Monday, December 17, 2007

"Can't anybody here play this game?"

Given the latest pratfalls committed by some of the Republican presidential candidates, is it any wonder that Republican voters are generally turned off to the entire field? That more than half of the GOP electorate has an unfavorable opinion of each and every GOP hopeful?

For starters, consider Mitt Romney – who is viewed favorably by only 36 percent of his fellow Republicans. On Meet the Press yesterday, he provided us with a tour de force of his serial flip-flops on guns, abortion, immigration, gays, and Ronald Reagan. (If you’re wondering about the Reagan flip-flop, here’s what Romney said in 1994, while running for the Senate in Massachusetts: “I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush. I’m not trying to return to Reagan.” And here’s what he said last Friday: “The right way for America to proceed when we face the kind of challenges we face is to pursue the strategy which Ronald Reagan pursued when we faced the challenges of the last century.”)

Romney’s abortion flip-flops are well documented, of course. What fascinated me yesterday were his fumbling attempts to explain his convenient journey from pro-choice to pro-life. During the ’94 campaign, he explained his pro-choice stance this way (italics are mine): “Many, many years ago I had a dear close family relative that was very close to me who passed away from an illegal abortion. It is since that time my mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter. And you will not see me wavering on that.”

Yet here was Romney yesterday, insisting to Tim Russert that he has always been a closet pro-lifer: “Well, you know, Tim, I was always personally opposed to abortion" -- which helps explain his current support for the Republican party platform, which calls for a constitutional amendment banning abortions nationwide.
Such an amendment, of course, would impose anti-abortion beliefs on those who disagree - precisely the opposite of what Romney pledged in 1994.

And when Russert asked yesterday whether he believed that life begins at conception, he revealed his true self. From the transcript:

“I do. I believe, I believe, from a, from a political perspective that life begins at conception. I, I don’t, I don’t pretend to know, if you will, from a theological standpoint when life begins.”

Wait...Did he just say that he believes life begins at conception “from a political perspective?” No wonder so many grassroots Republicans don’t trust this guy. They want somebody who hews to that belief for theological reasons – not somebody who goes on TV and admits to the entire nation that his stance on life is “political,” and therefore just an exigency of the campaign.

I sense that Romney is basically a moderate Republican (as his father was), and it’s embarrassing to watch his incessant attempts to retrofit his convictions, all the while claiming that he is doing no such thing. There’s a reason why his lead in Iowa has evaporated, despite his expenditure of $7 million; conservatives smell an opportunist.

(Worse yet, an opportunist who makes stuff up. At one point yesterday, he stated that, while running for governor in 2002, "I received the endorsement of the NRA." The factual reality is that he did not receive the endorsement of the NRA. The gun lobby didn't back anybody in that race.)

And here's a lesser-known tidbit from the Romney oeuvre, something that came up yesterday: He had declared in 1994 that, if elected senator, he would vote to enact the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a long-gestating bill aimed at banning job and housing bias against gay people nationwide. But that was then. Here’s what he told Russert yesterday: “I would not support (ENDA) at the federal level, and I changed in that regard because I think that policy makes more sense to be evaluated or to be implemented at the state level.” Suddenly, on the issue of banning anti-gay discrimination, he’s a state’s rights guy. Guess why.

Yet, with respect to one issue, Romney did manage yesterday to exude a sense of conviction: He thinks it’s wrong to strongly criticize “our president,” George W. Bush.

Unfortunately for Romney, that particular conviction will not click with about 70 percent of the American people. But he’s only thinking right now about the GOP electorate, most of whom still support the failed president, and he thinks this stance might help him recoup some of the ground he has lost in Iowa to Mike Huckabee.

Huckabee, the upstart, underfunded rival who has supplanted Romney as the Iowa frontrunner (and who, nonetheless, is viewed favorably by only 30 percent of the GOP electorate), wrote a piece for the January issue of the august Foreign Affairs magazine (or maybe a policy wonk wrote it for him, given Huckabee’s death of foreign policy knowledge), laying out the Huckabee vision for America’s role in the world. It contained this passage, which had Romney in high dudgeon all weekend:

“American foreign policy needs to change its tone and attitude, open up, and reach out. The Bush administration's arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad.”

Romney first assailed Huckabee on Saturday, contending that this passage sounded like something a Democrat would say. (It’s actually something that anyone with a grasp of empirical reality would say, but never mind.) Then yesterday, he said: “That’s an insult to the president, and Mike Huckabee should apologize to the president…he went over the line.”

In response yesterday, Huckabee slam-dunked Romney: “There's no apology necessary to the president. I'm the one who actually supported the president's surge. I supported the Bush tax cuts when Mr. Romney didn't. I was with President Bush on gun control when Mitt Romney wasn't. I was with the president on the president's pro-life position when Mitt Romney wasn't. I was with the president on his position on same-sex relationships and marriage when Mitt Romney wasn't. I was with the president on the legacy of the president's dad and Ronald Reagan when Mitt Romney wasn't. So, you know, I don't have anything to apologize for. I'm running for president of the United States. I've got to show that I do have my own mind when it comes to how this country ought to lead, not only within its own borders but across the world.”

Huckabee is calculating that he can afford to take a shot at Bush’s foreign policy record, given the general mood of Republican discontent, and given his own support for Bush on so many other fronts. He’s calculating that GOP voters will applaud his promise to break with the past – in his words, “I do have my own mind” – and that’s why he has Mitt Romney on the run in Iowa. Because the perception persists that Romney’s mind is shaped by the pragmatics of the moment, and therefore is not his own.

And yet…just when it appears Huckabee might be the man of conviction that grassroots Republicans are yearning for, we get the news that he was once a wholly owned subsidiary of the tobacco industry.

It turns out that, while Huckabee was serving as lieutenant governor of Arkansas back in 1994, R. J. Reynolds helped finance a non-profit organization that paid Huckabee to crisscross the country and attack Hillary Clinton’s health care plan. The tobacco giant’s role was kept secret for years – Huckabee neglected to report this income on his ’94 state financial disclosure form – but now it’s all coming out. A former Huckabee political advisor – who doubled as a consultant to R. J. Reynolds – is talking openly about how the tobacco giant put money in Huckabee’s pocket, and the company has now confirmed it.

But here’s the good part: Huckabee claimed last Friday that he didn’t know he was taking big tobacco money while he was on the public payroll. His former advisor, J.J. Vigneault, reportedly has a big problem with that denial, particularly because Vigneault recalls that Huckabee met with R. J. Reynolds officials in his Little Rock apartment.

Vigneault is quoted as saying: “There’s no way he could not have known about the money from R. J. Reynolds. If he’s saying he didn’t know about the Reynolds money, he’s been less than truthful.”

And speaking of untruths, the whopper of the week (last week, anyway) was uttered by Rudy Giuliani, during the final Republican debate of 2007. Giuliani (who is viewed favorably by 41 percent of Republicans) promised that, if elected, he would run an open administration, just as he had as mayor: "I would make sure that government was transparent. My government in New York City was so transparent that they knew every single thing I did almost every time I did it. So I would be extremely open...I think I've had an open, transparent government."

Those statements contradict factual reality. In truth, Rudy was the opposite of transparent. When independent budget watchdogs - seeking to their job, as outlined in the city charter - tried to audit the fiscal practices of his administration, Rudy's stonewalling on data was so endemic that the City Council had to set aside money for the specific purpose of suing him. Later, when the state comptroller tried to do routine audits of city performance, Rudy stonewalled him, too - which prompted the comptroller to issue multiple subpoenas for information, all of which Rudy simply ignored. The comptroller finally sued Rudy for the data; the case dragged on for two years, with Rudy stonewalling all the way. In the end, Rudy lost when the state's highest court ruled against him.

Flip-flopping panderers, faith-based trimmers of truth, outright wonder the Republican electorate is so restive. As Casey Stengel once said, while describing his 1962 New York Mets, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”