Monday, December 17, 2007

Reading the Tea Leaves
It's time to confess that I really have no idea what's going on in the presidential campaigns. And it's only a slight consolation that I'm pretty sure nobody else does, either.

All I know at this point is that there's an enormous appetite for a break from the past--not just the egregiously failed Bush presidency, but the last twenty years of Bush/Clinton zero-sum politics. What's the clearest sign of this? Look at Hillary Clinton herself, pushing the theme that she represents the best bet for change despite her status as the living symbol of the Democratic establishment. And look at Paul Krugman, the usually brilliant Times columnist who, for some reason, really dislikes Barack Obama--and is now trying to paint him as the "anti-change" candidate.

Another sign is that the only two Republican candidates who are generating excitement are Mike Huckabee, the Christianist who sounds like a Democrat in his stump-speech denunciations of corporate greed and foreign-policy arrogance, and Ron Paul, the semi-libertarian whose online supporters raised well over $5 million last night, a one-day fundraising record. Both can plausibly be described as fruitcakes, and what they have in common is that they scare the hell out of the Republican establishment--ostensibly because they see both guys as certain losers next November, but really I think because their ideological heterodoxy raises questions about core principles of New Mutant Republicanism (pre-emption in war fighting, endless tax cuts, the surveillance state, torture) that have never been fully and rationally debated even within their party, and probably can't withstand close scrutiny.

My increasing distaste (a stronger word is probably more descriptive) for Hillary Clinton aside, the unraveling of the Bush Republican coalition is the most interesting and compelling story of this political year. Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and to a lesser extent John McCain are still fighting for the rump share of Bush's coalition--but while 71 percent of Republicans still approve of Bush, none of his would-be mainstream successors are viewed favorably by even half of "the base," and none of them--emphatically including Huckabee, who's probably the symbol of how deep the split now goes--evince any sign of being able to reconcile the Greed Wing and the God Wing of the Republicans. Is this a case of Republicans still liking Bush (who knows why--maybe a Bush-like inability to admit they screwed up?) but repudiating Bushism? Would Bush himself, were he eligible, win the nomination? Are any of these people reachable by reality-based arguments? Does it matter as long as independents are as squarely anti-Republican as they seem to be right now?

The one thing I'm still sure about is that the only real hope for Republicans to paper over these deep cracks is that the Democrats ring their Pavlovian bell by nominating Senator Clinton. The change dynamic works against her, but the enduring strength of John Edwards, and the artfully sown doubts the Clintons themselves have sown about Obama, work for her.

Meanwhile, in Washington and on the far fringe of the presidential race, Chris Dodd is doing something very important and wholly admirable today. He deserves much respect for this.

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