviously fear that early losses in Iowa (Jan. 3) and New Hampshire (Jan. 8) could create momentum for the early winner and hamper Rudy's prospects for a quick recovery later in the month and in early February. And right now, the state polls indicate that Mitt is well positioned to win both Iowa and New Hampshire.

In other words, the Rudy camp appears to understand that Rudy's lead in national Republican surveys doesn't mean squat. The top slot in national polls usually goes to the candidate with the highest name ID; those polls tell you nothing about the state-by-state terrain. (In 2003, Joe Lieberman scored high in the Democratic polls, mostly on the basis on his high name ID.) And the terrain in Iowa and New Hampshire favors Mitt, who has out-organized and vastly outspent Rudy.

Hence Rudy's decision to dump the Reagan commandment, in the hopes of moving up early by cutting Mitt down. The risk, of course, is that both guys will suffer, that each will merely sow greater doubts about the other, and that some primary voters might sour on the mutual savaging and go looking for an alternative candidate, somebody who seems less soiled (in Iowa, perhaps Mike Huckabee; in New Hampshire, perhaps John McCain; in South Carolina, perhaps Fred Thompson).

So it goes, in the most fluid Republican race in living memory. No doubt we'll see further evidence on Wednesday night, when they all meet again, in the CNN-YouTube debate.


By the way, if Rudy's rivals are looking for fresh grist, this report might work just fine: Rudy on the stump regularly inveighs against special-interest, money-wasting congressional "earmarks" the same time that Rudy's law firm (which paid him $1.2 million last year) scores special-interest, money-wasting congressional earmarks for its clients.


And speaking of Fred Thompson, it can't be a good sign when a Republican candidate who fancies himself to be the true conservative in the race feels compelled to complain of media bias...and levels his charge at Fox News.

During an appearance yesterday on Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace made an obvious observation - that Fred's candidacy has basically flatlined in the polls since the day he announced - but the candidate got so incensed that he briefly registered a pulse:

"This has been a constant mantra of Fox, to tell you the truth....(F)or you to highlight nothing but the negative in terms of these polls...kind of skews things a little bit....I understand the game of build-up and I understand the game of take-down. And we all go through it. And I’m perfectly willing for you to do that with regard to me as you do the other candidates. But you have the right to put in your one side, put in the Fox side, and I have the right to respond to it."

That's the gist of a long and testy exchange with Wallace, a classic illustration of how a politician in potentially dire straits will always try to blame the media (even an ostensibly friendly outlet) for his woes.

This is the same politician who, during his extended wink-wink pre-candidacy phase, basically took up residence on Fox's Sean Hannity show, where he has logged nearly as many minutes as Rudy. But the fact remains that he has barely moved the needle while on the stump. In the two early primary states most critical to his candidacy - South Carolina and Florida, both in his home region - he has steadily lost ground to his rivals (especially Mitt), and it's hard to imagine this slide is due to the "constant mantra of Fox."

However, he did make one good point yesterday, when he cited the support he has received from the conservatives at the National Review magazine. (Another symptom of the divisions among conservatives, as they assess the GOP field). The National Review gang has indeed praised some of Fred's policy proposals - and last week they even took a fresh swipe at Rudy, pointing out that, as mayor, Rudy "launched lawsuits that sought liberal (court) rulings to punish gun manufacturers...Conservatives can only hope that President Giuliani - if such is our fate - can be counted on to appoint judges who would throw Plaintiff Giuliani out of court."

If such is our fate....In this season of fluidity, even the commentators are in breach of Reagan's 11th commandment.