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Tracking the political trends with Fineman

Olbermann and Newsweek writer discuss the latest in D.C. and beyond
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It's been a busy few days in the political world, starting with Monday's announcement that conspiracy charges against the former House majority leader have been dropped, while the more serious money-laundering indictment still stand.

DeLay had no such luck on the money-laundering charge, though. That may proceed to trial, making it unlikely, but not impossible, that the man they call 'The Hammer' can regain his post as House majority leader.

However, Mr. DeLay can also count on the continued support of friends in high places, the vice president on Monday headlined a fundraiser for Mr. DeLay in Houston, $4,000 and change getting you in the door. 

Plus, it gets you your own Kodak moment with the veep.

One bit good news for President Bush that might not make the latest poll numbers seem hopeless, that they might actually have been worse for his former opponent, Senator John Kerry.

Nevertheless, the new batch of polling finding fresh ways to chart the president's descent, only 41 percent of those surveyed for "TIME" magazine approving the job he is doing, 1 point lower than it was in the magazine poll in September, even worse, fully 76 percent of those who disapprove saying they are unlikely to change their minds, with three in five of the opinion that they would like the next president of the U.S. to be completely different from George W. Bush.

Yet, if another election were to be held now, even after all that has transpired in the last year, Americans still virtually split on whether they'd actually prefer Senator John Kerry.

So who is completely different than George Bush, and, by extrapolation, completely different than John Kerry?  If that did not already describe Senator Hillary Clinton, it may do so now, after she has taken on what looks like one giant, incongruous step to the right, the junior senator from New York to co-sponsor legislation that would make it illegal to desecrate the American flag by burning it.

It's always wise, before wrapping yourself in the flag, to make sure it is not on flame.

Last year, Senator Clinton said she did not believe in a constitutional ban on flag burning but did think it ought to be a crime.  Just as she told NBC's Tim Russert: "I have no plans to run for president," perhaps knowing that plans and verb tenses and positions on flag burning can always change. 

To talk about these issues and more, 'Countdown' chief political mixologist, Newsweek's Howard Fineman, joined MSNBC's Keith Olbermann on Monday.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button above and to the right.

KEITH OLBERMANN:  Let's work backwards.  Hillary Clinton just got the support of what group, while losing what other group?  Is it a net win, a net loss, or is it just transparent grandstanding that's going to frost everybody's beer stein?

HOWARD FINEMAN, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "NEWSWEEK" MAGAZINE:  Well, I think she's been trying to show for some time that the military culture, and that notions of patriotism, aren't foreign either to the Democratic Party or specifically, to her.  She's been running to the right and running towards the military and running toward the flag ever since she got elected in New York.

And that's the way she's running for reelection there.  I dare say she's made more visits to Fort Drum in upstate New York than she has to the West Side of Manhattan.  And this is just a continuation of that trend.

You may remember, when Jack Murtha came out with his let's-withdraw-quickly proposal in the House the other week, Hillary Clinton, over in the Senate, was not jumping on that bandwagon.  She's been very cautious on that topic.

OLBERMANN:  But the opposite of caution might apply to some of this running hard to the right.  Is there not a chance, given the nature of the base of her support, that she could run right off a cliff?

FINEMAN:  I don't think so on this, because I think this is largely a symbolic matter.  She's not saying it should be a constitutional amendment.  I'm assuming if she supports a statute, she's willing to have that evaluated by the Supreme Court.

So that the hardline First Amendment people, and the free speech people, while they may tsk-tsk about it, I don't think it's the kind of voting issue for them.  And I think right now, Hillary is running to the right as far as she can without ruining her chances of locking up the Democratic nomination pretty easily in 2008.

And I know it's way early, and I know you never say never, but she's certainly in a very strong position there.  She isn't giving up that much of her capital with this.

OLBERMANN:  The current president, those "TIME" magazine numbers, there was an old Allan Parsons song, "I Wouldn't Want to Be Like You," 60 percent saying they prefer some imaginary new president unlike the current one.  But maybe more to the point, this president's approval rating on how he's handling Iraq, that's his current focus, he is at 60 percent disapproval on Iraq.  The recent efforts would, by extrapolation here, not seem to be working so well.

FINEMAN:  I don't think they are.  I saw that "TIME" did that poll after the president's speech of last week.  There was no bump up in his numbers.  As a matter of fact, he lost a point or two there.  I think the general view among the political experts is that he didn't really gain a whole lot with that speech the other week.  He may have slowed the deterioration a little bit.

But at this point, if you take all the polls together, he's at about a one-third job approval rating, which is about as low as you can go unless you're going to fall down into the Jimmy Carter 1979 basement.  And he's not there yet.

I think, as I've said, that a part of Bush's aim here is to keep up some momentum for the elections in Iraq, and to try to show the various actors and players in Iraq that America is not losing its will, or at least he, as president, isn't losing his will in the war.  That was as important to him as anything else.

Plus, to try to somehow repair his standing in terms of honesty with the American people.  But boy, he's got a long way to go on what used to be his lead strength with the people.

OLBERMANN:  And speaking of repairing one's self, to Tom DeLay, the breaking news of the night, his attorney has made that split decision out to be a big win.  Is he right about that?  Or is it just what it seems to the rest of us, a split decision that would still keep him from returning as the smiling majority leader?

FINEMAN:  No, I think in this case, a split decision is a loss, because what DeLay and his friends in the House who I talked to over the last several days were hoping for is that the charges would be dismissed, so that DeLay could quickly have a procedure in the House, either late this year or early next year, in which he could reclaim his job as majority leader.

Even though he's the floor, even though he's doing things, like, for example, when that big dust-up in the House over Jack Murtha and Jean Schmidt, you know, DeLay was the guy brokering the apology there.

He really has lost a lot of clout, has no official standing, and I think at this point, is probably not going to get it back.  Somebody like Congressman Mike Pence of Ohio -- of Indiana, who's a rising star in the House, and others, maybe even Roy Blunt, a friend of DeLay's, may end up challenging him for the leadership.  I don't think he's going to be back.