DICK MORRIS’ ’08 PLAY BY PLAY
VOLUME 1, #20
October 1, 2007
THE TIME WARP THAT PROPELS HILLARY’S CANDIDACY
The Democratic race among Hillary, Obama, and Edwards does not lend itself to ready ideological categorization. Despite Edwards’ and Obama’s efforts to define themselves as the left of the field and push Hillary to the right, the former first lady’s dexterity and shamelessness in reversing her long-held support for the Iraq War has made their strategy ineffective.
But if the three main candidates do not appear to differ ideologically, they certainly occupy different points in the timeline of Democratic politics. Obama is Democrat-future; Hillary is Democrat-present, and Edwards Democrat-past. As the party faithful come to admire the rhetoric of each, they consign their admiration to the appropriate place on the time continuum.
Politicians gain vote share in contested elections by improving their image and raising their popularity. When the linkage between their level of favorability and their vote share is broken, a politician becomes a helpless pitiful giant, unable to move up in the election at hand. In the current contest for the Democratic nomination, the time differential among the three candidates severs the link between their popularity and their vote share. When Obama does well, voters file it for future reference. When Edwards scores points, they pine after his lost past. But when Hillary is effective, they celebrate her candidacy and flock to it in droves.
(All of this is reminiscent, in reverse, of the situation that faced Bill Clinton in 1990 when he ran for his last term as governor of Arkansas. After ten years in office, and with his attention increasingly focused on the early primary and caucus states in the 1992 presidential contest, voters turned away from supporting his re-election, even as their approval of his incumbency rose. At the time, I told him that his rising popularity would qualify him for a “gold watch”on his imminent retirement, a prospect that did not appeal to him. The more Clinton’s 1990 campaign recited his accomplishments in the state house, the more his job approval rose. But his vote share dropped because voters, while appreciating his contribution, felt it was time to put him out to pasture. (He only won the election after a sharp negative campaign first against his primary opponent and then against his general election rival).
And so it is with Obama and Edwards. Even as they increase their popularity, they do nothing to raise their vote share. While the national polls show major increases in the favorability of Obama and more moderate growth for Edwards, they reflect virtual stagnation in their vote share in national Democratic Primary matchups.
When Obama shows off his high brow intelligence, aversion to partisanship, and eloquent condemnation of how Washington works, Democrats say to themselves what an attractive candidate he will make “some day.” His youth, inexperience, and novelty consign him to the realm of the future. They like Barack. But for the here and now, it’s Hillary that gets their votes.
Edwards is seen as the ghost of elections past. His strong showing in
debates, where he scores point after point against Hillary’s reliance on special interest campaign contributions, seems to do him no good in the national polls. He has been at 12-14 percent from the very beginning and still does not rise much above that level.
By contrast, Hillary has moved up by a point or two every month since she announced her candidacy in early 2007. Back then, she was the favorite of 35% of the voters in most polls. Now she is in the low 40s in most of them.
Sometimes it almost seems that Democrats are willingly surrendering their right to choose a nominee, parroting what the party elders tell them they should do. “If the boys in the back room have decided that it is Hillary’s time to run,” they seem to be saying, “Who are we to overturn their decision?” Their attitudes reflect, not a willing suspension of disbelief – a phrase Hillary has lately popularized – but rather a suspension of their traditional joy at internecine combat. Democrats, who once were reputed to form a firing squad in a circle, do so no more.
The traumas of having victory snatched from their grasp in 2000 and the trouncing of 2004 have combined to create such a determination to win in 2008 that party unity seems to be valued over all else and Democrats insist that their candidates not tear one another apart.
It is truly as if the primaries and caucuses have already been somehow
held and Democratic voters have come to the conclusion that Hillary is the apparent nominee and feel it their duty to close ranks behind her. Even the scandals of Norman Hsu, so reminiscent of the Chinese money scandals of 1996, and so typical of the Clinton baggage, have done nothing to shake the support on which Hillary can count in the Democratic primaries.
Were Obama or Edwards able to create issues vis-Ã -vis Hillary, they might be able to stop her landslide from building. But Hillary is ever skillful at hugging them on any issue position they take and stops them from opening up differences among the three candidates.
The issue of Hillary’s acceptance of special interest campaign contributions and the contrasting refusal of Obama or Edwards to do so would seem to be the only point of distinction among the candidates. But if Hillary’s dependence on PAC money does not lead her to adopt more conservative positions on key issues, the difference in the financing of the three campaigns seems to have little impact on voters.
For her part, Hillary seems to be making a virtue out of an arrogance that normally costs front runners their status: assuming that she will win, indeed acting as if she already has! Usually voters resent this kind of appropriation of their power but, such is the desire of Democrats for unity and the victory they think it will bring, that they don’t seem to mind.
So when Tim Russert asked Hillary for her position on Social Security reform during Wednesday’s Democratic debate, Hillary said “I won’t negotiate against myself,” refusing to commit herself to options. “Nothing is on or off the table,” she insisted, acting as if she were the president already facing the daunting task of negotiating with Congress over Social Security reforms.
Her frequent assertions that she “won’t answer hypothetical questions”
about Iraq or terrorism beg the question: What is a presidential campaign but a discussion of the hypothetical situations the candidate would face on assuming office? A candidate who won’t answer hypothetical questions is essentially telling the voters that she will not offer any guidance to them on the positions she might or might not take after being elected. So what are we supposed to base our votes on? Her hairdo?
For a while, it seems that the only obstacle to a Hillary landslide in the Democratic nominating process was Edwards’ ongoing strength in Iowa, a product of his obsessive campaigning there in 2004 and in years since. But most polls now show Hillary moving in front in the first caucus state and there is every reason to expect her to win there.
In short, the Democratic nominating process seems over almost before it starts. And the winner is Hillary.
MEANWHILE THE REPUBLICAN CONTEST GETS BLOODY
Fred Thompson’s entry into the Republican presidential contest and Mitt Romney’s gains in the three critical early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan (he now leads in all three) have made the GOP contest increasingly volatile.
In the national polls, Thompson has secured a solid second place and he seems to offer Republicans a stark choice between the national security conservatism of Rudy Giuliani and his own social conservatism. While most national polls show Rudy with a continued lead, those which focus on Republican voters in the Republican primary (excluding independents) show a much tighter contest with a strong level of support for Thompson.
Rudy’s problem, in the nominating process and in the election, is that terrorism has faded dramatically as a political issue. Most national polls now rank it behind the war in Iraq, the economy, and even health care as an important issue facing the United States. Bush’s tremendous success in keeping us safe and averting new terror attacks have fostered a complaisance among voters – even among Republicans – which reduces
the saliency of Rudy’s key issue.
But the basic fact remains that it is only if Americans strongly fear the threat of terrorism that a Republican could ever defeat Hillary and that only Rudy Giuliani has the credentials to run on that issue. Polls indicate that voters, however misguided, would rather see Hillary running health care, the economy, education policy, immigration legislation, or social security reform than they would any Republican on the horizon. But on the issue of terrorism and strengthening the national defense, Rudy Giuliani defeats Hillary Clinton.
Hillary will lose only if Americans awake from their facile optimism about the chances of another terror attack. With Rudy as the Republican candidate, we may be assured of a skilled advocate of the terror issue, well equipped to pound the issue home in the heat of a campaign. If terror is the main issue, voters will not trust a liberal, Democratic woman – much less a Clinton – to protect them.
But as focus on terrorism becomes muted by complaisance, social issues like abortion, gay rights, immigration, and gun control move to the top of the Republican agenda. On these issues, Fred Thompson has a clear advantage, one that he will use effectively as the campaign progresses.
Mitt Romney is riding high in the first three primary or caucus states with a twenty point lead in Iowa, a large advantage in New Hampshire, and a narrow first place finish in Michigan. (In Florida, Rudy is still ahead). His leads are the by-product of seven million dollars in television advertising over the past five months when his fellow Republicans have been almost entirely off the air.
That Rudy let Mitt get the jump on him in the early primary states with so much unanswered paid media is one of the first strategic blunders of the 2007-08 cycle. It may be studied in political science classes for years to come if Rudy cannot dig his way out of the deficit Mitt’s ads have created.
Giuliani has recently begun to advertise in Iowa and the early polls indicate that he may have trimmed Romney’s lead from 30 points to a more mortal twenty. But it remains to be seem if Rudy can close the gap opened by Mitt’s media.
The problem Romney faces is that, unlike Thompson, he has no clear message. While he postures to the right of Giuliani on social issues, his big spending record in Massachusetts – where he passed a health insurance program remarkably similar to Hillary’s – and his strong support of abortion rights as governor make him suspect on these fronts. His lead seems to be based on his looking like a president and talking like one, advantages that may not hold up in the face of a Giuliani media onslaught from the left and a Thompson effort from the right.
But Thompson has tripped and stumbled his way out of the starting gate. It’s hard to imagine a candidate falling over his own feet as much as Fred has. He’s fired three campaign managers and communications directors already. He seemed to be totally unaware of the Terry Shiavo case or the uproar about homeowners premiums after devastating hurricanes as he campaigned in Florida. He turns out to have lobbied for a pro-abortion organization. He paid his son $170,000 for a no show job running his PAC after he retired from the Senate.
He said Cubans coming to the US might be agents of Castro’s subversion and terrorists. He disappointed everyone with his poor fund raising performance so far. He ducked the first two GOP debates…. And so on.
Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who has captivated the Republican Party with his wit, sincerity and novel way of explaining himself, is making an unexpectedly strong bid in Iowa. One poll even has him at 14% of the vote, ahead of McCain and within the margin of error of both Thompson and Giuliani. Huckabee’s campaign is an anti-money effort. His famous crack before the Aimes straw poll, where he surprised everyone with a strong second place finish, that “I can’t afford to buy you. I can’t even afford to rent you”is striking a chord in Iowa and it would be a mistake to count him out.
With Newt out of the game, there won’t be any surprises in the next few months. To analyze the Republican primary, think of a tennis tournament with quarter finals, semi finals, and finals. In the quarter finals in the center court, Rudy has defeated John McCain in straight sets. But on the right court, Thompson is battling Romney while Newt tunes his racquet. The winner of the Mitt-Fred quarter final will earn the right to face Rudy in the semi-final to be held on February 5th
in thirty states. In the meantime, Hillary seems to be having no trouble disposing of Obama in the center court quarter-final and Edwards in the right court at the same time. She may draw a bye on February 5th and go right to the final to face the winner of the Republican semi-finals.
….AND FOR VICE PRESIDENT?
Again, the imperatives of the Democratic side make the outcome more predictable than among the Republicans. Hillary’s entire candidacy is based on the idea of expanding the electorate to include those who don’t normally vote but would vote Democratic if they did. Just as a woman running in the top spot will attract millions of new female voters (largely unmarried) to the polls, so one would assume that she would pick a running mate who could do the same. That, of course, means either Obama or Richardson.
Hillary doesn’t like Obama. That much is evident from their campaign. In fact, it is hard to see Hillary ever liking an adversary, so personal is the competition to her. And if Obama does not ratchet up his campaign but seems content to be the candidate of the future, there will be no compelling need for her to put him on the ticket. Obama’s candidacy becomes a necessity for Hillary only if the contest between them generates such heat and bitterness that she must run with him to placate the African-American supporters on whom any Democratic candidacy
must depend. But the current softball contest between the two of them is unlikely to generate the kind of discord which would militate for Obama’s inclusion on the ticket.
But Bill Richardson is a different story. Hillary likes him from his
days in the cabinet and his service as UN Ambassador. As a Hispanic, he can generate millions of additional votes for the ticket. The era of choosing a vice president for his geographic balance is over as our nation becomes more homogenized. Edwards, for example, did not help Kerry to carry North Carolina. But we now need to balance tickets according to ethnicity and gender (or at least Democrats do). So, the logic for choosing a Hispanic-American is quite compelling and likely to dictate Hillary’s choice.
On the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani, if he is the nominee, has to choose a running mate who will assuage the social conservatives. Just as George H.W. Bush’s choice for vice president was closely watched by his party in 1988 to see if he would tack left (by choosing Jack Kemp) or right by naming Bob Dole, so Giuliani’s decision will send a key message to his followers. (Bush, of course, chose neither one, opting instead to relate to incompetents by naming Quayle.
To appease the Christian right, Giuliani will probably have to pick one of their own and send signals that he will toe their line on social policies. By doing so, he essentially will be asking for forgiveness for his apostasy as Mayor of the most liberal city in America and indicate that he will now return to the fold of true believers.
The best choice for Rudy would be Mike Huckabee. Why choose a wanna-be Christian minister when you can have the real thing? Mike’s creativity and humor will serve as a useful antidote to Rudy’s stern, lecturing, intensity.
***Copyright Eileen McGann and Dick Morris 2007. Reprints with permission only***