The Has-been

The Great Right Hope

The conservative movement needs a wipeout in ‘08, and Idaho has their man.

Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007

Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007

When I’m 1964: The far right used to inspire fear, not pity, but these days it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for the conservative faithful. For a movement accustomed to morning in America, the hour is closer to midnight. First, a Republican Congress betrayed them for pieces of silver. Then a Republican administration ran their ideas into the ground. Now, when they need a conservative messiah, the bundle on their doorstep is Rudy Giuliani, who endorsed Bill Clinton’s assault-weapons ban and Mario Cuomo’s re-election campaign at the height of the Republican revolution in 1994.

Conservatives have not yet begun to ache. In coming months, they’ll have to listen as Giuliani and his fellow gypsy moth Mitt Romney pretend not to be what they’ve spent the last decade pretending to be. The savior conservatives want is Newt Gingrich—but even with their movement tied to the railroad tracks, the right’s Dudley Do-Right waits to ride to the rescue.

Ralph Reed may be content to settle for cheap knockoffs, but real conservatives deserve the real thing. The answer, as always, is in their past.

Most conservatives agree that the key moment in the history of their movement was Barry Goldwater’s landslide loss in 1964. In defeat, conservatives found the courage to be ultra: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Those were the days. The years since have brought conservatives one disappointment after another. In 1964, conservatives were finally comfortable in the minority. Then Democrats ruined everything by losing one presidential landslide after another themselves. The far right was stuck with a string of Republican presidents who governed often but not well.

In 2008, the conservative movement should go back to doing what it used to do best: losing. If governing turned out to be no virtue for the right, then defeat should be no vice. Instead of trying to decide which Republican can win the chance to disappoint them again as president, conservatives should remember 1964 and rally behind the candidate who can lose the biggest landslide.

The great conservative icon Joseph Schumpeter referred to this process as “creative destruction.” In memory of Goldwater, the right can call it the Phoenix Project: In order to rise from the ashes, you must first throw yourself upon the flames.

If Bush could run again, a crushing landslide would be inevitable. The way the current administration is going, any Republican in the field might be able to lead the party to defeat in November 2008. But conservatives should know better by now than to entrust their fate to George W. Bush. If the future of their movement depends on an electoral blowout, conservatives must nominate a Republican they can count on to lose everywhere.

Wingers, behold! I have found the man to lead you back into the political wilderness. He’s a fighter. He will not bend to those liberal demons of evidence or reason. He will say and do the outrageous, with a fervor and gusto the right hasn’t seen in a decade or longer. Best of all, he will lose—quite possibly by the largest electoral margin in American history.

So, on behalf of the great state of Idaho and all four of its electoral votes, let me be the first to nominate for president a man who loves conservatism so much he would destroy the Republican Party to save it, my freshman congressman, Bill Sali.

Now, ultraconservatives are a suspicious lot and won’t swoon for a guy just because he represents the nuttiest congressional district in America. But it’s not just local pride that makes me confident Sali would soon sweep them off their feet. On the issues that matter, his ultraconservative credentials compare favorably to anyone else in the Republican field or on the sidelines:

Abortion: Giuliani is pro-choice, McCain is more interested in national security, and Romney is macrobiotic on the issue: He lives off whatever opinions are grown locally. Bill Sali has a perfect pro-life record and insists that abortion causes breast cancer—even saying as much to women who’ve had breast cancer.Experience: Giuliani ran the biggest urban bureaucracy in America. McCain has been in Congress for a quarter-century. Romney signed a universal health-care bill in Massachusetts. Bill Sali has the kind of experience their money can’t buy—namely, none whatsoever. He has been in Congress a month. He spent 16 years as a state legislator, which makes him twice as qualified as Abraham Lincoln – and since it was in the Idaho state legislature, there’s no danger he’ll take the GOP off on progressive tangents like Lincoln. Last time I checked, Sali’s webpage on “Legislative Issues” was a conservative’s dream come true—completely empty.Strength: Giuliani backed down from a race against Hillary Clinton. McCain refused to slime George Bush’s character in the South Carolina primary. Romney lost to Ted Kennedy. Bill Sali made his fellow Republicans in Idaho so mad that one trashed him to the papers and another tried to throw him out the window. When the Weekly Standard asked about his internecine feuds, Sali gave the right’s favorite answer: He blamed the media.Extremism: As soon as the primaries are over, Giuliani, McCain, and Romney will run to the middle. Bill Sali won his congressional primary with 26 percent—the most conservative quarter of one of the most conservative state parties in the country. But Sali stuck to his guns in the general and didn’t lose them when he came to Washington. He’s comfortable in his own skin—and, more important to the conservative movement, comfortable being all alone. Last week, he told a right-wing blogger, “I’m not responsible for the Republican brand. I’m responsible for me.”

Sali’s colleagues recognize his potential. They already elected him president of the House Republican freshman class. But it would be a shame to let Sali’s florid conservatism wither on the vine in Congress. Already, the poor fellow has found himself apologizing for the administration—pointing out that “cost overruns during a time of war are as old as the Republic” and defending Bush’s record on climate change, rather than asking whether climate change is worth the hype.

Saturday, Feb. 3, 2007

Saturday, Feb. 3, 2007

Profit of Doom: Punxsutawney Phil says we’re in for a short winter but a long campaign. Although the nominations won’t be decided until this time next year, candidates in both parties are already at full sprint. If a day is a lifetime in politics, then the campaign ahead is as long as all of human history since the last Ice Age—and will end just in time for the next one. (In the ultimate product tie-in, the gloomy new U.N. report on climate change came out the same week Fox announced it’s going forward with Ice Age 3.)

The reason a long campaign feels like an eternity is not that we tire of the candidates. The frontrunners are still, in Sen. Clinton’s phrase, famous but little-known; the long shots are just little-known. This is the getting-to-know-you phase, and for the most part, a friendly, curious country enjoys getting to know them all.

The real agony of the long windup is the endless, intense speculation about aspects of the campaign that don’t much matter or aren’t that interesting if they do. The next several months will be to politics what the last two weeks have been to football—flood-the-zone coverage of the game before the players even finish warming up.

Of course, we devour every detail anyway, and talk it to death around the water cooler and in our blogs. But in our hearts, we know that victory will depend on the quarterback, not the long snapper. As the Washington Post says in its profile of Chicago Bears center Patrick Mannelly, “There is no glory in bending over …”

At this stage in the cycle, the three most closely watched measures of campaign progress are money, organization, and endorsements. The first two are important (you can’t win without them) but overrated (you’ll lose if you think they’re enough). The last measure is unimportant and overrated. And let’s face it—all three are pretty boring. The long snapper’s job begins to sound interesting compared to its political counterpart, the numbing and thankless task of raising and spending $100 million.

But at least in the end, money and organization matter. Endorsements only matter when they backfire. They should carry a disclaimer that says, “Warning: Endorsing can be hazardous to a campaign’s health.”

Most endorsements make no difference whatsoever. Michael Jordan is one of the greatest pitchmen on the planet and has made a fabulous living on product endorsements. Yet in the 2000 campaign, his much-ballyhooed entrée into politics to endorse Bill Bradley didn’t boost sales whatsoever.

Some of the most highly sought endorsements have turned out to be political fiascoes. When I worked on Al Gore’s 1988 campaign, his legendary political consultant David Garth considered it a coup to win Mayor Ed Koch’s endorsement in the New York primary. But every time Koch opened his mouth, he’d say something Gore would have to disavow. The Gore campaign spent its final days scheduling events at take-out counters in Little Italy and elsewhere, on the apparent theory that Hizzoner would have more trouble sounding off if we kept stuffing his mouth full of cannoli.

But one category of endorsements is interesting: those that campaigns pursue knowing full well they could be deadly. In 2002, Joe Klein wrote a classic Slate piece on “the Shrum Primary“—the scramble to see which campaign would end up with consultant Bob Shrum, whose track record in presidential elections to that point was 0 and 7 lifetime. John Kerry won the Shrum Primary that cycle, enabling its namesake to retire the record at 0-8.

There will be no Shrum Primary in 2008. But this week brought signs of a new contest in self-immolation: the Ralph Primary. Ralph Reed has a shrewd political mind and a fierce competitive spirit. And pity whichever Republican candidate wins his support, for disaster looms.

The consequences of the Shrum Primary were clearcut. Klein wrote, “If history is any guide, Shrum’s choice will lose either a) the nomination or b) the general election.” In the Ralph Primary, a much broader range of bad outcomes are possible. If history is any guide, Ralph’s choice will either a) lose the general election (Dole), or b) win the general election on a platform that runs the country into the ground (Bush).

But unlike Shrum, whose repertoire was limited to politics, Ralph’s curse extends into all walks of American life. In the 2000 campaign, George Bush and Karl Rove won the Ralph Primary, then recommended him for a $10,000 to $20,000-a month consulting contract with Enron. Bush went on to lose the popular vote, while Enron promptly suffered the most spectacular bankruptcy in American history.

Jack Abramoff won the lobbying heat of the Ralph Primary, after Ralph emailed him, “Now that I’m done with the electoral politics, I need to start humping in corporate accounts!” Four years later, Abramoff e-mailed his partner, Michael Scanlon, that Ralph was “a bad version of us! No more money for him.” Ralph got rich, and now awaits his next victim; Abramoff and Scanlon got sentenced to jail.

After Ralph couldn’t win his own primary in Georgia last summer, you’d think his Abramoff ties alone would keep him off any campaign, even as a consultant. But according to the Politico and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, his services are in demand, and two of the three Republican frontrunners are in the running.

Ralph told the Politico’s Jonathan Martin that he’s “having conversations with just about every campaign”—except McCain, whom he helped smear in the South Carolina primary in 2000. Martin says “rumors have been circulating for weeks” that Ralph will sign on with Mitt Romney. A Romney campaign spokesman issued a nondenial, calling Ralph “one of the best minds in politics,” but adding that “he doesn’t have a formal role in our campaign organization.”

In response, Tom Baxter and Jim Galloway of the Journal-Constitution reminded readers that Ralph has a prior IOU to Rudy Giuliani, who stumped for him in Georgia. According to the Hotline, Ralph sang Giuliani’s praises at a National Review dinner this past weekend. The Hotline’s Chuck Todd and Marc Ambinder report, “That induced ‘a number of odd looks and rolled eyes from many of the attendees,’ according to our source.” They don’t say who was making those eyes roll more—Ralph or Giuliani.

Whichever campaign wins the Ralph Primary, the mere fact that Romney and Giuliani need Ralph Reed should be enough to disqualify them from higher office. The sad part is, Ralph would fit well in either camp. Giuliani does business with sleazeballs and seems willing to do anything to make a buck. Ditto for Ralph. Social conservatives worry that Romney is a shameless political opportunist who’ll say one thing and do another. With Ralph, that’s the one thing conservatives can count on.

Many of us look at Ralph Reed and see an ambitious, unprincipled buckraker. Romney and Giuliani look at Ralph Reed and see the very premise of their candidacies—the hope that an ambitious, unprincipled buckraker can con the religious right.

Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2007

Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2007

What It Takes: It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon. Only one Republican has announced a presidential campaign, and as far as we know, only one Democrat is planning to do so—while another Democrat just took himself out of the race. The field is so crowded, there’s no room to get in. If you were hoping to run for president in 2008, you’ve probably looked at the glut of candidates and frontrunners, seen the writing on the wall, and decided to spend more time with your family.

Would-be wannabes, take heart! Now you can run for President and spend more time with your loved ones. Thanks to a new Web site called, which makes its official launch on Thursday, your 2008 campaign is just a few clicks away.

In 2004, the Internet rewrote the rules of presidential campaigns by revolutionizing the way candidates could engage the electorate, communicate with voters, and raise money from ordinary people. In 2006, YouTube changed the rules again by holding candidates accountable for their own stupidity.

Yet for all the hoopla, the web developments of the last two cycles only underscored the biggest shortcoming of the existing system—the candidates. is designed to take the Internet revolution to the next level, by cutting out the middlemen and letting you run for yourself.

Let’s face it: Like Windows XP, the operating system of our representative democracy is hopelessly out of date. Under the current model, you invest your hopes, your time, and your treasure in someone you’ve never met. If they lose, you’re disappointed; if they win, they almost always let you down.

The whole idea is so 18th century! A political system built on despair and disillusion may have seemed like a great leap forward back when life was nasty, brutish, and short. Yet today, under the yoke of that antiquated system, we can’t even spell the pursuit of happiness, let alone make the most of it.

Now, at last, we can throw off our democratic oppressors. In a 21st-century democracy, every man’s home can be his campaign headquarters, and anyone with a mouse can be commander-in-chief.

Running for president the old-fashioned way is demanding and dangerous work. On the campaign trail, candidates routinely get sick, lose their voice, or worse. George Wallace was shot; Bill Bradley had a heart murmur; a few weeks after the 2000 campaign, Dick Cheney had a heart attack. With such a crowded field, the risks this cycle are greater than ever. Residents in Iowa and New Hampshire will be able to name their price: A candidate might have to shovel a sidewalk five or six times for every vote.

Thanks to, never again will frostbite, overexertion, and hand sanitizers stand in the way of a presidential bid. Launching your campaign couldn’t be easier. You don’t have to line up fund-raisers, placate interest groups, impress pundits, or sell your soul to consultants. To get started, you just need to pick a party, provide your age and other simple biographical information, and answer a few basics: “my favorite president”; “least favorite president”; “my number 1 issue”; “my direction for the country”; and “my soundbite.” The site asks for a photo, but it can be of someone else. On the Internet, no one knows you’re not Abraham Lincoln.

In a massive improvement over the real-world nominating process, every U4Prez candidate is required to answer the Roger Mudd question: “What I would do as President.” Here again, the site is refreshing for its straight talk. Under the space for “your political philosophy,” it says helpfully, “Feel free to cut and paste.”

Once you’ve entered the race, visitors to the site view your profile and rate your candidacy against the rest of the pack. The top candidates in each party are listed. From time to time, the editors arrange runoffs—not unlike the virtual primaries that take place with real-life candidates on other Web sites. The “how to get votes” page is full of helpful real-world insights: “The best way is to be bold! Take positions and explain your case. We’re much more likely to feature candidates who provide detail and take risks.”

How does U4Prez’s virtual presidential field stack up against the bricks-and-mortar version? Obviously it’s too early to predict a winner, especially since (like the real-world campaign), the horse race seems designed to last forever. Nonetheless, a few trends are already clear:

1. So far, despite the blogosphere’s liberal reputation, more Republicans than Democrats seem to want to choose their president the U4Prez way. The last time I checked, Democrats had no candidates rated above 5 (on a scale of 1-10); Republicans had eight candidates ranked that high. One top Republican was Court4Prez, who opposes the minimum wage, bashes illegal immigration, and says of Iraq, “if you wont stand behind our troops, than you can stand in front of them!” Conservatives might well rate their online Republican choices higher than their real-life ones. Indeed, Court4Prez would be a perfect choice to fill the Republican Party’s current vacuum of diehard conservative candidates, except for one thing: She’s only 18.

2. The rest of the political world may be hopelessly polarized, but in this online enclave, the post-partisan era has arrived. One Democratic candidate, GrantMan, claims Ronald Reagan as his favorite president and briefly climbed as high as fourth place while running under the Gipper’s photo. Geographically, Democratic front-runner BUCKEYEKID might be well positioned for the general election, but he’d have a tough time winning any real-world Democratic primaries as a pro-lifer whose top issue is “smaller government.”

3. Many real-world candidates don’t seem to fare any better on U4Prez than U4Prez candidates would likely fare in the real world. (Exception: Late Tuesday, a Mitt Romney clone—if that is not a redundancy—took over as the highest-rated candidate, but few voters had weighed in yet. He could not name a favorite or worst president, listed only his résumé under “what I would do as president,” and lied about his age, claiming to be 37.)

John Edwards may be the front-runner in Iowa polls, but in Tuesday’s face-off, his proxy was losing by 2-1 to a Republican couch potato named erock. Like many candidates on U4Prez, erock offers a detailed and iconoclastic platform: more troops in Afghanistan rather than Iraq, higher taxes on tobacco and on the very rich, a Social Security lockbox, teacher testing, an end to the Cuban embargo, and a fence between the United States and Mexico. He refers to our Mexican “boarder,” which could give Mickey Kaus a whole new line of attack.

I hated Time’s “You” cover, which even magazine insiders thought proved that the only thing worse than Person of the Year is Second Person of the Year. But might be onto something. If the site becomes the MySpace of presidential campaigns, real-life candidates could use it as a testing ground for more daring platforms.

Thursday, Jan. 25, 2007

Thursday, Jan. 25, 2007

No-Whip: Tuesday’s lame-duck State of the Union may not have done much for Bush’s domestic agenda, but it was a boon for mine. My daughter is studying American government this year, so a few hours before the president’s speech, I spoke to a gymnasium full of eighth graders about how State of the Union addresses work. We discussed the various SOTU rituals, from the sound of one party clapping to the mystery guests in the first lady’s box. As an incentive to watch the speech, I promised to buy every student a Frappuccino if the president didn’t name some American hero, like the subway Samaritan from New York.

At the time, that seemed like a safe bet, even in front of 63 Frappuccino-loving teenagers who weren’t about to let me off the hook. But 40 minutes into Bush’s speech, as he droned on about special advisory councils, I began to worry. Any president with so little interest in attracting support from the country or even his own party might dispense with other quaint democratic traditions, like showing a decent respect to the opinions of mankind or showcasing heroes in the State of the Union.

Luckily, with time running out on his speech and his administration, Bush forgot that he’s no Ronald Reagan and decided to embrace symbolic gestures with gusto. Suddenly, a Carteresque speech asking America to give bad news a chance began to sound like the spring lineup from Disney Pictures. Dikembe Mutombo, who rose from humble beginnings to stand 2 feet taller than the first lady of the United States. Julie Aigner-Clark, who made a fortune selling her toy company (to Disney!) and now makes videos warning kids about strangers—the perfect background to become Bush’s next Homeland Security czar.

But Bush saved the best heroes for last. Sgt. Tommy Rieman, who earned a Silver Star in Iraq, and whose wounds sounded so extensive, it seemed a miracle that he could stand up. And of course, Wesley Autrey, the subway hero, who jumped onto the tracks to save a man from an oncoming train.

I don’t know how the State of the Union fared with focus groups. But on my Frappu-meter, the last part of the speech was off the charts. Four heartwarming heroes in four minutes was more than enough to spare me from buying 63 $4 drinks. And by naming the subway Samaritan, Bush made me look a little like one of the eighth graders’ favorite TV characters—the fake psychic on USA’s *Psych.

Still, even someone with my psychic powers had to be surprised by the surge of heroes at the end of Bush’s speech. According to a remarkable new interactive graphic from the New York Times, Bush hadn’t used the word “hero” in a State of the Union since January 2002. On Tuesday, he called out the whole Fantastic Four.

Why the sudden outburst of heartwarming stories? Two reasons: First, after such a deflating speech, the president and his writers were desperate to end on a high note—or at least, higher than his 28 percent approval. The last time we saw such a parade of heroes in a State of the Union was 1995, when Clinton may have set the modern record with a closing flourish that singled out six. That year, we too were reeling from the loss of Congress and wanted to change a sour public mood. It’s possible that Bush’s speechwriters got the idea for multiple heroes from searching Clinton’s 1995 speech for comeback clues.

More likely, the hero glut is just another symptom of a White House that has run out of good options and can’t decide between them. A White House that is on its game makes choices; a struggling one runs in every direction at once, in hopes of finding something that will work. That may explain why Bush’s entire speech resembled Noah’s Ark, not just because it didn’t try to stop rising sea levels, but because it offered two of everything—for every new applause line about finding common ground, an old standby to placate the conservative base.

You don’t have to be a psychic to know the Bush White House is in desperate need of last-minute heroics. Yet while Wesley Autrey is every bit the “brave and humble man” Bush said, the subway Samaritan arrived too late: The train already flattened this president back in November. … 12:41 P.M. (link)

Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2007

Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2007

No Huddle:On Saturday, the clock on Bush’s presidency wound down to the two-year mark—but by then, both parties had already gone into their hurry-up offense. Three candidacies were announced in a single weekend, breaking the previous two-day record set by Mario Cuomo’s 1991 campaign-in-waiting. If Republicans and Democrats maintain their current January pace (12 entries in 22 days), each party will have more than 100 presidential candidates by the Iowa caucuses.

For once, the American people are in an even bigger rush than the candidates. In the latest ABC-Washington Post poll, Bush’s disapproval rating matched his personal best of 65 percent. CBS has his job approval down to 28 percent. That ought to be a weather advisory for tonight’s State of the Union: When the political thermometer drops below freezing, the president can’t stand still and expect to survive.

But precisely because Bush can’t figure out how to wind down his long war abroad, the presidential candidates are rushing into a long war here at home. In past cycles, the press and the public alike have bemoaned campaigns that began a whole year before the first votes were cast. This time, the long campaign couldn’t start soon enough.

For the country, a long, drawn-out campaign could turn out to be a good thing. With so much time to fill, candidates in both parties might actually be forced to turn their attention to putting new ideas on the table.

For those in and around the campaigns, however, a long war is a decidedly mixed blessing. Candidates will have to sustain a blistering pace for the next 51 weeks, and if they’re successful, longer still. Because most of the candidates work in the Senate, even when they break from campaigning, they will get precious little break from one another.

Has-beens like me live for campaign season but dread long, drawn-out primaries. As any veteran political reporter or campaign junkie will tell you, presidential campaigns are the most dangerous addiction that doesn’t violate the laws of this country. They’re a habit that is impossible to resist, harder to quit, and if continued past your twenties, almost certain to kill you. Or worse: You might already be dead and not yet have noticed.

Back in 1972, The Candidate showed us a campaign that ended in victory but left its volunteers jaded and cynical. Presidential primary campaigns are often just the opposite—inspiring, idealistic, and ending in defeat.

That’s what makes the lure of presidential primaries so dangerous. No matter how many races send us to rehab, most presidential campaign veterans never lose the idealism that led to our addiction in the first place. Even more than rookies, old hands still feel the magic of a presidential campaign, the one moment every four years with unlimited possibility to re-imagine America’s future. To anyone who has ever worked on a presidential campaign, the snows of New Hampshire are as much a sign of eternal spring as the smell of fresh-cut grass at Fenway.

The curse of a long campaign is that it prolongs the temptation, even as it ups the dosage. Long campaigns favor the qualities that are the first to go—youth, stamina, and most important, the ability to convince loved ones that the campaign won’t really be very long at all.

For the last five presidential cycles, I have been haunted by a story I heard my first time out in 1988, from a legendary policy wonk named Bill Galston. Bill was an ex-Marine, a political science professor, and then as now one of the finest minds in the business. About this time in the 1984 cycle, he had given up his dream job—a tenured position at the University of Texas—to begin a two-year stint as Walter Mondale’s policy director, a job so draining its only redeeming quality was that it lacked tenure. The way Bill told the story, he woke up one morning on the Mondale campaign, looked in the mirror, and realized that his entire head of hair had suddenly turned white. Yet there he was, back in the fray the next cycle and the cycle after that, with yet another tenured university post to keep from losing and no gray hairs left to give.