Leaders of the Pack

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Karen and I both attended a lunch in DC today held by mega-firm DLA Piper that featured two of its name hires — former House majority leaders Dick Armey and Dick Gephart — on a panel moderated by Charlie Cook to discuss election 2008. Armey and Gephardt are unique (you might say admirable) in the era of millionaire legislators: neither had much money when they ran for Congress or, — 18 years and 28 years later, respectively — when they left. It’s safe to say they’re both making up for lost time.

The lunch was the ultimate inside-the-beltway political event, headlined by inside-the-beltway experts. But before you dismiss what was said entirely, remember that Armey and Gephardt aren’t mere armchair pundits; each knows a few things about the electorate and the two parties.

In a nutshell, Gephardt thinks Hillary is likely to pull out a win in Iowa, and that if she does, the Democratic contest is over. He thinks Romney will win Iowa and, having done that, will be propelled to the GOP nomination, through momentum and an infusion of his personal fortune. In the general, he thinks Hillary wins. Finally, Gephardt thinks the D’s will pick up between 5-10 seats in the House and 4-7 in the Senate.

You might predict that Armey, who replaced Gephardt as majority leader after the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress, would disagree. Not really. Of Hillary, Armey said: “I don’t think she’s going to make a mistake. She’s the best politician in the race..probably the best politician in America. In my view, she’ll win the nomination and will probably win the presidency.” Armey predicted that Clinton will have more appeal to religious voters than most people expect. Never particularly tolerant of religious conservative leaders while in office, Armey was extremely dismissive of Dr. James Dobson and others who think “people will follow their lead”. So overrated is Dobson’s “power,” said Armey, that “you’ll probably hurt yourself electorally if you do something to please Dr. Dobson.”

Later, Armey warned that opponents of Hillary should understand two things: “One, she’s smarter than they are. And two, she’s meaner than they are.” At least in his initial remarks (I had to leave before the event ended), Armey didn’t even bother to make a case for why Giuliani, Romney, Thompson or McCain would win the GOP nomination. The one upbeat thing Armey said about the Republicans is that he didn’t think the Democrats would increase their majority in the House next year — a positive sign for the future for the GOP.

Cook was expansive. As you would expect from the creator of the Cook Political Report, he said more and cited more polls and more history, but he, too, concluded that Clinton would win the Democratic nod and that she would then have a 65-70% chance of winning the White House. On th Republican side, he said the race was 50/50 between Giuliani and Romney, effectively dismissing the Thompson and McCain efforts as futile. Cook began by declaring the Republicans have suffered so much bad news in the past few years that the Democrats have a distinct advantage — “a tilted playing field” — going into the 2008 election: self-declared party affiliation now favors Democrats between 4 and 12 percent, he said.

Cook put Hillary’s chances of winning the nomination at 80%. “If she wins Iowa, it’s over. If she loses Iowa, there’s still a 60% chance” she wins the nomination, he said. “Has anybody seen a more focused, more disciplined candidate?” Cook asked. “Wow, she’s like a machine….sort of Prussian efficiency. It reminds me of the Nixon campaign. Is it cold, joyless? Yes. Does it lack spontaneity? Yes. My guess is that this campaign will come up with a plan to deal with spontaneity.” Ta dum.

In a twist on what a lot of people out there believe about the mainstream media, Cook accused the media of being desperate for a competitive race for the Democratic nomination, which in turn is what led many journalists and pundits to overinterpret Hillary’s bad week last week and to declare that suddently the race was more competitive. “Just wishing for a race and wanting a race doesn’t make it a real race,” Cook said dismissively. Hillary, in Cook’s view, is no less prohibitive now than she was a week ago.

Anyone care to disagree?