Fred’s In, John’s Up.

September 2, 2007

Fred’s In, John’s Up.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, September 2, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: We’re turning the corner out of Labor Day into what you might call the-final-stretch-of-the-run-up-to-the-time-when-people-actually-cast-votes-in-presidential-primaries. The campaign’s been going for eight months or longer. Millions of dollars have been raised. Billions of words have been written. And now we’re getting closer to when, as the experts say, the American people start to pay attention.

Newman: That doesn’t really happen until after the World Series.

Salit: Not until after the World Series, of course. In this context, there were two big stories on the presidential front. One is the expected announcement by Fred Thompson, who’s getting into the Republican primary. The other is the poll results from Iowa that show John Edwards ahead by a tiny margin, followed by Clinton and Obama. Bill Richardson is in fourth place. Let’s talk about these events. Thompson’s coming in and his hope is that he shakes up the race. He wants to grab the spot that no one has, the consistent conservative, strong on national security, able to communicate his ideas.

Newman: Whatever they are.

Salit: Whatever they are, exactly. A number of people said: ‘The issue for Thompson is that there’s been such a build-up about his entry that the expectations are very high. He’s got to perform over the next couple of weeks and, if he does, it’s a real race.’ If I were to break this down, I would start with this question: Do you read the Republican primary as mainly about the search for a genuine conservative? Whether Thompson can fill that niche remains to be seen. But, is that what the base is searching for?

Newman: I’m an old cynic. I believe that their search is a search for the candidate who can win the presidency. Just like the Democrats.

Salit: So, is there a relationship between being a consistent conservative and being able to win the presidency?

Newman: The traditional response to that is that you have to establish certain credentials to win the primary and then translate that into being a viable Republican presidential candidate in the general election. Bush succeeded in doing that. McCain, of course, didn’t. But, I don’t think the conservative voting bloc is going to play as big a role, in terms of certifying a candidate’s bona fides, as it has in the past.

Salit: Being popular with social conservatives is not necessarily the criteria for being a winning candidate.

Newman: Which is another way of saying that for the past eight or twelve years, the country has been more conservative than it is today.

Salit: And so the influence of the social conservatives within the Republican Party is diminishing. Going to the second point in Republican consultant Mary Matilin’s “triangle of Republican values” – to what extent do you think national security is a bottom line issue for winning a Republican primary and being electable in the general election?

Newman: I don’t know how to evaluate that. My intuition is that it’s not as central as it is sometimes made out to be. It’s politically correct to insist upon it being vitally important, but I think it’s easy to misread how the American people feel about this. Again, these are very traditional observations, but you still have to live your life while you’re trying to be secure. You have to raise your children. You have to send your kids off to school. You have to pay your mortgage or your rent. All those things have to get done. So, when it comes time to vote, I’m inclined to think that those more bread and butter issues will have as much or more weight. This is not to deny that national security is an issue. I just don’t think it’s as big an obsession as it’s made out to be.

Salit: Do you think that’s partly a function of the fact that after the attack on 9/11 when national security became a fixation of the country, the solution that was offered was going to war and we went to war but the war has gone badly? Now, the American public has re-thought its position on the war. They want out of Iraq. So, do you think the American public is re-thinking how it understands national security?

Newman: To my mind, that might be too sophisticated a way of putting it. The issue of national security didn’t simply get heightened by 9/11. It was created by 9/11. This wasn’t an issue for the public previously. The tradition of America, to state the obvious, is that the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans take care of our national security. Even though there were missiles aimed at U.S. targets long before 9/11, I don’t know that Americans really thought about the possibility of our having to defend the homeland. I don’t think that America knows, in general, what to think about this. After all, there’s not thinking about something. And there’s not even knowing what to think about or how to think about or whether to think about something. But raising the call for national security does have great propaganda value. So, it’s confused and confusing. This is pure intuition because who knows, but I think when it comes time to vote, when it comes time for the American people to actually register their opinion in the only way that sticks (with due respect to the blogosphere), I don’t know if national security is going to be as big a factor as the press makes it out to be.

Salit: Do you have any opinion of Fred Thompson’s potential as a candidate?

Newman: He’s not done so badly as a non-candidate. What does that tell us? Probably not very much. I think the issue doesn’t turn on how good a candidate Fred Thompson is. I suspect he’ll be more than adequate. He’s certainly had plenty of time to prepare. He’ll have professionals helping him. I don’t think that’s the question. I think the question of interest is whether Giuliani can hold up for the long term or whether he’s going to collapse at some point. You might expect that any collapse would come at the hands of Fred Thompson. But, it might not have all that much to do with Fred Thompson. It might be Rudy’s own collapse. He’s sustained a certain position so far, which I think is somewhat surprising. I think he’s been the biggest surprise of the whole campaign so far. Democrat or Republican. But can he sustain that? That’s the more interesting question for me than all the questions about Thompson.

Salit: In traditional terms, we might be in for a kind of clash of the titans between Thompson and Giuliani, with Giuliani, a social moderate/liberal from the Northeast who has a story about national security, versus a Southern conservative candidate who’s been in the Senate and represents the old values of the Republican Party. In your view, is that framing connected to an actual historical process that’s going on?

Newman: What’s left out of that story, interestingly enough, is the fact that Giuliani’s been the frontrunner for all these months. No matter how insignificant all these months have been, he’s still been out front. Thompson is still not known as someone who’s running for the presidency, because he hasn’t been. That inertial factor is a big factor. How does it play? I suppose both of us don’t have any idea.

Salit: Part of why I was asking that question – and my general experience of the shows today – is that there’s standard language and categories used by the political professionals in discussing these things, but that language and those categories aren’t as connected to what’s happening as they used to be. Put another way, what’s happening is less definable than the current conversation makes it seem.

Newman: Everything is less definable in this world. I wouldn’t be shocked if one kind of question that gets raised for Thompson is: If you were so interested in the presidency and speaking out on these complex issues, why haven’t you been in the race for all these months? I think it’s not a bad question and not an easy question to answer. Maybe it goes away as soon as he’s in and he starts hitting the issues. But, there could be a residual feeling about the way he’s done this which might hurt him and help Giuliani because Giuliani’s been there from the get-go.

Salit: That is a tough one for Thompson because what seems to underlie the question is: Was this just a political calculation on your part? If the answer to that is “Yes,” then that puts him in a tough position.

Newman : Did you care about this country, or, were you busy making television shows?

Salit: Exactly. Switching over to the “other side of the aisle,” a new Time Magazine poll shows John Edwards up by a couple of points ahead of Hillary in Iowa. Some people say that Edwards is going to win Iowa, but then what? That it doesn’t really mean anything. Some people say, if he wins, he gets a big bounce going into New Hampshire. I’m not going to ask you to predict an outcome, unless you want to. But does Edwards’ popularity in Iowa suggest that Clinton’s and Obama’s positions as the “top two” are overstated?

Newman: I don’t know. The obvious explanation is he spent a lot of money and put a lot of time into Iowa and Iowans like that. My sense is that Edwards might well win in Iowa, but whether that does much for him is a big question. A gnawing question, it seems to me, is – again, these are my own biases obviously, since I’m uttering them – is there going to be a point in this whole elongated process when Hillary’s negatives start to bite her. Obviously, the whole Clinton campaign is designed to forestall or put that off completely. But, is that ever going to happen? If it does, it’s a whole new race. I find that to be the fascinating question. Who wins the Iowa caucuses? An interesting question. But not as compelling for me.

Salit: I guess it’s compelling relative to this question that you’re raising. Iowa could play some kind of role in that “moment of truth” you’re describing.

Newman: Yes. Because it might be a moment when Democrats in Iowa say She’s got problems. I’m not so interested in how many votes Edwards gets as in how many votes Hillary doesn’t get.

Salit: At one point in the roundtable discussion on “Meet the Press” the Democratic and Republican consultants talked about how Hillary has run a “flawless campaign.” At one point Mary Matilin said, ‘She’s run a flawless campaign because she has to run a flawless campaign. Just on the other side of her strengths…

Newman: …is the fact that she’s flawed.’

Salit: Yes.

Newman: In the post-caucus exit polling, the press is going to ask Iowa voters a lot of questions like: Hillary would be the first woman president. She’s the wife of Bill Clinton, who was popular with you. How come you didn’t vote for her?

Salit: And the answers could be: We don’t like her. We don’t exactly know where she’s coming from. That kind of thing.

Newman: And then her negatives become the story.

Salit: The Larry Craig resignation. As I said to you earlier, I don’t like these kinds of things. I really experience the cruelty of the game and I find that repulsive.

Newman: You’re right. It’s cruel.

Salit: There was a lot of discussion about the Republican crack-down on Craig. The question was asked: ‘Why did the Republicans pile on here and they didn’t with Vitter, the guy from Louisiana?’ And somebody pointed out: ‘Because the governor of Louisiana was a Democrat and he wouldn’t appoint a Republican and the governor of Idaho is a Republican, so the Republicans know they control the next Senator.’ So, the beginning, middle and end of the story is there.

Newman: It’s a cruel game. It’s a very cruel part of a culture which is not exclusively cruel, but which has some real cruelty in it. I don’t know that there’s much more to say about it.

Salit: “The McLaughlin Group” devoted the whole show to a discussion of the new media and the old media.

Newman: A little tedious.

Salit: Yes. The old media commenting on the new media. My general experience of these discussions is that everybody is trying to discern or attribute certain characteristics to the new media and the blogosphere that are earth-shattering and positive. Terms like “democratization” of the media, all this kind of stuff. I believe it’s a good thing that new communications technology is in the hands of a lot of people. It is promoting broader conversations about issues. But it hasn’t necessarily improved the quality of the conversation about those issues, in my opinion. Maybe I’m being old fashioned, but you basically have more people participating in what are roughly the same old bad conversations. I have nothing against that, but I don’t experience it as transformative in a social/cultural sense. I think it’s commercially transformative. You now have Rupert Murdoch owning not only 11,000 newspapers and television and radio stations, but also acquiring and creating internet publications and projects off of which he’s making a bloody fortune.

Newman: You’re quite right. Engineering advances don’t necessarily imply a deepening of thought. But they can be important. Having more people go to school was a good thing because more people got a chance at education. But it didn’t follow, and doesn’t follow, that the schools got better, including at the college level. They’re just two different tracks. And yet people try hard to frame them, conceptually or politically, into relationships that I don’t think really exist. I agree with you. It’s a good thing. But whether it’s good or bad, it’s here. It’s happening. Technology is astoundingly significant and important. It changes things a lot. Does it deepen anything? Well, that’s another issue. I think it’s a very interesting phenomenon. But so far, we’ve only seen uninteresting discussions of that phenomenon.

Salit: Thanks, Fred.