Thursday, December 13, 2007

A snoozefest more potent than Ambien

I'm addressing this question to all the heterosexual guys out there:

Have you ever been dragged to a chick flick - the kind where Helena Bonham Carter makes a pot of tea and swoons endlessly about the Victorian gents whom she fancies - and within 30 minutes you're surreptitiously tracking the second hand of your wristwatch as it ticks ever so slowly onward?

Well, that's how it was yesterday, at the Republican presidential debate in Iowa, the last showdown before the Jan. 3 caucuses.

It's not so easy to transform a galvanizing political race into a soporific yawner, but moderator Carolyn Washburn was clearly up to the job. Doing her best imitation of your fourth-grade substitute teacher, Washburn, the editor of the Des Moines Register, made it clear from the outset that the rules would not permit any outbursts from the unruly boys in class.

There would be no talk of immigration (which is merely the hottest issue in the GOP race). There would be no talk of Iraq (which has cost the lives of nearly 4000 Americans and drained the treasury of roughly half a trillion dollars). There would be no opportunities for the candidates to directly address each other (this, at a time when the candidates have started to do so, in their TV ads). Rather, there would be a series of ponderous policy questions (with scant time to respond in any detail), coupled with an opportunity for each candidate to make a "free statement" about himself (which resulted in the usual talking points, which added nothing and illuminated nothing). Worse yet, the GOP field was larger than ever, thanks to the inexplicable inclusion of Alan Keyes, who was somehow let onto the stage despite his zero percent popularity - as measured in a November Iowa poll.

(I felt bad last night for the Des Moines Register reporter who had to cover this event. In his story, he called it as "a free-wheeling forum," which is akin to equating a chick flick with a Die Hard sequel. Maybe he felt compelled to take one for the team.)

This exchange basically summed up the whole affair:

WASHBURN: "I want to take on a new issue. I would like to see a show of hands. How many of you believe global climate change is a serious threat and caused by human activity?"

FRED THOMPSON: "Well, do you want to give me a minute to answer that?"

WASHBURN: "No, I don't."

THOMPSON: "Well, then I'm not going to answer it."


MIKE HUCKABEE: "How about 30 seconds?"

WASHBURN: "No, I -- you know, I want --"

You get the idea. She wrestled with her unruly boys all afternoon, trying to keep the lid on spontanaeity. And the upshot was that, in the end, Mike Huckabee benefited the most.

I hesitate to name a "winner" in any debate, particularly in a heavy-lidded affair such as this, but clearly Huckabee had the best day. He entered the event at the top of the polls in Iowa, and he left the event largely unscathed - again, because the tight format did not encourage any of his rivals to take him on directly. The result was that he got off easy, especially when some of his remarks cried out for rejoinders.

At one point, Huckabee made a pitch for his so-called "fair tax" - his proposal to scrap the progressive income tax, and replace it with a flat national sales tax. He claimed that this levy would benefit most Americans. In his words, the Huckabee tax system "means that the rich people aren't going to be made poor, but maybe the poor people could be made rich. That ought to be the goal of any tax system - not to punish somebody, but to enable somebody so that they can have a part of the American dream. The fair tax does just that."

It just so happens that many tax experts, and many Republicans, view the Huckabee plan as downright nutty - because it would do precisely the opposite of what the candidate claims. Some studies have already concluded that a flat national sales tax would actually worsen the tax burden for most people; the richest Americans, in the top fifth, would see their tax rate fall by 20 percent, while the other 80 percent would pay more.

But none of Huckabee's rivals were willing to defy the lofty vibes and refute him. It would've been like rolling a stink bomb down the church aisle. Which is also why Mitt Romney, when asked whether the next president should be an economic conservative, passed up the opportunity to discuss all the taxes that Huckabee raised while he was governor of Arkansas. Which is also why nobody dared bring up the latest developments in the case of Wayne Dumond, the convicted rapist who was pardoned with the encouragement of then-Gov. Huckabee, only to murder a woman in Missouri. (The conservative press is far less reluctant to view Huckabee with the appropriate skepticism.)

Yesterday, the only candidate willing to take on Huckabee, however fleetingly, was Tom Tancredo - who probably figured he had nothing to lose, given the fact that his prospects for becoming president are roughly akin to Kevin Federline's. Noting that Huckabee has in the past voiced compassion for illegal immigrants but now talks tough about border security, Tancredo asked, "how are you going to convince America that you, in fact, changed your mind on the issue of immigration from when you were a governor? That's all I want to know."

Whereupon Washburn, invoking her rule about no immigration talk, stepped in to ask Ron Paul for his favorite New Year's resolution.

If I were Huckabee, I know what my New Year's resolution would be. I'd send that woman a thank-you note for helping him lock down his Iowa lead. Unless he has already concluded that she was an instrument of God's will, and that such a note is therefore not required.


This is noteworthy: The Hillary Clinton campaign has released a new Iowa TV ad, featuring the candidate's mother.

Dorothy Rodham says, "What I would like people to know about Hillary is what a good person she is. She never was envious of anybody — she was helpful. And she’s continued that with her adult life with helping other women. She has empathy for other people’s unfortunate circumstances. I’ve always admired that because it isn’t always true of people. I think she ought to be elected even if she weren’t my daughter."

Translation: Hillary is bleeding. Support from women has dropped in early primary states, and skepticism about her character persists. Hence, mom to the rescue.

Will the ad work? Don't expect any discussion during today's Democratic debate in Iowa.