Sabato's Crystal Ball

Notes on the State of Politics

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics September 6th, 2007

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Jefferson aficionados 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.

For our part, with a bow to the Rotunda and a nod to Monticello, we will offer, from time to time, tidbits and comments in the Jeffersonian mold on the emerging campaign of 2008. Instead of our usual essays focused on one subject, we will range more widely on unconnected topics.

Time for the Real Election

Campaigns have no clear beginning, though the end is as pre-set as a one-day clearance sale. The 2008 campaign seems to have been going on forever (just think, as of tomorrow there are still 500 days until the next president is inaugurated). Some candidates have been debating, fundraising, baby-kissing, and all the rest for years. This can be tiresome, although Americans learn about politics at different paces, and those with a lower tolerance for politics may actually pick up more because of the lengthy duration of the modern campaign. Be that as it may, the real presidential campaign begins now, in September 2007.

This will come as a great shock to the pollsters and traditional media who have already declared that the November 2008 race will be between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. It’s remarkable, isn’t it, that so many intelligent observers allow themselves to be manipulated into doing the Clinton and Giuliani campaigns’ work. Hillary and Rudy do not want disturbing character questions asked about them. Instead, their victories depend on looking like the inevitable winners. Hotshots in politics, eyeing that juicy post-election job, want to jump on the bandwagon rolling the fastest–and to do so early. Remember: Those who endorse early get goodies. Those who endorse late get good government.

Mesmerized by the numbers in fairly meaningless national surveys that mainly measure name identification and personal familiarity, the DC doyens cannot stop talking at their Georgetown cocktail parties and on their TV shows about the all-New York match-up (maybe Michael Bloomberg, too, they add excitedly). We’ll see. Maybe it will end up that way, but if it does, it will be because the Empire State candidates win the campaign starting this month. Real people, even most activist voters, do not make up their mind on presidential choice until they have to do so. In Iowa and New Hampshire, still the most crucial nominating states despite all the tinkering with the schedule, voters are tough-minded and wonderfully heartless in picking the people who probably will be the general election standard-bearers. We look forward to some egg-on-face retrospectives on mainstream media coverage if those influential early voters decide to ignore the Beltway script. Should Hillary and Rudy both fall, it will be omelet-on-face treatment.

Larry Craig Versus David Vitter

Some observers have suggested that the GOP has shown its anti-gay colors in trying to force Craig out but not David Vitter, the Louisiana U.S. senator caught with his pants down in the heterosexual prostitute scandal [STORY LINK]. We disagree. This is simple politics. Idaho has a Republican Governor who would appoint another Republican to Craig’s seat. The Bayou State currently has a Democratic Governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, who would put a Democrat into Vitter’s seat should he resign. Neither party is going to willingly toss a Senate seat to the other side. But we are prepared to revise our tentative judgment if there isn’t pressure on Vitter to resign, or at least not run again in 2010, if (as expected) Congressman Bobby Jindal (R) is elected the Governor of Louisiana this November. Jindal would keep Vitter’s seat Republican, and so the GOP has no real excuse for not showing Vitter the door. His performance on the hypocrisy scale has actually been much worse than Craig. Vitter has long presented himself as Mr. Family Values on the campaign trail and the U.S. Senate. The fact that his wife tolerates his behavior and “forgives” him is no more an excuse for him than it should be for Bill Clinton.

Iowa, God’s Country

In what must rank as one of the dumbest statements of the 2008 campaign, Governor Bill Richardson actually remarked, while campaigning in the Hawkeye State on Labor Day, “Iowa, for good reason, for constitutional reasons, for reasons related to the Lord, should be the first caucus…” [STORY LINK]. Surely, this was a joke, though to hear some of Iowa’s self-interested advocates defend their state’s caucus, we can understand where Richardson got the idea. The Crystal Ball’s friend, Prof. Alan Abramowitz of Emory University, had a truly humorous take on the Richardson remark: “Maybe this was one of the commandments on that third tablet that Moses dropped in Mel Brooks’ History of the World: ‘Honor the Iowa caucuses and keep them first, to be followed ten days later by the holy New Hampshire primary.'” One can only imagine the other commandments lost forever, such as, “Elect only people named Bush or Clinton as President.”

The Good News Keeps Rolling for Senate Democrats

No one seriously thinks the resignation of Republican Larry Craig of Idaho would change the party balance of the Senate in 2008. His successor, appointed by Gov. Butch Otter, would vote a line indistinguishable from Craig, and would be the odds-on favorite to win a full term in ’08. The real change came in Virginia, where the GOP’s John Warner brought down the curtain on his impressive thirty-year Senate career on August 31st. If, as expected, Democrat Mark Warner jumps into the contest, he will have a very good chance to wrest the seat from the Republicans. The Virginia GOP appears headed for another one of its periodic conservative versus moderate bloodlettings as former Gov. Jim Gilmore and Congressman Tom Davis battle for the party nomination (The key moment may come in the fall when the GOP’s governing state central committee decides whether to hold a primary that could favor the moderate Davis or a convention that might tilt to the more conservative Gilmore). Mark Warner’s popular governorship would make him a favorite even if the Republicans weren’t split, but the possibility of a Republican donnybrook only adds to his edge. However, it must be noted that a Hillary Clinton nomination for President–highly unlikely to be popular in Virginia unless there is a Democratic landslide in progress–would require Warner to secure tens of thousands of crossover, ticket-splitting votes. He’ll likely do it, but Clinton won’t make it easy for Warner.

The Senatorial Geriatric Ward

One of the most touching moments in John Warner’s retirement announcement was his use of Thomas Jefferson’s wise admonition that, “There is a fullness of time when men should go, and not occupy too long the ground to which others have the right to advance.” It is to Warner’s great credit that he recognized the truth of this, even though he would have been easily reelected to a sixth term in 2008, had he wanted it. Yet he knew that, as healthy as he is at 80, he would have had to stay vital almost all the way to age 88 to complete a new term. That is too much to ask of any person, just as it is too much to ask of any electorate. Warner has often mentioned in public and private the pitiful case of Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC), who served to age 100 but was so physically infirm that his staff aides were the real senator in his final years. Warner also privately referred to the case of Senator Carter Glass (D-VA), who was bedridden for his final years, unable to even show up in the Senate, but embarrassingly refused to resign his seat before his death in 1946. Warner never publicly mentioned Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV, age 89), Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ, age 83), and Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK, age 83), but perhaps we should do so. In 2006 Byrd was given a new contract until age 95, while incredibly, both Lautenberg and Stevens are running for new six-year terms in 2008. Senators may not know when to give others “the right to advance,” but the voters of their states really ought to have more sense than to make the Senate a high-class nursing home.