Sabatos Crystal Ball


Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics September 13th, 2007


Last week the Crystal Ball published the first installment in an intermittent series of observations on a variety of 2008 political and campaign topics. In addition to our usual essays focusing on one subject, which will still appear regularly, we offer these morsels as a “low cal” supplement for political junkies on the go!

Jefferson aficionados will find the title familiar, and they know the Man of the Millennium only penned one book in his lifetime, Notes on the State of Virginia. Many of Jefferson’s observations in that volume still hold fascination today, and we recommend it to you. In the Jeffersonian mold, here are a few more modern tidbits on the ’08 contests, including the race to elect Jefferson’s White House successor.

Dynasty, Revisited

In an earlier essay for the Crystal Ball, we argued that one of the most disturbing aspects of the 2008 election is the distinct possibility that, in a country of 300 million people, just two unexceptional families may be handed the most powerful office in the world for 24 (and possibly 28) consecutive years–a reality far more appropriate for a banana republic than the American Republic [STORY LINK].

As far as we can tell, just one national public opinion poll has seen fit to question citizens about this situation. At the end of July, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll surveyed 1,005 adults (+/- 3.1 percent margin of error), and asked, “If Hillary Clinton is elected President, it would mean at least 24 years of having a member of the Clinton or Bush family as President. In your voting for President, is this a serious consideration, one of many considerations, not much of a consideration, or not a consideration at all?” The results of this unadorned query were:

Serious consideration 12 percent
One of many considerations 13 percent
Not much of a consideration 20 percent
Not a consideration at all 54 percent

It is understandable why the news organizations posed the question this way, and yet the wording was inadequate. Compared to the Iraq War or terrorism, for instance, few other subjects could be termed a “serious consideration”. Moreover, the “dynasty issue” is not one that the vast majority of voters would have thought much about this far in advance of the election.

However, this is a case where the classic “argumentation format” in polling is essential; that is, the pollster must make the best possible case for and against the proposition in a couple of sentences to help people think through a complicated concept.

We hope that some national polling groups will take up our challenge. While every survey organization will have its own phrasing preferences, we would suggest a follow-up paragraph to the opening sentence in the NBC/WSJ question, perhaps reading thusly: “Some people say that permitting just two families to control the most powerful office in the United States for such a long time is unwise and fundamentally contrary to the principles of the most important democracy in the world. Other people say that democracy gives everyone an equal right to run, and that if the people choose to elect additional members of the Bush and Clinton families, that is their right and privilege. With whom do you agree, those who say that it is unwise for two families to control the Presidency for such a long time, or those who say that it is the people’s right to elect additional members of the Bush and Clinton families if they so wish?” An additional question might determine the strength of agreement–strongly or not so strongly–for each of the alternative propositions.

No doubt, the dynasty matter will not be the driving force in an election dominated by critical topics–though the 12 percent who replied to NBC/WSJ that dynasty is a “serious consideration” represent far more than the likely margin of victory for the eventual 2008 election winner. Yet there is an undercurrent of concern about dynasty that one hears everywhere, at least among groups of well informed voters. This is a subject that deserves more attention than it has received from pollsters and the news media.

Polarizing? Who Isn’t These Days?

Hillary Clinton made a good argument in a recent debate when she noted that, once the GOP “attack machine” finishes with the Democratic presidential nominee–whoever he or she is–the politician’s unfavorable ratings will probably equal or exceed the favorables. The same is true in reverse; c’mon, liberals, you know there’s a practiced Democratic attack machine, too, in this age of viciousness. Of course, should she be the Democratic standard-bearer, Senator Clinton’s difficulty will be that she will have to somehow keep her unfavorables about where they are now (approaching 50 percent) to win in a two-way contest. (A three- or four-way race changes the calculus.) Alternately, she and her party will have to drive up the GOP nominee’s unfavorables to sky-high levels–the more likely reality. Contrary to Karl Rove’s claim that Clinton is “fatally flawed” and will inevitably lose the general election, the conditions prevailing in 2008 may very well lead to her, or any Democrat’s, elevation to the Presidency. However, we at the Crystal Ball maintain that her coattails, should she win at all, will be much shorter than other potential nominees, reducing the likely Democratic gains in Congress and possibly costing some of the 2006 “Red State” House winners their seats (House additions in Blue States for Democrats may well cancel out the Red losses out, though).

The best judges of this possibility are the Democratic state chairs and candidates in Red territory. A recent, thorough analysis by the Associated Press’s Ron Fournier, who interviewed over 40 senior Democrats in states from every region in the country, demonstrated the fear that exists just under the surface among many Democrats about a Hillary nomination [STORY LINK]. Moreover, the deeper danger with Clinton is what comes after her presidential honeymoon ends–and we’ll wager it’s a short honeymoon. The half of the country that dislikes her is unlikely to find many new virtues in her during her presidency. In fact, any presidency has so many controversies that a reversion to form–critical views about the Clintons–is almost inevitable.

Thoughtful Democrats fear that the Republican Renaissance will begin at the moment of Clinton’s election, with the 2010 midterm elections the start of a major GOP comeback on Capitol Hill and the statehouses. It’s all speculation, but it’s hardly irrational speculation, given Americans’ complicated love-hate relationship with the Clintons. Electoral history tells us that up-and-down partisan cycles are inevitable, but they can be delayed or accelerated by the personalities of presidents and the policy circumstances of a chief executive’s White House tenure.

The SOB Factor

Take a look at the top contenders for President–the three or four people leading the pack on both sides. Which two would be described as the toughest? There’s really very little question about it: Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton. And which two are leading almost all the national polls? Giuliani and Clinton, of course. In the age of inhuman terrorism, there is a new premium in American politics on being unlikable It’s quite a change from most of American history, when candidates needed to be liked in order to be nominated and elected. True enough, there’s the occasional exception such as Richard Nixon–though the “New Nixon” (which turned out eventually to be the same old Nixon) showed up on chat shows and even 1968’s version of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” It was called “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” and Nixon appeared briefly to pose the show’s signature phrase, “Sock it to me?” (We won’t even try to explain this nonsensical expression to youngsters).

But overall, candidates and their consultants have gone to great lengths to hide a politician’s rough edges. Eisenhower wasn’t always friendly behind the scenes, but Ike’s smile and his “I Like Ike” slogan dominated his public persona. Jack Kennedy was a ladies-man and the Bill Clinton of his day, but we never knew it, and his picture-perfect family adorned his TV ads and rallies. Lyndon Johnson was petulant and pitiless in private with his staff and even his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, but in public he was the sober, burdened possessor of the “loneliest job in the world.” Jimmy Carter was no bed of roses with his subordinates, either, and was cold and calculating as a candidate and as president, yet it was that toothy smile that defined his public image in the 1970s. It’s no secret that spoiled-while-young Baby Boomer Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have wicked tempers, which they have been careful to hide from the public. In private, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush of the World War II generation were probably most like their public selves–genuinely pleasant people for the most part.

Back to Giuliani and Clinton. Virtually no one would call either of these people warm and fuzzy. If the price of winning the White House was walking over their grandmothers to get there, Clinton and Giuliani wouldn’t even bother to remove their shoes. Their coldness is obvious in public settings, and in private, associates over many years have noted their tempestuous, profane, and suspicious–even paranoid–natures. They do not suffer fools gladly, and it is easy to imagine the hell’s fury that could be visited upon you should you end up on their enemies’ list.

Americans are unlikely ever to feel especially warmly toward them in a personal sense–but both are respected for the flip side of cold: toughness. Either one would be highly credible using Clint Eastwood’s line: “Go ahead, make my day.” After September 11th, and in the face of continuing terrorist plots and threats, this may be precisely the quality U.S. voters want to project abroad. Obama? Too sweetly agreeable. Edwards? Too soft and polished. Richardson? Too reasonable and uncomplicated. Romney? Too much the pretty boy who, like Edwards, can’t get his hair mussed. Thompson? Too laconic and slow-moving. Maybe these candidates need to ditch the “nice” and swaddle themselves in “nasty.” This approach seems to be working for both party’s frontrunners.

Hypocrisy, Republicans and Gays

The scandal involving Senator Larry Craig of Idaho once again reminds us of two of our favorite axioms: “Hypocrisy, thy name is politics,” and “Hypocrisy is the lifeblood of politics.” This human quality has no party affiliation, and in our experience, both sides of the aisle have the hypocrites well represented. Yet the GOP has a special problem with gays and lesbians that they have yet to address in any comprehensive way. On a personal (but not policy) level, the Reagans (via Hollywood) and the Bush family (which has quite a number of gay friends and associates) have been tolerant and accepting. At the political level, though, Republicans have created a Gordian knot. Fundamentalist Christians, a large portion of the GOP base, believe as a matter of biblical revelation and faith that homosexual relationships are serious sins (some add that gay sexual orientation is not sinful in itself, unless acted upon). Highly educated, suburban Republicans, who joined the GOP as a fiscal or national security statement, are increasingly uneasy with the anti-gay rhetoric and actions of the party’s platform and officeholders. They have gay relatives or gay friends in college and in the workplace, and take a libertarian approach to this controversial social issue. The result is obvious. Many gay Republicans–both elected and appointed persons–stay quiet about their sexual orientation and relationships, and are forced, as the price of remaining in politics, to support laws and candidates that condemn them.

As any connected political observer knows, gay Republicans can be found in White House posts, senior executive branch positions of all kinds, and on Capitol Hill (congressmen, chiefs of staff, etc.) and in the statehouses (ranking gubernatorial aides, top-level state legislators, and so on). Why are they Republicans in an era when the gay rights movement is associated with the Democratic Party? They were born into GOP households, or support the party because they agree with its more conservative tenets on a wide variety of issues that have nothing to do with gay rights. However, the conflict is often painful and personal, and in order to continue in their public roles, the left half of their brain must cease talking to the right half. They must also contend with the efforts of some gay activists to “out” them–publicly reveal their sexual orientation without permission–because they are associated with the GOP and the anti-gay rights’ positions of many Republican politicians.

According to exit surveys and other polls, about 4 percent of the overall electorate is openly gay and lesbian, and about 30 percent of this group fairly consistently votes Republican. Somehow, the GOP needs to keep these votes and the ballots of moderate straight suburbanites in their “big tent”, while at the same time holding onto the fundamentalists. This is no easy task, and as the Craig incident reminds us, there may be a cataclysm up ahead that costs Republicans some substantial support in one quadrant or the other.

Crystal Ball Talkback

From time to time, we at the Crystal Ball like to share the observations of our astute readers when they present a reasonable and well-argued point of view in a thoughtful, civil tone that ought to characterize the majority of American political discourse. The following letter from one of our Golden State readers is reprinted with permission from the author.

Hello, Mr. Sabato,

As a political junkie, I am a subscriber on your email list and appreciate your longtime knowledge and insight into politics and agree with many of them. However, I do want to point out I was disappointed in the section in your last column entitled “The Senatorial Geriatric Ward”. The section seemed to imply that, if you’re past 80, you shouldn’t run for re-election and voters shouldn’t vote for a person in that group. I think the criteria should be, can this Senator fulfill the job requirements and functions and is he of sound mind. I think all of the current Senators including those over 80 meet that standard. They may need extra help physically in some instances, (writing in big letters to deal with diminished eyesight, for example), but that’s not that big a concern to me.

I am only 39 (really 39, not Jack Benny 39!), but my mother (she had me in her 40s) grew up in the depression and my maternal grandmother, whom I was fortunate enough to know when I was a child, was born in 1890. I learned so much from them when they were alive about the legacy of F.D.R. My grandmother was bedridden in her last few years from diabetes and its complications (she lived to 93) but she retained her mental sharpness although at times she would drift back to her childhood growing up in a farm in Russia. To me it’s somewhat amazing to be able to recall events almost a century earlier but I have read other cases of it and I personally feel it might be part of the psychological process of coming to terms with death, although I’m not even close to being an expert on psychology as I only have a 2 yr. degree in Accounting!

However, since my mother and grandmother passed away, I really miss their insight into history that they lived through. Many of the Senators you mentioned such as Frank Lautenberg and Ted Stevens, among others, fought in World War II like my mother’s brother who was killed fighting in the Navy in that war and whom I unfortunately never knew except through my mother. My grandmother was a garment worker who marched with Emma Goldman in New York on behalf of workers rights. My father was a Holocaust survivor.

A final point I want to make is that you can be “old” at any age in my opinion. What makes Sen. Byrd so great to me is that he doesn’t stop learning and views life as a continuous learning process and makes adjustments according to what he learns. Some young Senators may get to the Senate thinking they know it all and don’t need to learn or make adjustments based on things you learn. To me, that’s “old”. One of Sen. Kennedy’s favorite laugh lines is when he is asked about when he is going to retire, he responds by saying he’s going to stay in the Senate until he gets the hang of it! And frankly what makes that line so funny is the truth in it. You really don’t ever get the hang of it, because there is always something new to learn or experience.

So to sum up, don’t assume that just because someone is of a certain age, that he is too old to be useful as a Senator. It should be taken on a case by case basis. Thank you so much for your insights and your time in reading this e-mail and I eagerly anticipate your future columns.

Jason Platt (Whittier, CA)