Monday, September 10, 2007

Freddy's dead

Bin Laden and Fred Thompson made it official. They both aim to influence the 2008 presidential election.

Bin Laden, in his latest video, offered a message tailored to Democratic and Republican activists alike. First, he offered an end to the war. Second, he offered a massive tax cut and a permanent flat tax of just 2.5%. Blending a message that was overtly part Muhammad and part Chomsky, he asked only that Americans discard their corrupt, corporate-controlled democratic system, and embrace Islam. Small price for a flat tax.

Fred Thompson offered no such message clarity. After six months of planning his entry into the Republican presidential contest, Thompson’s first week on the stump was not encouraging. When right-wing talk show host Sean Hannity popped “The Question,” and asked Thompson why he was running for president and what distinguished him from the other candidates, the newly minted candidate muffed. Well, Sean, the candidate dissembled, I haven’t really thought about it in those terms…

It is an astonishing thing for lay observers of the process to see candidates stumble over The Question, as it would seem to be the single question every candidate knows they are going to be asked. Unlike “How would you get us out of the mess in Iraq?” each candidate can answer this one on their own terms. But when Hannity lobbed the softball his way, Thompson missed.

The depth of the destruction that George W. Bush has done to the Republican Party is evidenced by the lack of an anointed candidate just four months before the first nominating votes are tallied. Not since 1964 have the Republicans had a wide-open contest for the party nomination, as both the party’s famed internal discipline and candidate adherence to the shibboleths––pro-Life, anti-gay, pro-gun, anti-tax, pro-faith––have come undone. Fred Thompson may catch fire, and don the mantle of Reagan that slipped from George Allen's grasp as the word macaca left his lips, but if his first week is any indication, he may never reach the levels of popularity he held before he formally entered the race.

It just isn’t supposed to be this way. The right people have not been consulted. Whether dead, disgusted or indicted, the powerbrokers who are supposed to take care of these things are nowhere to be seen, and the two leading choices for Republican primary voters are a pro-choice, pro-gay, anti-gun, multiple divorcee married to a Jew, and a formerly pro-gay, pro-choice Mormon from a family with a polygamous past.

A choice between Liberal and an Apostate. Just friggin’ great. Now along comes Fred, and he can't say why.

Among the Democratic candidates, message clarity has become the central debate, now reduced to the parsing of single words. Hillary has chosen the mantle of Experience, while Obama has embraced Change. This past week, Hillary showed her Clintonian bloodlines when she took it to Obama by questioning what the meaning of the word Change is, and claiming that she is in fact the candidate offering both Experience and Change.

God help Obama. For surely the game will be up if he loses both words.

The real word that the Clinton campaign is relying on is Inevitability. After staunching Obama’s initial momentum, Hillary now sits around 35-40% among Democratic voters in national polls and holds a 15-20% lead over Obama. In Democratic debates she has been a dominant voice and successfully stoked the emerging sense of inevitability. And it is a strategy that offers increasing returns. The more inevitable she seems, the more likely are others to drop out, temper their rhetorical attacks and pay obeisance to her as the presumptive nominee.

But the funny thing is that the closer people look, the less they seem to like. In Iowa, the first state to put their delegates on the line, five polls taken since August 1st show a very tight race: Clinton 25%, Edwards 25%, Obama 21%, Richardson 12%. Therefore, even as the fires of Inevitability are stoked, on the ground Iowa is a horse race, Nevada and South Carolina--western and southern respectively--are less naturally hospitable terrain for Clinton, and only polling in New Hampshire mirrors the national trends. Accordingly, the prospect looms that the juggernaut could derail in the early weeks of voting, a risk that can be effectively eliminated if Michigan and Florida--states in which her lead exceeds 20%--successfully move forward in the process.

What is most puzzling about the meta-debate between the forces of Experience and the forces of Change, is that Hillary is conceded the mantle of experience, while the best Obama can do is suggest that experience isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, as he proffers Cheney and Rumsfeld as his cases in point. But this is a specious argument. Experience matters deeply in foreign affairs, particularly in a world where our antagonists and counterparts, be they Osama Bin Laden, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Vladimir Putin or the Chinese Central Committee, have proven a capacity to think strategically, take a long view of history and see foreign relations a web of complex, interconnected relationships. It would indeed be reassuring to believe that our President was able to see and navigate the world in all its complexities, set forth a vision of the world twenty or thirty years down the road, engage other nations in embracing that future, and lead the world toward that end. To say the experience is not of value seems, somehow, to miss the point.

Even as Hillary is accorded the mantle of Experience, she has in fact held no executive post and stood accountable for her choices in that capacity. Like Obama and Edwards, she is a one-term U.S. Senator and a lawyer with a keen mind. And she was First Lady, and present in the halls of power for eight years. But she was neither the President nor the Vice President, and at best can sell herself as a co-conspirator for the best of her husband’s years.

The experience that Hillary can validly claim, and which should be no small consideration, is her proven ability to withstand the slings and arrows that lie ahead for whichever candidate emerges as the party nominee. From healthcare reform, to the death of Vincent Foster, to the selling of the Lincoln Bedroom, to her husband’s philandering, to the pardoning of Marc Rich, Hillary Clinton has taken the bullets, looked into the camera and never blinked. This is the Experience that Hillary brings as a candidate, and it is no small offering.

But it is not Change.

Perhaps this is what the Iowa voters see. And it is enough to give them pause.