Friday, April 13, 2007

There's a big job opening in Washington, but nobody seems to want it

WANTED: Prosecutors of an unpopular, disastrous war seek military expert for newly created job of “war czar.” Must be willing to conspire with his superiors in a PR operation designed to snow the public into believing that something positive is actually being done to mop up the mess. Must be willing to knock heads with a vice president who has a vested interest in perpetuating the disaster. Must be willing to cede all credit to the commander-in-chief, in the unlikely event that progress is really achieved. Must be willing to play the fall guy, and shoulder all the blame, in the more likely event that nothing changes whatsoever, thereby providing some small and ephemeral measure of political protection to the commander-in-chief.

In so many words, that’s basically what the White House has been circulating, as it looks for a war “czar” to preside over President Bush’s debacle. I’m not kidding about this. In case you missed the story the other day, Bush is really seeking such a person – and he has already been turned down by three military leaders who apparently have no desire to climb aboard the Titanic just as the water floods the First Class cabins.

This search for a "czar" would also seem to imply that the president doesn't have confidence in his own team (Defense chief Robert Gates, State's Condoleezza Rice, National Security advisor Stephen Hadley) to run the show anymore, or at least to effectively coordinate policy among themselves. This will hardly help Bush with the American majority that has already written him off.

One of the applicants who rejected the job, retired Marine Gen. and former NATO commander John Sheehan, even talked on the record about his reasons for demurral. Referring to Bush and his fellow war planners, he said: “The very fundamental issue is they don't know where the hell they're going."

But the troops in Iraq certainly know where they’re going: Nowhere.

Two days ago, Bush’s war team announced that the tours of the soldiers currently fighting in Iraq will be extended by three extra months in order to comport with the Bush “surge” strategy. (The soldiers seem to be less than thrilled about the news.) What’s most striking about this announcement, in political terms, is that it totally undercuts one of the president’s key rhetorical attacks against the congressional Democrats.

You may recall that on April 3, in the Rose Garden, Bush contended that unless the Democrats speedily forked over all the money he wants for the war, on an open-ended basis with no strings attached, then the troops would be hurt and the Democrats would have to shoulder all the blame. Here’s what he said: “Congress’ failure to fund our troops on the front lines will mean that some of our military families could wait longer for their loved ones to return from the front lines….That is unacceptable to me, and I believe it is unacceptable to the American people.”

He said the same thing on Tuesday of this week, in a speech to the American Legion. Yet one day after the Legion speech, his Pentagon announced the "unacceptable" tour-of-duty extension, which means (to paraphrase Bush) that some of our military families will wait longer for their loved ones to return from the front lines.

In other words, the growing strains on the military are directly attributable to Bush’s war strategy. Thanks to the actions of his administration, he has thwarted his own attempts to pin the blame on the Democrats.

The White House has a creative explanation for all this, of course. When a reporter asked Bush flak Dana Perino to explain yesterday why Bush had declared a Democratic-driven tour-of-duty extension to be "unacceptable," even while his own Pentagon was preparing to announce such an extension, she replied: "I’m not aware that the President knew that there was going to be — that Secretary Gates had come to any decisions."

Translation: The deputy press secretary is unaware of whether Bush was aware that a decision had been made by a key subordinate to extend the tours of soldiers in Iraq....But wait a minute, isn't Bush supposed to be the Decider?

No wonder those prospective czars said no. What better way to soil one’s career than to join up with a band of lame ducks that can’t even win the PR battle in Washington?


And finally this week, why is it that Washingtonians seem so fixated on czar, as a descriptive word for a policy tough guy? It all started in 1974, when President Nixon appointed William Simon as his energy "czar," and nobody questioned the word back then, either.

I'll just cede the floor to John Oliver, from The Daily Show: "This is a critical time in the (Iraq) conflict, one that calls for a strong leader. And what better title for that leader than one evoking an ineffectual, tyrannical dynasty ultimately slaughtered by Communists in a filthy basement deep in the Ural Mountains?"

Thursday, April 12, 2007

John McCain and the urgency of red-meat politics

Following up on my Monday post about John McCain:

In his speech yesterday to the American people…Correction…In his speech yesterday to the conservative Republican primary voters of Iowa, New Hampshire, and especially South Carolina, the beleaguered GOP presidential hopeful took the only route that is left open to him. He stood up for the Iraq war, which at this point is supported only by diehard Republicans, such as the folks who will vote next winter in Iowa, New Hampshire, and especially South Carolina. And he stood up for the guy who launched that war, a president who is broadly unpopular nationwide, except among the kinds of folks who vote in GOP primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, and especially South Carolina.

Perhaps the most amusing quote was provided yesterday by a McCain aide who, in reference to his boss’ Iraq speech, insisted that “none of those is a political calculation.” Yeah, right. No doubt McCain is sincere in his hawkish beliefs, but to argue that “none” of what he said was politically calculated is laughable. McCain’s tone was a giveaway. He is typically mild in his remarks about Democrats; indeed, he works with them frequently. But this time, he was scathing in his denunciations: “Before I left for Iraq, I watched with regret as the House of Representatives voted to deny our troops the support necessary to carry out their new mission. Democratic leaders smiled and cheered as the last votes were counted. What were they celebrating? Defeat? Surrender? In Iraq, only our enemies were cheering.”

That’s red meat for the conservative primary voters who have been slow to warm to McCain. And he badly needs to dish the goods pronto, before he slides any further in the polls, or suffers any fresh fund-raising embarrassments. A new national poll of GOP voters has McCain in third place, behind Fred Thompson, an actor who, by most accounts, had two undistinguished terms in the Senate, and who has yet to declare a candidacy. And on the money front, the latest reports indicate that Mitt Romney, who unlike McCain is known to a fraction of Americans, still managed during the first quarter of ’07 to spend $12 million – the same amount of money that McCain was only able to raise.

Hence, McCain’s urgent need to channel Bush and Cheney, even if it meant embracing some of the same half-truths that have long soured most Americans on this administration. But McCain’s point, presumably, is that the typical GOP primary voter is still on board the mission. Which is why McCain yesterday said things like this: “Democrats argue we should redirect American resources to the 'real' war on terror, of which Iraq is just a sideshow. But whether or not al-Qaeda terrorists were a present danger in Iraq before the war, there is no disputing they are there now, and their leaders recognize Iraq as the main battleground in the war on terror.”

That’s a durable Bush talking point, which requires this interpretation: “Even though we successfully misled the American people into thinking that Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda were in cahoots before the war, and launched the war for that false reason, we can now say that al Qaeda really is present in Iraq - thanks to the war we launched for that false reason.”

But the key half-truth needs further explanation. McCain’s speech, mimicking Bush, implies that al Qaeda is orchestrating the war against us in Iraq. The problem, as always, is that the claim doesn’t square with factual reality. Both the Defense Intelligence Agency, and a recent report by the right-leaning Center for Strategic and International Studies, have concluded that foreign jihadists comprise somewhere between four and 10 percent of all the insurgent fights opposing American troops. The rest are native Iraqis who view us as occupiers. As the DIA concluded in February, “attacks by terrorist groups account for only a fraction of insurgent violence.”

But since McCain, in his speech, wasn’t seeking to appeal to the reality-based community, such quibbles are irrelevant. In a Fox News poll of likely GOP primary voters in South Carolina, 70 percent said last week that Bush is doing a good job, and 75 percent support the Iraq war. So maybe McCain's “straight-talking” hawkishness on Iraq will put him back in the hunt for conservative votes; in South Carolina (a traditionally pivotal GOP primary state, with strongly conservative sentiment), Giuliani stood at 26 percent in the Fox poll, with McCain one point behind.

The real test would come late next winter, presumably after he has outfought Rudy Giuliani and Romney, when he has to shift his pitch to the independents and Democrats who once embraced him. Strolling with 100 bodyguards through a Baghdad market and claiming “progress” might wash with the Republican right; it’s hard to imagine anyone else buying that.

Richard Nixon once said that if a Republican wants to be president, he must first run to the right and then to the center. But Iraq is becoming such a chasm that someone like McCain risks a steep plummet before he can even shift his footing.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The faux relevance of the consumer pop quiz

Today I rise in defense of Rudy Giuliani. While campaigning yesterday in Alabama, he had to endure one of the stupidest rituals of contemporary political journalism: the consumer pop quiz.

A local reporter asked him to name the price of a gallon of milk, and he got it badly wrong. He said it was “probably $1.50,” whereas, in reality, the average nationwide price (according to the federal Agriculture Department) is about $3.20, the Alabama price is around $3.40, and the price on the upper West Side in Giuliani’s city runs to about $4.20. Giuliani was also quizzed on the price of a bread loaf, and he guessed $1.30, which was about 70 cents lower than the current going rate in Alabama, although the Giuliani campaign late yesterday insisted that his guess was basically correct, if one consults the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And when pop-quizzed about the price of a gallon of gas, Giuliani said $2.89, which wasn’t a bad guess; that’s slightly higher than the current national average, although less than motorists pay in California.

I first saw this pop quiz in action 11 years ago, at eight in the morning during a snowstorm in New Hampshire (yeah, it’s a glamorous job). We stood in a town square, listening to a campaign pitch by Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander. Suddenly, a local reporter asked him whether he could correctly recite the price of milk and a dozen eggs.

Alexander blanked. He quickly turned to an aide for help. The aide was no help. Then he told the aide, “I need to know the price of a gallon of milk and a dozen eggs. I need to know right now.” Alexander’s rivals in the Bob Dole campaign were delighted; later that day, the Dole team put out a press release saying that the next time Alexander went stumping, “he might want to stop in a supermarket.” Alexander himself lamented, “I got stumped this morning on the price of eggs. I haven’t bought eggs in 12 years.”

Here’s my pop quiz: Who cares?

The price test is just a lazy journalistic gimmick which is designed to imply that a political candidate is out of touch with the lives of the masses. (Some political scientists refer to pop quizzes as “degradation ceremonies.”) Giuliani flunks the milk question, ergo he is an elitist. Ditto Lamar Alexander. Ditto Tom Strickland, a Democratic Senate candidate in Colorado, who in a 2002 debate was asked to name the price of a gallon of unleaded gas, and got it wrong. Ditto John Edwards, who blanked on the price of a six-pack of beer in July 2004 (“I haven’t bought a six-pack of beer in years, so I don’t know”). His questioner, by the way, was Don Imus.

If I was asked to explain why any of this should matter, I’d flunk. Presidential candidates, and those few who actually make it to White House, are not like you and me. They tend to have people around them who buy the goods and pump the gas. They tend to focus on things like the Consumer Price Index, not the price at the local grocery. I even read somewhere recently that when Dwight Eisenhower was ready to leave the White House, aides had to school him on the fine art of dialing a telephone and making his own call.

Similarly, Franklin D. Roosevelt was a member of the landed gentry; he lived well from cradle to grave, and I’d bet rarely paid for milk over the counter – yet today he is lionized as the president who lifted the average American out of the Great Depression. John F. Kennedy grew up rich, and in fact he never paid for anything, much less milk or eggs, because (as his biographers report) he never even bothered to carry money. Yet he and his brother Bobby were revered by poor people of color. And consider Ronald Reagan who lived well in Hollywood long before he acquired the rich benefactors who greased his political career; are we supposed to believe that he clipped coupons for the best price on a gallon of skim – and could name that price when prompted? Yet he sold America on his set of conservative principles, effectively communicating his big picture.

Even the famed ’92 incident involving the senior President Bush and a supermarket scanner has been overblown. At a grocers convention, he was photographed looking amazed at the price scanner, and the New York Times ran it on page one, as evidence that Bush was out of touch with the masses. Democratic vice presidential candidate Al Gore said, “Here is a man who sees a 20-year-old technology at the supermarket checkout line, and looks like an ape discovering fire.” It turned out – far too late for the news cycle, and the verdict of history – that Bush was actually being shown a new version of the technology, one that could read torn labels on supermarket items.

I’d also bet that a fair number of Washington political journalists, who typically earn six figures annually, would flunk similar tests. I know I would – not because somebody else buys my goods (nobody does), but because my mind is elsewhere at the checkout line. The eggs and milk get scanned and rung up, and I never bother to check the itemized receipt. I can’t imagine that candidates, even those without gofers, would be any different.

Nevertheless, since this little ritual is here to stay, the wise candidate is the one who can ace the test, bond with the average Joe, and thus ensure that his or her populist creds are in order – even if, in reality, the wise one doesn’t know the difference between Whole Foods and 7-11. Indeed, Lamar Alexander advises all aspirants to cram accordingly; as he wrote in 1998, while listing 30 tips for presidential candidates, “Know the price of milk, bread and eggs. I couldn't remember them one day during the 1996 New Hampshire primary, and the media had a good time at my expense.”


Late Sunday night, I explained why the Republicans were not exulting about the polls which appear to show that the GOP is well poised to win the next presidential race. Here is further evidence of Republican gloom (thanks to the George W. Bush albatross), published today.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Al Sharpton (of all people) as judge and jury

I don’t really have an opinion on whether Don Imus should be consigned to permanent oblivion for smearing the Rutgers basketball women as “nappy-headed ho’s,” any more than I can offer rational mandatory sentencing guidelines for Michael Richards, Mel Gibson, Isaiah Washington, or any of the other notable celebrities who have engaged in the ritual apologias after uttering racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic remarks.

It’s obvious, of course, that Imus flagrantly breached the current rules of social civility (an everyday occurrence in the disputatious world of loudmouth radio), by reducing a group of aspiring black women to a racial stereotype. Indeed, the most eloquent condemnation was penned today by the prominent black journalist Gwen Ifill: “This country will only flourish once we consistently learn to applaud and encourage the young people who have to work harder just to achieve balance on the unequal playing field. Let’s see if we can manage to build them up and reward them, rather than opting for the cheapest, easiest, most despicable shots.”

But even though I can’t decide what form of punishment best fits the verbal crime, I have no problem arguing that the last person who should be sitting in judgment of Don Imus, and arguing for his expulsion from the airwaves, is the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Sharpton was playing judge and jury early this morning, on NBC’s Today Show, declaring that Imus’ Monday apology was “too little, too late,” that it was “business as usual,” and that Imus should vanish forever because “people should not be attacked for their gender or their race.”

And yet Matt Lauer never bothered to ask Sharpton to explain why he deems himself qualified to sit in judgment. Lauer mentioned that Sharpton has been a figure of “controversy” in the past, but never hit the preacher with the actual facts. Such as:

In 1987, Sharpton concocted the Tawana Brawley hoax, charging that a 15-year-old black girl had been abducted, raped, and smeared with feces by a group of white men. He targeted one particular guy, who turned out to innocent. In fact, the crime itself never happened. Sharpton taunted his white target, saying: “If we're lying, sue us.” The guy did sue – and wound up winning a $345,000 defamation verdict against Sharpton…who, to this day, has refused to recant his slander or to apologize.

When Sharpton, as a 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, was asked by Tim Russert on Meet the Press whether he was ready to apologize, he said this: “To apologize for believing and standing with a woman--I think all of us need to take women's claims more seriously…No apology for standing up for civil rights.”

Sharpton followed up on his ’87 performance by stoking anti-Semitic anger in 1991. After an Hasidic Jewish driver in Brooklyn accidentally killed a seven-year-old black boy, Sharpton showed up at the funeral and assailed “diamond merchants” for spilling “the blood of innocent babies.” In case anyone missed the fact that “diamond merchants” was a code phrase for Jews, he lead a pack of demonstrators through a Jewish neighborhood. Subsequently, a rabbinical student was fatally stabbed by a group of assailants that reportedly shouted “Kill the Jews!”

Flash forward to 1995, when a white Jewish property owner raised the rent on a black-owned music store in Harlem. Sharpton’s organization picketed the Jewish property owner at his own store site. Protestors shouted, “Burn down the Jew store,” and one of them thought that was a good idea. The “Jew store” was torched, and seven employes (some of whom had already been shot) died as a result.

Sharpton hasn’t apologized for any of these incidents. When Russert tried to confront candidate Sharpton about his past, the preacher responded by saying, “I think you’ve got white candidates with worse backgrounds.”

At least Russert made an attempt. Not so the 2004 white Democratic candidates who shared numerous debate stages with Sharpton. Anxious not to stoke his ire, they pandered relentlessly. Joe Lieberman, for instance, called him “my dear friend,” and seconded a Sharpton remark by saying “amen, brother.”

Yet this morning, there was Sharpton, going unchallenged on The Today Show. Imus has uttered abusive remarks in the past, and has apologized for those too, but Sharpton was unimpressed: “What precedent are we setting, that we can apologize every ten years?” At that point, Lauer might have been wise to suggest (in the form of a question) that Sharpton, of all people, has scant credibility to voice such a complaint.

But the fact that Sharpton is given a national broadcast platform despite his own track record is proof that there are no rules for appropriate punishment. In this country, the past is a disposable commodity. Sharpton has never owned up to his numerous verbal misfires, yet he retains his celebrity status as moral arbiter. What this suggests, in other words, is that the guy who cracked wise about “ho’s” will weather his humility phase and survive, as this hot story fades from memory. Imus should take heart in the Sharpton saga, because it demonstrates that American amnesia is the verbal offender’s best ally.


Well, what a relief that this issue has been cleared up, once and for all. The suspense has been unbearable.

Monday, April 09, 2007

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood...

When I first heard about John McCain’s bizarre lollygag through a Baghdad bazaar – he was extolling peaceful progress while wearing a bulletproof vest, moving in a cocoon of 100 soldiers, and being protected on high by two gunships and three choppers – I suddenly flashed on the memory of Bowie Kuhn at the ’76 World Series.

Granted, this is an asymmetrical comparison, since the war is a tad more important than baseball. But, like McCain, the baseball commissioner at that time was determined to be blithely oblivious to his surroundings, and to the dictates of empirical reality. Kuhn had decreed that the World Series should be played at night, and so, in dark Arctic weather, he showed up at Yankee Stadium sans topcoat, wearing just a business suit. While everybody around him was shivering in multiple layers of cloth, he sought to behave as if it was balmy in the Bronx. (Cold? What cold?) In the end, however, his gesture backfired. The baseball writer Roger Angell famously wrote that Kuhn had succeeded only in making a fool of himself.

Until John McCain’s latest travails over Iraq, few would have said that about him. Like many veteran politicians, McCain has always had his detractors, people who see him as self-righteous, or bullheaded, or vain. But he was never an object of ridicule.

Now he is. His strenuous efforts to cleave himself to the sinking lame duck in the White House, and to the war that may well go down in history as America’s greatest strategic disaster, is making him a laughingstock among those in the electorate (particularly the crucial swing-voting independents) who understand the damage that President Bush’s war has wrought on our global struggle against terrorism. The image of McCain, traipsing through the Baghdad market in his shades (rose-colored, no doubt), in an effort to demonstrate his radio assertion that “there are neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and I could walk,” not only threatens to delegitimize his presidential candidacy, but also could prove as notorious as the spectacle of Bush bestriding the aircraft carrier in his flight suit.

One week later, after finishing third in the GOP first-quarter money sweepstakes, and in the wake of polling news that Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney are beating or crowding him in key early primary states, McCain is still trying to live down what he did in Iraq. Now he has an Iraq speech slated for this Wednesday at the Virginia Military Institute – it smells of a campaign “relaunch,” never a good sign – in which he will try to explain yet again why he is hewing to the Bush stance that has been rejected by a landslide majority of Americans. He wrote an op-ed piece on Iraq in yesterday’s Washington Post. And he tried out a few lines last night, on the Sunday broadcast of CBS’ 60 Minutes (“I disagree with what the majority of the American people want.”)

But he succeeded merely in looking foolish again. At one point, CBS asked him to explain why he had said, in late March, that the current U.S. commander in Iraq “goes out almost every day in an unarmed Humvee,” when, in fact, that was an outright falsehood. (McCain had apparently been trying to cite some evidence about “progress” during the Surge.) In response last night, McCain said this:

“There is no unarmored Humvees. Obviously, that’s the case. I’m trying to make the point over and over and over again that we are making progress, that there are signs of progress…Of course I’m going to misspeak, and I’ve done it on numerous occasions, and I probably will in the future. I regret that when I divert attention to something I said from my message, but, you know, that’s just life, and I’m happy frankly with the way I operate. Otherwise, it’d be a lot less fun.”

That response demonstrates just how far McCain has traveled from the halcyon days of Straight Talk. He is now suggesting that it’s fine to make false assertions in the service of promoting “over and over and over again” the theme of “progress” in Iraq – and that misspeaking in support of Bush’s war policy is “just life.” Even at a time when soldiers are dying every day (actually, at an increased pace since the onset of the Surge), and at a time when most Americans are hungry for honesty on the war, McCain is saying that speaking more carefully, and backing up his assertions with fact, would be “less fun.”

One can make the argument that McCain’s dogged declarations of “progress” are smart short-term politics, given the fact that the likeliest GOP primary voters are still staunch defenders of the Iraq war. Yet he has been losing ground anyway, in key early states such as New Hampshire and South Carolina, and nationwide as well. His political dilemma is two-fold: A lot of conservatives still don’t trust him, despite his best ongoing efforts to mimic Bush’s flight from factual reality on Iraq; and, in terms of a general election, the swing-voting (and heavily antiwar) independents who loved him as a “maverick” in 2000 appear poised to reject him if he does win the ’08 nomination.

He and his advisers undoubtedly believe that he can’t win the GOP nod unless he parades his bona fides as a born-again “loyal Bushie” (in the pet phrase of ex-Justice aide Kyle Sampson). But his timing is unfortunate. Here he is promoting the Bush agenda in Iraq, even in a nightmare Baghdad photo op - at a time when Bush is being repeatedly rebuked on the war by agencies of his own government and by conservative think tanks as well.

Last week, for instance, a declassified Defense Department report again certified that (contrary to Bush’s claims) Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda had not been conspiring together prior to the war. Also, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the right-leaning Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Heritage Foundation all contradicted Bush’s rhetorical claim that Iraq terrorists would “follow us home” if they were not defeated over there. And the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office recently concluded that Iraq (exacerbated by inept Pentagon planning) is straining the National Guard so severely that its capability to protect us on the home front has been significantly eroded.

But as McCain struggles to recoup this week, it’s doubtful that he will be able to match Senate colleague Lindsey Graham for sheer exuberance. As Graham cruised the Baghdad marketplace with McCain, the South Carolinian was overcome by the incipient signs of freedom-loving capitalism; in his words, “I bought five rugs for five bucks!” It’s amazing, the bargains that can be had, when a buyer is backed at taxpayer’s expense by the full weight of the American military.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The misleading hype of the hypothetical polls

Since Rudy Giuliani and John McCain continue to score well in the polls that match them against the major '08 Democratic players, how come Republicans don't seem to be jumping for joy?

First, the big picture: Democrats would appear to be on a roll. Right now, about 50 percent of Americans describe themselves as Democrats (partisans and leaners), while only 35 percent similarly describe themselves as Republican – the widest pro-Democratic margin ever measured by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which has been tracking party ID since 1990. Just five years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11, the two camps were tied at 43 percent each. And even during the Bill Clinton era, Democrats never had more than an eight-point advantage.

Moreover, the aggregate fund-raising figures, announced last week, demonstrate that Democrats are psyched about their ’08 candidates, while Republicans seem underwhelmed about their own. During the first quarter of this year, Democratic donors anted up $78 million for their White House hopefuls; Republicans, $51 million for theirs. In other words, Democrats raised 60 percent of the first-quarter money. Those are astounding figures, given the fact that the GOP is traditionally far more flush. And this statistic, courtesy of the nonpartisan Diaego-Hotline poll, seems worth noting as well: When Americans were asked whether they wanted to see a Democrat or a Republican win the White House in 2008, 47 percent chose the former and only 29 percent chose the latter.

But even though all this is true, actual Republican candidates (Rudy Giuliani, John McCain) are consistently beating actual Democratic candidates (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards) in the early survey match ups.

No matter who does the polling – Time, NBC-Wall Street Journal, Zogby, Fox, Rasmussen, Newsweek – the results have been the same: Giuliani and McCain defeat the Democratic first tier. You’re not likely to see those results advertised on the liberal websites.

But here’s the hitch: You won’t find many Republicans crowing about those results, either. Because they know that the prevailing national mood is working against them. And they know that these early polls generally don’t mean squat.

Consider these hypothetical match ups, taken one year prior to previous presidential elections, culled from the Harris and Gallup surveys:

1. In February 1995, Bob Dole was favored over incumbent President Clinton by 51 to 45 percent. (In November 1996, Clinton beat Dole by 49 to 41 percent.)

2. In March 1991, the senior George Bush was beating Mario Cuomo by 78 to 17 percent, and few even heard of Bill Clinton. (In November 1992, Clinton beat Bush by five points.)

3. In February 1983, Walter Mondale topped incumbent Ronald Reagan, 47 to 41 percent. (In November 1984, Reagan hammered Mondale in a landslide.)

4. In April 1975, incumbent Gerald Ford trailed Ted Kennedy by 50 to 43 percent. (Kennedy never ran, and 19 months later, Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in a squeaker.)

When you see that kind of track record, you have to wonder why pollsters even bother to take these kinds of soundings so far in advance. As Pew polling director Andy Kohut told me the other day, “I don’t put much faith in polls this early, although we do them. The bottom line is that most people don’t really have their juices flowing yet.”

So what explains the current Democratic deficit in the early match ups?

Kohut said, “McCain and Rudy have universal name identification, and that’s helping to boost their numbers, while the general information on Obama and even Edwards is still pretty thin. But these numbers could well change, once people start thinking more intensely about this election. When you look at the shifts in party affiliation, and the poll numbers showing the strong general dissatisfaction with the country’s direction, and the importance of Iraq – well, all these are indicators that the Republicans will be pushing a heavy rock up the hill.”

And that’s basically what Kate O’Beirne said on Meet the Press today. A seasoned political observer at the conservative National Review, she was unimpressed with the McCain and Giuliani numbers. Referring to the GOP’s traditional ownership of the national security issue, she said, “I don’t think it’s the advantage it once was. The Republicans have a real brand problem, brand name problem. It used to be people thought (that although Republicans) might not much like big government, they can run it. Now they seem to…not be able to run it at all. A Democrat has to be favored in ’08. I think any Democrat has to be favored in ‘08, yeah. I think Republicans have a real brand name problem. It—it’s become a competency problem.”

One random thought: If, as O’Beirne argues, the prevailing national mood favors the Democrats despite the early ’08 match up polls, doesn’t that potentially hurt Hillary Clinton the most, since she had been pitching herself as the one candidate who has the toughness and experience to win? If it’s true, as Kohut argues, that Obama and Edwards are trailing right now only because they lack the universal name ID enjoyed by Giuliani and McCain, then how does one easily explain away Clinton’s deficit – when one considers that she has parity with the GOP guys on name ID?

Nevertheless, the general argument is that any Democratic nominee can render these early polls irrelevant and ride the antiwar mood into power. Mark Schulman, Time’s pollster, said on March 29, “If Iraq persists as an issue, all of our polls show that this will undercut Republican candidates. Being seen as ‘close to Bush’ is a real negative in the polls. When the campaign really heats up, the Democrats should have a lot of cards to play.” (McCain seems to be paying the steepest price already. More on this tomorrow.)

And speaking of Iraq, welcome to the fourth anniversary of Baghdad’s “liberation.” We’re still waiting for those flowers.