Entries from February 2008

Hillary Has A Point

David Frum February 23rd, 2008 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign is collapsing, a victim of this one unsolveable problem: Hillary’s opponents hate her — but her supporters do not much like her.

As the Democratic primaries have stretched, former Hillary supporting constituencies have one by one dropped away.

African-Americans — supposedly so Clinton loyal? They were the first to defect to the charismatic challenger with the odd name and the exotic personal history. Then went younger white men. Then older white men. Then upper-income white women.

In the Feb. 19 Wisconsin primary, Obama beat Clinton in virtually every demographic category, including whites with only high-school diplomas and whites earning less than $50,000 a year: till now core Clinton groups.

Since last fall, Hillary Clinton has plunged from a 20 point lead over Obama to trailing behind him.

Only two elements of the Democratic party electorate still remain faithful: poor white women and Latinos. And even if she holds those groups, that will not be enough. Thanks to the arcane rules of the Texas primary, it is very possible that Hillary could win an outright majority of the state’s vote — and still lose the delegate count to Obama. What ails the Clinton candidacy?

Over the past eight years, Hillary Clinton has compiled a relatively moderate record in the U.S. Senate. She famously voted to authorize the Iraq war, but in other ways too she has moved away from her image as a hard-left ultra-feminist toward the national centre.

Her party’s liberal base has noticed — and resented the shift. Her opponents have not. And so Clinton suffers the worst of both worlds: Conservatives oppose her because they think she is a liberal. Liberals oppose her because they suspect she is not. Add to that her husband’s scandals and the larger Evita Peron problem posed by a First Lady running to succeed her husband and the result is ?free fall.

Meanwhile, Obama has managed to soothe many conservatives into imagining him as a unifying figure, despite his own clear record as the most consistently liberal member of the U.S.

Senate. It’s a good trick, so long as it lasts — but it gives every sign of lasting just long enough.

Yet there is a reality here beyond the image. Hillary Clinton has given every indication of being a more responsible potential commander-in-chief than Obama. She has refused to pledge unconditional and immediate withdrawal from Iraq, as Obama has done. He has offered to meet Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro without preconditions. Hillary has declined to offer America’s enemies such a PR coup. Her foreign policy advisors include level-headed people like Richard Holbrooke. His are led by the most dovish of the former Clinton hands, including Anthony Lake. Obama has even accepted advice from Robert Malley, the most prominent U.S. advocate of engagement with Hamas.

Obama talks about “building bridges.” And certainly his style seems less angry than Hillary Clinton’s. He does not seem to hate his enemies the way she does, does not engage in loose talk of vast right-wing conspiracies against him. That’s all to the good. Yet it is Clinton who has compiled the better record of bipartisan co-operation in the Senate.

Obama’s supporters react angrily against Hillary’s claim that she offers action, Obama only words. But she has a point: Not in a long time has a candidate sought the presidency on the basis of a record as slight as Barack Obama’s. His supporters compare him to Abraham Lincoln, who served only a single term in Congress before winning election as president. A better analogy might be William Jennings Bryan, who won the Democratic nomination in 1896 on the power of a great convention speech. Obama too gave a great speech in 2004. Beyond that, there is only guesswork, hope and fantasy.

Supporters of a strong American foreign policy will of course prefer John McCain to either Democrat. But if a Democrat it must be, Hillary Clinton seems the better choice for a national security voter. Largely for that very reason, Clinton’s party has chosen otherwise.

If Obama does win the nomination and the presidency, he will face some very difficult realities with very little preparation. At that point, many Democrats — and not a few Republicans — may find themselves recalling Hillary Clinton’s prophetic warnings that there is all the difference in the world between making speeches and effective government.

What Happened To The Love?

David Frum February 16th, 2008 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Has any recent U.S. presidential candidate come under such withering and relentless attack from his own side than John McCain?

Radio talk show hosts, prominent journalists, local conservative activists: They have slammed and denounced McCain for his heresies against Republican orthodoxy over the past decade:

-McCain agitated for higher taxes on cigarettes and tobacco.

-He co-sponsored a campaign finance reform that imposed severe limits on political speech — and unintentionally greatly enhanced the power of media organizations and super-wealthy individuals such as left-wing financier George Soros.

-He opposed the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003.

-He accepted as valid warnings of global warming, and supported schemes to curb carbon emissions.

-He designed and supported the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, which offered amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants — and opened the door to massive, continuing unskilled immigration in the future.

-He made it clear that he despised many of the leaders and institutions of organized conservatism — and that he relished the admiration of the liberal national media. Appearing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart as he launched his presidential campaign, McCain was asked (I quote the question from memory): “Are you entering crazy base world?” McCain’s answer: “I’m afraid so Jon.” It’s impossible to miss the note of distaste for core Republican voters (i.e., the GOP “base”) — and the implied apology to McCain’s real, less “crazy” base in the national media. People very seldom like those who do not like them back.

So there is a basis for the conservative mistrust of John McCain documented in (among other places) the cover story in the current issue of Newsweek.

On the other hand, there was very nearly equal grounds for the right to mistrust George W. Bush’s so-called “compassionate conservatism” in 2000. Like McCain, Bush deliberately picked fights with fellow party members. He criticized congressional Republicans for attempting to reduce the value of the Earned Income Tax Credit, praised the Medicare and Medicaid programs that the congressional party had sought to restrain, even took a sideways kick at the conservative icon Robert Bork. Bush staked out a position on immigration fully as radical as McCain’s — and took a stance on education in many ways more aligned with traditional Democratic ideas than with the Republican preference for choice and competition.

Yet Bush never had to endure anything like the current opprobrium directed at McCain. Why not?

Part of the difference is simply the difference between the mood of the two election years. 2000 was a year of low political intensity (only 106 million Americans voted that year); 2008 promises to be the most intense year since 1980 (turnout should exceed the 2004 record of 122 million). There is a lot of emotion in the air, and with the surprise deflation of the Hillary Clinton candidacy, conservatives have been left to direct their emotions at each other instead.

But there is another difference, one rather awkward to talk about. Conservatism is a political philosophy. It is an electoral coalition. In recent years, it has also evolved into an industry.

And from the point of view of most participants in this industry, opposition is preferable to governing. Contributions flow more freely to campaigns — and thence to consultants, pollsters and advertising agencies. Rancor and conflict may inhibit legislation. But they sure boost ratings for talk shows.

Does that mean that the conservatives featured in Newsweek affirmatively want to lose? Some expressly say they do. Overly impressed with false parallels to 1992, they may imagine that the loss of the presidency in 2008 will speedily be followed by a conservative backlash and a Republican recovery like that of 1994.

That would be a serious, and maybe irreversible error. The Democrats are poised to win a much bigger victory in 2008 than in 1992. And much more is at stake in 2008 than in 1992: not just an election, but a new majority — not just a domestic program, but a war.

Right Man, Wrong Time

David Frum February 8th, 2008 at 12:00 am Comments Off

It’s been a long time since there was a Republican presidential candidate like Mitt Romney.

In recent years, Republican presidential candidates have dealt in soaring rhetoric and heroic themes. The grubby details of policy they left to the Democrats.

Mr. Romney was made of very different stuff. He could enthrall a roomful of CEOs and economists with his mastery of economic details. Watching him absorb information was like watching an ultra-powerful wet vac deal with a garage spill. SHLOOOOOP –in it goes!

At the very beginning of his campaign, I watched him wow such a crowd with a line-byline explication of his health care plan. They were impressed not only by his mastery of facts and figures, but even more by his careful, cautious decision-making style.

You could almost feel them think: “If this man had been in charge, no way would Iraq be such a mess.”

But if the CEOs and the economists liked Mr. Romney, the Republican primary electorate never warmed to him. Why not?

The shape of Mr. Romney’s appeal explains his problems.

Mr. Romney ran as the conservative candidate. That strategy worked, up to a point. In states like New Hampshire, Michigan and California, he won a plurality of the conservative vote. But while northern and western conservatives accepted Mr. Romney, southern conservatives preferred former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

So Mr. Romney lost conservative votes to Mr. Huckabee in the conservative South, and lost moderates and independents to John McCain in the less conservative North and West.

So far, this looks like a simple political squeeze play, with Mr. Romney being crowded from the right by Mr. Huckabee and from the left by Mr. Mc-Cain. Yet that is not quite right. After all, polls suggested that Huckabee voters preferred the supposedly less conservative Mr. McCain as their second choice to the supposedly more conservative Mr. Romney.

Some have interpreted this preference as religious prejudice: Mr. Huckabee’s heavily evangelical voters simply refusing to vote for a Mormon candidate for president.

Others suggest that economics may be the real fault line. Mr. Huckabee joked that his voters wanted a candidate who reminded them of the people they worked with — not the guy who laid them off. And Mr. Romney did score best among upper-income Republicans.

But here’s a third theory: “Change” has been the great theme of this primary season. And Republican voters want change almost as much as Democrats do.

Mr. McCain won the votes of those Republicans who expressed dissatisfaction with the Bush presidency. They remembered Mr. McCain as a fierce opponent of George W. Bush in 2000, as one of Mr. Bush’s leading adversaries in Congress in 2001 and 2002, and as an unrelenting (and prophetic) critic of the administration’s Iraq strategy.

Mr. Huckabee, too, was an anti-Bush in his populist economics.

Mr. Romney by contrast fell into the role of Mr. Bush’s successor. He won the votes of Republicans who wanted to continue the policies of the Bush administration — and there just were not enough of those.

It’s ironic: In his decision-making style, Mr. Romney of all the candidates running resembled Mr. Bush the least. Mr. Bush often described himself as a gut player. He made snap decisions and then held to them stubbornly.

Not so Mr. Romney. Analytic and data-driven, always prepared to change his mind when circumstances change, Mr. Romney really would have been the MBA president George W. Bush promised to be. (They overlapped at Harvard, where Mr. Romney was an academic star — and Mr. Bush was best remembered for chewing tobacco in class.)

It was Mr. Romney, too, who most strongly dissented from the Bush policy unpopular in his party: immigration amnesty and an open-door policy.

Unfortunately for Mr. Romney, Republican voters are also gut players. Something about the sleek, well-spoken CEO reminded them of a past they wanted to leave behind. Mr. Bush’s antithesis in person, he became Mr. Bush’s stand-in on the campaign trail.

Everything negative stuck to him. He was ridiculed for changing his past positions on abortion and gay rights. Yet both Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Mc-Cain had resumes full of abrupt reversals:Mr. McCain, who had opposed the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, now promises to renew them; Mr. Huckabee, who had supported the Bush amnesty plan, converted himself to an immigration hawk almost overnight.

It’s too bad. Mr. Romney was never a compelling candidate. But he would have made a fine president.

On the other hand, if 2008 ends for the GOP as badly as it has begun, he may yet get his chance. For as the triumph of Mr. McCain reminds us, there is no surer path to the Republican nomination next time than to finish second the time before.

Economy Could Yet Cast The Final Vote

David Frum February 6th, 2008 at 12:00 am Comments Off

The first (and maybe most decisive) news of the day came not from New York or California, not from Georgia or West Virginia, but from the Institute for Supply Management.

The Institute tracks business purchasing of everything from toilet paper to laptop computers. On Super-Duper Tuesday, it reported that the service sector of the U.S. economy had contracted for the first time in nearly five years. Many economists interpreted this news as proof that the U.S. economy is indeed entering a recession. If the U.S. does downshift from the economic anxiety of this winter to outright economic distress, that change may matter fully as much as any outcome of Tuesday’s primaries, and state conventions.

Bad economic news is good news for Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney — but dangerous news for Barack Obama and John Mc-Cain. Here’s why.

Democrats first. It is often said that the Democratic party is split between beer drinkers and wine drinkers.

Or rather, between the guys in union jackets and the professors in tweed jackets.

Hillary Clinton has artfully positioned herself as the beer candidate, winning much more union support than Barack Obama. If Obama specializes in soaring rhetoric, Hillary offers detailed policy prescriptions — and nostalgia for the prosperous 1990s. And in tough times, Obama’s grandiosity may sound less inspirational than Hillary’s practical knowledge.

On the Republican side, John McCain acknowledged last November to David Brooks of The New York Times that he was not really “well-grounded in economics.” He said something similar to a reporter covering the New Hampshire primary: “I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated.” If 2008 turns into a recession year, McCain’s uncertainty on pocketbook issues will contrast painfully with Mitt Romney’s virtuosity.

Exit polls suggested unexpectedly good news for the good-times candidates, Obama and McCain. If those results are born out by the final returns, both men may have cause to be grateful that this year’s primaries came so early: Super Tuesday used to occur in March, by which time the U.S. economy may be more visibly troubled — and candidates not well grounded in economics may discover themselves in less demand. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 370 points yesterday. Exit polls in 10 major battleground states found a majority of Republicans describing the economy as either poor or not so good.

These glowering economic tidings foreshadow trouble for the incumbent party. But you don’t have to wait for November to hear the bad news for the GOP. In the Iowa caucuses last month, twice as many people participated on the Democratic side as on the Republican.

In New Hampshire, Democrats cast 45,000 more ballots than Republicans. In Michigan, barely half as many people participated in the Republican contest in 2008 as participated in 2004.

Democratic turnout in South Carolina — South Carolina! — was 20% higher than Republican. If these trends persist, they tell us something big and important: What may matter most in November is not the candidates, but the parties.

The strong voter preference for Democrats over Republicans visible in opinion polls is carrying over to actual voter behaviour. It is turnout more than results that reveal most about the mind of the American voter in 2008. That mind is pessimistic, hungry for change and preoccupied with domestic rather than foreign concerns.

It’s not impossible for the Democrats to waste their advantages of course. The humour magazine The Onion recently ran a headline in which Democratic candidates pledged to give “hopelessness a chance.” But if nothing is certain, the odds are clear. Whichever Republican emerges from yesterday’s contest will enjoy only for an instant the status of a “winner.” As soon as the confetti has hit the ground, he will revert to the status of the underdog.

That will be a comfortable situation for John McCain, at least — for he is always happiest when battling against the odds. The Democratic winner, by contrast, will enjoy all the glamour and attention of a president-in-waiting.

If it’s Obama, expect a surge of commentary about post-racial America. If it’s Hillary — brace yourself for a burst of stories about how exactly Bill Clinton has been spending the past eight years. One of the first of those stories hit the front page of The New York Times last week: It described how Bill Clinton helped a Canadian mining promoter to win a uranium concession in Kazakhstan in 2005, after which Clinton collected a US$31-million contribution to his private foundation. There will be more such stories –lots more.

As Americans grapple with their continuing political choices, they will have to begin to weigh considerations more serious than Hillary’s tears and Obama’s rhetoric; more immediately relevant than Romney’s faith and McCain’s heroic war record.

Misinformation Warfare

David Frum February 2nd, 2008 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Free societies possess one great advantage over their enemies: They learn. Because free societies openly discuss their errors, they can repair their errors.

With the release of the final Winograd report on the 2006 Lebanon war, Israel has entered a period of intense self-examination that will ultimately only enhance its self-defence. None of Israel’s enemies ever has or ever could do such a thing. That may explain why Israel has become ever more powerful and successful over the past 60 years, and its enemies ever weaker and more frustrated.

Yet, while the Winograd report shows Israel’s strength, it is not so clear that the report will itself contribute much to it. The report painstakingly considers a series of failures and mistakes by Israel’s high command. It gives dangerously little consideration to the Jewish state’s single most important problem: its inability to deal effectively with the campaign of anti-Israel defamation waged by Hezbollah — aided by the negligence, and sometimes the complicity, of international organizations and the global media. As Noah Pollak reports in the autumn 2007 issue of the Israeli quarterly Azure:

“[Then-UN secretary general] KofiAn-nan announced, with no evidence whatsoever, that Israel had intentionally killed four members of UNIFIL; human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) churned out scores of reports condemning Israel’s war effort, alleging war crimes and largely ignoring Hezbollah ? and journalists gave flood-the-zone coverage to Lebanese civilian casualties, producing false reports on the [July 30, 2006] Qana bombing, doctored photographs and news stories that were arranged and directed by Hezbollah. In its battlefield tours for reporters, Hezbollah went so far as to fabricate ambulance drive-bys, as apparently the payoff from using these vehicles as props for the international press was preferable to using them to help wounded Lebanese.”

Hezbollah’s most effective weapon was not its rockets or bunkers, but its falsified photographs and film clips. These images shaped world opinion to Israel’s detriment, giving the country’s enemies something close to a veto over Israel’s tactics.

One of the most notorious of these falsified incidents occurred near the town of Qana. In the words of one exhaustive review of the evidence: “The site, in effect, became one vast, grotesque film set on which a macabre drama was played out to a willing and complicit media, which actively co-operated in the production and exploited the results.”

Israel’s friends in the blogosphere tried to set the record straight after the fact. But as withering as the corrections could be, they arrived late, and never carried the impact of the initial misreporting by Reuters, the Associated Press and the BBC. To quote Pollak again:

“By the halfway point in the conflict, the narrative of the war had been skewed from one in which Israel was defending itself from attack by an Iranian-backed terrorist organization to one in which Israel was, once again, savagely killing civilians. A survey by Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center found that of the 117 stories the BBC ran during the conflict, 38% identified Israel as the aggressor, while only 4% identified Hezbollah as such. As Harvard’s Marvin Kalb reported in a recent study, ‘On the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, Israel was portrayed as the aggressor nearly twice as often in the headlines and exactly three times as often in the photos.’ “

This is more than a matter of media bias.

In our age of global communication and the disproportionate influence of easily manipulable photographs and video, a new theatre of war has been created, one in which the battle is not fought over territory or against armies and terrorists. The battle is over images, narratives and beliefs, and the tactics and strategies required to fight it bear little resemblance to conventional war.

To adapt von Clausewitz’s famous remark: Modern warfare has become PR by other means. In this new war, the NGOs and the media are not observers. Often they are combatants themselves, indeed the most powerful and lethal combatants. And responding effectively to them demands a new approach to war, an approach that sees information as a weapon as vital and indispensable as tanks and missiles.

Israel does not excel at this new form of war. None of the democracies do, but no other democracy is as ferociously and consistently targeted as Israel, and none has as thin a margin of survival.

We are still awaiting the report that will press Israel and the other democracies to rethink the failure of its information strategy, and that will begin to show the way to a new strategy of national defence for what might be called the Era of Misinformation Warfare.