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Obama's Audacity
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Germany: A One-Year Wonder?
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What John McCain Needs
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October 2008

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October 29, 2008

McCain Memo: Race Isn't Over

In an internal campaign memo, McCain lead pollster Bill McInturff made the case that the race is tighter than most think, Wall Street Journal's Holmes reports. He stated that "the campaign is functionally tied across the battleground states" and that "all signs say we are headed to an election that may easily be too close to call by next Tuesday."

Read the full memo after the jump.

Continue reading "McCain Memo: Race Isn't Over" »

August 18, 2008

Political Topography

I'm back from a week in the desert where I was blissfully unaware of all things political. Surveying the political landscape as I plugged back in yesterday and this morning, however, it appears that while Obama maintains a small lead in the national polls (+3.2% as of right now) his position in the electoral count has deteriorated somewhat significantly. Obama has dropped from 289 down to 228, and it's hard to locate a single instance in a battleground state where Obama has improved in the most recent polling data.

Whether it was vacation (his, not mine), the specter of Putin's aggressive invasion of Georgia, or some other factor, Obama starts the week leading into his convention in arguably his weakest position thus far in the general election.

The bad news - obviously - is that Obama appears to have reaped no initial benefit from the tens of millions of dollars he's spent on advertising over the last two and a half months. (The Obama campaign tells David Broder the polls aren't telling the whole story of how their spending may be impacting the race).

The good news for Obama is that the homestretch is just beginning, and he can expect a good couple of weeks with the announcement of his Vice Presidential selection - which could happen any time this week, though I would bet it comes sooner rather than later - and then heading into what will be a well scripted, carefully choreographed few days in Denver.

Of course, all of this will be followed by an intense watching of the polls to try and divine what sort of "bounce" Obama receives and whether it will be enough to keep him ahead of McCain as the attention shifts to the RNC in Minneapolis.

May 22, 2008

The Morning Report

In the Headlines:

"Clinton Signals She May Carry Fight to Convention" (Katharine Seelye and Jeff Zeleny, New York Times) - A day after Senator Barack Obama gathered a majority of pledged delegates in the Democratic presidential nominating contest, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton defiantly sent out new signals Wednesday that she might take her fight for the nomination all the way to the party's convention in August.

"McCain to Host Possible Veeps at Ariz. Home" (Liz Sidoti, Associated Press) - Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a McCain rival in the primary, were invited to a weekend gathering at the senator's place in Sedona.

"McCain Adviser's Work As Lobbyist Criticized" (Michael Shear and Jeffrey Birnbaum, Washington Post) - Longtime uber-lobbyist Charles R. Black Jr. is John McCain's man in Washington, a political maestro who is hoping to guide his friend, the senator from Arizona, to the presidency this November.

"Religious Right Feeling Left Out in Race" (Martin Kady, The Politico) - Christian conservatives who helped elect President Bush are wary of his would-be Republican successor, and now they're feeling abandoned by Congressional Republicans, too.

The Morning Shows:

Fox and Friends - Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty, on McCain's inviting potential VP candidates to his Arizona home: "I was not invited, but I was down there a couple months ago for the previous one ... I think Sen. McCain will be looking at dozens of people ... and I just take them at their word that this is something that is part of getting acquainted with other people."

Morning Joe - Former National Security Adviser and Obama supporter Zbigniew Brzezinski, on McCain's foreign-policy vis-a-vis Iran: "There's something ominous in the tones of [McCain's] observations. They're reminiscent of the kind of warmongering that President Bush was engaging in prior to the war in Iraq."

Good Morning America - A Brian Ross investigation reported on McCain-backing pastor Ralph Parsley criticized for his anti-Islamic remarks. Said Ross, "John McCain sought and received the endorsement from Ralph Parcley of the World Harvest Church of Columbus, Ohio." Parsley accused Islam of being a "false religion." A McCain spokesman responded to the report stating, "McCain obviously strongly rejects such statements." (Video)

From the Late-Night Comics:

Jay Leno:

David Letterman:

(Greg Bobrinskoy contributed to the Morning Report.)

December 31, 2007

Where's the Love for Mitt?

While I'm in the question-asking mood, let's talk about this post from Paul Mirengoff at Powerline yesterday complaining about the potential influence of liberal leaning newspapers like the Concord Monitor and Boston Globe for slamming Mitt Romney and endorsing John McCain. Mirengoff wrote:

It's extraordinary that these left-leaning organs might actually play a role in the selection of the Republican nominee. But that's the natural consequence of (a) New Hampshire's status as the first primary state and (b) the fact that non-Republicans can vote in that primary.

Paul goes on to say that unless Romney gets routed by McCain in New Hampshire, "Republicans should not view the result as a repudiation of the former Massachusetts governor by "those who know him well."

Nobody disputes that the Concord Monitor and Boston Globe are liberal papers. However, it seems to me the more interesting question is why the New Hampshire Union Leader and the Boston Herald, two decidedly conservative papers that would appear to be surefire supporters of the former Massachusetts Governor and indeed "know him well," have also slammed Romney and endorsed McCain.

Maybe there are histories and personal feuds dating back to his time as Governor that explain the animus towards him by these conservative papers, but it also seems clear that while the Republican field seems mostly congenial towards each other, they all appear to share a visceral dislike of Romney. This doesn't seem to be coincidence, and it can't be explained away by jealousy or by Romney's position in the polls.

March 15, 2007

The Daily 2008

The leading Democratic presidential candidates and Republican senators John McCain and Sam Brownback attended yesterday's meeting of the International Association of Fire Fighters. The forum was mostly uneventful as candidates lavished praise on firefighters and criticized their treatment by the government: from health care and labor issues to a lack emergency equipment. Of course the biggest story was Rudy Giuliani's absence after the union attacked his decision to reduce the number of firefighters doing recovery operations shortly after 9/11. The union endorsed John Kerry in '04 and Republicans "stand little chance of winning the union's endorsement" because of their opposition to labor initiatives.

Giuliani had his own meeting though: a 1,000-person fundraiser in Manhattan where he cast himself as a can-do candidate and said he's "impatient and singled-minded" about his goals. Meanwhile, a Quinnipac poll surveyed New Yorkers, 46 percent of whom said Mayor Bloomberg would make a better president than Giuliani.

Out in California, the state GOP is struggling with a proposal to open its presidential primary to independent voters, who would probably favor Giuliani or McCain. Michael Shear at the Washington Post writes that McCain is trying to recapture the maverick spirit of his '00 campaign now that he trails Giuliani.

On the Democratic side, the Des Moines Register has a long follow-up to a report earlier this week that quoted Sen. Barack Obama as saying "nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people" in a discussion of the Middle East, a remark that's now drawing fire from some Jewish Democrats. Obama is also under scrutiny for whether he believes homosexuality is "immoral" after dodging three consecutive questions about the issue yesterday.

For the second time this week Bob Shrum's revelations have struck another Democrat. Shrum writes in his new book that Clinton lobbied to be Kerry's vice presidential pick but was denied because of her high negative ratings in polls.

Find the rest of today's election news at RCP's Politics and Elections page.

March 14, 2007

Clinton, Kaplan and the Establishment

There's a mini-uproar brewing over the new CBS "Evening News" executive producer Rick Kaplan and his friendship with the Clintons.

Interestingly, the CBS News blog, Public Eye, is giving the issue some attention. Of course, blogger Brian Montopoli concludes that "Kaplan is capable of covering the Clintons fairly." Whether that's true, it's understandable that the right side of the blogosphere is howling about the perceived bias of a news executive who slept in the Clinton White House twice.

Otherwise, what we're reminded of in this story is just how ingrained Hillary Clinton is with the media and political powerbrokers. Does Barack Obama have any network news executive friends? He might, but those are the kinds of relationships one gets having lived and worked in the elite power circles of Washington and New York for the last 15 years. Being the Establishment Candidate comes with some fringe benefits.

Unfortunately for Clinton, the increasingly powerful left-wing base loathes the establishment. Straw polls aren't much good for anything other than gauging the mood of the activists, so it's worth noting that a recent straw poll conducted by the left-wing site MyDD came up with these results:

Candidate 1st Choice
Obama 36%
Edwards 33%
Richardson 10%
Clinton 5%
Kucinich 2%

Also remember how masterfully John Edwards stoked the left-wing's hatred of Fox News by being the first to drop out of the Nevada debate. That's the kind of thing the base loves and it's the kind of thing Clinton just can't do without ticking off some of her powerful friends - friends like Fox News' Rupert Murdoch, who, let's recall, held a fund-raiser for her last year.

The Daily 2008

California's new Feb. 5 primary date has given the state's politicians new clout as they become important proxies for presidential campaigns. One especially close relationship is between Rudy Giuliani and Bill Simon, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2003 and is now Giuliani's policy director and salesman to the right. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer doesn't want his state to be left out of the spotlight and said he would like to move the primary date to Feb. 5 as well.

In Washington today, Giuliani will not attend a presidential forum hosted by the International Association of Fire Fighters as they and other first-responder groups criticize Giuliani's record from emergency preparedness to 9/11 search-and-rescue operations. As RCP was first to report yesterday: Sen. John McCain will not attend the Club for Growth meeting this month because of a prior committment in Iraq.

Speaking of Iraq, Bob Shrum's new book says John Edwards was "skeptical" about voting to authorize the use of force in Iraq in 2002. According to Shrum, Edwards voted for the war after being told by advisers he didn't have the credibility to vote against it and that he had to vote for it to be taken seriously on national security during his 2004 campaign. "It wasn't a political calculation. It was a mistake," Edwards said yesterday after claiming he had "no idea" what Shrum was talking about. Tomorrow Edwards is slated to deliver a "major policy address" on poverty in New Hampshire.

Elsewhere, Ben Smith at the Politico reports that a Democratic AIPAC member has asked Sen. Barack Obama to clarify his claim that "nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that he was open to the idea of loosening restrictions on direct aid to the Palestinians.

As Obama plays defense, Sen. Hillary Clinton is playing offense. This morning Clinton called on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign during a "Good Morning America" interview. Yesterday Clinton reprised the "vast right-wing conspiracy" line that she originally used to describe efforts against her husband during the Lewinsky scandal. Clinton said it was "proven" in a New Hampshire court that the conspiracy exists after two Republicans pleaded guilty to charges concerning a 2002 case of Election Day phone jamming.

The rest of today's election news can be found at RCP's Politics and Elections page.

March 13, 2007

Vitter Good for Rudy, Toomey Bad for McCain

Forgetting Giuliani's not insignificant lead in the polls (ahead by 17.2% in the RCP Average), two news events yesterday further illustrate what the Giuliani campaign is doing right and how the McCain camping is struggling.

Endorsements by your average governor or senator are usually not that big a deal, especially from a state that does not have a significant role in the nominating process, but Louisiana Sen. David Vitter's endorsement of Giuliani is a big positive for the Giuliani campaign, because it sends a message that Rudy is acceptable to social conservatives. If a social conservative from a southern state like David Vitter can get behind the former mayor of New York, it takes some of the punch out of the anti-Giuliani analysis that he will be found unacceptable to Republican primary voters.

Contrast this positive development for the Giuliani campaign with the news from the Club for Growth that Senator McCain is declining an offer to speak at their winter conference in a couple of weeks.


The Club for Growth is happy to announce a star-studded array of guest speakers for its 2007 Annual Winter Conference in Palm Beach, Florida., to be held March 29 - April 1, 2007. Joining the Club for Growth for its policy forums are declared or potential presidential candidates former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney; former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani; Kansas Senator Sam Brownback; and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Arizona Senator John McCain was invited to attend, but declined.

Skipping the CPAC event could be tactically justified; however, the unexplained Club for Growth snub just doesn't make a lot of sense politically. At the beginning of February when Giuliani threw his hat into the ring and became the favorite I suggested:

The McCain campaign is going to have to a find non-social-issues path to taking down Giuliani and they can't commit the same mistake they made in 2000 by going after independents and Democrats before capturing the nomination. McCain has to find a way to energize Republicans behind his candidacy. Strategically, McCain would be well advised to position himself as the pro-growth, supply-side conservative in the Republican field.

There is not a clear pro-growth, anti-tax candidate in the GOP field today, which is an opportunity for all of the Republican candidates. The reality is McCain does need to be proactive in finding ways to get Republicans enthusiastic about his campaign. Steadfastness on the war will not be enough to deliver Senator McCain the nomination, especially when his main competition is Giuliani. By itself skipping the Club for Growth event is no big deal, but on the back of his absence at other recent conservative gatherings he is doing himself no favors among the conservative activists he is going to need over the course of 2007 to put himself in the position to win the votes in January and February 2008.

The Daily 2008

Adam Nagourney and Megan Thee of The New York Times tell us what we already knew about the GOP field, just with newer information: the party is restless. A new NYT/CBS News poll reports that 40 percent of Republicans think Democrats will win next year, 58 percent want a candidate who's "flexible" on withdrawing from Iraq, but most don't know enough about the leading candidates to make a choice.

In other news on the GOP, Sen. Chuck Hagel's deferred decision about a presidential run may be based on his hope that voters will become tired by the current field and embrace a fresher, more anti-war candidate come fall. But as former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey put it: "On the other hand, it's very difficult to run for president unless you're running for president."

Conservative Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) was made Rudy Giuliani's regional Southern chair and said the mayor isn't running to "advance any liberal social agenda." Yesterday, Giuliani told reporters he was cool to the idea of President Bush immediately pardoning Scooter Libby. "I know more about pardons than anybody needs to know about them," Giuliani said of his time running the pardon office in the Justice Department.

Mitt Romney will be on Giuliani's turf next week in New York where he'll try to raise money from big-name donors who Giuliani hasn't totally locked up. Out west Romney received the backing of a former Nevada governor at the same time the state's GOP faces an internal pushback to the early primary date it set last week.

Not to be forgotten, Democrats are trying to outfox each other. Al Sharpton asked why Sen. Barack Obama, who is against the Iraq war, supported Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary, even though Lieberman is the "biggest supporter of the war," according to Sharpton.

Should Obama or another Democratic make things close at the Democratic convention next year, Sen. Hillary Clinton will turn to "superdelegates" to make her the nominee. These "superdelegates" are mostly Congress members, governors and national committee members who act like free agents at the conventions, unlike delegates selected in the primaries and caucuses.

The Hill reports that Clinton has created a network of Democratic lobbyists and insiders three times the size of Obama's base of Beltway support. Obama has declined contributions from lobbyists for his presidential campaign and even money lobbyists may raise on behalf of others

Find the rest of today's news at our Politics and Elections page.

March 12, 2007

Obama's Audacity

I'm not sure this is even news, but I found it interesting. On March 2 the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story about Craig Robinson. Robinson is the head coach of the Brown University men's basketball team, and he also happens to be Barack Obama's brother in law. Obama married Robinson's younger sister, Michelle, in 1992.

(Some quick disclosure: Craig Robinson is a fellow Princeton grad (eight years my senior) and we've met a couple of times over the years through mutual friends - though I promise you he wouldn't know me from Adam. Michelle is also a Princeton grad, Class of 1985, whom I've never met)

With that out of the way, the Inquirer story begins with the following hook:

In the early 1990s, when his sister brought her new boyfriend home for the first time, Craig Robinson was understandably wary.

Now read how the article ends:

As for his brother-in-law, Robinson still shakes his head when he remembers that initial meeting. "We were talking about a variety of things and he said, 'I'm thinking about running for president one day,' " Robinson said.

"I said, 'President? President of what?' "

Again, in a generic sense, news that Obama is ambitious is very much "man bites dog." The guy was the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, etc.

On the other hand, I can't recall seeing anything like this about Obama in print before. Robinson is talking about meeting him sometime in the early 1990's, probably during the latter half of 1991 when he returned to Chicago after graduating from Harvard Law and began work as a civil rights attorney (as stated above Barack and Michelle were married in 1992).

So, if Robinson's recollection is accurate, more than five years before Barack Obama first ran for elected office he was thinking and talking somewhat openly about running for President. Even though it sounded like a deluded fantasy to Robinson at the time, it provides a revealing glimpse into Obama's ambition. The fact that he would say such a thing to his girlfriend's older brother on their first meeting is another conversation altogether but it also speaks to a remarkably high level of confidence, ambition and, yes, audacity).

Part of Obama's appeal is that he appears refreshingly unambitious relative to his competition. Unlike Hillary, who seems to have spent every minute of the last ten years calculating each move with respect to its impact on her presidential ambitions, and unlike John Edwards, who has been running for President non-stop for the last five years, Obama has cultivated an image of being "the right man at the right moment." He's gone out of his way to make self deprecating remarks about his hyper popularity, and when discussing his thoughts about running for President he said more than once that "This is an office you can't run for just on the basis of ambition."

That's absolutely true. Personally, I think Obama made the right choice in running this year, even if it is a bit audacious. Still, it's a bit shocking to learn via his brother-in-law that Obama's audacious move seems to have been on his mind and in the works for a lot longer than most people thought.

The Daily 2008

USA Today surveys the presidential field and finds candidates who reflect "broad trends in American life that also have affected the nation's schools, workplaces and neighborhoods" and has detailed polling data showing how comfortable different voting segments are with a particular type of candidate.

Sen. Hillary Clinton has used her unique position as the only female candidate to appeal to women, but Democratic female support isn't locked up -- a split personified by dueling abortion rights endorsements between Clinton and John Edwards. Both candidates and their fellow Democrats are hiring consultants from Nevada and building organizations there.

In Iowa, Sen. Barack Obama said Palestinians are suffering and if "we could get some movement among Palestinian leadership" he'd like to see some loosening of restrictions on direct aid to Palestinians. Obama's wife will play a major role in her husband's campaign, both as advisor and booster. Mrs. Obama recently hired a chief of staff and changed her work status to part time.

Today, Sen. Chuck Hagel will make a major announcement at the University of Nebraska, though it's still unclear if he'll announce for president after staying in his Omaha townhouse this weekend. In other GOP news, Sen. John McCain said "out of control" spending was the reason Republicans lost Congress last year. Rudy Giuliani continues his foray into the presidential arena by canceling all of his future paid speeches. So far neither McCain or Giuliani has been scheduled to attend the South Carolina GOP's version of Super Tuesday: three GOP county conventions on April 21. Sen. Sam Brownback sat down with Tom for an extensive interview, which you can find here.

Get the rest of today's news at our Politics and Elections page.

March 09, 2007

Thompson's Test

Rumors of Republican Fred Thompson joining the race for President have been circulating for the past couple of weeks, and today The Hill reports a bit more detail. It seems Howard Baker has been making phone calls to Republican power brokers gaging support for a potential Thompson bid.

I've thought for some time that with Jeb Bush forced to the sidelines for obvious reasons, Fred Thompson is the only Republican in the country with the stature, name recognition, the ability to raise money, and the conservative bona fides who could step in and fill the current void that exists in the field. The questions is whether that void is big enough to make Thompson a top-tier contender and give him a legitimate shot at winning the nomination.

The Special Report roundtable tackled the issue of a Thompson run last Friday, coming to a unanimous conclusiuon:

ANGLE: All right, we don't have much time left. There was some talk today that Fred Thompson might get into the race. Fred Thompson, who's now on Law and Order, but a senator and a jovial fellow who's known around town is also involved in the Scooter Libby defense fund. What are the prospects of that?

KRAUTHAMMER: Look, we've had an actor in a White House, but he also was a two-term governor of the largest state in the union and quite an accomplished political thinker. In getting a guy right out of a television show -- it's not going to happen, especially in wartime.

KONDRACKE: I completely agree with that. And Fred Thompson, you know, was the chairman of the government operations committee in the Senate and basically did nothing while he was there. I mean, he doesn't have much of a record.

BARNES: There's a space for more candidates, I suppose, always, but I agree with Charles, it's -- I mean Ronald Reagan, you know, was governor, he didn't just jump from Death Valley Days right to a presidential campaign.

KRAUTHAMMER: I'd say he's finished.

(LAUGHTER)

Personally, I'm not so sure. Thompson may have a shot for two reasons. First, experience is generally overrated. Two of the top-tier candidates on the Democratic side (Obama & Edwards) currently have eight years in the Senate between them - the same as Thompson. Second, persona matters a tremendous amount in modern politics and there are very few people who project more of an aura of strength and seriousness than Fred Thompson. It's hard to envision him standing on a stage debating Obama, Clinton, or Edwards and coming away looking like a lightweight.

I think the biggest challenge for Thompson is meeting the desire requirement. Is this something he really wants, and is really ready to put forth the effort it will take to keep up the grueling schedule of a presidential bid over the next twenty months? However popular Thompson may be with the party faithful, his entry into the race would be light years away from a coronation. He'd have to fight hard for it, especially against his good pal John McCain.

I suspect that's the main reason why Thompson won't run, even though I'd like to see him in the race. I'd also like to see Al Gore jump in on the Democratic side, though I doubt he will. At this point, it's already a complete circus, so the more the merrier.

The Daily 2008

Today's newspapers have some good news for Sen. Hillary Clinton and bad news for rival Sen. Barack Obama for a change, while its being reported two Republican frontrunners have come under attack from their own.

Clinton pledged a GI bill of rights to ensure better health care for soldiers and more assistance for their families in a speech at the Center for American Progress yesterday. She also echoed FDR in calling for all Americans to be involved in the war, but "did not respond directly" to an audience question if her comments meant "we should win this war." Dana Milbank was there to satirize her, clichés and all.

A new poll from Alabama reports Clinton's lead over Obama expanded eight points since last month and their joint appearance in Selma last weekend. Meanwhile, questions still linger about Obama's stock dealings with companies backed by some of his top donors. Obama's money issues don't stop there: Lynn Sweet writes that his campaign has been secretive about recent fundraising events.

The most surprising attacks today come for Rudy Giuliani from the nation's largest firefighters union, which criticizehis decision to limit Ground Zero searches after 9/11. After the union's letter to officials was revealed, Giuliani backed out of a forum they're sponsoring next week. At the same time his opponents say it's Giuliani's turn to be subject opposition research and attacks. Mitt Romney is also being targeted by some of his own: two Massachusetts-based GOP consultants are planning national TV and radio ads against Romney.

The GOP field may expand next week when Sen. Chuck Hagel is expected to announce a presidential run at the same forum Giuliani backed out of. Discovering Hagel's intentions has been tough for reporters who say he keeps his plans and counsel closely guarded. Journalists haven't had the same problem with Fred Thompson, who's reaching out to GOP power brokers to explore an '08 run. Meanwhile, potential GOP vice-president candidate, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is expected to sign a bill that would outlaw most abortion procedures in his state.

You can find the rest of today's news at our Politics and Elections page.

March 08, 2007

Stock Volatility: It's Not the Economy

From the peak last Monday, to the close last Friday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 5.3%, the NASDAQ tumbled 5.5% and the S&P 500 slid 4.3%.

Some blame rising delinquencies in the US sub-prime loan market, while others blame China for attempting to slow down its supposedly overheating economy and markets. These explanations fit snuggly into the widespread belief that investors have underestimated risk and become complacent. Alan Greenspan's use of the R-word last week also fed a fear that the current recovery is long in the tooth and trouble may be looming.

The fact that Alan Greenspan is worried about a recession is somewhat ironic. One of the major issues facing the economy today is the aftershock of the rollercoaster the Fed forced the economy to ride beginning in 1999.

The Fed lifted rates too high in 1999 and 2000, causing a recession and deflation. It then cut rates too much in 2001, 2002 and 2003 in an almost panicked response designed to keep deflation from spreading. Because of those rate cuts, deflation did not spread, but a federal funds rate of 1% led to a rapid expansion of credit - especially in the housing market.

Now that the Fed has lifted rates 17 times, and pushed the funds rate back to 5.25%, those who over-leveraged in the midst of extremely low interest rates have found themselves in trouble. These credit problems are not because interest rates are too high today; they are the result of absurdly low rates of the recent past. This is important because most recessions occur when the Fed tightens too much and causes liquidity problems to spread.

But the Fed is not too tight, it's just less loose. In fact, inflation is still on the rise and both our top down macro-models and our bottom-up estimates of weekly data, continue to point to 3% real growth in the first quarter, despite a below trend February employment report. Fear is the market's problem, not the economic fundamentals. Stocks are still cheap.

China & Taiwan's Running Dispute

The verbal shots across the Taiwan Strait were stark.

"Taiwan is our territory," said Tan Naida, a delegate to the National People's Congress in Beijing. "Just look at history. Why can't we take Taiwan back?"

"Taiwan wants independence," said President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan in Taipei. "Taiwan wants to change its name, Taiwan wants a new constitution, Taiwan wants development."

That aspect of the running dispute between China and Taiwan over the island off the coast of China is clear enough. Much of the rivalry, however, is riddled with contradiction. The consequence is an uneasy and perhaps dangerous stalemate about which the Bush Administration has done little but wring its hands.

Perhaps the most evident contradiction is the difference between what Beijing says and what it does. The party line includes frequent appeals to "compatriots" in Taiwan to reunite with the mainland. It's a Communist Party version of: "Come back, Taiwan, all is forgiven."

Yet many Chinese actions alienate the people of Taiwan. Some is petty harassment. When Mr. Chen flew to Nicaragua in January to attend the inauguration of President Daniel Ortega, China pressed Mexico not to allow his airplane to fly through Mexican air space on the return trip, forcing the plane to swing out over the Pacific and adding several hours to the flight time.

Chinese officials seem to go out of their way to humiliate the Taiwanese. In international sports events, the team from Taiwan is forced to compete under the clumsy name of "Chinese Taipei." The same is often true in international economic forums.

During a seminar in Honolulu some months ago, the head of a Chinese delegation walked out in a huff when he discovered that staff members of Taiwan's quasi-official consulate were in the audience. Elsewhere, a senior Chinese official, approached by a TV reporter from Taiwan, sneered on camera: "Who cares about you?" That was televised all over Taiwan.

China's campaign to isolate Taiwan diplomatically is well documented. For years, Beijing has blocked Taiwan's application to join the United Nations and affiliated agencies such as the World Health Organization. That effort is often extended to non-governmental organizations.

Equally well documented is China's military modernization aimed primarily at Taiwan, including an estimated 1000 missiles aimed across the strait. Chinese leaders last week announced an 18 percent increase in military spending, to $45 billion. Many Western estimates place China's real military spending at twice that.

China's hostility clearly affects the attitudes of Taiwanese as seen in polls taken three times a year, the latest in December. About 85 percent opted for maintaining the status quo, meaning moving toward neither independence nor unification with the mainland. Taiwanese seem to take at face value the Chinese threat to launch an attack if Taiwan seeks formal independence.

Among the contradictions on Taiwan's side were those in the "Four Wants" proclaimed by President Chen last week.

Chen said earlier that Taiwan would not seek formal independence. He has said that Taiwan would not change its formal name, the Republic of China, to the Republic of Taiwan. He has said he would not seek a new constitution that would, in effect, be a declaration of formal independence. Only the desire for more economic development did not contradict earlier statements.

Buttressing President Chen's "Four Wants" have been new versions of history textbooks used in Taiwan's high schools that emphasize Taiwan's separate identity and renaming state-owned enterprises to substitute the word "Taiwan" for "China." Corporate executives say this is not easy as all sorts of legal and regulatory changes must be made.

Where the history of Taiwan was included in China's history before, the new series of four textbooks has a volume on Taiwan's history, another on China's history, and two on world history. Among the company name changes, the China Post Company has become the Taiwan Post Company and the Chinese Petroleum Corporation has become CPC Taiwan.

The Bush Administration, preoccupied with Iraq and other pressing issues, has tried to persuade both Taiwan and China not to make unilateral changes that would upset the status quo and what the White House and State Department see as stability across the Taiwan Strait.

A State Department spokesman said President Chen's "Four Wants" were "not helpful" about the same time the department issued a Congressionally mandates report on human rights in which China was accused of allowing human rights to deteriorate.

The open question is how long Taiwan or China will refrain from drastic measures to resolve the dispute.

The Daily 2008

Primaries lead today's news again after the California legislature passed a bill to move the state's primary up to Feb. 5, 2008, and now awaits "what should be a swift signature" by Gov. Schwarzenegger. Next door in Nevada, the state GOP approved a Feb. 7 caucus date -- three weeks after Democrats will caucus there and two days after about a dozen states including CA vote.

Next Monday, Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel says he will announce whether he plans to run for president. Should he run, Hagel would stand out in GOP field as the only outright opponent of the Iraq war. Some are suggesting that John McCain's "steadfast support" for the Iraq war is one of a few reasons he's being forced to play catch-up to Rudy Giuliani, who leads McCain by more than 20 points in a new WSJ/NBC News poll. The New York Times reportsthat Giuilani faces a "less obvious hurdle" to the nomination than his liberal social positions: "whether he is too much of a New Yorker for the rest of the country." In South Carolina, it's questionable whether the once-powerful Christian Coalition can play the role it once did in Republican politics now that it's faced with a changing political landscape, debt and fractured leadership.

On the Democratic side, Gov. Bill Richardson is burdened by quotes from his lieutenant governor, Diane Denish, who says she avoids being close to Richardson. The governor, she also mentioned, "pinches my neck. He touches my hip, my thigh, sort of the side of my leg." Richardson denies the allegations, but questions remain on whether his personal conduct can withstand scrutiny. Meanwhile, John Edwards said he will not attend an August debate in NV because it is being co-sponsored by Fox News.

Find the rest of today's news at our Politics and Elections page.

March 07, 2007

Hillary in Selma - Take II

Thanks to Drudge, Hillary Clinton received a good heap of derision Monday for the phony Southern accent she put on over the weekend in Selma. But my recollection from watching her speech is that she wasn't faking an accent but doing a very awkward and poor reading, in character, of a passage written by someone else. (UPDATE: I see Greg Sargent has the video and transcript of the relevant portion of Hillary's speech. She was reading a freedom hymn by James Cleveland called "I Don't Feel No Ways Tired").

So, yes, Hillary is awkward and oftentimes inauthentic, but she got a bum rap this week. In fact, there were cheers in the audience during her rendition. Incidentally, I haven't seen any remarks about Barack Obama's performance in Selma, where he slipped quite noticeably into the style and cadence of a Southern black preacher, which is very different from how he speaks on an everyday basis. He obviously got away it while Hillary was taken to task.

All of that is really an aside from the main point, however, which is about the art of pandering. All politicians pander, and some are much better at it than others. Obama is particularly good at pandering, in part because he's skilled enough to not look obvious while doing it, but also because he does a very deft job of mixing in some uncomfortable truths (albeit with a very soft edge) to different groups while in the process of telling them things they want to hear. He did it on Sunday in Selma when he transitioned into a Bill Cosby-esque riff on personal responsibility.

Hillary, on the other hand, is a terrible panderer. To her credit, she's resisted pandering to the antiwar base over her Iraq vote so far, but when Hillary decides to go for the pander, she's blatant, ham-handed, and over the top about it - especially when it comes to African-Americans.

Selma provided another perfect example. Here's a clip of Hillary telling her African-American audience on Sunday that their right to vote in America in 2007 is "under siege:"

Like the plantation remark she made on MLK Day in 2006, this is needlessly dramatic as well as a gross distortion of the truth.

Voting rights is an issue in the black community, and it's something that Obama has addressed (see here and here). But I think it's very telling that on Sunday, at such a historic and widely covered event, Obama made his points with the black community in a forward looking way by saying things like African-Americans have come 90% of the way in the fight for equality but still have 10% left to go, and that "we should never deny that it's gotten better. But we shouldn't forget that better is not good enough."

In other words, Obama tried to inspire as opposed to prey on fear. He didn't go for the cheap, easy, and over the top. Hillary, on the other hand, simply couldn't help herself.

The Daily 2008

The presidential race has garnered considerable interest from the public 20 months before election day, according a new USA Today poll released today. About 20 percent of respondents said they have a "good idea" about who they'll support in '08 and 55 percent said they've at least thought about the candidates. The same poll shows that Sen. Hillary Clinton lost four points in her match-up with Sen. Barack Obama from last month and Rudy Giuliani expanded his lead over Sen. John McCain by four points. Of all the candidates, Giuliani has the highest favorability rating, with Obama second.

According to the New York Times today, in 2005 Obama bought "$50,000 worth of stock in two speculative companies whose major investors included some of his biggest political donors." Obama's campaign said his broker bought the stocks without consulting him and once Obama learned of the stocks, he sold them.

While Obama has made significant inroads with Clinton's bases of black and Jewish voters, her campaign is courting female voters with a special Web site, online ads and high-profile female backers. In the Senate, Clinton herself is pushing a bill that seeks to reduce the wage gap between men and women. Meanwhile, John Edwards is stitching up a different constituency: a hundred Iowa Democrats who formerly backed Tom Vilsack and now say they support Edwards.

There are some interesting developments in the GOP field, especially in California where Sen. John McCain is mounting a "stealth effort" to change Republican presidential nominating rules to allow independents to vote. This comes on the heels of a "barely noticed move" by CA Republicans that has made their primary "winner-take-all by congressional district" instead of the whole state -- a move seen as favoring Mitt Romney. In Florida, Romney has released a Spanish-language ad aimed at Cuban-Americans. Meanwhile, Sen. Chuck Hagel's decision to attend two cattle calls this month fuels speculation of an '08 run.

For news on all of the candidates and early states, check our Politics and Elections page.

March 06, 2007

Libby Verdict Roundup

Here's a quick round up of reaction to the Libby verdict:

Howard Dean: "Today the American legal system did something the Bush Administration hasn't, by holding Scooter Libby accountable for his illegal actions..."

Speaker Pelosi: Today's guilty verdicts are not solely about the acts of one individual. This trial provided a troubling picture of the inner workings of the Bush Administration.

Majority Leader Reid: "I welcome the jury's verdict. It's about time someone in the Bush Administration has been held accountable for the campaign to manipulate intelligence and discredit war critics..."

Chris Matthews: Why did Cheney's chief of staff call and complain so fatefully when Wilson's claims were repeated on "Hardball?" Could it be that Cheney feared that if the country knew it was his inquiry that led to the Africa trip then he, the president's right-hand man, could be expected to have gotten a full report on the trip's findings..."

Video: Fitzgerald Press Conference on Libby Verdict | Judge Napolitano Breaks Down Verdict |

Is Hillary Steaming on the Titanic?

Part of the dynamic that Senator Clinton always had working in her favor was the ability of her husband to deliver the black vote, en masse, for her if she ran into minor bumps along the way in Iowa, New Hampshire and even Nevada. This was always a critical element in why she was such an overwhelming favorite to capture the Democratic nomination. The Obama phenomenon has made this analysis inoperable.

Against candidates like John Edwards, Mark Warner, Evan Bayh, Bill Richardson, or even Al Gore, former President Bill Clinton would have been in a position to deliver Hillary the black vote. And when Senator Obama originally threw his hat in the ring there was a question of just how much of the black vote he would be able to get against Hillary. Six weeks ago I was of the opinion that she had a decent chance of winning the black vote, but today, in the aftermath of the David Geffen affair, which helped whack ten points off her lead, and then this weekend's head-to-head down in Selma, on the current trajectory there is no way Hillary Clinton will beat out Barack Obama for the black vote.

And what has to have the Hillary camp scared stiff is the possibility that not only will Obama win the black vote, but that he might win it overwhelmingly. Last night on Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Fred Barnes suggested that Obama would win 80% of the black vote. Today I would agree that 70 - 80 percent is a very real possibility.

If you watch Obama's speech from this weekend he sends a clear message that he is not going to let any campaign try and make the case that he is "not black enough." As the first of the second generation of black candidates to run for president -- as opposed to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who had no chance of winning the White House -- not only does Barack Obama have a very real chance of being the next president, but at the current rate he may well be the front-runner by summer.

He has closed Hillary's recent 20-point plus lead to only 10.2% in the latest RCP Average; he trails Rudy Giuliani by only 3.5 points and actually leads John McCain by 1.4% in today's RCP Average.

Obama's ability to take away the black vote, en masse, from the Clinton campaign may turn out to be the iceberg that sinks the H.M.S. Hillary.

The Daily 2008

At least 19 states with half the nation's population have "moved or are considering moving their primaries" to Feb. 5, 2008 creating a de facto national primary. Not to be outdone, New Hampshire is prepared to defend its first-in-the-nation primary from another state by moving up its date.

In the early state of Nevada, Sen. Hillary Clinton hired four more staffers making her campaign the largest in the state. Clinton made national news today by reiterating her opposition to the "Don't ask, don't tell" military service policy for gays that she originally opposed during her first Senate run. The policy was enacted by the Pentagon under President Clinton in 1993.

Clinton and opponent Sen. Barack Obama will gear up to fight for Jewish support with dueling receptions during next week's AIPAC conference in Washington. In New York, Obama received donations from rappers and Wall St. executives, and also raised money in Boston where some compared him to JFK. Down in South Carolina, Sen. Chris Dodd got some good news by winning a 100-person straw poll against Clinton and Obama.

Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani is tackling questions about his family life after his son was interviewed yesterday about their strained relationship. Giuliani also stepped up his campaign by selling his investment bank to eliminate potential conflicts of interests. Giuliani declined an invitation to speak to the GOP club in NY where he launched his political career, allowing Sen. John McCain to take top billing there come May. The strategist for their mutual opponent, Mitt Romney, said people are right to ask questions about Romney's faith, because very little is known about it.

Newsweek asked Mike Huckabee what he makes of his prominent Republican challengers who've moved right on social issues. Huckabee: "Some are having a late adult moment to come to a position I've held since I've been a teenager. Voters will have to determine if they're seeing the politics of conviction or convenience."

You can find the rest of today's '08 news at our Politics and Elections page.

March 05, 2007

"Jesus Family Tomb" Aftermath

For those of you who did not catch the 1-hour roundtable discussion of the Jesus Family Tomb that immediately followed the documentary, you missed a bloodbath. The panel included Simcha Jacobovici, the producer/writer/director of the documentary, UNC-Charlotte Professor James Tabor, and five other scholars not involved with the documentary. All five scholars were not just critical of the program, but harshly critical. Professor Jonathan Reed went so far as to call it "archeo-porn." Ouch.

In the wake of what can only be called worldwide criticism, the documentarians are doing what most people in their situation do: shooting the messengers. The responses I have seen essentially boil down to: the world disagrees because the world cannot agree, because it is too invested in the truth of what we have the bravery to question. Jacobovici called it "the mobilization of bias." This has been the general thrust on James Tabor's blog for the whole week (Tabor was a close associate on the project, though it does not bear his name), and it hit its crescendo with an early AM post called, "Methinks Thou Protesteth Too Much."

This is the worst kind of elitist nonsense. There is indeed such a thing as "mobilization of bias." This is the type of power that is exercised when options are taken off the table before discussion has begun. Sociologists call it the "second face of power." However, that is not what is going on here. If you look around the web, you will clearly see critics offering evidence to support their critique. Thus, the arguments of critics assume that the claim might be valid. If their thesis is a priori wrong, there is no reason to offer evidence in the first place.

It is one thing to say "They say this, but here are two dozen reasons why they have no business saying this. Thus, I reject it." It is another to say, "They say this, but this simply cannot be true. Thus, I reject it." The latter is the mobilization of bias. The former is mobilization of evidence.

Their claim, then, is fatuous. It seems to me to be an attempt to win the debate by out-flanking the arguments for a last-ditch shot at the critics themselves. We can thus see the ever-widening circle of unfalsifiability that the documentarians seek to create. Not only is the evidence that contradicts their thesis a priori excluded. So also are those who critique the claim. The documentarians want to have a debate between (a) those who think that this tomb belonged to Jesus of Nazareth, and (b) those who are unsure. All and sundry who read the book, who watched the documentary, and who find their claims laughably underdetermined are "biased."

Once again: heads they win, tails you lose.

Final point. Keep an eye on their evolving response. The next step in the cycle will probably be: why can't you just admit that this is possible? There are flashes of this from both Tabor and Jacobovici already. This, too, is fatuous. Anything is possible. Probability distributions never actually touch the x-axis -- which means that all options, at least in theory, are on the table. But that is not the point. The point is that it is highly unlikely. The point is that, when one actually takes the time to assign a probability to this being Jesus of Nazareth's tomb -- one comes up with a ridiculously low number.

Science -- even a "soft" science like New Testament studies -- is not, should not be about delineating all of the things that are possible. It is about making arguments about what is likely, what is expected to happen or to have happened. Making a big fuss about a "sexy" unlikelihood is pseudo-science.

A Tale of Two Speeches

If you watched the dueling speeches yesterday between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in Selma, Alabama, it's clear why Hillary Clinton is in such a precarious position despite being atop the field for the Democratic nomination.

It's not really news to say that Clinton is no match for Obama rhetorically, but seeing them speak back to back yesterday gave a real sense of just how vastly inferior Clinton is to Obama as a candidate. He exuded warmth and inspiration, she seemed innately incapable of either. The difference between the two was quite clear: Obama preached to his audience, Clinton screeched at hers.

Worse for Clinton than the aesthetic comparison, perhaps, was the tactical result from yesterday. Obama did a masterful job of using the event to take on the notion that he's not "black enough." Here he is tying his experience as a black man - - in fact his very existence - back to the Civil Rights revolution that started in Selma:

Whatever goodwill Clinton might have generated among African-Americans for showing up at the event was swamped by Obama's ability to "lay a claim" to Selma, which he did with the kind of charisma and effectiveness that will only further consolidate his support within the black community.

As Bill Kristol pointed out yesterday on FNS, Obama now trails Clinton by less (10.6%) than McCain trails Giuliani (16.4%). In other words, we've already reached the point where Clinton's "inevitability" is being called into question. It's an especially dangerous place for her because that aura is a big asset to her candidacy, and once it's gone she can never get it back.

March 02, 2007

CPAC: Romney Hits One Out

Almost everything now being written about the 2008 race should be prefaced with "It's still early but..." With that in mind, Mitt Romney, who's had a tough couple of weeks fending off flip-flopping charges, apparently just dazzled the CPAC crowd, according to some conservative folks in attendance.

Over at the Corner, Kate O'Beirne said Romney's attacks on McCain-Feingold and the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill were "big crowd pleasers." (Hmmm, what do those two bills have in common?) Also, she notes, "In stringing together some of the events he faced upon taking office -- the Massachusetts court ordering gay marriage, the scientific community's support for creating embryos for research, and the blackballing of Catholic Charities over gay adoption -- he offered a potentially plausible sequence that prompted second thoughts on social issues."

At RedState.com, Erick Erickson sums it up: "Giuliani had leadership. Romney had conservatism." He adds, "Mitt Romney was pitch perfect and willing to talk social issues -- something totally missing from Giuliani's speech. And people noticed. I have to say that it was a tremendous speech. I actually could not listen to all of Rudy's, but Mitt's was great." Oh, and there's a trend emerging at CPAC. As Erickson notes, "He spoke negatively about McCain-Feingold and McCain-Kennedy."

RedState has Romney's full speech here.

For a less partisan perspective, Jonathan Martin of ThePolitico.com writes, "Mitt's team got what they wanted: a tougher, more focused, more forward-leaning speech that was just that, a speech. Gone were the rambling anecdotes and asides (no Olympics and no Challenger) and left was a more concise message." And, yes, Martin makes sure to tell his readers that Romney "took two direct shots at John McCain" over campaign finance reform and immigration.

Two conclusions to draw from this. First, Romney did what he had to do to. And second, McCain took it on the chin.

Notes on Iraq

In my column today on the administration's early efforts to secure Baghdad, I note some of the signs of progress that have emerged from Iraq in recently. Here are three more from today: 1) The Washington Post reports that Sunni tribesmen joined with Iraq security forces to defeat dozens of insurgents in Western Iraq, 2) the Associated Press reports a sharp drop in the body count in Baghdad, and 3) The Los Angeles Times says that Iraqis who fled amid the earlier violence in their country are beginning to return home.

Also of note, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has chosen Iraq war critic Eliot A. Cohen to replace Philip Zelikow as a counselor.

Meanwhile, Democrats in the Senate yesterday continued to struggle to find ways to rebuke the administration's policy in Iraq. Majority Leader Reid said that while Democrats weren't able to agree on a political tactic, there was unanimity among his caucus that the "war in Iraq is going wrong."

And Russ Feingold said this:

"It's still George Bush's war, but we run the risk of gaining some ownership of it if we don't make it absolutely clear that we are the party that wants to get out of there."

The public is clearly sour on the war, and will probably remain so. But that sourness stems from frustration over a lack of progress in Iraq, not necessarily a desire to declare the whole thing a failure and leave as quickly as possible. In fact, if the Bush administration had made all of the same moves and adjustments six months before the election instead of six months after, Republicans would have faired much better in the election and probably would have kept control of the Senate.

So there is some political risk to Democrats continuing to try and rebuke and/or undermine the administration's policy even as it's showing signs of progress, however small. It makes it seem like they want this last chance in Iraq to fail for political reasons. It seems to me far smarter to lay low and shift the focus to a different issue for a while. If the surge fails in six months, Democrats can stand up and say "we told you so." If it somehow succeeds, they won't look like they've been pining for America's failure.

The Daily 2008

National Journal released its '06 vote ratings, showing each party just how orthodox their presidential candidates are. Sen. Barack Obama is the most liberal Democrat running, followed by Sens. Chris Dodd, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. For Republicans, Sen. Chuck Hagel voted more conservatively than Sens. Sam Brownback and John McCain.

In South Carolina, McCain and Brownback finished third and forth in yesterday's Republican straw poll, behind winner Rudy Giuliani and second-place finisher Rep. Duncan Hunter. Mitt Romney finished fifth. Romney and Giuilani will speak at today's CPAC conference in Washington, where conservatives attack the GOP as "big-government, free-spending coddlers of illegal immigrants." Romney tried to associate Giuliani with those positions during a New Hampshire interview by calling him "pro-gay marriage and antigun."

At today's AIPAC meeting in Chicago, Obama seeks to "convince skeptical Jewish voters that he is as reliable a supporter of Israel as any of the better-known" Democratic candidates. On Sunday, Obama and Clinton will attend the a commemoration of "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, AL. The event is receiving even more attention now that Bill Clinton will join his wife and bring his "star power and popularity among African Americans" to the weekend that had been "shaping up as a showcase" for Obama's candidacy. This competition between Obama and Clinton entered into the SC Legislative Black Caucus' decision over who will keynote their spring gala.

Though the biggest news about Obama and African-Americans today is not political, but ancestoral. A "first draft" genealogical report says Obama's forebears of his white mother owned slaves in 1850s Kansas.

Notably absent from the news lately has been John Edwards, which Democratic insiders speculate is being coy to hide the strength of his fundraising. Edwards showed a little leg today with the announcement that he raised $1 million online since December -- the same amount Clinton raised in a week. Obama and McCain are trading proposals to stay in the public financing system if both men win their parties' nominations.

Staying out of the Democratic fray is Tom Vilsack, who said he hasn't decided whether to endorse one of the Democrats running for president or whether he'll challenge Sen. Chuck Grassley in 2010.

Check our Politics and Elections page for these articles and more every morning.

McCain's Rough Week

It's hard to imagine how the week could get much worse for John McCain. Wednesday night's announcement on Letterman, coupled as it was with news the following morning that McCain had rejected an invitation to attend CPAC, brought back all the anger conservatives generally feel toward McCain. He's not one of them. He's chummy with the media.

That was followed yesterday by an apology for saying US soldiers' lives had been 'wasted' in Iraq. And that was followed by Rick Santorum's "anyone but McCain" broadside, which was itself followed a somewhat brutal elaboration by Santorum last evening in an interview with Hugh Hewitt:

On taxes, John was never a vote that we could count on to reduce taxes, and I just fundamentally believe that that's what Republicans are all about, and he was one of the few, less than a handful, that repeatedly voted against reducing taxes and keeping tax rates down. He's, on an issue that I think is essential for a republic, which is campaign finance and the freedom of speech, I think he's done great damage to our republic in the way campaigns are run and financed. And it's this misguided notion that government should control speech, and that we should limit speech as a way of improving the discourse in this country, and I think it's wrongheaded, and I think it's dangerous, and he has been the outright leader. I think he's wrong on immigration. He's been the leader on that issue, too, which he's been wrong on the issue of the environment and our energy security. And I think it's...talking what he's talking about with the issue of accepting at face value and beyond the issue of what we need to do to control emissions, and having government controls of those emissions and not do it through technology, but do it through imposed government solutions, I think, is certainly from my state, Pennsylvania, devastating to a manufacturing state, and devastating to our economy, and I think will make us more energy dependent, and as a result, will decrease our security in this country. And I can go on with other issues, but those are pretty major issues in my book.

And I just don't think he's been there, and on the social issues that I care a lot about, look, I've been out there for twelve years leading in the United States Senate. I challenge you to find John McCain standing up one time when I was on the floor of the Senate fighting for the lives of the unborn, or fighting for the defense of marriage, standing up there and fighting with me. He just hasn't been there.

As if that weren't bad enough, McCain appears to be pushing full steam ahead on two issues that really infuriate conservatives (see Santorum's comments), campaign finance and comprehensive immigration reform. On the latter, McCain looks to be adding insult to injury by freezing other Republicans out of the process - including moderates like Arlen Specter - and crafting the bill in closed-door sessions with Senator Ted Kennedy.

Topping it all off, three major 2008 polls were released in the last four days (FOX News, Time, and ABC/WaPo) which showed McCain's support slipping by 3%, 6%, and 6%, respectively, while Giuliani surged in all three polls.

All in all, a disastrous week. It's going to be a marathon campaign with plenty of ups and downs, ebbs and flows. But unlike the other candidates, this is not McCain's first rodeo. Normally, experience in a Presidential race is considered an asset, and that may still prove to be the case with McCain.

The flip side, however, is that while other candidates like Giuliani and Romney are getting their first and second looks from voters, McCain has already gotten plenty of looks from Republicans, and they remain underwhelmed - to put it politely. So McCain's slippage in the polls has got to be concerning to his campaign. McCain can't just bank on Rudy coming back to earth when the honeymoon is over, he needs to start running a primary campaign that will appeal to Republican voters. He'd better start doing it soon.

March 01, 2007

Who Won the Geffen Dustup?

In the punditry that followed the Obama-Hillary spat over David Geffen's comments to Maureen Dowd, there was considerable disagreement over which side had gained the upper hand in the first real intramural scuffle of the campaign. However, at least according to the poll numbers, Senator Obama looks to have emerged as the clear winner.

Before the dustup, Senator Clinton had leads over Senator Obama ranging from 15 points to 33 points in five polls that make up the RCP Average. On the day the column ran, the polls gave her an average lead of 38.5% to 18.0%. But in three national polls taken since the Geffen incident -- including polls by ABC News/Washington Post, Zogby and Time magazine -- Hillary's lead plummeted to 8-12 points. Today's RCP Average shows her with 35.5% support among Democrats versus 24.8% for Mr. Obama, cutting her lead down by a sizable 10 points in eight days.

In the short term at least, the evidence appears incontrovertible that the Geffen broadside, coupled with the Clinton campaign's handling of the issue, has given the young Obama campaign even more momentum. The pro-Clinton spin that Hillary wins this round because it dragged Mr. Obama down in the mud with her and tarnished his image of being above the political fray is just silly.

To the contrary, the Obama campaign's immediate and forceful response to Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson's demand for an apology has sent a loud message to Democrats that Mr. Obama, despite his youth and inexperience, will not be pushed around and steamrolled by the Clinton juggernaut. That message, along with Mrs. Clinton's deteriorating poll numbers, has started seriously to undermine the notion that Hillary's nomination is inevitable.

Mr. Obama not only won the "Geffen" round. If the polling holds up and the incident proves the catalyst to pull him to within single digits of Hillary Clinton at this very early date in the campaign, the contretemps may turn out to have been a key turning point in the entire campaign.

Giuliani: Welfare liberal?

Yesterday, Opinion Journal ran Steven Malanga's essay, "Giuliani the Conservative," originally published in the Winter 2007 issue of City Journal. In it, Malanga writes: "Mr. Giuliani decided to launch a welfare revolution, moving recipients from the dole to a job." So effective was Giuliani's "revolution" that by 1999 "the number of welfare recipients finding work had risen to more than 100,000 annually, and the welfare rolls had dropped by more than 600,000."

One would think that as a matter of course Giuliani strongly supported Bill Clinton's 1996 Welfare Reform Bill, which, as NRO's Ramesh Ponnuru says, "was only the most successful piece of conservative domestic reform since, well, maybe ever." Quite right.

But hang on. Ponnuru found a 1996 Giuliani speech in which he says, well, take a look:

Thank you. I'm very pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the Welfare Act that was recently passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton. . . . There are aspects to the Welfare Reform Bill that, as just a matter of policy, I disagree with and I think could pose very serious problems, and although I do think the bill does some good, in the end I believe it does more harm than good.

You read that right: More harm than good. To be fair to Giuliani, who was very much a welfare warrior, he said he supported the core tenets of the law. One of his problems with it, however, was "a provision that attempts to reverse an executive order that New York City has had in existence since 1988 which basically says that New York City will create a zone of protection for illegal and undocumented immigrants who are seeking the protection of the police or seeking medical services because they are sick or attempting to or actually putting their children in public schools so they can be educated."

Read the whole speech. Then take a look at what Mickey Kaus wrote during Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate run: "According to news reports at the time, Giuliani's administration actively lobbied President Clinton to get him to veto the 1996 bill." As a matter of fact, Kaus notes, Hillary's claim that "I supported welfare reforms. He [Giuliani] didn't" was true, if only when talking about the federal reforms.

If Hillary could get to the right on Giuliani on welfare back then - the one area conservatives thought Giuliani was a safe bet - then how hard would it be for the candidates in the Republican field?

Which is not to say Giuliani can't defend himself. Malanga's larger point - that Giuliani did a masterful job reforming New York's dismal welfare system - stands regardless. Still, so early in the race the Giuliani camp doesn't want to be defending his fiscal strengths with conservatives; he's going to have a hard enough time on the social ones.

February 28, 2007

Pre-War Obama

If you have not watched the video of Barack Obama in 2002 discussing Iraq and the war vote, you should. Obama's warnings in regard to the difficulties the U.S. might face post-invasion appear remarkably prescient and while he was certainly not alone in raising these type of concerns, and in many ways these were the obvious post-invasion worries, the ease and comfort with which he discuses the relevant issues conveys to me a level of understanding and wisdom that is quite impressive. For a Democratic primary voter this video and his stance pre-war, juxtaposed against Hillary Clinton's dissembling and triangulating on Iraq, is just one more reason to make the switch from Clinton to Obama.

I delved in to some of Hillary's favorability problems earlier today, but the bottom line is Senator Clinton is increasingly losing her iron-grip on the Democratic nomination and this video is only going to make the situation worse for her campaign.

Update: The latest Keystone poll showing her trailing John McCain by 4 points and Rudy Giuliani by an incredible 16 points in Pennsylvania (a state both Kerry and Gore carried) is just more fuel for the anti-Hillary fire.

Giuliani Out Front, Obama Gaining on Hillary

Both ABC News/Washington Post and Diageo/Hotline released major polls on the 2008 campaign yesterday. On balance the numbers were positive for Barack Obama and Rudy Giuliani and mixed -- at best -- for Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

The favorable/unfavorable ratings of Giuliani versus Clinton in these two polls are striking. Rudy sports spreads of +36% in the ABC/WP (64/28) and +33% in Hotline (58/25) compared to Hillary's barely positive spreads of +1% in ABC/WP (49/48) and +3% in Hotline (49/46). The Giuliani/Clinton differential is over 30 points in Rudy's favor.

Giuliani's favorability ratings will only go lower as the campaign progresses and if he does win the Republican nomination, by Election Day there is no chance he will have favorable/unfavorable spreads over 30 points. However, the bigger unknown is where will Hillary Clinton's favorable/unfavorable rating head over the course of the campaign. Usually candidates' favorability ratings deteriorate as a campaign intensifies, which, given where Sen. Clinton stands today, does not bode well for her in both the primaries and the general election. The question is will the fact that she has been such a public and polarizing figure for over 15 years mute the historical tendency for candidates' unfavorable ratings to climb. In other words, does the public know all of Hillary's negatives?

To the degree Sen. Clinton remains the favorite and the likely Democratic nominee there is a floor for how low her favorability rating may fall. But if the shield of inevitability surrounding her continues to crack and Obama (or John Edwards or Al Gore) becomes a real alternative, then Democrats may begin to turn on Clinton. This of course would have serious implications on her ability to hold on to the nomination, but would also negatively affect her general election prospects.

As a point of reference the Final RCP Favorable/Unfavorable Averages going into the '04 election for President Bush and John Kerry were +7.4% for Bush and +1.2% for Kerry -- a differential of 6.2% for Bush. Today's Giuliani/Clinton differential is over 30 points in Rudy's favor. Clinton can potentially close that gap to single digits, if she is able to keep her favorability ratings even. But if her numbers go negative and stay negative, she could be digging herself (and Democrats) an insurmountable hole against a candidate like Giuliani, who today has plus 30% favorability ratings. Giuliani's ratings will fall, but if he is the Republican nominee they will almost assuredly be positive in the spring of 2008.

Democrats are certainly aware of Clinton's vulnerability in this regard, which makes Obama's strong favorability ratings of +23% in the ABC/WP (53/30) and +31% in Hotline (50/19) all the more attractive to Democrats looking for a general election winner. On the back of the Geffen imbroglio (which unquestionably hurt Hillary) the last thing the Clinton machine wants is a consensus to form that Obama would fare better in the general election. Zogby's head-to-head polls also out this week which show Hillary trailing Giuliani and McCain by 7 and 8 points, while Obama leads both by 6 and 4, don't help in this regard.

McCain who is increasingly becoming the odd-man-out has some relatively good news in that his favorability remains quite strong -- +17% in ABC/WP (52/35) and +22% in Hotline (58/26), which bodes well for his general election prospects. However, his horserace numbers in the Republican field have to be troubling to his campaign as Giuliani beats him by 23 points and with Newt Gingrich out of the race by a whopping 30 points (53/23) in the ABC/WP poll. With sustained numbers like that, the general election is going to be irrelevant for McCain.

All the momentum continues to ride with Giuliani and Obama, while the long-time front-runners of McCain and Clinton flounder. McCain lost his front-runner status several weeks ago; we'll see about Hillary's over the next few months.

South Carolina Shootout Continues

If you thought the Clinton-Obama duel was hot, take a look at the McCain-Romney shootout in South Carolina.

The Politico's Jonathan Martin reveals how and where the battle lines are being drawn in the state GOP. The warring camps are led by their own generals: Richard Quinn, who is reprising his '00 role with Sen. John McCain and ex-George W. Bush consultant Warren Tompkins who now backs Mitt Romney. "Campaign allegiances aside, there is an unknown factor that complicates the 2000 redux storyline: Rudy Giuliani," Martin writes. But Giuliani has no organization and a McCain supporter said, "If Giuliani hadn't shoved it into higher gear, Romney may be out of single digits right now."

Tomorrow, Spartanburg, SC will hold its straw poll and even this small event is exhibiting the big fighting. The county's GOP chair is accused of "stacking the deck" for Romney and holding meetings in locations that aren't handicap-friendly. Still, all the candidates have worked feverishly to do well in the poll and create buzz even though the real primary is 11 months away. When it finally comes, McCain may utilize his new counsel who just resigned as SC's elections chief to join the campaign.

Meanwhile Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign is dealing with problems of its own creation after "inadvertently" omitting from her Senate ethics forms a family charity that's allowed Clinton and her husband to write off millions. Clinton's team is also trying to undo "days of harsh coverage" from two San Francisco-area Chinese-language newspapers that were not admitted to a fundraiser last week.

This weekend Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama will head to Selma, AL to commemorate 1965's Bloody Sunday civil rights march. Before Obama's trip, NPR asked him pointed questions about his experiences as a black presidential candidate, including if he talks the same way to black and white audiences, if he feels he has to prove himself to black leaders and if he has to dominate the black vote to win.

Soon enough all of these candidates will be talking about the immigration plans McCain and Sen. Ted Kennedy are taking up again in Washington today.

What else is flying through the political universe? Check our Politics and Elections page.

February 27, 2007

'08 News and More

Presidential candidates were mostly outside of the early primary states today, but they and their campaigns still made news - not all of it good.

The Boston Globe obtained a document explaining "Romney will define himself in part by focusing on and highlighting enemies and adversaries, such common political targets as 'jihadism,' the 'Washington establishment,' and taxes, but also Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, 'European-style socialism,' and, specifically, France." The campaign also anticipates a challenge on this front from Newt Gingrich, even though the former speaker and conservative icon has not yet announced his candidacy.

Elsewhere on the trail, Rep. Duncan Hunter's PAC may have broken campaign finance laws by using its money to advertise for him in New Hampshire. Down in South Carolina, Sen. Sam Brownback is calling on as many Republicans as he can before an upcoming straw poll.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side Illinois Sen. Barack Obama continued his tour of the Ohio River Valley yesterday by rallying 2,000 supporters in Cleveland. At home, Obama manages a complicated relationship with Chicago politicians, including Mayor Richard Daley, who faces reelection today. Sen. Hillary Clinton, not to be outshone by Al Gore's climate change popularity, called on the government to spend $50 billion on energy independence.

Outside of the presidential race, RNC Chair Sen. Mel Martinez said he's trying to build a consensus of Republicans around immigration reform, including his proposed "earned citizenship" plan that would require English proficiency, citizenship tests and fines or back taxes. The proposal is supported by the Bush administration and most Democrats.

In Washington, President Bush and governors traded pleas on their health care plans while five Western states did an end-run around Congress and the administration and signed an agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

You can find those stories and more at RCP's Politics and Elections page.

February 26, 2007

The Hillary Haters

Ironic, don't you think, that the most influential paper in nation happens to be located in Hillary Clinton's home state and most of the columnists on the op-ed page seem hate her guts. Today Bob Herbert joins in the fun, bashing the Clintons for raising an objection with Barack Obama over his supporter David Geffen's attack on the former First Couple:

If Bill and Hillary Clinton were the stars of a reality TV show, it would be a weekly series called "The Connivers." The Clintons, the most powerful of power couples, are always scheming at something, and they're good at it. [snip]

When Senator Obama talks about bringing a new kind of politics to the national scene, he's talking about something that would differ radically from the relentlessly vicious, sleazy, mendacious politics that have plagued the country throughout the Bush-Clinton years. Whether he can pull that off is an open question. But there's no doubt the Clintons want to stop him from succeeding.

The line of the Hillary haters (or Obama supporters, if you prefer) goes something like this: what Geffen said was more or less true, therefore it's not really an attack. Herbert writes this morning, "In all the uproar over Mr. Geffen's comments, hardly anyone has said they were wildly off the mark."

Yesterday Maureen Dowd went with something similar on Meet the Press:

I think that David Geffen gave voice to what a lot of Democratic donors and supporters had been secretly worried about, and, in fact, it's reflected in Hillary's own talking points for her supporters, which is the fact that she's polarizing, that she's calculating, that she's overscripted, and that her relationship with Bill could still cause problems. And, you know, he was bold enough to say that, and that sort of broke the dam of nervousness over that.

Two points. Obviously, there's a partisan double standard at play: if a Republican had said the same things about the Clintons as Geffen, we wouldn't be having a nuanced discussion about whether it was an "attack" or whether the person was merely "giving voice" to concerns held by a lot of Democrats. In fact, I don't recall any of that taking place when William Safire called Clinton a "congenital liar" way back when.

The second, and more important point is that Obama defenders have now established a sort of baseline which will serve as a helpful guideline: anything goes, even personal attacks, so long as it's true. So Bob Herbert won't be upset if a major Clinton supporter comes out in the press and starts talking about the fact that Obama did "a little blow" in his younger years, or that his wife sits on the board of a company whose biggest customer is Wal-Mart and paid it's CEO a ridiculous $26.2 million last year, or that the Obamas appear to be unbelievably savvy when it comes to buying real estate (though I can't believe the Clintons or their surrogates would want to go there).

Of course we all know that if a major Clinton donor came out and said any of these things, in all likelihood Bob Herbert (being the intellectually honest fellow he is) would be at the front of the line decrying it as a vicious, sleazy, and mendacious attack and calling in on the Clintons to disassociate themselves from the remarks - even though every bit of it is true.

Germany: A One-Year Wonder?

German economic growth ended 2006 on a high note. Real GDP grew 3.7% in 2006, the fastest growth rate in more than 15 years, more than twice as fast as the 1.7% growth rate of 2005, and significantly above the identically disappointing 0.2% real growth rates of 2002, 2003, and 2004.

The acceleration of growth in 2006 caused many forecasters to become more optimistic about Germany, and some even began to predict an economic renaissance in Continental Europe. After years of sub-par performance, this would be welcome.

But all this excitement appears misplaced. On January 1, 2007, the German VAT tax was raised from 16% to 19%, while the top marginal income tax rate increased to 45% from 42%.

The knowledge that these tax rates would rise in 2007 created an incentive to bring income and spending forward into the lower tax year. For Germany, this means that growth was stolen from 2007, which artificially boosted economic activity in 2006.

Early data for 2007 on consumer and business confidence show a reversal from the positive news of 2006. Both industrial production and factory orders fell in December, and January retail sales are weaker than at any time since early 2004.

While the consensus has settled on a German real GDP growth rate of 1.5% to 2.0% for 2007, we suspect that this is overly optimistic. The European Central Bank is running what we would call a neutral monetary policy and the German government is planning a reduction in corporate tax rates in 2008. In other words, there will be an incentive to push income and profits from 2007 forward into 2008.

Germany remains a very high tax economy. The top marginal income tax rate is 45%, social security taxes are 19.9%, health care payroll taxes are 14.3%, while unemployment insurance is 4.2%, and corporate tax rates are roughly 40% (when local taxes are included). These high tax rates suggest the surge in 2006 economic activity was nothing but one-year wonder.

February 23, 2007

Edwards' Missing MoJo

edwards.gif When John Edwards announced his intention to run for president last year, he was immediately considered a top tier candidate in the Democratic field: He had already demonstrated considerable political skill and an ability to raise money in his strong 2004 showing. He also was seen as benefiting from an even more front-loaded primary schedule in 2008 that should work in his favor.

But for someone as smooth as Mr. Edwards, the first few months of his campaign have been anything but. While his two main rivals have been sucking up media oxygen with dueling announcements and maiden tours to early primary states, Mr. Edwards has managed to make only a few headlines -- none of them good.

First, he took flack from his base for giving a hawkish, saber-rattling speech on Iran, telling an Israeli audience that "all options" were on the table and that "under no circumstances can Iran be allowed to have nuclear weapons." Shortly thereafter, news broke that Mr. Edwards, whose central campaign theme is closing the economic gap between the "two Americas," is living in a newly constructed 28,000 square-foot estate outside Chapel Hill, N.C., worth an estimated $6 million.

The biggest embarrassment came two weeks ago when Mr. Edwards hired two left-wing feminist bloggers to run his campaign web site, only to have their history of writing vulgar and inflammatory posts revealed. After receiving extreme pressure from his left-wing base, Mr. Edwards at first kept the women but tried to distance himself from their remarks. Both resigned less than a week later.

The latest snag for the Edwards campaign is a story in Variety that quotes him as telling a Hollywood fundraising group that Israel bombing Iran's nuclear facilities is the "greatest threat to short-term world peace." Yesterday Mr. Edwards' campaign denied he made the remark, but Variety is standing by its reporting.

As you'd expect, the net results of Mr. Edwards' missteps is that he's losing ground in the polls. Nationally, he remains mired in third place, ten points behind Barack Obama and close to 30 points behind Hillary Clinton. More concerning, however, is that he appears to be slipping in Iowa, one of his strongholds and a place where he must finish well if he wants to have a shot at winning the nomination.

Two recent polls tell the tale: A new survey by Strategic Vision shows Mr. Edwards' lead has slipped to six points, down four points from the previous month. A Zogby poll released last week is even worse: The 11-point lead he held in January has completely evaporated.

With the Democratic hopefuls attending their first "candidate forum" yesterday in Nevada, the race is only beginning, and there'll be plenty of time for Mr. Edwards to recover his mojo. But even at this early date, Democrats are searching the field looking for a winner. Mr. Edwards' bumbles have raised doubts about his political skills in a year when Democrats believe the presidency is theirs for the losing.

DJ, RIP

Dennis Johnson died yesterday of a heart attack at 52 years young. Most people remember Dennis as a freckle-faced veteran guard for the Boston Celtics who spent seven years playing alongside Bird, McHale and Ainge during their dominant run in the eighties. To give you an idea of the kind of player DJ was, all you have to know is that Larry Bird once called him "the best teammate I've ever played with."

Those of us who grew up in Seattle, however, remember Johnson as a fresh-faced rookie drafted out of Pepperdine by the Sonics in 1976 who became an integral part of the one (and still only) world championship in Seattle sports history.

I turned 10 the year the Sonics won the NBA Finals (DJ was named MVP, by the way), and I can still name almost every member of the team from memory. Somewhere, stuffed inside a box of memorabilia from my younger days, I have a picture of the '79 Sonics that I kept on my bedroom wall for years, along with trading cards of all the players.

There's one other thing in there, too. The year after the Sonics won the NBA Championship my dad, who was a pilot, arrived at a hotel in Boston for a layover. Sitting there in the lobby was Dennis Johnson and a teammate who were in town to play the Celtics. And so, ironically enough, in the entire universe of celebrities and sports heroes, DJ is among the very tiny group of people whose autographs I have in my possession; his name scrawled in pencil across a torn gray envelope bearing the United Airlines logo.

Rest in peace, DJ. You may have retired a Celtic, but you'll always be a Sonic to me.

February 22, 2007

North Korea Has No Intention of Giving Up Nukes

In the days right after North Korea signed an agreement that would supposedly require its nuclear disarmament, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, made clear that he has no intention of giving up those weapons.

The consequences of that stance are likely to be far reaching. Politically, Presidents George W. Bush of the US and Roh Moo Hyun of South Korea, both having labeled the agreement a step toward getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear arms, will most likely be shown to have been naïve or, worse, deceptive.

Then, no political leaders anywhere appear to have begun figuring out what they will do when forced to accept North Korea into that small circle of nations with nuclear arms, which will change the dynamics in the balance of power in Asia.

Nor has anyone confronted the crack that a nuclear North Korea will cause in the nuclear non-proliferation regime that has stood for four decades, even though weakened in recent years when India and Pakistan went nuclear. In particular, the example of North Korea will undoubtedly complicate negotiations with Iran on a similar nuclear issue.

The agreement that North Korea signed in Beijing in what is known as the Six Party talks with China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the US on Feb. 13 says Pyongyang "will shut down and seal for the purpose of eventual abandonment" its nuclear facilities and will provide the other five with "a list of all its nuclear programs."

On that same day, however, the North Koreans, through their official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), said Pyongyang had agreed only to a "temporary suspension of the operation of its nuclear facilities." Further, North Korea ignored most of the other provisions of the agreement, such as denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

That began a steady drum roll of belligerent statements asserting Pyongyang's right and need for nuclear arms. An official newspaper, Rodong Shinmun, charged that the US sought to dominate Asia "through preemptive nuclear attack."

KCNA said North Korea's "status of a full-fledged nuclear weapons state successfully realized the long-cherished desire of the Korean nation to have matchless national power." In another dispatch, KCNA said that "Kim Jong Il punctured the arrogance of the US imperialists with a powerful nuclear deterrent."

On Kim Jong Il's birthday, a national holiday on Feb. 16, a Communist Party committee lauded him: "You have turned the homeland of Juche (Self-reliance) into a power having nuclear deterrent for self-defense and made the Korean nation emerge a nuclear weapons nation which no force can ever provoke."

At a banquet that evening, which was aired by the Korean Central Broadcasting Station, the president of the Supreme People's Assembly, Kim Yong Nam, toasted Kim Jong Il for, among other things, for turning North Korea into "a military power that even possesses a self-defensive nuclear deterrent."

Still more: The North Koreans fell back on the time warn argument -- the Americans made us do it. Using North Korea's proper name, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, KCNA asserted: "US policy compelled the DPRK to have access to nuclear deterrence for self-defense."

Some observers question the value of statements from Communist officials. Experience has shown, however, that Communist leaders, when addressing their home audiences as in this case, tell the public what they really want their people to believe.

A former foreign minister of South Korea, Han Sung Joo, has published an assessment of the reasons the North Koreans want nuclear arms. Writing in Time magazine, Han said:

* "Nuclear status is a political trophy for Kim Jong Il."

* "The nuclear program is intended to deter a possible external attack."

* "North Korea's nuclear capability gives it an upper hand in relation to the South."

* "The nuclear program is seen as a key to survival-a way to block and prevent any outside attempts at regime change."

* "Nuclear weapons represent a powerful bargaining tool."

Han was politically correct in contending that this agreement was "better than no deal at all," which kept him reasonably in line with his government's position. He went on, however, to demolish any thought that Kim Jong Il will move toward abandoning his nuclear arms.

Instead, he points to "what North Korea sees as compelling motives to possess nuclear weapons." He doubts that Kim Jong Il's regime will "agree to completely rid itself of nuclear equipment and material," including the 8 to 12 nuclear warheads it is thought to have already produced.

Personal Saving Rate is a Misleading Indicator

The personal saving rate was negative 1% in 2006 (equal to negative $92 billion), the second straight negative year and the lowest since at least 1947. What this means is that for every $100 in after-tax "income," US consumers spent $101. To some, this proves that Americans are living beyond their means and that calamity is virtually assured unless something changes.

We could not disagree more. The so-called personal saving rate is a highly misleading indicator of the consumer balance sheet. Other, much better measures show that the American consumer is in excellent financial health.

To calculate the personal saving rate, government statisticians subtract taxes and spending from personal income. Income includes wages, salaries, interest, dividends, rent received, small-business profits, and some government benefits. Excluded are withdrawals from IRAs and 401ks, as well as capital gains. This is inconsistent with how most people measure their private fiscal health.

For example, a retiree with no wage (or other) income, who withdraws $40,000 each year from her IRA to spend on living expenses, would drag down the savings rate. Or, as Bear Stearns economist David Malpass pointed out, the $30 billion in appreciated Berkshire Hathaway stock Warren Buffett has pledged to the Gates Foundation was never counted as income. But when that money eventually gets spent it will count as consumption and reduce "personal saving."

A basic problem with the often quoted personal saving rate is that it mixes together current workers with retirees who should be expected to spend much more than they earn. One academic economist has calculated that excluding retirees from the figures would add about 4 percentage points to the saving rate. Moreover, this error should grow over time as the US ages and healthcare costs (a major purchase for retirees) continue to grow.

Another problem with the saving rate is that when consumers buy durables - think cars, furniture and appliances - the spending is counted right away even though payments will be made over time. Amortizing these purchases would push up the saving rate another 2 percentage points. Interestingly, despite this treatment of durable goods, the government does subtract housing depreciation from income. And because home prices have climbed dramatically in recent years, depreciation has climbed. In 2006, this depreciation subtracted $226 billion from saving - it did not affect consumer cash flows, but pushed the "official" saving rate into negative territory.

In the end the saving rate, as it is currently calculated is a useless measure of household balance sheets. A much better measure of true savings is the net worth of households, a statistic calculated by the Federal Reserve. As of September 2006 (the latest data available) US households had $54 trillion more in assets than liabilities, an all-time high. Moreover, total net worth had increased by $3.5 trillion from the year before. If this $3.5 trillion increase in net worth were used as the appropriate measure of personal saving, the saving rate was 37% last year and has averaged 33% the past ten years, a far cry from the "negative saving rate" which so many pessimists decry.

February 21, 2007

A Taste of the Slugfest

My, my, how quickly it starts. Last week I wrote about the perils of Barack Obama going negative:

As anyone not living in a cave surely knows, Obama launched his campaign for president last weekend by deriding the "smallness of our politics" and promising to change the tone of political discourse in America. But with Hillary Clinton leading Obama by an average of nearly 20 points in the six major polls taken so far this year, will Obama be able to close the gap over the coming year without playing hardball? And how can he attack Clinton without looking small himself and undermining the core rationale for his candidacy?

And now we have David Geffen, with a gleeful assist from Maureen Dowd, slicing and dicing the Clintons in the New York Times, just days after Obama once again denounced "slash and burn politics."

The Clinton camp jumped on the contradiction, as they will every time anyone associated with Obama's campaign says anything remotely negative about them.

I'm sure the left is willing to give Obama a pass, but you can see the inherent problem this poses for his candidacy. Obama's senior strategist, David Axelrod, has said that a positive campaign is "he only kind of campaign that he [Obama] really can run" and that they won't be engaging in a strategy to tear other people down. Given that Obama has made changing "smallness of our politics" the clarion call of his candidacy, he's almost obliged to have to denounce Geffen or else look like a hypocrite.

Obama's attacks, and those of his surrogates, have to stay focused on issues. I've been having a back and forth with a left-leaning reader on what those attacks might look like. Here is what he wrote:

I'm waiting for a version of this devastating remark from Obama to Hillary if it comes down to a one on one debate between them down the homestretch. It would come in response to her touting her supposed trump card over him: her "experience."
Senator, I think you're an able colleague, and an important leader of our Party. But let's recall that your "experience" hasn't helped you when you needed it most: In dealing with the most important domestic issue of our time, and the most important foreign policy issue of our time. When in President's Clinton's White House, you headed the administration's botched effort to bring all Americans national health insurance--that set back that project for 15 years. And, when faced with the fateful decision as to whether to give President Bush the authority to go to war against Iraq, you voted to do so. Senators can make those kinds of mistakes every so often, but I don't think the American people can afford to risk putting you and your "experience" in the Oval Office.

Nobody else in either party can do it. Edwards can't because he voted yes on the war, too. Richardson can't because he was part of the Clinton administration. Rudy and McCain can't because they presumably supported the war from the start. Only Obama could deliver this death blow to the Clinton campaign. Game, set, match--but does Mr. Nice guy have the guts to do it?

And here is my reply:

Yes, and i'm waiting to see how Hillary attacks Obama when he starts threatening her. It will have to be very well calibrated so as not to offend, but will also have to be a devastating indictment of his inexperience. I think I've hit on how it might happen: Bill Clinton will come out and say something to the effect that Barack Obama would make a very able cabinet secretary in a future administration. Maybe he'll say VP.

But Bubba is the one who will have to bring Obama down with a velvet hammer. He's got the skill to do it, and responding to the attack also poses a dilemma for Obama: does he really want to get in a pissing match with Bill Clinton? I don't think so.

It's going to be fascinating to watch this drama between Clinton and Obama continue to play out. And we haven't even gotten started talking about how vicious and dramatic the fight on the other side is going to be.

Poor Sandy Berger

You have to read all the way to the end of this Washington Post article on the Justice Department's willful neglect in handling the Sandy Berger case before being confronted with this astonishing quote by Berger's attorney, Lanny Breuer:

"It never ceases to amaze me how the most trivial things can be politicized. It is the height of unfairness . . . for this poor guy, who clearly made a mistake," Breuer said.

Stealing highly classified documents from the National Archives is "trivial?" You've got to be kidding.

This is one of the most brazen violations of classified material in our lifetimes: Bill Clinton's former National Security Advisor went into the Archives to review documents at the former President's request, stuffed a number of reports and memos with information of potential value to the 9/11 commission down his pants, took them home and shredded them, and he's now being defended by a lawyer from Clinton's White House Counsel office who tells us "it is the height of unfairness" to want to know the truth about what Berger took and why he took it.

Poor Sandy Berger. He had to pay a $50,000 fine and pick up some garbage on the side of the road in Virginia. Meanwhile, Scooter Libby had to face trial and might go to jail for, at worst, telling "a dumb lie" (to use the words of prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald) about a non-crime.

February 20, 2007

Hillary's Tone Deaf Pivot

hillary.gif Judging by the photos and the media coverage, it looks as if Hillary's first trip to South Carolina as a Presidential candidate was a success. Aaron Gould Sheinin of The State reports on the scene at Allen University, the historically black college where Hillary held one of her town hall events:

She was greeted like a star, regardless. People were lined up for more than a block down Pine Street in near-freezing temperatures to get a seat in the John Hurst Adams Gymnatorium. Organizers estimated more than 3,200 people were on hand, many of them in an overflow room.

Sheinin reports that Hillary fielded eight questions on Iraq from the crowd. She slammed Bush for being "reckless," reiterated her position on beginning the redeployment of troops out of Iraq in 90 days, and hung tough on the apologizing for her vote. But, interestingly, Clinton also used one of the questions on the war to make this nifty little pivot:

"To underscore a point, some people may be running who tell you we don't face a real threat from terrorism," she said. "I'm not one of them. We have serious enemies who want to do us serious harm."

Who's she talking about, exactly, and is it smart primary politics for Clinton to be suggesting that "some" Democrats in the race (hint: name rhymes with Osama) are soft on terror? How very John Howard of her.

As Mickey Kaus notes with his usual satirical brilliance, Hillary has already managed to put herself in an incredibly difficult and probably untenable position on the war through "a conscientiously applied mixture of high-minded comity, Machiavellian calculation, stubbornness and bad expert advice." So it would certainly fit the mold of Hillary's campaign thus far that the bright new idea is to defend her position on the war by slagging her fellow Democrats for being soft on terror.

(Photo credit: Tim Dominick, The State)

What John McCain Needs

Yesterday in South Carolina:

"It was a charade and a joke and a publicity stunt on the part of the Democrats in the Senate, because they wanted to embarrass the president of the United States, my friends."

That clip from Senator McCain campaigning in South Carolina led off FOX News' Special Report with Brit Hume last night and it is exactly the right campaign message the McCain folks need to be hitting -- and hitting consistently, day after day -- on the campaign trail. The quickest way McCain can begin to shore up support and win back disgruntled conservatives is to hit Democrats hard on their tactics regarding Iraq, while at the same time defending the commander-in-chief and the troops. The political reality is potential GOP primary voters hear that line and like John McCain just a little bit more.

Given McCain is already fully locked into the pro-war side of the political debate, it doesn't hurt him as much with general election voters as one may think for a number of reasons. First, there is an assumption in Washington that being "pro-war" on Iraq is a political loser because that is the way the war and in turn public opinion has been trending the last two years, but the future is never a straight line progression of the past and it is certainly not inconceivable that the situation in Iraq improves. Second, so much of the "anti-war" sentiment in the general public revolves around the growing frustration with the prosecution and success of the war as opposed to the rightness or wrongness of the mission, and with the Democrats now in charge of Congress their actions over the next 12 months - and how those actions affect the success of the war -- could very easily change the political dynamics of Iraq irrespective of what happens on the ground.

The point is the general election politics of Iraq are more fluid than the conventional wisdom thinks and if McCain wants to be president he has to win the Republican nomination first, something his campaign didn't understand in 2000, but appears to get this time around. The more sound bites John McCain can get like the one that led off Special Report last evening will go a long way toward repairing his relationship with the Republican base.

February 19, 2007

Krugman's Infallibility Complex

In the New York Times today, Paul Krugman explains why it's so vitally important to the left - and to him - that Hillary say she was wrong about her vote on the Iraq war:

For the last six years we have been ruled by men who are pathologically incapable of owning up to mistakes.[snip]

The experience of Bush-style governance, together with revulsion at the way Karl Rove turned refusal to admit error into a political principle, is the main reason those now-famous three words from Mr. Edwards -- "I was wrong" -- matter so much to the Democratic base.

The base is remarkably forgiving toward Democrats who supported the war. But the base and, I believe, the country want someone in the White House who doesn't sound like another George Bush. That is, they want someone who doesn't suffer from an infallibility complex, who can admit mistakes and learn from them.

How much truth is there to Krugman's hunch? As it turns out, the latest FOX News poll contained two questions pertaining to Krugman's argument:

QUESTION: Would you be more or less likely to support a candidate who has changed his or her position on the war in Iraq?

 
More Likely
Less Likely
Not
Major
Factor
 
Total
A Lot
Smwt
Total
A Lot
Smwt
Total
Overall
22
11
11
28
15
13
38
Dem
20
10
10
23
10
13
45
GOP
18
10
8
37
20
17
33
Ind
31
15
16
22
17
6
37

QUESTION: In general, during a time of war, would you prefer a president who: 1) sticks to his convictions, 2) can be persuaded to change his mind and withdraw, 3) depends, 4) don't know.

 
Sticks to
Convictions
Changes
His Mind
Depends
Don't
Know
Overall
45
33
16
6
Dem
28
50
14
8
GOP
70
14
14
2
Ind
36
37
19
8

The results from this poll, at least as it pertains to opinions about Iraq, look to be mixed (at best) for Krugman. Independents are the only group that would be more likely to vote for a candidate who has changed his or her mind on the war, while Republicans and Democrats would be less likely, the former much more strenuously than the latter. But the plurality among all groups, led by Democrats, say it's not a major factor.

Krugman is right about one thing: even with the somewhat loaded wording in the last question, a majority of Dems, by a margin of almost two to one, prefer a presidential candidate who could be persuaded to withdraw in the middle of a war rather than one who would stand by his convictions. Independents were split evenly on that question.

One more thing from Krugman's article. Near the end he argues that both McCain and Giuliani would have "infallibility complexes" similar to Bush and would be unable to admit mistakes. Specifically, Krugman writes about Giuliani:

And as for Rudy Giuliani, there are so many examples of his inability to accept criticism that it's hard to choose.

Here's an incident from 1997. When New York magazine placed ads on city buses declaring that the publication was "possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn't taken credit for," the then-mayor ordered the ads removed -- and when a judge ordered the ads placed back on, he appealed the decision all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.

Now imagine how Mr. Giuliani would react on being told, say, that his choice to head Homeland Security is actually a crook. Oh, wait.

Krugman must have missed Giuliani's appearance on Larry King just a few days ago:

KING: A couple of other quick things. Your long relationship with Bernie Kerik, a potential campaign problem?

GIULIANI: It -- you mean the...

KING: The former police commissioner?

GIULIANI: ... his -- recommending him?

KING: His downfall, yes.

GIULIANI: Recommending him and that? It was a mistake. I made a mistake.

And before that King asked Giuliani if mistakes had been made in Iraq. Giuliani replied, "of course there were mistakes." King then asked whether Giuliani would have done a better job of communicating than the current administration, to which Giuliani responded:

GIULIANI: I don't know. I hope -- I hope I would. I mean, you know, I hope -- I hope that I would learn from the mistakes that were made in this situation.

KING: Such as?

GIULIANI: Just as the mistakes I made when I was mayor, I tried to learn from them. If I get to be president of the United States, I probably won't make the same mistakes, because I will have learned from them. I'll probably make different ones.

KING: Now how is...

GIULIANI: And then the next one will learn from the ones that I made. And I would say that about Bill Clinton or George Bush. This job is so difficult that you've got to have humility about it and you have to understand how to look at the past not in a way in which you cast blame, but you learn from it.

I doubt that sounds to most Americans like a man with an infallibility complex.

February 16, 2007

Rudy on Abortion

In response to my last post on Rudy's poll numbers, reader AG emails with a good point: the phrasing of the questions in the FOX poll is far too crude to accurately gauge how Republicans feel about Rudy's position on social issues. AG asks how the numbers might have looked if FOX had instead asked the following:

Are you more or less likely to support a candidate who is personally pro-life on the issue of abortion, but believes it is ultimately a woman's decision?

Are you more or less likely to support a candidate who will nominate strict constructionists to the Supreme Court in the mold of Scalia, Roberts and Alito?

AG also challenges the idea of labeling Rudy pro-choice: "In your opinion, what makes Rudy Giuliani "pro-choice"? He is personally against abortion, says he "hates it", would advise against it, and would nominate judges to the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe."

Fair enough. But I call Rudy "pro-choice" because that's what he calls himself, and that is probably how most people will come to understand his position.

The debate that's pinging around the blogosphere is whether Rudy's pledge to nominate "strict constructionists" to the bench will be enough to bridge the gap with the base on the abortion issue. Law prof Ann Althouse thinks it will:

Can Rudy walk this tightrope? I think he can. With the level of legal understanding that Giuliani obviously has, it's a very thick, stabilized tightrope. You pick great judges who follow a strong interpretive methodology, and they take their proper constitutional position in an independent branch dedicated to law. How utterly solid and responsible.

Ace points out that Rudy's "pro-choice" position isn't all that different that our current President's "pro-life" one:

He's basically parrotting Bush's position, which is, felicitiously enough, my position, and a principled, coherent position to take on the issue. Put strict constructionists on the court to adjudicate not legislate new dubious rights, and Roe may or may not fall, and then the states can decide on the question.

The Influence Peddler agrees:

A rose is a rose is a rose. Bush describes himself as pro-life; Giuliani as pro-choice. That doesn't necessarily mean that they're all that far apart - in terms of practical effect.

My two cents, for what it's worth, is that Rudy may well be able to paper over differences on abortion with his pledge. But labels do matter, especially the ones we give ourselves, because they offer at least a glimpse into a person's world view - and Rudy's world view is distinctly more liberal than the Republican base on abortion. Yes, there are Republicans who call themselves "pro-choice." Even many Republicans who "hate" abortion but also begrudgingly recognize Roe v. Wade as the law of the land, don't want to throw women or doctors in jail, etc. (all of which Rudy says he believes) characterize their position not as "pro-choice" but "pro-life with exceptions." Again, it's a world view thing.

And the kicker for Rudy is going to be his public unwillingness to support a federal ban on partial birth abortion in 1999. This is a procedure that is opposed by the vast majority of Republicans. To give you an idea of where this puts Rudy on the ideological spectrum: when the Senate finally got around to passing the partial birth abortion ban in March 2003 by a vote of 64-33, only two Republican Senators voted against it: Lincoln Chafee and Olympia Snowe. You think either one of those Senators could win the Republican nomination for President?

February 15, 2007

Running the Republican Numbers on Rudy

Trying to read too much into any 2008 poll at this point, especially with respect to horserace numbers, is somewhat silly and a waste of time. But the new FOX News poll does have some interesting tidbits in the internals asking about voters' general impressions on issues. Again, I don't want to make too much of the numbers, only to point them out as more grist for the mill.

Here are the numbers that have some relevance to Mitt Romney:

Are you more who are more or less likely to support a candidate who is a Mormon?
Republicans only:
More likely 8% (a lot more likely 4%, somewhat more likely 4%)
Less likely 30% (a lot less likely 19%, somewhat less likely 11%)
Not a major factor 59%

Are you more who are more or less likely to support a candidate who has changed his or her position on the issue of abortion?
Republicans only:
More likely 16% (a lot more likely 6%, somewhat more likely 10%)
Less likely 28% (a lot less likely 16%, somewhat less likely 12%)
Not a major factor 39%

And here are the numbers with some relevance to Rudy Giuliani:

Are you more who are more or less likely to support a candidate who is pro-choice on the issue of abortion?
Republicans only:
More likely 22% (a lot more likely 12%, somewhat more likely 10%)
Less likely 46% (a lot less likely 36%, somewhat less likely 10%)
Not a major factor 30%

Are you more who are more or less likely to support a candidate who supports civil unions
for gays and lesbians?

Republicans only:
More likely 8% (a lot more likely 5%, somewhat more likely 3%)
Less likely 50% (a lot less likely 39%, somewhat less likely 11%)
Not a major factor 38%

Obviously, as a general proposition, the numbers show that between the two, Rudy has the more significant obstacles to overcome. But we already knew that.

Nevertheless, Rudy beats John McCain handily in a head to head match up, 56 to 31. Twenty-four percent of Republicans say they would "definitely vote for" Rudy, 56% say they "might vote for" him, and 17% say they would "under no circumstances" vote for Giuliani. McCain's numbers are slightly worse: 13% "definitely vote for," 54% "might vote for," and 25% "under no circumstances" vote for.

The biggest red flag for Rudy has to be that only 42% of Republicans surveyed correctly identified him as pro-choice. Twenty-one percent of Republican voters have it wrong and think Rudy is pro-life, and another 36% of Republicans don't have a clue what his position on abortion. In other words, nearly six out of ten registered Republican voters have yet to learn something about Rudy which, we can infer from the first question on abortion, will make close to half of them either "somewhat" less likely or "a lot" less likely to vote for him. There's no doubt the same holds true of his position on civil unions for gays, and the Second Amendment as well.

In time we'll see if Rudy has the skill and the charisma to defuse these differences with the Republican base and also whether conservative Republicans are willing to cut Giuliani any slack on social issues out of deference to his superior leadership skills and his commitment to fighting the war against Islamic jihadists, which is the overriding issue for most Republican voters.

The Worst Apology In History

Yesterday South Carolina state senator Robert Ford - an African-American - made news in a bad way. When asked by the press why he was endorsing Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama, Ford replied that, "Every Democrat running on that ticket next year would lose because he's black and he's top of the ticket. We'd lose the House and the Senate and the governors and everything."

Ford caught considerable grief for that statement, so he decided to issue and apology. Check it out:

"If I caused anybody, including myself, any pain about the comments I made earlier, then I want to apologize to myself and to Senator Obama and any of his supporters."

I don't believe I've ever seen anyone issue an apology to themselves for "any pain" caused by their own comments.

By the way, Mary Mitchell of the Chicago Sun-Times is none too pleased with Ford or his pal State Senator Darrell Jackson, another influential African-American state senator from South Carolina who signed on with Hillary shortly after his public relations firm, Sunrise Enterprises, inked a $200K deal with the Clinton campaign through the end of the '08 race. Mitchell writes:

Skepticism I understand. But when two black male legislators from the Deep South throw their hats in Hillary Clinton's ring at the start of a wide-open election, I want to slap them upside their heads.

Why are these black men so eager to drive Miss Hillary to the White House when Illinois' U.S. Sen. Barack Obama is also a front-runner?

And then she closes with this:

Political leaders like Robert Ford and Darrell Jackson are guarding their political turf in the same way drug dealers guard street corners. But worse, they are hatin' on a brother who dares to believe anything is possible.

Defending Hillary

Not that it will matter to the left, but David Brooks writes an effective defense of Hillary Clinton in today's New York Times:

Far be it from me to get in the middle of a liberal purge, but would anybody mind if I pointed out that the calls for Hillary Clinton to apologize for her support of the Iraq war are almost entirely bogus?

Brooks chronicles Hillary's public utterances before the war and finds them surprisingly consistent in seeking a "third way" by opposing a pre-emptive strike but also trying to give additional leverage to Colin Powell and the administration to force a diplomatic solution. Brooks points to Clinton's statement on March 3, 2003, when she said: "It is preferable that we do this in a peaceful manner through coercive inspection. At some point we have to be willing to uphold the United Nations resolutions.This is a very delicate balancing act."

Brooks concludes that Hillary should stand her ground:

Today, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party believes that the world, and Hillary Clinton in particular, owes it an apology. If she apologizes, she'll forfeit her integrity. She will be apologizing for being herself.

Brooks is right, though as John wrote the other day, the political reality is that at some point in the primary - probably sooner rather than later - Hillary's defense of her vote to authorize the war will become such a political liability it will be untenable. So we're fast approaching the moment where Hillary has to choose between her integrity and being president. Any guesses which way she'll go?

February 13, 2007

Obama: Ready or Not?

Barack Obama's campaign for president isn't even three full days old and he's already made his first gaffe:

Shortly after making the comment that U.S. soldiers' lives have been "wasted" in Iraq, Obama told reporters that he "absolutely apologized" to military families who were offended, adding further that, "Even as I said it, I realized I had misspoken."

This may be the first gaffe of the campaign, but it certainly won't be the last. Obama's ability to handle these type of situations is part and parcel of the selection process. As Dan Balz writes in today's Washington Post:

Obama's advisers expressed general satisfaction with the initial campaign swing. Still, they do not underestimate the difficulties ahead. Asked Monday what they regard as the most significant question Obama must answer in the coming months, communications director Robert Gibbs answered without hesitation: "People want to know if he can handle this."

To the extent Obama continues to commit unforced errors like the one in Iowa on Sunday, Democrats may begin to have creeping doubts about his readiness. I don't think that'll be the case: Obama seems a quick study and disciplined enough not to do himself in with self-inflicted wounds, and my hunch is he'll be adroit enough to navigate the rough and tumble with the big dogs in the primary - even though his only real experience to date has been a Democratic Senate primary where the front runner imploded in the final weeks and a non-competitive general election against an easily dismissed, hyper-aggressive opponent.

But even if Obama does run a competitive, mistake-free campaign, Democrats may still come to view him in the role of understudy. That's probably been part of Obama's calculation all along: best case scenario he captures the nomination with, to use his terms, an "improbable quest" for the White House. But if he makes a decent showing in the primaries, how does the eventual nominee - whether it be Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, or anyone else - not put him on the ticket?

February 12, 2007

Bernanke Goes to the Hill

This week, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke goes to Capitol Hill to give his semiannual testimony to Congress. Many members of Congress seem ready to grill him about the economy in general. Newly elected Ohio Senator, Sherrod Brown said, "While the economy is good for people at the top, it's not so good for a steelworker in Lorain, Ohio, or a small-business owner in Dayton. I'd like to hear a recognition from [Bernanke] of that and what he's going to do about it."

This is an interesting question. It gets to the heart of what monetary policy can and cannot do. We have no idea how Chairman Bernanke will answer it, but a truthful answer would not give much satisfaction to Senator Brown.

While many people think the Federal Reserve controls interest rates, and some even think the Fed controls the entire economy, in reality, the Fed only controls one policy tool - the amount of money circulating in the economy.

By adding money to, or subtracting money from, the US banking system, the Fed can impact the economy in the short-term, and influence the level of interest rates. But printing money creates no lasting wealth. If it did, counterfeiting would be legal and no nation on earth would experience poverty.

The number one job of monetary policy is to keep the value of money stable - balancing money supply and demand. If the Fed supplies too much money, inflation climbs and the dollar loses purchasing power. If the Fed allows the money supply to contract, (as it did in the 1930s) it causes deflation. Neither of these is good. A stable currency creates the best environment for conducting business and building long-term wealth.

Judging the perfect monetary policy is not an easy task. This is where the Fed creates problems for itself. For years, the Fed has suggested that a low unemployment rate and rising wages signal inflationary pressures. Then when the Fed tightens to fight those issues, it creates an anti-prosperity appearance, often infuriating congress.

A much more meaningful and appropriate signal of impending inflation can be found in low real interest rates, rising commodity prices and a declining value of the dollar. These signals indicate an excess supply of money.

It is fiscal policy that has the most impact on economic growth, jobs and incomes. In this regard, keeping tax rates low, regulation to a minimum, and markets free provides the most potential to increase living standards for all.

Hillary, The War and Her Vote

Meet the Press yesterday:

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to Hillary Clinton. She was in New Hampshire yesterday. Her first appearance there in 10 years. And it was quite striking how many times she was asked about her position on the war. Here she is being asked in Berlin, New Hampshire, by a voter, a very serious question. Let's watch that exchange.

Unidentified Man: And I want to know if right here, right now, once and for all, without nuance, you can say that that war authorization vote was a mistake. And the reason I want to ask is because a lot of other senators have already done so, including some Republicans and including one of your competitors, Senator Edwards. And the reason I ask personally is because I, and I think a lot of other Democratic primary voters, until we hear you say that, we're not going to hear all these other great things you're saying.

SEN: HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY): Well, I have said, and I will repeat it, that, knowing what I know now, I would never have voted for it. But I also--and, I mean, obviously you have to weigh everything as you make your decision. I have taken responsibility for my vote. The mistakes were made by this president, who misled this country and this Congress into a war that should not have been waged.

MR. RUSSERT: Roger Simon, it's interesting. Reporters have been asking Hillary Clinton, "Was the war a mistake? Was the war a mistake?" because all the other Democratic candidates, major ones, have said that. Now, a voter, several voters have stepped forward. Is this simply "Gotcha" or is this something that's dead serious in the voters' minds?

MR. SIMON: It's dead serious. The questions come because she refuses to make Iraq part of her stump speech. And I think, and many disagree with me, that her current position not to apologize, not to say it was a mistake, is an untenable position for her. I think she will be pushed to say, before we get to the Iowa caucuses, "I was wrong," for two reasons. One, I think that's where the Democratic voters are in Iowa and New Hampshire; and two, it feeds the image that the critics have of her that she's a divisive figure. If this keeps going on week after week, people are going to say, "Why doesn't she just say she was wrong? Why does she keep this controversy growing--going on?" She doesn't want that, and I don't think she's going to be able to stick to that.

I think Roger Simon is correct that it will become untenable for Senator Clinton (as long as she wants to be the Democratic nominee for President in 2008) to not completely disavow her 2002 Iraq vote. With Barack Obama having been against the war from the very beginning and John Edwards having flat out recanted and admitted to being "wrong" on his war authorization vote, Senator Clinton will be at too much of a competitive disadvantage in the Democratic race if she continues to dissemble and not give the anti-war Democratic base what it wants to hear on Iraq.

To a majority of Democratic primary voters the questions "I want to know if right here, right now, once and for all, without nuance, you can say that that war authorization vote was a mistake" has the simplest of answers and her refusal to provide that answer and admit she was wrong in 2002 only allows her rivals to gain increasing traction on the central issue of the war.

Obama: Lincoln in 1860 or Dean in 2004?

As I stood in the freezing cold on Saturday morning watching Barack Obama announce his run for president in Springfield, two questions kept circling in my head:

1) Why couldn't Obama be a Senator from Florida or some other warm southern state?
2) How is this man going to become president?

With respect to question number two, I have to admit I'm torn. On one hand, it's hard to enter the vortex of media adulation and hopeful enthusiasm surrounding Obama's campaign without becoming infected by it to some degree. Obama is an exceptionally gifted orator who radiates charisma - two qualities that in and of themselves make him a formidable modern day presidential challenger.

But as much as Obama wanted to draw parallels between himself and Abraham Lincoln on Saturday, I couldn't get past the echoes of much more recent history: Howard Dean in 2004. Obama went out of his way to cast himself not as a presidential candidate but as the leader of a "movement" of a younger generation that was going to "change our politics" and "take back" the country. We're now seeing media reports touting the impressive number of people signing up to internet networking sites to support Obama. There's a very "deja-vu-all-over-again" feel to the whole thing.

Substantively, at this early stage it's hard to discern any differences between Obama's candidacy and Dean's. The difference is all in the packaging - and that may or may not be enough to change the outcome. Where Dean was tart and pugilistic, Obama is smooth and soothing. Dean wanted to gird up and go to war with Republicans, Obama says he wants to "disagree without being disagreeable."

The other big difference between the two is the color of their skin, and it's the thing that may allow Obama to transcend politics in a way few candidates have ever done and to fulfill his promise of reaching across the partisan divide to unite the country.

February 09, 2007

Defending Dungy

NYU historian Jonathan Zimmerman penned an interesting column criticizing Colts' head coach Tony Dungy. Unfortunately, he seems to have put words into Dungy's mouth to make his point.

Zimmerman is troubled by the broad social phenomenon of "born-again Christians" claiming that theirs is the only correct way to follow God. And he accuses Tony Dungy of making that claim in the wake of his Super Bowl XLI win. Zimmerman writes:

In a post-game interview on Sunday, Dungy was asked about the "social significance" of the game - that Dungy and the Chicago Bears' Lovie Smith were the first black coaches to face off in a Super Bowl. Dungy acknowledged the importance of race, but said that the coaches' shared faith was even more noteworthy.

"Lovie Smith and I [are] not only the first two African Americans," Dungy told CBS's Jim Nantz, "but Christian coaches showing that you can win doing it the Lord's way."

Huh? Weren't any prior Super Bowl coaches Christian?

By my count, every single one was. Indeed, the championship trophy that Dungy hoisted on Sunday is named after Vince Lombardi, a devout Catholic who spent two years training for the priesthood.

What distinguishes Dungy and Smith is their born-again Christianity, not their "Christianity" per se. And the problem starts when we lose sight of this distinction.

Actually, the trouble comes with his interpretation of Dungy's sentence. In reality, the sentence is ambiguous, i.e. it is consistent with several interpretations. However, not only does Zimmerman not acknowledge this ambiguity, he also selects the interpretation that paints Dungy in the most intolerant possible light (and that enables him to use the coach to make a broad point about born-again Christians).

Dungy's sentence could indeed mean: Lovie Smith and I are (a) the first two African American coaches to coach in the Super Bowl, and (b) more importantly, the first two Christian coaches to coach in the Super Bowl.

But it could also mean: Lovie Smith and I are (a) the first two African American coaches to coach in the Super Bowl, and (b) more importantly, two Christian coaches who coached in the Super Bowl.

The difference between them boils down to the extent of the word "first." Does it apply to both clauses, or does it apply to just the clause regarding African American coaches? The first interpretation indeed implies that Tony Dungy is claiming that all previous Super Bowl coaches were not Christian, but the second does not.

Again, I think the sentence is ambiguous in its construction. Taking the sentence itself as our only data point, both interpretations are consistent with the wording. But here Zimmerman has made his first mistake. He takes it to be pointing necessarily to the first interpretation, rather than to either the first or the second.

The second mistake is his failure to take in the context of the comment, namely Tony Dungy himself. The man has been in the league for many years. He is not a bomb-thrower. He seems to be loved by pretty much everybody who has ever met him: does he seem like the type of man to make this kind of statement? My answer is a firm no. I think that Dungy - who was interviewed by Jim Nance after the game (read: he had other things on his mind than the social/political/moral significance of his victory, and might therefore not be speaking with maximum precision) - meant something like the latter interpretation, but his meaning was lost in the ambiguity of the actual phrasing.

In other words, I don't think the mild-mannered Dungy was using Nance's question to offer a quickie Jeremiad about the destination of the souls of other ring-bearing coaches. Rather, I think he was doing what he was doing all week -- using questions about the race factor to follow the commandment of Matthew 28:19, to proclaim to the world that, first and foremost, he is a follower of Jesus Christ. I would note that Zimmerman ostensibly has no problem with this. Dungy "has every right to believe what he wants and to recruit others for that belief. That's a no-brainer."

I'll take this a step further to say that Zimmerman's chosen interpretation has no leg to stand on - if we take it in the context of what Dungy had recently said about previous championship coaches. Tony Dungy is - in many respect - a student of the legendary (and vastly underrated) Chuck Noll, head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1969 to 1991 (and Tony Dungy's coach in the '77 and '78 seasons, the latter of which saw the Steelers win their third Super Bowl). This was an oft-covered topic in the lead-up to the Super Bowl. Rob Musselman of the Toledo Blade has a nice write-up on the influence of Noll on Dungy, and how quick the latter is to credit the former. His "Tampa 2" defense is in many respects a modification/amplification of the '75 "Steel Curtain," but also Dungy picked up moral and strategic cues from Noll on how to manage a team. Noll was not a bomb-thrower. Noll was a coach who kept his family close to heart. Noll was an even-keel guy. And so on. Dungy learned a lot from Noll about how to lead a football team calmly and decently - both on and off the field. He believes he owes the man a lot, and during the pre-game festivities of the last few weeks, he never seemed to hestitate to lavish praise upon the coach with the most Super Bowl wins. (I can't blame him. As a Terrible Towel waving, "Steeler Polka" singing, black-and-gold bleeding, "yoi and double yoi!" Steelers fan, I can't praise Noll and the '70s Steelers enough!)

So, here's a question for Professor Zimmerman: do you think Tony Dungy really meant to imply, in that quotation, that Chuck Noll - in many respects his model for a good and decent head coach - is going to h-e-double-toothpicks? Statistically speaking, if we are talking about a "Super Bowl champion coach," most likely we are talking about Noll, who won more than anybody else. So - is that what Dungy thinks of him?

I don't think so.

I am guessing that you don't either, professor -- at least not now that you know a bit more of the story.

My inference is that Zimmerman never came across the affectionate comments Dungy had been making about Noll all week (or at least did not identify them as being a falsifying instance of his hypothesis), which in turn means that he rushed out an op-ed blasting Dungy's character without actually doing sufficient research into said character.

Professor Zimmerman: you owe Coach Dungy an apology. It seems to me that your incorrect interpretation, while surely not willful, is predicated in large part upon not doing the research that Dungy clearly deserved and that you - as a scholarly historian - know how to conduct. If you are going to characterize a man's moral/political/social beliefs, don't you think you owe him the courtesy of checking out his personal story just a little bit?

I find all of this very frustrating. Zimmerman has put words into Dungy's mouth to personalize a broad-based social-political-cultural complaint he has against a segment of the population: the "born-agains." Tony Dungy has been a Steeler, a 49er, a Chief, a Viking, a Bucaneer, and a Colt. He has never been a Straw Man.

Don't treat him as such, Professor.

Arnold's Immigration F-Bomb

Latinos are up in arms over the most recent round of audio tapes leaked out of Arnold Schwarzenegger's office that show the Governator engaging in a very frank and thorough discussion of the immigration issue. Condemnations are ranging from offensive and outrageous" to "abhorrent." But after you read the LA Times piece, go spend a few minutes reading the full 24 page transcript of Arnold's conversation (also provided by the Times, to their credit) , which paints a vastly different and more interesting picture of his views.

Here is some of what Governor Schwarzenegger said that caused such a huff, starting with questions about what to do if Mexicans in the United States on some kind of work visa program stay in the country and refuse to return home to Mexico and leading into a comment about the Simpson-Mazzoli bill:

GOVERNOR: Do you go back then and chase them down? Do you then make them criminals for staying here? Do you put them in prison for staying here? Do we have the prison beds, and do we have the supervision? Do we have enough of the personnel in the prisons, in the county jails for this stuff, to feed them and to guard them and all of those things? Do you round them up? Do you send them back?

Q: Well, those are the nitty-gritty detail questions that need to be answered in Washington. But I think --

GOVERNOR: But the most important thing here is -- you see, that's the interesting thing about it. That, for instance you call the 'nitty-gritty detail', but that actually is the biggest issue. Because why? Because our government in 1986 --

Q: The amnesty.

GOVERNOR: Has f***** the American people.

Q: Yeah, we've got twice as many illegals --

GOVERNOR: You see, because what happened, they said, "Look, we came up with a solution."

Q: Right. M-hmm.

GOVERNOR: And now 20 years later the government comes up again and says, "We are going to work on a solution."

Q: It's worse now.

GOVERNOR: And what happened was with the solution is that they said that if we give them amnesty and if we solve this, and we are going to go and track them down if anyone comes in here illegally, and we'll send them back, and the people that are providing jobs will be punished and all. No one enforced the law.

And later Arnold says this about assimilation:

GOVERNOR: It is changing, but in reality, I tell you. We can talk about what do we say when we get asked in an interview, and there are certain things you can't say. And one of the things that is, I think, tough for the American people to digest is that Mexicans, because it's next door, are holding onto their tradition and to their language much longer than the Polish did when they came over here, and the Germans and the Austrians when they came here, the French when they came here, because that was like you wanted to go and become part of America so quickly that you tried to learn the language. The older generation had always much more difficulty, as much as I have more difficulty getting up to speed with the computer. The older generation that is kind of like still with this new technology kind of stay away from it. But my son is on the computer and everything, and he's much better in English than I am, and he's 12 years old. So that's just the way it is. But I made an effort. But the Mexicans don't make that effort. See, they are building, as you saw down there -- you were down there, right, with the Mexican shopping mall?

Q: You bet.

GOVERNOR: Which is like a --

Q: Plaza de Mexico.

GOVERNOR: Which is like the -- yeah, the Plaza de Mexico, which is like a growth.

Q: On our side?

GOVERNOR: Yeah (SS)

Q: (SS) Linwood.

GOVERNOR: In Linwood. I mean, it's spectacular, when you see that shopping mall. Literally I felt I was in Mexico City, because I was in Mexico City for months and months and months doing my movies there. And it felt like I was down there. Everyone only spoke Spanish, every shop was in Spanish, every sign was in Spanish. They create a Mexico within California.

Q: You bet. And it's not just in that area. It's in (SS)

Q: Oh, I know.

GOVERNOR: And so you have to now bring all your brochures and everything in Spanish, all your government forms in Spanish, and all of this and all of that. So we have to make an effort, and I think that annoys people in California. It annoys people in America. They say, "Look, you want to come in here as a guest, but then behave as if you are a guest. That if you come --" I always compare the country to a house, your home. If you have someone coming to your home, he's going to say, "This family wakes up at 6:00 in the morning, and then they leave the house, or they go out running and all this. If I stay here I think I should get with the program here, you know? That's the way it is. And it's really funny what I've seen here in the Dehlson's house. Everyone does chores here. It's wild.

Q: They do?

GOVERNOR: Kids go and take out the trash, and the wife is doing the cooking, and Gary is there, he's going out shopping to get the food while she's doing the vegetables ready, he's getting the steaks. And so and so and doing this, and the grandmother is over there putting the flowers -- everyone is doing something. I'd better get with the program. So if I'm smart now, if I'm the guest, I go to his wife and I say, "Hey, what can I do?"

Q: That's true.

GOVERNOR: Right?

Q: That's a big part of it, absolutely.

GOVERNOR: Because I'm not going to say, "Well, in my house, I sit there and I read all day, no matter what happens around me, I read." Well, when you are a guest you don't want to go and sit in a chair while everyone is working and you keep reading your book because you love your novels. You go and get up in this one hour, at least you will then go and make an effort here, because I'm a guest here. Or, let me go out and get the flowers, to the wife, to the lady of the house. "I'm going to get some flowers for doing all of this," with a little message on it. So you do certain things. But what do we see in return? We see protestors carrying the Mexican flag.

Q: Carrying the Mexican flag.

GOVERNOR: And stepping on the American flag, and speaking in Spanish and talking about, "We are here and we're going to stay." So now imagine, someone coming to your house and he has no place because his house burned down next door. Now, he comes to your house because of the misery he went through, or she went through, comes to your house now and you say, "Come on in here for a week or two weeks until you get going." And that person comes out and says, "I'm not going to move anymore. You know, something, Gary? I'm here to f****** stay."

Again, I urge you to read the whole transcript, not just the parts that are generating the most heat in the press. Arnold remains very pro-immigration but, like most everyone else, is grappling with the complexities of solving this very contentious issue.

Was Giuliani a Bum on 9/10/01?

Today Peggy Noonan makes a glancing reference to something I've been meaning to write about for a while with respect to Rudy Giuliani:

On 9/10/01 he was a bum, on 9/11 he was a man, and on 9/12 he was a hero. Life can change, shift, upend in an instant.

Noonan is over dramatizing for effect, of course, but a while back I got an email from a self-described liberal in NYC saying much the same thing - namely, that in the mythical afterglow of Rudy's performance on 9/11 people have forgotten that (to paraphrase my emailer's formulation) "on September 10 Rudy couldn't have been elected dog catcher in New York City."

So how much truth is there to the claim that Giuliani was a bum on 9/10? Not much, though I guess that depends on what criteria you use - not to mention taking into account the ideological make up of the registered voters iof both parties in New York City responding to surveys. A general answer is that before 9/11 Rudy was pretty darn well-respected, though not necessarily so well liked.

Six days before September 11, Quinnipiac recorded Rudy's job approval rating among 303 New York City likely Democratic primary voters at 42% approve and 49% disapprove.

Six weeks earlier, on July 25, 2001, Quinnipiac released a more detailed tab of Rudy's approval rating among a larger sample of 913 New York City registered voters:

 
Tot
Rep
Dem
Ind
Wht
Blk
Hisp
Men
Wom
Approve
50
86
41
54
63
25
43
56
46
Disapprove
40
12
48
34
28
63
45
37
42

Quinnipiac notes that Rudy's 50-40 job rating had been "unchanged for months." His favorable/unfavorable rating among all voters in the survey, however, was 39% favorable, 36% unfavorable, and 23% mixed opinion.

Even though it's further back and thus a bit less relevant to the discussion, another Quinnipiac survey in June of 2000 provided an even clearer picture of New York City voters' "respect-but-not-love" relationship with Mayor Giuliani:

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's approval rating has bounced back to 49 - 45 percent among New York City voters, his highest level in more than 18 months and a 24-point turnaround since April, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today.

The Mayor's highest ever approval rating was 74 - 23 percent in a February 11, 1998, poll by the independent Quinnipiac University. It stood at 60 -33 percent November 18, 1998. By April 19, 2000, his approval was a negative 37 - 57 percent, his lowest ever.

New York City voters approve 53 - 41 percent of the Mayor's handling of crime, and give him a negative 34 - 54 percent for his handling of education. He also gets a negative 21 - 68 percent rating for his handling of race relations.

Life in New York City has gotten better since Giuliani became mayor, according to 62 percent of New Yorkers, while 15 percent say it has gotten worse and 19 percent say it has remained the same.

"Now that he's out of the Senate race, is Mayor Giuliani on the rebound? This is the first positive approval rating for him since the Amadou Diallo case in February, 1999," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

"New Yorkers see their Mayor as a strong leader, and a big majority say life has gotten better since he moved into City Hall, but they still don't see him as a kinder, gentler Mayor."

White voters approve of the Mayor 64 - 30 percent, while black voters give the Mayor a negative 13 - 83 percent rating and Hispanic voters give the Mayor a 40 - 49 percent rating.

Looking at Giuliani's personal characteristics, New York City voters say:

* 80 - 17 percent that he can get things done;
* 27 - 68 percent that he has a likable personality;
* 74 - 23 percent that he has strong leadership qualities;
* 48 - 45 percent that he is honest and trustworthy;
* 26 - 68 percent that he is sympathetic to the problems of the poor;
* 32 - 60 percent that he works well with other political leaders.

Voters give the Mayor a 41 - 38 percent favorability rating, with 20 percent mixed and 1 percent saying they don't know enough to form an opinion. This is up from a negative 35 - 52 percent favorability rating April 19.

On one hand, discussion of what New York City voters thought about Giuliani prior to 9/11 is irrelevant to trying to speculate how folks in Iowa or New Hampshire will view him as a post 9/11 presidential candidate. On the other hand, despite ideological differences there is some universality to human nature, and history does often provide clues to the future.

Furthermore, in some ways this quick look back at Giuliani's past bolsters his over all case to both Republicans and to the country at large which is, in a nutshell: "you don't have to like me or even necessarily agree with me, but I'm a sonofabitch who gets things done." Then again, glancing at Rudy's past does make you question, as a prominent Democratic strategist said to me the other day, whether Giuliani's tough, pugilistic, New Yorker attitude is going to wear well over a long campaign with caucus goers in a place like Iowa.

More Gardasil Politics

As a follow up to my lengthy post on Gardasil the other day, this morning USA Today editorializes that it's "premature" for states to mandate HPV vaccinations, and on the same page Governor Rick Perry defends his decision:

As governor of Texas, I will do everything in my power to protect public health. The executive order I signed last Friday will help stop the spread of human papillomavirus (HPV) and prevent cervical cancer in young women.

Some are focused on the cause of this cancer, but I remain focused on the cure. And if I err, I will always err on the side of protecting life. [snip]

If we could stop lung cancer, would some shy away claiming it might encourage tobacco use? This is a rare opportunity to act, and as a pro-life governor, I will always take the side of protecting life.

It's clear throughout the op-ed, and in the last paragraph in particular, that Perry is trying to counter the claim of some conservatives that since HPV is transmitted through sexual intercourse, mandatory vaccines will somehow encourage promiscuity. Personally, I find that argument unpersuasive.

To the extent I have objections about this policy, they lie with the fact that Rick Perry has made a unilateral decision mandating that 11 and 12 year old girls are injected with an eight month old vaccine - and his defense that "as a pro-life governor, I will always take the side of protecting life" makes me more unsettled by his action, not less.

Take Perry's last question, for example. Say we did have a brand spanking new, eight month old vaccine that prevented future occurrences of lung cancer. Would Perry mandate it for all children, given that he always takes "the side of protecting life?" What about a drug that prevented heart disease? Or better yet, one that reduced obesity, thereby preventing future cases of heart disease and diabetes?

The question is, who gets to make these decisions and are they being made in a careful and methodical way?

Perry gives us a clear answer in today's op-ed when he writes:

Though some might argue that we should wait several years before requiring the vaccine, I believe such a delay unnecessarily risks the lives of young women.

Really? Unless the current crop of 11 and 12 year olds scheduled to receive it next year are going to become sexually active, is anyone really going to be put at risk by waiting, and why would the governor be so dismissive as to call a delay to debate the merits of the vaccine "unnecessary?"

Remember, this is an eight month old vaccine. Yes, it's been approved by the FDA and put on the "recommended immunization schedule" for 2007, but there are doctors who believe it's way to early to mandate the vaccine, one of whom emailed me the other day to say this:

Gardasil will not do away with yearly Pap tests for women. It will not meaningfully reduce healthcare costs, in my estimate. Cervix cancer is readily prevented by straightforward treatment of early Pap abnormalities which may over years evolve into cancer if left untreated.

Gardasil's long term safety is unknown, yet we see a stampede to immunize middle school girls with it. Do you remember the swine flu crisis? Those immunizations caused an outbreak of Guillan-Barre syndrome, a debilitating neurologic disorder. There never was a swine flu epidemic in the non-immunized!

Merck will profit from Gardasil, but womens' health will not.

This may be a minority view, but it is certainly a view worth letting the public and the state legislature hear in the course of coming to grips with the decision of the state mandating that 11 and 12 year old girls are injected with a drug that's been on the market less than a year.

Governor Perry wrote today, "a full debate will take place as our health agency adopts implementation rules before the order takes effect in 19 months." He's got it exactly backwards. The debate should take place before the decision is made, not after. Furthermore, the decision should come from the legislative branch, not the executive, at which point the Governor could lend his support to the idea or oppose it. You'd think a conservative Republican governor would know how the system should work.

February 08, 2007

Who Will Be the GOP Supply-Side Candidate?

The early (but much accelerated) race for president on the Republican side has coalesced around the "Big Three" of Senator John McCain, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Messrs. McCain and Giuliani have commanding leads in the early polls: The latest RealClearPolitics Average gives Mr. Giuliani a small five-point lead over Mr. McCain nationally, 31.4% to 26.4%.

Mr. Romney trails the other two substantially, logging in at only 6.4%. But with George Allen's surprise loss to Senator Jim Webb in November, Mr. Romney is thought to be the most likely candidate to emerge as the conservative option for Republican voters not enthused about either Mr. Giuliani or Mr. McCain.

Mr. Romney recently appeared to be reaching out to social conservatives with his high-profile fight against gay marriage in Massachusetts. However, a very damaging YouTube video of his 1994 debate with Senator Ted Kennedy opened him up to charges that his recent focus on social issues was little more than presidential political opportunism. With his campaign noticeably stalled in the last few months, Mr. Romney turned attention to the economy with a high-profile speech yesterday to the Detroit Economic Club, in which he promoted his vision of a tax-cutting administration that reduces entitlements, promotes free trade and lessens business regulation.

In a post-speech interview on CNBC with Larry Kudlow, Mr. Romney strongly played up his supply-side beliefs: "Raising taxes well above 18% of GDP would cause a slowdown of the growth in the economy, would reduce our employment and would reduce the wages and salaries of people in this country. It is a bad idea. Ronald Reagan, and before him John F. Kennedy, proved that by keeping tax rates low you create more jobs and innovation in this country."

Unlike 28 years ago when George H.W. Bush dismissed Reaganomics as "voodoo economics," supply-side economics is a well-accepted view in the Republican Party today and it is doubtful that either Mr. McCain or Mr. Giuliani would disagree with any of the Governor's broad points.

While Iraq has dominated the political oxygen for the last six months, as the 2008 Presidential campaign heats up there is likely to be a battle among the "Big Three" of Messrs. Giuliani, McCain and Romney to lay claim as the pro-growth, supply-side candidate in the GOP field. With the rapidly shrinking deficit and booming U.S. economy providing validation for the Bush tax cuts, this competition among the leading GOP contenders may lead the eventual Republican nominee to get behind a solid and perhaps bold supply side, pro-growth agenda -- including radical tax simplification, a flat tax and private retirement accounts.

At the same time, the Democratic Party will likely be turning away from the Clinton/Rubin economic approach of the 1990's to a more Jim Webb/John Edwards style populist, anti-trade, progressive approach to the economy. Though Iraq gets most of the airtime, the 2008 race could be a crucial turning point for the future of economic policy.

Who Won the Senate Debate?

Robert Novak's column today suggests Republicans suffered a "public relations fiasco" over the Senate debate on the Iraq resolutions. I don't think he is correct.

The broader public is detached from the inside baseball nature of the Senate debate, and they also more or less understand that at the end of the day we are talking about utterly toothless, non-binding resolutions on Iraq. Political partisans, on the other hand, in each of the parties' respective bases, however, are keenly aware of the Senate dynamics and the political and military message of a Congressional vote against the U.S. offensive now under away in Iraq.

Republican partisans who have been understandably depressed for the last six months (particularly since the election) finally had something to cheer in the GOP unity in not allowing the Senate Democrats to ram through an anti-surge resolution. The anti-war left partisans are frustrated by what they perceive as Harry Reid's capitulation toward the Warner position, and then after compromising, still not being able to deliver a rebuke to President Bush on the war.

Republican Senators who are scared about Iraq and the 2008 elections will have plenty of time and opportunities over the next year to jump off the President's Iraq policy if they feel that is in the their personal political interests. It is hard to imagine that voters are going to hold GOP Senators accountable in November 2008 for not allowing a vote on a Democratic, non-binding Iraq resolution in February 2007.

After last year's election debacle, the Senate Republicans' solidarity and the Democrats' obvious frustration in not being able to deliver the political embarrassment to the President easily outweighs a couple of days of news stories about how Republicans "blocked" debate on non-binding Iraq resolutions.

No Need for Tax Hikes, Surplus on Tap for 2009

If you think the offensive production of Peyton Manning and the Super Bowl Champion Indianapolis Colts was spectacular, you ain't seen nothing yet. When January budget data comes out this week, our models predict that tax revenues continued to surge and the federal budget will show a surplus of more than $40 billion.

This would pull the budget deficit on a 12-month moving average basis below $200 billion for the first time since September 2002 - a massive reduction from the peak deficit of $455 billion in the 12-months ending April 2004.

Tax revenues were $2.479 trillion in the 12 months ending in January 2007, a $255 billion increase from the 12 months ending in January 2006. Tax revenues have surged for almost three consecutive years now, ever since the tax cuts of 2003 stimulated a strong economic recovery.

But putting points on the scoreboard is not a guarantee of victory. The defense has to play well too. And for the budget this means spending restraint. Federal spending was $2.667 trillion in the 12 months ending January 2007, a $134 billion increase from the 12 months ending in January 2006.

On a 12-month versus 12-month basis, federal revenues increased 11.5%, while federal spending increased just 5.3%. This is great news. As long as spending growth remains in check, the budget deficit will continue to decline.

In fact, our models expect average tax revenue growth of 9% over the next three years and spending growth of between 4% and 5%. This will generate a well below consensus deficit in FY07 of just $115 billion. Next year in FY08, we forecast a deficit of only $35 billion. On a 12-month basis, we suspect that the budget will move into balance early in FY2009, well before the Office of Management and Budget or the Congressional Budget Office expect.

All of this is fabulous news for the markets. With gridlock holding spending back and the economy continuing to generate spectacular revenue growth, earlier than expected budget surpluses will significantly reduce the odds of tax hikes.

February 07, 2007

The Politics of Gardasil

Every now and then an issue pops up on the radar screen that scrambles what we've come to expect as the natural political order. Mandating human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines for eleven and twelve year old girls is that type of issue.

Here's the brief backstory: HPV is the most commonly transmitted sexual disease in the United States. According to news reports by the AP and others, some 20 million people are currently infected, and some 6.2 million people contract the infection each year. Certain strains of the virus can lead to cervical cancer which killed some 3,700 women in the U.S. last year (even though it is a disease on the decline).

Last June the FDA approved the vaccine Gardasil, hailed as a breakthrough in protecting against four strains of HPV that are responsible for 70% of cervical cancer cases. In January, Gardasil was put on the 2007 "recommended immunization schedule" issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Family Physicians, and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the Center for Disease Control (CDC). As a result, certain state legislatures have begun debating bills that would make Gardasil a state-mandated vaccine.

Last Friday, Rick Perry, the conservative two-term Governor of Texas, issued an executive order requiring all sixth grade girls to receive the three-shot vaccination series (which costs about $120 per shot), though the order does allow parents to "opt out" for religious or philosophical reasons, but only if they file a written affidavit.

Perry has come under fire, not only from conservatives in Texas who argue that the vaccine will increase sexual promiscuity, but also from doctors in Texas who believe it's way too early to mandate such a new vaccine.

Others, like the editorial board of the San Antonio Express-News have taken issue with Perry's order, saying that while "the health of Texas girls is paramount, you have robbed citizens of the chance to hear the issue discussed during the normal legislative process."

But even in those states currently considering legislative action on mandating HPV vaccinations there are serious concerns and objections. Yesterday, both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times editorialized against the Illinois state legislature passing a mandate right now. Even Christine Gregoire, the very liberal Governor of Washington state, said she was unwilling to go as far as Perry in issuing a mandate:

"I told the medical association that I was reticent to dictate when I think there is a lot of public education that needs to go on," Gregoire said. "To go out and start just saying everybody mandatorily has to have this is a little bit troublesome for me."

Given all this, it may or may not be surprising to note that the one organization rushing to hail Perry's decision was none other than the New York Times editorial page which wrote yesterday:

Congratulations to Texas for becoming the first state to require vaccinating young schoolgirls -- ages 11 and 12 -- against a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer and genital warts. Other states would be wise to follow the same path.

On one hand, it makes sense the New York Times would find this to be a "wise" decision, since it involves the government getting behind a policy that the Times' editorial writers obviously favor. Notice, however, the Times congratulates Texas for "for becoming the first state to require vaccinating young schoolgirls" without ever making mention of the fact it was done by executive order.

Here's another twist: the Times does mention the fact that the HPV vaccination, Gardasil, is made by Merck & Co. What they don't say is that Governor Rick Perry's former chief of staff is now a lobbyist for Merck and that the company contributed $6,000 to Perry and $38,000 to Texas state legislators last year. You can bet those are two facts that would not have escaped the NY Times editorial writers had they been opposed to Perry's decision.

Furthermore, the push for state mandates for HPV vaccinations is part of an intense lobbying effort on the part of Merck, as the Baltimore Sun reported last week:

Just a few months after federal regulators approved a vaccine against a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer, more than a dozen states - including Maryland - are considering a requirement that girls entering middle school get it.

One of the primary drivers behind the legislative push: Merck & Co., the pharmaceutical giant that manufactures Gardasil, the only vaccine for human papillomavirus, or HPV, on the market.

The vaccine is expected to reach $1 billion in sales next year, and state mandates could make Gardasil a mega-blockbuster drug within five years, with sales of more than $4 billion, according to Wall Street analysts.

Again, the point here isn't about Merck's lobbying efforts or even the merits of the policy, but rather the blinding hypocrisy of the New York Times editorial page. The Times is always willing trash big pharma or to rail against executive power when it suits its needs, and it's easy to see how the Times editorial page editors would have cast the issue if had been something they didn't agree with.

Editorial pages are supposed to have a certain point of view, but they should also be consistent, intellectually honest, and persuade through argument rather than glossing over facts they're unwilling to deal with or find politically inconvenient.

For a good example of what I'm talking about, go read this editorial("Perry's power play aside, HPV vaccination is wise thing to do") from the Austin American-Statesman. The Statesman ends up in the same place as the Times but does so in a much more balanced way that gives its readers the full scope of the issue before coming to the conclusion that however the fight over Perry's executive order comes out, "parents should have their girls vaccinated to guard against cervical cancer. And the government should make those vaccinations available to families who are uninsured or can't afford it."

February 06, 2007

Hillary's "I Want to Take Those Profits" Problem

I have thought for over two years now that Hillary was a lock to win the Democratic nomination, and I still believe she is the clear favorite. But the withdrawal of Bayh and Warner from the race, which on the surface looked like a plus as it cleared up her right flank, is now starting to cause her problems as it has untethered the Democratic field from the center.

Obama, Clinton, and Edwards are all scrambling to pacify the anti-Iraq base of the Democratic party which is now the central, most powerful force in today's Democratic party. Had Warner and Bayh remained in the race Senator Clinton probably would have felt less a need to jack up the invective in her ideological attacks, thus causing her to say incredibly stupid things like (video):

The Democrats know what needs to be done. Again, we're working trying to try push this agenda forward. The other day the oil companies reported the highest profits in the history of the world. I want to take those profits and I want to put them into a strategic energy fund that will begin to fund alternative, smart energy; alternatives and technology that will begin to actually move us toward the direction of independence.

Hillary's supporters will suggest that this was an innocent slip of the tongue and she didn't mean to suggest the government should be expropriating legally earned corporate profits, while her enemies will suggest that she was simply letting slip her true inner socialist. For now, I'm less interested in the back and forths of that argument.

My point here is Hillary's inability to engage and energize left-wing partisan audiences without saying stupid things that will get her into trouble in a general election campaign. (She did something similar to this in an MLK event with Al Sharpton last year.) Cal Thomas made a related point the other day, and essentially it boils down to this: Hillary Clinton does not come close to having the same level of innate political ability as her husband.

Running for president is not like running for the Senate, and Hillary is not going to get a "pass" on the way to the Democratic nomination like her Senate primary coronation in 2000. The listening tour shtick is not going to cut it against Obama and Edwards (and possibly even Gore) especially with a newly revitalized Democratic left that is deeply suspicious of Clintonian triangulation.

Hillary is still the front runner, and Bill Clinton's influence should not be underestimated, but she is going to need to step up her political acumen to match the impressiveness of the juggernaut-like campaign organization that's been built for her.

Clinton already has a good deal of baggage to manage in her quest for the White House. Another twelve month's worth of "I want to take those profits" type gaffes will not only imperil her general election chances, but will hurt her in the eyes of Democratic primary voters who may feel she is just too much of a general election liability.

That Was Fast

Terry Jeffrey unleashes the social conservative anti-Rudy argument over at National Review this morning. We can skip past the first 791 words and cut right to Jeffrey's conclusion:

Rudy will not win the Republican nomination because enough of the people who vote in Republican caucuses and primaries still respect life and marriage, and are not ready to give up on them -- or on the Republican party as an agent for protecting them.

And Tony Perkins, Chairman of the Family Research Council, was quick to issue the standard social conservative threat:

"If by some chance Giuliani were to gain the Republican nomination it would set up a very similar scenario that we had last November. A unenthusiastic Republican base which will suppress turnout and set up a Democratic victory."

Except the problem last November wasn't Republican turnout, it was Independents and moderates who turned out and voted Democrat. Perkins wants to use the threat of a Democratic victory in November 2008 to bully Republicans into nominating a social conservative - like Sam Brownback or Mitt Romney, for example - with the irony being that such a candidate would likely get walloped in '08 by any of the top tier Democrats while Guiliani would be a favorite to win.

Broder's Moment of Truth?

David Broder has struck a nerve with the left over this comment in his column today on the Dems' recent winter meeting:

One of the losers in the weekend oratorical marathon was retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who repeatedly invoked the West Point motto of "Duty, Honor, Country," forgetting that few in this particular audience have much experience with, or sympathy for, the military.

One of the commenters at the Washington Post calls Broder "a shill and a disgrace and a stain on humanity." Oliver Willis blasts Broder for being a "filthy liar" and calls on the Washington Post to "correct the slander he's published in their pages."

Of course, so far as I can tell from looking at his blog, Willis hasn't demonstrated any outrage over the real slander published in the Washington Post recently: William Arkin's unhinged diatribe against U.S. troops. Neither, for that matter, has any other major left wing blog that I'm aware of.

This neatly captures Broder's sentinment in an anecdotal nutshell: when someone on the left slimes the military, we get deafening silence from them. When anyone (mostly from the right, but in this case from the left), questions the left's sincerity when they say they "support the troops," we get a collective tearing of the flesh and screeches of "slander," "libel," and ad hominem attacks like "filthy liar." I'm perfectly willing to accept that left wingers like Willis do in fact support and have sympathy for the troops. It'd just be nice if they showed it once in a while by defending our troops against some the vicious attacks launched by their fellows on the left.

Giuliani Is In and Becomes the Immediate Favorite

There is an assumption by many that Giuliani is un-nominatable as a Republican for President given his less than conservative positions on many social issues. Charlie Cook summed up the conventional Washington wisdom on Giuliani's chances with his statement in the Washington Post several months ago that he'll "win the Tour de France before Rudy Giuliani wins the Republican nomination."

But the conventional wisdom on Giuliani's ability to capture the nomination is wrong. Not only can Giuliani win the GOP nomination, but as the Republican field sits today he has to be considered the favorite.

As Republicans look to their standard bearer in what will be a post-9/11 and post-George W. Bush world, the usual handicapping yard-sticks that may have worked in the '80's and 90's won't work this cycle.

Leadership is going to be the single most important issue to Republican voters and this is almost certainly Giuliani's strongest asset. As long as McCain remains Giuliani's chief rival for the nomination, Rudy will hold an advantage for the simple reason that conservatives like Rudy Giuliani and do not like John McCain. Leadership and the conservative animus toward McCain are why Giuliani has the edge.

The strategic box Giuliani puts McCain in is significant, especially since one of McCain's selling points to Republicans was always going to be that he could deliver a win in the general election. But the obvious tactic to employ against Giuliani, trying to undermine him with conservative base voters by attacking him on social issues, also undercuts McCain's ability to win the general election, which in turn, undermines his strongest selling point to Republicans.

The McCain campaign is going to have to a find non-social issues path to taking down Giuliani and they can't commit the same mistake they made in 2000 by going after independents and Democrats before capturing the nomination. McCain has to find a way to energize Republicans behind his candidacy. Robert Novak's column from earlier this week where McCain is playing up his supply side credentials may provide an early direction of where the Arizona Senator's campaign may be going.

Strategically, McCain would be well advised to position himself as the pro-growth, supply-side conservative in the Republican field. While Giuliani may be the favorite today, McCain should not be underestimated, especially if he were to get behind a bold pro-growth, economic agenda like a flat tax and private accounts for Social Security.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who had risen up into the "Big Three" with McCain and Giuliani after the implosion of George Allen last year, has struggled the last couple of months and is going to have to figure out a way to appeal to conservatives without it appearing like obvious political pandering. The recent You Tube video of his '94 debate with Ted Kennedy and the focus on his well-documented recent conversion to pro-life from pro-choice smacks of obvious political opportunism and tarnishes what is otherwise a compelling case for his campaign. The Mormon issue will also complicate his ability to get traction in the race.

Gingrich may create a few sparks if he gets in the ring and could generate a decent amount of support in the polls, but he is a sure loser in the general election which in the end creates insurmountable problems for his candidacy.

The others are all running to improve their name ID and for potential VP slots.

A couple of months ago I suggested to look out for McCain/Pawlenty in 2008. Today Giuliani/Huckabee may be the better bet.

But everyone should remember it is February 2007, not February 2008.

February 05, 2007

McConnell 1, Reid 0

Majority Leader Reid and Senate Democrats are learning that it is not always fun being in the majority, especially a majority that hangs by a single Joe Lieberman vote.

The debate over the non-binding resolutions on Iraq has turned into the first real skirmish of the new Congress and so far McConnell and the GOP minority are winning this battle. Harry Reid's frustration was evident in his closing statement before the cloture motion went down to defeat. (The vote failed by eleven votes 49-47. To my knowledge not a single Republican voted for cloture. UPDATE: The Senate website has the roll call and Norm Coleman and Susan Collins did vote for cloture. Interestingly Chuck Hagel and John Warner did not.)

Reid is going to slowly realize that very few Republican Senators are going to shed tears over his lamenting of "stalling tactics" by the minority, especially after the Democrats perfected those exact same stalling tactics under then Minority Leader Reid in the last Congress.