FAQ: Is Feisal Abdul Rauf the Suha Arafat of 2010?
A conversation with Salon news editor Steve Kornacki about the mid-terms and the mosque-enhanced candidacy of Rick Lazio.
Josh Benson: How will the "mosque" issue end up working out in the mid-terms?
Steve Kornacki: Eh. For all the volume I doubt it changes anything in November. I assume the Republicans will play it up in some ads this fall, about Obama's evil agenda. It fires up their people a little more, I guess, but who's going to vote for the R's because of this issue who wasn't going to already?
Josh: And there are some conflicting data points there anyway, right? Americans oppose the project. But they support the right of the planners to build it where they like. And a bunch of Democrats have come out in opposition, or something resembling opposition. And even as this story plays on a loop, we know that the election is actually going to be driven by the state of the national economy.
Josh: So I think it's reasonable to ask whether this whole narrative becomes the shark attacks of 2010 once a storyline comes along that does not require intemperate statements from politicians with national ambitions (and an unresolved land-use issue) to stay alive. And whether maybe it's a much murkier political issue than the poll headlines suggest.
Josh: And of course what applies for the general election, mosque-wise, doesn't necessarily apply for the primaries, anyway.
Steve: Oh yeah. Totally different in primaries. Most of them across the country are over now. But these types of issues can make or break candidates in them. Not that he ever would have, but for the sake of argument, just imagine if Rick Lazio had said he was OK with the mosque. He'd be finished now. It would have completely swung the race. It's like Jan Brewer with SB1070 in Arizona. What if she'd never signed it? Then she would have collapsed and lost the primary. Remember how shaky her campaign seemed back then? But she embraced it and she got, like, 90 percent in the G.O.P. primary yesterday.
Josh: So who's driving the issue now? Is it just a short-term attention getter for the remaining would-be nominees in need of attention (like, say, Lazio)?
Steve: My sense is it's coming from three places. One is the Lazio/Paladino/Gingrich-types, for the reason you just said. The second is actually the left—people who are tired of Obama and top Dems backing down in fights like this and who are drawing a line. And then there's the media. It's not that I think the press is artificially keeping this alive; I think it's just that they don't know how to end this. We see this same basic type of story all the time, but there's usually a natural end point: someone is forced to apologize, or gets fired, or whatever. But where's the endpoint for this one? The organizers aren't about to budge.
Josh: Well yes. It's probably not realistic to expect that there will just be a collective decision to talk about other things, especially if the situation remains unresolved.
Josh: Also, though, what do you make of the latest Bloomberg speech? Which category does he fit into?
Steve: Category 4: politicians who aren't running again but who are thinking of their own legacies.
Josh: OK, sticking to the politicians who are running. How many races in New York will Park51 actually figure into? It has definitely given Lazio something to talk about. And maybe it's the thing that keeps him from being out-crazied in the primary by Carl Paladino. But those 9/11-themed spots about the Terror Mosque aren't going to help him all that much against Andrew Cuomo.
Steve: Right. Yes. It could work in a Republican primary, because there you have a high concentration of voters whose views on this are pure and un-nuanced—i.e. not the ones who take the "Well, they have the right to do it, but maybe it would be best not to..." position. So yeah, Lazio may be able to beat Paladino with these ads. Although I have seen Paladino on cable TV talking about this lot lately. (Then again, I've seen him on MSNBC, which, like, 6 New York Republicans watch.) But either way, Lazio/Paladino (Lazadino?) gets no bounce from this in the fall.
Steve: I just saw Lazio on "Hardball" talking about this. It was pretty brutal, as you might expect—and Matthews even threw up the clip of him invading Hillary's space in 2000. It made me wonder (again) why G.O.P. candidates do that show.
Josh: A knock is a plug!
Josh: Well the funny thing about Lazio is how familiar this all looks. It's 2000 again. He sort of fell into a nomination because bigger players passed (Rudy 2010) or fell through (Rudy 2000).
Josh: He starts out as a nice family guy from way out on Long Island, kind of boyish, which he still sort of is despite the gray hair. And then all of a sudden something happens and he's this very angry guy on the ramparts of Judeo-Christendom. Outraged.
Josh: In 2000 it was because Hillary Clinton kissed Suha Arafat. That was his issue. New York had problems back then, too! But he was running on "blood libel." (He came out against it.)
Josh: And now he's running on the Terror Mosque. He has different advisers than he did 10 years ago. But somehow he is running the same campaign.
Steve: Except with less money this time—and without the ability to tap a national network of anti-Hillary donors. And against an opponent with a 75 percent job-approval rating. So instead of losing by 12 points, he'll lose by 30....
Steve: He basically made two bets when he started running last year: (1) that Rudy wouldn't run; and (2) that Paterson would be weak—but just strong enough to keep Cuomo out and win the Democratic nod. But he was basically betting against himself, because for the Rudy bet to pay off, Paterson had to implode. But if Paterson had (somehow) succeeded in keeping Cuomo out, then the race would have been far more appealing to Rudy. So either way, Lazio was going to lose.
Josh: Well fine. Same story, same ending.
Josh: Maybe this is a more exciting issue in one of the handful of ostensibly tight House races in New York? Certainly, the response from some of the members in contested districts (and even some in completely uncompetitive districts!) has been ... awkward. Can you explain their discomfort, please?
Steve: Well, I doubt it will end up hurting any of them, either. But at least the potential exists. If Cuomo loses a point because of the mosque, it will mean he wins by 29 points instead of 30. But if, say, John Hall loses a point because of it, it could theoretically be the difference between victory and defeat. But you're right, by the time October rolls around, most people will probably have only a vague recollection of all of this.
Steve: And really, it's just no match for the economy and the fact that it's a midterm year (with a Dem in the White House and massive Dem majorities in Congress). If we now had a G.O.P. president and big G.O.P. majorities in Congress, John Hall could decide to get gay-married at the ground zero mosque and he'd still win.
Josh: Well that's it, actually. I'm not sure the memory of this fight is going to be all that vague at election time, particularly if David Paterson (!) hasn't managed to broker a resolution by then. It's just that it'll wind up as part of a big, ugly miasma of generalized discontent by the time anyone goes to the polls. So the Democrats take their hammering, and then The News imputes whatever it wants—terrormosquejobsmalaiseAfghanistanRangel—and then I guess we reset. Right?
Steve: Yeah, that's a better way of putting it. It's not that people will forget—it just won't really be driving any swing voters' decisions. It's sort of like post-'06, when Rove, Matalin, et al pointed to Mark Foley and DeLay and said the G.O.P. only lost because of corruption—even as McCain pointed to the deficit and said it was because Republicans lost their way on spending. Everyone was able to find some self-serving explanation for the result.
Steve: And there'll be all sorts of dumb articles about various new Republican House members, and how they waged great campaigns that contain Important Lessons for 2012—even though the only real lesson will be: Run with the right party label in the right year.