Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
Yesterday, John McCain asked his foes on the right to "just calm down a little." He was talking about Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity and other conservative big-mouths who in recent days have pumped up the volume of their anti-McCain crusade. Just the day before, James Dobson, a leading social conservative who heads Focus on the Family, declared, "I am convinced Senator McCain is not a conservative, and in fact has gone out of is way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are." (Last year, Dobson also accused Fred Thompson of not being a real Christian.)
As the Republican Establishment swings behind McCain--each day his campaign sends out several emails noting this or that endorsement from a GOP figure--the conservative ideologues are holding firm. This is setting up a dramatic split between the GOP elite and the conservative movement's leading influentials. The ideologues hate McCain for several reasons. He has pushed bipartisan, Democratic-backed legislation on campaign finance reform, global warming, and, worse, immigration reform. He never got on his knees before the conservatives--particularly the religious right. In 2000, he blasted Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson for exerting too much influence over his party. And--egads!--he has been a favorite of Washington journalists, that band of well-known, America-hating liberals. The fact that McCain has been a prominent champion of the Iraq war--the number one issue for most of his detractors--means nothing to these ingrates.
Today, McCain is appearing at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a gathering of hundreds, if not thousands, of rightwing activists. Imagine John Kerry speaking to a convention of Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth. (My colleague Jonathan Stein will have a report on McCain's appearance later.) But if McCain believes he can make nice with the rightwing talkers, he's kidding himself. This group--especially Limbaugh, Hannity, and Coulter--have no incentive to be pragmatic. They each earn much money by being provocative. Their first loyalty is to their audience, which expects hard-edged ideological warfare from them. They go soft--or reasonable--and they risk their reputations.
It's possible McCain could engage in an act of self-flagellation so extreme, his right-wing critics could claim victory and boast that he kissed their rings. But in the absence of such a move, they will keep pounding him. It makes good TV and radio. So if the Democrats are stuck with a months-long battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the GOP could have on its hand a never-ending cat-fight between its nominees and the spiritual leaders of the conservative movement. As of now, the conflict between Obama and Clinton has not gone so far that it cannot be resolved when that race is done. The McCain wars on the right could continue right up to Election Day.
CHICAGO, IL — By the time that Super Tuesday finally arrived, the mystery was long gone. The day that had loomed for so long had lost its melodramatic make-or-break status for the Democrats. Hours before the vote-counting began, the top strategists for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were pitching the same line: the results would not be decisive and whoever ended up the winner would walk away with merely a small edge in delegates. And as the vote tallies started to come in, both campaigns declared non-defeat. That is, they each claimed to have done well. "Encouraging results," Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist said. "We're having a very strong night," said David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager. Both were right.
The two campaigns had plenty of data to spin as the results materialized. Clinton triumphed in California (by an overwhelming margin), Massachusetts (where a big turnout in women negated that Kennedy magic), Arizona, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Obama won in Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Delaware, Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, Utah, Idaho, and Missouri. Last-minute deciders, Penn said, went for Clinton. "Momentum is turning," he insisted. Plouffe noted that Obama was competitive in regions across the nation, that he won the caucus states (showing the campaign's organizational talent), and that he captured states that did not permit independents to vote (Delaware and Connecticut). Clinton was the Queen of California. Obama was the Master of Missouri.
But all that really mattered was the final delegate count (which was not easy to calculate in the hours after the polls shut down but was likely to be close)--and the fact that neither candidate was knocked out of the race. Despite the wipeout in California, Obama's senior aides appeared pleased, as they spoke with reporters at his election night celebration in Chicago. Pre-election polls had shown him trailing in most Super Tuesday states, and their goal had been to survive the day. They did. "The nominating battle will continue well past today's voting," Howard Wolfson, Clinton's communications director, told reporters. Only weeks ago, Clinton strategists were hoping this mega-primary day would end the race in their favor. Now they were talking about the coming slog, as if it had always been inevitable.
Super Tuesday did not live up to its do-or-die reputation because the Democratic field had been downsized to two strong contenders who push rather different memes. Clinton presents herself as the tried-and-tested hard-worker who can get stuff done. Obama offers himself as a transformative figure who can--due to his power to inspire--bring about change. It's math versus music. And after seven years of George W. Bush--during which the music was awful and the math was bad--Democrats crave both proven competence and uplifting inspiration. For many voters, it's a tough either/or. Super Tuesday demonstrated there is no consensus position within the party among its voters.
CHICAGO, IL — Let's remember that the only thing--the only thing--that matters tonight is what the final delegate count is when all the votes are tallied. Still, I know, people cannot resist looking for signs. If you're one of those people, there's Massachusetts. Clinton is in the lead there. Her campaign has already sent out an email calling it the upset of the night. After all, both its senators--including that Teddy Kennedy fellow--and its governor had endorsed Obama. And the state is full of upscale liberals--the types of Democrats who go for Obama. If Clinton does win here, that might provide the Obama camp pause.
The exit polls in Massachusetts show that women made up 58 percent of the Democratic turn-out, and Clinton won 57 percent of this vote. That's the model for Clinton. If the gals come out, and the guys stay home, she wins.
UPDATE: CNN has called Massachusetts for Clinton. "A big, big win" for Clinton, says Wolf Blitzer. It sure is an interesting one.
That was the message the Clinton campaign sent to the MSM this afternoon. During a conference call with reporters, Mark Penn, the campaign's chief strategist, and Howard Wolfson, its communications director, called for at least one debate a week between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the next month. They announced that the Clinton campaign has already accepted invitations from ABC News (this Sunday), Fox News (this Monday), CNN (February 27), and MSNBC (February 28). "It's critically important we continue the debate," Penn remarked.
Obvious point alert: The Clintonites believe Clinton does better than Obama during the debates. They're probably right. He beats her on oratory. His rallies are bigger and better. But she can talk policy details well. At the debates, she demonstrates she's in command of facts and ideas. Usually, it's the trailing candidate who demands debates during a campaign, for he or she needs the attention. But in this case, the Clinton campaign is most likely looking for an insurance policy. If Obama happens to surge after Super Tuesday, each debate will give Clinton a chance to slow him down. And if a whole series of debates are scheduled, he will have to spend time off the campaign trail prepping for the face-offs--that is, there will be less time for those impressive, inspiring rallies.
"A lot will depend on the one-on-one debates," Penn commented. Such debates, he added, "will determine some of the outcomes" of the big states coming down the road, such as Ohio and Texas (March 4). The voters, he suggested, need and deserve them.
So, the Clintonites signaled to the big media outlets, just get those debate invitations in ASAP, we're willing to say yes to almost anything. ("ESPN3 Presents the Democratic Presidential Debate.") It's a smart ploy for the Clintons. And it will be hard for Obama to say no.
Today is not only Super Tuesday; it's the fifth anniversary of Colin Powell's important speech to the U.N., during which he greased the way to George W. Bush's war in Iraq with his own prestige. In our book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, Michael Isikoff and I detail how the speech came to be: how Scooter Libby and others at the White House tried to fill the speech with even more dubious allegations than it ended up containing, how Powell ignored complaints from State Department intelligence analysts who told him that parts of the speech were inaccurate, how Powell's claim of a "sinister nexus" between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda was based on bad information obtained from an al Qaeda suspect during violent interrogations. We also published on-the-record comments from Powell, in which he complained he had been unfairly tagged by this speech. What about members of Congress? he asked. What about President Bush? They all said the same things that he had said. Why, he groused, do people still keep blaming him?
Fair or not, Powell went to bat for Bush's war at the United Nations. Every major WMD charge in that speech—not most, but every—turned out to be wrong. (Jonathan Schwartz details it all here.) And Powell then stuck by the president through the initial mismanagement of the war and through the election in 2004—helping Bush to win reelection. What a public servant.
Today is a good moment to reflect on where Powell is now: nowhere. He has largely left public life. He makes speeches at how-to-succeed conferences—no doubt, pulling in $50,000 to $100,000 (or more) a pop. But he has no voice in the national discourse. He barely weighs in on policy debates. He doesn't hit the op-ed pages much. He's not on television. He doesn't write books. Perhaps he's decent enough to feel shame over his role in the fiasco.
And are any of the candidates seeking his endorsement? Would it help any of them? Powell was once one of the most popular men in America. He seemingly could have waltzed into the White House, but chose not to run. Were he to endorse Barack Obama, that would clash with Obama's antiwar street cred. Were he to endorse John McCain, that would remind voters of the war's start—and two-thirds of Americans tell pollsters they believe the war was a mistake.
It's true that many others bear culpability for the war—Bush and Dick Cheney foremost among them. But Powell enabled them all. He was the front man. So if he did become the fall guy, he was a guilty one.