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We Report... You Deride

Wednesday, December 10, 2003  
You Know Me, Al

Dear God, please forgive me for the four words I am about to utter: Andrew Sullivan is right. Sort of.

Obviously Al Gore's endorsement is a big media event. And Gore phrased his endorsement for maximum impact. He didn't merely say that he endorsed Dean because he agrees with Dean's stands-- he said Dean was the candidate most likely get the grassroots support that Democrats need. In other words, Dean was the candidate most likely to win.

Let me do a real quick point-counterpoint on the significance:

Pro: Gore's endorsement will have a huge impact, because he's the first major politician to say what everyone else already knows. Dean is the only candidate who has run anything more than a mediocre campaign. Dick Gephardt is running adequately but unoriginally. Wesley Clark has performed like a talented amateur. The others have just flat-out stunk.

Maybe Howard Dean isn't capable of reigning in his ego and appealing to swing voters. Maybe he can't beat W. But the rest of these jokers couldn't beat any Republic Party ticket from the last 44 years the way they're running now. Maybe Clark or Gephardt or John Edwards could develop enough skills to whip the Dole-Kemp (1996), Ford-Dole (1976) or Goldwater-Miller (1964) slates.

Unless the war and the economy completely crater, there's no possibility that they can beat a well-financed, professional opponent like W. They've had months to get their acts together-- they can't raise money, they can't craft a coherent message and they can't deliver ideas convincingly. Only Clark is making any progress.

By announcing that the other emperors have no clothes and saying that he's getting behind Dean because he's the only one with a shot, Al Gore is going to take out a lot of the pretenders in this campaign. It's now possible for everyone to discuss how inept Dean's opponents are, because Gore made it a legitimate news story.

Anti: Al Gore's endorsement is a one-day story because nobody outside the beltway and the media cares what he thinks. Al Gore is as qualified to judge someone's electability as he is to pick the best dancer, or the guy with the best sense of humor. His ineptness as a campaigner is legendary.

20 years ago, when Gore tried to run for president on his own, he couldn't make any headway against Walter Mondale, Gary Hart and John Glenn. He thought about running in 1988 and decided he couldn't beat Michael Dukakis, Jesse Jackson and Gephardt.

Even after Bill Clinton picked Gore out of obscurity and handed him the nomination, Gore struggled to beat Bill Bradley to keep the nomination. Once he got it, he decided that the best thing he could do with Clinton was to tell him not to campaign for him-- and he spent a good part of the 2000 campaign distancing himself from Clinton or attacking him.

Gore was one of the few Democratic nominees to fail to carry his home state in November. Had he been able to achieve a feat the Jimmy Carter, Mondale or Dukakis achieved, he would have won the presidency. Granted that a majority of the people who voted picked Gore-- but only because there wasn't any other credible alternative to Bush. And a lot of people were so turned off that they didn't vote.

I don't think people hate Al Gore-- or if they would (as some people claim) would shun a candidate that Gore endorsed. But there's no way they're going to react to this news by saying "Hey, if Al says Dean, than's all I need to know."

Gore doesn't have legions of supporters who have been sitting on their hands. He can't deliver any region in the country. The states he won last time were Democratic strongholds-- they'll support anyone who gets the nomination. He sure as hell doesn't have a staff of political pros who can sign onto Dean's campaign and kick things up a few notches (they're the guys dragging Clark and Kerry down).

An endorsement from Gore will create a big stir in the media for a couple of days, and it'll spark lots of gossip from the people who do nothing but gossip about politics. Other than that, it's a non-story.

Now if Bill Clinton endorses Dean-- if he says "Al's absolutely right; we need to get behind Dean"-- that's a big deal. People do respect the Big Dawg's judgement about politics and his opinion would carry a lot of weight.

But my nickel says the majority of Democratic voters would sooner take dating tips from Al Gore than listen to him about who to run against W.

2:25 AM

Sunday, December 07, 2003  
Enter Clark Clifford

Josh Marshall has the correct take on W's decision to send James Baker III to Iraq to straighten out the foreign debt:

"Let's remember what Baker's specialty is. Yes, he was White House Chief of Staff, Treasury Secretary, Secretary of State and various other things. But his real specialty is coming in to save the day when men named George Bush look like they're about to lose their presidencies. He's the family fixer. He did that in 1992 when he gave up State to run Bush's campaign. And he did it eight years later in 2000 when he went to Florida to run the recount battle. The phone just rang again ..."

A couple of sentences--taken from the transcript of the 1992 presidential debates-- indicate just how highly the Bush family thinks of Baker. When asked "How would you specifically use the powers of the presidency to get more people back into good jobs immediately?", here's what Dad replied:

" What I'm going to do is say to Jim Baker when this campaign is over, all right, let's sit down now, you do in domestic affairs what you've done in foreign affairs, be kind of the economic coordinator of all the domestic side of the House, and that includes all the economic side, all the training side, and bring this program together."

Think about that for a minute. The President of the United States-- asked how he's going to personally fix the economy when he's fighting for his political life-- says he's going to solve the economic problems by delegating them to Jim Baker.

(Bush's promise, by the way, inspired one of the most stinging rejoinders I've ever heard (I've still never seen dials leap that fast): "The person responsible for domestic economic policy in my administration will be Bill Clinton.")

Baker's cool, genteel image is one of the great facades of our time. People who know him or have worked with him all say he's a whip-smart, viciousm no-nonsense SOB who plays the hardest brand of ball there is. After the Gulf War, people connected to British intelligence told a story about a very brief meeting he had with Taraq Aziz just before the invasion began. The message: If you use chemical weapons on our troops, we'll nuke Baghdad.

Baker won't go on the ground to hold a few meetings. He's going there to get W. out of trouble. His presence on the ground makes three scenarios-- none of which are mutually exclusive-- possible:

1. Saudi Arabia will pony up billions at once. Osama bin Laden hates the U.S., but he despises the Saudi royal family. He's made more threats against the Saudis than he has against the U.S., and the Saudis are terrified of him.

If the U.S. leaves Iraq-- either because the cost of peacekeeping is killing the economy or because the war makes W. unelectable-- Al-Qaeda can move in. And being next door makes it much easier to stage operations.

Baker is the kind of guy who will be more than happy to point that out. And he doesn't make empty threats.

2. The UN will get a substantial role in Irag. Baker isn't an ideologue-- he's a mechanic. He has no respect for the neocons and he's not interested in remaking the world to match their fantasies.

He's there to keep W. in office-- and to make sure the backlash from Iraq doesn't poison the well for Jeb's run. He won't want to make W. look stupid by publicly backing down, so he'll negotiate hard. But if he needs to hand off power to get concessions from France, Germany and Russia, he'll do it.

3. The U.S. could pull out. When you're old, rich, powerful and really, really good at what you do, you have a wonderful luxury-- the ability to tell people in power exactly what you think.

They can't hurt you, because youve already got all the goodies that you'll ever have, want or need. And since they need you more than you need them, you're free to speak your mind.

Baker was chief of staff in the Reagan White House. He was Secretary of State and Treasury for Dad. He's too old to be president, and that's the only step up he could take. So he doesn't have to mince words with Sonny.

Which means there's a chance that we get a replay of another episode from Vietnam.

In 1967, Lyndon Johnson asked his version of Jim Baker-- legendary Washington lawyer Clark Clifford-- to step in for Bob McNamara as Secretary of Defense. Clifford's mission: find a way to win the Vietnam War, or at least get the issue under enough control to let Johnson run for re-election and win in 1968.

Clifford analyzed the situation, decided the war was unwinnable and told Johnson what no one else in the government dared to say: This situation is a losing proposition-- get out.

There's no possibility that W. won't run again. Johnson was a bully, who preferred to run, rather than fight and lose. W. is a bulldog, who'll slug it out until his last breath.

But if Baker tells W. "Get out of this thing or you're going to lose", the only person who'll be able to talk W. out of that is Karl Rove. And my reading of Rove is that he's a thuggish opportunist who doesn't want to lose the White House. I can't see him standing up to Baker.

(As a matter of fact, I don't think he'd disagree with Baker. I think Rove signed onto Iraq because the war on terror needed an easy win and he believed the neocons when they said Iraq would be it.)

Some of this could happen. All of it could happen. But there's no denying that a huge proxy fight is already beginning. One snarky quote from Mark Matthews's article shows that:

"Heads of state don't deal with mechanics," a senior administration [official] said yesterday. "Where those conversations go, I don't know. He doesn't know."

But it'll sure be interesting to find out.

10:13 PM

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