The week ahead in presidential politics will focus on efforts by the other Democratic candidates to lasso Hillary Clinton, the tussle for conservative credibility among the Republicans, and geopolitical events that show signs of increasingly spiraling out of control.
On Tuesday, the Democratic presidential field gathers in Philadelphia for its latest debate, to air on MSNBC.
The debate, which will actually be, of necessity, something of a debate, in contrast to the forums that they’ve mostly had so far comes at key moment in the Democratic nomination race. Even though the first contest is not till January, and much can change when voters are actually engaged in the process, Hillary Clinton’s challengers are under great pressure from their supporters and the media to show that they can bring her to earth. Though the former first lady is in a tough fight in Iowa — where she is reportedly shifting nearly a hundred staffers — she leads pretty much everywhere else and has what appears to be a commanding lead in national polls.
While those polls mean less than they’re made out to by a press corps that seems largely addicted to the notion of Clinton’s inevitability, politics is not a field based on deep insecurity. Quite the contrary. As a result, Obama’s people are having to spend a lot of their time reassuring nervous money people and supporters that it can still happen for the charismatic keynoter of the 2004 Democratic national convention.
Obama is increasingly criticizing Clinton. Something which the third place candidate, John Edwards, has been doing for weeks now. But Edwards is well back, both in the polls and especially in fundraising, and is running the scruffier of the top-tier campaigns, so that’s to be expected.
Obama is coming from a different place. He offers the vaunted “politics of hope,” and frequently strikes the “post-partisan” tone of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Without, of course, being the popular incumbent. It’s a strong theme for a general election, especially one in which the Republicans will have no chance but to attack harshly to have any hope of winning. But it’s problematic in a primary campaign against a frontrunner, in the form of Senator Clinton, who has improved as a candidate and, in the process, worn off much of the perceived harsh edge that worked against her in the past.
For her part, Clinton will try to stay above the fray as much as possible, as she did in the last such encounter. But she will need different tactics than a theatrical laugh and studied avoidance of questions. Those came close to causing a press backlash against her, halted only by her besting Obama the following week in the third quarter fundraising sweepstakes.
All this takes place against a backdrop of a new global insecurity, if not chaos. Crude oil is at a record high. Gold is at a record high. The dollar is at a record low against the euro, as all those who buy champagne and Chanel products are only too well aware.
Underlying it all? The inability of the Iraqi government and its US patron to exercise any authority in northern Iraq over the semi-autonomous Kurds, from whose territory the terrorist socialist PKK guerilla movement launches high-profile attacks on Turkish soil. And the inability of the Pakistani government to provide adequate security against jihadist attacks on the followers of returned former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, not to mention the continued glaring existence of safe havens in Pakistan for Al Qaeda leaders.
And, oh yes, the Iranian crisis. Which escalated last week with bellicose rhetoric from Dick Cheney in Washington and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran. All of which floats the Iranian economy, which is dependent on oil which costs more to produce than that of other oil leaders. But with crude oil at record prices, whatever sanctions the US is imposing, absent help from Europe or Russia — which doesn’t want Iran to go nuclear but does want the US pinned down in the Middle East while it re-emerges on the world stage — are outstripped. Leading to fears from oil traders of a US attack on Iran, with consequences across the region and negative impacts on the oil markets. (Or positive impacts, if one is Russian or a member of OPEC.)
Meanwhile, the Republican candidates continue to maintain their race in a state of some disarray — Rudy Giuliani leads nationally, but the early states look split with Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, and perhaps John McCain — who will continue their mutual strategy of competing to see who can be most conservative. A necessary strategy for the primaries, but extremely problematic for whomever survives to try his luck in the general election.
Fred Thompson, incidentally, will make his first campaign swing to California since he declared his candidacy last month in LA on The Tonight Show. Out of respect for victims of the Southern California fires, he is cutting things short, postponing fundraisers in the hard-hit Republican strongholds — relatively speaking — of San Diego and Orange County.
Although President Bush made a very high-profile tour of the devastation with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Thompson is the only Republican candidate to take much note of the fires which dominated much of last week’s national TV news coverage.
Which is odd, since the California primary will play a major role in determining the nominees of both parties. But it’s that kind of campaign.