National Security

Musical Chairs in National Security Leadership

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June 27, 2011, 4:45 p.m.

A sur­vey of 90 Dems and 93 GOP­ers on Na­tion­al Journ­al’s Pol. In­siders pan­el (10/9 is­sue).

Which Party Cmte Is Do­ing A Bet­ter Job In The Run-Up To The Midterm Elec­tions?

Nat’l:

- Dems GOP­ers DNC 78% 73% RNC 17 15 Tie/neither 6 12

Sen­ate:

- Dems GOP­ers DSCC 66% 13% NR­SC 31 85 Tie/neither 3 2

House:

- Dems GOP­ers DCCC 58% 15% NR­CC 40 78 Tie/neither 2 7

I have be­come an ex­cel­lent tea-leaf read­er this spring. As I watch col­lege gradu­ates cross the stage on com­mence­ment day—tee­ter­ing in new heels, arms out­stretched to grasp their hard-earned dip­lo­mas—I study the ter­ror in their eyes.

And as I watch two party nom­in­ees stride onto their stages—theme songs blar­ing, huge Amer­ic­an flags be­hind them—I study the am­bi­tion in their eyes.

On col­lege cam­puses and on the cam­paign trail, the prin­cipals think they have a plan but also know it could eas­ily be knocked off course by events al­most en­tirely out of their con­trol. If you are a gradu­at­ing seni­or this spring, that might in­clude the dreaded pro­spect of mov­ing back home, burdened with stu­dent-loan debt. If you are Pres­id­ent Obama, that could mean mov­ing back home to Chica­go.

But will this be a sober stan­doff over eco­nom­ic stress and solu­tions? Or are we just as likely to spend the rest of this year con­sumed with the latest ut­ter­ances of Jeremi­ah Wright and Don­ald Trump?

This elec­tion has been plagued with dis­trac­tions that, for a day or a week at a time, have con­spired to knock two nor­mally well-dis­cip­lined can­did­ates off course.

Do not be­lieve for a mo­ment that the can­did­ates’ camps in Bo­ston or Chica­go do not have grand plans. They do. And they in­clude pub­lic maps of win­nable states, secret maps of win­nable states, ex­traordin­ary mi­cro-tar­get­ing strategies, and me­tic­u­lous grass­roots mo­bil­iz­a­tion plans. But be­cause each fears that the oth­er will raise more money, deep pock­ets will al­ways be wel­come.

Wel­come, Shel­don Ad­el­son and Don­ald Trump. Wel­come, Anna Win­tour and Sarah Jes­sica Park­er. Elit­ism has its priv­ileges. No one will turn down the cash as long as the Su­preme Court says that it’s leg­al, so the celebrity mud-throw­ing is largely be­side the point. So too, mostly, is the end­less hand-wringing about vice pres­id­en­tial picks. Each can­did­ate knows voters mostly view the No. 2 as a re­flec­tion on the No. 1.

But this cam­paign is this close. On an al­most weekly basis, the un­ex­pec­ted and the un­con­trol­lable have threatened every well-laid plan. The trouble is, no one knows what will mat­ter and what won’t, so they have to re­spond to everything.

Seni­or Rom­ney ad­viser Ed Gillespie, a vet­er­an of many GOP cam­paign war rooms, calls these dis­trac­tions “shiny ob­jects.”

“I have not worked in a cam­paign with more shiny ob­jects than this one,” he told a small group of re­port­ers this week. “It’s pretty re­mark­able to me the kind of things that flare up and people start chas­ing. We’ve dis­cip­lined ourselves on the Rom­ney cam­paign to, as best we can, not chase the rab­bits or get dis­trac­ted by the shiny ob­jects.”

This is ac­tu­ally kind of vir­tu­ous, as far as it goes. Rom­ney has largely man­aged to avoid the muck of the dis­cred­ited birth­er de­bate, but he doesn’t mind shar­ing the stage with some of the folks who keep it alive.

The Demo­crats, of course, are no less likely to take a sharp poke when they can. When asked this week about wheth­er the pres­id­ent was vul­ner­able to Re­pub­lic­an charges that he was spend­ing too much time hob­nob­bing with celebrit­ies—earn­ing the Rush Limbaugh la­bel “Barack Kar­dashi­an”—White House spokes­man Jay Car­ney told re­port­ers trav­el­ing on Air Force One (to one of those glit­tery parties),”Two words: Don­ald Trump. Next ques­tion.”

It’s not that the cam­paigns don’t know how to avoid po­ten­tial potholes when they see them. Neither Pres­id­ent Obama nor Rom­ney was par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested, for in­stance, in ty­ing him­self too closely to the out­come of Wis­con­sin’s failed, par­tis­an ef­fort to re­call Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Scott Walk­er.

“I don’t know if at the end of the day, it helped or hurt or made any dif­fer­ence at all,” Gillespie said on Wed­nes­day morn­ing as the mar­gin of vic­tory be­came clear. “They are tea leaves, but at the end of the day, the elec­tion yes­ter­day was about Gov­ernor Walk­er, his agenda, his re­forms, the uni­on ef­forts to over­turn them, and about Wis­con­sin.”

On this par­tic­u­lar morn­ing at least, Car­ney and Gillespie were on the same page. “I cer­tainly wouldn’t read much in­to yes­ter­day’s res­ult,” the White House press sec­ret­ary said, “bey­ond its ef­fect on who’s oc­cupy­ing the gov­ernor’s seat in Wis­con­sin.”

But Obama signaled this week that he is more than aware of the po­ten­tial that his first four years in of­fice will be boiled down to the dregs of the tea leaves.

“What they’re go­ing to do is they’re go­ing to say, “˜Well, you know what, you’re still not sat­is­fied and it’s Obama’s fault,’ “ he told sup­port­ers at a Cali­for­nia fun­drais­ing event. “That’s the es­sence of their cam­paign. It’s very easy to put on a bump­er stick­er: ‘It’s Obama’s Fault.’ “

His sup­port­ers laughed. Obama looked stern. He ought to in a year when bright and shiny ob­jects rule.

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