Letters @ 3AM

Unsaid Talking Points

Letters @ 3AM
Illustration by Peat Duggins

This newspaper is dated Nov. 9, 2007. We will (probably) elect a president in one year, less five days. Primary season begins in two months. But who the nominees will be, and who will get elected, could be determined by at least four factors that most commentators and candidates have yet to take seriously.

1) How can someone as astute as Hillary Clinton fail to notice that she's placed her fate in the hands of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney? She voted for the White House-sponsored Senate resolution to declare Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. She seems to think that Iran won't be bombed – even though, as she herself pointed out during MSNBC's Oct. 30 debate, Bush "has been filling up [U.S. oil reserves] beyond any expectation of need." There are many reasons not to bomb Iran, and most of them Bush-Cheney are proud to ignore. But the purely domestic, purely political reason is that bombing Iran sends oil prices through the roof. However, that consequence might be mitigated if U.S. oil reserves are overflowing. Our reserves aren't enough to help with long-term rises in price, but they're enough to blunt the sudden spike that would follow an attack on Iran. It's alarming that the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination can't connect those dots. In fact, to my knowledge, no candidate has.

The conventional wisdom is that the GOP wants to run against Sen. Clinton. But that's contradicted by nearly every poll. Most show her with double-digit leads on all GOP comers, including Rudy Giuliani. And why not? Rhetoric aside, her Senate record shows Clinton to be business-friendly, not bad on civil liberties, cautious on domestic policy, and a foreign-policy hawk. In other words, she fits the profile of a species now extinct: the liberal Republican. In addition, she makes few campaign mistakes, and when she makes one, she tends to recover quickly. She receives big corporate contributions. No one can credibly accuse her of being weak, inexperienced, or flaky. (She waffles, but so do they all.) Republicans have smeared her for more than a decade, and not only is she still standing, she's excelling. The GOP's Hillary smears are old news. Old news is not a winning campaign strategy.

(I mean nothing snide in calling Sen. Clinton a liberal Republican. There used to be some pretty good ones. As a young New Yorker, I voted enthusiastically for liberal Republican Mayor John Lindsay and supported his failed presidential campaign.)

However – what if, between now and early January, the White House bombs Iran, waving the Revolutionary Guard resolution as an excuse? Hillary Clinton's aura of competence will vanish. Her Democratic rivals will portray her (rightfully) as falling for yet another Bush ploy. Any reason she gives for that vote will then sound pathetic. Many primary voters, enraged at the enabling of another Bush aggression, will switch allegiances – mostly to Barack Obama and John Edwards. As it is, she's only a few percentage points ahead of Edwards and Obama in Iowa; bomb Iran, and she'll lose Iowa by a hefty margin. That could start a domino effect that derails Hillary Clinton. It's the GOP's best shot at defeating her. Then their nominee might face the candidate whom I suspect they long to face: Barack Obama. This GOP is well-practiced at instigating bigotry, and Obama has not proved as able a campaigner as many hoped. Back to my point: Polls aside, Hillary Clinton is far from a sure thing.

The irony, as things stand, is that the bombing of Iran may be the only way for Obama or Edwards to secure the nomination. (If the nominee is Edwards, big money will once again flow to Republicans. Business is scared of Edwards.)

2) There is no more boring disaster to watch or report than a drought. No exciting footage, no obvious casualties. Just a still life with narrative. "The Southeast has reached the most severe category of drought ... creating an emergency so serious that some cities are just months away from running out of water" (The New York Times, Oct. 16, p.14). Read that twice: cities running out of water. Estimates vary. "Georgia's environmental director has estimated the northern third of the state will run out of water in about 80 days. ... The Army Corps of Engineers ... says the region has a 280-day [nine-month] supply" (USA Today, Nov. 2, p.6). The article quotes estimates that western North Carolina's water will run out "by mid-March." A recent water-sharing deal with neighboring states might put those estimates back weeks or even months. As of this writing, there's not sufficient rain in the long-term forecast to make a difference. Let's see, that's 4 million-plus people in greater Atlanta, maybe a total of 8 million in the entire drought area. The developed world has not yet faced this question: What happens to a densely populated area when people turn on their faucets and no water flows?

Water is heavy, bulky – no way to ship sufficient water to that population. Depending on which estimate is right, the water runs out either during the primaries or right around the time of the nominating conventions. If prayers for rain don't work and the climate doesn't cooperate, sometime between January and midsummer we might be smack in the middle of the greatest natural disaster to hit North America since it became densely populated. People cannot remain where there is insufficient drinking water. Those millions will be forced to evacuate for an indeterminate amount of time. The economic, psychological, social, and political shocks will be ... well ... unpredictable. But we may be certain that the effect on the election, the effect on governance itself, will be enormous.

3) As has been widely reported, oil may reach $100 a barrel very soon (as of this writing, it's more than $90). This winter's heating oil price is expected to rise by 50%, and in financial-news outlets – CNBC, The Wall Street Journal – people who hate using the word "recession" are forced to use it more and more. Economists predict this and that, but lately I've been studying this till it's coming out of my ears, and I promise you there are no dependable data either way. Say the White House doesn't bomb Iran and the drought ceases, but winter sees unmistakable beginnings of a recession. On the Democratic side, whom do you vote for in the primaries if you're starting really to hurt economically? This is an open question for which I have no suggestion. As for the Republicans, they'll still be having to please their predominant primary constituency, ranting about abortion, family values, gun control, fun control. In 2004, pro-abortion liberal John Kerry won 21% of the evangelical vote (CNN, The Situation Room, Nov. 1); how much do you think a Democrat – even Clinton – would win in a 2008 recession? Probably more than 21%.

4) What have you heard about the Hispanic vote? All I've heard is thunderous silence. Republican candidates (except McCain), as well as many Republican, Independent, and Democratic voters, rant about "illegal aliens." It's unlikely this is going down well with Hispanics. California, New Mexico, and Texas have non-Anglo (mostly Hispanic) majorities; New York and Arizona are 40% non-Anglo (mostly Hispanic), as are Maryland, Mississippi, and Georgia (The Week, Aug. 26, 2005, p.16). The Christian Science Monitor (online, May 2, 2006) reports the Pew Center's survey that 47% of eligible Hispanics voted in 2004, "[accounting] for 6% of all votes cast" – roughly 17 million votes. Nearly half voted for Bush (Los Angeles Times online, May 2, 2006]. It's a safe bet that in 2008, those 8.5 million votes won't go to Republican incumbents or the GOP's presidential nominee. "Hard-liners" against the undocumented are "mostly male and overwhelmingly white. Three of four don't have a college degree [and most] live in rural areas and [are] least likely to live in cities" (USA Today, May 30, 2006, p.5). With evangelicals, these white male folk are the GOP's voting backbone, and they won't vote for a Democrat anyway – though they may rethink that if there's a recession. In '04, with the Hispanic vote, Bush won a close and more or less honest election. (I doubt there's ever been a totally honest election, back to the days of Greece.) Without the Hispanic vote, the Republicans can't win a close election. Only a close election can be effectively rigged. Whatever other elements are in play, the hoopla about immigration should guarantee a Democratic victory.

On paper, the GOP is doomed. On paper, the Democrats' victory is guaranteed – that's why, for the first time, they've raised about $100 million more than the Republicans. And on paper (so I'm told) a bumblebee can't fly.

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