Ryan Lizza is back in Washington, after a weeklong round of meetings in New York with his new editors. After a decade at The New Republic, he is now the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. As he prepares to blast off for Chicago and the YearlyKos, the annual bloggers convention that all the Democratic candidates have promised to attend, he admits to already having his own personal frustration with the presidential campaign.
“What sucks, to be quite frank, is that they’re all senators,” says Lizza, 33, who is bemoaning not the dearth of Frank Capra–style political outsiders in the upcoming 2008 race, but rather his own Herculean workload. “They can only campaign on weekends and, not to whine, it’s killing all our weekends.”
Lizza has been running on overdrive since he arrived in 1997 as an intern for Martin Peretz’s political weekly, the literate confessional for soul-searching Democrats. Lizza suggests a meeting at the nearby Tabard Inn. His new office, while offering a great view of St. Matthew’s Cathedral dome, is tiny. He arrives with vibrating cell phone in hand and dressed in jeans and a rumpled white cotton collared shirt. When it comes to being interviewed himself, he is open, smart, polite and engaging as a discussion about uberstrategists, the star-quality advisers behind the candidates, turns to the role of the political wife.
“Jeri Thompson is a political operator. She’s already forced out his campaign manager,” he says, referring to the wife of Fred Thompson, veteran actor and former U.S. senator from Tennessee. “So there’s already been a staff shake-up. Everyone is blaming the wife, and [he] hasn’t even announced. She’s 20-something years younger than him. And there’s already a debate over whether it is offensive to call her a trophy wife. Jeri will be a good character.’’
On the Democratic side, Lizza admires Elizabeth Edwards, who insisted her husband continue his race even after her recurrence of breast cancer. “Politicians always promise they’ll say what’s on their mind. We in the press say we want people to do that. Not that there’s not some strategy behind it,” he allows, “but she seems a little uncensored, offering the kind of candor you can have when you’re facing death, really.”
As for Sen. Hillary Clinton, Lizza names Mark Penn, not Bill Clinton, as the candidate’s key aide, describing the Clinton campaign strategy as textbook front-runner. “Their argument is that the race is locked up, to present her as the inevitable candidate. They want anyone sitting on the fence to jump on the bandwagon now,” he says. “That’s what Gore did in 2000, what Bush did and what McCain tried to do but failed.”
So what should Al Gore do if he wants to settle an old score with the Clintons for putting Hillary’s 2000 Senate campaign ahead of fighting for his presidential bid? Lizza smiles. “If Gore wants to get even with her, this is his year,” he says. “He could do one of two things. He could jump in the race and try to defeat her, but then he risks humiliation. That’s hard because he’s in a very good place right now. Or he could help put one of her challengers over the top by endorsing Obama.
“Most of Washington support is divided 70-30, Hillary-Obama. For Obama, that’s a good thing. He wants to be the outsider,” adds Lizza, who has begun to doubt the Illinois senator’s staying power. “The campaign has gone on for a while, and it’s become static. Obama will tell you none of that matters, that what matters is getting hot at the end.”
Lizza questions the value of solid Washington support. “The Washington press corps, for whatever reason, is very, very down on [John] Edwards. You hear people say they don’t trust him, that he’s reinvented himself. He has very bad buzz among insiders. But go to Iowa and Edwards is the buzz. They love him.”
Lizza criticizes anyone who writes off Iowa-caucus Democrats as hicks. “They have all been interviewed by reporters. They all know how to deliver sound bites. They’re professional presidential voters.”
When it comes to the relationship between Edwards and his 2004 running mate, presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, Lizza groans. “As far as I can tell, it’s terrible. The Kerrys feel betrayed by Edwards.” Pointing to another Democratic vice presidential candidate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, who, after the 2000 race, promised to lie low if his running mate, Al Gore, wanted to try again, Lizza says: “Edwards and his team were very clear not to make a similar promise to Kerry.”
The native New Yorker doesn’t hold out much hope for a third-party challenge in 2008 unless Rudy Giuliani is the Republican candidate. “Then you would see a social conservative announce a third-party challenge because the issues of a pretty sizable constituency, voters for whom abortion is the number-one issue, are not being addressed by either party,” he says.
About the only question to stump him is the matter of First Lady Laura Bush’s legacy. “Oh my God. I have no idea,” Lizza says, before pausing and adding, “A very pleasant bystander to the most radical administration in modern times. You do often wonder what she thinks. I don’t know that she’s done anything historians will look back on, anything that really matters. I doubt she ever thought she’d be in the White House. Although I would assume if you marry into a family like the Bushes, it’s got to be in the back of your mind that at some point, you may become a political wife.
“The way the hawks have won in this administration is playing on a macho part of Bush. That’s how Cheney and Rumsfeld rolled Condi and Powell in the early days of the administration,” says Lizza, referring to Vice President Dick Cheney; Donald Rumsfeld, former defense secretary, and Bush’s two successive secretaries of state, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. “[Cheney and Rumsfeld] knew which side of him to appeal to. You must never be a wimp. It’s the classic case of fighting a war from the lessons of the last battle and getting it all wrong.”
Lizza says campaign correspondents like him face their own unique battle this election cycle. “A lot of political journalism is about the horse race, the polls and the tactics. This isn’t just another election,” he warns. “We need to focus on the United States’ low point in credibility. We’re at some grave turning point here.”