Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Folding Tent

Some quick notes after watching tonight's Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley...

There may be eight people running - and another one, Sarah Palin, still mulling a campaign - but this has quickly shrunk to a two-person race.  It's Romney v. Perry, pure and simple.  The other six candidates on that stage are no longer relevant and have zero chance of winning the Republican nomination.

Mitt Romney turned in another solid performance, as he usually does.  He remains the smoothest and most polished of the GOP candidates.  He's well-versed on the issues, quick on his feet and tough to rattle, although when the questions turn to topics with which he's less comfortable he has a bad habit of looking like he just ate some bad fish.

Rick Perry made a decent debut on the national stage, but between his deep-set eyes and that haircut he looks like a shady land agent trying to sell you a dry hole in West Texas.  After a strong start jabbing Romney on job creation, Perry faded badly and was downright inarticulate at times.  More than once, I found myself wondering what in the world he was trying to say during his stumbling non-answers to some of the questions.  I do give him props (or, as Perry pronounced it, "propes") for standing up for HPV vaccinations for young girls, a program that's anathema to the conservatives he's courting.  Perry firmly, and correctly, pointed out that HPV causes cervical cancer and that the vaccine prevents it.  End of argument.  Lance Armstrong has tremendous political influence in Texas and counts Governor Perry among the strong supporters of his anti-cancer platform there.  It's a rare case where Perry embraces clear science over political ideology.

Jon Huntsman comes off as the most reasonable, sensible adult on the stage - which means he's doomed.  He'd make a decent independent candidate but has no hope of winning a Republican primary.  He's clearly pinning all his hopes on New Hampshire, where independents can vote in the GOP primary, but he isn't nearly conservative enough to carry this candidacy much further.

Michele Bachmann's reign as Flavor of the Month is over.  She was a summer fling for Republican voters but the romance is done.  The bigger her hair gets, the smaller her poll numbers.  Perry sucks all the wind out of her sails.  Watch her fade as Tea Party voters shift to the Texas governor.

Ron Paul's act has worn terribly thin.  He's not as sharp as he was four years ago, and his anti-government rants have lost their fresh appeal.  But now that the Republican Party will start awarding delegates proportionally, Paul may finally have something to show for his diehard following.  If he can win 10 or 12 percent in some of the early states, he'll hang around for a while and build a small bloc of support.

Newt Gingrich - are you kidding?  When does he come to his senses and end the delusion that is his campaign?

Herman Cain's "9-9-9" tax plan started to sound like an infomercial.  If we embrace his flat tax proposal, do we get a free pizza or maybe some garlic knots?

Finally, with nothing to lose, Rick Santorum actually comes across as an authentic, sincere voice.  His defense of welfare reform was impassioned, compassionate and impressive.  He was clear and thoughtful on immigration and the economy, too.  But he's not electable, can't raise enough money and his natural constituency has already abandoned him for conservatives with more buzz, like Perry.

Bottom line: Perry lost some of his luster and Romney showed he's not about to shrink from the challenge of a long, drawn-out fight.  He's a proven fundraiser and, despite the polls showing Perry pulling way ahead, must still be considered a co-frontrunner.  Perry got the chance to back down from declaring Social Security a "Ponzi scheme" but instead repeated it and called the entitlement program a "monstrous lie."  Those words will scare the moderates and independents Perry would need to win a general election, but more immediately they will worry the conservatives who want to nominate someone who can beat President Obama.  Perry's trying to seize the right-wing mantle to win the nomination, but many of his positions - dismantle Social Security, the scientists are wrong about climate change, evolution is just another theory - are radical enough to make him unelectable, and that could convince Republican primary voters to come back to Romney as their best bet to recapture the White House.

Ronald Reagan remains the paragon of modern conservatism, but he believed in the "big tent" GOP, deficit spending and amnesty for illegal immigrants.  If he'd actually been on this stage debating, instead of just appearing as a romanticized icon in a gauzy NBC tribute, he would have been ridiculed as some sort of weak-willed liberal.  The challenge for this field is to be authentically conservative enough to placate the Tea Party and engage the evangelicals without alienating independents and sacrificing electability.

It's only September.  They've got five more months, and countless more debates, to get it right before anyone even starts voting.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Meet the New Bums, Same As the Old Bums

Judging from our latest CBS News-New York Times Poll, it looks like 2012 is shaping up to be the fourth consecutive anti-incumbent national election - with voters in their most foul mood yet.

The question is, which bums will they decide to toss out this time?  And will it make any difference, or will the electorate be even angrier in 2014?

2006 was an historically bad year for incumbents: Democrats seized control of both houses of Congress from the Republicans, who for the first time in their history failed to defeat any sitting Democrats.  Two years later, with President Bush's Republican Party branded "toxic," the Democrats completed their sweep, expanding their House and Senate majorities and electing Barack Obama president.

But voters quickly grew disenchanted with Mr. Obama and disappointed at the Democrats' failure to reinvigorate the economy.  The anti-incumbency tide washed back on the Democrats in 2010, as they lost the House to the GOP and only narrowly clung to control of the Senate.  Emboldened Republicans set their sights on reclaiming both the Senate and the White House in 2012.

Ah, but the pendulum of voter disenchantment swings heavily in all directions, and now it is taking steady aim at the head of Speaker John Boehner.

The new survey shows voter disapproval of Congress at an all-time high, a record 82%.  Only 14% approve of the Congressional performance.  Boehner bears the brunt of voter anger:  57% disapprove of him while a meager 30% think he's doing a good job.  A record 84% are dissatisfied or angry with Washington.  Even during the Reagan Revolution of 1980 and the Contract With America uprising of 1994, we didn't see voters seething like this.

That gives each party an opportunity for gain next year, but it also leaves both vulnerable to crushing defeat.  The Democrats could wrest the House, and the Speakership, back from Boehner.  But they could also lose their slim Senate majority to the Republicans, in which case 2012 would give us the Capitol Hill version of a house swap.  That would leave things essentially unchanged, with each party controlling one house of Congress, which recent events have shown is hardly a scenario for constructive compromise.

President Obama is sailing surprisingly sanguinely above the chaos.  Forty-eight percent approve of his performance, 47% don't.  Forty-seven percent trust him more to handle the economy, while 33% have more faith in the Republicans.  Right now Mr. Obama probably remains a narrow favorite for re-election, especially since his opponent seems likely to be either Mitt Romney or Michele Bachmann (or possibly Texas Governor Rick Perry), any of whom will be a deeply flawed national candidate.

If the economy remains in a rut, and voter antipathy intensifies, one of those Republicans could oust Mr. Obama.  The GOP could seize the Senate and maybe even hold on to the House.  But right now these numbers point to serious trouble for Speaker Boehner and the Republicans, and a narrow escape for the president, especially if the economy finally finds its footing.

No matter what happens next year - and that election is still a l-o-n-g way off - it's hard to imagine the outcome effecting profound change in the way Washington works.  Which means whichever party emerges on top will be feeling the voters' wrath again by the middle of 2013, as this cycle's challengers become the next one's incumbents, and the people get ready to toss the newly elected bums onto the growing pile of old ones.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Slice of History

Editor's Note: The Sovern Nation has obtained the following exclusive imaginary transcript of this week's Pizza Summit meeting between imaginary presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.  After wiping off the tomato sauce, we can reveal the conversation transpired as follows:

"Governor Palin, thank you so much for reaching out to me!  It is a rare honor indeed for me to meet someone who has almost as much chutzpah as I do.  Since Steinbrenner passed away, it's been lonely at the top."

"Oh no the pleaasure is mine, Mr. Trump.  I have admired your work from afar for so long.  As I drive around this great nation of ours, with its inspiring highways and truly awesome truck stops, visiting so many of our important and inspirational sites and monuments, I want to make sure I visit all of the things that make America the envy of the non-American, non-rich world.  And you, and your hair, are at the top of that inspiring list."

"Well thank you, I have to say, I've always thought, there's room on Mount Rushmore for one more head, isn't there?  Why not mine?  I may have to buy the mountain though now that I'm not running for president.  Although I could still run, you know.  There's a lot of people out there trying to pull me back in."

"Yes, it's a wonderful feeling, isn't it?  That's one of the things I want to talk to you about.  I so admire the way you ran your campaign.  The drama, the way you highlight the really important issues, the way you make fools of the media.  I feel like I have so much to learn from you, as I make my way through this awesome nation, seeing so many of the founding sites where much of our inspirational and revolutionary history was invented."

"That's why I suggested Famous Famiglia, by the way, Governor.  This is where they invented the garlic knots.  I figure they don't have those in Alaska.  We could have gone to Ray's but I've never figured out which one is actually owned by Ray."

"Yes, these are delicious.  And what's on this slice here?"

"That's pepperoni.  Fresh pepperoni."

"Oh!  That's not an animal we have in Alaska, I don't think.  I have had Moosearoni Pizza at Northern Slice in Wasilla but I think that's a different species.  Like Mark Zuckerberg, I try not to eat meat I haven't killed myself but I am willing to make an exception while I visit the alien Godless cities of the Eastern Seaboard."

"Well this is some of the best in the city.  I thought about taking you somewhere more substantial but that didn't seem your style."

"Oh no this is perfect!  Light, simple, thin, not too heavy.  And you can really taste the wonderful contribution of the legal immigrants who made this sauce, the rich flavor of the tapestry of that hard work and sacrifice they made to follow their dream but still follow the rules, work so ethically and with such a joy for freedom to come to this great America and slice this pizza."

"Oh is that what that flavor is, Governor?  I thought it was oregano."

"Well I don't have too much more time, Mr. Donald.  My bus is idling uptown.  The media is waiting to see which historic inspirational site I will visit next.  I sent out a tweet about the Battle of Yorktown but that was just a diversion.  Did anything historic happen at Coney Island?  I was hoping to try Nathan's."

"Forget about it! There's one around the corner.  I will personally have some hot dogs delivered to your bus."

"Well that is so just wonderful of you.  This has truly been an inspirational meeting.  Do you have any other advice for me, as I resume my journey across this One Nation, Indivisible, Under God, except in certain sections of New York and San Francisco?"

"Yes, Governor.  Try the meatballs."

Friday, May 20, 2011

Arnold Is Who We Thought He Was

First, there were whispers on the campaign trail.  Then came the murmurs and phone calls, from operatives for rival candidates.  Finally, a full-throated news conference led by the Mother of All Media Moths, Gloria Allred.  The word was out: Arnold Schwarzenegger was a serial groper, a philanderer, the Gropinator - he cheats on his wife and there may even be an out-of-wedlock child or two or three out there.

And the voters couldn't have cared less.

Wife Maria stood by her man, told California she trusted her husband, and that was good enough for the starry-eyed voters.  Never mind that she didn't exactly deny the rumors and allegations; her love and loyalty clinched things for any voters who were wavering, and there didn't even seem to be that many of them.  A Field Poll taken just before the recall election found only 19% less inclined to vote for Schwarzenegger because of the rumored extramarital affairs, while 77% said it mattered not one whit.  In fact, more (26%) were given pause by the fact that he was a "Hollywood actor" than that he might be unfaithful to his wife.

The rabid leaders of the Total Recall of Gray Davis, blinded by ego and zeal, shrugged off the nascent scandal and plunged ahead with their misguided mistake.

Allred's involvement probably hurt, rather than helped, those trying to derail the Arnold Express.  Many voters I talked to in the closing days of that 2003 campaign dismissed the tawdry talk as last-second dirty politics, Democratic desperation made even more suspect by Allred's media-baiting involvement.  Quite simply, the electorate had already bought the image of Arnold as savior, the tentpole blockbuster action hero come to rescue California from its tired money-wasting ways.  He was going to blow up the boxes, give them back their hard-earned cash and deliver action, action, action!

As it turned out, of course, Schwarzenegger governed much as the man he deposed did.  The budget kept listing badly out of balance; few of the promised reforms materialized; the boxes are still there.   The recall zealots soon felt betrayed.  They played little to no role in governing the state, and the Governator quickly abandoned their core principles, if he ever shared them at all.  They'd been snookered by a power lifter turned movie star, who let them lift him into power and then cast them aside like undersized dumbbells.

It's hard to feel sorry for the people who conned California into tossing out the governor they'd just re-elected the year before.  But maybe we didn't do a good enough job explaining to the voters what we suspected during that brief circus of a campaign: that Arnold wasn't the breath of fresh air they sought, but just another hot air-spewing office-seeker, a musclebound political naif who had big dreams but lacked the skills to realize them.

Arnold seemed to rein in his libido once he became governor.  There were no new rumors, no more scandalous whispers.  Either his wife or the weight of his office, or maybe both, persuaded him to keep his hands to himself and his lust in check.  Or so we thought.  I had many opportunities to observe him up close and never saw the slightest hint of any impropriety, beyond his usual egomania and boorish, politically incorrect vocabulary. 

But this week's bombshell announcement - and perhaps others to come, now that Schwarzenegger's been exposed - reveals that the governor simply fed his voracious appetite closer to home - in fact, right inside his home.

It's a sad affair, especially for Maria Shriver and the couple's four children, not to mention the son Schwarzenegger fathered with another woman.  But it should hardly come as a surprise.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is a man with an ego that's even more overdeveloped than his pectoral muscles used to be.  It's coupled with an intense desire for power and control, the costs be damned.  I'm not playing armchair psychologist: I'm simply reporting direct observations.  I've seen him marvel wistfully at the political power of others, and muse, only half-joking, about how great it would be to be a dictator instead of a governor.

On a trade mission to China in 2005, a cigar-savoring Schwarzenegger held court with those of us covering the trip, in a revealing, free-wheeling, half-hour conversation.  He refused to let me record it for radio use, promising to give me a one-on-one interview a little later.  When I pointed out it would save him time to simply let me tape the group chat, he blew some (Cuban, I might add) cigar smoke in my face and said "Don't worry about my time."  Later, when it was time for our interview, he decided to go talk to some waiting TV reporters first instead.  I feared he wouldn't return for our private sitdown.  He insisted he would.  "You promise?" I asked, and then, in my best imitation of his world-famous accent, I asked again, "You promise - you'll be back?"

He fixed me with a steely Terminator gaze and put his hand on my shoulder.  I could feel his skull ring digging through my shirt.  "I tell you what," he finally said.  "I promise not to have you killed."

Sounded fair enough to me.  I wasn't sure he was kidding.  OK, so I was a smart aleck and probably deserved it.  I sat down and waited.  Eventually, he did return, as promised, and we did our radio interview, which went on much longer than scheduled.  He even had to light a second Montecristo.  He was gracious and charming while still being frustratingly vague and evasive.  But it all happened on his terms, with Schwarzenegger firmly in control, while I fought off fleeting images of him snapping me in half and throwing me in the hotel pool.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is not one to spend much time worrying about the consequences of his actions, or their impact on other people, even those he professes to love.  That should have been clear to the people of California a long, long time ago, and if it wasn't, it's certainly painfully so now.