Joe is in the Know
03-31-2009
It was just last Thursday that I wondered aloud about what Vice President Joe Biden is up to these days. I was noting that we don’t hear much from him anymore, especially in comparison to his former omnipresence on the Sunday morning television shows during his days in the Senate. I speculated that he was either quietly exerting new influence on President Obama behind the scenes (a stylistic change for him), or rearranging the furniture in his big office over in the Old Executive Office Building. If he has some time, he might also want to check his office suite for any fire hazards.
 
Well, through no planning of my own, the New York Times obliged me by running an in-depth piece on Biden over the weekend. I guess I wasn’t the only political observer curious about the vice president. It sounds like the former of the above two scenarios is correct, with Biden becoming a sort of all-purpose “adviser-in-chief” to Obama, along the lines first developed during the presidential transition. As I would expect (and as the article confirms), Biden’s biggest challenge has been dialing back his big public persona, while ramping up his private influence on the Obama Administration agenda.
 
As an aside, I was amazed by the amount of play that a brief comment in the article by Biden spokesman (and former Time Magazine Washington Bureau Chief) Jay Carney has gotten on the cable news shows. In response to a question about Biden’s presidential aspirations for 2016, Carney simply said nothing had been ruled out. That sounds like a reasonable response to me, considering that the election is still almost eight years away, but you would think from the coverage that Biden had already thrown his hat into the ring. I’m sure either David Gregory or George Stephanopoulos will ask him the question ad nauseum, the next time they score an increasingly rare interview with the vice president.
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Remaining McCain
03-30-2009
I caught the interview with John McCain on the second half of NBC’s Meet the Press yesterday, and it felt like the old McCain was finally back (no pun intended). By that I mean he seemed both more reflective and, well, a bit more mavericky than he did towards the end of last year’s presidential campaign. I guess being back in the Senate has helped him to regain his political equilibrium.
 
You may recall that I was pretty tough on McCain in a column for the Portsmouth Herald, shortly before Election Day. At the time, McCain was struggling mightily with a perceived need to pose as a movement conservative, in order to mobilize the base of his party around his flagging candidacy. This circumstance was only magnified by the political circus surrounding his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, and it caused him to essentially lose his political bearings.
 
So yesterday morning, McCain just seemed a lot more comfortable in his political skin. Gone were the William Ayers-induced paranoia, and any references to Joe the Plumber. While McCain did profess his love for the Palin family, that is about as far as he would go with an endorsement for 2012. As the show ended, I was reminded for the first time in a long-time of why McCain was able to win not one, but two New Hampshire Primaries.
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Culture Club
03-27-2009
It is a social conservative’s worst nightmare. In the past week, the New Hampshire House of Representatives has passed legislation legalizing gay marriage and medical marijuana, and repealing the state’s death penalty. Throw in the defeat of two parental notification bills on abortion, and you have legislative action on a quartet of issues worthy of even the most protracted culture war.
 
All of this could shape up to be a fascinating political test for Governor John Lynch. While it is still a bit too early to tell what will happen in the Senate, prior statements by Gov. Lynch suggest he would oppose all three pieces of legislation as approved by the House. But the governor is famous for keeping his decision cards close to the vest, so it is difficult to say what he will do with absolute certainty.  Lynch has been most direct on the death penalty issue, saying previously that he would veto any attempt at repeal.
 
During the past two election cycles, I have occasionally heard state Republican elites float the argument that despite Gov. Lynch’s reputation for moderation and bipartisanship, the governor would ultimately be unable to resist being sucked into the left-spinning vortex of the newly-minted Democratic state legislature. If this legislative vortex theory proves correct, then progressives will have made a remarkable impact on the state’s cultural identity in just a few short years of legislative control. If the theory is wrong, however, and Lynch vetoes any relevant legislation coming out of the Senate, then the governor may have some unhappy fellow Democrats on his hands.
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Biden His Time?
03-26-2009
I saw a brief clip on the news last night of Vice President Joe Biden lunching on Capitol Hill with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and it occurred to me that we just don’t get to see Joe very much anymore. I remember the old, pre-2008 presidential election days when you couldn’t go one weekend without Biden appearing as a guest on multiple Sunday morning chat shows. I always loved that at some point in the discussion of a particular topic, Biden would support his position by mentioning that as a senior Member of Congress, he was privy to important information on the issue that he just couldn’t share with the rest of us. Given his history, this new lack of visibility as a spokesman for the Democrats is really quite remarkable.
 
So what happened here? I remember during the vice presidential selection process, Biden said his requirement for accepting the job was that he be in the room to give his best counsel to President Obama on the major decisions of the day. Since we don’t hear from him very often, there is really no way to verify that this is taking place, although Obama appeared to genuinely value his advice throughout the transition period. And, of course there is the perennial concern that Biden’s occasional verbal gaffes could sidetrack the Administration from the efficient pursuit of its agenda.
 
But it may also be the case that Biden has now chosen to be more of an inside operator along the lines established by Dick Cheney, allowing the Administration to speak with a single voice, while quietly working the process he knows so well (hopefully to less questionable ends). My guess is that at some point we’ll learn more about what Biden is up to these days, and whether he is quietly helping to drive the Obama agenda, or instead has been relegated to rearranging the stuff on his very nice desk. In either case, I now realize what an integral part of my political television viewing experience Biden has been over the past 20-plus years.
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Prime-Time Shaheen
03-26-2009
Once again, I managed to stumble across Senator Jeanne Shaheen, while surfing the evening cable news shows. This time, Senator Shaheen was doing a live-shot interview from the Capitol with Rachel Maddow. The MSNBC host has been making periodic reference on her show to a group of “conservadems,” moderate Democrats led by Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, who are working together to promote centrist policy positions on a variety of Obama Administration agenda items. Shaheen has previously been identified as part of this group of approximately 15 legislators.
 
I thought Shaheen actually did a fine job last night, in the face of Maddow’s aggressive, but respectful questioning. Maddow has been pushing a particular line of argument popular among progressives on the left for several weeks now. It is the idea that because Republicans seem primarily interested in obstructing President Obama’s pursuit of his policy agenda, Democrats in the Senate should use budget reconciliation rules (requiring 51 votes, rather than the 60 needed for cloture) to essentially ram Obama’s legislative agenda through Congress.
 
Shaheen’s comments last night were more firmly rooted in Obama’s campaign rhetoric about the need for greater bipartisanship, and she made several references to her own experience with the appropriations process as governor. Shaheen was also able to deflect questions about shifting to the reconciliation process by noting that she is still learning the arcane rules and traditions of the Senate. Since the senator is a newcomer to the chamber, my guess is she won’t bear the brunt of any unhappiness within the party about this group’s activities. But my sense is that with a bit more experience under her belt (and especially reelection), we’ll be seeing a lot more of Senator Shaheen as an active player right in the thick of the legislative mix.
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Brewing Without a Filter
03-25-2009
I have recently come across several articles like this one, which make the case that President Obama is increasingly availing himself of opportunities to circumvent the Washington “media filter” (i.e., the White House press corps, especially reporters from the big media outlets), in order to speak more directly to the American people. Keep in mind that he has only been in office for a little more than 60 days.
 
It is true that advances in technology, and the web in particular, give Obama more opportunities than ever before to use non-traditional forms of media to better target and control his message. But every president in recent memory has made a similar move, using technology and the alternative sources of communications available to him at the time to “go over the heads” of media elites. Yet some in the mainstream press always seem a bit surprised by this maneuver, and inevitably interpret it as a sign their previously good working relationship with the president has broken down.
 
I made the case back in January that this phenomenon is not so much a symptom of any particular president’s problematic relationship with the Washington press corps, but is instead more a function of the institutionalized roles both sides inhabit once the election is over. Presidential candidates, especially non-incumbents, need the media to help make their case to the American public in ways that sitting presidents do not. That can make for a difficult adjustment in the relationship, once everyone has cleared off of the campaign bus and returned to Washington. Viewed in this light, it should have been no surprise to see President Obama deliver his opening remarks directly into the camera at last night’s press conference, rather than to the assembled press corps sitting before him.
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Schedule Subject to Change
03-24-2009
Believe it or not, it is presidential primary commission time again. The Democratic National Committee’s new chairman, Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia, announced the formation of a 37-member commission yesterday to examine various aspects of the party's presidential selection process. New Hampshire will be represented on the commission by former state party chair Ned Helms. Although the commission is tasked with addressing several issues for 2012, including a reexamination of the calendar window for holding primaries and caucuses, there is no explicit mention at this point of the thorny issue of contest order.
 
Pitched battles over the primary schedule are cyclical, and while they never completely go away, they don’t necessarily hit with the same intensity every four years. Given that Democrats will be running with an incumbent president in four years, who will exert a tremendous influence on the behavior of all interested players, it is entirely possible we won’t see the same remarkable contentiousness the party experienced with its schedule in 2008. But individual states will inevitably pursue their own political and economic self-interest to the extent possible, so there could certainly be some scheduling dust-ups along the way.
 
One lesson both parties should take away from the 2008 scheduling experience is that there are real limitations to the benefits accrued by moving a state primary or caucus forward. Frontloading a contest will yield few of the traditionally coveted benefits (exposure, money, king-maker status, etc.) if an early date means a state is but one of 10 or 20 states holding contests on the same day. In fact, the last cycle showed us that with a competitive field of candidates (as could be true for the GOP in 2012) later states can potentially have a significant impact on the primary campaign’s endgame, one which makes the candidates stronger for the general election, not weaker.  In the rush to be just like New Hampshire, other states may ultimately miss an opportunity to carve out their own unique electoral identity elsewhere in the process.
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Rage in the Cage
03-23-2009
I was a guest this morning on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange. We revisited the politics and economics of the federal bailout, in light of last week’s explosion of populist outrage over AIG bonuses. If you missed the show, you can catch a radio rebroadcast tonight on NHPR at 8 p.m., or listen to it at your convenience here.
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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
03-18-2009
I will be away from the website for just a few days. I’ll be back on Monday, March 23rd with new content for you, even without a retention bonus.
 
In the meantime, try to count how many times you see the clip of Paul Hodes saying earlier today that AIG stands for “arrogance, incompetence, and greed.” I saw it four times in just one hour of cable news watching this evening. Our Congressman seems to have struck sound bite gold.
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Between a Rock and a Hard Place
03-17-2009
In the wake of Carol Shea-Porter’s announcement that she won’t run for Judd Gregg’s Senate seat, a number of state Democratic officials have lined up to assure the party faithful that Shea-Porter wasn’t forced to forgo a primary challenge against Paul Hodes. While this is probably technically true, think for a moment about the impossible position in which Shea-Porter was placed. Just as the Democratic Party has begun to consolidate its electoral gains in the state, she would be the one to upset the party’s newfound progressive esprit de corps by making vulnerable a second House seat, and by raising the specter of a very awkward and uncomfortable primary contest with Hodes.
It is hard to contemplate what that primary battle would have looked like. There is very little policy daylight between Shea-Porter and Hodes; both have largely voted with the House Democratic leadership during their time in office. In these circumstances, primary battles typically turn personal, with plenty of internecine sniping between respective campaign staffs, even if the candidates try to stay above the fray. I’m sure Democratic political elites desperately wanted to avoid this sort of spectacle at all costs, thereby depriving Republicans of what would have been a great deal of satisfaction, bordering on glee.
So, Paul Hodes' strategy of getting in early seems to have paid off for him, just like his early boarding of the Obama bandwagon. Carol Shea-Porter will instead get the consolation prize of having earned some additional political capital (among party elites) for her to spend on subsequent reelection bids. Democrats will now turn their attention to what should be a wide-open primary race to replace Hodes in the 2nd Congressional District.
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Obama After Hours
03-16-2009
The announcement that President Obama will appear Thursday as a guest on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno is a pretty minor item in the grand scheme of things, but you don’t often see sitting presidents showing up for interviews on late night television. They are much more likely to provide a good setup for the monologue, although I have heard several hosts note that Obama has thus far proved more difficult to caricature than other recent presidents.
 
The White House knows the visit will get massive free media coverage, precisely because these kinds of appearances by presidents while in office don’t happen very often. But its suggestion that the president will use the time for a substantive discussion on the economy could make for an awkward show segment, as would any attempt to modulate Obama’s demeanor simply because of the current economic crisis. I understand the need to not look like you are having a knee-slapping good time while others are suffering, but this kind of stage-managing often creates more problems than it avoids.
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Shaheen in the Center
03-13-2009
Yesterday, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call (subscription required) reported that about 15-20 moderate Democrats in the U.S. Senate are planning to form a working group of like-minded individuals to function as a bloc in promoting centrist policies within the party’s legislative ranks. It sounds like the group is being organized by Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, with a primary mission of focusing on deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility.
 
This story caught my attention because of a link to our own Senator Jeanne Shaheen, one which John DiStaso's column in the Union Leader yesterday also mentions.  And, as I was surfing the cable news shows last night, I came across a clip running on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show. The segment, entitled “Dissenting Democrats,” recounted much of the Roll Call story, and added Maddow’s own less than appreciative assessment of the idea. At the very end of the segment, Maddow ran a slide labeled “Conservadems,” with Senator Shaheen pictured (no name) as one of the group’s members, along with Bayh, Virginia Senator Mark Warner, and several others. So, the piece at least implied that Shaheen will join this working group.
 
Although Senator Shaheen voted in favor of the recent $410 billion appropriations bill, it wouldn’t surprise me to see her gravitate toward this type of centrist group. It is in part how she successfully positioned herself in a Republican state legislative landscape as governor, and it is reflective of her close alignment with the Clintons, who (like Bayh) came out of the orbit of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.  Still, it would be fascinating to see Shaheen, only a few months into her first term, raise her political profile through participation in a group of Democrats that may very well butt heads with the Obama Administration on spending.
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Message in a Bottle
03-12-2009
If you want more evidence of the messaging difficulties facing the Republican Party, look no further than the pummeling RNC Chairman Michael Steele is now receiving for his comment in a new GQ magazine interview (some interesting reading) that abortion is an “individual choice.” In the same piece, Steele also expresses some fairly moderate views on gay rights, and even leaves the door open for individual states to address the issue of gay marriage. If you buy the argument I floated in yesterday’s post, then you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Steele is now furiously backpedaling on both the abortion and gay marriage comments.
 
Some will argue that Steele’s behavior is simply the latest indication that he is neither a skilled politician nor a particularly good spokesman for the Republican Party. But to my point yesterday, it is also evidence of the way in which the party’s increasingly religious conservative discourse tightly constrains the behavior of virtually all of its political elites. Steele’s remarks would probably play reasonably well in New Hampshire, but they are anathema to the party’s socially conservative activist base. As a result, this latest episode really makes me wonder how Steele can possibly achieve his goal of a bigger tent for the party. Of course, that is assuming he can hold onto the chairmanship.
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That Old-Time Religion
03-11-2009
Some new data confirm what many locals have long suspected, that New England is now the least religious region of the country, at least in terms of participation in the organized denominations. I will leave the broader question of how this relates to human spirituality for others to contemplate. This cultural circumstance is also already well-known to campaigns and the media. And, it exerts a particularly strong influence on the political discourse we typically see among Republican presidential candidates here in New Hampshire, in comparison to the other early primary and caucus states.
 
During the last presidential primary cycle, you could hear Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney speaking in Iowa or South Carolina on any given day (courtesy of the web and cable news), and the discourse would be dominated by abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and gay marriage. Switch to New Hampshire, however, and the same candidates would be focused on taxes, small business, and budget deficits, with virtually no mention (unless pressed) of the conservative social agenda. The same was true for most of the other Republican candidates.
 
I don’t think any of this comes as a surprise to political observers, but my sense is that it has complicated messaging for a Republican Party whose base is increasingly southern and socially conservative. With the web and cable news now tracking a candidate’s every word around the country, the constant juxtaposition of these two narratives (one secular, the other not) has challenged the ability of Republican candidates to provide a coherent message to increasingly divergent audiences. And, when in New Hampshire, it often makes them act as though they are campaigning in a cultural vacuum.  Since Republican political elites don't seem prepared to put the conservative social agenda on the back burner in order to reach a broader (less religious) audience, I don't expect this to change anytime soon.
 
Note: I couldn’t bring myself to title this post, “Losing My Religion.” It’s just too darn obvious, and every other blog on the web has probably used it already, anyway.
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Cantor Can He?
03-10-2009
Democrats are garnering some attention for their concerted effort to designate Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia as the poster boy for obstructionist Republican legislators who say “no” to President Obama’s policy agenda. In a previous post, I mentioned that Cantor, who serves as Minority Whip in the House, is the only member of the Republican leadership who seems to have any political juice at the moment. Even Obama ribbed him a bit at a recent White House summit on entitlement reform, telling Cantor that (against all odds) he would doggedly try to earn his respect on policy ideas over the next four years.
 
Given the moribund state of Republican leadership in Congress, there are several reasons for Cantor’s seemingly sudden appearance on the radar screens of most national political elites, observers and reporters. Although Cantor has been in Congress since 2000, he just assumed the position of Minority Whip in January. So, he represents a fresh face and political presence, especially for the media. His prior gig as Deputy Minority Whip just didn’t give him the same level of visibility. And, because he is telegenic and only two years younger than President Obama, he will inevitably be cast in the role of generational foil to the president. He is a perfect fit for the oppositional narrative currently being written between the two parties.
 
All of that said, I don’t necessarily think this sets Cantor up for a presidential bid in 2012. I still believe that opponent is most likely to come from the ranks of current or former Republican governors. Cantor will more likely use his role as both movement conservative and legislative tactician to serve as a key institutional adversary to Obama. You should be prepared to see a whole lot more of him on television over the next four years.
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Tracking the Slide
03-09-2009
Over the past several days, I haven’t been able to shake President Obama’s comments last week that daily “gyrations” in the stock market are akin to fluctuations in daily political tracking polls. It is true that any good financial advisor will urge you to not obsess over daily movement in the stock market, but instead to grit your teeth and look for gains over the longer term. I think Obama’s comment that he was not looking at daily fluctuations in the market, much as he wouldn’t focus on daily changes in political tracking polls, was meant in this spirit.
 
But the comments have stuck with me uneasily for two reasons. First, while it is true that day-to-day changes in political tracking polls often represent statistical “noise,” rather than substantive changes in support for a candidate, over time they can map out a pretty useful trend line. In the case of the stock market slide, that trend line over the past six months looks like a 90 meter ski jump. Obama’s remarks seemed to imply that the market has been all over the place in recent weeks, when in reality it has been moving steadily downward since last fall, and the daily fluctuations have tracked this in grimly accurate fashion.
 
Second, anytime a politician says he is not paying attention to newly available data, be it economic or political, I have to smile. Every president in recent memory who has said he does not look at frequent public opinion polls usually turns out to be quite well-versed in them. Obama’s statement had this same sort of “I’m too busy to pay attention” flavor. But we know that an early Obama Administration innovation was to add a daily economic briefing to go along with the one on intelligence the president traditionally receives each morning.  So, I am sure that Larry Summers and his economic team are keeping the president closely abreast of daily changes in the stock market.
 
In the end, President Obama’s comments were intended to show confidence and ease, and to foster a bit of optimism under difficult circumstances. But in using political tracking polls to talk about the bigger economic picture, I think he actually missed it.
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Eye of Newt
03-06-2009
You may have come across a link to this news item today, which reports that Newt Gingrich will seriously consider a run for the presidency in 2012. You’ll recall that the former Speaker of the House flirted with a late entry into the Republican primaries in the Fall of 2007, but the conditions he set for entry into the race never materialized. Since then, he’s been largely mum about his own presidential ambitions.
 
You probably know the famous saying, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” Well, Newt abhors a vacuum, too. A leadership vacuum, that is. Come post-2010 midterm election time, if Gingrich perceives a continued void in Republican leadership, then my guess is he will try to fill that vacuum by getting into the race early this time.  Gingrich has taken great pains in recent years to recalibrate his public image as being more policy wonk and less ideologue. In fact, he now more often than not speaks the language of management consultants, with its focus on the need for solutions.
 
I think the biggest limitation to a Gingrich candidacy is that he only helps the Republican Party get halfway to where it must go. I have been critical of party elites for obsessing over a return to core conservative principles, without explaining how those ideas might manifest themselves as innovative and workable policy proposals. Gingrich could certainly help the party with this first task. But the party also needs to find a way to get beyond its own base, in order to reach the millions of moderate voters it would need to win back the White House. Given his long and controversial history as a conservative firebrand, this second task would be a much bigger challenge for Gingrich to overcome. And, Democrats would be more than happy to provide voters with a trip down memory lane.
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DLC RIP?
03-05-2009
An interesting piece on Politico.com this evening discusses a potential shakeup at the Democratic Leadership Council. It seems like just yesterday to me (well, actually it was the early 1990s, but I’m dating myself) that the DLC’s centrist political philosophy provided Democrats with their best opportunity in over a decade for attracting the mass of voters sitting at the center of the ideological spectrum. Its policy agenda and political strategy were effective enough to help Bill Clinton capture a plurality of the vote and the White House in 1992.
 
I also remember being surprised by the vehemence with which Howard Dean, at the peak of his electoral rise as a presidential candidate in the fall of 2003, went after the organization. Losses in the 2002 midterm elections, during which DLC-types were derided as “Republican Lite,” had knocked the organization back on its heels, and certainly set the stage for the later attacks by Dean, DailyKos, and others on the left. And, once candidates like Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, and even Evan Bayh and Tom Vilsack were all out of the 2008 presidential race, the DLC’s relevance as an electoral force in the party was largely diminished. Still, the article correctly notes that some of those folks now walk the halls of the Obama Administration.
 
The Politico piece suggests the organization will revamp itself to focus less on a strategy for building a winning Democratic coalition (Obama has already done that), and more on being an influence for centrist policy ideas. We’ll see how that goes. For all the recent talk of bipartisanship and/or post-partisanship, centrist politics does not seem to be much in favor on either side of the aisle at the moment (despite voter preference for it). In any event, its time as an electoral force in the party seems to have passed, at least for the foreseeable future. For those of us who closely watched Bill Clinton’s rise to power in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it is a moment to pause.
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Stuck in Rush Hour
03-04-2009
I am about to start begging the cable news networks, especially MSNBC, to please stop their endless looping of Rush Limbaugh’s CPAC speech. You’ve probably seen the clip several times already. It is the one where Limbaugh, dressed like Johnny Cash, brings down the house with his declaration that he wants President Obama to fail. And, it is pretty much all any of the news chat shows have been talking about for the past 48 hours.
 
As has been reported by Politico.com, the Democrats clearly see an opportunity here for some mischief-making among Republicans. Just witness their glee at the parade of Republican officials who have attempted to put some daylight between themselves and Limbaugh’s remarks, only to find themselves publicly apologizing to him for their comments a day later.
 
But it also strikes me that given how diminished the elected Republican leadership is at the moment, Limbaugh may actually be the only conservative with a big enough megaphone to even remotely come close to matching President Obama’s ability to “go public” on the economy. So, in an odd way, he may actually be the party’s best short-term opportunity for keeping some pressure on the Obama Administration’s economic agenda. The groveling by Republican officials certainly doesn’t help, but Rush seems to be the only game in town for them at the moment.
 
Finally, here is a word of warning to Republican legislators preparing for a guest slot on any of the MSNBC evening talk shows. Be prepared to answer the question, “Do you share Rush Limbaugh’s hope that President Obama fails?” The various hosts have turned your willingness to answer this question into a litmus test for whether you will be allowed to discuss anything else. I remember how angry Democrats used to get when asked on Fox News about whether they wanted President Bush to fail in Iraq. I realize that for many Democrats turnabout is fair play, but I find this Rush job to be equally distasteful. As was true for the Iraq debate, the tactic inhibits any meaningful discussion of legitimate policy differences.
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Searching for Bobby Jindal
03-03-2009
I mentioned yesterday that I was not planning on spending a lot of time going back over the political developments I missed while away from the website last week. Most of them have already been thoroughly parsed on the web and cable news shows by others. That was until I saw this article in today’s paper, in which Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal defends his televised rebuttal to President Obama’s speech on policy grounds. Now I can’t resist the urge to comment further.
 
To his credit, Jindal readily concedes the stylistic deficiencies for which he has been so roundly mocked by commentators and comedians, alike. But he also urges critics not to overlook the importance of policy content and substantive ideas in his speech. While I too thought his delivery was weak, I have to say I was actually more disappointed with the speech’s lack of innovative content. As a result, I think Jindal’s comments yesterday in defense of his performance show a surprising lack of self-awareness.
 
It is precisely because of his reputation as a very smart policy wonk that I expected something more from him than a stale, retro caricature of the ideological differences between Republicans and Democrats. And his attempt to critique the efficacy of all federal governance with a belabored anecdote about Hurricane Katrina fell royally flat. Finally, the meat of his policy discussion on the economy, health care, and education didn’t go beyond anything we heard from John McCain during last fall’s presidential campaign. You can go back over the transcript yourself and see whether you discover any innovative policy ideas tucked away in the speech, but what you will mainly find is standard Republican boilerplate about cutting taxes and keeping government out of the way of the private sector.
 
Perhaps Governor Jindal had an off night. He was much stronger in his Q&A session the previous Sunday on Meet the Press. It is also true that the coveted opportunity to deliver a short, no-audience rebuttal to the president is in reality a somewhat thankless job that is fraught with a rather significant downside (as the governor is now discovering). From everything else I have seen, Jindal seems like a pretty sharp politician, so I would have expected him to move on from last Tuesday night as quickly as possible.
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Week-Kneed
03-02-2009
It has been pointed out to me that I seem to have a little bad luck when it comes to picking weeks to be away from the website. It is true that back in August, I managed to miss the week in which the Obama vice presidential sweepstakes culminated in the selection of Joe Biden. I remember listening late at night out in the hinterland on a small transistor radio to the news that Secret Service agents were in transit to Biden’s house. This was shortly before confirmation of the selection leaked out in advance of the much-hyped, exclusive campaign text message to the same effect.
 
This time, I don’t think Governor Lynch would have considered a plea for executive action to postpone New Hampshire schools winter break. And a delay of the Obama address to Congress wasn't in the cards either. So now I am finally back in action, just in time for yet another major snowstorm. From the tremendous spike in my web traffic during the second half of last week, I’m guessing many of you were eager to chew over the week’s bounty of political news.  I’m sorry I couldn’t be here, but I was able to keep reasonably abreast of developments from a warm and sunny undisclosed location.
 
We all know that analysis on the web moves at warp speed. Most blogs have already moved past President Obama’s address to Congress, Bobby Jindal’s response, the release of Obama’s mega-budget, and are now digesting leftovers from the CPAC meeting this past weekend, including Mitt Romney’s third straight win in the meeting’s conservative straw poll. So, I am not going to spend a lot of time backtracking. But I will say that the events of last week brought into the sharpest relief yet the fundamental ideological debate we will be having over the next four years. Turns out it is the same one we had during the fall campaign and for most of the past 30 years, only Democrats now seem to have the upper hand in a way they have not enjoyed since the 1970s.
 
Some will argue that President Obama’s massive spending plan is simply a continuation of President Bush’s massive spending plan, and that the debate over the expanding reach of big government really only exists in the realm of political rhetoric. While there is certainly some truth to this criticism, there are real differences in priorities and methods here, which is why you heard so much this past week about President Obama’s program representing a fundamental reversal of Reaganism.
 
As for the Republicans, both the Jindal response and CPAC oratory underscore that the party has a long way to go, in order to regain its political footing. While the party’s base of social conservatives seems more united in their opposition to Obama than ever before, I still don’t see any viable strategy emerging to get them beyond the 25-30% of the electorate made up of true believers.
 
It is also clear to me that, the weak Jindal performance notwithstanding, any new leadership in the party will have to emerge from the ranks of the party’s governors.  With perhaps the exception of forty-something Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Republican Party’s congressional leadership is largely spent. I haven’t met anyone who thinks John McCain, John Boehner, or Mitch McConnell can lead the party out of the wilderness. And the strategy of demonizing Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid will only show diminishing returns over time, despite their ability to be their own worst enemy on occasion.
 
So, we will continue to have this debate about spending, taxes, policy priorities and the reach of big government. Obama still has tremendous political capital, but knows he must deliver the goods over the next two years. Republicans have found a voice in opposition to the president’s agenda and his leaders in Congress, but it is being heard by few at the moment. In my absence, the political events of last week certainly propelled these storylines forward with great velocity.
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