None of the Republicans running for president wants to get caught in the dark shadow of the man they seek to replace. Problem is, he’s their president, and as Al Gore learned, you can run but you can’t hide.
At times, the Republicans on stage at their first New Hampshire debate looked like nothing so much as Democrats, squabbling amongst themselves and attacking President Bush.
It was a Democrat’s dream, right down to the admissions by the two senators on the stage, McCain and Brownback, that they hadn’t read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. If that doesn’t take the heat off Hillary for that supposed bombshell in the recent book about her by the New York Times’ Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta, nothing does.
From where I stand, it was John McCain’s best debate yet. No one can talk to families of fallen soldiers with the empathy and understanding McCain brings to it, and his frank admission to the woman who lost her brother that the war had been mismanaged was one of the debate’s best moments. So was his willingness to stand alone on stage in defense of an immigration bill that reflects the sort of compromise you need to reach to accomplish anything in divided government.
It doesn’t bother me that McCain finds himself on the same side as both Bush and Ted Kennedy. That’s the McCain I remember from 2000, the one we Democrats used to be worried about running against in a general election.
The problem is that that McCain lost the Republican nomination and has been suspect among his own crowd for years for his independence. My guess is that the people who most admired his performance last night – Arianna Huffington has already come out with a rave review, for one – are people who wouldn’t be caught dead voting in a Republican primary.
But the bigger problem for the leading candidates on the stage was how to deal with President Bush. Al Gore’s effort to distance himself from Bill Clinton in 2000 cost him enough votes, in the view of the academic community, to allow Bush to claim victory. And Clinton’s sin was personal, not professional; an affair, not a mismanaged war. No one died because the president had relations with a willing woman.
Rudy Giuliani’s line that the Democrats will take us back to the '90s may score points with some hard-core Republicans, but most of us remember the '90s as a much less frightening period in our history, when the economy was strong, soldiers were not being blown up every day abroad, America was not hated around the world and the big debate every night on television was about what “is” is.
Bush may be poison to Democrats and Independents, but he’s still more popular than his vice president, who is practically down to the immediate family. Approval ratings in the 30s are no basis for governing, but that’s about the percent of the population that Republicans can count on to vote in their primaries and caucuses.
The risk for the Republican candidates is that attacking the president alienates the Republican base, while defending him alienates everyone else.
So what you get is answers like Mitt Romney’s confused opener, trying to defend the president’s war based on what we knew then, not now, blaming Saddam Hussein for not allowing weapons inspections that Bush was unwilling to pursue and trying to distinguish the decision to go to war from the inevitable (or not) aftermath of it.
No wonder he had to be asked the question twice. For Republicans, there is no answer that really works.
The big losers for the evening were the more serious second-tier candidates – Brownback and Huckabee, the other Thompson, Duncan Hunter, not to mention Ron Paul and Tancredo and whomever I’m forgetting. The debates are about the only chance they have to break through, and it’s not happening.
If you started out a Giuliani supporter, you were almost certainly still one at the end of the night; ditto for Romney and McCain. Fred Thompson, watching with Sean, must have been pleased.
How his presence will change the dynamic of the race remains to be seen, but so far it’s status quo all the way.
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Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.