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.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Rudy and McCain, macho together

In the long-running testosterone contest better known as the '08 Republican presidential race, it's worth checking in on Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, each of whom is endeavoring, at the expense of the other, to scale new heights of machismo.

Rudy essentially says: I support torture, and not only that, I tortured Mafia tough guys in New York, and that makes me a tough guy too.

And McCain essentially says: If that guy thinks he tortured Mafia tough guys, it proves he doesn't know jack about torture, whereas I was really tortured and he wasn't, which makes me tougher than him, and means I can lead the military and he can't.

And Rudy essentially says: I don't know why anybody would object to sleep deprivation as a form of torture, because I'm sleep deprived as a candidate, so what's the big deal?

And McCain essentially says: That's a mockery and a sham and he should apologize to all insulted American solidiers who have been truly tortured, as opposed to this guy who has never even been a soldier, and therefore is not tough.

This has been going on for a number of days now, and it's symptomatic of a changing dynamic within the GOP race. John McCain is apparently back from the dead after his recent organizational implosion; he has made gains in two new national polls (at Fred Thompson's expense), and while he may never regain full political health, he is sufficiently ambulatory to poach on Rudy in the early primaries.

With Mitt Romney looking strong in Iowa and New Hampshire, Rudy dearly wants to score as a respectable runner-up in both locales on the eve of the big-state contests. But McCain is complicating Rudy's plans, particularly in New Hampshire, where the war hero peaked during the 2000 race.

Hence the macho jousting, some of which I find amusing. Giuliani is a guy who enjoyed multiple draft deferments during the Vietnam war - one author has quipped that he received one deferment for each year that McCain was stuck in captivity - and he has ever set foot in Iraq, nor has he visited Guantanamo. As for supposedly torturing Mafia guys, it appears that his vigilance did not extend to his close buddy and police commissioner, Bernard Kerik, who was mobbed up for years right under Rudy's nose, and who now faces possible indictment.

As for McCain's POW history, he needs to invoke it with great frequency only because he has so few weapons in his arsenal anymore. After pandering for months to the religious right, and feeling little love in return, and after being stiffed by the GOP base because of his support for path-to-citizenship immigration reform, and after alienating many independents by going to Iraq and wearing rose-colored glasses, MCain's war hero status is all he has left - particularly as a potential trump card against Rudy.

So which tough guy scores heaviest on the macho/torture scale? They may need to call in Jack Bauer to referee.

A whole hour on Fred

Today I joined an hour-long NPR discussion of Fred Thompson's prospects. If you're really anxious to spend an entire hour pondering Fred Thompson, you can soon find the audio here. "On Point," which originates in Boston, also signed up several allegedly sage observers besides me, most notably John Geer of Vanderbilt University.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Pat and Rudy, perfect together

What better way to honor the old adage, about how politics makes strange bedfellows, than to ponder this morning's marriage of Pat Robertson and Rudy Giuliani?

You heard right: The founder of the Christian Coalition, an inveterate foe of gays, abortion, and sinful living, has decided to endorse the guy who has defended gays, defended abortion, and squired three wives. Yes, the longtime religious right leader who once warned on TV that a Florida gay pride parade would trigger earthquakes and tornadoes ("I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you") has decided to endorse the guy who has repeatedly marched in Manhattan gay pride parades.

And yes, the defender of the faith, who once intimated on his radio show that 9/11 was God's way of punishing America for its sins ("We have insulted God at the highest levels of our government, and then we say, 'why does this happen?' Why it's happening is, God almighty is lifting his protection from us"), has opted to support the guy who presided over the culturally diverse city that was hit on 9/11.

But, in some respects, the Robertson endorsement makes perfect sense. He and Giuliani are war-on-terror hawks who see America as engaged in an apocalyptic struggle with radical Islamists; indeed, many Christian conservatives believe that this us-versus-them paradigm trumps any disagreements over the social issues. Robertson and Giuliani also bond on the importance of Israel.

There's also another important factor: Robertson has long been known as one of the more pragmatic Christian right leaders, someone who focuses on candidate electability even at the expense of prioritizing the movement's pet issues. This endorsement appears to reflect his conclusion that Giuliani, whatever his flaws, is more likely than this GOP rivals to win the general election.

The son of a congressman, Robertson has long had an instinct for the compromises of mainstream politics. He once told National Public Radio that "in terms of (making gains through) politics, it's incremental. You give a little bit and a little bit more...Politics is the give and take of a vast nation, and anybody who is absolute in their view of politics just doesn't know how the game is played."

I saw this instinct first-hand back in 2000, when Robertson was backing George W. Bush. Five weeks before the election, the Food and Drug Administrated ruled that the abortion pill could be legally marketed nationwide. Some Christian conservatives wanted Bush, an abortion foe, to loudly denounce the ruling. But Robertson didn't utter a peep about the pill, and he was pleased when Bush barely said a word. I interviewed Robertson during this episode, and asked why he had stayed silent about such a major moral issue. He explained that most Americans supported the abortion pill; therefore, he didn't want to talk about an issue that might imperil Bush's chances of winning: "If Bush gets 'off message' - and this issue would take him way off message - he'd be talking about something which, frankly, the vast majority of people don't think is a big deal...I'd just like to get (him) elected."

The question here is, can Pat Robertson help Giuliani get elected? Notwithstanding his status as a pillar of the religious right dating back several decades, Robertson is not exactly universally renowned within the movement. Many are uncomfortable with his frequent invocations of a wrathful God (who, in Robertson's view, not only triggered 9/11, but also may have prompted Israeli leader Ariel Sharon's fatal illness).

Michael Cromartie, director of an evangelical studies project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told NPR last year: "I don't know a religious conservative leader - Protestant, Catholic or Jewish - who has not run out of patience with Mr. Robertson's comments. It is really dangerous when religious leaders come out and try to tell us exactly what God is up to. This is inappropriate theologically, as a Christian leader."

In other words, the Robertson endorsement might not mean much to the grassroots Christian conservatives in the key early primary state of South Carolina, where Giuliani is locked in a struggle with Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson. Indeed, he has plenty of competition in the endorsement game. Bob Jones III, chancellor of the Christian fundamentalist Bob Jones University, has signed up with Romney (as has Paul Weyrich, a founder of Moral Majority, one of the first groups in the movement); meanwhile, Sam Brownback, the ex-candidate and friend of the religious right, has just endorsed John McCain.

The failure to coalesce around one candidate demonstrates the unusual fluidity of the Republican race. One can argue that Robertson's endorsement trumps the others, simply on the basis of his fame and prominence, but the Robertson baggage may weigh heavily in the longer run.

If Rudy wins the nomination, here's something that independent swing voters might want to know: Does the candidate agree with his Christian conservative patron's view that Islam is "a bloody, brutal type of religion," and that America must be prepared to wage "a holy war between Islam and Christianity?"

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Playing the victim, just like the boys do

With respect to the burning question of whether Hillary Clinton has been playing the "gender card" since her wobbly debate performance last Tuesday, I offer these observations (borrowing the rhetorical flourishes of Donald Rumsfeld):

Do I think that she's trying to play the victim, depicting herself as a girl who's being unfairly beaten up by the boys? Oh my, yes.

Do I think that her claim of victimhood is justified? Goodness gracious, no.

But do I understand her political reasons for playing the gender card? Yes.

It's indisputable that Hillary and her campaign team went into damage control mode after the Tuesday debate in Philadelphia, and sought to shift the focus away from her evasive and confusing answers by claiming instead that the boys on stage had ganged up on her in sexist fashion.

Her chief strategist, Mark Penn, reportedly told supporters in a Wednesday conference call that the Democratic campaign had become "this six-on-one to try to bring her down." That same day, Gerald McEntee, president of AFSCME, the prto-Hillary public service union, complained that the Philadelphia debate was "six guys against Hillary." Meanwhile, unnamed Clinton advisers told the Associated Press that the campaign had long planned to play the gender card, as a general strategy, in order to deflect attacks by accusing her male rivals of boorish behavior. Then Hillary went to Wellesley, her alma mater, and played the gender card herself, referring to her solitary status inside "the all-boys club of presidential politics."

Hillary shifted gears on Sunday in Iowa, claiming this time that she was not playing the gender card - "I don't think they piled on me the other night because I'm a woman. I think they piled on me because I'm winning" - but that argument (the correct one, by the way) was promptly contradicted by one of Hillary's most prominent supporters, 1984 vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro...who told The New York Times, in the Monday edition, that the boys had been "sexist." Or, more specifically, "it's OK in this country to be sexist."

This was my favorite Ferraro quote: "We can’t let them do this in a presidential race. They say we’re playing the gender card. We are not. We are not. We have got to stand up. It’s discrimination against her as a candidate because she is a woman.” First she claims that Hillary's campaign is not playing the gender card; then, in the next breath, she complains about discrimination on the basis of gender.

I'm not quite clear how all this whining about allegedly unfair treatment squares with the Hillary campaign's depiction of the candidate as a "strong woman" - it seems they want to have it both ways - although I can see why they are taking this tack. It's probably smart politics.

By all accounts, 54 percent of the Democratic primary voters are expected to be women, particularly blue-collar working women (Hillary's strongest base of support) who may often feel oppressed by guys in the workplace. Hillary wants to ensure a big turnout from those women. Simply put, she's playing the gender card because she wants to win. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, quoted yesterday by, recognized the strategy: "I think the campaign is trying to (reach) people who didn't even watch the debate, to say, 'Oh, they were really rude,' or something like that, and that has some salience. You know, every vote counts."

A politician can be right on the politics and wrong on the facts, however. And this claim that Hillary is being picked on because of her gender is preposterous. Kate Michelman, the former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, a feminist herself (as well as a John Edwards supporter), got it right in a blog post over the weekend: "At one minute, (Hillary is) the strong woman ready to lead; the next, she's the woman under attack, disingenuously playing the victim card as a means of trying to avoid giving honest, direct answers to legitimate questions."

Actually, Hillary seems to have much in common with members of the all-boys club. Prominent males have been notorious for playing the victim. Lyndon Johnson played the Texas card, depicting himself as a country boy under seige from the smart academic elitists whom he called "the Harvards." Richard Nixon felt he was being victimized by the eastern establishment, and by one group in particular (from the White House tapes: "the Jews! left-wing! stay away!"). Bill Clinton whined about his press coverage and complained that he was being victimized by a "vast right-wing conspiracy" (his wife coined that one).

In other words, Hillary is acting just like lots of guy politicians who find themselves in a fix. Acting aggrieved, and playing for sympathy, is standard stuff; the gender card is merely the latest incarnation. It might not be particularly noble or justified, but, as Donald Rumsfeld might say to Democratic primary voters, you go to battle with the candidate you have, not with the candidate you might want or wish to have.


On the other hand, what does it say about the '08 Republican presidential field, when the guy who sets the party record for Most Money Raised in 24 Hours turns out to be...Ron Paul?

Yes, the antiwar libertarian long-shot candidate raised $4.2 million yesterday, topping any 24-hour hauls by Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and the rest of the pro-war field. I emphasize the Iraq war here, because it's clear that Paul has a market for his views within the GOP base. As reported in the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll, 35 percent of Republicans now believe that the war was not worth fighting, and virtually the same percentage favors troop withdrawals.

Obviously, that's not nearly enough to propel Paul to the nomination, but I would not rule out the possibility that Paul could spring a surprise somewhere along the way, perhaps in contrarian New Hampshire.


When I saw this story today, I first wanted to ensure that I was not reading a transcript from "Weekend Update" on Saturday Night Live. And, yes, the story is indeed for real:

John Kerry wants everybody to know that if he runs for president again in the future, he's really gonna fire back at those Swift Boaters next time.

He's starting to sound like Brando, playing the ex-boxer who missed his shot at the big time in On the Waterfront: "I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody..."

Monday, November 05, 2007

Fred's blasphemies, Bush's fantasies

It’s hard to believe that Fred Thompson was once ballyhooed as the ’08 conservative savior who would galvanize the GOP’s Christian conservatives. Those summer days seem like eons ago, because every time this guy opines on an issue near and dear to the religious right, he probably loses another congregation.

A week ago, for instance, Thompson declared that the GOP Congress had no business intruding in the Terri Schiavo case back in 2005 - a stance that is deemed anathema by social and religious conservatives, who believe that President Bush and the reigning Republicans were correct when they endeavored to dictate their view of morality to a grieving Florida family.

Thompson has also refused to endorse a U.S. constitutional amendment banning gat marriage – another staple of the religious right agenda – because he happens to believe (it sounds so quaint) that true conservatism requires respect for state’s rights. That’s the doctrine of federalism. As Thompson explained yesterday on Meet the Press, during his first appearance on the show as a presidential candidate, “(A)t the end of the day, if a state legislator and a governor decide that (gay marriage) is what they want to do, yes, they should have the freedom to do what Fred Thompson thinks is a very bad idea.”

But perhaps the clincher was his lengthy explanation yesterday about why he opposes the official Republican position of abortion.

For more than a generation, the GOP platform has articulated support for a U.S. constitutional amendment – better known as a Human Life Amendment – that would impose a blanket ban on the practice; as the plank puts it, “We say the unborn child had a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.” But when Tim Russert asked yesterday whether Thompson was on board, the candidate twice replied, “No.”

It’s that darn federalism doctrine again. Here’s Fred: “I think people ought to be free at state and local levels to make decisions that even Fred Thompson disagrees with. That’s what freedom is all about. And I think the diversity we have among the states, the system of federalism we have where power is divided between the state and the federal government serves is very, very well.” (Why do these politicians constantly refer to themselves in the third person?)

Well, that kind of answer just won’t do, because the party’s social and religious conservatives don’t endorse that concept of freedom. They believe in Conservatism 2.0, the updated model, whereby the federal government in Washington shall be free to dictate what people at the local level can or cannot do in their private lives. They’re fans of top-down morality, whereas Thompson was talking yesterday about bottom-up morality - allowing the locals to decide on the definitions of right and wrong.

In fact, from the perspective of the average religious conservative, the longer Thompson talked, the more blasphemous he sounded. He’s not even wild about the idea of the states enacting restrictions on abortion – not even to ban the practice for minors:

“People ask me hypothetically, you know, ‘OK, it goes back to the states. Somebody comes up with a bill, and they say we’re going to outlaw this, that or the other.’ And my response was, I do not think it is a wise thing to criminalize young girls and perhaps their parents as aiders and abettors, or perhaps their family physician. And that’s what you’re talking about…You can’t have a law that cuts off an age group or something like that, which potentially would take young, young girls in extreme situations and say, basically, ‘we’re going to put them in jail to do that.’ I just don’t think that that’s the right thing to do. It cannot change the way I feel about it morally, but legally and practically, I’ve got to recognize that fact. It is a dilemma that I’m not totally comfortable with, but that’s the best I can do in resolving it in my own mind.”

Indeed, after hearing Thompson declare yesterday that he didn’t believe in using the power of government to criminalize sinners, Christian Broadcasting Network commentator David Brody wondered, “Is this too much federalism, to the point of alienating social conservatives?”

To which I say...Ya think?

On the other hand, maybe he mollified some of them with his Iraq talk. There is still strong support for the war among social and religious conservatives (although not as much as previously), and Thompson might have pushed their buttons by toeing the company line. Check out these phrases:

“There’ve been a lot of good things happening there…I think that we’re making substantial progress…(The surge) is giving us an opportunity to succeed…things are turning…this is a front in a much larger war…we ought to stay on the course we’re on…”

Does that sound like anybody we know? With the same propensity for quoting military statistics, while saying nothing about the dearth of political reconciliation in Baghdad – which was why the surge was launched in the first place? This is Thompson’s dilemma, one he shares with his rivals: whoever does manage to mollify the religious/social conservative base, and win the nomination, must then compete in the general election. And parroting President Bush on Iraq, as Thompson did yesterday, will be bad salesmanship.


Speaking of Iraq and the death of political reconciliation...

The Orwellian Ministry of Truth – excuse me, the Bush White House - tried to pull off a neat trick last Thursday night, by making it appear that an ABC News journalist had filed a puff piece extolling the war. It was simple, really. The fact-challenged apparatchiks simply scissored all the parts of the report they didn’t like. The result was an ABC dispatch that mirrored their fantasies.

The National Security Council puts out something called “The White House Iraq Update,” and emails it to government officials, congressional staffers, radio and TV talk show types, journalists and various foreign policy mavens. Tapped for inclusion, the other night, was a transcript from Jonathan Karl’s status report on the war. Here’s what made the cut.

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: "At the Pentagon today, military officials gave one of the most upbeat assessments of the security situation in Iraq that we have heard since the opening months of the war. Jonathan Karl is at the Pentagon tonight. Jon?"

JONATHAN KARL, ABC NEWS: "Charlie, nobody over here is anywhere near ready to declare victory. But the military statistics tell an unmistakable story. Violence in Iraq is down. And down considerably. Baghdad's marketplaces are slowly coming back to life, as violent attacks in Iraq have fallen to less than half of what they were a year ago. Until recently, the trends had been deadly and consistent, violence steadily increasing to an all-time high in June. Since then, however, attacks have fallen four straight months -- in every category."

LT. GEN. RAY ODIERNO: "What I'm confident about, is the progress we're making I think is real."

KARL: "Roadside bombs fell in October to an average of 20 a day. Still high, but the lowest level since October 2004. Iraqi civilian deaths have fallen to a third of where they were a year ago. And after the deadliest summer ever for US forces in Iraq, US combat deaths fell to 29 last month, the lowest level in more than 3 years."

MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: "The fact that we're seeing a durable trend over half a year time period tells us something real is going on. It doesn't mean, however, that it's guaranteed to last."

But, as Karl himself now points out, the following passages were apparently deemed unfit for White House inclusion.

O'HANLON: “... and it doesn't answer the questions about political progress.”

KARL: “In fact, there's been almost no political progress on the national level, and U.S. officials know military gains won't mean much if the Iraqi government doesn't get its act together, which is one reason the Pentagon doesn't even want to use the word ‘winning.’”

(Question to Defense Secretary Robert Gates): “You're not ready to say we're winning, that the surge is working – "

ROBERT GATES: “I think that those end up being loaded words. I think we have been very successful. We need to continue being successful.”

KARL: “Today, Defense Secretary Gates said that the reduction in violence would not have been possible without the surge of 30,000 additional troops into Iraq, but, Charlie, those troops are going home in the coming months, raising the question of whether the violence will go up when they leave.”

When ABC noticed the White House excisions, it lodged an official complaint. Caught in the act, the White House promised to send out the whole transcript. But the episode speaks volumes. It is sufficiently regrettable when an administration repeatedly defies factual reality and forfeits its credibility. It’s even worse when an administration feels compelled to twist a journalist’s work for the purposes of propaganda.