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Newsweek’s Howard Fineman analyzes the presidential races.

Friday, November 16, 2007

HH: To anticipate what happens and the importance of it, I’m joined by one of the country’s sharpest political reporters, Howard Fineman of Newsweek. Howard, great to have you back.

HF: Great to be here.

HH: Have you finished your book?

HF: Yes.

HH: When’s it coming out?

HF: April 15th.

HH: On tax day?

HF: Unfortunately so.

HH: Oh, well maybe…

HF: But actually, it’s not completely a bad idea, in that the concept of the book is that there are only a certain number of things we ever really argue about in America, and it’s the act of arguing that keeps us free. And certainly, tax day is a good time to discuss one of the thirteen arguments, which is basically how much we owe each other.

HH: Oh, how interesting. What’s the name of the book?

HF: Well, it’s got a very snappy title. It’s called The Thirteen American Arguments.

HH: Oh. Well, Howard…

HF: Random House is publishing it. My facetious title at home is De Tocqueville For Dummies, and maybe that’s what I should call it.

HH: Well, I’m looking forward to that. We’ll have a long sit down when that comes out.

HF: (laughing) Okay.

HH: Is one of those arguments why the Steelers ought to be disbanded and driven into the desert?

HF: (laughing) No, I would reserve that for the Patriots. I’m a Roosevelt man on the Patriots.

HH: Well, I’m a Browns man, and you got away with a life on Sunday. Listen, let’s get to tonight. Does Wolf have to start the debate by asking Hillary Clinton about the license thing?

HF: Sure. And I think it’s fascinating that she has, after sort of gyrating around like a top, landed on the no arrow, which is where Chris Dodd was the other week when all this problem got started. It’s fascinating.

HH: Now everyone says flip-flopper is a terrible thing to get attached to, the John Kerry I was for the $87 billion before I was against it, Romney’s abortion move. Does this tag her as a flip-flopper for the whole campaign?

HF: Oh, I don’t know. I think, as I wrote on the web this week, the image of her, that somebody who is so studied and so careful, and so eager to try to anticipate every objection, and craft things so carefully, I think people know that about her. I think people know everything there is to know about Hillary, almost to a suffocating degree. I think they already know that about her. And certainly in the Democratic primaries, if they’re for her, they’re for her in spite of what they already know about her.

HH: Now what about…

HF: So I don’t think it affects, I don’t think it affects the Democratic primaries that much.

HH: So the flip-flop label will not attach?

HF: Well, I think it will attach. I think it has attached.

HH: Interesting.

HF: But it doesn’t necessarily kill her in the Democratic primaries, or, for that matter, in the general.

HH: You write about the control freak syndrome in the column titled Hillary’s Achilles’ heel. That makes you very unlikable, I think. Can she lose that? Or is she just the Popeye defense, I am what I am, and I’m not changing?

HF: I don’t think she can change. I mean, I said in the piece that friends of hers who know her remark about how wonderfully charming she is off camera in a small group. People out in Iowa or New Hampshire who go into a living room meeting or a coffee klatch expecting to see this tough, calculating, edgy person, often come away incredibly impressed with how warm and winning she can be. It’s just that that never shows itself in public, and she is the calculating, fearful person in public that you see.

HH: Michael Crowley in the New Republic has written that her operation goes after journalists who say things like that with virtual rubber hoses. Have you been on the receiving of those calls, Howard Fineman?

HF: No, and I actually think the piece that I wrote was not written with the idea of being nasty. It was almost, I viewed it almost, they wouldn’t see it this way, I’m sure, as a friendly gesture in the sense of saying that people who really know here know that there’s another more winsome Hillary there, a more confident and less paranoid one, or unparanoid one, and she better find some of that if she hopes to actually win the general election.

HH: Andrew Sullivan’s referred to her as Nixon in a pantsuit. Fair?

HF: (laughing) Well, he has a way with words, doesn’t he?

HH: Yes, sometimes.

HF: Well, you probably don’t like what he said about Mitt Romney.

HH: No, no, no. He’s been a guest on my show, and it didn’t go well.

HF: (laughing)

HH: (laughing) He kind of lost it, actually, but that’s another story.

HF: Yeah.

HH: But that’s a funny line. Nixon in a pantsuit is a funny line. So is it fair?

HF: Yeah, I don’t know. I do think that she is entirely too fearful of things, and too interested in trying to control everything in advance. I say in the piece that she’s surrounded by some of the best and the smartest and the toughest Democratic political operatives that have been assembled in the last thirty years. The problem is that rather than allay her suspiciousness, they enforce it. And I think they make her even a less appealing candidate when they do.

HH: Howard, you used the term paranoid, and that is one of the more interesting impulses in American politics. It goes back to the Hofstetter book, and all that kind of stuff. But do you really think she is paranoid? Or is she just legitimately concerned?

HF: No, I don’t. I don’t, and I probably shouldn’t have used that word.

HH: Okay.

HF: That’s why I wrote the piece about wanting to control things. And what’s so fascinating to me is the sort of psychological study, is that she wants to control everything and not be surprised by anything, and yet she puts herself, she throws herself into the most uncontrollable possible situations, such as her marriage to, you know, the, as I said, the undomesticated Arkansan, Bill Clinton…

HH: Right.

HF: …and a presidential campaign, especially in this era of YouTube and blogs, you can’t control everything. You can’t try to control everything. You have to have a little bit of a surfer’s mentality if you’re going to survive.

HH: A proposition, Peggy Noonan wrote this last weekend in the Wall Street Journal, which is you know, if they attack her, her opponents or Republicans down the road, attack her as being elitist and condescending, they’ll score. And we’re also all kind of tired of Clinton-Bush, I mean, Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton. Do you think it’s possible that the Democratic Party is just going to say sorry, not now, we’re going to go with the new face?

HF: Well, that’s the big question, that’s the Iowa question. Obama doesn’t have the experience, but he has the freshness, and he keeps talking about wanting to turn the page. And he makes the argument that there have been 28 years of Bushes and Clintons on the ballot, that’s enough, that’s a generation’s worth, that even though Hillary can claim to be an agent of change and newness in part because she’s a Democrat and in part because she’s a woman, Obama’s saying sorry, you’ve missed your time, you missed the chance, it’s time for a new generation and a new construct, if you will. That’s appealing. That’s appealing. And generally, the Democrats end up going with the establishment, you know, sort of the interest group candidate, which is not Obama. It’s more Hillary than Obama. But we’ll see. I think, I think Iowa, and I haven’t been there in the last week or so, but I’ve been there a lot, Iowa’s wide open for the Democrats.

HH: Let’s talk about Republicans. Huckabee’s the flavor of the month. I had Romney on last hour, Giuliani coming on tomorrow. I think it’s just a Romney-Giuliani race. I think all this other stuff’s going to fade. What does Howard Fineman say?

HF: Well, I think Huckabee has sort of, it looks like he could win the southern cook-off, if you will, with Fred Thompson. And I think he can’t be dismissed if for no other reason than the modern Republican Party is built on a Southern Evangelical base. It is. That’s the party that George Bush and that Ronald Reagan began to assemble, and with a lot of other parts, and the one that Karl Rove and George Bush brought, turned into a machine in 2000. So I think that Huckabee’s got a shot to be in that conversation for sure if he wins Iowa, which is possible. That’s a terrific blow to Romney if it happens. So I think it could be, I think it could be a three way race. I don’t think McCain has enough to come all the way back around, and I don’t see Fred Thompson making it.

HH: Yeah, I don’t see…Okay, from the perspective of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and your answer might be different depending upon which one of those is the nominee, which one do they not want to face the most? Who does Hillary not want to run against? Who does Barack Obama not want to run against?

HF: That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer to that. I think the polls show that she should least want to run against Rudy Giuliani right now, because in the test match-ups, she runs a little stronger against Romney, and I don’t even know if they have Huckabee test match-ups, but she runs stronger against Romney than against Rudy. And I think the same is true for Edwards and Obama and so forth. So right now, Rudy Giuliani, if you believe the polls, and it’s hard to know what else to believe right this minute, has the best shot.

HH: Let me ask you a proposition, though…

HF: Because I do think in the end, that every Republican who considers himself, he or she considers themselves a Reagan Republican, even a Bush Republican, they’re going to vote, if Hillary’s the nominee, they’re going to vote against Hillary. But they’re all going to be there.

HH: Hillary probably, in my view, probably doesn’t want to run against Romney because of the family story and the arch-normalcy involved in the Romney…but that Obama doesn’t want to run against Giuliani, because Giuliani’s just so slash and burn. I mean, he would go after the kid with a vengeance. And you know, Giuliani can’t really go after Hillary on her weaknesses, but Romney can. Does that make sense?

HF: That makes a lot of sense. That makes a lot of sense. I think Romney is a very appealing candidate, and as I’ve said on the tube and elsewhere, I’m really impressed with his organization. Not only is it meticulous and smart, but they’re really good people, from what I can see. In other words, he’s got an array of people who are like him. They seem to be almost squeaky clean, they’re as you say, super normal, or ultra-normal, whatever your term was.

HH: Howard, we’re out of time. I really appreciate your spending time with us from Newsweek. I look forward to catching back up with you as Iowa gets closer. Howard Fineman, thank you.

End of interview.

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