The week ahead in presidential politics, is, frankly, bizarre. It’s the first time in history in which very consequential campaigning takes place during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. For that, we can thank our friends in Iowa and New Hampshire, who cling to to their traditional first-in-the-nation status beyond most semblances of rationality.
And so yesterday saw the former president of the United States, Bill Clinton, and his former first lady wife, Hillary Clinton, trying against the odds with full schedules in icy Iowa for each, to stave off the candidacy of freshman Illinois Senator Barack Obama. Who was also all over Iowa, where he has a narrow but consistent lead. The Clintons, proprietors of the most awesome political machine in America, were further motivated in their quest to tamp down the tyro who would be America’s first president of color by fresh news from their “firewall” primary state, New Hampshire, where Obama has just taken the merest sliver of a lead after trailing by 20 points in November.
Now, on Christmas Eve, and at least continuing into Christmas Day, we are in what in campaign terms is called a “float.” No campaigning. Well, except for whatever might be arriving belatedly by mail.
The Clintons are struggling with one of the most fundamental questions of all. Who is the principal? Is it the New York senator and former first lady who has seemed, at least to the credulous, a dominatingly inevitable frontrunner all year long. Or is it the popular former president, without whom Hillary would be, not to put too fine a point on it, Hillary Who?
As to which is first, or at least, on first, that is a larger question than I am willing to deal with over Christmas. Hillary may, or may not, have made Bill possible. But without President Bill, there is probably no Senator Hill, much less would-be President Hill.
Beyond which we get into questions of interest only to diehard Clinton loyalists. Or to the dramatists of miniseries. Hold that thought.
For Democrats have a strong field this year, including John Edwards, who in another year would not be Barack Obama’s spoiler, but the clear favorite, and Obama himself, the best orator in the country, a record-breaking fundraiser, and the first black candidate with a very serious chance to win the presidency.
So serious, in fact, that he is leading in largely lily-white Iowa, and in at least a dead heat with Hillary in her supposed firewall state of New Hampshire.
Obama, who at last turned in a good debate performance on December 13th — better late than never — is showing one of two things. Either he has improved dramatically, or the press — which slavishly followed the Clinton campaign meme of the “inevitable” Hillary for many months — is at last realizing that what Hillary was saying about refusing to talk to enemies and a silly notion of nuclear “deterrence” is more ahistorical nonsense than political good sense. Which is another way of saying that actual voters, when they considered it, didn’t buy the Beltway conventional wisdom.
For the umpteenth time in history, for those who care or notice.
On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee is holding onto the lead in Iowa. Which he seized from the megabucks frontrunner there, Mitt Romney, against all odds. The Republicans are in the midst of vicious civil war now. Their evangelical Christian component, which doctrinaire conservatives in the Washington and pundit class, would-be and otherwise, have been happy to have supply needed votes and otherwise keep out of the way, have found their man. And it’s the unwanted man, a Baptist minister and successful governor of godblasted Arkansas, who doesn’t believe in evolution, does believe in the greenhouse effect, and thinks that a certain populist concern for the less than rich is more important than the party’s no new taxes mantra. Or the bomb Iran mantra, which was thoroughly disrupted last month by the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which found no clear and present danger of an Iranian nuclear weapon. And so Rudy Giuliani’s dramatic reboot of his campaign last weekend — “America needs strength” — fell flat.
Giuliani, the social liberal/warhawk erstwhile frontrunner, is not a political hemophiliac exactly. But he is rapidly fading off the radar screen, following after another touted candidate, Fred Thompson, who — barring a dramatic comeback — essentially ended his candidacy when he announced it on The Tonight Show. As I rather politely alluded to, at great length, that very night this past September.
This would leave Mitt Romney as the doctrinaire and clearcut choice as the GOP nominee, but for three inconvenient truths. He has recently changed his position on some of the biggest values issues of our time. He is a Mormon, which evangelicals and many other Americans consider to be a science fiction religion. (To say that Democrats would enjoy running against Romney is to engage in considerable understatement.) And he is behind in Iowa, where he has spent more money than any candidate in history, and has been caught in New Hampshire, the neighboring state to his one-term Massachusetts governorship — which he won by espousing a politics quite different from the one he is currently running on — by a guy who has already been killed off twice in this very year which is about to end.
That would be Captain John McCain, USN (retired, for medical reasons). The veteran Arizona senator, son of CINCPAC (Commander-In-Chief-Pacific Command), one of the most famous heroes of the Vietnam War, started the year as the Republican presidential frontrunner. Only to fall, not once, but twice. First, because independents and moderates abandoned him for his stubbornness on the Iraq War surge. Then as conservatives excoriated him for his moderation on illegal immigration.
But the truth is that every top Republican other than Thompson is “squishy” on illegal immigration. Vide Romney’s household workers, Huckabee’s scholarships, and Giulian’s “sanctuary city.”And McCain, given the real but of necessity limited military success of the surge — which now requires political progress with Iraqi factions and engagement with Iran in order to ultimately succeed, just as the Iraq Study Group pointed out a year ago — looks rather prescient. McCain warned for years that the wrong course was being followed in Iraq. Too few boots on the ground, too little challenging of Iraq’s various factions to get off their asses if they wanted their country to succeed.
John McCain, whose Christmas ad – Why are they doing Christmas ads? Because this crazy campaign has the candidates campaigning over the holidays, that’s why. – goes Mike Huckabee’s notorious “floating cross” spot one better by overtly using an incident from his prisoner of war days to invoke the cross, is coming back for a third time in this campaign. And at just the right time. He’s backed by a raft of newspapers, right and left, and the Democrats’ 2000 vice presidential nominee-turned-independent senator, Joe Lieberman.
Previously knocked down and seemingly out by the loss of moderates and independents over his war stance, and conservatives over his immigration stance, McCain is taking advantage of the chaos that is the Republican presidential field to come on again in New Hampshire and other early states. He’s picked up the endorsement of both big papers in the former Massachusetts governor’s erstwhile home town – the conservative Boston Herald and liberal Boston Globe – as well as the Des Moines Register and most of the papers in New Hampshire, including the staunchly conservative Manchester Union Leader. All of which is an aggravation to Romney, who has counted on his neighbor status from his Massachusetts governor days to make him a favorite son.
If Mike Huckabee carries on in Iowa, New Hampshire is looking good for McCain.
But there’s a dark cloud on the horizon. Or, I should say, there was. A leaked story on the Drudge Report, the famous conduit for mostly right-wing dirt. Or, as is often the case there, a leaked notion of a story. That the New York Times is going to drop a bomb on McCain with an investigative piece about him doing favors for telecom companies, and their female lobbyist, in his Senate Commerce Committee.
Actually, the Drudge Report said the story would run Friday in the Times. It never showed. Whatever is going on, McCain thinks it’s serious enough he’s hired heavyweight DC lawyer Bob Bennett to deal with the situation.
Incidentally, I think that if politicians want to wear their crosses on their sleeves, as it were, it’s their right to do so. (Personally, I enjoy Huckabee’s floating cross ad and McCain’s ad.) I also think that it is fair game to take a hard look at the specifics of their religious beliefs.
Which is another column of its own. Though not one that reflects well for a general election.