The Tier Machine.

May 27, 2007

The Tier Machine.

Sunday, May 27, 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, May 27, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: We watched New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson on “Meet the Press.” Richardson is one of a number of second tier presidential candidates running in the Democratic primary. He doesn’t have a genuine prospect of breaking through to the first tier. In spite of that – you could see what one might call the “rationale” for his candidacy. He’s an insider with a lot of experience in relevant areas, particularly with respect to foreign policy and energy policy. He also has a somewhat offbeat, franker-than-usual approach, not on issues so much as relative to himself. He does not take himself so seriously as to be ridiculous. But, he’s appealing. Did you find him appealing?

Newman: He seems like a nice guy in some ways. He also might be a shill for the Clinton team. He’s a second tier rep of Clintonism.

Salit: Good point.

Newman: But, I don’t think he’s going to have much of an impact from the second tier.

Salit: This is interesting to me. You have the second tier of candidates on the Democratic side: Richardson and Chris Dodd, Joe Biden and Dennis Kucinich. I think Mike Gravel is in a different category. Does anyone in the second tier, in your view have the capacity to impact, to shape and define the debate?

Newman: Depends on what they do. If they want to “radically accept” that they’re second tier and they can’t win, but want to impact on American policy, on American politics, and say some things that are genuinely radical, they could impact.

Salit: Do they impact if they simply offer up variations of the first tier’s positions?

Newman: No.

Salit: So, just to give an example of this, we were talking during the break about how Richardson handled the question about New Mexico’s ranking. Russert asked him to account for why his state was 48th and 49th out of 50 states in child poverty, economic development, etc.

Newman: He could have done something a lot sharper than what he did. These “best and worst rankings” of the states can be very problematic. States have very distinctive histories, different resources. Some states are extremely poor. Richardson could challenge the whole premise of ranking and say, listen, if you want to talk about closing the wealth gap between the richest states and the poorest states through some new federal policies for economic equity, I’ll be right at the head of the line. Because if we’re serious about addressing issues of poverty and health and education, we’re going to need to put everything on the table.

Salit: That would shake up the conversation.

Newman: Otherwise all you have to say is that New Mexico is a very poor state.

Salit: I think what you’re saying about what the second tier would need to do in order to impact is really intriguing.

Newman: Someone has to step off the “tier machine,” if you will, as a true independent with radical new ideas, not crazy ideas, but ideas that would be transformative of the whole political system. Then you could make a difference. Because then you’d see which of the top tier players would agree with you, or partially agree with you, or try to shut you down. That would be influential. But at the moment, it seems that the second tier is designed to protect the first tier from true independents.

Salit: It’s important to relate to those second tier candidates, because if any of them picked up any of the more independent ideas, they could be valuable. Back to the first tier. On “The Chris Matthews Show,” the opening dialogue was about the Clinton/Obama dynamic. Some people were putting forth that in the Clinton/Obama race within the race – or perhaps that ultimately turns out to be equivalent to the race…

Newman: …The race within the race within the race.

Salit: Yes, that Hillary can count as a significant success that she has slowed Obama’s momentum. This isn’t the first time this has come up, but the argument goes that Clinton stops Obama from a total eclipse in the early stages of the campaign, and that’s important…

Newman …and that’s defensive. Because the more accurate claim is that Obama prevented Clinton from entirely dominating the whole thing. That’s the more accurate claim. So did she stop him? That depends on when you do the measuring.

Salit: Right.

Newman: I thought the most interesting remark made during that discussion was Howard Fineman’s. He said “single digits by September.” If that’s true, then there’s a horse race.

Salit: Single digits between Clinton and Obama.

Newman: Yes. Because John Edwards is going to have at least that level of support. So, that makes it a horse race.

Salit: Edwards is a factor in that scenario.

Newman: Edwards, after all, is straddling the fence, between being the “old way” and the “new way.”

Salit: Right.

Newman: So, if Obama, in broad terms, represents the new way, and Clinton, the old way, where will Edwards and Edwards’ people go?

Salit: Good question.

Newman: I don’t know. It’s possible that won’t get decided until the convention.

Salit: Very possible. So, Clinton’s inevitability has been destroyed.

Newman: Well, it’s certainly been diminished.

Salit: Yes, diminished. I knew there was a “D” word that was less conclusionary. Hillary’s “inevitability” has been diminished. And a number of the prognosticators seem to think that Obama is not done. Obama hasn’t peaked, that Obama still has a lot of upside. Hillary’s problem is that she doesn’t have a lot of upside to work with. She’s so well-known, and so polarizing, and so many people have formed strong opinions of her. Obama is articulating, as you say, a new politic, a message which is just barely beginning to reach voters.

Newman: Well, he’s trying to articulate that. I don’t know that he is. I don’t think it’s clear yet what the new politic is. And I think that’s a problem that the Obama people have to face.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: Clinton is clear on what her version of the old politic is.

Salit: What is it?

Newman: It’s her husband. That’s what she wants to bring back.

Salit: In the context of this discussion on “Matthews,” Andrew Sullivan said that ultimately the hinge issue is the war, how the war goes. How candidates do will be based on what happens on the ground in Iraq. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton voted against the funding package on the grounds that it didn’t contain benchmarks. Nonetheless, this funding package has gone to the White House, and the president is going to sign it, and the appropriations will be there for the troops. And at the same time, the story has been coming out all week that the White House is looking at its own benchmark system, meaning what are the various withdrawal scenarios and internal benchmarks that they’re going to use to withdraw American troops. So, what do you think the antiwar activist wing of the Democratic Party is looking for now? What are its benchmarks relative to the candidates?

Newman: I think Clinton is counting on her ability to split up the antiwar movement. If she can get enough of it, she can offset Obama, who in some sense, has to get all of it.

Salit: Interesting.

Newman: A possible scenario is that the antiwar activists as a whole say We’re satisfied that Clinton, Obama and Edwards and the Party are now antiwar. So we don’t have to put any kind of squeeze on. That would in some ways, neutralize the Iraq question as the dominant question within the Democratic Party base. After all, Howard Dean’s the head of the DNC. He was antiwar even before Obama was. Hillary has moved. So, maybe that becomes a non-issue and people will go on to other issues.

Salit: Well, speaking of other issues, and other candidates associated with other issues, the speculation about Al Gore is on a roll at the moment. How do you read that now?

Newman: He’s the recognized spokesperson around the question of environmental issues. Is he running for the presidency? It depends on what happens. It’s interesting, though. Matthews said he didn’t think Gore would want to go up against the Clinton machine.

Salit: He did, yes.

Newman: I think almost exactly the opposite.

Salit: You do?

Newman: I think Gore will come in, if and only if, he sees himself as the only one who could go up against the Clinton machine. To me, that’s closer to the truth. Maybe there’s a Gore/Obama ticket somewhere out there. But, I think he’s motivated to take on the Clintons. He doesn’t like the Clintons. He sees the Clintons as having stood in the way of his doing the most progressive-minded things while they were in office. Actually, I think he’s more motivated by the prospect of taking on the Clintons than he is afraid of taking them on.

Salit: Jerry Falwell passed away this week and “The McLaughlin Group” did a short retrospective on him and springboarded off of that to a discussion about the alliance between the Christian Conservative movement and the Republican Party. The question was “Who got the better deal?” There seemed to be a consensus that the Republican Party got the better end of the deal, meaning they got a highly organized, highly motivated, highly mobilizable constituency that was critical to the Reagan years and to Republican domination at the national level.

Newman: It seems to me that a deal of that nature, if it’s as successful as it has been, is going to give something to both sides. It’s a deal, after all. It helps both the Republicans and the Christian Conservatives. I would have thought that would be the very nature of the deal. You help us and we’ll help you. That’s what a deal is.

Salit: Is it unraveling?

Newman: I don’t think so. It’s certainly frayed. But the question is going to be whether the Democrats can make a different set of deals, or reinforce old deals, and come up with a Democratic majority. The Republicans are a minority party. So, for the Republicans to win, they have to provoke the Democrats into doing something ridiculous. Republicans have been successful at this, by the way.

Salit: They have been.

Newman: But if the Democrats don’t do that this time, they are likely to win.

Salit: How do you respond to Eleanor Clift’s characterization that the coalition between the social conservatives and the Republican Party has peaked; that the fight inside the Republican Party now is whether it’s going to be able to modernize and recast itself with a new face and a new framework; that that’s what the Giuliani candidacy is all about?

Newman: Well, I agree with Clift that there is such a fight. It’s a function of a deep concern that the Democratic coalition is going to win the presidency. So, it’s anticipatory of that. These two parties are so dominant that they live by taking in each other’s wash. And, this is where the wash is at.

Salit: They can create all kinds of scenarios that feed off the contradictions within their own situations. Just because contradictions are presenting themselves doesn’t mean that the Republicans are going away or that their place in American politics is necessarily diminished.

Newman: Yes. But, American political thinking, which is vulgarly binary, in my opinion, reflects the idea that things are either one way or the other. Either the Republicans are ascendant or they’re crashing. I think it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Salit: You said before that you thought it was likely, given that the Democratic Party is now the antiwar party, that the Iraq war is not going to be the determining issue.

Newman: In the Democratic primary. I think it will be determining in the general election.

Salit: In the general election, okay. What do you think the determining issue will be in the Democratic Party primary?

Newman: Old or new, is what it should be. Obama is the one who could make it that. I don’t know that his people will let him do that. If his people go too far in that regard, they might cost themselves work in future Democratic Party campaigns. That’s their constraint. We independents are not constrained by that. That’s the beauty of not winning.

Salit: Right. Thank you.