Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Of Polls and Purpose
If I really wanted to bring myself down from happy contemplation of the Eagles' huge win yesterday, I might spend a few minutes trying to calculate how much money already has been spent on utterly meaningless 2008 presidential primary polling, how much more will be spent before the end of 2007--the earliest point at which I could imagine those polls will have any predictive or determinative value--and all the better purposes to which that money could be put. A look at the "Election Central Polltracker" section of Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo today informs us that as of two days ago, John McCain would narrowly edge Hillary Clinton, Al Gore or John Kerry and runs even with John Edwards... for the November 2008 general race... in New Hampshire. Barack Obama beats all the leading Republicans, all the Democrats beat Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani is stronger against every Democrat but Obama.

Really: who the frak cares, and could this be any less meaningful? It's fully possible that *no* combination polled for actually will head the tickets on Election Day 22 1/2 months hence, and by then we'll know so much more about the candidates that current opinion probably will bear no resemblence to voters' sentiments at that point. Primary polls for the winter 2008 contest in the state are only slightly more useful, and they show Giuliani, McCain, Clinton and Obama in the best position. McCain, obviously, is known in the state and knows how to win in New Hampshire; Rudy's myriad personal problems likely aren't as well known. Obama is a Rorschach candidate on whom everyone is projecting their hopes; I like him too, but it's just impossible really to know what his candidacy will be like.

Still, Obama has one advantage over Hillary Clinton that I don't think will go away, an edge he shares with John Edwards, and arguably with McCain and some of the lesser known candidates on the Republican side. His campaign is more likely to have a clear purpose and rationale, and my read of the last 50 years of presidential politics is that candidates who make the race for an easily understandable reason do better in both the primary and general elections. JFK's "pass the torch" generational appeal in 1960; Jimmy Carter's reform and integrity rationale in 1976; Reagan's nostalgic conservatism four years later; Bill Clinton's notion of reclaiming government for the middle class in 1992; Bush's "we hate turr'ists 'n homos" re-election win in 2004. Occasionally, tactics and money are enough to win races without clear themes, as in 1988 and 2000. But most of the time it's either a referendum on the performance of the incumbent (1984, 1996), or a contest of whose vision is stronger and clearer.

(As an aside, I should point out that the rationale theory doesn't totally hold up: when the rationale is explicitly ideological, as it is with these two guys, it's very tough to make a sale. Probably to our benefit, we are not an ideological country.)

The emerging theme of Obama '08 is reconciliation and an end to the vicious political wars of the last 20 years--begun by Lee Atwater with the victory of the first President Bush in 1988, stoked to fever pitch first by the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign and then by the ascendance of Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay, and brought to its most extreme point by Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman in 2004, when their brutal and brilliant tactics dragged a failed incumbent to re-election victory over a feckless opponent. With the same playbook deployed to losing effect in 2006, and the problems of the nation too pressing to ignore much longer, the chance for a cease-fire is real, and Obama could be the man to make the peace. He's devout, aware and salutarily critical of some of the dumber tenets demanded by true-believer Democrats, and has a biography that embodies some of the contradictions that must be reconciled: black and white, big city (Chicago, where he made his name) and rural (Kansas, where he was born). As a fresh face, he could be much more palatable for lifelong Republicans than veterans of the long political war--particularly Hillary Clinton, who's almost a symbol of the zero-sum politics of her time. But more on her in a bit.

Edwards too has an emerging rationale: social and economic justice. His plan to announce a second presidential run from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, where the disaster of Hurricane Katrina has never really ended, seems designed in part to seize the moral high ground from Obama and every other Democrat: I'm sure he'll be criticized in cable news circles for being a "downer," and dismissed for his naivete in calling for the country to live its values. But to run that sort of campaign with any hope of victory, you need to have an innately likable personality--and Edwards probably qualifies there. Add in his clear opposition to the war, strong ties with unions, and evidently much-improved campaign chops, and he could be a force.

Al Gore, if he chose to run, would have two compelling rationales: unmaking the tragic mistake of 2000--a mistake for which he shares some responsibility--and dramatic action on climate change. Wes Clark could offer the idea of how America acts in the world, based on his military career and success in the Balkans. But I don't know if that will be enough, even though Clark's the guy I plan to support right now.

John McCain has a unique problem: the rationale he offered in 2000--reform and moderation at home, purpose and power abroad--is unpalatable to the Republican primary electorate and to some extent has been discredited by the actions of the Bush administration. If he'd left the Republican Party in 2005 to prepare for an independent presidential run, he might have been unbeatable. Now he has to toe the line as a Bush pseudo-conservative through the primaries, then hope he can shed his costume and re-emerge as Radical Centrist McCain for the general election. I don't think it's going to happen. The other leading Republicans have their own problems: Rudy Giuliani is trying to run on a cult of personality and the emotional resonance of his 9/11 performance, but he might be approaching the sell-by date for that, and his personality won't wear well in small-town Iowa and New Hampshire. Mitt Romney is running a campaign that strikes me as oddly similar to that of John Kerry two years ago: emphasizing what he's not rather than what he is. And he's already starting to crash on the same rocks that sank Kerry in 2004: the perception that he's an opportunist and flip-flopper.

That leaves Hillary Clinton. I don't know many hardcore Hillary supporters; I'm not sure there are that many outside the professional Democratic establishment, where it's presumably difficult to parse true belief from careerism. But I'd love to ask them why they think Hillary should run, and why she will run, if she does. Is it Clinton Restorationism? Newsflash: this ain't no hereditary monarchy. Breaking gender barriers? Maybe, but that's just not very compelling, I think. Any policy goal? The next big idea Mrs. Clinton offers will be her first as a Senator.

No, I think that like fellow New York pol Giuliani, this is a cult of personality campaign. The problem is that the personality isn't very compelling: if a group of relatively well-informed Americans of diverse political viewpoints were asked to describe Hillary Clinton, I think the most common words coming back might include "scripted," "cold," and "calculating." (And yeah, those are the words I'd use: I'm well aware that I might be overgeneralizing from my own opinion. But then, it is my blog.)

She's evidently good in small-group settings, her money will help, and she has the best political mind in the country (Bill, of course) to help her. But that lack of an answer to the simple question "why" is big--and combined with the strengths of her opponents and a media that will be relentless in picking her apart, I just don't believe it will be enough.

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