Monday, September 26, 2011

The Turn-Around Kid?

As the presidential debate season continues, it is becoming clearer that Governor Rick Perry’s sudden rise in the polls after the Iowa Straw Poll has been a “bubble.” Once again, former Governor Mitt Romney seems about to take the lead in the polls, even as he already leads in many vital state polls. More importantly, he has seemed strong in the debate confrontations with Mr. Perry, and maintained the stage presence of someone in charge. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who herself enjoyed a brief “bubble” rise in the polls lading up to her win of the Iowa Straw Poll, has faded not only in public opinion surveys, but in the public policy arena as well. The departure of Ed Rollins from an active role in her campaign was an ominous sign.

The debates have also produced two other winners. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich continues to be the most impressive GOP debater, producing some of the warmest and most positive responses from debate live audiences. His reputation as the brightest candidate has been reinforced, but his desire to be “the comeback kid of 2012? is hindered by earlier campaign mistakes, weak campaign funding, and a bias (unfounded) that he is either too old or a figure from the past. Herman Cain has injected a vivid personality into the debates, and his business experience has enabled him to make many cogent comments that do not have the usual “political” veneer. But Mr. Cain has a small campaign organization and little money to transform his positive debate persona into a major candidacy.

One more time, we hear rumors of former Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska or current Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey entering the contest, but it is late in the game. It might be possible, as I have suggested, for Mr. Christie to become a force in the campaign, provided he had the campaign funds and the time to spend introducing himself to voters nationally, but time is running out as we approach the Iowa caucus early next year, and the end of the most important part of the debate season.

This leaves us with the perception that Mr. Romney is beginning to pull away for the nomination. Of course, until we have actual voter results in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and Florida, any judgment remains speculative. But the fact remains that Mr. Romney has so far seemed to run an almost flawless early campaign. Even in 2008, when he was the runner-up to John McCain, Mr. Romney looked the part, but now in 2011, he more and more sounds the part. He has handled the challenges of Mrs. Bachmann and Mr. Perry with self-confidence and aplomb. He is very well-funded, and so far is easily winning the contest of endorsements from Republican officials across the nation. His rivals, when they challenged him in the debates, have found him to be a quick and tough opponent.

So what are the Mr Romney’s real drawbacks at the stage of the nominating campaign? They appear to be the same drawbacks that plagued him in 2008, and at the outset of the 2012 campaign. His seemingly more moderate record as governor of Massachusetts has not excited the increasingly conservative (and Tea Party) Republican base. But that base produced the Bachmann and Perry “bubbles,” and most Republicans of all political stripes seem to place the highest priority in defeating President Obama’s re-election. Mr. Romney’s Mormon religion has often been cited as a political problem, especially in the South, but again, most conservatives are unlikely to vote for Mr. Obama over Mr. Romney. Then there is danger that if Mr. Romney were nominated, a third party conservative would run and dilute his vote. The dilution, in that case, might happen, but the result would be the re-election of Barack Obama, a result few if any conservatives want. Finally, some consider Mr. Romney’s long business experience to be primarily limited to “turnaround ” situations, and not to the general management of government.

This latter criticism could be, however, Mr. Romney’ greatest strength. As the United States economy continue to sink, as unemployment remains high and chronic, as American power and influence continues to wane around the world, it might seem that a “turn-around” expert is just what the country needs.

In January, 1992, Governor Bill Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic nomination seemed stalled. He had been the frontrunner, but many in his party thought he had too many political drawbacks to successfully challenge incumbent President George H.W. Bush. After the New Hampshire primary, however, Mr. Clinton asserted he was the “comeback kid,” and the rest in history.

If indeed Mr. Romney holds off the challenge of Mr. Perry, after doing the same to Mrs. Bachmann’s challenge, he would have made his own comeback. Much would take place between then and election day, and anything can happen, but as matters are going now, there may be a powerful appeal that could be made for a leader in 2012 who would turn America’s problems around.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Be Careful About What Is Predicted

The old cliche of “Be careful what you wish for” has a corollary: “Be careful about what is predicted.” Last January I made the astonishing, almost reckless-appearing prediction that President Obama might not run for re-election. This was greeted by, shall we say, extreme skepticism from both Democrats and Republicans who perhaps thought I had drunk some hallucinatory drug-infused punch while attending a tea party. Now, nine months later, my prediction not only seems credible, it is growing more and more probable by the day. After the “impossible” upset of a Jewish Democrat in a special election in NY-9, a district which had not elected a Republican since 1920, Democrats across the nation are seeing the prospects of an historic landslide defeat in 2012 if Barack Obama is at the head of the ticket. Liberal editorialists are now calling for him to withdraw. Many in the media who had been infatuated with him, are now openly criticizing the president. His poll numbers are sinking to the lows for his presidency. The pressure is mounting for him to call it quits after one term.

Most Republicans and conservatives, for whom the Obama presidency has been a nightmare, are encouraged by this turn of events (although no one, on the right or the left, should feel good about the nation’s domestic and international decline).

I would suggest, however, that if Mr. Obama does indeed withdraw from running for re-election in 2012, the prospects for Republicans might not seem so hopeful as they might seem now. This is because the Democrats would be given the opportunity to nominate a “fresh face” who is not beholden to the Obama administration’s failures and woes, and might yet snatch victory in 2012 from a likely defeat.

Of course, early polls have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leading the list of possible 2012 Democratic candidates, followed by Vice President Joe Biden. It is almost pure name recognition, and tells us little about what might happen if there were a contest. Most observers might also fall into the trap of predicting Mrs. Clinton’s nomination. I would suggest that she, like Mr. Biden, would have to defend the Obama record, especially since he would still be president during the entire presidential campaign. As Hubert Humphrey learned in 1968, that can be a toxic situation. Moreover, Mrs. Clinton inparticular would have to defend her own foreign policy failures in Honduras, Argentina and the Middle East.

If an open contest for the Democratic nomination were to develop in the next few months, significant Democrats without the burden of the Obama administration’s record would likely come forward. I am thinking not only of Governor Andrew Cuomo, perhaps the most exciting new face in the party, but also U.S. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia and former U.S. Senator Evan Bayh from Indiana. Freshman Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia, a former governor and a prominent Obama critic within the Democratic Party, could also emerge as a serious candidate.

What do all these potential “fresh face” candidates have in common? They are not radical liberals, but instead more moderate figures (as Bill Clinton was in 1992). They would not have to defend Obamacare and the president’s Middle East policies.

I still believe that Republicans win the U.S. senate in 2012, regardless of who wins the presidency, and maintain control of the U.S. House, but if Mr. Obama were not at the top of the ticket, the presidential race outcome might not be so rosy for the Republicans.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

NY-9 Spells It Out

The election of a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic congressional district in New York City spells it all out for Barack Obama in 2012, i.e., D-E-F-E-A-T.

There are always many subfactors in a special election such as this one, but there is only one overriding factor that could account for the decisive outcome, the unpopularity of the president. NY-9 has not elected a Republican congressman since 1920. It has 3-1 registration favoring the Democrats. 40% of its Brooklyn and Queens population are Jewish. The Democatic nominee was an Orthodox Jew, a state legislator, and a member of a respected local political family. His opponent was a 70 year-old Roman Catholic who had previously not held any political office. Democratic U.S. Senator Charles Schumer had represented most of this district for 18 years before becoming a senator, The incumbent, Anthony Weiner, had resigned because of a scandal, but had been a Schumer staffer and was his hand-picked successor. Schumer is (I should say “was”) the most powerful New York politician today. Until last night, it was unimaginable that a Republican could win this seat.

Also, last night in a Nevada special election, the Republican won a landslide victory to replace a Republican congressman who had been appointed to the U.S. senate when a recent vacancy occurred. That district was Republican, but margin of victory reflected the fact that local Democrats didn’t even try to win.

Democratic incumbents across the nation, even those in “safe” districts and “safe” states, will now face a very sober fact this morning, to wit, they face an even more disastrous election next year than even 2010 was. If NY-9 can vote 54-46 for an unknown Republican, no house or senate seat is truly “safe” in 2012.

The problem for the Democrats is Barack Obama. It was not only his economic policies which provoked the result in NY-9, it was Mr. Obama’s foreign policy. Jewish voters overwhelmingly supported Mr. Obama’s election in 2008, but his unambiguous hostility to America’s historic alliance with Israel has taken a toll on his support. As Israel becomes increasingly isolated in the midst of the current upheaval in the Middle East, its alliance with the U.S. becomes more and more important. Even many liberal Jewish voters who support Mr. Obama’s domestic policies are growing apprehensive about his foreign policy.

Most importantly, in addition to Democratic incumbents and challengers who intend to campaign next year, there is the vital group of Democratic strategists, campaigners, and consultants whose very well-being requires Democratic victories next year. These men and women must now face the implacable reality that the top of their ticket next year might lead to political disaster.

And how big might that disaster be? Recent surveys of 2012 gubernatorial, senate and house races by the highly-respected Rothenberg Political Report (full disclosure: I contributed to this publication for 20 years) paints a bleak picture for Democrats, especially in gubernatorial and senate races. After NY-9, the picture becomes bleaker for U.S. house races as well.

In 2009, I wrote on these pages that President Obama’s policies would lead to huge losses in 2010. The final results were quite close to my predictions. Now in 2011, I will suggest that if Barack Obama runs for re-election, and current economic conditions continue, the 2012 elections will lead to an even greater majority for Republicans in the house, possibly 60 GOP senators or more, and a new resident in the White House. The Democratic Party, furthermore, will cease to function as we now know it, suffering the kind of massive rejection that one of the major parties suffered in Canada a few years ago. (It did eventually recover.)

There was a Democrat who won big in New York last night, however. That is Governor Andrew Cuomo. Having initiated already successful conservative policies to turn things around in the Empire State, he is now the most powerful and popular Democratic politician in the state, and should Mr. Obama decide not to run next year, a very attractive possible “fresh face” nominee for a party desperately needing new blood and good news.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Debate In Santa Barbara

Judging who wins and loses a debate is a very subjective task, and in the case of a major party presidential debate, the subjectivity is often magnified by the judge’s (pundit’s) personal preferences.

I am not supporting any of the candidates who were on the stage last night, although I have repeatedly contended that Mitt Romney is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination (many respected colleagues do not agree with me on this, including my friend the dean of the DC press corps, Michael Barone). Indeed, over the past three weeks, the precipitous rise in the polls of newly-entered candidate, Governor Rick Perry of Texas, has seemed to signal that Mr. Romney is no longer the favorite for the nomination.

Most attention, therefore, was on Mr. Perry’s performance last night, and on the comparison with him and Mr Romney. My judgment is, and some will no doubt see it differently, is that Mr Romney once more demonstrated why he has been the frontrunner until now (and why he continues to be). His poise, command of the subjects raised, and quick rejoinder to Mr. Perry’s criticism was the most “presidential” of the evening. Moreover, his performance, I think, has temporarily halted Mr. Perry’s sudden momentum.

Governor Perry did well last night overall, although his lack of experience at these debates perhaps led him to miss opportunities to explain some of his controversial comments prior to the debate. Most notable of this was his failure to explain his allegation that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme.” This was a high-risk comment he made recently, and the debate was his opportunity to clarify what he meant. Yes, there are aspects of Social Security today that resemble the notorious scam (most notably the fact that recipients are receiving more than they put into the Social Security Trust Fund), but unlike a Ponzi scheme, Social Security can easily be repaired, albeit with some sacrifice, and further, it was not ever an intentional fraud making an individual perpetrator rich at the expense of his or her victims. Most damaging, by not explaining himself, Mr. Perry made himself vulnerable to both his Republican rivals and, eventually to President Obama, who will highlight Mr. Perry’s criticism of Social Security to millions of seniors (and voters) now receiving the program’s benefits, leaving the impression that he might try to end the program (which, to be fair, does not seem to be his intent). Nevertheless, Mr. Perry will have other opportunities to show his “stuff” in the months ahead.

Michelle Bachmann, whose own momentum was recentlly blocked when Mr. Perry entered the race (in spite of her having just won the Iowa Straw Poll), was relatively invisible at the Santa Barbara debate. But, while some have now dismissed Mrs. Bachmann as a one-day wonder, I think she still has cards to play in the caucuses and primaries ahead in February and March.

Newt Gingrich once again had the applause line of the debate when he criticized debate moderators for “trying to create conflict between the candidates on the stage,” and for not asking serious enough questions. He has served as a lone voice for improving the debates until now. (In full disclosure, I worked with Mr. Gingrich in creating and producing the 2006 Cooper Union dialogue between himself and former Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, and co-wrote a published op ed with him calling for a better debate system in 2008.] It’s clear to me that the quality of the questions depends on those who ask them, and on the moderators. Although the questions at the Santa Barbara debate were somewhat better than at earlier debates, the moderators and questioners (many of whom are politically hostile to the GOP candidates) are still too obsessed with sensational (but superficial) issues and constrained by their own biases in forming the questions. The lack of major neutral and conservative journalists as moderators and questioners at these debates so far is frankly a scandal, and I don’t know why more of the candidates (aside from Mr. Gingrich) are not complaining about this.

There were others on the stage, most notably former Utah Governor Jon Hunstman, but, barring some remarkable new development, they are not now likely to emerge as major contestants once the actual voting takes place.

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were the only major potential candidates not at the Santa Barbara debate. Neither are likely to enter the race in 2012, although if Governor Christie were participating in these debates, the whole race might be turned upside down.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Perry Nails Paul

Readers of The Prairie Editor by now have figured out that Governor Rick Perry is not high on my list of favorites for the Republican nomination for president in 2012. On the other hand, I do like to give credit when it is genuinely due, and I want to applaud the Texas governor for a press release today (presumably to be followed up at the next presidential debate) in which he exposes the hypocrisy of Congressman Ron Paul, a perennial fringe candidate for president who purports to be a “pure” libertarian and a straight-shooter.

Mr. Paul has been claiming the mantle of Ronald Reagan lately, extolling the former president and Republican icon, and obviously seeking the support of those who admire Mr. Reagan and his presidency. In fact, as Mr. Perry points out by producing the actual letter of resignation by Mr Paul from the Republican Party in 1987, stating that Ronald Reagan’s policy and “failures” were the reason in part for Mr. Paul to resign from the party then. (Mr. Paul subsequently ran for president as a member of the Libertarian Party before returning to the GOP so that he could hold a seat in Congress from Texas.)

For someone who receives relatively high numbers in the early polling across the country, not to mention coming in a close second in the Iowa Straw Poll, Mr. Paul advances some strange foreign policy views which are are not likely shared by many authentic conservatives and patriotic Americans. In the past, voters soon realized how kooky these views are, and he has faded fast. These views include retreating from supporting our historically strongest allies, and lowering our national defense shield by withdrawing our troops and our influence around the world.

There are many admirable views that libertarians hold, especially about the growing influence of government in the private sphere, both socially and economically. The Republican Party in the past 20 years has often been influenced by these libertarian ideas.

Libertarians are a segment of GOP politics, and I have noted that most of the major Republican candidates for president have been reluctant to take Mr. Paul on. To his credit, Mr. Perry shows no such reluctance, even though Mr. Paul is a Republican congressman from his own state.

A few more genuinely gutsy moves like this (and fewer bonehead off-the-cuff remarks as he has made recently), and everyone will have to take the governor of Texas more seriously.

I still think the nomination is Mr. Romney’s to lose, but fair is fair, and credit when it’s due should be duly noted.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Chris Christie, Now Or Later?

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey is that rare political phenomenon in American politics, a natural communicator with intuitive appeal that reaches, because of his personality, outside his ideological base. (Only Ronald Reagan, in recent memory, is comparable.)

Mr. Christie emerged suddenly on the national stage when he won an upset victory over an entrenched and seemingly unbeatable New Jersey politician who had previously been a U.S. senator and, before that, a Wall Street mogul. The year was 2009, and it had been a very bad time for Republicans and conservatives. They had lost control of the Congress in 2006, and the presidency in 2008. Radically liberal ideas were not only resurfacing for the first time in a long while, they were being enacted and signed into law. Liberals, after two terms of President George W. Bush were claiming and expecting a full realignment in U.S. politics.

There were only three major election contests in the 2009 off-year elections, and they included the hitherto Democratic-dominated political battlefields of Massachusetts and Virginia, in addition to New Jersey. No one right of center seemed sanguine then about the political present and future.

But President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid began misplaying their hands early by pushing for radical programs and avoiding the most pressing economic issues facing the nation. So less than one year after taking complete control of the government, the public began reacting against the Democratic leadership. The election of Republican Scott Brown was the first hard evidence of this reaction, and his defeat of a Democratic nominee for the “Ted Kennedy” senate seat in Massachusetts was a sensation. At the same time, two Republican candidates for governor, one in Virginia (Bob McDonnell) and one in New Jersey (Christie) won their races against favored Democratic candidates. The 2009 elections turned out to be an omen for the landslide win for Republicans in U.S. house and senate, state gubernatorial and legislature races the following year in 2010.

Brown, reflecting his state’s more liberal electorate, has disappointed some conservatives, but McDonnell has impressively turned Virginia around with his consistently right of center policies and programs. Perhaps most surprising of all three, Christie confronted liberal forces and groups memorably with both words and action, and has established himself as an emotional and ideological favorite of many Republicans outside his home state.

In the lead-up to the 2012 presidential campaign, Christie has been as frequently mentioned as a candidate as much or more than any other new GOP figure, but he has steadfastly (to the present time) resisted any attempts to bring him in as a candidate. He has maintained that he is only in the third year of his first term as governor, and that he still has children at home. On the other hand, he has increasingly appeared outside New Jersey to assist Republican candidates.

It was such an appearance in October, 2010 that Mr. Christie came to Minnesota to appear on behalf of the GOP ticket in the state. On a platform shared with three presidential candidates (Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour and Michele Bachmann) and several other conservative stars, Mr. Christie quickly dominated the proceedings with his inimitable “in your face” style that instantly charmed the assembled crowd, most of whom had neither heard of him nor seen him in person before. I had been skeptical of his ability to do it routinely before this occasion, even though I had seen him perform on several You Tube videos and newscasts. Since that time it has been much more of the same, most recently in his “Get the hell off the beach” warning to coastal residents and visitors to New Jersey just prior to the arrival of Hurricane Irene.

Governor Christie seems to be unflappable and uninitimidatable before the verbal onslaughts of individual liberals and liberal groups, most notably the labor unions which have hitherto dominated state and Democratic politics for a generation. I can think of no other Republican politician who can do this so well and so consistently. At the same time, he is establishing a remarkable record of instituting conservative polices in New Jersey. Of course, in the latter he is far from alone. Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Governor Mitch Daniels in Indiana, and Governor Bob McDonnell are doing at least as well, as are numerous other new Republican governors (and two notable Democratic ones, Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York and Governor Jerry Brown in his reprise as chief executive of “ungovernable” California).

Mr. Christie’s political record is also not without controversies, including his time as U.S. attorney of New Jersey (2000-08), and most recently with his appointment to the New Jersey supreme court of an Indian-American Muslim.

Others in his party have more political experience, longer conservative records, and more aesthetic appearance (Mr. Christie is easily the most portly major figure in the Republican party since William Howard Taft). But there is something magical, powerful and contemporaneously unique in his ability to communicate that singles Chris Christie out in American politics today. He is an unlikely combination of Fiorello LaGuardia, Winston Churchill and Everyman that points him eventually to a run for the presidency.

The only question is: will it be now or later?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Why Rick Perry Is Leading In The Polls

Presidential elections take place every four years, and a media-dependent public has to learn once again why certain events ritually take place in the months before the campaign begins in true earnest.

In only a few weeks, Governor Rick Perry, previously rumored to be a candidate for president, has formally announced he is running, and almost immediately vaulted ahead in mot state and national polls. Until very recently, few outside Texas and GOP activists had even heard of him. How could this happen?

My answer is that it almost always does happen, albeit with different personalities and different issues. Ever since presidential nominating contests, when there is no incumbent in the major political party, became media events, wildly gyrating polls have been features of the early stages of the contests.

Remember Fred Thompson’s much-ballyhooed late entrance to the 2008 Republican campaign? It fell flat soon enough, but for a while the former movie actor seemed to the inevitable next Wendell Willkie (the latter being the only recent, in 1940, late entrant to upset the political apple cart and win his party’s nomination.) And remember that Rudy Giuliani led all the polls by a wide margin in 2007? Likewise, Hillary Clinton dominated Democratic polls that same year. Anyone seen President Giuliani or President Hillary Clinton lately?

There is another reason why Mr. Perry is doing so well in the polls right now. The true frontrunner for the GOP nomination, Mitt Romney, has adopted a very low profile approach to this part of the long campaign period. In my opinion, this is a good strategy, including his avoidance of the recent Iowa Straw Poll, and his refusal to attack rivals in debates and his advertising. As good as this strategy might be, however, it is not sensational news, and thus the media collectively and reflexively turns elsewhere for daily “news” fodder. Thus, they continually run stories about Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani (again), Chris Christie and even George Pataki getting into the race. Their coverage has little to do with these persons actually running, or even being serious candidates. Their coverage is about promoting audiences for their print publications and broadcast programs.

This is not to say that Rick Perry cannot be a serious candidate. He has been a successful political figure in Texas, and he has personality and charm. But Fred Thompson was a famous and enormously well-liked movie and TV star. It didn’t matter. His campaign soon fizzled. (To be fair to Mr. Perry who is working hard so far, Mr. Thompson did not seem to have fire in his political belly.) Also to be fair, the Republican field, except for Michele Bachmann, has not produced many sparks (and remember how Mrs. Bachmann was the darling of the polls only a few weeks ago?).

Like Mr. Romney, Tim Pawlenty had the background, skills and viewpoints, that made him an authentic presidential contender. but Mr. Pawlenty was drawn into public relations traps by the media that seemed to doom his efforts. The quest for a major party presidential nomination is a formidable and risky enterprise to begin with, but the mediazation of the contest has made it into a much more treacherous political enterprise than any time in the past.

Finally, somewhat like the Democratic 1992 presidential contest, the 2012 GOP battle has seen some of its most attractive or well-known candidates choose not to run next year. Mike Huckabee and probably Sarah Palin are not running. Nor is Jeb Bush or Mitch Daniels. This has resulted in a partial vacuum that someone like Rick Perry can appear to fill.

Th answer to why Rick Perry is doing so well in the polls is that someone like him HAS to do well in the polls. If Mr. Perry did not exist, or was not running, the media would invent someone else to fill this role.

In 1992, third party candidate Ross Perot actually led both incumbent President George H.W. Bush and certain Democratic nominee Bill Clinton in the national polls (only months before the actual election) It was shocking, but short-lived. Anyone seen former President Perot lately?

Although I am not yet predicting Mr. Romney’s ultimately victory, nor Mr. Perry’s ultimate defeat, I do think the former Massachusetts governor’s campaign strategy is not being given its proper due. Unlike Senator Ed Muskie (1972), his own father George Romney (1968), and Gary Hart (1984) — all temporary frontrunners – Mitt Romney has avoided the kind of gaffe or political mistake that would diminish his chances once the actual voting begins.

That’s the key to understanding the current phase of the GOP presidential nomination contest. Until December and January coming, when the candidates trek through the snow and ice of Iowa and New Hampshire, and then under the palm trees of South Carolina and Florida soon after that, it is primarily a media puppet show, with the press pulling most of the public strings.

In about 90 days or so those strings will be removed, and the political show will get much, much more serious.