The Race for the Presidency: 2008

These are my notes from a lecture by Evan Thomas "The Race for the Presidency: 2008" (Jan. 18, 2008, UCSD Helen Edison Lecture Series). Evan Thomas is Managing Editor, Newsweek magazine. He covered the Monica Lewinsky scandal. A historian, his books include include John Paul Jones and John Kennedy biographies, and Sea of Thunder (World War II in the Pacific). Thomas is writing a cover story now for Newsweek, so this is a work-in-progress.

Troubles over history come from over-confidence and hubris. How do you avoid this? It depends on leadership & humility. Arrogant people are insecure and true confidence breeds humility. There has always been hooey in “vision” messages from politicians, but voters have a sense of "Truthiness" (Stephen Colbert)--they know phonies pretty well.

George W. Bush did well after 9-11 in projecting resoluteness. But Bush engaged in a (overly) faith-based presidency ("believe in me"). It was not a fact-based presidency—Bush ignored inconvenient facts and pushed aside anyone who disagreed. The reverence of Presidential office has effect of producing sycophants and yes-men, and this includes Bush. Bush lived in a bubble. Thomas faults Condi Rice for not bringing bad news and contrariness. Rice was a confident, but not an advisor. Bush was basically advisor-free (except Carl Rove on the political end).

Great presidents fight against yes-men (Washington's cabinet included Hamilton and Jefferson, both hated each other). Lincoln brought in powerful people who disagreed with him. He didn't let rivals "get his goat"--had a temper, but controlled it (got back the next day, for example). (see book "Team of Rivals"). Franklin Roosevelt had all sorts of rivals for aids. Kennedy thought Eisenhower's office was bureaucratic-Kennedy liked to talk to CIA folks. After Cuba crisis, brought in rivals so he'll have better advice (created "ExCom"). Reagan had great vision, and great advisors (Jim Baker). Reagan learned from Iran-Contra scandal, brought in people to clean-up mess. Elder Bush foolishly promised "no new taxes", but had to back down. 1990? budget deal was foundation of growth for next decade, although may have cost him reelection.

Hard to learn about candidates during election. Frustrating (for me) to figure from polls, talking points, blathering away. So here's my take on the candidates.

Hillary Clinton sells story of "restoration" of good 1990 Clinton Years. There's a reassuring quality of going back to good times. (Barack Obama says "I don't remember you being Secretary. of Treasury" though). Clinton is strident, paranoid, and in miserable marriage. Bill Clinton would be an unelected co-president—we would get players in a long, but dysfunctional marriage.

Barack Obama's message offers "renewal of hope"--reassuring, but vague and grandiose. Obama without question would be a roll of the dice. Good at least that he can write his own book (not ghost written).

John Edwards is a populist, but has slick, slippery quality (lawyer background). Populist has never gotten 51% from this message before (William Jennings Bryan got close at turn of century). Too much of a hustler in Edwards.

Rudy Giuliani's great moment was 9/11 a great moment--we've all seen that movie. Closer scrutiny makes me less confident. Giuliani bluffs away critics and is surrounded by "Yes-Rudis". Even 9/11 had problems: police/fire radios don't speak to each other. Central command center was in known terrorist target (Twin Towers). A bit of a demigod and bully--from un-confidence (not confidence).

Mitt Romney sells himself as "Mr. Fix-it". Reminds me of Eddie Haskell in Leave it to Beaver. He doesn't just shade positions, but flip-flops completely (such as on abortion and gay rights). Romney lied about getting auto jobs in Michigan. Giuliani was honest--said can't get those jobs back. Romney said he can (somehow) magically get auto jobs back (lied), and Romney won Michigan.

Mike Huckabee has been a life-long salesman. He's a charming guy, but Thomas doesn't trust him 100%--hired political hit-man Ed Rollins. Although Huckabee canned negative ads, he still brought in news people to view them and spread negative ads all over U-tube and press.

John McCain looks good, by low-bar just set here by other candidates. McCain has integrity. As POW suffered in ways we can never imagine--made him a stronger figure who forgives. But McCain is a bit of a hot head. Earlier in the campaign he pandered to religious right (it cost him), but found voice again after ran out of money. Since then got on "Straight Talk Express" and more wiling to tell truth. Troubled by "edge" he has. Brent Scrowcroft (McCain advisor) says McCain may not learn from contrary advice.

Conclusion. In the 2004 campaign Al Gore was badly treated by press—they exaggerated his exaggerations (Such as "Inventing Internet"). Thomas wouldn't feel comfortable either being surrounded by jackals of the press, but Presidential candidates must go under this scrutiny as this office is so important.

In Washington there is so little bi-partisanship--it's so polarized. Used to be a tamer, sweeter place. In past 30 years, it's noticeably worse and harsher. Like idea by ????? for a bipartisan cabinet. Not a perfect solution, but a good step. Don't have to be showy about taking in contrary views. Great ones are low-key (e.g. Truman, Eisenhower). Truman brought in multiple teams on foreign policy and just had them argue (behind the scenes). So in conclusion, the president must be: ?????, decisive, and confident, but truly humble.

After the prepared talk, Thomas answered several questions from the audience.

Is Mayor Michael Bloomberg candidacy possible? He's different--may get in if Giuliani and Clinton are nominated (Bloomberg can't stand either one). Bloomberg has money and is pretty “out there.” Could he win? He can get on state ballot. But he is more likely to throw election than anything else. If the election goes to House Clinton will win (if Clinton nominated). Candidacy may give Bloomberg a IOU to the ultimate President.

Is the Bush presidency a murderous, illegal regime? Regime is not murderous, not illegal. It will be endlessly investigated, but probably nobody will be prosecuted. It's healthy that it's out there now---not in shadows. Ultimately, this will be a grim chapter in US history. Courts, body politic is handling it (will never see daylight in other countries). At least this is in the open in U.S.

Is media too much of a force in election? What about more-obscure candidates--should they get recognition by press and not be pre-judged? Something to that. Early polls mainly name recognition, but press tends to cover top people in polls. Joe Biden (obscure candidate) is not destined to be president. Won't shut off and is insecure. Good senator, but doesn't have the strength to be a good president. Bill Richardson is a slippery character. These issues are not publicized. This is an awkward subject for press, as somewhat undemocratic. But we can't have a giant free-for-all. Thomas can't stand debates with 8-9 people--these debates are pointless and not productive. We need some winnowing.

Has Ron Paul been winnowed out by media? Ron Paul doesn't have a chance, so not covered. A libertarian can't win (even if raised a lot of money). Ron Paul covered a lot, just not as much as other candidates.

The role of press and media in campaigns: question dodging is common in debates and should be stopped. It dives me nuts they do not answer the question--done all the time. Candidate's advisers say "don't answer question"--answer with your own message. However, if the moderator drags candidate back to question, it makes press look bad—like they are hectoring and arrogant.

Al Gore is arrogant according to an ex-Gore aide the questioner knows. Gore is a great guy, not stuffy in person, in private. But a terrible candidate—Thomas heard him bellowing loud in a small room talking to a small group of voters in New Hampshire. Is it a tragedy he wasn't elected--considering that Bush won and what happened since. Gore's Global warming message is great. Thomas thinks there's a 2-3% chance he will be in race. Gore is better as a non-candidate, a good person.

You don't like anyone, but who would you (Thomas) choose? Obama--has a big impact on the world stage before he even opens his mouth. Hopefulness over his own story. However, Thomas has some reluctance: little experience (2 years in Illinois State Senate, plus Senate). McCain is old, but is one tough old dude. He can stay up all night drinking under the table. Nothing rattles him. A lot of will and energy. Direct and forthright. McCain's hot-headedness scares me though (other Senators, behind closed doors, call him "Senator Hothead"). May even invade Iran? McCain's attitude is “I suffered, so I have nothing to lose.” Thomas would give Mayor Bloomburg a good look.

What will be the decisive election issue? Economy--traditional when economy bad, even though government has limited role (time delay problems, bogus stimulus). Iraq will be a top issue if it worsens (surge sort-of working, Sunnis calming down). Iran could be an issue too, if something happens.

Will Gay marriage or abortion will be issues? Traditionally Republican wedge issue Probably not in 2008--less than 2004.

I'm old and I've become a pessimist with signing Bush signing statement fiascoes and Supreme Court rulings. Are you optimistic or pessimistic? Thomas agrees that constitution was subverted. I'm hopeful because they (John Yu, David Addington) got caught. This country has enormous resilience. Pendulum swings back. Issues get sunlight. Happened before with Lincoln, FDR, Nixon, but we recovered from abuses with Constitutional framework.

Why doesn't the press doesn't cover roots of Terrorism? Thomas disagrees—this has been well-covered in press. Press obsessed for awhile about it, in fact.

Can press diminish influence of TV in election today? Press's influence goes back a long time. In the 1800 Adams/Jefferson election: Jefferson hired a hack-journalist. Other side hired hack to talk about Sally Hemming (Jefferson's slave mistress). 90% used to listen to 3 TV networks. Today only 10% does, and basically most left have political arena. They may just listen to right-wing or liberal talk radio or websites. No moderating influence now as there used to be (with, say, Walter Cronkite and TV news). So, no, Thomas is not bothered by TV news (in conclusion). Bothered by other non-moderating influences. But we have media for everyone now--some good, some bad. A rich stew today--not worried too much about overwhelming TV influence.

Can issues be solved if we end up with a Republican President and Democratic Congress? If a Republican President gets something done with a Democratic Congress it will be a sort of a Nixon-goes-to-China type unusual alliance. It would certainly help in bipartisanship.

Are Newsweek and Time's circulation declining like newspapers around country? Yes--Internet is taking away. Newsweek online, but gain in revenues not as great as from loss from fewer print sales. Journalism has a murky future now (at least for mainstream media), and Thomas does not advice students take it up as a major. But for the long term stories have always in demand since Homer. What we have now is a short-term transition problem--haven't figured out how to make money yet. There's an expression among older journalists: "Outrunning the Boulder."

What will be the Vice-presidential role in future? McCain says about the job "why would I want to be POW again?" But VP Cheney was powerful and Gore as VP had influence. Gore was about right level--a specific portfolio. Cheney gave a bad name to VP power. May see it again.

Why would MSNBC exclude Dennis Kucinich from the debate? Because Kucinich has absolutely no chance of winning--same for Ron Paul. Debate is a joke when stage is too crowded—it's more meaningful if limited to candidates who have a chance. Minor candidates are just there to broadcast their own messages. There's other ways to get your message across than the presidential candidate stage. There's no law that everyone who feels like running for president should be in debate. Nine-people debates not helpful--three-people debates more meaningful.

Colin Powell says greatest problem in foreign policy is extreme arrogance. How can we see through candidates as campaigners and see them as president? Part of presidency is being a good campaigner--having good leadership. Flaw for Al Gore is that part of the job is being a good campaigner--a good leader. Obama cares about this and will try to present U.S. as a less-arrogant country.

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Posted by rich on January 19, 2008 at 08:23 AM PST #

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