The Waiting Game.

March 25, 2007

The Waiting Game.

Sunday, March 25, 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, March 25, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” and excerpts from “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on PBS.

Salit: Last week the House voted 218 to 212 to impose a date for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Now the action goes to the Senate. The speculation is that the Senate probably won’t pass a bill that will make its way to George Bush – for a veto. David Brooks described the House vote as “impressive, but not important;” impressive because Pelosi was able to put together a Democratic bloc to pass it. What’s your view of the congressional action on Iraq at this point? Is it important, is it not important?

Newman: It’s politically important and not militarily important.

Salit: Politically important in what way, do you think?

Newman: The Democrats won a majority in the House and now they’re showing they can do some things politically that they couldn’t do before. Does it have much of a relationship to the war? Not much. Why? For the obvious reason that the president is still the commander-in-chief and he runs the war.

Salit: If they can’t directly change the course of the war (other than cutting off funds) what’s the statement that the Democrats are looking to make in doing this?

Newman: That they’re likely to win the presidency. If they do, they’ll change the course of the war. If they don’t, they won’t.

Salit: How did you react to David Brooks’ comment when he said that one of the mistakes that he made in his early coverage of the war was not paying enough attention to “the facts on the ground?”

Newman: I have a lot of respect for Brooks, but I think it’s a cover up.

Salit: A cover up in what way?

Newman: You can’t not pay attention to the facts on the ground when you’re covering a war. The “facts on the ground” is the war. So, what is that supposed to mean?

Salit: I guess what he really means is that he was a partisan in the beginning.

Newman: Or, he’s saying that he paid more attention to what he and the Republicans in general took to be the righteousness of the cause. But how can you not pay attention to what’s happening on the ground?

Salit: Turning now to a discussion of the war and its impact on the presidential race, there was talk about the Clinton campaign’s reaction to the Obama surge, never mind the troop surge. Two lines were put out by the Clinton camp this week against Obama. One “talking point” was: if you look at Obama’s writings and his statements about the 2002 vote to authorize the war, you’ll see that he expressed ambivalence about what to do in that situation. Ergo, this notion that’s out there that Obama is the true blue, anti-war candidate who knew from the start that the war was the wrong way to go is a fallacy. Then the other side of Clinton’s “war” offensive this week came from her pollster Mark Penn, who put out the line that there’s really not much difference – “no daylight” – between Clinton’s voting record and Obama’s voting record on the war. All the appropriations bills that have come before the Congress, he’s voted for and she’s voted for, and their voting records are virtually identical. Ergo, you can’t call Obama an anti-war candidate, unless you’re also willing to call Hillary an anti-war candidate. Matthews says the Clintons are hunkering down now. They’re afraid of Obama, they’re angry about how well he’s doing and they’re making moves in response to that. Are the Clintons pissed off at Obama?

Newman: It’s as good a read as any. I bet some of the important people in the Clinton camp thought that it would be over by now and it’s not over by now.

Salit: “Over” as in the Obama surge would be over? “A flash in the pan and then it’s gone” kind of thing?

Newman: Yes. But it’s not looking like that. Is the Clinton strategy to discredit Obama a good approach? I don’t think so.

Salit: They’re trying to discredit him as the anti-war candidate to send out the message that he’s really just another politician. He equivocates. He’s conflicted on the issue of the war. So was Hillary. All the politicians were conflicted. His voting record pretty much matches all the other liberal Democrats. Therefore, Obama’s just another politician.

Newman: Actually, if I were on their team, I think my major reason for making this play would be to try to provoke Obama into attacking Hillary. I don’t know, but the Obama people might be smart enough not to do that.

Salit: I agree with you.

Newman: For the moment, Hillary is in a situation where her campaign is caught up defending her position on the war, and trying to spin her as anti-war. Who’s going to believe that she was really against the war? She went around the country telling everybody that she wasn’t.

Salit: So from Obama’s point of view, it’s best to leave the Clinton people trying to defend her position on the war, rather than getting into a direct counter-attack on that.

Newman: Actually, I think that they’re both being very cautious about taking up any direct fights with each other. They realize that they’re both popular. So it’s a touchy situation. And it’s also a long way ‘til the primaries. They’re both biding their time on the intensification of the fight. Generally speaking, I think that will continue.

Salit: Another front that they’re engaging on, even if it’s a low intensity conflict, is in the black community for the black vote. Clinton’s early commanding lead among black voters has dropped. I think the latest polls show that she and Obama are splitting that vote, which represents a big gain for Obama. Here are the talking points that are out in the black community from the Clinton camp, part of this low intensity conflict: Obama is not black enough to represent the black community. That was an early story that didn’t get a lot of traction. Obama didn’t overreact to that, he barely reacted at all. That was smart. But the talking point that we’re hearing from black independents who are interacting with diverse political forces locally is: Obama can’t win. This isn’t his time. This is Hillary’s time. This is in the churches and from those black elected officials who are on the Clinton bandwagon, that’s their message. It’s not his time, it’s her time. Let me ask you a hypothetical. How would you advise the Obama campaign to respond to that? Not even directly by Obama, but through surrogates on the ground who are engaged in these dialogues in the churches and various other places.

Newman: It depends who’s talking. It depends on what’s going on. Is Obama up by 10 points? Is Hillary up by five points? I don’t know if there’s a general formula for responding to that.

Salit: Well, in states where polling shows the black vote split between them, the Clinton surrogates are saying: Look, Hillary’s got the money, (and that’s going to be confirmed at the end of this week when the campaign filings come out) she’s got the machine, and it’s her time. Obama’s a good guy, but it’s not his moment. The black community’s interests are served by going with the winner. Some polling by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies shows that the black community generally wants to “go with a winner” in this campaign. They’re not interested in a symbolic campaign, a movement campaign. And so, the implications of these polls, consultants say, is that if Hillary can show that Obama can’t win, if she can undercut his viability, that the black vote will turn back to her when it’s time to vote in the primaries, because they want to pick a winner.

Newman: Well, if that’s what is being said, I’d be inclined to advise Obama supporters to respond: Now you’re telling us we can’t win? After all these years, you’ve been telling us to march on, go forward, go for broke! Now when we’ve got a strong black candidate you’re saying don’t go for broke? Do you think that adds to your credibility? I don’t think so. And Obama would back that up in public speeches about being willing to reach beyond ourselves for a new vision, that this is what the civil rights movement was all about. Now some people are telling us it’s not about that?

Salit: That it’s about picking a winner.

Newman: Well, a lot of people have criticized the Democrats for that. And that’s why they lost the presidency! So now we’re being told that black America is nothing but a constituency, and that vision doesn’t matter. Well, a lot of Americans still believe in vision. They worry that losing vision is what’s wrong with this country.

Salit: Chris Matthews characterized the Clinton attitude towards the current situation with Obama as “it’s time to crush the rebels.” The issue is when you make your move or how you do that.

Newman: If Hillary wins the primary, then she’s going to pick up a lot of Obama’s votes. But, it’s also a question of how she wins the primary. If she trips on the Obama question, that might mean she doesn’t have the votes to win. Black voters might be the margin.

Salit: “If she trips on the Obama question” meaning if she handles Obama in a way that offends black voters?

Newman: Yes. They might just not come out and vote. So that’s a delicate issue for her. Matthews says it’s time to crush him. Matthews is often inclined in that direction, as are numbers of political players in Washington. “Crush” on your first opportunity because there might not be a second opportunity. I’m more inclined to think that this is going to be a very, very cautiously played primary. I don’t know if they’ll stay exactly where they’re at now, but it’s likely that they’ll stay fairly close and that no one is going to break out of the pack and destroy the other, unless someone makes an outrageous move and they do it as a kind of a counter move. If that doesn’t happen, I think it might just be cautious all the way to the primary.

Salit: That’s interesting. Let me ask you about two other personalities, one announced, one unannounced. How do you see John Edwards in all of this? Throughout the campaign, he’s been referred to as “the third man.” You have the two giants fighting, or not fighting, or fighting each other in a controlled way, that being Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Then you have Edwards, who’s got a good ground operation in Iowa, the critical first state in the contest. How do you see the dynamics around his campaign?

Newman: He’s waiting for a mistake by one of the big two. Alternatively, he could try to prove that he is either black or a woman, but that is unlikely.

Salit: Okay. And Al Gore, who was up on Capitol Hill this week promoting the need to respond to global warming.

Newman: I don’t think he’s coming in. Earlier, I did think that he would. But I don’t think that now.

Salit: Is that because the stars are just not going to align in a positive way for him? Or is it, at a personal level, he just doesn’t really want to get into the game?

Newman: No, it’s not as principled as that. I think that if he was going to come in, he’d have come in already. There were times, earlier in this campaign, where he could have come in. If he didn’t make any kind of move then, which he didn’t, what could be the reason to come in late?

Salit: Chris did one of his Matthews Meters on that question and asked his crew of 12 whether if Hillary starts to look weak – I don’t know exactly how you’d measure that – will Gore come in? He got a narrow majority voting “Yes.” Seven thought he would come in, under those circumstances. You’re saying something closer to what Gore himself said, which is that his moment has passed.

Newman: Except that we might be referring to different moments.

Salit: True.

Newman: I don’t see why anyone thinks that an unfavorable situation for Hillary would be a better time for Gore to come in. I don’t get that reasoning.

Salit: The reasoning is if she’s in a weakened state, that it would be a good moment for a white anti-war progressive to come in. She’s weakened, Obama’s plateaued, Edwards hasn’t broken through, and the party’s base is still restless. That’s the Gore scenario.

Newman: Well, from Gore’s point of view, Hillary’s votes are, and always have been in some fundamental sense, all his. So, if she’s doing badly, that’s less votes for him.

Salit: So, if she’s doing badly, it means he’s doing badly.

Newman: He’s still a centrist, an old guard guy. So, the perception of him coming in at that point would be that he’s out to beat Obama. I don’t think that’s a perception you can win on.

Salit: That’s a very right-on point.

Newman: So, I don’t think he’s coming in. I think he decided not to make the play.

Salit: Thanks.

Newman: You’re quite welcome.