It’s frequently said that the fog of war obscures military operations. This time, the fog of merriment is obscuring political operations. Because the good folks of those most unrepresentative of American states, Iowa and New Hampshire, are hell-bent to have their states first as usual in the presidential nomination fights, we’re conducting the height of the first-in-the-nation contest of Iowa during the height of the holiday season. It’s bizarre.
As a result of this lunacy, we may not have a valid statistical read on the race in either party until the morning of the Iowa caucuses on January 3rd. And even then, the data will be flawed and fragmentary. Add to that the unknown impact of the spectacular assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in our now obviously teetering frontline ally in the Terror War.
It’s strange enough that Iowa — where the two parties are under the disproportionate influence of, respectively, public employee unions and peace activists and religious fundamentalists — plays such a winnowing role in presidential politics. Now the actual contest in Iowa is being preceded by what are essentially two five-day weekends in a row, first over Christmas, and now over New Year’s. Weekend polling is always highly suspect. Just who do you suppose is going to take the time, or even be around, to answer a pollster’s questions on a weekend night? Many campaigns don’t even bother to poll on weekends for that reason, and when it is done, the numbers are always regarded with suspicion.
Add to that the unprecedented holiday factor — when Iowa was first in the presidential nomination contests of 1984, it took place on February 20th — and it’s a formula for rampant confusion.
So we have polls which show Hillary Clinton, the longtime supposedly overwhelming frontrunner, running first. Or second. Or third. Same with her two polished opponents, Barack Obama, who has by far the best challenger operation and is the best orator in the country, and John Edwards, who was usually the best in the debates.
On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee has a big lead in one recent poll, while Mitt Romney has a big lead in another recent poll. The only thing that’s sure is that whomever finishes third is likely to be far back. That could be Fred Thompson, who scraped together some funds to put up a TV ad as he tries to jump start his campaign. That could be John McCain, who is coming on like gangbusters in New Hampshire again, and could surprise in Iowa with the renewed primacy of geopolitics with the Pakistani crisis. (I’ve been writing all year on New West Notes that Pakistan is a major accident waiting to happen.) It might even be Ron Paul. It probably won’t be Rudy Giuliani, the erstwhile frontrunner who will be in Florida on the night of the Iowa caucuses.
The candidates continue their barnstorming across icy Iowa. The weather forecast for January 3rd is clear and cold.
The Edwards strategy is predicated on the reduced universe of proven caucus-goers. Obama and Clinton are each looking to expand that. In Obama’s case, with young people. In Clinton’s case, with older women. Each is probably advantaged by (relatively) good weather.
Meanwhile, the Republicans keep up their five-sided game of pool across two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, with Fred Thompson trying to restart his car and Rudy Giuliani trying to hold on while the three candidates of the moment – Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and John McCain – all duke it out.
Actually, Romney is forced to fight two formidable foes in two states that are absolutely key to his hopes. McCain is coming on in New Hampshire, where he has all the newspaper endorsements – including the neighboring conservative Boston Herald and liberal Boston Globe, Romney’s key papers when he was Massachusetts governor – and the two biggest papers in New Hampshire, including the famously conservative Manchester Union Leader, issuing “anti-endorsements” of Romney. He’s even ducked over to Iowa for a few days of campaigning. Though he’s done little there, there’s a chance for a surprise third behind Huckabee and Romney.
But Romney has the resources that Huckabee and McCain lack, and is a polished campaigner.
The polls are very awkward now. I’m not convinced that any poll taken over the Christmas holidays is valid. In New Hampshire, Obama has closed up on Clinton, making that race, in Clinton’s long thought firewall state, a dead heat.
Obama and Hillary are criss-crossing Iowa. So is former President Bill Clinton, campaigning all-out now as a virtual doppelganger candidate to his wife, the original campaign conception of using him sparingly now completely out the window.
Hillary is also benefiting from two “independent” expenditures. One on her behalf, by the big public employees union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). That’s hitting Obama for not advocating the requirement that all American buy health insurance. Ironically, Obama’s position is the same as many of Clinton’s backers. The other help for Hillary comes in the form of a so-called “527″ committee, after the government code section. This group, headed by John Edwards’ former campaign manager, is taking unlimited contributions and spending on Edwards’ behalf. And also attacking Obama. Of course, if she is to lose Iowa, the Clintons would vastly prefer an Edwards win to an Obama win, reasoning that Edwards is in much weaker shape to capitalize in New Hampshire and other states.
On the Republican side of the presidential race, this stark reminder of the centrality of security issues in a challenging, interconnected world should help John McCain. Rudy Giuliani wants it to help him, but unlike McCain, he hasn’t been to Waziristan, now Al Qaeda’s safe haven, and doesn’t know President Musharraf or the Bhuttos. On the Democratic side, one might think it would help Hillary Clinton. It would certainly help Bill Clinton. But a recent New York Times feature sharply undercut her claims of expertise in the field, and it’s unclear whether the extremely high profile taken of late in her campaign by the former president reassures people about the couple, or underscores the notion that he is the superior in the relationship.
It’s not helping Mike Huckabee, who is proving to be more than a bit gaffe-prone. He already had his hands full with the freespending Romney’s barrage of attacks, on the air and in the mail.
While the Republicans flail away at one another, the Democrats have more settled campaigns, and Hillary’s theme is that she is the security candidate. Security as in she’s been there and, if not done it, been around it, and security in the sense of being the known quantity. Obama’s theme is that he is the turn-the-page candidate, not stuck in the debates of the 1990s and free from Hillary’s past alignments with Bush policy. Edwards is running as the tailored populist, always a smooth and strong performer in front of the microphone, he is now an increasingly fiery one.
As to Pakistan, I’m not really aware of anyone who buys the official spin about Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. To say it doesn’t track is to understate the obvious. The Democratic presidential candidates are advocating an open international investigation. The Republicans, aside from McCain, who has personal knowledge of the made-up country, are much more circumspect, following their lead from the Bush White House.
Meanwhile, riot-torn Pakistan is under military lockdown. Which only further legitimizes opposition to established authority. To the unending delight of Islamic jihadists.
The truth is, the US is kind of out of good options in Pakistan. The situation has deteriorated, as NWN has been reporting for months, quite dramatically, as America continued in its fateful fixation with the now less-bad situation that is another make believe country, Iraq. General Musharraf may nor may not be whatever he is, but he’s it. At least for now. Along with the army. Does that mean that he, or they, are behind the assassination? Not at all.
We simply don’t know what we know about that. But what we do know is that the most credible civilian modernizer in Pakistan is already under the ground. And that Pakistan, America’s key frontline ally in the Terror War, is close to destabilized and already the world’s foremost haven for the forces which actually attacked America on 9/11.
And won’t all this make for fun times to come in presidential politics. Once past the fog of Iowa.