These numbers may portend real momentum for McCain, or they may indicate a mere two-state boomlet. (My guess would be: real momentum.) But they certainly vindicate McCain's most daring strategic decision to date: to sit out Iowa altogether. His success may mean the end of the Iowa caucuses as a meaningful presidential barometer. Good riddance.
It makes one wonder why this charade was ever taken so seriously in the first place. The historical reason is that Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, a national unknown when he entered the presidential race, spent months there in the winter of 1975-'76, essentially campaigning as if he were running for governor. You have to run that way in Iowa, since "caucuses" aren't elections. No?they're an occasion for Prominent Local Hayseeds to congregate in local gymnasiums to recommend candidates (and various crackpot schemes) to their respective county delegations. If you remember Monty Python's
"Constitutional Peasant" sketch, you'll have a fair idea of what the Iowa caucuses are.
You can't reach people with a "message" on tv; you have to "organize" Iowa. That's why the state is so congenial to underground networkers like Pat Robertson, who finished second there in 1988; and to pavement-pounding student-body-president types like Lamar Alexander, who came within a hair's breadth of taking the state in 1996. On the narrative level, though, that sounds ennobling, doesn't it? A return to the days of "retail politics" and pressing the flesh and kissing babies? Yes, but what it actually means is that a candidate has to appear in every single stinking, dripwater auditorium in every one-horse town in the Hawkeye state?and promise the moon. For those who get stuck out there, it's a pilgrimage of hypocrisy, humiliation and irresponsibility.
Last week, Bill Bradley got the endorsement of half a dozen Iowa longhairs who call themselves the Stop the Arms Race Political Action Committee by telling them that he favors cutting defense spending. "It is now time to reassess America's total defense needs," he said. Good for you, Bill! Bradley now maybe gets six votes that may or may not tip their local caucus. In return, he gets tarred across the nation as the one candidate who actively wants to weaken the national defense.
A day later, George W. Bush was on KJMC-FM, a minority radio station in Des Moines. He tried to defend affirmative action while attacking "quotas," since "quotas pit one group of people against another." Good for you, George! But he wound up supporting the Clintonesque conception of "outreach"?which is code for telling one racial group about job opportunities before telling another. That pits groups of people against one another, too. So Bush may pick up the votes of Iowa's 11 or 12 black Republicans. In return, he has given the rest of the country ample evidence that he will work furtively to protect the very affirmative action programs the rest of the country hates.
Iowa: The I-Need-It-Like-I-Need-a-Hole-in-the-Head Caucus.
Cucamonga! The passing of George Brown of San Bernardino (California's 42nd District) makes John Dingell of Michigan the last remaining congressman who served during the Kennedy administration. Republicans tried to put a brave face on the absolute shellacking they took in the by-election to replace him. Democrat Joe Baca beat Republican real-estate mogul Elia Pirozzi 52-44. Tom Davis of the National Republican Congressional Committee chortled: "If all the Democrats can do in 2000 is merely replicate tonight's success in barely holding their own seats, then Republicans are well poised to keep their pro-Social Security majority intact." (Their what majority? But we'll get to that in a second.)
This is propagandistic crap. Republicans have never thought of Brown's district as a Democratic shoo-in. For the past several elections, they've been confident they were just about to take it over. Brown squeaked through with less than two percent in 1994; in 1996, he won by fewer than a thousand votes. But he beat Pirozzi soundly in 1998?and in last week's elections, Pirozzi, even running against the nonincumbent Baca, got blown out by eight percentage points.
What's worrisome is that Republicans spent generously on the race, sent heavy hitters like Davis out to speak and still did poorly. And truly foreboding for the GOP is that, for the first time in years at this stage of the election cycle, congressional Democrats have as much money as congressional Republicans. That's one reason why there are very few knowledgeable Republican congressman or staffers who?if you really press them?think Republicans are going to keep the House after the 2000 elections.
Raiders of The Lost Budget Another reason is the wretched budget passed last week. I listened to Clinton droning on in Turkey about how he wanted to "stay focused on the critical business of this nation that is still undone: from common-sense gun safety legislation to meaningful hate-crimes legislation, from a real raise in the minimum wage to ..." To blah-blah-blah. Clinton is never more brilliant than when gloating over a procedural victory. It was a Maalox moment. Republicans did only one good thing in the final days of negotiations, which was to keep hate crimes legislation out of the bill. (Of course, the non-passage of hate-crimes will be a fundraising windfall for Dems.) President Clinton had wanted to trade a measly .3 percent across-the-board spending cut for hate crimes; Republicans got the cut without having to pass the law.
But since across-the-board spending cuts are exactly the kind of spending cuts that are impossible to enforce over the long term, and since Republicans went in looking for tax cuts and got nothing, this budget has to be called a victory for Clinton. Since the Republican "revolutionaries" arrived in town in 1995, they've lost every single budget negotiation.
They don't even try to win anymore; they just try to spin. Which brings us to the silly remark Tom Davis made about Social Security above. All Republicans are doing this now. Dick Armey, at his post-budget press conference, said: "If you think about it, the big event is we stopped the raid on Social Security." I suppose that's true, if you "think about it" in the divorced-from-reality way that the Republican majority has made its intellectual signature. Republicans are working from the syllogism that (a) there's only so much money in the budget, (b) we want to keep Democrats from spending money on almost everything, so (c) that leaves more money for Social Security.
There's a logic to it, but it's not a logic that will be familiar to any voter. Voters know that "saving Social Security" is not exactly what Republicans exist for. And if Republicans imagine they can fool Americans into thinking the GOP cares more about protecting Social Security than Democrats do, they're going to do about as well in 2000 as Helen Gahagan Douglas did in the 1950 Senate race, trying to convince people she was tougher on Communism than Richard Nixon.
Bill Against The Bandits In an interview last week, the Hamburg-based weekly Die Zeit asked Boris Yeltsin's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, why Russia had bombed a market. "That was no market!" he said. "That was an arms market!" Then, at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Yeltsin told the assembled heads of state: "You have no right to criticize Russia for Chechnya!"
So how did President Clinton, who was sitting across from Yeltsin, respond? Did he proclaim his Kosovo Doctrine, or Clinton Doctrine, or whatever he calls it, to the effect that we don't put up with human rights abuses anywhere? No, he did not. He didn't even disagree politely. He launched into 15 minutes of abject bum-licking, qualifying his support for Russian depredations only by saying military power may not be the best way to subdue the bandits.
"I have often asked myself," said the President, "as I hope all of you have, what I would do if I were in President Yeltsin's place. I think before any of us sit in judgment, we should be able to answer that question. Russia has faced rebellion within, and related violence beyond, the borders of Chechnya... Most of the critics of Russian policies deplore Chechen violence and terrorism and extremism, and support the objectives of Russia?to preserve its territorial integrity, and to put down the violence and the terrorism. What they fear is that the means Russia has chosen will undermine its ends... In other words, in order to isolate and undermine the terrorists, there must be a political dialogue and a political settlement?not with terrorists, but with those who are willing to seek a peaceful resolution."
With this, the President revealed his foreign policy as totally corrupt. Because Russia has considerably less cause to attack separatists in Chechnya than Yugoslavia had to attack separatists in Kosovo. Yeltsin and Putin have also killed many times more civilians. But while Milosevic was committing genocide (a "genocide" that amounts to 2108 dead, most of them probably guerrillas), Russia is simply preserving its "territorial integrity."
There are really only two ways to look at the matter of Kosovo and Chechnya, which are as uncannily similar as two geopolitical situations can get. First, there are plenty of people (like me) who believe Kosovo was nothing but a pretext for moral narcissism on the part of a few power-mad yuppies in Europe and North America. People of this persuasion tend to want to leave Chechnya well enough alone. Second, there are plenty of people who think that Milosevic showed clear signs of escalating ethnic aggression, and that we had to bomb him. Those people tend to see the same progression in Chechnya (I would argue they've talked themselves into seeing such progressions everywhere), and they tend to want to hold Russia's feet to the fire, denying them IMF money and threatening them with trade sanctions.
Now, apart from a few misguided conservative friends of mine, the pro-Kosovo faction is made up of those who, during the Cold War, would have been counted among the most aggressive of anti-anti-Communists. Joschka Fischer of Germany, Tony Blair of Britain, Bernard Kouchner of France, that odious creep Balthasar Garzon of Spain... The overlap between those who like the Kosovo operation and those who approve of the kidnapping of Gen. Pinochet is a very neat fit. Still, their position is as logical as mine, and can be held honorably.
But Clinton's cannot. The Clinton administration is alone in saying that Milosevic is Hitler, but Yeltsin is Paul Revere. And the administration is alone because its position is corrupt. On the ground, the Clinton Doctrine amounts to saying: "If you want to abuse the rights of your citizens, get weapons of mass destruction and we'll leave you alone." It begins to seem that Saddam Hussein understands the way Clinton thinks better than any of us do.