Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Reaction to today's column

One of the more insightful responses I got from Politico column today was this note from a progressive intellectual friend of mine who does not work in politics but follows it closely:
My sense is that this debate is roiling around because people have fundamental beliefs that they are not presenting honestly.

While there appears to be a majority of Americans who hate this war and recognize it as a mistake, either from the onset or from extremely poor execution, a large proportion of the anti-war movement is motivated by a fundamental pacifism or self-interest which doesn't appeal to swing voters who are more concerned with costs and long-term US strategic interests that are also imperiled by the adventure.

Meanwhile the very mistake we made obligates us to do something honorable to fix it, which could either aggravate the original mistake or ameliorate it to some extent. It's not clear which however so you have a debate that's starting to round out as people willing to put their lives and lucre on the line to make amends for a mistake against people who are selfish or naive, hence the resurgence of John McCain.

Democratss need to put forth a more noble reason to pull out than people are being killed and it was stupid. What diplomatic or aide packages that involve sacrifice could be offered as an alternative to surges and more of the same war policy?


Latest Politico Column

After taking a little late summer siesta from my Politico column, I have a new piece up today analyzing why the anti-war movement has failed to make any real progress in Congress.

This one is sure to raise some hackles, and I suspect I will be back here some time soon to respond to some of the counter arguments. So stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


The Washington Post's Seven Questions

With the presidential primary campaign expected to amp up dramatically after Labor Day, the Washington Post's lead political reporter Dan Balz did a state of the race piece for Sunday's paper in which he asked strategists from both parties to answer seven key questions.

I happened to be among those queried and quoted -- Balz used my line about both parties being generally braid dead when it comes to big new ideas. I thought some of you might be interested to see all the questions Balz posed -- there were actually eight at the beginning -- and the whole of my answers. So here goes. . .

1. Is Hillary Clinton's campaign a true juggernaut -- or is that just what she wants everyone to believe? Companion: Has Barack Obama’s campaign lost momentum -- or is that just what Clinton’s campaign wants you to believe?

Hillary’s campaign has the makings of a juggernaut, but can’t say it’s there yet and may never reach that status.

They have a ton of talent, have run a near flawless campaign, and have a store of resources (cash, networks, other infrastructure) that blows away their opponents in many respects. They also have a formidable candidate who is running away with what I would call the strength primary -- she clearly looks and sounds and acts most like a president.

But the candidate also has a major liability in her public persona -- this widespread perception that she is either too cold/calculating and/or too polarizing. And that liability, which is reinforced and exacerbated by the essence of Obama as a fresh progressive start from the partisan ugliness and division of the Clinton-Bush era, is the big reason she has not locked up the nomination yet and why Obama still has a chance to make this a very competitive race.

It was inevitable that Obama would lose momentum -- the pace of his rise was unsustainable over 12-plus months. I think the Obama people knew that, and that they purposely and wisely have dialed things back and calibrated their pacing so they don’t peak too soon. So I get the sense they are well positioned now, having effectively kept things on a low boil without compromising their base of support, to bring up the temperature this fall and drive up their numbers.

Looking at the whole picture, I would say then that Hillary is the odds-on favorite to win the nomination, but far from a lock at this point. There is just too much time left, too many variable at work, and too many doubts about her and her electability to count Obama out yet.

2. Is there a Republican front-runner?

Not even close. The major candidates all have major, potentially killer flaws, which is evident by the fact that Fred Thompson is still being pined for after four months of flirting with entering the race. You could argue that Thompson is the front-runner by default, given how strong his numbers are despite not even being in the race. But that seems a little ridiculous, especially when you consider his non-campaign has had multiple shake-ups before it even formally existed.

3. Is anyone positioned to break into the top tier?

No. Huckabee was the only one who had a shot to rise, and he seems to have missed his chance after the Iowa straw poll to leverage his fleeting moment into ongoing momentum. Now it seems the best he can do is be a spoiler in Iowa and South Carolina by pealing away social conservatives Romney and Thompson will be fighting for, assuming he lasts that long, which is not a sure thing.

4. National v State polls: Do they matter and if so which matter more?

National polls seem to matter more to insiders and elites, the Note readers, and to shaping perceptions about general electability. The state polls seem to matter more to the individual campaigns and to local voters and shaping perceptions about primary viability.

But all of them -- outside of the hotbed states of Iowa and New Hampshire -- have to be discounted at this point to some degree because they are driven in large part by superficial impressions. That’s especially true of the national polls -- most voters don’t know much at all Mitt Romney other than he’s a Mormon, if that; or on the flip side, Hillary’s numbers have to be inflated some what by her huge advantage in name recognition.

5. Can any insurgent candidate win either party's nomination anymore? Does the new turbo-charged calendar make Iowa and New Hampshire more important -- or less. And who's helped by these changes?

Yes, I think an insurgent candidate can still win either party’s nomination. In fact, it’s never been a better time to be an insurgent -- the Internet is the great leveler, both in terms of raising money and organizing muscle, and the there is broad dissatisfaction on the right, the left, and the middle with politics as usual (though for different reasons). Obama is living proof of this -- he started with no infrastructure, and almost over night he developed a massive network of energized supporters and went on to shatter fundraising records.

The biggest obstacle to an insurgent campaign is not the calendar but the candidate themself. Dean would have won the nomination in 2004, most primary voters wanted to vote for him, but his lack of discipline and the perception that he was unstable raised major doubts about his electability. Now with Obama, his biggest hurdle is questions about his experience -- if those don’t exist, and he is in a jump ball with Clinton right now and would be a good bet to take the nomination.

6. Is it too late for Al Gore or Newt Gingrich to get into the race?

Not too late for Gore, but with a big caveat. The only way I can see him running at this point is if Hillary badly stalls or implodes -- Gore will not get in if it means a bloodbath with her. Assuming that happens, Gore could get in any time before the convention, walk away with the nomination, and be the odds-on favorite to be the next president.

The question with Gingrich is probably moot, because he likely could not have won no matter when he got/gets in. I am a great admirer of his intellect -- he’s a force of nature -- and I wish he would run because he would elevate the debate on both sides just with his presence. But I am afraid he just has too much personal baggage -- he’s gone from being Bill Clinton's doppelganger to Hillary's in this case -- to compete effectively for the nomination.

7. Do ideas matter in these nomination contests?

Unfortunately not. That’s in large part due to the Bush hangover we’ll all suffering from.

On the Democratic side, our voters are so furious with what Bush and his Republican enablers have done to the country that are singularly focused on repudiating his presidency and his policies. Sometimes it seems like they care more about crushing the Republicans than crushing Al Qaeda (and certainly more about fixing the health care system or creating the jobs of the 21st Century).

On the Republican side, the leading candidates have decided that they don’t want to do the hard work to retool the Republican Party to compete in 2008 America, or take the risk of fully separating themselves from Bush. So are doing the only thing they know how to do to rally the base: 1) re-affirm their core credentials as tough on terror, small government, tax-cutters; and 2) whack the Democrats as weak, big-government liberals. It’s really another iteration of the high-risk strategy Bush used in 2004 to make the election about the opposition, but I doubt it’s going to work this time.

A big part of the problem, though, has nothing to do with Bush. The reality is both parties are brain dead -- they have no new big ideas to deal with the challenges we face today. Which is why I continue to believe that there is opening for an independent, reform-oriented campaign to run against politics as usual and on a solutions-driven message. Bloomberg has the perfect resume to do this, and I get the feeling he could overcome his personal limitations to run at a minimum a competitive race.

8. When do I really need to start paying attention?

September. The campaign will be kicking into a whole new gear after Labor Day -- more policies will be announced, more debates will be joined, and more clues about character and leadership style will be revealed. In fact, voters can probably learn a lot more about the candidates and where they stand over the next three months, which really is the sweet spot of the primary race, than starting next year when it becomes more tactical, hand-to-hand combat.

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