Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The imaginary advantage

If the torrent of commentary in the blogosphere since recent comments by Hillary Clinton on Friday is any indication, Clinton is losing her grip on women voters — the one American cohort at the heart of her claim on the Democratic nomination. Her purported advantage with this crucial bloc of voters may be illusory.

Women voters commenting in vast numbers on any number of news Web sites and campaign-fan Weblogs, are expressing feelings of being embarrassed by Clinton’s abortive campaign, some to the point of outright anger that the first serious female contender for the presidency would persist in such a poor campaign, and persist in chasing a claim of electability that would overthrow the principles of the party she hopes to lead. These women voters are definitely in favor of a woman in the White House, just not Hillary Clinton. Not this time.

◊ ◊ ◊

Reactions to her Friday comments are deeply passionate: “I can’t believe she said it. Forget that Ted Kennedy was just diagnosed with a brain tumor, but what about all of us over 50 something women, her base?, who lived through the shooting of Robert Kennedy. Doesn’t she realize that there already is a twinge when we watch any large rally of supporters remembering back to what happened. I think the Clintons are desperate. We all know they have their own reality that doesn’t necessarily go with the truth, but this was beyond insensitive and I think totally deliberate.” [Joan Young, posting Friday on the NYTimes Web site.]

“Hillary has finally done exactly what she had so desperately hoped Obama would do. She has made a definitive gaffe that can’t be overcome. It can’t be explained away or marginalized by self-proclaimed presidential attributes. Her words are now memorialized like the giant ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner, the final blow she personally delivered to her own campaign.” [L Jeanne, Friday at NYTimes]

And other women responded to Clinton’s campaign more generally. One writer blogging at the Huffington Post on Friday as (go figure) ObamaEdwards expressed feelings that have to send chills down the brain trust at the Clinton campaign. She is surely not alone:

“Once and for all: I am a feminist. A REAL feminist. That means: I don’t applaud all women simply because they have female parts. I look at the individual’s track record and character. I looked at Clinton a long time ago, and concluded that she is not a good leader, or a very good person. I waited. I hoped. And along came Obama, who has the character and good will and good nature and leadership ability I sought in a candidate. I will back him, and only him, all the way to the White House.

“To HELL with party solidarity. And to HELL with the sisterhood. We will make progress in all social areas when we have a good candidate, like Obama, to help us get there.

“Can we now stop making excuses for a woman who is a terrible role model? Please?”

◊ ◊ ◊

Rather than be swayed by Clinton’s sub rosa argument that the Obama campaign is no friend to modern women voters, those voters and others may well be looking at how women are, in fact, greatly shaping the tone and focus of Team Obama’s strategy as campaign directors and advisers.

First, there’s the role of Michele Obama. “As a lawyer and hospital executive, she provides evidence that Obama respects strong women even as he's campaigning against one,” reported Nedra Pickler of The Associated Press.

Pickler’s story also lists several women at or near the helm of the Obama campaign, including Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser who has known the Obamas since before they married; finance chairwoman Penny Pritzker; finance director Julianna Smoot; policy director Heather Higginbottom; scheduling director Alyssa Mastromonaco, and foreign policy aide Susan Rice, a former United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.

We can’t know if Clinton’s purported gender advantage is real or only assumed in the context of a general election. But recent polling suggests that Obama’s not far behind among women voters. In a Gallup daily tracking poll published May 20, Obama trailed Clinton among women voters 18 to 49 years old by four percentage points, and trailed Clinton among women 50 and older by only three. These and other important constituencies are moving toward Obama, Gallup reported — days before Clinton's statements over Memorial Day weekend dropped.

Clinton’s playing of the gender card may result in some short-term gains on her behalf. But what’s clear is that women voters are no more monolithic in their preferences than black or Hispanic voters, and for many of the same reasons.

Rather than thinking and voting in the lockstep context of the herd, as Clinton seems to assume they will, women voters are using their own campaign math this primary season. They’re thinking for themselves — a basic component of both civic responsibility and modern feminism. That may not be good news for Hillary Clinton.
Image credits: Hillary Clinton: Agence France-Presse. Michele Obama: Bbsrock, republished under GNU Free Documentation License.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Gold stars

“The world should know of those who give so much for liberty. The dearest thing in all the world to a father and mother — their children.”

On September 24, 1917, about seven weeks before the end of World War I, an Ohio congressman read that into the Congressional Record to announce Ohio’s adoption of flags adorned with stars, blue or gold, to denote a family member either serving in the armed forces, or one who had fallen in service to the country.

According to the icasualties Web site of civilian and coalition casualties in Iraq, 4,081 Americans have died in the war in Iraq as of today, Memorial Day 2008.

In a world of 24/7 noise, it's gotten too easy to conflate "Memorial Day" with the mercantile tendencies of our culture. The word "sale" is so frequently attached to "Memorial Day," it's led to a reflex of forgetfulness. We plan the day, we itemize the shopping list, we navigate the traffic, lamenting the cost of gas to get where we're going and back. It's all about the Big Day Off.

We sometimes forget those sacrifices made on our behalf. In two world wars, two conflicts smaller in scope but just as tragic for the families who survived, and a number of other conflicts of the last century, too many paid dearly, finally, for what we've come to take for granted.

◊ ◊ ◊

Now, with the news of the latest American fatalities in Iraq reduced to crawl lines on the cable channels, with the war subsumed into the vast media maw (except for today, of course), we've begun to take those who make those sacrifices in Iraq for granted.

It is a sense of disposabiilty that began at the highest levels of government, when American forces were committed to a war that has long had dwindling support among the American people, a war whose foundational pretext was not only flawed but fictitious, a war whose prosecution is costing this nation its greatest treasure, the lives memorialized by the gold stars now hanging in more than 4,000 American homes.

On Memorial Day it's a given, right and proper and basic to our citizenship, that we remember those throughout our history who paid the highest and worst possible price to make our barbecues, our benign stadium flyovers and ball games, our good times, not just possible but something we feel we're entitled to.

This Memorial Day, our sixth of an elective war that is bankrupting our future and brutalizing the greatest army in the world, it's also right — it's necessary — to remember those who shouldn't have had to face paying that price at all.
Image credit: media.graytvinc.com

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Campaign trailers

It was just a matter of time until Hollywood checked into Campaign 2008 with something more than celebrity endorsements. The political movies are arriving — now it’s getting serious.

The year’s first campaign-related movie isn’t related to this election year, but maybe there’s a cautionary tale in its recall of the 2000 presidential race. “Recount,” airing on HBO on Sunday night and again Monday, stars Kevin Spacey, Denis Leary, Bob Balaban, Laura Dern, John Hurt and Tom Wilkinson in a look back at the 2000 election debacle in Florida, complete with Supreme Court intervention, butterfly ballots and, of course, our very good friend Hanging Chad.

And in “Swing Vote,” a comedy that opens in August, the nearly impossible happens when an election comes down to — literally — one man’s vote. Kevin Costner is Bud Johnson, beer-guzzling ne’er-do-well and reluctant participant in American democracy, who (by virtue of a glitch in electronic vote tallies) finds himself much sought after by both the Democrats and the Republicans. Dennis Hopper, Kelsey Grammer, Paula Patton, Nathan Lane, Willie Nelson, George Lopez and Mare Winningham star in what we can only hope isn’t a look into the near future. Nearly impossible? After Florida 2000, it’s impossible to dismiss the “Swing Vote” scenario completely.

This may be the first wave of these films, or the last. With the comedic institution "Saturday Night Live" continuing its role as hecklers and satirists of politics and culture, the growth of maverick campaign video producers like Jib Jab, and the presence of the new 800-pound gorilla on the block, YouTube, maybe campaign movies at the multiplex have gone out of style.

Or maybe nothing trumps real life. With the twists and turns we've witnessed and experienced already, Campaign 2008 is probably the campaign movie we've been waiting for.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Waterloo, S.D.

There’s no reverse gear for a car heading off a cliff.

The panoramically flawed, irreversibly doomed presidential campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton learned this lesson — maybe its last — in the wildfire of reactions to her comments in South Dakota, a twisted speculative conflation of the chance of assassination and the rationale to continue a failed bid for the presidency.

Those comments, said Friday at a newspaper editorial meeting in Sioux Falls, S.D., and weakly explained later in the day at a supermarket in Brandon, S.D., said it all [see the video below]. Her Friday statements were really the fourth time Clinton either directly or obliquely referenced the June 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, en route to an expression of the potential for surprise as a reason for staying in a race she cannot win.

But this time was too over the top, too visible to ignore. In a streaming-live moment, Clinton invoked race and the spectre of political violence in the service of a campaign whose appetite for self-destruction seems almost pathological. It’s an Internet-time meltdown: Her comments distill in a moment what’s been obvious in slow motion for months: we’re witnessing not just a political campaign but a political career in free fall. We’re watching a decline almost Nixonian in its arc.

“This does great damage to her persona and her biography,” said Douglas Brinkley, presidential historian and professor at Rice University, on MSNBC’s “Countdown.” Brinkley clearly understood the cultural repercussions: “Leno and Letterman types can’t even make a joke about the latest comment because it’s just so dark … it’s almost become now a pathology we’re dealing with. The humor of her not quitting is starting to not even be funny anymore.”

In every political campaign, there’s some distilling moment that puts everything in that campaign to that point in a clear and unmistakable perspective.

This was her watershed. Her Waterloo.

◊ ◊ ◊

Now Team Clinton faces the prospect of having to make their electoral-map case with little leverage at all; most of her positions are now politically untenable. Whatever leverage she may have had for gaining the vice-presidential spot on the Obama ticket has evaporated tout court. And whatever sway she may have possessed with the already dwindling number of superdelegates is gone too. In fact, according to a Friday story by independent journalist Al Giordano, on his Web site, The Field, a group of superdelegates — including some pledged Clinton delegates — is about to announce support for Obama.

There are few options left for Team Clinton. The opportunity for a dignified climbdown is pretty much off the table. She's seen to that. Damage control is more the order of the day than it had been already. The saving grace of all this may be the timing; it happened on a Memorial Day weekend so, relatively speaking, this tree in the forest might not make the sound it would otherwise.

Leave it to Keith Olbermann, the host of “Countdown,” to put the situation in its proper context, one that won’t be forgotten between now and the formal end of the already-ended Clinton campaign:

Friday, May 23, 2008

Obama-Clinton 2008: A snowball in hell

At a meeting of the editorial board of the South Dakota's Sioux Falls Argus-Leader on Wednesday, Hillary Clinton said the following as a rationale for remaining in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination against Barack Obama, a race she cannot legitimately win:

“My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. ... I don't understand it.”

The generally indefensible inference — dog-whistle connecting one assassination with the possibility of another — was of course denied by her campaign. Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson defended the comments to The Washington Post, “She was talking about the length of the race and using the '68 election as an example of how long the races in the past have gone — she used her husband's race in the same vein.”

Clinton herself offered a weak defense: “I regret that if my referencing that moment of trauma for our entire nation, particularly for the Kennedy family was in any way offensive. I certainly had no intention of that whatsoever.”

But the veiled reference was painfully clear: Anything can happen, you know. Obama, on the verge of being the Democratic nominee, could be assassinated while campaigning, as Robert F. Kennedy was in June 1968, moments after winning the California primary. Why should I quit now?

It was another less-than-subliminal Clinton appeal to the worst aspects of American political history.

It was, as Bob Cesca in The Huffington Post called it, “a new and ghoulish low for [an] already bottom-feeding campaign.”

It was yet another reason why Hillary Clinton must not be Barack Obama’s running mate for the American presidency in 2008.

◊ ◊ ◊

Culchavox bought into the dream big time back in February — light-years ago in political terms. “A Clinton-Obama/Obama-Clinton ticket permanently cements the historic aspects of their mutual candidacies into a single, compelling force of profound historical significance. Intangible? So much the better. People like playing a role in making history. They’ll turn out for that.

“ … in one lightning stroke, the American people, up to now faced with the choice of either Experience or Change, can have both — the two best attributes of contemporary Democratic leadership assembled in a formidable package that would give the Republicans all they can handle in the fall.”

Sadly (for Team Clinton), too much has transpired since then to make that politically practical, or even politically plausible. In the four months since then, Hillary Clinton has repeatedly missed or ignored opportunities to make the conciliatory pivot she needs to make to keep herself a viable option for the vice-presidential slot, or to build her bona fides as either an elder stateswoman of the Senate, and/or the legitimately presumptive nominee in 2012.

The incompatibilities we could navigate or ignore outright in February are just about insurmountable today. Clinton has so toxified the waters as to make an Obama-Clinton ticket unworkable, as much a divisive prospect for the Democratic electorate as a unifying one.

◊ ◊ ◊

Consider the conditions of their respective campaigns: Obama has repeatedly demonstrated his abilities as a financial manager. From the start his campaign has revolutionized the Internet as a fundraising tool; Team Obama has consistently outpointed Clinton on campaign donations. Obama raised more than $30 million in the month of April; Clinton is facing a shortfall of about $20 million. MSNBC’s “Hardball” reported Thursday that the Clinton campaign paid former adviser Mark Penn $2.96 million in April — about $1 for every $6 donated online. Fifteen percent of her donations went straight to debt service, paying someone who isn’t even an active campaign staffer.

It’s been said that if you want an idea of how a candidate will run the national economy, look at how that candidate runs their campaign. By that perfectly reasonable yardstick, then, the Clinton campaign has more to prove in terms of electability than Obama does. Saddling his campaign with her own does little to reinforce either the perception of financial responsibility voters will look for in November, or the narrative of independence that's been basic to his campaign.

Consider Clinton’s tacks to the right at Obama’s expense. “I have a lifetime of experience I will bring to the White House,” Clinton said in March. “I know Senator McCain has a lifetime of experience he will bring to the White House. And Senator Obama has a speech he made in 2002.”

Speaking in similarly disloyal fashion about what she called passing the “commander-in-chief threshold,” Clinton added, “I believe that I’ve done that. Certainly, Sen. McCain has done that and you’ll have to ask Sen. Obama with respect to his candidacy.”

And this week, Clinton brandished an endorsement from Karl Rove, former Bush administration senior adviser and Prince of Darkness, as a reason for her staying in the race. The very idea of invoking Rove, who had a hand in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, as a justification for staying in the race should immediately invalidate Clinton as VP material on the grounds of political treason. You don’t make your case as a Democrat by trumpeting the support of a Republican (and especially that Republican).

A comment by Kevin, posting on the Wall Street Journal Web site, makes it just as clear: “When you’re reduced to using Karl Rove as a character witness, it’s time to fold up the tent.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Consider black voters and what Obama-Clinton would tell them. After having vacated the Clinton campaign, African American voters would hardly be receptive to the idea of Obama tying up with the candidate they'd rejected. It would suggest that Obama was insincere. And also, if Clinton were to be a running mate for the purpose of wooing mature white voters, it would send the signal that black voters are more disposable — less valuable — than white voters. That fact alone would almost certainly scuttle any chance of black voters turning out for Obama. African American voters already recognize the impossibility of that: The enemy of my friend can't be on the ticket with my friend.

And consider the matter of political sincerity: A recent development has to call into question how serious she is about either the presidency or the vice presidency. Time magazine’s Karen Tumulty reported Wednesday on the Time Web site that former president Bill Clinton, speculating on a role for Hillary after her doomed campaign is formally done, "seems to have a pretty clear idea what he thinks she should get as a consolation prize. In Bill Clinton's view, she has earned nothing short of an offer to be Obama's running mate, according to some who are close to the former President. Bill 'is pushing real hard for this to happen,' says a friend."

Some in the blogosphere are already asking the obvious question: If there’s back-channel talk underway to secure Hillary a spot on the Obama ticket, what’s the point of Hillary continuing to Fight Valiantly for her own presidential bid? Actions like that suggest that she’s playing both ends against the middle — just another way of saying “triangulation.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Many of her actions in recent months have reinforced the growing sense that, at the end of the day, Hillary Clinton is a dizzyingly conventional politician, and precisely the kind of pol that Obama has constructed a coalition of voters to oppose in November.

And that’s the bedrock issue: Barack Obama cannot embrace Hillary Clinton on his presidential ticket without embracing the style of politics she represents — a style of scorched-earth, passive-aggressive, identity-driven politics that Obama has challenged effectively from the beginning. An Obama-Clinton ticket runs counter to the meme of Change that Obama has cemented in the American psyche. He can’t pick her for a running mate without undoing everything he’s done so far. Without contradicting everything he's told us he is.

“The fact that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have each campaigned behind the idea of building a national coalition presents a compelling (if not unavoidable) opportunity: recognizing the need to first build a coalition of their own,” the ‘Vox wrote in February.

What a difference four months make. Since then Clinton has done great damage to that prospective coalition of her supporters and Obama’s, taking her talent for polarization to new heights (or is it depths?), frustrating attempts to close the breaches between the two campaigns for the sake of party unity.

That she should now seek to pursue a variation on her old inevitability argument — one that would bestow on her a vice-presidential nod she hasn’t earned any more than a presidential consideration — is the height of political hubris, and nothing Obama is obligated to validate in the least.

By constantly disrespecting millions of black voters, younger voters and party-loyal activists, Hillary Clinton made the serious error of not dancing with the one that brought her to the party. Here’s hoping — here’s a straight-up bet — that Barack Obama won’t make the same mistake.

'The last lion' in darkest winter

It’s taken days for the news to sink in: A champion of progressive causes, perhaps the greatest senator in the greatest deliberative body in the history of the world, is suffering an incurable, inoperable disease.

Massachusetts Sen. Edward Moore Kennedy, veteran of the Senate for more than forty-five years, was diagnosed early Tuesday with a malignant brain tumor. The early prognosis, bad enough as it was, got worse a day later when it was announced that the glioma in the left parietal lobe of his brain was inoperable.

Kennedy was released from Massachusetts General Hospital on Wednesday, seemingly none the worse for wear, a small bandage on the back of his head the only sign of something amiss. A Kennedy family statement said that, while at the hospital, the senator had been “walking the floor, antsy to get out and driving the nurses crazy.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Since his release from the hospital, Kennedy has been conducting not-so-secret negotiations with his wife, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, to participate in a much-beloved Kennedy ritual.

“It became evident today where U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy honed his ability to negotiate and compromise: at home during playful disagreements with his wife,” reported David Abel and Andrew Ryan of the Boston Globe on Thursday.

“The subject this afternoon was whether the ailing senator would participate in the annual Figawi regatta, a three-day race from Hyannis Port to Nantucket that begins Saturday.

"'I don’t know,’ Kennedy said when asked about the race by reporters as the couple boarded their 50-foot schooner for an afternoon sail. ‘One day at a time.’"

Thus does Kennedy, whom Republican Sen. John McCain, a longtime legislative antagonist, called “the last lion in the Senate,” announce to the world something we’d have suspected all along: He will not go gentle into his good night.

He is already being praised anew for his place in the Senate, his acceptance of that bully pulpit as the best place from which to change the nation. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, by way of distinguishing Kennedy from other senators noted that “[T]he trouble with so many senators nowadays, they’ve got that dream in their minds of the presidency, so they don’t settle down to that institution.”

Ted Kennedy settled down to that institution, and in doing that he transformed that institution — and this country — in ways he might never have achieved had he been president.

This is not a valedictory, damn it — not yet — but a tribute to one who championed liberalism long before (and regardless of) those who tried to make “liberalism” a dirty word; a get-well message, against all the statistical odds; and a gentle petition to Victoria Kennedy: Once more, turn Teddy loose at the Figawi … once more, let him join the other great ships.
Image credits: Kennedy: Public domain. Kennedy and Obama: Ragesoss, republished under GNU Free Documentation License.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Twilight of a strategy

With a decisive victory in the Oregon primary, Barack Obama knocked at the door of securing the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday. The day saw another of those split decisions — Hillary Clinton won the Kentucky primary going away, by more than 30 percentage points. But the math that will not be moved made it inescapable. With his gain of two pledged delegates from Kentucky, Obama went over a top, if not yet the top, securing the majority of all pledged delegates to be awarded — furthering cementing the mathematical hold on the nomination.

As usual, the contrasts between the fortunes of the two campaigns was a visual object lesson in itself. On Sunday, Team Obama put on a campaign rally at Waterfront Park in Portland, Ore., an event that was an Event. More than 75,000 people turned up at a rollicking, high-spirited rally that was as much Woodstock as politics, a rally that may well have been the sign of a torch being passed to a new populist champion of American politics.

The day before, Clinton held another rally from the figurative bunker, appearing at the Maker’s Mark bourbon distillery in Loretto, Ky. Standing beside a stack of bourbon barrels (any of which may have secretly turned up later on the Clinton campaign bus), Clinton made her case for recalibrating the numbers by which the nomination would be decided.

“This is the twilight of Hillary Clinton's run for the Democratic presidential nomination: stops in friendly areas of rural America where the candidate can meet her hardest of hardcore supporters,” wrote Eli Sanders of The Stranger, the Seattle alternative weekly, of a Clinton visit to Oregon the week before. “Barring catastrophe or the collapse of mathematics as we know it, Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee.”

◊ ◊ ◊

They’ve been asking the question for weeks now: Why doesn’t Hillary quit? The math has long suggested that, in some ways, it wasn’t necessary for her to surrender, gracefully or otherwise. The impartial calculus of the evolving record of wins and losses has seen to that. In other ways, maybe Clinton is saying that quitting the race isn’t possible. The momentum of her campaign may have made it so.

Maybe it’s a law of political thermodynamics, or just something common to cruise travel: Momentum exacts its own authority. Just like with an ocean liner, it may take as long to stop a major campaign as it takes to set one in motion.

There may be another reason Hillary Clinton can’t quit the race, one she can’t share with her handlers and advisers, one she can’t divulge in polite company.

Simply put: She mustn’t lose to the black guy.

She’ll never admit it — you could subject her to waterboarding and she’d never admit it — but deep down some of Clinton’s resistance to exiting her campaign is that she doesn’t want to be the one to lose to the first viable African American candidate for the presidency. That instinct to fight and hang tough regardless is fundamental to American endeavors. In politics, as in sports, it’s tough enough to lose a contest; no one with any self-respect wants to lose with History attached.

Mike Bacsik of the Washington Nationals didn’t want to give up the 756th career home run to Barry Bonds. Al Dowling of the Los Angeles Dodgers didn’t want to send Hank Aaron the airmail special delivery pitch that broke Babe Ruth’s lifetime home-run record in April 1974. Red Sox hurler Evan Tracy Stallard didn’t want to be the one who served up the tater that put Roger Maris’ single-season home-run total over Babe Ruth’s in 1961. César Gerónimo of the Cincinnati Reds didn’t want to be the hitter forever known for being the 3,000th strikeout victim of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson.

That distaste for defeat is natural. But for Hillary Clinton, a candidate who all campaign long has made subtle or blatant use of social codes and conventions that reinforce race as both third rail and dividing line, a loss at the hands of her more nimble, better-capitalized biracial challenger carries a significance that can’t be submerged.

◊ ◊ ◊

Clinton has staked out an emotional territory among her most ardent supporters that’s as exclusive as it is inclusive. The twilight of her campaign has been interpreted as the end of the Clinton era (not likely as long as a Clinton draws breath). But it can also be seen as the twilight of some stubborn resistance to change among those of her generation: white Americans 60 and older.

As the campaign ground on month after month, whether the message was intentional or not, it was increasingly clear: Others need not apply. The ready isolations of racial identification Clinton sought to selectively enlist throughout the campaign are all she can count on now, as her campaign winds down.

Maybe this is why she stood amid a town hall’s worth of supporters next to barrels at a distillery in rural Kentucky over the weekend, instead of at the mouth of a sea of cheering humanity in a waterfront park in Oregon.

Maybe this is what happens when you play to people’s fears as much as their hopes, when you’re as willing to summon the poisonous angels of human nature as to call up the better ones.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Casualty of war

If Hillary Clinton’s pending defeat for the Democratic presidential nomination really does signal the end of the Clinton era of Democratic politics (or at least this iteration of it; 2012’s not that far off), the twilight of that era may parallel the end of the Bush era of presidential politics. This phase of the Clinton saga dovetails with that of the Bushes most notably in the one thing they have in common: the war in Iraq.

For President Bush, the war's evangelist-in-chief, emotional sparkplug and public face, the direct damage is obvious. The war that has cost us more than four thousand lives, and which will exact social and economic damage we can't fathom yet will forever be laid at the feet of the 43rd president, and no one else. All the revisionist spin in the world won’t change that.

For Clinton, pursuing among the last of her campaign’s contests in Kentucky and Oregon, the wounds may be as serious in another way. As one who supported the war from its inception, and who has consistently avoided the issue of whether she’d vote the same way now, Clinton began her campaign with a liability built in from the beginning. Her support of a dangerous and ruinous war, and her stubborn resistance to discuss how six years of hindsight might have an effect on her judgment today, compromised her standing with a public that's already expressed its opposition to that elective conflict — in the voting booth in 2006.

◊ ◊ ◊

The fact that she misread or ignored that clear signal to Republicans, coupled with the hubris of her virtual self-coronation when she announced her candidacy, cemented in the minds of voters a disingenuousness, a tone-deafness to the national mood that ultimately couldn't be ignored.

Clinton’s gradual backtracking from absolute support for the war, which we’ve seen on the campaign trail, was an early and frequent indicator of the half-truths and duplicities that followed.

Finally, with some recent rhetorical body blows to Barack Obama, the likely Democratic nominee, Clinton allied herself with John McCain — the Republican nominee — on matters of experience and national security, at Obama’s expense.

The result? While it may have scored some cheap points in the primaries, Clinton’s dance with the enemy underscores for voters nationally the long-held suspicion that her support for the Iraq war is only part of a wider Clinton triangulation agenda: presiding over a union of Democratic initiatives and Republican rhetoric. For voters with memories longer than the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, voters who oppose that rhetoric and its tragic consequences, the question has become a simple one: If I oppose the war, and she supports the war —how can I support her?

Lately, the primary exit polls haven’t much focused on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a front-and-center issue for how voters voted. Maybe the wars we’re fighting are so much a subtext of the national white noise, we’ve stopped isolating them as a line item in the attention span. But for many primary voters, Hillary Clinton is a wanton casualty of war. Among all the things that have hobbled her historic but tragically flawed presidential campaign, her support for the war in Iraq cost her early and, for those untold unpolled voters, too often.
Image credit: Clinton: tk. Car bomb: SPC Ronald Shaw Jr., U.S. Army (public domain)

Republican Brand X

If you wanted a snapshot of just how bad, how total the disarray within the Republican Party really is, you only had to look at last week’s wild exchange between Chris Matthews, the hyperactive, witheringly intelligent, take-no-prisoners host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” and Kevin James, the host of a rightwing talk radio program in Los Angeles.

James, the day's appointed special pleader for the GOP assertion that Barack Obama’s preference for a more conciliatory foreign policy toward such potential belligerents as Iran amounted to surrender, was brought up short on his attempt to link Obama with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose claim of “peace in our time” after a trip to Munich in 1938 mischaracterized the intent of the gathering Nazi machine and led to Chamberlain defending himself against charges of “appeasement."

In his search for the answer to one question — “What did Neville Chamberlain do?” — Matthews conducted a grilling of James that was priceless. It was just … well, see for yourself:

James came to a gunfight with Chris Matthews armed only with a talking point: the continued near-hysterical repetition of the word “appeasement.” Matthews wasn’t having it. The on-air blow-by-blow that followed distills the GOP’s current troubles in a nutshell: relentless vocal bluster; the reflexive clutch of patriotism and the flag; and arguments based more on emotionalism and hubris than on substance and fact.

Unfortunately for the Republican party, it’s apparently contagious.

◊ ◊ ◊

Virginia Republican Rep. Tom Davis wrote a memo last week:

“The political atmosphere facing House Republicans this November is the worst since Watergate and is far more toxic than the fall of 2006 when we lost twenty seats,” Davis wrote. “The Republican brand is in the trash can … if we were a dog food, they’d take us off the shelf.”

The Republican identity (what’s come to be known in the AdvertisingWorld we live in today as its “brand”) is under fire, for a variety of reasons. An extreme makeover’s needed, and not just in the House of Repersentatives. But its deeper challenges stem from something more central. It’s not the brand, per se. If the GOP renamed itself the Red Crustacean Party, it wouldn’t change a thing. The problem’s not the brand. It’s the product behind the brand.

◊ ◊ ◊

In the era roughly spanning the forty years from the Nixon presidency to the Reagan years to the present day, the Republican Party has by coincidence or design configured its identity around a stark, angrily polar, relentlessly enforced distinction between a cherished, unyielding conservatism and the liberal hordes that would defile and destroy it.

The GOP has advanced a conservative identity that marks the party as a bully pulpit from which those outside the faith are rhetorically carpet-bombed and character-assassinated, and dissident moderates from within are converted or marginalized. With the GOP, you are for or you are against. Period.

This siege mentality has persisted, to one degree or another, for two generations. And it’s gotten progressively worse: from the debacle of Watergate to the embarrassment of Iran-Contra, from the hijacked 2000 presidential election to our current featured attraction: a ruinous elective war that has badly damaged American credibility around the world.

Few things have done as much to tarnish the Republican brand as the excesses committed in its name.

Thanks to the current administration alone, the Republican party identity will be forever linked to the dilution of habeus corpus; the reckless proliferation of wiretaps; the pursuit of extralegal means of sequestering the nation's enemies, real and perceived; the enrichment of oil companies, contractors and profiteers; and prosecution of a war that has looted the national treasury, exhausted the national patience and cost the country more than four thousand young, promising American lives.

Thanks to the Bush administration, the Republican brand will be forever connected to a vice president who, when advised in March of national opinion polls that indicated about 65 percent of the American people opposed the war in Iraq, said, unbelievably, “So?”

Thanks to Bush himself, the Republican brand will be forever wedded to this president, the American leader who on a day last week went hat in hand to the King of Saudi Arabia to ask for more oil, and was rejected for the second time this year.

◊ ◊ ◊

In the wake of its current troubles, the Republicans announced last week that efforts were underway to change the party’s image and its message to American voters.

As reported by The New York Times, House Republicans met Wednesday at a private meeting to plot a course of action.

Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, said, “We need to, No. 1, prove that we are listening to the American people, and, No. 2, show that we have a plan of action to respond to what they are telling us.”

The challenge is an obvious one: Change the message. But when so much of the party identity has been tied to a faltering economy, and when so much of McCain’s foreign policy initiatives are little more than tweaks of Bush’s global cowboy swagger, there’s a need for a real reordering of the party’s priorities.

And the clock is ticking. The idea that now, less than six months from a momentous election, the Republican party plans to get serious about redefining itself for the American people is a lot like trying to contain a fire after the house has all but burned to the ground.

Marketing experts say rebranding a company takes time; that it should be a strategic, long-term effort; that success depends on changing popular expectations. But despite a variety of suggestions, there’s a consensus opinion: the process begins with understanding the consumer.

Or, in this case, the voter. Let the new GOP mission statements begin.
Image credits: Dog food: Quadell, republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Bush: Public domain.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The McCain scrutiny VII

Just when Arizona Sen. John McCain threatens to vie for freshness and originality, right when it looks like the engine of the Straight Talk Express might gain some momentum by doing more than pointing downhill … the engine sputters again. Two recent missteps reveal anew the earnest but lumbering imprecision’s of the McCain campaign, and reawaken concerns over just what the McCain campaign stands for.

There was his appearance of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” always a welcome and high-profile opportunity to poke fun at one’s opponents (and one’s self).

McCain was featured in a campaign-ad sketch in which the Arizona governor brandished his claim to have never used congressional earmarks — pork-barrel projects that work to the advantage of a congressman’s home state, as a favor to state or business interests.

“My friends, I’ve fought waste and government my entire career, and during more than 20 years representing Arizona in both the House and Senate, I have not once sought to bring pork-barrel spending back to my state,” McCain said Saturday night.

It’s a repeat of a longstanding McCain catechism, repeated at the Republican presidential candidates’ debate in January. “[I]n 24 years, as a member of Congress, I’ve never asked for nor received a single earmark or pork barrel project from my state,” McCain said in Manchester on Jan. 6.

But The Washington Post, which reviewed years of McCain correspondence, found a 1992 letter in which McCain petitioned the administration of President Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, to obtain a $5 million earmark for a wastewater project in Arizona after Congress rejected the request in its own spending bill.

After being rebuffed by his colleagues, McCain appealed his matter to William K. Reilly, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. "I would like to request that EPA either re-program $5 million out of existing funds or earmark the amount from an appropriate account," McCain wrote in a Oct. 9, 1992 letter to Reilly, saying the earmark was “crucial to protecting the public health and the environment.’”

The correspondence was some of that released over the years under the Freedom of Information Act, reported the Post’s John Solomon, in a December 2007 posting on The Washington Post campaign blog, The Trail.

◊ ◊ ◊

That gaffe on “Saturday Night Live” was obvious enough, to anyone who checks the available information (Google’s great for doing that). What was worse, for Team McCain, was what preceded it.

In what’s been seen as a thinly veiled swipe at Barack Obama, the likely Democratic nominee, President Bush, speaking Thursday before the Israeli Knesset, departed from a longstanding rule of water’s-edge American electoral protocol and criticized Obama’s more conciliatory approach to engaging potential adversaries diplomatically.

“Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along,” Bush said. “We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.’

“We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”

McCain jumped in on Friday, restoring his role as Bush administration hand puppet. “It would be a wonderful thing if we lived in a world where we don't have enemies. But that’s not the world we live in. And until Senator Obama understands that reality, the American people have every reason to doubt whether he has the strength, judgment and determination to keep us safe,” McCain said in a speech to the National Rifle Association in Louisville, Ky.

At a gun show in Charleston, W.Va., speaking earlier on Friday, McCain said: “I made it very clear … that we will not negotiate with terrorist organizations, that Hamas would have to abandon their terrorism, their advocacy to the extermination of the state of Israel, and be willing to negotiate in a way that recognizes the right of the state of Israel and abandons their terrorist position and advocacy.”

But James Rubin, former Clinton administration State Department spokesman, interviewed McCain for Sky News in January 2006 — a different John McCain than the one of today.

“They're the government,” McCain said in 2006, speaking of Hamas’ role as a legitimate player in the Middle East. “Sooner or later we are going to have to deal with them, in one way or another, and I understand why this administration and previous administrations had such antipathy toward Hamas because of their dedication to violence and the things that they not only espouse but practice, so ... But it’s a new reality in the Middle East. And I think the lesson is people want security and a decent life and decent future, then they want democracy.”

Once again, on matters related to personal integrity, McCain has raised more questions than he resolves. Once again, an apparent flip-flop on issues important to Americans prompts the question: Which John McCain is the real John McCain?

◊ ◊ ◊

McCain’s politically reflexive tag-team attack on Obama was a mistake on two levels:

First, it counters the evolving narrative of his own campaign’s independence —McCain the Maverick. Wedding himself to Bush’s statement at the Knesset contradicts the notion of separation from Bush, the lamest of ducks now serving out a presidency that polls with some of the worst in the nation’s history. At the very time when McCain should be asserting his bona fides as a leader, McCain sprints back to the not-so-safe harbor of presidential cover to take a shot at his Democratic challenger. There’s not much that’s independent about doing that.

Second, it feeds the long-held perception that McCain is insincere or unprincipled, a suspicion reinforced by his own statements in the James Rubin interview and how they contradict what he said last week. At the time when McCain must be focused on staking out a position and sticking to it, McCain’s switchup on Hamas’ role in the Middle East points to something worse than a plan based on political opportunism. It frankly suggests he has no plan at all.

With appearances on “Saturday Night Live,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “American Idol,” McCain is making a bid for humanizing his persona, the better to make him accessible to American voters. Other candidates have done the same. What’s missing from McCain’s efforts is a foundational sensibility for McCain to stand on — not a slogan but a bedrock of principles that’s not compromised by a contrary videotape. He won’t impart the idea of that platform of integrity with piling-on courtesy of the president, or flip-flops on positions about the Middle East.

Television can work as much for a candidate as against a candidate. There’s more than a chance that, as John McCain appears on more TV shows we’re invited to not take seriously, people may come to take him less than seriously, too.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Myanmar's imperfect storm

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as adopted by the United Nations. This year also marks one of the most wrenching collisions of meteorological catastrophe and man-made calamity — the cyclone in Myanmar and its aftermath, a tragedy that's proof of both the damaging powers of nature, and of human nature.

We're witness every hour, it seems, to the growing death toll connected with Cyclone Nargis, which struck Myanmar on May 3: Estimates have changed often and dramatically. Myanmar state radio reported Wednesday that the death toll was 38,491, Agence France-Presse reported, with 27,838 people still missing. The United Nations' official estimate places cyclone-related deaths at more than 60,000. The International Red Cross estimated Wednesday that the cyclone death toll was between 68,833 and 127,990 people killed.

Various aid organizations swung into action almost immediately, followed by governments around the world. All rallied in short order to assist the millions of people believed to be now homeless in the cyclone's wake. And all remain stymied by another disaster: the disaster of the Myanmar government.

News reports have surfaced of the junta's attempt to control emergency food supplies. The New York Times reported Wednesday that "some of the international aid arriving into the country for the victims of Cyclone Nargis was being stolen, diverted or warehoused by the country’s army."

"Although aid flights are now regularly seen arriving at the Yangon airport, international rescue teams and disaster-relief experts for the most part are being kept away from the country," The Times reported. "[D]iplomats and representatives of aid missions said that visas for overseas experts were still being denied."

The Times reported that "the junta has barred all foreigners, including credentialed diplomats and aid workers, from accompanying any donated aid, tracking its distribution or following up on its delivery."

◊ ◊ ◊

The actions of the Myanmar government aren't totally surprising. This is the same repressive government that for more than 20 years has frustrated the work of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, held in continual house arrest by the junta, despite the outcries of the world.

Now the junta's paranoiac tendencies have combined with natural disaster to create a tragic perfect storm: the velocities of nature have combined with the follies of men, making victims of millions.

The cause of human rights has many dimensions, the war to support and elevate those rights occurs in many theaters around the world. But the monstrous blunders and policies of the Myanmar government must be called to account.

The junta must end the roadblocks to the influx of international aid and the workers necessary to monitor its impact in the region. The nations of the world must aggressively petition the junta, through their diplomats and charities, to permit access to the areas hardest hit, and facilitate flights of relief agencies into Myanmar.

The U.S. State Department must use its stature, its leverage and the powers of moral suasion to both directly apply diplomatic pressure and to persuade Myanmar's neighbors to do the same, the better to open the bottleneck that's aiding and abetting nothing less than a humanitarian crisis of global scale.

The United States of America — the same nation whose secretary of state called Myanmar one of the world's "outposts of tyranny" in January 2005 — must be prepared to elevate the Myanmar crisis to the status of a front-burner concern, realizing that the natural disaster of today could metastasize into an untold catastrophe, creating a region ripe for overthrow, or attempts at insurrection and a government violently at odds with its people — the ideal breeding ground for terrorism.

◊ ◊ ◊

And the three contenders for the presidency of the United States of America must step forward and demand action, individually or collectively. We need to hear their proposals, their action plans for dealing with this disaster, another kind of challenge to world order.

A challenge to HIllary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama: Request your online supporters to divert one of their regular contributions to your respective presidential campaigns to one of the international aid organizations now in the region. Nothing could send a clearer signal, not from Democrats or Republicans but from Americans, that this nation means to turn a page on relations with its global neighbors. If there were ever an opportunity for America to exercise its soft power in the world, this is it.

Human rights. Among the most basic of them, in a world of societies, is the right not to be at the mercies of the elements and your government at the same time. There are few opportunities to effect change like this one. It's challenge enough to rescue a people from the merciless calculus of natural weather events. That tragedy is compounded when victims of acts of God are victimized again, by the acts of men. With the strong possibility of another cyclonic-scale storm heading for the area by this weekend, the time to speak, to act, is truly, literally immediate.

There is no fierce urgency like the fierce urgency of Right Now.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Late returns from North Carolina

Media rule No. 1: Unexpected news always trumps expected news, no matter how big a splash the expected news makes. The campaign of Hillary Clinton discovered that the hard way on Wednesday, by way of two surprising endorsements for the campaign of Barack Obama.

No, we’re not talking about the College Democrats superdelegate endorsement via YouTube. That was bad enough. We’re not even talking about the seven other superdelegate endorsements from party leaders in Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Michigan who emerged on Wednesday. Or the surprise announcement by Clinton superdelegate Brad Ellsworth, who told CQ that he cast his personal vote in the May 6 Indiana primary for Clinton. "It's just my personal preference in the primary," he said.

Big as those announcements were, they were dwarfed by the endorsement for Team Obama by the political action committee of NARAL-Pro Choice for America, the nation’s leading abortion-rights organization.

"We are confident that Barack Obama is the candidate of the future,” said NARAL President Nancy Keenan in a statement. “Americans are tired of the divisive politics of the last eight years, and will unite behind Obama in the fall. We look forward to working with a pro-choice Obama White House in January."

◊ ◊ ◊

It gets better, or at least in media-splash terms, bigger. Apparently, while Hillary Clinton was completing one in a series of interviews with broadcast news poobahs (Katie Couric of CBS and Brian Williams of NBC, among them), the news was leaking out:

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who’d been quietly keeping his powder dry and husbanding the 18 delegates who committed to him before he quit the race in January, ended the drama and endorsed Obama, at a campaign event that brought Obama and Edwards together on the same stage at a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“The reason I am here tonight,” Edwards said, “is that the Democratic voters in America have made their choice, and so have I.”

“There is one man who knows and understands that this is a time for bold leadership … there is one man who knows in his heart that it’s time to create one America, not two, and that man is Barack Obama.”

“When this nomination battle is over — and it will be over soon, brothers and sisters — we must come together as Democrats and in the fall stand up for what matters in America and make America what it needs to be,” Edwards said.

Team Clinton took its characteristic hang-tough route. “We respect John Edwards,” said Clinton campaign chairman and eternal optimist Terry McAuliffe in a statement issued by the campaign, “but as the voters of West Virginia showed last night, this thing is far from over.”

It was a waste of good spin. There’s no way to minimize the significance of Edwards’ impeccably-timed declaration on the day after Obama’s deep-double-digit defeat in West Virginia. What Obama gains is considerable: Edwards’ track record as a populist, his profile in a Southern state likely to be contested in the fall — and, yes, his status as one of the white males in the sweet spot of a much-needed Obama campaign demographic. All huge plusses for Team Obama in the runup to Tuesday’s Kentucky and Oregon primaries.

◊ ◊ ◊

And more. You could see it on the stage in Grand Rapids. Visually, Obama and Edwards look great together. That moment of high political theater may well have sent another message: that any talk of an Obama-Clinton ticket might well be finished, that Obama needn’t feel obligated to freight his presidential bid with the trainloads of negative baggage that would accompany Hillary Clinton on the ticket.

“Obama-Edwards” has a nice ring, and the crowd in Grand Rapids knew it. Such a pairing would yield a nice geographic balance, a striking biracial balance, and would help drive a stake through the heart of attempts to marginalize Obama as “the black candidate” — something likely to be helpful to Obama in the Kentucky primary.

◊ ◊ ◊

And something more (the punditburo might bounce this issue around tomorrow). This was its own thunderclap across the political landscape. This was seismic. There's a potential to the Edwards endorsement we don't know the dimensions of yet.

Consider the signal this endorsement sends. To white male voters generally and those in Southern states specifically. To those who'd trot out the divisive Jeremiah Wright shibboleth again. To those who doubt the depth of the nation's fast-evolving demographic mosaic. To those skeptics who say Obama doesn't have the reach and appeal of a truly national candidate strong enough to withstand the Republicans waiting in the distance. To a nation weary to its bones of the schisms of race and class. To a world waiting breathlessly to see what we do in November.

Depending on any number of variables, if such a ticket were to materialize and to win in the fall, it could be the sharpest, the most transforming and defining distillation of this nation's values and principles in generations.

You can hear the Clinton crew now, refreshing itself with that other mothers' milk of politics: Hello, room service? Send strong black coffee … lots ... and keep it coming. But it won't help. Nothing will, now. Politics is as much perception as policy — in American politics, sometimes more perception than policy. The Edwards endorsement, and at least the visual prospect of an Obama-Edwards ticket has sent Team Hillary back to the whiteboards, spinning furiously, faced with reacting to another version of the national map, or the national mood, than they'd planned for.
Image credit: Coffee: Julius Schorzman, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License 2.0.

Another kind of water torture

As forecast for weeks, Barack Obama lost the West Virginia primary on Tuesday, lost huge — by 41 percentage points, a bigger blowout than predicted. But other events make it important to keep that loss in perspective.

The steady timed-release delivery of superdelegates into the Obama campaign bloodstream continued Wednesday; University of Wisconsin-Madison student Awais Khaleel became the first superdelegate in the nation to announce his endorsement of Obama on YouTube. Khaleel recognized that Clinton’s win doesn’t alter the tidal delegate-count arithmetic accruing to Obama’s favor.

The other big event doesn’t favor Obama specifically so much as it enhances the chances of the Democrats to win in the fall regardless of who the nominee is.

Travis W. Childers, a Democratic challenger for a vacant Mississippi seat in the House of Representatives, defeated his Republican opponent, incumbent Rick Davis, in the First Congressional District — stronghold of GOP stalwart Trent Lott — despite Davis’ feverish attempts to adorn Childers with a Jeremiah Wright guilt-by-association necklace. It didn’t work: Childers won the seat, a historical lock for the GOP since Newt Gingrich’s Contract on America, by six percentage points.

Childers will have to make his case to keep the seat, which comes up for election in November. But his victory remains significant because of where it happened — in the deepest precincts of the once “solid South,” that bloc of Southern states that have for generations been conceded to conservatives. His win suggests that the solid South isn’t necessarily so solid for Republicans anymore.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s also important because it’s the third Democratic victory in as many months in areas thought to be safe for the GOP. Earlier this month, Democrat Don Cazayoux won a Louisiana congressional seat held by the Republicans for 20 years, in a district that had backed President Bush with 59 percent of the vote in 2004 and 55 percent of the vote in 2000. In March, Democrat Bill Foster won the Illinois congressional seat formerly held for two decades by departed GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and by two Republicans before Hastert.

For savvy observers, these aren’t just isolated incidents. “[S]pecial congressional elections typically foreshadow the main event in November; this happened in 1974, when some early Republican losses turned out to be a portent of massive party losses in the immediate aftermath of the Watergate scandal,” reports Dick Polman, veteran political reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“It really does indicate that the Republican brand is badly damaged. John McCain can’t run the Republican brand, he’s got to run a different approach,” said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, speaking Tuesday on MSNBC.

Thus, the slow congressional shift toward the Democrats — a kind of water torture at the polls — helps Obama make the case for his ability to redraw the electoral map, and for putting states in play that Democrats didn’t think they had a chance at winning. Until now.

While not exactly shrugging off the West Virginia defeat, Team Obama has been able to put it in its proper perspective. The fact that he lost West Virginia wasn’t a surprise; it’s been baked into various prognostications from the punditburo for weeks.

What’s more important is the drop-by-drop, delegate-by-delegate water torture of Clinton’s prospects for the nomination. One more drop fell today.

“You know I never give up,” Clinton said Tuesday after her win in the Mountain State. Fair enough. She may not quit the race, but with a literal handful of states remaining in this long campaign, it’s clear the race is about to quit her.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

No salvation at the buzzer

With the endgame clearly in sight, whether she admits it or not, Hillary Clinton is on the verge of her last (or at least her penultimate) hurrah. If the voting goes as expected on Tuesday, Clinton will handily win the West Virginia Democratic primary, defeating Barack Obama by 20 percentage points she’ll try to make sound like 200, and will declare yet another watershed moment in a campaign crowded with them. And it will be a victory that will change little or nothing in the cold, inflexible math of the primary season.

It’s trash-talk time. You’ve seen it before: when there’s a minute left in a game that’s a rout, a huge and insurmountable double-digit lead for Team A. Which doesn’t stop Team B from capitalizing on a lapse of attention and scoring one more time — and coming with attitude, acting like Everything Just Changed.

That’s the way it is with Hillary Clinton right now. Clinton is set to prevail in West Virginia and in Kentucky (on May 20), laying further claim to the white ethnic blue-collar voters who embraced her in Ohio and Pennsylvania (and more marginally in Indiana) and brandishing that consolidated claim before superdelegates as a rationale for herself as a better Democratic nominee than Obama.

Her perceived leverage, expressed loud & proud lately, has been predicated on the idea that, simply put, Clinton can win the rural, white blue-collar states that Obama can’t win.

For weeks now, we’ve been subject to various Chicken Little scenarios, warned by Clinton time and again that Obama can’t win! Obama can’t win! I’m the better candidate! I’m the better campaigner! For weeks now, since Ohio and Pennsylvania, and less passionately after Indiana, Clinton has jammed the e-mail inboxes of superdelegates with this argument, shouting it from the rooftops to no avail. And for good reason.

◊ ◊ ◊

Clinton’s rationale seems to call into question what it is Democratic voters are loyal to. Her underlying assumption (one she’d never admit to in public) is that the voters are so enamored of her role in the Democratic Party that they would ignore their own histories as Democrats, their own emotional investment in the party, in order to insure her future status in it.

The implicit threat in her argument is that the voters dedicated to her in the primary season would somehow morph into Republicans and vote for John McCain if Clinton was denied the nomination. If Obama won the nomination, she seemed to say, the sky would fall, Obama would lose the blue-collar states and the election to McCain — ruination would stalk the land.

The whole primary season has been subject to that kind of insane hyperbole; it’s led to polls and blogs reflecting ugly voter sentiments: If Obama wins I’ll vote for McCain or stay home; if Clinton steals this from Obama, I’ll vote for McCain or sleep late on Election Day.

What’s been missing is the gravity of common sense, and that’ll come back when those reliable Democrats realize they’re reliable Democrats for a reason. Assuming that they’re reasonably true believers to start with, most of those Democratic voters aren’t likely to become turncoats and cast their ballots for the Republicans.

With the differences between one party and another so clearly delineated in this turbulent sixth year of war, and especially since Clinton has already pledged more than once to work hard for whoever the Democratic nominee is, thinking Dems can’t be expected to act in November on a fit of polled pique they had in April or May.

Which means Clinton’s alleged advantage over Obama in those vital, blue-collar states is really no Clinton advantage at all. The Democrats in those states? They’ll show in the fall. Why? Because they’re Democrats for a reason, and this is the most awakening, most necessary, most consequential election we’ve had in years — maybe in our lifetimes. Hell yes, they’ll show.

Sorry Hillary: To assume those loyal Democrats will abandon the ticket because you’re not on it is both a mistake on your part, and an insult of those voters who believe in the Democratic party, not just one outsize personality within the Democratic party.

Obama has lately gone into dry-powder mode, making a spirited campaign appearance on Monday in West Virginia but generally conceding this one to Hillary.

Few worries: Expect no enormous changes at the last minute. Team A knows where this is going. So does Team B.

So do we.
Image credit: Chicken Little © 1943 Walt Disney Pictures.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The McCain scrutiny VI

Two more pieces of the puzzle that is John McCain have recently emerged, fragments of identity that call into question both his willingness to separate himself from the lobbyists that shackle him to the Washington politics he condemns as a “maverick,” and his ability to talk the “straight talk” that’s been the signature brand of his campaign.

This weekend, as McCain campaigned in Oregon, Newsweek reported that Doug Goodyear, a longtime McCain friend, resigned his position as a campaign manager tasked with preparing floor operations for the Republican convention in September. Goodyear, as well as Doug Davenport, another McCain staffer, stepped down in the wake of Newsweek's story, which found that Goodyear and Davenport worked for the Myanmar totalitarian junta in 2002.

Goodyear is chief executive officer of the DCI Group, a consulting firm that, Newsweek reported, “earned $3 million last year lobbying for ExxonMobil, General Motors and other clients.” Davenport also worked for DCI Group.

According to the Newsweek story by the reliable Michael Isikoff, DCI Group “was paid $348,000 in 2002 to represent Burma's military junta, which had been strongly condemned by the State Department for its human-rights record and remains in power today. Justice Department lobbying records show DCI pushed to ‘begin a dialogue of political reconciliation’ with the regime. It also led a PR campaign to burnish the junta's image, drafting releases praising Burma's efforts to curb the drug trade and denouncing ‘falsehoods’ by the Bush administration that the regime engaged in rape and other abuses.”

Not even mentioned was the Myanmar government’s ongoing suppression of human rights, symbolized by the continued house arrest of activist Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace prize laureate who has spent 12 of the past 19 years in enforced isolation.

“Another issue: DCI has been a pioneer in running "independent" expenditure campaigns by so–called 527 groups, precisely the kind of operations that McCain, in his battle for campaign-finance reform, has denounced,” Isikoff reported.

Such revelations will feed into the evolving narrative of McCain as a politician who relies on Washington’s K Street lobbyist crowd, despite a well-cultivated reputation of the Arizona senator as a political iconoclast who disdains the power of special interests — like lobbyists.

◊ ◊ ◊

McCain will also have to face the fallout of another comparatively minor issue, something that reinforces an emerging sense of McCain as a shameless operator who’ll do or say anything for political gain — criticisms not unlike those directed at Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Arianna Huffington reported May 5 in The Huffington Post that: “At a dinner party in Los Angeles not long after the 2000 election, I was talking to a man and his wife, both prominent Republicans. The conversation soon turned to the new president. 'I didn't vote for George Bush' the man confessed. 'I didn't either,' his wife added. Their names: John and Cindy McCain …”

Huffington’s claims were corroborated May 9 by Bradley Whitford and Richard Schiff, two of the stars of “The West Wing” TV series, who attended the same party and sat at and near McCain’s table. Whitford and Schiff recalled the incident for Elizabeth Bumiller, who wrote about it in Friday’s New York Times.

From the Times story:

“Another guest then asked Mr. McCain, Mr. Whitford recalled, whether he had voted for Mr. Bush. ‘And he put his finger in front of his mouth and mouthed, “No way,”’ Mr. Whitford said.

“Mr. Schiff, who played Toby Ziegler, the White House communications director on ‘The West Wing,’ said he was listening to Mr. McCain from the other of the two tables in the room.

“’Someone asked, “What do you think of Bush?” Mr. Schiff recalled. ‘My recollection, and I have to qualify this, because I’m not 100 percent sure he used this word, but my recollection is that McCain said that Bush was dangerous and he didn’t trust him. Then this person said, “Why did you support him?” And McCain said, “It was my obligation as a Republican to support the Republican candidate.” And the person said, “Did you vote for him?” And McCain said, “No.”’

Attorney Al Meyeroff, writing in HuffPost, recalled a personal meeting he and his then-fiancee had with the McCains, at a barbecue at the McCain home over the July 4th weekend in 1999:

“… [T]he McCains … invited us to spend the day with them, including for barbeque, a favorite of John's. And as McCain flipped burgers, I could not help but ask his views about then candidate George W. Bush.

“’He's as dumb as a stump,’ McCain offered. We then went on to discuss other matters (including Vietnam) but that quote remains seared in my memory.”

Not surprisingly Team McCain has been vigorous in its denials of all of these assertions. Mark Salter, a close adviser to McCain, told The Washington Post that Huffington was “a flake and a poser and an attention-seeking diva.” The candidate himself, speaking Thursday to Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, said Huffington’s claims were “totally false.”

◊ ◊ ◊

But these latest claims about McCain further compromise his hold on the McCain “straight talk” campaign trademark. They’re just the latest in a series of duplicities — his stroll through a “safe” Baghdad neighborhood that was guarded by swarms of U.S. troops; his about-face on his “100 years” in Iraq statement; his denial-followed-by-belated-admission of meeting with lobbyist Vicki Iseman — that are likely to be front and center for the fall campaign, every one of them as or more damaging than whatever mud Team McCain will throw at Sen. Barack Obama, sure to be his Democratic challenger.

Most of the mainstream media, still smitten by the image of McCain the war hero, will be forced to come to grips with all of this, on the basis of the sheer weight and number of these recollections.

But citizen bloggers, not pros like Huffington, are already speaking out.

Cathy, posting a comment at The Trail, the Washington Post campaign blog, cuts sharply to the chase: “The guy has not only lost his bearings, he has sold his soul to [the] highest bidder so many times he doesn't know who he is. Do we really want someone like that leading our country?"
Image credits: Whitford and Schiff: NBC. All others: Public domain.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Playing the flash card

Politics never sleeps. Weekend? What weekend? It’s been a busy forty-eight hours for both the campaigns of Sen. Barack Obama (on the glide path to the Democratic presidential nomination) and Sen. Hillary (Mike Huckabee II) Clinton (on her own glide path back to her home in Chappaqua).

Stephen Ohlemacher of the Associated Press reported this from Washington:

“Barack Obama erased Hillary Rodham Clinton's once-imposing lead among superdelegates Saturday when he added more endorsements from the group of Democrats who will decide the party's nomination for president.

Obama added superdelegates from Utah, Ohio and the Virgin Islands, enabling him to surpass Clinton's total for the first time in the campaign. He had picked up nine endorsements Friday.”

The last unassailable metric Clinton had to her advantage in her increasingly desperate drive for the Democratic nomination has now disappeared. Obama now leads in pledged delegates, superdelegates, states won, popular vote and fundraising. Last time we checked, all of those add up to — what’s the word? — Electability.

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Clinton’s latest double-down on tweaking the campaign benchmark math — her hopes that adding delegates from Florida and Michigan might transform the game at the 11.5th hour — is likely off the table.

The Politico reported Saturday that Obama “can fully accept Hillary Rodham Clinton’s terms on Michigan and Florida and still win a majority of pledged Democratic delegates on June 1, allowing him to lay claim to the nomination under the New York senator’s own rules.”

The story, based on a Politico analysis of figures culled after the Tuesday primaries in Indiaina and North Carolina, were dismissed by Team Clinton as (get this) “artificial metrics.” Clinton’s crew wargamed their new scenario — another change of the goal posts — proposing that “Obama needs to clear yet another figure — 2,209 pledged delegates and superdelegates, a figure that includes the two rogue states.”

“But using Clinton’s own numbers, there now seems a clear path for Obama to claim victory. 

Clinton’s push for the full inclusion of Florida and Michigan brings the total pledged delegates to 3,566. That would mean the magic number for a majority would rise to 1,784. 
A conservative assessment of Obama’s chances shows he would reach 1,785 pledged delegates on June 1, when polls close in the Puerto Rican primary. 

“This showing by Obama is possible even under extremely generous expectations for Clinton in the weeks ahead.”

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It would be, uh, presumptive to say that the Obama campaign has locked into cruise control. The candidate himself has warned his staff not to get complacent, remembering the overconfidence before Obama’s comeuppance in New Hampshire. But increasingly, there’s a sense of the finality of numbers, the brutal and inescapable mathematics that is working, day to day, to Barack Obama’s advantage. Team Obama is playing the flash card right now, wielding the hard counts on the ground as their best claim to electability.

Dave of New York, N.Y., posting a comment on MSNBC.com, has a better grasp of the situation, a better handle on the math facing Hillary Clinton than Hillary Clinton does. Blue-collar baseball fans will understand:

“It’s the bottom of the 9th. Two outs, nobody on, the batter has an 0-2 count. The score 21-7. The winning team is up 3-0 in the series. Nobody is left in the stands. The pitcher is throwing strikes but the batter keeps fouling them off. She doesn't realize that for all intents and purposes the game and the series is over. She has way too much pine tar on her bat and keeps whining to the ump about how it’s not fair that they're not playing football. They keep cheering from the dugout that [they’re] only down two touchdowns and anything can happen. Nobody knows what they are talking about and nobody cares. But nobody has the heart to tell them that you can't score touchdowns in baseball.”

Meanwhile, Hillary soldiers on. “There’s a great sense of yearning in this country,” she said Saturday at a fundraiser in New York. And for Clinton, that’s the problem. As dramatically proven by the likely mathematical and financial trajectory of her own campaign, Clinton represents much of what this nation is yearning to change.
Image credits: Obama: Aroundthewaybooks.com. Clinton: ronnie44052 at Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license 2.0. Strikeout: Unidentified author; source Wikipedia, republished under GNU Free Documentation License.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Campaign for an Undignified Climbdown

“She’s had more incarnations than the Dalai Lama, and she’s not as well-liked,” said William Curry, former advisor to Bill Clinton, about Sen. Hillary Clinton, whose picture could be included in the next edition of the Webster’s Dictionary in two places — next to the words “hubris” and “tenacity.”

On Tuesday night, with the returns in from Indiana and North Carolina — Clinton’s latest line-in-the-sand, game-changing, tide-turning, watershed Democratic primaries — many in the media ordered the horseshoe man-sized wreaths for her campaign, a presidential bid that is mathematically all but over.

Clinton’s relentless competitive drive kicked in on Thursday, with the candidate vowing to press the fight to the end of May, seeking a resolution on the delegates from renegade states Florida and Michigan from the Democratic rules committee … acting for all the world as if nothing had happened the night before … oblivious to the world around her, a little like Norma Desmond at the end of “Sunset Boulevard,” a nonentity descending a staircase, ready for her closeup, eyes focused on a camera, on a grandeur, only she can see.

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Clinton’s pledge to continue the fight for the nomination over Sen. Barack Obama reflects the tenacity we’ve come to expect from the senator. But there’s a point at which Clinton needs to weigh continuing to fight for a nomination that will never be the gift outright against what it would mean — what it would be worth — if she were to wrest the nomination from Obama, its likely heir.

Clinton’s all-consuming hubris is such that now, victory is the only meaningful metric the Clinton campaign will entertain. Delegate count, states won, popular vote, donations raised, field advantage — all that stuff fades into insignificance. Now the new Clinton measuring stick is electability, which is just as gauzy and imprecise as it sounds.

Clinton might well have looked at an NBC News poll conducted after Tuesday’s vote. It found that 50 percent of the Republicans who voted in Tuesday’s primaries said Obama would beat Sen. John McCain in the fall, compared to 37 percent who favored Clinton to beat McCain in November. So much for her electability advantage.

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Speaking Thursday in Shepherdstown, W. Va., Clinton pointed to her razor-thin win in Indiana as proof that she can deliver where Obama could not: garnering the older white voters that have eluded him, by comparison to Clinton, in his drive to the nomination. But even that proof may have been faulty.

Clinton won in Indiana, defeating Obama by about 18,400 votes. But some aspects of that victory have to be seen in grimmer, more ambiguous light, thanks to talk-radio Doberman and former pharmaceutical recreation enthusiast Rush Limbaugh.

Weeks ago, Limbaugh floated the idea that Republicans in primary states should register as Democrats (holding their noses if necessary) and vote for Clinton over Obama, the reasoning being that Clinton would be an easier candidate for the GOP to defeat in the fall. True to form, Limbaugh took credit for Clinton’s win in Indiana, claiming his “Operation Chaos” with Republicans masquerading as Democrats gave her just enough to defeat Obama.

There’s no way to know if it’s true, of course. But because it’s possible, it has to call into question the purity of the Clinton vote in Indiana. There’s at least a chance that Clinton’s marginal win in Indiana — and possibly other slim victories earlier in the campaign — were the result of mischief-making by Republicans who have no intention of voting for her in November.

Limbaugh’s cheap gambit may do more to cement the reasoning for Clinton ending her campaign than Limbaugh’s plan to keep it going.

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Clinton has now invested her hopes in winning West Virginia and Kentucky, two states that, on the basis of racial and ethnic demographics, would seem to be in her corner. Team Clinton is counting heavily on it.

But look at it another way. The good people of West Virginia and Kentucky, who can do math as well as anyone, may well decide that a vote based on little more than the candidate’s sheer obstinance — a vote that can’t gain her the nomination even if she won every delegate at stake in both states — is the wrong symbolic signal to send.

With the economies of both states hit by the same economic headwinds as other states, and with the condition of the national economy looming as a central theme of the fall campaign, they may decide that a vote for the candidate reflecting the proven and evolving will of the Democratic party makes more sense than a vote for a candidate who can’t deliver without winning, a candidate who can’t win without tearing the party apart.

Maybe Clinton unintentionally betrayed the same feeling on Thursday, at the rally in Shepherdstown.

The New York Times reported that “[a]t one point in her 19-minute remarks, Mrs. Clinton promised that the United States would have universal health care ‘if I’m president,’ a deviation from her customary ‘when I’m president.’ ”

Was it just accidental use of the wrong conditional conjunction? Maybe. But maybe not. And that’s the issue for the people of West Virginia and Kentucky. No matter how dedicated voters might be to a candidate, it's hard to walk into a voting booth and cast a vote for what you know going in will be the losing side, no matter what the vote totals are.

It’s hard to be a true believer in a candidate when, deep down, the candidate talks like she’s not a true believer herself. When the candidate’s opponent has 91.4 percent of the delegates needed to finish the game.

That’s Hillary Clinton’s dilemma: taking the risk of an undignified climbdown from a lofty unprecedented height while looking for a way out with honor intact, trying to put the brakes on a campaign bus that no longer needs brakes, a vehicle that’s noisily skidding to a stop, the wheels having come off a long time ago.
Image credits: Clinton: Aaron Webb, Flickr/cc. Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard": © 1950 Paramount Pictures. West Virginia, Kentucky pop density maps: JimIrwin (Wikipedia), republished under GNU Free Documentation License.
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