Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Yukking it up in the Yucca state

Ever watch the old Tonight Show, when everyone on stage was in mirth overload, yukking it up on Johnny's couch, and Johnny was in his chair with his shoulders shaking, and Doc's band was really swinging, and Don Rickles was cutting up, and Sammy Davis Jr. was bent forward in practiced hysterics, his medallions swaying from his neck?

It was all very Vegas. In fact, it was a lot like the presidential debate staged by the Democrats last night in Vegas. And when host Brian Williams mistakenly welcomed the viewers to "Los Angeles"...truly, for the three Democratic finalists, it was a Johnny's couch moment.

Perhaps a more contemporary analogy would suffice: This was the Ari Gold debate. With reference to the Hollywood agent on Entourage, the candidates were determined to hug it out.

Gone (at least for now) was the rhetorical bile of recent days. It was clearly time for a breather. It would not have served the Democrats well if their leading candidates had pitted race against gender in a nationally televised debate; that would have produced a Wednesday story line about growing fractures in the Democratic coalition. Voters are yearning for answers to the myriad problems that the Bush administration has allowed to fester; voters ultimately want the Democratic campaign to be about them, not about the candidates.

Better to lower the temperature, smile at your seatmates, laugh it up at the slightest provocation, find common ground. Suddenly, they were not "senators" anymore; they were "Hillary" and "Barack" and "John." Thus, Hillary: "What Barack said is what John and I also meant" and "I really commend Barack." And when Hillary (cleverly) asked her chief rival whether he'd co-sponsor her bill to stop President Bush from forging a long-term deal with Iraq, he had no choice but to perpetuate the good vibes: "Well, I think, you know, we - we can work on this, Hillary." (Translation: She looked like the leader, he looked like the follower.)

Indeed, despite the mood of bonhomie, Hillary scored on several key fronts. The big federal issue in Nevada (which votes in caucuses on Saturday) has long been the fight over a proposed nuclear waste dump on Yucca Mountain, just 90 miles from Vegas. Hillary pointed out that she voted against the proposed dump site way back in 2001, and assailed the idea in environmental hearings. She then nailed her two opponents, starting with Obama.

She accurately pointed out that one of his biggest donors is the Exelon Corporation, "which has spent millions of dollars trying to make Yucca Mountain the waste depository." Obama had no answer to that, because there isn't one. He simply said that he is against the Yucca siting, although, since he didn't arrive in the Senate until 2005, he has never voted on the issue.

Then it was John Edwards' turn. Said Hillary, referring to her rival's Senate record, "John was in favor of it twice when he voted to override President Clinton's veto, and then voted for it again." Edwards had an answer to that - "I want to go onto another subject" - whereupon Hillary said, "you didn't respond."

At another point, Obama gave her an opening, and she blasted through it. He was trying to explain what he had meant, several days earlier, when he told a Reno newspaper that "I'm not an operating officer." He said last night that as president he would basically be a big-picture guy with a vision; he doesn't see himself as a detail-oriented guy who would "make sure that systems run."

Whereupon, Hillary pounced. It's worth reprising most of her answer: "I do think that being president is the chief executive officer, and I respect what Barack said about setting the vision, setting the tone, bringing people together. But I think you have to be able to manage and run the bureaucracy. You've got to pick good people certainly but you have to hold them accountable every single day. We've seen the results of a president who frankly failed at that. You know, he went in to office saying he was going to have the kind of Harvard Business School CEO model, where he'd set the tone, he'd set the goals, and then everybody else would have to implement it. And we saw the failures. We saw the failures along the Gulf Coast with, you know, people who were totally incompetent and insensitive, failing to help our fellow Americans. We've seen the failures with holding the administration accountable with the no-bid contracts and the cronyism....You've got to set the tone, you've got to set the vision, you've got to set the goals, you've got to bring the country together. And then you do have to manage and operate and hold that bureaucracy accountable to get the results you're trying to achieve."

In other words, she trumped his remarks, and brought in Bush besides. In response, Obama was back on his heels - "Well, I -- there's no doubt that you've got to be a good manager, and that's not what I was arguing" - before he merely echoed her remarks about Bush.

Hillary didn't have a perfect night, of course - at one point, she confessed that she regretted having voted for a bankruptcy bill that was friendly to the credit card industry, then said she was "happy" that it never became law (so why did she vote for it in the first place?) - but she was the most effective of the three finalists in staking her ground and drawing contrasts despite the mirthful mood.

And she put the recent race/gender rhetorical battles into perspective. Referring to an intemperate remark uttered against Obama the other day by one of her surrogates, she simply observed that voters care most about the issues that affect them directly. In her words, "What (Nevada) people talk to me about is not what someone they never heard of said."

Of course, if her allies succeed in changing the rules of the Nevada caucuses at the eleventh hour - the lawsuit, outlined here on Monday, is still pending - then that could boost her victory prospects far more effectively than her debate performance.


No wonder the Democrats went the lovefest route last night. Better that they allow the Republicans to corner the market on chaos.

Three major contests, three winners, and no apparent leader. Last night it was Mitt Romney's turn in Michigan, but all he demonstrated was that he can vastly outspend his rivals to win a primary in the state where "Romney" is a brand name (thanks to his late father, a three-term governor). According to the exit polls, 42 percent of all voters said that Romney's family ties were important; Romney won those folks by a margin of 58 to 17 percent.

Meanwhile, John McCain again demonstrated that he has little pull with the Republican base. When he won the Michigan primary in 2000, 52 percent of the voters were crossover independents and Democrats; he lost big last night because, this time, only 33 percent of the voters were non-Republicans.

To review: Mike Huckabee won Iowa because he had a home-field advantage of sorts (Christian conservatives typically turn out for the caucuses); McCain won New Hampshire because of his own home-field advantage (traditionally large pool of voting independents); and Romney had the home-field family brand in Michigan.

Each winner represents one leg of the three-legged Republican stool: Huckabee has the religious/social conservative leg; McCain, the national security/defense leg; and Romney, the economic conservative/establishment leg. But the Republicans need an electable candidate who can reassemble the stool.

Does anybody want this nomination, or what? Can anybody broaden his base? The one-time national frontrunner, Rudy Giuliani, was so invisible in Michigan - yet another state he decided to skip - that he narrowly beat out Uncommitted, three percent to two percent. (If voting performance is indeed the main criteria for exclusion from a debate, maybe Rudy should be expelled from the next GOP slugfest.)

The Republicans can really thank Bush for this state of affairs. (Bush quote of the week, via ABC News: "I view myself as a peacemaker.") Even a passably popular lame-duck president can generally anoint a successor, but Bush's multiple failures have created a vacuum that nobody seems poised to fill. No wonder the candidates strain not to utter his name.