About four months remain before the first presidential primaries and caucuses. Dan Balz of the Washington Post recently posed seven questions that shed light on this period. For instance, “Is the Clinton campaign a true juggernaut?” The questions are smart, but one can think of at least three more.
1. What does Giuliani’s standing mean for the Republican party?
Over the past year, Rudy Giuliani has led most national surveys of Republicans. Months ago, it was easy to ascribe his standing to mere name identification. Once Republicans learn his positions on abortion and gay rights, the thinking went, he’ll plummet like a sheep trying to fly. His continued strength suggests that something else is going on. But what?
One theory is that it’s about electability. In trial heats against the leading Democrats, Giuliani is doing better than his GOP rivals. With the 2006 washout behind them and another Clinton presidency looming in front of them, Republicans may be willing to muffle social issues for the sake of victory. Polls offer a fragile basis for a candidacy, however. If electability is his main selling point, and if polls start to show that another Republican is just as electable, then his support will vanish.
Another possibility is that Republicans have changed their issue priorities. While holding fast to social conservatism, they may now be giving far more weight to national security. Such a basis of support is sturdier than electability, but it’s hardly impregnable. Watch to see if Fred Thompson can out-tough him, especially on border security.
2. How warlike will the Democratic race become?
Saul Alinsky was a radical organizer who preached confrontation. Specifically, he believed in demonizing opponents. He approvingly noted that left-wing labor organizers “never attacked General Motors, they always attacked its president, Alfred `Icewater-In-His-Veins’ Sloan; they never attacked the Republic Steel Corporation but always its president, `Bloodied Hands’ Tom Girdler.”
Hillary Clinton wrote her senior thesis on Alinsky. She carried her devotion to political warfare into her husband’s 1992 campaign, where she gave the famous “War Room” its name. Throughout his presidency, she backed nasty tactics against political opponents. So far in the campaign, she has not been rough on Obama. She’d like to unify the party for November, and what’s more, her big lead in the polls affords her the luxury of civility. If Obama draws close, however, he may learn what happens to those who threaten the Clintons.
Obama has worked hard to cultivate an image of niceness, so it shocked some when his campaign circulated a memo attacking Clinton’s ties to India. The flash of steel should not have been surprising. Like Clinton, Obama has Alinsky connections — in his case, stemming from his time as a community organizer. He may have studied law at Harvard, but he learned politics on the streets of Chicago.
A national street fight is quite possible. Could it ultimately work to the GOP’s benefit?
3. Will anybody get specific about entitlements?
In 2008, members of the baby-boom generation will start becoming eligible for Social Security benefits. Spending will curve upward with the rapid growth of the client population, and its outlays will begin to exceed its revenues around 2019. And according to the Social Security and Medicare Board of Trustees: “The outlook for Social Security presents a fiscal challenge that pales in comparison to that posed by Medicare … In the absence of reform that greatly restrains these cost increases, taxes on the working age population and out-of-pocket payments by beneficiaries will both have to rise far faster than incomes in the decades ahead.”
The entitlement crunch is likely to dominate domestic policy for many years to come. So will any candidates get serious about specific ways to keep spending in check? Some Republicans have spoken vaguely of the need to address the issue, but without spelling out what they would cut. Democrats prefer to talk about expanding health programs, not curbing them.
Maybe the question will come up in the next YouTube debate, but only if it catches the fancy of talking snowmen.
— John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College.