Friday, January 18, 2008

Saturday night fever

I'm basically off duty today, but I plan to write Sunday about the Nevada Democratic caucuses and the South Carolina Republican primary, both of which will render their verdicts on Saturday night. So, for now, just these thoughts about the feverish races in both venues:

Team Clinton's last-ditch attempt to suppress the vote in Nevada was swatted away by a federal judge yesterday, fittingly so. After hearing the complaints of the Clinton allies - about how it was supposedly unfair that members of the culinary workers union were being allowed to attend caucus meetings set up at the casinos, their place of employment - the judge made the obvious point that, in general, political parties should be allowed to devise their own rules of participation, without interference from the courts. That has been the federal judiciary's guiding principle for generations.

Indeed, the Nevada Democratic party - with the OK of the Democratic National Committee, and with the acquiesence of Hillary Clinton and all her rivals - had devised this set up, to encourage participation from the culinary workers who were working day shifts. But after the culinary workers endorsed Barack Obama last week, all of a sudden the Clinton camp (via its surrogate plaintiffs) decided to get litigious. And here's what the Clintons have earned for their trouble: a new radio ad from the culinary workers' parent union. Aimed at the largely Hispanic rank and file, it says in Spanish, "Hillary Clinton does not respect our people. Hillary Clinton supporters want to prevent people from voting in their workplace on Saturday. This is unforgivable. Hillary Clinton is shameless."

Hillary may well win the caucuses anyway; she has longstanding grassroots support. And it can be argued that Obama needs a victory more than she does; he needs to prove that he has some electoral clout with Hispanics (Nevada is the first voting state with a large Hispanic population), as he heads toward Feb 5, when a number of heavily-Hispanic states (notably California and New York) stage their Democratic primaries.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, we'll all closely track those South Carolina results on Saturday night. Let me see if I've got this right:

Fred Thompson may be taken off life support, unless he isn't. John McCain may finish first (thanks to the defense-hawk voters and the military retirees), or maybe he doesn't, because Mike Huckabee is strong among the populous Christian conservatives, who presumably love his vow to bring the U.S. Constitution into line with "God's standards". Or maybe Huckabee stumbles (if he can't win in the evangelical heartland, where can he win?), and Mitt Rommey trumps him on economic populism with his vow to bring back the South Carolina textile industry (yeah, right), just like he vows to bring back the car industry in Detroit (yeah, right). Or maybe Romney tanks in South Carolina because he has diverted considerable resources to the largely uncontested Nevada Republican caucuses, where he's poised for an inconsequential win that he hopes to spin as Mitt-mentum on the road to Florida.

But somebody or other will come out of South Carolina in some kind of decent shape, presumably psyched up to head down south to Florida for a Jan. 29 showdown with Rudy Giuliani, who may finally have found a state where he draws more votes than Ron Paul.

Thus, a freeze frame of the stormy Republican race. But, as Mark Twain once said about New England weather, if you want to see it change, just wait a few minutes.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A few strolls down memory lane

Pop quiz for Jan. 17: What historic political event occurred on this date? First prize, a pat on the back. Second prize (to quote Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross), a set of steak knives. The answer is at the bottom of today's post.

Speaking of history, let us briefly pause to ponder the South Carolina Republican primary. The '08 contest will be staged on Saturday, and it's worth noting that the unusual dynamic of the current GOP race will likely deprive South Carolina of the chance to play its traditional role of party kingmaker.

Ever since 1980, the state has brought great clarity to the Republican race - by shoring up a shaky frontrunner and smoothing his path to the nomination (Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000); by blessing a guy who'd been beaten in Iowa (Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H. W. Bush in 1988), or embarrassed in New Hampshire (George H. W. Bush in 1992).

Note that every one of those South Carolina winners went on to win the GOP nomination. In each case, the state Republican establishment (comprised of defense hawks, religious conservatives, and fiscal conservatives) anointed the person who seemed most in sync with the grassroots, the big donors, and the dominant party zeitgeist. As I can testify from my numerous trips to palmetto country, South Carolinian Republicans basically respect hierarchy, and bow to the wishes of their senior political leaders; this was particularly true when Gov. Carroll Campbell was alive and running the state GOP machine, and when native-born uber-strategist Lee Atwater was alive and gutting the guys who wound up losing.

In fact, it was Atwater (Karl Rove's mentor) who put the primary on the map in the first place, contriving to position South Carolina right after Iowa and New Hampshire, to ensure that southern conservatives would have a major say in the party's choice of candidate.

But South Carolina clarity might prove elusive this time around. None of the candidates has mustered the requisite support for a breakthrough (despite the fact that John McCain seems have scored the kind of party establishment backing that he lacked in the 2000 primary), and prospective voters seem either disenchanted or simply indecisive about the slate. Polls have shown that roughly half the folks who are inclined to show up for the balloting have yet to make up their minds.

Mitt Romney is not fully contesting the state, preferring to wait for the top two finishers (apparently McCain and Mike Huckabee, the latter buoyed by the large pool of religious conservatives) to arrive in Florida for a potential four-way battle on Feb. 26 with Rudy Giuliani (who has already ceded South Carolina, after having ceded Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan). Indeed, Florida's presence on the calendar is another reason why South Carolina's clout seems diminished this time; in the old days, South Carolina was the gateway to a slew of Dixie primaries, with Florida way down on the calendar. Not so this time. Florida moved up to get more clout, and it has far more delegates than South Carolina.

But there's a good chance that South Carolina on Saturday will bring clarity in at least one respect - by sending a definitive message to Fred Thompson that he should stick to playing politicians in the movies.


The answer to the pop quiz: On this date 10 years ago, the Monica Lewinsky scandal went public. And the era of digital media dominance began.

Late in the evening of Saturday, Jan. 17, 1998, the Drudge Report posted this item: NEWSWEEK KILLS STORY ON WHITE HOUSE INTERN BLOCKBUSTER REPORT: 23-YEAR OLD, FORMER WHITE HOUSE INTERN, SEX RELATIONSHIP WITH PRESIDENT**World Exclusive**

The story wasn't totally correct - Newsweek had merely delayed publication, pending the need for more reporting - but the gist of the charge was right. Few Americans probably saw that item, but conservative commentator Bill Kristol mentioned it the next morning on an ABC News talkathon. Then the mainsteam newspapers geared up, and, by Wednesday morning, The Washington Post had its first big splash.

We all know how the scandal rocked Bill Clinton's world, and how the zeal of his Republican pursuers wound up turning off the public and costing the GOP seats in the House and Senate that fall. Less recognized is that the Jan. 17 Drudge item ultimately triggered a media revolution that continues today.

Ten years ago today, long before the advent of broadband, Internet news was not yet a mass phenomenon. Yet even by September of 1998, when special prosecutor Ken Starr released his report on Clinton's sins, the world had changed. Millions of Americans read the report online, without a filter from the established media. Newspapers were ultimately spurred to go heavily into the online business, to keep pace with the burgeoning demand for instantaneous information. Those pressures persist today, amid the ever-escalating tension between the desire to be first and the need to be accurate. And woe to any politician who transgresses as Clinton did, in this era of pitiless transparency.

I'll leave it to you to judge whether this is all to the good.

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.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

McCain in Michigan and beyond

If John McCain wins the Michigan primary tonight, resist the temptation to confer upon him the title of prohibitive Republican frontrunner. Many grassroots conservatives and Republican establishment leaders remain downright hostile to the guy, and a strong showing in Michigan would do nothing to ease their concerns.

McCain has yet to demonstrate that he can garner major support from the Republican base. He won New Hampshire in 2000 and 2008, thanks largely to the votes he attracted from independents and crossover Democrats. He also won Michigan in 2000, again because, like New Hampshire, the Michigan rules allow independents and Democrats to participate. Therefore, a win tonight, or a close second to native son Mitt Romney, will be dismissed by his detractors as fresh evidence of his ongoing unattractiveness to the party base.

Indeed, his GOP critics, citing his frequent dissents from party orthodoxy, seem increasingly determined to block his path to the nomination (assuming that they can, since they'd need to settle on a palatable alternative). The other day, for instance, I heard a radio diatribe from Rick Santorum, the former number-three Senate Republican leader. Conversing with conservative talk-show host Mark Levin, the ex-Pennsylvania senator insisted that a President McCain would be "very, very dangerous for Republicans," because McCain's first instinct "would be to go to the (Democratic) side to solve a problem instead of trying to find like-minded Republicans to come up with solutions."

In Santorum's view, a classic example of McCain's tendency to "act like a Democrat" was his bid to pass the immigration reform bill that would have established a path to citizenship for illegals. A day before talking with radio-host Levin, Santorum told radio-host Hugh Hewitt: "John McCain was the guy who was working with Ted Kennedy to drive it down our throats, and lectured us repeatedly about how xenophobic we were, lectured us - us being the Republican (senators) - about how wrong we were on this, how we were on the wrong side of history."

And that's just for starters. The GOP establishment is still ticked that McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, and they don't like his current explanation for why he voted that way. Indeed, McCain's explanation is somewhat disingenuous. He says today that he opposed the tax cuts because there were no provisions to also reduce spending, but that's not what he was saying back in 2000, when he first opposed candidate Bush's proposed tax cuts. At that time, he stressed mainly that the cuts would benefit the rich at the expense of the middle class - an argument that radio host Levin remembers as "socialist, class-warfare rhetoric."

The list of anti-McCain grievances - compiled by Republican establishment groups, personalities and press organs ranging from the American Conservative Union and Rush Limbaugh to the National Review - includes: his opposition to drilling for oil in Alaska; his support for regulations that would combat global warming; his support for closing the Guantanamo Bay prison; his refusal to sign a no-tax-hike pledge; his Senate investigations of lobbyist-felon Jack Abramoff and his frequent partner in money-making, former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed; his refusal to support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage; his opposition to the big pharmaceutical companies; and many more.

Says Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online, "For a movement that has spent a year pining for Ronald Reagan, John McCain is a very odd choice to settle on early." Says David Keene, leader of the American Conservative Union, "It's not conceivable that (McCain) could come out of this nomination fight or the national convention with the kind of enthusiastic support he is going to need for the general election."

Keene may be getting ahead of himself. McCain still needs to win some big GOP primaries where grassroots conservative voters predominate - for instance, California, which votes this year on Feb. 5, and which drove a stake into the heart of McCain's candidacy eight years ago. Colorado is also a sizeable prize on Feb. 5, and the rules there prohibit crossover voters.

But the GOP establishment's big problem is that it can't agree on a stop-McCain candidate. Romney has yet to escape from the hole that he shoveled for himself, and convince voters that he's more than the sum of his marketing calibrations. Mike Huckabee has to show strength beyond his evangelical conservative base (although his anti-Wall Street rhetoric makes him less palatable to the establishment than even McCain). Fred Thompson has to stop flatlining. And Rudy Giuliani, who seems to alienate voters the more they see him, has to stop sliding like a bad tech stock in the 2000 crash.

Santorum, surveying the field last week on Fox News, said that "if you look at the candidates, all have serious problems. I think, it's my prediction, I think we're headed for a brokered convention. I don't think we're going to get a nominee." (Every four years, somebody always insists that a party is headed for a brokered convention. The only place you'll find a brokered convention is in novelist Richard North Patterson's new political thriller...although it's true that the protagonist is partly modeled on McCain.)

As a stopgap measure - indeed, considering the fluid nature of the GOP race, all current thinking is short-term - the establishment will be rooting in Michigan tonight for a decisive Romney victory. That would put the race back at square one, and provide some brief respite for McCain's foes, as they search anew for an alternative.

One would think they might want to check the latest national polls, which show that McCain's crossover appeal makes him the most electable Republican in a tough election year, but no. The game of politics is often highly personal, McCain has riled a lot of Republicans, and his critics dearly want to pay him back. This may not sound like a blueprint for party victory in November, but that election feels like light years away. Right now, the McCain forces, pro and con, are focused merely on the foxholes they're living in.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Hillary's "Florida Republican tactics"

One week from today, the Nevada Democratic caucuses will be receding in the rear-view mirror, and the story I'm about to describe may well be relegated to a footnote. But let us live for today. What we have here is a classic demonstration of the disconnect between what a politician says and what a politican does.

At the same time that Hillary Clinton is extolling herself (on Meet the Press yesterday) as a tireless champion of working women and people of color - "I've worked all my life on behalf of civil rights and women's rights and human rights" - her allies and surrogates in Nevada have filed a lawsuit that is designed to undercut the voting rights of working women and people of color.

This is how the game is played when the stakes are high: The Clinton surrogates - who have no direct links to the Hillary campaign, and are thus supposedly acting on their own - don't like the fact that the Nevada Democratic party is making it easy for unionized casino workers to participate in the Saturday caucuses. So they've sued to stop the process.

The state Democratic party has been busy setting up meeting sites at nine big casinos, so that members of the powerful Culinary Workers Union - as well as any non-union workers within a two-mile radius of the sites - can choose a candidate during their work break. That seems like a reasonable idea - so reasonable, in fact, that the Democratic National Committee overwhelmingly approved the plan last spring; and so reasonable that nary a whisper of dissent was voiced by any of the Democratic presidential candidates.

Indeed, when Hillary left Iowa last week, she lamented the fact that so many working people were unable to participate in those caucuses, due to their work schedules. As she told ABC News, "You have a limited period of time on one day to have your voices heard. That is troubling to me. You know, in a situation of a caucus, people who work during that time - they're disenfranchised."

But all of a sudden, Hillary's surrogates are now claiming that the Nevada Democratic plan violates the U.S. Constitution, and that therefore these "at large" caucus sites - which are actually intended to enfranchise more working people - should be eliminated.

I'm just wondering: Could this lawsuit, filed late Friday, have anything to do with the fact that the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union gave its much-coveted endorsement, 48 hours earlier, to Barack Obama?

Kirsten Searer, the state party's deputy executive director, is quoted as saying that, ever since the caucus rules were OKed by the national Democrats last May, "the campaigns have been fully informed throughout the process." There hadn't been a shred of protest from the Hillary camp about the plans for casino caucus sites; nor had there been any protest from the pro-Hillary folks who have now filed the lawsuit. In fact, some of those pro-Hillary folks are members of the state party, and they participated in the March 31, 2007 meeting that OKed the plan...unanimously.

Officially, Hillary's campaign says it knows nothing about the laswuit and, as the candidate herself said this weekend, "I have no opinion on the lawsuit." So we are supposed to believe that she and her campaign have no connection whatsoever to the plaintiffs, who happen to include the Nevada State Education Association teacher's union, whose deputy executive director is a founding member of Hillary's Nevada Women's Leadership Council. And it's perhaps sheer coincidence that the law firm pushing the suit is Hillary-friendly; several senior partners have given her money, and one prominent lawyer in the firm, ex-congressman James Bilbray, has endorsed her and has been campaigning for her. (Here's Hillary, yesterday: "I don't think it's supporters of mine. There seems to be some misunderstanding about that.")

Hillary has complained for years that the 2000 post-election Florida crisis was an insult to democracy, an attempt by Republicans to disenfranchise minorities by suppressing their votes. It's hard to see how she is well served today by exposing herself to that same charge in Nevada - particularly when it is being leveled by a pro-Democratic union official whose members include large numbers of working-class Hispanics ("This is an attempt to wholesale disenfranchise people who are largely women, largely people of color, and people who do the kind of work that makes this town go").

On the one hand, we have Hillary repeatedly declaring that she has fought for minorities all her life; on the other hand, we have her surrogates suing to shut down caucus rules that have been designed to help minorities (again, state party official Searer: "The at-large precincts were included to increase participation in the highest concentration of shift workers - many of whom are minorities"). On the one hand, we have Hillary inveighing for years about Republican suppression tactics; on the other hand, we have D. Taylor, the Culinary union official, accusing Hillary's surrogates of "Florida Republican tactics."

Barack Obama should be pleased, because Hillary has handed him a hot one. She comes off looking like a typical pol who says one thing but does another, somebody who lawyers up to change the rules, even at the risk of alienating the minorities and working stiffs whom she claims to best represent.