Monday, February 04, 2008

Falsehoods and embarrassments

Sensitive Sunday issues, a three-act play:

John McCain may well become the GOP's putative nominee after the smoke clears on Feb. 5, but he's still anathema to many conservative soldiers. I was reminded of this last night, after suggesting in a Sunday print column that the anti-McCain forces, by refusing to embrace him and theatening to sit out the election, might wind up undercutting the only electable Republican.

The emails were scalding, and I almost had to call the fire department. Calie Stephens, a conservative in Texas, wrote of McCain: "He has drunk the Kool Aid on global warming. He is wrong on freedom of speech issues such as McCain-Feingold. He is wrong on Guantanamo. We do not trust this man. A Republican cannot win the general election without the base. The base ain't gonna show up on election day. They say that an alcoholic or drug addict must hit rock bottom before he learns his lesson. The nomination of John McCain, to myself and millions of principled Republicans, is a strong indication that we have hit rock bottom..."

A conservative in Arizona, who knew McCain years ago, writes: "He was a true Reaganite then. But he has changed over the years and gotten bitter. He now represents the liberal side of the GOP, not the conservative side. He has stabbed the mainstream republicans in the back over and over again. And you expect us to just roll over and play nice to a man that will continue to stab us in the back as president? I will not be voting for John McCain ever. And if the conservatives in this party know what's good for them, they won't vote for him either."

I'll spare you the numerous personal attacks on McCain; apparently, it still bugs some conservatives that he ended his first marriage and wedded a rich young woman nearly 30 years ago. Suffice it to say that, if he's the nominee, his prospects in November are nil if he can't galvanize the conservative base. If George W. Bush had failed in that task back in November 2004, he would have been a one-term president.

The problem is, McCain keeps acting as if he doesn't have a problem. Yesterday, on Fox News Sunday, he said this: "We're doing fine with conservatives...In Florida, we got, as you know, a majority of the Republican voters in a Republican-only primary."

That's a fresh twist on his favorite falsehood. A couple weeks ago, he was publicly insisting that he had won a majority of Republican voters in the open primaries of New Hampshire and South Carolina, whereas, in truth, he hadn't even won a plurality of the Republican voters in either contest. Now comes his claim about the Florida primary - and, again, he was not being accurate. The exit polls show that he won only 33 percent of the self-identified Republicans, while Mitt Romney pulled an equal share. And among those who called themselves conservative (6 of 10 primary voters), only 27 percent favored McCain.

Meanwhile, Fox News nailed him on an issue that conservatives continue to hold against him. As I have noted several times lately, McCain keeps insisting that he voted against the Bush tax cuts back in 2001 only because there no corresponding spending cuts. But Fox News found McCain's Senate statement of May 26, 2001, explaining why he was opposing the Bush cuts. Here's what he said at the time:

"I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us at the expense of middle-class Americans who most need tax relief."

He didn't say a word about the lack spending cuts. Instead, he echoed what many Democrats were saying at the time - and what Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are saying today.

Confronted yesterday with his own words, McCain insisted that he had complained about the lack of spending cuts "many, many times." But he was stuck with the statement that Fox dredged up, and that's one reason why so many grassoots conservative are loath to compromise. We'll see whether he can melt their hearts, when he speaks Thursday at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, a gig he has skipped in the past.


Speaking of falsehoods, Hillary Clinton yesterday contributed one of her own. While also appearing on Fox News Sunday, she said: "We've had six contests. I've won four of them."

The factual record is that, of the four fully contested caucuses and primaries (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina), she and Obama have each won two. She was including, in her victory tally, the two states (Michigan and Florida) where Obama had agreed not to campaign, because they had been stripped of delegates by the national party, as punishment for scheduling their primaries too early. Obama wasn't even on the ballot in Michigan (Hillary "won" by defeating Uncommitted), and he stayed away from Florida (where Hillary "won" by getting her supporters to run up the score, at least for symbolic value).

She exaggerated yesterday, claiming a sense of momentum via smoke and mirrors, perhaps out of concern that the opposite may be true. The final polls seem to suggest an Obama surge in key Feb. 5 states (including California and New Jersey), and he has apparently pulled even in the latest polls of Democrats nationwide. In California, where Hillary was once ahead by 25 points, the latest survey shows her topping Obama by only three.

I wonder about those California numbers, however. The state permits early voting, and apparently there was a huge early turnout - back when Hillary was the clear favorite. This might mean she is stronger than the current numbers suggest, and that the eleventh-hour sentiment for Obama might not be enough to stop her.

Still, the late sentiment for Obama, in California and elsewhere, is worth tracking. I suspect that some of it reflects Democratic concerns about a Clinton co-presidency. And that issue surfaced anew yesterday, during Hillary's appearance on Fox News.

She was asked about the recent New York Times story (which I referenced last Friday), showing how her husband had done some business deals with the anti-democratic despot who runs Kazakhastan, and how Bill had championed the despot for an international job that involved promoting global democracy - even while Hillary was on record in the Senate attacking this despot for his human rights abuses.

Fox News asked her a reasonable question: "If you're president and he's the former president, and he's conducting and making statements that are out of step with your policy, isn't it going to be awfully confusing?"

She at first tried to change the subject: "Well, Dick Cheney also went to Kazakhstan and praised the current regime." (Don't Democrats always complain when Bush's defenders try to change the subject by talking about Clinton?) Then she tried this: "You know, you sometimes have to use both carrots and sticks to move these regimes to do what they should be doing." (So, is she suggesting that, in a Hillary White House, Bill would play the carrot to her stick?)

I doubt that most Democrats watch Fox News Sunday anyway. But this whole Clinton co-presidency issue has yet to be sorted out. If the race extends beyond Feb. 5, as now appears likely, it will flare again.


Speaking of sensitive issues, Barack Obama got off easy yesterday. During his appearance on CBS' Face the Nation, he was not asked about the embarrassing story that ran in The Times one day earlier.

He's been claiming on the campaign trail that as a senator he has fought to require that all nuclear plant owners - including the biggest firm, Exelon Corporation - notify state and local officials of even small radioactive leaks, so that the affected communities would know what was going on. Obama said in December that this was "the only nuclear legislation that I’ve passed."

But this claim was false, on two counts. The legislation never passed. And the final version that went into limbo contained no such requirement. It was repeatedly watered down by Obama's office, to meet the demands of Senate Republicans and - more importantly - the demands of Exelon....whose top officials happen to be major donors to Obama, backing him financially ever since he was a state senator.

In exaggerating his record, Obama was merely using the familiar legislative nomenclature: as he told a Nevada newspaper, he "led an effort" to require disclosure of radioactive leaks. You see that wording in candidate brochures all the time; when a politician says that he or she has "led an effort," it generally means that the effort itself went nowhere.

Fortunately for Obama, he wasn't asked yesterday about his Exelon connection. One of Bill Clinton's biggest beefs is that the national press has been easier on Obama than on his spouse. Maybe, in terms of the big picture, that's just sour grapes; but at least with respect to the latest Sunday shows, Bill was right.