Monday, November 06, 2006

 

If, tomorrow, Bob Casey wins his election and becomes the senator-elect from the state of Pennsylvania, as I sincerely hope he will, he will also become, by that fact alone, the worst Democrat in the U.S. Senate. This is a man who gets his marching orders from the so-called right-to-life movement, actively supports the NRA, and who continues to be pro-war with regards to Iraq. He goes so far as to oppose stem cell research. Casey is well to the right of several Republican senators, including Pennsylvania’s own Arlen Specter, a man who likes to sound liberal but who invariably does the bidding of the far right, if ever (and whenever) he feels threatened from that direction. It was Specter, after all, who enabled Clarence Thomas to perjure his way onto the U.S. Supreme Court. Bob Casey is to the right of that.

But Bob Casey will vote to raise minimum wage and will help to put Democrats in control of the senate. Plus, he’s not Rick Santorum. In fact, that has been virtually his entire campaign strategy – he is not Rick Santorum. Santorum has clearly had presidential ambitions and would love nothing less than to deliver the U.S. into the hands of something not unlike Opus Dei. We are talking about a very seriously dangerous individual. So not being Rick Santorum is a real qualification.  

But, in a year in which a lot of the Democratic challengers are moderates, Bob Casey is about as indigestible an alternative as one can imagine. That’s the nature of choices in the election in 2006. Governor Ed Rendell made a conscious political decision to force virtually every other credible candidate, most notably former Congressman Joe Hoeffel, from the race. He could do this because Rendell functionally controls so much in the way both of campaign funding and party endorsements. The lone plausible alternative who could have mounted a campaign without relying at least partly on Rendell was MSNBC Hardball host Chris Matthews, one-time aide to former House Speaker Tip O’Neill. But Matthews, who is no liberal, chose not to run in a year in which his brother is the Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor.

Rendell’s logic is simple. Casey enjoys tremendous name recognition because of his father, the late governor (and also an anti-choice well-to-the-right-of-center Democrat). Having finally won a statewide race (after a few attempts, one of which saw him lose the Democratic nomination for governor to Ed Rendell), Casey has shown that he can plausibly win. Also he did endorse Rendell after losing to him in 2002. With his record so far to the right, there’s no way really for Santorum to gang up on him as a gun-controlling abortionist. So Casey, who is largely ineffective as a speaker, has been able to run against an incumbent using something very much like a “rose garden” strategy, keeping debates to a minimum. This race thus is nothing more than a referendum on Santorum. And people in Pennsylvania finally have Santorum figured out. His loss tomorrow won’t be because of any mistakes George Bush has made.

And, yes, there are no third party candidates on the ballot. Santorum actually tried mightily to get a pro-choice Green Party candidate certified, just to split the Democratic vote.

My biggest fear is that tomorrow, Democrats will win 49 seats and the GOP will win 49 seats, with independents Bernie Sanders & Joe Lieberman taking the other two. Sanders, a progressive, will line up with the Democrats, but I can just imagine Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 1998, opting to line up with the GOP, so that our friend Dick Cheney will end up casting the vote that determines that the GOP continues to chair (and govern) committees in the senate. My second biggest fear is a voting machine debacle, less because of conscious fraud – I think that comes later unless we get systems that keep a paper trail – than because the offices in charge of administering elections are typically small operations that get big just once or twice each year for one day, and that the probability of systems not operating correctly, or key cards being missing, that sort of thing, seems very high in a year when so much of the country is using automated voting machines for the first time. I’d recommend that you get to the polls early and bring a book.

It will be interesting to see what the new Congress does once it arrives in session. I wouldn’t count on very much. If only the House is in Democratic hands, I think its focus will turn to investigating the shenanigans of the past six years – there is fertile ground there. If both houses are in Democratic hands, I think there will be serious discussions about whether or not there is more political advantage to be gained by impeaching Bush or using him as a whipping boy for two more years – I expect the Democrats to do the latter, frankly.¹ By then, it should be patently obvious that Bush is the only American president ever to lose two wars. Functionally, he already has, but so long as he can pour in fresh bodies to get blown apart in Iraq and Afghanistan, he can postpone the final reckoning. That’s why his rhetoric about these places is so upbeat that it seems deranged.

By now it should be beyond obvious why it is important to elect the next president and not get bogged down in the narcissism of Ralph Nader. 2008 will also be the strangest political election this country has seen in a long time, with no president or vice-president in the mix (save possibly for Al Gore, which was awhile ago). One thing that makes it hard to gauge what might happen in two years is that the political media is unbelievably unreliable on this subject. For example, virtually all of the major news outlet pundits will end up, as they always do, favoring one or another senator. They all live in D.C. and this is all they know. They all know these guys (and a few gals) and who doesn’t want to be on speaking terms with the next president of the United States? This in spite of history that suggests that it is all but impossible for a sitting senator to get elected president. In the whole of American history, it’s happened exactly twice: Warren G. Harding and JFK. When the people want to make a change, it doesn’t occur to them that the guys at the other end of the mall in D.C. represent anything but the same-ol’ same ol’.

However, because of the particular nature of this election, with no candidate carrying the record of incumbency, it just might be different. Just this one time.

But the second thing to keep in mind is that window for running for the presidency is incredibly narrow. The Democratic frontrunner Senator Sam Nunn decided not to challenge George H.W. Bush in 1992 and to wait until 1996. But by 1996, tho, people were already forgetting about him since he played no role in the Clinton administration.

What all this means is this: if Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John McCain don’t get elected in 2008, they will never be president. Period. End of story. It doesn’t mean that they could not subsequently be nominated. But it does mean that they would be running the same sort of handicap as Bob Dole had in 1996.

As it is, being a senator is a heavy negative and it still will be. The last time we had a genuinely open election like this, in 1952, we got the governor of Illinois running against the president of Columbia University, and the latter won since he was also a war hero. I wouldn’t be shocked to see something like that again. When the beltway crowd says that it can’t happen because of the war on terror and the need for foreign policy experience matters, it’s a total canard. Even for Republicans, the 2008 election will be about change.

But for such a race to happen, of course, the front-runners, Clinton & McCain, will have to stumble. They have organizations, name recognition, and money, lots of it. However, both are wearing huge bull’s-eyes for the other candidates (and Fox News) to aim at for the next two years. History is littered with the failed campaigns of front-runners. Watching the feeding frenzy around John Kerry this past weekend when the so-called botched joke wasn’t funny mostly because it was true – economic disadvantage kills you – reminded me of what piranhas these folks will be, given the slightest chance. We’re going to get to see that game played out again a few times between now and the fall of 2008.

I would like to think that the Democrats winning tomorrow would change the tenor of the election in 2008 by ending the war in Iraq early in 2007. But the only person who could make that happen is George W. and the only thing he can be counted on to do is whatever is the worst possible option. Certainly if the war is still going on in 2008, don’t count on Hillary Clinton to bring it to closure. In theory, that should mean that there will be a huge groundswell for Russ Feingold & there just may be. But history teaches that anti-war candidates are notoriously fragile as candidacies. In 1968, Robert Kennedy’s campaign to seize the banner of the antiwar movement from Eugene McCarthy was completely cynical. And when Kennedy was murdered, his political chits went over to Hubert Humphrey, the only Democrat in America who ran by defending LBJ that year. So I wouldn’t be shocked to see an antiwar candidate emerge whom I haven’t even thought about yet for 2008. I just hope I don’t have to see it happen again in 2012.

 

¹ For one thing, you would have to impeach both Bush & Cheney, since he controls American foreign policy. And one thing no Democrat in the U.S. Senate wants is for another Democrat, whether its Nancy Pelosi or any other Democrat to become Speaker of the House, to be an incumbent president come primary time in 2008. So while it makes far more sense than the impeachment over a blowjob of the Clinton administration, it’s just not going to happen.

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