Topsy-Turvy Times.

March 11, 2007

Topsy-Turvy Times.

Sunday, March 11, 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 11, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” and excerpts from “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on PBS.

Salit: Chris Matthews began with a discussion of Dick Cheney and his changing position in the White House. Once identified as the all-powerful guy who was running the show, with Bush as the front man, reporters are now raising questions about who’s really in charge here. Is Bush in charge? What’s Cheney’s role? Is Cheney as powerful as he once was? Some power has been ceded to Condoleezza Rice, and there’s a more diverse policy group inside the White House. The Vice President is still powerful but he doesn’t have the kind of unilateral voice that he once had.

Newman: Which is simply to say, it seems to me, that the show has changed.

Salit: How has it changed?

Newman: The influence of the Democratic Party is greater, but not to the extent that they’re going to stop the war tomorrow. The White House is now engaging options that others have told them to engage, including James Baker and the Iraq Study Group.

Salit: Not to mention the influence of public opinion.

Newman: Yes. They’re being responsive to that, even if it’s in a way that doesn’t admit that they have made any mistakes. That’s changed the picture. So, consequently, Cheney’s role has changed. But he hasn’t changed his world view or his opinion about what should be done. He’s simply operating in a broader coalition.

Salit: Matthews hit on Bush’s refrain of asserting that he’s in control. He ran a clip where Bush says “I’m the decider.” Matthews’ point was that you don’t say it that frequently if you’re not ambivalent about whether it’s true. It means that he’s obsessed with trying to prove it.

Newman: I don’t know about that. It sounds like pop psychology at its worst. No, you say it that frequently if your advisors are recommending that you say something to reassure a confused public. So he does.

Salit: Another dimension of the “who’s in charge” question – I guess that was the leitmotif of the Matthews show today – was the talk about Bill and Hillary’s relationship and what Bill’s role would be in Hillary Clinton’s White House.

Newman: Exactly the same as it has been.

Salit: He runs the show.

Newman: Their whole lives. That’s the deal. I think Hillary’s always known it. I think Bill has always known it. I think the American people have always known it. So, if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s not a bad offer. A lot of people think that Bill Clinton knows a great deal and if we hadn’t term limited the presidency, he might still be in the White House. A lot of people think he’s the best person to handle the international mess, in particular. And if she’s elected president, that means he will. So that’s a bonus, or not, depending on where you stand on Bill Clinton’s foreign policy. I don’t know that Bill Clinton won’t run American foreign policy if any Democrat is elected, whether it’s Hillary or someone else.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: Where he sleeps is probably the open issue. But not whether he runs the show.

Salit: Here’s something that I wanted to ask you about. Look at some of the basic political axioms that the campaign season started out with that were considered the absolute, rock bottom, conventional wisdom: “John McCain is going to be popular with independents.” “Rudy Giuliani will have serious trouble inside the Republican Party because he’s too liberal.” “Hillary Clinton will get the black vote, no matter what.” “Barack Obama won’t run because it’s too big a leap.” All of these things have turned out to not be true. McCain has serious problems with independent voters. The base of support that was considered his edge, his popularity among independents – is really shot to hell. Giuliani, against all expectations, is now ahead in the polls in the Republican Party, in spite of his lack of social conservative credentials. Obama did get into the race and the black vote is peeling away from Hillary Clinton. These basic premises have been turned on their head. Now, some analysts say that unconventional things are happening because there’s no incumbent running for re-election, there’s no incumbent vice president who’s running for election. It’s a wide open race and a race as wide open as this one can get topsy-turvy. So that’s what you’re seeing here: the topsy-turvy factor in a non-incumbent situation. What do you think about this explanation?

Newman: What do I think about it?

Salit: Yes.

Newman: The topsy-turvy thing is obviously wrong. It’s logically wrong because topsy-turvy is not a causal factor, it’s a result. How could a result be a factor?

Salit: Well, the people in this camp would say the causal factor is that there’s no incumbent and no heir apparent. That’s the causal factor that produces “topsy-turvyness,” but their argument is it’s nothing more than that. There’s nothing else to be discerned here, in terms of the overall pattern of the political situation.

Newman: It’s amazing, isn’t it? I’m talking about the extremes to which the establishment will go to deny the existence of the independent movement. That’s the obvious factor in all of this. The independent movement is more than a third of the electorate, yes?

Salit: Yes. Roughly 40%.

Newman: Forty percent not turned on by Democrats and Republicans. That mixes the pot rather dramatically. Have the independents yet become organized in a way that they can fully assert themselves? No. Are they determining the issues? Yes. And one issue that they’ve made the issue is the war. (It’s actually bigger than the war, but for lack of a better name, it’s the war.) Do independents have the capacity to shake up the American political system? Yes. Do they have the capacity to change it? Highly questionable at this point, in a permanent sense of changing it. This is not a moment where the people of this country, in my opinion, including the independents, want another party. But they want something to happen other than the two parties. And, roughly speaking, that’s what they’re creating right now.

Salit: Creating something other than the two parties, that’s not a party. That’s what the independents in the CUIP networks want. That’s what most independents we talk to across the country want.

Newman: Yes. That’s even what Unity08 is appealing to, in a sense. In some ways, that’s what a lot of Democrats and Republicans want. Can those forces be put together into a coherent coalition? Probably not. Can they impact profoundly on the body politic? Yes. Where will that go? I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows. Maybe it won’t go further than what’s going on now. Maybe this is what we’ve got.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: Poor John McCain didn’t stick close enough to us. He should have. If he had, he would have recognized that there was a substantial effort to move the independent movement left. And it has so moved. That leaves him in a bad spot.

Salit: He surely is in a bad spot.

Newman: He has no left cover. Now, I could see the gamble that he’s made, to advance his position in the Republican primary. However, another thing he failed to take into account is that like every good red-blooded American, the Far Right is only pre-occupied with winning. They have no ideological position that they will not compromise in order to win. They like winning. They like being in the White House. And they want to stay where the action is. So McCain made his move and it was valid. But I think he forgot that the Right might seriously consider Giuliani simply because he looks more like a winner than McCain does. Giuliani looks tough. McCain looks old. Here’s another aphorism that you might consider to describe American politics: Honesty will only get you so far.

Salit: Well, if McCain is losing independents on his left and conservatives on his right, he’s not sitting with very much. No wonder he looks old. Is there a version of the tough vs. old paradigm that applies to Obama vs. Hillary?

Newman: Hillary is the Clinton candidate. She’s got what many people, even Republicans, consider the best political mind in the world today – Bill’s. Obama speaks for tomorrow. And that’s the race. I think he’s a remarkably compelling voice for tomorrow. She’s not tomorrow. She’s today bordering on yesterday. He’s today bordering on tomorrow. It’s interesting.

Salit: It is very interesting. You said before that the independents aren’t an organized force, but they’re a vital force. Their presence is impacting significantly on the body politic.

Newman: I don’t see how that could be missed.

Salit: And, the independent movement is moving left…

Newman: At least it’s being pushed to the left by a force that is becoming more formidable. The independent movement was born on the right. But it was re-shaped by the war and by the forces that have been developing it on the ground, most specifically the activist independents in the CUIP network. In effect, you now have an independent left of some significance in this country.

Salit: So, you have an independent left that is emerging. And, you have an old Left which is inside the Democratic Party.

Newman: I don’t think that’s an accurate description. The old Left is the Democratic Party. It’s not inside it.

Salit: And where’s Barack Obama, do you think? On one hand, he’s a Democrat and he’s running in the Democratic primary.

Newman: But that doesn’t have the same meaning it used to have. Where is he? I think he concludes, probably with some good reason, that the way to go is to remain a Democrat and to make the biggest appeal possible to the new wave of independents. That way, he figures – and probably correctly – he can hold on to the Democratic vote while gaining a new base. This is his formula for victory. It’s not Hillary’s formula for victory, because she comes from the world of Clinton. And they think that they’re the wave before the new wave. Except the new wave has already, in my opinion, arrived.

Salit: A little bit sooner, perhaps, than they thought it was going to.

Newman: Yes, sooner and a little bit more extreme.

Salit: Extreme in its size? Extreme in its vision?

Newman: Its size is its size. There’s no “extreme” size.

Salit: When Obama attracts 20,000 people to an appearance, that’s an extremely large crowd.

Newman: But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about Obama attracting crowds. We’re talking about 35-40% of the population. The Democrats, and, in many respects, the Republicans as well, have been so oblivious to the independent movement that they’ve missed its growth, both quantitatively and qualitatively. So, it’s some kind of year. You give me the adjective.

Salit: A topsy-turvy year.

Newman: It’s a topsy-turvy year. And a progressive year. As I read it, I don’t know who’s going to win between Obama and Clinton. But I think one or the other is going to win.

Salit: In the Democratic primary.

Newman: At this point, I’d say in both the primary and the general election. And no matter which one wins, it’s going to be a step forward for the country on the progressive meter. That’s a lawful thing because the Republican right in this country made its play and it was big and horribly disastrous. Have they picked up some gains? Yes, in the Supreme Court and elsewhere. They’ve made gains in the institutions that move slowly. But the disastrousness of their policies can’t be covered over. As far as the contest between Obama and Clinton? That could be very close. I have no idea which way it’ll turn. I don’t know that anybody does.

Salit: Even with all of Giuliani’s forward motion on the Republican side, as you read it now, Giuliani won’t beat either Obama or Clinton?

Newman: He’s still a Republican. Republicans will have to pay a price for this terrible fiasco.

Salit: They can’t come back from that so quickly – in the very next cycle.

Newman: I don’t think so. I know that goes against the logic of those who point out – usually accurately – that if there’s a way to lose, the Democrats will find it. Despite that, I’m inclined to think that the Republicans won’t be able to recover. Even the Democrats won’t be able to find a way to lose in this presidential.

Salit: Thank you.