Good N'Pawlenty
Whenever political observers talk about potential Republican vice presidential picks, one of the first names to roll off of their tongues is Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. His Midwestern working-class roots, personal connection to the evangelical community, and long-standing loyalty to John McCain, have made him a frequent object of vice presidential speculation. So I was excited to get a close look at him on Sunday, during his guest appearance as a McCain surrogate on This Week (video: Which candidate is walking the walk?). My overall reaction to his performance is that Pawlenty would be a good option for McCain, but is not necessarily a must-pick candidate. Pawlenty did a solid job of defending McCain as someone who has been willing to take strong stands on the issues, even when it was politically unpopular to do so, while also depicting Barack Obama as being unwilling to buck the liberal wing of is party.
But Pawlenty had the misfortune of being paired on the show with former Clinton aide and current Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel. If you are unfamiliar with Emanuel, he has been variously described as pugilistic, unrelenting, and eviscerating, and as someone who practices a take-no-prisoners style of politics. And Emanuel did not disappoint on Sunday, professing his longtime friendship for Pawlenty, while simultaneously noting how poor Minnesota's economic performance has been in recent years. Once Emanuel got on a roll, Pawlenty seemed curiously passive, which is not a helpful trait given the attack dog role traditionally reserved for the vice presidential nominee. In 2000, Joe Lieberman was famously criticized for being too friendly with Dick Cheney, during their vice presidential debate. If Governor Pawlenty wants to have a shot at joining the Republican ticket, he will need to show that he is one soft-spoken Midwesterner who also packs a good counterpunch.
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Air Wars
You can catch me this Sunday morning as a guest on WMUR-TV’s Close Up (10 a.m., Ch. 9)I will be joining a roundtable discussion of the impact that campaign ads are likely to have on several key races this fall.
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Ace of Base
In a post last week, I suggested that John McCain might find it difficult to balance his long-standing identity as a maverick politician with his new role as leader of the Republican Party. While his reformist message resonated with many New Hampshire voters in the 2000 and 2008 presidential primaries, McCain now faces a countervailing pressure to rally his party’s conservative base behind his nomination. Viewed from the perspective of national strategy, there may be some logic to the idea of a rightward shift by McCain, especially in light of new data indicating that he still has some work to do with core partisans. Given the reports of McCain’s meeting with prominent social conservatives yesterday, the presumptive nominee appears to be moving to address this concern.
It is true that close elections can come down to a competitive mobilization of core partisan bases, but they can also rest on an ability to attract the support of moderate partisans and independent voters clustered in the center of the ideological spectrum. While it is always difficult to predict which dynamic will dominate a particular election cycle, if 2008 turns out to be about the middle, then John McCain may wish he spent less time demonstrating he is a social conservative and more time showing he is still the straight-talking iconoclast who has won not one, but two New Hampshire Primaries.
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I'm Feeling Minnesota
This morning I participated in a lively hour of discussion on Minnesota Public Radio’s Midmorning show. I joined host Kerri Miller and guest Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, for a conversation about what the imminent rapprochement between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in Unity, New Hampshire tomorrow might mean for the Democratic Party and its women voters in the general election. You can listen to the show here, by clicking on the audio link in the upper right corner of the webpage.
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Waiting for Bill Clinton
While Hillary Clinton now seems firmly committed to the idea of campaigning for Barack Obama, we are still waiting to see what role Bill Clinton will play in the general election. The precise nature of his involvement may depend on whether Senator Clinton is offered the vice presidential slot on the Democratic ticket, but the brief statement of support recently issued by President Clinton’s spokesman was sufficiently vague to keep political observers guessing. With the question still hanging out there, Senator Clinton felt compelled today to further underscore her husband’s willingness to work for Obama’s election.
While some reporting suggests that the two men have a few issues to settle before President Clinton gets fully onboard, my guess is that he will eventually warm to the idea. It would be hard for President Clinton to pass up an opportunity to get back out on the campaign trail, and the distinct partisan differences between Obama and John McCain on the issues would make his freewheeling oratorical style a bit less perilous for both him and the nominee than it was in the primaries. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the former president use an encore on the stump as an opportunity to spin his past conflicts with the Obama campaign as largely a media creation, and to smooth over some of the internal party friction he helped generate during the primaries. Those two moves in combination would be the surest sign that President Clinton has finally joined the elect Obama enterprise.
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When You are Mentioned with Kinsley
You may have noticed that in the coverage of McCain adviser Charlie Black’s recent controversial comments that a terrorist strike in the United States this fall would benefit his candidate, reporters have frequently made reference to the writer Michael Kinsley, when characterizing Black’s remarks as a Washington-style gaffe. To provide you with some background, let me briefly take you back to the origins of the Kinsley reference, as I remember thinking that he was on to a very clever idea at the time.
In an article for Slate during the 2000 presidential contest, Kinsley popularized the idea that in Washington, a gaffe occurs when a politician unintentionally reveals what he or she actually believes to be true. The article is an entertaining piece on Al Gore, Dick Cheney, and the art of telling lies in a presidential campaign. While Kinsley may have floated the concept before, I believe this article is the one that introduced his ownership of the idea into the conventional wisdom, courtesy of Slate’s early high profile as a webzine. Note that in the last paragraph, Kinsley does not take credit for this definition of gaffe, but instead suggests that it is an old political saw that has been around for years. That may be true, but he is certainly getting ownership of the concept in the current election cycle.
Viewed in this context, the problem for Charlie Black is that his comments publicly confirmed what political observers already privately suspected was true, that the McCain campaign believes its strongest suit against Obama is the security issue, and that a sudden terrorist attack sometime in the next 4 months would serve to dramatically underscore McCain’s superior preparation and experience for responding to such a crisis. Even if we accept that this is an accurate assessment by the McCain campaign, characterizing (even hypothetically) another national tragedy as an opportunity for political gain will most certainly get you mentioned in the same sentence with Michael Kinsley.
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McCain, Obama and Executive Power
I came across an interesting article in The New York Times over the weekend that raised the provocative question of whether John McCain or Barack Obama would be willing as president to reverse the significant expansion of executive power undertaken by President Bush. During my years as a political science professor, I spent a lot of time studying the growth of institutional authority in the American presidency, and my guess is that the answer to this question for either candidate is probably not, although neither would ever say so directly.
Rare is the example of a president who is willing to part with the increased latitude to act afforded to him by new grants of executive power. Presidents typically accrue this kind of enhanced institutional authority on an emergency basis during times of war or domestic crisis, and gradually weave it into the permanent constitutional and bureaucratic fabric of the office over time. While Congress and the courts have occasion to check the growth of executive power, they are more likely to focus on remedying the specific outcome of a presidential decision, rather than challenge the underlying expansion of institutional authority used to justify it. So, you may see President McCain or President Obama move to reverse certain controversial actions taken by President Bush on terrorism and homeland security, but don’t expect to see either of them sign any executive orders reversing the broad grants of executive power that facilitated those decisions in the first place.
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A Maverick Nominee?
A couple of New Hampshire-related items have popped up in the national press today to provide us with a little food for thought over the weekend. E.J. Dionne writes in The Washington Post about what he sees as a jump ball contest between Barack Obama and John McCain for the Granite State’s four electoral votes. Over at The Atlantic, Marc Ambinder switches his prognostication on New Hampshire from leaning Obama to a toss-up, noting that he is, “getting the sense from some NH Dems that the big liberal wave has crested there.” Even with a new ARG poll showing Obama leading in New Hampshire by 12 points, the feeling persists among some political professionals that McCain’s special relationship with New Hampshire voters will ultimately provide him with enough electoral juice to pull off a third win here in November.
I have suggested previously that McCain’s ability to win in New Hampshire this fall will depend in part on whether his new role as the head of a large national political organization undercuts his ability to run the sort of insurgent campaign that characterized his previous victories in the state. McCain faces a difficult challenge in being the presumptive nominee of his party, while also trying to maintain his winning identity as a maverick politician. In particular, McCain should be careful that a desire to rally his party’s conservative base does not push him too far afield of the reform message that resonated so strongly with independent (undeclared) voters here in 2000 and 2008. Such a move might improve McCain's chances in some other states, but it would probably hurt him in New Hampshire.
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I was not surprised to read this morning that Barack Obama will forgo a publicly financed general election campaign. The announcement came a bit earlier than expected, but most political observers (myself included) correctly assumed that the Obama campaign would find the potential for a $300 million private fundraising haul (as opposed to $84 million directly from the U.S. Treasury) just too tempting to pass up. My guess is that the Obama campaign decided to announce the decision now, in order to get the inevitable pounding by critics for what looks like a pretty clear flip-flop on the issue out of the way as soon as possible.
There may be some truth to the Obama campaign's argument that the level of citizen participation in its grassroots fundraising network actually better captures the spirit of public financing than does the broken federal system. But Obama’s decision to affix primary blame for the move to the McCain campaign, RNC fundraising activities, and the potential for mischief by Republican 527 groups, strikes me as a bit of a stretch. Especially since subsequent reporting suggests that the Obama campaign didn’t exactly beat down the McCain campaign’s door to negotiate (as promised) a bi-partisan agreement between the two camps on public financing. So, while this may very well turn out to be a smart strategic move for the Obama campaign, it should at least be honest about the fact that the lure of a 3-to-1 spending advantage over the McCain campaign was simply too strong to ignore.
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Rudy Redux
If you have been missing Rudy Giuliani’s presence on the campaign trail, then you probably enjoyed seeing him jump back into the political arena yesterday with remarks critical of Barack Obama’s views on terrorism. When I read Giuliani’s comments, I was immediately reminded of an interview he did on Meet the Press, shortly before the 2004 election, in which he absolutely eviscerated John Kerry on the same issue. Here is an excerpt from that October 31, 2004 interview:
John Kerry is still in a pre-9/11 mentality. He said that 9/11 didn't change him very much. He said he wants to go back to when terrorism was just a nuance, meaning pre-9/11. I don't know when the heck terrorism was just a nuisance. Was it just a nuisance when they attacked the World Trade Center in 1993 and killed people in my city in 1993? And John Kerry then proposed gutting our intelligence budget, and Teddy Kennedy had to oppose it? I mean, he has a pre-9/11 view, which is the reason why this country would be a lot safer in dealing with bin Laden and the other terrorists with George Bush sitting there. He understands the lessons of September 11. John Kerry has consistently indicated he does not understand what happened to this country.
If you have time to read the entire interview transcript (Giuliani follows Bob Kerrey), I encourage you to do so. Giuliani provides a virtual clinic on how to take down an opposing candidate by systematically questioning his judgment, patriotism, and trustworthiness. Based on Giuliani’s similar comments yesterday, my guess is that Obama is in for pretty much the same treatment. The question of how to best implement the lessons of 9/11 continues to be a fundamental fault line separating the two parties, one which the McCain campaign believes it can use to its political advantage. We will no doubt hear a lot more from Giuliani on the issue of terrorism, in his capacity as a campaign surrogate for McCain. If yesterday’s exchanges between the two camps are any indication, it’s going to feel a lot like 2004 this summer.
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McCain Knows the Drill
If you had read yesterday’s post, and then asked me to come up with one policy area where John McCain has not cleaved to conservative orthodoxy as a means of unifying his party’s base, I would have mentioned the environment. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw a news clip last night of McCain reversing his position from the 2000 election, by calling for an end to the ban on offshore drilling.
Republicans in Congress have been quite vocal recently about the need to boost domestic oil and gas production in the face of voter outrage over the high cost of energy. The McCain campaign no doubt sees lifting the ban as a means of responding to this concern, while also rallying Congressional Republicans more firmly behind McCain’s candidacy. While political observers will debate whether this move helps or hurts McCain in places like Florida, voters will find that it also serves to reinforce the conflicting partisan worldviews with which they are already so familiar.
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The Song Remains the Same
For an election that is ostensibly about change, I am hearing an awful lot from the two presidential candidates lately that sounds like traditional partisan rhetoric. Whether the two presumptive nominees (and self-styled reformers) are talking about the relative merits of governmental intervention and free markets, tax cuts as an instrument of economic growth, or the best way to maximize healthcare coverage and affordability, their policy positions seem to fall with surprising regularity on opposite sides of the ideological divide that has driven the Republican and Democratic legislative agendas in Washington for decades.
This circumstance may be due in part to the inevitable shift from primary season to the general election, and the consequent need for each nominee to unify his party around a common agenda. But an article in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times confirms my sense that neither John McCain nor Barack Obama is currently breaking much new post-partisan ground when it comes to their issue positions. While both candidates are correct when they say that voters will face a stark choice this fall, it is starting to feel like that choice will be the familiar one between liberal and conservative worldviews that has characterized many previous elections. Given the sky-high expectations of voters in this election year, the failure of either candidate to transcend these ideological constraints would be a missed opportunity indeed.
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Remembering Tim Russert
If you are like me, and Meet the Press is the centerpiece of your Sunday morning talk show ritual, then you were probably just as stunned and saddened as I was to learn of Tim Russert’s sudden passing yesterday at age 58. I met him briefly in 1982, when I was a U.S. Senate intern, and he was an aide to legendary New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Russert gave a group of us interns an impromptu seminar on campaign advertising that I still remember to this day.
I have watched Meet the Press virtually every week for the past 17 years, and I can’t imagine what tomorrow morning will feel like without him sitting at that familiar roundtable. I can think of no better tribute to remember Tim Russert by than with his familiar sign-off, if it’s Sunday, it’s Meet the Press.
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Off to the Races
With today’s candidate filing deadline in New Hampshire, there will be a number of state primary and general election races to watch in the coming weeks. I will be discussing some of the most interesting ones on Monday morning, as a guest on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange. As always, you can listen live at 9 a.m. here (lower left), or catch it later here.
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Prime Time Huckabee
When I read earlier today that former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee will be joining Fox News as a regular political commentator, I was reminded of an item I posted back in February speculating on Huckabee’s motivation for staying in the Republican race, even as party elites called for him to end his campaign and endorse John McCain. At the time, the most obvious explanation was that Huckabee knew he had no chance of winning the nomination, but nonetheless hoped to build a national platform from which to maintain his visibility as a leading social conservative within the party, while perhaps biding his time for a second presidential run in 2012, should McCain lose this fall.
If those were indeed his goals, then Huckabee seems to be off to a pretty good start. Between the Fox News gig and his newly established Huck PAC, the former Arkansas governor is now well-positioned to participate in the national political dialogue that will dominate the remainder of 2008. His recent comments in New Hampshire urging fellow Republicans to reject an electoral strategy of demonizing Barack Obama suggest that Huckabee may turn out to be one of the political voices capable of cutting through the ideological din that will characterize much of the political discourse over the next five months, provided his often refreshing sense of humor doesn’t get the best of him first.
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For Kucinich, Life is Impeachy
In case you are wondering what former Democratic presidential candidate and current Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich is up to these days, you might be interested to learn that he recently introduced 35 articles of impeachment (five hours worth) against President Bush over his handling of the Iraq War. Other than former Alaskan Senator Mike Gravel, Kucinich was really the only Democratic candidate during the primaries with a stomach for talking about impeachment out on the campaign stump. In fact, you may recall that he unsuccessfully attempted to move similar articles against Dick Cheney last year.
Not surprisingly, political observers do not expect the current articles against Bush to move forward, either. Given the Obama campaign’s ostensible focus on cultivating a post-partisan majority in Washington, D.C., the last thing it wants is the hyper-partisanship that would accompany an impeachment battle, and the Democratic leadership in Congress seems keenly aware of this. Perhaps Kucinich’s five-hour reading of the articles into the Congressional Record on Monday will serve as a symbolic victory for those of his campaign supporters who encouraged him to do just that last winter, but you should still expect to see President Bush at the White House until early 2009.
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A Second Term for Carter?
I noted in a recent post that John McCain has accused Barack Obama of flirting with the failed ideas of previous Democratic administrations. For me, McCain’s general remarks evoked an image of the large federal bureaucracies constructed in the 1960s. But we now know that McCain also had a more specific example from the 1970s in mind. In a television interview yesterday, he argued that electing Obama would be akin to a second term for Jimmy Carter. This is no doubt the McCain campaign’s considered comeback to the Democratic claim that McCain’s election would constitute a third term for George Bush.
While I have suggested on several occasions that Carter’s endorsement is indeed a mixed blessing for the Obama campaign, I’m not sure whether the McCain riposte packs the requisite punch to neutralize the just-like-Bush critique. If you consider that the youngest of those eligible to vote in 1976 is now approaching 50, it is unlikely that historical comparisons to the Carter Administration will produce the same sort of visceral reaction that millions of younger voters have to any mention of Bush Administration policies. Conservatives who love to hate Carter will get a good chuckle out of McCain’s counterattack, but they may find that it has limited potential as the centerpiece of a broader attack on Obama’s liberalism.
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What a Difference a Day Makes
While surfing the Sunday morning talk shows, I came across Howard Wolfson on Face the Nation, just one day after Hillary Clinton’s concession speech. I knew the 2008 presidential primary season was truly over, when I heard Wolfson utter words that I never thought I would hear him say:
I'm very optimistic actually about our chances in the fall. I think Barack Obama ran an amazing race. He energized enormous numbers of Americans to come out and vote…We need a fundamental change, a fundamental break, and I think Barack Obama offers that and I think the American people are going to respond very affirmatively to that.
As Clinton’s communications director, Wolfson was point man for a multitude of withering attacks on the Obama campaign over the past 16 months. If anyone doubted the ability of political professionals to pivot on a dime to support their party’s nominee, the combination of Clinton’s well-received speech and Wolfson’s kind words over the weekend should give Democrats at least some hope of a unified party for the general election, although there is of course no guarantee that rank-and-file voters will follow the cues of these political elites.
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The Vice Presidential Vacuum
I recently suggested that Barack Obama should resolve the question of whether to partner with Hillary Clinton on the Democratic ticket, before moving on to a broader running mate search. To do otherwise risks undercutting the roll-out of his eventual pick, if the media is simultaneously preoccupied with the political drama of Clinton being passed over for the spot. It is possible that Clinton’s what does Hillary want moment on Tuesday actually bought Obama some more time, as Clinton supporters and party officials quickly backed away from the appearance of trying to force the presumptive nominee’s hand on the issue. But even if the pressure is off for the moment, Obama will still face the same difficult set of decisions in the near future.
Viewed in this light, Obama’s decision to maintain complete radio silence on all things vice presidential until the process is complete may actually serve to complicate matters. Establishing an information vacuum is probably the surest way to guarantee that the media will attempt to read the vice presidential tea leaves in ways that may cause the campaign unforeseen headaches. At a minimum, those with even a remote chance of making it onto the short list should be prepared to have their every waking moment monitored for signs that Obama is secretly showing them some vice presidential favor. While I understand the desire of the Obama campaign to avoid the media circus that accompanies the traditional parade of possible running mates, going to the other extreme may unintentionally create an even bigger one.
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The Need to Concede
While I expected Hillary Clinton’s non-concession speech on Tuesday night to raise some hackles over at the Obama campaign, I was a bit surprised by the backlash-quality reaction it received from Democratic officials yesterday, including some of Clinton’s staunchest allies. In virtually all corners of the party, political elites expressed (with unexpected forcefulness) an urgent need for Clinton to bow out of the nomination race immediately, so that the process of unification behind Barack Obama could begin.
One need only consider the surprising rebukes delivered to Clinton by two of her strongest supporters, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell (on bargaining with the nominee) and New York Congressman Charlie Rangel (on the need for more time to concede), to know that the attempt to draw out Clinton’s endgame on Tuesday night was a tactical miscalculation by her campaign. Whether this will further sour the climate for a potential vice-presidential bid remains to be seen. It may largely depend on what Clinton delivers with her do-over rally in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.
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Back to the Future
John McCain’s speech last night in Louisiana was certainly not his strongest performance to date, but we nonetheless learned more about how the McCain campaign will attempt to counter Barack Obama’s message of change. Here is the section of McCain’s remarks that caught my attention:
The wrong change looks not to the future but to the past for solutions that have failed us before and will surely fail us again. I have a few years on my opponent, so I am surprised that a young man has bought in to so many failed ideas. Like others before him, he seems to think government is the answer to every problem; that government should take our resources and make our decisions for us…That attitude created the unresponsive bureaucracies of big government in the first place. And that’s not change we can believe in.
We have already heard a lot about the Obama campaign’s plans to paint a McCain presidency as a third term for the unpopular Bush Administration. In fact, some political observers have suggested that it was concern over the impact of this critique that led McCain to further distance himself from President Bush last night. While we don’t know for sure whether the McCain campaign’s internal polling red-flagged this issue as gaining traction, it is now clear that McCain intends to employ the counterargument that an Obama presidency would essentially be a twenty-first century version of the Johnson Administration, complete with expensive, large-scale domestic programs on the order of those created by LBJ’s Great Society and War on Poverty.
By identifying Obama as the scion of a liberal governing philosophy, the McCain campaign hopes to undercut Obama’s ability (particularly among moderates and independents) to make a persuasive case for the future, unencumbered by the legacy of his party’s bureaucratic past.
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What's That at the End of the Tunnel?
If you can’t bear the thought of the primaries coming to an end tonight, then let’s keep talking about them tomorrow morning, when I will be doing a primary season wrap-up on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange. I will be joining host Laura Knoy and UNH professor Dante Scala for a lively discussion of the 2008 presidential nominee selection process. As always, you can listen live here (lower left) at 9 a.m., or catch the show later here.
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Rally Caps On
Here is a follow-up to last week’s post on Ron Paul, in which I raised the question of how Paul and his dedicated group of supporters would make their presence felt at the Republican convention in Minneapolis. In a recent interview with Newsweek, Paul states that while he intends to hold a large rally in the city at which he will speak, and also to work with his supporters at the convention to exert influence on the party platform, he has no plans to disrupt the proceedings. Paul also confirms my long-held suspicion that he has no relationship with the presumptive nominee, John McCain, and that the McCain campaign will likely shut him out of an official speaking slot inside the arena.
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