This column really should be called "Variations on a Theme," as it continues the thought I began on Monday ("Will 2008 Be A Ho-Hum Election?") -- what kind of campaign will it turn out to be if we wind up with Hillary Clinton versus Rudy Giuliani? (As I said previously, I am not going out on a limb here and predicting that the race will come down to Clinton and Giuliani, but given their poll numbers it is certainly plausible that they will be the nominees next year.) While Monday's article examined the relative lack of enthusiasm for each candidate from within their own parties, today I'd like to look at the negative enthusiasm against the candidates from their opposition.
Hillary's detractors are well-known (and vocal). Hillary's negatives are also well-known. For whatever reason (I've never quite understood why, myself) Hillary also provokes an almost irrational amount of seething hatred against her from the right wing. None of this is earth-shattering news to anyone who hasn't been under a rock since 1992.
But what is going to surprise many in the middle of the political spectrum (those all-important "undecided voters") is the fact that Rudy also has plenty of baggage as well. Now, Republicans in the primary season are supposed to follow the "Eleventh Commandment" handed down from on high by Saint Ronald of Reagan -- "Thou shalt speak no ill of a fellow Republican." So far, all the Republican challengers have been mostly behaving themselves. This may change, though, as the challengers get more and more desperate to boost their poll numbers before the primaries. And the Democratic nominee is certainly not going to pull punches if Rudy is nominated by the GOP.
Add to this the impression that both Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton have been exuding that they really really want to win -- much more than the other candidates on both sides of the political divide. Rudy and Hillary are sharp and commanding and downright hungry for victory on the campaign trail and in debates. The other candidates, not so much.
Put all of this together, and you have a recipe for one of the nastiest, slimiest, mudslingin'-est campaigns of all time.
If it is Clinton v. Giuliani next year, it will be interesting that both sides will be getting the opponent that will be (in their own opinion) easiest to beat. Even Karl Rove has been talking up the inevitability of Hillary, with barely concealed glee. The punditocracy, while still holding out for an upset in Iowa, are mostly in agreement that Hillary will be the nominee. The Republican Party, as a whole, is praying for a Hillary win, because they think she'll be so "polarizing" with "such high negatives" that she will be their only decent shot at holding onto the White House. Whether they're right or not is open to discussion, but they certainly aren't concealing their wish for Hillary as opponent next year.
There is no consensus on the Democratic side about who would be easiest to run against. This is largely because the Democrats (for once) are actually positively looking at their candidates on the merits. It's the Republicans (this time around) who are triangulating their vote on who is most "electable" versus the Democrats. This means the Democrats haven't been paying as much attention to the GOP race as vice versa.
Who would be easiest to run against? McCain? Romney? Thompson? Arguments could be made for any of the frontrunners, but for my money it's Giuliani all the way. Rudy would be easiest to beat because... well, because he's Rudy. Pre-9/11, Rudy ran New York City in an authoritarian and prickly way. He has been known to have outbursts of anger, and he's got a record of embarrassing public statements and positions that shouldn't just be considered a "gold mine" for opposition research, but rather as "the Mother Lode" of mud to sling. And that's before you even get to the numerous photos of him in a dress.
As a candidate, Rudy's a one-trick pony with his only issue "9/11," or "terrorism." But even on that, he's vulnerable in a big way. For Pete's sake, the man went to some funerals and soothed people's nerves (because President Bush was still hiding out somewhere), but he didn't fly up into the sky and personally stop the airplanes himself. He's not Superman, in other words. In short, he acted like any decent politician worth his salt and showed some human compassion at a time when the city needed it. This doesn't make you a "hero" by any stretch of the imagination, and there are quite a few New York firefighters eager, willing and able to explain that to America. Post-9/11, Rudy couldn't be bothered to attend the 9/11 commission's hearings because he was too busy personally making money off of 9/11, so eventually the commission kicked him out. Not very "strong on terrorism" there, eh, Rudy?
So both as "Hero of 9/11™" and as "America's Mayor™" Rudy falls short. Which is why I maintain he'd be easiest to beat, because when you strip that away from him, there's nothing left. His positions on everything else are just about the opposite of what the Republican base believes in. He's got Republican feet of clay, to put it bluntly. Which is why Democrats should be cheering Rudy on from the sidelines in the same fashion Republicans are cheering on Hillary.
But it still adds up to not just slinging a little mud, but rather truckloads and truckloads of mud oozing into America's living rooms through ubiquitous television ads all campaign season long. You're going to have to be pretty quick on the remote control, or else wear hip-waders while watching television during campaign season, because it is going to get mighty deep mighty fast.
Think about it. On the one hand, you've got a candidate Republicans are convinced has a "666" mark somewhere on her body (normally that would be considered "hyperbole," but not in this case -- I bet you could find plenty of folks willing to swear on camera that Hillary's the anti-Christ). Then on the other hand, you've got a guy who is so easy to throw mud at, it's not even funny.
And the ads will be nasty. Rudy's campaign will feel no compunction about reminding America of the worst Clinton traits they can dream up, over and over and over again. Hillary's campaign might be a little more circumspect to begin with, and might prefer that the really nasty ads come from independent groups rather than the campaign... but watch for Hillary to slam Rudy Giuliani eventually. Remember, Bill Clinton's campaign "war room" convinced America that his "bimbo eruptions" during the campaign weren't that big a deal, and could be ignored -- a stellar feat during mini-scandals that would have absolutely destroyed a less politically-savvy candidate. Look for that same level of counter-attack from Hillary's campaign as well.
How it will all play out will only be exacerbated by the painfully early primary schedule. If any of the Democratic or Republican contenders go negative at the very end of the primary campaign, it's going to happen over the Christmas holidays (Iowa is voting January 3rd). That's going to put a bad taste for political ads in the whole country's mouth, and that's just the beginning. The rhetoric is going to be ratcheted up all year long. Whether negative ads work or not is not even a debate anymore -- they do work, if done right.
So while (as I said previously) I think that a Rudy-v-Hillary matchup is not really going to excite either side's base much, this election could be decided by which side's base loathes the other side's candidate more.
If this turns out to be the case, we're all going to be in for a very long year.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com