Sunday, January 06, 2008

Blood on the stage in New Hampshire

The Oscar buzz these days is all about a new film called There Will Be Blood, but there was no need to buy a ticket last night, not with the presidential candidates laying claim to the same title by carving each other up in grisly fashion during a pair of debates on ABC News.

First came the Republicans. As I wrote in a print column this morning, the GOP is experiencing unusual tumult, stuck as they are with a slate of candidates deemed flawed by the party's grassroots, and with no annointed frontrunner to at least provide some clarity. This was evident in last night's New Hampshire takedown, when virtually everybody on stage ganged up on Mitt Romney.

Remember that line in The Godfather, about how whacking a rival was business, not personal? Fuggedaboutit. The Republican rumble was personal.

Granted, John McCain and Mike Huckabee and the others have their business reasons - they'd like to knock Romney out of the race on Tuesday night in New Hampshire, because, at a time when money is scarce for most GOP contenders, Romney alone has both the establishment connections and personal wealth to keep himself afloat for awhile - but those reasons are trumped by their personal animus. Romney has been slamming them with attack ads and distorting their records for so long, all the while flip-flopping about his own alleged convictions for so long, that they're basically fed up. And now that he's bleeding from his Iowa wounds, they're circling like sharks.

And no wonder. In high school terms, Romney is like the know-it-all kid from the rich side of town who connives to blackball those whom he views as unworthy of club membership. Last night, unfortunately for him, the other kids were pelting him with spitballs, lighting his shoes on fire, yanking his shirt hook, and he didn't know how to deal with it.

When Romney grumbled that his positions were being mischaracterized, Huckabee shot back, "Which ones?" (Romney's reaction: sputtering silence.) When McCain mocked Romney for his frequent flip-flops and dubbed him the true "candidate of change," Romney had no response. When McCain skewered Romney for his lavishly-financed negative ad campaign, and for falsely depicting McCain as a pro-amnesty wimp on illegal immigration ("you can spend your whole fortune on these attack ads, but it still won't be true"), Romney compounded his plight shall I say this charitably...making stuff up.

Romney insisted: "I don't describe your plan as amnesty in my ad. I don't call it amnesty."

Oh, really? His new TV ad says that McCain "supported amnesty for illegal immigrants" and "wrote the amnesty bill." Moreover, I receive Romney campaign emails, and a new one refers to McCain's "amnesty plan." And a new Romney mailing to New Hampshire voters reportedly says, "John McCain: Supports Amnesty."

Granted, Romney isn't the first politician to play fast and loose with facts. And he probably figures he needs to hit that "amnesty" theme (regardless of what he falsely claimed during the debate) because he badly needs conservative Republican votes on Tuesday night in order to win New Hampshire and keep hope alive. The problem is, he can't win unless he successfully bloodies McCain (who now leads in the New Hampshire polls), unless he somehow makes McCain less attractive to the independent voters who yearn for reform and change, and who are permitted to vote in the primary.

So Romney's last-ditch strategy is to swipe the reform/change label and affix it to himself. Last night he said: "Not only can I talk change with you, I've lived it. In the private sector for 25 years, I brought change to company after company. In the Olympics -- it was in trouble -- I brought change. In Massachusetts I brought change. I have done it." And he contends that McCain is just another Washington insider and denizen of "the Senate cloakroom" who has failed to bring change.

The problem with that argument is, it doesn't quite square with what Romney said about McCain back in 2002: "He has always stood for reform and change. And he always fought the good battle, no matter what the odds."

McCain is hardly a saint, of course. He has lobbyist donors and advisors, just as Romney does. He has done his share of pandering in this campaign. He also finesses the truth at times, as well; last night, he boasted about how he was the earliest GOP candidate to publicly criticize Donald Rumsfeld, while failing to mention that he waited until December 2004, after President Bush was re-elected, before he let loose.

But McCain has long been seen by Granite State voters as an upstanding guy, and it will be tough for Romney to outduel him in the span of 48 hours. Especially since, on the authenticity front, Romney often makes a three-dollar bill look like a bar of gold.


As for the Democrats...Number of times the candidates invoked the word change: 64

Hillary Clinton, scrambling to recover from her Iowa misadventure, was in near-desperate overdrive. To wit: "I want to make change, but I've already made change. I will continue to make change. I'm not just running on a promise of change, I'm running on 35 years of change....So, you know, I think it is clear that what we need is somebody who can deliver change. And we don't need to be raising the false hopes of our country about what can be delivered. The best way to know what change I will produce is to look at the changes I've already made." (Italics are mine. I'll return to that phrase in a little while.)

Hillary scored some substantive points along the way. She took on her perceived "likeability" deficit by pointing out that George W. Bush was deemed America's preferred beer buddy back in 2000, a judgement that looks disastrous in retrospect. She sought to dent Barack Obama's halo by pointing out that the antiwar senator voted Yes on every Iraq war funding bill until he announced for president; and she noted this, as well: "You know, the energy bill that passed in 2005 was larded with all kinds of special interest breaks, giveaways to the oil companies. Senator Obama voted for it. I did not." Obama had no response to that. She also pointed out that "Senator Obama's chair in New Hampshire is a lobbyist. He lobbies for the drug companies." In response Obama merely murmured, "That's not so."

But it is so. Jim Demers is registered as a lobbyist for Pfizer and PhRMA.

Hillary still has problems, however. The biggest is that she risks looking like a spoilsport who is trying to soil America's new political hero. Moreover, at a time when Obama seems poised to lead a burgeoning "hope" movement, would hopeful voters really respond to a candidate who characterizes those hopes as "false" (as she did last night)?

And she also has to contend not just with Obama, but with John Edwards. The latter jumped to Obama's defense last night: "Every time he speaks out for change, every time I fight for change, the forces of status quo are going to attack. Every single time...he believes deeply in change and I believe deeply in change. And any time you're fighting for that, I mean, I didn't hear these kinds of attacks from Senator Clinton when she was ahead. Now that she's not, we hear them."

No doubt she was displeased to be tagged as the leader of the "status quo," to find herself under seige from two rivals seemingly working in tandem. But she should hope that Edwards stays in the race, post-New Hampshire. He splits the "change" vote with Obama, and it's hard to envision most Edwards voters moving to Hillary in the wake of his departure...unless she somehow swipes the "change" label for herself.

But can she succeed in doing so? At one point last night, she felt compelled to harken back to the '90s, to defend her husband's tenure, and point out that he balanced the budget. Whereupon, moments later, Obama said: "But we never built the majority and coalesced the American people around being able to get the other stuff done." That remark addresses a longstanding pet peeve among many grassroots Democrats - that Clinton failed to grow the party, that under his tenure the Democrats lost both congressional chambers and never fully recovered. That is the crux of the intraparty grievance against the Clintons.

And with respect to Hillary's remarks, during the debate, about how Obama's rhetoric is no substitute for action, her chief rival said this:

"(T)he truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don't discount that power."

Don't discount the power of words...Obama was essentially putting her on notice that she might be facing another tough election night.