"In contrast to the vitriolic rants you'll find on some political blogging sites, Palmer gives in-depth analysis and commentary." --Dan Cook, The Free Times

11/30/2007

The YouTube Debate: Critiquing Conservatives' Criticisms

There have been a lot of rumblings in the blogosphere about CNN's handling of the Republican YouTube debate this week in Florida. Popular conservative bloggers such as David Limbaugh of Town Hall and Michelle Malkin have excoriated CNN for including the questions they asked and not thoroughly vetting the "undecided voters" who participated in the debate. For example, there are links between the retired Army general who asked if gays should be allowed to openly serve in the military and Hillary Clinton. Also, during the post-debate segment, CNN conducted an interview with a focus group and highlighted an "undecided" voter who was so uninspired by what she had seen that she decided she would vote for Edwards. However, this "undecided" voter really had been an Edwards supporter all along.

To the conservative community, these are two instances show that CNN is biased against conservatives and is an arm of the Clinton political machine, as it is often derided as the "Clinton News Network." I happen to believe that conservatives may have a point when it comes to criticizing CNN's news judgment or the quality of their vetting process, but I also believe that a lot of their complaints is simply partisanship as usual.

To be sure, CNN was remiss in its journalistic responsibilities when they selected the questions that would be asked during the debate. One of the questions that made it on the air was from the Club for Growth's Grover Norqust, so it's reasonable to assume that there were other questions from other voters with political connections. In this age of eagle-eyed and tech savvy bloggers, the author of each video submission should have been subjected to a reasonably rigorous vetting process. It's easy to go to Google and type in a person's name and see what pops up. And if that yields too many search results, add the words "democrat" or "republican" and see if that narrows anything. If nothing obvious pops up, then there's a good chance that the question isn't a "plant." Remember the controversy surrounding CBS's Dan Rather and George Bush's military records? Eagle-eyed bloggers spotted something suspicious about the documents CBS News was basing their story on and did a bit of research on their own. They were able to quickly find out that the "military documents" were bogus, and this led to Dan Rather's demise. So, if a few independent bloggers could be so good at background research, why can't CNN?

Regarding the substance of the questions, the conservative blogosphere is railing against CNN and the "liberal media" for asking questions that paint Republicans in a negative light. They claim that several of the questions asked seemed to be confrontational ones akin to the sort that liberals would pose to them, rather than ones conservatives would pose to other conservatives. These are questions like the ones about gays in the military and the Confederate flag.

Here's why I disagree.

First of all, Republicans cannot complain about being asked these "liberal talking point" questions because several of the questions the Democrats received in the last CNN debates were about issues that are important to conservatives. Does anyone remember the question from the man in Michigan who had a huge shotgun and asked if the Democrats believed he had the right to keep "his baby" to protect himself? Another question came from a man with a guitar singing about how much he hated taxes. Taxes and gun rights are major issues indeed, but they are generally not issues that Democrats tend to focus on. Perhaps Democrats have had so much trouble electorally (at least prior to 2006) because they are not quite as adept at handling these issues as opposed to talking about the environment, education, and poverty.

Similarly, Republicans don't often talk about the role of gays in the military and the Confederate flag. They're happy to talk about "a strong national defense" and "states' rights," but talking about kicking gays out of the military and talking about the Confederate flag at all are much more politically risky. I think it's great that the Republicans had to answer these tough issues because if they don't answer them now, they won't be prepared to answer them in the general election. And for what it's worth, these issues do matter to a lot of voters, including Republicans. South Carolinians are abuzz with chatter about Mitt Romney's comments on the Confederate flag, for example. It even made today's newspaper.

Secondly, these conservatives often ridicule Democrats for not having a debate on the conservative-leaning Fox News Channel. A common attack on Democrats is "How can they stand up to Osama bin Laden and the terrorists if they can't even stand up to Fox News?" So, to use their same criticism, how can these Republicans not be rattled by Iran and North Korea if they are so easily rattled by CNN?

Politics is not beanbag. People running for office and even current office-holders often have to enter hostile environments and field tough questions from abrasive people. Mitt Romney has had to deal with people refusing to shake his hand because of his religion. Condoleeza Rice has endured protests from antiwar voters during congressional hearings. Hillary Clinton has had to remain calm while members of some of her audiences accuse her of being selfish and driven by her own lust for power. And of course, John Kerry could only watch as one particularly stubborn student was tased by the University of Florida Police. And what about Bill Clinton cutting down Fox News' Chris Wallace in an interview last fall for what he thought were unfairly tough questions? And every Sunday, politicians hit the airwaves to be grilled on shows like "Meet the Press," "Face the Nation," "Late Edition," "Fox News Sunday," and "This Week." That's why politicians have to be thick-skinned. That's why politicians have to be skilled at maintaining their composure. That's why politicians have to be prepared to talk about almost anything at anytime. That's why politicians have advisors and consultants and press secretaries. If these politicians think the questions are too tough, they should enter another line of work.

There is one question, however, that conservatives might have found okay that actually made me a bit uncomfortable. It was the question about what the Bible meant and how much of the Bible each candidate believed. This question tripped up Romney and was deftly fielded by Huckabee, but I don't think this question should have even been included at all.

Since when did one's interpretation of the Bible determine one's suitability for elective office? This is a very dangerous question that undermines what we are supposedly fighting against in Iraq and Afghanistan. I, for one, believe religion should be a private matter. But I'm not naive enough to believe that politicians should never discuss their faith at all. But what if a non-Christian or an athiest were running for president as a Republican? That candidate would have been at an inherent disadvantage because he would not be able to answer that question "correctly." And how can anyone give an answer about one's interpretation of the Bible that is more "correct" than another person's interpretation?

Consider Article VI of the Constitution (emphasis added):

"The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
Asking about one's interpretation of a religious text like the Bible comes awfully close to violating this. I can only wonder if political observers abroad (especially Muslims) are wondering about our nation's hypocrisy when it comes to religious tolerance in light of this question. I really wish Ron Paul had the chance to respond to this at the debate. That this question wasn't posed to him was a travesty in that there was a great opportunity to really get voters to actually think critically about the role of religion in our politics.

Let's hope that Anderson Cooper and the CNN political team do a better job of tightening things up in the future. In the meantime, conservative bloggers ought not protest so much about this because it's happened before and it will happen again. It's called politics.

11/29/2007

YouTube Debate Analysis (R)

The Republican presidential candidates participated in their first YouTube debate last night and was produced by CNN. (You can read my initial take on the debate here.) This was CNN's second YouTube debate, as the Democrats participated in the first one back in July. This debate revealed a lot about the candidates and the media. More on that later.

Regarding the technical production of the debate, it seems that CNN took a few of my criticisms from the first YouTube debate to heart, as the videos were easier to hear and there were fewer technical problems, save for one man in the audience who accidentally turned off his microphone while addressing the candidates. Having said that, for the members of the audience, it might have been a bit too difficult to see the video questions because all the dead space involved should have been utilized to magnify the size of the videos. The best way I can describe this is to imagine placing a postcard on a regular sheet of paper and then enlarging it. The postcard will certainly fit, but you're also not taking advantage of all the extra functional space on the paper. More video and less graphics and whitespace is something future YouTube debate organizers should consider.

This debate started in a way that was similar to the recent Democratic debate in Las Vegas in which the candidates were introduced one by one and stood at center stage for a few minutes for a photo op. While the members of the press corps were happily snapping away, CNN's political analysts were handicapping the debate. I personally think this photo op is something that should have happened after the debate (as I had written about here), but perhaps CNN followed this protocol in an attempt to be fair to the Republican candidates since this is what they did for the Democrats a few weeks ago in Las Vegas. The "honor system" rule regarding response time was also the same, although it rendered moderator Anderson Cooper impotent, especially during the first half of the debate as the candidates frequently interrupted him or ignored his prompts to yield the floor to another candidate.

Before I go any further, I must address the candidacies of Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter. I've said that they needed to withdraw their candidacies because they are clearly mired at the back of the pack and do not occupy any political niche that isn't already filled by another candidate. However, like Mike Gravel, they have every right to run. And this is where the media become a problem. Neither Tancredo nor Hunter received much talk time at the debate, which brings up the same old criticism. If you're going to invite a candidate to participate in the debate, then you should not be so obvious in the way you marginalize them. I made that exact same criticism about the Democratic debate here. Of course, neither candidate really brought very much to the debate other than their positions on illegal immigration, so perhaps their limited talk time was justified. Having said that, future debate organizers are going to have to be honest with themselves and figure out what to do with these two candidates because the time given to them could have been more effectively used by the other candidates.

As for the selection of questions, I was surprised that there were no questions about Iran and healthcare, both of which have been major stories in the news recently in light of the escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran and the recent veto of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Rudy Giuliani in particular has criticized the Democrats for not mentioning the words "Islamic terrorism" in their debates, but I curiously noted how none of the Republican candidates mentioned the name "George Bush." It would seem to me that both political parties have a bit of a disconnect in that many voters may feel the Democrats don't take terrorism seriously enough and that a lot of voters may feel the Republicans don't understand just how unpopular Bush really is. Ronald Reagan's name came up more often than Bush's did, as has been the case in every GOP debate thus far, but one of the unintended consequences of praising Ronald Reagan so much is that it reminds Republican voters that George Bush is most certainly not Ronald Reagan. And in a political environment in which voters want "change," is going back to the '80s the right way to address these "change" voters? Hillary Clinton shares this exact same problem with her nostalgia about the '90s.

After the introductions, photo-op, and explanation of the debate format, Anderson Cooper played a few video submissions that did not make the cut. The final video was one that featured a song lampooning the candidates and their weaknesses. It was a bit awkward watching the candidates feign laughter when their name came up to be ridiculed in the song. After all, who wants to laugh when someone is bringing their flaws out into the open before the first question is even asked? But the candidates seemed to do the best with what they had. This video was probably included to get the debate off on a light note, but it was probably unnecessary.

About the issues and exchanges

Illegal immigration is huge. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani spent the first 15 minutes or so of the debate hitting each other hard on this issue. Romney accused Giuliani of being the mayor of a "sanctuary city." Giuliani hit back by accusing Romney of living in a "sanctuary mansion," an obviously prepared line in reference to the illegal aliens that had worked at his house. Romney defended himself by saying the company that hired the illegal aliens to work at his house was responsible for verifying their employees' legal status, and Giuliani defended himself by saying there were only "three exceptions" that allowed illegal aliens to stay in New York. Both of their defenses seem pragmatic enough, but the problem with this back and forth between them is that it reminds Republican voters that both candidates are trying to portray themselves as further to the right on this issue than they were when they were governor of Massachusetts and mayor of New York. Like Tom Tancredo said, "they are trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo" on this issue and it makes both candidates look less credible on the issue.

Mike Huckabee also drew fire from Mitt Romney on illegal immigration and how special benefits had been offered to the children of illegal immigrants while he was governor of Arkansas. To Huckabee's credit, he addressed this issue without using the shrill tones and demonizing language that turns off more moderate voters. He also explained the scholarship program by showing how it reflected conservative Republican values (he emphasized that the recipients had to be drug free, honor students, in the process of applying for citizenship, etc.). Huckabee also reminded voters of his humble roots when he attacked Romney for his emotionally sterile attitude and perceived disdain for helping out those who are less fortunate. His pragmatism and his delivery provide a perfect example of why I believe Huckabee has such a wide appeal. Romney came out on the losing end of this exchange because it showed him to be a bit too perfect or a bit too removed from average people's lives.

Democrats would be wise to develop a coherent policy proposal regarding illegal immigration because it is clearly a much larger issue that could potentially blow up in their faces in the general election. It is that galvanizing. Even though the "driver's license" question was tough for Hillary Clinton, it should be considered a godsend for Democratic politicians everywhere who had up until then been content with sitting on the sidelines while the Republicans blasted each other over border security, amnesty, deportation, and guest worker programs. This issue is a very big deal.

John McCain seemed a bit more presidential than Romney and Giuliani. However, it often took him a long time to warm up in his responses, which led to lots of inspirational language, but not a lot of solutions. It's nice to know that "he came to the Senate not to do the easy things, but to do the hard things," but was it really necessary for him to drone on and on about what currently ails this nation? He also soberly reminded everyone that the Republicans failed when it came to spending and Hurricane Katrina, for example. The problem is that while everybody knows what the problems are, nobody wants to provide any meaningful solutions. McCain did cite eliminating pork barrel spending as a way to achieve fiscal responsibility, but that alone will not solve the issue. McCain clearly had his openings tonight, but did not take full advantage of them because of how much time he spent saying things that everybody already knew. But despite that, I do believe he turned in a stronger performance than Giuliani and Romney simply because he didn't seem snippy, petty, or shrill.

Romney and McCain got into a spat over waterboarding. Obviously, as a former prisoner of war, McCain is uniquely qualified to talk about this issue. And he totally dismantled Romney when Romney said "it would not be prudent to disclose which interrogation methods we use because our enemies would know what to expect." The problem with Romney's remarks is that, while they may be popular with the GOP base, they could easily be countered in a way that catches these politicians in a contradiction. For example, if someone were to ask if it were okay for American interrogators to cut off the fingers or arms of captured terrorism suspects, surely all of these candidates would say that should never be condoned. So if it's okay to come down hard against one form of torture, why is it okay to be evasive or tight-lipped about another form of torture? Romney should develop a follow-up response to this line of questioning because trying to avoid the issue by saying it would aid the terrorists might not be enough to placate his critics.

This spat shows a major rift among Republicans. One wing of the party believes everything should be on the table when it comes to national security. Another wing is a bit more pragmatic and warns about the slippery slope of allowing torture. Avoiding discussing the issue like Romney did (and the way Bush does today) seems to be a way to straddle the fence, but it really opens you up for attack from all sides.

Fiscal conservatives are probably not too happy with any of the candidates. When a question came up about national debt reduction, the strategies proposed were "spending cuts the way Ronald Reagan did, eliminating pork, fundamental change in the way Washington works, entitlement reform, and using technology to improve efficiency." The problem here is that these are all generalities that any average person can come up with. Had a candidate gotten a bit more specific and conveyed a reasonable grasp of the potential consequences of these proposals, that candidate would have won major plaudits. The moderator gave Fred Thompson a chance to do this and tried to pin him down on his strategies towards fiscal responsibility (especially after he said "he had specific plans"), but he wouldn't elaborate. That was likely another disappointment for Republican voters who wonder if there is any "there" there with Thompson. (Read more of my criticisms about our superficial level of political discourse here.)

This is one reason why I believe Ron Paul turned in a stronger debate performance than most of the other candidates. Rather than making vague statements (we have to fix Social Security, we're winning in Iraq, we must secure our borders, etc.) and attacking low hanging fruit (pork spending, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Hillary Clinton, etc.), Ron Paul actually listed specifics. He proposed cutting the Departments of Education, Energy, and Homeland Security, for example, to cut down on spending because they were failing and bloated bureaucracies. The political establishment may view his remarks as burning your bridges with the electorate, but I get the sense that a lot more voters are viewing his frankness as a refreshing blast of political courage. John McCain also tried to display similar courage in terms of reforming the tax code. However, his delivery reeked of the same superficial rhetoric that I believe voters are fed up with:

"If Congress can't fix the tax code, then give me the job. I will fix it."
When he said this, the camera panned to a woman in the audience who rolled her eyes. Perhaps she is one of those fed up voters who wants real substance, rather than rhetoric.

McCain also made one other more damaging mistake. He went after Ron Paul on foreign policy and military intervention, but his attack blew up in his face. McCain said that "Ron Paul's isolationism caused World War II" and that "we allowed Hitler to come to power." Why McCain invoked Hitler is unknown, but that seemed a bit over the top. Ron Paul then hit back in a way that undermined McCain's grasp of foreign affairs. McCain accused Ron Paul of being an "isolationist," but Paul is really a "noninterventionist." There is a big difference between the two terms that a lot of average voters might not have known about until Ron Paul spelled it out for them last night. (For the record, a noninterventionist is open to communicating and trading with the rest of the world. An isolationist, however, has limited or no such contact with the rest of the world at all. Think about the differences between Sweden and North Korea, for example.) This exchange made Ron Paul appear more knowledgeable about foreign policy than military veteran McCain did--and at McCain's expense.

One of the biggest missed opportunities of the debate concerned the issue of Chinese product safety. When this question came up, it was inexplicably only given to Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter. Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter! I am sure there were a lot of women with children in particular who would have loved to hear what Giuliani, Romney, McCain, and Thompson had to say about this issue. What a lousy decision on the part of Anderson Cooper!

Voters did, however, hear Giuliani's position on gun rights, and I don't think conservatives liked what they heard. In addition to talking around the question he was asked (about having to pass a written test to be able to purchase a firearm), Giuliani said that "the government can impose reasonable regulations" and cited things like background checks and mental health checks. This would appeal to moderates, but conservatives most certainly don't want to hear anything about adding new government regulations. I believe this could potentially divide Giuliani's base. Are national security voters and Second Amendment voters one and the same? If they are, Giuliani is in trouble.

On the question of who owns a gun, Mitt Romney should have kept his mouth shut:
"I have two guns in my home. They're owned by my son Josh."
For a Republican candidate whose love for guns has long been suspect, Romney would have been better off staying quiet. Instead, he reminded voters that the caricature of Romney being a panderer had some validity. This remark reeked of "me too-ishness."

Gun voters aren't the only ones who likely left the debate dissatisfied. Black voters were also probably shaking their heads. There were two questions about Black issues--one on Black-on-Black crime and one on why Blacks don't vote Republican. Romney showed that he had very little understanding of the issue of Black-on-Black crime by taking the Sam Brownback approach and saying "having a mom and dad" is the best way to save inner city communities. Is he serious? Of course, for the millions of Blacks living in single-parent homes in the inner city, "having a mom and dad" isn't going to do a single thing about the fact that these people need help now.

Rudy Giuliani also totally flubbed a question about why Blacks don't vote Republican. He lamely said that "we don't do a good enough job of conveying that our party is a good fit for Blacks and Hispanics" before pivoting to welfare reform. For any readers out there who are wondering how politicians can make inroads with Black voters, you can start by acknowledging the utter failure of the government at all levels to take care of the people affected by Hurricane Katrina. Rudy Giuliani could have mentioned how the New York City Police Department mishandled situations like the shooting of an unarmed African immigrant in his own doorway. Issues of police brutality, racial profiling, taking money out of failing inner city public schools and putting it into (White) suburban private schools, not commenting on hot-button issues like the Jena Six case, and not bothering with reaching out to Blacks because "they'll never vote for a Republican anyway" would be good places for a Republican to start!

How can Republicans be so passionate in their rhetoric about fighting terrorists in Iraq and getting rid of illegal aliens coming from Mexico, but have so little to say when it comes to issues affecting millions of Blacks living within America's own borders? Do you remember the ignorance Fred Thompson displayed when asked about the Jena 6 case? It's a shame that Anderson Cooper did not ask everyone this question. The only person who displayed any sense of competency on this issue was Mike Huckabee, who mentioned some of the medical issues that commonly affect Blacks, such as AIDS, hypertension, and diabetes. Should he be the nominee, I expect him to attract a lot of Black votes. He seemed to be the only candidate on the stage last night who actually "gets it," just like Ron Paul "gets it" when it comes to how Iraq is draining our treasury:
"We're using our taxes to blow up buildings and bridges overseas, but we don't use that money to actually build buildings and bridges in the US! We need to get government off our back and out of our wallets!"
Romney's answer on the question of the Bible will come back to haunt him. His Mormonism is obviously a big deal in this primary and when he was asked if he believed "every word of the Bible," his answer was painful to listen to. For evangelical Christians, there is no tolerance for equivocating on such an issue. And Romney, unfortunately, took three big steps back when he answered the question "I may interpret the Bible differently than you do, but I believe the Bible is the word of God." (No answer on whether he believes "every word" of it though.) His answer wasn't really bad, but it was not good enough for evangelical Christians. Huckabee did a much better job of answering this question, but it was probably a bit unfair that he got to answer such an easy question, given the fact that he's a Baptist minister. Romney has been trying hard to lay the questions about his religion to rest, but I think he may have created more questions than he answered.

One of the questions that perhaps no Republican wanted to field was the question about how long the US military should stay in Iraq. The question came from a staunch Iraq War supporter who wants the US to maintain a long-term presence there. None of the candidates who answered that question hinted that they would advocate staying in Iraq for 5 or 10 more years. Instead, they answered the question with the common generality "We'll stay in Iraq until the mission is finished." Anderson Cooper could have made things a bit more interesting by asking what "the mission" is, but he missed the opening.

Perhaps the biggest surprise involved a question towards the end of the debate about what the Confederate flag meant. Mitt Romney took a pretty firm stand against the flag by saying "I don't recognize that flag. There are not two Americas. There is only one. We need to get beyond that stuff." This likely pleased moderates and any Blacks who were paying attention until turned them off again by saying "the Democrats are dividing America." And on top of that, his remarks probably doomed him in the early primary state of South Carolina. Politicos remember how John McCain was fatally wounded by his stance on the Confederate flag in the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary against George Bush. The reason why this is a big deal for Mitt Romney is because he had been trying to make the sale to Southern conservatives that he is "one of them" despite being from Massachusetts, being a Mormon, and once being on the wrong side of abortion and gay marriage. Coming down hard against the Confederate flag is one step below coming down hard against the Bible in South Carolina, where the flag still flies in front of the statehouse and in front of private residences throughout the rural areas of the state. It's common to see vehicles here with Confederate flag decals and vanity plates, so these (likely Republican) voters were probably offended by Romney's remarks. These remarks alone moved Romney out of the "conservative" category and into the "liberal" one as far as South Carolinians are concerned. This is irrevocable.

Fred Thompson offered a more nuanced position on the flag:
"Not everyone who flies the flag is a racist, but some people who fly it are. It should not be flown in public places."
Again, Southern conservatives were likely not pleased by these remarks. And South Carolinians are probably going to ask him about the flag flying in front of the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia. After being disappointed by Mitt Romney's remarks, these voters were probably waiting for "the great conservative hope" to say the flag meant "standing up for states' rights," which can mean many things including a code word for racism. I once compared Fred Thompson to Barack Obama prior to his late entry in the race because of the enthusiasm surrounding his campaign. However, it now seems like his candidacy has fallen to the ground with an unceremonious thud. If Thompson can't keep White Southern conservative males in his tent, then he has no base left.

Disaffected Democrats watching this debate probably were not converted last night. Aside from Huckabee, Paul, and maybe McCain, none of the Republican candidates gave any reasons why they should be President. Giuliani, Romney, and Thompson were all too busy trying to cut each other down. And when they weren't doing that, they were busy avoiding giving straight answers. (Consider Romney's backing away from the question about looking forward to the day when gays can openly serve in the military.) I can't help but wonder if Republicans feel the same way about their frontrunner candidates as the Democrats do about theirs because it seems like the candidates who should be getting all the attention are the ones further in the back of the pack. Huckabee, Paul, and McCain seem much better qualified for the presidency than Romney, Thompson, and Giuliani. The same holds true for Richardson, Biden, and Dodd for the Democrats.

As for the Democrats, even though she wasn't on stage last night, Hillary Clinton still managed to find a way to get involved in negative politics. One of the men who asked a question at the debate was a member of Clinton's steering committee. In addition to making CNN look biased, it reminded voters of the scandal that characterized the Clinton years. That should motivate Republicans and depress Democrats, thus feeding into the notion that she is the most beatable Democrat. The question was about letting gays serve in the military. It was a good question, especially since gays are being discharged even though they may be proficient Arabic speakers who are invaluable given the War on Terror. However, the scandalous side of the story threatens to overpower the actual issue, and that is unfortunate.

It is worth noting that the man who posed this question was a gay 43-year Army veteran and a retired one-star general. When he challenged why gays should be discharged for their sexual orientation, the audience actually booed him. I thought that was in terribly bad form, especially from voters who commonly criticize Democrats for not "supporting the troops." Some pundits criticized the media for even including this question in a Republican debate because "it's not an issue that matters to Republican voters," but I disagree. If the GOP is serious about moving beyond straight White Christian males with shotguns, then it's going to have to be serious about addressing these issues.

All in all, the main questions that I think will emerge from this debate are the following:

1. Will Huckabee replace Romney as the Christian conservative alternative to Giuliani?

2. Is Fred Thompson relevant?

3. At what point will conservatives refuse to further compromise their values by supporting Giuliani?

4. Will New Hampshire independents support Obama or McCain?

5. Can Romney recover?

11/28/2007

The Republican YouTube Debate: Initial Thoughts

Tonight was the long-awaited Republican YouTube debate in St. Petersburg, Florida. This debate was a particularly nasty one in which several candidates drew blood. This post will only provide a general overview of my thoughts on the debate. A more detailed analysis of the evening's happenings will be written tomorrow or Friday.

The setup

The leading candidates were placed at the center of the stage and the lower-tier candidates were placed on the sides. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani were placed next to each other, which made for several tense exchanges. Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter were essentially the bookends on stage. I thought this was a smart decision by CNN. I hope future debate organizers continue this arrangement.

CNN and the moderator

Anderson Cooper did a better job of handling this debate than Wolf Blitzer did at the last CNN Democratic debate in Las Vegas. Keep in mind that "better" is a relative term, rather than an absolute one. Cooper did not have much control over this debate, as the candidates commonly ignored his prompts to wind up their responses, especially in the first half of the debate when most of the fireworks took place. To Cooper's credit, however, he did do a respectable job of following up on some of the candidates' responses and reminding them of the questions they were actually asked.

To CNN's credit, this debate was better produced than the Democratic one and the post-debate analysis was more interesting to watch because they focused on all of the candidates (save for Tancredo and Hunter), instead of just the top two or three (as in the Clinton-Obama lovefest happening with the media and the Democratic race).

Mitt Romney

This debate was a disaster for Romney. He had several weak moments, including getting dressed down by John McCain on torture, getting broadsided by Giuliani on illegal immigration, flubbing a question about believing every word in the Bible, and getting caught flat-footed when his previous remarks about gays in the military blew up in his face. Republicans in South Carolina also likely were not impressed with his answer on the Confederate flag. In short, Romney came across as someone who had no core convictions, and that is not presidential at all.

Rudy Giuliani

Giuliani turned in a stronger performance than Romney, but his problems with social conservatives are not going away. I believe there is significant overlap between voters who value national security and voters who value their rights to bear firearms. Giuliani's hedging response to the question about access to guns probably gave these voters some pause. And will talk about "appointing strict constructionist judges" really be enough to offset the fact that he is obviously a pro-choice federalist? Women voters also might not have liked the way he attacked Mitt Romney on the issue of illegal immigrants working at his "sanctuary mansion." Giuliani did mention September 11 again tonight, but it did not seem to have the potency it once did.

Fred Thompson

Thompson's performance was a bit steadier than Giuliani's and Romney's, but I get the sense that his ship has sailed. He had a few funny lines, but his answers were often droning, uneven, and uninspiring. Questions about how seriously he is taking this campaign will not be doused by his performance tonight. And for a candidate who is trying to position himself as the favorite of Southern conservatives, will they be disappointed by his statements about the Confederate flag? Moderates and more progressive-minded voters were likely pleased, but I notice when he made those remarks, there was very little applause from the audience. Thompson didn't hurt himself tonight, but I don't think he will emerge with much momentum.

John McCain

McCain was arguably the winner of the debate. His answers were firm and he came across as a resolute, pragmatic, honest, battle-tested statesman. He seemed to be the grown-up on stage, as his remarks placed him above the fray that was developing between Romney and Giuliani. The moral authority he had regarding torture came through in the way he criticized Romney for not unequivocally stating that he was against the practice of waterboarding. Independent New Hampshire voters likely were reminded of the John McCain they fell in love with in 2000. The question for McCain, however, is how many of these independent voters will actually vote in the New Hampshire Republican primary? Keep in mind that independents can vote in any party primary they wish. Will these independents show up at the polls for McCain? Or will they show up for Barack Obama?

Mike Huckabee

Simply put, Mike Huckabee is serious. I've been writing about Huckabee for several months now and the evidence continues to mount that this is probably the single most difficult Republican for Democrats to defeat, especially if the Democratic nominee is Hillary Clinton. He successfully fielded several potentially dangerous questions, such as a question about the apparent contradiction between being pro-life and supporting the death penalty. He also had the line of the night in which he said that Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office. Evangelical Christians have found their candidate, and it's not Mitt Romney. I have detected a change in the way the media are covering Huckabee over the past week or so, however. Some of the questions he received were softballs, like the question about how much of the Bible he believed. I expect him to have to explain his policies in more detail in the future, as opposed to simply explaining his values. When will he be asked about his desire to eliminate the Internal Revenue Service, for example? Anyway, people often talk about a Giuliani-Huckabee ticket, but if Huckabee keeps up these strong performances, he may very well emerge as the lone remaining conservative alternative to a Rudy Giuliani nomination.

Ron Paul

I get the sense that the other Republican candidates are absolutely sick of Ron Paul. His foreign policy and Iraq positions are clearly out of step with the GOP base and the audience made their disapproval known several times when they booed him. However, of all the candidates, Ron Paul did the most thorough job of explaining his policies and why his opponents' policies were wrong. One of his best moments came when he talked about the folly of spending so much money to "blow up bridges and buildings in Iraq when we could use that money to build bridges and buildings here." One of the questions he received asked if he would run as an independent in the event that he doesn't win the Republican nomination. Even though the establishment clearly doesn't seem to like him, I sense that his appeal among regular voters is quite real.

Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter

There really is no point in keeping these two candidates on stage. Neither candidate brought much to the debate in terms of their own ideas or putting other candidates on the defensive. When will Tancredo and Hunter get the Mike Gravel and Alan Keyes treatment?

In short...

Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani are probably not feeling too hot right now.

John McCain and Mike Huckabee should continue their rise in New Hampshire and Iowa, respectively.

Fred Thompson stopped the bleeding in the polls, but it might be too little too late.

Ron Paul is directing his own movie.

Expect a tightening of the polls in the early voting states and nationwide over the next few days. The race for the GOP presidential nomination is truly a case study in political schizophrenia.

A more detailed analysis will follow later this week.

11/26/2007

Republicans Eating Their Own

The Republican presidential race has been particularly difficult to analyze because there is no clear frontrunner. Rudy Giuliani is leading in the national polls. Mitt Romney is leading in the early state polls. Mike Huckabee is making a serious run at winning the Iowa caucuses on a shoestring budget. John McCain is showing signs of life in New Hampshire. Fred Thompson is performing well in South Carolina. And Ron Paul is unquantifiable because his support is cobbled together from a variety of unlikely constituencies.

This disarray has led to a variety of campaign strategies. Rudy Giuliani, for example, has been trying to bide his time until Super Tuesday when he could virtually run the table despite potentially losing Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Michigan. Mitt Romney is placing all his chips on Iowa and New Hampshire with the hope that victories there would create enough momentum to stop Giuliani. Mike Huckabee can be a giant-killer in Iowa and take Romney out of the race with a victory there. Fred Thompson could perform well in South Carolina, which could validate him as the South's preferred candidate who would be a foil to the moderate Giuliani. John McCain could win New Hampshire and Michigan, thus taking out Romney and providing a more conservative alternative to Giuliani with stronger national security credentials. And Ron Paul's shadow campaign has produced some astonishing results in terms of fundraising, so nobody really knows just how well he'll perform and where his support lies.

Earlier in the race, the Republicans were commonly using Hillary Clinton as a convenient foil. Scaring Republican voters about "another Clinton presidency" and "Hillarycare" was an easy applause line and an effective way to fill the GOP candidates' campaign coffers. It was common for them to bash Clinton in their presidential debates, much like the way the Democratic candidates bash Bush in their forums. Last month I wrote about the psychology behind the Republicans' attacks on Clinton. In that post I listed six theories on as to why Republicans needed her. Those reasons still stand, but the sixth idea I mentioned has taken on a whole new meaning in light of how nasty the Republican race has become:

"If the Democrats nominate someone other than Hillary Clinton, the Republicans would be scrambling to find a new political villain."
Republicans seem unaware of the fact that by attacking Clinton so much, they may be contributing to her own demise...in the Democratic primaries. Questions about her electability are surfacing again as her lead in the polls dwindles and she receives more negative media coverage. A Clinton defeat would be the death knell for Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney in particular because their convenient bogeyman would no longer exist. And the longer they spend attacking Clinton instead of promoting their own agendas, the more they risk being seen as emperors having no clothes in the event that Clinton does not secure the nomination.

And the increasing disarray among the remaining GOP candidates is only making this situation worse. Now the Republicans are turning their firepower on each other. And in some cases, they are beating each other up with the same Clinton club. Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney in particular are going at each other's throats. Not wanting to be left out of the fireworks, Fred Thompson called Mike Huckabee a "pro-life liberal," implied that Giuliani is not credible when it comes to gun rights, and accused Romney of "manufacturing ideas" when it comes to abortion.

Because there is no consensus frontrunner on the GOP side of the ledger, it is safe to say that Republican voters and their loyalties are splintered. As these candidates bloody each other, they risk driving up their own negatives and alienating various parts of the Republican base. Conservatives most certainly don't want to be reminded of Giuliani's social liberalism or Mike Huckabaee's tax increases. These voters don't want to be reminded of Romney's flip-flops on abortion or Fred Thompson's federalist approach to gay marriage. How will the eventual GOP nominee heal this fractured base and energize them in time for the general election? And what if their opponent is not Hillary Clinton? Media coverage already seems to be shifting in Obama's favor.

The main points I'm getting at in this post are that 1) repeatedly attacking Clinton is akin to investing all your money in a company that is at an increased risk of going bust, 2) the crowded and confused field is creating a restive Republican base will be harder to inspire, 3) the Republicans' attacks on each other are further alienating this already restive base, and 4) the longer they spend attacking Clinton and each other, the less reason voters will have to vote for them as opposed to voting against someone else. And this will only succeed in decreasing voter turnout. Imagine what a depressed GOP vote would mean for Senate and congressional races next year!

What's happening in the Democratic race to the nomination is clearly affecting the Republican race. You don't hear the Democrats attack Giuliani and Romney nearly as often as the Republicans attack Clinton. The Republicans' bravado and "Democrat Equals Hillary" mantra may placate individual segments of the base, but it could also be setting them up for total disaster next November. Turning their guns on each other also doesn't help.

11/25/2007

Current State of Affairs (D)

The 7-10 has returned after a long, restful, festive (and stomach-bursting) Thanksgiving.

Last week was a particularly slow one for political news, but there were a few good stories worth commenting on. The Scott McClellan story shined a whole new light on the Valerie Plame saga, for example, but I will write about that at a later date.

But for now, I want to talk about last week's ABC News/Washington Post poll that showed Barack Obama ahead of Hillary Clinton in Iowa. Obama polled at 30%, Clinton polled at 26%, and Edwards polled at 22%. This was the first time in about two months that Obama has polled higher than Clinton in Iowa.

Why is this important? For starters, positioning is never as important as momentum. Hillary Clinton had been trouncing her opponents in almost every poll this year (especially after Edwards began to fade in Iowa). However, it doesn't really mean much to win in September if you trend downward in December. Voters want to support candidates who have momentum. Momentum creates a bandwagon effect. It changes the media storyline and gives you free favorable press coverage. Mike Huckabee has momentum. Stories about him auditioning for vice president have been replaced with stories about how he could snatch an Iowa victory away from Mitt Romney. Ron Paul has momentum. Stories about him have changed from being the out-of-place antiwar GOP whipping boy on the stage in the debates to being the guy who shattered single-day fundraising records.

And for now, Barack Obama has momentum. How much talk do you hear now about him being too reticent to throw a punch? And what about Hillary Clinton? How much talk do you hear now about her "inevitability?" Polling data such as those I cited earlier have totally reframed this contest. Yes, Hillary Clinton is still trouncing the rest of the Democratic field nationally and in other state polls, but nobody is talking about that now. The only thing people hear is that "there's a real race in Iowa and that Clinton could potentially lose the whole thing."

A second reason why this matters is because this makes Obama seem more credible in the eyes of voters. On anecdotal evidence alone, I can tell you that there are a lot of voters out there who "like Obama, but don't think he can win." These doubts could be a realization of the fact that Clinton is much more politically savvy than him. They could be a lamentation of the notion that America is "not ready" for a Black president just yet. They could be worries stemming from his lack of executive experience and his short tenure in Washington. But whatever the source of these doubts may be, seeing Obama on top of the polls surely makes some of these voters challenge the doubts they had about his candidacy and may make them more likely to support him more enthusiastically and be more confident about his chances. And that often translates into increased fundraising.

...

The poll's internal data show further evidence that Obama may be surging at the right time. Among likely Democratic voters in Iowa, 55% say they are seeking "new ideas" while 33% say they are seeking "experience." Back in July, "new ideas" was only trumping "experience" 49%-39%. Obama has obviously been running as the "new ideas" candidate who frequently talks about "a different kind of politics." Clinton has obviously been the "experience" candidate who can "take on the Republican machine." The widening of this gap between "new ideas" and "experience" suggests that Obama's message is beginning to resonate.

Secondly, Obama is seen as more "honest and trustworthy" than Clinton by a 2:1 ratio (31%-15%). He is also seen as more "willing to speak his/her mind" than Clinton by a 3:2 ratio (76%-50%). Even John Edwards outperformed Clinton on these two issues. It seems that Clinton's widely panned debate performance in Philadelphia has wounded her. The driver's license question followed by all the excuse-making ("politics of pile-on") and gender-baiting ("the all boys club of presidential politics") and position-shifting (before finally settling on a "no") all likely fed into these negative perceptions about her, at least when compared to Obama. To be fair, Obama's mangled response to the very same debate question should have wounded him similarly, but he was able to change the subject more adeptly.

So what does this mean for the rest of the field? Since there are only about six weeks before the Iowa caucuses, it's becoming a bit easier to make predictions about who will make it to New Hampshire. In presidential politics, there are generally only three tickets out of Iowa. (The winner flies first-class, the runner-up flies coach, and the third place finisher takes Greyhound.) The presidential race post-Iowa is a whole different beast because the field is winnowed down to a manageable three or four candidates. The presidential debates become more important then, as there are fewer candidates on stage to prevent someone from breaking out. And that's why every Democrat not named Clinton should be encouraged by Obama's rise in the polls.

I had already written about why the second-tier candidates need Obama about a month and a half ago. But in light of recent polling data and more debates under our belts, now it's time to update that analysis and provide a few more predictions:

The three tickets out of Iowa will go to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the winner of the Bill Richardson/Joe Biden/Chris Dodd race.

Hillary Clinton has enough money, name recognition, and campaign staff to survive a defeat in Iowa. If she wins Iowa, the only way she will lose the nomination is if she is afflicted by some unforeseen scandal or if she commits a grave unforced error. Of all the Democratic candidates, she is clearly the one with the most room for error as far as Iowa is concerned. And the longer the field remains large, the more she benefits from it.

Barack Obama has enough money and supporters to survive a defeat in Iowa, but he is much less able to survive such a defeat than Clinton. He is the single most important candidate in the field right now because he is what's keeping the ABH (Anybody But Hillary) candidates alive. Should Obama win Iowa, look for John Edwards to drop out and endorse him. And even if Clinton were to win Iowa, an Edwards endorsement might give Obama the buzz and firepower he needs to stop Clinton.

If John Edwards does not win Iowa or does not finish ahead of Obama, he is finished. Second place might be good enough for Clinton, Obama, or any other candidate, but it is not good enough for him. And even if he wins Iowa, he will not dislodge his main rivals (Obama and Clinton) from the race because they simply have too much money. Obama is a particularly thorny problem for Edwards because they both are running as youthful outsider candidates who want to change the system. Edwards is also making a conscious effort not to rip into Obama the way he is ripping into Clinton. After all, how can you criticize a rival when that rival is running on your same message? (The message is "change," by the way.) So it seems like he is politically trapped. And for this reason, I don't think Edwards will win one of the three tickets out of Iowa, even if he finishes in the top three.

If Bill Richardson does not place at least third in Iowa, he is finished. More specifically, this means he needs to defeat either Clinton, Obama, or Edwards. If Richardson places fourth behind all of these candidates, he is finished even if Edwards subsequently drops out. On the flip side, it is possible that one or more of these candidates will falter in the final weeks, so Richardson could potentially place second or even win Iowa. However, if Biden or Dodd place ahead of him, he is finished. Regarding Edwards and Obama, there's only enough room for one "change" candidate in the field. Regarding Richardson, Biden, and Dodd, there's only enough room for one "veteran statesman" in the field.

Joe Biden has said he only needs to place fourth in Iowa to remain viable. That seems to be an attempt to lower expectations. He is running fifth or sixth in most Iowa polls now even though he has picked up more Iowa endorsements than all the candidates except for Clinton and Obama. If fifth or sixth is where Biden ends up in Iowa, then he is finished. However, he seems better able to defeat Richardson because of his stronger debating skills, so fourth place is not out of the question. And if Edwards drops out, then Biden would essentially be the "third" and final Democrat left in the race.

Chris Dodd has not said much about his expectations, but if he does not beat either Richardson or Biden in Iowa, he is finished. Dodd's main advantage and disadvantage is that he is perhaps the least known of the "second-tier" candidates. This is good in that people aren't criticizing him for his weak debate performances like they are with Bill Richardson. But on the other hand, people aren't buzzing about him the way they often buzz about Joe Biden's debate performances. Dodd is essentially the invisible candidate. Perhaps his ground game in Iowa is much stronger than it appears, so it's rather difficult to accurately gauge Dodd's strength. Will Dodd surprise us all? Or is he already a dead man walking?

Dennis Kucinich is already finished, but even with a defeat in Iowa, he will not end his campaign as long as the war in Iraq is still being prosecuted. Dennis Kucinich '08 reminds me of Jesse Jackson '88 in that both candidates are running to promote a cause and remain in the nomination race long after it becomes obvious that they will not win. Perhaps the eventual Democratic nominee will integrate parts of Kucinich's platform into their eventual general election strategy. This prospect should please antiwar liberals and seems to be the closest he can come to getting on the national stage.

As for the Republicans, at first glance, it seems like New Hampshire will be more important than Iowa simply because the field is currently in such disarray. However, they will have their You Tube debate in a few days. After that debate, I will analyze their state of affairs and flesh out what Iowa means for them.

11/18/2007

Lame Political Discourse: Part 2

I had written about the absurdity of our political dialgue back in September when South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson accused Hillary Clinton of wanting to "surrender to the terrorists." An excellent piece written this weekend by David Broder brings up this the idea of the sorry state of our political dialogue once again, but he addresses it from a different angle. This column was about the missed opportunities from the Democratic debate last week. No, he's not talking about the opportunities Barack Obama missed to score political points on Hillary Clinton or how Chris Dodd could have broken out more. Instead, the loser of these missed opportunities, Broder argues, is the American people. And the media are complicit in this dereliction of civic responsibility.

Let me explain. In his column, Broder talked about the driver's licenses for illegal immigrants question that has been the subject of much discussion among politicos since Hillary got bogged down by it two debates ago in Philadelphia. He talked about how Bill Richardson said he supported this idea and justified this seemingly unpopular position with facts. He cited public safety and rattled off statistics about how traffic fatalities and the percentage of uninsured drivers in his state went down because of extending driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

The moderator moved on, and that's where one of these missed opportunities took place. Broder asks, "what about public safety?" How would the other candidates have responded to that? Richardson brought up a valid argument. Shouldn't the electorate have the right to know how the other presidential candidates feel about sacrificing public safety so that illegal immigrants can't obtain driver's licenses?

To be fair, after Broder praised Richardson for backing up his arguments with pesky facts and statistics, he criticized Richardson for failing to do so regarding another major issue of the day:

"On driver's licenses, Richardson offered such proof, but in another case, he did not. His 'solution' to Iraq is to pull out all U.S. troops and contractors within a year and leave it to 'an all-Muslim, all-Arab peacekeeping force, with some European forces, headed by the U.N.'

Well, it's a nice idea, but such a force exists only in Richardson's imagination--and none is likely to materialize. But he is not called upon to explain."
Broder is absolutely right. And that's what brings me to the main point of this post. Why don't voters demand more of their politicians in terms of their policy positions? Why are we so content with platitudes, slogans, generalities, and promises, but so turned off by statistics, logic, nuance, and details?

This is why our politicians are tasked with leading this nation. They are supposed to be smarter, more worldly, more prescient, and more pragmatic than we are. Any Average Joe can say "no new taxes" or "cut off the war funding now," but how many people can articulate why we can't invade North Korea or institute economic sanctions against China? Unfortunately, though, it seems that we are not demanding this from our politicians anymore. Instead, we are content with generalities like "we have to get tough on China" or "we cannot allow the Iranians to get a nuclear weapon." Whenever a politician does attempt to go into the gory details of the complex relationship between Russia and the United States, voters shut down. They like their politicians to be personable and engaging, not wonky and well-versed. And the media don't bother following up on these issues either. Why go into a dry discussion about fiscal responsibility and risk alienating voters when you can simply say "I will balance the budget" or "I will defend marriage"?

So here are a few of these other "missed opportunities" that I hope future debate moderators and regular voters find the courage to ask in a public forum:

Questions for Republicans:

1. When you say "we have to fight them over there so they don't follow us here" in regards to continuing the fight in Iraq, exactly how do you anticipate the terrorists "following us" here? If the terrorists are coming across the Mexican and Canadian borders, then shouldn't that mean we should place a higher priority on border security? Or are they going to sneak bombs onto ships? If so, doesn't that mean we should ramp up our port security? And if the terrorists are going to try and hijack another US-bound airplane, then shouldn't airport security procedures be enhanced? And if terrorists are already in the United States, wouldn't it be better to have more military forces stationed back home so that they can more easily apprehend or kill them? And what about terrorists from other countries? Do terrorists live in Syria and Egypt? If terrorists do live in those countries, why aren't we sending troops there? Or is it not a problem because only terrorists from Iraq are inclined to follow us here?

2. When you say "I won't raise your taxes," how do you plan to pay for the Iraq War and other government programs? We currently have a trade deficit and a budget deficit that is the largest in American history. You can't simply cut pork and eliminate waste to achieve fiscal solvency. You're going to have to either cut social programs or increase revenue somehow. Bush already passed tax cuts. The economy has grown, but the deficit has only gotten larger since then. So it would seem that another approach is needed. Nobody wants to pay higher taxes, but is it wise to never consider this as an option?

3. You commonly criticize Democrats for wanting to institute "socialized medicine," but what do you say about families who don't make enough money to afford private insurance? What do you say about families who are unable to afford their premiums when they have a serious or chronic illness? What do you say about people whose illnesses are not covered by private insurance? Do you think that it is a good idea for for-profit companies to be responsible for providing health insurance? After all, these companies don't want us to get sick because that means less profit for them. Is health care an issue that should have nothing to do with capitalism?

Questions for Democrats:

1. When you say "cut off the war funding immediately and don't give Bush another dime," exactly what will happen to the troops who are already stationed in Iraq? Yes, they will be forced to end their missions much more quickly than they would if Bush were in total control, but are you prepared to deal with the possibility that the troops might be made more vulnerable because of insufficient ammunition or a lack of fuel for their vehicles? How would the troop withdrawal take place? Who will protect the convoys, the bases, the embassy, and the airport? And what would happen after we left? Would leaving make Iraq safer for everyone than staying?

2. You say you don't want to use our taxpayer dollars to finance what you term an illegal and unconstitutional war in Iraq. But when you say you want to "protect a woman's right to choose," is it fair to use taxpayer dollars to finance the termination of human fetuses and embryos via abortion--a process that many people find equally repulsive? What makes one type of forced monetary support of killing okay and another one not okay?

3. You commonly talk about increasing fuel standards for vehicles and rail against SUVs because they use too much oil and pollute the environment. But if the issues of pollution and climate change are as critical as you say they are, why are you so averse to imposing a gas tax or higher taxes on vehicles that have poor fuel efficiency?

Questions for specific candidates:

Hillary Clinton: You said that your vote on the Kyl-Lieberman resolution to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization was a vote for "aggressive diplomacy." In light of how George Bush used his war authority regarding Iraq, how can you credibly say that you think it's best to "ratchet down tensions" as you did in the last debate when all the evidence from the past suggests the exact opposite? Is identifying a foreign military "a terrorist organization" ever an effective way to prompt a nation to open diplomatic talks with you?

Rudy Giuliani: It is common for you to criticize the French or to compare Democrats with the French in a negative way. If France is so unhealthy for the United States, would you support a reduction in trade with France? Would you support imposing tighter visa restrictions on French nationals who wish to come to America? Is it a good use of our taxpayer dollars to support France? Why should we maintain such positive relationships with a country that is, according to your own insinuations, so dangerous for America? And if you become president, how would you reconcile your past negative insinuations about France when it comes time for you to work with the French president or seek France's cooperation in the pursuit of American objectives abroad? If such remarks are actually counterproductive to our national interests, then why do you continue to make them?

John McCain: You said that the only way out of Iraq is "victory." Exactly what is "victory" and how can it be achieved? "Not cutting and running" is not a strategy for "victory." And as a self-identified "fiscal conservative," how do you plan to pay for this war without plunging America deeper into debt? Would taxes have to be raised? If not, which government programs would you cut?

Barack Obama: You have talked about the importance of "talking with our friends, as well as our enemies." North Korea is one of our enemies. Are you prepared to go to North Korea personally to engage in talks with Kim Jong Il since he would never fly to Washington to meet you? And if so, would it be responsible for the American president to place himself in such danger?

Bill Richardson: You have talked about implementing an "all Muslim peacekeeping force" in Iraq. How do you deal with the fact that such a force would undoubtedly include Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites? How would this peacekeeping force ameliorate the situation in Iraq while remaining cohesive? How would you ensure that these soldiers remain loyal to the peacekeeping force itself, rather than switching loyalties to their ethnic brethren?

Mitt Romney: You commonly talk about the importance of "small government" and "personal freedom." Would you consider the mandatory health insurance plan you instituted in Massachusetts an example of "small government?" If this policy goes against your philosophical views on the role of government, then why did you sign it into law? Or do you believe that sometimes "big government" has a role in people's lives? And if this health insurance policy is good enough for Massachusetts, is it not good enough for the nation in general? If it is good enough for the nation in general, then how is that different from "socialized medicine," which you routinely criticize?

I doubt any of these candidates or politicians in general will ever be tasked with these questions. But I think judging our leaders by their responses to these types of questions would be far more beneficial to our nation than one-liners, slogans, easy-to-digest generalities, winning the daily news cycle, and canned lines.

It might make for good television and nice storylines, but our nation is suffering for it.

11/16/2007

Nevada Debate Analysis (D)

(NOTE: This post is about the Democratic debate that took place in Nevada in November 2007. For my analysis of the Democratic debate that took place in Nevada in January 2008, click here.)

As promised, here is my analysis of the Democratic debate in Las Vegas last night:

Hillary Clinton: Clinton clearly did her homework and it paid off for her. In addition to squashing the negative news cycles she has been enduring for the past two weeks, she regained her momentum, shifted the negative stories to her rivals, and made no obvious mistakes. But most importantly, she spoke with confidence and seemed to be in control.

Before going any further, it is important to note that Clinton seemed to have home field advantage at the debate. The audience was clearly biased towards her, as they booed John Edwards and Barack Obama when they attacked her on occasion. CNN should have done a better job of establishing a few ground rules prior to the debate because this made the debate seem more like a pep rally at times. It also seemed like she had a heckler or a ringer in the audience that gave Obama a hard time while he was answering a question about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. How Clinton would have responded if she had to deal with these situations is a mystery.

She also benefited from fairly gentle treatment from the moderators, at least in comparison to the other candidates. Barack Obama was questioned particularly aggressively by Wolf Blitzer. Hillary Clinton's final question was about diamonds and pearls. There were rumors that the Clinton camp had been intimidating CNN and Wolf Blitzer, and I can't help but wonder if these rumors were indeed true after watching the debate. She should consider herself exceptionally lucky.

As for her performance, she was not afraid to go on offense. She methodically dismantled Barack Obama and John Edwards when it came to talking about health care, trade with China, and her "double-talk." And as an added bonus, she was able to put down her rivals and pivot to running against Republicans, thus reminding voters of the inevitability storyline that had been developing: "When it came time to step up on health care, [Obama] chose not to do so. Republicans will not vacate the White House without a fight. We need someone who can fight!"

That's how you do it.

John Edwards and Barack Obama certainly think Clinton is most vulnerable on Iran, but she has clearly found a way to be a hawk, a dove, cautious, and tough at the same time. Consider this paraphrased quote: "I oppose rushing to war and want to stress that Bush has no legal authority to go to war. We need aggressive diplomacy and a ratcheting down of tensions. But we must prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. It's important to remember that the Iranian Army is a terrorist group because they are providing training and weapons to people in Iraq who are attacking our soldiers. I oppose war with Iran, but we have to get tough."

How does an opponent respond to this?!

This is not to say that Clinton didn't have her flaws. There were still a few times when she had trouble giving a yes or no answer, such as talking about the success of NAFTA and supporting merit-based pay for teachers. However, because of the gift to her from Obama (who got bogged down by the same question that had dogged her earlier), people will be more likely to remember his inability to answer yes or no than hers.

As for the gender card, she was given a softball question about this from CNN newcomer Campbell Brown and she turned it into an easy home run that allowed her to play the gender card while saying she doesn't need to. The best way for the other candidates to deal with this is to simply not talk about it because her gender will always be a subtext of her campaign and they really can't attack her because of it. A lot of people are excited about the prospect of the first female president, and women make up a majority of the Democratic base.

Interestingly, Clinton praised rival Joe Biden again during this debate when it came to talking about Pakistan and Supreme Court appointments. When she did this at an earlier debate, people wondered if Biden was trying to be her vice president or secretary of state, but Biden shot that idea down. In light of the tightening Iowa polls, could it be that Clinton views Biden as an ally in that he could siphon off support from Obama and Edwards? Edwards stands the most to lose from a possible Biden ascendancy because Obama is clearly the change candidate, not Edwards. Edwards can't run as the experience candidate because that's Clinton. This means Edwards is left with the outsider mantle. Will Biden's competence trump Edwards' outsider status? Keep in mind, Edwards has probably driven up his own personal negatives to the point of no return because of how aggressive he had been towards Clinton in this debate and the one in Philadelphia. By praising Biden, she could be raising his stock value in an attempt to blunt Edwards.

Barack Obama: Obama was inexplicably unprepared to answer the very same question that Clinton got tripped up on at the last debate in Philadelphia. After hammering Clinton for not being able to offer a clear answer on whether illegal aliens should be allowed to obtain driver's licenses, he did the exact same thing he criticized her for. His advisers should have done a better job of prepping him for this debate because the candidates and their handlers had to know this issue would come up.

Obama's response talked about his past votes in the Illinois state legislature, the need for public safety, cracking down on employers, and border security. And the more he extended his response, the worse he looked. Hillary Clinton had to be licking her chops when this happened because it immediately transferred the yoke of evasion from her to him as far as the media were concerned.

This question matters because it will provide a counternarrative to his otherwise passable performance and make it harder for him to pound away at Clinton's evasiveness. In his very first comments of the night, he scolded Clinton by saying "people are looking for straight answers to tough questions." In light of Obama's own inability to do this, this charge loses its potency.

To be fair, Obama did call the driver's license question a distracting wedge issue. He said that "undocumented workers don't come to America to drive. They come here to work." Notice how he was trying so hard to keep referring to "illegal immigrants" as "undocumented workers." This nomenclature will undoubtedly be a major issue next year.

Obama did contrast this low moment with a solid home run, however. When asked about where to store nuclear waste (including nuclear waste from Illinois), he was having trouble giving a direct answer because of NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) syndrome. No politician ever wants to be forced to defend storing nuclear waste in any voters' communities, so it's understandable that Obama could not give a firm answer to this question. Wolf Blitzer tried to pin him down and that's when Obama turned a losing issue into great television. "I reject the notion that we can't meet our energy challenges." This led to a strong reminder of one of the main appeals of Obama: inspiration.

In contrast with this light moment, Obama also took off the gloves and engaged Clinton directly a few times. Their first sharp exchange happened immediately after the debate started and was about whose health care plan covered more people. This exchange was largely bluster. Joe Biden put an end to that spat by putting things back in perspective.

The second meaningful exchange was about Social Security and adjusting payroll taxes. Obama's most memorable attack line was "6% of Americans is not the middle class! It's the upper class! This is what I would expect from a Mitt Romney or a Rudy Giuliani!" However, this comparison to Giuliani and Romney led to a chorus of boos from the audience which was clearly partisan.

One final note: On Iraq, Obama said the troops could be removed from Iraq within 16 months. That is a direct contrast with what he said at an earlier debate in which he could not guarantee that all the troops would be out of Iraq by the end of his first presidential term in 2013. For any politician who dares to run an attack ad on Obama criticizing him for flip-flopping, here's your ad material.

In short, I believe Obama has a lot of potential, but this debate showed that in many regards, he is still a novice politician. His lack of preparation on the driver's license issue was inexplicable. He needs to be more adept at taking advantage of his opponents' vulnerabilities when they arise in debates and avoid setting himself up for accusations of hypocrisy, especially since he has missed several critical votes in the Senate. The moderator reminded Obama that he didn't vote on the Kyl-Lieberman resolution. Obama said "that was a pitfall of running for president" and acknowledged that this was "a mistake." Of course, that opened himself up to be attacked on his "judgment," but fortunately for Obama, nobody did. These are the kinds of things he needs to work on.

John Edwards: I get the sense that the deck was stacked against Edwards last night. Clinton and Obama were placed next to each other and their podiums were located at the center of the stage. John Edwards was placed off to the side in West Berlin and was separated from Clinton and Obama by Chris Dodd. I don't know how the podiums had been assigned, but it is quite coincidental that the "Big Two" were both given center stage positions next to each other--again.

Having said that, Edwards also made some foolish choices that probably ended his campaign hopes. He is generally running third nationally and is fading in Iowa, so Edwards obviously has to take a few more chances. This would explain why he was probably the most aggressive candidate on stage last night, but it blew up in his face.

Exhibit A: Edwards launched a hard attack on Clinton criticizing her for her contradictions on Iraq, Iran, Social Security, and fair and open government. However, Clinton deftly retorted that "Democrats shouldn't throw mud" and that "attacks should at least be accurate, rather than something out of the GOP playbook." This exchange made Edwards look mean. It also probably didn't go over too well with women. Clinton then reminded voters that Edwards had opposed universal health care earlier. Talk about taking one step forward and three steps back!

Exhibit B: Moderator Wolf Blitzer asked all the candidates if they would agree to support the Democratic nominee, regardless of whoever she (or he) may be. Edwards was the first candidate to receive this question. His response: "Is that a planted question?" Ugh. Needless to say, the only person laughing at this quip was him. This remark exposed Edwards as childish, which also happens to be the exact opposite of presidential.

Exhibit C: All the candidates had to field a question about dealing with Pakistan and its state of emergency. John Edwards had the unenviable task of having to answer this question after Joe Biden and Bill Richardson, both of whom are immensely more qualified on foreign policy than him. Biden talked about how he had talked with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto before President George Bush did. Bill Richardson talked about the importance of understanding Pakistani election history. John Edwards tried to keep up with them, but could only address Pakistan using broad statements like "we must do everything we can to ensure a stable Pakistan" and "my goal is to rid the world of nuclear weapons." This direct contrast potentially unmasks Edwards as an inexperienced lightweight while elevating Biden and Richardson.

Exhibit D: Dennis Kucinich also drew blood on Edwards when the issue of Chinese product safety came up. Kucinich railed against Edwards for initially voting to liberalize trade with China, "especially since he was a trial lawyer." Edwards took issue with this and said he "didn't know what being a trial lawyer had to do with this." Kucinich then deadpanned, "product liability."

Zing!

Embarrassed, Edwards then tried to cut his losses by chuckling "that's very cute, Dennis" while trying not to look at him. I haven't seen many people mention this exchange in their debate analyses, but I personally think this was fatal because it showed that Edwards was guilty of doing the exact same thing he had been criticizing Clinton for: taking two stands on the issues and not being a true agent of change. He tried to explain the apparent contradiction by saying that he's not taking multiple positions on issues at the same time, unlike Clinton. I don't think his explanation will resonate with undecideds or soft supporters though.

Exhibit E: Edwards said all candidates should be held to the same standard and that "voters should know the differences without it being attack-oriented." Is this guy serious? When Edwards said this, he was actually booed by the crowd. The crowd's behavior was in bad form, but the fact that Edwards had the gall to imply that he's not "attack-oriented" suggests that he thinks voters aren't paying attention.

To Edwards' credit, he did offer a strong answer on the issue of Supreme Court judges. He talked about the need to have "judges who have a backbone" and placed it in the context of growing up in the South during segregation. That was a strong response that reminded voters of his appeal to Red State voters (most of whom live in the South) who remember the societal advances that came from "judicial activism."

Unfortunately for Edwards though, he is losing momentum and fast. Iowans don't like nasty politics. 2004 losers Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt found that out the hard way.

Bill Richardson: Richardson turned in a stronger performance at this debate compared to previous ones, but he still seemed to underwhelm when considering his extensive resume. He did not really join in the food fight between Obama, Edwards, and Clinton, so that allowed him to remain above the fray. The problem with Bill Richardson, however, is that his policy views don't seem to match what you would expect given his record. Consider his very first opportunity to speak: "John Edwards wants to start a class war. Barack Obama wants to start a generational war. Hillary Clinton's plans don't seem to end the Iraq War. All I want to do is give peace a chance."

This line was obviously rehearsed, but the main problem with it is that this is the type of rhetoric you would expect to hear from an antiwar liberal like Dennis Kucinich, not a pro-gun Western Democrat executive who has gone toe-to-toe with Saddam Hussein and the North Koreans. Why Richardson chose not to run as a moderate on Iraq is one of the great mysteries of his campaign. For moderate and conservative Democrats who worry that the Democratic Party is being pulled too far to the left, there was a tremendous opportunity for Richardson to fill the void that was created by the exits of Mark Warner and Evan Bayh. But he has chosen to run to the left on Iraq, thus allowing Hillary Clinton to occupy the center all by herself without ceding the left entirely to Obama and Edwards. Centrist voters are less likely to want a quick withdrawal from Iraq with a timetable, so this segment of voters is probably not big on Richardson's Iraq policy even if they do agree with him on taxes and guns.

Anyway, on the other issues discussed, some of Richardson's ideas seemed quite popular, especially when it came to education. Teachers would surely love to have a minimum salary of $40,000 and parents would love to have full-day kindergarten. He also demonstrated a solid understanding of foreign policy when he talked about Pakistan's elections and voting patterns.

Unfortunately, Richardson made one terrible political mistake that Republicans will undoubtedly pummel him with should he win the nomination. When asked if human rights were more important than national security (this was a proxy question about torture), he said that human rights were more important. Richardson also said the surge in Iraq is not working. Left wing Democrats may like those answers, but smart Democrats probably winced in discomfort. This plays right into Republican rhetoric about the "defeatist Democrats" being soft on terrorism and placing the rights of terrorists above the security of Americans.

What will the fallout from these remarks be? Well, Richardson's chances of winning the nomination are already slim. People who remember how he rushed to Clinton's defense in previous debates thought he was angling to be her vice president. In light of these remarks about national security, that's not going to happen. Clinton's electoral math is already complicated enough because of her high personal negatives. Giving Republicans another weapon that plays into one of their few remaining strengths is a risk Clinton would be better off not taking.

Richardson also had better find a more effective response to the question of illegal immigration. When asked what he would do to combat it, he said he would tell the Mexican government to "give jobs to your people!" This response did not seem sufficiently serious. Just like Mitt Romney has to be careful with the religion question, Barack Obama has to be careful with the race question, and Hillary Clinton has to be careful with the gender question, Bill Richardson has to be careful with the illegal immigration question. People who had doubted Richardson because of this very issue likely were not pleased.

Joe Biden: If I had to choose a single winner from the debate, it would be Joe Biden. In the limited time he had to speak, he struck a good balance between humor, seriousness, directness, and empathy. The clamoring over Hillary Clinton's "evasiveness" had cast a pall over all the Democrats because of their tendency to not answer direct questions with simple answers, presumably because they don't want to damage their prospects in a general election. But Joe Biden has become the straight-shooting statesman in the field. And the more Clinton, Obama, and Edwards kick up dirt, the more that elevates Biden.

The debate got off to a rough start, as Obama and Clinton fought with each other over not being straight with voters, who the true agent of change was, and whose health care plan covered more people. I thought this debate was going to be one of the nastiest ones yet until Biden got a chance to inject a bit of sanity and maturity into the dialogue. He correctly said that most Americans don't really care about the petty squabbles that have taken up so much oxygen. Instead, they care about paying their mortgages, their kids running into drug dealers, and their family members being sent off to Iraq. And that's when he had one of his best lines of the night: "It's not about experience. It's not about change. It's about action." Then he immediately pivoted to the importance of the next president being able to deal with the high stakes game of dealing with Pakistan and Russia. As he was speaking, the camera switched to the crowd and I saw a lot of people sitting there nodding their heads in agreement.

Biden later gave what was perhaps the most thorough analysis of the Pakistani problem that I have heard in any debate so far, regardless of party. When he talked about the importance of winning over Pakistan's middle class, he displayed a level of depth on this subject that the other candidates all had trouble matching when they were tasked with following up on his remarks.

Like Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich, Biden didn't really get a lot of chances to speak at the debate. However, he was quite adept at maximizing these opportunities. He often began his statements with self-deprecating humor that woke up the audience and captured their attention. When he received his first question about 15 minutes into the debate, he started off by lampooning the lack of questions he had been receiving in these debates. "Oh no! Please! Don't make me speak! You don't want to hear from me! No, no, no!" The audience was roaring with laughter upon hearing that. But as soon as the laughter died down, he was able to capitalize on their now undivided attention with his seriousness and maturity. That was an effective way of turning a disadvantage into a great opportunity.

The forcefulness and directness of his responses also likely pleased the audience. When he said that Bush should be impeached if he were to attack Iran without congressional approval and that Republicans also don't like the situation in Iraq, but are simply too afraid of challenging Bush, he seemed more sincere in his frankness than the leading candidates did with their longwinded responses that were often taken from their stump speeches. For voters seeking straight talk and firmness, Biden's words likely had some resonance.

Chris Dodd: One really has to feel sorry for Dodd. He has never really gotten a fair shake in any of the debates thus far, and this debate was no exception. He barely got any chances to participate and was cut off before he could finish his thoughts. His strongest moment came when he was asked about education and merit-based pay for teachers. Dodd said that excellence could be defined by teachers volunteering to serve in lower income and forgotten neighborhoods. This is an honest liberal argument that counters the conservative argument of taking funds away from underperforming schools that are often located in these lower income areas.

Dodd also received a question about the relationship between illegal immigration and terrorism. The question was asked by what appeared to be a Latino. Dodd burst into fluent Spanish, much to the delight of many people in the audience. After all, Nevada and Las Vegas have sizeable Spanish-speaking populations. However, as Dodd continued addressing the questioner in Spanish, I got the sense that the rest of the audience became a bit uncomfortable because they could not understand what he was saying. (For the record, he said he had served in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic.) Look for immigration and the idea of English as an "official" vs. "common" language making the rounds as a campaign wedge issue in the general election.

The biggest problem with Dodd's candidacy now is Joe Biden. Dodd can match Biden in terms of experience, intellect, and grasp of foreign policy. He demonstrated his understanding of the complexities of foreign policy when he talked about why we couldn't afford to alienate Pakistan despite Musharraf's recent crackdown on democracy because that's our only way into Afghanistan. He also displayed pragmatism and thoughtfulness when talking about the danger of establishing litmus tests for the Supreme Court nominees. Dodd warned that liberal litmus tests under a Democratic president today could turn into conservative litmus tests under a Republican president tomorrow. These types of comments suggest that Dodd is quite wise and capable. However, he is not using his limited talk time as efficiently as Biden is. After breaking out in the Philadelphia debate, he somewhat got lost in the shuffle tonight. Of all the so-called "second-tier" candidates, Dodd is the most obscure.

Dennis Kucinich: Kucinich was visibly irritated tonight and justifiably so. He did not get a lot of chances to participate in the debate and when he actually did receive a question, the moderator commonly interrupted him. Despite his limited opportunities to participate, he did make a few strong points. Kucinich had no allies on the stage last night and commonly turned his fire on them. On the issues of Iraq, the Patriot Act, NAFTA, and trade with China, he harshly criticized his rivals for being on the wrong side of those issues in the beginning only to want to change those positions later after the issues did not work out as they had hoped. This statement alone lent Kucinich a great deal of credibility. After all, this "loony UFO-seeing antiwar liberal crackpot" is indeed on the right side of public opinion on all of these issues and maintained these positions even when it wasn't politically popular to do so.

Unfortunately for Kucinich, he was often marginalized by the moderators. One of the questions was supposedly a "down the line" question for all the candidates to answer. Clinton, Richardson, Biden, Obama, Edwards, and Dodd all got a bite of the apple, but before Kucinich got his chance, the moderator switched to another question which left Kucinich literally flailing his hands and saying, "hello? Hello? You forgot me!" Yes, Kucinich is probably the longest of longshots in the Democratic field, but ignoring him at the debates you invite him to is in very bad form. It shows a lack of respect for him as a candidate and a lack of respect for his ideas. Consider this angry response to a question about illegal immigration: "There aren't illegal human beings. I take exception to the way you phrase that question." While this view might not be one that is commonly shared, it at least deserves to be discussed. But he never got the chance to do so.

Predictions:

Prediction #1: John Edwards will not win Iowa. And because Edwards needs to win Iowa in order to advance to New Hampshire, he will drop out of the race. Edwards is starting to look like a desperate college basketball team full of seniors that is trailing by 15 points with two minutes to go in the NCAA Tournament game that will send them to the Final Four. What do basketball teams do in this situation? They keep fouling and sending the other team to the free throw line in an attempt to stop the clock, hope the other team throws up a brick, and make up their point deficit when they get the ball back. Of course, all this does is lead to jeers from the other team because everybody knows the game is over. John Edwards is going to need help from another candidate in the form of an unforced error in order to salvage any chance at the nomination. But at this point, it looks like he's in danger of placing third or even being overtaken by one of the "second-tier" candidates. Should Edwards' campaign come to an end, look for him to endorse Obama because they both offer the same message of bold and exciting change.

Prediction #2: Joe Biden is the most credible so-called "second tier" candidate. If anyone wants to bet on a dark horse to place in the top 3 in Iowa, Biden is where you want to place your money. The 7-10 is an independent and nonpartisan blog, but it seems quite obvious to me that Biden is the strongest, best qualified candidate in the Democratic field. The media generally don't focus much on anyone not named Obama, Clinton, or Edwards on the Democratic side of the ledger, but when they do, it's usually Biden whose name pops up. MSNBC's Chuck Todd seems to have caught on. And it seems like readers of the Washington Post and New York Times have also caught on, judging from the comments they posted about the debate here (WaPo) and here (NYT). Do not be surprised if Richardson and Dodd instruct their supporters to throw their support behind Biden in the event that their own campaigns come to an end because those two candidates are far closer to Biden in terms of the experience and maturity they bring to the table than they are to Obama and Edwards. I can't help but wonder if Dodd, Biden, and Richardson harbor a bit of resentment towards Obama, Edwards, and even Clinton because even though they have superior resumes, they have been totally ignored by the media. So perhaps they have an implicit understanding that they will look out for each other for experience's sake.

Copyright 2007-2010 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.