“First Read” is a daily memo prepared by NBC News’ political unit, for NBC News, analyzing the morning’s political news. Please let us know what you think. Drop us a note at FirstRead@MSNBC.com.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

Interest groups think they know how to hook the political press corps: small-buy TV ads that air in DC and maybe a few other places, and polls and focus groups conducted for the purpose of proving certain points.  To a degree, they're right, and overall, no party or affiliated interest is more guilty than the other.  But today, the landscape feels littered with these efforts to sway the opinions of the Chattering Class.  For every TV ad with real money behind it, there's one without it, and for every nonpartisan national survey, there's a poll memo funded by one interest or another.  This is not to say that say that -- using today's offerings as an example -- Social Security, Tom DeLay, and the nuclear option are not valuable unifying points for the Democratic coalition, or that these topics aren't potential GOP weak spots.  But KE'04 proved that firing at several different targets without a cohesive message isn't always a winning strategy.

  1. Other political news of note
    1. Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'

      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

Now for a couple of notes of real and oddly related import: The Pope appeared at his window this morning, but he now has a feeding tube to bolster his caloric intake.  Because the world has not seen a papal election in over 25 years, First Read looks at that electoral process below -- and the extent to which a papal conclave could magnify hot-button moral issues currently being debated in the United States.

Also, the Schindlers are appealing to the full 11th Circuit for a new hearing, based on a new legal argument, though there's no indication that they will prevail.  Terri Schiavo is now in her 13th day without a feeding tube and a debate is ensuing over whether she can receive Communion again, with supporters accusing the courts of denying Schiavo her religious freedom.  Death threats are being made against the Schiavos and Judge Greer. 

While we're on moral values, we'll note the juxtaposition of former UN Ambassador John Danforth criticizing his party in a New York Times op-ed for allowing its fiscal agenda to become secondary to the agenda of Christian conservatives, while Rick Santorum, whose Tampa Social Security town hall scheduled for today was postponed for appearances' sake, is in Pinellas Park, anyway.  And after the Cheneys fussed about protecting openly gay daughter Mary from the public eye in 2004, she's getting a $1 million advance for a campaign memoir.

And the Social Security debate is re-engaged today for the first time since Congress recessed.  In Cedar Rapids, IA, President Bush does a 12:15 pm local radio interview, then speaks at a community college at 1:10 pm.  Anti-private accounts forces hope to regain the mo they lost due to the Schiavo frenzy.  (Asked yesterday whether anything was going on with Social Security, a spokesperson for one group said, "Well, lots of sh-t, not that anyone is paying attention.") 

Anti-accounts bracketing efforts today: AARP releases a poll in Cedar Rapids and holds a rally in Des Moines.  The poll, conducted in early March, shows that the percentage of AARP members who oppose private accounts jumps from 59% to the 70% range when told about "consequences" of privatizing Social Security.  Fifty-nine percent say they would be less likely to support a congressional candidate who favors private accounts.  Also, a focus-group memo being touted by Democratic strategists, conducted by party pollsters, says that participants were unenthusiastic and concerned about private accounts.  More importantly, from Democrats' perspective, the memo stresses that the party can take its time rolling out a Social Security plan of their own.  And TrueMajority ACTION launches a radio ad -- the previously aired spot called "The Kids" -- targeting Iowa Republicans Leach, Nussle, and Latham. 

On the other side of the aisle, the Club for Growth, which supports private accounts, is on the air attacking GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham in his home state of South Carolina for wanting to raise the income cap.  Much more on all the Social Security activity on both sides below.

More ads on more Democratic/liberal causes: People for the American Way holds a press conference at 10:00 am to launch a targeted "multi-million dollar national advertising and grassroots campaign" opposing the nuclear option.  And the Campaign for America's Future holds an 11:00 am press conference call to unveil a new ad blasting DeLay.  CAF spokesman Toby Chaudhuri tells First Read, "DeLay's office is a front for corporate lobbyists.  His abuse of power has created the most corrupt Congress in recent history.  We're shining a bright candle into that darkness.”  And still more groups will launch still more ads against DeLay; details below.

The New York Times says that some Democrats were surprised by Jesse Jackson's appearance yesterday.  “‘I don't question the motivation - I question the timing,’" said Donna Brazile.  “Pressed on why he had chosen to visit, Mr. Jackson spoke only in broad terms and said the Schiavo case should not be a partisan matter.”  And the story notes Santorum's appearance, too: "Santorum … arrived shortly after 9 p.m. and told Mr. Schindler and Suzanne Vitadamo, Ms. Schiavo's sister, that ‘it's not right what's happening here'...  Asked whether he was still trying to intervene in the Schiavo case, he said that ‘I've been making a lot of calls to a lot of people," but added that "I'm not particularly hopeful.’” 

Santorum as quoted in the Orlando Sentinel on Schiavo: "'My feeling is she is still alive.  We need to keep trying...  This is about trying to do the right thing for a woman we believe has been wronged by the system.'" 

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette notes that Santorum is the first member of Congress to visit the hospice.

The Washington Times says Jackson's appearance "highlighted the broad coalition of conservatives, consumer activists, civil rights leaders and advocates for the disabled pushing for government intervention," and points out, "While the debate among Republicans over the limits of government power has gained the most attention, intriguing coalitions have emerged on both sides." 

The Washington Post's Kurtz covers the blog boil over whether that memo circulated among US senators about how the GOP could benefit politically from the Schiavo case was in fact written by Republicans.  "While there is no hard evidence that the memo is fake, there are several strange things about it, including the basic fact that no one seems to know who wrote it...  ABC and The Post say their reports on the Schiavo memo were accurate and carefully worded...  In the flood of commentary after the reports, some bloggers even speculated that the memo could have been a Democratic dirty trick."

The Des Moines Register previews Bush's visit today.  In addition to Bush's trying to lock up skeptical Sen. Chuck Grassley (R), the paper says, "the Social Security debate is particularly critical to Iowa.  The state is not only politically divided, but among the nation's oldest by population.  Even so, the largest age group in Iowa is 20- to 24-year-olds."

Looks like Senate Democrats on the Finance Committee "are crafting their own retirement savings plan that does not call for any change to the entitlement system," says The Hill.  "The Democrats’ move signals a shift in their strategy."  The written plan "details several legislative possibilities, including a mandate on employers to provide payroll-deduction savings options for all employees.  It also tackles low-income incentives for saving by setting up accounts at birth in which the government would deposit $500 for each newborn and $1,000 for families with below-average incomes.  The accounts would allow parents to contribute more money until the child turns 18, 'with a government match for contributions from lower-income parents.'" 

The Washington Post front-pages AARP's multimillion-dollar effort to defeat private accounts.  "Over this week and last, AARP... will have spent more than $5 million on ads... nearly three times as much as all the supporters of [Bush's] proposal put together...  Every state that has a swing-vote senator will have AARP forums, which have been drawing about 300 people each.  And every time a member of Congress holds a town meeting, AARP volunteers are dispatched there to protest..."  The Post notes, "AARP's 35 million membership base is 10 times the size of the National Rifle Association's, and its $800 million budget is five times that of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce...  In number of members, AARP is surpassed only by the Roman Catholic Church."  

Anti-private accounts Americans United plans to hold a string of press conferences between today and Saturday calling on various members of Congress to sign a pledge to strengthen "retirement security" and oppose private accounts.  In Nebraska on Monday, the group will hold town halls on Social Security with seniors in Lincoln and students in Omaha.

The Washington Post does the story anti-accounts groups were banging the drum about yesterday -- that three Denver residents are charging "that they were forcibly removed from one of President Bush's town meetings on Social Security because they displayed a bumper sticker on their car condemning the administration's Middle East policies." 

The Los Angeles Times profiles Leanne Abdnor, "policy entrepreneur" and former member of Bush's Social Security commission, who has appeared at some of his events.  Abdnor "is part of a small but influential network of policy promoters who are campaigning around the country for the president's Social Security proposals."  

Yesterday, the pro-private accounts Club for Growth released another TV spot in their touted $10 million ad campaign aimed at winning support for President Bush's Social Security plan.  The new ad attacks fellow Republican Lindsey Graham for wanting to raise the income cap for Social Security taxes.  In a conference call with reporters yesterday, Club chief Pat Toomey said Graham is doing "great harm" to Republican efforts to get a "good" Social Security proposal passed.  While the group would not release details of this particular ad buy, Toomey said the Graham ad would saturate the South Carolina market and run for a "couple weeks."

The group will also re-air an earlier ad, which called for reforming Social Security, in two new states, Nebraska and North Dakota, targeting Democratic Senators Nelson and Conrad.  Toomey said the ad will run in states with Democratic Senators with constituencies that voted for Bush in 2004. "Some of these Democratic Senators are going to understand that it's not in their political interest to obstruct the President's top priority," Toomey said.  He added that he hopes Nelson and Conrad will learn that the "Tom Daschle model of obstruction" is not good for their political careers.

The New York Times has the print exclusive on the Campaign for America’s Future $75,000 TV ad buy in DeLay's district.  “The advertisement opens with a man wearing cuff links and a Rolex watch walking down the stairs into a basement, where he begins washing his hands.  An announcer ticks off cases surrounding Mr. DeLay as the figure tries harder and harder to get clean.”  In addition, the Times says, the Public Campaign Action Fund “is spending $25,000 to pressure Republican lawmakers to denounce Mr. DeLay.  Those drawing attention include Representative Doc Hastings of Washington, the chairman of the House ethics committee, and NRCC chief Tom Reynolds.  "Officials in Mr. DeLay's office were quick to depict the commercials as partisan attacks" and link them to George Soros. 

The Washington Post calls it an effort to cast DeLay "as a symbol of Republican excess, as critics once did with former House speaker Newt Gingrich." 

The Hill reports that leading conservative lawmakers and activists "are crafting plans to launch a public campaign to defend" DeLay.  One idea in the works it to "launch a grassroots campaign targeted at conservatives in the districts of House Republican lawmakers whose support for DeLay may be wavering."  The story adds: "Common Cause is setting up meetings between nearly a dozen GOP lawmakers and Common Cause supporters who live in their district to convey the message that DeLay should step down..." 

The Hill also reports, "Richard Morrison, the little-known attorney who gave [DeLay] a tougher-than-expected race last year, is traveling to Washington next week to meet with the Democratic congressional caucus," though several Hill Democratic sources say they have not heard of any planned meetings. 

Sometime in the not too distant future, much of America will become absorbed -- for religious or political reasons, for history's sake, or just out of sheer curiosity -- by an election process not seen since John Paul II became pope in 1978.  Not only has the world not seen a papal conclave in over 25 years, but some of the rules have changed since the last one.  Because First Read is fascinated by the prospect of an election that touches hundreds of millions of people but takes place out of public view, here's the process to which NBC experts say the next conclave can be expected to adhere, with some slight variations possible. 

But as importantly, note that the extent to which the election will magnify hot-button moral issues currently being debated in the United States remains unclear.

The conclave of cardinals to elect a new pope begins no sooner than 15 days and no later than 20 days after a pope's passing.  There are four ballots a day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon.  A two-thirds majority is required for election.  However, under a new provision established by John Paul II in 1996, the cardinals can choose to move to a simple majority election if, after 13 days and 30-plus ballots, they are still unable to achieve a supermajority. 

After each round, the ballots are burned.  Black smoke is produced from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel if there is no new pope; white smoke is produced once there is one.  (However, in the past, the smoke has occasionally come out gray, creating mass confusion.)  Once a pope is elected and white smoke appears, a public announcement is made within hours.  The installation mass for John Paul II happened six days after his election. 

Not all cardinals get to vote: Those who have reached their 80th birthday by the day the pope passes away lose their vote in the conclave, though they do take part in the "general congregations" of cardinals that will meet, likely each day, between the pope's death and the sealing of the conclave.  But all cardinals, no matter what age, take a solemn oath not to reveal anything about the election, under penalty of excommunication. 

That oath may be interpreted narrowly or more broadly.  NBC consultant George Weigel advises that because the cardinals know that the world and the Church have different expectations for the pope now than back in 1978, the next conclave is likely to be the most open in history, in terms of the range of candidates.  And the cardinals will likely be willing to discuss the big issues facing the Church, although they will not discuss the actual electoral process.

While euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, ordaining women to the priesthood, gay marriage, and abortion are hot-button issues in the United States right now, Weigel says that many of these are likely to be non-issues in this election.  John Paul II, he notes, has not taught his personal opinions on these questions, but the settled doctrine of the Church.  Issues already under discussion among Church leaders include: the virtual collapse of Christian faith and practice in Western Europe, the challenge of militant Islam, and the moral implications of the biotechnology revolution. 

On this latter topic, Weigel says, the discussion centers on how the Church can help shift the public debate -- on, for example, stem cell research -- from the question, "will it work?" to the question, "is it right?"

Former UN ambassador John Danforth (R) pens a New York Times op-ed blasting the GOP for becoming one with the religious right.  “The problem is not with people or churches that are politically active.  It is with a party that has gone so far in adopting a sectarian agenda that it has become the political extension of a religious movement…  [I]n recent times, we Republicans have allowed this shared agenda to become secondary to the agenda of Christian conservatives.  As a senator, I worried every day about the size of the federal deficit.  I did not spend a single minute worrying about the effect of gays on the institution of marriage.  Today it seems to be the other way around.”  

The Colorado Supreme Court decision to throw out a death sentence in a rape-and-murder case because some jurors consulted the Bible and discussed verses like "an eye for an eye" during deliberations "has touched off protests from Christians and social conservatives," says the Washington Times.  "[T]he decision's critics said it would be impossible for most people to put aside their religious or moral beliefs when weighing life or death.  They also argue that the Bible contains other passages that could be cited to oppose a death sentence, such as Jesus's admonition to 'turn the other cheek.'"  

The New York Times has details on Mary Cheney's memoir, for which she got a $1 million advance.  

In Massachusetts, where the Senate is about to vote on an embryonic stem cell research bill that allows for the cloning of embryos, and a wealthy Democratic businessman has launched TV ads criticizing GOP Gov. Mitt Romney for opposing the bill, Romney "will launch a radio ad today describing the... measure as a 'radical cloning bill' and urging its defeat."  The Boston Globe says the ad is "a bid to tap into the public's ambivalence over cloning," and is being paid for by Romney's political committee.  The measure is expected to pass, but not necessarily with the votes to override a Romney veto.  Also, Ted Kennedy "will be in Massachusetts today to promote stem cell research at a Boston firm." 

Also in the Boston Globe: A "leading conservative group, which has been in discussion with the Romney administration, is readying a push for an outright ban on same-sex marriage in Massachusetts...  The move could significantly alter the debate on Beacon Hill over same-sex unions this year and undercut support for a compromise measure approved by the Legislature last year that outlawed gay marriage but established civil unions." 

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, wearing his Democracy Corps hat, yesterday released a late-February survey of 1,033 white Catholic voters, looking at "why they "pulled back from Democrats in 2004, and ways progressives can reclaim their support."  Greenberg points out in the poll memo that in 1996, Clinton "carried the white Catholic vote by 7 points," but Gore lost them by 7 points in 2000 and Kerry by 13 in 2004. 

Although Kerry is a Catholic, we'd note that he shied away from talking about his faith during the campaign, and that the moment when it got the most attention was when it was debated whether or not Kerry, as an abortion rights supporter, could receive Communion, with some Church leaders saying no. 

Greenberg finds that in 2004, white Catholic voters "pulled back for a number of reasons - including concerns about security and values, Kerry’s seeming lack of conviction and the absence of a strong Democratic advocacy for the middle class.  Today, they view the Republicans much more favorably than the Democrats."  But he sees an opening for Democrats in the fact that white Catholics "remain more Democratic in their identification than in their voting: Bush’s 13-point margin over Kerry among white Catholics was 10 points higher than the Republican advantage in partisanship - leaving a large bloc of voters available to the Democrats." 

So how do Democrats win over those voters?  1) "Reach across to the more traditional Catholics (those who want the Church to be 'more traditional and connected to Church teachings')."  2) "Highlight the Democrats as the middle class party, focused on work and personal responsibility."  3) "...[R]eassure broadly on values."  4) Speak more broadly about abortion, and about national security and the war.  And 5) avoid lumping white Catholics in with evangelicals.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments