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

8/30/2008

The Palin Standard: The Obama-Palin Experience Debate

John McCain's bold selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has set off a firestorm in the media and the blogosphere about inexperience and hypocrisy in regards to Palin and Barack Obama. It has also led me to create a new entry that I will integrate into my own political lexicon: "The Palin Standard"

Let's examine the political resumes of both candidates:

Barack Obama

Illinois state senator: 8 years
Illinois US senator: 3 years, 8 months

Total experience as an elected official: About 12 years

Sarah Palin

Alaska governor: 1 year, 9 months
Wasilla mayor: 6 years
Wasilla city councilwoman: 6 years

Total experience as an elected official: About 14 years

Republican defenders of Palin commonly say that the difference between the two candidates is that Obama is running at the top of his ticket while Palin is running at the bottom of hers. However, this argument is flawed for two reasons:

1. An inexperienced politician should not be on a presidential ticket at all. It doesn't matter if it's for president or vice president. Both positions entail too much responsibility for a political greenhorn to be entrusted with the White House. It now seems like more experience is required to become a senator than a vice president. Democrats' arguable irresponsibility has introduced a risk quotient that Obama must minimize in order for him to be elected. So how did McCain decide to counter this? By exercising comparable irresponsibility and surrendering one of his few advantages over Obama. And Republican voters' subsequent glee has conveyed to McCain that they condone his decision. Now John McCain has his own risk quotient to deal with because of Palin and the realization that McCain is old and has had several cancer scares.

2. Barack Obama's success is directly attributable to the millions of votes he received during the primary season. So even though he may be relatively inexperienced, enough voters were apparently comfortable enough with his resume to entrust him with their support at the ballot box. His inexperience was essentially forgiven or overlooked by Democratic primary voters, so the critiques of Obama are misplaced. He may be inexperienced, but the voters are the ones who got him this far. He earned his spot at the top of the ticket. So an attack on Obama's inexperience is essentially an attack on the millions of voters who voted for him or donated to his campaign.

Sarah Palin, on the other hand, did not arrive on the ticket because of votes she received or the campaign she ran, but rather because of the fact that she was appointed by John McCain. It is highly unlikely that Palin would have been given serious consideration from Republican voters had she participated in the Republican primaries earlier this year because even though she has experience, Republican primary voters would have concluded that she didn't have enough of it.

Palin does, however, have a unique biography and a message that could potentially resonate with certain constituencies. Of course, everyone in the race right now has a unique biography, so I'm not sure why Palin's is any more or any less unique than the other three candidates'. But stressing this message is a much better strategy for her campaign than stressing her experience because no amount of message-massaging will make this controversy go away.

Her appointment flies in the face of traditional Republican rhetoric, especially in regards to affirmative action. Given Palin's political positions and biography, she is essentially Mike Huckabee in a pantsuit. But he has more experience than she does. The same could be said of Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty. Thus, it seems that the main reason why Palin was chosen was gender, even though he had to pass over other more qualified candidates, male and female alike, in the process. If that's not affirmative action, which Republicans reject, then at the very least it's pandering. In light of Barack Obama's selection of Joe Biden instead of Hillary Clinton to be his running mate, the pandering charge has more plausibility. This could be a terrible miscalculation on McCain's part though because the PUMA wing of the Democratic Party is loyal to Hillary Clinton, not just any woman aspiring for higher office.

Of course, McCain has the right to choose whomever he wants, but conservatives should not be happy about an affirmative action selection or a selection that overtly comes across as him using another politician as a tool. Of course, all presidential nominees, including Obama, choose their running mates to help them get elected, but the fact that McCain had only met with Palin once and hardly knows her should be quite disturbing to most voters. This plays right into Obama's message of "judgment."

Republicans are indeed happy that Palin is fiercely pro-life, pro-gun, anti-tax, and anti-Washington, but the way in which McCain arrived at this particular selection should suggest that their glee is misplaced. To compensate and reconcile their own dissonance, Republicans have tried to portray Palin's record in the best possible light, such as saying she has military experience because she has been in charge of the Alaska National Guard.

However, all governors are in charge of their states' National Guards. This means that Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, President Bush, and even Michael Dukakis were even more qualified than Palin when it came to military affairs because they were in charge of their states' National Guards for longer than she was.

Speaking of the military, because she has a son about to be deployed to Iraq, she somehow has enhanced credibility on managing the war there. Are Republicans, the party of national security, prepared to say she is more credible on Iraq than McCain and Bush are because they she has a child deploying there and they don't? For what it's worth, Joe Biden also has a son deploying to Iraq, so it would seem that this issue of military children should be removed from the table altogether.

This spin exposes other problems for Republicans with their rhetoric:

1. Republicans claim that because Palin was a mayor and a governor, she has more executive experience than Obama. However, Obama has been the chief executive officer of his presidential campaign for 18 months (which is as long as Palin has been governor) which has been the most successful fundraising operation in political history and has been successful enough to win him the nomination. And given the number of campaign workers he has in all 50 states, the size of his campaign may be as large as the entire Alaska state government Palin manages. Of course, Palin was elected and Obama wasn't, but Obama's campaign was a sort of entrepreneurial enterprise, which Republicans should find appealing.

2. If Palin has more executive experience than the Barack Obama, that also means she has more executive experience than her boss John McCain. She would have more executive experience than Joe Biden as well. Does John McCain want to risk undercutting his own message of strength and leadership by having a running mate who has more executive experience than he does? Does she want to risk looking arrogant by claiming that she has more executive experience than Joe Biden even if it's true? Such questions wouldn't concern Obama so much because he's running on change, rather than experience. After all, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, Jim Gilmore, Fred Thompson, and Tommy Thompson all tried running on experience and lost. The McCain campaign would be wise to get away from the discussion of experience and focus more on change because the voters already know about Obama's inexperience and are still more inclined to vote for him than McCain according to most polls.

3. If experience is at a premium, then Joe Biden has the most experience of the four candidates on the tickets. However, Republicans gleefully blasted him as a Washington insider because of his long Senate record. So it would seem to Republicans that if you are inexperienced, you are a weak candidate. But if you have too much experience, you can't be an attractive candidate either. So those two messages are in direct conflict with each other. Also, the Obama-Biden ticket actually has more years of combined experience than the McCain-Palin ticket. So the McCain-Palin ticket loses that argument as well. Obama is not making light of this fact, however, because again, he's running on change instead of experience.

Had Palin at least completed one full term as Alaska's governor, the outrage at her selection would be muted. But because she has not even finished half of her first term, her short gubernatorial tenure is compounded by the small size of the state from which she hails and the size of the town she governed as mayor before that. Palin has served as the mayor of a town that has fewer people than my university. And in regards to Alaska, there are 19 mayors who govern more people than Palin. Fairly or unfairly, that makes her governorship appear less significant.

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with her resume, passing this experience off as sufficiently preparing someone for the vice presidency in Palin's case is a bit of a stretch. How comfortable would shareholders at IBM feel if their new vice president were the recent owner of Jack's Computer Repair Shop on the corner of Green Street and 4th Avenue in Parkersburg, West Virginia? Somehow I think most shareholders would be anxious.

Using the new Palin Standard, I could argue that a manager of a bowling alley has executive experience. The owner of a small business that has 50 employees has executive experience. A high school student council president has executive experience. A first lieutenant in the Army who serves as a company commander has executive experience. The director of a preschool has executive experience. Every single parent in America has executive experience. According to the Palin Standard, Republicans should have no reservations about any of these people being appointed vice president. They also should have voted for Al Gore instead of George Bush in 2000 for the same reason.

This is where the political risk to Democrats enters the equation. If someone objects to Palin's experience as a small town mayor and a governor of a small state, they risk being accused of mocking rural America and the people who live there. (Never mind the fact that Obama represented his small community in Chicago as an Illinois state senator for eight years.) Republicans will portray these criticisms as an affront by liberal elitists who are dogging small town America and will back up their charges with Obama's "bitter" remarks.

But this might not be an effective line of attack for two reasons:

1. Obama and his wife largely acquitted and reintroduced themselves in their speeches at the Democratic National Convention last week and will force most people to admit in their heart of hearts that perhaps Obama is sincere. The impact of his speech is likely a more salient memory of Obama than his "bitter" remarks from this spring. Thus, "bitter" might have lost most of its potency by now and threatens to make McCain and the Republicans seem like they have no new ideas.

2. The Democrats learned in 2004 that running as "not Bush" was not a strategy for winning a presidential election. Republicans who try to run as "not Obama" may end up with the same fate. Would the GOP really be wise to spend its upcoming convention talking about Democrats' disdain of rural America instead of talking about why voters should give Republicans a second look?

Republicans would be wise to stress Palin's message of reform and get away from talk about her experience because at best, it's a wash. And at worst, it's a distraction and eats up time the McCain campaign does not have. Obama is leading in the polls and time the McCain-Palin ticket spends comparing her experience with Obama's is time they are not spending articulating why Republicans should be entrusted with the White House for four more years even though the overwhelming majority of voters believe the nation is on the wrong track.

There's one other unintended consequence of the Palin selection that should concern the McCain campaign. McCain was able to deftly handle the media by announcing this surprise pick immediately after Barack Obama's acceptance speech. He successfully stepped on Obama's post-speech coverage and got him out of the headlines. The new risk for McCain, however, aside from Palin's own unknowns, is the fact that the spotlight currently on Palin could threaten to turn the election from a referendum on Obama into a referendum on McCain's judgment and Palin herself. (Consider this incriminating video.) Barack Obama's chances of winning this election diminish when the election is seen as a referendum on him. However, if the election is a referendum on McCain-Palin, who will undoubtedly continue to be linked to Bush, then Obama has to like his chances.

As I mentioned in my original Palin analysis, she presents McCain with both high risk and high reward. But perhaps there's too much shock value and star power for McCain's own good. At the very least, Republicans will never be able to criticize another Democrat or even another Republican for a lack of experience from now on because of the Palin Standard. She may have been good for McCain in that she got Obama out of the headlines, but the long-term damage to the GOP's ability to discredit a rival politician and the fact that it contradicts key elements of the Republican platform may not have been worth it.

8/29/2008

McCain-Palin Analysis

John McCain surprised the political world by choosing Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. Palin had long been considered a dark horse candidate who was adored in conservative circles, but was often considered a far less likely selection than more established candidates with stronger national profiles like Mitt Romney, Tom Ridge, and Tim Pawlenty.

John McCain must be given credit for snatching the media limelight away from Barack Obama after his powerful speech last night. And by choosing someone who wasn't on most people's radars, this will ensure that the gushing over Obama's speech will be tempered considerably by pundits assessing who Palin is and what she brings to the ticket. This pick clearly shows that McCain is willing to shake up his campaign and try to blunt Obama's message of change.

As a governor, Palin is the only non-senator who will be on the two presidential tickets this fall. She will also be the only person on the tickets who has executive experience, so she can easily portray herself as both an outsider and a reformer. Of course, Barack Obama had been running on the same message, so the challenge for Obama would be to ensure that Palin does not co-opt his message.

Palin is unequivocally pro-life and a strong advocate of other issues important to social conservatives. This should please the Republican base who may have still had reservations about John McCain after the Rick Warren Forum earlier this month. McCain certainly pleased social conservatives at that forum, but tapping Palin to join him shows that he is indeed serious about showing social conservatives that he will be loyal to them. Any doubts they had about him earlier should immediately be erased by this pick. Also, because of the murmurs about McCain choosing Tom Ridge or Joe Lieberman, both of whom are pro-choice, that augments the feeling of relief pro-life voters have about Palin and enhances her appeal.

As a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association who also enjoys fishing, conservative-leaning male gun owners and sportsmen should not feel threatened by Palin. The same holds true for fiscal conservatives, as this statement from the Club for Growth indicates.

Democrats are going to have a difficult time attacking her because she is far removed from Washington. There aren't pages and pages of votes she has to account for, like McCain, Biden, and Obama do. And it inoculates her from Obama's complaints about sending the same politicians back to Washington year after year. Palin has earned a reputation as a reformer who has taken on corruption in Alaska and stood up to politicians, no matter how powerful, in the name of ethics reform. And as an obscure governor, Democrats will be hard pressed to find video of her criticizing McCain. Had McCain chosen Romney, they would have had reels and reels of tape to gleefully sort through. Palin forces the Democrats to reconnoiter.

However, McCain's selection of Palin presents him with several disadvantages. At 44, Palin is younger than Barack Obama (who is 47) and a generation younger than John McCain, whose 72nd birthday is today. In addition to reinforcing John McCain's age, it also prevents Republicans from attacking Obama's youth.

Second, she hails from Alaska. Just like Barack Obama did not need Joe Biden to deliver Delaware, John McCain does not need Sarah Palin to deliver Alaska. (If Alaska was truly in danger of going blue, that would probably signify a problem far greater for the McCain campaign that not even Palin could stop.) A more important consideration that goes beyond this fairly superficial point is the fact that it's difficult to see which states she could be particularly beneficial in. For example, Mitt Romney would have been able to help in Michigan, Nevada, and Colorado. Mike Huckabee would have had strong appeal throughout the South. Alaska, on the other hand, is a small state that may be difficult for voters in the 48 contiguous states to wrap their brains around. Some Republicans tried to paint Hawaii in the same light to show that Obama was "exotic" because of it. That line of attack will not work anymore.

Perhaps Palin's true appeal lies not with geography, but rather with a certain demographic. Female voters may immediately be intrigued by Palin, and the lingering number of diehard Clinton fans may give her a second look. Her staunch pro-life positions, however, may turn many of these women off. But at the same time, as a female, perhaps she can better communicate with them than a male could. A second risk is that this selection could be seen as overt pandering by McCain. After all, he has been running ads all this week suggesting that Barack Obama snubbed Hillary Clinton.

Another common criticism of Obama has been his lack of experience. Obama has served for 8 years in the Illinois State Legislature and 3 years as a senator. Sarah Palin has served as Alaska's governor for less than two years. Prior to that, her political experience comes at the municipal level, where she served as a city councilwoman and mayor of Wasilla, a city that has fewer than 7000 people.

The obvious line of attack from Democrats will be that this undercuts John McCain's message of the importance of experience. Any attack McCain makes on Obama's lack of experience will be countered by reminding voters of Palin's record. Of course, the difference between Obama and Palin is that Palin is running at the bottom of her ticket while Obama is running at the top of his. But the Democrats would likely retort that the vice president should be someone who is "ready from Day One," to use Hillary Clinton's words. Either way, the "experience" weapon has likely been neutralized.

The vice presidential debate looms as the biggest risk associated with Palin. She will have to debate Joe Biden, a strong speaker with vast foreign policy experience. Palin has none. If the debate focuses on domestic issues, Palin may have a chance. But if the debate has a strong military and/or foreign policy component, Biden vs. Palin '08 will look very much like Cheney vs. Edwards '04 or Bentsen vs. Quayle '88. Biden, of course, would have to be careful not to overstep his bounds and risk offending women the way Rick Lazio did against Hillary Clinton in her 2000 senate race.

Tying in with this, Republicans should be worried about ceding the national security issue to Democrats because Barack Obama largely acquitted himself with his acceptance speech last night and Joe Biden has obvious foreign policy and military knowledge. Can Sarah Palin really convince voters that she would be tough on national defense and fighting terrorism? Her political opponents will likely run ads with her picture displayed asking "Can you trust Sarah Palin to stand up to Iran and North Korea?"

Another possible Achilles's heel for Palin concerns something that may very well damage her primary strength: ethics. Palin has been the subject of an ongoing investigation examining whether she abused her power by trying to get a state trooper (her former brother-in-law) fired. This feeds into the Democrats' "culture of corruption" argument and shines an angry spotlight on Alaska, where Representative Don Young and Senator Ted Stevens are both battling ethics investigations of their own. If Palin becomes tainted as well, her political capital will be significantly weakened.

All in all, Palin represents a bold choice for John McCain and should revitalize his campaign and his supporters. While she was largely unknown to most of the electorate, she was a hot topic in conservative circles and the right-leaning blogosphere. However, she cancels out several of Obama's weaknesses and may disappoint ideological Republicans who did not find Obama's experience sufficient and may not find Palin's experience sufficient. (These conservatives felt the same way about Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.) However, she is an ideological ally of the Republican base who may be difficult to attack. And because she is a largely unknown politician, she should attract a lot of attention from the media and voters who want to learn more about her. So perhaps this gamble by McCain is paying off already.

8/27/2008

On Phony Narratives and Media Reponsibility

One of the enduring stories of the Democratic National Convention this week is what Hillary Clinton's supporters will do. Much has been made about the fact that a significant number of them have yet to rally behind Barack Obama. Popularly identified reasons for this have to do with Obama's perceived inability to connect with White working class voters, possible racism, and lingering resentment from Clinton supporters that the nomination was somehow stolen from her.

However, the media are doing Barack Obama, Democratic voters, the broader electorate, and even John McCain a great disservice by continuing to advance these storylines. A lot of the reasons cited for the disenchantment among Clinton loyalists are farcical, self-serving, and manipulative. And they betray the media's credibility when it comes to accurately examining why this is happening.

First of all, attrition is a natural phenomenon. It can be found when conducting a longitudinal experiment or when conducting follow-up surveys. You may start off with 50 subjects in an experiment only to finish with 40 a few months later. Is a researcher going to think the experiment has a fundamental flaw because he could not achieve a 0% attrition rate?

The same thing happens in politics. When a candidate drops out of a race, sometimes voters simply lose interest in the rest of the campaign because "their candidate" is all that mattered. It's not a knock against the other candidates in the race; they simply don't have an interest anymore. Why not respect that? Barack Obama has not necessarily done anything to turn these voters off. They simply might not be interested in Obama because he's not who they really wanted to have win the nomination. That's not an Obama weakness at all.

When the Republican primaries were in full force and candidates began dropping out of the race, how many stories were there about Fred Thompson's voters not lining up behind John McCain and Mitt Romney's voters not lining up behind Mike Huckabee? It's the exact same phenomenon. Maybe the Fredheads only wanted to vote for Fred Thompson. And once Fred Thompson was no longer in the race, his supporters would stay home. Even after the Republican race was decided, John McCain was still losing about 20% of the vote to Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul in the remaining primaries. Where were the stories of discontent back then?

Put another way, if you want to eat Chinese food, but the Chinese restaurant closed down and your only other in-town dining option is Italian food, is it not natural for some people to simply want to stay home and cook their own food? How is that the Italian restaurant's fault?

Secondly, by hyping up this segment of the electorate, the media are inflating that segment's importance. Perhaps 30% of Clinton's supporters are considering staying home or voting for John McCain. But to report on their disillusion day in and day out runs the risk of turning them into kingmakers when they really shouldn't be. Why are Clinton diehards more important than strongly devout Christians who are not voting Republican this year? Using the media's logic, John McCain should be worried about losing a quarter of the evangelical vote to Barack Obama, Barack Obama should be worried about losing 5% of the Black vote to John McCain, John McCain should be worried about losing 40% of the White male vote to Barack Obama, and Barack Obama should be worried about losing a third of the Latino vote to John McCain. Do the media honestly believe that one politician's supporters or any particular constituency is really 100% monolithic? Does the fact that Barack Obama is not winning over 100% of Clinton's supporters mean he must have "a problem" with the segment of the electorate she did well with?

The media's fomenting dissent by reporting on this lack of unity has caused John McCain to try and capitalize on it by reminding Clinton's supporters that Obama is not on their side. It seems to be smart politics on its face, as driving down enthusiasm among your opponent's supporters makes good electoral sense. However, the media may be doing John McCain a service by inflating the severity of the rift between Clinton and Obama because this could cause McCain to overplay his hand and come across as an ambulance chaser trying to console the inconsolable. And that undercuts his own image of being a maverick who doesn't pander.

And finally, the media, pundits, and surrogates on both sides are ignoring something very important. What if John McCain is simply more palatable to some Clinton supporters than Obama is? In Clinton's speech last night, she did not mention abortion rights and the Supreme Court. Her populist rhetoric and ability to connect with conservative Democrats made her unique among recent Democrats. Obama has not campaigned extensively on the grits and molasses circuit and is more outspokenly liberal on these social issues. So there may be a comfort gap between these voters and Obama. It's not because Obama is a flawed candidate. It may very well be because John McCain is more effective at communicating with them than he is. Likewise, Obama is eating into McCain's base of moderate suburban women. Where are the stories about McCain's struggles to staunch the political bleeding among the once-fabled security moms?

Media professionals should be careful not to buy into overly simplistic thinking and assign causality where such a relationship may not or does not exist. While this may be good for John McCain because it undercuts Barack Obama at his own convention, it is the media's responsibility to display a bit more accuracy and independence in their reporting and begin challenging popular assertions that come from people whose interests may directly conflict with traditional media imperatives.

8/25/2008

Introducing The 9th Frame

The 7-10 now has a new sister blog: The 9th Frame.

In politics, news happens fast. Given the nature of The 7-10 and how long it takes to research and write each individual post, I have often found myself unable to write about the latest political developments in a timely fashion. I tried to do this a year ago when I created Stray Pins, but found that it didn't match the overall voice of The 7-10. So I created The 9th Frame as way for me to capture my thoughts on the daily news cycle and offer short commentary on what's happening in the same way that the Stray Pins feature was supposed to.

Be advised that The 9th Frame is not an analytical blog that goes in a lot of depth. Most of the posts there can be written in 5 or 10 minutes. (It takes anywhere from 1-4 hours to write a post on The 7-10.) As a result, The 9th Frame will be updated more often than The 7-10 (hopefully at least once a day). It'll also have multimedia elements embedded throughout the site, such as relevant YouTube clips. But it won't dissect the news or be nearly as thorough in its content either.

Readers of The 7-10 should not worry, as it will continue to be updated roughly two or three times a week as always. The addition of The 9th Frame just allows me to better separate detailed political analysis from short political commentary.

The 9th Frame will have more of a personal voice and be more opinionated than The 7-10, but it won't delve into mudslinging and profanity-laden rants. Keep in mind that I am an independent blogger, not a nonpartisan one. In both The 9th Frame and The 7-10, I simply write about what interests me. In time I may open up The 9th Frame to multiple authors once the blog becomes more established and I see how things go.

In the meantime, check it out. Your feedback is greatly appreciated. As of now, I am still tinkering with some of the code of the site, but it is largely presentable and ready to be read!

Enter The 9th Frame.

8/24/2008

Obama-Biden Analysis

After a dramatic buildup, Barack Obama has chosen Joe Biden as his running mate. The senior senator from Delaware was long considered a frontrunner for the #2 spot on the ticket because of the ways in which he compensates for Obama's weaknesses. Early reaction to Biden's selection have generally been positive. His chances probably rose from probable to definite in light of the recent crisis in Georgia and the stature gap between Obama and John McCain when it comes to leadership and strength.

Electorally, it seems that the main strength of Biden will be to turn and/or keep all states north of the Ohio River blue. Virginia and North Carolina may become a bit more winnable as well. Obama would be wise to dispatch Biden to Appalachia and the rural areas of the Midwest. His blue collar appeal would be a tremendous asset in southern Ohio, southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina, and the labor towns of Indiana and Michigan. Because Obama and Biden have such different personal narratives, Biden could serve as an ambassador of sorts that humanizes Obama or at least de-exoticizes him to these blue collar voters who may have reservations about his character and commitment to their causes. This will be particularly helpful in Michigan because that is the state John McCain needs to pick off if he wants to win the election.

Biden also helps shore up the Democratic base. As a veteran senator and familiar face, Biden brings a lot of reassurance to the Obama ticket. The reassurance factor matters a lot to Democrats who were only lukewarm about Obama to begin with. After all, a lot of these Democrats were torn between Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and Bill Richardson during the primaries. After they dropped out, Hillary Clinton probably got most of their votes even if they didn't like her so much. But now that Biden is on the bottom half of the ticket, these voters who are not moved by talk of "change" will probably feel a lot more comfortable (and perhaps enthusiastic) about Obama's candidacy. Even the Hillary Clinton diehards have to grudgingly accept Biden because "inexperience" was one of their main complaints about Obama.

One of the enduring criticisms of Joe Biden is that his mouth has a tendency to get him in trouble. Everyone who follows politics regularly remembers how Biden stepped on his own presidential rollout by calling Obama "clean" and "articulate." Biden has also had a tendency to venture into awkward territory, such as claiming that Delaware was a "border state." (The implication here was that it was more similar to the Old Confederacy than the liberal Northeast. Smart politicians stay away from such imagery.)

However, these criticisms may be overblown. Obama has put his foot in his mouth by calling voters "bitter" and saying they "cling" to guns and religion. He also inartfully claimed that the discussion of when life begins was "above his pay grade." John McCain owns "bomb bomb bomb Iran" and awkward responses to questions about the availability of birth control and how many houses he owns. So it seems that Biden is no more prone to verbal slip ups than the other candidates in the race. And the fact that he was able to keep the news of his veep selection under wraps so well suggests that he may be more disciplined than what he's given credit for.

Another criticism is that Biden is a veteran senator that directly contradicts Obama's message of "change." The task for Obama would be to portray Biden as a reformer who has not been corrupted by the ways of Washington. This would seem like a foolish line of attack, however, because John McCain has been in Washington for more than 20 years himself. Biden and McCain would cancel each other out, thus leaving Obama with the outsider mantle to himself. Complaints about Biden being the brains in an Obama administration would be met with reminders that George Bush did the exact same thing with Dick Cheney.

Note that all of these criticisms concern identity or personality issues, rather than actual political issues. This suggests Republicans will try to defeat Biden by creating a caricature of him as a long-winded loose cannon. They have been successful in reducing Obama to an elite celebrity and turning one of Obama's strengths into a weakness. However, that might be a bit more difficult to do with Biden.

Joe Biden cannot be painted as an out of touch elitist and he will excoriate anyone who attempts to peg him as one. His tenacity will compensate for Obama's gentility. He will not let any attack go without a retort, a point not lost on the McCain campaign. So McCain will have to reconsider his future attacks on Obama and be prepared for increased counterattacks that may not be so predictable.

Now that John McCain knows who Obama's running mate is, he has the luxury of adjusting his own running mate selection accordingly. Since the Democratic ticket will consist of two senators, McCain can attempt to seize the outsider/change mantle by tapping a non-Washingtonian. This bodes well for current and former Governors Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, and Tom Ridge. However, because of the pugnaciousness of Biden, McCain will need to choose a running mate tough enough to debate him. That would seem to take the soft spoken Pawlenty out of the running. Biden probably takes Pennsylvania out of play, but Tom Ridge would be a bold choice that could put it back in the contested category. However, the Republican base would not take kindly to a pro-choice running mate. That's why Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman won't be McCain's running mate either. This is unfortunate for McCain because he has very good relationships with both Ridge and Lieberman.

So it looks like Mitt Romney will occupy the final spot in the presidential Final Four. If this materializes, the former Massachusetts governor had better get ready because the vice presidential debate against Biden will likely end up neutralizing one of the two campaigns' messages. And given Biden's strong performances in the debates thus far this season, the Obama campaign has to feel pretty good about its chances.

8/23/2008

The Veepstakes: Joe Biden (repost)

(NOTE: This post was originally published on The 7-10 on July 19, 2008. Now that Barack Obama has officially chosen his running mate, this post should serve as a primer on who Joe Biden is and how he enhances his ticket. A second analysis examining the new Obama-Biden ticket will be written in the near future.)

The Veepstakes: Joe Biden

Delaware Senator Joe Biden was probably the greatest candidate nobody heard of in the 2008 primary season. Even though Joe Biden was ranked as the secondmost underrated candidate after Bill Richardson last fall, the veteran senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was mired in the back of most polls and placed a disappointing fifth in the Iowa caucuses.

His debate performances were mostly sharp, as he eschewed partisan rhetoric and empty promises for the sake of being honest about this nation's challenges and even offering specifics to match his solutions. He won a lot of plaudits for his federalization policy regarding Iraq, which remains as the plan with the most specifics when compared to John McCain's "We are winning and we can't surrender" rhetoric and Barack Obama's "We have to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in" rhetoric. His Democratic rivals often found themselves agreeing with him--a point not lost on the Biden campaign which subsequently created a compilation of these praises entitled "Joe is Right."

Biden's presidential campaign may be over, but he has been getting a lot of buzz as of late about being at or near the top of the Obama veepstakes. I have long argued that Biden had a good shot at being chosen because he was such a formidable candidate even though he underperformed in Iowa. Here is what I wrote back in January when Biden dropped out of the race after the Iowa caucuses:

"As for Biden, should Obama win the nomination, do not be surprised if Obama considers him as his running mate because the message of Obama '08 is quite similar to the message of Biden '88 and adding Biden to the ticket would lend Obama's presidential campaign some much needed pragmatism and experience to assuage voters who are not content solely with his message of "change." Ironically, the final reason why this might not be such a far-fetched possibility is because of Biden's mouth. Short of choosing a Republican, the selection of Biden as his running mate would be the ultimate showing of the unity of Obama's message. This is said in reference to Biden's stepping all over his own campaign rollout by referring to Obama as "clean and articulate." Obama-Biden would be the Democratic version of Huckabee-McCain and would make for a spectacular general election campaign."
Let's examine these points in greater detail:

To start, Biden passes the Commander-in-Chief test. His record of public service covers more than three decades. Thus, he could not be pegged as a political greenhorn the way Obama is being pegged. Voters who have reservations about Obama's inexperience should be assuaged by Biden's years in Washington because Biden could serve as a sort of old hand behind the scenes. Republicans could not call him a Washington insider either because John McCain has been in government for almost as long. And attempts to portray Biden as the center of political gravity in an Obama White House would be retorted with questions about Dick Cheney's power in President Bush's White House.

Foreign policy is Biden's strongsuit. John McCain has a tremendous edge over Barack Obama when it comes to international affairs and foreign policy knowledge. Biden should help blunt this by compensating for Obama's perceived weakness on the subject. Combining Obama's international appeal with Biden's pragmatism regarding world affairs may prove quite formidable.

Hillary Clinton's supporters will likely be upset with anyone Obama chooses who is not named Hillary, but they may find Biden more acceptable because he created the Violence Against Women Act. John McCain has been making a play for disaffected Clinton supporters, but may have lost them when he was unable to answer a question about why birth control was not covered by insurance even though Viagra was. Contrasting this with Biden's Violence Against Women Act should be enough to keep most of Clinton's female base solidly behind Obama.

Even though Biden hails from a small state that traditionally votes Democratic, he could be a tremendous help to Obama in the Midwest. Biden is a carbon copy of the "bitter" voter who "clings" to guns and religion. Thus, Biden should have great appeal in rural Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. He should also help keep New Jersey out of reach for the Republicans. Biden is a gun owner and would likely be seen as more credible on gun rights than leading Republican veep prospect Mitt Romney. And voters who are still uncomfortable with Obama's demographics and religious views should find Biden, an Irish Catholic, considerably more reassuring. That would give him another edge over Romney, whose faith may be viewed with skepticism. And in terms of his lifestyle, Biden uses public transportation to commute home from Washington every night instead of a private jet. So he is most definitely not an elitist.

Short of choosing Governor Tim Kaine, Joe Biden would likely present Democrats with the best chance of stealing Virginia in November. He is well known throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and could appeal to voters in the rural southwestern part of the state, which is similar to central Pennsylvania and southern Ohio. It is also worth noting that southwestern Virginia is quite similar to western North Carolina. If Biden can keep McCain's margins among rural and White voters (also known as John Edwards' base) down in North Carolina while Obama cleans up among Blacks and younger voters in the college towns of Raleigh, Charlotte, Chapel Hill, Durham, and Winston-Salem, it is conceivable that North Carolina could turn blue. And if that were to happen, this election would be over.

Like Obama, and unlike Evan Bayh, Biden is a talented public speaker with a good sense of humor and a folksy style. His biggest problem is his tendency to be long-winded and to put his foot in his mouth on occasion. However, I would argue that his foot-in-mouth tendencies would be a benefit to Obama in that by virtue of being chosen by Obama, it would show that Obama simply doesn't care about these gaffes. And if Biden's boss doesn't care so much about it, then perhaps the media and voters shouldn't care so much either. That would help keep the media from focusing so much on any awkward statements Biden may make.

The other problem Biden will have to deal with is renewed criticisms of plagiarism from his 1988 campaign. However, at a time in which violence is increasing in Afghanistan, banks are going bankrupt, and people are paying $70 to fill their gas tanks, voters might not care so much about a politician not giving proper attribution in a speech he made twenty years ago.

In short, Biden should definitely be in the top three on Obama's shortlist. He is a policy heavyweight who appeals directly to the rural White voters Obama is struggling with. He also has no real negatives that the GOP can exploit without looking like hypocrites and brings little in the way of baggage. And unlike Hillary Clinton, Biden and Obama genuinely like each other. Many Democrats who lamented the demise of the three most experienced Democrats this primary season (Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd) would react with glee to this pick. And Republicans would probably react with horror because he is both a defensive and offensive pick who shores up Obama's base and threatens McCain's.

Obama would be wise to give Joe Biden serious consideration.

8/22/2008

Why Pundits Are Often Wrong

All pundits dream of being the only analyst who gets it right. They want to be the only person to accurately call an election down to the actual margin of victory. It's a bit like filling out your brackets during March Madness. There are obvious favorites, sleepers, longshots, and underdogs with a fighting chance just waiting to wreak havoc on a prognosticator's predictions. Anything can happen. That's the beauty of college basketball and political punditry.

When it comes to predicting a political event, such as an election or a cabinet pick, there are two routes a pundit can go:

1. Follow conventional wisdom and echo popular sentiment.

2. Go against the grain, even if you're all alone in doing so.

Of course, the rewards are far greater if you opt for the second option and your predictions turn out to be true. You are the prescient analyst. You are the only credible voice in a sea of noise. You are the analyst who can truly feel the pulse of the electorate or the politician in question. Your future opinions will be trusted, as you have earned instant credibility. Sometimes this desire to have one's punditry bonafides bolstered leads them to go out on a limb for the sake of not being like everyone else, even though they are sure that the popular choice is probably the correct one. How many pundits thought Bob Dole would beat Bill Clinton in 1996? While that was never going to happen, how many pundits inflated Dole's chances just because the benefits of being all alone on the right side of history were too tantalizing to ignore?

In my recent prediction, I said that Virginia Governor Tim Kaine would be tapped as Obama's running mate. However, over the past few hours news has surfaced that he is no longer in the running. Pass the humble pie with a side order of crow, please.

Joe Biden is looking like the obvious choice now. I have long been bullish on Biden in this blog and believe he is the strongest possible choice Obama could make. Even though I had these thoughts about Biden when I made my prediction, I was thinking that Barack Obama would surprise the electorate by choosing someone other than the obvious. Of course, while Obama still has not made his selection public, it is looking increasingly obvious that the senior senator from Delaware is on the verge of getting a promotion.

Pundits want to be right. But if there is a plausible underdog, they want to be unique too. Unfortunately, sometimes their desire to be unique is not compatible with their goal of being right. Joe Biden would have been an easy pick for me to make, as I've cited his merits on numerous occasions in this blog. But there's no fun in punditry if you are simply another "me too" in the media or the blogosphere whose identity is blurred by your own reticence to exercising independence of thought.

Of course, punditry should be about analyzing the actual data available and making intelligent judgments based on them. It should not be about inflating pundits' own egos. But like politicians, pundits have to take risks too. That's how they move up the hierarchy. So the next time a pundit gets it wrong, it might not be because they are out of touch with the electorate or because they are blowing hot air. After all, their own legitimacy as a political analyst is at stake. Sometimes it's simply a matter of not trusting oneself.

8/21/2008

Obama Veepstakes: Predictions

The major political buzz this week has centered around Obama's vice presidential selection. One of the main parlor games among pundits and the Washington crowd every four years is to guess the nominee and convey that they have more wisdom than the next guy in terms of identifying and disqualifying possible picks.

This wait is almost over now as Obama has announced that he has made his selection. This selection will be revealed either Friday or Saturday by text message. So in true political fashion, The 7-10 will join in the fun by offering my own take on the Obama veepstakes and why some of the more popular names being circulated won't pan out.

1. Obama has made great pains to avoid stepping on his own message by hitting John McCain below the belt. Even though his supporters may want him to go nuclear against his Republican rivals, Obama's message of "new politics" and "change" are preventing him from doing so. As I recently argued, he can't tarnish that message. Likewise, he is running as an outsider who represents fresh ideas. That's another message. Thus, even though there are some strong picks he could make who are currently serving in Washington, Obama's commitment to not diluting his brand may prevent him from taking them on board.

This eliminates Joe Biden, Evan Bayh, and any other active congressman or senator. Biden and Bayh in particular have received a lot of buzz and would be strong choices (especially Biden). But if Obama doesn't want to go against his message, he may have to grudgingly pass over both of them.

2. One of the responsibilities of the vice president is to cast the tie breaking vote in the Senate. Even though the Democrats are still poised to gain several seats, there are several influential senators who do not vote the party line, such as Senators Jim Webb of Virginia, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. So on some votes, Democrats' possible 55-seat majority could really be a mere 51-seat majority. Thus, it makes little sense for Obama to have his vice president, who doubles as the president of the Senate, be a Republican.

This eliminates Chuck Hagel, Richard Lugar, and any other Republican whose name has surfaced as the bottom half of a unity ticket. Interestingly, Obama could actually make the Senate math more favorable for Democrats by tapping a few Republican senators to serve in his cabinet if he wins the election. These senators would then be replaced by their states' governors. If the Republican senator hails from a state with a Democratic governor, that could be a way for the Democrats to pilfer a few seats while allowing Obama to appear bipartisan at the same time.

3. Obama cannot risk looking weak or bullied. He's already having to deal with the image that he is not a strong and decisive leader, especially when compared to the Navy veteran and former POW John McCain. Any gesture that is perceived as acquiescence or caving in to a particular interest group would likely only exacerbate the image of him as weak. Of course, politicians have to respond to voters and retool their messages every day, but his selection of a vice president should be his decision, and his only.

This eliminates Hillary Clinton. She also contradicts his message, which he is loathe to do. Many people say it's up to Barack Obama to heal the party by accommodating Hillary Clinton. But if Hillary Clinton wishes to advance her chances of being President someday, it's incumbent on her to do her part to ensure that her supporters rally behind Obama. All eyes will be on her at next week's convention, so she will have as much responsibility for achieving unity as Obama does.

4. Obama needs someone who knows how to campaign and work a crowd. This person has to be someone who knows how to throw a punch, how to connect with audiences, and how to campaign without overshadowing the presidential nominee himself. Running mates have two main responsibilities: 1) to do no harm to the nominee, and 2) to serve as an attack dog.

This eliminates Bill Richardson and Kathleen Sebelius. Bill Richardson tried to run as the grownup in the room after the Iowa caucuses, but lost badly. Richardson may help deliver a contingency and some Southwestern states, but he is not an energizing figure and is not particularly aggressive on the campaign trail. As for Kathleen Sebelius, she certainly can't be pegged as a Washington insider. However, she may be a little too cool (read noncombative) on the campaign trail and have a hard time putting on the brass knuckles.

This leaves former senators, current and former governors, and former cabinet officials. The gubernatorial ranks seem to be the most fertile grounds from which Obama can choose his running mate. They're not insiders, they have records of accomplishment, they don't threaten the balance of power in the Senate, and they have served in an executive capacity. Of all possible picks, governors probably do the least harm and the most good at the same time.

The 7-10's bold prediction: Virginia Governor Tim Kaine

(But don't be surprised if news breaks that Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell was asked first.)

What are your predictions?

8/20/2008

Fickle Democrats' Buyer's Remorse

Several polls have indicated that the presidential race is getting considerably closer. Nervous Democrats are worried that Obama may choke and are giving him advice to right his ship. These Democrats are looking at the polls and are worrying that their nominee will blow the most winnable election for Democrats in decades.

Obama is not taking it to McCain the way Democrats feel he should if he wants to survive in November. And many Democrats are finding that they had grossly underestimated John McCain. So buyer's remorse is setting in, and some Democrats are grudgingly looking at Hillary Clinton as an increasingly attractive running mate because she has what he lacks.

But this scenario was entirely predictable. It was clear during the primary season that Obama was not the type of politician who would go nuclear on his opponents. His counterattacks were considerably more subtle than Hillary Clinton's "shame on you, Barack Obama" and "Obama had a speech he gave in 2002" broadsides. Part of Obama's appeal was the fact that he really did seem different, positive, and apolitical. But now that the general election campaign is upon us, many Democrats are looking at what was once a virtue as a real handicap. They want Obama to take the gloves off, but he is in a political straitjacket because as soon as he engages in kneecap politics, his opponents will counter that he is just another typical politician. And once that happens, Obama is finished. "Change" is Obama. Once voters no longer believe Obama is a credible change agent, there will be nothing left.

Barack Obama did not win the nomination by engaging Hillary Clinton in hand to hand combat. He did not win by practicing slash and burn politics. He won the nomination by winning Iowa, matching Clinton step for step on Super Tuesday, running up the score in February, and hanging on from March until the end of the primary season. In short, Obama won by fending Clinton off, not by pummeling her into the ground. But had the primary season lasted one more month, would Clinton have caught him?

Clinton clearly ran the better campaign in April and May. Obama essentially limped across the finish line. Now Democrats are nervous. McCain is closing the gap with Obama and has successfully turned the election from a referendum on Bush to a referendum on the Illinois senator. If the election is about Bush and the way things are going today, McCain will lose in a landslide. But if the election is about Obama, McCain has a fighting chance of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

And finally, it was common wisdom that the Democratic primary race would come down to Hillary Clinton and the ABC (Anybody But Clinton) candidate. Some of Obama's support during the primaries was undoubtedly from pro-Obama voters. But a sizable portion also likely consisted of anti-Clinton votes. Running as an anti-Republican or not-Bush candidate now in the general election, however, is not enough for Obama. He needs to give voters a reason to vote for him. He didn't have to do that during the primaries, but he must do that now. "Change" is not enough.

Democrats should have known that running in a general election context is quite different from running for their party's nomination. So they should not be so surprised that Obama may not be as "tough" as they'd like. But that's what they voted for. Interestingly, several of Obama's former rivals are seeing their stock values rise considerably. Many Democrats are looking at Hillary Clinton and wondering "what if?" Joe Biden is commonly seen as leading the veepstakes. Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson have also been mentioned as potential running mates. (John Edwards, on the other hand, is finished.)

But if voters wanted experience, they should have nominated Chris Dodd or Bill Richardson. And if they wanted someone scrappy, they should have nominated Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden. But instead they chose the gentile and cerebral first-term senator with strong oratorical skills and a disdain for bare-knuckle politics. These Democrats may have buyer's remorse, but they can't blame Obama for this. They're the ones who voted for him.

It seems, however, that Obama is showing signs of fighting back. He is sharpening his message and finding a way to respond aggressively to John McCain without being nasty. Democrats should find solace in the fact that Obama adopted this change in August and not October.

As for the polls, both Democrats and Republicans should remember that it is quite natural for polls to fluctuate over the course of a general election campaign. Obama was never going to lead McCain by 7 to 10 points all the way until November. John McCain is a known quantity with an appealing biography and significant cross-electoral appeal. Did Obama supporters honestly expect McCain to be polling south of 40% through Halloween? John McCain's fundraising is improving as Republicans rally behind him. Obama was largely absent from the political scene last week because of his vacation in Hawaii. And McCain has been far more successful at defining Obama than Obama has been at defining himself. So a tightening of the polls should be expected.

But this is all preseason politics. Once the conventions arrive, this race will reset itself and give both candidates their best opportunity to seize momentum heading into the debates.

8/18/2008

Rick Warren Christian Forum Analysis

John McCain and Barack Obama participated in the Saddleback Civil Forum on Presidency hosted by Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, last Saturday. The audience was comprised mostly of Christian conservatives. Pastor Warren conducted the forum in two parts: the first being a one-on-one with Barack Obama and the second a one-on-one with John McCain. Both candidates were asked identical questions, although John McCain received a few more questions because he generally answered more quickly. No follow-up questions were asked, nor were members of the audience allowed to ask questions. Both candidates were interviewed for an hour each. Per Pastor Warren, McCain was placed in a soundproof area backstage so that he wouldn't have an unfair advantage because Obama would receive the questions first.

Barack Obama

Coming into the forum, Obama's task was to present himself as surprisingly palatable to Christian conservatives who might have been hostile towards him. As a liberal pro-choice Democrat who is mistakenly seen as a Muslim, Obama was entering politically unfriendly territory.

Obama generally spoke in a careful, thoughtful way. However, because he was clearly thinking about his responses on the fly, this led to a lot of hesitation in his delivery. This may feed into the idea that Obama is not a good speaker without a teleprompter and that he is too cerebral and dispassionate. However, he did seem more comfortable talking about his faith than the Democratic stereotype. And his desire to find consensus at the expense of ideological purity underscored his message of unity. Again, his responses showed him to be careful and methodical in his thinking. There were no yes or no answers, but rather a lot of nuances. But again, this could come across as him being slow on his feet, weak, calculating, or indecisive.

Best moment: His final words of the evening in which he spoke honestly to the public by saying if they wanted better roads, better schools, health insurance, and energy independence, it would require sacrifices in that we would have to pay for them or make some tough lifestyle changes. Being upfront about the small print may help voters view him as a bit more trustworthy. This contrasts nicely with other politicians who promise the moon without telling anyone how they would pay for it.

Worst moment: Pastor Warren asked when a baby should have human rights. While his actual answer was quite thoughtful and showed Obama as wanting to find common ground by reducing the number of abortions, he gave Republicans a delicious piece of video by saying that the question of when life began was "above his pay grade." Look for that soundbite to find its way into many an attack ad from now until November. These four words crowded out everything else Obama said on the subject, which is unfortunate for him because it likely blunted any momentum he had been building with the crowd and the Christian conservative community in general.

John McCain

Judging from the amount of laughter and applause, John McCain seemed to connect with the crowd better than Barack Obama, though the evangelical crowd was obviously more likely to be in McCain's corner to begin with. McCain also talked a lot about his personal story (particularly Vietnam) and talked more to the audience, whereas Obama talked more to Pastor Warren.

Anyone who has watched a lot of political coverage over the past few months probably noticed that McCain delved into his stump speech on many occasions. He pivoted from flip flopping to hammering home the importance of offshore drilling and recycled his jokes about France having a pro-America president and not knowing whether a $3 million earmark about studying bear DNA was a paternity issue or a criminal issue. The audience responded favorably regardless.

Pastor Warren seemed to let him get away with this. Careful observers also may have noticed that Warren commonly referred to McCain by his first name, thus leading some to believe that McCain's interview was softer. (read the transcript here)

McCain tended to give short, snappy answers to Pastor Warren's questions. This made him look strong, decisive, and authoritative. However, he also had a tendency to answer questions before they were asked and did not provide much explanation or justification for his responses. President Bush is infamous for not listening to others and for black-and-white thinking. John McCain seemed to display a similar sense of rashness and bimodal thinking, which contrasted greatly with Barack Obama's more measured approach.

Because follow-up questions were not a part of the forum, McCain was fortunate that Pastor Warren did not challenge him on some of his responses. When asked what to do about evil, for example, McCain simply said "defeat it." That response played well with the crowd and reinforced his commander-in-chief aura. But as the situation in Georgia indicates, the US military does not have the troops available to "defeat" evil there. Evil is taking place on a daily basis in North Korea and Darfur. Will we "defeat" evil there too? McCain is clearly trying to project strength, but he may have overplayed his hand by reminding voters of what they dislike about President Bush--"dead or alive" and "bring it on." This kind of tough talk may not play well with an electorate that is weary of war and nervous about getting involved in another conflict.

Best moment: "I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies." Any doubts Christian conservatives had about John McCain beforehand likely dissipated upon hearing this remark. He was clearly trying to shore up his base and increase their enthusiasm about his campaign. The catcalls and loud applause he received suggested that he was successful. A ginned up evangelical base makes Obama's ability to pick off Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina a bit more difficult.

Worst moment: When he was asked which Supreme Court justice he would not have nominated, he only needed to name one. However, he rattled off the names of all four moderate to liberal justices. Then he pandered to the crowd by saying Justices Roberts and Alito were "his two newest favorite justices." This may have played well with the crowd, but it undermined his "independent" message and made him look more partisan and less moderate. This plays right into Obama's message of bipartisanship and finding common ground.

One of the disturbing bits of analysis being propagated by the media, such as CNN analyst Tony Perkins, is the idea that part of the reason why John McCain did so well was because the expectations for him were so low. I am not sure why expectations for him were so low or if they should have been low to begin with. John McCain is drubbing Barack Obama among evangelicals. And Democrats are not known for being friendly to Christians. And Barack Obama is still fending off questions that he's a Muslim. So if anything, Obama displayed a lot more courage by entering "enemy territory" and presenting himself as a man of faith whom Christians can find tolerable. Having said that, Obama is still on the wrong side of many critical social issues as far as evangelicals are concerned, so he likely did not win many new votes.

It is very difficult for McCain to appeal to moderates, independents, and conservatives at the same time. A Republican could have won in 2000 or 2004 by appealing mainly to conservatives, but they represent a smaller slice of the electorate in 2008. John McCain will need to expand his base in order to win this election. Casting his lot with religious conservatives may strengthen him in the South, but they make him more vulnerable in the West, where libertarian-conservatism is more popular than social conservatism. Voters in New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada in particular should be watched carefully. Alaska, Montana, and the Dakotas are also closer than many people think.

Verdict

The only major news that resulted from this debate is that this debate actually happened and consisted of largely substantive questions that standard journalists would be wise to pursue on their own. As for the politicians' performances, they likely confirmed people's existing opinions. People who were already supporting John McCain probably still support him and think he did a good job. People who were behind Barack Obama probably thought he performed adequately. McCain came across as Bush-like in his black and white thinking. Obama came across as weak and indecisive because of his hesitant delivery. John McCain probably staunched the bleeding among evangelicals, but Barack Obama probably didn't scare them away from his own camp either.

Coming out of the forum, the contrast between the two candidates is great. Barack Obama clearly appeals to voters' intellect and requires you to think about what he says. John McCain clearly appeals to voters' gut and requires you to trust what he says. Guts won in 2000 and 2004 and is the message Hillary Clinton should have adopted earlier. But perhaps the electorate is so sour right now that it doesn't matter.

This race is looking less like a blowout with each passing week.

Barack Obama: B-
John McCain: B+

8/16/2008

Lame Political Discourse: Stupid Criticism

Politicians must have thick skin. The very nature of their profession exposes all politicians to ridicule, confrontation, and scrutiny on a daily basis. If you take offense to every single barb thrown your way, you won't survive the campaign trail and the media circuit. However, there comes a point when criticism becomes so petty, unfounded, or downright stupid that the criticizers end up aiding their targets.

Last week, Barack Obama took a break from the campaign trail and spent a week in Hawaii. In addition to taking a break from his presidential campaign, he wanted to take care of his ailing grandmother who lives there. And even though Chicago may be Obama's political home base, Hawaii is his true home, as he was born in Honolulu.

Nevertheless, political analysts dissected his vacation destination. ABC's Cokie Roberts criticized Obama's Hawaii vacation as "foreign" and "exotic."

"[G]oing off this week to a vacation in Hawaii does not make any sense whatsoever. I know his grandmother lives in Hawaii and I know Hawaii is a state, but it has the look of him going off to some sort of foreign, exotic place. He should be in Myrtle Beach [South Carolina]...if he's going to take a vacation at this time."
(Hat tip: Political Realm)

At some point, pundits and critics cease making legitimate arguments and start criticizing for the sake of criticizing. This does everyone a great disservice and is a true indictment of the irresponsibility of the media.

Over the course of this campaign, Barack Obama has been attacked for his middle name, the fact that he's thin, his favorite foods, and the way he greets his wife. Now his birthplace is apparently a liability.

These kinds of lame attacks are not new. John Kerry's campaign provided the precursors to the current attacks on Obama. Kerry was maligned for windsurfing and "looking French." Of course, the goal of these attacks is to portray a politician as out of touch. "Regular people" don't windsurf. "Regular people" don't eat arugula. And now "regular people" don't take vacations in Hawaii, even if they were born there and have families there.

But there's a difference between a politician or surrogate making these attacks and an actual media professional doing so. What does it say about a politician, surrogate, pundit, or journalist who spends more time talking about the food a politician eats than how the politician plans to deal with the very real issues of taxes, illegal immigration, Iraq, the economy, and Supreme Court appointments? Is criticizing a politician for going home to be with his family what passes for political analysis these days?

However, these criticisms may ironically be improving Obama's electoral chances. We all know Barack Obama is a youthful, liberal Democrat. He already has the youth vote, the liberal vote, and most of the Democratic vote already locked up. However, if these kinds of banal attacks continue, he may also attract the support of voters who disagree with his politics, but view him as a means by which they can repudiate this kind of nonsense that emanates from the media and the punditry.

A John McCain victory may serve as a tacit endorsement or validation of this so-called "analysis" and ensure that it persists long after November. This is discouraging to voters who seek a bit more substance, logic, and depth in their political analysis. And the more the media throw out nonsense like Cokie Roberts' criticism of Hawaii, the greater the desire may become for something new. Barack Obama may provide them with a chance to achieve it.

8/14/2008

The Clinton Convention Conundrum

Like a festering wound, Hillary Clinton continues to make news that complicates Barack Obama's convention plans. After a few weeks of wrangling and negotiating, Clinton and Obama finally reached a deal that would allow Clinton's name to be placed into nomination at the convention to ensure that "all 35 million people who participated in this historic primary election are respected and heard."

The significance of this deal is that it should provide Clinton's supporters an opportunity to reach a sense of closure. Hearing delegates proudly proclaim their support for Hillary Clinton at the convention in front of millions of viewers would indeed be a historical moment that would demonstrate an act of good faith on behalf of Obama and a forging of unity on the Democrats' highest stage.

Obama's hand was clearly forced by Clinton, as he most certainly wants the Clinton saga to be put to rest. So he accommodated Clinton to help the party move on. The sooner he brings the Obama vs. Clinton storyline to a conclusion, the more time he has to consolidate his base and ensure that the rivalry storyline stays out of the headlines. Unity is important, and Clinton's campaign should be commended. However, one has to wonder just how far Obama is willing to bend to satisfy a group of voters that he may ultimately never win over. Does this undermine his strength and resolve?

This begs the question of why Obama even owes her anything to begin with. Yes, she won 18 million votes. But some of these votes were from Republicans who were engaging in mischief, such as Rush Limbaugh's "Operation Chaos." And many more of these votes likely came from voters who have since transitioned from Clinton to Obama simply because they accept him as their party's nominee. And others still may have voted for her and since regretted doing so because they were turned off by her antics. So even though Clinton may remain popular, perhaps her support is overestimated.

There are several scenarios that could result from this convention deal:

1. Clinton receives fewer delegate votes than she expects during the roll call vote and there is a decided lack of energy surrounding the moment, thus substantially weakening her and damaging her 2012 plans. One of the risks to Clinton is having her supporters be seen as making empty threats.

2. Clinton receives token support, thanks the voters for their dedication, and calls upon them to rally behind Obama. Her supporters grudgingly accept Obama as the nominee, everyone moves on, and talk of dissension and division gets buried. This is the scenario Obama is rightfully expecting to happen.

3. Clinton's supporters become vocal and make a scene at the convention. This would be met by boos from the larger Obama contingent, be plastered all over the airwaves, and lead to headlines of division among Democrats. This would undermine Obama, play right into Clinton's private wishes, and send John McCain into a state of jubilation.

Yes, there are undoubtedly ulterior motives at work. "Catharsis" and "unity" are not what really matters to Clinton, who is shrewdly playing both sides of the fence. Her goal is to win by losing, though neither she nor her supporters will ever say that in public. Clinton will be a good soldier and say all the right things about Obama and how she supports his campaign. This should placate Obama, who would very much like for her and her supporters to get in line behind him so everyone can move on. However, the static between them is palpable and her deeds speak far louder than any unequivocal endorsement she may make. She clearly has the power to silence the PUMA (Party Unity My Ass) wing of the Democratic Party, but she is allowing their demands to persist by feigning helplessness.

Clinton is secretly rooting for John McCain this November. She wants Obama to be humiliated so that she can run again in 2012 and capitalize on Democrats' buyer's remorse. However, this would assume that Democrats absolve Clinton of any responsibility for Obama's 2008 defeat and that they are willing to give the Clintons yet another chance. Should Obama lose, it will be difficult for another Democrat in 2012 to run on "change" again because even if voters want it, they will remember Obama's failed campaign and likely gravitate to a candidate who knows how to fight. Advantage Clinton.

And for Barack Obama, he is running the very real risk of having the loser of the primaries become the main story of his convention. Clinton's supporters' antics are threatening to push Obama off center stage and also relegate his actual running mate to a mere afterthought. That makes him look weak, not presidential. And it would greatly neutralize the bounce he will receive after the convention. John McCain could always take away Obama's bounce by announcing his running mate immediately after the convention, so it is imperative that Obama take full advantage of what is supposed to be his week. That is why he must definitively defuse this situation at the convention because there's not much time left anymore.

Clinton's supporters claim they want her name placed into nomination at the convention for the sake of "catharsis." However, Obama is not obligated to provide this for them. Hillary Clinton ran this campaign and Hillary Clinton lost this campaign. She did not lose because of racism, sexism, disenfranchising voters in Florida and Michigan, media bias, John Edwards, arcane caucus rules, or the inequitable primary calendar. She lost because she made too many mistakes, ran on the wrong message, and did not right her ship until it was too late.

Barack Obama has been more than accommodating since the primary season ended and has worked hard to earn their support. He has asked his fundraisers to help retire her debt, he has scheduled joint campaign appearances with her, and he held his tongue when Bill Clinton could not definitively say he was ready to be president. Obama is probably biting his tongue as these convention plans go forward, but he should ensure that this latest gesture of acquiescence puts the final bookend on the Clinton campaign. Any further nagging or demands from Hillary Clinton or her supporters should prompt Obama to call them out with an ultimatum--either hold your nose and support me or stop whining and vote for McCain. It's really that simple.

Barack Obama is the nominee of the Democratic Party. He needs to realize this, and Clinton's supporters need to accept this. It's his party, he needs to assert control over it, and her supporters should respect this. If Obama wants to be able to fully engage the Republicans, who will come at him relentlessly after Labor Day, he will need to have these other distractions out of the way, and permanently.

8/11/2008

Russia and Georgia: What Really Matters

Don Conley, a former speechwriter for Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, wrote an excellent column about the crisis in Georgia and how that should remind voters of what truly matters in this fall's election.

He cites Obama's responses to the conflict, which have been inconsistent at best:

"Obama's response has been all over the map, matching consensus global opinion. At first, he blamed both Georgia and Russia, then called for Russia to withdraw, now he's demanding an immediate cease fire. Events are in the saddle and Obama is going along for the ride--this matches President Bush's approach to the crisis, and that's not a good thing."
John McCain is not immune from Conley's wrath, citing his "bellicosity:"
"Unless McCain is willing to get the US in the middle of every armed conflict on earth--giving new definition to his promise of 'more wars'--a McCain Presidency would mean that we're at least going to enter a new age of foreign policy brinkmanship that will demand a military sufficient to fight these battles. That means either getting out of Iraq or reinstating a draft, because the military today is incapable of matching McCain's rhetoric."
These two passages underscore the importance of the office for which McCain and Obama are running. Elections have consequences, and these consequences concern matters of life and death. McCain, Obama, their surrogates, and partisan defenders may throw around misleading and petty terms like elitist, warmonger, Washington insider, risky, old, and celebrity. But there comes a point when voters must realize that the Presidency of the United States is perhaps the single most important political office in the world and that whoever occupies it should be competent, resourceful, pragmatic, talented, reliable, and strong.

It is easy to call both Obama and McCain out on their rhetoric regarding Georgia and Russia. In the case of Obama, if he is unable to stick to a position or changes it blindly to suit the moment, he will convey to the world that he is a weak and indecisive leader who does not command the respect of our allies or our adversaries. That is not good for our national security.

And in the case of McCain, belligerent rhetoric and sabre rattling must be matched by a military that is large enough and strong enough back him up. Warning Russia about "serious consequences" only to have Russia call our bluff because Vladimir Putin knows we don't have enough troops available to fight on a third front as a result of our continued operations in Iraq and possible military confrontation with Iran would send an equally disconcerting message that the United States is overextended and is vulnerable as a result.

The political impact of the Russian incursion into Georgia may be to place international relations back in the forefront. It helps push Paris Hilton and John Edwards out of the headlines and forces both presidential candidates to talk about foreign policy. This could be a jump ball in that McCain is more likely to be seen as a strong commander in chief while Obama is seen as more likely to improve relationships between the United States and the international community. Fresh off of his world tour last month, Obama has a little more street cred when it comes to the international arena than he had earlier. Even though he received very little bounce in the polls, the imagery of him shaking hands with foreign leaders may provide a latent benefit for him later on. And John McCain can contrast the celebrity caricature of Obama with the need for there to be a serious candidate for serious times. But Obama could counter that one reason why the United States' options are so constricted is because of McCain's "judgment" on Iraq.

Also, as both candidates consider their vice presidential running mates, this would seem to benefit Joe Biden and Tom Ridge. The former is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the latter is the former secretary of Homeland Security. Conversely, this international flare-up does not bode well for Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, or Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty--all of whom are more domestic picks. Of course, the Benazir Bhutto assassination shortly before the Iowa caucuses did not provide any political advantage for candidates like Chris Dodd or Bill Richardson, so perhaps because Georgia is a far away place that most voters have never heard of, many voters simply won't care.

But let's hope not.

It may be August, which is typically a dead month for politics. Voters are having backyard barbecues, family vacations, and nights in front of the television watching the Olympics in Beijing. Hopefully they are paying attention to what is happening in the world right now too though because they need to challenge their presidential candidates to move past their generic vague talking points ("change" and "victory") and flesh out where they stand on issues that actually affect people's lives. What does it say when a YouTube video of Paris Hilton can get more than a million hits, but a video of a meaningful policy discussion concerning war and peace can barely get 10% of that?

Right now, this campaign seems to be reduced to a mere popularity contest in which both candidates are trying their hardest to say as little as possible without getting called out on it. If that's what November comes down to, then either candidate could conceivably win the election. But the nation and perhaps the world will lose as a result of it.

8/08/2008

Lame Political Discourse: Tire Gauges

Fresh off of the controversy surrounding Paris Hilton in a John McCain attack ad, the latest episode of political nonsense stems from Barack Obama's suggestion that Americans ensure that their tires are properly inflated and that their cars are properly maintained so that they can improve their gas mileage and help use less oil. John McCain and Republicans seized on this comment by claiming it was indicative of Obama's naivete by being overly simplistic. McCain even turned this into a fundraising tool by showing the image of a tire gauge with the misleading term "Obama Energy Plan" written on it. In response, Obama labeled the attacks and ridicule as ignorant.

Properly inflating your tires and getting regular tune-ups is obviously not a comprehensive solution to our nation's energy crisis. However, Barack Obama is not saying that it is despite Republicans' outright lies to the contrary. Obama is on record for supporting increased fuel efficiency standards, increased reliance on renewable energy sources, and even offshore drilling as part of a compromise solution. And regarding tires and tune-ups, Obama even said that it was simply something we could all do now--obviously just one component of an overall energy solution. Will anyone call Republicans out on this distortion?

According to Time and Politifact, Obama's solution both makes sense and is factually sound. Inflating your tires and getting regular tune-ups is a good first step for several reasons:

1) It can be done now, so the savings can be felt immediately.
2) It requires no big government intervention.
3) It is not dependent on Congress reaching a compromise and the President signing a bill.
4) It makes our roads safer because cars that are properly maintained are less likely to break down.
5) It has no adverse environmental impact.
6) It encourages personal responsibility.
7) It actually works, thus increasing fuel economy, saving money, and using less oil.

The fact that Obama is advocating an immediate and legitimate solution that encourages personal responsibility and needs no government solution would suggest that conservatives and Republicans should embrace his message. But instead, they are mocking him out of partisan blindness. Florida Governor Charlie Crist, a Republican and possible McCain running mate, has made the exact same recommendation. Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California also echoed this approach. Where was the ridicule then?

Voters who are joining in ridiculing Barack Obama for this solution are akin to those who dismiss common sense approaches to protecting their children from inappropriate content on television. You could propose increased fines for indecency, V-chips in all televisions, or even outright bans on adult or violent content. Those are all solutions with various degrees of merit. But they take time to implement and require lots of compromises, as do offshore drilling, taxing oil companies, and harnessing renewable energy sources. But a common sense approach that everyone could adopt immediately to protect their children is to take greater control over what their children watch by watching television together or restricting the times in which their children are allowed to watch it. Of course that won't solve everything, just as properly inflated tires won't solve all our energy problems, but at least it's something that can be done now and is something that actually works. So again, why the ridicule? Fortunately, the Chicago Tribune suggests that these sophomoric jabs might be misplaced.

It will take years before the oil obtained from offshore drilling can actually be pumped into our gas tanks. But Republicans are right to argue that we should have started drilling years ago because we had these exact same arguments during the 1990s.

It will also take years before automakers are able to mass produce automobiles that run on more environmentally-friendly sources of fuel. But Democrats are right to argue that we should have increased fuel efficiency standards years ago. President Jimmy Carter was right to make energy conservation and fuel efficiency central issues of his presidency 30 years ago, but he was relentlessly mocked for it. Everybody remembers the sweater he wore during his "malaise speech," but the overall point of his message fell upon deaf ears. Obama tire gauges now are the new Carter sweaters.

Republicans are mocking Obama for not being serious about energy and are essentially trying to turn him into a cartoon or a laughing stock. But this abject lack of maturity in their response to this solution is appalling. By mocking Obama, they are essentially saying that getting tune-ups is not important and that it's okay if you drive with underinflated tires. They are also saying that even though Obama's solution actually works and incorporates conservative principles of small government and personal responsibility, it shouldn't be taken seriously, thus further exacerbating our nation's energy problems. And by falsely reducing Obama's overall energy policy to something you can buy at your local Auto Zone, Republicans are banking on voters' ignorance and lack of sophistication.

These voters should be offended, not tickled. Instead of joining the chorus of voices who are laughing at Obama, they should be asking John McCain and Republican operatives why this is even a laughing matter to begin with.

This kind of childishness makes me wonder how many people are supporting Obama not because they endorse his liberal policies, but rather because they are tired of the inane debates over freedom fries, flag pins, middle names, and now tire gauges. To these voters, would a McCain victory be seen as a tacit approval of this kind of nonsense while an Obama victory direct repudiates it?

Both political sides are guilty of overheated rhetoric, intellectual dishonesty, fact tweaking, and petty namecalling. Neither side is immune to hysteria, fear-mongering, feigned outrage, and mudslinging. But abject ignorance is an even worse offense and speaks volumes about the politicians who prey on it and the voters who buy into it.

8/05/2008

Lamentations of an Educated Voter: Media Malpractice

I was watching television with my wife last night while we were eating dinner. Pundits were still talking about possible racist overtones in John McCain's internet ad showing Barack Obama with Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears. The chief pundit then introduced two guests who had completely different views of the ad. When I saw whom the two guests were, I told my wife they were about to start shouting. And sure enough, they did.

"I didn't interrupt you when you were speaking, so don't interrupt me!"

"This is absurd. Are you serious?"

The conversation then degenerated into a discussion about phallic symbols in the campaign ad and how that was an implicit reminder of Black male sexuality and lust over White women. The Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Washington Monument both appeared in the ad and were somehow construed as symbols of male sexual organs.

Aghast at what I was watching, the conversation descended yet again to another high-decibel waste of time.

"This is nothing more than the perpetuation of stereotypical Black sexual imagery and must be denounced!"

"Oh, please! That's garbage. You're just mad because Barack Obama finally got called out on playing the race card!"

"Wait a minute! Wait a minute! One at a time!"

After explaining what they were arguing about to my wife, who hadn't heard all of the discussion, she then chimed in with her own bit of political commentary:

"They sound like a dog and a monkey. How did they get on TV?"

(A message to the politically correct crowd: My wife, who is Japanese, was using a Japanese expression that says when a dog and a monkey are placed together, they will only fight. Nobody is calling anyone a monkey.)

Anyway, we've been down this road before--too many times in fact. First we had flag pins. Then we had campaign staffers calling candidates "monsters." Then we had John Hagee, Michael Pflager, and Jeremiah Wright. Bowling scores made a cameo before Cindy McCain's cookie recipes took center stage. The "terrorist fist jab" was next. Then Michelle Obama's temperament. And Barack Obama's testicles. Then came the New Yorker magazine cover. And now we're wasting time yet again discussing whether the Washington Monument is comparable to a giant phallus and interpreting it as a sign of latent Black male sexuality. Are you serious?

The main reason why these stories are able to persist so long in the media is that the media simply can't let them go. John McCain's campaign made a clever ad that may have had certain undertones. Or maybe it didn't. Barack Obama tried to preempt the opposition regardless by warning voters that they (his political opponents) would try to smear him in the future using wedge issues. But he erred when he linked John McCain directly to these campaign tactics and paid a political price. We get it. And now we don't care anymore.

And yet, the media can't help themselves. Long after everyone has moved on, this story is still getting oxygen, much to the detriment of both the Obama and McCain campaigns. People who are not affiliated with either campaign whatsoever are now threatening to turn this stupid story into a full blown cultural war at a time when people of all political leanings are more worried about gas prices, retirement security, job losses, and Iraq instead of this nonsense, as Paris Hilton's mother and even John McCain's mother reminded us.

We know the media can't resist a good story. And we know the media love controversies. But at some point, the media need to learn that they don't exist for themselves. They exist for regular people who want to know what's happening in the world and on the campaign trail. The job of the media is to filter out the nonsense and report on what matters. Arguing about racial overtones in an ad is already borderline silly. Fortunately, that is at least a debatable issue. But to prolong this discussion by injecting comparisons between national landmarks and phalluses is jaw-droppingly stupid.

And it needs to stop.

The presidential election process is already bastardized enough by an inequitable primary calendar, an antiquated Electoral College, two out-of-touch political parties, and a crude 24-hour cable news cycle of gotcha journalism that magnifies the trivial and glosses over the substantial. The American people deserve far more than the petty shouting and schoolyard taunts we're subjected to on a daily basis. This is supposed to be an election for the single most powerful elected position in the world, but we're treating it like an episode of Jerry Springer or Melrose Place.

Shame on the media for feeding us this garbage, and shame on us for not demanding more from it. Where is the outrage?

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