What do you do with a drunken sailor?

Notes from the political sidelines.
Oct. 29 2006 11:59 PM

What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?

With this election sinking fast, Republicans debate how not to lose the next one.

80_thehasbeen

Sunday, Oct. 29, 2006

The Recriminator: One reason political parties rarely learn from defeat is that they don't really want to. That's why in politics – unlike other sports – most post-game analysis happens before the game is over. For most partisans, examining the actual results might be too threatening. It's much more comforting to look for excuses and play name-that-goat than to deal with the possibility that Americans might have fundamental problems with your way of thinking.

Both parties have a long history of ignoring inconvenient electoral truths. Democrats learned little from underperforming in 2000 and 2002, and came up short again in 2004. Republican ran a tired campaign in 1992, and replicated it in 1996.

If you're going to misread an election, it's important to start early, before the votes are actually cast. Otherwise you might learn something.

Lately, Republicans have had the recriminations race to themselves. After six straight years of non-stop misery and self-hatred, Democrats' only current complaint is that the election hasn't happened yet. Republicans, by contrast, have been at each other's throats for months. If Election Night goes badly, Republican talking heads won't have to scramble for talking points. A pre-season of pre-criminations has honed them for the internecine battle ahead.

At least three competing theories have emerged as early frontrunners in the Republican blame game. All have the same fall guy: George Bush.

The first and most persuasive school of thought is the Drunken Sailor theory, which John McCain (a Navy man) has been pushing from the outset. According to this theory, the Bush administration's original sin was forgetting that once upon a time, in a Republican Party far, far away, conservatism meant fiscal conservatism. Then Bush and Tom DeLay greased the skids to fiscal ruin with tax cuts and budget earmarks, luring Republicans to spend like drunken sailors and pig out on pork.

The Drunken Sailor theory has the virtue of truth. McCain made the same case against Bush on the campaign trail in 2000 – that big tax cuts would cause deficits and make it hard to strengthen Social Security. Fiscal prohibitionists like McCain (as well as the last surviving Northeastern Republicans, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and the last known Ohio Republican, George Voinovich) aren't quite sure what to do about the budget-busting Bush tax cuts. But they think any Republican who still buys the Cheneyist nonsense that "deficits don't matter" deserves a "dunk in the water," which in one form or another is what drunken sailors often get.

A second and much more counterintuitive Republican recrimination is the Squealer theory, named for the spokespig in Animal Farm who talks so persuasively, other animals forget their own firsthand memories of history and accept his version instead. Newt Gingrich is playing that role brilliantly as he lays the groundwork for a presidential campaign. Ten years ago, Gingrich – not Bush – was the vote-losing face that Republican congressmen morphed into in Democratic attack ads. Today, he wants conservatives to remember the mid-90s as the good old days, back before the only ones certain of Republican convictions were federal prosecutors.

Dick Armey offers the same view in a compelling and deliciously judgmental Outlook piece in today's Washington Post. Armey says, "Republican lawmakers forgot the party's principles, became enamored with power and position, and began putting politics over policy." It's a familiar lament of disillusioned revolutionaries: We were doing great till we took office.

Armey and Gingrich are right – the revolution of 1994 was betrayed by the arrogance of power. But by overreaching in the heady days after that election, they wrote the book on how to go too far. The corrupt, spendthrift compassionate conservatism that helped dig the deep hole Republicans are now in was the only way out of the last hole Gingrich and Armey had dug the party. After 1995, Republicans were so desperate to prove they wouldn't shut down the government again, they made it so big they couldn't shut it if they tried.

The third widely held excuse for Republican demise is the Hack-of-a-Job theory: that there's nothing wrong with Bushism that getting rid of the Bushies won't fix. Under this theory, the Bush administration and the Republican congressional leadership are the Hacks that Couldn't Shoot Straight. Donald Rumsfeld botched the war; Michael Brown botched Katrina; Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed, Tom DeLay, and now Dennis Hastert botched the Congress; and Mark Foley botched the election.

For all those self-evident truths, the Hack-of-a-Job theory is a dangerous delusion for Republicans, because it ducks the unpleasant matter of whether conservative ideas actually work, when for a very long time they haven't.

Mitt Romney will try to endear himself to conservatives with this unreflective message that Republicans' problem is incompetence, not ideology. We had a Massachusetts governor like that once. He lost in a landslide – but on the bright side, he made for great recriminations. ... 11:55 P.M. (link)

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T-Minus 10: With just 10 days and counting until the midterms, there is nothing left to say about this election. Here at the Has-Been, that can only mean one thing: say it more often. From now through Election Night, the entire Has-Been team will be working round the clock to come up with inane commentary, falsified insider intelligence, and preposterous predictions.

Here at Slate, we recognize that you have a choice in how you kill time until the election is over. Over at TimesSelect ($), the New York Times offers a daily feature called "Midterm Madness." At Slate's sister publication, the Washington Post, you can win an American Express gift certificate by making your own predictions in a contest called "Midterm Madness." If you want more Midterm Madness, you can read the book or see the movie.

We're not going to pay you to waste time with us. That's what your employer is for. But in the spirit of the season, we will make you all kinds of promises we can't possibly deliver—including an advance copy of the actual election results, which Diebold was kind enough to share with us last week.

You can help! If you have a tip about what to expect on Nov. 7, send it to thehasbeen@gmail.com, where it will quickly be blown out of all proportion. Just the other day, a young political whiz named Jay sent me one of the best lines of the political season:

"The same week the Mark Foley scandal broke, several Republican congressman called for another investigation into Sandy Berger for pocketing classified documents from the National Archives. This just proves that Republicans are more concerned about the pages in Berger's pockets than about . . . ."

Well, you get the idea. … 11:58 P.M. (link)

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Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006

You Bet: Not long ago, Bill Frist rushed to the Senate floor with legislation to curb an Internet practice that "threatens our families by bringing addictive behavior right into our living rooms." No, the Senate majority leader wasn't talking about curbing IMs from drunken sexual predators in Congress. He was pushing through a bill to ban Internet gambling.

Just as Jacob Weisberg anticipated in July, Congress passed and the president signed a law making it a crime to bet online. Frist tucked the measure onto a port-security bill as a late-night rider, hoping it would boost his presidential stock with Christian conservatives. Now Republicans will have to turn to Ralph Reed and Bill Bennett if they want to field a pro-God, pro-gambling ticket.

After Bush signed the bill earlier this month, the online gaming giants shut down their American operations almost overnight. Sportingbet Plc, a British company, took a $391 million loss and sold its U.S. arm for $1.

Other companies are betting the law won't stick. Trade Exchange Network, an Irish firm that runs Tradesports.com and Intrade.com, continues to welcome American customers. But here's the real irony: At the same time the Republican Congress is trying to throw them out of the American market, the briskest business at Tradesports and Intrade is taking bets on whether Americans will throw out the Republican Congress.

Political futures markets are nothing new. For years, they've been a staple of the caucuses in Iowa, where presidential candidates are just pork bellies by other means. But in the run-up to this year's midterms, Intrade futures prices are everywhere. RealClearPolitics offers "Live Intrade Quotes" alongside its polling summaries. HuffingtonPost now posts them on the front page in a snazzy, multicolored bar graph.

The HuffPo graphics won't help with Tradesports/Intrade's defense. The headline shouts "Midterm Betting Odds," and the caption adds, "Odds based on people betting real money on the Tradesports website."

Is betting real money on the midterms a form of online gambling? If so, perhaps Congress should ban online campaign contributions as well.

At the moment, the Intrade market is far less bullish (and more Rovish) on Democrats' chances of recapturing the Senate than Slate's "Election Scorecard." In the House, the Intrade over-and-under looks to be about 20 seats—about 10 fewer seats than Kausfiles' favorite, Majority Watch.

With each new set of polls and each won-or-lost news cycle, the Intrade futures market bobs up and down. Yesterday, SUSA and Rasmussen polls sparked a GOP Senate futures rally. The latest race revelations from George Allen's youth should send them back down today.

If you don't feel like betting on politics, Intrade lets you bet on more trivial matters—like survival. So far, nobody's buying futures contracts on a U.S. military strike against North Korea. But trading volume is high for bets that the United States or Israel will launch a military strike against Iran in the next six months. The latest odds: 1 in 10.

Never mind the current Congress—the real value of political futures markets like Intrade is their potential to put someone else out of business: pundits. Intrade's predictions are erratic, unreliable, and meaningless—in other words, a perfect market in the conventional wisdom. Most Washington talking heads are just day traders in political gossip. Thanks to Intrade, you no longer have to listen to all the pontificators, because the market does it for you.

In politics, it's often hard to tell the difference between the conventional wisdom and "the wisdom of crowds." One man's CW is another man's WC. As further proof that the market works, this wisdom is now available for free—which is exactly what it's worth.

When it comes to the future, the present is always the last to know. Back in July, Intrade introduced a futures contract on whether an internet gambling law would be passed. On Sept. 30, the market was betting with 78 percent certainty that it wouldn't happen. The next day, Frist's late-night rider made that same bet worthless.

So before your addictive behavior leads you to bet your living room on Bill Frist's 2008 nomination at the current long-shot odds of 70-1, don't forget that in predicting political events, there's a reason the market is clueless—because we are. ... 1:08 P.M. (link)

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Monday, Oct. 23, 2006

Book Him:In a White House melting faster than the polar ice caps, one figure maintains the confidence of the American people: First Lady Laura Bush. Her approval rating is roughly double her husband's. On the campaign trail, Republican incumbents embarrassed to be seen with him routinely welcome her. Most Bush advisers consider themselves lucky not to be fired or indicted, and many are unpopular even within their own party. But according to a recent Harris poll, 83 percent of Americans said Laura Bush was a good influence on the president's decisions.

America is probably right that this administration would do better with more Lauras and fewer Don, Dick, and Karls. But that's a very low standard. And while Laura Bush may be a good person, what little we know suggests that she has also given her husband some very bad advice.

If Mark Foley is the last straw for Republicans' chances next month, the first straw may well have been Harriet Miers. Laura Bush had a hand in pushing the nomination of her fellow SMU alum and infuriated conservatives by implying that they were sexist to question Miers' credentials.

For the right, the Miers nomination was the crash of 2005—the moment when thinking conservatives began to ask themselves, "Had Enough?" But Bush's 2006 strategy has been even worse—and while the trail is sketchy, the circumstantial evidence once again points to Laura Bush.

Going into 2006, many political experts thought the Bush White House's strategic motto would be Reductions in Force—a limited drawdown of troops in Iraq, along with a concerted effort to cut domestic federal spending. The first would allow Bush to claim the United States was turning the corner in Iraq; the second would signal conservatives that after five spendthrift years, the administration was coming home.

We were right that the White House game plan for 2006 was RIF. We just didn't realize it would stand for Reading Is Fundamental.

Instead of spending the sixth year of his presidency globe-trotting to solve the mess in Iraq or poring over options memos on how to address middle-class families' economic concerns, Bush seems to have dedicated every waking, nontreadmill moment to one cause: reading books.

Two months ago, Ken Walsh of U.S. News reported that Bush had already read a staggering 60 books in 2006. Quick reads like Albert Camus's The Stranger and three plays by Shakespeare drew most of the scorn, but plenty of weighty doorstoppers made the list as well.

Admittedly, the list itself is suspect. The same U.S. News article suggesting that Bush was on a two-book-a-week pace marveled that "the commander in chief delved into three volumes in August alone."

But if the list is for real, it's evidence of presidential dereliction of duty and perhaps an outright threat to national security. Two books a week is an uphill battle for a graduate student whose responsibilities don't even include showering. For a president, who lives at work, reading and comprehending two serious books a month takes a Herculean effort.

In the same way his father played speed-golf, Bush seems to have embraced speed-reading. That's Republicans' whole problem this year: too many pages, too little comprehension.

Lest anyone mistake his newfound literary interest as a summer fling, this weekend Bush revealed his latest read: The History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, by British historian Andrew Roberts. Any title with the word "peoples" is a Bushism waiting to happen, and sure enough, the president stumbled over the title, calling it The History of the English-Speaking Peoples From 1990.(CliffsNotes synopsis: up and down.) Asked on ABC's This Week what he had learned from the book, all the president said was, "Sometimes, history gets distorted."

The book won't even be released in the U.S. until next February. That means Bush has read so many books this year, he had to start importing them from other English-speaking countries.

Bush gave another reason why he has to buy books overseas: He refuses to read books (pro or con) about his administration. That doesn't leave much to choose from on Amazon—memoirs by former White House correspondents, manifestos by former White House operatives, prick-and-tells by disgruntled former employees from other professions—and never more than one degree of separation from Bob Woodward.

Bush is right that it's myopic for a president to spend his time reading books about an administration in progress. The only thing a president might learn from an insider account of his own administration is something he should already know—which aides do the most leaking. If Bush were quicker on his feet, he would have put George Stephanopoulos on the spot about whether White House aides should write kiss-and-tell memoirs about an administration in progress, either.

But if Washington books are a particular waste of a president's time, are biographies and baseball books much better? Don't get me wrong—every president should have an active mind, and reading can do much to help a president understand (or temporarily escape) the history he's shaping. But the past year provides conclusive proof that a well-read bad president is no better—and may be worse—than a bad president who uses that time to dedicate himself to governing badly.

At least for the next two weeks, Bush's presidency is still a work in progress, if you can call it that. When the full story behind his speed-reading becomes known, historians can decide whom to blame. In August, U.S. News suggested that far from reading alone, the president was in a reading race with Karl Rove, one Bush brain against another. Without the benefit of an indictment, Rove had fallen 10 books behind.

But I find it hard to believe that a president best known for reading My Pet Goat would set out to read 100 books in one year just to impress the help. He couldn't find the time or the books without the help of his wife, the librarian.

Literacy is a great cause, but Laura Bush has taught us something else as well: You can't judge a president by his library card. ... 5:01 P.M. (link)

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Friday, Oct. 20, 2006

Hail Mary: If George Bush wants to make one last-ditch effort to cut Republican losses in November, he should dump Karl Rove and bring on a new strategist: North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il.

Why abandon Karl for his evil twin Kim? Some reasons are obvious. Every good campaign needs a madman. Kim's colorful personal life and successful rehab will give him credibility with embattled Republican incumbents. Helping the RNC develop a credible nuclear threat would give it a powerful weapon to mobilize turnout in tough years like this.

But the real reason to hire Kim Jong-il is that he has stumbled onto what may be the only desperate strategy Bush has left: to say he's sorry. It's so crazy, it just might work.

Yesterday, Kim met with a delegation from China. According to a South Korean newspaper, Kim told the Chinese that "he is sorry about the nuclear test."

Saying you're sorry has become a staple of modern politics. But even in this apologetic age, Kim has set a new standard. Most apologies take years, decades, or sometimes centuries. Kim put North Korea in a position to start World War III and apologized just 10 days later. Doom today, oops tomorrow.

Of course, we don't know whether Kim is actually sorry. For that matter, the report appeared in the South Korean press, so he may never have even told the Chinese he was sorry. It may be some kind of passive-aggressive tic that will lead him to bomb Japan and then tell the world he was only kidding.

Still, President Bush could learn a thing or two from his crazed nemesis. Bush is cruising for a bruising from American voters in November. Conservatives have already begun their circular firing squad, but after Election Day, the only target will be George Bush. Even if Democrats don't take back both houses of Congress, conservatives will still blame Bush for a near-death experience. If Democrats sweep, Mark Foley will be the answer to a trivia question, but all sides will long remember how much they couldn't stand Bush.

The White House's current strategy—indeed, the political strategy of the entire Bush presidency—is the opposite of an apology. They plan to take their lumps and tough it out. Forget "stay the course"—Rove's survival plan is "keep smiling."

The Bush White House believes it must keep a stiff upper lip so the base doesn't lose hope for November. But the base is the one most convinced that the end is near. Elected Republicans openly predict an electoral debacle. Only Bush's inner circle, in the tradition of Katrina, acts like it can't see disaster at its door.

So, the president has a choice: He can eat crow now, or eat it later. While the crow might seem harder to choke down now, if Bush waits until after the election, there may be far more of it to swallow.

To be sure, the one thing harder than getting George Bush to apologize would be deciding where to start. He owes economic conservatives (and the rest of us) an apology for spending too much, social conservatives an apology for conning them into thinking he was one of them, and every American an apology for calling himself a war president when he had no clue how to actually win one.

Bush would do himself and his party the most good by showing genuine reflection, remorse, and openness to a new direction. But if the president isn't ready to apologize for his own mistakes, he could start by apologizing for crimes he didn't commit all by himself. If Kim Jong-il can tell the Chinese, "Sorry about the nuclear test," surely George W. Bush can tell Americans, "Sorry about the 109th Congress."

In a tearful, Checkers-style speech from the Oval Office, Bush could apologize for the earmarks, the indictments, and the Foley scandal, and pledge to make sure they'll never happen again. He could thank Dennis Hastert for his lifetime of service, and accept his resignation as Speaker. The president could then announce that John McCain has agreed to use his floor privileges as a former congressman to step in as caretaker speaker until the whole place is cleaned up.

"Only one in six Americans approves of the job Congress is doing," Bush could say. "Let me assure you: I am not one of those people. In fact, I have spoken to Hill Republicans, and I believe I can speak for every member of the Republican caucus when I say that they don't approve of themselves, either."

Democrats and disgruntled independents might not accept Bush's apology. But conservatives would love it. At Bush campaign rallies, the RNC could hand out thousands of buttons and hand-painted signs that said, "We're Sorry, Too!"

Why would Bush approve this message? Because he knows it works. Bush's entire 2000 campaign was built on that very premise of apologizing for the Republican Congress. He criticized the House for cutting the Earned Income Tax Credit and promised to unite the country after the partisan rancor House Republicans brought on with impeachment. That was the only real difference between Gingrich conservatism and compassionate conservatism: Bush sounded like he was sorry about it.

The great Canadian philosophers, Mike Myers and David Steinberg, once joked that it's hard to ride in a crowded elevator with their countrymen, because every time anyone moves, they all say "sorry." That has never been President Bush's problem. But these days, the Republican slate looks increasingly like an elevator full of hosers in free fall. It's going down fast, and there's no point waiting till it hits bottom. ... 5:07 P.M. (link)

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Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2006

The Face That Launched a Thousand Gunships: Not to brag, but over the last decade, my humble home district in Idaho may have elected more genuine extremists per capita than anywhere in America. These days, the national political scene is rife with pretenders like Ann Coulter who make outrageous statements just for effect. But Idaho's own Helen Chenoweth, who died this month, was the real thing—beyond-the-pale before beyond-the-pale was cool.

Chenoweth retired in 2000 after three terms, one of the few members of the 1994 class to keep her promise on term limits. But in her prime, she was without peer. She wondered how the Pacific salmon could be endangered, when she could buy canned salmon in the grocery store. She defended the militia, and insisted on being called "Congressman," because in her view, the white male was the real endangered species. She read French libertarians, not French existentialists. Perhaps most famously, Chenoweth popularized the far right's fear of a vast federal conspiracy of "black helicopter" gunships that were coming to take away our guns, our land, and our survival shelters.

Those are hard shoes to fill. If Ann Coulter ran for Congress in Idaho's 1st District, she'd be canned salmon. Five candidates to Coulter's right would say to her, "You're no Helen Chenoweth."

Chenoweth's successor, Rep. Butch Otter, said at her funeral that since he came to Congress six years ago, other congressmen have tried to convince him that "you'll never be as conservative as Helen, so quit trying." In his eulogy, Otter pledged, "I didn't quit trying, and I'll never quit trying."

Otter may have equaled Chenoweth's lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 95 percent, but he never came close to matching her extremist authenticity. After he led a House revolt against the Patriot Act, he became something of a liberal hero, which was tough to explain back home.

So like Chenoweth before him, Otter decided to leave Congress. He's heavily favored to be elected governor in November. With an open congressional seat, Idaho Republicans have spent 2006 playing a game of "Can You Top Helen?"

This spring, six candidates carved each other up in a bitter GOP primary. The runner-up, an anti-immigration candidate named Robert Vasquez, has already announced that in 2008, he will challenge Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, whose lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is a mere 94 percent.

The winner of the primary, with a commanding 26 percent of the Republican fringe, was a state representative named Bill Sali. Human Events calls him a "swashbuckling conservative." The leading political historian in the state, Randy Stapilus, dubbed Sali "one of the weakest Idaho state legislators in the last couple of decades." That's august company, indeed. Sali once testified that the "brain fade" he suffered after a car wreck hasn't hindered him, because "much of the time in the Legislature, critical-thinking skills are not necessarily needed."

Sali is an embarrassment, all right, but more of the Coulter than Chenoweth variety. Earlier this year, Sali brought the Democratic minority leader, a breast cancer survivor, to tears on the House floor by alleging that abortion could cause breast cancer. The Republican speaker of the House was so angry, he stripped Sali of his committee assignments and started fuming like Idaho's favorite son, Napoleon Dynamite. The speaker said of Sali, "That idiot is just an absolute idiot."

In a normal year, even a freakin' idiot could win the 1st District. Republicans held the seat in both of the last two Democratic midterm landslides, in 1974 and 1982. In 2004, Bush carried it with 68 percent against John Kerry, who considers Idaho a second home.

Republicans may well hold on to the seat again. As Randy Stapilus says, 1st District voters "don't embarrass easily." But a new robopoll last week showed the race still too close to call. The Democratic candidate, Larry Grant, is a centrist and former executive at Micron Technology, the biggest employer in the state. He recently won the endorsement of the influential Spokane Spokesman-Review, a Republican-leaning newspaper that serves the northern half of the district.

Bill Sali could be ultraconservatism's canary in the coal mine. But even if he loses, extremists should take heart. As the late Helen Chenoweth might say, if right-wing nuts were an endangered species, we wouldn't be putting them on the shelf. ... 10:14 A.M. (link)

** Update: Today's Roll Call agrees:

"The latest example of GOP worries about holding onto traditionally staunchly Republican seats was manifested in a new ad buy this week in Idaho's 1st district, where according to a Democratic source, the NRCC just bought three weeks' worth of TV time to defend an open seat that seemed safely in Republican hands."

Not everyone's brains are fading. ... 4:05 P.M.

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Friday, Oct. 13, 2006

Family Ties: Any parent can understand why Mark Warner didn't want to leave home before his three daughters. Building a nationwide campaign that takes you to every county in Iowa: $100 million. Never missing your daughters' soccer games: priceless.

Running for president is a wrenching family decision for any politician, but especially for a governor. Senators, by definition, have already chosen to live part of their lives on the road. Some move their families to Washington and spend more weekends than they'd like politicking back in their home state. Some take an apartment in Washington and commute home to see their families from Friday to Monday (when they're not politicking). Only a lucky few, like Tom Carper of Delaware, live close enough to see their children every morning and every night.

Unlike the commuter's life of senators and congressmen, a governor's home life is remarkably normal. Governors work just as hard and campaign just as much, but they live above the store. In most states, the job comes with a mansion—so governors' kids not only still get to see their mom or dad every night, but the state gives them a bigger room and backyard in the bargain. With state helicopters at their disposal, no late votes, and state troopers chauffeuring them at 90 miles per hour, governors can almost always make it home for dinner.

That's one reason most governors wouldn't trade their current jobs for anything, and those who give them up because of term limits or to run for the Senate often wish they could have their old jobs back. When he announced his presidential campaign 15 years ago, Bill Clinton wasn't kidding when he said he was giving up "a life and a job I love." George W. Bush said the same in 2000. In a country suspicious of political ambition, both Clinton and Bush benefited as candidates from the sense that they'd almost rather be governor than be president.

So, John Dickerson is right: Anyone who has spent time around Warner can see why he would rather wave off a presidential bid than say goodbye too soon to his family.

In the first major spin scrum of the 2008 cycle, Warner's decision prompted a mad scramble to declare which other unannounced candidates gained the most from a race without him. Like most preseason handicapping, that's a silly question with no known answer.

The truth is that in the main, every potential candidate stands to lose from Warner's exit. A presidential race is not a cakewalk, where each departure automatically boosts the chances of all the remaining contestants. Nor is it a dinner party with assigned seating, liberals at one table and moderates at another, where one candidate can watch another leave and think, "More wine for me!"

No, the nominating contest is more like a friendly argument—a group effort to answer the same two extraordinarily hard questions: how to get elected president, and what to do for the country. Just as any group discussion suffers from the loss of a voice of reason, the whole Democratic field will miss the smart, sensible voice of Mark Warner.

The most successful presidential candidates, in fact, are those who learn the most from their rivals. In 1992, Bill Clinton gained a great deal from running against smart, sensible primary foes like Paul Tsongas and Bob Kerrey. In the general election, he even benefited from Ross Perot, a nut whose ideas made sense nonetheless.

George W. Bush won the Republican nomination in 2000 by pretending to be a reformer like John McCain and would have been a stronger candidate if he'd actually learned enough to mean it. After the 2004 primaries, John Kerry should have taken Will Saletan's advice to steal John Edwards' message.

At the end of his ill-fated 1988 primary campaign, Al Gore used his concession speech to thank each of his rivals, one by one, for the particular lessons they'd taught him. It was a classy move, only slightly marred by the fact that the field was so large, he forgot to mention one candidate's name and had to learn one last, painful lesson.

As a fiscally responsible governor who understood the importance of questioning orthodoxy, of going after every voter, and of the need to persuade both parties to do what he wanted, Warner had many strengths that would have made the whole Democratic field stronger. In the long run, the candidate who benefits the most from Mark Warner's departure from the race will be the one who best remembers what he would have brought to it. ... 1:02 P.M. (link)

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Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006

Can't Lose: Ask paranoid Democrats their innermost fears going into the midterm elections, and you'll hear two answers. First, that the Foley scandal will force another October surprise to come out of the Republicans' closet: Osama Bin Laden. Second, that on Election Night, Diebold electronic voting machines nationwide are secretly programmed to stop counting Democratic votes as soon as Democrats pull within one seat of taking back the House or the Senate.

Attention, conspiracy theorists: The biggest conspiracy to steal votes already happened. It's called redistricting, and it offers Republicans' only real hope of holding onto the House this fall.

Democrats have never quite recovered from the anguish of watching Al Gore win the popular vote in 2000, only to lose the presidency in the Electoral College. Since 2004, many Democrats have become convinced that rigged voting machines in Ohio cheated John Kerry out of his chance to lose the popular vote and still win the Electoral College.

But you don't need a tinfoil hat to see how much redistricting could cheat an unsuspecting electorate this fall. In every national poll, Democrats now lead the congressional vote by a ridiculously large margin: Newsweek has it at +12 points (51-39), Washington Post/ABC at +13 (54-41), the New York Times at +14 (49-35), CNN at +21 (58-37), and USA Today/Gallup at an unimaginable +23 (59-36)—twice the lead Republicans had before the 1994 sweep.

The election is still four weeks off, and these generic ballot questions are of little value in actual races. Three weeks ago, the same USA Today/Gallup poll had Democrats and Republicans in a dead heat, at 48-48. Mark Foley and Bob Woodward didn't cost Republicans 23 points in one month; more likely, Gallup just happened to interrupt the dinners of a different mix of people.

Even so, the Election Scorecard average of those five polls, all conducted at the end of last week, gives Democrats a whopping 17-point advantage. In a presidential election, a 17-point win would produce a 500+ electoral vote landslide. In 1994, Republicans took back the House by winning the popular vote by seven points—51.5 percent to 44.7 percent—and picked up 54 seats.

Yet even after poring over this week's bleak poll numbers, Karl Rove isn't completely crazy to imagine his party holding onto the House in November. Democrats aren't likely to win the popular vote by seven points, let alone 17. But what's really keeping Rove's dark hopes alive is the Safehouse that Jack and Tom Built—the firewall of safe districts that could enable the Republican party to survive what would otherwise be a China-syndrome political meltdown.

If congressional districts were truly representative, a party that won a seven-point victory in the popular vote would walk away with a 7 percent edge in the 435-member House of Representatives, or roughly a 30-seat majority. For Democrats, that would represent a pickup of around 45 seats.

In a Category 5 political tsunami, anything is possible. But a cold-eyed look at the districts in play shows the tough slog Democrats have, even in a banner year, just to get to a simple House majority.

The RealClearPolitics rankings of the Top 40 House races show how steep the terrain has become. By RCP's count, in order to pick up 10 seats, Democrats will have to carry five districts that Bush won by 14 points or more in 2004, including three that Bush carried by more than 20 points. For a 30-seat gain, Democrats will have to carry 12 districts that Bush won by 10 points or more. Only one of those 30 districts gave a 10-point margin to John Kerry.

That's no reason to discount Democrats' chances of taking back the House in November. In each of the top 30-40 races, it's quite possible to see how the Democrat can win. But Democrats need to remember about the House what we learned the hard way about the Electoral College—even with a popular majority, we still have to run the table.

Tom DeLay traded his career for a mug shot in order to build the Republican majority's most formidable levee, the gerrymander of Texas's 32-seat delegation. In 2005, two big states—California (with 53 seats, more than the 20 smallest states put together) and Ohio (with 18, a number remarkably close to the incumbent Republican governor's approval rating)—trounced fair-redistricting initiatives that would have put more House seats in play.

California Democrats opposed redistricting in order to punish Schwarzenegger. As a result, House Republicans could well survive the worst political year in a generation without losing a single seat in the largest state (and one of the bluest). And because he got pounded at the polls, Schwarzenegger turned himself back into a centrist who's now riding the wave instead of drowning in the tsunami.

Rigged districts defeat the very reason we have a House of Representatives in the first place. The founders wanted one chamber that would be held accountable to the popular will every two years. When the Electoral College is wrong, at least it's a wrong the framers intended.

Thanks to DeLay, conservatives who now want their party to surrender Congress in November may find that they can't lose for trying. The irony is profoundly tragic: A Republican Congress that owed its existence to the term-limits movement went on to build the most absurd system of incumbent protection since the Great Wall of China.

If the GOP somehow holds on next month, voters will have every right to suspect the election was stolen. But it won't do any good to blame machines, when a conspiracy of incumbents did all the stealing. ... 1:54 P.M. (link)

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