Is Bush Smarter Than a Fourth-Grader?
Maybe he's failing on purpose, to help our young people make gains in civics and history.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Don't Know Much About History: Hillary Clinton just asked supporters to choose her campaign song, but Republican candidates already agreed on theirs. Perhaps the next debate will feature a barbershop quartet of Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, and Mitt Romney singing:
To be fair, the Republican race is a particularly difficult kind of history test. In order to pass, a GOP candidate must persuade Americans to miss the '80s, fear the '90s, and start the current decade over without Bush. For some, like Romney and Giuliani, traveling back to the Reagan era has the additional benefit of rewinding past all the positions they've taken in years since.
Once again, Republican candidates and the American people are headed in different directions. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reported yesterday that while political leaders are doing their best to ignore history, young people are doing much better at it.
The educational standards movement appears to be paying off. Between 1994 and 2006, the number of fourth-graders performing at or above basic level in U.S. history jumped from 64 percent to 70 percent. Civics scores went up, too. Jay Mathews of the Washington Post points out that scores even rose among high-school seniors, who hadn't improved in any subject in the past eight years.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings was quick to attribute the progress to No Child Left Behind, glossing over the inconvenient fact that fourth-grade history scores rose slightly faster between 1994 and 2001 than in the years since NCLB was passed. In any case, if young Americans are making progress on these two subjects, Spellings' boss deserves the credit. At last, President Bush may have found the perfect excuse for his failures at home and abroad. The Imperial Presidency isn't a way to abuse power—it's a way to teach civics. Never mind Iraq's failures as a war—it has been a great history lesson.
If anything, the Bush administration might well be accused of teaching to the test. The NAEP report says that to perform at basic level in history, fourth-graders must be able to "interpret a presidential quotation." Give Bush credit—he has been quizzing those kids every day.
While Mickey Kaus may be despondent about where the Senate is headed on immigration, he should take heart that the next generation aces the issue. On the civics test, 75 percent of all fourth-graders correctly answered that noncitizens can't vote. If Monica Goodling were still around, those 9-year-olds would be made U.S. attorneys.
The nation's eighth-graders showed no progress on civics, but we can't fault Bush for trying. Consider this question from the eighth-grade test:
Teresia is a small country that has been invaded by its neighbor Corollia. The king of Teresia is a long-standing United States ally who has been living in exile since the Corollian invasion. Teresia is an important exporter of uranium; it sends most of its supply to members of the European Union. The king appeals to the United States and the United Nations for military help in driving Corollia from his country.
Identify two pieces of information NOT given above that you would need before you could decide whether or not the United States military should help Teresia. Explain why each piece of information would be important.
C'mon, kids! How many countries does the president have to invade before you start getting the right answer?
Only 13 precent of eighth-graders had an "acceptable" response, which is even lower than the president's own ratings. Just 3 percent of the responses were "complete"—so Bush is not the only one.
Bush can take some comfort as well from the sample answer in the NAEP report. That particular eighth-grader outperformed Bush by asking to know more about Corolla's motives and allies. But the student didn't ask anything about whether Teresia was really exporting uranium.
Of course, President Bush may be a great teacher, but how would he do on the test? The past six years have trained him well for one measure of basic fourth-grade achievement: "Students should know that the world is divided into many countries." Bush has spent enough time around the Coalition of the Unwilling to know that.
But other NAEP standards might be harder to meet. In civics, fourth-graders at the basic level should be able to "recognize that the president is an elected official" (somewhat more difficult since 2000) and "identify an illegitimate use of power" (which may have been Lynne Cheney's real objection to these standards all along).
The advanced achievement level for fourth-graders is harder still: "Given age-appropriate examples, they should recognize differences between power and authority and between limited and unlimited government." And there's just no getting past the section, "What Fourth-Graders Know." A "proficient" fourth-grader can name the two political parties. But to be considered "advanced," a fourth-grader must be able to "identify the legislative branch." By that standard, this administration could be stuck in grade school for a long time. ... 3:57 P.M. (link)
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Hear Me Roar: These are tough times for the newspaper business, so editors everywhere should be grateful to Slate's parent company, the Washington Post, for an ingenious cost-saving measure—the reusable headline. Saturday's Post carried a story entitled, "Giuliani Tries To Clarify Abortion Stance." No matter how many times Giuliani addresses the subject, it's the only headline any newspaper will ever need.
The savings don't stop there. Today, the Post's Dan Balz was able to recycle Saturday's lede for his curtain-raiser on tonight's debate: "Much of the focus [is] likely to be on former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and his continuing effort to extricate himself from a controversy over his position on abortion."
This weekend, Giuliani was busy clarifying his abortion stance on Fox News Sunday. "Let's start with abortion and any confusion that remains about where you stand," Chris Wallace began. The more Giuliani tried to extricate himself, the more he had left to clear up.
Wallace asked, "Most Americans would feel passionately one way or the other. Why are you so indifferent to such a deeply held issue?" Giuliani insisted, "I'm very, very passionate about the issue." He proved how much he cares about abortion by repeatedly referring to the landmark case as "Roe against Wade." Moments later, when Wallace asked him if he'd be upset if Roe were overturned, Giuliani showed all the passion of Mike Dukakis. "I don't think it's a question of being disappointed or being happy about it," he said. Vive l'indifference!
On Friday, Giuliani tried to recast his views on abortion and guns as a profile in courage. On Sunday, he once again made clear that he was brave enough to pander. He promised not to change the pro-life Republican platform. He affirmed his support for abortion limits he used to oppose. He promised conservatives what they want most on abortion—strict constructionist judges. And as an example of what he means by judges not legislating from the bench, he praised the D.C. Circuit's recent decision to overturn a 1939 Supreme Court precedent on the Second Amendment.
Giuliani did manage to clarify one issue on Sunday. In fact, he offered what may be the single most definitive statement of his campaign so far: "I'm not a woman."
Wallace wasn't even trying to clear up any confusion on that score. Giuliani just wanted to show that his passions on the abortion issue only go so far:
"I believe abortion is wrong. I believe, as a personal matter, if it were my personal choice — and of course, it will never be my personal choice. I'm not a woman."
It's hardly news when a thrice-married man clarifies his stance that he is not a woman. But Giuliani went further, volunteering that he will never be a woman. Fox viewers can rest assured: Some options are off the table.
Yet just a few sentences later, Giuliani threw even that certainty into some doubt, telling Wallace:
"If you said to me, as a woman, 'I have an equally strong view of this as you do' … I would support that."
The strict constructionist reading of "If you said to me, as a woman" is clear: Giuliani thinks he's a woman. Another flip-flop! But a more liberal interpretation might reach the opposite conclusion: Giuliani thinks Chris Wallace is a woman.
No wonder Giuliani is losing the Republican base. He has done so many Inner Circle productions, he thinks "fair and balanced" is Rosalind in As You Like It—a man playing a woman playing a man playing a woman.
Either way, Giuliani's second point is as confusing as the first. Giuliani says he would happily defer not just to Chris Wallace but to any other woman who has "an equally strong view of this" as he does. Yet as Wallace demonstrated at the outset of the interview, it would be hard to find anyone in either gender as indifferent to the subject as Giuliani.
Despite his incredibly bad week, Giuliani still leads national polls. But in the more sophisticated political-futures markets, Giuliani shares are in free fall. Between Thursday and Monday, he dropped from 31 to 27 on Intrade, while McCain jumped from 23.5 to 29.5.
If this is clarity, the Giuliani campaign can't afford much more of it. On Mother's Day, the mayor made clear he is not now nor never will be a woman. Within hours, his stock plunged 5 percent. ... 12:59 P.M. (link)
Friday, May 11, 2007
Multiple Choice: In 1960, JFK went before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association to put the Catholic issue behind him. Today, Rudy Giuliani spoke at Houston Baptist University in yet another attempt to put the abortion issue behind him. JFK wanted to prove that in America, there is no religious test to become president. As he labors to explain his ever-changing heart on choice, Giuliani seems determined to prove that there is no history test, either.
Giuliani is not alone. Mitt Romney doesn't want a religious test or a history test. His about-face on abortion is even less convincing than Giuliani's. Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee, and Tom Tancredo, who don't believe in evolution, want to prove there's no science test. All the Republican candidates are supply-siders, hoping to prove there's still no math test.
As a last resort, Giuliani now wants to turn his abortion stand into a badge of honor. The press will give him credit for setting up a showdown with social conservatives. Today's Times gave the Giuliani campaign the headline they want: "Can the G.O.P. Accept Giuliani's Abortion Stance?" But Giuliani's abortion stance is such a muddle, the issue is not whether a pro-choice candidate can win in a pro-life party. It's whether a campaign predicated on leadership can survive a candidate who has already said he was for Roe before he was against it.
Emily Bazelon made a good case for why voters have a right to judge Giuliani's presidential bid by his disastrous home life. Here's another reason: His presidential bid is rapidly starting to mirror his disastrous home life. Giuliani seems to have the same attitude toward his abortion positions that he has shown toward marriage—who's counting?
The Times offers a helpful interactive timeline of "Giuliani on Abortion." In 1989, he was for public funding. In 1993, he called choice a constitutional right. In 2000, he opposed a ban on late-term abortions. Last month, he divorced himself from his previous stands on public funding and late-term. This month, he sought to annul his position on choice as a constitutional right. Now he's of three minds: Abortion is "morally wrong," women should be able to make their own choice, and so should conservative judges.
Giuliani's decision to buck his party on abortion would be refreshing and courageous, if he hadn't already tried so hard to have it both ways on the issue. He tells conservative audiences not to worry about his pro-choice record because he personally "hates" abortion and will appoint judges like Scalia, Roberts, and Alito. He boasts that during his tenure as mayor, abortions dropped 16 percent—but doesn't mention that abortions nationwide dropped 15 percent over the same period or that New York City still has an abortion rate three times the national average.
The Giuliani campaign trotted out the perfect man to vouch for the mayor's credentials: Steve Forbes, who was pro-choice in his first presidential bid and pro-life in his second. "Thanks to Giuliani's success on welfare reform, where rolls were cut 60%, the abortion rate in New York City fell faster than the national average," Forbes told RealClearPolitics. "Rudy may be pro-choice—and I happen to be pro-life—but the policies he pursued help the pro-life cause."
Welfare reform has done a great deal to promote work, demand responsibility, and reduce poverty, but even ardent proponents like me have trouble crediting it with short-term reductions in abortion. Most conservative welfare reformers had the opposite worry—that a concerted effort to reduce illegitimacy might cause a spike in abortions. During the 1996 welfare reform debate, Senate Republicans rejected House plans to deny benefits to unwed teen mothers and cap benefits for mothers who had additional children on welfare for that very reason—Catholic conservatives feared those provisions would make abortion go up. A plan to reward states for reducing out-of-wedlock births was rewritten to deny the bonus to states where abortion rates increased at the same time. Of course, Giuliani urged Clinton to veto the 1996 welfare reform bill, so don't be surprised if he now claims his moral opposition to abortion as the reason.
Why does the choice issue so often manage to turn grown men into pretzels? Conservative doubts over Giuliani's abortion position were hardly a surprise attack. Yet judging from his halting response so far, the same man who knew just what to do on 9/11 would have been stumped for months if al-Qaida had simply sent him a NARAL questionnaire.
Charles Krauthammer says the fault is with Roe, not Giuliani. But that's letting him off the hook too easily—akin to Giuliani saying, "the court made me do it, and the justices I appoint may or may not undo it." Rich Lowry of the National Review offered a more persuasive explanation of Giuliani's troubles with the issue: "One of the big ironies for him is he doesn't care about abortion." If Giuliani had the courage to say that, we might start to believe him. ... 3:23 P.M. (link)
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
Mood Ring: If malaise, like revenge, is a dish best served cold, the Bush administration is keeping Republicans exceedingly well-fed. In the latest Newsweek poll, the president matched Jimmy Carter's record low with a 28 percent approval rating. It took Richard Nixon a quarter-century to have Seven Crises. For George W. Bush, seven crises is a pretty good week.
Republican presidential candidates are trying their hardest to look on the bright side. At last week's debate at the Reagan Library, the field mentioned optimism more often than bin Laden. Giuliani chanted the word four times—three times in a single answer. Bush's favorite word, resolve, didn't come up once.
Republicans may be right to miss Reagan—not because his policies worked, but because the country has so soured on their party that only an actor could still put on a happy face. That's the role many Republicans have scripted for Fred Thompson. They don't much care what he stands for, provided he can cheer Republicans up.
If that's his goal, Thompson got off to an odd start in an address to Orange County conservatives this weekend. Jonathan Martin, who covers Republicans for the Politico, said Thompson's speech was "low key and at times meandering." Robert Novak, conservatism's biggest grump, called it "a downer." (Ironically, the best part of Thompson's speech was his joke that he'd spent the whole night trying to keep Novak from seeing his notes.)
Far from helping Republicans escape their despair, Thompson couldn't stop reminding them of it. "We've had our ups and our downs," he said, insisting that the party's post-Watergate gloom wasn't as bad as it seemed at the time. He warned that we're "even hearing that old malaise talk we used to hear," then indulged in some, noting that there's "some concern that maybe we're slipping away like all the great powers have."
Thompson echoed another actor-turned-politician by repeatedly borrowing Arnold Schwarzenegger's trademark tic, "and things of that nature." He closed his speech by inadvertently giving a good impression of Reagan's famous "Highway 1" closing statement in the second 1984 debate. In Thompson's rambling story, a group of sixth-graders in North Hollywood asked him why he went into politics. The question made him think back to Washington, Lincoln, the Revolutionary War, and our common heritage. The answer: not clear.
But the award for most surprising performance by an anecdote in a supporting role goes to two other historical cameos in Thompson's speech. In a rare turn for the 2008 Republican campaign trail, Thompson praised Wendell Willkie, the Republican nominee who lost the 1940 election in a landslide but became one of FDR's most important allies.
More remarkably, Thompson went out of his way to stick up for perhaps the greatest wimp of the 20th century: Neville Chamberlain. The Bush administration has spent the last six years trying to tie Democrats to Neville Chamberlain. Don't even ask how he got there, but Thompson was working off a different set of talking points. He didn't defend Chamberlain's record, but he did paraphrase Churchill's eulogy to say, "Neville Chamberlain marched in the ranks of honor."
Perhaps that was Thompson's indirect way of saying something nice about Bush. The next line in Churchill's eulogy fits Bush even better: "It fell to [him] in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man." More likely, Thompson was just making the noble point that compared with politicians today, Churchill was a class act.
In any case, it's a modern political first: Fred Thompson could go down in history as the only presidential candidate in either party to put in a good word for Neville Chamberlain.
Could this be the future of conservatism? Will Republican candidates try to prove they're not the next George W. Bush by leaving open the possibility of being the next Neville Chamberlain?
In 2000, Bush invented compassionate conservatism to distance himself from Newt Gingrich. The GOP's challenge is even greater in 2008, but Thompson may have found the answer: appeasement conservatism. With a Republican Party that loses elections as gracefully as Willkie and loses wars as pre-emptively as Chamberlain, America will forget the Bush presidency ever happened. ... 1:54 P.M. (link)
Thursday, May 3, 2007
Animal Farm: As if the GOP needed any more bad omens, this week the Philadelphia Zoo became the latest to join a national trend—giving up on elephants. Now the press can start looking for the next sign of the Republican apocalypse: gun owners turning in their pickup trucks and riding donkeys to work.
Perhaps because zoos represent the world the way man would have made it, they have long been a leading political indicator. In retrospect, China's seemingly innocent gift of pandas to the United States three decades ago should have been an obvious warning of its desire for global economic hegemony. Last week, we had to beg our Chinese bankers to let a panda cub that was born right here in America stay a couple more years at the National Zoo. When the T-bills come due for our national debt, they may not be so forgiving.
All of Europe seems to have swooned for Knut, an adorable polar bear cub in the Berlin Zoo who has become the German Al Gore: Reports of his death were premature, and he's a constant reminder of the urgency of climate change.
The pachyderm sent packing in Philadelphia is a female called Dulary, which sounds more like the name of a bad Clinton impersonator at right-wing conventions. The elephant's new home is a 2,700-acre sanctuary in Tennessee that for all we know may be Fred Thompson's campaign headquarters.
According to a Humane Society official, "The Elephant Sanctuary represents the future of enlightened captive elephant management"—a concept very much on the minds of every Republican presidential candidate. The Republican field could learn a great deal from the Tennessee program, especially its "non-invasive research on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder." If only the sanctuary had done some nontraumatic research on post-invasion stress disorder.
The sanctuary even has its own YouTube—the Elecam. Experts there believe that the best strategy to revive the ailing captive elephant population is to replace human contact with video teleconferencing. Apparently, the Romney campaign has adopted the same strategy.
Tonight, Republican candidates will gather to debate the GOP's future at the Reagan Library, the ultimate elephant sanctuary. The party is ailing, and the captives are restless. Don't be surprised if the field heeds the words of the Elephant Sanctuary Web site: "Our [elephants] are not required to perform or entertain for the public; instead, they are encouraged to live like elephants." Let Reagan be Reagan! ... 5:05 P.M. (link)
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Wonks in the Palfrey: Something caught my eye when ABC News reported that one of the next clients D.C. madam Deborah Jeane Palfrey will out is the head of a Washington think tank. Perhaps it's the dark secret I've spent years trying to conceal: I'm the head of a Washington think tank.
That's how it is on a dark night in a Think Tank Town that doesn't know how to keep its secrets. Thousands of my fellow propeller heads aren't worried that our names will turn up on Palfrey's list, because our idea of an escort service is the GPS system in our cars.
Palfrey told ABC that the client in question runs a conservative think tank. That takes most of us out of the running, but it begs the question: What does it mean to be a conservative in the sexual-fantasy business?
Until the Bush years, we think-tankers could only dream of being mired in scandal. In high school, nerds don't get sent to the principal's office unless they threaten to blow up the building. Washington is the same way: Wonks get the white papers; hacks get the indictments. Hacks routinely make the gossip pages; wonks can't even make Wonkette. TV crews film hacks taking out their garbage and emerging from federal courtrooms; wonks are the bald spots in the audience at seminars on C-SPAN.
Don't get me wrong—wonks have a rich fantasy life. Only a few go so far as Lynne Cheney, who penned steamy sex scenes as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The rest of our daydreams are more prosaic—like matching budget authority and outlays, or revising the definition of poverty, now hopelessly out of date. When we're feeling especially frisky, wonks close our eyes and imagine the Alternative Minimum Tax being fixed.
President Bush has no use for wonks, and hacks have grabbed the headlines in most Bush scandals. But the sheer volume of scandal in the Bush administration has made it possible for even a few eggheads to get a piece of the action. Paul Wolfowitz used to be a classic Washington academic—dean of a public-policy school and charter member of a neoconservative think tank. But at the World Bank, he has pulled off the rarest of feats—a wonk sex scandal, which is just as you'd expect: a dull morass of committee meetings, personnel classifications, and contracts.
When Claude Allen, Bush's domestic-policy adviser, was arrested last year for refund fraud, Jacob Weisberg wrote that no one should be surprised: "The more we hear about what Allen is accused of, the less it sounds like kleptomania and the more it sounds like an application of Bush economic policy."
Now that a doctrinaire deputy secretary of state, a discredited military theorist, and the head of a conservative think tank have made the madam's list, we shouldn't be shocked, either. The medium is the massage: Over the past six years, the Bush administration has turned conservatism into a booming fantasy business.
Back when Randall Tobias was just a hypocritical ideologue, and not yet a casualty of scandal, a congressman accused the former corporate executive of "tycoonitis." The next name to drop may be a case of think-tank-itis—one implausible fantasy leading to another.
The Bush administration and the Palfrey scandal share the same moral: Be careful what you wish for. Neoconservatism was a thriving, vibrant, ideological movement until Bush actually did what they dreamed of. The supply-side theory that cutting taxes would boost revenues and shrink government was such a perfect fantasy that conservatives can't stand the inconvenient reality that it doesn't work.
Republicans' biggest problem is not that Washington is mired in one scandal after another, or that the Bush administration has become one long letter of resignation. The real problem is that GOP-primary voters keep demanding that candidates indulge the same economic and international fantasies, when Americans have had enough of politics as a fantasy business.
In the clash of civilizations between ideology and thought, reality was destined to emerge the loser. As the ivory towers of politics, think tanks play an unlikely role. Politics is the art of the possible; ivory towers are monuments to the impossible. Mainstream think tanks bridge that gap because the arcane, inertial business of government doesn't lend itself easily to castles in the air.
But if think tanks require a certain suspension of disbelief, ideological think tanks require something more miraculous: the suspension of reality whenever it's at odds with belief. The dreamer looks at the world as it might be and asks, "Why not?" The ideologue looks at the world as it is and says, "No, it's not."
As we've now seen far too often, the result is scandalous. It's bad enough when ideology is a substitute for thought. But when the pressures of reality are too great, ideology becomes something worse: thought's masseuse. ... 2:28 P.M. (link)
Monday, Apr. 23, 2007
Misfire: George H.W. Bush is famous for saying, "Read my lips," but the three words that best captured the way America felt during the first Bush administration were a catch phrase from Dana Carvey—"not gonna happen." The country faced a host of daunting social and economic problems, from rising crime rates to shrinking incomes to deep divisions that burst into view in South Central Los Angeles. But what troubled people most was that no matter how urgent the problem, the answer from Washington was always the same: "not gonna happen."
One Bush later, we find ourselves in the same grim mood today. We face a series of monumental challenges—Iraq, climate change, a vanishing social contract. Such problems would be breathtakingly difficult in any era but seem virtually impossible in this one. Glaciers move faster than our politics, and both are receding.
We have good reason to feel this way. Nothing happened after Hurricane Katrina. Nothing new ever seems to happen in Iraq. Even when something appears to happen, such as last week's decision on abortion, we know better: Nothing's happening when the same issues never go away.
But last week's response to the Virginia Tech tragedy made it official: Not-Gonna-Happen Days are here again. Across the political spectrum, commentators reached the same conclusion. Whatever they think ought to be done to prevent future tragedies, they're unanimous on one point: We're not going to do it.
Even in the ivory towers, where the laws of political gravity don't apply, the dreamers were silent. For its online feature, Think Tank Town, the Washington Post asked a variety of scholars, "How can policies be improved in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings?" All the posts had more or less the same headlines: "The Real Problem Transcends Policy," "Gun Control Doesn't Fit This Crime," "Not Every Tragedy Has a Solution," "Evil Is Always With Us." Another post concluded, "There is not much we can or should do." Another warned not to pass new laws because existing ones might be the culprit. No scholar proposed much of anything on guns.
Granted, most of the scholars in the Post survey come from center-right think tanks and have ideological biases toward doing nothing. But they're not the only ones the Post asked. The center-left think tanks on the Post's list—like Brookings and the Center for American Progress—didn't even bother to show up.
Those of us who work in think tanks are supposed to come up with ideas with little or no chance of passage. Yet in this age of policy ennui, even people who get paid to be hopelessly unrealistic can't suspend disbelief on guns.
I grew up in gun country, and I know what it's like to be strafed by the NRA. I understand why Democrats from red states don't want to risk the next election on an issue of little interest back home. But over the long haul, it is a substantive and political mistake to duck the issue altogether. Guns are a cultural issue but also a crime one—and both parties should have learned over the years that they dodge any crime issue at their peril.
The substantive case for common-sense gun crime and safety measures is clear enough. When Clinton signed the Brady Bill in 1993—after seven years of talk that it would never happen—the NRA said the new law was pointless. In the years since, it has kept handguns out of the hands of tens of thousands of criminals, stalkers, and troubled individuals. If Virginia had properly interpreted the law, it probably would have stopped Cho from buying the guns that wreaked havoc at Virginia Tech.
When the 1994 crime bill banned the manufacture of high-capacity ammunition clips, the NRA once again went ballistic. The bill wasn't as tough as it should have been, because NRA sympathizers in Congress grandfathered existing clips. But the ban kept more clips from flooding the market. The best testimony to its impact is how much gun manufacturers tout that it has lapsed. TopGlock.com offers "new Glock factory magazines that are legal under the repeal of the 1994 Assault Weapons bill." The 15-round clip Cho used with his Glock semiautomatic pistol is on sale for $19.72. TopGlock advertises the clips on a "sunset" page (to mark the law's sunset), which you can access by clicking on the ad for ammunition clips that's just above the tribute to the victims at Virginia Tech.
The political case for not running for cover on guns is equally straightforward. Unlike most politicians, voters are not ideological about crime. They don't care what it takes, they just want it to go down. The Brady Bill and the clip ban passed because the most influential gun owners in America—police officers and sheriffs—were tired of being outgunned by drug lords, madmen, and thugs.
When Democrats ignore the gun issue, they think about the political bullet they're dodging but not about the opportunity they'll miss. In the 1980s, Republicans talked tough on crime and ran ads about Willie Horton but sat on their hands while the crime rate went up. When Bill Clinton promised to try everything to fight crime—with more police officers on the street, and fewer guns—police organizations dropped their support for the GOP and stood behind him instead.
The current political calculus is that guns cost Gore the 2000 election by denying him West Virginia and his home state of Tennessee. This argument might be more convincing if Gore hadn't essentially carried the gun-mad state of Florida. In some states, the gun issue made it more difficult for Gore to bridge the cultural divide but hardly caused it. Four years ago, Gore and Clinton carried those same states with the same position on guns and the memory of the assault-weapons ban much fresher in voters' minds.
Not so long ago, in fact, Republicans were the ones who feared the gun issue. At his first campaign stop en route to the 1996 Democratic convention, Clinton stood with police officers to promise that in his second term, he would expand the Brady Bill to cover people with histories of domestic violence. Republicans in Congress were so afraid guns would hurt them in the suburbs, they sent Clinton the Brady expansion a few weeks later.
In those days, Rudy Giuliani was still in favor of tough gun-crime laws, either because he believed in them as a former prosecutor or because they were wildly popular. Giuliani's politics have changed, but contrary to conventional wisdom, the politics of guns have not. If gun laws were a true third rail, Michael Bloomberg—who wants to be president as much as any candidate in the race—wouldn't be seizing the opening to launch a national crusade around them.
Voters aren't the obstacle to banning high-capacity clips or closing the gun-show loophole; they support those measures by broad margins. The real hurdle is finding leaders who are willing to get tough on crime, no matter where they find it—and who have the standing to prove they know the difference between hunters and criminals. Bill Clinton wasn't a lifelong hunter, like Mitt Romney. He didn't need to be. He was a Bubba.
In recent years, Democrats have suffered a Bubba shortage. But Democratic Bubbas are making a comeback in the South, Midwest, and West. As they gain confidence, they will realize, as Clinton did, that real Bubbas look to cops for approval, not the NRA.
As it happens, one Bubba is in a unique position to lead a hard-headed look at gun laws and gun-crime enforcement: the new senator from Virginia, Jim Webb. Webb is one of the most independent-minded senators in memory and an outspoken man of principle. With an aide who was arrested for bringing a loaded gun into his Senate office, he has an unassailable pro-gun record. Moreover, the state Webb represents is deep in grief over a tragedy that underscores points that both the NRA and gun-control proponents have made—that our gun laws have too many loopholes and that existing laws need to be better enforced. Webb could even lead the effort hand in hand with his Republican colleague, Sen. John Warner, who voted against the assault ban in 1994 but stood with police officers in opposing its repeal in 2004.
A thorough look at gun laws might not lead in predictable ways. But the gun debate desperately needs what Webb and Warner could bring—a preference for independence over ideology, and the moral authority that comes from rejecting the politics of "not gonna happen" in favor of trying to find ways to prevent senseless crimes from happening again. ... 2:25 P.M. (link)
Monday, Apr. 16, 2007
The Gap: While Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama offer Democrats a choice of glass ceilings, George Bush has left Republicans desperate to keep from falling through the glass floor. Making history is not an option when being made history is the party's foremost concern. So while the GOP could nominate its first Mormon or its first big-city mayor, the party seems more intent on finding its second Reagan.
For that role, Fred Thompson seems a casting director's dream. Like Reagan, he softens his conservatism with a dose of practiced charm. Republican strategists think he's the perfect combination – a man's man with the Q Score to appeal as well to women.
The gender gap is often seen as a Democratic strength: More women vote, and women tend to like Democrats better. In practice, it takes two to tango. Democrats did well in 2006 by winning back men; Bush won in 2004 by cutting his losses among women.
So far, Republican hopefuls are having a tough time with gender balance. McCain is a guy's guy, standing up for a war that most women oppose. Giuliani has women's clothes and a comb-over. Romney has a gap with both genders: Women think he's the next Thomas E. Dewey, the little man on the wedding cake; men think he's proof we were right never to trust The Dry Look.
For such a confused party, Fred Thompson seems like a knight in shining loafers. Not only can he play the tough guy in Tom Clancy movies, he's the affable D.A. on "Law & Order" – the show Michael Kinsley famously called "The Secret Vice of Power Women."
Conservatives pushing Thompson's candidacy routinely tout his crossover appeal. In a glowing column last month, former Wall Street Journal editorial editor John Fund wrote, "Fan blogs for 'Law and Order' note that since the show is especially popular among women, a Thompson race could help close the GOP's 'gender gap.'"
The "Law & Order" vote is more contested than you might think. If Michael Bloomberg doesn't run, Thompson's co-star Sam Waterston could win the nomination for the independent Unity08 ticket. Waterston's predecessor, Michael Moriarty, says he is running for president as a Libertarian. Since Jerry Orbach is dead, Democrats would be lucky to get S. Epatha Merkerson or Benjamin Bratt.
Of course, Republicans haven't considered the dark side of a Thompson run. Under the fairness doctrine, whenever one of Thompson's movies or shows airs on television, stations will have to grant opponents equal time. The result: no more "Law & Order" reruns with Fred Thompson. In fact, with so many past and present cast members in the race, even a show as prolific as "Law & Order" could be driven out of syndication altogether. If that happens, the Power Women backlash could destroy Republican prospects for decades.
The show itself isn't doing so hot, either. For its 17th season, L&O was moved to its worst slot – Fridays – and saw ratings plummet. Republicans who think Thompson is coming to the GOP's rescue might look again: He may be jumping from one sinking ship to another.
But those aren't the only risks Republicans run with Thompson. The real problem with choosing Fred Thompson to lead the GOP across the gender gap is more profound: Even Republican women don't seem to like him.
In two recent polls, Thompson has a gender gap, all right, but in the wrong direction. He does OK with men, but is trailing badly with women. In last week's Los Angeles Times poll, he's running first among religious conservatives, a strong second among men, and a poor third – 20 points behind frontrunner Giuliani – among women. In a Zogby poll, Thompson did twice as well among men as among women. At only 6% among women, he was at the back of the pack, tied with Ron Paul.
From Mike Kinsley to John Fund, pundits agree that women love "Law & Order." But the polls also seem to agree that women don't love Thompson. In other words, the gender-gap argument for his candidacy has it backwards: Fred Thompson does worst among those who know him best – women.
Five years ago, when he broke the story of women's obsession with the show, Kinsley noted that his wife had no interest in watching current episodes:
She couldn't tell you what night it's on and has no view about what this country is coming to when a man like Fred Thompson can be plucked from the obscurity of the United States Senate and entrusted with the responsibility of running the prosecutor's office on Law & Order.
Kinsley was right about Thompson, but wasn't giving his wise and powerful wife enough credit. She was so far ahead of the curve, she was skipping the Thompson episodes on purpose. Never underestimate the power of Power Women, as Fred Thompson is about to find out. ... 5:02 P.M. (link)
Monday, Apr. 9, 2007
Cherchez Lapin:From missile defense to concealed weapons, Republicans have long sold themselves as the party to turn to for security. Mitt Romney is no exception. During a telephone question-and-answer session in Iowa last week, one caller told Romney, "You sound like a guy who sells home security systems."
Every presidential candidate is a traveling salesman, but Romney's rootlessness makes him more Willy Loman-esque than others. Last week, his sales prowess and slickness were both on display: He raised more money than any other Republican, then promptly bought himself seven figures' worth of bad publicity by overselling his hunting past.
Romney is a nomadic creature, so his past is an elusive prey. To find out whether he'd ever applied for a hunting license, the Associated Press had to ask officials in four states: Michigan (where he grew up), Massachusetts (where he went to graduate school and served as governor), Utah (where he went to college, ran an Olympics, and owns a ski home), and New Hampshire (where he is running for president and owns a lake house).
The nationwide hunt came up empty: Romney didn't apply for any hunting licenses, and not one of his vacation homes is a hunting lodge.
Indeed, to repair his image with gun lovers on the right, Romney might want to promise that he will never let hunting in America go the way of hunting in France. Not only are licenses required, but it takes weeks—and 225 Euros—for a foreigner to get one. Predictably, one French hunting Web site warns Americans: "War or defense weapons forbidden."
Like the British, the French used to hunt rabbits with ferrets. Today, the award-winning rabbit chaser is the Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen. The one problem for Romney: The Petit Basset's small stature, long ears, and furry coat run the risk that a novice hunter might not be able to tell dog and bunny apart.
Le Club de Griffon Vendeen says that for a long time, Petit Bassets were "semi-crooked," but are now "naturally endowed with all moral qualities which presuppose the passion for hunting." These days, Romney would kill for a review like that.
The honest excuse for not hunting rabbit since he was a teenager is that Romney was too busy running for president. Obviously, he didn't realize that the worlds of rabbit-hunting and vote-hunting have more in common than one might think. The home page of the American Rabbit Hound Association reads like every political journalist's analysis of the 2008 presidential race. The ARHA divides competitive hounds into four categories: "Big Pack," "Little Pack," "Gun Dogs," and "Progressive Pack." Romney's no Gun Dog—he's running with the Big Pack of McCain and Giuliani, in hopes of facing whichever competitor emerges from the Democrats' Progressive Pack.
This weekend, the Little Pack showed that when there's blood on the trail, hounds in the Big Pack had better watch their backs. Little Pack member Mike Huckabee, desperate to escape the beta male rut, contrasted Romney's gun pander with what he termed Giuliani's "real gutsy move" to defend public funding for abortion. In truth, Huckabee was shooting with both barrels, implying that Romney's a liar and Giuliani a principled liberal.
When Romney was a little boy, he must have seen the Warner Brothers classic, Duck! Rabbit! Duck!, in which Daffy Duck writes Elmer Fudd a license to shoot rabbit, and Bugs Bunny gives him license to shoot everything else. The cartoon was the second in a trilogy that began with Rabbit Seasoning and ended with Rabbit Fire. It's easy to see why Duck! Rabbit! Duck! might have made the biggest impression on Romney, if not some of his future rivals: According to Answers.com, "This is the only cartoon in the trilogy where Bugs Bunny does not crossdress."
On Friday, Romney tried to defend himself by comparing himself to another itinerant millionaire, Jed Clampett, who struck oil when he shot the ground. But to get back on track, Romney needs to look for modern inspiration. A fellow Has-Been recommends this YouTube clip. Like Romney himself, the video may not be endowed with a French hound's moral qualities, but the passion for hunting is never in doubt. ... 4:44 P.M. (link)
Friday, Apr. 6, 2007
Disarmament: If you had to pick the issue most responsible for the two most consequential Republican victories of the last two decades—1994 and 2000—it might well be guns. In 1994, many Democrats lost their seats for supporting an assault weapons ban. In the 2000 primaries, Bill Bradley made gun control a central issue, and Al Gore paid the price that fall: The gun-owning half of the electorate supported Bush 61-39; households without guns went for Gore 58-39.
Although Democrats shied away from the gun issue in 2004, it still cost them. Twelve days before the election, John Kerry went goose hunting in Ohio, which the press dismissed as a desperate photo op. The same day, Dick Cheney called Kerry's new camouflage jacket "an October disguise" and told Ohio voters that "the Second Amendment is more than just a photo opportunity." Ohio gave Republicans the election—and Harry Whittington learned Cheney was willing to put his muzzle where his mouth was.
In 2008, Republicans may finally run out of ammo. By electing a Republican administration that once promised it a desk in the Oval Office, the NRA took guns off the agenda—which also made the group's scare tactics less credible than ever. During their time in the Senate, the Democratic front-runners have cast precious few votes on gun issues.
Meanwhile, the sharp drop in violent crime in the last decade and the absence of a Washington gun debate in this one have largely taken gun policy off the front pages. Of late, the courts are the only ones making gun headlines. If the Supreme Court eventually agrees with the D.C. Circuit that Washington's handgun ban is unconstitutional, the NRA might win the battle but lose the war. It could become a lot harder to block crime-fighting measures like closing the gun show loophole if the NRA can no longer convince anyone that the Second Amendment is under siege.
But Republicans' biggest problem in making this a wedge issue in 2008 is that when it comes to guns, their likely nominees are not as in-your-face as Cheney. John McCain has spent his life around guns but has worked valiantly to try to stop criminal purchases at gun shows. In 1994, Rudy Giuliani bravely spoke out in favor of the assault weapons ban. So far, he hasn't changed his story to claim it was part of a secret plan to elect a Republican Congress.
This week, Mitt Romney may have cooked his own goose by insisting that going hunting twice in his life makes him a "lifelong hunter." If Romney believes that, there's a camouflage jacket in Ohio that John Kerry would like to sell him.
Romney's two hunting trips were 44 years apart—with cousins in Idaho at age 15, and with Republican governors last year at 59. At that pace, his aim must already be pretty bad now— but stay away from his next outing at age 103.
His campaign made matters worse by touting Romney's NRA membership. It turns out he has been a lifelong member since he joined last year.
Like so many hunting stories, Romney's keeps getting better. Yesterday, he told Republicans in Indianapolis that he has gone hunting on other occasions, just not for big game. "I'm not a big-game hunter," the Indianapolis Star quoted him saying. "I've always been a rodent and rabbit hunter. ... Small animals and varmints."
No wonder conservatives feel bagged and plucked. Suddenly, conservatism has lost its mojo, and its license.
A year ago, Dick Cheney didn't let a few quail stop him from hunting the biggest game possible, a 78-year-old lawyer. Ronald Reagan wasn't elected because America was haunted by the portrayal of its impotence in a movie called The Rabbit Hunter.
In the old days, Republican presidents lived to go after big game, not ground squirrels. Reagan had the Soviet bear. Both Bushes had Saddam Hussein. America fell in love with teddy bears because a cub was the first big game Teddy Roosevelt didn't kill.
Those days are gone. The United States may face great challenges ahead, from energy independence to competing with India and China to winning the war on terror. But if Romney is any indication, the future of conservatism is limited to shooting BBs at varmints.
For years, the NRA has told its members to vote Republican, or the Democrat will take their guns away. Twice-in-a-lifetime Romney gives Democrats a once-in-a-lifetime chance to fire back: At least our nominee will never brag about hunting rodents. ... 2:22 P.M. (link)
Wednesday, Apr. 4, 2007
I Dream of Genie: When Steve Forbes endorsed him last Wednesday, Rudy Giuliani appeared to return the favor by dropping his longtime opposition to a flat tax and embracing Forbes' pet idea. As the New York Times reported, Giuliani said that if there were no federal income tax, "maybe I'd suggest not doing it at all, but if we were going to do it, a flat tax would make a lot of sense." It looked like a pawn-for-pawn swap, one dubious cause deserving another.
Everyone knew Giuliani's supply-side stance was a head fake meant to fool social conservatives. "We're going to talk for a long time about the ways we plan to reduce taxes," Giuliani told Iowans on Tuesday. As he explained to the Des Moines Register, "That's a way of appealing to Republicans who may have somewhat different views on social issues."
But now it turns out that Giuliani was conning Forbes as well. As Jason Horowitz blogs in the New York Observer, Giuliani said this weekend that he was just kidding about the flat tax:
"I didn't favor it, I said something academic," Giuliani said at a press conference in Florida on Saturday, in response to a reporter asking him why he had switched from opposing a flat tax to favoring it. "What I said was, and it was not a joke, but it was half-jocular, was if we didn't have an income tax...what would I favor?
"First I would favor no tax," he said laughing and turning to his wife Judith, who duly smiled back. "That would be my first position. My second position would probably be a flat tax."
But, he said, the tax "would probably not be feasible."
As an economic conservative who spent his last campaign professing to be a social conservative, Forbes is no stranger to head fakes. But Giuliani just taught him a lesson in kabuki conservatism: Always get it in writing!
Every campaign has its share of flip-flops and the occasional flip-flop-flip. Giuliani has invented a new form—the Flip-Flop-Flat.
Instead of retracting his previous statement, the former prosecutor introduced a new loophole for his defense, explaining his comments as "academic." Giuliani wasn't endorsing a flat tax in reality; he was endorsing it in theory—which, serendipitously, is the only place a flat tax might work. The risk is that a rival campaign will launch a 10-second attack ad of Giuliani mouthing words that would strike fear in the hearts of conservatives everywhere: "I said something academic."
But Giuliani didn't stop there. His flip-flop then went where no Romney has gone before, into a parallel universe where political gravity does not apply. Lawyers call it "arguing in the alternative"—making a second and seemingly contradictory argument, in case judge and jury don't buy the first. As an example of this kind of reasoning, Wikipedia cites Bart Simpson: "I didn't do it, no one saw me do it, you can't prove anything!"
Romney has learned the hard way that flip-flopping is a messy business, because the flip-flopper has to make up an excuse for changing his mind, when everyone knows the real reason is politics. Arguing in the alternative is flip-flopping without the flap. Giuliani claims he wasn't actually embracing a flat tax; he was saying that if there were no federal income tax, he might embrace it.
Giuliani uncorks a political genie: With his first wish, he would get rid of the income tax. His second wish would be for a flat tax. And since neither of those is feasible, his third wish is that we forget his first two.
A conventional flip-flopper is limited to two positions: his old one and his new one. Giuliani seems to be a political polytheist, who thinks a man can have as many positions as he wants. He even refers to them that way, as "my first position" and "my second position." Then there is his third and current position, which does not smile upon the other two.
Perhaps to distinguish himself from the other two Republican front-runners, Giuliani has found a third way between flip-flopping and straight talk. He calls it half-jocularity. That's not a bad description. He wasn't joking (which is why nobody else laughed), but he didn't mean it (which is why nobody believed him).
In a way, the episode sums up the apparent strategy of his campaign. When Giuliani pays lip service to supply-side economics but not social conservatism, he's trying to convince the right that half a joke is better than none. ... 4:35 P.M. (link)
Friday, Mar. 30, 2007
Always Look on the Supply Side of Life: No matter what else comes out about Rudy Giuliani's three marriages, it's hard to imagine a stranger union than the one he announced this week, with multimillionaire conservative presidential wannabe Steve Forbes.
Giuliani has dressed in drag before—nothing wrong with that!—but this may be the most ill-fitting set of clothes he has donned in a long time. Giuliani grew up in Brooklyn and on Long Island; Forbes is from the landed class in New Jersey. Forbes gave $37 million of his own money to his first campaign; Giuliani kept pocketing $100,000 speaking fees even after launching his exploratory committee. Giuliani married his third wife three years ago; Forbes has been married to the same woman for 35 years.
The two men are cut from different policy cloth as well. As mayor of New York, Giuliani built a reputation for trying ideas that worked, like cutting crime through better policing. As a magazine publisher and presidential candidate, Steve Forbes did the opposite—championing ideas that fail, like supply-side economics.
Like Forbes, Giuliani is a one-note candidate—but they're completely different notes. The Onion teased Giuliani for running for president of Sept. 11; Forbes ran for president of April 15, the national day of remembrance for taxes.
As a candidate, Forbes had one idée fixe—the flat tax. Over the years, that has been his economic policy, his social policy, and, at times, his foreign policy. Steve Forbes viewed the flat tax the way George W. Bush views Iraq: You're either for it or against me.
Until this week, Giuliani was one of the flat tax's most outspoken Republican opponents. Back in 1996, as the New York Times pointed out yesterday, Giuliani took to the airwaves to attack the Forbes flat tax as "a disaster." This week, Giuliani stood alongside Forbes and offered up a reverse double pander, declaring that he'd rather not have a federal income tax at all, but if we must have one, it ought to be a flat tax.
Giuliani didn't even try to hide the motives behind his strange, new arranged marriage. In conjunction with the Forbes endorsement, his campaign started running ads on conservative talk radio touting his support for "supply-side policies." He told Larry Kudlow, "I regard myself as a supply-sider for sure."
Never mind that in eight years, Giuliani's supply-side revolution managed to reduce the top personal income tax rate in New York City by nine-tenths of 1 percent. The campaign's theory is obvious: Giuliani can't win the nomination as a social liberal, and Mitt Romney is already running as the social flip-flopper. So, Hizzoner will run as an economic flip-flopper instead.
The trouble with this theory is that even Steve Forbes doesn't believe in it. In 1996, Forbes ran a campaign like Giuliani's—as a pro-choice supply-sider. He lost everywhere but Delaware and Arizona. When he ran the next time, Forbes turned himself into such a pro-life enthusiast he accused Bush of hedging on whether abortion would be a litmus test for judges and his running mate. (He lost again, anyway.)
Forbes writes in the Wall Street Journal that he supports Giuliani because he's the "real fiscal conservative" in the race and "will inspire the next generation of the Reagan Revolution." Of course, if Giuliani is as much of a supply-sider as Reagan was a fiscal conservative, he'll triple personal income taxes the way Reagan nearly tripled the national debt.
As they suffer through one of the most unpopular presidencies of all time, it's easy to understand why Republicans long for the days of Reagan, who won successive landslides. But supply-side alchemy isn't what conservatives miss about the '80s; if anything, Bush has outdone Reagan in that regard. What Republicans really miss is the Mr. Magoo spirit of the Reagan years, when America was made of Teflon instead of Velcro, and no amount of ideological bad driving could crash us in the ditch.
Steve Forbes is proof that Magoo-like vision doesn't always bring Magoo-like results. In any case, waiting for Magoo won't bring back America's Teflon. Neither will always looking on the supply side of life.
If Republicans want to restore strength to the presidency, they need to speak honestly and forcefully about how to restore strength to the country, not pretend that the Laffer Curve will suddenly start to work the third time around. It was easy to mock Giuliani for running to be president of 9/11. But that made more sense than what he's doing now—running for president of 1981. ... 8:25 P.M. (link)
Rackets:Giuliani's new friend Steve Forbes is harmless compared to old ones like Bernard Kerik. His campaign's new pander to conservative talk-radio: Giuliani Partners tried to keep the government from restricting sales of OxyContin.
Brackets: The Florida Senate was planning to move the state's presidential primary from the second week of March to the first Tuesday in February – Super Tuesday – joining California and other states afraid that by the time their residents vote, the race will already be over. But last week, the Florida House voted to move the primary to the last Tuesday in January. The reason: so many primaries are moving to Super Tuesday, even a big state like Florida might not make a splash.
Now other Super Tuesday states feel betrayed by Florida's defection, and may jump ahead as well. New Hampshire officials, angry that caucus goers now get to go first in Nevada as well as Iowa, have threatened to jump ahead of everyone else. When the Democratic National Committee set out to "fix" the calendar, it offered states bonus delegates to hold their primaries in late spring. Instead, if this game of leapfrog continues, primary votes and caucus goers may pick the nominees by New Years.
For now, the jockeying among big states suggests that if Iowa and New Hampshire haven't already determined the winner, Florida and California may be the 1-2 punch that does. In an eerie coincidence, that's exactly what will decide the winner of the GOP's NCAA pool. Going into last weekend, Rudy Giuliani led John McCain by nearly 3-1. But victories by UCLA and Georgetown vaulted McCain back into contention, and he now trails Giuliani by just 860 to 840 – 65.8% to 60.2%. The race for Republican bragging rights could come down to tonight's semifinal between UCLA and Florida. McCain has UCLA to win the title, so if the Bruins make the final, he'll pass Giuliani once and for all.
When the tourney started, we took McCain to task for brackets that seemed hopelessly conservative. His picks turned out better than history would suggest – guessing right on seven of his Elite Eight. As the Washington Post noted this morning, this year's tourney had the fewest upsets since seeding of 64 began in 1985. Last year saw 11 upsets; this year, only three.
But by rewriting McCain's brackets to make him pick all the second seeds, Slate kept alive his chance to win it all. Without Slate's intervention, McCain would be done scoring by now, saddled with North Carolina and Kansas in Monday's championship game. Instead, a win tonight by No. 2 UCLA or No. 2 Georgetown will hand McCain the crown. The only way to avoid the curse of the frontrunner is to bet on the underdog now and then. ... 9:59 A.M. (link)
Thursday, Mar. 22, 2007
Sweet and Sour 16: If you got knocked out of the running in your office pool last weekend because you picked a few upsets, now you know what 2008 will be like for most presidential candidates. March Madness lasts three weeks and will be over the first Monday in April. In the 2008 presidential primaries, January Madness will last three weeks and be over the first Tuesday in February.
Like everything else in life, the presidential race is just another set of brackets. But before you start betting your fortune on political futures, you might want to check how well long shots are faring against the odds.
Last week, I filled out NCAA brackets for the Republican candidates, based on the particular strategies they've chosen for their campaigns. What does this have to do with their actual prospects? Nothing! But then, neither does most coverage of the presidential race you'll be forced to read this year. Even so, one weekend of basketball proved what all those dark horses will spend the next nine months traipsing through Iowa to learn: If you're one of the bottom seeds when the tournament begins, you probably won't still be around when it ends.
So far, this year's NCAA tourney has been a front-runner's paradise. If you picked the favorite to win every game, you're in the upper quarter of the millions who've entered the NCAA pool at ESPN.com. If you picked every underdog, you can stop checking—your Cinderella run is over.
Long shots Duncan Hunter and Ron Paul went against the grain on every pick and had all four No. 16 seeds reaching the Final Four. They guessed just five of the first 32 games correctly, and even those 5 upset winners lost in the next round. Out of a possible 1680 points, their bracket will end up with just 50. If ESPN had a leaderboard for losers, Hunter and Paul would be virtually guaranteed to finish with the worst bracket in the country.
The superfecta entry of also-rans—Brownback, Huckabee, Gilmore, and Thompson—followed the home-state version of the same uphill strategy, picking their local underdogs to go all the way. Thanks to Brownback's Kansas Jayhawks, this entry still has one team left in its Final Four, but that's their only team still standing. The other three candidates' home teams have all gone home empty-handed. Favorite son, favorite loser: Their ESPN rank matches their standing in national polls—in the bottom two-tenths of 1 percent.
Along with Brownback, the second-tier candidate with the clearest niche might be Tom Tancredo, whose fervent opposition to immigration strikes a chord with many conservatives. Apparently, top basketball players don't choose colleges the way Tancredo did—the farther from the Mexican border, the better. All the congressman's finalists bowed out in the first round. Tancredo's bracket would be doing better if his campaign were based on fear of illegal immigrants from Canada. For now, his ESPN ranking is stuck in the bottom six-tenths of 1 percent.
No matter how much the second tier stumbles, however, the front-runners can't seem to put this race away. John McCain's bracket hardly lit up the scoreboard this weekend, although he's in good shape to soldier on in later rounds. I thought that by picking all the No. 1 seeds to make the Final Four, he was being too conservative, so I gave him all the No. 12 seeds in the opening round and a Final Four of No. 2 seeds instead. So far, it looks like I was wrong—he wasn't being conservative enough. All four No. 12 seeds lost, all four top seeds survived, and one second-seed (Wisconsin) tumbled. Most of the few upsets McCain picked let him down—Georgia Tech didn't beat UNLV, Gonzaga lost to Indiana, Duke failed to make the Sweet 16 by losing the opener to VCU. As a result, McCain's ESPN rating matches his last showing in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll: 24 percent.
Rudy Giuliani, the runaway early front-runner in the polls, is also the runaway early leader in the brackets. He picked every favorite except Texas Tech and landed at 69 percent in the ESPN rankings. But his current lead is far more vulnerable than it looks. If No. 2 seeds make a comeback this weekend, McCain will pass Giuliani, and Rudy may be looking to make a deal with Brownback.
The wild card in the race, as always, is the elusive Mitt Romney. By any objective standard, Romney's campaign is off to a shaky start—and his brackets are no exception. His dream final—Boston College vs. BYU—didn't make it through the first weekend.
But there's one reason not to count Romney out: He's still revising his picks! His campaign wonders how anyone could jump to the conclusion that Romney would have chosen BYU, his alma mater, over Xavier, a Catholic school from a swing state. Of course, he was for Xavier all along. And far from picking Boston College for the Final Four, Romney insists he spent his entire governorship in Massachusetts trying to ban same-sex sports.
After a great deal of soul-searching that helped clarify his lifelong support for intelligent design, Romney now has Kansas beating Tennessee for the title. His campaign warns that may not be the last word. In matters of conscience, it always pays to check the final score. ... 9:59 A.M. (link)
Wednesday, Mar. 14, 2007
The Road to Minneapolis: You can't blame John McCain for trying to have a little fun on the campaign trail. This week, his campaign Web site focused in on an issue voters across the spectrum care about: March Madness. If you're bored with your office pool or have used up all your picks at ESPN, the McCain site offers another outlet for your predictions. In return for your e-mail address, you can go bracket-to-bracket with John McCain. The winner gets a McCain fleece.
Politicians usually go to great lengths to avoid picking sides in sporting events, unless their home team is involved. If the 2008 World Series comes down to two swing-state teams like Minnesota and Florida, neither nominee is likely to use the presidential debates to predict a Twins or Marlins sweep. So, give McCain some credit for putting his picks on the table.
What does McCain's bracket tell us about the campaign he's running? It would be hard to come up with more conservative picks. McCain has all four No. 1 seeds going to the Final Four. That's never happened in NCAA history, and it's a classic front-runner strategy sure to lose the office pool. His longest shot in the Elite Eight is a third seed, Washington State; the rest are first or second seeds. The Arizona senator doesn't even choose his home-state Wildcats to knock off top-seeded Florida. Straight talk, or a savvy play for Florida's Super Tuesday primary? You make the call.
McCain's picks aren't crazy. Of his few upsets, some are good bets, like thuggish Duke over traditional underperformer Pittsburgh. His biggest sleeper, Washington State, is a favorite of sportwriters, too. The biggest risk in McCain's bracket is that he doesn't take more such risks. He needs more gambles like the two he makes (along with Duke) for the Sweet 16: Louisville over Texas A&M and Southern Cal over Texas. The second is gutsier than the first, but along with the first-round departures he foresees for Texas Tech, North Texas, and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, those picks share a common, endearing bias reminiscent of McCain's 2000 campaign: Always mess with Texas.
Of course, it's always possible McCain made safe picks not because he's conservative but because he's just being polite. When you invite thousands of supporters to take part in a friendly contest, the sporting thing is to let your guests win. Nobody likes a candidate who can't handle losing a bet with his own friends, which may explain why you won't be able to go head-to-head with Rudy Giuliani's brackets anytime soon. McCain's top-seed-heavy bracket is perfectly designed to avoid the rudeness of trouncing his guests as well as the political embarrassment of finishing dead last.
Here at Slate, we want candidates to take more risks, and we don't think John McCain should have to take these risks alone. So, as a special service to demoralized conservatives, we've filled out brackets for all McCain's Republican challengers, in a manner that's consistent with the overall strategy of their campaigns. We've also filled out the bracket McCain should have picked, if he weren't playing it safe. Since we're not allowed to make campaign contributions, the prize for the winning campaign will be one they either don't need or won't accept: a McCain fleece.
Here are the entries, in reverse order of candidate seedings:
Ron Paul/Duncan Hunter: These two are the play-in game of the Republican primaries. One will survive just long enough to get whomped by the fron-trunner. Their joint strategy: Pick every No. 16 seed, and pick the winner of the play-in game to win it all. Based on a coin flip, we assigned Niagara to Paul and Florida A&M to Hunter. News flash: Duncan Hunter has already lost.
Tom Tancredo: For most dark horses, the strategy is to pick every long shot. But as the anti-immigration candidate, Tancredo takes a single-issue approach. In every matchup, he picks the team farthest from the Mexican border. Like Tancredo's campaign, an Albany-Gonzaga final isn't likely. But at least he'll improve his chance to be McCain's running mate by nixing every school from Texas.
Sam Brownback/Mike Huckabee/Tommy Thompson/Jim Gilmore: At this stage, it's hard to tell these four candidates apart. Besides, we don't have time to flesh out the obvious, if uphill, Huckabee strategy—always choose the skinnier team. So, we lumped them together in one entry, with a Final Four made up of the top team from each candidate's home state: Kansas, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Virginia. No 12th-seed like Arkansas has ever made the Final Four. Still, these four amigos still have a better chance of winning the pool than the nomination.
Newt Gingrich/Fred Thompson/Chuck Hagel/Jeb Bush: Won't make the Thursday deadline. March Madness is like anything else: You must be entered to win.
Mitt Romney: It's a good thing we just saved an entry. On this issue, like every other, the Romney campaign will want two. That wouldn't be fair, so we've filled out Mitt's brackets by hand. The teams he has winning the first round go on to lose in the second, then miraculously come back to win in the Sweet 16, only to lose in the Elite Eight and make the Final Four. He takes Boston College over Brigham Young in one semifinal, then changes his mind and has BYU beating BC in quadruple-overtime in the final.
John McCain: If Romney's slogan is the same as Ernie Banks' ("Let's play two!"), McCain's ought to be the same as Avis: "We're No. 2—we try harder." We let him keep most of his picks but gave him every No. 12 seed in the first round and sent every second seed—not first—to the Final Four. He'll thank us when UCLA beats Georgetown for the championship.
Rudy Giuliani: As the current front-runner, Giuliani—not McCain—should be the one picking every top seed. We assigned him the favorite in every contest, but to put his odds of winning the contest in line with his chances of capturing the nomination, we made exception for his temperament. He's sure to win—provided Bobby Knight and Texas Tech take the title. Every NCAA tournament has its Cinderella story, and every Cinderella has an evil stepmother who doesn't show up at her graduation. ... 4:46 P.M. (link)
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.
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.
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."
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his disclosure here.
Photographs of: Mitt Romney on Slate's home page by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images; Hillary Clinton on Slate's home page by Joe Raedle/Getty Images; man with a pizza box on Slate's home page by Digital Vision/Getty Images; George Bush on Slate's home page by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images; power station on Slate's home page by Digital Vision; the Eiffel Tower on Slate's home page by Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images; Karl Rove on Slate's home page by David McNew/Getty Images; Nancy Pelosi on Slate's home page by Chuck Kennedy/MCT; Bill Sali on the Slate home page courtesy http://sali.house.gov/.