Friday, January 11, 2008

Dispatches, Volume 2

Sipping on a Cuba Libre in Juan Santamaria International Airport, January 6, 2008,
MartinAir may be the worst airline I’ve ever encountered. My flight to Miami has been pushed back six hours without explanation or apology. Fortunately the airport sells Cuba Libre, an 8% alcohol pre-mixed rum and coke, by the can. Even so, too much airport can make a man crazy. I’m pretty sure I just saw Fred Thompson on line for a pina colada bragging about his tied for 3rd place finish in Iowa. Before you ask me why he would be in San Jose, Costa Rica, ask why he’s not in New Hampshire, where the great tall conservative hope is polling 1% and fading. It seems Republicans’ tendency to skip primaries they’re not going to win sends the wrong message: “It’s better to have not tried at all than to try and fail.” Rudy’s woeful campaign, which refuses to engage the competition for the first five primary states, is looking as pathetic as Joe Lieberman in 2004, when he boldly declared his campaign would be making it’s Last Stand in Delaware (Kerry beat him by 27 points). Rudy has always been painful to watch when he wasn’t dictator of New York City. That was more scary than painful. It’s about time the rest of the country caught on to the Rudy myth, and no small tip of the hat goes to Joe Biden for noting, “A Giuliani sentence consists of a noun, a verb, and 9/11.”
Not that I miss Joe Biden. Some folks seem to like him, not realizing what a pompous windbag he is. How about the Alito hearings, when he used 23 of his 30 allotted minutes for a meandering monologue, to which Alito dryly replied, “I’m sorry, could you repeat the question?” Now he’s gone, and with him Chris Dodd, the guy who moved his daughter to an Iowa school and still pulled in .1%. If I’ll give primary voters credit for one thing, it’s smelling desperation. And it’s nice to see the stage whittled for the last debate. Obama, Edwards, Clinton, Richardson- anyone could have told you these would be the final four a year ago. If I’ve ever seen balls in a spinster, its Richardson manager Dave Contarino, who had the gall to brag about Richardson’s “strong 4th place finish in Iowa” (he polled 2%). “Our 20,000 supporters would have meant a third place finish any other election cycle,” he noted. Damn that high voter turnout- by Contarino’s logic, Obama pulled close to 100% of the vote, if it had been any other cycle, which it wasn’t.
The last Democratic debate used an easy to follow change versus experience motif. Here’s the thing, it’s not that the American people are stupid and don’t realize Obama and Edwards don’t have experience, and it’s not even that they don’t care, because it does make them uncomfortable. But what Clinton, Richardson and the punditocracy don’t seem to get is that experience doesn’t trump change, experience with leadership does. Experience with results does. I can’t think of a single issue since the early 90s where Clinton has shown leadership or gotten results. She’s been in the Senate seven years now, and all that comes to mind, outside of her perpetual shadow campaign for president, is her strong endorsement of the war in Iraq. At least Kerry qualified his support from the beginning. Clinton did no such thing, and didn’t turn against the war until long after public sentiment had shifted. Where was she during the Supreme Court hearings? Hurricane Katrina? FISA? She doesn’t even denounce lobbyists, the easiest bone to throw at the starving progressive base. “You can’t get experience through osmosis,” I’ve seen some editorials claim. Not true- you can learn a lot by being married to the leader of the free world for eight years. But learning how to lead is something you have to do on your own, leading the way governors like Eliot Spitzer lead (Yes, I still like him), the way Senators like Russ Feingold lead, the way Congressmen like Henry Waxman lead.
Let’s be clear, neither JFK nor RFK were leaders in the Senate before they ran for president, and RFK’s most notable achievements as Attorney General were wiretapping Martin Luther King and trying to kill Fidel Castro with an exploding sea shell. JFK argued that Eisenhower and Nixon had been too soft on communism. RFK didn’t come out against LBJ’s war until after Senator Eugene McCarthy’s peanut butter and sandwich brigade had launched the first great New Hampshire primary upset (For the record, LBJ, whose name wasn’t even on the ballot, beat McCarthy 51-44% as a write-in candidate, but the media still spun it as a massive upset. LBJ agreed, in a rare moment of humility).
But what made JFK and RFK so revered in their time and in history is that they had the charisma to make people believe in a better tomorrow, and make people believe that they could lead them there. JFK answered the change versus experience debate by claiming, “Experience is like taillights on a boat which illuminate where we have been when we should be focusing on where we should be going.” And that charisma, from the lips of brilliant people with the right people surrounding them, is better than experience any day. Obama is shining his light on the future, and the people are with it.
Which brings us to Richardson. People who have been around me know that I had a Richardson bumper for quite some time, keeping it long after I gave up on him so I could distinguish my laptop from other peoples’ computers. His rich resume gave him a variety of strategic options for his campaign, and he went with “Guts. Experience. Results.” He stressed that his resume best prepared him for the White House, ready to begin on Day 1. That’s a great message for an establishment candidate, and it was used by Gore and Kerry. Unfortunately, this race already had a bigger establishment candidate in Hillary Clinton claiming the ‘Experience’ mantle. The Richardson strategy team hit a brick wall right there. What about ‘Guts?’ Was he referring to his trips to volatile parts of the world as a diplomat? “You’ve done work in Iraq, North Korea and the Sudan,” Jon Stewart quipped. “Those places all turned out great.” Ok, fine, what about ‘Results?’ This should have been the cornerstone of his campaign- a fairly progressive, widely popular, bi-racial governor from a swing state. Think about that. Doesn’t sound like a dream candidate? You can only focus on so many things in the fast paced primary world, however, and he chose two early on that doomed his candidacy: Fiscal responsibility and an immediate withdrawal from Iraq.
First, there is nothing wrong with fiscal responsibility, but there’s no better way to turn off primary voters than saying, “I’m the Democrat who’s not going to raise your taxes.” Unlike which Democrat, Bill Clinton? Oh, it must be those radical tax plans Gore and Kerry put forward. Or maybe he’s referring to his primary opponents- I can see the Republican ad now: “Barack Obama is going to raise your taxes. Even Democrat Bill Richardson says so.” Thanks Bill, for hammering home the Republican talking point that all Democrats (except you) want to raise their taxes. Self-flagellation was chic in 1992, when we’d been clobbered in 3 straight elections. Not anymore (See Joe Lieberman).
Second, immediate withdrawal. Again, this is a case of primary voters sniffing desperation. “I’ll pull out the troops in 12 months!” “I’ll pull them out in six!” “I’ll do it tomorrow!” “I already did it yesterday!” Look, when Dennis Kucinich says he’ll bring the troops home tomorrow, I believe him. But Richardson was absent from debates about the War until relatively recently, even though he has had national intentions for years, and as the former U.N Ambassador, would have had a platform to strongly oppose the war. But immediate withdrawal, which we all recognize as enormously risky, is a throwaway line to frenzied primary voters. Richardson was desperate, and when he says,. “I’ll pull them out tomorrow,” he lacks the credibility that fueled Howard Dean in 2003 and Obama this cycle. When Time Magazine did a piece on all the army bases and heavy equipment that would make an immediate pullout a logistical nightmare, Richardson said, “Screw it, leave it all behind.” Such immature pandering from such an ‘impressive’ resume was enough to cause the head of his South Carolina campaign to defect to Biden in disgust.
At the end of the day, Bill just got stuck with poor timing. This is the strongest Democratic field since 1960, when John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and Adlai Stevenson battled each other for the nomination. This is the first ever Democratic primary where a major contender being half-Hispanic isn’t particularly noteworthy. “I’m not a rock star,” Richardson always says in his stump speeches. Welcome to the 21st century, Bill. 90% of life is timing, and politics is no different. Good luck in New Hampshire…