For McCain, the debate was the climax to a horrid week that began with his moaning about how George Bush's proposed tax cuts "favored the rich." Now, there is a problem with Bush's tax cuts. It's that "compassionate conservatism" is a euphemistic way of promising never to cut a government program once it's in place; if Bush is unwilling to cut government, he has no way of paying for his promised tax cuts. But McCain is going to kill himself among Republicans with that "favor the rich" business. The income tax system is now so progressive that more than half of the taxes are paid by the top five percent of taxpayers; "no tax cuts for the rich" means no tax cuts.
McCain had a second problem. He could not get out from under the Boston Globe story that, for all his crowing about the corruption of the campaign-finance system, McCain, too, pulls strings for wealthy donors. There are a couple of good responses available to McCain. He settled on a version of the excellent explanation given by the ostentatiously pious English writer Paul Johnson, after he'd been caught with a prostitute and accused of hypocrisy. "I go to church because I am a sinner," Johnson said. McCain, similarly, says he cares about campaign finance so much because he knows firsthand how it corrupts politics. This, too, is an excellent answer, but McCain has been thrown so off-balance by the charges that it surely won't be long before Al Gore is pulling the same business with Bill Bradley.
Steve Forbes, meanwhile, seems even more likely than his fellow second-tier candidates, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes, to join Orrin Hatch in the heretofore uncontested third tier. Forbes' big talking point last week?attacking Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan for opposing economic growth?is hardly the handiwork of a master pol. The craziest statement of the week came from Fortune's Jeff Birnbaum, who opined on Fox News Channel, "I hear... quiet rumblings that Forbes may have actually put together some sort of intricate, sophisticated ground campaign in Iowa." Yeah, sure. This is a staple of January Iowa coverage. Reporters get out there and find the proceedings so obvious, boring and trivial that they assume there must be something serious going on that they don't see. In 1996, remember, it was Alan Keyes who was supposed to stun everybody with a "beneath radar" campaign?and Keyes wound up on voting day with a decidedly stealthy single-digit performance.
In last week's debate, Keyes distinguished himself with a series of angry diatribes, any one of which could have plausibly ended, "... and so you're all going to hell!"
But the craziness was part of the general atmosphere, and Keyes had a point when he blamed the hyped-up moderator Tim Russert for failing to keep it under control. The more desperate candidates were talking like auctioneers, grasping at any themes that could possibly give them some bump. This kind of desperation politics creates a climate of real malarkey. Bauer, for instance, had spoken earlier in the week of how the shootings at Columbine High School had "absolutely nothing to do with guns." Oh, no, of course they didn't! Absolutely nothing at all! If those kids hadn't had guns, why, they'da, they'da...they'da killed those dozen classmates o' theirs with their bare freakin' hands!
Amid the tumult, Bush looked terrific and at ease. His only stumble came when he mispronounced the name of the rescued six-year-old Cuban rafter Elian Gonzalez. Referring to a recently arrived Latin American as "Alien" probably won't kill him among primary voters. But it does leave the impression that Dubya's much vaunted command of the Spanish language pretty much stops at "El número dos con frijoles, por favor."
Phil to the Brim Evidence that the Republican Party has been thoroughly Clintonized has been given by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer of Texas, a Republican so fiscally prudent that you'd almost think the adjective "flinty" was coined with him in mind. When the President's spokesman Joe Lockhart spent two days last week harping about the need for federal aid for school construction, did Archer respond with the traditional Republican rhetoric about how the Feds had no business in such local matters as education? No he did not. He bragged about how Republicans, too, had "passed plans to help build and renovate public schools."
With Archer retiring, there's a battle on for chairmanship of Ways and Means. (Or for ranking minority member behind Charlie Rangel, should Democrats take the House back.) Phil Crane is next in line, but California's Bill Thomas is likely to challenge him. This is set to be a sad moment in American politics.
Crane, who's pushing 70, first got elected to Congress in the 1960s. During the Goldwater campaign, he was a shining intellectual light in a party that was full of them, a provocative political theorist with an elegant writing style. Crane has always been a real right-winger in the charming, Reaganite sense: not motivated by fire and brimstone but by a deep love of liberty. For about 10 years many conservatives thought?and a few even hoped?he'd be president someday. In fact, he ran a brief?and wretched?presidential campaign in 1980. But since then, Crane has just kind of dragged along in an undistinguished congressional career, and now he might get passed over for his last great promotion on the grounds that he's "not a big one for committee work." This failing has the same source as Crane's more general career disappointments. It's basically a nice way of saying that Crane has been a bosom friend to the ol' martini shaker.
Bill Thomas desperately wants to leapfrog him. Thomas has always fought with every fiber of his being for what he believes in, and what he believes in is Bill Thomas. He's arrogant, brutal and mean. If one were to stand in front of a dozen congressmen of both parties and describe Thomas as the biggest a-hole on Capitol Hill, it's unlikely any of them would jump forth to take issue with you. And he's bound to work extra hard for Ways and Means, since his own skin may be at stake. Democrats will be in control of redistricting after the next census, and it looks like they plan to carve Thomas' Bakersfield district out of existence. Running Ways and Means would give him the leverage to bargain his way out of such a pass.
Thomas?or even Florida's Clay Shaw?seems more likely to wind up chairman. Crane will not do the hard work to get the post, but he's not without advantages. He's conservative. He's close to House Speaker Denny Hastert. But his big disadvantage?the toping that detractors euphemistically call his "committee work" problem?ought to be an advantage in my book. After all, it does in fact take one away from committee work. And committee work generally involves digging around for questions that will humiliate witnesses, booby-trapping legislation so that it enacts things that its supporters didn't know they were voting for, intentionally introducing legal ambiguities so that each new bill becomes a feast for lawyers? Anything that distracts a politician from such mischiefmaking ought to be applauded: even a personal life that's more...festive than would ordinarily be deemed appropriate.
At least that's what I'm planning to tell them at my Senate confirmation hearings.