Mavericks in Mesa
You may have seen clips over the weekend of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin stumping for Senator John McCain in Arizona last Friday. I saw a good chunk of the event on cable, and I must say that it struck me as a bit sad for McCain. It wasn’t even two full years ago that McCain plucked Palin out of relative obscurity in a long-shot bid to energize his flagging campaign at the Republican National Convention.
But there he was again last Friday, counting on Palin for that same infusion of energy, only this time the thousands of people gathered at the event weren’t really his supporters. As many media interviews confirmed, they were largely there to see Palin. I am sure McCain knows that the hardcore Palin supporters (and avid tea partiers) who turned out last Friday in Mesa are not his natural core constituency, but he is in a difficult position. The Republican Party primary in Arizona is scheduled to be a closed contest this year, so McCain can’t count on the independent voters who have helped him in the past.
For conservatives who don’t like McCain and are grumbling about Palin’s endorsement of him, I don’t see that she really had any other option without looking like a complete ingrate. A few years ago she was largely unknown, and now she’s both a leading voice in the national party and a multimillionaire, solely due to McCain’s choice of her as his running mate. These unhappy conservatives, who were willing to bite their tongues (at least once the primaries were over) for the sake of party unity in 2008, now feel that it is their (and Sarah Palin’s) time. We shall see whether her reflected glow gets McCain through a difficult primary.
Note: After a brief timeout, I'll be back with new content for you on Thursday, April fooling! See you soon. -Dean
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Fighting Health Care Reform Fatigue
If you are feeling a little exhausted from following a year’s worth of health care reform battles and are in need of an antidote for political observer fatigue, I have three words for you: Rick, Santorum, Iowa. Yes, our favorite presidential election cycle ingénue is headed back to Iowa yet again. This has Marc Ambinder over at wondering whether the former Pennsylvania senator is seriously contemplating a run for the Republican nomination, or is just using the coverage of his trips as a platform for inserting himself back into the national political discourse.
As I have argued several times before, the two questions are inseparable for Santorum. He needs to seriously consider a run for the presidency, in order to insert himself (at least temporarily) back into the political discourse, and Iowa’s socially conservative Republican electoral politics has provided the perfect platform for him to do so. This is a separate issue from whether he realizes that he has no chance of winning the nomination (which I think he does).
It is the same reason why other Republican political elites like Newt Gingrich seem to flirt endlessly with a run for the nomination, although in Gingrich’s case his party poobah status would give him other options even without the constant presidential chatter. Santorum is not in that position, however, and therefore must approach his flirtation with a seriousness that will bring him the kind of earned media he needs to get himself back in the game. Plus, he seems to be having a lot of fun. That is not something you can easily say about a lot of other politicians lately.
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Romney's Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda
I’ve written a fair bit recently about whether former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney can retool for a run at the presidency in 2012 by focusing his campaign message on jobs and the economy, rather than trying to win as a standard bearer for the social conservative agenda. I raise this again because Romney has now said in an interview that an emphasis on jobs and the economy is precisely what he should have offered last time, in order to beat Senator John McCain for the Republican nomination. While this may turn out to be a smart strategic shift for Romney in two years, given the severity of the recession, I’m pretty sure that in the previous presidential contest it wouldn’t have made any difference in the outcome.
In 2008, Romney’s politics were largely unknown to the powerful block of social and religious conservatives who drive the vote in many of the Republican primaries and caucuses. As a former governor of famously liberal Massachusetts, Romney already had one glaring red flag attached to his candidacy, and many of these conservative voters could easily use the web to watch old clips of Romney saying not only that he was pro-choice, but that there was no greater friend of the gay community in Massachusetts than he. These are not exactly the kind of sentiments that produce Republican victories in Iowa and South Carolina, and Romney's eleventh hour conversion on these issues only made voters more suspicious.
Since that was Romney’s first trip through the presidential selection wringer, even if he had talked more about job creation and had been able to match McCain’s credentials on the Iraq surge, he still would have hit the values buzz saw in the primaries. So, it was the logical place for other GOP presidential hopefuls to attack. Plus, McCain was already well-known nationally, had the foreign policy cred, and a long conservative voting record in the Senate as backup. We shall see whether Romney, his party, and the country are in a different place in two years. His stock seems to be rising among conservatives, at least in the short-term.
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Grand Old (Tea) Party
I have written several posts about tea party politics, most recently on the question of whether the movement can actually serve as an umbrella organization for disaffected voters from both parties who want to focus on fiscal responsibility, while eschewing politically divisive social issues. My anecdotal observation of the movement had previously led me to a fairly firm no for an answer, that for all the talk of fiscal policy, the tea party phenomenon was at its core closely aligned with the Republican Party, and in particular derived much of its grassroots energy from social and religious conservatism. But after a spate of recent stories suggesting otherwise, I had started to think that maybe my initial intuition was wrong. Well, I don’t feel that way any longer.
A new poll from Quinnipiac University shows that those who self-identify as tea partiers overwhelmingly lean toward the Republican Party, and have an especially high regard for former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. In each case, three-quarters of the self-identifying tea partiers answered in the affirmative. With Palin representing as strong a motive force among social and religious conservatives as any high-profile member of the GOP today, it is inevitable that so-called values voters are inextricably woven into the dominant fabric of the tea party movement.
Given this political reality, the biggest question going forward will be whether the tea partiers create a new set of electoral headaches for Republican institutional elites by either challenging their incumbents from the right in primaries, or by running as third party candidates and siphoning off conservative votes in the general election. But my initial sense that there really isn’t much there for disaffected Democrats and left-leaning independents seems to be accurate after all.
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A Critical Test for Health Care Reform
I listened to the closing arguments on health care reform from both parties on Sunday night. As Speaker Nancy Pelosi referred to the bill as a great act of patriotism, and Minority Leader John Boehner concluded it would lead us to Armageddon, I was hit with the same basic question that has dogged me throughout this entire debate: They both can’t be right. The passage of health care reform legislation can’t be both a complete disaster and a signal success for the American people, but those are the two competing scenarios that have been depicted by the parties all along, and each side claims to have the polling data to support their argument.
It is true that some of this is likely good old-fashioned political posturing, as a means of mobilizing grassroots support on both sides. But, as any statistician knows, you can use empirical data to conduct a critical test, in order to determine the validity of competing hypotheses. The upcoming midterm elections may be the closest we have come in years to a critical test of competing political ideologies and theories of voter behavior. Will voters take their anger at greater federal government involvement in health care out on Democrats and echo Republican calls for repeal of the legislation, or will they reward Democrats for making the system more responsive, once they grow more comfortable with reform?
I hope we get that critical test, and my question is finally answered. But the reality may end up being more ambiguous – somewhere in the middle where you are likely to find much of the American public – hope, anxiety, let’s see how this goes.
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Caught in a Baier Trap
I watched yesterday’s Fox News interview with President Obama, and the results were, well, predictable. The interviewer, Brett Baier, may be a respected professional journalist, but he also knows that a significant portion of his viewership believes that President Obama is either an empty suit or a grave threat to our democracy (for some, both). They also believe that the mainstream media has given the president a free pass over the past year. So, let’s just say that Baier was a bit amped by the opportunity to hold Obama accountable. You could almost see him vibrating in his seat.
On conservative talk radio today, Baier was hailed as a conquering hero, and the interview as a milestone in professional journalism. It is true that Obama seemed quite annoyed by some of the questions and frequent interruptions by Baier, but the president’s demeanor wasn’t all that different than what I’ve seen from George W. Bush and Bill Clinton when pushed on occasion in the past. Presidents generally do not like being challenged by the media, especially when they feel like the interviewer has his own agenda to pursue. My guess is that had the same treatment been delivered to President Bush, conservatives would have expressed outraged, rather than the giddiness they showed today. It just goes with the polarized partisan nature of our current political environment.
Not surprisingly, some Obama supporters have complained that Baier crossed over the line into showing disrespect for the president.  After watching parts of the interview several times, I think he may have approached that line, but was ultimately able to pull back. Baier actually offered a preemptive apology at the end of the interview, perhaps out of his own uncertainty over what had just transpired.
That being said, I don’t think the interview was a particularly effective one, unless Baier’s primary goal was to please his viewers by really irritating the president. That type of approach will thrill opponents of the president, while completely turning off his supporters. Those in the political center are likely to be left feeling kind of bummed out by the whole process. While there is nothing wrong with some tough questions for the president, it could have been done with a bit more style.
Note: I have to briefly step away from the website. I will be back with new content for you on Tuesday, March 23rd. See you soon. - Dean
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Bleak House
Doing the radio show on health care reform this morning gave me another opportunity to reflect on the relationship between legislative practice and voter perception. The House Democratic leadership is closing in on using the budget reconciliation process and a self-executing deem and pass rule to get a health care reform bill to President Obama’s desk, and a package of legislative fixes back to the Senate for approval. I can’t help but think that all of this parliamentary wrangling will be seen by voters, many of whom are actually paying close attention to this episode, as a semantic distinction without a difference.
I understand why some Democratic Members of Congress might not want to vote for a Senate bill that they clearly dislike, but I don’t know that in practice the tactic will buy them much electoral goodwill for being able to say they voted to fix the Senate bill without actually passing it, when the self-executing rule would essentially pass it anyway. As one of the other guests on the show, Patrick Hynes, noted, the negative attack ads will be written the same way in the fall, regardless of whether reform happens through the use of a clever House rule or with a straight vote on the actual bill. I think that is likely to be the case.
If Democrats in the House are genuinely behind the president on health care reform, then they should not be afraid to look like it. I can only speak anecdotally, but I’ve talked to a number of Democratic voters over the past week, and virtually all of them said that this whole legislative endgame is making Congressional Democrats look weak. Maybe the stunning reality of a victory for reform (however it is ultimately achieved) will erase that perception for many voters, but as the months have dragged on and on, I’m just not sure.
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Irreconcilable Differences
You can catch me as a guest on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange tomorrow morning. We’ll be discussing the many procedural issues raised by the Obama Administration’s final legislative push for health care reform this week, including the possible use of the budget reconciliation process, self-executing rules, and a variety of other parliamentary tactics. You can listen to the show live at 9 a.m. here (top menu), or check it out later here.
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A Social Tea
This article in the New York Times caught my attention over the weekend. It looks at attempts by some within the Tea Party movement to build electoral clout by downplaying divisive social issues in favor of a single-minded focus on fiscal responsibility. I wish them good luck with that undertaking. So much of the early grassroots energy motivating the Tea Party movement has been driven by the twin goals of opposing President Obama's agenda and challenging elected Republican institutional elites in party primaries from the right. This makes it somewhat difficult to visualize the Tea Party movement as a big tent with room for independents and disaffected moderates from both parties, but that seems to be what the article is suggesting.
It is true that opposing profligate spending by elected officials in both parties can be considered a conservative act. But with culture warriors like former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, and South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint out in front helping to shape the Tea Party movement’s national profile, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that some voters are skeptical of the idea that its most high-profile engagements won’t be significantly shaped by values questions (and voters). In the end, organizational fractures along this ideological fault line may limit the overall impact that the Tea Party movement can have on the elections, even if it is eventually more fully co-opted by the Republican Party.
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General Interest
Here’s a fun item from the Saint Anselm Crier (via Politico) today, announcing that Army General David Petraeus will be speaking at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics on March 24th. Well-respected by political elites in both parties, Petraeus is someone whose name has occasionally been floated as a possible future (likely Republican) presidential or vice presidential candidate. While there is no particular reason to think that this visit is an indication that the general is gearing up for a political career, that will inevitably be the context within which the trip is viewed by the national media, many of whom probably do not know that Petraeus owns property and is registered to vote here in New Hampshire (just up the interstate a bit in Springfield).  But it does provide a nice opportunity for us to think about the special case of a general (active duty or retired) making a high-profile run for one of the top elected offices in the land.
While Petraeus, Colin Powell, and Wesley Clark all immediately come to mind, Clark is of course the only one of the three generals to actually make a run at the presidency. I was able to observe him closely in 2004, and I watched him struggle through a difficult adjustment period as a candidate. It’s quite a challenge for a leader used to functioning atop an order-driven military hierarchy to make the transition to the media-saturated, horizontal chaos of the partisan political arena. Clark entered the race late, and couldn’t adjust on the fly to life inside the campaign fishbowl. I knew he was in trouble when he started showing up at events in New Hampshire wearing vee neck sweaters over his shirt and tie, an old cliché of a political consultant’s trick employed to soften the sharp edges of his martial image.
So, it will be fun to see Petraeus viewed through the lens of presidential primary politics (whether he wants to be viewed that way, or not). We really don’t know anything about what his electoral persona as a presidential or vice presidential candidate would be (maybe we'll get a few clues), but my guess is that his name will continue to pop up in that context, whenever he finds himself operating in this kind of political environment.
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Romney's Point of Sale
Are these new poll numbers for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney an early indication of what will be an inevitable march to the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, or are some party activists who still question Romney’s social conservative bona fides quietly sharpening their knives (as they did last time) in anticipation of the primary battle yet to come? Romney certainly seems to be benefiting from the enhanced public platform provided by all the media exposure accompanying his current (New York Times-bestselling) No Apologies book tour.
For me, two big questions need to be answered before I would be willing to buy into the Romney inevitability scenario. First, are social conservatives in the Republican Party’s activist base finally convinced that Romney’s conversion on several of their core issues is a genuine one? Second, if not, are they still willing to go along with the preference of the party’s institutional elites that the campaign’s dominant political narrative should focus on fiscal policy and national security issues? I’ve written previously about how Romney seems to be retooling in this direction.
It will be a while before we can answer these questions with any certainty. For now, these strong polling numbers for Romney mainly reflect a feeling among the party’s voters that he would be a viable candidate in a general election match-up with President Obama. As the internal dynamics of the presidential primary season fire up, however, issues of viability could take a back seat to intra-party battles over ideological purity. Romney and the institutional elites supporting him could find themselves at odds with some of the very same conservatives who seem to be expressing pragmatic support for him at the moment.
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Don't Cry for Me, Rasmussen
You may have come across a reference today to some new polling from Rasmussen showing that both former New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte and businessman Bill Binnie lead Congressman Paul Hodes by 10 points in head-to-head match-ups in the race for Judd Gregg’s U.S. Senate seat. This comes at a time when I was actually starting to see suggestions among some national political observers that Hodes was finally getting his campaign on track.
Let’s put aside questions about Rasmussen’s status as a Republican-leaning outlier among polling firms for the moment. These results underscore the power of advertising dollars (Binnie’s), and the potential viability of Bill Binnie as an alternative to Kelly Ayotte. In contrast, the underlying dynamics between Ayotte and Hodes (and thus the overall race) haven’t changed much since last fall. But now both Ayotte and Binnie fill the same role of opposition to the Democratic status quo, which is what is largely being measured in that 10 point Republican margin.
For those of you fretting about Democratic chances in November, I still expect the race between Hodes and either Ayotte or Binnie to tighten, but it may take awhile. In a post last month, I wrote about why Hodes might not be able to close the gap until next fall, given that the Republican primary doesn’t take place until September. With the Republican contest heating up, Hodes will continue to stay busy with what he hopes is high-visibility legislative activity and constituency service. But in terms of the potential for generating measurable campaign effects to close the gap, he is essentially forced to cool his heels on the sidelines until such time that he can get into direct competition with an opposing campaign. If we are still having this conversation about potential campaign effects in mid-October, then you’ll know that Hodes is truly in trouble.
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Call for Mr. Santorum
Wow. You know the Iowa Caucus is going to be competitive for Republicans in 2012, when former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is already getting robo-called there for not being sufficiently pro-life. I've previously mentioned that I enjoy cataloguing all of the attention that the national media pays to various politicians who have no chance of being their party’s presidential nominee. It is a way for them to generate ongoing interest in their horse race coverage, even though there aren’t many thoroughbreds currently running on the track. Santorum seems to be emerging as one of these early storylines, given his newfound interest in frequent trips to Iowa and South Carolina.
Lest you think I am being flip or dismissive here, while I stand by my earlier statement that Santorum has no chance of being the Republican nominee in 2012, that doesn’t mean he can’t complicate matters for other more viable candidates trying to gain momentum coming out of the early Republican contests. With Iowa shaping up to be a social conservative battle royale, Santorum could certainly have an impact on the discourse in that political micro-climate.
We’ve seen it before in past election cycles, where candidates (with no chance of winning) like Gary Bauer on the right and Al Sharpton on the left were able to have an outsized short-term impact on the political discourse, and thus on the behavior of the other candidates in the race. So, while I can’t help but tweak the media for referring to Santorum as a presidential contender, I am aware that his candidacy could affect the dynamics of those early contests, especially at the grassroots.
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Johnny Come Lately
The contest for New Hampshire governor got a little bit more interesting last week with the entrance of Republican John Stephen into the race. Republicans believe they have their strongest candidate to go up against Gov. John Lynch (assuming he runs) in several election cycles. Oddly enough, the reaction from local Democrats seems to be, well, glee. While it is true that Stephen’s announcement means that state Democrats will now be forced to spend more than a token amount of attention focused on getting Lynch reelected (which still appears likely), they seem especially primed for this particular fight with Stephen, in a way that feels more personal than your typical partisan conflict.
There are two ways that partisan operatives often go after their political opponents. The first is to claim that prior experience demonstrates that the individual is incompetent to govern. The second line of attack is to suggest that the opponent has been untrustworthy in his dealings with other political actors and the public. This latter charge is considered more serious among campaign professionals, as it speaks to the candidate’s moral character and intent.
Why does the Democratic response to Stephen’s candidacy strike me as a bit more personal than usual? I note that in just one recent New Hampshire Democratic Party press release, in addition to hitting the incompetence theme repeatedly, the release uses some version of the word untrustworthiness no fewer than six times (and implies it several more). So, the Democratic attack is not simply that Stephen is unprepared to govern, but that he can’t be trusted to govern. As any veteran political observer knows, questioning a candidate’s motivations is the quickest way to make an electoral conflict personal. In this case, the NHDP seems especially eager to do just that.
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When Life Interrupts
I am now back in New Hampshire, having returned from my winter recess appointment. My thanks to those of you who checked in from other parts of the country to see how we fared with last week’s one-two weather punch, especially the second wild ‘snowicane.” I was somewhat able to monitor the week’s weather developments from afar, but upon returning home I would say we made out reasonably well – the power was already back on, the house was warm, and we sustained no major property damage or downed trees. Here’s hoping that those more seriously affected in the state make a speedy recovery, as well.
I had planned to resume blogging today, but I now find myself in the unexpected position of needing to turn right back around and leave the Granite State to attend the funeral of a dear family friend. For those of you (like me) who have family and close friends on either side of the 80 year mark, bearing witness to the passing of the Greatest Generation is unfortunately becoming an all too common event.
So, I will be away for the rest of the week to do just that. I will return with new content for you on Monday, March 8th. It will be a relief to finally get back to writing about politics. See you soon. -Dean
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