Friday, December 07, 2007

Some Democrats sitting around talking

The conventional wisdom these days is that grassroots Democrats are happy with their presidential candidates, and confident about recapturing the White House in 2008. But, after attending a Democratic focus group the other night, I am tempted to conclude that the prevailing mood is far less festive than generally described.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart, working with the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, gathered 11 Democratic voters in a Philadelphia conference room, and elicited their opinions about the '08 race. Along with a few noteworthy Washington journalists, I watched the proceedings from behind a one-way mirror. They knew we were there, and they agreed in advance to be quoted by name. That's the basic focus-group format.

Obviously, this was not a scientific national sampling, and these particular Democrats won't have a say in the '08 nomination race, because Pennsylvania schedules its party primary in April, when it makes no difference. But their nuanced remarks helped to explain why the Democratic polls have been tightening lately, and why so many Democratic voters have yet to be conclusively sold on either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama (not to mention the rest of the field).

Basically, there's considerable concern about whether those frontrunners are electable - or, if elected, capable of governing effectively.

Of the 11 voters (six live in Philadelphia, five in the suburbs), only four count themselves as Hillary supporters. Another is undecided, but leaning toward her. Without trying to extrapolate too much, this underwhelming tally appears to suggest that her claim on the Democratic electorate is a tad soft.

Christopher Haig, a Philadelphian who works in the health care field, isn't backing anybody at the moment. His beef about Hillary is that she's too "embroiled in government," that "she's so connected" - meaning, in his view, that she's a status-quo insider. He said, "I'm looking for something completely different."

Andrew Alebergo, a Philadelphian who owns a tanning salon, who is leaning toward John Edwards, fretted that Hillary would just perpetuate the polarization that has afflicted America for so long, thanks to her membership in one of our apparent family dynasties ("Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton"). He put it this way:

"Hillary is divisive. You remember how ugly (the mood) was when Bill was in charge? Just imagine what the Republicans would pull out if Hillary is elected...It'll be red state/blue state all over again...poisonous for the country."

She was sometimes dismissed by these Democrats as too calculating. When they were asked how they thought Hillary might choose to spend a few hours of free time, Philadelphia lawyer Ray Kempenski scoffed, "Depends on what the polls would say."

Even one of her supports, Red Cross manager Lynda Connelly, said she was worried about Hillary's lack of support among women - specifically, upscale professional women. Polls show that that these voters continue to hold back. Connelly talked it out: "Women sometimes can be their own worst enemies. There are women who are jealous that (Hillary) is intelligent, that she has gone to the heights she has gone to. They say to themselves, 'Maybe I could have done that, if only I had made this or that choice'...and so they take it out on a woman who has been successful. I don't understand it, myself." (Fresh evidence, here.)

It also turned out that one of the Hillary supporters, retiree Venetta Allen of suburban Yeadon, is doing so strictly on the rebound. Her first choice is actually Barack Obama - but she doesn't think he can win a general election. Allen, who is African-American, doesn't believe that most Americans would elect a black man, no matter what they tell pollsters. So she's for Hillary, because she thinks that the gender barrier is lower than the racial barrier.

On the racial issue, she was seconded by Philadelphian Cheryl Ewing, who is also black. Ewing is backing Obama over Hillary, but she has no faith that he'll make it all the way: "No matter how intelligent the gentleman might be - he could be a rocket scientist, but people still don't want a black in office...The country's racist."

Craig Gilmer, a job recruiter from nearby Norristown, agreed with Ewing. He too is black, and an Obama supporter. But he fears that Obama, because of his skin color, might not get the requisite "respect" that a candidate needs in order to win.

Only five of the 11 participants think that Obama can win a general election - and not just because of his race. Despite his rock star appeal, some in the room questioned whether he's qualified for the job. Kempinski said, "In eight years he might be an ideal candidate. He's not there yet...There's a level (of competence) that you can only get with experience."

Alebergo nodded in agreement. He said that if Obama made some rookie mistakes in the wake of a terrorist attack, many Americans might not be so willing to cut him slack, and "he'd have a tough time digging his way out....If we weren't involved in a war, I'd say that he is just what we need." But, because of the war, "I'd hesitate to put him in charge."

In the end, there was rough agreement that, despite many nagging reservations, Hillary would probably be the most effective nominee next fall. There was little love for Hillary in that room, but she kept getting points for "toughness," and even Alebergo said he sensed that,as president, she would handle herself well in a crisis.

This may well be an accurate mirror of the national Democratic mood. Above all, these voters want to win. As they got ready to leave, pollster Hart asked if they had any parting advice for the Democratic candidates. Most said things like "be fearless" and "be tough." But Edward Suchy of Hatboro had the last word:

"Don't be a loser."

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Did Mitt sway the wary?

Mitt Romney finally delivered The Speech today - his long-awaited disquisition on the role of his Mormon faith in the public square - and he basically hewed to the JFK model, as evidenced by this promise: "Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions."

He said it all kinds of ways: "I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law. As a young man, Lincoln described what he called America's 'political religion' - the commitment to defend the rule of law and the Constitution. When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God." And, a bit later, "we separate church and state affairs in this country...No religion should dictate to the state..."

But we won't know whether his promise is enough to mollify his key target audience -Christian conservatives - until the primary season voting actually begins. Fairly or not, a lot of those folks don't trust Mormons; a recent Pew survey found that 36 percent of white Protestant evangelicals - and 41 percent of those who attend church weekly - say they're less likely to vote for a Mormon.

It's strictly a theological beef. Among those weekly churchgoers, 52 percent do not believe that Mormons are Christians. And since people are sometimes reluctant to come clean with pollsters, lest they appear to be prejudiced, the chances are that the actual percentages are higher. Hence the rise of Mike Huckabee, ex-pastor of the more familiar Baptists, who touts himself in a TV ad as a "Christian leader."

The potential problem for Romney, going forward, is that he said virtually nothing in his speech about the tenets of his religion, much less make the case that Mormons are Christian. He barely mentioned his religion at all, uttering the word Mormon only once. He had a reasonable explanation for why he was refusing to do so - the Founding Fathers decreed that Americans should not be forced to take a "religious test" in order to hold office - but his reticence may not be a short-run asset, politically speaking.

Christian conservatives are crucially important in the early Iowa caucuses and South Carolina primary, and the less they learn about the upside of Mormon religion - the less that Romney himself seeks to dispel their suspicions - the more they might be susceptible to subterranean whispering campaigns that are designed to paint the faith as threatening or simply wierd. (Indeed, Huckabee is reportedly surging in South Carolina anyway.)

Romney tried a few other strategies, in his bid to mollify the wary. He talked about the "American values" shared by all faiths, and he commiserated with Christian conservatives about how "some" are trying to drive religion out of the public square. He also painted himself as a man of conviction who would stay true to his religion no matter what, and therefore worthy of respect - although his words ("Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs") made me wince, given his lengthy track record of flipflops on issues.

So the verdict awaits. The thing is, I suspect that most Americans - as opposed to the gatekeepers of the GOP nomination - won't have a problem with the Romney speech. Perhaps with an eye toward the big-state primaries, he probably reassured the centrist electorate that he would keep his church at a distance while making presidential decisions.

And a lot of Americans don't have a problem with Mormons anyway. As Lynda Connelly, a Red Cross manager and moderate Democrat, remarked the other night during a focus group session in Philadelphia (much more on that tomorrow):

"I don't understand it (the antipathy toward Romney's faith). I've been out to Utah a lot, and I'll tell you something. It's a business, it's not a religion."


What a shock! It turns out - I know this is hard to believe - that President Bush didn't tell the whole truth on Tuesday, when he claimed in a press conference that he had been kept in the dark last summer about the impending intelligence report on Iran's nukes. (You may remember his Tuesday remark. Referring to intelligence czar Mike McConnell, "He didn’t tell me what the information was.")

Well, consider that claim to be inoperative. Now the White House is saying Bush did know something after all - that, in fact, the spy agencies were looking at the possibility that the Iran nuclear weapons program may have already been "suspended." Here's the latest Bush spin in full:

"Director McConnell said that the new information might cause the intelligence community to change its assessment of Iran's covert nuclear program, but the intelligence community was not prepared to draw any conclusions at that point in time, and it wouldn't be right to speculate until they had time to examine and analyze the new data."

Naturally, the White House is saying that there's absolutely no contradiction between what it's saying now and what Bush said on Tuesday. But the big question remains: Given this admission that he was in the loop as early as August about the possibility of a no-nukes report, why was he clanging the alarm about Iranian nukes in October?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Iran report? What Iran report?

It speaks volumes about the fluidity (and quality) of the Republican race that the hottest candidate in the pack is a guy who (a) doesn't believe in evolution, and (b) doesn't have a shred of foreign policy expertise - nor, apparently, the antennae to monitor key foreign policy developments.

The (a) factor clearly isn't hurting Mike Huckabee as he trolls successfully for religious conservative voters in Iowa. But if his candidacy truly takes off, that pesky (b) factor could be a big problem for him down the road. I'll say why in a moment, but first, let's look at the (b) factor in action.

Last night, Huckabee had dinner with some reporters in Des Moines. Here's what transpired.

Q: "I don’t know to what extent you have been briefed or been able to take a look at the NIE report that came out yesterday..."

A: "I’m sorry?"

Q: "The NIE report, the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. Have you been briefed or been able to take a look at it — "

A: "No."

Q: "Have you heard of the finding?"

A: "No."

OK, I understand that Huckabee has been very busy this week - for instance, lining up an endorsement from biblical values maven Tim LaHaye, author of novels about the coming end of the world - and I understand that he is still operating his campaign on a shoestring and therefore probably doesn't have foreign policy briefers at his elbow.

But still. Imagine the laughter on the right if a Democratic candidate had confessed to being clueless about this development.

The NIE report is, shall we say, kind of a big story. Sixteen intelligence agencies conclude that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago, and signaled the Bush administration over the summer that this conclusion was likely....that story was on every front page and it dominated the TV news. Yesterday, President Bush had held a morning press conference about it. The Democratic candidates had talked about it during an afternoon PBS debate. It's the kind of story that a presidential candidate tends to notice.

Huckabee hadn't noticed. But it didn't stop him from trying to react to the story:

"I don’t know where the intelligence is coming from that says they have suspended the program or how credible that is versus the view that they actually are expanding it...And I’ve heard, the last two weeks, supposed reports that they are accelerating it and it could be having a reactor in a much shorter period of time than originally been thought."

Again, if Huckabee had tracked the news reports at all, he would have learned "where the intelligence is coming from." For starters, spy agencies reportedly intercepted a conversation in which a senior Iranian military official complained about the shuttering of the program; and news reports indicate that the classified version of the report was footnoted with more than 1,000 pieces of fresh information. If Huckabee had known any of this, as opposed to saying "I don't know," then perhaps he would've been able to more thoughtfully assess the validity of the "supposed reports" that he says he has "heard."

Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas with no experience on international issues, is focused almost exclusively on domestic front. He recently complained to National Review magazine that he gets exasperated by all the debate questions about Iraq; in his words, "we still go back through it over and over and over again. I just never quite understood why we continued to plow the same ground." That's how the Democrats used to sound, circa the 2002 election season, when they wanted the national security stuff to just go away so that they could talk about domestic issues.

Perhaps Huckabee's insurgent campaign will gain traction in Iowa and complicate life for his rivals. But, bottom line, it's hard to imagine that Republican voters - who still view the GOP as the strong national security party, and who consider that priority to be paramount in the post-9/11 world - would ultimately entrust the '08 nomination to a guy who has no national security creds...and who had to be clued into the contents of the season's biggest national security story. I see the veep slot as Mike Huckabee's ceiling.


LATE UPDATE: Huckabee was on CNN today, trying to spin his obliviousness:

"I had been up about 20 hours at that time, and I had not even so much as had the opportunity to look at a newspaper. We were literally going from early in the morning until late that night and talking to guys like you. And so I had not had an opportunity to be briefed on it. There are going to be times out there on the campaign trail, Wolf - you've been on the trail, you know - that candidates are literally driven from one event to the next. And it would have been nice had someone been able to first say here's some things that are going on, that are taking place. That didn't happen. It's going to happen again."

I'm sure Wolf Blitzer really appreciated it when Huckabee essentially said: C'mon, Wolf, you're out there, you know how easy it is to whiff on a major international development.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

So much for the "World War III" rhetoric

President Bush just can't catch a break. It seems like every time he tries to be bellicose, the facts come along and trip him up.

Five years ago, he railed against the "grave and gathering danger" of Saddam Hussein's WMDs, only to suffer irreperable domestic political damage when it turned out that he had committed American blood and treasure to the overthrow of a dictator who had no WMDs. And now he has been embarrassed again: Just six weeks after he raised the specter of the Iranians wielding a nuclear weapon, and invoked "World War III," America's 16 intelligence agencies have concluded in a new National Intelligence Estimate, with "high confidence," that the Iranians actually halted their nuclear weapons program...

In 2003.

Worse yet, news reports indicate that, at the time Bush voiced his dire warnings on Oct. 17, he had already been informed that the spy agencies were in the midst of reassessing the purported grave and gathering Iranian threat. Bush's national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, indicated yesterday that the Decider had been briefed some time "in the last few months," perhaps as early as August or September. And other Bush officials were first told in July about the likely NIE conclusion, that the nuke program had been halted in 2003.

Not for the first time in his tenure, however, Bush went ahead anyway and talked darkly about a WMD threat that his own intelligence people were increasingly skeptical about. (Bush, Oct. 17: "I think so long - until they suspend and/or make it clear that they - that their statements aren't real, yeah, I believe they want to have the capacity, the knowledge, in order to make a nuclear weapon...if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon. I take the threat of Iran with a nuclear weapon very seriously.")

The NIE report, released yesterday, depicts the Iranians as far more rational than the Bush administration - and certain '08 presidential hopefuls - have painted them to be. The spy agencies have concluded that the Iranians are not maniacs hell bent on crashing the nuclear club; according to the report, their decisions "are guided by a cost-benefit approach, rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs."

This report probably foils some of the Bush administration's grand plans for its final year, such as the possible option of a new preemptive war, although I assume that the president and his surrogates will simply find a way to spin the NIE report for their own purposes. Indeed, Bush took that route this morning, telling reporters that even a nuclear program stoppage justifies hawkish vigilance in the future:

"I view this report as a warning signal that they had the program, they halted the program. The reason why it's a warning signal is they could restart it...I still feel strongly that Iran is a danger.I think the NIE makes it clear that Iran needs to be taken seriously as a threat to peace. My opinion hasn't changed."

Bush also said today that he didn't learn of the new intelligence assessment until last week - which appears to undercut the remarks yesterday, by his own national security advisor, that he knew months ago about the gist of the impending report. But wait, Bush also said today that he does recall being told in August, by intelligence overseer Mike McConnell, that a fresh assessment of Iran was in the works; however, "He didn’t tell me what the information was." (But are we supposed to believe that the Decider didn't demand to know what the information was?)

Also today, a reporter asked Bush: "Are you saying at no point while the rhetoric was escalating, as 'World War III' was making it into conversation — at no point, nobody from your intelligence team or your administration was saying, 'Maybe you want to back it down a little bit?'" To which Bush responded: "No — I’ve never — nobody ever told me that." (But wasn't he capable of Deciding, all on his own, that it would be wise, at minimum, to dial down his rhetoric, given the signals he was getting about the impending NIE report?)

Whatever. It's old news that this administration is woefully short on credibility, and this is just the umpteenth example.

More interesting, perhaps, is the report's potential impact on the '08 presidential race, because the findings undercut the rhetoric of those candidates who appeared to be sharpening their sabers with respect to Iran.

For instance, Mitt Romney: "I believe that Iran's leaders and ambitions represent the greatest threat to the world since the fall of the Soviet Union, and before that, Nazi Germany."

Rudy Giuliani: "As we all know, Iran is seeking nuclear weapons and they're threatening to use them. If I'm president of the United States, I guarantee you we will never find out what they will do if they get nuclear weapons, because they're not going to get nuclear weapons." (italics are mine)

John McCain: "There's no doubt that (Iran is) moving forward with the acquisition of a nuclear weapon."

Hillary Clinton: "The (Iranian) Revolutionary Guards are deeply involved in Iran's nuclear program," and "Iran is seeking nuclear weapons."

None of these candidates appear to be backing off their statements, although yesterday Giuliani dialed down his previous rhetoric by observing that "sanctions and other pressures must be continued and stepped up until Iran complies by halting enrichment activities in a verifiable way." Romney said simply that, even in the wake of the NIE report, "I have not said anything in that regard that I regret." And I doubt that any Republican candidate will pay a political price for making needlessly bellicose remarks; the GOP base is already accustomed to supporting a president who lashes out even in the face of flawed intelligence.

But the story may be different on the Democratic side. The liberal base is less tolerant of bellicosity. And her chief rivals, mindful of the base, has been giving Hillary a lot of grief for her Yes vote on the Senate resolution designating the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. Barack Obama and John Edwards have assailed her vote as a gesture that aids and abets the Bush administration hawks. Now, in the wake of the NIE report, they can jump on her again.

We already have Edwards saying this: "The new National Intelligence Estimate shows that George Bush and Dick Cheney's rush to war with Iran is, in fact, a rush to war. This is exactly the reason that we must avoid radical steps like the (Iran resolution) declaring Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, which needlessly took us closer to war."

And we already have Obama tying Hillary's '02 war vote to the '07 Iran resolution: "The juxtaposition of this NIE with the president's suggestion of World War III serves as an important reminder of what we learned with the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq: members of Congress must carefully read the intelligence before giving the President any justification to use military force." (Hillary reportedly didn't read the '02 NIE report.)

Hillary's people have released a statement saying that the new NIE report "vindicates" what the Hillary camp has been right along in its insistence that Iran requires tough diplomacy, but they've said nothing about how the report squares with her statement, at the recent Philadelphia debate, that "Iran is seeking nuclear weapons." We'll see how all this plays out in Iowa, where the liberal base is famously skeptical about rhetorical bellicosity - and, by most accounts, increasingly skeptical about Hillary.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The rush to war, Rovespeak edition

Karl Rove refutes the old F. Scott Fitzgerald adage that there are no second acts in American lives. After crashing and burning in 2006 – insisting all the way to election day that the Republicans would hold the House and Senate – and after bailing out of his job as George W. Bush’s indispensable sidekick, he is now remarketing himself as a political seer and future memoirist, working the talk shows and writing a column for Newsweek.

The wisest course would be to simply ignore him, to consign him to history; the problem is that, befitting his status as the Ministry of Truth’s spinner emeritus, he persists in trying to flush history down the memory hole. In true Orwellian fashion, he has sought in recent days to rewrite the factual reality of autumn 2002, when (as those of us with cognitive empirical skills will certainly recall) the Bush team was on the march to war in Iraq and goading the Democratic Senate to get with the program as congressional elections loomed.

Five years later, however, that’s not how Rove chooses to remember events. Speaking with Charlie Rose on PBS during Thanksgiving week, and with a Washington Post reporter late last week, Rove now insists that the autumn rush to war was really propagated by...

The Democratic Senate.

What a revelation. Did you know that the Democrats – not the Bush planners and spinners – were really to blame for hustling America into one of the worst foreign policy miscalculations in U.S. history? The way I seem to remember it, the autumn ’02 rush to war had been a Bush production, preceded by a long buildup (Dick Cheney, Aug. 26: “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction”), and that the Democrats were in reaction mode, torn between defiance (which was politically risky, in the aftermath of 9/11) and acquiescence (do the war vote quickly, then pivot to domestic issues as the election drew near).

Perhaps we should simply assess this new take on history, in the actual Rovespeak.

On PBS, referring to the war authorization, he said: “The administration was opposed to voting on it in the fall of 2002…Because we didn’t think it belonged within the confines of the election. There was an election coming up in a matter of weeks. We thought it made (the war debate) too political. We wanted it outside the confines of it. It seemed to make things move too fast. There were things that needed to be done to bring along allies and potential allies abroad.”

In the Washington Post, he said: “For Democrats to suggest they didn’t want to vote on it before the election is disingenuous.” The vote schedule was set by the Democratic majority, and “we don’t control that.”

And on Fox News yesterday, Rove tried to buttress his spin by reciting a few autumn ’02 statements from Democratic leaders, all of which seemed to suggest that they were just as eager to wage war as the Bush team. (He conveniently omitted Democratic leader Tom Daschle’s remark of Sept. 10, 2002: “I don’t think we have much choice but to respect the decision – the request of any president, including this one.”)

I could suggest that Rove is still in denial mode (a common Bush team affliction over the years), and that therefore he’s prone to simply making stuff up, but on the latter point I’ll yield the floor to Ari Fleischer, the first-term Bush press secretary. Here’s what Fleischer told the Post, as reported on Saturday; referring to the push for a war authorization vote, “It was definitely the Bush administration that set it in motion and determined the timing, not the Congress. I think Karl in this instance just has his facts wrong.” (Naturally, when his quote was read to Rove yesterday on Fox News, he responded by digging deeper into denial mode: “I disagree with my colleague.”)

It should be easy enough to refute Rove simply by quoting the journalists who covered the war debate at the time; as John Bresnahan of Politico writes, “The White House pushed to hold that vote in October, just a month before the mid-term elections, and Democrats were forced to support it or risk losing their re-election campaigns. It was a bare-knuckled political power play by President Bush and GOP leaders in Congress.” But, for those of you who are skeptical of such refutations from the reality-based community, perhaps this one will hit home:

“My answer to the Congress is, they need to debate this issue and consult with us and get the issue done as quickly as possible. If I were running for office (in November 2002), I’m not sure how I’d explain to the American people – say, ‘vote for me, and oh, by the way, on a matter of national security, I think I’m going to wait for somebody else to act.”

That was Bush himself, in an exchange with reporters on a Sept. 13, 2002, holding the Democrats’ feet to the flame with the election just seven weeks away, essentially giving them the choice of voting for war or being tagged as wimps.

Five days later, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld told Congress that the Bush team had all the WMD evidence it needed: “'The dots are there for all to connect. If they aren't good enough, rest assured they will only be good enough after another (terrorist) disaster….Delaying a vote in Congress would send the wrong message.'' And on the following day, Bush sent his war resolution language to the Senate, and said: “We’ve got to move before the elections.”

Since it is indeed settled fact that the Bush team framed the autumn ’02 war agenda – as Bush chief of staff Andrew Card said at the time, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August” – we can only wonder why Rove is bothering to cut and run from the historical record.

Actually, it’s worse than that. Whereas on PBS he claimed that the Bush team hadn’t tried to politicize national security in the ’02 elections, he seems to have forgotten his own declaration – in a winter ’02 speech - that the Bush team would surely politicize national security in the ’02 elections. Referring to the war on terror, he said on Jan. 18, 2002: “We can also go to the country on this issue because (voters) trust the Republican party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America.”

In other words, Karl Rove is cutting and running from himself.


So Mitt Romney is intending to deliver The Speech after all. His defense/explanation of his Mormon faith is slated for Thursday - a clear signal that his camp is increasingly nervous about his standing among religious conservative GOP primary voters.

Can Mitt do for Mormonism what JFK did for Catholicism in 1960? Not necessarily, as I suggested in a recent print column: "Whereas Kennedy mollified skeptics by declaring that 'I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,' Romney can ill afford to say that. Conservative Christian voters, who wield great influence in Republican primaries, do not believe in 'absolute' separation. Romney would commit political suicide if he echoed JFK; nor would he want to, for personal reasons. He has repeatedly signaled that religion belongs in the public square, and that the tenets of his faith have infused his conservative politics. Those arguments might be enough to propel him through the primaries; the general election might be another story."