Philadelphia Freedom
I will be away from the website for a few days, in order to observe the Memorial Day holiday with family and friends. I’ll be back on Wednesday, June 2nd with new content for you. Have a safe, meaningful, and enjoyable holiday weekend. See you soon. -Dean
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Everything in Moderation
I came across an interesting piece over the weekend (linked to The Daily Dish), which argues that the upcoming midterm election could provide an opportunity for moderate Republicans running for Congress in New England to make a significant comeback, courtesy of the tea party-fueled, anti-incumbent sentiment supposedly sweeping the electorate. Front and center in the article is none other than our own Charlie Bass, the former U.S. Representative who is running to regain his old seat in the second district of New Hampshire.
The article echoes some of my earlier analysis of Bass, in particular the instrumental nature of his current firebrand conservatism, and his not inconsiderable political talent for tacking strategically with the prevailing ideological winds. The author also seconds my prediction that Bass will move to the center in the general election as needed, in order to better compete for a significant portion of the district’s independent voters.
As I have continued to consider the dynamics of the second district race, however, I’ve begun to wonder about just how much Bass would actually need to adjust his political positioning for the general election. If, as is quite possible, the fall contest is primarily about issues like jobs and the economy, federal spending and the deficit, taxes and the reach of the federal government, then Bass may be able to simply continue campaigning with the populist language of the tea party movement. In that case, we would be treated to a former six-term incumbent running a general election campaign fueled by anti-incumbent sentiment.
The underlying assumption in this scenario is that independents have clearly shifted to the right on these issues (some useful confirming data here), thereby requiring less of a rhetorical adjustment by Bass than might otherwise be required in a more typical election cycle. He is already pretty well-known as a moderate on social issues, so those won’t likely trip him up, and they won’t play much of a role in the district’s campaign discourse in any event. Where Bass ends up ideologically may be somewhat affected by the kind of campaign run by his Democratic opponent (either Ann McLane Kuster or Katrina Swett), but current political (and economic)  conditions could instead keep Bass right where he is.
Note:  I'll be away tomorrow, and back posting on Wednesday. -Dean
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Newtrality Act
Here is a timely follow-up to my Wednesday post discussing the ongoing attempts by Newt Gingrich to remain both politically relevant and in the media spotlight. Gingrich is now getting pretty strong criticism from some typically friendly quarters over his recent comments comparing the Obama Administration to the threat posed by the Nazis in the 1930s. In appropriating language from some elements in the tea party movement, Gingrich isn’t the first politician to try to piggyback on the populist rage expressed in the movement’s virulent denunciation of all things Obama.
But Gingrich should know better. Despite his fiery rhetorical past leading the Republican Congressional revolution of the mid-1990’s, Gingrich is now undeniably one of the party’s well-established institutional elites, policy wonks, and Washington insiders, which makes the Hitler talk seem like a sad attempt to recapture some of his old glory. It strikes me that the former House Speaker is trying a little too hard to keep the spotlight on him in a polarized and cacophonous political environment where the ante on rhetorical outrageousness (as a means of getting media coverage) is being upped on a daily basis.
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Just Run Already!
I don’t know if I can bear to read another detailed exposition of the various professional and political calculations that Newt Gingrich says he must make early next year, before deciding whether to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. Just run already! The latest iteration in what has become an increasingly annoying quadrennial publicity ritual for Gingrich comes courtesy of Mike Allen at, and marks the release of Gingrich’s new book/manifesto on how to stop the Obama Administration in its tracks. The fact that I already knew Gingrich's wife is named Callista is a pretty good indication that we’ve been down this road many times before.
I have written previously about how Gingrich uses the lure of a potential presidential run to keep himself in the national media’s mix of daily political coverage. My guess is that Gingrich knows he has no chance of winning the nomination. But he is a sufficiently colorful character with enough reputational clout in the party that his episodic flirtation with a run ensures that reporters will keep tabs on his frequent political musings. This time, however, Gingrich sweetened the deal a bit with the bold prediction that President Obama has only a 20 percent chance of winning reelection. It seems a little premature to make that kind of projection, but it is precisely the sort of rhetorical gamesmanship that keeps both journalists and members of the party’s conservative base coming back for more.
Note: I'll be away tomorrow, and back posting on Friday. -Dean
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Ayotte Gets Listed
A brief item in a Washington Post blog last Friday received a fair bit of attention in the Granite State over the weekend. Conservative blogger David Weigel was live-blogging the Susan B. Anthony List annual fundraising breakfast, and casually noted in his post that among those in attendance was none other than former state Attorney General and U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Ayotte. The pro-life group’s 550-person, Washington, D.C. event was scheduled to be keynoted by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. The news of Ayotte’s attendance was predictably greeted by state Democrats with the usual Kelly is too busy being a faux right-wing Washington insider to care about New Hampshire (bonus Sarah Palin edition).
But the item does raise the legitimate question of what Ayotte hopes to gain by attending this event in Washington. It has already been well-established that Ayotte is firmly in the loop with Republican institutional elites at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. So, she is probably looking to tap into a similar national network for movement conservatives, one which could provide her with some outside cred on social issues, as well as potential access to another fundraising stream. Perhaps Ayotte is also hoping for an official Palin endorsement, but I’ve previous discussed why Palin alone isn’t necessarily a sufficient draw for New Hampshire Republicans.  At a minimum, Ayotte is clearly thinking about ways of benefiting from better access to the powerful grassroots activists who populate the world of socially conservative advocacy groups.
Note:  I'll be away tomorrow, and back posting on Wednesday. -Dean
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Gone Fishing
As I told a local journalist recently, I pity the state employee who is currently in charge of Right-to-Know requests over at the Statehouse. Between the Financial Resources Mortgage scandal, the Liquor Commission standoff, and other assorted goings-on, it is suddenly open season on all manner of official government paper trail, including case files, internal memos, and email correspondence. With the two state parties, multiple campaigns, and outside advocacy groups all clamoring for direct access to this information, I am sure state photocopy machines will be working at capacity for the foreseeable future.
Opposition research by political campaigns and outside groups is nothing new in politics. The hunt for a political smoking gun was around long before the current flurry of calls for greater transparency, and will no doubt continue long after the present governance episodes are eventually put to rest. But the hunt for a smoking gun that may damage an opponent’s political future is not necessarily the same enterprise as trying to understand exactly what precipitated a particular governmental failure. So, it was with great anticipation that everyone awaited the initial email dump for former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte. At least we now know that state employees enjoy a good pizza party as much as the next person.
Like a lot of other local political observers, I hope all of the present issues are eventually fully understood. The truth has a tendency to come out in the end, and let the chips fall where they may for the various Democratic and Republican politicians who are potentially culpable and thus politically at risk. But in the meantime, I hope that all of the interested parties will proceed with due diligence before embarking on fishing expeditions, lest they end up fishing in the same boat with Hawaii.
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Declaration of Independence
Those of you who follow U.S. Senate races around the country probably already know that Republican Senator Robert Bennett of Utah was essentially forced out of office after three terms at his state party’s nominating convention this past Saturday. By finishing third in the balloting, Bennett was denied access to a primary, and thus became the latest victim of the tea party movement’s attempts to reshape the conservative political landscape.
I have already written several times that the tea party movement’s best opportunity to do so is by challenging Republican incumbents from the right. We’ve seen it push Florida Governor Charlie Crist out of the Republican primary and into an independent bid, and now it has denied long-serving Senator Bennett the right to defend his seat as the Republican incumbent. Among Bennett’s sins were voting for the bank bailout (TARP), the stimulus bill, and health care mandates.
Now we learn that Bennett, like Crist, hasn’t written off the possibility of an independent bid. In Bennett’s case, this would have to be done as a write-in candidate, which would be a tall order to be sure. Thus, a move by Bennett is probably less likely than the one taken by Crist, but it nonetheless represents the tea party activists’ worst nightmare, and provides an opportunity for some of these vilified incumbents to potentially have the last political laugh. At a minimum, forcing Republican incumbents out of their party with primary challenges from the right raises the possibility that a subsequent independent bid by that incumbent could siphon off votes from the Republican nominee, thereby giving the Democratic candidate an increased opportunity for victory.
There is an interesting irony to the possibility that in forcing long-serving Republican institutional elites out of their party, the tea party is turning those politicians into the true outsiders who are trying to buck an electoral system that has veered off course. While it is a perfectly legitimate strategy for the tea party to try to influence party primaries, the unintended consequences could be quite surprising.
Note: I'll be away tomorrow, and back posting on Friday. -Dean
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The Trouble With Troubled
Upon learning last month that President Obama would have a second vacancy to fill on the Supreme Court, I once again cracked open my big book of political clichés, in order to revisit the mother of all judicial confirmation clichés, the claim of judicial activism. Now that we have an actual nominee in Solicitor General Elena Kagan, you should also be on the lookout for Republican members of Congress to begin talking about being troubled by various aspects of Kagan’s academic and professional record.
Use of some form of the word by opponents of the nominee is usually a reliable sign that the fun is just about to begin. This particular confirmation cliché is an all-purpose means of creating rhetorical space for ideological battle. I wrote about its inevitable usage last year, during the Justice Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings:
As word of the Sotomayor nomination spread yesterday, I prepared for Republican senators to also roll out another of my favorite confirmation battle clichés – the use of the word troubling, as in Senator X finds the nominee’s views on a particular subject to be troubling. This rhetorical device typically serves as a marker to denote potential opposition to the nominee on general ideological grounds. Senators wielding the term early in the process often use it as a placeholder for some more specific critique of the nominee to be developed once they determine where the biggest weaknesses in the nominee's record are located.
To illustrate my point, you can watch Republican Senator Jeff Sessions drop the t-word while discussing the Sotomayor nomination on television this morning. And, in fairness to my Republican readers, you might not be surprised to learn that Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer found “significant portions” of Justice Samuel Alito’s record “very troubling” during Alito’s confirmation process in 2006.
Rolling out the troubling cliché is not necessarily a sign that the nomination is doomed. It is primarily a means by which opposition Senators mark their territory, in order to reserve the right to take whatever ideological swings at the nominee they deem appropriate. House Minority Leader John Boehner was perhaps first out of the gate with an expression of trouble-ness today (on the military recruiter issue), but he doesn’t actually get to vote on the nomination. Still, it is no doubt a harbinger of trouble to come.
Note: Away tomorrow, back posting on Wednesday. -Dean
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Courting Carly
You may have come across this item today detailing the blowback that former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is receiving on her Facebook page for endorsing former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina in the California Senate race, instead of another popular tea party-supported candidate. At least one analyst attributes the endorsement simply to Palin’s desire to pick a winner and to a shared set of policy preferences. You could also throw in a desire to promote other women candidates, and a thank you for all Fiorina did as a political surrogate for the McCain-Palin campaign in 2008. All of these factors probably played some role in Palin’s decision to endorse Fiorina over Chuck DeVore.
But, as I have written previously, for Palin to truly harness the grassroots power of the tea party movement, she needs continued access to powerful Republican institutional elites and the political infrastructure they control. Were Fiorina to win the U.S. Senate seat in California, she would be a U.S. Senator who is also an independently wealthy, ex-Fortune 500 CEO with strong ties to the business and Washington political communities.  This is the very definition of Republican institutional elite, and one who would owe Palin at least a small debt of gratitude for her support in the future.
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Chaos Theory
Many of you know that I occasionally can’t resist the temptation to point out when a member of either state party apparatus has jumped the shark with regard to the use of political hyperbole. You may remember this instant classic from the state Democratic Party. This time, however, it is the state Republican Party that is tickling my funny bone, courtesy of Communications Director Ryan Williams and his press release today on Governor Lynch and the Financial Resources Mortgage scandal.
For those of you who have already seen the press release, I hope you caught the awesome subtitle: State Government in Chaos as Lynch Backs Off Disclosure Order. As an aside, I also appreciated the Lynch Flinches alliteration in the main title, although I've heard that one before. I have actually driven by the Statehouse and several state office buildings today, and I can report that everything is still standing.  These new poll numbers look pretty sturdy, too.
I am all for full disclosure on the FRM matter, and there are legitimate questions to be asked of both the Lynch Administration and former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte. But it is a bit of a bummer to see both sides become almost frantic in their attempts to score political points on the back of a scandal that has done irreparable financial harm to many individuals. I guess it's inevitable, but I still don’t like it. Anyway, I should at least thank Ryan Williams for this morning’s entertaining diversion into chaos theory.
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Pawlenty's Problem
I have written frequently about Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty over the past year, in an attempt to assess his political potential as a Republican presidential nominee for 2012. I’ve noted that as a conservative governor in a state that is not exactly a hotbed of movement conservatism, Pawlenty holds out the possibility of real crossover appeal as a general election candidate, something that I don’t really see in any of the other current frontrunners, with perhaps the exception of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (on a good day).
In fact, there was a time shortly after Senator John McCain’s loss in 2008 that Pawlenty seemed to be moving quite quickly and visibly to challenge Romney as the likely future leader of the GOP. Yet, even after significant exposure among Republican political elites, Pawlenty remains well-respected, but not particularly well-supported in that quest.
As I’ve also noted, Pawlenty has a singular knack for seeming awkward and uncomfortable when engaging in the heated Democrat-bashing of tea partyism and/or movement conservatism, and herein lays the problem for the governor. As conservative columnist (and former George W. Bush chief speechwriter) Michael Gerson suggests in today’s Washington Post, Pawlenty’s reasonable, (some might say bland) nice-guy demeanor increasingly seems like a poor fit for the angry anti-incumbent mood of the current conservative activist (and primary-voting) base of the party.
Until recently, I had considered it plausible that Pawlenty’s conservative credentials blended with a moderate personal profile would eventually raise his appeal as a viable general election candidate in his party. But Gerson seems to believe that Pawlenty will have real trouble getting through the primaries, and I am starting to think that he may very well be correct about that. It also sounds like Gerson believes that would be an unfortunate circumstance for the Republican Party.
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Candidates Seeking Employment
An interesting little article in The New York Times caught my attention last week. The piece notes that while the 2012 race for the Republican presidential nomination is still only in its preliminary stages, among the most frequently mentioned candidates for the office, almost none currently holds down some form of elective office. To be sure, a number of them like former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney aren’t exactly struggling to generate income. But the author, Matt Bai, notes that you have to go back over 25 years to former Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984 to find another major party candidate who clinched the nomination while not holding some other elective office.
It is of course possible that with over two years to go until the next nominating convention, the eventual 2012 Republican nominee will be someone from the ranks of current elected officials who has not yet generated a lot of media buzz, but it is an interesting curiosity nonetheless that the current GOP field is at least preliminarily shaping up in this way. Bai is correct that part of the explanation stems from the anti-incumbent fervor sweeping the activist conservative base of the Republican Party. There has always been a premium on presidential candidates running as outsiders, and Bai notes that the feeling is now so intense within the GOP that being part of the elected governing elite is largely incompatible with running for office.
But I also think that the nature of running for president has been fundamentally altered in recent years by changes in technology and the ways in which citizens learn about and follow politics. It is true that as Bai suggests the demands on a candidate's time are such that running for president has become a full-time job in its own right. Just think back on the many Congressional votes that both then-Senator Obama and Senator John McCain skipped during their respective campaigns. But I think that the end goal of all this activity has changed. The invisible primary is not just about building name recognition through fundraising and grassroots organization anymore.
Being taken seriously as a credible nominee now requires potential candidates to maintain a national media profile that requires endless feeding. This means (co)writing a book, giving lots of political speeches, being at the beckon call of cable news (perhaps even hosting your own show), and generating constant media attention in the blogs and elsewhere by opining on every major issue facing the current president. Sure, part of the job is building grassroots support state-by-state, but increasingly candidates accomplish that by focusing on building a national media persona that transcends both regular elective work and the traditionally decentralized nature of our electoral processes. We will have to wait for future presidential election cycles to assess whether this is a quirk of the current political environment or a longer-lasting transformation in how we select presidential nominees.
Note: I'll be away tomorrow, but back posting on Wednesday. -Dean
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