Straw Polls and Censures The political buzz over the past few days centered on a presidential straw poll taken at a gathering of Republicans over the weekend in Memphis, and what it "meant" for 2008 (in a nutshell, Frist beat McCain). The answer? Probably not much, says NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin.

Straw Polls and Censures

This just in: Frist wins in Tennessee! hide caption

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Dick Morris aside, Condi Rice is not going to run for president. hide caption

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Thirty-eight years ago today, RFK dramatically enters the race for president. hide caption

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It's not that there's nothing else going on. But the political buzz over the past few days centered on a gathering of Republicans over the weekend in Memphis, and what it "meant" for 2008.

Excuse me, but what "meaning" could possibly come out of a presidential straw poll taken of 1,427 Republicans at a party conference some 650 days, give or take, before the 2008 Iowa caucuses? We haven't even had the '06 midterm elections yet, for gosh sakes, and we're paying attention to straw polls on whom the GOP will pick two years hence? Hello?

OK, I'll calm down. There was some news that came out of the weekend conference, but it's not the fact that Bill Frist, lo and behold, was the straw poll winner, with 37 percent. (Yes, it's true, Frist won a straw poll taken in Tennessee!!) But there's something gnawing at me in watching John McCain finish in fifth place, with 4.6 percent.

Yes, I know, McCain said he didn't want to take part in the straw poll, and in fact told his backers to vote for President Bush instead as a gesture of support. Yes, I know, Frist and second-place finisher Mitt Romney went all out to bus their supporters into the conference.

But I wonder... Is the media's love affair with McCain, and the widely-held impression that the Arizona senator could defeat anyone the Democrats put up -- including (and especially) the junior senator from New York -- shared by the party rank-and-file? Have the GOP faithful forgiven McCain for his apostasy in opposing George W. Bush in 2000? I would think McCain's unwavering support for the war in Iraq, as well as for Bush's conduct of said war, would win a certain amount of forgiveness.

Plus, as Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times the other day, McCain voted to extend the Bush tax cuts on dividends and capital gains, and said he would have signed the bill passed by the South Dakota legislature banning abortion. "He isn't a moderate," warned Krugman. His positions and votes "don't just place him at the right end of America's political spectrum; they place him in the right wing of the Republican Party."

Krugman's ostensible aim was to make sure McCain doesn't get away with calling himself a maverick, or an independent, when in fact he is quite conservative. More likely, his attack was just an admission that the left fears McCain would be the strongest candidate the Republicans could nominate. But if the word on Hillary Clinton is that winning her party's nomination is the easy stuff -- the difficulty would be in the general election -- the opposite may be the case with McCain. I don't know if the vote in Memphis really needs to be studied in depth, but I wonder if the animosity from the right has really gone away. Not long ago, McCain embarrassed Bush over the use of torture at Guantanamo, and he continues to fight his own party when it comes to campaign finance reform. I recall that no matter what Nelson Rockefeller did to endear himself with conservatives in the GOP, there was no way the right wing of his party was going to trust him. Now, John McCain -- the pro-life, pro-war conservative John McCain -- is no Nelson Rockefeller. But sometimes it's hard to let go of old grudges.

A postscript on straw polls: There is a tendency to dismiss them out of hand. Nothing matters, we keep saying, until we get to Iowa or New Hampshire (or those pesky states the Dems are trying to insert for '08). But history tells us that is not always true. Case in point is the 1999 Iowa straw poll, months before the Hawkeye State held its caucuses. Former Vice President Dan Quayle and ex-Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander did far worse than "expected" -- ah, yes, the old expectations game -- and were very quickly out of the race. Still, it's hard to imagine that a straw poll two years in advance is in any way telling. We'll see.

On to the questions:

Q: What do you think of Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel's chances in the 2008 Republican presidential primaries? -- Gus Sperrazza, Washington, D.C.

A: There was a time, not long ago, where I thought that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) would not make a second bid for the nomination, and therefore Hagel, one of his key supporters from 2000, would run as the "McCain candidate." I thought that McCain's age (he'll be 69 in '08) and health (he had surgery to remove two malignant melanomas) would preclude him from running. And Hagel seemed to be following the McCain path: a Vietnam veteran, a nominal maverick with an independent streak, a conservative who schmoozes with the press and makes friends across the aisle. But everything I see tells me that McCain is making the race. And though the Arizonan may not be everybody's favorite Republican, I can't imagine Hagel jumping in as long as McCain is running.

Q: I was surprised to see, in reading your "Is it 2008 Yet?" column from last November, that you failed to mention the person I see as the most obvious Republican candidate in 2008: Secretary of State Condi Rice. She will have had gobs of experience at the highest levels of government, especially in foreign policy, which will certainly remain a focus of any chief executive. And she is a black female. The Republicans broke racial barriers with Colin Powell at State and Rice at the National Security Agency, and nothing would take the wind out of the Democrats' sails -- especially Hillary's -- as quickly as Rice for president. -- Samuel Scheib, Tallahassee, Fla.

A: In fairness, you sent in this question awhile ago, when President Bush -- and his conduct of the war -- was doing considerably better in the polls. That's not to say that there aren't some folks still pushing for a Condoleezza Rice candidacy. Most of it, however, has come from Dick Morris, the Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Democrat-turned-Republican (I've lost count) strategist. His book, Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race, attempts to make the case that Rice is the only Republican who can stop Hillary Clinton in 2008. According to Morris, "The political fact is that a Rice candidacy would destroy the electoral chances of the Democratic Party by undermining its demographic base."

I find it difficult to fathom Rice picking up a sizable African-American vote, especially given the views of the war and U.S. foreign policy in the black community. Truth be told, I find it even more difficult to imagine her as a candidate. Wesley Clark showed us the difficulties of trying to start a political career by running for president. Rice has shown no inclination to build a campaign apparatus, nor has she made any political visits to key primary or caucus states. Bottom line: She ain't running.

You Heard It Here First: If Rice did run, and did win, she would be the first unmarried African-American female president in history.

Q: What are the prospects for Sen. Russ Feingold's effort to censure President Bush over the wiretapping of U.S. citizens? Also, I read that the last president censured was Andrew Jackson. What was that about? -- Mark Harris, Washington, D.C.

A: Whatever Feingold has in mind, I'm not sure his colleagues see it the way he does. Feingold clearly feels strongly about Bush's use of warrantless surveillance by the National Security Agency on American citizens and believes he should be punished. Senate Republicans and some Democrats as well dismiss it as a blatant political stunt designed to jumpstart the Wisconsin senator's 2008 presidential bid. Several GOP lawmakers seemed to welcome a diversion from the Dubai ports flap, at least when Feingold brought his measure up on the Senate floor (though I can't imagine them enjoying a prolonged debate on its merits). Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn rhetorically asked, "The big question now is how many of his Democrat colleagues will follow him over the cliff." The Wall Street Journal warned that, should the Democrats capture one or both houses of Congress this fall, censure will be just the beginning; impeachment hearings would be the next step.

As for those Senate Democrats who may share Feingold's low opinion of the president, well, you'd never know it by their silence on Feingold's move. Only one -- Iowa's Tom Harkin -- has come forward to co-sponsor the measure as of this writing; the other Democrats seem to be doing whatever they can to avoid the issue completely. It's a strategy that reminds one of the Dems' initial reaction to Rep. John Murtha's (D-PA) call for a pullout from Iraq. (Democrats didn't really rally behind Murtha until Ohio GOP Rep. Jean Schmidt made an ill-advised personal attack on him.)

Feingold is certainly an interesting fellow to watch. A strong opponent of the war in Iraq, he was the only senator to vote against the original version of the Patriot Act, back when smoke was still coming out of where the World Trade Center once stood. But he also has a history of breaking from his party. A release from his own Senate press office reminds us that he was "one of the first and only Democrats to call for an independent counsel" to investigate Bill Clinton's fundraising activities. He was the only Democrat on the Judiciary Committee to vote to confirm John Ashcroft for attorney general, one of only three Dems on the committee to vote for John Roberts for chief justice. The message I came away with is that he may be a maverick, but don't try pigeon-holing him as a by-the-book liberal.

There has never been unanimity among Democrats about how they see Feingold. There are those in the party who see him as a principled pol whose opposition to the war and refusal to hide from taking tough stands make him the correct choice for '08. But there are other Democrats who will tell you that they see Feingold as holier-than-thou and someone who needs to have the spotlight on him at all times.

If the censure resolution faced a vote in the Senate, at least as of now, it would go down to an overwhelming defeat. That's why Republicans were gleeful about his move, and pushed for an immediate vote. And that's why the Democrats, led by Minority Leader Harry Reid, fought for a delay.

Action Jackson: Andrew Jackson was the first and only president to be censured by the Senate. It happened on March 28, 1834. In 1832, Jackson, a Democrat, had vetoed a bill that would have re-chartered the Bank of the United States. After he was re-elected that year, he moved to withdraw federal deposits from the bank. The Whig-dominated Senate, led by defeated presidential candidate Henry Clay, demanded to see some documents from Jackson regarding his veto. Jackson refused, and the Senate voted 26 to 20 to censure him, declaring that Jackson "has assumed upon himself authority and power not conferred by the Constitution and laws, but in derogation of both." But after the Senate was won by the Democrats in the 1834 elections, it voted to expunge Jackson's censure from the record.

The most recent talk of a presidential censure came in 1998. Congress was marching towards impeaching President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky matter. But with polls showing the public against it, members from both parties began actively exploring a censure motion. It was actually first brought up by then-Majority Leader Trent Lott, but some Democrats, including Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman -- two years before becoming his party's surprise vice-presidential nominee -- openly discussed the possibility of a censure. Republicans, however, felt that course would let Clinton off too easily, and pushed instead for impeachment. They got their way in the House but failed to come close to a conviction in the Senate.

Q: Why is the conflict in Iraq continuously being referred to as a "war" when Congress has not declared war as laid out in the Constitution? By the way, I really enjoy your column. Does it ever air on the radio? I've never heard it, but I read it online all the time. -- David Avery, Los Angeles, Calif.

A: You are, of course, correct in stating that the Constitution gives Congress -- not the president -- the power to declare war. But it's a power that hasn't been used since December 8, 1941. The "wars" that followed -- Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War and now Iraq -- were not the same. Nor were they officially called wars. Korea (1950-53) was purposely called a "police action," and President Truman never sought any authorization from Congress. President Lyndon Johnson used the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution -- which followed an alleged attack on U.S. PT boats by North Vietnam -- as justification for sending troops and waging war in Southeast Asia. Similar resolutions passed by Congress in 1991 and 2002 were used by the two Presidents Bush for action in Iraq. The United Nations also passed resolutions that were cited by Bush 41 and 43 when they sent troops to battle. Congress did pass, by the way, the War Powers Resolution in 1973, which was designed to limit the president's authority to wage war without an OK from Congress.

And David, thank you for your generous comments about the column. As fate would have it, as of this month, a "Political Junkie" segment can now be heard every Wednesday on NPR's Talk of the Nation, the daily call-in program hosted by Neal Conan. The March 8 program focused on the Tom DeLay primary in Texas and the Dubai ports brouhaha; March 15 was about the Feingold censure, the Memphis GOP meeting and Katherine Harris' problems in Florida. Check your local NPR station for details. It's the perfect supplement for those who just can't get enough of the online column -- or Ken Rudin.

Button Up: And if the column and Talk of the Nation aren't enough -- if you need to meet Ken Rudin in person -- then you have no choice but to show up on Saturday, March 18, at a meeting of the American Political Items Collectors at the Holiday Inn Tyson's Corner (1960 Chain Bridge Road) in McLean, Va., from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 703-893-2100 for directions and other stuff. It's $3 to get in, but it's FREE to get out. As you know, this column couldn't exist without campaign buttons. And I collect campaign buttons. But enough about me.


-- Look for outgoing Republican Govs. Dirk Kempthorne (ID) and Bill Owens (CO) as potential successors to Gale Norton as Interior Secretary…

-- Kate Michelman aborts thoughts of an independent pro-choice Senate candidacy in Pennsylvania, giving Democrats and their likely nominee, state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., a boost in their bid to oust GOP Sen. Rick Santorum…

-- Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), who polls show to be more popular with state Republicans than with his own party, now has a Democratic primary challenger. Ned Lamont, a businessman and first-time candidate, is hoping that his opposition to the war (contrasting with Lieberman's support for it) will appeal to a majority of Democrats. I think not…

-- A fun fact from Reuters' Steve Holland: If Andy Card stays in his job until September, he will be the longest-serving White House chief of staff in history, surpassing the record of Sherman Adams, who served President Eisenhower for five years and nine months…

-- A Must Read: Dana Milbank's column in the March 15 Washington Post on Dem reaction to Sen. Feingold's censure proposal ("The Feingold Resolution and the Sound of Silence")…

-- The inability of the New York Republican Party to find a legitimate challenger for Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) reminds me of how the state GOP found Pierre Rinfret, the party's hopeless 1990 opponent against then-Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) -- out of a state lawmaker's phone book…

-- Favorite quote of the week is by Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS), on how suggested lobbying reforms will curtail the ability of lawmakers to have their dinners paid for by lobbyists: "I'll be eating with my wife, and so will a lot more senators."…

-- We actually were not surprised to see that, rather than end her troubled candidacy for the Senate against incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson, Rep. Katherine Harris (R-FL) will not only stay in the race, but will spend $10 million of her own money on her candidacy. The Harris campaign has had an awful year: scant fundraising, high staff turnover, public skepticism from her own party. And it only got worse when Mitchell Wade, the defense contractor in the middle of the Duke Cunningham bribery case, admitted making illegal contributions to her 2004 congressional campaign. For a while there, I thought she was going to pull out.

-- But then came the news that she was going to make a "major" announcement on Fox News' Hannity and Colmes show. She was not about to go on her favorite TV program to say she was withdrawing. Somehow, my mind drifted back to 1970, when rumors were rampant that liberal Sen. Charles Goodell (R-NY) was going to pull out of his hopeless bid for a full term against Democratic candidate Richard Ottinger and Conservative Party nominee James Buckley. But in a dramatic address on statewide television, Goodell announced he would stay in. And the resulting split among liberal voters gave Buckley his improbable win. Perhaps therapy would uncover why, in 2006, my mind would drift back to a 1970 TV appearance by the now-forgotten Goodell.

This Day in Campaign History: Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-NY) stuns the political world by declaring his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. His decision comes just four days after Eugene McCarthy finishes a strong second to President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary (March 16, 1968).

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