THEY'RE IN. AND THEY'RE OFF AND RUNNING.
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, January 21, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”
Salit: If I had to come up with some kind of “vest pocket” description of the shows today, I would say it is this: There are so many possibilities for the presidency, and so few possibilities for Iraq. That seems to be what the discussions were about.
Salit: So let’s talk about both. And maybe there’s a relationship between them.
Newman: I would assume so.
Salit: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both announced that they’re “in it” last week. Now you have the “top three” – Clinton, Obama and John Edwards. The Democratic Party has decided they’re running an anti-war campaign for the presidency.
Newman: For sure. How could they not? Unless they run Joe Lieberman. It’s their interpretation of the November vote. It might be nuanced in endless kinds of ways, but it’s got to be anti-war.
Salit: Here’s one portrait of the big three. It’s muscle vs. magic – Clinton’s the candidate with muscle; Obama’s the candidate with magic. And then the default candidate – that’s Edwards.
Salit: That was Chris Matthews’ term. Essentially, you get muscle and magic battling it out, but at a certain point, the party recognizes that neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton can win the election. So they go to what’s called the default candidate.
Newman: Well, it’s a long ways down the road for that. There are still real people they have to speak to in lots of places. And you may well see that the overall approach of the Democratic Party is to take the war out of the 2008 formula.
Salit: Everyone’s going to hold an anti-war position, so how do they distinguish themselves.
Newman: Other issues will move center stage. That’s what Hillary is looking for.
Salit: What about Obama?
Newman: I think he has a whole different approach. His is We have to get beyond the old issues. We have to come to new issues. Hillary is the old issues candidate.
Salit: They each have their approach to go out and sell.
Newman: But I think Obama has a bigger challenge than she has.
Newman: Because the perception, ultimately, when the campaign gets underway, is going to be that Obama is substantially to Clinton’s left.
Salit: That’s a harder position to sell.
Newman: She can sell herself as a relatively traditional center-left candidate, except that she’d be the first woman president. That is the only non-traditional thing – and “only” is the key word.
Salit: It’s an appeal to out-of-the-box voters, while she’s still in gear with the most in-the-box voters. You said Obama has a harder road to travel because the perception of him is that he’s to the left of Hillary.
Newman: I think so.
Salit: Another side of Obama’s challenge, as Cynthia Tucker remarked on Chris Matthews, is that Obama’s also playing things too conservatively now. He needs to do some things that are more out-of-the-box politically.
Newman: Don’t confuse substance and style. I think that what she’s saying is that he could be a little bit more outside-the-box stylistically. And I agree.
Newman: But, he hasn’t yet established his bonafides as a traditional Democrat, in part because he’s been in the Senate for about two minutes. So you can say Who is this guy? Is he from the Black Panther Party? He has a ways to go to define himself.
Salit: One of the poll numbers that Tim Russert cited is that if Congress passes the resolution calling for a halt to American involvement in Iraq, 71% of independents say the president should back off of his plan to send these additional troops.
Newman: I suspect that if the independent movement had a voice, it would say that we’re pushing the Democrats to “sway” to a much stronger position against the war.
Salit: Alright, let’s talk about John McCain and Ted Kennedy – both were on “Meet the Press.” Russert pressed McCain about the shift among independents against the war, a constituency to which McCain had a longstanding connection and popularity. But the war is now a wedge between them given his articulated policies on Iraq and how independents feel about Bush’s war policy.
Newman: McCain is looking to win the Republican primary.
Newman: That’s what he’s focused on. And you saw his shrewdness, as opposed to the Democratic candidates’ excessive joyousness…
Salit: …their euphoria…
Newman: Yes, their euphoria that We can’t lose, we’re against the war.
Newman: McCain says, let’s take things a step at a time. I’ll look to win the Republican primary first. And I’ll go from there.
Salit: And what about Iraq?
Newman: If there are horrendous consequences from the surge, if there are American casualties all over Baghdad, then McCain will pay a price. But that’s not so likely in my opinion, because of the nature of urban warfare. It could be that they’ll come out with a draw.
Salit: So then you lower the troop levels and basically you’re in a position to contend that the surge played a role in stabilizing the situation and goodbye.
Newman: Wave a flag and leave, and say we won.
Newman: So, I think McCain is hoping he can at least get a noble departure, not a failure, and go from there. That’s McCain’s Plan B.
Salit: He believes the surge could make a difference.
Newman: Maybe he knows something.
Salit: Like what?
Newman: Maybe he knows that the insurgents are thinking something like If we beat the Americans again, they’ll never leave.
Salit: And if we let them win?
Newman: Maybe, they’ll pull out and they’ll finally get out of here.
Salit: Well, that’s certainly in the realm of possibility. Was there anything that struck you about McCain’s demeanor on the show today?
Newman: He looked a little strange. What was it, subdued?
Salit: I thought it was subdued – and grim.
Newman: And right wing.
Salit: I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so forcefully say, ‘I’m a conservative Republican.’ So then Ted Kennedy comes on and opposes the surge. ‘We’ve tried the surges before, they’ve all failed. Bush has to demonstrate to the American people that this surge has a real chance of winning and he hasn’t done that.’
Newman: Kennedy might be a little bit threatened by all these new left competitors in the Democratic Party.
Salit: This whole discussion about the surge is strange, because Bush has got the authority to do it, and he’s got the money to do it. He’s already doing it.
Newman: The whole thing is a political play, but that’s not insignificant.
Salit: At the very start of this, Congress gave away its authority when it authorized Bush to take military action, as opposed to requiring that he come to them and ask for a declaration of war. Now Kennedy is saying he ought to come to Congress and do this.
Newman: I didn’t hear Kennedy make any statement about unity.
Salit: Between Democrats and Republicans?
Newman: Yeah, he didn’t touch that, even though that’s been a big theme of his. I’m a little bit surprised by that.
Salit: And he also said that he is supporting John Kerry for president which is a way for him to stay out of the race.
Newman: He’s going to support Kerry because Kerry’s a non-factor in this race.
Salit: Exactly. He’s not going to get into this thing between Hillary and Obama and Edwards.
Newman: Not for a while.
Salit: Not for a while. It’s Kennedy’s “right of way.” Alright, so then back to what we said at the beginning about there being so many possibilities for the presidency, so few possibilities in Iraq, and there being a connection between those two. The connection seems obvious, which is that Iraq has reached a terrible impasse and now you have a proliferation of candidates for the presidency looking to sell themselves to the American people, to run campaigns on the basis of their ability to solve this problem.
Newman: And the Democrats all agree on this issue. So the primary is going to soon be how the candidates do on a host of other issues. Maybe they’re counting on the Republican primary being a bloodbath over who is responsible for the whole Iraq situation. McCain is saying, ‘We should have gone all the way.’
Salit: ‘But we didn’t. I never abandoned the cause, and this is a tough world and a tough war.’
Newman: It’s not exactly accurate, what McCain is saying, after all. It’s true that he was never opposed to the war. But he was opposed to Bush, and was an outspoken critic of Bush’s conduct of the war. Some conservatives may come after him on that. My favorite comment of the day – as usual, came from Pat Buchanan.
Salit: What did he say?
Newman: In response to Hillary’s carefully parsed statement about never withdrawing support for our troops, but getting ready to withdraw support for Iraqi troops, Pat Buchanan said, ‘Did somebody change the Constitution? I didn’t know we could vote for or against funding of the Iraqi army.’Salit: Pat’s a real wise guy. On a good day. Thanks.