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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Nunn Tests the Waters

During the brief period of Mike-o-mania last month that broke out over reports that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg might run for president on a third party ticket, some eager pundits went so far as to speculate about Hizzoner’s potential running mate, and the name Sam Nunn came up. Yesterday the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a story by Jim Galloway based on interviews with Nunn and several close associates, and reported that the former Senator had ruled out being anyone’s running mate, but was exploring a presidential bid of his own, presumably in conjunction with the Unity ’08 third-party project, in which two Georgians, Hamilton Jordan and Gerald Rafshoon, are playing a prominent role.
Before I go any further, I should disclose that I was Nunn’s speechwriter and legislative counsel from 1989-92, and will always respect him tremendously. Indeed, his post-Senate career, focusing largely on dealing with the nuclear proliferation threat (one that the Bush administration has been almost criminally slow to tackle despite its alleged national security obsession), has been especially admirable, given the opportunities he had to instead devote himself to the accumulation of personal wealth or become a super-pundit.
But the Nunn-run talk stimulates a strong sense of deja vu. He gave some thought in 1984 to the possibility that Walter Mondale might tap him as a running mate. He seriously considered a presidential bid going into the 1988 and 1992 cycles. And in 1996, the year Nunn retired from the Senate, Ross Perot tried to get him involved in the Reform Party at some high level, perhaps even as a candidate. In every case, Nunn demurred.
During the 1992 runup, when Nunn was asked about his presidential ambitions, he sometimes cited the “Reagan Rules” as making it possible for him to delay a run until his late sixties. He’s now 68. So it probably is now or never, but which will it be?
In some respects, Nunn is the perfect vehicle for a High Broderist third-party run based on rejection of partisan polarization and a sort of Government of National Salvation designed to end gridlock in Washington. He was always as popular among Republicans as among Democrats in the Senate, and with the exception of a brief period after his successful opposition to John Tower’s confirmation as Defense Secretary and his unsuccessful effort to deny Bush 41 the right to invade Iraq, was also very popular with Republican and independent voters in Georgia (he was re-elected three times with no serious Republican opponent). While he never strayed from fidelity to the national Democratic Party in presidential elections, he insisted on calling himself a conservative, and wasn’t very happy when the Democratic Leadership Council, which he chaired for two years just prior to Bill Clinton, decided to name its think tank the Progressive Policy Institute.
Moreover, Nunn’s domestic policy views (which never got much attention) during the latter stages of his Senate career never fit neatly into either party’s agenda. He was (after 1990) pro-choice, but mainly because he considered abortion bans unenforceable. He was the principal architect of the don’t-ask-don’t-tell compromise on gays in the military. Always a fiscal hawk (he spent some time as co-chairman of the Concord Coalition after leaving the Senate), his long-standing belief that “entitlement reform” is a critical national challenge has never sat well with Democrats. And right around the time of his Senate retirement, he became a prominent advocate for a consumption-based income tax scheme–an unpopular idea among Democrats as well as Republicans, who typically want to scrap income taxes altogether.
The overriding rationale of a Nunn run would probably be the argument that Democrats are too allergic to the use of force to be entrusted with national security, while Republicans have proven to be both incompetent and excessively ideological, seriously damaging U.S. credibility. Nunn would be very attractive to neo-realist elites in both parties who think the Bush-style Global War on Terror has been a disaster, but who do not favor a significant retraction in U.S. overseas commitments.
Does Nunn have the political chops to run a serious third-party campaign? That’s hard to say. He’s been in a grand total of one competitive electoral contest in his career (his first election to the Senate way back in 1972). He’s always been highly disdainful of modern media-oriented campaigns (one of his closest friends was the late Lawton Chiles of Florida, famous for his throwback style of campaigning). And while he’s actually a lively and even witty man, his public persona has always been high on gravitas but low on charisma. Most importantly, Nunn is just not that well known anymore, outside Georgia and elite circles in Washington.
On the positive side, if Nunn were to run a serious campaign with Unity ’08 backing, he would presumably have a chance to seriously contest southern states, where neither national party is particularly popular at the moment; it’s sometimes forgotten that Perot’s political achilles heel in 1992, even at the height of his campaign, was his inability to make a mark in the South. And unlike, say, Michael Bloomberg, Nunn would not likely be dismissed as a vanity candidate with no real qualifications for the presidency.
My own hunch is that Nunn probably won’t take the plunge; he’s a notoriously cautious man, and despite his unquestioned passion about issues like nuclear proliferation, it’s hard to imagine him maintaining a fire in his belly throughout the drudgery of a presidential campaign. And Nunn aside, I personally think the whole Unity 08 effort represents a fundamental misreading of the American electorate, which is likely to produce a sizable Democratic majority in 2008 if we let them (i.e., don’t do anything stupid). Today’s third-party enthusiasts are reminiscent of the group of former Labour politicians who launched the British Social Democratic Party even as Tony Blair was beginning to position Labour to win a landslide victory.

15 comments on “Nunn Tests the Waters

  1. atc2399 on

    I remember when talk was of Kerry choosing Nunn. I would prefer Hillary, but will almost certainly vote for Obama, unless he chooses Nunn.
    If he chooses Nunn, I absolutely will not vote for Obama.

  2. ducdebrabant on

    I don’t have to go back very far at all to find a Democratic President (a “Democrat President” I regard as an insult out of the Republican playbook) “with any degree of military/national security success.” I need go back only as far as Bill Clinton, whose intervention in Kossovo (vehemently opposed by Republicans) thwarted a genocide, toppled a dictator, and resulted in no American casualties.
    Between the first attack on the Trade Towers (planned under the first Bush administration) on February 26, 1993, a mere month after Clinton took office, and the second attack on September 11, 2001, a full 8 months after George Bush took office, elapsed a period of 7 years and 7 months. That is still a longer period with no domestic terror attacks than has elapsed between September 11, 2001 and today. By the logic that says Bush has “kept us safe” because there hasn’t been a domestic attack since 2001, one has to say that Clinton kept us safe longer. What is more, the more “competent” Bush who has supposedly kept us safe not only lost the 2,974 casualties of the Trade Towers on his watch (whose safety he had 8 months to insure) but his “military success” in Iraq has so far resulted in 3,690 American dead and 7,949 wounded as of August 7, 2007. The Baghdad that was taken so quickly isn’t secured even to the present day, and the Taliban that was toppled so quickly carries on a guerilla war against coalition forces just as it did against the Russians. That story isn’t over, so it’s not time to give it a happy ending. Besides, a Presidency also has a domestic dimension, and by many measures Bush’s domestic policy has been incompetent indeed.

  3. ducdebrabant on

    I think people who hate Hillary Clinton tend to overestimate the number of Hillary haters and overestimate the intractability of Hillary’s negatives. I doubt very much that Hillary as the Democratic nominee will drive America into the arms of Sam Nunn. Hillary hatred is a manufactured phenomenon in which Republican poison has so saturated the GOP base that it has seeped over into the Independent and Democratic columns. Not that Hillary’s perfect, but there simply isn’t enough substance there to sustain this level of hostility to her throughout a campaign. Republicans in upstate New York came around, and I think the country will too. The woman did NOT murder Vince Foster, folks.

  4. dantheman on

    I think Sam could win. There are many dems and dem leaning who would vote for him over Hillary any day. If it is looking like an inevitable Hillary win, there could be enough republican, and republican leaning voters, who kind of like Sam, and will take anyone but Hillary, that would switch and put him over the top.
    By the way, where does this nonsense of “… Republicans have proven to be both incompetent and excessively ideological, seriously damaging U.S. credibility.” come from? Does Ed not remember the first Gulf War? Have we been attacked again since 9/11? Does he forget how quickly we toppled the Taliban and liberated Afghanistan, when the Russians failed. Does he forget how quickly we took Baghdad? Sure many mistakes have been made. In what war have there not been mistakes? What is this “incompetence”? Far from it. You have to go way, way, way back to find a Democrat President with any degree of military/national security success. Let me remind everyone of Kennedy and the BAY OF PIGS fiasco. However, I’d take Kennedy in a heart beat over any of the current ridiculous lot of dem candidates.

  5. ducdebrabant on

    I don’t know if I agree that the question of which nominee would lose votes to Nunn in the swing states is necessarily a broader aspect of Nunn’s career than his opposition to equal rights for homosexuals. An inclination to marginalize homosexuals can assert itself very broadly indeed, and if you happen to be homosexual you may find the consequences in every corner of your life. However, Nunn is not destined to be President of the United States, and so I suppose it’s worth considering which candidate he’d hurt more. In that context, it’s possible that if Nunn picked up the banner of “family values” and refused to be outbid by the Republican nominee in his hostility towards gay marriage, civil unions, gay adoption, civil contracts between gays having he “effects of marriage,” the outlawing of employers conferring spousal benefits on the gay partners of their employees ….. he might rob the Republican nominee of a few evangelicals from the Reagan coalition. I think third party entries are a dangerous toy to play with if you’re backing a major party, however. They might help you, they might hurt you, you never know.

  6. fenwaydawg on

    Can’t we get away from the focus on “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and look at the other, broader aspects of Senator Nunn’s career?
    A Nunn candidacy, if it happened, would almost certainly be of benefit to the Democrats, as his appeal is likely to be limited to the South East, where any Democrat, particularly Senators Clinton or Obama, are going to perform poorly anyway. But he may take enough moderate-Republican votes (particularly if Thompson or Gingrich top the ticket) to swing tight States, such as Arkansas and Tennessee into the Democratic camp.

  7. ducdebrabant on

    I haven’t forgotten for a moment that Sam Nunn wasn’t and isn’t the only politician with an agenda of marginalizing homosexuals. He’s the only one, however, who was referred to in the parent article as an “architect” of the “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell compromise.” In a different context, I might have quite a bit to say about quite a number of people. But nothing Sam Nunn did is ameliorated in the slightest by the fact that he had company.
    Nor was any of it motivated on Senator Nunn’s part by the referenced gradualist approach to improving the lot of gay people in America. That argument might be used to defend the Clintons, or any current Democratic candidate, but there isn’t a shred of evidence that Sam Nunn has ever cared about the civil rights of homosexuals past, present or future.
    When he waved the bloody shirt by showing photographers the cramped sleeping quarters of naval personnel to justify a fear of homosexual proximity, he wasn’t merely temporizing. And he certainly wasn’t attempting to advance the tolerance of the public slowly, by degrees. It wasn’t strategy, it was bigotry. I reiterate, Nunn originally wanted this policy enacted into LAW — so that the practices of abuse and expulsion couldn’t be altered easily at some future time when public opinion had overwhelmingly shifted.

  8. Troy Ware on

    Some of the posters responding to this article seem to forget that Sam Nunn did not act alone in constructing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. The harsh truth is if you what change in any of the policy surrounding homosexuals, work must first be done to change public opinion and laws in the 50 states before effecting change in Washington. It is no accident that none of the major Democratic presidential candidates have embraced gay marriage. I call on those who criticize Sam Nunn to stop focusing that criticism on him when many others could equally share in it. If you want change, think and work local.

  9. jcohen on

    I have been waiting and wondering if we would ever hear anything about or from Sam Nunn again, and I must say I am thrilled to see that he is even thinking about something like this. Mr. Nunn is probably the one politician (if he can still be called that, having been out of Office for so long) who is more involved with and knowledgable about nuclear non-proliferation issues then anyone else I know of. Of course his name is on the Nunn-Lugar legislation that has formed the basis for our non-proliferation support to the former USSR, and he is currently head of the non-profit Nuclear Threat Initiative – http://www.nti.org. The greatest danger this country faces today is the possibility of a nuclear attack on US soil, which is a much greater threat then most people believe. I could not imagine a better person to run, and if he does, he will get my vote and a contribution! Even if he cannot win the nomination, I’d love to see Hillary or Obama pick him as the VP candidate, and give him carte-blanch over the non-proliferation issue if they win. GO SAM NUNN!!

  10. ducdebrabant on

    There has never been a homophobe in recorded history who didn’t personally like, or pretend to like, or behave politely to, some homosexual or other.
    Phyllis Schlafly has never let her professed love for her gay son keep her from vilifying homosexuals in general in the most extreme and appalling terms. Strom Thurmond never permitted the fact that he had fathered an interracial child with a black servant to curb his racism, keep him from founding a racist political party, or deter him from running on its platform.
    Nunn’s treatment of gay and lesbian soldiers, his language and conduct at the time that he obstructed Clinton’s efforts to let them serve with honor, all spoke for themselves. I’m confident that the man would have been polite and courtly if I’d ever met him, and – if I possessed skills he needed – that he would deign to let me place them in his service. I’ve had bosses like that before.
    Nonetheless, his conduct of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” hearings remains notorious. He actually moved these Kangaroo hearings from Washington to the Norfolk Naval Base, to dramatize and inflame homophobic fear. He invited cameras to accompany him into the sleeping quarters of a submarine and to the shower stalls of a Naval vessel.
    Thus, he attempted to further the canard that homosexuals are sexual predators, and that knowingly sleeping or showering near one would be a nightmare to which no straight man should be subjected. (The New York Times obliged him by printing a photo of the sleeping quarters of the submarine on the front page.) It’s exactly what a Bilbo would have done at the time Truman was integrating the services racially.
    Nunn actually wanted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” written into law, so that future Presidents couldn’t reverse it. When he endorsed it, finally, he was retreating from an even more restrictive position he took in a Senate speech.
    Even now that he is out of office, and retired generals — and even the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs — have either questioned the policy or signaled an openness to question it, Nunn has never joined them. Even now that a majority of the American public, and even a majority of American enlisted men according to polls, support ending the policy, Nunn has never reconsidered.
    Although he complained at the time about the editorialists at the New York Times and of anybody else who suggested that his treatment of homosexuals stemmed from actual dislike of homosexuals (or from thwarted presidential ambitions and personal resentment of Clinton), he never — in the entire debate as far as I know — paid the slightest lip service to the civil rights or personal dignity of homosexuals (even Bush has done that). Nor did he ever advocate any other kind of employee non-discrimination or even support the repeal of his state’s disgraceful sodomy law.
    Nunn seemed to relish the fight in such a sanctimonious and pompous way that I’m quite sure he undertook it with satisfaction and not reluctance. But if his assault on homosexual soldiers was undertaken for political reasons, then his hypocrisy doesn’t make me any more sympathetic.
    It never surprises me that homophobes are nice to their gay employees. Why shouldn’t they be, as long as their courtesy doesn’t entail any effort to accord those people their civil rights? I am only surprised that any self-respecting homosexual would work for Sam Nunn — but hey, there are even gay Republicans.
    But long ago, even Barry Goldwater was willing to suggest that homosexuals and lesbians might be valuable citizens of the United States, deserving the equal protection of its laws. Sam Nunn has never breathed a word of any such sentiment.
    Sorry, but the man’s still a bigot. He is unfit for the Presidency of the United States. If you are not willing to be the servant of all Americans, don’t run for President.
    Indeed, if you are unwilling to be the servant of all Georgians, don’t run for the Senate from Georgia. For certain, don’t throw one segment of the population’s rights onto a pyre to curry favor with another.
    Although Nunn may complain about our two political parties, there are people in both those parties exhibiting good will towards homosexuals. None of those people, even now, happens to be Sam Nunn of Georgia.

  11. Albert Whited on

    One would hope that Nunn would not undertake a 3rd party run. As Corso points out, it could imbalance the swing of moderates to the Dem candidate in the GE–a moot dynamic. As we saw with Perot (and Nader?) the 3rd party prez candidate can upset the apple cart.
    But, this is not to say there is no value in a 3rd party. I think the Congress would benefit greatly from a (non-trivial) 3rd party bloc. Its presence would dampen partisan political posturing in the media, since the party opposing an issue (or supporting some scoundrel) could not play the knee-jerk partisan name-calling card. And in an era of a nearly even split among Dems and GOPs, it could tip the balance for veto overrides when needed.
    Ultimately, a 3rd party prez candidate run should be supported by a 3rd party with political clout, i.e., seats in Congress. Until then, Nunn or any other can play no more than spoiler.

  12. edkilgore on

    Based on observation of how Nunn dealt with gay people personally (including some on his staff), I can’t agree that his don’t-ask-don’t-tell position was motivated by bigotry. It was, IMHO, more a matter of an extreme reluctance to upset military traditions. I have no idea how he feels about it now.
    Ed Kilgore

  13. Joe Corso on

    A potential Nunn candidacy highlights a key weakness in the current Democratic field -the lack of a candidate with significant experience and experience-based credibility in military affairs. If Nunn had run as a Democrat it would have been very interesting to see how he polled among white, high-school educated men and other “red state” groups compared with the other current candidates.
    The third party approach, on the other hand, is a dead end and will keep a critical mass of voters from even begining to consider his qualifications very seriously. It does raise the intriguing question of the relative proportions of, for example, Romney versus Clinton voters he would peel away. If he attracted substantially more of Romney’s potential “moderate” voters then Hillary’s, a third party run on his part could be beneficial for the Dems.

  14. ducdebrabant on

    As a gay man I can never forget the viciousness of Sam Nunn’s opposition to letting gay and lesbian soldiers serve openly. To call him simply the “architect of the compromise” is to forget that a compromise wouldn’t have been necessary at all if people like Senator Nunn weren’t so bigoted towards homosexuals. After all, his party’s presidential candidate campaigned on that promise, and won the election.


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