By Dick Morris on April 24, 2007

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Volume 1, #7

April 22, 2007




On April 26th, the Democratic candidates will face off in the first televised debate of the 2008 election. The late Bob Squier, Al Gore’s talented political consultant, likened the first face-to-face debate to the first day of school – when all the kids figure out who can beat who up and a pecking order is established that lasts until the end of the school year. In the candidates’ psyches, this initial debate matters a great deal, even if the rest of the country is looking on, at this early date, only out of the corner of their eyes.

Democratic primary voters are inclined to see the debates as auditions by the contenders for the role of party nominee against the GOP. So desperate is the party for a victory in 2008, that many Democrats will watch the debate as if they were, themselves, political consultants grading the candidates – not on their polices and programs but on their likelihood of besting the Republican challenger in 2008. Bill Bradley’s understated performance in the debates of 2000 doomed his candidacy. Even if voters liked the former basketball star more than they did Al Gore, the Vice president’s greater feistiness and zest helped him to win the audition as the most-likely-to-succeed against George W. Bush.

As always, the first debate poses the greatest challenge to the front runner – in this case, Hillary. More is expected of the leader of the pack, particularly since her biggest edge, according to most polling, is her “experience”, especially as contrasted with Obama. But when the candidates face one another, it is very hard to live up to the advance billing that being the more experienced candidate carries with it. Richard Nixon learned this very lesson in his first debate with JFK when his slogan “experience counts” was offset by a credible performance by the Massachusetts Senator.

Hillary will have to showcase her greater knowledge of national issues, flinging around the jargon and the statistics she has been learning on the Senate Armed Services Committee. She will have to establish that she is in a class by herself and that her years around the center of power have given her a superior grasp of the issues and a greater appreciation of how to get things accomplished. A policy wonk, she will have to put her store of information on display so that Obama simply cannot measure up.

But that’s very hard to do against a bright, telegenic, and well-prepared opponent. Barack Obama has shown a grace and class in his public performances that makes it unlikely that Hillary can overwhelm him and make him seem like a rookie ingénue.

So Obama has much the easier task in the coming debate. All he has to show is that he belongs on the same stage with Hillary and he helps to overcome the experience deficit which is the major argument cited by most voters for not backing his candidacy. In fact, since Hillary’s experience is really derivative of Bill’s, Obama may be able to show that she really has no edge in this department. After all, she’s only been in the Seanate for two years longer than hs has. And being First Lady is hardly a stepping stone to the Presidency.

This past week, Obama hinted at his debate strategy when he was asked about his experience while campaigning on the stump. He noted that he had accomplished a great deal in the Illinois legislature, particularly in extending health insurance to children, and then added, significantly, that if the voters found another candidate with more successful legislative initiatives under their belt, they should consider supporting that candidate but, he said, that he doubted they would find any. This thinly veiled reference to Hillary’s health care debacle in 1994 and her failure to post any significant legislative victories since arriving in the Senate, could be an important theme for Obama in the debate.

Experience is really the most evanescent of virtues. It is here today and gone tomorrow once the opposing candidate demonstrates his ability and competence. Particularly since Hillary’s experience may not bear up under scrutiny, the first debate offers Obama the best opportunity of shedding his biggest negative and destroying Hillary’s most significant perceived attribute.

Hillary might seek to use the debate to hammer home the importance of a woman president in light of the Supreme Court ruling upholding the Congressional ban on partial birth abortion, a ban that her husband vetoed and Bush signed into law. With abortion back on center stage as a political issue, Hillary would be well advised to emphasize her credentials in this area and to lord them over her two opponents.

But Hillary has a problem whenever she gets behind a podium or in front of a microphone. Her chatty, giggly, cutsy demeanor always on display in interviews will serve her ill in a structured platform debate. She knows that. But her only other style seems to be strident, wonkish, and stereotypically clichéd. She seems almost a parody of a politician addressing an audience, jabbing her finger in the air and talking over applause with her voice rising. It’s a Ted-Kennedy-addresses-the-convention style that is irritating and screechy.

In Hillary’s past debate performance in 2006 against her unknown Senate challenger, John Spencer, she was decidedly outclassed and seemed scripted, rote, and dull. Debates are not Hillary’s forte while both Obama and Edwards are more natural and gifted platform orators.

With Hillary’s unfavorable rating on the rise (now up to 52% in the Gallup Poll) and her favorables at an all time low (45% in the April 15th Gallup survey) a debate loss could not come at a worse time for the current front runner.

For John Edwards, the best natural orator of the three (remember that he made his living by successfully appealing to juries), the debate offers an important opportunity to climb back into the race. Edwards enters the contest with the memories of his inadequate, school boyish performance in the vice presidential debate of 2004 against Dick Cheney still fresh in voters’ minds. That contest seemed more like a tutorial between a professor and his freshmen student. Cheney discarded Edwards’ critiques of the Bush Administration one by one and seemed like he was correcting an errant term paper by the boy at the other podium.

This time, Edwards can use his honeyed affect to charm voters and to project himself as the most sincere and attractive of the three main candidates. His intimate camera style is well suited to a debate and he will benefit from not having his answers dissected by the more polite and restrained Democratic challengers (unlike Cheney) who are all committed to “positive”campaigning so far this year.

And Edwards has the advantage of a clear position on the two main issues – Iraq and health care. On the war, he is the only one of the three candidates who is clearly in favor of a set date for withdrawal and conditioning funding on its acceptance by the Administration. Neither Obama nor Hillary are prepared to say that they would not vote for a funding bill without a withdrawal timetable included. But Edwards, who doesn’t have a vote, can be clear that he would oppose an appropriation without a troop pullout deadline.

On health care, ground on which Hillary fears to tread without unearthing memories of Hillarycare, Edwards offers the only comprehensive plan for universal coverage paid for by the taxpayers. Obama has hinted that such a proposal might be forthcoming, but it hasn’t emerged yet.

Of the minor candidates, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd is very much the best debater and may find in the contest a breakthrough opportunity. His passion and vigor are evident in his platform style and he might do himself a lot of good at the debate. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson could also score well in the contest. Debates always have the potential to lend new life to second tier candidates who normally cannot get a word in edgewise in the national media.

But the most interesting performer is likely to be bad boy Congressman Dennis (the Menace) Kucinich. His strong, tough anti-war position is by far the purest of the candidates’ and will likely pace the field. His unequivocal denunciation of the war is likely to show up the tamer rhetoric of Hillary Clinton and could cause a desertion of leftist voters from her candidacy. Kucinich will not hesitate to go after his opponents and could play a key role in forcing liberals to reconsider voting for Hillary.

In all, this first debate among the Democrats will probably be a sore trial for Hillary Clinton. If she emerges with her lead in tact (its now down to five points in Gallup) she will have done well. Debates are not her thing and her shortcomings in this area are likely to be all too apparent.


New York Yankee Manager Joe Torre’s often-quoted words about the likely outcome of a baseball game between his team and the Boston Red Sox could apply as well to presidential politics: “the only thing that is predictable is that it is unpredictable.”

The tragic massacre at Virginia Tech and the controversial US Supreme Court decision upholding a Congressional ban on partial birth abortion have suddenly injected wild cards into the presidential race, resurrecting the somewhat latent twin hot button issues of gun control and abortion.

Both sides will aggressively embrace the controversial subjects. The right will capitalize on the Court’s decision as a basis for advocating additional legislative restrictions on abortion. And in the wake of the shootings, the left will undoubtedly push for stricter handgun controls. Abortion and gun control will likely move back to the top of the national agenda, alongside the war in Iraq and terrorism.

The immediate beneficiary among the presidential candidates will be Hillary Clinton. The loser? Rudy Guiliani.

With abortion so vividly under attack, the left will rally around its most obvious defender among the presidential candidates: the first pro-choice woman to run for president. Their complacency swept aside by the lock step five vote pro-life Supreme Court majority of Justices Kennedy, Roberts, Alito, Thomas, and Scalia, feminists and abortion advocates are going to breathe new life into the faltering campaign of Hillary Clinton. At a time when her favorability has dropped dramatically (The Gallup Poll has a ten point drop in the past two months), the former first lady can sure use the shot of adrenaline the court decision is likely to provide.

Hillary has long centered her campaign on a demographic appeal to women voters. But she has been somewhat hampered by having to speak abstractly – almost symbolically – about what it would mean to women to have one of their own as president. But now, with abortion rights so clearly under attack and Roe v Wade so obviously in danger, a Hillary Clinton presidency will suddenly make a great deal of sense to women voters who are wondering whether to back the former first lady or Barack Obama. While Obama is as pro-choice as Hillary, a woman candidate will be much more attractive to pro-choice voters. Hillary, who has looked bad pandering to women voters by prominently advertising the significance of being a woman candidate can now cloak her self-promotion in the abortion issue, a familiar and comfortable role for her.

On the other end of the political spectrum, as the nation watches and wonders how a madman could get the arsenal to kill thirty-two students, the right is bracing for an onslaught of gun control proposals. Already the left is criticizing Virginia state laws which allowed a mentally deranged young man to legally buy handguns (and enough ammo to stock an army), despite having been incarcerated – although briefly – in a mental institution. Gun control advocates are quick to claim that gunman Cho Seung Hui could not have passed police background checks in Massachusetts or New York with their stricter handgun controls.

The demands for stricter gun laws, which are certain to cascade through state legislatures around the nation, will energize complacent and quiescent gun advocates and galvanize a right wing reaction to the new control proposals.

All this is very bad news for Rudy Guiliani, with his past record of strong support for gun controls. Even if Rudy stays circumspect on the issue, his past positions are likely to haunt him on the right as gun control regains a national stage. With the threat of new gun control legislation, second amendment enthusiasts are not going to sit back and let a pro-gun control candidate win the Republican nomination if they can help it.

The worst possible environment for Rudy to court conservative voters is one in which the nation is fixated on abortion and guns. While national public opinion favors stricter gun controls in the wake of Virginia Tech (by 45-37 in the first post-Virginia Tech poll by Rasmussen), only 29% of Republicans back tougher gun legislation. And virtually all polls show a 2:1 pro-life majority among Republican primary voters.

Terrorism is Rudy’s issue. Social issues can be his undoing.

The resurrection of these two issues is also going to help the incipient candidacies of Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich, both of whom are long term opponents of abortion rights and gun controls. The pressure from the right for them to run will increase as the two social issues rise in national prominence. With abortion and guns newly highlighting the national agenda, the demand for a true believer with a long and consistent record of backing of these conservative causes will increase exponentially.

Until the shots rang out in Virginia and the gavel came down in Washington, abortion and gun control had been somewhat marginalized as political issues.

With Roberts and Alieto sitting on the Supreme Court, and no other Justices contemplating imminent retirement, the passion surrounding the abortion debate remained strong, yet the urgency seemed somewhat lessened. But the court decision, affirming the feasibility of a pro-life strategy of whittling away at abortion rights through incremental state and federal legislation, will rekindle the issue. Conservatives are going to introduce legislation requiring women contemplating abortion to watch sonograms of their fetus and to redouble requirements for parental consent for minors. The list of abortion restrictions is limited only by the fertile imaginations of pro-life advocates and the challenges to the left to resist them will magnify accordingly.

The reciprocal situation exists on the left over gun controls. The range of restrictions that the anti-handgun forces could propose is likewise almost endless, demanding a sharp, disciplined, and sustained response from the right.


When Fred Thompson left the Senate, his disappointed supporters complained that he never quite lived up to his billing. When this charismatic Southerner first arrived in Washington his potential seemed limitless. He had battled gubernatorial corruption in Tennessee and forced the impeachment of the state’s chief executive for selling pardons. He seemed like a second coming of Ronald Reagan, an actor turned politician, bringing all the skills of a professional communicator to the political arena.

To tap his vast possibilities, Republican Senate leaders put him in charge of the Committee investigating the newly unearthed campaign finance scandals of the Clinton Administration. An unusual choice since he had only two years of Senate service under his belt, the leadership was convinced that a superstar was in the making.

Almost from the first he disappointed. “The Democrats on the Committee, Dodd and Glenn in particular, tied him up in knots on the first day,” a former Senate staffer relates. Criticized for insufficient partisan vigor by the Republicans and excessive politicization of the hearings by the Democrats, Thompson pleased nobody. After his inconclusive hearings, he languished in the Senate and retired when his term was up in 2002, a disappointment to his supporters.

But the actor turned politician turned actor again and regained his national prestige by appearing as the District Attorney on the Law and Order television series. Now, with the right pining for a pro-life, pro-gun alternative to Guiliani, Fred Thompson is back in vogue.

His momentum over the past two months has been incredible and he has rocketed past McCain into second place in most national surveys. If he declares his candidacy soon and runs a hard hitting and aggressive campaign, all will be well and he will play opposite Rudy in a two-way GOP battle on February 5th. Gingrich won’t be able to get into the race since Fred will have tied up the GOP right. Romney will be out, his flip-flop-flip on abortion making him suspect at a key time in the life/choice debate. And McCain will probably continue to fade. With Fred Thompson in the race, none of the minor Republican candidates has a prospect of moving up to top tier.

But Thompson may hue to his reputation for ambivalence and hesitation and stay out of the race too long for his own good. If he makes this mistake, the rap that he is lazy, self-indulgent, distracted, and attracted by his good life outside of politics, will increase. Republican right wingers want a hard charging candidate fully committed to doing battle first with Rudy and then with Hillary. They won’t take kindly to diffidence.

Gingrich is likely betting that Thompson won’t be equal to the task of capturing the right and must hope that the former Tennessee Senator hesitates before jumping into the race.


Last week’s ABC/Washington Post poll asked voters to indicate which candidates they would NEVER vote for. The results:

Mitt Romney 54%

John McCain 47

Hillary Clinton 45

Rudy Giuliani 40

Barack Obama 36

John Edwards 35


The central strategic conundrum facing Senator Barack Obama is how to vote on cutting off funding for the Iraq War. Along with a united Democratic Party, the Illinois Senator voted for the Senate amendment to the war-funding bill that set a “goal” of withdrawal by March, 2008. When the Senate and the House compromise between the Senate’s “goal” and the House deadline of a total pullout by September, 2008, Obama, Hillary, Dodd, and all the Senate Democrats will certainly line up behind the final bill and back its passage. Bush will veto it and the override will fail.

Then the fun starts.

Leftist Senators like Ted Kennedy and Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold and will probably demand that the Senate hold firm and refuse to pass a funding bill unless it requires withdrawal from Iraq or, at a minimum, establishes a mandatory goal of pulling out by a date certain. The prospect of a Bush veto and a standoff during which the troops go without funding will not deter them.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are likely to want to pass a funding bill that Bush can sign to avoid the embarrassment of defunding a war that is already in progress. In all likelihood, Hillary Clinton will join their ranks while John Edwards, no longer in the Senate and therefore without a vote, will push for the liberal view from the sidelines.

That leaves Obama with a clear decision: tack left or move to the center. If he embraces the leadership position and leaves Edwards alone on the left, he will be outflanked by the former Vice Presidential candidate and a two-way race of Obama and Hillary could become a three-way contest in a hurry. And, in that battle, Obama and Hillary could be relegated to splitting the 20% of Democrats who oppose a funding cutoff while Edwards makes hay with the 77% who the Fox News Poll of April 14th shows support a termination of funding by a date certain.

Obama, for his part, will have the make the key decision of his presidential race. Moderates will urge him to vote with the leadership to avoid subjecting himself to charges of undermining the troops if he wins the nomination. They will argue that his 2002 position opposing the war (while Hillary and Edwards both voted for it) gives him adequate protection against a left flank attack by Edwards. They will make the case, but they will be wrong.

The correct move for Obama is to tack to the left on the issue. If he adds the issue of war funding to his charismatic advantage over Hillary, he could upend her and win the nomination. Taking a strong antiwar position and siding with the Kennedys and Feingolds in the Senate would virtually eliminate Edwards from the race and would give Obama a united left in his battle with Hillary. And the left is the place to be in the Democratic Primary.


Bill Clinton hinted that Gore might enter the presidential race during his interview this week with Larry King. Is Clinton just trying to hamper Obama’s fund raising by bringing up the prospect of a Gore candidacy? Or is Gore really contemplating getting into the contest?

A key element in the former Vice President’s decision will likely be what Obama does on the war in the coming Senate vote. If Obama moves to the center, Gore may try to pre-empt Edwards and seize the left on the Iraq issue. His credentials on global warming, his Oscar award, and his possible candidacy for the Nobel Peace Prize could all equip him to make a serious run for president.

Gore was seriously considering running for President when Obama suddenly came out of nowhere to sell his books, float his candidacy, and then declare, all in rapid succession. Gore’s operatives were just getting unlimbered to staff a possible presidential run when Obama stole their thunder.

Obama’s stunning fund raising success seemed to seal the fate of a Gore candidacy. But the accolades the world seems intent on bestowing on the former Vice President and the possibility that Obama will cop out on the war, could bring him into the race after all.

And the fact remains that Gore is a much more potent threat to Hillary than Obama could ever be. In the last analysis, it will require quite a leap of faith for Americans to trust a rookie with the presidency. In effect, they would be electing a State Senator as president. Two of the four years he will have spent in the US Senate by the end of 2008 are being spent running for office and one hundred weeks of service in the upper chamber in Washington is a thin qualification for chief executive during a war.

But Gore is as experienced as anyone could possibly want and his signature issue, global warming, is obviously real and his warnings about it have been prescient. Gore’s candidacy in 2008 always made more sense than Obama’s but Barack jumped in first. Should he falter over the war, Gore might yet burst forth.


Bill Clinton also told Larry King that it wouldn’t be such a big deal if Hillary lost:

Clinton: “I’m really proud of her. I think that — you know, I believe she would be the best president by a good long stretch, for all kinds of obvious reasons — or at least they’re obvious to me.

But she also genuinely loves her job in the Senate. You know, she’s not — some people who run for president can’t wait to get out of the Senate or out of whatever other job she’s got. She loves it. She’s still doing it. She’s still going to her committee meetings, going to Upstate New York and trying to run for president, as well.

So for her personally, she’s going to be fine regardless. I think it would be best for the country if she were elected president. But if voters make another choice, she’s a great senator and she loves her job and we’ll have a good life.”

At first glance, it seemed that Bill Clinton was honestly addressing the possibility that Hillary could lose the nomination or the general election, but she would still be happy in the Senate.

But, knowing Clinton as I do, I began to think about whether there was another plausible reason for his statement. There’s one thing about Bill Clinton: he always has a message and, in this case, he certainly doesn’t want Hillary to contribute to the perception that Hillary is a loser.

So what could it be?

Well, the recent escalation of Hillary’s negatives must be causing Clinton, Inc. some major concerns. And one of her biggest negatives has always been that she’s ruthless and that she would do anything to get elected.

So my guess is that Bill Clinton was dispatched to try to soften her image. His mission was to make the point that she’d be a great president, but that she also loves her job and would happily go back to it.

Believe that and I’ve got some land in the Arkansas Ozarks to sell you.


Speaking in Louisiana this week, Hillary’s friend and supporter James Carville said:

“I think Hillary’s chances are not better than 50 percent, but right now that’s higher than anybody else’s,” he said.

With friends like that. . . . . . .

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