Archive for February 10th, 2011
You know the presidential campaign is underway when . . . the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC for short, is drawing the kind of attention afford debates a months before the Iowa caucuses.
Why the press interest in a gathering so far ahead of the primary schedule? You can argue that it’s the CPAC straw pollof 15 men and women with more than a passing interest in unseating President Obama. Perhaps. But the results will be about as meaningless as most any survey at this point in the game (keep in mind: Texas Rep. Ron Paul was last year’s winner).
A better answer would be that it’s good political theater — and, being held in the nation’s capital, subway ride for political reporters socked in by winter weather, or hamstrung by bosses too cheap to pay for airfare. and if you don’t think it’s theatric, then I suggest you check the conference masthead: images of Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck.
Unfortunately, this is also CPAC’s liability. Officeholders and would-be statesmen and world leaders become too theatrical, with the rhetoric getting out of hand. For my taste, there’s too much Obama-bashing, and too litle unconventional thinking. It’s a pet peeve of mine, as someone who’s dabbled in political speechwriting. You’re in front of a conservative audience, you’re trying to brandish your conservative credentials, so . . . you resort to the big book of conservative clichés.
I call this the “macro” school of political rhetoric — as in, you press F1-F12 on your computer and up pops a worn adage. For CPAC speakers looking to create presidential buzz, it goes something like this:
F1 — “rescue America from a President who, in unchecked, would lead us on a dangerous path of European-style socialism and ruin”
F2 — “keep the President out of my doctor’s office . . . and the First Lady out of my kitchen”
F3 – “you live within your means, the federal government should be no different”
F4 — “borrowing money from China so we can afford to buy their cheap products”
F6 — “proud to live in an America where Nancy Pelosi has to fly commercial”
F7 — ”on this, President Reagan’s centennial, let us honor his legacy by renewing his call for . . .”
F8 — “a recession is when your neighbor loses his job, a depression is when you lose your job, and a recovery is when Barack Obama loses his job” (recycled from the 1980 Reagan campaign)
F9 – ”taking economic advice from Barack Obama and Joe Biden is like taking career advice from Keith Olbermann”
F10 — “no more Madoff stimulus packages, no more Ponzi economic schemes”
F11 — “the leader of the Free World should stand up for the principles that made America great, instead of running around the world and apologizing”
F12 – “I’d come to CPAC even if it were held in Alaska — which is more than I can say about other people” (with Sarah Palin not attending the function, you can expect some cheap shots in her direction — and apparently it’s already begin, for former Sen. Rick Santorum reportedly taking an early swipe at the former Alaska governor, and Palin returning fire)
So what’s missing from that list? Simply this: stepping into Ronald Reagan’s shoes.
If a 2012 hopeful wants to update Reaganism for this decade — the triad of lower taxes, a muscular foreign policy, and skepticism of government outcomes – now’s the time to do. If he or she has an alternative vision to Reagan’s, then let it fly. The country’s looking for leadership, it’s also looking for leadership. Not another presidential cycle of twisting and contorting and pandering.
And one last note about Palin. I don’t think she’s attending CPAC . . . simply because she doesn’t have to. She already has conservative bona fides, a national network of acticists, and a media (for better or worse) following her every move. Speaking at this conference makes her but one more caribou in the herd, just as I’d be surprised if she showed up at the May 2 presidential debate at the Reagan Library. Unlike other hopefuls who need to make an early and loud splash, Palin can wait before entering the primary fray.
And not going to CPAC? Just more of the waiting game.
This week’s revelation that the Democratic Leadership Council is shutting down is a good example of how politics operates in circles. The DLC was established in the aftermath of Walter Mondale’s 49-state loss at the hands of Ronald Reagan in 1984, the purpose being to steer the national party on a more centrist course (translation more competitive in the South and the Sunbelt).
Nearly three decades later, two Democrats did indeed find their way to the White House. One, Bill Clinton, did it by using the DLC to his full advantage. Clinton chaired the group in the period leading up to his presidential run. That gave the Arkansas governor ready access to a national network of activists and donors. It also made Clinton the beneficiary of a very public feud between the DLC and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who described the mostly white and white-collar band of moderates as the “Democratic Leisure Class.” And he tapped into the DLC intellectual capital: welfare reform, free trade, a strong military.
As for Barack Obama, he didn’t go the Clinton route (“a different kind of Democrat”). But he did buy into the DLC vision of competing in states earlier Democratic nominees had ceded, or bitterly lost, to the GOP. Obama scored a breakthrough — and threatened to realign the presidential electoral map — by carrying Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Nevada and New Mexico. Obama turned 8 “red” states “blue” in 2008.
But as last November’s election showed, those “new blue” states aren’t necessarily true blue. Florida, Ohio, Nevada and New Mexico each elected a Republican governor. As for Virginia, it’s likely to surrender a Democratic Senate seat in 2012, with Jim Webb’s announcement that he won’t seek a second term.
Here’s my take on Webb’s departure. Democrats will try to spin it that he was a bull in a china shop – too active, too aggressive for a deliberate body like the U.S. Senate. Here’s another way to explain it: Webb was swept into office on the coattails of slow progress in Iraq and frustration with Republican control of the federal government. That Republican grip is now gone, and so too is Iraq as a wedge issue. That leaves Webb in an awkward spot: he has fewer centrist Democrats to work with after “blue dog” Democrats took it on the chin last November; he has to hug the middle to right-of-center to stay viable in the Old Dominion. So maybe it’s better to quit while still ahead . . .
Moderate Democrats will argue that the DLC’s efforts were not in vain. Both Clinton and now Obama learned the hard way that their party needs a balanced approach to governing. And they’ll cite the hiring of the group’s leader, Bruce Reed, as Vice President Biden’s chief of staff as evidence of some moderate influence in the White House.
But here’s the problem with the argument — it’s like a stock farm bragging about a great groomsman, while masking the hard truth that it has precious few horses in the stable.
Back in the 1980′s, the DLC didn’t lack for presidential wannabes: Clinton, Al Gore, former Virginia Sen. Chuck Robb, former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (like Webb, also retiring from the Senate next year). Today, the centrist congressional Democrat is an endangered species. And perhaps a rarer bird if two of them — Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and Montana Sen. Jon Tester — fail in their relection bids next year.
Years ago, back when I was a journalist working in the nation’s capital, I asked Elaine Kamarck, a fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute (a spinoff DLC think tank), why the DLC existed. Her response: “[T]he DLC originated as a place for Southern and Western Democrats to hide from the image of the national party. Now, there’s a whole of people who are not Southern or Western who need to hide from that image because the image hasn’t gotten much better.”
Remember that quote come November 2016, when a Democratic Party lacking a centrist core may be looking at th the same image problem that dogged it 30 years before.