The big political story today concerns Barack Obama's public and emphatic rejection of his longtime pastor and spiritual adviser Jeremiah Wright. This pastor has become a major political liability for Obama, so it is no surprise that he had to divorce him so publicly.
I have avoided writing much about Wright because his unpredictability would make any analysis of his remarks have limited validity. But because today's developments appear to be the last major chapter in this complicated nexus of religion and politics, it is reasonably safe to tackle this issue now.
Regarding my personal beliefs about the pastor, I believe Jeremiah Wright makes a few valid and powerful points, even if they are not what mainstream America is comfortable hearing at times. However, his delivery and confrontational style often overshadow the substance of the message he's trying to convey. Jeremiah Wright suffers from the same problem that prevents supposed Black spokesmen Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton from being taken seriously by the broader populace. All three of them put mainstream America on the defensive with their accusative rhetoric and their tendency to absolve themselves of any responsibility for improving the lives of their constituents, thus preventing the very people they want to reach from actually listening to what they have to say.
Most pundits are saying that Wright and Obama are angry at each other. Wright feels disrespected by Obama and the media. Obama feels betrayed by Wright for sabotaging his campaign at the worst possible time. Others simply think Wright is absolutely crazy. However, unlike most pundits, I believe Jeremiah Wright knows exactly what he's doing, and Obama should be grateful for it. I don't think this is about increasing his profile so he can sell books or drive up his own church's membership. Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama have a relationship that goes back about 20 years. He introduced Obama to Jesus Christ and officiated his wedding ceremony. This is not a relationship that can be destroyed by a few high octane speeches and a spate of controversial interview remarks. Wright clearly supports Obama and reminded everyone of his loyalty to his campaign as recently as his speech at the NAACP dinner a few days ago.
Wright knows that he, Obama, and Obama's electoral appeal are not compatible. The more the media and pundits focus on Wright's incendiary remarks and Obama's tepid and insufficient rejections of these remarks, the worse it is for Obama's campaign. Wright knows this. And because of his long friendship with Obama, he couldn't possibly want Obama's campaign to fail. It is quite possible that Wright is simply being selfish. However, I also believe his "going off the rails" and further muddying the waters with yet more controversial remarks served not to draw attention to himself as a way to drag Obama down or give himself a few extra minutes of fame, but rather to benefit Obama in the long run:
1. Obama got to come down on the side of popular opinion by flatly rejecting him. Even his harshest critics who were unsatisfied with his previous lukewarm statements of disapproval should be placated by his firm rejection of Wright today. For some voters, it may very well be "too little, too late." However, for other voters, it will be "better late than never" or "it's about time." That's far better than "what's taking him so long?"
2. Obama got to look strong in his rejection of Wright. Doubts about his strength and toughness have dogged him for months. So this helps improve his political image. After all, if he can't stand up to his own pastor, how can he stand up to our nation's enemies?
3. Obama got to put this controversy behind him. Anyone who dredges this up again will do so at his own peril because Wright and Obama have essentially gotten divorced. Obama made sure to remind everyone that Wright's future remarks should no longer be attributed to Obama's own beliefs. And in the event that Wright self-destructs again, Obama has an easy way to deal with it: "I've already flatly rejected Wright and have said that he does not speak for me or my campaign. Let's move on."
4. Obama got to look reasonable in comparison to "this loony pastor." And the crazier Wright's remarks became, the better they actually made Obama look. Nobody knows how much overlap there is between himself and Wright, but at least Obama is not going around accusing the federal government of introducing AIDS into Black communities. The reels of tape showcasing Obama's eloquence and appeals for unity make Wright look more like "the crazy uncle" Obama has referred to many times before. And as an added bonus, so to speak, Wright is looking more like a kook in the minds of the electorate than a racist. While neither label is good, I would venture that it's at least marginally better to be seen as a fool than a bigot.
5. Obama can now say to nervous or uncommitted superdelegates that his "pastor problem" has been resolved, thus improving his electibility. The chances of rival Hillary Clinton winning the nomination took a big hit because the potency of one of her biggest weapons has just been reduced significantly.
6. Republicans who continue to invoke Wright will likely be tarred with "fearmongering" or "race-baiting" from now on, which is usually not a winning proposition. That will provide a perfect foil for Obama's message of positive governance and unity. Moderates and independents will be less likely to respond to this Republican "red meat" because in their minds, Obama has done all he could reasonably be expected to do regarding resolving this problem.
7. Obama can finally get back on message in time to deal Hillary Clinton her death blow in North Carolina and Indiana. Losing Indiana would probably keep Clinton in the game. And because Obama is not expected to win the upcoming contests in Kentucky and West Virginia, Clinton could seize a bit of momentum which would prompt more "is Obama fading?"-type stories. Getting past Wright gives him a fighting chance of preventing this from happening.
Nobody really knows what's going on in Wright's mind or what his true intentions were, but I believe Wright is more intelligent than what he's given credit for. By essentially sacrificing his own brand image, he did Barack Obama a huge political favor.
The big political story today concerns Barack Obama's public and emphatic rejection of his longtime pastor and spiritual adviser Jeremiah Wright. This pastor has become a major political liability for Obama, so it is no surprise that he had to divorce him so publicly.
One of the more interesting catchphrases I've been hearing in the news lately is the phrase "poll of polls," which takes the averages of various polls over a certain time period and creates a brand new average that is somehow supposed to be the most authoritative marker of where the race between the three remaining candidates stands. CNN and Real Clear Politics are regular practitioners of this so-called statistical "analysis." However, having studied a little statistics and research methods myself, I cannot believe these reportedly reputable media organizations are allowed to get away with this. There is such a wide variety of polls with various levels of credibility and bias that make averaging them into a consolidated barometer of public opinion a fool's errand. Here's why.
Point 1: Wording matters. Consider these two questions:
Question A: Whom do you support for President--John McCain or Barack Obama?
Question B: Whom do you support for President--Arizona Senator John McCain or Illinois Senator Barack Obama?
The names are in the same order, but extra information was included in Question B, thus potentially altering the responses. People who think Obama may be light on experience may look at the word "Senator" before his name and think more favorably of him. People may also look at the name "Senator" before John McCain's name and think negatively of him because he's running as a "maverick," not a Washington insider. Surely there are polls circulating that use both question formats. But unfortunately, the data are not interchangeable.
Point 2: Subtlety matters too. Look at these two questions:
Question A: Do you support Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama for President?
Question B: Do you support Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton for President?
Question C: Whom do you support to succeed George Bush--Hillary Clinton, John McCain, or Barack Obama?
Poll X may use the Question A format while Poll Y may use the Question B format. It may look only a subtle difference between the two questions, but in terms of statistical analysis and psychology, this makes a big difference. Some respondents are susceptible to the primacy effect in which items that appear first in a list are more salient. Others, however, are susceptible to the recency effect in which the last item in a list is the most salient. Some polls rotate these questions, but not all of them do, thus leading to potentially biased data.
Question C is an even more egregious example because by including the words "succeed George Bush," the question inadvertently "frames" the responses by providing extra context that could influence respondents' decisions before the response options are even presented. Voters who disapprove of George Bush may listen to "succeed George Bush" and be more inclined to choose a Democrat in the poll even though they are really more likely to support John McCain. Voters who approve of him may be more inclined to support the Republican even though they may have a greater affinity for one of the Democrats this time around. Or perhaps including the word "succeed" may conjure up the importance of leadership. Or personality. Or electibility. Why should polls that engage in such framing and polls that don't be treated as equals?
Point 3: Polls with smaller sample sizes should not be weighted as heavily as polls with larger sample sizes. In general, the larger a sample size is, the smaller the margin of error is. The only truly accurate poll would be one that asks everyone in the country about the presidential race. But that's obviously impossible, so polling organizations use samples to measure what a slice of the electorate is thinking. But if this "slice" consists of 400 people, why should it receive the same weight in the "poll of polls" average as a "slice" of 1200 people? That's bad statistics. That wouldn't pass muster in any university-level statistics course, so why should it pass muster with the media?
Point 4: A "registered voter" is different from a "likely voter." Some polls only measure the opinions of registered voters who may or may not vote in the election. Likely voters are more likely to participate in the election and are therefore more likely to be informed about the candidates. Other psychological variables may be at play also that set likely voters apart from registered voters. Are registered voters more likely to simply "guess" on a poll because they don't have any strong feelings either way about any candidate? Why should their responses even be compared with those of likely voters at all whose opinions are more likely to be informed? And what about unregistered voters who may decide to register and vote later on?
Point 5: Methodology matters. When are these polls being conducted? Who is being polled? Are pollsters questioning the person who answers the telephone? Are they questioning the head of the household? Who is more likely to answer the telephone at 10:30 in the morning? Who is more likely to answer the telephone at 8:30 in the evening? And how does calling during dinnertime affect people's responses? Surely these variables all have at least some subtle impact on how the results turn out. A poll with an overrepresented sampling of housewives might yield different results from a poll that oversamples single men. And what do pollsters do about voters who don't have landline phones? Many younger people only have cell phones, which make it harder for pollsters to reach them. Where do their opinions factor into the polling data? And is the pollster calling people using real people or robocalls? Are respondents speaking to pollsters directly or pressing 1 for McCain and 2 for Clinton?
Point 6: Timing matters. Why should a poll taken before a major political development be averaged with a poll taken after the development? Does a poll taken four days before a major event by one pollster have any relevance if there are polls taken two days afterwards by a different pollster with a different methodology? And what about polls that were taken one day before, the day of, and one day after this event? Some polls are snapshots that measure public opinion on just one particular day. Others gather data from a three-day period. How could these polls be given equal weight? This further dilutes the significance of the average that the "polls of polls" purport.
Point 7: Some people don't feel strongly about the remaining candidates. Consider this question:
Whom do you support for President? Hillary Clinton, John McCain, or Barack Obama?
If you don't support any of them, will the pollster treat you as "none of the above" or will they press you to choose whom you are most likely to support at present? If the latter is the case, that would presumably benefit the candidate with the highest name recognition, which automatically biases the results. And because different polling organizations use different methods of prompting respondents to choose a candidate even if they really have no preference, that further muddies the "poll of polls" results. Is a 47% level of support for Hillary Clinton really 47%? Or is it 42% because of the uncommitted leaners? Would you want to build your "poll of polls" average on such shaky data? And what do you do if you are a Libertarian or a Green?
It seems that people like dissecting polls so much because they are looking for any indication of trouble on the horizon for a particular candidate. They also provide more fodder for pundits to overanalyze and use to frame the next 24-hour news cycle. "The horserace" is fun for pundits, journalists, and political junkies everywhere, but given the overt flaws in the methodology of what they often obsess over (polls), they might be better off keeping their bombast in check because these polling averages and "polls of polls" simply don't hold water.
Barack Obama lost last week's Pennsylvania primary by 10 points. Since then, Clinton and the media have been buzzing about the notion that Obama may actually be a weaker general election candidate than the former First Lady. This was the source of a good debate over at Not Very Bright, one of the more popular South Carolina bloggers. NVB correctly argued that even though Obama lost Pennsylvania, the fact remains that Clinton did not amass enough pledged delegates to make a difference. I disagreed and said that pledged delegates don't really matter because superdelegates' main responsibility is to nominate someone who can win in November, and not to simply echo the winner of the pledged delegate race. (Normally, these two ideas coincide, but this year might be different.)
However, this post will not address the electability of both candidates. Instead, I will just pretend that this race is over and that Barack Obama will be the nominee. Thus, the focus switches from how he can finally put Clinton away to whom he will tap as his running mate, which leads me to this post.
First, Obama's running mate must satisfy several preconditions:
1. This candidate cannot be a knuckle dragging partisan. Such a candidate would cancel out his message of unity.
2. This candidate must not be an Iraq defender. It would be ideal for Obama to tap someone who had similar "judgment" regarding the war, but politicians who have since come out against it probably aren't disqualified. This "judgment" is one of the cornerstones of his campaign, so he cannot choose a running mate who contradicts this.
3. This candidate should be able to appeal to Whites and rural voters. Obama is still smarting from his ill-conceived remarks about rural voters "clinging" to guns and religion. Blacks, liberal Whites, and urban voters were already in Obama's corner. More moderate and rural Whites were slowly warming up to him. They may have been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt earlier, but taking Bittergate in conjunction with Michelle Obama's "proud" remarks and Jeremiah Wright might be too much for them to overlook. And there also remains a silent subset of the electorate that is simply uncomfortable voting for someone of color, as the Bradley effect suggests.
4. This candidate should be able to compensate for Obama's perceived weaknesses regarding experience and national defense. Tapping a Senate freshman or a one-term governor would not do much to quell the concerns about Obama not being ready for primetime.
5. This candidate should help heal the rift that has opened up between the Obama and Clinton camps. The acrimony between them is creating real divisions that risk sending Democrats to John McCain in November or keeping Democrats at home. This is not to say that Obama needs to ask Clinton to be his veep, but he does need to extend an olive branch somehow to her supporters, lest he risk having to spend precious weeks trying to win them back the hard way.
So let's address some of the more common names generating VP buzz:
John Edwards will not be on the bottom half of an Obama ticket. To start, Edwards already ran for VP and would probably loathe to do it a second time around. Secondly, Edwards was unable to deliver North Carolina for John Kerry in 2004, so his electoral heft is weak. And finally, Edwards has yet to endorse Obama--a point not lost on the Obama campaign. Maybe Obama would tap Edwards to be Attorney General, Secretary of Labor, or a poverty czar, but Vice President is probably out of the question.
A lot of people have been buzzing about Senator Jim Webb of Virginia. A former Republican with a strong military background, Webb would certainly enhance Obama's ticket by providing credibility on foreign affairs, national defense, and the ability to appeal to rural voters and gun owners. The problem with Webb, however, is that he is a perfect fit for Virginia as its junior senator. Should he be tapped for Vice President, his Senate seat would be lost. Yes, the governor of Virginia is a Democrat who would appoint a Democrat to replace Webb, but the most attractive candidate (former Governor Mark Warner) is already running for retiring Senator John Warner's seat. With the prospect of the Democrats making it to a filibuster-proof 60 Senate seats, Webb would probably be better off representing the people of Virginia.
General Wesley Clark would be an attractive option in that he would help bridge the gap between the Obama and Clinton camps. As a former NATO commander and four-star general, Clark would instantly give Obama's ticket the ability to go toe-to-toe with or even outdo John McCain when it comes to military affairs. It's hard to tell a retired four-star general that he is weak on defense. Clark would also probably deliver Arkansas and give McCain a run for his money in Virginia. Clark ran unsuccessfully for the White House in 2004 and only won the primary in Oklahoma before being forced to quit. Since then, he has improved his political skills and is probably a better campaigner now. This would be a smart pick for Obama.
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson turned out to be one of the biggest busts of this year's presidential cycle. He had the ultimate resume, but turned out to be a disappointing candidate in the debates and struggled to connect with voters. However, now that the race for #1 is more or less settled, perhaps he can relax a bit more knowing that he simply has to run against John McCain instead of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Joe Biden at the same time. Richardson would be a tremendous help to Obama because he could help deliver the Latino vote and make New Mexico and Colorado more competitive. And the fact that Richardson drew the Clintons' ire (and was even called Judas) by endorsing Obama displayed a level of courage and loyalty that John Edwards has failed to do thus far. The National Rifle Association loves Richardson and he cannot be pegged as a tax-and-spend Democrat. But would a "black-brown" ticket be too much "change" for the nation to handle at once?
Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius endorsed Obama and is highly popular in her state. She would be able to appeal to red state voters as well as female Clinton voters. If Obama wishes to heal the rift between his camp and Clinton's, she might be an attractive way to do so. White women form the base of Clinton's support and many of them are sticking with her because of the historical nature of her candidacy and the perception that her rivals and the media have been unfair to her because of it. But are they loyal to Clinton because she's a Clinton, or are they loyal to Clinton because she's a woman? If it's the latter, then Governor Sebelius may be able to help. If it's the former, Clinton's female supporters will either have to grudgingly accept Obama or simply stay home. Kansas is an overwhelmingly Republican state. Even with Sebelius on the ticket, it might be too much to ask of her to deliver it in a presidential election year.
Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano also endorsed Obama early and is popular in her state. However, she was unable to deliver Arizona for Obama in the primary. And the fact that favorite son John McCain hails from Arizona, she probably couldn't deliver the state for him in November either. If Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, or Mike Huckabee were the Republican nominee, maybe Napolitano would be a more attractive option. But John McCain eliminates her because of his popularity in her state.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg appears unlikely. He has lots of money, but probably does not add much to an Obama ticket. His greatest assets are his personal wealth and the fact that he's an independent. That ties in nicely with Obama's message of unity. But what state could Bloomberg deliver? Obama should be able to win New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey without him. Thus, it's hard to see the argument for Bloomberg over other options.
Retiring Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska would be a fascinating choice for veep. Like Wesley Clark, Hagel gives Obama some much needed heft in terms of military and foreign affairs expertise. And as a Republican, he would definitely lend credibility to Obama's message of unity. A Hagel pick would show voters that Obama doesn't just talk about bipartisanship, but actually practices it. Hagel was considered part of the Unity '08 movement and was rumored to be considering a third-party ticket with Bloomberg. Surely he'd be receptive to running with Obama because they both have an interest in getting politicians of all stripes to work together. Having a split ticket like this would make it really hard for Republicans to paint Obama as an ultra liberal because ultra liberals don't select center-right Republicans as their running mates. And should John McCain choose independent Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate, a Hagel nod would offset it as far as "bipartisanship" is concerned. Hagel is well respected both in Nebraska and the Senate and would help Obama connect with rural Whites and Republicans who have soured on Iraq.
Former Vice President Al Gore could be an attractive option for Obama, although it's not certain whether Gore would be up for campaigning for anything other than the top job. Climate change and the environment are very important to him and he could have a greater impact on this from the White House than he could as a private citizen. Gore would please the Democratic base, but his appeal among Republicans would be limited. Independents who voted for Bush and regret having done so may be willing to give Gore a chance. The biggest problem with a Gore pick, however, is that he contradicts Obama's message of looking to the future. If Hillary Clinton is part of the past, wouldn't Al Gore be part of the past as well? It seems more likely that Gore would be an emergency consensus nominee (presidential, not vice presidential) in the event that chaos erupts at the party convention this summer and the superdelegates are deadlocked over Obama and Clinton. Gore's probably the most respected party elder who has yet to jump in the current food fight, but look for him to play some role in the process sometime in the future.
Hillary Clinton will not be on the bottom half of an Obama ticket. That was true when I first wrote about this in February and it's still true now. The fact is, she needs him far more than he needs her. If Clinton somehow became the nominee, she'd be obligated to tap him for veep or risk tearing the Democratic Party in half. Obama does not have this obligation to Clinton, however, even though it would be in his and the party's best interest to make some conciliatory gesture to her camp. This is what makes Wesley Clark the most obvious pick at present.
Hillary Clinton won yesterday's Pennsylvania primary by 10 points. This margin of victory was healthy enough to allow Clinton to stave off calls for her to withdraw from the race and cede the nomination to rival Barack Obama. More importantly, surviving Pennsylvania allows her to compete in the upcoming primaries in Indiana and North Carolina on May 6.
Last month I wrote about how Clinton could emerge from the wilderness and salvage her chances at winning the nomination. (Check out Part 1 and Part 2 of "Anatomy of a Clinton Comeback.") In short, here are the five tips I offered:
1. Contain Bill Clinton.
2. Don't drop out, regardless of what happens in Ohio and Texas.
3. Stop complaining and fight.
4. Wait for Obama to implode.
5. Turn Iraq into an advantage.
How did she do?
Regarding Point 1, Bill Clinton has been considerably better behaved. He's made a few silly remarks, such as suggesting that Obama is the one who played the race card in South Carolina. But compared to how adversely he was impacting his wife's campaign before Super Tuesday, he has not been an obvious net negative. Check.
As for Point 2, she won Ohio convincingly and won a media victory in Texas even though Obama won more delegates. Winning these states lent credence to her argument that she's been able to win the big states. It also gave rise to whispers about why Obama couldn't close the deal and wrap up the nomination. Check.
Point 3 was a critical one. Since Junior Super Tuesday, she's been playing hardball by invoking Jeremiah Wright and echoing Harry Truman: "If you can't stand the heat, then get out of the kitchen." So she's been scrapping for rebounds and throwing a few elbows. Even better, Obama seems not to have taken this tip into consideration because he was the one who was whining after the last debate in Philadelphia and was diminished because of it. Check.
Point 4 has been quite generous to Clinton. March and April have given us "bitter," "God Damn America," whining about debate questions, accusations of elitism, effeminate bowling, and a weak debate performance. What's the scorecard against Clinton? Sniper fire. I'm sure that's a tradeoff she'd be willing to take. Check.
And as for Point 5, Iraq is not as big of an issue as it once was. Nobody was able to lay a glove on General David Petraeus at his recent Senate testimony and voters seem to realize that regardless of our feelings about our troop presence there, we will be in Iraq for a very, very long time. Being against the war from the very beginning doesn't seem as important anymore, especially now that we're five years into the conflict. Check.
Looks like Clinton is well on her way. So what about Obama?
The Pennsylvania primary is significant because in addition to being the first contest in about seven weeks, it is also the first contest that has taken place since several controversies and unforced errors sandbagged Obama. Here are some possible explanations for why he struggled in the Keystone State:
1. Perhaps he peaked too soon. When Obama was running up the score in February, he put the pledged delegate race out of reach and had all the momentum and campaign cash he could have asked for. But because he never made it to 2025 delegates, he could never definitively put her away. After Super Tuesday, the caucuses and primaries slowed to a trickle, thus placing an even greater spotlight on the bigger states that had yet to vote. Nobody cares that Obama won Vermont or Wyoming. But everybody knows that Clinton won Ohio. Obama may have won a lot more states than Clinton, but his lead in the popular vote is small and he lacks a truly convincing victory in a major blue state outside of Illinois.
Clinton has constantly reminded everyone that she has won New York, California, New Jersey, Ohio, and now Pennsylvania. In response, Obama correctly argues that John McCain is not going to win those states, but it does beg the question of why Obama is not doing so well among Democrats in Democratic states. Running up the score in places that no Democrat stands a chance of winning in November (places like Nebraska, Alabama, and North Dakota) doesn't mean anything. Being able to hold down New Jersey and Pennsylvania is a bit more meaningful.
So it would appear that even though the Obama train has left the station, it still has yet to reach its destination because it doesn't seem like the driver knows where to go or how to get there. The fact remains that Obama has not been able to deliver the knockout punch to Clinton. Ned Lamont made the same mistake after beating Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary race of 2006. Obama had the chance to turn out the lights on Clinton in New Hampshire, on Super Tuesday, in Ohio, and just now in Pennsylvania. Voters do seem to like Obama, but they don't quite like him enough to put him over the top yet. Could it be that voters are having second thoughts about him or that Obamamania has reached its peak and is fading?
2. Burnout. It is worth keeping in mind that no politician can sustain the momentum and enthusiasm Barack Obama has generated. Obama has certainly been able to capitalize on his wide appeal through his fundraising prowess and the diversity that characterizes his supporters. However, this presidential campaign has been going on for over a year now. About 80% of the states had already voted before Pennsylvania, so everyone should know who Obama is and what he stands for by now. The fact that Pennsylvania Democrats rejected him by such a significant margin suggests that either his act has worn thin among voters or that there are a lot of voters who simply have yet to warm up to him. And if they're not aboard the Obama train by now, will they ever be?
3. Jeremiah Wright is a very, very big deal. The Pennsylvania primary is the first electoral contest that has taken place since "God Damn America" entered our political dialogue. Obama gave a much anticipated speech on race in America last month which was supposed to bring this and other race-related controversies to a close. However, in my analysis of that speech, I argued:
"The biggest problem with Obama's speech is that it was a bit too cerebral for the voters who most needed to hear it. This is not to say that downscale Whites, for example, are unintelligent or bigoted. However, to appreciate the full value of Obama's speech, one needs to invest the time in sitting down and reading the entire transcript of the speech or watching it on YouTube. However, most voters, regardless of ideology, simply don't do that. Either they don't have regular access to the internet or they simply don't have the time because of their other responsibilities. Or perhaps they do have the time, but aren't interested enough in doing this research on their own. For better or worse, we live in a soundbyte political culture which explains why simple slogans like "cut and run" and "he was before it before he was against it" trump nuance and complexity every time."Obama may complain about how Hillary Clinton is using Wright as a wedge issue, but her attacks on him are nothing compared to what the GOP will do in a general election campaign. (The North Carolina Republican Party is already causing mischief.) Wright remains controversial and in the minds of many voters, Black and White alike, Obama has not sufficiently addressed their concerns about his relationship with him. And it is quite possible that these reservations were expressed at the ballot box.
"Of course, Obama was asking voters of all races to be honest with themselves about their own private apprehensions regarding their prejudices. That's fine. And voters who don't feel they need to have this discussion or engage in this introspection are essentially missing the point of the speech. However, politics is not about speeches, nor is it about how well people understand these speeches. It's about how they react to them. My sense is that blue-collar Whites probably did not (or will not) react favorably to this speech even though this is not necessarily their fault or Obama's fault. In these voters' minds, Obama may be well-spoken and inspirational. But when they listen to his pastor's words, they are offended and disturbed. And when they consider the fact that Obama has been closely associated with this pastor for 20 years, they will wonder exactly how much Obama and this pastor have in common."
4. "Bitter" bit back. The whole "bitter" miniscandal provided yet another case study in how one can be totally right on the theoretical arguments and totally wrong on the gut-level politics. This is like Obama's self-induced controversy of not wearing a flag pin. It would have been tremendously easy for Obama to simply put on a flag pin even if he privately knew that wearing one was not required to truly be patriotic. However, he chose to argue against political common sense. Since then, he has been dogged by questions about his patriotism. This was an unforced error that has snowballed into something particularly debilitating for him, especially since it dovetails with accusations of snobbery to create an increasingly unattractive caricature of Obama as an unpatriotic Black liberal elitist.
The same scenario holds true for "bitter." In those much publicized remarks, intentionally or unintentionally, Obama disparaged churchgoers, gun owners, and rural voters in general. Not coincidentally, CNN's exit polls show that Obama lost to Clinton among (wait for it) churchgoers, gun owners, and rural voters. Correlation does not necessarily mean causation, but it's hard to write these results off as anything but rural voters' punishing Obama for stomping on their culture of religion and guns while implying that they are bigots in the process. Whether this punishment will be restricted to Pennsylvania or if it will have longer lasting implications remains to be seen, however.
5. Obama got off message and started whining. When I wrote about how Clinton could mount her comeback, I said that she should "stop complaining and fight." Clinton got angry at a debate last month in Ohio because she didn't like getting asked the first question all the time. She even criticized the moderators for not asking if "Obama wants another pillow." I thought this was a terrible move for Clinton at the time:
"This was a stunningly stupid thing for her to say because it only reinforced her negatives, reminded voters that she was losing, sounded petty instead of presidential, and wasted time that could have been better spent articulating her views on something that actually mattered to voters."To be sure, ABC did a lousy job in terms of moderating the debate. Obama has a legitimate beef about not being asked any policy questions for the first 45 minutes of the debate. However, his biggest mistake was complaining about it after the fact. As a result, he lost several precious news cycles that he could have used to sharpen his message and present his case to the voters. A four-point loss would have created far less damaging headlines than those originating from the ten-point loss he endured last night. Obama would have been better served by letting others complain about the media while he simply dusted himself off and got back on the trail. Whining about the bad questions took him off message at the time he most needed his message to get out. Oh, and the media will only get tougher on you once you actually make it into the White House. Just ask the current president. So Obama had better get used to it.
"When sharks smell blood, they attack. And that's what the media did after the debate. Her overall performance at the Cleveland debate was actually quite steady and commendable, but because of her whining, a lot of time was spent responding to that instead of lauding her grasp of policy."
6. You can't win a battle if you don't fight. Obama is well known for his uplifting rhetoric and his political purity. The problem for Obama, however, as Pennsylvania showed, is that politics is not about honor and unity. It's about votes. And Hillary Clinton has been better at getting raw votes as of late. She may have high negatives, and she may be reinforcing these negatives by pursuing her "kitchen sink" strategy. But none of that matters because it's working. Obama may be the nice guy with the higher approval ratings, but that's not what it takes to win the nomination.
According to the CNN exit polls 67% of voters thought Obama was "honest and trustworthy" compared to 58% who felt the same about Clinton. 67% of voters thought Clinton attacked Obama unfairly while only 50% felt the same about Obama attacking Clinton. News flash to Obama: Being seen as the more honorable candidate doesn't mean so much if you lose the election. A reputation is useless without the votes to back it up.
Love her or hate her, Hillary Clinton can fight. And if she's willing to go to the mat for her own candidacy, it suggests to voters that she will be willing to go to the mat for America as President. Obama has done an awful job of defending and standing up for himself. He should be given credit for trying to take the high road and elevate our political dialogue, but nobody remembers who came in second. There are no consolation prizes when it comes to politics.
If Obama truly cannot take a hit and fight back, it's better for Democrats to find this out now than to find out in September against John McCain. Obama's going to have to be a bit more aggressive and direct because trying to campaign from 30,000 feet and avoid getting a few grass stains on your clothes isn't working.
7. The Democratic Party is truly divided into two camps and Clinton's camp is larger. Does Hillary Clinton represent the centrist wing of the party while Barack Obama represents the liberal wing? Remember, the Pennsylvania primary was closed to Republicans and independents. This could explain why the race has become so polarized, but this point alone deserves its own post.
In the end, Barack Obama is still the odds on favorite to win the nomination, but Hillary Clinton has successfully reframed the race in a way that says pledged delegates no longer matter. Her audience now is no longer the voters. It's the superdelegates, and neither candidate can win the nomination without them. And as the doubts about Obama pile up, Clinton's stock value will continue to rise. It appears that May 6 (Super Tuesday III) will be Obama's last chance to put Clinton away. Losing both North Carolina and Indiana would be absolutely disastrous to his campaign. And given how Obama appears to be stalled right now, this is not outside the realm of possibility.
The impetus for this post came from three events:
1. One of the more active discussions currently taking place in the blogosphere, at least as it pertains to my blogroll, is a discussion about intelligent design over at According to Nikki, a conservative political satire blog written by Nikki Richards. In her post, which has generated more than 20 comments, Richards suggested that both intelligent design and evolution be taught as "legitimate 'theories' in science," presumably in public schools.
2. Earlier this month, residents of Columbia, South Carolina, where I live, voted by a more than 2 to 1 margin to allow alcohol sales on Sunday, with the exception of liquor. For those who are unaware, blue laws are still in effect throughout South Carolina and other Southern states. For example, shops in the western half of Columbia, located in Lexington County, are not allowed to open until 1:30pm on Sundays while shops in the eastern half of the city, which lies in Richland County, can open at 10:00 or 11:00.
3. Before the GOP nomination was settled, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney were heavily criticized by the religious wing of the Republican Party. The criticism of Romney was unfair, as it pertained to his Mormon faith, which made lots of evangelical Christians uncomfortable. The thrice married and socially moderate Giuliani was simply out of step with the conservative base on issues like abortion and gay rights. And John McCain was not trusted because he once referred to Christian conservative heavyweights Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "agents of intolerance" and did not make social issues the centerpiece of his campaign. This is what made Mike Huckabee so popular among the frequent churchgoers.
These three seemingly unrelated issues strike at one of the main problems confronting the modern Republican Party. One could argue that there are four main wings of the GOP: religious/social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, anti-tax conservatives, and defense hawks. But on a broader and more important level, today's Republican Party consists primarily of an awkward coalition of Southern religious conservatives and Western libertarian conservatives. Moderate Republicans from the Northeast and Midwest are a dying breed.
During the Bush administration, the Southern religious brand of conservatism has had the stronger influence regarding the party platform. This has held true for issues like gay marriage, stem cell research, and curbing abortion rights. John McCain, on the other hand, represents the Western, more libertarian brand of conservatism. Thus, his commitment to these issues is suspect.
Here's the problem: One of the principal tenets of conservatism is the idea of "limited government." It is an easily digestible slogan that clearly allows voters to understand the difference between Republicans and Democrats. However, the agendas of religious conservatives and libertarian conservatives are incompatible in this regard.
Consider the Nikki Richards blog post I cited earlier about teaching schoolchildren intelligent design. Surely there are lots of conservative politicians who agree with her and some who would like to take things a bit further by instituting prayer in the classroom or putting the Ten Commandments in public buildings. But wouldn't the government's mandating of increasing the profile of religion (namely Christianity) in the public square and public classrooms reek of the same "big government" initiatives conservatives commonly criticize liberals of advocating? This is neither an endorsement nor a condemnation of intelligent design, school prayer, or the display of the Ten Commandments in government buildings. However, the contradiction is obvious.
Regarding blue laws, "big government" has infringed upon people's freedom to buy alcoholic beverages whenever they choose. I spent my childhood and adolescent years living in Germany, where alcohol was sold everyday. And I lived in Japan from 2003 to 2007. Like Germany, Japan also has 24-hour alcohol sales, but they even have vending machines that sell alcoholic beverages. So coming back to South Carolina, a staunchly conservative state, it was a surprise to not be allowed to buy wine on a Sunday even though I wanted to use it for cooking rather than drinking.
Defenders of blue laws claim that they are necessary to promote and preserve public morality. But aren't these advocates guilty of trying to use the government to shape society's values in the same way that they criticize "activist judges" and liberals in general for doing when it comes to discussing homosexuality and anything but abstinence in public schools?
To further muddy the waters, libertarian conservatives don't really care one way or the other about these issues, so long as they are decided at the state or local level. And if the local voters decide to do something they fundamentally disagree with, they accept it as a consequence of the will of the voters. But religious conservatives would be more likely to recoil in horror and take steps to overturn such a verdict that is out of line with their beliefs.
The constitutional bans on gay marriage were a major issue in several states in 2004 and are largely credited with George Bush's reelection. Several states have also placed similar bans on the ballot since then. However, consider these three results: Conservative Mississippi overwhelmingly approved the ban, similarly conservative South Dakota almost defeated the ban, and equally conservative Arizona became the first state to actually have the initiative rejected outright by voters. All three states are easy layups for Republicans in presidential elections, so why did they yield such different results? It's because their brands of conservatism are different.
Since John McCain's initial repudiation of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, he has made nice with the religious conservative community. At a time when Republicans are not particularly enthusiastic about their political fortunes (though the bickering between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may change that), McCain knows that he will need their support in the general election. But the only way to win this support is to pursue their agenda even if it contradicts his own principles.
Religious conservatives may talk about the importance of "small government," but it seems they very much want "big government" when it comes to promoting or protecting the causes that are important to them. Likewise, libertarian conservatives value "small government" as well. However, what if this "limited government" approach to governance leads to the adoption of laws and ordinances that are morally offensive to large numbers of voters?
Public morality and limited influence from Washington are both attractive political messages. However, it is becoming increasingly clear these two goals are often incompatible. Were Clinton and Obama not so busy highlighting the divisions that exist among the Democrats, would the spotlight not be on their equally divided conservative opposition?
Last night Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama participated in their first debate in about two months in Philadelphia. This debate was significant because it represented the last best chance in which the two candidates could impact the race before the Pennsylvania primary on April 22. For Obama, a strong performance likely would have led to a much narrower Clinton victory in the primary, which could easily be spun as a moral victory for Obama who wasn't expected to win Pennsylvania to begin with. And for Clinton, a solid performance would have helped her pad her margin of probable victory in Pennsylvania and help change the narrative that she should simply get out now because Obama is the superior candidate.
Obama has more money, has won more states, has won more popular votes, and has broader electoral appeal than Hillary Clinton in terms of demographics. However, could Hillary Clinton really be the superior candidate? During the debate last night, Obama's delivery was devoid of the passion and authority with which he normally speaks. He found himself having to deal with the same controversies he thought he had put to rest long ago, such as his patriotism, Jeremiah Wright, and the Weather Underground. While discussing these issues, he seemed both annoyed and dispirited--hardly qualities that appeal to voters. It was quite obvious that he did not want to go down this road yet again. Surely he is being dogged by these questions on a daily basis and wishes these "distractions" would just stop so he could "talk about the issues."
But that's not going to happen. And worse for Obama, this is only the beginning.
An important point to remember is that this is merely the Democratic nomination race. While Obama may be able to survive and win the nomination, by no means will he be free from these controversies in the fall against John McCain and the Republicans. They will hammer him on his patriotism, his perceived racist church, and his perceived condescension towards downscale voters on a level that makes the attacks from Hillary Clinton look like flag football. If Obama is unable to take these hits from Clinton, he will be toast when he has the entire Republican campaign apparatus against him.
Hillary Clinton knows she will never be able to catch Obama in terms of pledged delegates. There simply aren't enough of them left, especially given the Democrats' proportional allocation of delegates. And she likely won't win the popular vote either. However, she does have one powerful card left to play: the doubts of the superdelegates.
Back when Obama was seen as a blank slate, it was an advantage in that there was no dirt on him. But now negative stories are trickling out and are making Obama look increasingly unattractive. These are not insignificant stories, such as past DUIs or fraternity-style pranks. These are politically significant problems that Democrats should be concerned with.
One of the questions asked at the debate concerned Obama's feelings about the American flag. This question was likely a result of Pingate (the controversy surrounding Obama not wearing a flag pin on his lapel) and the now famous picture of Obama not covering his heart during the playing of the national anthem. This kind of imagery really matters to a lot of voters, and Republicans can't wait to exploit it. Pingate dovetails with Michelle Obama's remarks about being "proud of her country for the first time in her life" and Jeremiah Wright's incendiary sermons. Is this nation, not long removed from "freedom fries," really prepared to send a candidate whose patriotism is suspect to the White House?
The case Clinton can make to the superdelegates is that Obama is a paper tiger who is simply too risky and far weaker in a general election than his fundraising and support in Republican bastions like Nebraska indicate. Clinton raised a valid point when she acknowledged that she had a lot of "baggage" at the debate last night. But she also added that she's a known quantity. Clinton is no saint, but at least she could say that the demon that the voters do know is preferable to the demon that the voters don't know. She might have her warts, but she does know how to fight and will not wilt under pressure or criticism. Obama, on the other hand, seems more hesitant and may use his rhetoric of "moving past this old way of doing politics" as an excuse because he really doesn't know that politics is not beanbag.
Both candidates have a point. But here's some further evidence that buttresses Clinton's argument. Negative politics works. It might not be attractive and it might tamp down voters' enthusiasm, but rarely do nice guys finish first at the ballot box. Everybody decries negative campaign ads and complains about how negative politics is. But they end up voting for these negative candidates anyway because their messages and charges resonate. The Willie Horton ad devastated Michael Dukakis in 1988. The allegations of John McCain fathering a Black child in the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary worked. The windsurfing ad permanently wounded John Kerry. Cerebral messages attempting to appeal to voters on an analytical level rather than a gut level often fail. Strength matters more than smartness when it comes to how people select their leaders. Does Obama know how to fight? If he won't stand up for himself, how do voters know he will stand up for America?
Should Hillary Clinton win Pennsylvania, she could make a strong case to the superdelegates there that she has a better shot of winning the state than Obama does. Obama could make it to the White House without winning Florida and Ohio because of his strength in places like Colorado and possibly Virginia, but losing Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania would be a disaster from which he could not conceivably make up enough ground to salvage the general election. Superdelegates in California, New Jersey, New York, and Texas likely understand this equation as well. Will they place what's best for the party ahead of what's best for the voters, even if that means tearing the party apart?
A second point to consider is the idea that Obama's margins of victory in the earlier states could be smaller if these states had the chance to vote all over again. How many people considered themselves strong Obama supporters in the past before the Jeremiah Wright and Bittergate stories broke? How many of these voters wish they could take their votes back and give them to Clinton or even John Edwards? And how much more negative stuff is out there about Obama? Earlier I speculated that the Democratic Party could be irreparably damaged by Clinton winning the nomination on the backs of superdelegates even if she lost the popular vote. However, could more Democrats actually be more content with her potential nomination than was originally thought? Does buyer's remorse exist among Obama voters? And if so, how much? And if this buyer's remorse regarding Obama coexists with serious reservations about Clinton despite Obama's unattractiveness, would this make the prospect of an Al Gore nomination a bit more appealing?
This race is not over.
The ongoing controversy surrounding Barack Obama and his "elitist" remarks has struck a chord with me. It's not because I'm offended by his remarks. And it's not because some rural voters are offended by his remarks. It's the fact that the people who are complaining the loudest about these "elitist" remarks are "elitists" themselves.
Every election cycle it seems that politicians trip over themselves in their attempts to appear like regular people. They create campaign commercials showing them driving tractors, wearing blue jeans, clearing brush, and and fixing their trucks. They pose for shots of them chatting with the locals at bowling alleys, eating greasy hamburgers at state fairs, checking out the watermelons at farmers' markets, and having productive conversations with residents on the sidewalks in their communities.
But let's not kid ourselves.
No politician, especially at the federal level, is "just like us." It doesn't matter how much hay a politician throws in the back of his truck. It doesn't matter how many buttons of his shirt are undone. And it doesn't matter how many pairs of cowboy boots he has.
By and large, politicians are highly educated, well connected, wealthy people who generally don't know what it's like to be or are anything but "just like us." By virtue of even successfully making it to Congress, it shows that they had the financial resources and knew enough influential people to help get them that far in their political careers.
This is not to say that politicians are incapable of empathizing with regular people, nor am I saying that "average people" are poor. But congressmen and senators make well over $150,000 a year with gold-plated pension plans and health insurance policies that millions of Americans can only dream of. They can vote on raises for themselves every year and have the power to make laws (loopholes and all) that create the least threat to their standard of living. Most of them have master's degrees, doctorates, MBAs, or law degrees. And they got these degrees from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke (full disclosure: I'm a Duke alum), Georgetown, Northwestern, Cornell, Dartmouth, and the military academies. And before they even made it to Washington, so many of them were lawyers, university professors, campaign/political staffers, consultants, high ranking corporate figures, or bigshots in their state or local governments.
In other words, they pretty much have an elite background.
How many of these politicians are products of the public school system? How many of them were office secretaries, truck drivers, high school math teachers, department store clerks, or meter maids? How many of them have ever shopped at the Dollar Tree or regularly buy their groceries at Walmart? How many of them drive 1993 Chevy Cavaliers or carpool to work so they can save on gas?
Obviously we want our politicians to be intelligent, competent, insightful people. As CNN's Roland Martin points out, that's why career janitors and other "average people" don't get elected. So we know that our politicians are likely going to be a little smarter, wealthier, and better connected than the rest of us. That's to be expected. But for these privileged people to criticize one of their own for being what they all are is absolutely preposterous.
Why are these people complaining so much about Obama being an "elitist?" Barack Obama is actually the least elite presidential candidate when it comes to personal wealth. And his biography is a lot more similar to those of regular people as well. To be sure, Obama has a lot of money, graduated from a prestigious school, and probably doesn't have to worry about not having enough money to support his family ever again. He's doing quite well now. But for the even wealthier and better connected Hillary Clinton and the wealthier still John McCain (a career elite senator) to lob the word "elitist" at him is not credible. And all the surrogates, talking heads, high profile opinionists, and journalists who are hammering him for this, including talk radio hosts on the right and Clinton supporters on the left, should take their 401(k) plans, their two or three houses, their ironclad pensions, their stock options, their offshore investments, their luxury SUVs, their private school alumni association memberships, their guaranteed 12 inches of personal space in the New York Times, their 60 minute show on Fox News, and their million-dollar salaries and stop embarrassing themselves through their hypocrisy.
I am not an Obama supporter, nor have I ever donated to his campaign. However, hearing someone with $50 million call someone with $5 million an "elitist" is not going to endear me any further to the person with the $50 million. Do voters pay attention to this? Or is one cowboy hat and one dirty fingernail all it takes for them to realize that the product of Harvard Law School who raked in millions from a consulting job that he got because of the friends he had in high places is really "one of them"?
Give me a break. It's okay to be an elitist. You can go to all the posh parties, have a personal chauffeur and landscaper, and live in the Hamptons all you want. I don't care about any of that stuff and will not begrudge you for it. If you're wealthy and well-connected, you probably worked hard to get to that point and deserve to be able to provide a good life for yourself and your family. Heck, someday I hope to be able to reach your level too. But don't pompously try to call someone out for being exactly what you are as well.
Barack Obama's "bitter" remarks have gotten an extraordinary amount of coverage in the media over the past few days (such as here, here, and here). Journalists, pundits, and elected officials of all political persuasions have pounced on these remarks and speculated on how adversely they will impact his campaign.
Hillary Clinton, for example, has turned the words "bitter" and "cling" into potential political gold by creating a campaign ad slamming Obama as offensive and elitist. She also slammed him at the recent CNN Compassion Forum.
John McCain, who stayed far away from the Jeremiah Wright controversy, had no problems jumping in the fray by calling Obama's remarks elitist. Perhaps because class arguments are politically safer than discussing race, "straight talk" is easier for McCain to engage in this time around. Regardless, this episode has surely been good for his fundraising.
Regarding the media itself, there are some who are focusing strictly on the word "bitter" as an insult. Others took offense over the use of the phrases "cling to guns" and "cling to religion" because they seemingly demean their rural voters' cultural identities (churchgoing sportsmen). And more are discussing how Obama is coming off as an elitist in the mold of failed presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.
However, could Obama actually wind up as the beneficiary of the aftermath of his awkward remarks?
Comparatively little is being said about the main point of his remarks, which is that these rural voters often vote against their economic self interests because the cynicism and frustration brought about by the loss of jobs in their communities and the lack of affordable healthcare (which affect more than just rural voters) make them more apt to respond to social wedge issues that capitalize on their frustrations, again at the expense of their economic well-being. This was well argued by Obama supporter Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who also appeared in this latest Obama campaign ad.
And more importantly, the more John McCain and Hillary Clinton try to score political points off of this story, the more it makes both of them look like political opportunists who are thus offering more of the same. This plays right into Obama's message of presenting something new. And the fact that Obama did indeed make a mistake could actually make him appear more humble or more accessible because it shows voters that he too is capable of making a mistake. After all, it is Obama who has traditionally been seen as the second coming of JFK or the political Messiah who could do no wrong.
Ironically, McCain may have inadvertently helped Obama by reminding voters that he (McCain) "will screw up sometimes and frankly so will you (the media)" but that he has "trust in the American people to get it right in the end." One of the first rules of politics is that when your opponent is digging himself a hole, don't hand him a shovel. McCain may have done just that, even if unintentionally.
The ongoing frenzy also advantages Obama because open-minded voters (e.g., undecided voters or those who had not written him off from the getgo) who are paying attention realize the point of what he was trying to say and/or accept his apology and simply want to move on. Gotcha politics reeks of talk and phony outrage, but no meaningful dialogue or solutions. Time politicians spend feigning outrage is time they are not spending presenting their own case to voters.
Could voters reward Obama as a way of punishing the media, the punditry, Hillary Clinton, and his Republican detractors for the way they blew this incident out of proportion? Should this happen, it could be attributable more to a repudiation of politics as usual rather than an actual endorsement of Obama himself. (Consider the uneasy reaction the audience gave when Clinton tried to address this issue recently.) It appears that based on a collection of polls, Obama is actually coming out of this controversy without too much damage. So it would seem that there might indeed be a disconnect between the chattering classes and the actual voters.
Regarding politics as usual, consider this:
1. Hillary Clinton found it necessary to talk about how her father taught her how to shoot when she was a little girl. But when asked when she last fired a gun, she said it was not relevant. That reeked of political opportunism because Clinton is not known for being a fierce defender of the Second Amendment. In the end, that made Clinton look like an empress who had no clothes. In response, Obama deftly compared Clinton to Annie Oakley and jokingly said that Clinton should "know better" because she's not "in the duck blind" every weekend.
2. Barack Obama is a Washington newcomer who has a net worth that is far lower than the other presidential candidates, including those who dropped out of the race. Per her newly released tax returns, Hillary Clinton made well over $100 million in the past eight years.
3. Republicans sound a bit hypocritical accusing Obama of being an elitist because they are the ones who commonly criticize Democrats for engaging in "class warfare." Barack Obama did not grow up as a privileged child with well-to-do parents. He was raised by his sick mother and his grandparents--hardly typical of children born into wealthy families who lived in gated communities located near elite private schools. And how did Obama go from being the inexperienced candidate who wasn't ready for the big leagues to being Mr. Elitist anyway?
This in no way diminishes the potential negative effects of these remarks in the general election. And Hillary Clinton may be hoping that uncommitted superdelegates give her a second look. But given how she may have overplayed her hand and how the punditry and the media are really missing the bus on this issue, Obama may actually come out of this controversy on top.
Last year Barack Obama was the untouchable Golden Boy of American politics. He was the good-looking candidate who represented the next generation of national leaders and had the right name, the right demographics, the right message, and the right biography. America had never seen such a politician before. The excitement surrounding his candidacy led to musings about the second coming of John Kennedy or the political version of Tiger Woods.
How things have changed.
While Obama has come very close to punching his ticket to a date with John McCain in the presidential finals, America's Golden Boy has left the political stratosphere for more earthly territory. While he is still generally liked and is seen as offering something entirely different from what voters are accustomed to, his political opponents are no longer as intimidated by him as they once were. Some of the Obama mystique has worn off, and a larger portion of his support comes not from admiration of him, but rather from the fact that he is "not Hillary Clinton."
Despite his impressive victories in the primaries and caucuses post-Super Tuesday, the past two months have been particularly tough for Obama. He has been the victim of friendly fire in the form of unforced errors and collateral damage at the hands of his allies:
First, Michelle Obama created a mini-firestorm by saying "for the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country." Nobody really believed that Michelle Obama hated the United States as much as Osama bin Laden, but her politically clumsy remarks portrayed her as being insufficiently patriotic.
Then came Barack Obama himself who referred to his grandmother as a "typical White person" in the context of harboring pervasive stereotypes that had existed decades ago. These three words could easily be construed as racially insensitive and stood to threaten Obama's coalition of White support.
These three words were significant because they came on the heels of three more words from his longtime pastor and spiritual adviser Jeremiah Wright that had offended far more people. Until this point, Obama was still seen as being a post-racial unity candidate. However, hearing "God Damn America" brought up a lot of questions about Obama's "judgment" and threatened to turn him into a younger version of Jesse Jackson--a political death sentence.
The latest inflammatory remarks from Obama came this week when Obama referred to rural Whites as "bitter." Here's the main quote:
"You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns, or religion, or antipathy to people who aren't like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."Needless to say, rivals Hillary Clinton and John McCain were outraged.
As a result of these controversies and gaffes, Obama has developed a bit of a perception problem. Has Mr. Unity become Mr. Elitist? That seems to be the consensus among the chattering classes (more reactions here and here). However, could it be that these "gaffes" are making Obama a more appealing candidate who, by the same token, is challenging voters to elevate themselves?
To start, Obama is not bowing to his political enemies' demands. When he was called upon to denounce Jeremiah Wright for his controversial remarks, he did not do so as strongly as his opponents would have liked and refused to throw Wright under the bus. When Michelle Obama said she was "proud of her country for the first time in her adult life," neither she nor Obama took the "mea culpa" route even though his opponents were making political hay out of it, as did Cindy McCain. After awkwardly referring to his grandmother as "a typical White person," he rolled her out in one of his campaign ads. And now after making remarks that may have offended voters in rural America, Obama has again refused to back down. He owned up to the awkwardness of his original remarks, but did not let that prevent him from making his larger point.
Obama's detractors may say he has a pattern of being an anti-White, America-bashing liberal elitist who doesn't respect Middle America. But more often than not, these remarks are coming from people who likely were never going to vote for him anyway. While the case could be made to support these insinuations, Obama's refusal to cower, reject, denounce, and throw his surrogates overboard at his opponents' beck and call could also display a bit of self-confidence and toughness that made the current president so popular. This toughness and sense of self-assurance would help him counter the perception advantage John McCain has in this regard.
On top of this, when taken in the proper context, both Michelle Obama and Jeremiah Wright raise valid points and challenge Americans to avoid knee-jerk thinking. The same could be true about Obama's "typical White person" and "bitter" remarks as well. It is easy to be offended by choice soundbytes and individual words that would not be nearly as offensive if they are part of a larger, more powerful message.
Obama was making the point that rural voters, who tend to be less educated and less well off financially, often vote against their economic self-interests because their frustrations lead them to take their anger out at the ballot box on immigrants, gun-grabbers, abortionists, and non-Christians. These voters in rural Pennsylvania, the swamps of Alabama, the foothills of Kentucky, and the backcountry of Oregon are angry about the price of healthcare, the layoffs at the local mills and factories, and the budget cuts concerning their failing public school systems. In contrast with these negative indicators, pride in their families and country, their faith in God, and their Second Amendment rights are important bright spots in their lives and communities.
Republicans are seen as the protectors of "American values," which presumably include gun rights, a more public Christianity, and unconditional patriotism. However, under Republican stewardship, the economy has soured and a lot of Americans are greatly dissatisfied with the way things are going. So even though "American values" may still be intact in these communities, the jobs are shutting down or going overseas, salaries aren't keeping up with the cost of living, gas prices are two or three times more expensive than they were at the start of the decade, and too many people can't even afford to get sick because of a lack of access to healthcare or an inability to pay for it. If these rural voters continue to place their social concerns over their economic concerns or if they let their anger about "pressing 1 for English" supersede their anger about why their schools are falling behind, then nothing will change for them. This, I believe, is what Obama is arguing.
So Obama has once again potentially angered White voters who don't live in the traditional liberal enclaves of New York, San Francisco, and Seattle. Their anger would be justified, as Obama's remarks seem condescending on their face. However, even though it makes a convenient talking point or wedge issue, this is not new to voters. Bush vs. Kerry was the latest installment of the "regular American" against the "out-of-touch elitist." And this battle takes place in state and local elections across the country every election cycle.
Here's the way the economy is being framed now: One candidate is out of touch with his rhetoric (Obama) while the other is out of touch with his actual policies (McCain). Republicans (and Hillary Clinton) are hoping that voters penalize Obama for his words even though his actual policies would undoubtedly have more of an influence on their actual lives.
Voters respond to messages in different ways. What may offend one voter may soothe another. It seems that Obama is challenging voters to get beyond blinding superficiality and focus on the larger meaning of politics. It may be politically risky, as Republicans are surely licking their chops over these latest remarks, but it also plays right into Obama's message of "a different kind of politics." Instead of telling voters what they want to hear every time like some kind of miracle worker, he's actually challenging voters to reassess their role in the whole political process. It remains to be seen how effective this approach is, but for better or worse, Obama certainly appears to be offering something that neither Clinton nor McCain can match.
Gallup recently released a new poll measuring head-to-head matchups between Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama and John McCain. In both instances, the Democrats were either tied with or marginally ahead of John McCain. These results fly in the face of other polls which overwhelmingly show that the majority of Americans think the nation is on the wrong track, that Iraq was a mistake, and that the percentage of voters who consider themselves Democrats is rising while the percentage of voters who consider themselves Republicans is falling.
Given these data and the advantages that Democrats enjoy on healthcare, the economy, the environment, education, and the generic ballot, why is John McCain performing so strongly against his likely Democratic challengers? Or is it more appropriate to ask why Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are performing so poorly against McCain despite all the advantages they have in the polls and with the electorate's sour mood?
I offer these five possibilities:
1. "Purity" on Iraq is overrated because it matters only to liberal Democrats. Barack Obama's trump card in the Democratic race thus far has been his superior "judgment" regarding the Iraq War. He argues that he got Iraq right from the beginning, whereas Hillary Clinton got it wrong. That is fine, but opposing the war from the very beginning does not bring a single soldier home, nor does it end the fighting in Baghdad. Obama may have displayed his superior "judgment" on Iraq by opposing it initially, but the problem is that it ignores the reality on the ground right now. We don't have the luxury of going back in time and having a revote on the issue. The next president, be it Obama, Clinton, or McCain, is going to inherit a messy, volatile, and urgent situation in Iraq. Americans want to know what the plan is from here on out, not what the plan should have been three or four years ago. There are not enough antiwar liberals in the general electorate to make Obama's position a winner on his Iraq "judgment" alone.
2. John McCain is seen as sufficiently bipartisan. His halo may have dimmed a bit, but the fact remains that McCain benefits from not being seen as a fire-breathing partisan Republican. To be sure, he is a Republican and votes like a Republican. But he has bucked his party and even confronted the President on a few important issues even if they were politically unpopular. Democrats, moderates, and independents probably view his support for "comprehensive immigration reform" as refreshingly pragmatic, rather than predictably dogmatic. His participation in the "Gang of 14" gave Republican partisans fits, but the broader electorate was more likely to view his bipartisan gestures as meaningful attempts to inject a bit of sanity into our political dialogue. He was one of the few Republicans to openly criticize the war's management even though Republicans were clearly circling the wagons (to their own political detriment, as the 2006 election results suggest). This is not token opposition in the eyes of many middle-of-the-road voters. This is not a bunch of protesting when the cameras are running only to vote with your party base in private. McCain has had some substantial disagreements with his party and the White House on several key issues. To Republicans, this may make McCain suspicious. But to the broader electorate, this may make him sufficiently bipartisan. McCain's independence provides an effective foil to Obama's "new politics."
3. Diehard Obamaniacs and Clintonistas are serious about their dislike for their preferred candidate's rival. Last month I argued that nothing but hot air was responsible for the polls that showed a significant portion of Obama and Clinton supporters willing to vote for McCain instead of the Democratic nominee if their preferred candidate did not win the nomination. But what if such polls are true? Unfortunately, the Gallup poll I cited at the beginning of this post does not provide any crosstabs that would reveal how the politicians' support broke down along political lines. While it is true that Clinton and Obama are beating up on each other significantly right now in advance of the Pennsylvania primary, one would think that these Democratic voters consider themselves Democrats before they consider themselves Obama supporters or Clinton supporters. But given the closeness of the Gallup general election polls, polls suggesting irreparable damage to the Democratic Party cannot be dismissed.
4. McCain is getting a free pass by the media and his Democratic rivals. With the Republican race all sewn up, there simply isn't much news for the media to cover. Instead, the cable news networks are focusing more on the sparring between Obama and Clinton. This fighting renders both candidates less attractive and makes McCain look more appealing and more statesmanlike by comparison. McCain may have his warts, but as long as the media focus on turmoil in the Clinton campaign or the specter of Jeremiah Wright, nobody will know. And how can the Democrats attack McCain when they are too busy attacking each other? This would suggest that the Democratic nomination needs to end sooner rather than later. They can't drain their huge warchest and focus solely on defining and wounding McCain otherwise.
5. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are overrated candidates while John McCain has been underrated. The media have focused a lot on Barack Obama's unusual life story which takes him to multiple continents. However, he has been dogged by questions of his experience and is sometimes regarded as all fluff with no substance. Those criticisms are not new. However, the problem is that while Democrats may have decided that his political resume is sufficient (based on his strong performance in the primaries and caucuses thus far), the broader electorate is still not sold on the first-term senator. Throw in controversies like Jeremiah Wright and that further repulses Republicans and independents. So could Obama's ceiling be lower than was originally thought?
In the case of Hillary Clinton, many loyal Democrats revere her because they loved her husband's presidency. Clinton has shaken hands with the right people, given the right speeches, met with the right community leaders, and built up the right relationships with the right people. She represents the establishment wing of the Democratic Party. And despite Bill Clinton's muddying the waters by injecting race into the campaign, he still remains at the head of the party and is still generally liked. Hillary Clinton commonly argues that "she's beaten them (the Republican attack machine) before and she knows how to beat them again." Based on her defeat of Rick Lazio in her 2000 Senate race and the fact that her husband had won two presidential elections, she has a point. However, could she be overstating her electoral strength?
Ross Perot was clearly responsible for clearing the path to the White House for Bill Clinton in 1992, as he likely siphoned off more votes from George H.W. Bush than the self-described Comeback Kid because of his focus on economic issues. In the 1996 election, a fairly popular Bill Clinton was only able to win 49% of the vote against a very weak Bob Dole. And Clinton's coattails were not long enough to bring Al Gore to the White House in 2000. When Hillary Clinton ran for the Senate in overwhelmingly Democratic New York in 2000, she beat her opponent Rick Lazio by 12% even though Al Gore won the state by 25%. Her reelection in 2006 was a rout, although the Democratic wave that year certainly helped pad her margin of victory. The point of these four issues is that even though the Clintons have not lost an election since 1992 (not including the proxy election of 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore), their victories are arguably unimpressive. The fact remains that Republicans despise Hillary Clinton and her appeal to independents is limited. So it would seem that even though Hillary Clinton could win, she would not win convincingly. That would explain why she fails to crack 48-50% in the head-to-head polls.
John McCain had been savaged relentlessly by Republicans during the primary season for not being strong enough in his conservatism. But ironically, Republican voters ended up serendipitously selecting their strongest general election candidate. So it would make sense for him to be performing so strongly in the polls.
But this is all conjecture. Regardless of which of these five scenarios is true, one fact seems abundantly clear: despite all the Democrats' apparent structural advantages, the November election is likely to be more competitive than Republicans and Democrats think.
Until the Pennsylvania primaries two weeks from now, there is not much new going on in the political world. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are still fighting each other tooth and nail, John McCain is still trying to cobble together Republican support, and the pundits keep poring over fluctuating polls measuring head-to-head general election matchups. A consequence of these slow news periods is that it is easier for the media to focus on trivial or mundane matters. However, these dry periods also pose a risk for politicians because the magnifying glass of a larger news hole makes it easier for them to be caught flatfooted and for their warts to be exposed.
The latest political foul ball comes from John McCain, who took offense to a comment liberal talk show host Ed Schultz made prior to a Barack Obama campaign event last Friday. Schultz called McCain a warmonger while he was ginning up the crowd prior to Obama's appearance. John McCain called upon Obama to repudiate the remarks:
"Mr. Schultz is entitled to his views, [but] I would hope that in keeping with his commitment that Senator Obama would condemn such language, since it was part of his campaign."Republican National Committee Chairman Robert Duncan took things a step further:
"Enough is enough. Senator Obama has an obligation to speak out and publicly reject and denounce--not applaud--the shameful and contemptible remarks made by his surrogates."Phony political outrage at its best.
Politicians are called on to repudiate their supporters' remarks far too often. Hyperbole is common fare for politicians, but at what point does political rhetoric border on the ridiculous? Washington Post columnist Michael Kinsley wrote an excellent piece last month about political hypersensitivity:
"...I unequivocally dissociate myself from remarks by my second cousin to the effect that my worthy opponent is a 'prize bitch.' My cousin is a dog breeder and thought she was being complimentary. She did not appreciate that such phraseology could give offense to certain segments of the population who are unfamiliar with dogs. Nevertheless, there is no room for canine imagery in a national political campaign, and Cousin Maisie has dropped out of our family in order to avoid causing any distraction from the central issues that we ought to be debating, such as terrorism and health care."In the case of McCain and the GOP, however, hypersensitivity is not really what's going on here. It's hypocrisy. For example, John McCain maligned Hillary Clinton in January with this statement regarding her position on Iraq:
"...[I]ncredibly, incredibly Sen. Clinton decided that she wants to surrender, she wants to raise a white flag..."This line of attack impugning the patriotism of their Democratic rivals is pretty standard fare for the GOP, as I addressed here and here. Republicans may say that it is true that Clinton (and the Democrats by extension) wants to "surrender" to terrorists simply because, they argue, it's hard to equate troop withdrawals with anything but that. But if that's the case, then wouldn't Ed Schultz's "warmonger" comments also have some validity, especially given McCain's "bomb bomb bomb Iran" remarks?
But it gets even better.
Last year, in response to a nonstory about the spelling of flak jackets, a McCain aide quipped:
"Obama wouldn't know the difference between an RPG and a bong."So this aide essentially called Obama a bonehead and a pothead at the same time. But whatever happened to "condemning such language" and "rejecting shameful and contemptible remarks made by surrogates?"
The problem with contemporary politics is that you have a bunch of grown men and women who aspire to be our national leaders and represent this nation to the world, but carry themselves as if they are running for 7th grade student council president. Do politicians reduce themselves to pettiness for the sake of driving down turnout among all but their most loyal supporters? Do politicians really believe that childish namecalling, feigned outrage, and gutter-level insinuations espouse true leadership? Are they hoping that some of these charges stick to the point of crippling their rivals? Does intellectual integrity and statesmanship not matter anymore? Why do voters not demand more from their leaders in this regard? And why do the media lend credence to this nonsense by reporting on it in the first place?
These kinds of back-and-forths between the candidates might be fun for political junkies, but politics is not a sitcom. People are losing their homes and dying in Iraq, but it takes a mild bit of namecalling from a political surrogate to generate this level of political outrage?
Sometimes politicians just don't get it.
Last weekend Barack Obama went bowling in Altoona, Pennsylvania, with Senator Bob Casey. As an avid bowler myself (hence the name of this blog, The 7-10), this story is of personal relevance to me. Bowling alleys are normally places for raucous laughter, intense competition, and playful teasing. Unfortunately for Obama, however, this seemingly innocent campaign event may come back to haunt him.
Of course, Obama and his supporters probably thought the event was at least a modest success. After all, he got the chance to show his lighter side to voters and humanize himself. It showed him interacting with real regular people on their turf. And given the heated rhetoric, personal attacks, and overall negativity that often characterize politics, yukking it up with voters at the local bowling alley seems like a refreshing blast of fresh air.
Before going any further, I must qualify this post by adding a disclaimer. Bowling is both a game and a sport. Some people take it more seriously than others, and some people are better at it than others. Being a lousy bowler doesn't make you a lousy politician, just as being good at bowling doesn't necessarily mean you would be good at legislating. But again, in politics, perception matters. And that's where Obama runs into trouble.
Politicians rarely do anything just for the sake of doing it. So yes, the nonbowling Obama entered that bowling alley with a purpose. The political aim of this event was clearly to appeal to working class voters. These are the lunchbucket Reagan Democrats that are currently aligned with Hillary Clinton or are tepid John McCain supporters. To the chagrin of Obama, however, after his bowling match, it is quite likely that he did not make the sale to these Reagan Democrat voters.
To start, Obama finished with a 37. A 37. Speaking as a bowler rather than a political observer, let's put this in a bit of perspective. A perfect score is a 300. A professional usually bowls at least a 200. (My personal best is a 228.) You are seen as "a man" if you can bowl a 150. Scoring over a 120 entitles you to say you have at least some level of bowling competence. And 100 is the score everybody secretly wants to beat so they can at least say that even though they aren't good at bowling, they aren't terrible at it. (Keep in mind that it's impossible to score a 100 without at least one spare.) Even a 50 is socially acceptable for women. But a 37? Competent bowlers can get 37 pins after two or three frames. Even nonbowlers can get 37 pins after five or six frames. 37 after ten frames is a score reserved for small children who do not have the luxury of using bumper lanes. So in this regard, Obama probably would have been better off staying home and not embarrassing himself.
But in addition to providing fodder for the late night comedians and a clever April Fool's Day gag for Hillary Clinton, in the minds of male voters, especially those who weren't in Obama's camp to begin with, Obama did not look strong, authoritative, or tough when he stepped up to the lane. He looked effeminate. MSNBC pundit Joe Scarborough even called Obama "dainty."
Worse, the imagery of this event has been forever immortalized by the likes of YouTube and cell phone videos. People who hadn't even known about the so-called Altoona Massacre probably had this one thought when they saw Obama step up to the lane: Why is he still wearing a necktie?
Obama and his supporters could try and spin this as Obama letting his hair down and having fun, but he clearly looked out of his element and the gave some voters the perception that this bowling event was forced or unnatural. Perception matters. Michael Dukakis looked like a buffoon in his oversized Army helmet and tank. John Kerry looked like a clown in his hunting gear. And Barack Obama looked decidedly uncool in his bowling shoes-necktie ensemble. Regular people simply don't wear neckties when they're looking for strikes and spares.
Again, to Obama supporters, these criticisms may seem trivial, especially given the other more serious issues at the center of this election, such as Iraq, healthcare, and illegal immigration. But to a lot of voters out there who are swayed by imagery, Obama's gutterballs in Altoona may lead to gutterballs at the polls. Anytime you have a campaign event and more people talk about how poorly you performed (a 37!) and how unnatural you looked afterwards, there's a good chance that your campaign event did not go over too well.
As for a more serious potential political problem, more people have noticed as of late that underneath Obama's rhetoric and appearance, his actual politics smack of liberalism. I argued that Obama's support was inflated for this very reason back in February. This is politically dangerous because once the "liberal" tag gets stuck on Obama, it will be very difficult for him to shake it off.
There's nothing inherently wrong with liberalism, conservativism, libertarianism, or any ideology. However, politically speaking, "liberalism" is a damaged brand fraught with negative connotations:
Liberals drink lattes and imported wines instead of black coffee and beer. Liberals do sudoku puzzles instead of crossword puzzles. Liberals call raw fish sushi instead of bait. Liberals drive Lexuses instead of Lincolns.
And unfortunately for Barack Obama, in the minds of conservatives, Republicans, and a lot of Reagan Democrats that he needs to win over, liberals also wear neckties at bowling alleys.