"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

9/29/2008

Lamentations of an Educated Voter: Our Finances

The stock market plummeted upon hearing the news about the economic relief bill that was defeated in Congress. But despite proclamations of doom and blood flowing in the streets, nobody really knows what the consequences of this congressional, economic, and presidential failure will be.

I must admit that I have mixed thoughts about the state of our economy and what ails it. Because I made the right financial decisions when I was younger, the struggling economy does not impact me or my family in any significant way, save for high gas prices. Because I have always paid my bills on time, resisted the urge to put everything on a credit card, and tried to live within my means, I'm not particularly worried about mounting bills and having to choose between food, car repairs, and medicine. The only debt I have is student loan debt, and even with those, the interest rates are manageable.

My inner conservative thinks everyone is getting what they deserve. If you tried to make a quick buck by flipping a house you couldn't afford, you deserve to get soaked. If you are a manager at an investment banking corporation that relied too heavily on profiting from bad loans, you deserve to have your company's stock value plummet. If you make fat cat purchases on a small fry's salary (e.g., laptop computers, flat screen televisions, SUVs with V8 engines), you deserve to be faced with the anxiety of not knowing where your next meal will come from. Personal responsibility, common sense, and basic financial literacy might not be compatible with our culture of instant gratification, but it is times like this when the wisdom of fiscal prudence is most apparent.

The American Dream is alive and well for all those who work hard and do what it takes to achieve it. Economic prosperity, material wealth, and financial independence are not birthrights. Somewhere along the way, we as a society have lost touch with this notion. The ideas of sacrifice and learning to do without seem increasingly foreign. Why do people drive SUVs instead of station wagons? Why do college students spend so much money downloading ringtones instead of paying down their credit cards? Why do young families decide to buy a house and not rent an apartment? Why are music CDs a more likely destination for teenagers' money than bank CDs?

So many people are trying to live beyond their means. But now it appears that their irresponsibility has finally caught up to them. They are saddled with debt. Their credit is tarnished. They have houses they can't sell, cars they can't drive, and credit card payments they can't postpone. My inner conservative is quite content with that.

I can understand how so many average people got sucked into living a lifestyle they couldn't afford. In addition to our collective financial illiteracy, we live in a society where we are encouraged to spend, spend, spend and keep up with the Joneses. But while I can understand how Joe and Jane American set themselves up for failure, I can't understand how our national leaders in Washington have exercised a similar level of ignorance.

We are fighting two wars, paying billions of dollars in entitlements, and cutting taxes all at the same time. Our two main presidential candidates are talking about even more tax cuts, continued fighting abroad, and/or increasing social programs. Where is all this money coming from? And why doesn't anyone have the courage to ask? Our national leaders are supposed to be more intelligent, more perceptive, more insightful, more pragmatic, and more knowledgeable about the world and its institutions than we are. But if our own government can't balance its own checkbook, how can we expect Joe and Jane American to do the same? Or are the irresponsible leaders in Washington merely a reflection of the irresponsible electorate who gives them their support at the ballot box year after year?

This is where my inner conservative is silenced by my inner liberal. While I believe people should reap what they sow, there comes a point when the consequences of a few people's irresponsibility become unacceptably severe for society as a whole. Let's say that Company X made a string of bad investments and poor financial decisions. Now its stock value is falling precipitously and it is forced to go out of business. The company managers and top executives are indeed getting what they deserve.

But they are not the only ones who are getting soaked. What about the hundreds or thousands of regular employees at Company X who had nothing to do with Company X's poor business decisions? Now these workers are at risk of losing their jobs. Losing a job obviously has a devastating impact on a family. And what about stockholders who invested hefty chunks of cash in what they thought was a reasonably sound company? They are at risk of losing most or all of this money. And people who have invested in Company X for 20 or 30 years are at risk of losing most or all of their retirement savings. What are they supposed to do? Some people may coldly say they should have diversified their portfolios or done more research about Company X's dealings. But it is unrealistic to expect everyone to have the business acumen of Alan Greenspan or Suze Ormond. And what about the people at Company X who simply want a job? They have families to feed, college tuition to pay, and school clothes to buy. They just want to clock in at 8:00, put in 8 hours of hard and honorable work, and go home. Why should they have to suffer because a few powerful and irresponsible managers put their lives in jeopardy?

This brings me to the subject of the failed economic relief bill. Notice that I call it an "economic relief" bill and not an "economic bailout" bill. Some people may indeed be bailed out even though they don't deserve it. But a lot more people likely stood to benefit from this economic assistance. If vulnerable companies do not receive this emergency infusion of cash and temporary absolution of debt, it may become increasingly difficult for them to borrow money, and that hurts everyone. The Wall Street problem will become a My Street problem in a hurry.

If a company cannot borrow the money it needs to help pay the short term costs of regular business operations, these companies may be forced to trim their payrolls. That hurts Joe and Jane American. If a person is unable to get a housing loan because the bank either has no money or refuses to lend it because of the tight credit market, that means you will be stuck with a house that nobody can buy. That hurts Joe and Jane American. If you need to get a loan to start a small business, but can't because of the lack of credit available, your business plan will have to be placed on hold and your business idea risks being co-opted by another entrepreneur. That hurts Joe and Jane American.

$700 billion is an incomprehensibly large amount of money, so it is natural for politicians and regular people alike to recoil in anger at the thought of pumping this cash into failing or failed companies, some of which may be headed by people who don't deserve it. But it seems like the same financial illiteracy and poor decision-making that got us into this mess threatens to prevent us from making the right decision to prevent it from getting worse.

You need two wings to fly a plane. This is why I am neither a conservative nor a liberal. What's best for America usually lies somewhere in between the two extremes. It looks like Congress was able to come up with a bill that had enough elements from both ideologies to be palatable to most congressmen, and that's what makes its failure so unfortunate.

9/27/2008

Obama-McCain First Debate Analysis

Last night Senators Barack Obama and John McCain faced off in the first presidential debate at Oxford, Mississippi. That this debate even happened brought a huge sigh of relief to the debate's organizers and the McCain campaign in particular because of very real possibility that Barack Obama would have the stage to himself with tens of millions of viewers.

This debate was supposed to focus primarily on foreign policy, but because of the volatile stock market, the proposed $700 billion relief package, and the congressional wrangling over the contents of this bill, the first half of the debate focused on economic policy. This turn of events advantaged Barack Obama because it allowed him to debate on favorable terrain from the outset. Anytime the economy is the subject, Obama benefits. And because debate time consumed by the economy is debate time not consumed by foreign policy and military affairs, that served as a double bonus for Obama at McCain's expense. McCain clearly got stronger as the debate shifted to foreign policy, but because so much time was eaten up talking about the economy, he did not have as much time as he wanted to talk about the issues he was more comfortable with.

In terms of their demeanor, John McCain came across as tough and aggressive. He spoke confidently about foreign policy and his ability to go after the nation's enemies. He also connected with voters when he talked about his experiences meeting military families and troops. His narrative about visiting Iraq and meeting soldiers who wanted to extend their enlistments was particularly strong. However, he also may have come across as brusque and ill-spirited because of the dismissive attitude he had towards Obama. McCain barely looked at Obama and seemed more inclined to talk to the moderator instead. He also said several times that Obama was too naive and too inexperienced to be Commander-in-Chief. However, this is likely a losing argument because 1) this is a change election (note that the experience argument didn't work for Obama's rivals in the Democratic primaries), 2) it undercuts the relatively inexperienced Sarah Palin, and 3) anytime Palin is the subject, it reminds voters of her unsteady media interviews. Voters likely left the debate with two perceptions of John McCain: 1) confident and empathetic, and 2) cold and dismissive. The first perception is presidential. The second is not.

Barack Obama had a more steady performance in terms of his body language. He spoke with confidence too and was quick to correct the record in the event that McCain misrepresented him. He was not as reluctant to address McCain directly, but he missed several opportunities to fully exploit the openings McCain had given him. One particularly effective retort occurred right after McCain mentioned a bracelet he received from the parent of a fallen soldier. After McCain's moving narrative, Obama refused to let McCain have a monopoly on this issue by telling voters about a bracelet he received from the parent of another fallen soldier. That particular exchange mattered because it helped put those nagging doubts about Obama's patriotism to rest. As for his delivery, it was less professorial (read impersonal) than in previous debates, but he still seems to struggle with touching voters at a gut level. However, he performed adequately in this regard and likely came across as more composed than McCain.

Regarding substance, neither candidate was comfortable providing specifics when it came to addressing parts of their campaign platform that they'd have to sacrifice in light of the cost of the economic relief bill being debated in Congress. Their difficulty in answering this question was a matter of not wanting to offend any particular constituencies and giving each other a new campaign attack ad. It was painful watching them dance around the question, but as a political observer, it was easy to understand why they were so loath to actually answer it.

Both candidates missed a huge opportunity to talk about illegal immigration and border security. Obama did briefly touch on port security, but may have left border security unsaid because he needs the Latino vote in New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada. The Republican base could have been more energized had McCain talked about border security, but perhaps McCain didn't want to risk losing Latino votes in the same three states I just mentioned.

McCain should consider himself lucky that Obama did not attack him as fiercely as he could have for his campaign decisions over the past few days, such as suspending his campaign and debating without having secured an economic bill first. And Obama did him another favor by allowing him spend so long talking about taxes and spending. Astute political observers noticed that McCain often included lines from his stump speech when discussing spending (e.g., "We Republicans went to change Washington, but Washington changed us."). However, perhaps by letting McCain talk for so long about earmarks and wasteful spending, Obama was essentially letting McCain hang himself with his own rope. While earmarks are indeed low-hanging fruit, voters are likely more concerned about the value of their homes and the security of their jobs than the DNA of bears. So that could actually feed into the narrative the Obama campaign wants to portray of McCain as being out of touch.

Foreign policy is where the starkest differences between the two candidates could be observed. This is where the next campaign narrative will likely be born. John McCain talked a lot about Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger, Dwight Eisenhower, and Vietnam. And his foreign policy seemed more like a continuation of President Bush's. Barack Obama, on the other hand, had a more forward-looking worldview in that he wanted a greater emphasis on diplomacy and international cooperation. If Barack Obama is able to turn John McCain into Bob Dole by making this election about the past vs. the future, McCain will be in a lot of trouble.

All in all, neither candidate scored a decisive victory last night. However, the fact that Obama and McCain debated to a near draw would suggest that McCain got the short end of the stick coming out of the debate. McCain has been losing ground in the polls and is trailing Obama in many of the battleground states. While he may have staunched the bleeding as far as the tracking polls are concerned, he likely did not do anything to significantly cut into Obama's lead. This foreign policy debate was his best opportunity to do so, but he did not get as much out of this debate as he needed to.

Another reason why Obama came out ahead in this debate is because he presented himself as reasonably competent on foreign policy. McCain is clearly more knowledgeable and more comfortable when discussing international and military affairs, but Obama at the very least displayed a sufficient understanding of the world and the United States' role in it. (Not an expert level of understanding, mind you, but an acceptable level.) Even though John McCain is not a part of the current executive branch, as a Republican, he is the incumbent. Barack Obama is the challenger and he came across as legitimate when talking about John McCain's main issue. McCain won't have the luxury of talking about Iraq, Iran, and Russia in the later debates because the issue on voters' minds this fall is clearly the economy.

Last month, I argued that the 2008 election could play out like several previous elections. Given the negative mood of the electorate, the poor economy, and dissatisfaction with the current administration, it seems like 2008 is playing out like 1980:

"The country is pessimistic and desperately wants to change direction. They're fed up with the current leadership, but don't want to take a gamble on the new kid on the block until he has successfully proven himself as at least marginally competent and acceptable. This is what happened with Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Carter was an unpopular president and the nation was in a sour mood because of the Iranian hostage crisis and oil prices, but voters were reluctant to send Reagan to the White House. After he held his own in the debates, however, undecided and independent voters flocked to the California Republican in droves.

And now 28 years later, should Obama comes across reasonably decent and knowledgeable in the debates, this fairly close election will turn into a rout. If Obama bombs in the debates, the country will simply vote for McCain because even though they may disagree with his policies, they will at least say he is ready."
Based on their performances last night, in my estimation, Barack Obama is considerably closer to winning the White House than John McCain is. However, McCain still has a very real chance to win this election. But for McCain to win, he will need to change this election from a referendum on policy to a referendum on character. His last chance to do this will be at the second presidential debate which has a town hall format. McCain is clearly more comfortable with this format, as he is more conversational and better able to work small crowds. Obama will need to improve his ability to come across like he sincerely understands the struggles of the middle class. He clearly does understand these voters and their concerns, but it is not resonating with voters as much as it could. Because the final debate is on the economy, that won't be of much help to him. So McCain really needs to find a way to make the election about Obama again and not Sarah Palin or the economy.

Speaking of Palin, she was noticeably absent from the post-debate spin interviews. Joe Biden appeared on several channels to talk about why Obama bested McCain. However, Palin was nowhere to be found. This was very odd because one should expect a vice presidential candidate to be comfortable building up the presidential candidate up after a debate. Yes, Palin has had some rocky interviews before, but this is not hardball; it's basic cheerleading. If Palin's absence becomes one of the dominant stories coming out of this debate, McCain could have a very serious problem.

9/24/2008

On McCain's Campaign Suspension

In a stunning political development, John McCain has suspended his presidential campaign, called for Friday's presidential debate to be delayed, and proposed suspending all campaign ads so he can concentrate on finding a solution to the nation's economic crisis. He called on rival Barack Obama to suspend his campaign in kind, but Obama declined to do so and said that the debates should go on as scheduled.

There are several ways this story could play out politically. John McCain clearly wants to be seen as putting "country first" and rising above politics to confront a national problem head on. McCain believes that voters want a solution to their economic problems and would appreciate a presidential candidate who was taking concrete steps to address the issue decisively and not just a politician who only talks about it. Obama had to make a critical decision when confronted with McCain's proposal to suspend his campaign. Had Obama suspended his campaign in kind, it would have significantly damaged Obama by making him look like a follower, rather than a leader. But had Obama rejected McCain's offer, it could have made Obama look more like a politician who would do anything to win than an actual leader who cared more about the nation's well-being than the well-being of his campaign.

While this story has yet to fully play itself out, it seems that McCain may regret this decision for several reasons.

1. The President of the United States cannot put the world on hold while he addresses one particular crisis. It is admirable that McCain wants to rise above politics by putting "country first" and suspending his campaign for the good of the nation, but he risks undercutting his own perception of being a strong leader. The next President will have to contend with the sour economy, Iraq, Afghanistan, the deficit, North Korea, illegal immigration, healing the cultural divide, energy independence, and entitlement reform. He simply can't suspend any of these pressing issues while he tends to another crisis. Now Obama has the opportunity to show that he will not wilt under pressure and that even if he may not have all the answers, at least he will stand up and fight. Obama is looking more like a president while McCain is looking more like a senator.

2. This decision contributes to a budding caricature of McCain as being rash or unsteady when it comes to decision-making. Last week, McCain said, "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." Then he called for the chairman of the Securities Exchange Commission to resign. Then he struck a populist chord that was discordant with his long legislative history as a deregulator and laissez faire capitalist. And now he is suspending his campaign.

Voters may want solutions to their problems. But they also want a president who has a steady hand. Obama has been criticized for being a bit too cerebral to connect with voters. But now his cerebral demeanor may come to be seen as composure during a crisis. In the event that the debates proceed as scheduled, does John McCain really want Barack Obama to have the stage to himself before tens of millions of voters?

3. While McCain's intentions may be entirely noble, it could also easily be seen as opportunistic. Ironically, his attempt to appear post-partisan may actually be seen as major political gamble, as some politicians suggest. In addition to ending the string of bad news cycles he has had over the past 10 days or so, his campaign suspension pushes a lot of new unfavorable stories out of the headlines:

  • There have been several polls showing Obama gaining ground on McCain or extending his lead in several battleground states.
  • Joe Biden gave a strong speech about foreign policy today in Ohio that featured a scathing indictment of McCain's political views.
  • Dovetailing from Biden's speech, had McCain not suspended his campaign, Biden's speech could have led to increased calls for Sarah Palin to deliver a major speech or take questions from the media. Strong media blowback against Palin is slowly creeping into the news dialogue.
  • Stories reflecting doubts about Sarah Palin were also beginning to get airtime.
  • Some may speculate that McCain is trying to avoid or postpone debating Obama this Friday.
As a result, voters may think McCain is really trying to put his campaign first (not "country first") by changing the subject.

4. It sets McCain up to be further damaged by his own previous statements about the economy. McCain's political opponents and voters in general could argue that if "the fundamentals of our economy are strong," as he said they were, then he shouldn't need to suspend his campaign. This feeds into the narrative of McCain being out of touch or even making a calculated political decision. McCain may need to simply acknowledge that his remarks about the economy were a mistake, but no politician wants to admit he was wrong. Keep in mind that he has repeatedly called on Obama to acknowledge that he was wrong about not supporting the troop surge in Iraq. That was a legitimate issue for McCain, but Obama hasn't been penalized for it the way McCain is now because Iraq is not the main issue of this election.

5. McCain has lost a considerable bit of goodwill this month because of the divisive tone of his convention and the campaign advertisements he has run. Thus, his pleas for bipartisanship may fall on deaf ears. A lot of his ads were sharply criticized for making sleazy allegations (such as claiming that Obama wanted to teach kindergartners about sex before teaching them how to read) or being far from the truth. Now McCain is returning to "country first" after sliming Obama in his ads. Obama has run some negative ads too, of course, but his hits have mostly been above the belt. Voters may not trust McCain after the way he has run his campaign this month, so his credibility is threatened.

6. Now that McCain is no longer an active candidate, even if only temporarily, he will be unable to attack Barack Obama or explain to voters why he should be the next president. He's losing precious time to distinguish himself and may have damaged his trust with the electorate. Ross Perot was running a strong race in 1992, for example, before he withdrew. He later got back in the race, but he lost a lot of credibility in the eyes of many voters who were volunteering for him and likely lost a lot of their votes because of it. McCain himself is the one who told voters to "fight" at his convention. Now he's going back to Washington and leaving his campaign on the sidelines. How will McCain's campaign suspension affect Republicans' enthusiasm not just for the McCain-Palin ticket, but also Republicans down the ballot?

Again, McCain is hoping that voters reward him for taking action while displaying political selflessness. But he risks ceding the political stage to Obama, looking like a political opportunist, coming across as weak, depressing Republican enthusiasm, and not being able to tap into the reservoir of goodwill he once had with voters because of the scorched earth campaign has run as of late. Thus, he may have been better served by insisting that this week's debate over foreign policy be changed to a debate about the economy. But he can't "reactivate" his campaign after he just suspended it. So now it looks like McCain has boxed himself into a corner.

9/21/2008

Revisiting the Bradley Effect

Race has been one of the enduring subtexts of this long presidential campaign. After being at the front and center of our dialogue during the primaries, it has since taken a more peripheral role. People aren't talking about it as much, but it's still there. And nobody knows how that will impact the election.

The Chicago Sun Times provides the latest examination of the impact that racism among White Democrats may have on the election this fall:

"Statistical models derived from the poll suggest that Obama's support would be as much as 6 percentage points higher if there were no white racial prejudice."
It's an interesting article that raises legitimate questions, but it is easy for pundits and the media to be distracted by the wrong questions and conclusions, as I argued in The Plight of Black Republicans three months ago:
If you are Black and you support Obama, it's because he's Black. (And you're a racist.)

If you are White and you don't support Obama, it's because he's Black. (And you're a racist.)

If you are White and you support Obama, it's because he's Black. (And you're a racist who's trying to prove that you aren't.)

If you are Black and you don't support Obama, it's because he's Black. (And you're trying to prove that race doesn't matter by voting against him.)

So it would seem that nobody can support or oppose Obama at all without their motives being questioned.
Let's examine the first two points in greater detail.

1. If you are Black and you support Obama, it's because he's Black. (And you're a racist.)

Ever since the civil rights era, there has been a realignment of the political parties and electoral loyalties. The Democratic Party was the party that resisted Reconstruction and desegregation. However, the legacies of JFK, RFK, and LBJ, combined with advent of Richard Nixon and his "Southern strategy," pushed Blacks into the Democratic Party, which they have overwhelmingly supported for 30-40 years. Bill Clinton was praised as "the first Black president." Al Gore won 90% of the Black vote in 2000. Thus, Blacks' 90+% support of Obama is nothing new. If Obama were a Republican, he almost certainly would not be enjoying such high support.

Also, Blacks were originally some of Obama's harshest critics this campaign season, as the "is Obama Black enough?" stories suggested. These voters were firmly in Hillary Clinton's camp at the start of the primaries, but she squandered her goodwill in the South Carolina contest. Now they are on the cusp of seeing "one of their own" make it to the White House and they are understandably excited. To expect these voters to vote for John McCain in any large numbers is foolish. These voters may indeed be voting solely on race, but that is no different from women voting for Sarah Palin because she is a "hockey mom." (Emphasis on mom.)

An argument can be made that voting solely for demographic reasons has merit in that sometimes the person who can best understand a certain group of people is a member of the group itself. What does John McCain know about being demeaned as a result of affirmative action? What does Joe Biden know about being locked out of the "good ol' boys" network? To be fair, they may have gained some insights through their advisers, experiences on the campaign trail, or secondhand experiences with their friends and colleagues. But one could also say that one could never truly know how another person feels unless that person has actually walked in that person's shoes and lived that person's life.

2. If you are White and you don't support Obama, it's because he's Black. (And you're a racist.)

This statement might be true for some people, but the majority certainly don't subscribe to this thinking. There are legitimate policy differences between McCain and Obama, and these differences constitute the rationale for voting for McCain instead of Obama for most voters. Having said that, it must be stated that Whites are considerably more likely to vote Republican than any other racial group. Al Gore and John Kerry, both of whom are White, lost the White vote to George Bush. Expecting Obama to win the White vote is just as foolish as expecting Blacks to vote in higher numbers for McCain.

When people talk about a hidden racist vote against Obama, they mistakenly attribute it to White voters in general. However, it should be attributed to a certain subset of Whites. Political scientists would be well advised to focus on White voters who voted for Al Gore and John Kerry in the last two elections, vote for Democrats down the ballot in this election, and vote for McCain at the top of the ballot. If these voters aren't merely seeking divided government, this is where the Bradley effect could be observed. The reservations these voters have about Obama may be because of his inexperience. But they could also be because of his race. That is a real issue that is difficult to accurately gauge.

A good case study for assessing the Bradley effect would be the 2006 Senate race between Republican Bob Corker and Democrat Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee. Ford lost the race, but he did win 48% of the vote, which was actually slightly better than what the polls right before the election suggested. Tennessee is a tough state for Democrats to win in general, so the closeness of this race suggests that the Bradley effect is either negligible or severely diminished. If the 2006 Senate race in Tennessee is indicative of the state of race relations in the 21st century, that would bode well for Obama in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, all of which he must hold if he wants to win the election.

It is difficult to discern who votes on ideological grounds and who votes on racial grounds when it comes to the privacy of the voting booth. Both major parties have both types of voters in their coalitions, and both major parties arguably adopt policies that perpetuate racial divisions.

We'll learn a lot about the Bradley effect after the debates. In the event that Obama overperforms and clearly beats McCain, but still loses the election, this nation will have to do some serious soul-searching. Likewise, if McCain overperforms and clearly beats Obama and wins the election, this nation will have to do some serious soul-searching before scapegoating and playing the race card.

Perhaps the fact that this is even still an issue at all suggests that there is a lot more work to do. But then again, that fact that people are discussing it openly is also a sign that we have come a long way.

9/18/2008

McCain's Palin Problem

After a rough two weeks, Barack Obama seems to be edging his way back into the lead in several battleground states. In addition to having a renewed focus on the economy and a few gifts from John McCain and some of his surrogates, he has someone else to thank for his recent political fortunes: Sarah Palin, the very person who gave his campaign heartburn earlier this month.

The Obama vs. Palin debate over experience turned out to be a draw in that a consensus will never be reached. However, Obama does have one significant advantage over Palin in this regard: Exposure. And this is what is working against Sarah Palin right now.

Obama has been tested on the national stage numerous times over the course of the campaign season in about 20 high profile debates and several candidate forums. He has won millions of votes and competed in more than 50 primaries and caucuses. He may be an inexperienced candidate, but the voters are the ones who acquitted him. Reporters and his political opponents have spent months examining Obama, his biography, and his record. Some of what has surfaced has not been kind to the junior senator from Illinois (e.g., Jeremiah Wright, flag pins, "typical White person," "clinging to guns and religion"), and he has had to confront these stories directly and publicly.

Sarah Palin, on the other hand, was (and is) largely unknown to voters. After a successful debut in which she energized the Republican base and was assisted by anti-media sentiment in the days thereafter, the McCain campaign inadequately prepared itself for the inevitable scrutiny that would follow. By keeping Palin away from the cameras, they were essentially giving free license for the media to uncover anything they could about her on their own. McCain essentially left an unknown candidate to be defined by an investigative media without allowing this unknown candidate to confront the media directly and shoot these media stories down. As a result, the media's portrayal of Sarah Palin is different and potentially more salient than the McCain campaign's portrayal of Sarah Palin, but the McCain campaign is what allowed this to happen.

While the media were investigating Palin's records and controversies in Alaska, the public's views about her were beginning to change. She clearly had the nation's attention, but did not take advantage of it. Instead, she stuck to her script and didn't take questions from anyone, be they the media or regular voters at her campaign events. But likability and flair alone cannot sustain a candidate in this political climate. (Even Karl Rove acknowledged that the excitement surrounding her couldn't last forever.) As Palin continued to avoid taking questions while her surrogates inadvertently diminished her (e.g., "Sarah Palin can see Russia from Alaska. She is not qualified to run a company."), the same doubts they had about Obama began to surface about her. Voters who were looking for some measure of depth to match her style began to grow impatient.

Now the risk for McCain is that Palin may be exposed as a gimmick. At a recent joint town hall event, Palin took questions from the audience for the first time. One woman asked her to identify which specific foreign policy qualifications she had. Palin answered the question by not answering it:

"I have that readiness and if you want specifics with specific policy or countries, go ahead. You can ask. You can play 'stump the candidate' if you want to. But we are ready to serve."
This response is at the very heart of why the Palin bounce is no more. Yes, there are other reasons, such as the renewed focus on the economy. However, her inability to clearly articulate the case for her candidacy in a friendly environment is giving many voters pause. It is worth noting that the audience at that town hall event was screened and the person who asked the question about foreign policy credentials was a woman, so blaming an overzealous and biased media or complaining about sexism will not work. And they shouldn't work because this is a legitimate question that any responsible voter or media organization should ask.

Palin has certainly been a short term success for John McCain. But her long term prospects look considerably less promising. After her strong convention speech, Palin has avoided the media, been lampooned on Saturday Night Live, sat for an interview with Charlie Gibson which had mixed reviews, and sat for another interview with conservative ally Sean Hannity. And now she is equating asking legitimate questions with playing "stump the candidate." That's exactly what the moderator will attempt to do at the debate next month, so she will need to find a better response.

During the primaries, it was okay for Obama to not have to display his grasp of the issues as quickly because there was lots of time left in the campaign season and fewer voters were paying attention. But now it's the middle of September. Summer vacation is over, the economy is in trouble, and everyone is tuning into the race. To voters who are not solidly in McCain's camp, Palin is coming across as trying to fake her way to the vice presidency.

Several prominent conservatives have already expressed their reservations about Palin. Chuck Hagel is the latest one to give her a thumbs down. Base voters may still be excited about her, but it would seem that her appeal among soft Republicans, Democrats, and independents is weakening because she is not closing the sale with them. And the longer Palin stays away from giving interviews, the fewer chances she will have to make new impressions with voters. The McCain campaign had better take her upcoming debate against Joe Biden seriously because that will be her last and best chance to erase these doubts.

Palin recently quipped that Barack Obama probably regretted not choosing Hillary Clinton as his running mate. But in light of her inability to assuage voters about her experience and her capacity to lead at a time when the stock market is falling and the economy is the main issue in this race, perhaps John McCain is now having second thoughts about not choosing Mitt Romney.

9/16/2008

On Polling Mirages, Media Avoidance, and the 2000 Election

With the party conventions long behind us, it is easier to take stock of the political landscape in the lull between the conventions and the debates. While both conventions were successful, John McCain clearly got more out of his convention than Barack Obama did because of the favorable media coverage that followed for the next ten days or so. His selection of Sarah Palin has clearly excited Republicans and also presented women with a bit of a dilemma. Media overreach into Palin's family affairs may have made women more sympathetic to Palin at first, but talk about mooseburgers and hockey moms has given way to talk about lipstick, subpoenas, media avoidance, and contradictions between her rhetoric and her record.

It seems that the main effect Sarah Palin has had on the electorate is that it has firmed up the red states and purpled the blue states. This would explain why soft Republican states like Montana, North Dakota, and North Carolina have gone from outside upsets to out of reach for Obama. It would also explain why light blue states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania have become true or near tossups. Even solid blue states like New York, New Jersey, and Washington have become increasingly competitive.

This poses a dilemma for John McCain. He could advertise in the Northeast to force Obama to defend reliably Democratic territory, but not even the McCain campaign believes he has a realistic shot at New York or New Jersey. The New York-Philadelphia media markets are prohibitively expensive and both states have large Latino and Black populations, so it doesn't seem to be worth it. And the fact that money spent on ads in Yonkers (New Jersey) is money not being spent in Youngstown (Ohio) should keep any potential political lusting at bay.

These tightening polls resulting from the Palin effect invokes the specter of the 2000 election between George Bush and Al Gore. Earlier this summer, the polls were suggesting a comfortable popular vote victory for Obama because of running up the score in Illinois, California, and New York. But now an increasingly likely scenario is for Obama to eke out narrow victories in the Midwest while getting blown out in the Plains and South. This would suggest that Obama could win the electoral vote while McCain wins the popular vote. Should this happen, there would be outrage from Republicans about the anachronism that is the Electoral College. However, Democrats would rightfully counter that the current president lost the popular vote in 2000. Perhaps this would lead more states to adopt measures automatically throwing their electoral votes to the popular vote winner or an even greater movement to abolish the Electoral College altogether.

It seems that this election has come down to Obama vs. Palin. John McCain and Joe Biden are largely invisible. If McCain's fortunes rest solely on Palin, as his inability to draw large crowds when campaigning solo would suggest, this would seem to advantage Obama because of the debates. Palin only gets one chance to silence her critics and close the sale at the debates; Obama gets three. Of course, one could also argue that Palin only gets one chance to make a fatal mistake, while Obama gets three. However, if Obama makes a mistake in one of the early debates, he will have other chances to recover.

This is where McCain's ignore the media strategy regarding Palin may come back to haunt him. Given Palin's avoidance of the media, the media are shifting their focus from personal narrative (which are advantageous to her) to investigative journalism (which undermines her). While the media uncover evidence of transgressions, hypocrisy, scandals, and untruths, Palin's avoidance of the media is preventing her from addressing these stories directly. The McCain campaign may try to frame this as another media pile-on, but the potency of that argument seems to have faded, especially in light of the renewed focus on the economy and other more substantive issues.

Palin successfully introduced herself to the nation at her acceptance speech two weeks ago at the Republican Convention. But now McCain-Palin's follow-up act seems to be a combination of media avoidance, stretching the truth or outright lying, legal trouble in Alaska, and doubts about her real capacity to serve.

This would suggest that Palin has reached her peak for now, which should be reflected in plateauing or weakening state and national polls over the next few days. The Obama campaign would do well to avoid confronting her directly on the campaign trail and simply let the media do it for them. If Palin is solely responsible for McCain's rise in the polls, one could deduce that as goes Palin, so goes McCain's chances of victory this November.

9/13/2008

Hurricane Politics

One of the most memorable sayings I've learned this campaign season is Tom Brokaw's UFO theory, which stands for "unforeseen occurrences" and shows why it's foolish to make long term political predictions. The political landscape can change in an instant, and these changes are often totally outside the control of political candidates and their campaigns.

This week Hurricane Ike provided the latest reminder of the fluidity of politics. In addition to causing billions of dollars of damage and displacing thousands of residents, it reset the political dialogue and may have pushed a few policy proposals either to the forefront or the fringes.

As I briefly mentioned over at The 9th Frame, one of the main results of Hurricane Ike is that it pushed politics off center stage. The dominant political storyline this week continued to be Sarah Palin. John McCain had to be thrilled with this because anytime Palin dominates the news, that means the economy, George Bush, and Iraq are going unmentioned. Barack Obama and his campaign did not know how to attack her effectively and the cable news shows and newspapers began reporting on Obama's slide in the polls. Ike stopped those stories and arrested Obama's two-week streak of bad news cycles.

There are other Ike-related implications that must be addressed as well. For one, offshore drilling seems to have totally disappeared from the national discussion. The vulnerability of offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and their being knocked offline by Ike have led to a sharp rise in gas prices. Talk about increasing offshore drilling only to have even more oil be knocked offline during a future storm would not sit well with the electorate right now. This would seem to disadvantage John McCain who has made offshore drilling the centerpiece of his energy policy. People who viewed the Republican National Convention earlier this month may remember the chants of "Drill, Baby, drill!"

The spike in gas prices and fuel shortages have led to accusations of price gouging. Gas is now being sold for more than $5 a gallon in some areas, thus decreasing consumers' disposable income and adversely impacting the economy as a result. Democrats are known for wanting to crack down on oil speculators and price gouging, while Republicans are known for advocating less government intervention in the market. This would seem to advantage Barack Obama who has addressed confronting corporate malfeasance in his campaign platform.

The fuel shortages should also place a renewed emphasis on energy conservation and building more fuel efficient vehicles because such vehicles are less impacted by these price fluctuations and supply disruptions than the larger, more powerful and less fuel efficient vehicles that typify American automobiles compared to their foreign counterparts.

Likewise, increasing renewable energy, particularly wind energy, would presumably not be at as high a risk of being knocked offline during a hurricane compared to offshore oil rigs and would seem like a smart tack for Obama to take. McCain, in a similar vein, could argue for increased nuclear energy capability.

It is worth noting that these price spikes and supply disruptions are taking place throughout the Southeastern states, all of which are Republican. So it would appear that at least temporarily, Barack Obama and the Democrats have an opening. But should they not capitalize, Republicans could seize the issue and further buttress the budding narrative that they are the "true reformers."

It remains to be seen how much Ike overshadows Sarah Palin's recent interviews with Charlie Gibson. Thursday's interview about foreign policy received mixed reviews that probably didn't win over any new converts or cause any devotees to abandon her. Her Friday interview, however, exposed several gaps that should concern Republicans. Ike has pushed coverage of this interview out of the headlines, but after the storm is gone, the media spotlight may return to these interviews and signify that her media and political honeymoons are over.

Similarly, the hurricane also restricted the coverage of Obama and McCain at the National Service Forum on September 11. Both candidates did a good job at the forum, though Obama may have gotten the better headlines coming out of it because the moderators challenged McCain's tacit approval of the Republicans' mocking of Obama's public service as a community organizer at the convention and the veracity and tone of his recent attacks on Obama. Both candidates have the opportunity to display leadership in terms of organizing volunteers to help out with the relief and recovery efforts in Texas and Louisiana.

Perhaps the greatest impact that Ike had on the political dialogue is that it reminded voters, the media, and hopefully the candidates themselves that governance is serious business. After a week in which e-mail, lipstick, and pigs made the headlines, perhaps the media and both campaigns will be a bit more responsible and mature in executing their responsibilities.

9/10/2008

Thoughts on the 2008 Campaign and a Presidential Endorsement

This is a post I was planning to write in October, not September, because I wanted to wait until after the debates to make a more accurate judgment of the two presidential candidates. But this nonstory about lipstick forced my hand.

I am angry. I am disappointed. And I am scared. But I am hopeful.

Coming into this election season, I was hopeful for America because I believed we finally had a chance to pick up the pieces and get America back on track after our long national nightmare. President Bush has been the worst president of my lifetime. I don't say that as a partisan. I say that because I genuinely believe he is the only president in my 31 years who has left the United States in a worse position than when he came into office. There is a pervasive sense of gloom, despair, apathy, and mistrust swirling around the nation that I have never observed before.

I love the United States of America. I believe this is the greatest country on Earth. It is only in America that someone can progress from having absolutely nothing to being on top of the world. It doesn't matter if you are a third-generation daughter of Polish immigrants, a true-blue son of Appalachia, a waitress working the late shift at a local diner, or a man whose parents abandoned him as a child on a street corner in Los Angeles. The United States offers more opportunities for everyone to succeed than any other nation on Earth.

But lately, it seems that more and more people are falling behind and the American Dream is becoming more and more unattainable. It's not just poor people or those who have made poor decisions who are falling behind. It's middle class people and those who are working hard and playing by the rules who are struggling now too. It costs more to drive our cars because of spiking gas prices. It costs more to go to college because of rising interest rates on student loans. It's more difficult to buy or sell a home. And it's harder to deal with being sick because health care is increasingly unaffordable.

There is a lack of confidence in our government, a lack of sophistication in our politicians, and a lack of professionalism in the media that cover them. People feel that the government doesn't understand their problems, the government doesn't understand its own responsibilities, and the government doesn't care. I'm not saying this as a criticism of conservatism which naturally advocates smaller government. I'm saying that people are losing faith in the very governmental institutions that run America. Think of the Federal Reserve, the State Department, and Homeland Security for example.

Having spent many years of my life abroad, I have seen the transformation that is taking place beyond our borders as well. Gone is the enthusiasm that outsiders once had for this nation. Gone is the respect that the mere mention of "America" commanded. This respect has been replaced by disdain, condescension, and lament.

This brings us to the start of the presidential campaign season.

There were about 20 candidates in the race altogether at the start of the campaign in the spring of 2007, so I figured there should be several candidates whom I'd be willing to support. But then I began to learn more about the candidates and began to cross them off my list.

The Republicans

Rudy Giuliani was a moderate Republican, so I thought he warranted a second look. However, I found him to be a fraud and jumped ship because who was once "America's Mayor" had since descended into pitting Americans against each other on the campaign trail by using terrorism to drive a wedge between Democrats and Republicans. And I believe he reduced September 11th to a mere political talking point.

Mitt Romney was a nonstarter because of the sheer number of policy reversals he undertook in an attempt to pander to certain parts of the Republican base. He came across as the type of politician who had no shame and would do and say whatever it took, even at the expense of his own dignity, to get elected. So I trusted nothing that came out of his mouth and viewed him to have no ideological core.

Fred Thompson was also a nonstarter because he did not seem serious about his campaign and figured that he could charm his way to the nomination with his Southern twang and red pickup truck. The basis of his campaign was merely that he was a Southerner with a wry sense of humor. There was no policy heft there. No thanks.

Sam Brownback was a candidate of the religious right, so he was automatically disqualified.

This left three palatable Republicans: John McCain, Mike Huckabee, and Ron Paul.

I am most definitely not a social conservative. But why would this disqualify Sam Brownback and not Mike Huckabee? Because Huckabee was civil in his political presentation. He was humble, likable, substantive, and in touch. He talked about the economy from the point of view of regular workers, not corporate managers. Even though I strongly disagreed with him on issues like abortion and gay rights, I would have been okay with him as President because he did not use wedge issues to divide the electorate for the sake of finding common ground.

My inner libertarian is what endeared me to Ron Paul. I applauded the courage of his convictions, even if that made him a laughing stock at the Republican debates. He spoke about the insanity of staying in Iraq even though the Iraqis want us to leave and the billions and billions of dollars that are spent propping up countries that are hostile to the United States. Unfortunately, Paul's candidacy came about 40 years too soon and in a party that moved away from Barry Goldwater conservatism decades ago.

This left John McCain. I had a favorable opinion of McCain after his 2000 presidential campaign and appreciated the way he occasionally bucked President Bush and the fringe elements of his own party. His participation in the "Gang of 14" at a time when the Senate was about to explode went a long way towards cementing my respect for him. When the race for the Republican nomination came down to McCain and Romney (Huckabee was still in the race too, but he had been marginalized), I was banking on McCain. I figured that of all the Republicans in the race, he was ultimately the most appealing.

The Democrats

As for the Democrats, I was not one of those voters who was bowled over by the Big 3 of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards. All three of them were my last three choices.

I originally started off in Bill Richardson's camp. His resume was simply incredible. Like he said in some of the debates, nominating him would give voters both "change" and "experience." Being from New Mexico, he had the right geography. And as a Latino, he had the right demographics. Combining all this with the fact that he was a centrist Democrat made Richardson bulletproof. His "Interview" campaign ads were impressive too, so I felt comfortable showing my allegiance to the New Mexico governor. He was the first candidate to whom I ever donated money.

But then came the debates. He seemed sluggish, disoriented, and disappointing. I gave him several chances, but he never "popped." And his campaign staff didn't seem all that interested in my offers to volunteer for him either. So he left me cold.

As Richardson's star faded, Joe Biden's stock rose. He was my second choice who later became my first choice. Biden was an exceptionally strong debater with a good sense of humor. He had a lot of experience too and clearly understood the world in which we live. I had the opportunity to meet him three times and he genuinely seemed to talk to me as a person and not as just another voter. I donated money to his campaign too and was surprised when I received a thank you letter from him personally with a real signature. Not one of those computerized signatures, but a real signature with ink stains. This was a United States senator actually taking the time to be gracious to me, a generic PhD student in South Carolina.

As I watched him perform strongly in debate after debate, I hoped that the people in Iowa were paying attention. Despite my enthusiasm for Biden, I worried that he did not have enough star power to shine in the Iowa caucuses because Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards were sucking up all the media's oxygen. But I strongly believed this candidate could be trusted to win the White House and govern with a sense of competence and an awareness of the magnitude of his responsibilities. Unfortunately, he finished 5th in Iowa and was thereby disqualified from the subsequent debate in New Hampshire that Bill Richardson, who finished fourth, could participate in.

Chris Dodd was Joe Biden without the personality, so he didn't have a chance. Mike Gravel was not a serious candidate. And like Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich was about 40 years ahead of his time.

Why wasn't I in the Barack Clintedwards camp? Because they were polarizing personality candidates with thin resumes. Obama seemed like a nice guy, but he did not have much of a record to run on. When it comes to voting, I place experience and accomplishments ahead of identity politics and personality. This is why John Edwards was also disqualified. He had even less government experience than Obama and did not prove himself to be a strong campaigner because of how little he helped John Kerry in 2004.

As for Hillary Clinton, she was certainly the "toughest" of the top three candidates, but I had really grown tired of the Bush vs. Clinton storyline and the constant snipping between their surrogates on the cable news channels. I was sick of hearing accusations of President Bush's lying be countered by reminding everyone about President Clinton's lying. I really wanted to move on from the Bush-Clinton dynastic noise and start over.

So my heart was with Biden. But after his loss in Iowa, Richardson's defeat in New Hampshire, and Edwards' embarrassment in South Carolina, I knew I would have to choose between Obama and Clinton. (I still voted for Biden in the South Carolina primary even though he had already dropped out of the race.)

After Super Tuesday my respect for Obama and his political skills increased. He was racking up delegates because he wisely created a campaign apparatus in far more states than Clinton, who felt she didn't need to do this because she was entitled to the nomination. As Clinton fell further and further behind, she became a lot more negative and off-putting. That just reminded me of the Bush-Clinton feuding and further turned me off from her.

But even though I was warming to Obama, I still wasn't sold on him. I appreciated the movement he was trying to create by giving regular people a greater stake in their democracy. And I appreciated his tone, which was more civil and not based on treating voters like they were stupid. But I feared he had too much brain and not enough heart. Hillary Clinton picked up on this and began to run up the score on Obama during the final two months of the campaign and largely rehabilitated her image in my eyes. Unfortunately for her, she had dug herself too large a hole.

Obama won the nomination fairly. The PUMA wing of the party can complain about superdelegates, Florida, Michigan, and half votes, but they should blame the Hillary Clinton campaign, strategist Mark Penn, and the Democratic National Committee for that instead, not Obama. He earned his place at the top of the ticket.

The outrage

So the battle was between a respectable Republican with a record and an intriguing Democrat without one. I thought this campaign would be a lot more civil and uplifting than the 2000 and 2004 campaigns, so I figured that regardless of who won the election, America would come out on top.

But then something changed. Channeling John Kerry, Senator John McCain became Candidate John McCain, and I did not like what I saw. And my worst fears about Senator Obama being overly cerebral came true.

Because of my disagreements with John McCain over foreign policy, the ongoing war in Iraq, and his tack to the religious right, I figured that there was only about a 30% chance that I'd vote for him. That has since become a 0% chance. Some of this is due to John McCain directly, but some of it is also due to his allies.

I am sick of this election being about middle names, flag pins, e-mail rumors, Paris Hilton, religion, and lipstick.

I am sick of the media fixating on insignificant nonsense while ignoring the issues that really matter to people.

I am sick of dishonest political advertising, political red herrings, stupid talking points, baseless accusations of media bias, and phony outrage.

I am sick of having my patriotism questioned because I thought the Iraq War was a terrible idea and don't support most of President Bush's policies.

I am sick of having flag pins determine how much an American loves this country.

I am sick of politicians demeaning our allies and then complaining when they don't enthusiastically support our policies.

I am sick of equating a politician's popularity abroad with political leprosy at home.

I am sick of the fact that a vice presidential nominee that nobody knows won't give media interviews because the media are not "deferential" enough to her.

I am even sicker of the media who let her get away with this in the first place.

The fears

This nation is in a state of historical decline in which we are becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the world and our own quality of life is decreasing. And that scares me.

We are spending billions of dollars in Iraq. Where is this money coming from?

Millions of people can't even afford to get sick, much less actually go to the doctor because health insurance and health care cost too much money.

The world is unstable, as Russia's incursion into Georgia and Iran's nuclear ambitions illustrate.

The environment is slowly degrading and the balance between man and nature is becoming skewed.

It costs three times as much to fill up my gas tank compared to 10 years ago.

A growing percentage of young people are failing to graduate from high school. And for those who do, it's more difficult for them to pay for college because tuition keeps rising and there is less financial aid available.

People are getting kicked out of their homes because of rising interest rates on their mortgages.

Brave Americans are dying and getting hurt every day in Iraq because of an ill-conceived war with an ill-defined mission. And these brave warriors are being neglected when they return home.

There is no transparency in our government. Instead, our national leaders are saying "Trust us" even though they have given us every reason not to.

Laws are being written, passed, and ignored because of presidential signing statements.

An American city drowned and has yet to be rebuilt.

We are one Supreme Court appointment away from major reversals in longstanding social policy.

Politicians are accusing other politicians of being elitists because they went to private schools and sent their children to private schools even though these very same politicians want to institute vouchers that would let parents send their own children to private schools.

Politicians are politicizing America by using phony and loaded slogans like "country first," as if every other candidate running for president doesn't do so.

I am sick of it. There are too many serious issues that need to be addressed, but the quest to win the daily news cycle is crowding everything out.

The endorsement

John McCain would probably be a competent president. And should he win, I would pray for his health every day because I have little respect for and little confidence in Sarah Palin. And I hope that President McCain would govern as Senator McCain, not Candidate McCain.

I have strong disagreements with Barack Obama when it comes to illegal immigration, corporate taxes, tort reform, and entitlement programs. But after what I have seen from the increasingly dishonorable McCain campaign and the doe-eyed media over the past two or three weeks, I have decided that enough is enough.

The path McCain took to get here has caused me to lose a lot of respect for him. His "country first" slogan is a total farce and the phony outrage coming from his campaign over accusations of sexism and celebrity show him to be nothing more than a tool of the very same people who turned George Bush into a polarizing 30% president who only cares about 30% of the electorate.

Real leaders don't accuse their political rivals of wanting to lose a war before losing an election. That's not "country first."

Real leaders don't distract the electorate from substantive issues by throwing up smokescreens about minutia. That's not "country first" either.

Real leaders don't choose their vice presidential nominees after just meeting them once. It reminds me of "looking into Vladimir Putin's soul." While Palin has so far turned out to be a tremendous success for his campaign, the fact remains that this was an irresponsible gamble that has been rendered even more irresponsible by the fact that he is restricting media access to her as if she should not have to be scrutinized by the press.

Real leaders don't cry sexism over stupid remarks about lipstick, especially when they themselves have used the exact same expression in the past and commonly ridicule others for political correctness.

Real leaders don't scare voters by linking their political opponents to children and sex education.

Real leaders don't continue to shout out talking points that have long since definitively been proven false.

An Obama defeat would vindicate the strategists who believed that diverting discussion from education policy, the economy, and Iraq to a discussion about lipstick and sexism are the keys to winning the White House.

An Obama defeat would vindicate a media that is derelict in its responsibilities.

An Obama defeat would lead to a likely Clinton nomination in 2012 and signify to voters that the only way you can win the White House is to throw mud and engage in character assassination. Bush did that in 2000 and 2004, McCain is doing that this year, and should McCain win, Hillary Clinton will do that again in 2012. I don't want politics to be that way.

No more wedge politics.
No more journalistic negligence and irresponsibility.
No more lipstick. And freedom fries. And jokes about France.
No more chants of U-S-A whenever a Republican politician bashes a Democrat.
No more scaring the electorate by linking politicians with children and sex.
No more hiding behind the flag and impugning another American's patriotism.

I have serious reservations about Obama's lack of experience. But the fact that he chose Joe Biden as his running mate reassures me. The two have a good personal relationship, so I know that Biden will always speak his mind even if it means giving Obama bad news. And he can serve as a liaison between the old Washington and the new. Biden-Obama would have been preferable to Obama-Biden, but that is not how the campaigns turned out. But perhaps because Obama is at the top of the ticket, that makes the contrast in tone between Obama-Biden and McCain-Palin all the more stark.

I do not endorse Barack Obama because I care much for his political views. And I do not endorse him because of his personal story. I endorse Barack Obama because everything he's running against must not be validated by his defeat.

Even if you may not agree with Obama's political ideas, I hope you at least agree with his political approach. After Paris Hilton, feigned cries of sexism, blaming the media, and lipstick, it is safe to say that the United States can't afford to have this nonsense be rewarded by a McCain victory because that will only allow it to continue in 2012. America deserves better than this.

9/09/2008

The Rise and Fall of Barack Obama (repost)

(NOTE: This post was originally published in The 7-10 on August 1, 2007, long before the Iowa caucuses. While Obama did since win the Democratic nomination, it appears that his momentum is stalled for some of the same reasons I listed in this year-old post. Of course, things can always change again after the debates, but right now, the Obama campaign should be worried. The post that follows has not been edited to reflect the change in the political landscape since the summer of 2007 when it was originally written.)

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In a sea of about 20 candidates running for president, some of them have been more dominant than others. However, perhaps no candidate has generated as much buzz, garnered more media coverage, or has been hyped up as much as Barack Obama.

It is easy to understand why he has become the subject of such intrigue. His biography is unlike that of any other candidate who is running or has ever run for president. The fact that he is biracial and has an international upbringing symbolizes how people from completely divergent circumstances can overcome their differences and unite to create wonderful and beautiful things. And even though he is biracial, he is generally considered Black, which opens up all sorts of other avenuesfor exploration. As a Black, he single-handedly shatters so many stereotypes people have about Black politicians and Blacks in general. In short, he is well-traveled, a gifted speaker, and connects well with people at a level that most other politicians can't.

Part of Obama's appeal is how he inspires and motivates people, particularly people who are only casual observers of politics or people who don't follow politics at all. It's not because he doesn't "look" like a politician because he's Black. If that were the case, then Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Carol Moseley-Braun would have fared far better in their presidential runs. It's because he simply connects with nonpolitical people by speaking nonpolitical language. When he made mistakes in the past, he didn't issue carefully parsed statements or nondenial denials or accuse people of "playing politics" or "media bias." Instead, he'd own up to it and call it a "boneheaded" action or remark. It seems like this kind of plainspokenness should be common sense, but it's really not when it comes to politicians, who by nature are always calculating, leveraging, and positioning themselves. This is why so many regular people rate his debate performances more highly than the pundits do. Obama's candor is refreshing.

This candor disarms and captivates audiences. On the campaign trail he appeals to their idealistic side by talking about "a different type of politics" and "an end to the cynicism in Washington." Politicians have certainly run as outsiders before, but Obama is seen as a more credible messenger. And he has backed up this rhetoric by not stuffing earmarks into appropriation bills and not accepting money from political action committees (PACs). So he has practiced what he preached.

The media have also been having a field day covering Obama, almost hanging on every word he says as if it were Shakespearian. The media's gift to the ongoing political dialogue is the term "rock star," which they use to describe Obama. In other words, Obama is a rock star because he has good looks, an interesting personal story, and adoring crowds that are more than eager to support him.

The problem with this is that Obama is not a rock star. He is a candidate for President of the United States. And as the president, issues of character, experience, and policy positions become important. During Obama's ascent to media and political stardom, not much attention has been paid to his policy positions and his experience because his freshness trumped any other nagging doubts people had about him. However, these doubts are becoming more difficult to ignore now.

At what point does experience really matter? George Bush beat the more experienced Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004. But the challenges the world faces in 2007 suggest that a competent, experienced person is what this nation needs in the White House in 2009. America pinned its hopes on the optimist in 2000 and 2004 and is undoubtedly experiencing buyer's remorse. But is Obama '08 the same as Bush '00? If experience really is that important, then Democrats would be wise to nominate a different candidate.

Another problem confronting Obama is the dizzying expectations that have been set for him. Pundits and talking heads have gone so far as to compare him with JFK, which is unfair. When such comparisons are thrown around so casually, it can only serve to the detriment of the candidate. People who are not familiar with "The Obama" may be curious about him because of the media's gushing and praise. So they attend an Obama event and expect a near religious experience. However, this moment never comes and many of these people are left wondering what all the hype is about after shaking his hand and going home.

Could it be that Obama has set his own trap by being too good for his own good? One point he kept stressing was how he was the candidate to bring about "change" and a "positive" dialogue. He eschewed attack ads and hitting below the belt. But while that rhetoric may be noble, it has also put Obama in a political straitjacket.

As a general rule in politics, if you get kicked in the butt, that means you're the one who's ahead. Everybody's gunning for you. Why do you need to go on offense if you're winning the race? The only people who have to attack are the people who are running in second. Think about why Hillary Clinton has stayed at the top of the polls even though she's generally been in cruise control (at least until last week's spat between her and Obama). None of the other candidates will catch her unless they lob a few grenades at her. You can't overtake someone if you don't mount an offense.

But the problem for Obama regarding running in second is the fact that attacking Clinton contradicts his own message about the "politics of hope" and "changing the tone in Washington." But he can't win the nomination without shooting a few holes in Hillary's political balloon first. So he has been neutralized by his own message! It is possible to identify and express your differences with a political opponent in a civil way, but that is not nearly as forceful as flat out saying someone is wrong. And unfortunately for Obama, strong and wrong beats light and right in the political world almost every time. Think about the 2004 election, for example.

Obama was able to energize his supporters last week with his tit-for-tat with Hillary Clinton. However, he is now undermining his authenticity (one of his strengths) by awkwardly trying to compensate for his biggest weaknesses--that he is soft. For example, he recently said "he may send US troops into Pakistan if there was actionable intelligence." But why? Is he credible when he says this? Does this type of pandering contradict his "new kind of politics?" Does he not realize that a smart commander in chief would never even reveal such a strategy in public? Does he not understand that advocating a military strike in Pakistan, a US ally in the War on Terrorism, contradicts his positioning as an antiwar candidate? Does he not realize that this only brings up new questions about his lack of experience?

It's one thing for people unfamiliar with "The Obama" to have these kinds of questions. But lately, one gets the sense that even his most hopeful supporters are beginning to feel a bit let down by him. They like him personally and really want him to succeed, but his freshness is wearing off and voters fear there's not a lot of policy heft or legislative achievements hiding underneath that glowing aura. These people are wondering if Obama's second act is nowhere as good as his first.

In light of his recent comments, expect support for Obama to wane over the next few weeks. The direct beneficiaries of his self-destruction will be Clinton, Biden, Dodd, and Richardson. Doubts people have about Obama's experience may be a bit more reluctant to support the similarly inexperienced Edwards.

The fact that Obama has raised so much money from so many people shows that a lot of people are drawn to him, but the fact that he is failing to rise in national polls after an initial surge last winter shows that not as many people are drawn to his candidacy.

9/08/2008

McCain and the Media: Part 3

I have been critical of John McCain because of his failure to use the media to his advantage, either by avoiding good media opportunities that were presented to him or by not sufficiently preparing his staff to deal with interviews and losing control of the ensuing narratives that result from it.

However, the media have done John McCain a tremendous favor that has allowed him to turn the media into a perfect foil that further enthuses his supporters. The media's arguable overreach in regards to probing into Sarah Palin's family affairs turned the Republican vice presidential nominee into a victim with whom many voters could empathize because Palin's troubles were similar to their own. Millions of voters know what it's like to have their teenage daughter break the news of an unplanned pregnancy and are offended by total strangers with microphones asking them about it. Millions of voters would recoil in disgust at being asked about taking flights after their water broke. Of course, Sarah Palin is a public figure, but the gut reaction to this media coverage is one of anger and disgust, not a logical determination of who is and is not fair game.

So after turning Palin into a victim, she was able to display her tenacity by striking back with zinger after zinger against the media in her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last week. Palin was allowed to play the role of victim, fighter, and anti-media crusader all at the same time.

Of course, the media were not the engine driving most of this invasive coverage. The responsibility for this overreach primarily lies with anonymous bloggers, such as those at the Daily Kos, as the rumors about the Palin family originated on such sites. But this distinction doesn't matter to average people. The storyline they're going to hear is "Media unfairly attacks Palin" or "Media coverage is unfavorable to Republicans." Oh, and it pushes Barack Obama and Joe Biden out of the headlines.

This buys the McCain campaign some time. They can keep Palin off the campaign trail and let her study foreign policy privately while publicly telling voters that the media don't deserve interviews. Attacking the media is a common tactic Republicans employ to lower expectations about their own candidates ("You guys in the media won't give our [Republican] candidate a fair shake."), drive up enthusiasm among their base ("Let's stand up to the New York Times!"), and attack Democrats without attacking them directly (by referring to the media as "the liberal media elite" or "the Manhattan and Georgetown cocktail circuit, as Fred Thompson said in his speech at the convention).

But there is a risk that the "blame the media" tack will backfire. To start, some people in the media are defending themselves, rather than taking these criticisms lying down. After all, a journalist's job is to ask questions and gather information that the public finds important. Other people in the media are aware of their missteps and are cleaning up their act. While some of their coverage may have been unfairly invasive, the public still does have a right to know about its candidates running for the two highest offices in the land. And the longer Sarah Palin is kept away from the cameras, the more doubts may creep in about her preparedness for the job. The McCain campaign does not want the dialogue about Palin to switch from "She's one of us" or "She was unfairly attacked" to "Why can't she answer any real questions?" or "What is she hiding?" Once the halo disappeared from Barack Obama, he had to answer tough questions about his past and his record. That will happen to Sarah Palin too.

Of course, the McCain campaign may try to use last week's media coverage as a way of inoculating her from having to answer tough questions later on. If the media pile onto Palin for not being able to articulate her policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the McCain campaign may say "See? The liberal media is being unfair to Palin again." But that may backfire, as even some Republicans are imploring other Republicans to be a bit more discerning in regards to Palin because despite her appealing narrative, nobody knows anything about her and shouldn't get too excited about her until she at least gives them some sense of direction in regards to where she wants to take this country. And the McCain campaign cannot use the "biased liberal media" as a shield to prevent her from having to answer legitimate questions.

This media strategy introduces some new problems. First of all, Palin cannot attack Obama on the campaign trail and then not make herself available for interviews to elaborate on the attacks or clarify what they mean. This makes her look like she's hiding from Obama or the media and conveys the message that all she does is talk tough without being able to defend herself.

Secondly, this presents an opening for Barack Obama in that he can compare Vice President Dick Cheney's secrecy to that of Palin's and link her to the Bush administration in that regard. He can also remind voters that he, McCain, and Biden are all making the rounds and answering tough questions. Obama even appeared on Bill O'Reilly's show, which is hardly friendly to liberal Democrats. This would plant seeds of doubt in voters' minds about Palin's political credibility.

Third, because she's not making herself available for interviews, she is inadvertently raising her own expectations and setting herself up to be savaged by the media in the event that she makes a misstep. If she can't explain McCain's economic policy, the media won't have anything else but that mistake to report on because she simply hasn't given the press much material to work with. And there will be more pressure for her to go before the cameras and clear up such a mistake.

And finally, Obama's surrogates can chide Palin for being "tough enough to take on Vladimir Putin and Al Qaeda, but not tough enough to take on the Washington Post and Tom Brokaw." This would make a mockery of Palin's candidacy much like the mockery she made of Obama during her speech. Some Republicans are further muddying the waters by boycotting Oprah Winfrey's show. That feeds into the perception that Palin only wants soft interviews while also contradicting the idea that the McCain campaign is keeping her away from the media in general.

In short, media overreach has given John McCain a tremendous advantage that may be reflected in polls showing him leading Obama. Sarah Palin has clearly reset this race and has closed the enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats. The challenge for Obama is to stay relevant and find a strong and consistent way to attack her because treating her gingerly is not working. And the risk for McCain is overplaying his hand by running too much against the media and not enough against Obama or by running against the media at the expense of not running on his own record.

9/04/2008

The Problem with Palin's Speech

Sarah Palin delivered a fiery speech at the Republican National Convention last night. This speech was important because it gave her the opportunity to reintroduce herself to Republicans and introduce herself to America as a whole. And because she was buffeted by the press, sometimes unfairly, as the media aggressively combed through her record as governor and mayor and her own personal issues, the country wanted to see how she'd perform. Would she have a glass jaw? Would she shrug it off? Or would she return serve?

The reviews are in and Republicans couldn't be more pleased. Palin clearly beat expectations and proved that she knew how to throw a punch. She gave Republicans a lot of red meat and seasoned it with some tough attacks on Barack Obama and the press, which the crowd loved. Republicans were clearly enthused by Palin and now have a reason to show up and vote for John McCain and not just against Barack Obama this November.

However, Palin may have done more harm than good to John McCain's chances of defeating his Democratic rival. But why?

First of all, if Republicans loved the speech, it goes without saying that Democrats hated it. So in addition to pumping up Republicans, Palin riled up the Democrats as well. Barack Obama capitalized on this by raising $8 million after her speech. Since Obama will not be limited by public financing guidelines, he is free to raise and spend this money at will. And given the rising number of registered Democrats and the stagnant number of registered Republicans, ginning up both bases should only work to the Democrats' advantage. This problem was not lost on one Republican strategist who was not joining in the Republican celebrations of her speech.

What about independents and undecided voters? Imagine going to two car dealerships and seeing two cars that you like. You test drive both of them and can't make a decision. Then one of the car dealers tells you that only losers drive the other car at the other dealership and that the people who work at that other dealership are scumbags. Upon hearing this, most people would probably be turned off by this dealer's attitude because it comes across as unprofessional, immature, and insulting.

In the case of this election, these undecided and independent voters were looking for a reason to vote for John McCain. But instead, they heard Palin mock Obama for being a community organizer, attack him for being self-absorbed, criticize his patriotism, drag his wife into the line of fire, regurgitate some old quotes from some missteps he made on the campaign trail this spring, and blame the media. To these voters, Palin came across like the immature car dealer who resorted to name calling. These voters did not know Sarah Palin prior to last night, but after her speech, they likely concluded that she was too undignified to deserve their vote. So she wasted her opportunity to present her case to voters why she should be in the White House with John McCain. Some news sites have picked up on possible blowback from independents who viewed Palin's attacks as unnecessary and over the top.

Obama was not the only person who was on the receiving end of Palin's barbs. She also inadvertently demeaned community organizers by claiming that as a mayor of a small town, she had "actual responsibilities." This was an ironic remark because Republicans quickly pounced on Barack Obama for his "bitter" remarks that were disparaging to rural America. But by claiming that community organizers didn't have "responsibilities," she offended the very same small-town people Obama offended and came across as an elitist. These community organizers work at the grassroots level and can mobilize their small neighborhoods to get to the polls. CNN's Roland Martin was offended by this remark as well and warned that these community organizers may seek payback at the polls later on.

Barack Obama has two primary bases of support: 1) Democrats and liberals, who probably can't be persuaded to change their minds and vote for John McCain, and 2) more persuadable Republicans, moderates, and independents who have grown weary of the "us vs. them" attack politics that reached their zenith in 2004. Palin's speech fired up the first group of Obama supporters and likely embarrassed the second group of supporters who are wondering where their Republican Party went.

After a highly negative and bullying speech by Rudy Giuliani; another negative speech by Mitt Romney; inappropriate chants of "USA" every time Democrats, liberals, or the media were attacked; and the loaded "country first" chants (which suggest that only John McCain and his supporters put America first); a lot of undecided voters were hoping Sarah Palin would demonstrate a bit of class and be tough without being abrasive. While her supporters may have thought she displayed class and tenacity, people who were not in the McCain-Palin camp likely thought she came across as rude and sophomoric. Barack Obama took the high road the day after her speech, which was a wise decision because the more negative the McCain-Palin campaign becomes, the more presidential it makes Obama look.

In 2004, Democrats learned that being "not Bush" was not good enough to win the presidency. In 2008, Republicans appear to be on their way to learning that running as "Nobama" will yield the same fate. Palin's speech may have pleased the partisans in the convention hall, but millions of voters watching the convention at local bars and in their living rooms were likely quite offended. At a time when voters are worried about the economy and international conflict, turning this election into yet another culture war and slimefest seems politically foolish and plays right into Obama's hands.

9/03/2008

McCain and the Media: Part 2

Back in July, I wrote about John McCain's failure to use the media to his advantage. The impetus for that post was McCain's nonattendance at the UNITY Conference in Chicago, a meeting of professional associations for journalists of color. McCain did not attend the conference because of "scheduling conflicts." (Barack Obama did attend the conference and took questions from the panelists there.) I wrote that McCain missed a golden opportunity to bolster his standing among skeptics and even help rehabilitate the Republican brand in the process:

"The audience at the Unity Conference was likely a hostile one seeing that people of color are reliably Democratic. However, the conference participants were there as media professionals, rather than partisans. And given Republicans' problems with voters of color, McCain could have made news by courageously showing up. Instead he gave Blacks, Latinos, and Asians yet another reason to think that McCain (and Republicans by extension) simply don't care about them or the issues that are important to their communities. Oh, and he gave Barack Obama yet another night of positive headlines because he showed up and took questions.

Again, the media are arguably covering Barack Obama more often and more favorably than John McCain, but McCain has certainly had his opportunities to make news. However, on more than one occasion, he simply chose not to participate or did not take full advantage of the golden opportunities that have come his way. And he has no one to blame for that but himself."
(You can read the entire post here.)

Now it looks like John McCain is making the exact same mistake with the Sarah Palin rollout. After successfully stepping all over Barack Obama's nomination speech by announcing his surprise vice presidential pick, the media and the public were all paying attention to the McCain campaign. He had the megaphone to match a captive audience. The Palin rollout initially went over well with the Republican base because her biography appealed to voters seeking an outsider who represented the future of the party.

However, since announcing Palin, the McCain campaign has done a terrible job of managing the media and taking full advantage of the opportunity her selection presented him. Failures to anticipate and execute have really taken a lot of the initial thunder away from her selection.

Sarah Palin is the final piece of the presidential puzzle. John McCain is a known quantity, having run for the White House in 2000 and being a high profile senator. Barack Obama has commanded the attention and respect of millions of Americans through his historical campaign and the slugfest with Hillary Clinton. Joe Biden is a veteran senator who is no stranger to presidential politics himself.

All three of these candidates are known quantities who have been raked over the coals by the media. McCain had the fallout with the Keating Five scandal, the bitter South Carolina primary against George Bush during the 2000 campaign, the fighting with the religious right, and the problems with his base over illegal immigration. Barack Obama has had to deal with coverage of "Bittergate," Reverend Wright, questions about his Blackness, and questions about a lack of substance. And Joe Biden has had his own media problems with his plagiarism episode from his first presidential campaign, the way he conducted himself during the Senate committee meetings he chaired, and his tendency to put his foot in his mouth.

However, nobody knows anything about Sarah Palin. Her biography is largely unknown, and nobody knows much about her political positions either. Of course, the media are going to comb through every video, press release, and interview they have to paint a picture of who Palin is. And when they find out something new, they're going to hammer the McCain campaign for not telling the public about it earlier. They want to know more about her because as a candidate for vice president, the public wants and has a right to know as much about her as possible.

But when these questions came up, his campaign commonly blamed the media for not asking Obama what his accomplishments were. This is an utterly ridiculous complaint because Obama has been running his presidential campaign for over a year and a half and has had to answer these questions on numerous occasions. And given the number of votes and the amount of money he has received, it is obvious that a large enough segment of the electorate is at least willing to accept his limited resume. Sarah Palin completely bypassed the state primaries and caucuses and received absolutely no votes in this campaign except for one vote from John McCain. So it is to be expected that the media and voters will have a lot of questions for her as they subject her to the same level of scrutiny that the other three candidates (Obama, Biden, and McCain) have experienced. It's as if McCain tried to turn his vice presidential selection into a recess appointment and is protesting because he has to subject her to the confirmation process just like everyone else has done.

The McCain campaign got into trouble by not sufficiently vetting Palin beforehand. Of course, this is one of the perils of going with such an unknown and unconventional pick. Because McCain wanted to surprise everyone, he couldn't make too many waves when vetting her earlier. Had the media and powerful political figures and aides in Alaska known about document requests from the McCain campaign surrounding Palin, her cover would have been blown. But had this happened, the media's vetting process would have happened a lot sooner.

Now the McCain campaign is angry that the media want to know so much about her. But it is unrealistic for McCain to expect to be able to introduce the nation to someone that nobody knows and then not expect the media to ask questions about her. That was a terrible mistake that has threatened to cause questions and controversy to eclipse the initial excitement surrounding her.

Secondly, the McCain campaign did not sufficiently prepare themselves or Palin for the media crush after her selection was announced. Palin gave a speech with McCain in Dayton, Ohio, in which she said she was a "hockey mom" who cleaned up Alaska and wanted to bring her reform agenda to Washington. But after that, she essentially disappeared. The McCain campaign has since restricted access to Palin, thus increasing anxiety and media speculation. This is terrible public relations management for the McCain campaign because the lack of access has led to idle speculation in the media that has fed into the storyline that "nobody knows who she is" or "there may be something else negative that she's hiding."

This lack of preparation extends to McCain's own spokespeople. Last night, one of McCain's spokesmen appeared on CNN's Election Center with Campbell Brown. She asked him to name one important decision Palin had made as commander in chief of the Alaska National Guard. This seemed like a fair question, especially since the campaign was circulating that responsibility as one of her selling points. However, the spokesman was unable to provide one example for the audience and tried to pivot to a talking point about how "Sarah Palin had more executive experience than Barack Obama." Brown did not let him get away with this, however, but was professional about it as she gave the spokesman several chances to redeem himself. The McCain campaign then complained about the interview, citing unfairness, and canceled another CNN interview in protest.

These episodes are damaging to John McCain's campaign for several reasons:

1. They undercut his message of strength. John McCain is running as the strong leader who can keep America safe from terrorists and other threats abroad. However, he is too scared to stand up to CNN. That also undercuts Palin's own credentials as a tough woman who can stand up and fight and risks turning her selection into a gimmick.

2. The media narrative of Palin has progressed from brilliant to controversial to enigmatic. Now a lot of the luster has worn off of Palin and a lot of people have questions about her--questions that the McCain campaign should have been prepared to answer before they introduced her to the nation.

3. They have forced the McCain campaign to spend time debating why her limited government experience is more significant than Obama's limited government experience. Time the McCain campaign spends talking about how "she has more executive experience than Obama" is time the campaign is not spending talking about issues that are on actual voters' minds. The "experience" question is a wash that only runs out the clock and benefits Obama in the process because he's the candidate leading in the polls. There is no winner in the Obama-Palin experience debate, so McCain should get away from this discussion and move on.

4. They have raised the bar of expectations for Palin's speech at the convention tonight. Any mistakes she makes will be amplified. And she will have to answer a lot of questions.

5. They have called McCain's judgment into question. He had only met with Palin once before he made his selection, and there is still a lot of potentially damaging or embarrassing information out there that the campaign still doesn't know. One could then rightfully wonder if McCain would exercise a similar level of rashness or irresponsibility in the White House.

6. These episodes are overshadowing his own convention! This convention is supposed to be about John McCain, but it has turned into Sarah Palin's convention even though nobody knows who she is!

As I originally wrote in July, the McCain campaign has commonly criticized the media for paying too much attention to Barack Obama. But McCain certainly can't complain about not getting any media attention now. However, after a good start, he has totally botched the rollout of his running mate and has failed to take advantage of the increased attention that he should have anticipated. And now his campaign is suffering as a result.

Of course, Palin may deliver an excellent speech and allay many fears of conservatives and voters around the nation. But the vetting process will continue in the media, and the McCain campaign will not be able to keep her in a bubble far removed from the microphones and kleig lights. They had better figure out a way to manage the media before the media write her off. While he may not be able to control an inappropriately zealous press corps (as the Palin's daughter's pregnancy story suggests), he can at least control the messages his own campaign sends out and do so in a way that benefits his campaign.

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.