THE YEAR OF THE VACCUM
Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, April 29, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”
Salit: “The McLaughlin Group” pointed out the following statistic: 76% of Democrats are happy with the choices in the Democratic field and only 50% of Republicans are happy. They’d like to see some more candidates. What does that snapshot tell you about where we’re at in the presidential race?
Newman: Well, on the one hand, nothing, since after the primaries are over, that’s presumably going to even out. The Republicans will go with the Republican candidate and the Democrats will go with the Democratic candidate. That’s what tends to happen. An interesting thing is that Eleanor Clift said that she feels it is likely that there would be a major independent presidential candidate.
Salit: And she attributes that, in part, to the unhappiness on the Republican side. The implication of what she’s saying is that that’s where the independent candidacy is going to come from.
Newman: But what strikes me about Clift’s remark is that there continues to be sentiment that a third party candidate might have a real shot. In the context of America’s pragmatic culture that makes sense. If there’s an opportunity for something to happen, there will be some grouping of people who have some money who are going to work to make it happen. If there’s a vacuum, it’s going to be filled. And one interpretation of what’s happening this year is that it’s the year of the vacuum.
Salit: The year of the vacuum. And what is that vacuum?
Newman: Nobody likes the way traditional politics are going.
Salit: So, on the one hand you have the “no one likes the way traditional politics are going thing.” At the same time, you have what could be called a lot of enthusiasm within the Democratic Party for the Democratic field.
Newman: I don’t think that being satisfied with the field is the same thing as being satisfied with the Party.
Salit: The first Democratic presidential debate took place in Orangeburg, South Carolina last week. I would summarize the pundit consensus as follows: Hillary held on to her frontrunner status. She did well in the debate, reinvigorated her own supporters. There was, perhaps, some disagreement around Obama. On the one hand, Obama held his own. On the other hand, at least one commentator said that he answered questions about foreign policy more like a mayor than a president.
Newman: Well, since Mike Bloomberg is the most popular undeclared candidate, that might not be such a bad thing.
Salit: How do you see the Obama/Hillary contest?
Newman: It’s too early to tell. If you parse things correctly in terms of time frames, Obama’s accomplished what he’s had to accomplish. He’s demonstrated his popularity, raised a lot of money, and established himself as a top tier candidate. It’s really just the first quarter of a long distance race. You have certain goals in mind for what you want to do during this portion of this long race, and he’s done that.
Salit: And the debate didn’t hurt him at all, relative to that.
Newman: Correct. And he’s got some stuff that he’s got to do. He’s got to establish something more than his popularity. He’s got to establish a kind of weightiness, based on a position. Hillary has weight and is very much identified with a position. Her husband was president for eight years.
Salit: And, we know what Clintonism is.
Newman: Yes. We had it for a long time. A lot of people were very happy with it. A lot of Republicans hated it, but it’s a known product. In some ways, she’s a known product.
Salit: That’s her greatest strength, in the long haul.
Newman: Yes. But, what if the sentiment is that the country is looking for an unknown product?
Salit: True enough.
Newman: In that case, Hillary’s being a known product is not going to be such a plus. But that’s the basic dynamic in the race. It has little or nothing to do with the debates.
Salit: What did you make of Tony Blankley’s argument that Bush is not going to draw down troops in Iraq between now and the end of his term, that he still believes in the war and he’s going to keep the troop levels as they are, regardless of congressional action. Then, if the Democrats win the White House, which Blankley said is likely, he predicts they are going to shift policy and maintain an equivalent level of involvement in the region.
Newman: That last part is absurd. No chance of that, in my opinion.
Salit: His argument is that the geopolitical realities in the region are going to require permanent U.S. presence there.
Newman: There is a permanent U.S. presence there. It’s called the major oil companies: It’s called the moderate Arab leaders. It’s called our entire diplomatic apparatus. We already have a presence there. Sending troops is not the first time we showed up. This is not Korea, where we went in to fight a war. We’ve been in the Arab world for a long time. We have huge ongoing interests there. So, will Bush begin a drawdown? I’m inclined to think so. And why do I think so? Because his party is going to tell him that it will not only lose the White House, it will decimate their strength in Congress if he doesn’t make a move of that kind.
Salit: Martin Walker said the war is over and there will be a drawdown. The only question is how humiliating it’s going to be for the U.S.
Newman: That will probably depend on a bunch of things that the U.S. has no control over. Who knows how the different players in the Middle East are going to perform in the face of that.
Salit: Joe Biden was the featured guest on “Meet the Press.”
Newman: He certainly was.
Salit: He’s the Democrat running for president who argues in favor of decentralizing the political arrangement in Iraq. He thinks we should support greater regional autonomy within Iraq, with a federated system. There’s no basis for a heavily centralized federal government, he says, because it can’t be sustained. As Eleanor Clift said, the political rationale for the surge was to try to stabilize the situation in Baghdad, to create space for the Maliki government to consolidate itself and to strengthen its position. But there’s no basis for believing the Maliki government will be able to do that. There isn’t sufficient popular support for it and there isn’t sufficient commitment from the different sides, the Sunnis, the Shiites, the Kurds, etc. to really effect that. What’s your reaction to Biden’s description of this political solution?
Newman: Well, I think he’s correct, although I think that’s trivially so because Iraq has always been divided into essentially three different elements. Saddam repressed that, but it’s the actual state of affairs there. And, so what Biden was saying is he wants to see a scenario that’s possible given what’s happening on the ground.
Newman: Now, you can’t quite disagree with that. Not to defend Bush, but Bush was trying to do something different, to impose a political arrangement on Iraq which he took to be in the interests of Washington, D.C. and of the Middle East as a whole. It’s always harder to impose something than to say “let’s do it that way” when “that way” is the way it’s always been. So, it’s kind of Bidenesque progressivism. Support the way it’s always been, and we’ll call that a great insight.
Salit: There’s no great insight there.
Newman: No. But he’s probably correct because that’s how they’re going to do it. If you call the doctor, and the doctor says “go home and take three aspirin…”
Newman: …and you say, “I always take three aspirin,” and the doctor says, “continue that,” well, you go home feeling good. But you just paid $100 for a visit to the doctor where the doctor said to do exactly what you’ve been doing.
Salit: I had a related reaction to Brian Williams’ question in the debate when he put forth a hypothetical: Two American cities have been blown up. We know who did it. It’s Al Qaeda. What do we do? The candidates responded in different ways. But the sensationalism of the question was to ask it as if we might not retaliate. But when has America not retaliated under those circumstances? The question seemed bizarre. If somebody or some bodies come and blow up two of your cities, you retaliate. The question is, how you do that, when you do that, what forces do you marshal in order to do that. There was something strange about the question.
Newman: If Robin Williams were in the debate, he might have said, It depends on whether I had lunch or not.
Salit: He’d probably finish his lunch.
Newman: Yes. You do what you’re going to do given the complexity of the circumstances. How quickly? I don’t know. It depends on what information we have. Would we retaliate in that scenario? Of course, we’d retaliate!
Newman: We’re not going to go on television and say Well, we never liked those cities anyway. What the hell do you think we’re going to do?
Salit: The first Republican debate is coming up. It’s going to be in California and we’ll see a lineup of ten declared candidates.
Newman: Ten candidates?
Newman: Oh, my goodness.
Salit: Yes, McCain, Giuliani, Romney and then, seven others. Anything you’re looking to see in that debate?
Newman: It seems clear that McCain has got to try to make a comeback. He has got to do something. He may make an effort to make Giuliani appear like a New York liberal.
Newman: Which, in some ways, he is.
Newman: I don’t think anything very dramatic will happen, other than that, if that happens at all. The only two Republicans, in recent years, who bring drama to the picture are Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan.
Salit: Buchanan’s on the talk shows and Gingrich hasn’t declared yet.
Salit: “The Chris Matthews Show” devoted some time to talking about the state of the economy, the 11,000th look at the “rich get richer and the poor get poorer” phenomena. They looked at a study that just came out showing that in 1992 the top 1% of the country owned 15% of the country’s wealth. In 2005, the top 1% owned 22% of the country’s wealth. Chris Matthews observed that we haven’t had that level of extreme concentration of wealth since 1928, the year before the stock market crash. So, where is this wealth accumulation coming from? Well, Jim Kramer says it has to do with American companies’ investment and involvement abroad. The American economy is strong, according to these measurements, because of the level of export that American companies are involved in. Domestic-based companies are weaker and weaker and that’s our achilles heel.
Newman: That accounting doesn’t quite make sense to me, because if globalization is as strong and as far along as we’re being told it is, then it’s not transparently obvious what “abroad” means. What does it mean to say that the investments are “abroad?”
Salit: You’re saying, what’s the point in making that distinction?
Newman: Yes, exactly. If globalization is breaking down national boundaries as rapidly as they say it is, what’s the point of that distinction?
Salit: What is the point of that distinction?
Newman: Well, I presume the point of that distinction rests on some set of assumptions, one of which is that you can measure the state of any national economy just in terms of national considerations. But that might not be true any longer. How is the country doing economically? Well, maybe that’s not as meaningful a question as it used to be?
Salit: If the unit is the country?
Newman: Yes. Europe has been dealing with this for some time, creating the European Union and so on. We might have to introduce some completely new ways of understanding economic factors. America went through all kinds of economic transitions, growing more wealthy through the creation of the railroad, to growing more wealthy on the basis of the automobile, growing more wealthy on the basis of the computer industry. Now we’re growing more wealthy on the basis of exports, including the export of capital.
Newman: Still, that sidesteps the issue of whether or not the distribution of wealth to various portions of the population is equitable, or whether there are huge numbers of Americans who are not benefiting from that way of getting wealthy. But, what if it turns out that the only way we can guarantee Social Security and Medicare – i.e. the safety net – is by more globalization? But, that globalization undercuts the living standards of Americans? Well, that’s a complicated question.
Salit: True, Fred. Thank you.
Newman: You’re welcome.