Sunday, December 30, 2007

Collected Political Notes 

In the comments to my 12/18 "Dodd post", commenter "matter" got the answer I was looking for. The simple fact is that, until two weeks ago, Dodd wasn't running to become president. Until recently, Dodd was campaigning, but not in a way that could win. He didn't create a campaign identity to differentiate himself from his fellow Senators running for President, nor did he press his (few) angles, and play the media game. Until recently, he played it safe. You won't win the presidency unless you're running with a plan to win the presidency. And that's a different thing than simply running for president. And voters can smell it if you're not in it to win it. They want someone who wants it. (Witness the limpness of Fred Thompson's campaign.)

Recently, Newsweek's Johnathan Alter wrote that: "The candidates who connect best to their real selves and deepest motivations usually win. Contrary to popular belief, phonies fade fast in politics."

I absolutely disagree. Presidential politics is totally phony. It's just a horserace that is too often decided by superficial narratives and trivia. Don't think that the big candidates don't understand this, either. They do, and they subject themselves to this phoniness out of ambition and powerlust. (And perhaps late at night they are able to justify this madness by thinking back to the lofty goals they had when they were younger.) Nonetheless, they are playing the game to win, and while it would be honorable if they all went to war against "the game" simultaneously, and changed the game for the better, and made today's politics less "phony"... one shouldn't expect such coordinated courage. Nor should one compare candidates who are playing the game to win with those who are in the game without a plan to win.

Back on December 7th, at Jeffrey's place, E and I were debating Huckabee's chances to win the GOP nomination.

E wrote:
[Huckabee is] peaking when he needs to be.
He's going to take Iowa and South Carolina and I don't think a GOP guy can be beat with those two victories. (Don't even act like New Hampshire isn't out of Huckabee's reach too.)

I responded:

[W]atch what they do to Huck, and watch who does it to him (they're the ones who call the shots)-- it will be very instructive.

Huck will be brought down, but he will open up unpredictable openings for other candidates. This thing is very volatile-- entertainingly so.

[Update: in that comment thread from 12/7, I also wrote: "There will be a small, tiny opening for John McCain to re-emerge a la Kerry in 04. I seriously believe he could get a second chance in this thing. But... he will have to jet that political sluice at exactly the right moment."]
So the NRO's Nick Lowry joined a slew of conservative commentators, and bashed Huckabee as soon as he rocketed in the polls. Among Lowry's many criticisms of Huckabee is the following:

Huckabee has declared that he doesn’t believe in evolution. Even if there are many people in America who agree with him, his position would play into the image of Republicans as the anti-science party. This would tend to push away independents and upper-income Republicans. In short, Huckabee would take a strength of the GOP and, through overplaying it, make it a weakness.

I pressed Dems to pin down Senatorial candidate John N. Kennedy on the false controversy of teaching evolution and/or Intelligent Design in the classroom for similar reasons. In Huckabee's case, Lowry correctly pointed out that his disbelief in evolution would confirm a bad "image" of Republicans. In Kennedy's case I believe it would assist in corrupting Kennedy's political personae as a straight-talking, common-sense pol-- it would play into a different narrative, one that says Kennedy is a party switcher and an office shopper who is willing to adjust his views to pander to extreme elements in his own party.

It's fun when the tax zealot corporatists and the fundagelical reconstructionists can't agree on a candidate.

Now, while Lowry is narrowly correct on a couple criticisms of Huckabee, the Anonymous Liberal correctly identifies how disingenuous Lowry is about the main point of his argument:


The reality is that Lowry and other establishment Republicans aren't really concerned about Huckabee's qualifications or political skills or ability to attract advisers. What concerns them is Huckabee's priorities. All the GOP candidates are basically saying the same things. But what Lowry wants is a candidate who genuinely believes in the GOP's fiscal and foreign policy platform and merely goes through the required motions on social issues (while never really doing anything to advance those issues). Hence, Mitt Romney. Huckabee is the converse of that. He genuinely believes in the GOP's social platform but seems to be less than a true believer on other issues. Republicans like Lowry are worried that, if elected, Huckabee would be willing to compromise on the wrong issues (taxes, foreign policy) and would use his political capital on the issues he cares the most about (social issues).

A couple of weeks ago, Howie Kurtz raised the curtain on the media's (utterly predictable) desire for certain campaign narratives:

Some reporters confess that they are enjoying Clinton's slippage, if only because it enlivens what had become a predictable narrative of her cruising to victory. The prospect of a newcomer knocking off a former first lady is one heck of a story.

Halperin, who surveys political news at's the Page, says: "Your typical reporter has a thinly disguised preference that Barack Obama be the nominee. The narrative of him beating her is better than her beating him, in part because she's a Clinton and in part because he's a young African American. . . . There's no one rooting for her to come back."
If you missed the Daily Howler's commentary on this passage, I recommend reading it.

Such a media-driven "campaign dynamic" is highly predictable. It's also unfair and absurd. But, I don't think we should blame politicians (too much) for playing this absurd game, as long as we're lapping it up. We should blame ourselves for not excoriating and embarrassing the media which feeds us this utter shite on a daily hourly basis.

How a candidate capitalizes on such dynamics, how a candidate responds and preempts such dynamics is a key factor in any presidential race.

Mark Schmitt wrote one of the most observant pieces on Obama during this campaign season:
[L]et's take a slightly different angle on the charge that Obama is "naïve" about power and partisanship. Suppose you were as non-naïve about it as I am -- but your job wasn't writing about politics, it was running for president? What should you do? In that case, your responsibility is not merely to describe the situation exactly, but to find a way to subvert it. In other words, perhaps we are being too literal in believing that "hope" and bipartisanship are things that Obama naively believes are present and possible, when in fact they are a tactic, a method of subverting and breaking the unified conservative power structure. Claiming the mantle of bipartisanship and national unity, and defining the problem to be solved (e.g. universal health care) puts one in a position of strength, and Republicans would defect from that position at their own risk. The public, and younger voters in particular, seem to want an end to partisanship and conflictual politics, and an administration that came in with that premise (an option not available to Senator Clinton), would have a tremendous advantage, at least for a moment.

No, no, no! Senator Obama is purely an ego-maniac with no grasp of successful political tactics. (How could he possibly learn such things organizing communities in Chicago's South Side?)

And Obama's supporters are all star-struck observers, drinking the Obamade.

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9 comments DiggIt!


yo oyster, more amusement at

By Anonymous matter, at 8:20 PM  

I'm witcha on McCain. He seems to be staging at least a mild comeback and Huckmania won't last. The Repubs rarely nominate a dark horse; not since 1940 by my reckoning.

By Anonymous Adrastos, at 9:25 PM  

I'm also thinking McCain has a real good shot at this point as well. This week's multiple foreign policy gaffes by Huckabee may prove to be devastating.

But I still think Huckabee is uniquely positioned because of republican obama envy.

I know his positions on taxes and so forth make him unpalatable to the wall street journal crowd, but they don't vote in iowa, new hampshire, or south carolina.

I agree with you completely that there is a "they" that will try to bring him down. Huckabee has not made nice with the Mr. Burns collective.

But Huckabee has never depended on them for his candidacy. You have to remember that all of this "huckaboom" was orchestrated with a miniature iowa field office, no national exposure, and no money.

He's done all of this based on the strength of his personality on the campaign trail. His conserva-populist platform has played extremely well amongst Republicans thirsty for a positive social movement presidential narrative to call their own.

By Blogger E, at 1:41 AM  

"all of this 'huckaboom' was orchestrated with a miniature iowa field office, no national exposure, and no money."

The lack of national exposure was to his Huck's benefit, in a way. He was at his best flying under the radar. Once he gained exposure, and became a threat, his GOP enemies went to work like surgeons. Attacking him from the left and the right.

Now, of course the WSJ crowd doesn't vote in Iowa but they (and their fellow travelers) help frame the news and commentary that influences opinion in Iowa.

I hope Huck gets the nomination. He doesn't scare me in the least.

By Blogger oyster, at 11:08 AM  

Here's the thing about Huckabee, though. He is much more in line with the populist impulse that has been trying to break out over the most recent election cycles.

I haven't noticed because I've been stupidly... or perhaps hopefully... watching for signs of this amongst the Democrats.

Democrats like Jim Webb (and I think potentially Charlie Melancon) are ostensibly social conservatives (although not "true believers" like Huckabee) who are well-positioned to push a much more progressive fiscal/economic agenda than most Democrats have dared in a long time.

On the GOP side, Huckabee is getting attacked by the same "corporatist center" that continues to push inane slogan-spouting DLC type candidates like Obama and Clinton on the Democratic side.

The most interesting story to me in all of this is the degree to which that corporate center is no longer calling all the shots.

Unlike you, I do find Huckabee a bit scary. He's very smooth and talented. If he faces off against Obama or Hillary, he will win every Southern State (including Florida and Texas) by a wide margin. He's also probably glib enough to pull off Ohio or Missouri... or maybe even Pennsylvania as well.

But everything you say about his problems securing the nomination are 100% correct. He's got a high mountain to climb. I almost find myself rooting for him in a perverse sort of way.

By Blogger jeffrey, at 12:07 PM  

Florida would NOT go "Huckabee" by a wide margin against Obama or Hillary. Hell no. Huck would be a big underdog against either Obama or Hill. And if he made enough gaffes, he might have trouble with a "southern" state like Virginia. The mountain west would break loose in places like Colorado and New Mexico, especially if Obama were the candidate. If Obama wins Iowa, I expect him to win the nomination and get over 300 electoral votes in the general election.

As for being "well-positioned to push a much more progressive fiscal/economic agenda", I would refer you back to the Schmitt piece on Obama.

Yes, I've been almost "rooting" for Huck too since I watched a couple of hours of CSPAN footage of him in NH back in April. I'll always have a soft place for country boys like Huey Long who spent their afternoons practicing speeches in the woods, and their charms on small town folk.

By Blogger oyster, at 1:15 PM  

Well it's certainly going to be an interesting process getting there.

Also... Colorado... Hmmm I think Huckabee takes it over Hill-Obama. New Mexico maybe not.

By Blogger jeffrey, at 3:23 PM  

I hope that I'm wrong, but I think that you're overly optimistic about Obanma. He won't get the kid gloves treatment in a general election. I haven't been paying very close attention so I might have missed something, but I didn't understand the spin when a Clinton adviser asked if somebody who admitted to cocaine use could be elected. Since electability in the general election is a legitimate consideration, I thought it was a legit question. I guarantee you that the press won't react with such outrage if it comes up next fall. admittedly, I may have missed something there since I didn't hear the original comment. Also, I've been somewhat disillusioned with Obama since his SS pandering. I have real doubts about any Dem who uses the Social Security/Medicare formulation, anyway.

What Alter implied, but didn't say, is that the electorate can spot a phony. Which would, of course, raise the question of why the pundits need to devote so much time to telling us who the phonies are. What he should have said is that candidates who get painted as honies fade fast. On a recent "Countdown," Dana Milbank brought up the Edwards' haircut, it briefly sounded like Olbermann was going to call bullshit, but he let it slide.

By Blogger bayoustjohndavid, at 7:24 PM  

"I didn't understand the spin when a Clinton adviser asked if somebody who admitted to cocaine use could be elected."

Because the comment was not an innocent question. The CLinton supporter used a quasi-legit query as a way of raising the "cocaine" issue, and then going on to speculate as to whether Obama sold it (there's no evidence of that) and tried to insert such inflammatory images into the campaign to play on subconscious "racial" stereotypes. The press regards this as an old issue, and there's more chance of a backlash than anything else if someone should raise it.

"What he should have said is that candidates who get painted as phonies fade fast."

Damn Straight! But, as you know, that's a much different statement, given today's presidential political circus.

"On a recent 'Countdown,' Dana Milbank brought up the Edwards' haircut, it briefly sounded like Olbermann was going to call bullshit, but he let it slide."

That's disappointing.

As for me overrating Obama, I'm sure I do-- what can I say, I'm a fan. Do I like everything about him? Hell no. But if he wins IA (and then NH and SC)... I think he will win the nomination and the general election. I am very comfortable forecasting a 300+ electoral vote win over any Republican. The press will tighten up on him, naturally, but he'll get the benefit of the doubt over any Republican.

McCain-- too old, too 2000

Mitt-- too flip floppy, Mormon

9ui11ani-- too Nixonian, baggage galore

Huckabee-- too fundagelical

Thompson-- too damn limp

The GOP tent would not unify and turn out en masse for any of these candidates. Independents would prefer Obama as a change agent (by about 2:1). And once African-Americans fully realized that whites will vote for him, they will turn out in droves in the general election.

The economy will be weak and frustrating next year if it should somehow avoid recession, and that will favor the Dems. GOP candidates will be stuck, unable to effectively separate themselves from Bush (and Bush fatigue) Everything I see adds up to victory for the Dems.

By Blogger oyster, at 1:02 PM