The shrug primary.

The shrug primary.

The shrug primary.

Notes from the political sidelines.
June 22 2007 12:14 PM

The Shrug Primary

The best bad poll yet, with a margin of error of only +/- 57 percent.

80_thehasbeen

Thursday, June 14, 2007

No Idea: In the latest Rasmussen robo-poll, pre-release candidate Fred Thompson pulled into a tie with Rudy Giuliani at 24 percent. That makes Thompson the fourth Republican candidate to lead a national, New Hampshire, or Iowa poll in the last three weeks. The race is so fluid that a fifth potential front-runner, Newt Gingrich, is giving up Spanish and switching to French.

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Seven months before the Iowa caucuses, polling and news organizations are cranking out an average of four nationwide and two state polls each week. Pollsters and journalists alike warn not to read too much into early polls, then read into them whatever they want.

This week, a CNN/WMUR poll in New Hampshire shed new light on how silly the media's polling obsession has become. The poll's sample size of 304 likely Republican primary voters was sketchy enough. A poll that small has a +/- 5.3 percent margin of error, which means the apparent leader (Romney, with 28 percent) is actually in a statistical dead heat with two who seem far behind (McCain and Giuliani, each at 20 percent), who in turn do not have a statistically significant lead over the man in fourth (Thompson, with 11 percent).

At first glance, the poll results imply that 92 percent support one of the GOP candidates, and only 8 percent "don't know yet" who they'll vote for. But on further inspection, the numbers are closer to the reverse. Of those 304 voters surveyed, a grand total of 18 say they've "definitely decided" to vote for their candidate. That's 6 percent. Given the +/- 5.3 percent margin of error, it's possible that nobody in New Hampshire has made up their minds. Another 37 percent say they're "leaning" to a candidate.

But the overwhelming majority of New Hampshire Republicans give an answer that puts the whole concept of "margin of error" to shame. According to the poll, 57 percent of likely Republican primary voters admit they have "no idea" who they'll for in the primary. With news organizations bombarding us with half a dozen polls a week, it's good to know they've got the margin of error down to just +/- 57 percent.

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While its numbers are flimsy and meaningless, the CNN/WMUR poll may be the most revealing portrait of the Republican presidential race so far. If there's one principle that still unites Republicans these days, it's that they have no idea which presidential candidate to support. (The warning holds true for Democrats as well, although the CNN/WMUR poll found that a majority of likely Democratic voters had either decided or were leaning to a candidate.)

Of course, some flinty New Hampshirites go out of their way to remain undecided, so they can get candidates to help out around the house. But there's a big difference between flinty and clueless. The people of New Hampshire have had a front-row seat on this race for the past six months. If only one New Hampshire voter has chosen a candidate for every 10 who have no idea, that doesn't say much for the GOP field—and underscores why the press should forget the polls in favor of worthier obsessions.

The shrugs aren't just coming from New Hampshire. In last month's Des Moines Register poll, 87 percent of Republicans expressing a preference said they might change their minds.

For years, news organizations have offered margin of error as the standard polling disclaimer. In the future, they should routinely report the more revealing percentage of voters who have no earthly idea whom they'll actually vote for.

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Naturally, among the 57 percent of New Hampshire voters who have no clue whom they'll vote for, the race is a toss-up. Romney is at 22 percent, McCain at 21 percent, Giuliani at 18 percent. For that subgroup, the margin of error is +/- 7.5 percent, so Fred Thompson is in the hunt with 12 percent.

But here's what makes polls so misleading: Just because voters are clueless doesn't mean they're undecided. Only 14 percent of those who have "no idea" who they'll vote for in January "don't know yet" whom they'd vote for if the primary were held today.

That explains how Republicans could manage to have four front-runners in three weeks. Asked if the election were held today, voters are willing to take a stab at it. But as for how they'd vote if the election were held the day after tomorrow, Republicans echo the Magic-8 ball: Ask again later. Pollsters are standing by to do just that. ... 11:11 A.M. (link)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

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Rabbits and Ferrets and Panda Bears – Oh, My!: Who says bipartisanship is dead? At last week's presidential debates, Rep. Tom Tancredo and former senator Mike Gravel reached across party lines to find a strange piece of common ground – agreeing that English ought to be America's official language. Gravel knows French, and Tancredo thinks Miami is a third-world country. But both men speak fringe.

Mitt Romney's tongue is a little more forked. His initial campaign strategy was to run against France. But among conservative primary voters, hating the French is yesterday's news. While Romney still decries Democrats as French socialists for old times' sake, he has learned to talk tough on immigration. He, too, believes English should be America's official language – except in his own political advertisements aimed at Hispanic voters in Florida. In Tuesday's debate, Romney said:

"I'm not anti-immigrant. I love immigrants. I love legal immigrants coming to our country. I'm happy to communicate to them, and I hope they vote for me. … I'm going to reach out to them in any language I can to have them – have them vote for me."

Memo to rival GOP campaigns: Mitt Romney has flipped again on immigration. Now he's for giving non-citizens the right to vote (for Romney).

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No wonder John McCain feels lonely on this issue. He talked movingly about the Hispanic names on the Vietnam War memorial. Romney's idea of courage is being able to mislead voters in any language.

With the collapse of the immigration bill, the Republican field may discover that running against illegal immigrants is yesterday's news as well. For voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, the threat of action in Washington was more frightening than any real threat from the borders.

If, like France, Latin America begins to fade as the fall guy on the campaign trail, what foreign peril will right-wing voters chase next? Fred Thompson has already found one – China.

Thompson changed his tune on immigration as rapidly as Romney, attacking the bill on the grounds that "we're in a nation that is beset by suicidal maniacs" – apparently an all-purpose reference to terrorists, immigrants, and any legislator attempting to work with the Bush administration. Last week, Thompson opened a new front, telling the National Restaurant Association that to support its energy habit, China is "making deals with every bloodthirsty dictator they can." Soon, he'll start rewriting his own history to suggest that the only campaign finance reform he supported was for China.

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At the Democratic debate, Bill Richardson raised the prospect of pulling out of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He won't find many takers, given the failure of the 1980 boycott. But it does suggest a cheap applause line for Thompson and other Republicans: If Mitt Romney did so much to turn the Olympics around, what are they doing in China?

There are plenty of good reasons to make China an issue in 2008. Bush will be gone soon, but the money he borrowed will complicate our relationship with the Chinese for years. As a full-service bank, China even wrote Bush's climate change policy. At a time when the planet needs China to go green, the Bush deficits set a different course: Green goes to China.

Unfortunately, Thompson has yet to offer any more answers to the China question than Bush did. The next President will have to curb our financial dependence on our biggest strategic competitor, convince that superpower as well as ours to curb a dangerous appetite for carbon, toughen enforcement of trade laws, and rally Americans to study harder, learn more, and work harder to keep pace with the competitive challenge.

At the very moment we ought to be summoning the will to outrun China, the Chinese are once again conspiring to sap our strength. Hours after Fred Thompson and Bill Richardson rattled their sabers, Chinese sympathizers in our midst made a surprise announcement: The panda at the National Zoo may once again be pregnant.

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Coincidence, or well-orchestrated distraction? For years, zoologists have told us how hard it is for captive pandas to reproduce. But Mei Xiang gave birth less than two years ago. The Chinese were set to repossess her last cub, Tai Shan – code name "Butterstick" – on its second birthday next month, but to avert bad publicity, China let us negotiate a contract extension. Now, with the motherland in desperate need of a public relations boost, Mei Xiang miraculously had no trouble at all getting pregnant.

Zoologists attribute the feat to improved panda sperm – from Gao Gao, another China native stationed in San Diego. But you don't have to be a good shepherd to know that pandas have been China's most effective American infiltrators for more than three decades.

Once the right-wing base finds out, of course, the China debate can only go in one direction. McCain has more pets than he can count, but the other candidates are out to bag their limit. Romney shot rabbits. Giuliani dissed ferrets. The next TV series to pilot on the GOP trail is bound to be, "Fred Thompson: Panda Hunter." ... 7:49 P.M. (link)

Monday, June 4, 2007

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Smiley Face: For decades, political consultants have dreamed of creating the Bionic Candidate, who could instantly become whatever voters want. Over the years, plenty of politicians have been willing to believe whatever the electorate wants them to believe. But mad political scientists have searched in vain for the extraterrestrial alloy that would enable a politician to transform his physical appearance so that voters could literally see what they wanted to see.

The search is over. Despite what his critics say, Mitt Romney is not just another shameless political opportunist who changes his views to match his audience. Nor is he just a scheming cyborg who can immediately spot the second-most ambitious pol in the room. Romney has a unique, superhuman capacity that transcends both those more pedestrian political talents. When people look at him, he can actually make them think they see someone else.

When Slate first proposed a Mitt Romney Look-Alike Contest, we expected a handful of entries converging around the usual suspects like Wink Martindale. Instead, scores of readers enteredand judging from the entries, Romney has even more alter egos than he has had positions on abortion.

For many readers, Romney is like Fred Thompson—a familiar, if somewhat ridiculous, figure from network TV. Reader Sharon Kelly sent photos of Romney as Henry Winkler. Howard Zilbert and Wade Williams think he's Carol Burnett sidekick Lyle Waggoner. Matt Bauer and EA Dyson manage to see Matthew Fox, who plays Jack on ABC's Lost. Mark Johnson reaches back into the archives to see Tony Franciosa, who starred in Fame Is the Name of the Game. To Chris Mishler and Timothy Carroll, he's Ted Danson—which is all the more remarkable when you try to imagine Mitt Romney in a bar where everybody knows your name.

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Other entries show Romney's extraordinary range. Several readers saw an anchorman, but never the same one: Ron Burgundy, Brit Hume, Tony Snow. Others saw diverse figures from science fiction, like  Data from Star Trek and Michael Rennie, who played Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

In fact, Romney is becoming synonymous with double vision. One reader couldn't decide whether Romney looked like Laura Bush or "an ad for men's hair coloring." A few saw a president: Richard Nixon in his final days or  Bill Pullman in Independence Day. One man's Lucifer (no image available) was another man's Charlton Heston.

Romney is having mixed success selling himself as a superhero who will save the world from France. Some readers see a resemblance to Bruce Wayne or Mr. Fantastic of The Fantastic Four. Jay Shuck sees Romney as a more comic authority figure: the Ranger in Yogi Bear.

But the two most common categories of entries were perhaps the most insightful: pitchmen and puppets. Kevin Miller sees the lying car salesman Joe Isuzu. Michael Stewart thinks Romney looks like Count Chocula. Sandy Fabian was unfair to suggest Rudolf Hess but came closer with the Brawny Paper Towel guy.

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The most impressive entry comes from Laura (presumably not Bush), who took the trouble to showcase Romney as the 1970 Talking Ken doll, which was sold with a strikingly Romney-esque marketing slogan, " I Say Many Different Things!"

In terms of sheer physical resemblance, however, the edge goes to the puppets. The runner-up is Kerry Joyce, who likens Romney to Jeff Tracy, star of the 1960s British remote-control marionette show, The Thunderbirds. The BBC cult page describes Tracy the way many on the right would describe Romney, as "the ultimate puppet superhero."

Guy Smiley.
Guy Smiley

First prize goes to four readers, who will take turns sharing a copy of L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth. Matthew Williams, Lars Thomas, fellswoop13, and madeiros33 looked at Romney and saw the same iconic figure: Guy Smiley of Sesame Street. As a puppet and "everybody's favorite game show host," Smiley is Mitt Romney. It takes more than a pretty face to look like Mitt. It takes a pretty face that's flexible and easily manipulated. ... 6:35 P.M. (link)

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The Mitt Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: Two weeks ago, Mitt Romney was surging toward the Republican nomination, pulling into the lead in two polls in Iowa and three in New Hampshire. Then, the man couldn't recognize Ralph Reed at his own fund-raiser. In the latest American Research Group poll, Romney is second behind McCain in New Hampshire and third behind McCain and Giuliani in Iowa. Perhaps voters are sending Romney a message: We thought you were someone else.

In an amusing attempt to contain the damage from not being able to tell Ralph Reed from a hole in the wall, the Romney campaign told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it had the case of mistaken identity all wrong. The newspaper had reported that Romney saw Ralph Reed across a crowded room and called him Gary Bauer. But campaign spokesman Gail Gitcho gave the paper a different story:

According to Gitcho, Romney mistook Reed for South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, with whom he'd just met, and not Gary Bauer, as our sources recalled.

Gary Bauer is a friend of Romney and has been a guest in his home, so he wouldn't mistake him for Reed, Gitcho said.

That explanation will come as a great relief to Gary Bauer, who probably doesn't like being mistaken for Ralph Reed any more than I do. But it doesn't do much for Romney. With his thick eyebrows and 5 o'clock shadow, André Bauer doesn't look at all like the baby-faced Reed. If there's one thing worse than going to a state Republican convention thinking all Christian operatives look alike, it's going to Georgia thinking all white Southerners look alike.

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Camp Romney might have a better case if their candidate hadn't seen André Bauer in years. But their excuse is that Romney couldn't remember the man because he had just met with him.

This would be a serious, if sometimes comical, handicap in the White House, because presidents have always just met with someone. Bush got in enough trouble talking about what he saw when he looked in Putin's heart. Imagine the repercussions if an American president came away from bilateral talks with the Russian leader saying he'd never met the man, or saw Putin across the room at the G8 and shouted, "Nick Sarkozy!"

Will Rogers said he never met a man he didn't like. Romney's campaign says he never met a pol he didn't forget.

In the meantime, the poor fellow has to endure at least another eight months of just having met people on the campaign trail. Other candidates have their own worries now that the Fred has landed. But Romney's programmers can't possibly have anticipated that taking over the planet would involve a race against two men named Thompson.

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Faceless multitudes of Slate readers have already responded to the Mitt Romney Look-Alike Contest, the winner of which will be announced on Monday. Reader M. H. Dunlop wrote in to suggest that "Romney suffers from 'face blindness,' sometimes called prosopagnosia, which appears to be, or is claimed to be, an inherited defect." Two decades ago, neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote about another form of agnosia—or "nonknowledge"—in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

More likely, Romney's brain simply uses a different classification system than we do. André Bauer and Ralph Reed may not look alike, but their differences are mostly skin deep. Both are ambitious upstarts who ran for lieutenant governor, a job that is all prospects and no power.

Bauer won, so he gives us an insight into the kind of lieutenant governor Reed might have been. One of Bauer's main responsibilities is giving annual writing awards to fifth- and eighth-graders. The contest rewards originality but insists that in order to win, "close attention should be given to punctuation, spelling, grammar, and neatness."

If Ralph Reed entered his famous e-mail to Jack Abramoff—"I need to start humping in corporate accounts!"—whatever points he might gain for creativity, he would lose for punctuation and sloppiness. Bauer's own work wouldn't even be eligible. On his official Web site, he writes, "Let us all congratulate this years winners, they have written inspiring works."

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On the same site, Bauer's description of his press page could easily be mistaken for the story of Reed's life: "A collection of press releases, my beliefs, my life and official photographs." In other words, it's hard to tell where the press releases stop and the beliefs begin. Those are two faces Mitt Romney can recognize. ...  1:40 P.M. (link)

Friday, May 25, 2007

A Ralph By Any Other Name: From the start of his presidential bid, Mitt Romney has seemed unsure of his political identity. As governor of Massachusetts, he embraced the right to choose, paved the streets with health care, and hired illegal immigrants to mow his lawn. After climbing into the phone booth of the Republican primaries, however, mild-mannered Mitt emerged a new man—lifetime NRA member, xenophobe, pro-life, and anti-rabbit.

Mitt Romney is the Jay Gatsby of American politics—a fiction within a fiction who was born in the Midwest, made his fortune in the East, and never stops reinventing himself to impress those he meets along the way.

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It turns out that in one respect, at least, Romney is consistent: He's as unsure of other people's identities as he is of his own. Last week, Romney saw Ralph Reed across a crowded room and called him Gary Bauer. But longtime Romney watcher Seth Gitell writes that it wasn't the first time. Romney made an eerily similar mistake during his 2002 governor's race, mixing up two of his general-election opponents in a televised debate. Romney got into an exchange about bilingual education with the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein. His first words to Jill were, "Carla, I agree."

"Carla" was the name of the Libertarian candidate, Carla Howell. She didn't look like Jill, or think like her, either. As Gitell wrote at the time in the Boston Phoenix, "Romney's faux pas seemed to suggest a candidate who could not be bothered to listen to the differences between the Greens and the Libertarians."

To Romney, not only all Christian conservatives look alike, but all women look alike, too. The cyborg programming must be even more primitive than we thought.

All campaign long, Romney has seemed like a serial identity thief. But perhaps he's really a serial identity jumbler. Legal and illegal, one-time and lifetime, pro-choice and pro-life—these normally bright-line distinctions aren't easy for the identity challenged. We don't criticize the color blind for not being able to tell the difference between green and orange. Should we be so quick to call a man a flip-flopper when he can't even tell one opponent from another?

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Memorial Day can be an ordeal for the politician who can't remember—in this case, who he is, what he stands for, where he comes from, and to whom he is speaking. As a special tribute to his special challenge, Slate is proud to announce the Mitt Romney Look-Alike Contest. Other candidates look in the mirror and see the next president. When Mitt Romney looks in the mirror, he sees yet another face whose name he can't quite place.

What person comes to mind when you look at Romney? Some bloggers think he looks like Wink Martindale. Slate's separated-at-birth team came up with a host of other suspects, from Stone Phillips to Ricardo Montalban. Send your entry to thehasbeen@gmail.com. The winner gets a copy of Romney's favorite book, Battlefield Earth, by L. Ron Hubbard—or, as Mitt likes to call him, "Tom." ... 3:17 P.M. (link)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Stranger in a Strange Land: For someone who suddenly likes to pick on foreigners, Mitt Romney is an awfully recent immigrant himself. If you want to know just how foreign Romney is to the conservative circles he now frequents, read the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's account of his fund-raiser last week during the Georgia Republican Convention:

Romney gestured to Ralph Reed and said, "Why it's good to see Gary Bauer here." Romney then caught himself. "Oh, I'm a little mixed up here," he said. But Romney still couldn't place Reed's face—and had to move on.

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It's bad enough that in his rush to convert to conservatism, Romney forgot he was pro-choice, had hired illegal immigrants, and never hunted. Now the man can't even keep track of his religious-right has-beens.

The Christian right was built in large part on resentment that Eastern elites think all evangelicals are alike. This confirms their worst fears—that even the Republicans from Harvard are in on the conspiracy.

To be sure, politicians shouldn't be expected to remember every person they meet. For example, here's a photograph of another Georgia Republican, Rep. Phil Gingrey, who appears to have put on a fake mustache simply to confuse Romney.

But mistaking Ralph Reed for Gary Bauer at your own fund-raiser is like going to a Star Wars convention and mixing up Luke Skywalker and Yoda. Bauer is short, bug-eyed, and tight-lipped. No one noticed his 2000 primary bid until he fell off the stage at a pancake-flipping event in New Hampshire. Reed is lanky, with narrow, shifty eyes and a big, plastic grin. In fact, Reed's eye/grin ratio bears a much stronger resemblance to Romney's own features. At first glance, you'd think Romney and Reed would know each other well from their time together as cyborgs taking orders from the distant, politically ambitious planet that sent them.

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Anybody can confuse two people who look alike. Confusing two people who look different but think alike is a far more revealing error. First, it tells us Romney hasn't spent much time around either Ralph Reed or Gary Bauer. That's the good news. The bad news is that it increases the chance that Romney might be a cyborg, after all.

Politics is a people business, so most politicians file people in their minds by face, name, and place. None of those apply in this case (what would Bauer, who lives in Virginia, be doing at a Romney fund-raiser in Georgia?). That means Romney must use a different, bloodless classification system. When he studies his conservative flashcards, Romney files people by type. Bauer is a true believer, while Reed is a shameless opportunist—but to Romney, they're interchangeable evangelicals with the same carbon dating.

Of course, the episode raises other questions, like what was Ralph Reed doing at a Romney fund-raiser? Giuliani helped him in his losing race for lieutenant governor, a career move that worked out less well for Ralph than for Rudy. Yet the day before Romney forgot his name last week, Ralph went on the Christian Broadcasting Network to shill for Romney and Giuliani in equal measure. Reed dodged a question about whether his phone was ringing off the hook, but said, "I have friends who are running for president, and I talk to my friends."

I've come to terms with being mistaken for Ralph Reed. But I draw the line when the same person who gets confused with me starts being confused with Gary Bauer. I could live with Jack Bauer, or even Eddie.

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Ralph Reed should know a phony when he sees one. Friends don't let friends call them Gary. ... 2:15 P.M. (link)

Monday, May 21, 2007

Tale of Two Cities: Week before last, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani flew to Houston to tell conservatives at a Baptist college his latest stand on abortion. The same day, his successor, Mike Bloomberg, flew to Houston to give a very different speech—telling business leaders what the United States needs to do to save energy and stop climate change.

Both appearances were rich in political symbolism and irony. New York and Texas have long been on opposite sides of the blue-red divide, disagreeing on 11 of the first 14 presidential elections after Texas became a state, as well as all five since 1988. New York magazine called its hometown the "Abortion Capital of America." Houston is the energy capital of America, if not the world. Bloomberg's choice of venue made more sense than his predecessor's. Nearly half a century after JFK went to Houston to promise Protestants he wouldn't take orders from the Vatican, Giuliani asked the Baptists' forgiveness for not doing the pope's bidding.

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If crossing paths in Houston was a coincidence, it was a revealing one. Giuliani's never-ending stumbles over such an obvious hurdle as abortion suggest that he has approached his campaign with insufficient seriousness. By contrast, Bloomberg's calculated bids for attention on climate change, education, and guns give every indication that his unannounced campaign for the presidency is running on all cylinders.

As a shadow candidate, Bloomberg is running the campaign Giuliani should have run, as a pragmatist who helped a big city take on big problems. Earlier this month, Bloomberg launched a Web site that outlines his stands on the big issues in greater detail than Giuliani can provide after five months in the race.

To add insult to irony, a Bloomberg candidacy is predicated on candidates twisting themselves into the very pretzels that Giuliani has already become. In an Air America interview with Mark Green, the man he beat, Bloomberg points out that a third-party candidacy only works if the first two parties both fail to offer a compelling choice. He admitted that when the primaries are over, "[t]he public may not feel that they don't have any choice."

In the end, the two parties aren't likely to give Bloomberg a big enough opening to win. Part of the reason that Giuliani, McCain, Romney, and Fred Thompson are struggling to claim the conservative mantle is that they're closet pragmatists by their party's standards.  Apart from Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich, the Democratic field doesn't even have an ideologue. The energy speech Bloomberg gave in Houston is one that many Democratic candidates have already given.

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In that respect, the prospect of a Bloomberg candidacy can do more good than an actual one. Any prospective third-party candidate has to consider the nightmare of becoming the next Ralph Nader, who siphoned off just enough votes to make sure none of his ideas could ever happen.

The greatest power of a third party is its gravitational effect on the other two. To have that kind of impact, Bloomberg doesn't even have to run. The most successful third-party candidacies—Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, Ross Perot in 1992—did less to determine the winner than to shape the debate. Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton would have won those elections anyway. But Roosevelt made Wilson earn a progressive mandate, and Perot inspired Clinton to put more emphasis on deficit reduction and reform.

Like most billionaires, Bloomberg is a firm believer in the power of markets. If market forces work in politics, his lurking presence on the sidelines should be enough. In the midst of the silly season, when some partisans are raising their hands to deny reality, the sword of Bloomberg is a useful reminder that when the primaries are over, the earth will be round again and reality will go back into effect. ... 1:38 P.M. (link)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

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Don't Know Much About History: Hillary Clinton just asked supporters to choose her campaign song, but Republican candidates already agreed on theirs. Perhaps the next debate will feature a barbershop quartet of Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, and Mitt Romney singing:

Don't know much about history/ Don't know much biology/ Don't know much about a science book/ Don't know much about the French I took.

To be fair, the Republican race is a particularly difficult kind of history test. In order to pass, a GOP candidate must persuade Americans to miss the '80s, fear the '90s, and start the current decade over without Bush. For some, like Romney and Giuliani, traveling back to the Reagan era has the additional benefit of rewinding past all the positions they've taken in years since.

Once again, Republican candidates and the American people are headed in different directions. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reported yesterday that while political leaders are doing their best to ignore history, young people are doing much better at it.

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The educational standards movement appears to be paying off. Between 1994 and 2006, the number of fourth-graders performing at or above basic level in U.S. history jumped from 64 percent to 70 percent. Civics scores went up, too. Jay Mathews of the Washington Post points out that scores even rose among high-school seniors, who hadn't improved in any subject in the past eight years.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings was quick to attribute the progress to No Child Left Behind, glossing over the inconvenient fact that fourth-grade history scores rose slightly faster between 1994 and 2001 than in the years since NCLB was passed. In any case, if young Americans are making progress on these two subjects, Spellings' boss deserves the credit. At last, President Bush may have found the perfect excuse for his failures at home and abroad. The Imperial Presidency isn't a way to abuse power—it's a way to teach civics. Never mind Iraq's failures as a war—it has been a great history lesson.

If anything, the Bush administration might well be accused of teaching to the test. The NAEP report says that to perform at basic level in history, fourth-graders must be able to "interpret a presidential quotation." Give Bush credit—he has been quizzing those kids every day.

While Mickey Kaus may be despondent about where the Senate is headed on immigration, he should take heart that the next generation aces the issue. On the civics test, 75 percent of all fourth-graders correctly answered that noncitizens can't vote. If Monica Goodling were still around, those 9-year-olds would be made U.S. attorneys.

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The nation's eighth-graders showed no progress on civics, but we can't fault Bush for trying. Consider this question from the eighth-grade test:

Teresia is a small country that has been invaded by its neighbor Corollia. The king of Teresia is a long-standing United States ally who has been living in exile since the Corollian invasion. Teresia is an important exporter of uranium; it sends most of its supply to members of the European Union. The king appeals to the United States and the United Nations for military help in driving Corollia from his country.

Identify two pieces of information NOT given above that you would need before you could decide whether or not the United States military should help Teresia. Explain why each piece of information would be important.

C'mon, kids! How many countries does the president have to invade before you start getting the right answer?

Only 13 precent of eighth-graders had an "acceptable" response, which is even lower than the president's own ratings. Just 3 percent of the responses were "complete"—so Bush is not the only one.

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Bush can take some comfort as well from the sample answer in the NAEP report. That particular eighth-grader outperformed Bush by asking to know more about Corollia's motives and allies. But the student didn't ask anything about whether Teresia was really exporting uranium.

Of course, President Bush may be a great teacher, but how would he do on the test? The past six years have trained him well for one measure of basic fourth-grade achievement: "Students should know that the world is divided into many countries." Bush has spent enough time around the Coalition of the Unwilling to know that.

But other NAEP standards might be harder to meet. In civics, fourth-graders at the basic level should be able to "recognize that the president is an elected official" (somewhat more difficult since 2000) and "identify an illegitimate use of power" (which may have been Lynne Cheney's real objection to these standards all along).

The advanced achievement level for fourth-graders is harder still: "Given age-appropriate examples, they should recognize differences between power and authority and between limited and unlimited government." And there's just no getting past the section, "What Fourth-Graders Know." A "proficient" fourth-grader can name the two political parties. But to be considered "advanced," a fourth-grader must be able to "identify the legislative branch." By that standard, this administration could be stuck in grade school for a long time. ... 3:57 P.M. (link)

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Hear Me Roar: These are tough times for the newspaper business, so editors everywhere should be grateful to Slate's parent company, the Washington Post, for an ingenious cost-saving measure—the reusable headline. Saturday's Post carried a story entitled, "Giuliani Tries To Clarify Abortion Stance." No matter how many times Giuliani addresses the subject, it's the only headline any newspaper will ever need.

The savings don't stop there. Today, the Post's Dan Balz was able to recycle Saturday's lede for his curtain-raiser on tonight's debate: "Much of the focus [is] likely to be on former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and his continuing effort to extricate himself from a controversy over his position on abortion."

This weekend, Giuliani was busy clarifying his abortion stance on Fox News Sunday. "Let's start with abortion and any confusion that remains about where you stand," Chris Wallace began. The more Giuliani tried to extricate himself, the more he had left to clear up.

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Wallace asked, "Most Americans would feel passionately one way or the other. Why are you so indifferent to such a deeply held issue?" Giuliani insisted, "I'm very, very passionate about the issue." He proved how much he cares about abortion by repeatedly referring to the landmark case as "Roe against Wade." Moments later, when Wallace asked him if he'd be upset if Roe were overturned, Giuliani showed all the passion of Mike Dukakis. "I don't think it's a question of being disappointed or being happy about it," he said. Vive l'indifference!

On Friday, Giuliani tried to recast his views on abortion and guns as a profile in courage. On Sunday, he once again made clear that he was brave enough to pander. He promised not to change the pro-life Republican platform. He affirmed his support for abortion limits he used to oppose. He promised conservatives what they want most on abortion—strict constructionist judges. And as an example of what he means by judges not legislating from the bench, he praised the D.C. Circuit's recent decision to overturn a 1939 Supreme Court precedent on the Second Amendment.

Giuliani did manage to clarify one issue on Sunday. In fact, he offered what may be the single most definitive statement of his campaign so far: "I'm not a woman."

Wallace wasn't even trying to clear up any confusion on that score. Giuliani just wanted to show that his passions on the abortion issue only go so far:

"I believe abortion is wrong. I believe, as a personal matter, if it were my personal choice — and of course, it will never be my personal choice. I'm not a woman."

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It's hardly news when a thrice-married man clarifies his stance that he is not a woman. But Giuliani went further, volunteering that he will never be a woman. Fox viewers can rest assured: Some options are off the table.

Yet just a few sentences later, Giuliani threw even that certainty into some doubt, telling Wallace:

"If you said to me, as a woman, 'I have an equally strong view of this as you do' … I would support that."

The strict constructionist reading of "If you said to me, as a woman" is clear: Giuliani thinks he's a woman. Another flip-flop! But a more liberal interpretation might reach the opposite conclusion: Giuliani thinks Chris Wallace is a woman.

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No wonder Giuliani is losing the Republican base. He has done so many Inner Circle productions, he thinks "fair and balanced" is Rosalind in As You Like Ita man playing a woman playing a man playing a woman.

Either way, Giuliani's second point is as confusing as the first. Giuliani says he would happily defer not just to Chris Wallace but to any other woman who has "an equally strong view of this" as he does. Yet as Wallace demonstrated at the outset of the interview, it would be hard to find anyone in either gender as indifferent to the subject as Giuliani.

Despite his incredibly bad week, Giuliani still leads national polls. But in the more sophisticated political-futures markets, Giuliani shares are in free fall. Between Thursday and Monday, he dropped from 31 to 27 on Intrade, while McCain jumped from 23.5 to 29.5.

If this is clarity, the Giuliani campaign can't afford much more of it. On Mother's Day, the mayor made clear he is not now nor never will be a woman. Within hours, his stock plunged 5 percent. ... 12:59 P.M. (link)

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Multiple Choice: In 1960, JFK went before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association to put the Catholic issue behind him. Today, Rudy Giuliani spoke at Houston Baptist University in yet another attempt to put the abortion issue behind him. JFK wanted to prove that in America, there is no religious test to become president. As he labors to explain his ever-changing heart on choice, Giuliani seems determined to prove that there is no history test, either.

Giuliani is not alone. Mitt Romney doesn't want a religious test or a history test. His about-face on abortion is even less convincing than Giuliani's. Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee, and Tom Tancredo, who don't believe in evolution, want to prove there's no science test. All the Republican candidates are supply-siders, hoping to prove there's still no math test.

As a last resort, Giuliani now wants to turn his abortion stand into a badge of honor. The press will give him credit for setting up a showdown with social conservatives. Today's Times gave the Giuliani campaign the headline they want: "Can the G.O.P. Accept Giuliani's Abortion Stance?" But Giuliani's abortion stance is such a muddle, the issue is not whether a pro-choice candidate can win in a pro-life party. It's whether a campaign predicated on leadership can survive a candidate who has already said he was for Roe before he was against it.

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Emily Bazelon made a good case for why voters have a right to judge Giuliani's presidential bid by his disastrous home life. Here's another reason: His presidential bid is rapidly starting to mirror his disastrous home life. Giuliani seems to have the same attitude toward his abortion positions that he has shown toward marriage—who's counting?

The Times offers a helpful interactive timeline of "Giuliani on Abortion." In 1989, he was for public funding. In 1993, he called choice a constitutional right. In 2000, he opposed a ban on late-term abortions. Last month, he divorced himself from his previous stands on public funding and late-term. This month, he sought to annul his position on choice as a constitutional right. Now he's of three minds: Abortion is "morally wrong," women should be able to make their own choice, and so should conservative judges.

Giuliani's decision to buck his party on abortion would be refreshing and courageous, if he hadn't already tried so hard to have it both ways on the issue. He tells conservative audiences not to worry about his pro-choice record because he personally "hates" abortion and will appoint judges like Scalia, Roberts, and Alito. He boasts that during his tenure as mayor, abortions dropped 16 percent—but doesn't mention that abortions nationwide dropped 15 percent over the same period or that New York City still has an abortion rate three times the national average.

The Giuliani campaign trotted out the perfect man to vouch for the mayor's credentials: Steve Forbes, who was pro-choice in his first presidential bid and pro-life in his second. "Thanks to Giuliani's success on welfare reform, where rolls were cut 60%, the abortion rate in New York City fell faster than the national average," Forbes told RealClearPolitics. "Rudy may be pro-choice—and I happen to be pro-life—but the policies he pursued help the pro-life cause."

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Welfare reform has done a great deal to promote work, demand responsibility, and reduce poverty, but even ardent proponents like me have trouble crediting it with short-term reductions in abortion. Most conservative welfare reformers had the opposite worry—that a concerted effort to reduce illegitimacy might cause a spike in abortions. During the 1996 welfare reform debate, Senate Republicans rejected House plans to deny benefits to unwed teen mothers and cap benefits for mothers who had additional children on welfare for that very reason—Catholic conservatives feared those provisions would make abortion go up. A plan to reward states for reducing out-of-wedlock births was rewritten to deny the bonus to states where abortion rates increased at the same time. Of course, Giuliani urged Clinton to veto the 1996 welfare reform bill, so don't be surprised if he now claims his moral opposition to abortion as the reason.

Why does the choice issue so often manage to turn grown men into pretzels? Conservative doubts over Giuliani's abortion position were hardly a surprise attack. Yet judging from his halting response so far, the same man who knew just what to do on 9/11 would have been stumped for months if al-Qaida had simply sent him a NARAL questionnaire.

Charles Krauthammer says the fault is with Roe, not Giuliani. But that's letting him off the hook too easily—akin to Giuliani saying, "the court made me do it, and the justices I appoint may or may not undo it." Rich Lowry of the National Review offered a more persuasive explanation of Giuliani's troubles with the issue: "One of the big ironies for him is he doesn't care about abortion." If Giuliani had the courage to say that, we might start to believe him. ... 3:23 P.M. (link)

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

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Mood Ring: If malaise, like revenge, is a dish best served cold, the Bush administration is keeping Republicans exceedingly well-fed. In the latest Newsweek poll, the president matched Jimmy Carter's record low with a 28 percent approval rating. It took Richard Nixon a quarter-century to have Seven Crises. For George W. Bush, seven crises is a pretty good week.

Republican presidential candidates are trying their hardest to look on the bright side. At last week's debate at the Reagan Library, the field mentioned optimism more often than bin Laden. Giuliani chanted the word four times—three times in a single answer. Bush's favorite word, resolve, didn't come up once.

Republicans may be right to miss Reagan—not because his policies worked, but because the country has so soured on their party that only an actor could still put on a happy face. That's the role many Republicans have scripted for Fred Thompson. They don't much care what he stands for, provided he can cheer Republicans up.

If that's his goal, Thompson got off to an odd start in an address to Orange County conservatives this weekend. Jonathan Martin, who covers Republicans for the Politico, said Thompson's speech was "low key and at times meandering." Robert Novak, conservatism's biggest grump, called it "a downer." (Ironically, the best part of Thompson's speech was his joke that he'd spent the whole night trying to keep Novak from seeing his notes.)

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Far from helping Republicans escape their despair, Thompson couldn't stop reminding them of it. "We've had our ups and our downs," he said, insisting that the party's post-Watergate gloom wasn't as bad as it seemed at the time. He warned that we're "even hearing that old malaise talk we used to hear," then indulged in some, noting that there's "some concern that maybe we're slipping away like all the great powers have."

Thompson echoed another actor-turned-politician by repeatedly borrowing Arnold Schwarzenegger's trademark tic, "and things of that nature." He closed his speech by inadvertently giving a good impression of Reagan's famous "Highway 1" closing statement in the second 1984 debate. In Thompson's rambling story, a group of sixth-graders in North Hollywood asked him why he went into politics. The question made him think back to Washington, Lincoln, the Revolutionary War, and our common heritage. The answer: not clear.

But the award for most surprising performance by an anecdote in a supporting role goes to two other historical cameos in Thompson's speech. In a rare turn for the 2008 Republican campaign trail, Thompson praised Wendell Willkie, the Republican nominee who lost the 1940 election in a landslide but became one of FDR's most important allies.

More remarkably, Thompson went out of his way to stick up for perhaps the greatest wimp of the 20th century: Neville Chamberlain. The Bush administration has spent the last six years trying to tie Democrats to Neville Chamberlain. Don't even ask how he got there, but Thompson was working off a different set of talking points. He didn't defend Chamberlain's record, but he did paraphrase Churchill's eulogy to say, "Neville Chamberlain marched in the ranks of honor."

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Perhaps that was Thompson's indirect way of saying something nice about Bush. The next line in Churchill's eulogy fits Bush even better: "It fell to [him] in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man." More likely, Thompson was just making the noble point that compared with politicians today, Churchill was a class act.

In any case, it's a modern political first: Fred Thompson could go down in history as the only presidential candidate in either party to put in a good word for Neville Chamberlain.

Could this be the future of conservatism? Will Republican candidates try to prove they're not the next George W. Bush by leaving open the possibility of being the next Neville Chamberlain?

In 2000, Bush invented compassionate conservatism to distance himself from Newt Gingrich. The GOP's challenge is even greater in 2008, but Thompson may have found the answer: appeasement conservatism. With a Republican Party that loses elections as gracefully as Willkie and loses wars as pre-emptively as Chamberlain, America will forget the Bush presidency ever happened. ... 1:54 P.M. (link)