Proxies and provocateurs



At the risk of ignoring the big national story of the moment - Lindsay Lohan has begun her 90-day jail stint - I want to bring up the Georgia gubernatorial race. Have you nodded off yet? Don't. Here's the eye candy:

The contest for the Republican gubernatorial nomination has become a proxy fight between two potential '12 presidential aspirants, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. My conclusion is impossible to refudiate.

In last night's crowded gubernatorial primary, the top finisher was former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel (endorsed by Palin). The runner-up was former congressman Nathan Deal (endorsed by Gingrich). And since Handel didn't clear the 50 percent hurdle, Georgia rules require a runoff between Handel and Deal on August 10. Which means that either Palin or Gingrich (most likely the former) can potentially spin the runoff results as proof that she (or he) is the bigger draw among conservative voters - the kind of voters who tend to dominate Republican presidential primaries.

Granted, Palin has said nothing definitive about a '12 presidential bid; she has merely been keeping her options open by sprinkling her endorsement fairy dust far and wide. And even though Gingrich has made noises lately about launching such a bid, claiming he's more "serious" about the idea than ever before, it's important to remember that Gingrich long ago mastered the art of spewing hot air.

Still, somebody will extract some bragging rights from this Georgia race. Handel, the only woman in the five-candidate GOP primary, was mired in the middle of the pack until July 12, when Palin speaketh on Facebook, lauding Handel as a "pro-life, pro-Constitutionalist with a can-do attitude and a record of fighting ethics in government." After July 12, Handel surged in the polls. Actually, she's a bit too liberal for the "pro-life" label - she has clashed with Georgia right-to-lifers who want to restrict fertility clinics, and she supports the rape and incest exceptions to any abortion ban - but Palin's say-so was deemed sufficient.

Nathan Deal tried to trump Palin on July 13 by announcing that ex-Speaker Gingrich was in his corner. Gingrich, of course, is a home boy. Gingrich dutifully lauded Deal, his former House colleague, as somebody "I could always count stand firmly in defense of our conservative Georgia values." Palin followed up her Facebook endorsement by recording a pro-Handel robocall, and Gingrich did an ad for Deal. But Deal wound up finishing a distant second last night. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Deal - despite his supposedly "conservative Georgia values" - quit his House seat in March, one step ahead of an ethics probe which alleged that he had improperly pushed for a state contract that would benefit his family's auto salvaging business.

Deal has since denounced the ethics report as a "politically motivated witch hunt" (translation: "they got me"), and one wonders whether Gingrich will seek fresh opportunities, during the runoff, to identify himself with the kind of Washington-insider sleaze that grassroots voters tend to abhor. 

He's in a tough spot. He'd dearly love to demonstrate that Palin's intraparty clout is overrated - way back in November '08, on CBS News, he dismissed her as "one of 20 or 30 significant players. She's not going to be the de facto leader" - but if Deal goes down in the Aug. 10 runoff, Gingrich will be stuck with some bad optics. How can he persuade conservatives nationwide that he's the big dog, if he can't even sway the base in his own back yard?


Back in the red-baiting 1950s, the upper echelons of show biz were populated by cowards who quavered every time the McCarthy crowd smeared an actor or a writer for being "pink." Once a smear was circulated, the moguls ousted the smearee. It didn't matter if the smearee was guilty or innocent; the taint alone was sufficient. Moguls assumed that, by knuckling under, they could stay out of trouble. They wound up validating the smear artists.

Which is precisely what the Obama administration just did.

The conservative smear artist Andrew Breitbart earlier this week posted an excerpt from a video which supposedly shows black federal official Shirley Sherrod confessing to the NAACP about how she supposedly failed to render full assistance to a white farmer - a video excerpt that (surprise!) was promptly circulated by Fox News (which loves stories about black racism, whether they're true or not) - but Obama's Agriculture secretary responded late Monday not by seeking the full context, but by demanding Sherrod's immediate resignation.

Naturally, it now turns out that Sherrod in her recent speech was describing an incident that took place 24 years ago; and that the white farmer in question has nothing but praise for Sherrod's efforts way back when. Breitbart, of course, is a known commodity - he peddles untruths for partisan purposes, slicing and dicing his videos to comport with his aims - but what explains the Obama team's abject impulse to go weak in the knees when confronted with these predictable antics? Didn't we learn a lesson during the '50s about the pitfalls of caving to lies?


The Elena Kagan story has long been cocooned in quietude, so it was no surprise to learn yesterday that President Obama's high court nominee had easily cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee. My only interest was the final vote. When I saw that only six Republican senators had voted No, two words naturally sprung to mind: Lindsey Graham.

He voted Yes. Somewhere on the Republican right, heads are exploding.

Explaining his decision, the South Carolina Republican said that "elections have consequences," that "hard-fought elections have meaning in our system," and that, as a result, presidents should be free to pick qualified candidates that broadly reflect the views of the winning party. (No doubt President Obama was happy to hear Graham say this, even though Obama, back when he was a senator, failed to follow the Graham credo when he opposed George W. Bush's nominees on ideological grounds.)

Anyway, Graham also insisted that Kagan's decision as Harvard law dean - to lock the military recruiters out of the Harvard Career Services office, because of the military ban on open gay service - was no big deal at all. "In 2005," he pointed out, "more Harvard graduates entered the military than at any time in history."

And then he said this: "I believe that she is a loyal American, very patriotic, and loves the military as much as anyone else."

Oh, dear. He's in big trouble now. One cannot wear the GOP label and dare to say such things about an Obama appointee.

So between now and 2014, when Graham inevitably draws a right-wing primary challenger, he'd be wise to measure every single word he utters in public - lest he be bushwhacked by the likes of Andrew Breitbart and other like-minded provocateurs.