Friday, November 09, 2007

Straight talk, bad behavior, reality check

At week’s end, let’s bestow a few awards:

Spiciest Straight Talk...Joe Biden. When he was asked last Sunday whether he would like to be considered as Democratic running mate on a ticket headed by Hillary Clinton, he dispensed with the usual variations of evasion (“I haven’t thought about it” or “I’m focused on getting out my own message,” or “There are larger issues in this campaign”). Instead, he opted for candor mode.

No frickin way, he said. Even more startling was his willingness to say why he wouldn't want the job:

"I love Bill Clinton, but can you imagine being vice president? (Bill) is such a dominant and powerful and positive force that I think the question is if you're going to stay in public life, do you want to be a contributor...I'm not looking for a ceremonial post."

Translation: Joe Biden has no desire to play second fiddle to the First Spouse.

Politicians rarely talk this brazenly, especially about a former president. But it so happens that Biden may well be right. Al Gore discovered, when he was veep to Bill, that he had to constantly compete with the First Lady for attention, access, and resources. Getting caught between the Clintons is not necessarily a dream situation, especially for somebody with Biden's expansive personality - which is why, if Hillary does become the nominee, it's probably unlikely she'd pick him anyway.

Scuzziest Campaign Behavior...Ernie Fletcher and his surrogates. That’s not the name of a ‘60s AM radio rock band. That’s the Republican governor of Kentucky, who was decimated last Tuesday night in a landslide re-election defeat. But on his way out the door, he practiced the politics of desperation, GOP-style.

He couldn't run on his record, because the Kentucky electorate already knew he was corrupt. (He was indicted while in office, after trying to fill state jobs with his political cronies, in violation of the state's merit-based hiring laws - a scheme that the grand jury called "a widespread and coordinated plan.")

Since he couldn't run on his record, he tried to run on God. But that didn't work, either. (On the eve of election day, he ordered that the Ten Commandments be displayed in the State Capitol.)

So since he couldn't run on his record, and he couldn't run on God, he went to the last option. He decided to run against gays.

His running mate, lieutenant governor candidate Robbie Rudolph, assailed the Democratic candidates (gubernatorial hopeful Steve Beshear and running mate Daniel Mongiardo) as "a couple of San Francisco treats." This was because Beshear and Mongiardo had won the endorsement of a group that advocates equal treatment for gays.

Meanwhile, singer Pat Boone, working for Fletcher, recorded a phone message that reached tens of thousands of Kentuckyians; he told them that the Democrats wanted Kentucky "to be another San Francisco." That was actually Boone's second robocall. The first one told voters that Democrat Beshear would use the governor's job to work for "every homosexual cause."

Then came the mysterious robocall that purported to be from a gay group, praising Beshear as a champion of "the homosexual lobby." The gay group denied authorship, and its denial is credible, because gays never refer to themselves as "the homosexual lobby." That's how conservatives refer to them. Anyway, nobody this week stepped forward to claim authorship of that robocall.

Even in defeat, the Fletcher folks played innocent about everything. A spokesman explained that the line about "San Francisco treats" was "not in any way an allegation of their being homosexuals." Yeah, maybe Fletcher's running mate was merely referring to Rice-a-Roni.

Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century British man of letters, once said that "patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." But for desperate 21st-century Republicans, the last refuge is apparently gay-baiting.

Biggest Reality Check...from New Jersey's voters, who decisively rejected a referendum on stem-cell research. The state's reigning Democrats figured it was a slam-dunk that voters would OK this proposal to borrow $450 million for scientific research. Brad Pitt was for it, Nancy Reagan was for it, and the polls always show that most Americans favor stem-cell research. Yet the voters said no, by a margin of 53 to 47 percent.

Democrats generally view stem-cell research as one of their best wedge issues, a way to rally their base and divide Republicans by pulling moderates to their side. And the issue appeared to work for them last November in Missouri, where a Republican senator was kicked out of office. So what happened in Jersey? Was it just that the stem-cell advocates got lazy?

The bottom line was, Jersey voters are ticked off about the state's bleak financial picture (the government is $30 billion in debt). They were in no mood to essentially give the Democrats any more money, because they clearly don't trust the Democrats to spend it well.

This is vivid proof that the Democrats' apple pie issue is more fragile than it seems. The Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life, which polls on the issue, found 57 percent nationwide support two years ago, and only 51 percent support this past summer. Perhaps the benefits of government-financed stem-cell research need to be explained better (as Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine is now saying), and perhaps that can boost the numbers. But this referendum demonstrates that the issue is not necessarily strong enough to trump the passions of an angry local electorate.

And, as experience has long shown, when New Jersey voters get angry about money, no issue or politician is safe.


More radio this morning. I'm talking national politics on Philadelphia NPR, along with Philadelphia Inquirer foreign affairs columnist Trudy Rubin, hosted by Marty Moss-Coane. For interested Friday slackers, the listening links are here.