Friday, November 23, 2007

Rudy as Machiavellian, Hillary as Nixonian

A few Thanksgiving leftovers:

Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney have been pandering so relentlessly for conservative GOP primary voters, each insisting that he is the superior immigrant-basher, that at some point I wouldn't be surprised to hear one candidate top the other by declaring that all illegal aliens should be waterboarded.

But as I mentioned recently in print, this panderfest poses political risks for the Republican party, given the growing clout of the Hispanic electorate in states that are increasingly crucial in presidential elections (Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, among others). As Karl Rove and various conservative commentators have repeatedly pointed out, legal Hispanics do not appreciate it when their illegal ethnic brethren are being demonized.

And as New York Times columnist David Brooks notes today, Rudy's serial flipflops on immigration are particularly lamentable. When Rudy was mayor, he was an outspoken defender of illegal immigrants - as these speech excerpts (resurrected by Brooks) indicate:

"There are times when undocumented aliens must have a substantial degree of protection," such as when they send their kids to school or report crimes to the cops. "Similarly, illegal and undocumented immigrants should be able to seek medical help without the threat of being reported. When these people are sick, they are just as sick and just as contagious as citizens.....If you come here and you work hard and you happen to be in an undocumented status, you're one of the people who we want in this city."

And as recently as last year, when the GOP Congress passed a bill criminalizing illegal immigrants, Rudy denounced it, saying in a speech that the "punitive" approach "is actually going to make us considerably less secure than we already are."

But rather than standing firm on a bedrock belief, Rudy is spinning like a weathervane - and further alienating the GOP from the fastest-growing cohort in the electorate.

There's little doubt that, if Rudy and Hillary are the '08 nominees, Rudy will seek to paint his opponent as a calculating Machiavellian politician. But, given how he defended his immigrant-friendly principles back in 1995 - "sometimes leadership means taking unpopular positions, rejecting harmful political fads" - and how he is pandering today, he can merely level that charge by looking in the mirror.


Speaking of Hillary, I am intrigued by Democratic pollster Peter Hart's contention that her 2008 campaign is striking similar to Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign. (Or, as he specifically put it earlier this month, "Hillary Clinton is really Richard Nixon circa 1968.") Hart, who made the analogy based on his readings of the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll of voters nationwide (which he conducts with Republican counterpart Bill McInturff), was not intending to suggest that Hillary is a dead ringer for the Trickster; rather, he was referring to certain parallels in public perception, then and now.

Back then, with an unpopular war raging overseas, Nixon was a battle-tested partisan who was far more respected than liked. Voters saw him as polarizing figure who was not particularly trustworthy, but they viewed him as knowledgable and experienced. Similarly, as Hart says today, Hillary is respected for knowledge and experience (76 percent of Democrats, 51 percent of all adults), but not particularly likeable (49 percent of Democrats, 34 percent of all adults), or trustworthy (only 34 percent of all adults see her as "honest and straightforward").

Nixon in 1968 was seen as the ultimate survivor of partisan warfare, a gut fighter who had been knocked down repeatedly yet always bounced back. And Hillary actually advertises herself that way; as she put it the other day, "They've been after me for 15 years, and I'm still standing!"

Of course, we all know how Nixon turned out. Hart was not implying (nor am I) that Hillary as president would give us another Watergate - although I do find it noteworthy that her current hostility toward the press is vaguely Nixonian. Mostly, I would suggest that Hillary's chief obstacle, in the year ahead, is the lingering concern, among many Americans, that she does not fully represent a break with the polarized past, but merely its perpetuation.