Monday, March 24, 2008

A Hillary surrogate retrofits his convictions

It was excrutiating yesterday to watch Senator Evan Bayh audition on CNN for the job of Hillary Clinton's running mate. One of the requirements, apparently, is that the applicant must be ready and willing to scrap his convictions for the good of the team. By that measure, Bayh probably ensured his status on her short list. Assuming she ever gets the chance to wield such a list.

One of the tasks of any Clinton surrogate these days is to pick up the goalposts and move them around, with the aim of supplying Democratic superdelegates with a plausible reason why they should coronate the chronically trailing candidate. And Bayh, who is also being entrusted with delivering his state of Indiana to Clinton in the May 6 primary, spun a very creative argument on CNN.

Bayh said that the Democratic nomination should be awarded to the candidate whose primary victories, when added together, represent the most electoral votes in the November election; not coincidentally, Clinton's victorious states currently add up to 219 electoral votes, while Obama's stack up at 202. (I'm not counting meaningless Florida and Michigan, for reasons I explained on Friday.)

The absurdity of this argument - that winning big primary states is proof of November electability - is easily demonstrable; in 1980, 1988, and 2004, Jimmy Carter, Mike Dukakis, and John Kerry, respectively, all triumphed during the primaries in a number of big states with a lot of electoral votes, only to be defeated in those states by their Republican opponents in November.

But that's not what interests me most about Bayh's argument. The hypocrisy is what interests me most.

Here he was yesterday, on CNN: "...we do elect presidents based upon the Electoral College. So who carried the (primary) states with the most Electoral College votes is an important factor to consider because, ultimately, that's how we choose the president of the United States."

So Evan Bayh believes that the Electoral College should be an important determinant, both in choosing a nominee and choosing a president? Wait a sec, let's take a quick stroll down memory lane.

On Nov. 16, 2000, Bayh appeared on CNN and voiced his support for a constitution amendment eradicating the Electoral College as the means for choosing a president, and relying instead on the popular vote. He said, "I do believe that we should have popularly elected officials in our country. I think our government officials should reflect the will of the governed...we ought to try and make sure that in the future we have the person who gets the most votes hopefully will be the president."

Here he is in a speech on April 10, 2001, when he dismissed the Electoral College as outmoded: "Times have changed over the last couple hundred years, and where before we were interested in insuring that every state was adequately represented, now we are a country of people, not just of political subsidiaries. And you can make a compelling case for the direct popular election of the president. You can make a compelling case for the direct popular election of the president...I personally feel that we've moved to the point where we ought to have people choosing the president."

Here he is again five years later, in a North Carolina newspaper: "I think our president should be chosen by the majority of the American people." As for using the Electoral College to elect presidents, "I just don't think in the modern era that is appropriate."

It should also be noted that the abolition of the Electoral College has long been a Bayh family crusade; Evan's father, Birch Bayh, a long-serving Indiana senator a generation ago, has spent part of his time as elder statesman serving on reform panels that want the College gone.

Still, I have a twinge of sympathy for the younger Bayh. Politicians often retrofit their principles in accordance with the exigencies of the moment. And the moment apparently calls for desperate rhetorical measures, since Clinton is losing in the popular vote, the pledged delegate count, and has been routed in the tally of superdelegates who have made up their minds since early February.

And, in this case, Bayh is merely toeing the Clintonian line - because the candidate for whom he is currently auditioning was also apparently against the electoral-vote standard before she was for it. As Hillary said at the end of 2000, "I believe strongly that in a democracy, we should respect the will of the people and to me, that means it's time to do away with the Electoral College and move to the popular election of our president." (Hat tip for that quote to Kit Seelye of The New York Times.)

But this retrofitting doesn't work even on its own terms. Clinton's 14 winning states, totaling 219 electoral votes, includes California and New York. Those two states are worth 86 electoral votes. Those two states, in 2008, will almost certainly vote Democratic in November - no matter who wins the nomination. So, even by the electoral-vote measure that Bayh and Clinton formerly denounced, Clinton is inflating her primary season achievements.

And every day that she and her surrogates persist, the Republicans sit back and smile.


Speaking of Republicans, John McCain got a helping hand yesterday from Brit Hume on Fox News. Although in the end I wonder whether Hume did him any favors.

Hume was opining about McCain's error last week about how the Shiites in Iran were supposedly training terrorists for al Qaeda (a Sunni group) and sending them into Iraq. The error was so flagrant that even fellow warrior Joe Lieberman felt compelled to correct him. But, as I mentioned here last Thursday, McCain repeated this error in several venues, thereby grossly exaggerating the al Qaeda threat in Iraq (just as Bush and Cheney routinely do).

Of course, if Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama had gone to Iraq and uttered such a jaw-dropping inaccuracy, Fox News would be running the video on every talkfest. But Hume told his viewers yesterday that, since McCain did it, it was not such a big deal.

"The mistake," Hume said, "raises not the question about his knowledgeability - we all kind of believe that he has that. The question perhaps is about his age, which is an issue...that he might have had kind of a senior moment there. And I think that's unfortunate for him."

So...It was really OK that McCain screwed up so badly on a fundamental piece of national-security info, because he was merely having a "senior moment." This is a defense? To suggest that the guy carrying the nuclear football may be prone to a "senior moment?" Better that such moments be reserved for botching the food order at the early-bird special.