O Captain, My Captain

Notes from the political sidelines.
March 8 2007 4:16 PM

O Captain, My Captain

For conservatives, no comic relief.

80_thehasbeen

Thursday, Mar. 8, 2007

Spoiler Alert:For months, the right wing has been sending out distress signals, hoping to attract a hero to rescue conservatism and save the world. Yet just when it seemed the movement's future couldn't look any bleaker, the last best hope for conservatism is dead.

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No, it's not who you think. Newt and Jeb are fine; Ann Coulter is in rehab; and Vice President Cheney is in an undisclosed, secure, and jury-free location. But this week will still live in conservative infamy, because  Captain America has been shot. If anti-government wing nuts want a superhero, they'll have to settle for Duncan Hunter instead.

Unlike President Bush's domestic policy adviser, who writes comic books, I rarely have the chance to read them. And I'm certainly not suggesting that the late Captain America  was a conservative—I don't want a bunch of his grieving superhero friends to come torch my house. But from the cheap seats, the civil war that Marvel Comics cooked up to kill Captain America looks eerily like the current plight of the Republican Party.

In the post-9/11 era, the world could use some superheroes, so it's no surprise that the superhero world is wrestling with the same themes. Last year, the government in Marvel's fictional universe proposed the Superhuman Registration Act, which would require every superhero to register his powers with the authorities or be sent to the fantasy version of Guantanamo Bay. Libertarian superheroes rose up in revolt over the government's superpower grab. In the forthcoming five-part series, Captain America is arrested for leading the resistance and shot to death on the steps of the federal courthouse in New York.

Could there be a more poignant image of the current state of real-life conservatism? From the Patriot Act to the federal deficit, the specter of big government has America and traditional values on the ropes. Now that President Bush has been unmasked as something else, the right wing desperately awaits a hero with Reaganesque powers who is faster than a speeding terrorist and able to leap Berlin Walls in a single bound.

Instead, where do conservatives find themselves? Bleeding to death, watching a registration-happy New York City prosecutor skip past them up the steps on his way to put conservatism away for good.

The parallels don't end there. Last year, like their real-world counterparts, anti-government superheroes in the fantasy world found themselves mired in a civil war that blew up in their face. The death toll from the war ruined their standing with the public and lifted the pro-government, pro-registration forces to power. The deadliest battle in the Marvel civil war took place in the summer of 2006 in Stamford, Conn.—strangely echoing the Lieberman-Lamont Senate primary. The motto: "Whose side are you on?"

In both worlds, the anti-government crowd's worst nemesis is a former defense secretary—in the Marvel universe, Rumsfeld's counterpart is Tony Stark, alter ego of Iron Man. The superheroes' disastrous civil war leads to something whose very name will strike fear in real and fantasy conservatives alike: the Initiative. Like universal health care, it is spreading to every state.

Conservatives should look on the bright side: Getting killed off might be the best move their movement has made in a long time. Spokesmen for Marvel Comics acknowledge that Captain America may well make a comeback. In fact, it's clear Marvel iced the superhero for the same reason Ann Coulter  spews venom like a supervillain. As one comic-store owner told the Daily News, "I'd rather they didn't kill him—but it's going to mean great sales."

Like conservatism itself, Captain America's alter ego, Steve Rogers, once spent decades in suspended animation, frozen in North Atlantic ice. Thanks to global warming, the late captain and the conservative movement will have to find a different ruse this time. Conservatives can only hope that in the words of another superhero who turned against them, Arnold Schwarzenegger, they'll be back. Just as art imitates life, fantasy sometimes imitates conservatism—but usually, it's the other way around. ... 4:10 P.M. (link)

P.S. Marvel's five-part series on the death of Captain America in 2007 has the same title the Weekly Standard will use to bury Bush in 2008: "Fallen Son."

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Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2007

The Big Hair: On Tuesday, the Boston Globe uncovered a 77-slide PowerPoint presentation outlining the Romney campaign's strategy. Dan Gross is right: Mitt Romney doesn't just flip-flop like a CEO, he even uses a CEO's favorite tool to walk you through it.

The Globe says that top Romney strategist Alex Castellanos helped draft the document. Judging from the Globe excerpts, Romney has another CEO's weakness: overpaying consultants to assert the obvious. The PowerPoint offers such clichés as "Own the future" and "Does he fit the Big Chair?" It fusses over the candidate's too-perfect hair, describes John McCain as a "mature brand," and suggests Massachusetts-bashing as "Primal Code for Brand Romney."

But by far the best part of Romney's strategy is his campaign's primal code for Brand Mormon. As the Globe explains:

"Enmity toward France, where Romney did his Mormon mission during college, is a recurring theme of the document. The European Union, it says at one point, wants to 'drag America down to Europe's standards,' adding: 'That's where Hillary and Dems would take us. Hillary = France.' The plan even envisions 'First, not France' bumper stickers."

According to his campaign, Mormonism is not some new-fangled, outside-the-mainstream religion. It's Romney's lifelong crusade against heathen France.

While John McCain was squandering his youth in a losing battle against Communists—started by the French—Mitt Romney had a mission worth fighting for: He was going door-to-door on foreign soil, storming the French Bastille before they destroy our way of life. The man has spent his life training to fight Joan of Arc. Other Republicans may attack Hillary, but only Romney will burn her at the stake.

The clunky bumper-sticker slogan in the PowerPoint might have worked better for another campaign—such as "Frist, not France"—but give Romney his due. Considering its politics, Massachusetts ought to be overrun with French types. But with Romney as governor, Massachusetts natives of French descent like John Kerry and E.J. Dionne spent most of their time in Washington—and Romney's Massachusetts remains the most Irish state in the nation, far surpassing Ronald Reagan's California.

Romney is smart to run against France, which may be the only opponent weak enough for him to beat. There's just one problem. In the defining moment of Romney's political career—the Salt Lake City Olympics—he helped France win more medals than it has anytime in the 80-year history of the Winter Games. Mitt Romney not only didn't stop the French from going downhill—he let them beat us at it.

Here, free of charge, are some facts for the opposition PowerPoint on Romney. At his 2002 Olympics, France won 11 medals, including four golds. For a man whose slogan is "First, not France," that's a lot of time watching the French strut atop the world stage to "La Marseillaise."

Before Salt Lake City, the most medals France had ever won was nine—both times at Winter Games the French themselves hosted (1968 at Grenoble and 1992 at Albertville). In the three other Winter Olympics held on U.S. soil—Lake Placid in 1932 and 1980, Squaw Valley in 1960—the French won a grand total of five medals. That means Mitt Romney handed France more than twice as many medals in one Olympics as the other three U.S. Winter Olympiads combined.

And that's not counting Salt Lake City's infamous skating scandal, in which the French judge tried to rob Canada of the pairs gold medal by voting for a Russian pair who had fallen. The Olympic Committee had to suspend the judge, who denied it was part of a quid pro quo to gain Russian support for a French couple that won the gold in ice dancing. In short, Romney didn't stop France from dragging us down to Europe's standards—he hosted it.

From George W. Bush to John Roberts, Francophiles have secretly infiltrated the U.S. government at the highest levels. The Romney campaign may be right that an unchecked France could be our Waterloo, but Mitt Romney is no Admiral Lord Nelson. If "Les Mitts" doesn't fit on the Big Chair, Romney's bumper stickers can just say "Loser." ... 1:21 A.M. (link)

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Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2007

Make Me Chaste, Lord: If you happen to visit Washington this weekend, don't go anywhere near the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Conservatives are so desperate for a presidential candidate who has never let them down, they might grab any stranger who walks by the Omni Shoreham. According to the New York Times, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford had barely finished speaking to a Christian right gathering in Florida earlier this month, when the group tried to draft him to run for president in 2008. If you've never sponsored a campaign finance reform bill or lived with a gay couple, you could be next.

For the past 40 years, the conservative movement has welcomed only one kind of person: the true believer. Iconoclasm in the pursuit of moderation was no virtue; orthodoxy in the name of conservatism was no vice. But this weekend, Grover Norquist—the leading bouncer at the conservative club—announced a more relaxed entrance policy. In light of the movement's current struggles, the far right will now welcome a second type of conservative: the false believer.

In a report on the right's underwhelming reaction to three also-rans—Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, and Mike Huckabee—David Kirkpatrick of the Times explains the world according to Grover:

"Mr. Norquist said he remained open to any of the three candidates who spoke to the council or to Mr. Romney. He argued that with the right promises, any of the four could redeem themselves in the eyes of the conservative movement despite their past records, just as some high school students take abstinence pledges even after having had sex.

" 'It's called secondary virginity,' Mr. Norquist said. 'It is a big movement in high school and also available for politicians.' "

No wonder we're losing the war on terror. Grover Norquist is telling conservatives that heaven is full of secondary virgins, while Osama Bin Laden is promising his followers the real thing.

According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, there are no reliable data on how well the secondary virginity movement is doing in America's schools. But it's a huge hit in Republican presidential circles. Huckabee told the Times that despite (or, more likely, because of) raising taxes in Arkansas, he was leaning toward signing Norquist's perennial no-new-tax pledge. Romney never met a change of heart he didn't like.

But before conservatives get too excited about secondary virginity, they ought to consider its repercussions for the broader conservative faith. After all, the central animating principle behind conservatism has always been that there is no Plan B. That's President Bush's position on Iraq, and it's quite literally the conservative position on abortion. In political terms, secondary virginity is like a morning-after pill for politicians: An ambitious young Republican will no longer have to abstain from taking moderate stands—if he makes a mistake, he can take care of it later. On abortion, the Norquistian bargain is especially glaring: As long as Mitt Romney is opposed to Plan B for young couples, he can have a political Plan B for himself.

What is the world coming to, when absolutists start sending mixed signals? The far right opposes Bush's immigration plan as amnesty on the grounds that by forgiving illegal immigrants, it will only encourage more foreigners to follow suit. Norquist's plan represents something that true conservatives should hate even more: amnesty for moderates!

Essentially, Norquist is conceding that the job of running the country is work that no real conservatives want to do, so they need to import help from somewhere else. Mitt Romney got in trouble for running his own guest-worker program to do the yard work at his house in Boston. Now Grover Norquist wants to turn conservatism into a guest-worker program to hire Mitt Romney.

Wary conservatives should read a May 2006 Washington Post story titled "Virginity Pledges Can't Be Taken on Faith." According to the Post, a Harvard researcher found that "53 percent of adolescents in a large, federally funded study who said they made a virginity pledge denied doing so a year later, often after they had become sexually active." Another 10 percent became sexually active first, then made the pledge—and then claimed to be virgins. Norquist would have his candidate, if only any of them were old enough to run for president.

Conservatives would be better off listening to Sarah Brown, head of the National Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy, who told the Post that the study "confirms that when people are asked about sensitive behavior, you have to take their answers with a grain of salt." As Columbia professor Peter S. Bearman, an expert on virginity progams, pointed out, "Pledging leads to a form of promise-breaking that's riskier."

Of course, the best proof that secondary virginity won't work for conservatives is right in front of their noses. This isn't the first time Grover Norquist has used his conservative pledge cards to force Republican candidates into a shotgun marriage. The first George Bush won the GOP nomination in 1988 because he signed Norquist's no-tax pledge and Bob Dole wouldn't. Conservatives ran Bush 41 out of office when he didn't keep it. Haunted by his father's mistake, the younger Bush happily stuck to every pledge conservatives sent his way—and as a result, governed so badly that even conservatives can't wait to run off with someone else.

Now that true and false believers alike have failed, the conservative movement might want to reconsider whether its promises are worth making. Don't count on it. For the Norquists and Romneys, the pledge's the thing. Belief, like so much else, is secondary. ... 10:57 A.M. (link)

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Friday, Feb. 23, 2007

Gravel Pit:For the political press, this week's shootout between the Clinton and Obama campaigns was as intoxicating as a hunter's first whiff of gunpowder on Opening Day. The Hotline dubbed it "Slash Wednesday." The tabloids went Postal. The only way to make Roger Ailes happier would have been to let Maureen Dowd referee a Mark Penn/David Axelrod Jello-wrestling match on pay-per-view.

As a card-carrying Clintonite, I tend to agree with John Dickerson that Round 1 went to Clinton. But there's an easy way for everyone in the field to come away a winner: Don't bother having a Round 2.

Primary campaigns are by definition family feuds, so sparks are bound to fly, and it's hard not to take everything personally. I still haven't forgiven people for snide comments they made on behalf of rival campaigns two decades ago, even people I otherwise consider good friends from campaigns before or since. Moreover, a party's nomination is worth more if it's a real battle, not a love fest where real differences are swept under the carpet, only to resurface during the general election.

So, fights happen. But the key to a healthy, happy family or party is to make sure you spend your time on the fights that matter and get over the fights that don't.

The early days of a long campaign are almost always about fights that don't. For one thing, most of the family isn't around yet. Even in battleground states like New Hampshire and Iowa, most voters are watching American Idol, not Road to the White House. Candidates are mainly talking to each other, and trying to distinguish themselves in front of diehards in the party and the press.

A big field of musical chairs only heightens the competition to show measurable progress in areas that ultimately won't make the difference. Raising money won't be a problem for the Democratic front-runners, but insiders will obsess over their first quarter FEC reports, anyway. Endorsements, hires, and defections are even less important, but we'll pretend they're crucial for the next nine months, until real voters tune in and remind us that the only names that matter are the ones on the ballot.

The risk of a big field is that candidates will try too hard to win over those of us warped enough to obsess over their every current move, and lose sight of the far more sensible voters who won't make up their minds till the time comes. To measure the lasting import of Round 1, look at any newspaper from Nevada, where much of the shadow boxing took place. At a forum with the Democratic candidates, George Stephanopoulos raised the Geffen-Clinton-Obama flap. The national papers duly reported every word of that exchange—although they failed to point out that George would never mispronounce Geffen the way he did Nevada.

Yet in the Nevada papers, the Clinton-Obama feud didn't even come up. The Carson City paper, the Nevada Appeal,led with a mother who likes Edwards. Her son who favors Clinton "because she's a girl." The Las Vegas Sun quoted a woman who said she "could just kiss" Joe Biden—and did. The Reno Gazette-Journal actually found a debate viewer who liked Mike Gravel, although she had to refer to him as "the fellow who spoke last" because she didn't know his name.

Even as reporters have been privately hoping the fur will keep flying, commentators tsk-tsk about what will happen if the candidates keep this up for another 12 months. But the truth is, they can't, they shouldn't, and they won't, because the voters don't them want to.

Call it the doctrine of Mutually Assured Distraction: Ultimately, it's in every candidate's enlightened self-interest to prevent the other candidates from steering the campaign away from the debate voters want about where to take the country. The Clinton and Obama campaigns don't want a never-ending firefight that leaves an opening for another candidate like Edwards. The Edwards campaign doesn't want to be left out as the third wheel in a two-candidate race. The rest of the field, already starved for money and attention, doesn't want to achieve Mike Gravel status as the finest presidential candidate voters can't name.

If the campaigns are smart, this past week won't produce a surge of infighting, but a rush to substance instead. Clinton and Richardson were right to object that Geffen's snarky comments were out of bounds. Obama is right to want to avoid another sideshow. Now the campaigns can fast forward to the main attraction—a battle of ideas about the future.

Presidential campaigns often take a long time to sort out the trivial from the profound. Ironically, this week's dustup may help accelerate the process of realizing what really matters, by highlighting what doesn't. Next January, no one in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina will care who won Hollywood or who lost David Geffen. Out there, the voters are already a step ahead—they don't even care about that now. ... 11:08 P.M. (link)

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Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2007

Do n't Try This at Home: Hell didn't freeze over last week, but the Potomac did. If the next George Washington wanted to skip a silver dollar across the Potomac, this past weekend would have been the time to do it.

Some people in Washington walk on water. My family has a slightly different calling—to fall through ice. I grew up in North Idaho, near the Canadian border, and every cold snap, my father would throw his skates, hockey stick, and golden retriever in the car, and head off to the nearest lake or pond in search of new ice. Sometimes he returned with wet feet; at least twice a year, he came back shivering, half-frozen, and soaked from head to toe.

We never asked my father why he routinely risked his life this way for us. Our only question was whether he or the dog would fall in first.

My father is still at it at 78, restrained less by age than by global warming. My grandfather before him had the same flash-frozen impulse. He believed the best cure for a winter cold was to go outside, and thin ice was the reason God invented brandy.

I am a pale shadow of those hearty frontiersmen, and since Washington is essentially a Southern town, I've never been sure to what degree I inherited their suicidal tendency. But after this past week, I know: I'm a case of hypothermia waiting to happen.

All last week on my commute to work, I found myself weaving from lane to lane, staring out at the unbroken expanse of ice from Roosevelt Island to National Airport. Near the Jefferson Memorial, I would slow to a crawl, imagining myself gliding across the Tidal Basin. When birds perched serenely on the ice, I couldn't fully appreciate the beauty of the scene, because I felt a primal urge to risk my neck and go join them.

Unfortunately, I soon discovered a problem, a risk my youth in the great North woods hadn't trained me to face. Skating in places like the Tidal Basin isn't just foolhardy; it also appears to be against the law.

That's my hunch, at least, based on my past experiences in Washington. A decade ago, I took my daughter for a quick skate on the reflecting pool in front of the Capitol. The water was only a foot deep and frozen solid, so I wasn't putting her in any immediate danger. We had a great time, but I was glad she was too young to read the signs that said, "No Skating."

Last winter, our family enjoyed a lovely afternoon of skating on the C&O Canal. No signs were posted, and the ice was plenty thick, once you hopped over a small patch of open water near the edge. We were just untying our skates after an hour of hockey when a park ranger screamed at us to get off the ice and lectured us that skating was forbidden.

Skating wasn't always a high crime in Washington. Judging from old photographs, ice skating used to be commonplace on the Tidal Basin and even on the Potomac. According to the Park Service's official history, swimming in the Tidal Basin was allowed until the 1920s, when authorities banned it because of health risks caused by river debris and because of "racist policies which limited use of the beach to whites only." Fifty years later, Rep. Wilbur Mills's career tanked there when a stripper not his wife, Annabell Battistella—aka Fanne Fox, "the Argentine Firecracker"—clawed her way out of his car, ignored the swimming ban, and leaped into the Tidal Basin.

The Washington Post account of that episode is one of the finest front-page scandals in journalistic history. The Post asked doctors at St. Elizabeths why the Argentine Firecracker had gone off, and concluded: "Although police described Mrs. Battistella's leap into the Tidal Basin as a suicide attempt, hospital officials said the physicians who examined her did not think it was a 'genuine' suicide attempt."

That's the same way I feel about skating on the Tidal Basin—it wouldn't be a genuine suicide attempt, just a career-ending one likely to land me in a mental hospital.

From the standpoint of public safety—and tourist management—the prohibition on skating makes perfect sense. The Tidal Basin is supposed to showcase a national monument, not an attractive nuisance. Last week, the Park Police had to send in a SWAT team to rescue a seagull that was frozen in the ice on the Tidal Basin. The bird was released on its own recognizance.

But I also know what my father and grandfather would say about such laws. To them, the "No Fishing" and "Alcoholic Beverages Prohibited" signs along the Tidal Basin would be more than enough proof that skating is not expressly forbidden. They might even argue they were doing the public a service by double-checking ice safety—first by skating on it themselves, then by inspiring a park ranger to chase across it to arrest them.

I may never be half the man my father and grandfather were, but I am determined to be every bit the fool. So this weekend, I decided to take the plunge. First, I called the National Park Service's C&O Canal ice-skating hot line. A recorded voice began by declaring, "This message is valid for the 2004-05 winter season," stressed the importance of "self-rescue," and ended with the disturbing words: "Falling into any depth of water during the winter can lead to hypothermia, drowning, and death. Beep." The voice also reluctantly admitted that ice skating was allowed "unless specifically closed by signs."

People who see the glass as half-melted might not be encouraged by a three-year-old recording ending in certain death. To any glass-half-frozen type, however, that message screamed, "Come on down!" And sure enough, the ice on the canal was so thick, there wasn't a ranger in sight. My dog trembled like she'd called the hot line, but my son and daughter enjoyed our Hans Brinker moment.

That still left me the Tidal Basin and the Potomac to conquer and a legacy of foolishness to uphold. Break the law, or break the ice? In the end, I decided to take my chances with nature, passing up the Tidal Basin and dipping my toe in the Potomac instead.

On the path down to the river, I felt a twinge of doubt after passing a man who had two things I did not: a wetsuit—and a kayak. But doubt soon turned to superiority: If there's one thing dumber than trying to skate on a frozen river, it's trying to kayak on one.

At the shoreline, I tested the ice with my hockey stick. It was 3-4 inches thick, right on the border between safe and sorry. Still, a few steps couldn't hurt. I tiptoed a few feet offshore, listening for cracks. I went a few more feet, pausing to wonder what the people on shore who had stopped to watch were hoping would happen. That stretch of the Potomac is about 500 yards wide. At the rate I was inching, I'd reach the other side by nightfall.

With a wetsuit on and Wilbur Mills at my heels, I might have braved the crossing. But I was satisfied with my own foolishness after the first 15 feet. Just before I turned back, I saw a sign on the bank upriver: "Stop. Dam Ahead. Dangerous Undertow. Get to Shore." I scoffed at the summer folly of trying to outswim a riptide. Even so, getting ashore seemed like solid advice year-round. ... 12:48 P.M. (link)

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Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007

When I'm 1964: The far right used to inspire fear, not pity, but these days it's hard not to feel a little sorry for the conservative faithful. For a movement accustomed to morning in America, the hour is closer to midnight. First, a Republican Congress betrayed them for pieces of silver. Then a Republican administration ran their ideas into the ground. Now, when they need a conservative messiah, the bundle on their doorstep is Rudy Giuliani, who endorsed Bill Clinton's assault-weapons ban and Mario Cuomo's re-election campaign at the height of the Republican revolution in 1994.

Conservatives have not yet begun to ache. In coming months, they'll have to listen as Giuliani and his fellow gypsy moth Mitt Romney pretend not to be what they've spent the last decade pretending to be. The savior conservatives want is Newt Gingrich—but even with their movement tied to the railroad tracks, the right's Dudley Do-Right waits to ride to the rescue.

Ralph Reed may be content to settle for cheap knockoffs, but real conservatives deserve the real thing. The answer, as always, is in their past.

Most conservatives agree that the key moment in the history of their movement was Barry Goldwater's landslide loss in 1964. In defeat, conservatives found the courage to be ultra: "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

Those were the days. The years since have brought conservatives one disappointment after another. In 1964, conservatives were finally comfortable in the minority. Then Democrats ruined everything by losing one presidential landslide after another themselves. The far right was stuck with a string of Republican presidents who governed often but not well.

In 2008, the conservative movement should go back to doing what it used to do best: losing. If governing turned out to be no virtue for the right, then defeat should be no vice. Instead of trying to decide which Republican can win the chance to disappoint them again as president, conservatives should remember 1964 and rally behind the candidate who can lose the biggest landslide.

The great conservative icon Joseph Schumpeter referred to this process as "creative destruction." In memory of Goldwater, the right can call it the Phoenix Project: In order to rise from the ashes, you must first throw yourself upon the flames.

If Bush could run again, a crushing landslide would be inevitable. The way the current administration is going, any Republican in the field might be able to lead the party to defeat in November 2008. But conservatives should know better by now than to entrust their fate to George W. Bush. If the future of their movement depends on an electoral blowout, conservatives must nominate a Republican they can count on to lose everywhere.

Wingers, behold! I have found the man to lead you back into the political wilderness. He's a fighter. He will not bend to those liberal demons of evidence or reason. He will say and do the outrageous, with a fervor and gusto the right hasn't seen in a decade or longer. Best of all, he will lose—quite possibly by the largest electoral margin in American history.

So, on behalf of the great state of Idaho and all four of its electoral votes, let me be the first to nominate for president a man who loves conservatism so much he would destroy the Republican Party to save it, my freshman congressman, Bill Sali.

Now, ultraconservatives are a suspicious lot and won't swoon for a guy just because he represents the nuttiest congressional district in America. But it's not just local pride that makes me confident Sali would soon sweep them off their feet. On the issues that matter, his ultraconservative credentials compare favorably to anyone else in the Republican field or on the sidelines:

Abortion: Giuliani is pro-choice, McCain is more interested in national security, and Romney is macrobiotic on the issue: He lives off whatever opinions are grown locally. Bill Sali has a perfect pro-life record and insists that abortion causes breast cancer—even saying as much to women who've had breast cancer.

Experience: Giuliani ran the biggest urban bureaucracy in America. McCain has been in Congress for a quarter-century. Romney signed a universal health-care bill in Massachusetts. Bill Sali has the kind of experience their money can't buy—namely, none whatsoever. He has been in Congress a month. He spent 16 years as a state legislator, which makes him twice as qualified as Abraham Lincoln – and since it was in the Idaho state legislature, there's no danger he'll take the GOP off on progressive tangents like Lincoln. Last time I checked, Sali's webpage on "Legislative Issues" was a conservative's dream come true—completely empty.

Strength: Giuliani backed down from a race against Hillary Clinton. McCain refused to slime George Bush's character in the South Carolina primary. Romney lost to Ted Kennedy. Bill Sali made his fellow Republicans in Idaho so mad that one trashed him to the papers and another tried to throw him out the window. When the Weekly Standard asked about his internecine feuds, Sali gave the right's favorite answer: He blamed the media.

Extremism: As soon as the primaries are over, Giuliani, McCain, and Romney will run to the middle. Bill Sali won his congressional primary with 26 percent—the most conservative quarter of one of the most conservative state parties in the country. But Sali stuck to his guns in the general and didn't lose them when he came to Washington. He's comfortable in his own skin—and, more important to the conservative movement, comfortable being all alone. Last week, he told a right-wing blogger, "I'm not responsible for the Republican brand. I'm responsible for me."

Sali's colleagues recognize his potential. They already elected him president of the House Republican freshman class. But it would be a shame to let Sali's florid conservatism wither on the vine in Congress. Already, the poor fellow has found himself apologizing for the administration—pointing out that "cost overruns during a time of war are as old as the Republic" and defending Bush's record on climate change, rather than asking whether climate change is worth the hype.

Republicans are so used to winning Idaho that they have forgotten Idaho's ability to help them lose everywhere else. If conservatives are so mad they want to throw the Republican Party out the window, Bill Sali could be just the ticket. ... 12:42 P.M. (link)

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Saturday, Feb. 3, 2007

Profit of Doom: Punxsutawney Phil says we're in for a short winter but a long campaign. Although the nominations won't be decided until this time next year, candidates in both parties are already at full sprint. If a day is a lifetime in politics, then the campaign ahead is as long as all of human history since the last Ice Age—and will end just in time for the next one. (In the ultimate product tie-in, the gloomy new U.N. report on climate change came out the same week Fox announced it's going forward with Ice Age 3.)

The reason a long campaign feels like an eternity is not that we tire of the candidates. The frontrunners are still, in Sen. Clinton's phrase, famous but little-known; the long shots are just little-known. This is the getting-to-know-you phase, and for the most part, a friendly, curious country enjoys getting to know them all.

The real agony of the long windup is the endless, intense speculation about aspects of the campaign that don't much matter or aren't that interesting if they do. The next several months will be to politics what the last two weeks have been to football—flood-the-zone coverage of the game before the players even finish warming up.

Of course, we devour every detail anyway, and talk it to death around the water cooler and in our blogs. But in our hearts, we know that victory will depend on the quarterback, not the long snapper. As the Washington Post says in its profile of Chicago Bears center Patrick Mannelly, "There is no glory in bending over ..."

At this stage in the cycle, the three most closely watched measures of campaign progress are money, organization, and endorsements. The first two are important (you can't win without them) but overrated (you'll lose if you think they're enough). The last measure is unimportant and overrated. And let's face it—all three are pretty boring. The long snapper's job begins to sound interesting compared to its political counterpart, the numbing and thankless task of raising and spending $100 million.

But at least in the end, money and organization matter. Endorsements only matter when they backfire. They should carry a disclaimer that says, "Warning: Endorsing can be hazardous to a campaign's health."

Most endorsements make no difference whatsoever. Michael Jordan is one of the greatest pitchmen on the planet and has made a fabulous living on product endorsements. Yet in the 2000 campaign, his much-ballyhooed entrée into politics to endorse Bill Bradley didn't boost sales whatsoever.

Some of the most highly sought endorsements have turned out to be political fiascoes. When I worked on Al Gore's 1988 campaign, his legendary political consultant David Garth considered it a coup to win Mayor Ed Koch's endorsement in the New York primary. But every time Koch opened his mouth, he'd say something Gore would have to disavow. The Gore campaign spent its final days scheduling events at take-out counters in Little Italy and elsewhere, on the apparent theory that Hizzoner would have more trouble sounding off if we kept stuffing his mouth full of cannoli.

But one category of endorsements is interesting: those that campaigns pursue knowing full well they could be deadly. In 2002, Joe Klein wrote a classic Slate piece on "the Shrum Primary"—the scramble to see which campaign would end up with consultant Bob Shrum, whose track record in presidential elections to that point was 0 and 7 lifetime. John Kerry won the Shrum Primary that cycle, enabling its namesake to retire the record at 0-8.

There will be no Shrum Primary in 2008. But this week brought signs of a new contest in self-immolation: the Ralph Primary. Ralph Reed has a shrewd political mind and a fierce competitive spirit. And pity whichever Republican candidate wins his support, for disaster looms.

The consequences of the Shrum Primary were clearcut. Klein wrote, "If history is any guide, Shrum's choice will lose either a) the nomination or b) the general election." In the Ralph Primary, a much broader range of bad outcomes are possible. If history is any guide, Ralph's choice will either a) lose the general election (Dole), or b) win the general election on a platform that runs the country into the ground (Bush).

But unlike Shrum, whose repertoire was limited to politics, Ralph's curse extends into all walks of American life. In the 2000 campaign, George Bush and Karl Rove won the Ralph Primary, then recommended him for a $10,000 to $20,000-a month consulting contract with Enron. Bush went on to lose the popular vote, while Enron promptly suffered the most spectacular bankruptcy in American history.

Jack Abramoff won the lobbying heat of the Ralph Primary, after Ralph emailed him, "Now that I'm done with the electoral politics, I need to start humping in corporate accounts!" Four years later, Abramoff e-mailed his partner, Michael Scanlon, that Ralph was "a bad version of us! No more money for him." Ralph got rich, and now awaits his next victim; Abramoff and Scanlon got sentenced to jail.

After Ralph couldn't win his own primary in Georgia last summer, you'd think his Abramoff ties alone would keep him off any campaign, even as a consultant. But according to the Politico and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, his services are in demand, and two of the three Republican frontrunners are in the running.

Ralph told the Politico's Jonathan Martin that he's "having conversations with just about every campaign"—except McCain, whom he helped smear in the South Carolina primary in 2000. Martin says "rumors have been circulating for weeks" that Ralph will sign on with Mitt Romney. A Romney campaign spokesman issued a nondenial, calling Ralph "one of the best minds in politics," but adding that "he doesn't have a formal role in our campaign organization."

In response, Tom Baxter and Jim Galloway of the Journal-Constitution reminded readers that Ralph has a prior IOU to Rudy Giuliani, who stumped for him in Georgia. According to the Hotline, Ralph sang Giuliani's praises at a National Review dinner this past weekend. The Hotline's Chuck Todd and Marc Ambinder report, "That induced 'a number of odd looks and rolled eyes from many of the attendees,' according to our source." They don't say who was making those eyes roll more—Ralph or Giuliani.

Whichever campaign wins the Ralph Primary, the mere fact that Romney and Giuliani need Ralph Reed should be enough to disqualify them from higher office. The sad part is, Ralph would fit well in either camp. Giuliani does business with sleazeballs and seems willing to do anything to make a buck. Ditto for Ralph. Social conservatives worry that Romney is a shameless political opportunist who'll say one thing and do another. With Ralph, that's the one thing conservatives can count on.

Many of us look at Ralph Reed and see an ambitious, unprincipled buckraker. Romney and Giuliani look at Ralph Reed and see the very premise of their candidacies—the hope that an ambitious, unprincipled buckraker can con the religious right.

Rudy and Mitt won't reverse the curse; they're doomed to repeat it. In the Ralph Primary, Ralph is the sole survivor. Like casinos, the only way to win is not to play. ... 12:12 A.M. (link)

Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council and co-author with Rahm Emanuel of The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America.E-mail him at thehasbeen@gmail.com. Read his disclosure here.

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