Friday, November 23, 2007

Rudy as Machiavellian, Hillary as Nixonian

A few Thanksgiving leftovers:

Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney have been pandering so relentlessly for conservative GOP primary voters, each insisting that he is the superior immigrant-basher, that at some point I wouldn't be surprised to hear one candidate top the other by declaring that all illegal aliens should be waterboarded.

But as I mentioned recently in print, this panderfest poses political risks for the Republican party, given the growing clout of the Hispanic electorate in states that are increasingly crucial in presidential elections (Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, among others). As Karl Rove and various conservative commentators have repeatedly pointed out, legal Hispanics do not appreciate it when their illegal ethnic brethren are being demonized.

And as New York Times columnist David Brooks notes today, Rudy's serial flipflops on immigration are particularly lamentable. When Rudy was mayor, he was an outspoken defender of illegal immigrants - as these speech excerpts (resurrected by Brooks) indicate:

"There are times when undocumented aliens must have a substantial degree of protection," such as when they send their kids to school or report crimes to the cops. "Similarly, illegal and undocumented immigrants should be able to seek medical help without the threat of being reported. When these people are sick, they are just as sick and just as contagious as citizens.....If you come here and you work hard and you happen to be in an undocumented status, you're one of the people who we want in this city."

And as recently as last year, when the GOP Congress passed a bill criminalizing illegal immigrants, Rudy denounced it, saying in a speech that the "punitive" approach "is actually going to make us considerably less secure than we already are."

But rather than standing firm on a bedrock belief, Rudy is spinning like a weathervane - and further alienating the GOP from the fastest-growing cohort in the electorate.

There's little doubt that, if Rudy and Hillary are the '08 nominees, Rudy will seek to paint his opponent as a calculating Machiavellian politician. But, given how he defended his immigrant-friendly principles back in 1995 - "sometimes leadership means taking unpopular positions, rejecting harmful political fads" - and how he is pandering today, he can merely level that charge by looking in the mirror.


Speaking of Hillary, I am intrigued by Democratic pollster Peter Hart's contention that her 2008 campaign is striking similar to Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign. (Or, as he specifically put it earlier this month, "Hillary Clinton is really Richard Nixon circa 1968.") Hart, who made the analogy based on his readings of the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll of voters nationwide (which he conducts with Republican counterpart Bill McInturff), was not intending to suggest that Hillary is a dead ringer for the Trickster; rather, he was referring to certain parallels in public perception, then and now.

Back then, with an unpopular war raging overseas, Nixon was a battle-tested partisan who was far more respected than liked. Voters saw him as polarizing figure who was not particularly trustworthy, but they viewed him as knowledgable and experienced. Similarly, as Hart says today, Hillary is respected for knowledge and experience (76 percent of Democrats, 51 percent of all adults), but not particularly likeable (49 percent of Democrats, 34 percent of all adults), or trustworthy (only 34 percent of all adults see her as "honest and straightforward").

Nixon in 1968 was seen as the ultimate survivor of partisan warfare, a gut fighter who had been knocked down repeatedly yet always bounced back. And Hillary actually advertises herself that way; as she put it the other day, "They've been after me for 15 years, and I'm still standing!"

Of course, we all know how Nixon turned out. Hart was not implying (nor am I) that Hillary as president would give us another Watergate - although I do find it noteworthy that her current hostility toward the press is vaguely Nixonian. Mostly, I would suggest that Hillary's chief obstacle, in the year ahead, is the lingering concern, among many Americans, that she does not fully represent a break with the polarized past, but merely its perpetuation.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Revenge of a duped Bush flunky

On the eve of your big holiday meal, here's an appetizer:

Presumably there are more onerous jobs in America than being George W. Bush's press secretary, but at least your average gravedigger or toll-booth worker isn't viewed by millions of his fellow citizens as a falsehood-peddling flunky who sold his integrity in the service of misplaced loyalty.

Such is Scott McClellan's fate, which explains why the former Bush spokesman is now trying to settle a few scores - with Bush himself, and other major players in this perpetually dissembling administration.

We've known for awhile that McClellan was trotted out, back in 2003, to falsely assure Americans that nobody in the White House had leaked Valerie Plame's confidential CIA status to the media (in retaliation for her husband's criticisms of Bush's case for war). McClellan told the press that he had checked with Scooter Libby and Karl Rove, and that both men had pleaded innocent to any involvement in the leak.

Court testimony later revealed that both men had lied to McClellan. And now, in a memoir scheduled for publication next April, McClellan is seeking to cleanse himself. He's hardly the first ex-Bushie to assail the administration (Paul O'Neil, Matthew Dowd, and George Tenet come to mind), and, once again, we are left to wonder why these people didn't blow the whistle a lot sooner. Nevertheless, here we have an erstwhile loyalist seeking to remove the knife that had been embedded in his back. It's yet another ignominious moment for this waning regime.

The book excerpt released by McClellan's publisher reads thusly:

The most powerful leader in the world had called upon me to speak on his behalf and help restore credibility he lost amid the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So I stood at the White house briefing room podium in front of the glare of the klieg lights for the better part of two weeks and publicly exonerated two of the senior-most aides in the White House: Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.

There was one problem. It was not true.

I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice President, the President’s chief of staff (Andrew Card), and the President himself.

Well. Apparently McClellan isn't still basking in the praise that was heaped upon him, by the president himself, when he left his job in April 2006. On the South Lawn, Bush told his departing flak: "Scott, job well done."

Valerie Plame is now the party more likely to be applauding Scott for a job well done, because his memoir might wind up aiding her lawsuit against the Bush team. She has issued this statement: "...McClellan confirms that he was sent out to lie to the press corps and the American public about two senior White House officials, Karl Rove and I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby who deliberately and recklessly revealed my identity as a covert CIA operations officer...Unfortunately, President Bush's commutation of Scooter Libby's felony sentence has short-circuited justice...Vice President Cheney in particular knew that Scooter Libby was involved because he had ordered and directed his actions. McClellan's revelations provide important support for our civil suit against those who violated our national security and maliciously destroyed my career."

The McClellan book excerpt prompts new questions. For starters, who among those people had snowed McClellan - and the public - while knowing all along that the cover story was a lie?

And what about Bush himself? McClellan told CNN last March that, to the best of his knowledge, Bush had also come to believe the false information, "based on the assurances that we were both given." In other words, he has long been saying that Bush didn't deliberately lie to him - and there's no indication that his memoir will say anything different. Some liberal bloggers therefore believe that this whole story is overblown and that McClellan is playing the journalists for suckers.

I disagree. Even if Bush was merely a clueless conveyor of the lie rather than an architect of the lie, what does that say about his executive skills? How thoroughly did he question Cheney and Rove and Libby before he bought into the lie? And doesn't it appear he was less than enraged about being duped, as evidenced by his failure to honor his own promise to fire any and all leakers? (By the way, poor McClellan was trotted out to make that promise. Here he is, on Sept. 29, 2003: "If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration.")

We don't yet know whether McClellan pursues these points in his memoir, because the italicized passage above is the sum total of what his publisher has released thus far. It's hardly ideal that info-merchants can dribble out these historical nuggets in the pursuit of sales and profit, but perhaps, on Thanksgiving eve, we can at least be thankful for this:

Sooner or later, through fair means or foul, the truth will out.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Why Republicans want to spend more time with their families

Mike Ferguson, a Republican congressman from New Jersey, announced yesterday that he would not seek re-election in 2008. Here's what he said: "I know that now is the right time to step away from public life to focus more on family life while our children are still young."

In translation, here's what he really meant: "Even though I have raised nearly $800,000 for a 2008 race, I'm bailing out anyway, because I don't want to be drowned in a tsunami. In fact, the Nov. 19 cover story in National Review, surveying our prospects as a party in 2008, is headlined, 'The Coming Cataclysm.' Like so many of my House Republican colleagues who are running for the exits, I fear that the '08 election will embalm us in the minority for the foreseeable future. As recently as 2006, I was an assistant majority whip. I had a little power of my own. But even if I manage to survive next year, I'll be powerless to do much of anything - especially if a Democrat wins the White House and sets the agenda. Better to just pull the plug right now, and hide behind my kids."

Ferguson is a metaphor for the national Republican miasma. He's bailing from a north-central Jersey district that was long considered to be a GOP bailwick - until 2006, when Ferguson, in his quest for a fourth term, had to scratch out a victory by less than one percentage point. He barely made it, even after distancing himself from President Bush as much as politically possible, and purging his website of all photos showing he and Bush in the same frame.

He clearly had no desire to risk that kind of ordeal again, especially since there is no guarantee that the '08 GOP presidential nominee will have any coattails in blue-state New Jersey. (Rudy Giuliani might have coattails, but his nomination is by no means assured, and Hillary Clinton, who is generally popular in New Jersey, might simply cancel him out.) And if you doubt New Jersey is blue, just remember what happened in 2006, when Dick Cheney showed up to campaign for GOP senatorial candidate Thomas Kean Jr. Somehow, Kean managed to arrive 15 minutes after Cheney had departed. Kean's ostensible excuse: the traffic was murder.

Anyway, in the wake of Ferguson's departure from a swing district, he is creating another open-seat opportunity for the Democrats - who have already been poised to capitalize on similar fortuitous openings nationwide. Another occurred two weeks ago, when longtime Republican congressman James Saxton, announced he would not seek re-election in his South Jersey district, which runs from Camden east to the Jersey shore. Saxton was ensconced a lot longer than Ferguson, and therefore cruised to an easy win in 2006, but his retirement opens a seat in a district that has been slowly trending Democratic. National House Democratic strategists are eyeing both these districts, and pledging to spend serious money; they have already settled on candidates for each, while the GOP has been scrambling.

All told, 18 House Republicans have either announced they're bailing out in 2008 or even earlier (ex-Speaker Dennis Hastert, for example). That's about nine percent of the current House GOP membership, and it speaks volumes about the current Republican mood. By contrast, only four House Democrats are leaving the chamber. Stuart Rothenberg, the nonpartisan Washington analyst of House races, succinctly sums up the GOP's potential '08 baggage: "damage to the Republican brand," thanks to President Bush, "as well as from a series of highly publicized scandals and ethical problems."

By definition, most of the departing Republicans are moderates who hail from swing districts (conservatives who represent deeply-red districts are not at risk next year). The GOP will now be forced to expend potentially scarce resources simply to defend vacated seats in Arizona, Ohio (at least two), Illinois, New Mexico, New Jersey, and Minnesota, among others. Ideally, the party would be able to target some vulnerable Democratic freshmen (for instance, Nick Lampson, who now occupies the indicted Tom DeLay's seat, in deeply-red suburban Houston), but it's tough to do that if you're stuck on defense without adequate funds.

It's rare to use the words "GOP" and "scarce resources" in the same sentence, but this is how life is during the waning days of the Bush era. The party is not flush with money the way it used to be; in the most recent federal filings, the GOP's House campaign strategy arm, the National Republican Campaign Committee, reported that it had only $1.6 million cash on hand - whereas the NRCC's rival, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, reported $28.3 million cash on hand. That is a stunning reversal of the usual pattern, and further evidence of a dispirited Republican community.

But perhaps the Republicans should not despair. One party strategist is offering these tips to '08 GOP House candidates: "Create a narrative that explains your life and commitments. Every presidential election is about change and the future, not the past. So show them who you are in a way that gives the American people hope, optimism and insight. That's the best antidote to the low approval ratings of the Republican president. Those numbers will not help the GOP candidate..."

There's the advice in a nutshell: Run as far away from Bush as possible.

What's ironic is that the advisor happens to be...Karl Rove, the Bush political architect who has done so much to debase the Republican brand and spark this Republican rush to the exits. When Bush's own Svengali (now improbably reincarnated as a Newsweek columnist) is advising candidates to distance themselves from Bush, that tells you all you need to know about the current Republican state of play.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Huck and the Chuck

I often ignore the 30-second candidate TV ads, probably because they're so predictable -- the tinkling piano, the stars and stripes, the family tableaus, the vaporous bromides about fighting for a better tomorrow. But GOP candidate Mike Huckabee, the rock n' rolling religious conservative, did catch my attention yesterday, with the unveiling of his first campaign commercial, an exclusive on Fox News.

But first, some background: Huckabee, who is gaining strength in Iowa, breathing down Mitt Romney's neck, and therefore threatening to scramble the GOP race, nevertheless has a couple handicaps. Even though he is attracting some Christian conservatives who like his purist positions on gay marriage and abortion, and gaining support from working-class Republicans who like his populist attacks on corporations and Wall Street, he still faces resistance from the party base. A lot of base voters want a post-9/11 tough guy who will also crack down on illegal immigrants - yet this ex-Arkansas governor has no foreign policy/national security experience, unless you count overseeing the National Guard; and as governor he championed a plan to offer in-state tuition to illegal immigrants and their children.

So here's his solution to appearing soft. From the TV ad...

Huckabee: "My plan to secure the border. Two words: Chuck. Norris."

(Cut to Chuck Norris, sitting beside him.) Norris: "Mike Huckabee is a lifelong hunter who'll protect our Second Amendment rights."

(Cut back to Huckabee.) Huckabee: "There's no chin behind Chuck Norris' beard, only another fist."

Norris: "Mike Huckabee wants to put the IRS out of business."

Huckabee: "When Chuck Norris does a push-up, he isn't lifting himself up, he's pushing the earth down."

Norris: "Mike's a principled, authentic conservative."

Huckabee: "Chuck Norris doesn't endorse. He tells America how it's going to be. I'm Mike Huckabee and I approved this message. So did Chuck."

Is it really feasible that the conservative base will begin to view Huckabee as a tough guy, just because he signed up an '80s celluloid pugilist? Will Norris' success in scripted bar fights matter more to the base than the fact that, while Huckabee was Arkansas governor, the per capita state and local tax burden increased by roughly 47 percent? Or the fact that he doubled state spending?

Indeed, does the presence of Chuck Norris trump the Huck's continued support for using taxpayer money to educate the kids of illegal immigrants? As recently as last Friday, on Fox News, he was getting grief from Sean Hannity about that. Hannity asked him, "If people that have entered this country illegally, if we give them in-state tuition breaks, isn't that some type of reward for law-breaking? In other words, we know the impact that immigration has had on our educational system, our criminal justice system, and our health care system. So if we offer in-state tuition breaks for families that broke the law and didn't respect our laws, isn't that some type of reward?"

And Huckabee replied, "I'm sure it will be an argument that will be made. But my point is, if a kid is (brought) here when he is five or six years old by his parents and he had no choice whether he was here or not, do you continue to push him down?" That kind of reply might strike many conservatives as evidence of a bleeding heart.

So the question is, does Chuck Norris level the playing field for Huckabee? (Conservative commentator Matthew Continetti writes today, "To me, this ad represents both the good and the bad about Huckabee: It's funny and fresh, but in terms of substance it's lighter than air.") Do most voters really care about TV ad endorsements from B-list macho movie guys, even if they're still idolized on the Internet?

I suppose we'll know that the Huck has hit paydirt when one of his rivals signs up Steven Seagal.


There's a bit of a flap this morning about Rudy Giuliani's penchant for using a corporate jet owned by a casino gambling magnate. Some GOP activists think that it's a tad hypocritical for Rudy to preach moral values in his pursuit of religious conservatives, while at the same time ponying up $122,000 in summer plane fare to Sheldon Adelson, scion of the Las Vegas Sands empire. After all, isn't gambling an immoral act that often leads to vice and crime?

"You have to follow the money and ask, 'Why is Sheldon Adelson partnering with Rudy Giuliani?'" asked Stacey Cargill, an anti-gambling and Republican Party activist in Iowa. Cargill told the New York Daily News, "If Rudy Giuliani wants to be the crimefighting candidate, why is he partnering with a large and growing gambling empire?" (Adelson, who wants the state of Massachusetts to legalize casino gambling, has also helped bankroll Freedom's Watch, the hawkish White House front group.)

But Rudy will barely get scratched by this story. Republicans, who see themselves as the exemplars of "moral values," have long tolerated casino gambling, and thus made peace with their hypocrisy. Some religious conservative leaders, notably James Dobson, have made sporadic attempts to inveigh against the moral sin of gambling (Dobson, 2006: "Gambling--all types of gambling--is driven by greed and subsists on greed"), but many have simply chosen to ignore it.

I was struck by this disconnect back in February 1998, when the Republicans staged a big confab in Biloxi, Mississippi, spending most of their time condemning President Clinton's moral sins. Then, when the sessions ended, everybody would go back to their hotel the gaudy casinos that dotted the Gulf coastline.

A parade of potential presidential candidates showed up to strut their wares and talk up moral values, yet virtually none thought it odd that the party was meeting in the Grand Casino Biloxi Hotel. Only one '00 prospect spoke up - John Ashcroft. I still have my notes. He said: "We meet this afternoon in a place surrounded by money changers and risk takers. I think it's wrong. Our party should not sell its soul to the gambling lobby of this country...The truth is that gambling is a cancer on the soul of our nation."

Ashcroft, of course, got nowhere with that argument. Candidate George W. Bush would soon insist that he hated casino gambling; then, after he secured the '00 nomination, he took a quarter of a million bucks from gambling industry donors in Nevada.

In other words, few Republicans will care about Rudy's consorting with a casino tycoon. On the gambling issue, most in the party amended their moral principles a long time ago.