The Has-been

They Shoot Dark Horses, Don’t They?

Ralph Reed’s novel plan to blow up the GOP Convention.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Spoiler Alert: When the McCain campaign floated the idea of a pro-choice running mate, social conservatives reacted with the same outrage they’ve been rehearsing for 40 years: Some threatened to bolt at the convention; others said they’d rather lose the election than expand the Republican tent. “If he picks a pro-choice running mate, it’s not going to be pretty,” Rush Limbaugh warned.

But the most explosive threat comes from former right-hand-of-God Ralph Reed, in his new novel, Dark Horse, a “political thriller” that imagines this very scenario. Spoiler alert! Just hours after forcing his party to swallow a pro-choice VP, the Republican presidential nominee in Reed’s pot-boiler is brutally murdered by radical Islamic terrorists at the GOP Convention. Reed’s implicit threat to Republican candidates: The Christian right has so much power, they can even get someone else’s God to strike you down.

Reed doesn’t just kill off the character who named a pro-choice running mate—he has the running mate go on to destroy the Republican Party. For the Republicans (and the reader), the plot goes from bad to worse. With the pro-choice figure—an African-American war hero named David Petty—now at the top of the Republican ticket, evangelical leaders throw their support behind Calif. Gov. Bob Long, who just lost the Democratic nomination at a brokered convention and decided to run as an independent after going through a religious conversion in the chapel of the hospital where his daughter nearly lost her baby. Petty offends evangelicals, while Long—obviously a quick study—wows them with the depth of his knowledge of the Bible.

Petty’s candidacy implodes when a YouTube clip shows him telling Iowans that his support for the GOP abortion plank is only symbolic. Days before the election, voters also learn that as defense secretary, Petty convinced a no-bid contractor to hire a lobbyist who moonlights as his mistress and madam of an exclusive Washington brothel.

Reed’s clear warning: If you put a pro-choice Republican on the ticket, don’t be surprised when he turns out to be a lying, cheating, no-bid-earmarking john.

By contrast, Reed’s evangelicals love Long, who woos them with parables and waffles on abortion. “I’ve heard through the grapevine that he’s become a Christian,” says televangelist Andy Stanton, a composite of Limbaugh and Pat Robertson. “He may be someone we can do business with.” With Stanton’s enthusiastic blessing, Long sweeps the South and beats Petty 2-to-1 among evangelicals.

All three candidates come up short of 270 electoral votes, so the election goes to the House of Representatives. Even though Republicans control the House, Petty loses when Republican members of the evangelical caucus support Long instead. The message to McCain: Social conservatives will gladly support a maverick, as long as he says what they want to hear on their issues.

Of course, John McCain doesn’t need to curl up with a Ralph Reed roman à clef to know that social conservatives won’t budge on abortion. The more interesting question is why my evil twin decided to write the Great Republican Novel in the first place. True to his own life story, the book suffers from too much plot and not enough character. But it’s not nearly as bad as I’d hoped, and it’s chock-full of accidental revelations:

  • Ralph expects the Republicans to lose the White House in 2008 but win it back in 2012 and 2016. By the time the book takes place, Democrats haven’t carried a single Southern state in five straight elections (2000 through 2016), and a Republican president who is retiring after two terms reminisces fondly about how “I did what I had to do” to win the 2012 election. Alas, his “botched effort to overthrow the Iranian government” inspires the terrorist attack on the 2020 GOP convention.
  • Much as social conservatives and neocons can’t stand liberals and the media, most of all they hate each other. Reed’s hapless Republican nominee insists that “this election is about terrorism, not social issues” and doesn’t hide his contempt for social conservative leaders and “their self-importance, single-issue litmus tests, and insufferable sense of entitlement.” Meanwhile, social conservatives view themselves as “abused spouses” trapped in a “self-destructive codependence” with “the spineless wonders” who run the Republican Party. Reed says the Reagan formula can’t save the GOP anymore: “A pro-business party with the religious right grafted in like a wild olive plant, it no longer appeals to the center of the country.”
  • Money-grubbing consultants are obsessed with alcohol, drugs, and sex. Long’s adman is arrested for snorting cocaine, and his top strategist nearly costs his candidate the election by shacking up with a spy from a rival campaign.
  • Novel-writing operatives, by contrast, are obsessed only with sex. Reed tries his best to turn social conservative politics into steamy beach reading. In Dark Horse, the operative always gets the girl, and she is invariably “bronzed,” with swaying hips and tight designer clothes. One femme fatale is “a brunette lollipop” who captures her prey with lines like, “I thought I was dessert.”
  • Apparently, Reed does not have much experience courting the women’s vote. Long’s wife is an alcoholic who’s upset that he found God. The Democratic VP candidate is a lightweight who can’t remember her party’s position on Iran. Two campaign operatives refuse to discuss their grand jury testimony but stop to answer press questions about the designer outfits they’re wearing.
  • Reed enjoyed running the Christian Coalition more than humping corporate accounts for Jack Abramoff. He writes himself into the book as a minor character named Ross Lombardy, “a veritable computer hard drive of political trivia” and “strategist-cum-organizer with a killer instinct who could quote 200 Bible verses from memory” and “had an uncanny ability to cite the precise vote percentages in every key U.S. House and Senate race in the previous three election cycles.” The Abramoff character, G.G. Hoterman, is a corrupt, ruthless multimillionaire lobbyist who crushes anyone who gets in his way. “Politics has a way of criminalizing the normative,” Hoterman complains.
  • Reed writes knowingly of the “time-honored Washington tradition” of “expressing false regret at the misfortune of someone caught in a scandal, when the truth was everyone enjoyed it.” With a twinge of bitterness, he adds that “Washington scandals burn like funeral pyres, and only go out after the angry mob has tossed someone to the flames to pacify the gods.

That pyre suggests Ralph’s next move. It’s time to gin up the social conservative movement to forget about McCain’s running mate and wake up to the GOP-bashing, sex-peddling novelist in their midst. Nothing could do more for slumping sales than an urgent edict from the religious right: Burn this book! … 3:58 P.M. (link) 

Monday, August 11, 2008

It’s Your Money: Over the next two weeks, the Obama and McCain campaigns will spend an impressive $11 million to advertise during the Olympics. Obama’s first ad, “Hands,” outlines his plan for a green economy. McCain’s attacks Obama on taxes. Both ads reflect the campaigns’ respective game plans, although Obama’s fits in much better with the upbeat not-the-triumph-but-the-struggle spirit of the games that surround it. If I had a few million to help NBC fill the time between tape delays, I might go after a topic that is on most American viewers’ minds during these games and that seems destined to weigh heavily on the next president: China.When the 2008 campaign started a few lifetimes ago, this election appeared to be all about China—or, at least, about the long-term competitive challenge that the emerging economic superpowers of China and India pose to the American way of life. But a host of urgent short-term economic problems have pushed our long-term economic challenges aside. For the moment, falling housing prices, rising gas prices, and soaring credit-card debts have made us more concerned about the threat the American way of life poses to the American way of life.But if our next president ever gets done cleaning up after our current one, he’ll confront China’s growing shadow on issue after issue. While the United States can make an enormous difference by finally doing its part on climate change, the Chinese have already passed us as the largest producer of greenhouse gases, and our ability and willingness to make progress will depend in part on theirs. Meanwhile, China’s rising demand for oil to fuel its relentless economic growth will continue to cost us at the pump.When the next president decides what to do about education reform in the United States, China should be on his mind. The Chinese education system churns out 5 million college graduates a year, while we still paper over our high-school dropout rate and look away as half a million of the young people we send to college every year never finish.

Perhaps most urgently, the next president will have to admit what George W. Bush would not—that if we don’t put our fiscal house in order, China will foreclose on it. As Obama has pointed out, It’s very hard to tell your banker that he’s wrong.” This year’s federal budget deficit will be a record $500 billion, not counting wars and economic bailouts. One of history’s headlines on this administration will be, “Bush Owes to China.” The rise of China is the story of this Olympics and threatensto be the story of the next presidency. So it’s only fitting to give viewers a sense of what’s at stake. My dream ad would show the robot Wall-E methodically stacking pressed blocks of discarded dollar bills to form giant structures, which turn out to be the Bird’s Nest stadium, the Water Cube aquatic center, and the CCTV tower. The script would go something like this: “Sponsor” (60 seconds)Voiceover: “Ever wonder what Washington has done with your tax dollars? This Olympics is your chance to find out. For the last 8 years, the Bush administration has been paying China billions of dollars in interest on the trillions it borrowed for tax breaks, pork, and special privileges you never got. That money helped create thousands of businesses and millions of jobs—in China. So as you enjoy the games, keep an eye on your tax dollars at work. The way our economy’s going, it’s tough to pay your bills. But take heart: You already paid China’s.”Tagline: “America’s Taxpayers. Proud Sponsors of the Beijing Olympics.”What’s an Olympics without a little national pride?  And with any luck, NBC might refuse to run it. … 10:30 A.M. (link)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008 Trader Mitt: As if John McCain didn’t have enough reason to keep quoting JFK’s line that life isn’t fair, consider this: According to the political futures markets, Mitt Romney now has a better chance of being McCain’s running mate than McCain has of winning.Since the primaries, Romney has steadily gained ground in the VP sweepstakes through hard work and a disciplined message: He’ll help on the economy, he grew up in the swing state of Michigan, and he makes his current home in the right wing of the Republican Party. He seems at ease with the unattractive chores of being the vice-presidential nominee: raising money, playing the attack dog, telling the base what it wants to hear.On paper, Romney’s VP bid looks as picture perfect as his presidential campaign once did. Yet even as Mitt watchers revel in the current boomlet, we can’t help wondering whether this Romneymania will last.With that in mind, Romneystas everywhere need to start making new and urgent arguments on his behalf:

  • The French Are Coming!: Romney was widely mocked last fall when he warned that France posed a clear and present danger to the American way of life. But after watching French President Nicolas Sarkozy embrace Barack Obama in Paris last week, conservatives may finally warm to Mitt’s “First, Not France” slogan after all. Romney has impeccable credentials as a Francophobe; Sarkozy would never dream of saying of him, “If he is chosen, then France will be delighted.” In a few short hours in Paris, Obama claimed the president as a convert. Romney spent two whole years in France and converted no one whatsoever.
  • Leave ‘Em Laughing as You Go: One of McCain’s heroes, Mo Udall, loved to tell the story of primary voters who heard him say, “I’m Mo Udall and I’m running for president,” and responded, “We were just laughing about that this morning.” Poor Mo wouldn’t know what to make of this campaign. Two months into the general election, nobody’s laughing about anything. No one much wants to joke about Obama or McCain. If Romney were the VP, pundits across the spectrum would exult that at last they had someone fun to mess with. He’s a good sport and a happy square, with a track record of supplying ample new material.
  • WALL-E’s World: Mitt Romney’s Web site is a shadow of its former self—no Five Brothers blog, no ad contests, no animatronic Mitt messages for your voicemail. Yet like WALL-E’s stash of charming knickknacks, the few surviving objects on Planet Romney carry greater meaning. For example, a striking photo highlights a strength few politicians reveal: Unlike McCain, Mitt Romney was born to read a teleprompter. In the official campaign photo of him rehearsing his concession speech, Mitt is barely visible. All the focus is on the words in big type to be loaded on the prompter.
McCain doesn’t much like giving speeches and treats teleprompters accordingly. But you can see how a campaign that has struggled to follow a script might be tempted by the first completely programmable running mate.  In 2000, McCain often joked that he was Luke Skywalker. This time, Romney could be his C3PO. … 12:47 p.m. (link)

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Make My Day: What a difference a month makes. At its June meeting, the D.C. City Council debated Mayor Adrian Fenty’s emergency legislation to ban sparklers. After the Supreme Court struck down the city’s gun ban, the Council spent last week’s July meeting debating emergency legislation to let residents own handguns. Here in the District, we couldn’t shoot off firecrackers over the Fourth because they’re too dangerous, but we can now keep a loaded pistol by our bedside, ready to shoot down prowlers in self-defense. Like most D.C. residents, I have no plans to stockpile guns in the wake of the Supreme Court decision. But if the city wants to take away my sparklers, they’ll have to pry them from my cold, dead, slightly charred hands.When I was growing up, the rights to keep and bear firearms and fireworks went hand in hand. My grandmother used a revolver to shoot garter snakes in her garden. Well into her eighties, however, her greatest pleasure in life was to spend the Fourth setting off massive strings of firecrackers, 200 at a time. When she came to visit, she’d step off the airplane with a suitcase full of firecrackers purchased on an Indian reservation. As soon as we got home, she’d light the fuse with her cigarette, then squeal with delight as serial explosions made the gravel in our driveway dance.In recent years, firearm regulation and firework regulation have gone their separate ways. The National Rifle Association has successfully opposed most gun laws, even ones aimed primarily at criminals. Armed with Justice Scalia’s maddeningly unhelpful ruling on the D.C. ban, the NRA already has begun to target the rest.By contrast, although fireworks aren’t nearly as deadly as guns, the government treats them like what they are – a widely popular, sometimes dangerous American tradition. The federal government long ago banned once-commonplace explosives like cherry bombs. Most states – even the libertarian bastion of Idaho – have banned or restricted the use of firecrackers. According to the website AmericanPyro, five states, including Iowa and Illinois, permit only sparklers and snakes. Five others, including New York and Massachusetts, allow no consumer fireworks whatsoever. In general, states insist that fireworks must be “safe and sane” – a balance that has been all but impossible to strike with firearms.Thanks to the enduring power of pyromania, sales haven’t suffered. Since 1976, fireworks consumption has increased ten-fold, while fireworks-related injuries have dropped. Fireworks manufacturers can take heart in knowing that this year’s survivors are next year’s customers.Because there is no Second Amendment right to keep and bear sparklers, fireworks law is a straightforward balancing test – between the individual right to burn a hole in the back porch and the mutual responsibility not to burn entire communities to the ground, the personal freedom to pyromaniacal self-expression and the personal responsibility not to harm oneself and others. These days, the fireworks industry has more to fear from climate change than from the authorities. This summer, the threat of wildfires led Arnold Schwarzenegger to ask Californians to boycott fireworks. Drought forced John McCain to forego fireworks at his annual Independence Day barbecue in Arizona.The trouble with the Supreme Court ruling in the Heller case is not that it interprets the Second Amendment as an individual right. The Second Amendment is the constitutional equivalent of the grammatical paradox Eats Shoots & Leaves, but whatever the Founders meant by its muddy wording and punctuation, most Americans now take it for granted. The real problem with the Court’s decision is that the balancing test for gun rights and responsibilities is even less clear than before. Scalia’s opinion devotes 30 pages to a grammatical history of the Second Amendment and a single sentence to how the courts should apply it to most other gun laws already on the books.Alongside such vast imprecision, the Court went out of its way to strike down the requirement for trigger locks – an extraordinarily modest attempt to balance freedom and safety. Trigger locks can help prevent gun accidents and keep guns out of the hands of children. Far from impeding self-defense, new trigger locks can be unlocked with a fingerprint or a special ring on the gun owner’s finger. That means today’s gun owner can arm himself to shoot an intruder in an instant – compared to the 30 seconds or more it took to load a pistol or musket in the 18th Century.Over the long term, it’s not clear how much of a boon the Heller decision will be for gun rights advocates. In winning the case, the gun lobby lost its most potent argument – the threat that at any moment, the government will knock on the door and take your guns away. With that bogeyman out of the way, the case for common-sense gun safety measures is stronger than ever. Perhaps now the gun debate will revolve around more practical and less incendiary issues, like what can be done to reduce illegal gun trafficking and trace guns used in crimes.If it’s any small consolation, the real winners in Heller may turn out to be the sparkler lobby. If cities have trouble banning handguns, they will be hard-pressed to take away sparklers. Of course, as with guns, the threat to sparklers may well have been exaggerated. The D.C. Council rejected Mayor Fenty’s sparkler ban by a vote of 11-2, as members nostalgically recalled playing with them in their youth. Councilman and former mayor Marion Barry voted no “with a bang.” As Barry knows, there are worse things in life to light than a sparkler. … 9:51 A.M. (link)

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Fight of Her Life:Ten years ago, at a White House farewell for a favorite staff member, Hillary Clinton described the two kinds of people in the world: born optimists like her husband who see the glass as half-full, and born realists like herself who can see the glass is half-empty. As she ends her campaign and throws her support behind Barack Obama’s remarkable quest, Hillary could be forgiven for seeing her glass as, quite literally, half-empty. The two candidates traded primary after primary down the stretch, two titans matching each other vote for vote. In the closest race in the modern era, she and Obama split the Democratic wishbone nearly right down the middle, but she’s not the one who got her wish.Yet for Hillary and the 18 million of us who supported her, there is no shame in one historic campaign coming up just short against another. History is a great deal wiser than Chris Matthews, and will be kinder, too. The 2008 contest has been one for the ages, and the annals will show that Hillary Clinton has gained far more than she lost.The Obama-Clinton match will go down as the longest, closest, most exciting, most exhausting ever. Obama ran an inspired campaign and seized the moment. Clinton came close, and by putting up a tough fight now, helped fortify him for the fight ahead.Our campaign made plenty of mistakes, none of which has gone unreported. But Hillary is right not to dwell on “woulda, coulda, shoulda.” From New Hampshire to South Dakota, the race she ran earned its own place in the history books.While the way we elect presidents leaves a lot to be desired, it has one redeeming virtue, as the greatest means ever invented to test what those who seek the job are made of. In our lifetimes, we’ll be hard-pressed to find a candidate made of tougher stuff than Hillary Clinton. Most candidates leave a race diminished by it. Hillary is like tempered steel: the more intense the heat, the tougher she gets.And has any candidate had to face fiercer, more sustained heat? As a frontrunner, she expected a tough ride, and as Hillary Clinton, she was accustomed to it. But if she was used to the scrutiny, she could not have anticipated – and did not deserve – the transparent hostility behind it. In much the same way the right wing came unglued when her husband refused to die in the ‘90s, the media lost its bearings when she defied and survived them. Slate at least held off on its noxious Hillary Deathwatch until March; most of the press corps began a breathless Clinton Deathwatch last Thanksgiving. The question that turned her campaign around in New Hampshire – “How do you do it?” – brought Hillary to tears out of sheer gratitude that someone out there had noticed.For a few searing days in New Hampshire, we watched her stare into the abyss. Any other candidate forced to read her own obituary so often would have come to believe it. But as she went on to demonstrate throughout this campaign, Hillary had faith that there is life after political death, and the wherewithal to prove it.In New Hampshire, she discarded the frontrunner mantle and found her voice. For a race that was largely won or lost in Iowa, the discovery came a few days too late. But the grit Clinton showed with her back to the wall all those months will make her a force with a following for years to come.The chief hurdle for Clinton’s presidential bid wasn’t whether she could do the job; Democrats never doubted she would make a good president. Ironically, the biggest question she faced for much of the race is one she answered clearly by the time she left it: whether America was ready for a woman president. No one asks that question any longer. For all the sexism she encountered as the first woman with a serious shot at the White House, voters themselves made clear they were ready. The longer the race went on, the more formidable she looked in the general election. In this week’s CBS News poll, she was beating John McCain by nine points, even as she was losing the Democratic nomination.Last year, the press and other campaigns insisted that Clinton was too polarizing and that half the country was united against her. Now, a woman who was supposed to be one of the most polarizing figures in America leaves the race with handsome leads over McCain in places like North Carolina, a state her husband never carried.When her campaign started, aides often described Hillary as the least known, least understood famous person in America. During this campaign, it became clear that in certain quarters she’s the most deliberately misunderstood person as well. The recent RFK flap was yet another attempt to suggest that her every miscue was part of some diabolical master plan.Yet while talking heads imagined the evils of Hillary Clinton, voters finally came to know and understand her. They saw someone who knew what they were going through, who would stick with them, fight for them, and get back up when she got knocked down. The phony, consultant-driven shadow boxing of the last few years has dulled Democrats to the party’s historic mission – to defend the values and stand up for the interests of ordinary people who are doing all they can just to get ahead. For those voters, Hillary Clinton was the champion they’ve been looking for, a fighter they can count on, win or lose, not to let them down.That’s a fight she’ll never quit. Like the woman in New Hampshire, we still wonder how Hillary does it, but this time, the tears are on us. As we wish her well, our hopes are high, our hearts are full – and if our glass is empty, it was worth every drop. … 11:58 P.M. (link)

Friday, May 30, 2008The Adventures of Bobble-Foot: For enough money, any McClellan or Stephanopoulos in Washington will write a kiss-and-tell book these days. But the memoir Larry Craig just announced he’s writing could launch a whole new genre: don’t-kiss, don’t-tell.Craig revealed his plans on Boise television during Tuesday’s coverage of the Senate primary to choose his potential successors. For the senator, if not his viewers, it was a poignant moment, one last point of no return in a three-decade-long political career.With a touch of empathy, the local reporter told Craig, “You’re looking forward now to a much different life for yourself.” Alas, the life Craig described isn’t much different from any other retiring pol’s, nor does he sound like he’s looking forward to it. He hinted that he is entertaining a number of lobbying offers. Because of ethics rules, he explains, “There are some one-way conversations going on, ‘cause I’ve said I can’t talk, but I certainly can listen.” Perhaps they can figure out some kind of code.These are heady times for the Idaho senator. Last Sunday, on National Tap Dance Day, the first-place St. Paul Saints, a minor league baseball team, drew their biggest crowd of the year with a special promotion in Craig’s honor: a bobble-foot doll commemorating the bathroom stall at Minneapolis-St.Paul airport. The team website reported, “Saints Have Toe-Tapping Good Time, Win 9-3.”The bobble-foot promotion gave Craig a way to test his market value even beyond the lobbying and book worlds. Scores of Craig bobble-feet are now available on eBay, selling for upwards of $75 apiece. You’d better hurry: Like successful appeals of uncoerced confessions, supplies are limited.The upcoming memoir may be the last we ever hear from the man, so it’s worth asking: What kind of book will Larry Craig write? Consider the possibilities:

  • The Broken Branch: Left to his own devices (never a good idea), Craig seems likely to write an insiders’ version of the woe-is-gridlock lament popularized most recently by political scientists Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann. “The thing that’s important for someone with my experience to talk about is the state of politics in Washington,” Craig said Tuesday. “It’s created what I call a extremely dysfunctional, hyperpartisan Senate. We’re getting little to nothing done.” Craig cites immigration and energy policy. As his agent and editor will surely tell him, this sober approach is not the way for Craig to put his best foot forward. No one wants to read the case for decisive action written by a man who claimed his innocence after pleading guilty and remained in office after promising to quit. Then again, Craig might not be a household word if he had listened to the advice of Ornstein and Mann, who urged members to bring their families to live with them in Washington.
  • The Packwood Diaries: With slight modifications, Craig has modeled his entire Senate career after his friend, former Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood. Craig sobbed on the Senate floor the day Packwood resigned. Packwood dug in his heels and remained in office for three years after his sex scandal became public. Craig has done the same, and is only leaving because his term is up. Considering how much Packwood served as his role model, it’s possible that Craig tried to emulate another part of the Oregonian’s legacy: the Packwood diaries. Packwood kept a meticulous journal of all his exploits, with an eye to history and none on the lookout for satire or federal prosecution. We can only hope Craig has done the same.
  • What Happened: Every publisher is looking for the next Scott McClellan, who told lies for a living but was scared straight after his escape. Craig could play this role with gusto. The pitch: It wasn’t his idea to stand up in front of the press time after time and insist he wasn’t gay. Karl Rove made him do it, in a deliberate cover-up to protect the Republican brand – and he’ll never forgive Rove for it.
  • If I Did It: O.J. Simpson never got to keep a dime of his controversial book, If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer. Craig, on the other hand, could hypothesize all the way to the bank. Senators love to write loosely autobiographical fiction. Gary Hart and Bill Cohen wrote The Double Man about a politician who wanted to be president. Barbara Boxer wrote A Time to Runabout a woman who becomes a liberal senator from California. Craig could write a great book about an imaginary conservative senator who happens to be gay. His hypothetical musings would wow the critics and sell like crazy. Besides, what does Craig have to lose? Hinting he did it would be no more an admission of guilt than the misdemeanor plea he was just kidding us about last June. … 8:48 P.M. (link)