Given the incredible compression of the 2008 presidential campaign, punditry is in full swing in Washington. The primary election could be all over by February. New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, Michigan, and Florida hold their primaries after the first of the year. On February 5, sixteen more states do the same, including New York, Texas, Illinois, and California.
Incredibly, but understandably, opinions seem to be firming up on the outcome of an election almost a full year away. That at least was the sense I had listening to a panel discussion involving former Democratic House Leader Richard Gephardt, former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and Charlie Cook, pundit extraordinaire and editor of a well-respected newsletter on politics, The Cook Political Report.
The event on November 5, "Countdown to the White House," at the Willard hotel, was hosted by DLA Piper a Washington law firm. Gephardt, Armey, and Blanchard are all members of the government affairs practice at the law firm. So this was definitely an inside-the-Beltway affair.
The apparent consensus among these panelists amounts to this: Hillary Clinton wins the primary in a walk and has a something like a 60 percent chance of winning the White House.
Senator Obama would have a better shot at running for faculty chair at a university where his sensitivity would be appreciated, argued Dick Armey, a former professor of economics. Sticking the knife in deeper, Armey says Obama would make a great "sociologist in chief."
Cook says Obama is not a "black" candidate, but "green" -- as in inexperienced.
Clearly, Cook is impressed with Senator Clinton. "Wow. A focused, disciplined campaign. A Prussian campaign," he exclaimed. Like Nixon in 1972. "Sure, spontaneity is a problem, but her campaign will come up with a plan to deal with that, too."
Hillary Clinton is not becoming more likable, says Cook. But she is becoming "less unacceptable." No longer are 50 percent of the voters against her. That number is down to 43-46 percent. She is a kind of "discounted stock" -- everyone knows the worst about her already. It can only go up from there.
As to the inevitability of Clinton, Jim Pinkerton has drawn an interesting comparison of her fumbling of questions on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants with Dukakis and his parole program for convicted murderers.
Nevertheless, Dick Gephardt views Hillary Clinton's "giant trump card" as experience. He believes she comes across has very capable in the debates.
COOK, GEPHARDT, AND ARMEY agree that the GOP primary is really down to Romney and Giuliani. Romney could gain strong momentum if he wins Iowa and New Hampshire, a circumstance that would allow him to capitalize on his strong organizational and financial resources for the long haul. If he stumbles, Giuliani is the man to watch.
Cook even thinks Giuliani could survive losses in both states. (He once said that he, Cook, had a better chance of winning the Tour de France than Rudy did of winning the GOP nomination. He defends himself by noting that he never said when he might win the Tour.)
Dick Armey believes economic conservatives break for Romney, the security voters for Giuliani. The social conservatives, which he pretty much views as being Evangelicals, exclusively, are confused.
Interestingly, Cook, Armey, and Gephardt, when discussing religion and social conservatism, or the political impact of Romney's Mormonism, do not discuss Catholic voters.
Cook speculates that "secular" Republicans are rallying against "sacred" Republicans who are disillusioned with the Cunninghams, Foleys, and Craigs of this world. The combination of these two phenomena may account for the Mayor's success in the primary to date.
Notwithstanding Fred Thompson's relatively strong poll numbers, a matter of apparent indifference to the panelists, he is not really in the game. McCain does appear to be regaining ground on Thompson, but he must not be in the game either -- a view I attribute to the panelists since they hardly mentioned McCain at all. In fact, Cook believes Giuliani benefited from the McCain meltdown which left the "tough guy" vote up for grabs.
Armey thinks it is too late in the day for Fred Thompson. He thought Thompson has been horrible on the Sunday talk shows, hardly the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan. His campaign is "not together." Thompson is "nowhere near working himself to death."
One guest raised the case of Jimmy Carter, who made 100 trips to Iowa and, surprisingly went on to win the nomination as a relative unknown. Is it not possible the same thing could happen to one of the lesser known candidates this time?
Charlie Cook dismissed the possibility due to the compression of the new calendar of state primary elections which means that time is flying. There is such a pressing need for large amounts of money and organization, in too short a time frame, to permit a dark horse or second-tier candidate to win this time.
Dick Gephardt noted that he made 300 trips to Iowa when he ran for president. He was using the Carter playbook, but that did not work for him. No one is in control of the primary process and no one ever will be in control, says my former Congressman from South St. Louis.
CHARLIE COOK WAS EMPHATIC that America is not a 50-50 nation. Democrats have a pronounced advantage in polls asking respondent's party affiliation which he says shows a 4-12 percent advantage for the Democrats. He also notes that the London book-makers are giving 5-1 odds that Hillary Clinton will win in November. He views it as "virtually impossible" for the Republicans to get the majority back in the Senate and just about as hard in the House. However, he still believes the Republicans have a 30-45 percent chance of winning the White House.
Gephardt believes the Democrats will pick up 5-10 seats in the House and 4-7 in the Senate.
Personally, I thought this prediction overly bullish until I saw the outcome of the November 6 primary in Virginia which decimated the GOP candidates for the state legislature in the Washington suburbs. In the 6 years I have lived in Arlington County, Virginia, I have seen the area change from Red to Blue in each election cycle. It is a dreary indicator for the GOP that my Republican Congressman, Tom Davis, a moderate even, took a pass on running for an open Senate seat, deferring to the former Democratic governor, and witnessed the defeat of his wife, an incumbent, as our state senator.
What is happening in northern Virginia, a shift in party affiliation and independent-leaning voters toward the Democratic Party, may be indicative of the nation as a whole.
According to Cook, the Democrats would have been guaranteed to win the White House had they nominated a "placebo" candidate such as former Virginia Governor Mark Warner. But even with Hillary Clinton, they may very well win with a 4-6 point margin.
Dick Armey, the token Republican on the panel, agrees that "Hillary will not stumble, will not lose. She will win the presidency."
All the panelists recognized the possibility of a third-party candidate entering the presidential race. On the right, the challenge would come from social conservatives. From the left, it would be Mayor Bloomberg of New York. The former would be a serious blow to the Republicans. The latter is unlikely to occur unless polling data persuades Bloomberg that he has a real chance of winning.
There you have it: the wisdom of the Beltway. Check back in February and November 2008 to see if Messrs. Cook, Gephardt, and Armey got it right or wrong.
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