Friday, January 04, 2008

An historic night of winners and losers

I’ll assess the stunning results of the Iowa caucuses through the prism of winners and losers – some of them obvious, others less so.


Barack Obama. He made history last night, as the first African-American presidential candidate to demonstrate serious crossover appeal in the gatekeeper state. Jesse Jackson, during the ‘80s, never got more than 8.8 percent of the Iowa tally, whereas Obama took 38 percent – in a state that’s two percent black. His candidacy is now strengthened for the long haul; a lot of black Democrats in the early-voting, racially diverse states – such as Florida and South Carolina – may have been holding back from Obama, waiting to see whether white voters would actually step up and back a black guy who’s barely three years out of the Illinois legislature. It happened, and the Democratic race has been transformed overnight. He’s the “change” candidate unless and until somebody else swipes the label. That won’t be easy, because now he looks like the leader of a burgeoning movement, and that’s catnip for independents and non-establishment Democrats who have long yearned to shake things up.

Mike Huckabee. Although he was outspent 20-1 by his closest Republican rival, he demonstrated that passion is more important than money. The passion was supplied by Iowa’s conservative Christians, who comprised an astounding 60 percent of the GOP turnout (the usual figure is closer to 40 percent), and who judged Huckabee to be the most authentic candidate in a field of flip-floppers and panderers. These voters weren’t even concerned about electability; according to NBC’s survey last night, only eight percent listed “best chance to win” as their top candidate criterion. As a result, the Republicans have a Christian fundamentalist in the top tier for the first time ever. Huckabee probably can’t take New Hampshire, but his decisive Iowa win puts him in play in South Carolina later this month, not simply because the religious right is strong there, but because his populist anti-Wall Street pitch might attract blue-collar Republicans. A lot of big-business Republicans are horrified by Huckabee; the question is, can they agree on an alternative?

The Des Moines Register. On New Year’s Eve, the newspaper’s pollster predicted that Obama would win by eight points, buoyed by a record-high Democratic turnout. Well, Obama won by eight points, buoyed by a record-high Democratic turnout. As I mentioned the other day, it’s probably wise to respect the folks who have the home-field advantage.

John McCain. He’s a winner not because he finished in a virtual third-place tie despite his inattention to Iowa, but because he stands to benefit elsewhere from Huckabee’s resounding victory. Huckabee did him a big favor by bloodying Mitt Romney, who is McCain’s chief rival in New Hampshire. McCain needs to win that state next Tuesday in order to stay viable, and he needs to attract independent voters – a potentially challenging task, because independents (who can vote in either primary) might want to jump on the Obama bandwagon. Still, McCain has the luxury of dueling with a Republican rival who now looks like a loser. Which reminds me…


Mitt Romney. The guy was downright humiliated. GOP voters took a long look, they smelled a phony, and they made him pay. All those flip-flops, all the stuff he simply made up, all the negative ads he ran on TV…he came off like a typical politician, which is a deadly image at a time when the grassroots in both parties seem anxious for something completely different. One of his flacks tried to spin his nine-point loss last night by saying that evangelical voters unsurprisingly flocked to the evangelical candidate; the flaw in the spin is that Romney spent 2007 trying to woo those voters, and wound up driving them away. Now he’s heading for New Hampshire, where his incessant attack ads against McCain risk driving Granite State voters away. Stung by Iowa, he has to win New Hampshire or risk going into freefall as a fresh example of that Beatles adage about how money can’t buy you love.

John Edwards. It’s hard to see how he gets any traction from losing Iowa, where he had virtually camped himself for the past several years. He needed a win in order to draw the free media coverage that would in turn draw the Democratic donors who thus far have spurned him. It won’t happen. Now the race moves to New Hampshire, where he was weak in 2004, and is not significantly stronger now. He’ll stay in for awhile, particularly since he has a lot of labor union support in Nevada, which holds caucuses on Jan. 19. It’s hard to see how he can go the distance.

Rudy Giuliani. Sure, he opted not to campaign much in Iowa (because he sensed he was dead meat there), but still, it must be embarrassing for the self-marketed 9/11 leader to find himself in sixth place…behind Ron Paul. In fact, Ron Paul’s tally was nearly triple the Rudy tally. That same thing could well happen next week in New Hampshire, another state that Rudy has skipped. It remains to be seen whether he can play Rip Van Winkle, wake up in his chosen battleground (Florida, Jan. 29), and still have any claim to the top tier. Of course, with the GOP race in such flux, it’s hard to know who else will be in it, either.

And, saving the biggest loser for last, Hillary Clinton. What a disastrous night. She even lost to Obama among women. When the smoke cleared, her flack offered a pathetic piece of spin about the Iowa results: "Extrapolating from 230,000 people is a mistake." Naturally, if Hillary had finished first, the same flack would have raved about how extrapolating from 230,000 people was a triumph of the democratic process.

Hillary had intended to make Iowa a pit stop on the road to coronation, but she leaves Iowa affixed with the establishment candidate label. In her gracious concession speech, she said it was “a great night for Democrats” because the record-high turnout was stoked by the message of “change.” The problem is, Obama successfully laid claim to that word. The real message last night, particularly if Edwards’ tally is added to Obama’s, was that grassroots Democrats – and the independents who participated – are anxious to leave the Clinton years behind, not to resurrect them. The Iowans served notice that the Clintons can indeed be beaten.

Granted, Hillary has the money and moxie to battle Obama to the bitter end, and it should be noted that several past candidates (Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush) have lost Iowa but won the White House. The problem is, the Obama challenge is historically unique, and she risks being subsumed by forces beyond her control. If his Iowa momentum gains velocity in New Hampshire, even the Clintons could be hard pressed to stop it. Barring a comeback, she could well find herself quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th-century essayist, who wrote: “Events are in the saddle, and ride mankind.”


I am saving my (presumably) weighter thoughts - particularly about the most fluid GOP race since 1940 - for a Sunday print column.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

My caveats about Iowa

In this calm before the storm, as we gird ourselves for the first measurements of actual citizen sentiment in the '08 campaign, let us pause briefly to contemplate the state that remains secure in its status as first in pork, first in corn, and first in the presidential sweepstakes.

There are basically two ways to assess the role of Iowa. One can point out that the caucus-goers take their responsibilities of winnowing the candidates very seriously, that they are earnest and well-informed, that their caucuses are democracy with a small d, and that therefore they have earned the right to be America's gatekeepers. But one can also point out that the caucus-goers, being overwhelmingly white and disproportionately rural, are profoundly unrepresentative of the American electorate; that the caucus-goers, comprising only a fraction of the Iowa electorate, are unrepresentative of even their own state; that the Democratic caucus rules in particular are profoundly undemocratic - and therefore it's absurd that Iowa has come to wield so much clout.

I subscribe to both schools of thought. I laud and admire the Iowans (who are, among other things, some of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet); nevertheless, their presence at the front of the line (a tradition that really began when Jimmy Carter put the caucuses on the map in 1976) is symptomatic of a nomination process that could've been designed by Rube Goldberg on acid.

And it's worth noting that, incumbents aside, exactly one victorious Iowa candidate - George W. Bush in 2000 - has ever gone on to win the presidency in the same year. Even though Carter got an historic boost in Iowa, on the way to his November election, he actually finished second in Iowa - behind "Uncommitted."

There is media talk of a "record turnout" in the caucuses tonight, which means that perhaps as many as 250,000 people could participate. What often goes unmentioned is the fact that 250,000 people translates into merely 12 percent of Iowa's registered voters. Some folks who would dearly love to participate can't do so, because the caucuses start promptly at 7 p.m., and they can't get off work, or they can't get sitters for the kids, or they're serving far away in the military. As for the local folks who are on the fence...well, let's just say it's hardly inspiring to think that the choice of the next leader of the world's most powerful nation could hinge on whether some soybean farmers decide that the televised Orange Bowl tilt between the Hokies and the Jayhawks is a more palatable option.

Then there are the caucus rules. The Republicans are actually paragons of small-d democracy; their participants choose among the candidates by secret ballot (writing the names on slips of paper), and the state GOP releases the figures, so that we spectators can see the popular vote statewide.

Not so the Democrats. Their rules are a Byzantine labyrinth that appears to have been concocted by Franz Kafka, Lewis Carroll, and Joseph Heller. And Democrats don't even release the popular vote of their participants. The final percentages that you will see on TV are something else entirely, although I wonder whether the TV anchors will point this out. The Democratic caucuses are all about choosing delegates to the March 15 county conventions - and the weighted delegate strength of the candidates will not mirror the popular vote. Which is not released to the public anyway. So the final Democratic tallies actually measure the allocation of "delegate equivalents."

Still with me? Here's roughly how the Democratic caucuses work: Participants have to physically stand with those who support the same candidate. But if that candidate draws less than 15 percent of the people in attendance, the group is dissolved, and those people have to make a second choice, and then go stand with that candidate's group. (A woman from Webster City, Janet Adams, told me not long ago that it's actually quite exciting: "The whole process is all about neighbors, you know. People say things like, 'why don't you come over to our side?'")

All of which means that the official Democratic winner tonight may well attain that status because he or she has second-choice strength...which is a far cry from the one-man-one-vote ethos of the secret ballot, as practiced by the Iowa GOP. And I won't even begin to explain how the Democrats tilt their delegate allocation so that rural enclaves are over-represented in the final tallies.

In other words, with respect to those Democratic results, I say caveat emptor. Not that it matters, however, because these nuances will be largely ignored tomorrow morning. Whoever "wins" on the Democratic side will reap the inevitable publicity bonanza, and whoever "loses" will have to deal with the downbeat consequences as the race moves to New Hampshire. As JFK used to say, "life is unfair," and that's doubly true in the political realm, where perception is reality.

On the other hand, if Barack Obama wins decisively tonight on the Democratic side (by a margin that obliterates the aforementioned nuances), it can't be dismissed as just a flaky Iowa outcome. It would mean that large numbers of white people were willing to stand in front of their white neighbors and declare themselves for an African-American candidate. That would be significant in itself, and all the caveats about the Iowa process would be forgotten.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

John McCain, going for the bronze

While Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee slug it out for first place in the Iowa GOP caucuses tomorrow night, I'll be watching to see whether John McCain finishes third. The political health of the candidate who only recently was thought to be dead and buried is surely the best subplot in the '08 Republican saga.

The latest polls suggest that McCain - who has stumped in Iowa only sporadically, and who virtually ignored the state when he first ran in 2000 - might actually grab the third rung, and thus pick up a tailwind as he heads east, to the friendlier turf of New Hampshire, where he is now reportedly tied with Romney for the top slot in the Jan. 8 primary.

Winning the bronze medal in Iowa would be a big story, if only because it would demonstrate McCain's potential appeal to disillusioned GOP voters as the least objectionable candidate. And a third-place finish would further roil the unusually fluid Republican race.

This would be especially true if Huckabee beats Romney in Iowa tomorrow night, despite the latter's huge financial and organizational advantages. A wounded Romney would be ill-positioned to win New Hampshire, where McCain has surged after trailing Romney by 15 points a mere six weeks ago. And a triumphant McCain, buoyed by fresh funds raised via the Internet, would be emboldened to fight on in South Carolina and Florida later this month, and in the 21-state demolition derby on Feb. 5. (Indeed, a newly-released national poll, measuring GOP voter sentiment in those 21 states, reports that McCain is now tied for first, with a sliding Rudy Giuilani.)

Given McCain's indifference to Iowa, a third-place finish would be quite an accomplishment. As a candidate in 2000, he skipped the state altogether; he had long opposed giving federal money to Iowa's production of corn-based ethanol - a political no-no - and he figured that he was dead meat in Iowa as a result. This time around, he showed up on occasion, and ran some radio ads, but not much else. And he would appear to be unpalatable to the GOP electorate. A lot of conservative Iowans, like conservatives elsewhere, still think he's too liberal for their taste on issues like immigration, global warming, and stem cell research. Most religious conservatives still don't trust him, recalling how he once assailed a few of their leaders as "agents of intolerance." And some voters, although they are loathe to say it aloud, might be concerned about his age (he'll turn 72 this summer).

Yet he might be carving out a niche as the fallback candidate - the guy with more foreign policy experience than Huckabee (who has none) and Giuliani (who has never even visited Iraq, and who quit the Iraq study group); the guy who flip-flops a lot less than Romney, and seems more authentic anyway; the guy with the compelling personal story who quickens the pulse more than, say, the pulse-challenged Fred Thompson. And, on the affirmative side of the ledger, he could attract some fiscal conservatives who like his consistent opposition to earmarked pork, and he could attract hawkish Republicans who agree with his longstanding argument that the war has been incompetently executed.

It's noteworthy that McCain has managed stay alive after losing his high-priced hired helpers, all of whom quit his campaign six months ago. No longer the designated GOP establishment frontrunner, McCain seems a lot more comfortable living off the land, behaving more as an anti-establishment insurgent, operating on a wing and a prayer.

If, tomorrow night, Iowa caucus-goers give him the boost he needs to win New Hampshire, this would not automatically mean that he is destined to win the GOP nomination. Hardly. Even with a fresh infusion of funds, he would have to do battle with Romney's war chest and personal wealth. But if McCain can sustain his candidacy beyond New Hampshire and into the second round of states, he will sharpen the intramural GOP debate, forcing the party's grassroots voters to ponder this question:

Is it better to nominate a moneyed weathervane who markets himself as an orthodox establishment Republican (Romney), a 9/11 "hero" with a lot of baggage (Giuliani), an ordained pastor who attributes his polling rise to God's will and who as governor paroled murderers out of Christian compassion (Huckabee), an antiwar insurgent who's out of step with the party on the war issue (Ron Paul), a snooze who's better off sticking to TV (Thompson)...or McCain, who consistently polls as the most electable candidate, in part because he does not play as an orthodox establishment Republican?

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

For the Obama candidacy, size matters

If the newly-released Des Moines Register poll is correct - and this survey is widely respected for its readings of the Iowa mood on the eve of the Iowa caucuses - we could soon be witnessing an historic moment in presidential politics.

The poll, posted last night, reports that an African-American candidate will top the Democratic field in this overwhelmingly white state, buoyed by an unprecedented wave of first-time caucus voters - many of them independents (and even some Republicans) who appear determined to re-register on the spot as Democrats, just for the opportunity to support Barack Obama. Which is why the final Register poll projects an eight-point Obama victory over Hillary Clinton (35 percent to 27 percent) in the Democratic caucuses Thursday night.

Other new surveys dispute this point spread, but the Register poll, with its home-field advantage, arguably has a better feel for the dynamics of the likely Democratic turnout. The numbers, if true, are provocative: Forty percent of the folks planning to attend the Democratic caucuses describe themselves as independents, and five percent say they are Republicans. And Obama is the clear favorite of these potential newcomers.

Could this actually happen, that 45 percent of the Democratic caucus-goers might be outsiders lured to the event by Obama? It remains to be seen, of course, whether these people will actually follow through on their vows to participate, but, at minimum, their strong interest in Obama is further evidence that he has potential crossover appeal - the kind that is crucial to winning a November election. So keep an eye on the turnout figures Thursday night; the larger (and more politically diverse) the turnout, the better it is for Obama. Size matters.

In 2004, when John Kerry finished on top, roughly 80 percent of the Democratic caucus participants described themselves as party regulars. If the final Des Moines Register poll is correct, and Obama tops the candidate field thanks to an expanded turnout, of which only 55 percent are party regulars, he can make the case to the people of New Hampshire (who vote in their primary next Tuesday) that he's the most electable Democratic candidate...thereby keeping the heat on Hillary.

No wonder the Hillary spinners are trying so hard to dismiss the Des Moines poll. Right on schedule this morning, my email box contained a missive from Mark Penn, Hillary's pollster/strategist, who naturally takes issue with the poll's turnout projections. Penn points out that only 15 percent of the 2000 caucus-goers were independents, and that only 19 percent were independents in 2004. He complains that the Register pollsters "are depicting an unprecedented departure from historically established turnout patterns," and that if we look at the '08 Iowa horserace through the prism of the established patterns, then Hillary is in darn good shape.

Yet here's what he is essentially arguing: the smaller the turnout, and the more it is dominated by Democratic regulars, the better it is for Hillary. Penn is not disputing the poll data showing Obama's popularity among independents; he's only arguing that the independents won't show up en masse to participate. (Or so he hopes, since he's basically signaling that she's at risk if the turnout is large and politically diverse.)

In other words, he implicitly acknowledged Obama's crossover appeal, which is hardly a ringing advertisement for his own candidate's electability.


Thursday night, it also will be worth comparing the Democratic and Republican turnout totals, just to see which camp is more enthused about its prospects in 2008. According to the latest Iowa State University poll, Democratic turnout could outpace GOP turnout by 60 percent; by contrast, in the 2000 Iowa caucuses (the last time both races were open), the GOP turnout outpaced the Democrats by 30 percent.

If the projections for Thursday are true, it would suggest that Republicans are far more dispirited than their counterparts. I can't imagine why.

Monday, December 31, 2007

The 2007 Aberrant Behavior Awards

Before we welcome the new year, let us first bid a fond farewell to the follies of 2007 by celebrating this stellar list of award winners.

The Sam Cooke “Don’t Know Much About History, Don’t Know Much About Geography” Award goes to Mike Huckabee. Following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the GOP’s hottest presidential candidate flashed his foreign policy credentials by contending that more Pakistanis have illegally entered the United States than any other foreigners - an allegation promptly refuted by the Department of Homeland Security. He also stated that Afghanistan shares an eastern border with Pakistan, whereas, in reality, they share a western border. He also suggested that Pakistan remains under martial law, whereas, in reality, martial law was lifted on Dec. 15. And earlier this month, he confessed that he knew nothing about the national intelligence report on Iran’s dormant nuclear program, even though the report had been out for nearly 36 hours. Would the Republican party, which traditionally prides itself on its national security bona fides, really nominate this guy?

The Character Reference of the Year Award goes to Jeanette Maier, a Louisiana woman who extolled U.S. Senator David Vitter as “one of the nicest men and most honorable men I’ve ever met.” The problem for Vitter, a “family values” Republican, was that Maier’s praise came with a caveat. She’s a whorehouse madam who regularly hosted Vitter at her place of business during the 1990s, at $300 a pop.

The Hogan’s Heroes “I Know Nothing!” Award goes to Alberto Gonzales. Before this longtime Bush crony walked away from the smoking wreckage formerly known as the Justice Department, he insisted that he was clueless about the White House campaign to make various U.S. attorneys behave as if they were water carriers for the Republican party. During congressional testimony, he said “I can’t recall” more than 50 times. Back on March 13, he also said that “we never had a discussion about where things stood,” regarding the plan to fire recalcitrant federal prosecutors – and then, lo and behold, it turned out, according to his own appointment calendar, that he had indeed attended a meeting just five months earlier, to discuss where things stood. The firings came shortly thereafter, in a triumph of partisanship over the rule of law.

Regarding The Worst Bedside Manner Award: You might expect a hospital doctor to win this one, the kind of doctor who raves about his ski trip before striding out the door. But no, the winner again is Gonzales. Let’s not forget the congressional testimony last spring, about how Gonzo – acting in 2004 as Bush’s White House counsel – raced to John Ashcroft’s hospital bed in order to inveigle the seriously ill attorney general to sign off on a domestic eavesdropping program that had already been deemed illegal by Ashcroft’s chief deputy. Ashcroft, sick as he was, backed up his deputy and shot Gonzo down. The deputy, and seven other senior figures, including the FBI director, had threatened to resign if Gonzo had parlayed his hospital visit into a victory.

The “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Bundler” Award goes to Hillary Clinton, for her campaign’s strenuous efforts to deny or downplay the role of Norman Hsu – a Democratic donor who had raised $850,000 for Hillary in bundled small contributions, but who turned out to be a fugitive felon. At first the Hillaryites insisted that Hsu was “completely legit,” that he was a man of “integrity,” and that they’d turned up nothing to suggest otherwise. When those spin efforts failed, they said that Hillary would reject the money that Hsu had personally donated (around $25,000), but keep all the rest. When that spin failed, Hillary agreed to reject all the money. Then she insisted that she’s a big supporter of campaign finance reform. The only problem is, her Senate record demonstrates that she has never cared a whit about campaign finance reform.

The Jim Carrey “Liar Liar” Award goes to Fred Thompson. Lawyers have a reputation for being factually slippery, and lobbyists have the same image problem. Ole Fred, who was a Washington lawyer-lobbyist before he started courting GOP conservatives in the ’08 campaign, tried out some slippery moves of his own a few months ago, when reports surfaced that he had done some early-‘90s lobbying for an abortion rights group. At first he said that he had done no such lobbying. Then he softened a bit, and said he had no “recollection” of such lobbying. Then, when all the billing records and lunch meeting records surfaced, he suddenly remembered a lot more, and said that it’s common for lawyer-lobbyists to take all kinds of cases, even when they personally disagree with clients….which made Thompson look like just another DC operator, the antithesis of what conservative GOP voters are looking for. No wonder he has flatlined.

The Louis XIV “L’etat c’moi” Political Science Award is shared by three Bush administration officials, all of whom sought to rewrite the U.S. Constitution during 2007. Tony Snow, speaking as the press secretary, informed us back in March that “the executive branch is under no compulsion to testify to Congress, because Congress in fact doesn’t have oversight ability,” which would be news to our Founding Fathers. Meanwhile, in June, Dick Cheney informed us that the vice presidency is not “an entity within the executive branch,” which was a fascinating stance, given the fact that it refutes Article II of the Constitution, and given the fact that he had long refused to disclose his energy lobbyist pals, by citing his position in the executive branch. Meanwhile, in July, ex-Bush political director Sara Taylor told Congress that she couldn’t talk about the prosecutor purge scandal because, "I took an oath to the president, and I take that oath very seriously." She was gently informed that, as a federal employee, she had taken an oath only to the Constitution.

The “I Hear That Eating Foie Gras Will Make You Gay” Award goes to Mitt Romney. The Mittster was notorious in 2007 for simply making stuff up – claiming an NRA endorsement that he never received, claiming he saw his father march with Martin Luther King when in fact he saw no such thing, claiming that we invaded Iraq because Saddam had barred the arms inspectors when in fact Hussein had actually let them in – but let’s not forget his fictitious complaint about France, the nation that doubles as a traditional GOP punching bag. Back in May, Romney said: “In France, for instance, I’m told that marriage is now frequently contracted in seven-year terms where either party may move on when their term is up.” The problem is, France has no such law. There is such a law, however, in a science-fiction novel called “The Memory of Earth.” Author Orson Scott Card, who, like Romney, is a Mormon, uses this form of a marriage contract as a plot point - in a saga that takes place in outer space.

The Judy Garland “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore” Award goes to Barack Obama. A tornado-tossed house must have hit the candidate in the head when he came out with this line: “"In case you missed it, this week, there was a tragedy in Kansas. Ten thousand people died — an entire town destroyed." Really? More than triple the number of 9/11 casualties were not alive in Kansas anymore? It turned out that Obama was a tad off in his tally. He overstated the death toll by…9988.

The “Closeted Hypocrite” Award: The obvious landslide winner is Larry Craig, the GOP senator who regularly voted against gays but toe-tapped with a wide stance in an airport john, and who did the Senate proud by defending himself on TV with such high-road arguments as “I go to the bathroom to use the bathroom for bathroom's sake.” But let’s honor the runner-ups: Florida GOP legislator Bob Allen, who regularly voted against gays but propositioned a male cop in a rest stop john; and Washington state GOP legislator Richard Curtis, who regulary voted against gays but was caught wearing women’s clothing in a gay porn store.

The Bill Clinton “It All Depends on What the Meaning of the Word ‘Support’ Is” Award goes to Hillary, naturally. Proving that the connubial bond is alive and well, at least in the political realm, Hillary in October offered plenty of Clintonian nuance on the issue of whether New York’s illegal immigrants should receive drivers’ licenses: “The possibility of them having an accident that harms themselves or others is just a matter of the odds. It's probability. So what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum...I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it...It makes a lot of sense. What is the governor supposed to do?...Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No."

The Mark Twain “A Lie Can Travel Half Way Around the World While the Truth is Putting on Its Shoes” Award goes to Freedom’s Watch, the White House front group that ran inflammatory TV ads early this autumn in support of the Iraq surge. Long after the myth of a 9/11-Hussein connection had been thoroughly refuted by multiple agencies and commissions, Freedom’s Watch went ahead and aired the myth all over again - showing the Twin Towers under attack while a vet talked about Iraq as the words “They Attacked Us” appeared on screen. Produced with classic sleight of hand, it was the dark art of propaganda at its finest.

The “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Home Boy” Award goes to Rudy Giuliani, loyal enabler of his good buddy, the indomitable Bernie Kerik. Rudy is trying to sell himself as a man whose judgment we can trust in a crisis, yet, despite many warnings over the years, he somehow failed to notice that the guy he steadily promoted (from mayoral chauffer all the way to police commissioner) was mobbed up. Today, Kerik is under federal indictment for taking bribes and cheating on his taxes. But maybe Kerik’s best gig was his failed three-month stint as Bush’s emissary to the Iraqi police in 2003. He was supposed to train the Iraqi cops, but, by all accounts, did nothing. No matter. When he returned, Bush praised him in the Rose Garden and said, “Bernie, you’re a good man.” Naturally.

The “Dog Ate My Homework” Award goes to Tommy Thompson. You may remember Tommy; the ex-Wisconsin governor and ex-Cabinet official was a GOP presidential candidate for what seemed to be only 17 minutes. Tommy had some creatively lame excuses for his bad performances in debates and on the stump, including (a) his hearing aid wasn’t working, (b) he was anxious to go to the bathroom, and (c) he had a heavy cold. The latter excuse was offered after he attempted to praise a Jewish audience by noting that “earning money” was “sort of part of the Jewish tradition…You've been outstanding business people, and I compliment you for that." Presumably, if Tommy’s nasal passages had been clear, he would have recognized that the Christians who ran Wall Street and dominated the economy during America’s first 100 years were pretty darn good at “earning money” before most of the Jewish immigrants ever showed up.

The “Yeah, Right, And Guys Only Buy Playboy for the Articles” Award goes to John Edwards, for insisting that he spent a year working for a hedge fund (earning more than $500,000) only because he wanted to get a better understanding of poverty in America. When a reporter pointed out that he could have “learned” more about the relations between the markets and poverty simply by taking a university course, he replied, “That’s true.” On the other hand, if he had merely taken a college course, would he have been able to collect $160,000 in campaign money from the employes of that hedge fund?

The “Oh Swell, NOW They Tell Us” Award is shared by three prominent Republicans who waited until they were long gone before dishing essential dirt about the Bush team. First came Dick Armey, former House GOP leader, who confessed last February that he regretted voting for Bush’s war in 2002, because it meant “invading a country that had in no way declared any war on us…Had I been ore true to myself and the principles I believed in at the time, I would have openly opposed the whole adventure vocally and aggressively.” Next came ex-Bush pollster Matthew Dowd, who said in April that he was fed up with what he called Bush’s “my way or the highway” approach, and added, “I’m so disappointed in things. I think (Bush) has become more, in my view, secluded and bubbled in…(He's) not the person I thought.” And then came ex-Bush flak Scott McClellan, who previewed his upcoming book in November by informing us that the Bush team – either recklessly or deliberately, it wasn’t clear which - sent him out to spread “false information” to the public during the Valerie Plame affair.

Updating FDR, The “We Have Nothing to Spin But Fear Itself” Award goes to President Bush, for invoking the specter of “World War III” while discussing Iran’s nukes in October - even though he had been privately tipped off months earlier that an impending intelligence community report would reassess whether Iran had any nukes in the first place. Turns out, the intelligence community concluded that the nuke program was halted in 2003. But after this report surfaced earlier this month, Bush (true to form) insisted that his bellicose talk remains entirely appropriate, because, even though he acknowledges that the Iranians did halt the program, they might some day opt to restart the program…which apparently means that “World War III” rhetoric is justified regardless of the circumstances. Sort of like tax cuts for the wealthy.

And The "Ouch, that Hurts! Thank You, Sir, May I Have Another?" Award naturally goes to the Democrats of Capitol Hill, for their year-long inability to thwart an unpopular president’s unpopular war. Granted, they did show courage on a few major matters of statecraft – such as voting to condemn for its nasty newspaper ad about General David Petraeus, and voting to condemn some mass atrocities committed by the Ottoman Turks 92 years ago. But it seems like a lifetime ago – it was actually only last January - when the Democrats warned that if Bush didn’t change course in Iraq, the new majority would be “showing him the way.” Dream on. I’ll stick with what Washington analyst Charlie Cook said to me back in 2002, when the Democrats were first fumbling for a response to Bush on Iraq: “They couldn’t find a unified message if it was tattooed on their butts.”

Feel free to add your own awards. Otherwise, Happy New Year and drive safely.