P. T. Barnum politicking


There once was a Broadway musical about the circus impresario P.T. Barnum, and the first song was entitled "There's a Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute."

Hillary Clinton seems to have adapted that lyric as her own.

As evidenced in recent days, she has deliberately chosen to play the Indiana and North Carolina voters for suckers - by staging what is arguably the most shameless pandering act of this long primary season - and in the tallies tomorrow it will be instructive to see whether she succeeded in coaxing the voters to fool themselves.

In the annals of presidential politicking, this has been known to happen. Voters - not all, but many millions - typically complain that politicians "just tell us what we want to hear," but the truth is, many voters reward these politicians for precisely that sort of pandering. The truth is, many voters like it when politicians propose stupid quick-fix bromides, or make sweeping feel-good promises ("read my lips, no new taxes") that cannot be kept. And the opposing politician who says no to such foolishness, who tries to invoke logic and common sense, often winds up being punished.

So we'll see how Clinton fares tomorrow, in the wake of her laughable pitch for a summer suspenstion of the federal gasoline tax. I won't bother to recount all the details, thoroughly aired already, about why this idea is a joke - a suspension of the gas tax would save the average consumer something like $30; drain money from the federal budget for infrastructure repair; drive up demand and therefore drive prices upward anyway. And I need only note that her supposed solution - recouping the lost tax money via a windfall-profits tax on Big Oil - has roughly the same chance of passing Congress and gaining President Bush's signature as a frog sprouting wings.

All of which Clinton well knows. And she's supposed to be the stellar policy wonk.

But this is about politics, not policy. This is about symbolism, not substance. This is her way of telling the working-stiff voters, "I'm on your side," and that Barack Obama, by dismissing the gas-tax holiday as a bad idea (and, worse yet, explaining why at great length, as he did again yesterday) is therefore not on their side and hence out of touch and hence an elitist. As her latest TV ad frames it, "She's ready to act again...Barack Obama says no, again."

Her aim is to look like a doer, and make him look like a thinker. And never mind that what she says she wants to do is downright dumb. So dumb, in fact, that she revealed herself during a telling exchange yesterday on ABC. When she was asked to name a single economist who agreed with her gas-tax holiday proposal, she replied:

"I'm not going to put my lot in with economists."

Consider that comment for a moment; then consider it in tandem with the question she posed last week, regarding whether members of Congress would support her gas-tax holiday idea: "are they with us, or against us?"

She's sounding like George W. Bush - drawing a line in the sand on some indefensible proposition, and refusing to listen to the nay-saying experts who are grounded in factual reality. And let us recall how well it worked for him, when he won re-election in 2004 despite the ample documentation that his '02 case for war had been built on a house of cards. Swing voters finally got wise in the '06 congressional elections, but in November '04 they were still willing to be hoodwinked.

The Clintons are savvy enough to know that the pandering pol often fares better than the truth-teller. It certainly worked for Bill in 1992.

Bill went to Connecticut and said he wanted to save the Seawolf nuclear submarine, even though it was already slated to be scrapped; his chief rival, Paul Tsongas (who, like Obama, was a darling of the well-educated voters) complained that Bill was just playing cheap-gimmick politics. Then Bill went to Florida and told the older voters exactly what they wanted to hear about Social Security; Tsongas protested that, as well. The Clinton campaign was delighted with the contrast; Bill looked like he was "for the people," while Tsongas looked like a nay-saying elitist. The rest is history.

Obviously, Clinton's pandering act will not be the only factor in the Tuesday primaries, but, to the extent that it may well influence the results, I can say this much:

These two contests are not merely the latest tests for the Clinton and Obama candidacies. The gas-tax "issue" is also an intelligence test for the voters.