Showing posts with label bill richardson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label bill richardson. Show all posts

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.

8/21/2008

Obama Veepstakes: Predictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your predictions?

4/27/2008

Obama's Veepstakes

Barack Obama lost last week's Pennsylvania primary by 10 points. Since then, Clinton and the media have been buzzing about the notion that Obama may actually be a weaker general election candidate than the former First Lady. This was the source of a good debate over at Not Very Bright, one of the more popular South Carolina bloggers. NVB correctly argued that even though Obama lost Pennsylvania, the fact remains that Clinton did not amass enough pledged delegates to make a difference. I disagreed and said that pledged delegates don't really matter because superdelegates' main responsibility is to nominate someone who can win in November, and not to simply echo the winner of the pledged delegate race. (Normally, these two ideas coincide, but this year might be different.)

However, this post will not address the electability of both candidates. Instead, I will just pretend that this race is over and that Barack Obama will be the nominee. Thus, the focus switches from how he can finally put Clinton away to whom he will tap as his running mate, which leads me to this post.

First, Obama's running mate must satisfy several preconditions:

1. This candidate cannot be a knuckle dragging partisan. Such a candidate would cancel out his message of unity.

2. This candidate must not be an Iraq defender. It would be ideal for Obama to tap someone who had similar "judgment" regarding the war, but politicians who have since come out against it probably aren't disqualified. This "judgment" is one of the cornerstones of his campaign, so he cannot choose a running mate who contradicts this.

3. This candidate should be able to appeal to Whites and rural voters. Obama is still smarting from his ill-conceived remarks about rural voters "clinging" to guns and religion. Blacks, liberal Whites, and urban voters were already in Obama's corner. More moderate and rural Whites were slowly warming up to him. They may have been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt earlier, but taking Bittergate in conjunction with Michelle Obama's "proud" remarks and Jeremiah Wright might be too much for them to overlook. And there also remains a silent subset of the electorate that is simply uncomfortable voting for someone of color, as the Bradley effect suggests.

4. This candidate should be able to compensate for Obama's perceived weaknesses regarding experience and national defense. Tapping a Senate freshman or a one-term governor would not do much to quell the concerns about Obama not being ready for primetime.

5. This candidate should help heal the rift that has opened up between the Obama and Clinton camps. The acrimony between them is creating real divisions that risk sending Democrats to John McCain in November or keeping Democrats at home. This is not to say that Obama needs to ask Clinton to be his veep, but he does need to extend an olive branch somehow to her supporters, lest he risk having to spend precious weeks trying to win them back the hard way.

So let's address some of the more common names generating VP buzz:

John Edwards will not be on the bottom half of an Obama ticket. To start, Edwards already ran for VP and would probably loathe to do it a second time around. Secondly, Edwards was unable to deliver North Carolina for John Kerry in 2004, so his electoral heft is weak. And finally, Edwards has yet to endorse Obama--a point not lost on the Obama campaign. Maybe Obama would tap Edwards to be Attorney General, Secretary of Labor, or a poverty czar, but Vice President is probably out of the question.

A lot of people have been buzzing about Senator Jim Webb of Virginia. A former Republican with a strong military background, Webb would certainly enhance Obama's ticket by providing credibility on foreign affairs, national defense, and the ability to appeal to rural voters and gun owners. The problem with Webb, however, is that he is a perfect fit for Virginia as its junior senator. Should he be tapped for Vice President, his Senate seat would be lost. Yes, the governor of Virginia is a Democrat who would appoint a Democrat to replace Webb, but the most attractive candidate (former Governor Mark Warner) is already running for retiring Senator John Warner's seat. With the prospect of the Democrats making it to a filibuster-proof 60 Senate seats, Webb would probably be better off representing the people of Virginia.

General Wesley Clark would be an attractive option in that he would help bridge the gap between the Obama and Clinton camps. As a former NATO commander and four-star general, Clark would instantly give Obama's ticket the ability to go toe-to-toe with or even outdo John McCain when it comes to military affairs. It's hard to tell a retired four-star general that he is weak on defense. Clark would also probably deliver Arkansas and give McCain a run for his money in Virginia. Clark ran unsuccessfully for the White House in 2004 and only won the primary in Oklahoma before being forced to quit. Since then, he has improved his political skills and is probably a better campaigner now. This would be a smart pick for Obama.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson turned out to be one of the biggest busts of this year's presidential cycle. He had the ultimate resume, but turned out to be a disappointing candidate in the debates and struggled to connect with voters. However, now that the race for #1 is more or less settled, perhaps he can relax a bit more knowing that he simply has to run against John McCain instead of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Joe Biden at the same time. Richardson would be a tremendous help to Obama because he could help deliver the Latino vote and make New Mexico and Colorado more competitive. And the fact that Richardson drew the Clintons' ire (and was even called Judas) by endorsing Obama displayed a level of courage and loyalty that John Edwards has failed to do thus far. The National Rifle Association loves Richardson and he cannot be pegged as a tax-and-spend Democrat. But would a "black-brown" ticket be too much "change" for the nation to handle at once?

Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius endorsed Obama and is highly popular in her state. She would be able to appeal to red state voters as well as female Clinton voters. If Obama wishes to heal the rift between his camp and Clinton's, she might be an attractive way to do so. White women form the base of Clinton's support and many of them are sticking with her because of the historical nature of her candidacy and the perception that her rivals and the media have been unfair to her because of it. But are they loyal to Clinton because she's a Clinton, or are they loyal to Clinton because she's a woman? If it's the latter, then Governor Sebelius may be able to help. If it's the former, Clinton's female supporters will either have to grudgingly accept Obama or simply stay home. Kansas is an overwhelmingly Republican state. Even with Sebelius on the ticket, it might be too much to ask of her to deliver it in a presidential election year.

Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano also endorsed Obama early and is popular in her state. However, she was unable to deliver Arizona for Obama in the primary. And the fact that favorite son John McCain hails from Arizona, she probably couldn't deliver the state for him in November either. If Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, or Mike Huckabee were the Republican nominee, maybe Napolitano would be a more attractive option. But John McCain eliminates her because of his popularity in her state.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg appears unlikely. He has lots of money, but probably does not add much to an Obama ticket. His greatest assets are his personal wealth and the fact that he's an independent. That ties in nicely with Obama's message of unity. But what state could Bloomberg deliver? Obama should be able to win New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey without him. Thus, it's hard to see the argument for Bloomberg over other options.

Retiring Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska would be a fascinating choice for veep. Like Wesley Clark, Hagel gives Obama some much needed heft in terms of military and foreign affairs expertise. And as a Republican, he would definitely lend credibility to Obama's message of unity. A Hagel pick would show voters that Obama doesn't just talk about bipartisanship, but actually practices it. Hagel was considered part of the Unity '08 movement and was rumored to be considering a third-party ticket with Bloomberg. Surely he'd be receptive to running with Obama because they both have an interest in getting politicians of all stripes to work together. Having a split ticket like this would make it really hard for Republicans to paint Obama as an ultra liberal because ultra liberals don't select center-right Republicans as their running mates. And should John McCain choose independent Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate, a Hagel nod would offset it as far as "bipartisanship" is concerned. Hagel is well respected both in Nebraska and the Senate and would help Obama connect with rural Whites and Republicans who have soured on Iraq.

Former Vice President Al Gore could be an attractive option for Obama, although it's not certain whether Gore would be up for campaigning for anything other than the top job. Climate change and the environment are very important to him and he could have a greater impact on this from the White House than he could as a private citizen. Gore would please the Democratic base, but his appeal among Republicans would be limited. Independents who voted for Bush and regret having done so may be willing to give Gore a chance. The biggest problem with a Gore pick, however, is that he contradicts Obama's message of looking to the future. If Hillary Clinton is part of the past, wouldn't Al Gore be part of the past as well? It seems more likely that Gore would be an emergency consensus nominee (presidential, not vice presidential) in the event that chaos erupts at the party convention this summer and the superdelegates are deadlocked over Obama and Clinton. Gore's probably the most respected party elder who has yet to jump in the current food fight, but look for him to play some role in the process sometime in the future.

Hillary Clinton will not be on the bottom half of an Obama ticket. That was true when I first wrote about this in February and it's still true now. The fact is, she needs him far more than he needs her. If Clinton somehow became the nominee, she'd be obligated to tap him for veep or risk tearing the Democratic Party in half. Obama does not have this obligation to Clinton, however, even though it would be in his and the party's best interest to make some conciliatory gesture to her camp. This is what makes Wesley Clark the most obvious pick at present.

1/09/2008

Lamentations of an Educated Voter: Part II

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney weren't the only casualties of disappointing primary results last night. Democrat Bill Richardson also saw the writing on the wall and will drop out of the race. This effectively whittles the Democratic field down to two candidates, although it has essentially been a two-person race for months. There are still five plausible Republican nominees in Huckabee, McCain, Romney, Thompson, and Giuliani.

Richardson's departure has struck a chord with me, especially after the premature departures of Senate veterans Chris Dodd and Joe Biden. While Richardson was not my preferred candidate, he did have a formidable resume and was potentially the most difficult Democrat for the Republicans to paint with the "tax-hiking liberal" label in the general election. He should have been the Democrats' dream candidate in that he had brown skin, an Anglo name, the right geography, executive experience, an unparalleled resume, a record of cutting taxes, NRA support, inroads with the fast-growing Latino community, and the ability to put places like Florida and the Southwest in play. Obviously his campaign skills and debate performances were weak, but had he received the same level of exposure as Clinton, Obama, or Edwards, or if the discussion had been more about policy than personality, Richardson might have fared better.

The same could be said for Biden and Dodd. Iowa single-handedly knocked out two competent, tested, uncontroversial, vetted statesmen who were probably the two safest and best qualified presidential candidates of either party. There are many culprits responsible for this: the importance of money, the compression of the primary calendar resulting from the states' "me first" mentality, the silly format of the early contests, and the superficiality of the media and the voters who rely on them. Because of all this, Democrats now have to choose between a polarizing, calculating, semi-inexperienced candidate that half of the nation would never consider voting for; and a candidate with almost no national resume whatsoever and a message that is both uplifting and unsatisfying.

And what about the Republicans? While McCain, Romney, Huckabee, Thompson, and Giuliani keep trying to out-conservative each other to their collective detriment, there is a single candidate who is right on almost every issue important to the Republican base. But nobody has heard of him because he can't raise any money. His name is Duncan Hunter, a veteran congressman. He's right on taxes, right on abortion, has actually done something about illegal immigration, and is strong on national defense. Isn't this the candidate Republicans should be enthusiastic about? Why should Republicans have to give themselves ulcers as they try to decide between an old man with no charisma who has betrayed them on taxes and immigration (McCain), a notorious flip-flopper and corporate suit with little ability to emotionally connect with voters (Romney), a nice guy with no foreign policy depth who has afforded college assistance to the children of illegal aliens (Huckabee), an underwhelming guy with the right accent and a glaring lack of earnestness (Thompson), and a one-dimensional candidate who commonly exploits national tragedies for political gain (Giuliani)?

Thanks a lot, Iowa. And New Hampshire. South Carolina. Cable news channels. Big city newspapers. Ineffective moderators. Stupid debate questions. Pack journalism. YouTube debate organizers. Lousy interviews. Nonstories. Arcane caucus rules. Lack of public financing. Deceptive campaign ads. Slime machines. No equal time for candidates. Blind partisanship. Identity politics. Lobbyist influence. And lack of voter curiosity.

And worse yet, this whole miserable system dissuades the most honorable people from ever running for president. So more often than not, we are left with the dregs of Congress and statehouses across the nation who have skeletons in their closets, fatal flaws that render them electorally weak, or are otherwise genuinely unlikeable people.

So here's my prediction. Come September or October, Americans will be absolutely sick of the presidential candidates, both of whom will have been bombarding the airwaves for about eight months or so. Then we will have the debates and voters of one party will immediately regret having chosen such a weak general election candidate, or voters everywhere will wonder if "these are really the two best candidates we have." The 2004 election was a perfect example of two miserable candidates whose main strength was the fact that each man wasn't his opponent. George Bush's reelection only proved that he was less unacceptable than John Kerry. And look where this nation is now.

I fear that this nation is traveling down the same sorry path. I'm fortunate enough to live in South Carolina, an early voting state, but my preferred candidates have either dropped out of the race or are trailing badly in the polls. I thought Bill Clinton was a decent president and think Hillary Clinton is probably capable, but I want to move on. Barack Obama seems like a great guy, but I don't have Obama Fever and I'm not looking for "change." John Edwards is angry about the right things, but I don't want another confrontational president in the White House. I can appreciate Mitt Romney's success in the private sector and he'd probably be an efficient and organized leader, but I just feel a certain "ick" factor about him. John McCain is a statesman, but I have grown weary of candidates who think the best way to defeat terrorism is to bomb them and that the only way out of Iraq is a slogan known as "victory," whatever that means. Mike Huckabee seems down to earth and pragmatic, but social conservatism makes me recoil in discomfort. Rudy Giuliani could have been an appealing Republican in the mold of Lincoln Chafee, but he has made a lot of petty, childish, and unpresidential remarks impugning his opponents' patriotism and demeaning our European allies. Fred Thompson's folksy style is quite disarming, but the 2000 election has taught us all that we should look for more in a president than someone who can crack a joke. Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich have a lot of good ideas, but they are about 30 years ahead of their time and nobody will vote for them. And Mike Gravel has been particularly prescient about identifying the institutional barriers that hold this nation back, but then he had to go and create that bizarre campaign ad of him standing in front of the camera doing nothing for two minutes before throwing a rock in a river.

What is a voter to do?

I wrote about some of these fears shortly before Iowa, and so far, these fears are coming true. We're stuck. Everything is broken. And there's nothing I can do to change it. Richardson's exit is just one more reminder of how unfair and inequitable this whole process is.

Again, hopefully there will be some serious discussions in the future about how to improve this system of selecting a president because so many people are alienated from the process and some of the best candidates don't stand a chance of having any meaningful impact because they are not as well-funded as their rivals. However, mediocre candidates with large personal fortunes can run as long as their checkbooks allow them to. On top of that, we as voters are not asking the right questions of our candidates, nor are we demanding more from the media that should have been asking these questions in the first place.

I fear this nation is going to get the government it deserves because it's a nation that obviously doesn't take government seriously, given the absurdity of our electoral process and the superficiality of our political media coverage.

What a shame.

1/07/2008

New Hampshire Predictions (R/D)

The New Hampshire primaries are tomorrow and the fact that several wildly divergent results are possible is a tremendous gift for politicos everywhere. So many candidates' fortunes depend how well people who aren't even their direct competitors perform. As everyone knows, the current front-runners are John McCain and Barack Obama. However, one of those candidates' leads is secure while the other one's is considerably more tenuous.

John McCain's problem is obviously Barack Obama, and Obama's strength is what makes this primary so difficult to predict. Because independents can vote in the party primary of their choice in New Hampshire, McCain has to be worried that the very independents he needs to propel him to victory there will be gobbled up by Obama, whose support is surging. McCain still only gets lukewarm reviews from Republicans, so if he has to rely solely on intra-party support, the advantage will shift to Romney. Put another way, the more Obama racks up the score, the more likely it is that Romney will win the Republican primary.

Obama's Iowa victory gave him a tremendous boost and the compressed calendar has made it virtually impossible for his opponents to blunt his momentum and reconnoiter. Barack Obama is going to win New Hampshire. The question is, by how much? Independents make up slightly more than a third of New Hampshire voters. These voters are more likely to vote for him than McCain because of an enthusiasm gap, but if Obama's support is particularly lopsided among independents, that will have several likely effects:

1. Clinton and Edwards could potentially argue that Obama is more popular among independents than Democrats. Should they pursue this tack, however, Obama could easily counter that this is a reflection of his ability to transcend political lines, thus further buttressing his sense of electability and his message of national unity. Partisan Democrats might resent Obama for being more popular among independents than voters of his own political party, but these partisans don't really constitute Obama's base.

2. John Edwards could potentially place second and beat Hillary Clinton again. This would be absolutely devastating for Clinton and her campaign because Edwards was supposed to be the candidate whose entire hopes rested on Iowa and who was supposed to drop out after not winning there. Should this happen, Clinton still would not drop out of the race (and she shouldn't), but Edwards could come to legitimately be seen as the Obama alternative. This scenario is possible because Clinton has less appeal among independents than Edwards does. Independents who want to vote for "change" will split between Obama, Edwards, and possibly Huckabee. It's hard to see how Clinton picks up much of this independent support.

3. Mitt Romney will be more likely to eke out a victory. I noticed in the debates last weekend that Romney used the word "change" a lot and even had a few kind words to say about Obama. Could he have shrewdly been trying to appeal to independents to either throw their support behind Obama? After all, McCain is running as a statesman, not a change agent. And "change" is what voters seem to want in 2008.

What about Ron Paul...again?

New Hampshire is probably the best state to accurately gauge Ron Paul's support because of its demographic characteristics and political leanings. Paul performed respectably in Iowa, but New Hampshire is the state where pundits, the media, and political observers can finally ascertain whether he is a fringe candidate who just happens to be good at fundraising, or if he is a candidate with new ideas who deserves to be treated with more seriousness and more respect than has received so far. Future debate organizers would also have a hard time making the case for him to be excluded from their debates if he manages another double-digit performance. Paul supporters and even non-supporters are irate over Fox News' treatment of Ron Paul, and justifiably so. (Read the comments section here and this general story here.)

Rudy Giuliani was embarrassed by finishing behind Paul in the Iowa caucuses. If that happens again, pundits and voters will notice. For someone who is banking on Florida at the end of the month, finishing behind Ron Paul a second time will have a severe effect on his fundraising. And how ironic would it be for the candidate who is arguing he is the "toughest" to have his campaign go up in smoke at the hands of the candidate he views as the "weakest?"

Ron Paul will likely finish ahead of Fred Thompson as well, but neither Thompson nor his supporters will care. Thompson, who hasn't campaigned much in New Hampshire at all, knows his political Grim Reaper is South Carolina, not Ron Paul.

What about Mike Huckabee?

Huckabee did not get much of a bounce out of Iowa, which was not a surprise given how poorly he fits the state. However, he could still legitimately spin a third place showing in New Hampshire as a sort of victory simply because everyone's expectations for him are so low there. Should he place behind Ron Paul, I would expect him to be gracious and praise Paul's ability to generate enthusiasm among new and young voters. This statesmanship would remind voters of his sense of humility and sincerity, both of which are his strong suits. And should he place ahead of Ron Paul, that would be seen as further evidence of Paul's limited appeal. Huckabee will probably finish no higher than third, but if he somehow managed to beat Romney (because McCain's support among Republicans is higher than the polls suggest), then it's hard to see how Romney could recover.

What will happen if Romney wins?

A Romney victory would be bad news for Giuliani in that it would probably eliminate McCain from the race. That would reduce the number of conservative alternatives to Giuliani from four to three (Thompson, Romney, and Huckabee). A Romney victory in New Hampshire would likely be followed by an easy layup in Michigan. Those are supposed to be McCain's two best states, so if McCain wants to have any chance at the nomination at all, he must stop Romney in New Hampshire first. I am still not sure if Republican voters will coalesce behind Romney though because Huckabee has tapped into disaffected conservatives and the evangelical wing of the party still doesn't trust Romney's religion. And Ron Paul has a near monopoly on Republicans who are absolutely angry with President Bush. Romney would need his rivals to cannibalize each other and emerge as the last man standing.

And if Romney loses?

A second silver medal for Romney would be a second major embarrassment. New Hampshire is supposed to be Romney's backyard, but he would be seen as a two-time loser if he fails to beat McCain. This would lead to another hotly contested primary in Michigan where there are a lot of independents (advantage McCain) and voters who are worried about the lousy state economy (advantage Huckabee). By virtue of his own personal wealth, Romney can stay in the race as long as he wishes. If he keeps finishing second place, he could potentially win the delegate race if all his rivals keep divvying up gold medals. However, will he be seen as legitimate?

And as for John Edwards, finishing third would probably send him to South Carolina for his final hurrah. Edwards' survival depends on Clinton's weakness. Clinton may be weakening, but I think she is still a bit too far ahead of Edwards in New Hampshire for him to catch her there.

I deliberately haven't said much about Clinton in this post because even if she places second, she will have serious problems that have received enough ink already. Nevada and South Carolina will go for Obama and Clinton will have to place all her chips on Super Tuesday. She still has strong national polling numbers and voters in places far removed from the early caucus and primary states might not be as antagonistic towards her simply because she hasn't been campaigning there. Because of her own personal negatives, the less contact she has with voters, the better she probably does. New Hampshire was supposed to be Clinton's firewall, but now that firewall is Super Tuesday. An additional problem for Clinton, however, is money. Because of her national organization and her large staff, she has to burn through a lot of cash just to maintain her daily operations. But she has a higher percentage of donors who are tapped out because of campaign finance rules. Obama relies more heavily on a much larger network of smaller donors who donate $20 or $50 instead of the relatively small number of donors who pony up $2300 for Clinton. How much will this fundraising dry up if Obama runs up the score?

And finally, regardless of what happens, expect there to be a serious discussion about reforming the way we go about picking a president. Barring a total meltdown, Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee. Fortunately, the Republican nomination is still a jump ball, but there's a good chance this race will be settled by South Carolina or Florida--which is before about 90% of the other states get their chance to have their voices heard. Also, candidates who are extremely wealthy are able to finance their own campaigns while candidates who rely on public financing are at an insurmountable disadvantage. And a very small number of voters in very small states that represent a very small segment of the population have an unfairly large influence over the whole process. Some of the best candidates have already been marginalized or forced to drop out of the race before voters in other states had their chance to weigh in on who's best. "Tradition" and selfishness are creating a lot of resentment, but nobody running wants to make anyone angry because their own political fortunes depend on defending this ridiculous system.

Final predictions (Democrats):

Obama 38%, Clinton 29%, Edwards 23%, Richardson 4%

Final predictions (Republicans):

If Obama finishes with less than 40% of the vote: McCain 31%, Romney 28%, Paul 15%, Huckabee 12%, Giuliani 10%, Thompson 2%

If Obama finishes with more than 40% of the vote: Romney 34%, McCain 29%, Huckabee 16%, Paul 11%, Giuliani 7%, Thompson 1%

1/06/2008

Thoughts on the New Hampshire Debate (D)

This post will assess last night's Democratic debate. For my take on the Republicans, click here.

As I watched the debate, several facts became immediately apparent:

1. Bill Richardson has become the new Duncan Hunter. He was allowed to participate in the debate by virtue of his fourth place finish in the Iowa caucuses. However, he is a weak candidate and is not viable. Aside from citing his extensive resume, he did not really distinguish himself from the other candidates at the debate. He reminded voters of his wealth of experience, but that may not have been a good strategy to pursue, as Chris Dodd and Joe Biden also ran on experience and lost. And Hillary Clinton tried using "experience" to counter Barack Obama's message of "change" only to have her finish third in the Iowa caucuses. Richardson's problem is that he does not offer anything that the other candidates don't, save for having the most comprehensive resume and executive experience. But again, as Biden, Dodd, and Clinton will attest, that might not matter much. In addition to this, his signature issue, Iraq, is not playing as well as it used to because of recent military successes there, so his calling card of getting all the troops out of Iraq with "no residual forces" has lost some of its potency. Do Iowan voters have any buyers' remorse?

2. John Edwards clearly views Hillary Clinton as his main rival, rather than Barack Obama. He generally refrained from attacking Obama and commonly directed his fire at Clinton. Perhaps he believes that she is the easier candidate for him to beat? Edwards could plausibly argue that he is more electable than she is in addition to being more likable than her as well. It seems that Obama and Edwards are treating Clinton the same way McCain and Huckabee are treating Romney. By double-teaming their main rival, they stand a better chance of taking that rival out. Also, by not going after Obama, could Edwards be angling for the second spot on an Obama ticket?

3. It would be foolish to write off Hillary Clinton despite her poor Iowa finish. While I watched the debate, it was hard to tell who the real frontrunner was at times. She sounded competent and tough, especially when talking about foreign policy and national security. Obama and Edwards spoke more in generalities when it came to stopping terrorism and dealing with nuclear proliferation, a fact that was likely not lost on conservative-leaning voters who are disaffected with the Republican Party. The problem for Clinton, however, is that Obama now controls his own destiny. So no matter how well Clinton does at these debates, as long as Obama does well enough, she will never catch him. Obama made no obvious mistakes during the debate, so he leaves the debate in the same position he was in before it started: ahead. David Broder wrote more about how the race is now Obama's to lose.

4. Obama received a huge boost during the Republican debate when the moderator asked the Republican candidates why they were better suited for the presidency than Obama. The question was phrased to show that the GOP candidates may have been considering Clinton their default opponent a little too soon. I listened carefully to the Republican candidates make their cases against Obama and I noticed that they seemed to have considerable difficulty doing so. Romney, for example, talked a lot about the importance of "change." But the problem for Romney is that he is not the "change" candidate. He is the "manager" candidate. And the negative "flip flop" caricature has more resonance when describing Romney than "change." Huckabee was much more gracious as he talked about Obama and said they both represent a level of civility and pragmatism that the other candidates don't. So he helped build Obama up. Ron Paul did the same when he talked about how they both appealed to younger voters. Compare these remarks with their common remarks about "Hillarycare," for example, and it's easy to see that running against Obama is something they are much less prepared for.

5. John Edwards has tapped into the palpable anger among many voters regarding health insurance, corporate profits, and the struggles of the middle class. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that he would be a polarizing general election candidate who would make the corporate community recoil in horror. He is framing the difference between himself and Obama as how to bring about change. Obama seems to be in favor of a more conciliatory approach, such as negotiating with "the big drug companies," for example. But, as Edwards says, "you can't 'nice' these companies into giving up their greed." Edwards believes "change" should be achieved via a more confrontational approach. He essentially wants to punch "big oil" and "big pharmaceutical companies" in the jaw. I recommend reading this post I recently wrote about the implications of an Edwards nomination.

6. Edwards might not be going after Obama's throat right now, but he will have to engage him eventually. But how can he? How can anyone go after Obama, especially since his favorability ratings are so high? Clinton, whose favorability ratings are considerably lower, can ill afford to drive up her own negatives any further by going after Obama too vigorously. And Edwards runs the risk of coming across as too angry. Attacking Obama's thin resume did not work in Iowa, and criticizing his lofty, inspirational rhetoric only serves to further buttress his own arguments about cynicism and hope. Could it be that this race is closer to being over than we think?

Semi-predictions

If Obama wins New Hampshire, Clinton will be in serious, serious trouble. After winning in two overwhelmingly White states, I highly doubt that Black voters in South Carolina are going to hold him back in the primary there. However, even if Clinton loses New Hampshire and South Carolina, she would still have her high name recognition and deep pockets to help keep her competitive when Super Tuesday finally comes around. Her national polling numbers are about 50% higher than Obama's, so she still has a fairly large margin for error that the other candidates never had.

If Edwards is able to beat Clinton in New Hampshire, he would be able to make a strong case that he is the #2 candidate in the race. But then what? He is trailing Obama badly in South Carolina and doesn't have the money to go the distance with him.

Of course, if Edwards places third, his campaign will effectively be over. He may stay until South Carolina just to see if his heavy advertising here had any effect on the race, but it's hard to see how he could go on with so little money and no momentum.

Hillary Clinton could win New Hampshire. Even if Edwards places second, if he places second to her, he would definitely be finished. The race will then become the two-person race between "Hillary and Obama" that the media have been talking up for months. I can't help but wonder, however, where a lot of disaffected Democrats will go because Clinton is not as popular among Democrats as Republicans think, and a lot of Democrats simply don't have "Obama fever." Will these voters stay home?

Joe Biden and Chris Dodd supporters who value experience and a proven track record of results may throw their support behind Bill Richardson because he's the last "resume" candidate remaining on the Democratic side. However, if they are unimpressed with his campaigning skills, they may consider John McCain, the other "experience" candidate in the race. McCain is not as partisan as some of the other Republicans and he has high favorability ratings among Democrats and independents. Basically, he is an "acceptable" Republican to many Democrats and may win a lot of crossover support.

This is still a three-person race, but John Edwards only has one more chance to remain relevant.

1/04/2008

Digesting Iowa (D)

This is my assessment of the Iowa Democratic caucuses from last night. For my take on the Republican caucuses, click here.

In a word, the Democratic results are earth shattering. Not only did Barack Obama win the caucuses, his strongest rival finished third. Obama will enter New Hampshire with tremendous momentum and the independent voters there will be less likely to defect to McCain because Obama is more energizing and has proven his viability. Doubts about his viability are probably the main reason why people have been reluctant to support Obama even if they do like him and his ideas. More on Obama later.

For Hillary Clinton, this was the worst possible outcome. Even second place would not have been so bad for her, but if she was going to lose, she clearly would have preferred to lose to Edwards because he has less money, weaker polling, and a smaller base. Instead, she finished a distant third to the one candidate who has the money and the supporters necessary to go the distance with her. Worse yet, a lot of voters who had reservations about Obama because they weren't sure if he could win have now had his electability confirmed. Some of these voters are reluctant Clinton supporters. Given the strength of Obama's performance, these voters may defect from Clinton in droves.

And it gets worse. Black voters sitting on the fence in South Carolina were waiting for a sign that Obama could win. Winning convincingly in an overwhelmingly White state over two well-regarded, high profile White candidates who have been on the national scene longer than him is huge. How can Clinton go before Black audiences now and claim she is the most electable candidate who best represents their interests? The answer is simple. She can't.

Perhaps the biggest way Obama's victory has affected the race is that Clinton no longer controls her own destiny. She has ceded this luxury to Obama. For Clinton to win now, she'll need Obama to stumble somehow, be it at a debate or on the campaign trail. If he maintains his campaign discipline, the political inertia he gained from his Iowa victory will be very hard to stop. Prior to Iowa, all she had to do was stick to her gameplan because there was just enough daylight between her and Obama to ensure that she'd have the inside track to the nomination. Not anymore.

The other loser in this race is John Edwards. Edwards barely avoided finishing third. Not one to give up easily, he is trying to spin the results as "a victory for change and a rejection of the status quo." That may be true, but I have argued many, many times in The 7-10 that Obama and Edwards cannot coexist. Edwards had the chance to kneecap Obama in Iowa and he failed to do so. Both Obama and Clinton are performing better than Edwards in both New Hampshire and South Carolina. And the demographics of South Carolina are probably less favorable for Edwards, as roughly half of the voters in the Democratic primary are Black. Edwards is doing worse among Black voters than Obama is among White ones. I don't mean to say that race should be the primary thing that matters in this campaign, but it is a legitimate dimension by which these candidates should be analyzed.

Edwards is also telling his supporters that "he beat Clinton." That is technically true, but he only won by less than half a percentage point. This probably works to Clinton's advantage, as Edwards' refusal to drop out means that she won't have to debate Obama one on one. Had Clinton finished half a point ahead of Edwards, Edwards would have had no choice but to make his graceful exit a la Biden and Dodd. My guess is that Edwards will stay in the race as far as South Carolina, where he is advertising heavily.

And finally, Edwards is saying that "the choice for 'change' is between him and Obama." That is also true, but the fact is that Obama won Round 1 on what was supposed to be Edwards' home turf because he had been campaigning in Iowa for about four years.

It seems like Edwards is about to become the dreaded third wheel, akin to the pesky friend who tags along when two other people are on a date and wish to be left alone. For him to have any chance at the nomination whatsoever, he will need Obama to self destruct so he can become the Clinton alternative. A Clinton meltdown won't help him because Obama has more seniority on the "change" hierarchy.

What about Biden, Dodd, and Richardson? Prior to last night, these three candidates combined were consistently pulling anywhere from 10-20% of the vote in Iowa polls. However, they only snagged about 3% in the caucuses, likely due to the arcane rules involving second choice balloting. The fact that Clinton, Obama, and Edwards won more than 95% of the final vote suggests that the supporters of Biden, Dodd, and Richardson thought that stopping Clinton was more important than ensuring their own preferred candidates' viability. The pro-Clinton vote lost to the anti-Clinton vote by more than 2 to 1.

Biden and Dodd dropped out of the race shortly after learning about their weak finishes. Richardson will live to fight another day, as placing in the top four ensures that he will be allowed to participate in the next debate in New Hampshire this weekend. As for Biden, should Obama win the nomination, do not be surprised if Obama considers him as his running mate because the message of Obama '08 is quite similar to the message of Biden '88 and adding Biden to the ticket would lend Obama's presidential campaign some much needed pragmatism and experience to assuage voters who are not content solely with his message of "change." Ironically, the final reason why this might not be such a far-fetched possibility is because of Biden's mouth. Short of choosing a Republican, the selection of Biden as his running mate would be the ultimate showing of the unity of Obama's message. This is said in reference to Biden's stepping all over his own campaign rollout by referring to Obama as "clean and articulate." Obama-Biden would be the Democratic version of Huckabee-McCain and would make for a spectacular general election campaign.

Here is something the Clintons (yes, plural) should seriously think about. Barack Obama destroyed Hillary Clinton when it came to younger voters. Voters under 35 or so are a generation behind every other presidential candidate, save for Mike Huckabee, who also emerged from Iowa victorious. (That is no coincidence. More on that later.) Most of these younger voters were children or ignorant teenagers during Bill Clinton's presidency. I myself was a high school sophomore when Bill Clinton was first inaugurated, so my memories of the 90s were about Nintendo, MC Hammer, late night pizza in my college dormitory, and being shy talking to girls. As for politics, our generation remembered Clinton's impeachment, but most of us thought that was overkill and couldn't understand why everyone was making such a big deal about "lying under oath" because the lie involved was about something absolutely stupid to us. But that did not endear younger voters to the Clintons. Rather, it succeeded more in turning younger voters away from the Republican Party. The point is, our generation never really developed a connection with Hillary Clinton. Obama, who happens to be the youngest candidate in the Democratic field, is someone who voters in their 20s and 30s can relate to. (I encourage you to read one of my favorite posts about the political disconnect with the younger generation here.)

What happens to Obama now?

There is a critical debate before the New Hampshire primaries. New Hampshire voters will look for Obama to close the sale with them. A poor performance in the debate will blunt the slingshot effect Obama is enjoying now from his Iowa victory. Should Clinton get the better of Obama in this debate, she will likely arrest her fall and get the unfavorable stories about her Iowa defeat off the front pages. Remember, Clinton no longer controls her own destiny. If she does well and Obama does well, nothing will change. Obama has to stumble in order for Clinton to take advantage.

New Hampshire's independent voters can participate in the party primary of their choice. These voters will have to decide between Obama and McCain. Given that Democratic participants outnumbered Republican participants in the Iowa caucuses by about 2 to 1, that suggests that Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are far more enthusiastic about their candidates than Republicans are about theirs. Remember that Iowa is a swing state that narrowly went for Gore in 2000 and narrowly went for Bush in 2004. Could this discrepancy in caucus turnout portend a sea change taking place among the electorate at present?

It has long been argued that Clinton was the candidate of Democratic voters' heads while Obama was the candidate of their hearts. It appears that the heart is stronger. And given Obama's appeal among such a wide swath of voters (entrance poll data is here), it appears that a lot of Democrats "heart" Obama.

Is Clinton likable? Again, she lost to Obama and Edwards by a combined 2 to 1 ratio. Republicans may have done Democratic voters a favor by stressing her high unfavorability ratings. Perhaps these Republicans were unaware of the fact that there are a lot of Democrats who also don't want Hillary Clinton to win the nomination. This is very bad news for Rudy Giuliani in particular, who has made stopping Clinton one of the pillars of his campaign. (You can read more of this argument here. ) Other Republican candidates would be wise to develop a contingency plan for the general election should their nemesis not even make it to the general election because that scenario is a lot more likely now than it was two or three months ago.

It is worth noting that Mike Huckabee has not made Hillary-bashing a focal point of his campaign. And Obama has generally run the most civil campaign of the Big 3 Democratic candidates. Both of these candidates won the Iowa caucuses by healthy margins. Perhaps the electorate is looking for someone not just who wants to bring about a change in direction, but also a change in our political dialogue. Politicians who ran the nastiest campaigns and launched the harshest attacks fared the worst (Giuliani, Clinton, Edwards, Romney). Are we on the cusp of post-partisanship?

An assessment of the entrance poll data will be written later.

1/02/2008

Iowa Predictions (D)

I handicapped the Republicans in my last post. Now I will address the Democratic caucuses and offer my predictions (again, against my better judgment).

The Democratic race is particularly difficult to predict because the three leading candidates can easily place first or third. In addition to that, because of the uniqueness of the Democratic caucus rules, second choice preferences can further throw pundits' projections out of whack. Knowing this, there are three main questions:

1. Who will win?

This is the easy part. By most pundits' predictions, the winner of the caucuses will be Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or John Edwards. If it's Clinton, the race for the Democratic nomination is likely over unless Obama places a very close second. If it's Edwards, that's great news for Clinton bad news for Obama and the so-called "second tier" candidates because that would prolong the notion that this is really only a race between the same three candidates. If it's Obama, while that would be terrible news for Clinton, that would be absolutely fatal for Edwards and good news for one of the "second tier" candidates who will fill the void left by Edwards, who must win the caucuses to remain viable.

Clinton has the best name recognition and is seen as the "experienced" candidate. As an added bonus, Democrats generally like Bill Clinton and long for the peace and prosperity of the 1990s, even if they grew weary of the scandals. Voters who like Richardson, Dodd, and Biden because of their experience, but fear they are not viable, will probably come back to Clinton. There are also a lot of female voters who are excited about the prospect of a woman president, so they may turn out in droves to "help make history." Obama and Edwards supporters may also grudgingly support Clinton because of fears those candidates are not quite ready for prime time against a Republican opponent in the general election.

Obama has been the media darling for months and has tapped into something the other candidates have been unable to do so far--the hunger for a new beginning. Clinton cannot credibly represent "change" unless she means a "change" from Bush. Edwards is a bit more credible when talking about "change," but his rhetoric is often as confrontational as the general state of our political dialogue at present. The other candidates further back in the pack are not running as "change" candidates. So this leaves Obama as the second coming of JFK in the minds of many voters. Obama has argued that "experience" is overrated, as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld would suggest. Reminding voters of Clinton's Iraq vote is also a sharp attack, although recent successes in Iraq may have diluted the potency of this attack somewhat. Then there are also a lot of White voters who view Obama as a vehicle through which they can make a statement about how far they have come regarding issues of racial prejudice. So Obama's message of "change" has many meanings.

Edwards performed strongly in the Iowa caucuses in 2004 and has campaigned heavily in the state since the Kerry-Edwards defeat in the general election. He has established numerous invaluable connections with local leaders and is a generally likable candidate. There is no doubt that his supporters will turn out for him. He can also portray himself as a hybrid of Clinton and Obama in that he wants to bring new voters into the process (by "fighting for working men and women" and "giving the other America a voice") and having a bit more experience than Obama at the federal level. There are also many voters who may not quite be ready just yet for a female or Black president. (That's an ugly truth that likely characterizes more Americans than we would like to think.) Edwards' message of being able to play in all 50 states because he won a Senate election in a red state may also have some appeal. And his populist message also has a lot of resonance among Democrats in light of the housing crisis, the price of oil, and the destruction of the middle class.

2. Who will disappoint?

This will also be Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or John Edwards. They are all essentially tied for first place, and of course, the higher you are, the harder you fall. However, "disappointing" has different meanings for different candidates. For Edwards, "disappointing" means placing second to anyone or worse. For Obama, "disappointing" means placing second to Clinton or placing third overall. For Clinton, "disappointing" means placing second to Obama, placing third to Edwards, or placing fourth overall. In other words, Clinton is best able to survive a poor showing in Iowa. Edwards is the least able to do so.

This is not to say that Edwards will be the candidate whose bounce out of Iowa will be a resounding "thud." All three candidates are at risk of having this happen. Clinton, for example, may be punished by Iowans for her hardball politics and the unseemliness of some of her campaign acts. Issues like the rumors about Obama's religion, citing quotes from his kindergarten teacher, and dredging up his past drug use probably left a sour taste in the minds of many voters. The real consequences of this are likely to be observed when it comes time for second choice voting. Obama may reap a windfall of sympathy votes or votes from people who want to punish Clinton for the way she ran her campaign. Voters may also decide that they simply want to make a break from the Bush-Clinton infighting and start over with something fresh. Clinton's biggest problem is that she stands to lose support faster than she can gain it because of her high negatives. Also, because she has universal name recognition, if a voter is not in her camp by now, that voter probably never will be. Voters looking for "experience" without the polarization may drift over to Richardson, Dodd, or Biden. Voters looking for "a first" would probably go to Obama.

Obama could also be the candidate for whom the clock strikes midnight. He has galvanized Democrats with his rhetoric about "change." However, Clinton has warned voters about the risks of nominating someone with so little "experience." Clinton also does not have a bevy of experience either, but she does present a credible and potentially potent argument that strikes at one of the weaknesses that has plagued Obama since he entered the race. The turmoil in Pakistan also reminded voters of how the person they are voting for should be someone who is competent and strong. Obama may represent "change," but does he also represent strength? If voters decide they can't vote for Obama even though they like him, I would expect his support to go to Biden, Richardson, or Dodd because Obama supporters probably view Clinton as a last resort and they may be turned off from Edwards' confrontational tone and similar lack of experience.

One of Edwards' greatest strengths in Iowa is that voters there know who he is. Unfortunately, that's also one of his greatest weaknesses. Voters may decide that he had his chance in 2004. Dick Cheney mopped the floor with him in the vice presidential debate and he was not able to deliver his home state of North Carolina (or Iowa) in the general election. Edwards has run an angry and often negative campaign which may remind Iowans of Dick Gephardt's doomed 2004 presidential bid. Voters who like Edwards' message of "change" but don't like his negativity may decide to defect to Obama.

3. Who will perform better than expected?

This is where Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden enter the equation. While these candidates don't get a lot of attention in the press, I strongly believe one of these candidates will supplant one of the "Big Three." Clinton and Obama have too much money to fold up their tents after a failure in Iowa, so this leaves Edwards as the most vulnerable "major" candidate.

I would not be surprised if these three candidates told their supporters to pool their support and throw it to the most viable of the three candidates when it comes to second choice voting. Richardson has the best resume, but also has had the worst debate performances. Biden has a good resume and has had the best debate performances, but he still has lingering doubts about his message discipline. Dodd has been the steadiest campaigner and has a good record, but he has the worst polling.

Taking all of this into consideration, I believe Joe Biden is the best positioned to vault from obscurity into contention. People who support these three candidates are probably more inclined not to support Clinton, Obama, or Edwards because those candidates' resumes pale in comparison to those of Richardson, Dodd, and Biden and these hefty resumes are likely why they are supporting these candidates in the first place. I would expect them to stress the importance of these credentials when it comes to wooing other voters during the negotiation period of the caucuses, especially supporters of candidates who far exceed the 15% threshold of viability.

Final prediction: Obama 27%, Edwards 20%, Biden 18%, Clinton 17%, Richardson 10%

12/07/2007

Edwards the Invisible, Edwards the Vulnerable

A month ago I wrote about how John Edwards could pivot from attacking Hillary Clinton to taking advantage of the frustration that had been building among Barack Obama's supporters because of his perceived lack of "fight."

Since then, a lot has happened in the Democratic presidential race. Hillary Clinton has not had a single good week of press since the debate in Philadelphia. Some of her problems were of her own creation, such as how flummoxed she became over the driver's licenses for illegal immigrants question. Others were unnecessary distractions from her campaign, such as the revelation that one of her staffers in Iowa was responsible for the rumor spreading over e-mail about Obama being a Muslim. And then there was news that was great for America, but not so great for her (or Bush), such as the recent National Intelligence Estimate saying that Iran's nuclear weapons program was much less threatening than Bush had been making it out to be. (The problem for Clinton here is that she was much more hawkish on Iran than her Democratic opponents.)

The other major change has been in the polling--particularly Barack Obama's well-timed ascent. He has pulled ahead of Clinton in Iowa and has significantly closed the gap in New Hampshire. He also now has megastar Oprah Winfrey campaigning for him. And he is being a bit more aggressive in his attacks on Clinton. It seems like Obama has all the momentum and is peaking at the right time.

So what does this mean for Edwards? Well, you may have noticed that while Clinton and Obama continue their back and forth, Edwards has become considerably less aggressive. During the summer, Edwards was adopting a highly combative tone. This coincided with Clinton overtaking Edwards in the Iowa polls. Edwards strategy back then was to throw as many grenades and set as much bait as possible in an attempt to get his rivals to respond to him and generate media coverage for his campaign. However, I thought Edwards sounded angry and petty, and I criticized him for that here.

But now that the race has changed and Clinton is the one who is lobbing stinkbombs at Obama (such as quoting his kindergarten teacher about his presidential ambitions), Edwards has changed his tune. Say goodbye to throwing mud at Clinton, and say hello to sitting on the sidelines with a smile on your face. Edwards is now quietly sitting back and letting his two rivals slug it out. After a long year of campaigning and attacking each other, Edwards is banking on the idea that the voters are growing weary of all the pettiness taking place and will reward Edwards for taking the high road and staying above the fray. The thinking here is that Iowa voters will get sick of the negativity and bickering between Obama and Clinton and throw their support to Edwards. The old political adage, "If A attacks B, then C will be the nominee" seems to be Edwards' strategy here.

But is it enough? It seems that there is a new threat that Edwards may have to worry about. Consider this: The Democratic candidates are all trying to carry a particular mantle. Clinton is the "experience" candidate. Obama is the "change" candidate. Of course, Edwards is also trying to be the "change" candidate, so he is having to compete with the better funded and better polling Obama. This is perhaps his biggest problem. Now it seems like Edwards is trying to run as the "outsider" candidate.

Fair enough.

But what does one make of the Iowa voters who are throwing their support behind Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd? According to Real Clear Politics, the average level of combined support for these three candidates in Iowa is from 10-15%. Richardson has been in the low double digits and high single digits for months. Biden is consistently polling outside of the margin of error. And Dodd is pulling in a steady 1-3%, which is higher than Mike Gravel, whose numbers are commonly in asterisk territory. The point I am trying to make here is that there are a lot of voters out there who either 1) are looking for something other than change, experience, or an outsider, or 2) do not believe Clinton, Obama, or Edwards are credible messengers of what they purport to represent. Because of how much the media has concentrated on Clinton, Obama, and Edwards, this 10-15% of Iowa voters is obviously paying enough attention to the race to dig a bit deeper and focus on all the candidates, not just those who are grabbing all the headlines. And if neither Clinton, Obama, nor Edwards has been able to make the sale to these voters yet despite all their campaign ads and all their media coverage, it is quite possible these voters view that trio as a last resort.

What could these 10-15% of voters be looking for if it's not change, exerience, or an outsider? Perhaps not coincidentally, Richardson, Biden, and Dodd each have more government experience than Clinton, Obama, and Edwards combined. And they have impressive records of their legislative accomplishments and a firm grasp of foreign policy. These are not sexy things for a politician to campaign on, but they do form the meat and potatoes of competent governance. Pay special attention to the word competent. That is the one buzzword that hasn't gotten a lot of play in the media. And these three veterans can all run on competence and back it up with their records.

Will Richardson, Biden, and Dodd instruct their supporters to throw their support behind the one of them who emerges as the most viable in the caucuses? If these three camps work together, they could plausibly break the 15% threshhold of viability that is required to survive in the Iowa Democratic caucuses. And of course, there is likely a significant portion of supporters of the top three candidates whose support is soft. Perhaps they are unaware that they have other options. After all, Clinton, Obama, and Edwards have sky high name recognition in Iowa. Richardson, Dodd, and Biden don't. So if one of those veterans emerges in the caucuses, they may be able to peel off more support from the top three candidates than the punditry believes.

As an added bonus, Richardson, Biden, and Dodd could all take the competence mantle and all run on change, experience, and being an outsider. "Change" can be viewed as a change from the incompetent Bush to competent leadership. Their "experience" can easily trump Clinton's. And because they are not the media darlings, they could claim to be "outsiders" in that they are not media flavor of the month politicians.

I wondered in August if John Edwards would make it to Iowa. It looks like he will, but what will happen after that? Should Obama win Iowa, how could Edwards continue? After all, Obama is also running on "change" and being an "outsider." Should Clinton win Iowa, how could anyone continue? And should Edwards win, does anyone think Clinton or Obama is going away? Not with all the money they have! But now what if Richardson, Biden, or Dodd emerges from Iowa with a strong second or third place showing even if Edwards wins? Does he have enough resources and enough political heft to stave off yet another avenue of attack?

Edwards is really in trouble. He's not completely doomed just yet, but he is clearly in the most precarious position of all the Democrats right now. He has no real niche all to himself.

11/25/2007

Current State of Affairs (D)

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

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

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

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

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

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

...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11/18/2007

Lame Political Discourse: Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions for Republicans:

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

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

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

Questions for Democrats:

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

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

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

Questions for specific candidates:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11/16/2007

Nevada Debate Analysis (D)

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's how you do it.

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

How does an opponent respond to this?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Predictions:

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

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

11/01/2007

Pennsylvania Debate Analysis (D)

The Democratic presidential candidates mixed it up last night in Philadelphia at what was their most contentious debate thus far. One of the many storylines going into the debate was whether anybody could stop the Clinton steamroller. Coming out of the debate, the storyline is that Clinton finally took one on the chin and now looks vulnerable. She committed an unforced error that provided the weapon all the candidates can use to take her down.

About Mike Gravel:

The debate lasted two hours and involved all the candidates except for Mike Gravel. Gravel was not missed, as the flow of the debate seemed a bit less disjointed. In the previous debates, whenever Gravel spoke, I got the sense that listeners would roll their eyes and attempt to tune him out. Because he often said something awkward or outlandish (such as his assertion that he didn't need to repay his credit card debt), the audience would laugh or shake their heads in disbelief. That would detract from the tone of the discussion. There were no such moments in last night's debate, which was appropriate given the fact that the Iowa caucuses are in just two months. Future debate organizers should consider following NBC/MSNBC's lead by being a bit more selective with who they invite to participate.

About the moderators:

Regarding the moderators and the debate format, I was a bit disappointed by Brian Williams' and Tim Russert's performance. While I highly respect them as journalists and pundits, I believe they demonstrated a lack of discipline and exhibited poor judgment in the following regards:

1. The appropriateness of the questions. At the end of the debate, Dennis Kucinich received a question asking him if he had seen a UFO. Even though the debate had essentially entered garbage time (there likely wasn't enough time for the candidates to engage each other over another substantial policy difference), I thought this question made a mockery of Kucinich, his platform, and his campaign. Kucinich's performance overall was quite steady and forceful, but instead of being remembered for his challenges for Democrats to impeach President Bush and Vice President Cheney for launching what he calls an illegal war, he will be remembered as the loony liberal wacko who saw a UFO. How he responded to this question was not Kucinich's fault, but I can't help but wonder if the moderators asked him that question in an attempt to broadside him and make his candidacy seem less credible. This, in turn, could be used to serve as a rationale for excluding him from future debates. If that's the case, I think this is a tacky and unprofessional way to go about doing so. (It is worth noting that the moderator then asked Barack Obama the same question, but he wisely avoided it.) Maybe this question was benign, but I think a more appropriate garbage question would have been to ask each candidate down the line what they would dress up as for Halloween. Anyway, in our current political culture of soundbytes and character assassinations, anytime a politician is caught off message or in an awkward conversation, that can be fatal. Brad Warthen over at The State wrote an excellent post about these out-of-bounds questions.

2. The balancing of the questions. Excluding Kucinich's UFO question, Hillary Clinton received as many questions as Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden combined. Yes, Clinton is the candidate sitting at the top of the polls, but if you want to have a debate that allows for the maximum exchange of policy differences, I believe it would be more effective to involve as many candidates as possible.

3. How they handled their responsibilities as moderators. The moderators did an appalling job of dealing with candidates who either didn't answer their questions or talked over their allotted time. There was little enforcement of the rules when the candidates filibustered, especially during the so-called "lightning round." For some reason, politicians are not capable of condensing their answers to 30 seconds, although Joe Biden tried his best to do so. What's the point of having a 30-second rule if there is no penalty for speaking for 2 minutes? When the candidates ignored the moderators' prompts to wrap up their responses, that undercut the moderators' authority.

Also, why did the moderators use the "lightning round" to ask questions about education policy? How can issues as complicated as school funding and No Child Left Behind adequately be addressed in 30 seconds? That's how long it takes for most politicians just to get through their talking points!

About the candidates:

Hillary Clinton: Clinton had a scarlet X on her back throughout the debate, as she was the target of most of the attacks and most of the moderators' questions. For the first 75% of the debate, she stuck to her playbook of keeping her responses general, her rivals unnamed, and her focus on the failings of President Bush and the Republicans. She clearly had done her debate homework, as she came up with some good responses to prickly questions. In response to questions about her positions being similar to those of Republicans, she said the Republicans think she's a liberal based on how much they attack her. That was a clever way to defuse that question because it's difficult to refute.

She also hit Obama hard by saying "change is just a word if you don't have the experience to make change happen." (Can you imagine Obama delivering a line like this?) Of course, this set her up for an attack by Obama later on when the discussion switched to her issue of "experience." (More on that later.)

Clinton's main threat during the debate wasn't Obama, however. It was John Edwards. Edwards kept hammering home the idea that Clinton didn't take a clear stand on major issues and was evasive in her responses. In other words, she talks a lot, but only says a little. As he kept bringing this up, Clinton offered more and more evidence that supported Edwards' assertions. She offered vague and squirrelly responses on her Iran vote ("I'm not in favor of a rush to war. I'm not in favor of doing nothing."), troop levels in Iraq ("We'd bring out combat troops, but not troops fighting Al Qaeda."), Social Security ([paraphrased quote] "Hyping up the Social Security threat is a Republican talking point, but to address Social Security, we must first achieve fiscal responsibility."), and taxes ("I want to get to a fair and progressive tax system, but I won't get committed to a specific approach."). The moderators tried to pin her down, but she remained vague and noncommittal.

This strategy seemed to serve her well until near the end of the debate when "The Moment" happened. Moderator Tim Russert asked Clinton if she supported New York Governor Elliot Spitzer's proposal to offer driver's licenses to illegal aliens in their state. Clinton gave a thoughtful, but tortured answer about how "undocumented workers" should "come out of the shadows" and how "comprehensive immigration reform" was necessary, but never quite said whether she supported his policy. Russert pressed her on this, but she offered the same vague response. Chris Dodd then jumped in and said he thought driver's licenses were a "privilege" that should not be extended to illegal aliens. The conciseness of his response contrasted greatly with Clinton's longwinded, convoluted expressions of support for the goals of Gov. Spitzer's policy without actually endorsing it. John Edwards and Barack Obama soon jumped in and suddenly Clinton looked vulnerable and flustered.

She tried to say this was an example of "gotcha" politics, but the problem with this is that illegal immigration is a much more concrete issue than tax policy or access to records in one's presidential archives. The "I don't do hypotheticals" line won't work either because this is the type of issue that everyone has an opinion on and comes in contact with regularly. While the issue is complicated, it is also an issue on which voters expect a level of clarity from their elected officials. She ultimately proved John Edwards' attacks for him and introduced a new storyline into the race: her evasiveness.

Clinton put herself into a box because she will have to either go against the Democratic governor of the state she represents in the Senate, endure a steady stream of brutal interviews trying to flesh out her views on this issue, or risk angering a political constituency (be they immigrants, Latinos, or immigration hardliners) by taking a stand one way or the other. Another risk for Clinton is that her responses to other questions in the future will receive greater scrutiny. She will need to find a way to be more forthcoming because John Edwards and the other candidates will attempt to drive a bus through this hole in her armor.

John Edwards: No candidate was more aggressive at last night's debate than John Edwards. His poll numbers in must-win Iowa have been on a steady downward trend over the past few weeks, so he had to do something to claw his way back into the race. He repeated several themes: 1) that Hillary Clinton represented the status quo, 2) that Hillary Clinton is not leveling with the American people, and 3) Hillary Clinton is not capable of bringing the change she is promising because she represents exactly why this change is needed in the first place.

The second point is the most damaging. He kept using the word "doubletalk" and applied it to her Iran vote when she said that was a vote for "vigorous diplomacy." In response to Clinton saying that she wanted to put "pressure" on President Bush when it came to a possible war with Iran, Edwards questioned how she could put "pressure" on him if she supported the Kyl-Lieberman resolution. "If you give Bush an inch, he'll take a mile. This resolution enables Bush to do whatever he wants to do and keep using the same lies that he used in Iraq. Some of us have learned the hard way."

It was unclear how effective Edwards' attacks on Clinton's credibility and conviction were until she threw him the golden nugget that was her painful tap dance around the driver's license question.

Win or lose, this is the line that will seal Edwards' fate: "I think our responsibility is to be in tell the truth mode, not in primary mode or general election mode." That was a harsh zinger that was aimed right between Clinton's eyes. Pundits are saying that Edwards might be penalized by Iowa's voters for being too negative, but I'm not so sure. I believe going negative can be effective if your accusations are true and your opponents prove these accusations themselves. It's one thing for Edwards to incessantly say "Clinton doesn't answer questions." But when you can witness her doing just that for yourself, I believe the attack has considerably more resonance.

Barack Obama: Obama was more restrained than Edwards and did not play the role of attack dog as some had anticipated. This is not to say that he left his boxing gloves backstage. However, it is obvious that he is uncomfortable going on offense. The very first question of the debate went to Obama and asked him to elaborate on how he planned to be more aggressive towards Clinton. He balked at the question and turned in another meandering response about civility and cynicism while refusing to attack Clinton directly. For his supporters, this response was probably what they did not want to hear, especially at the start of the debate.

However, he became a bit looser as the debate progressed and he seemed to find his sea legs. When Clinton hedged on the question about releasing documents from Bill Clinton's archives relating to her work in his administration, he effectively used her "turn the page" line against her while questioning her experience by saying "[paraphrased quote] This is an example of not turning the page. We are in the midst of the highly secretive Bush Administration. How can you say you have experience when you're not open about letting people access the documents that show the experience you cite?" That was a good example of Obama showing his spine without showing his fangs.

However, for every time Obama went on offense, he also blurred the distinctions between himself and his main rival. Their responses to the question of taxes for higher income Americans and the breaking point for going to war with Iran were strikingly similar. While Obama did go on offense a bit more at this debate than at the previous ones, I believe he did not meet the high expectations that had been set for him. The media coverage of his campaign from here on out should be interesting to watch because the "Clinton vs. Obama" storyline may become "Obama vs. Edwards." Even though Obama would like to keep the focus on his rivalry with Clinton, having stories about his duels with Edwards is preferable to stories about Obama's fall from grace. Is Obama becoming the Fred Thompson of the Democrats? The hyped up candidate that never quite delivers? He is not out of the race yet by any means, but I sense a growing sense of impatience among his supporters, pundits, and the media.

In short, Obama basically played good cop to Edwards' bad cop when it came to attacking Clinton. But who will win out? Will Edwards' attacks be seen as courageous or nasty? Will Obama's attacks be seen as civil or weak? That will be the new "Obama vs. Edwards" storyline.

Bill Richardson: As qualified as Richardson is on paper, he is turning out to be a weak candidate on stage. Richardson's debate performance was not particularly spirited, nor did he have any memorable lines. He did try to stress his foreign policy credentials and the fact that he has actually achieved results in terms of dealing with dictators and negotiating with rogues, but were the voters listening? He also inexplicably defended Hillary Clinton during the debate because he felt the attacks on her were becoming too personal. Politicians often claim to "take the high road," but they normally do so when citing their own refusal to engage in personal attacks, not to stop their opponents from attacking each other. If your opponents are digging holes for themselves, why take away their shovels? This lends credence to the notion that Richardson is angling for a spot on a Clinton ticket or in a Clinton administration.

Richardson has two problems. The first problem is that he does not come across as credible on Iraq. While he doesn't have any war votes to atone for, there seems to be some level of disconnect because he is maintaining a liberal Democratic position on Iraq ("no residual forces") even though his legislative record as governor of New Mexico clearly demonstrates that he is a moderate (pro-gun rights, fiscal conservative, etc.). His Iraq policy makes him seem like the political equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a tutu. This policy just doesn't seem to match his true identity.

The second problem is that an unflattering caricature of him has congealed: Great candidate on paper, but underwhelming candidate on stage. I had written about overrated and underrated candidates back in August and cited a National Journal poll about this very subject. Richardson received 7% of the vote for the most overrated Democrat. The lone quote National Journal provided about Richardson from one of the poll respondents was "Big resume; big blowhard." Ouch. While I certainly don't think Richardson is a "blowhard," I can see how he may be "overrated." Most of his debate performances so far have been less than inspiring.

In last night's debate, Richardson kept reminding voters of his achievements when he was an ambassador and hostage negotiator. He even mentioned someone in the audience whom he said he had rescued from the Abu Ghraib prison. But as stellar as these accomplishments are, they didn't really resonate with the audience because itemizing these accomplishments ultimately trivializes them. Saying you negotiated with Rogue Thug A and Hot Spot B sounds similar to saying you wrote Bill X and Act Y. In other words, it sounds senatorial rather than inspiring. And now because of the vacant Senate seat in New Mexico that he could easily win, Richardson's presidential campaign is being questioned. He did not do anything to ease these doubts last night.

Joe Biden: Biden did not get a lot of chances to participate in the debate tonight, but he did make the most of the time he did receive. Biden's most impressive response was in response to a question about Iran. Biden methodically talked about the relationship between Iran and Pakistan and how Musharraf was sitting on a powder keg that could be exploited by rogue and terrorist elements, thus helping Iran achieve its nuclear ambitions far more quickly. The depth of this response shows that he would be a tremendously difficult candidate to brand as weak on foreign policy. Biden also got off one of the best lines of the night in a hit on Rudy Giuliani: "Rudy Giuliani is the most underqualified person to run for president since George W. Bush. His sentences only have three things: a noun, a verb, and 9-11." That was a clever line, although Giuliani fired back the next day by invoking the specter of his past plagiarism. ("I don't think Biden came up with that line by himself. You know he doesn't write his own stuff." Ouch.)

Biden was also aware of a gaffe he made at a recent forum in Iowa in which he appeared to blame poor school performance on the percentage of Black students in the school. Statements such as these cause Democrats to only offer tepid support for Biden's campaign. However, he did an excellent job of cleaning up his message on the issue of minorities and education and should have defused this controversy. In general, Biden was strong when he needed to be strong and funny when he needed to be funny. In light of new doubts that have been raised about Clinton, look for Biden to get a second look from Democrats who want an experienced candidate who doesn't enter the general election with a 50% unfavorability rating.

Chris Dodd: Dodd turned in his greatest debate performance by far. He turned in thoughtful responses to questions about education and the environment and gave the lone shoutout to Al Gore. He also launched effective veiled attacks on Barack Obama and John Edwards ("[paraphrased quote] We need a president who has exhibited good judgment and leadership at critical moments. Experience and proven results matter."), but also forcefully called Hillary Clinton's electability into question. The best thing of all about his attack on Clinton was that he was strong without being mean. Clinton's electability has long been the bugaboo that kept so many Democrats from enthusiastically supporting her. Her steady rise in the polls as of late has largely been a result of her persistence in allaying these fears. But Dodd turned back the clock and ripped the scab right off of this sore.

The most important moment of all for Dodd was his fiery exchange with Clinton over the driver's license question for illegal immigrants. When Dodd challenged her over the issue, that led to Obama and Edwards subsequently piling on, which ultimately led to today's news stories about how Clinton was finally bloodied. Not only did Dodd's opposition to granting driver's licenses to illegal aliens match public sentiment in general (most Americans regardless of political party oppose this), but whenever news outlets or YouTube users replay Clinton's stumble, Dodd will get free media time because he's the candidate who brought this entire brouhaha about. Dodd's stock value has gone up quite a bit since 48 hours ago.

Dennis Kucinich: Due to Mike Gravel's absence, Kucinich assumed the role of the gadfly candidate on stage. This is unfortunate, as he represents a very real wing of the Democratic Party. Kucinich's problem is that the perception has overtaken the platform. In other words, I get the sense that people think of Kucinich more as a kook than as an unabashedly liberal candidate. His strength at the debate was his repeated calls to impeach Bush and Cheney and his genuine anger at the weakness of his Democratic opponents and the Democratic congressional leadership. ("Democrats won't stand up to Wall Street, won't end the war, and won't stand up to for-profit insurance companies. What's the difference between Democrats and Republicans?") There is likely more than just a fringe group of Americans who feel the exact same way. Impeaching Bush and Cheney, getting rid of NAFTA, getting out of Iraq, and providing universal not-for-profit healthcare coverage certainly resonate with working class voters, base voters, antiwar voters, and the labor wing of the Democratic Party. And he has more ideological purity on Iraq than any other Democratic candidate. This is the Kucinich platform. But the Kucinich perception is that he is the short, goofy liberal with the big ears who has no shot at winning the nomination. The unfair question about UFOs at the end of the debate totally canceled out an otherwise strong performance because it made voters remember the Kucinich perception at the expense of the Kucinich platform.

Future debate organizers are going to have to do a bit of soul searching with Kucinich. His polling numbers are not better than the margin of error, but the same could be said of Chris Dodd. So if Kucinich were excluded from a future debate, he would have a legitimate gripe if Dodd was also not excluded. Of course, Dodd turned in a strong performance and likely gained some buzz. So why couldn't Kucinich do the same thing? Or is he "too liberal?" What does "too liberal" mean anyway? Far right candidates like Pat Buchanan and Tom Tancredo never generated such disrespect, so why the discrepancy? Basically, if they (the media) are going to invite him to future debates, they should treat him with the same amount of dignity and respect that they afford to the other candidates. Otherwise, it's a bit disingenuous to invite him and then set him up to look like a bozo.

In closing...

Clinton has a very real problem to worry about now.

Obama is on the verge of having the media and his supporters abandon him unless he benefits from Edwards' negativity.

Edwards employed the sword at this debate. The problem is that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword. For now though, he should be feeling pretty good about what happened.

Richardson has become the biggest disappointment among all the candidates.

Biden is quietly gaining street cred with his consistently strong debate performances.

Dodd helped his campaign the most and may become the next buzz candidate. Illegal immigration is a hot issue and he may experience an uptick in support among independents in New Hampshire.

Kucinich was railroaded. Even voters who don't support him probably thought what the moderators did to him was in bad form.

And the debate format and moderating left room for improvement.

But most importantly, we now have a race again.

10/31/2007

Pennsylvania Debate Initial Thoughts (D)

Having just watched the Democratic debate in Philadelphia, I can confidently say that the Democratic horserace just became considerably more competitive. The major news story of the night is that Hillary Clinton proved what John Edwards has been attacking her on all along: her obfuscations, evasiveness, and "doubletalk."

In short...

Hillary Clinton's poll numbers should come crashing back down to earth. Expect her to spend a lot of time doing damage control in the near future because a huge hole was exposed in her armor and the other candidates and the media are going to drive a bus through it. She had better hope the word "doubletalk" doesn't stick. In the meantime, she better find a better answer to the illegal immigration question, and quick.

Barack Obama did not score any knockout punches tonight, but he did well enough to stave off being written off by the media. He started off weak, but gained steam as the debate progressed. He was better able to find an effective balance between drawing contrasts with Hillary Clinton without drawing the ire of voters for engaging in slash-and-burn politics. He did not turn in the strongest performance, but he at least showed that he knows how to fight while being a bit genteel in the process.

John Edwards turned in a considerably strong performance and is more of a threat to Barack Obama than Hillary Clinton simply because he is more direct and more forceful in his contrasts. He damaged Clinton while hurting Obama at the same time because he demonstrated the scrappiness that Obama's supporters wish he had.

Joe Biden could legitimately become the Clinton alternative for voters seeking experience. His views on Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan demonstrated a level of depth and seriousness that has not been shown by any other candidate of either party thus far. There shouldn't be anymore talk about him becoming her Secretary of State.

Bill Richardson has gone from the most attractive second tier candidate to the least attractive over the course of these debates. Expect him to have to bat down stories about shooting for a cabinet position in a Clinton White House from here on out. His already slim chances of winning the nomination took a major hit tonight.

Chris Dodd has arrived, and I think Democrats like what they see.

Dennis Kucinich offers more in these debates than Mike Gravel, but look for him to be the next candidate to be dropped from the list of participants despite the fact that he has a clear campaign platform. Unfortunately, it's never a good sign when your most memorable line is that you saw a UFO. Obviously, that question from the moderators was not really fair, but most voters will only remember what Kucinich said.

This race just got a whole lot more interesting.

A more detailed analysis will follow shortly.

10/29/2007

Before the Pennsylvania Debate (D)

All the Democratic candidates (sans Mike Gravel) will participate in their next debate tomorrow evening at 9:00 in Philadelphia. The debate will be broadcast on MSNBC and will be co-moderated by Brian Williams and Tim Russert. Brian Williams moderated the very first debate held in Orangeburg, South Carolina, so this debate serves as a bit of a homecoming of sorts.

The link I just provided was to the debate preview I had written in April in which I assessed each candidate's positioning, rivals, weaknesses, and ways they could make their path to the nomination a bit less bumpy. That was six months ago, and it is now the end of October. We are no longer in the preseason, as the Iowa caucuses are set for January 3, which is in just a little over two months. The race has taken on numerous storylines since this spring and several facts have been learned. Here's where things stand now:

1. Iraq's importance to Democratic voters is not as important as the media and pundits are making it out to be. This is not to say that Iraq is not a big deal because it obviously is. But think about this. Barack Obama has stated numerous times how "he was against this war from the very beginning." Voters also know that John Edwards has apologized for his war vote and said he was "wrong." And Democratic voters know that Hillary Clinton refuses to apologize for the war she voted to authorize. She also won't make any guarantees about withdrawing troops by a certain date even though timetables for withdrawal are considerably more popular among Democrats than Republicans. So in some regards, Clinton's Iraq policy sounds like a continuation of Bush's Iraq policy. And yet, Hillary Clinton's support in the polls among Democratic voters continues to rise. But if Iraq were such a dealbreaker among Democrats, then shouldn't Obama be performing better than he is now? Or should we expect a surprisingly strong showing of support for Dennis Kucinich come caucustime?

2. Barack Obama has tapped into something very real, but his reluctance to firmly engage Hillary Clinton is blunting the potential strength of the movement he is trying to represent. Until the third quarter, Obama was leading the money chase and had the most donors. After the third quarter fundraising totals showed that Clinton had raised the most money, Obama appealed to his donors for them to help him "close the gap" with Clinton. His success in this endeavor shows that his support is deep and that his supporters are collectively powerful. But the fact that Obama is not able to "close the gap" in terms of polling against Clinton has to be discouraging for even his most ardent supporters. It's no longer enough for him to say "it's still early" because it's not. Obama continues to talk about how he'll be more aggressive, but it never comes. And when it does, it's often in the form of veiled attacks on Clinton that might be a bit too cerebral for the average voter to pick up on. He's running out of opportunities to draw blood and risks having his supporters quietly defect to other campaigns. Right now, Obama is not coming across like a fighter. How can voters fight for their candidate at the caucuses when that candidate is barely willing to fight for himself?

3. Talk about lobbyists and corruption seem to make good talking points, but they are a bit less successful at moving the needle. Or is it the messenger? Consider John Edwards, who is running an unabashedly populist campaign. Edwards' numbers are slowly declining in Iowa and South Carolina, both of which are states where he should reasonably be expected to do well. He has been the most aggressive candidate in the debates and is not hesitating to attack Clinton and her corporate ties. Anyone who watches Lou Dobbs knows that corruption, lobbying, and broken government are galvanizing issues. And Edwards is railing against these very issues. So what gives? He is an attractive Southern politician who connects with rural voters. His electability argument has some resonance as well, as his geography could potentially put some red states in play to counter Rudy Giuliani's assertion that he could put some blue states in play. And yet, he is falling off the pace. Do the haircut and hedge fund stories make him a hypocrite who has no credibility? Or is he regarded as a has-been because of his failed candidacy in 2004?

4. None of the second-tier candidates has emerged as the primary challenger to the comparatively less experienced Barack Clintedwards. Bill Richardson has the better fundraising and polling, while Joe Biden has the more credible Iraq message and more endorsements. Richardson and Biden are mired in the 5-10% range in most polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. Just like Obama and Edwards, these two candidates cannot coexist because they both appeal to voters who desire an experienced candidate not named Hillary Clinton. If one of these candidates drops out, the other would clearly benefit and have a much easier road to gaining visibility. The newly open Senate seat in New Mexico is a tempting destination for Richardson, but he has expressed no interest in it (yet). And Biden's poor fundraising is not putting an end to doubts about his viability. Who will outlive who? Will it not be a Senate seat or fundraising prowess, but rather Iraq that delivers the knockout punch to one of these candidates? What do defections like this portend?

5. Nobody still knows who Chris Dodd is. His politics put him squarely in the Democratic mainstream. He has an impressive resume and a likable personality, but his polling is as anemic as Mike Gravel's. He has failed to distinguish himself in the debates and is not a particularly compelling speaker. This could work to Dodd's advantage in that voters may tire of all the warts of Barack Clintedwards and be leery of Richardson's and Biden's tendency to have their mouths get away from them. This would leave Dodd as the untainted statesman. But it would certainly help his case if Dodd had at least some favorable buzz about his campaign because how comfortable will Democratic voters be with entrusting their hopes to Mr. Invisible?

Stay tuned for my post-debate analysis.

9/30/2007

Roadmaps to the Nomination (D)

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg wrote an excellent analysis about how national polling obscures the true state of the presidential race. By looking at the national polls, one would think that Hillary Clinton was light years ahead of the rest of the field and that Rudy Giuliani was favored to win the GOP nomination.

However, the polls in the early voting states suggest a far more competitive race. In Iowa, for example, Hillary Clinton is in a real dogfight with John Edwards and Barack Obama while Mitt Romney dominates the Republican field.

As Rothenberg suggested, these Iowa polls are far more meaningful than the national polls because voters in Oregon, Georgia, Nebraska, and Connecticut (whose opinions are reflected in national polling data) really haven't been exposed to the presidential race nearly as much as the voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have. People in Des Moines, Concord, Dubuque, and Nashua have had multiple chances to meet the presidential candidates. They've been able to benefit from intense retail politicking, town halls, meet-ups, and house parties featuring the various candidates.

Having said that, some candidates are obviously better positioned to win the nomination than others. In this post, I'll assess the various Democrats' chances at getting a crack at the White House next November. Keep in mind that these are only my opinions about these candidates' path to the nomination, not the presidency itself. The percentage listed after each candidate's name is how likely I think that candidate is to win the Democratic nomination.

Hillary Clinton (60%)

Of all eight declared Democratic candidates, Clinton has the easiest path to the nomination. Her national polling is exceptionally strong and she is commonly seen as the inevitable or de facto nominee. Having said that, the two places where she is most vulnerable are South Carolina and Iowa. If Clinton manages to win Iowa, I honestly don't see how any other candidate could stop her. New Hampshire, the site of the second contest, serves as a buffer state for her because she's running quite strongly there. So an Iowa victory would be reinforced by a New Hampshire victory, which should give her enough political inertia to win South Carolina. If this happens, it's game over for the other candidates.

Clinton also has the war chest and campaign organization to survive a prolonged battle should she lose some of the early states. It's a well known fact that in politics, name recognition matters. And with the millions and millions of dollars sitting in her coffers, she will be better able to redefine her political opponents than they can.

Losing Iowa and South Carolina obviously would be devastating to her campaign, but not fatal because of her name recognition and campaign cash. However, there are other variables that could submarine her campaign that are out of her control. In the privacy of the voting booth or when it's actually time to caucus, will voters simply decide that they want to make a clean break from the Bush-Clinton snipping? Will voters simply decide that she's not as electable as they had originally thought? Is there a contingent of voters who simply won't vote for a female even though they've "supported" her campaign thus far?

In short, Clinton's roadmap to the nomination offers much more room for error than the other candidates', but she is not as invincible as she'd like to have others believe.

Barack Obama (20%)

Obama is generally running in second in most polls. The most important state for him is South Carolina, which has a large percentage of Black voters who will participate in the Democratic primary. If he loses Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina will be his make or break state. It is highly unlikely that Obama will sweep Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. However, to win the nomination, he needs to win at least South Carolina and one other state. If he can basically split the early states, he will have the money and the momentum to compete with Clinton nationally.

One factor going for Obama that is difficult to quantify is how broad his support really is. It is no secret that Obama performs best among younger voters. This is a big deal because these voters (the 18-30 crowd) often don't have regular phone service. Polling companies generally don't call cell phones (which younger people are more likely to use), which means Obama's support might be underrepresented in the polls. Obama definitely has legions of dedicated supporters and they are turning out to his events in staggering numbers. If John Edwards gets knocked out in Iowa and no other candidate emerges, the race for the nomination truly will be Clinton vs. Obama, which would pit the establishment, experience, and Clintonian toughness against something bold, new, and different.

John Edwards (10%)

In a word, John Edwards' chances come down to one word and one word only: Iowa. Second place is not good enough for him there. John Edwards must win Iowa. It's the state he's placed all his chips in. It's the state where he's done the bulk of his campaigning. He must win the Iowa caucuses. And that's just to survive. Edwards will likely be hamstrung for cash, especially in light of his recent decision to accept public financing for his campaign.

To win, Edwards will need Obama to fizzle. If he can seize Obama's mantle of being the true "change" candidate, he can ride the outsider populist message to a one-on-one battle against Clinton. Interestingly, Clinton is more of a hawk on terrorism than Edwards is even though their genders may initially lead voters to think otherwise. If there are voters who are reluctant to vote for Clinton because they fear she's not going to be tough on terrorism and defense, how will they vote if their alternative is John Edwards, who seems more dovish, as he views keeping combat troops in Iraq to fight terrorism as a way of "continuing the war" there?

Having said that, Edwards is definitely in touch with the issues on the minds of a lot of voters, namely health insurance and poverty. It all begins with Iowa and using a victory there to give him momentum in South Carolina, his home state and the first Southern state to have a primary contest. John Edwards must win Iowa and then must win South Carolina in order to remain viable. However, his lack of fundraising and his decision to opt for public financing will really put him at a disadvantage if Clinton is the last candidate standing.

So to summarize, Edwards must win Iowa, place at least second in New Hampshire, win South Carolina, have Obama underperform in all three states, and then enter Super Tuesday with strong momentum and Clinton burning through her war chest quickly to even stand a chance at winning the nomination.

Joe Biden (5%)

Joe Biden is in an interesting position right now. He commonly registers about 3-5 percent in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, which is outside of the margin of error. So there is definitely a small core of voters in his camp. However, Biden also has a large number of endorsements from members of the Iowa state legislature who have endorsed his campaign. If all politics is local, then this could work to Biden's advantage, as Iowa's voters may give the opinions of their local leaders more credence than the national pundits'. His message on Iraq is definitely the most realistic one out there and is also the only one out there that has generated significant Republican support. Biden needs to stress this.

Like Richardson, Biden has said that he needed to place in the top 3 in Iowa in order to continue his campaign. In order to do this, Biden needs voters to take a pass on Richardson and have the messages of Obama, Edwards, and Clinton blurred regarding Iraq and Iran. If he can convince voters that Obama and Edwards are oversimplifying Iraq while using Clinton's Iran vote against her, Biden may gain credibility in the eyes of voters, thus allowing him to adopt the "change" and "leadership" mantles. However, the "change" Biden would be selling would be a "change" back to competence and straight talk, words that are generally not used to describe George Bush. To bring down Clinton, he would need to continue working the polarization argument of her not being able to generate much Republican support for any of her legislation. He can also turn her refusal to engage in "hypotheticals" against her as demonstrating a lack of leadership. Pragmatic voters may respond to this.

In short, despite his weaker fundraising, I believe Biden is better positioned than Richardson because of his endorsements and his consistently stronger debate performances. If he can place second or third in Iowa while knocking out Richardson and Obama (or Edwards), it will be much easier for him to distinguish himself in New Hampshire. He could more easily distinguish himself if his main rivals are only Clinton and Obama or Clinton and Edwards. Having Richardson, Dodd, and all the other candidates in the field only create interference that makes his message harder to get out.

Bill Richardson (3%)

Richardson has said that he must place in the top 3 in Iowa, otherwise he would drop out of the race. This is not an impossible task. He has raised a respectable amount of campaign cash and has improved his name recognition, courtesy of his humorous "Job Interview" ads. He has the best resume of all the Democrats running and could be an electoral nightmare for the GOP, as he would be difficult to label as a liberal. And he's more credible on guns than both Romney and Giuliani. However, he has underwhelmed in the debates, much to the disappointment of his supporters.

To place in the top three, Richardson needs to lump Edwards and Obama together as being too inexperienced regarding foreign policy to be trusted with the presidency. He should also use their inability to guarantee a complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq by 2013 as another avenue of attack that should appeal to antiwar voters. Clinton is a bit more difficult to attack on inexperience, so he could emphasize his ability to bring different groups together as New Mexico's governor and contrast this with Clinton's polarization.

Richardson has an outside chance to place in the top 3. If he does, he is fairly well positioned to do as well in New Hampshire (he's polling a strong 4th there) and Nevada (a Western state with a large Hispanic population). If Richardson is one of the final three candidates standing after Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire, his argument that he embodies both "change" and "experience" could resonate with voters, since the other two candidates would likely be Clinton and either Obama or Edwards.

Chris Dodd (1.5%)

Dodd is generally registering at 1 percent in most polls. He hasn't really distinguished himself in the debates so far, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. Because he is largely undefined, he can benefit from low expectations. Dodd's biggest weapon is his campaign war chest. Dodd needs Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Richardson, and Biden all to beat up on each other enough and deplete their resources before jumping into the fray and using his own money to go on offense once everyone else has been bloodied.

Although I have not been able to find any information about how long Dodd plans to stay in the race, I'd imagine that he would go as far as New Hampshire before dropping out. New Hampshire is close to his home state of Connecticut, so perhaps he has built up a reservoir of goodwill among the voters there, but he seems to be struggling to register in the polls there as well.

In short, Dodd needs to sit back and let the other candidates destroy each other. When they are all weakened, he can use his campaign cash to portray himself as an unpolarizing elder statesman. Maybe that will be enough to get him to place third in Iowa, but it's hard to see him doing any better than that.

Dennis Kucinich (.5%)

For antiwar liberals, Kucinich's ideological purity has been refreshing to listen to. However, outside of this wing of the party, Kucinich is not seen as a credible candidate. The only scenario I can envision that has Kucinich becoming a serious threat would be if there were some sort of groundswell of antiwar voters who were railing against the status quo. And it would have to take place in state after state.

Mike Gravel (0%)

For this favorite of late night comedians to win, Gravel needs all of the other candidates to drop out of the race, hope Al Gore does not jump in the race, and then hope Mickey Mouse does not emerge as a write-in candidate somewhere along the way. Gravel has made a lot of strong and insightful arguments, but he is not a credible candidate.

9/28/2007

New Hampshire Debate Analysis (D)

(NOTE: This blog post is an analysis of the Democratic debate that took place in New Hampshire in September 2007. For my analysis of the debate that took place in New Hampshire in January 2008, click here for the Republicans and here for the Democrats.)

Wednesday night the eight declared Democratic presidential candidates met in New Hampshire for a debate moderated by Tim Russert. Of all the Democratic debates so far, this debate was the most substantive in that the moderator tried and succeeded in forcing the candidates to move beyond their traditional talking points and actually explain their policies in meaningful detail. Several of the questions also put the candidates in awkward positions as they had to explain away apparent contradictions in their rhetoric.

Regarding the focus of the debate, there was a heavy emphasis on Iraq and Iran. Surprisingly little attention was paid to economic issues. Only one question was asked about Chinese product safety and that was in the lightning round towards the end of the debate. And there were also no questions addressing the recent United Auto Workers strike. This surprised me, as labor and consumer safety are traditional Democratic issues.

As for the balance of time, most of the questions were directed at Hillary Clinton. This made sense, as she is leading in all national and most state polls. Generally, the higher the candidate's position is in the overall horserace, the more talk time the candidate had, as is evidenced by the latest debate talk clock, courtesy of Chris Dodd. Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel received the least amount of time, but they did not complain about it. Joe Biden was irritated that he did not get more chances to participate during the foreign policy section of the debate, to his disadvantage. The other candidates seemed content with how much they could participate.

Perhaps the most interesting thing that happened at the debate was the fact that none of the three leading candidates could clearly state that they'd have all of the troops out of Iraq by 2013, the end of their first term. They probably do want to get the troops out before then, but they couldn't risk saying that because they had to prevent themselves from being attacked by the Republican nominee in the general election for "giving the terrorists a date of our surrender so they can wait us out." Having said that, Obama, Clinton, and Edwards sounded quite similar to George Bush on Iraq, which I'm sure totally deflated antiwar voters on the left.

As for how well the individual candidates performed...

Hillary Clinton did it again. Her performance was not stellar by any means, but because she made no fatal mistakes and was not bloodied too badly by the other candidates, she will continue to be seen as THE candidate to beat. "Hillary vs. Obama" has since become "Hillary vs. Everyone Else." Her strongest moment was when she deftly fielded a question that almost trapped her regarding a significant policy difference between her and her husband on the issue of torture. Her stern response, "Well, he's not here," was very strong and showed her toughness, her independence, and her ability to think on her feet. She later softened up by joking, "Well, I'll talk to him later." This made her seem warm, inviting, down to earth, and even funny. Her shrillness has been one of the common criticisms of her, but this exchange should force even her fiercest detractors to admit that she is an exceptionally disciplined and talented candidate.

This is not to say her performance was without fault. She used her "I'm not going to engage in hypotheticals" line again to avoid answering questions that would require her to stick her neck out more than she was politically comfortable doing. She tried her best to avoid answering a question about how justified Israel would be in launching a pre-emptive strike against Iran and chose to talk over the moderator and filibuster instead. Also, her response to the issue of Social Security was absolutely terrible. She would not specify what she would and would not put on the table regarding maintaining its solvency and instead chose to have her Social Security fixes be contingent on the prior establishment of fiscal responsibility. These exchanges evoked images of political calculation rather than presidential leadership. If anything, it gave her opponents their blueprints for how they can attack her from now on. Some voters may not be too keen on her lack of boldness on these issues as well, but until another candidate compels them to vote for him instead, these voters are Clinton's to lose.

Overall, Hillary Clinton did reasonably well, but she may need to worry about a new front opening up from her left in John Edwards, who seems to be a bit less inhibited than Barack Obama when it comes to going on offense. She also seems to be pursuing a general election strategy of straddling the center and avoiding stepping on anyone's toes. However, while this strategy may work for a general election, it may be what prevents her from getting that far in the primary, especially if the other candidates force her to take clear stands on the issues.

Barack Obama was almost a nonentity during the debate. His answers were flat, he demonstrated little passion, he didn't offer much in the way of specifics (such as on sanctuary cities and Social Security), he didn't go on offense even when given the chance, and he didn't give voters a new reason why they should vote for him. This was most definitely not the performance he needed to have in order to regain his momentum. His aides say he was suffering from the flu, which may be true. However, I fear that more voters will think the bloom is off the Obama rose than will know his unspirited performance resulted from being sick. That might not be fair, but unfortunately, that's politics. Perception matters.

In a moment that likely frustrated supporters anxiously waiting for him to go on offense, Obama was asked who he was referring to when he mentioned "turning the page"--the Bushes or the Clintons. Obama essentially punted by saying he was talking about "divisive politics in general." Give Obama credit for taking the high road, but how does he expect to overtake his chief rival if he won't lay a glove on her, even if civilly? Making veiled attacks against your rivals and then denying that they are even attacks on them at all is lame. Ignoring your main rival works if you're on top. But unfortunately for Obama, he doesn't have this luxury because he's the one trailing her.

His best moment was when he spoke inspirationally. "We should stop feeding our children fear and conflict. If we feed them hope, reason, and tolerance, they become tolerant, reasonable, and hopeful." This was a very powerful statement, but I think the problem with this is that it might not be enough to sustain his candidacy. Fairly or unfairly, even though there is a large segment of voters who like this message, a lot of these voters simply want to hear more substance from him. And these voters may reach a point where they tune him out when he speaks inspirationally because they've heard that enough times already without it being followed up by anything. Obama should consider himself lucky that he was not asked why he did not vote on the Senate resolution to condemn the MoveOn.org ad or the vote to label Iran's army a terrorist organization.

As a whole, Barack Obama was disappointing, which is a tough break because of his illness. His biggest threat now is no longer Clinton; it's the media. The media fell in love with Obama earlier this year because he was the "new" and "fresh" candidate. But with Obama's message becoming repetitive and Edwards' persistent attempts to seize the mantle of the outsider, Obama should fear that the media begin to generate stories about his possible fall from grace. It seems that the media are already turning on his campaign in terms of how they cover him.

John Edwards: As I expected, Edwards was considerably more aggressive at this debate than in previous ones. He received little help from Obama on the Hillary-bashing front, so he was Clinton's primary aggressor. From a substantive standpoint, he outlined clear contrasts between himself and Clinton regarding Iraq. This was important, as Clinton has successfully moved to the left on this issue without abandoning the center. As a result, Clinton and Edwards' Iraq policies became more indistinguishable. Now voters realize their differences again.

The toughest moments for Edwards involved the question about his past work at a hedge fund and how his current rhetoric about Social Security contradicts his rhetoric from the 2004 campaign. This was damaging because Edwards has a negative perception of being a hypocrite who has no core values and will say anything to get elected.

All in all, Edwards spoke with great passion and was clearly the outsider on stage. Democrats are angry, and I think Edwards tapped into this anger. Because of his fire, I can't help but wonder if he poached some of Obama's supporters. He was probably the most audacious candidate on stage and I really think he took a huge step towards overtaking Obama and becoming the main Clinton alternative candidate. Obama is generally seen as the firewall separating Edwards from Clinton. However, if Obama continues to hold his fire and Edwards continues to strongly engage Clinton, this may give the media a fresh storyline that Edwards could use to improve his fundraising totals. Also, given that Edwards has run quite far to the left, he may have exposed himself a bit too much for the general election. However, at least he took a major step towards just making it that far based on his strong performance Wednesday night.

Bill Richardson turned in another erratic performance consisting of a strong grasp of policy mixed with off-putting remarks. He is clearly competent on foreign policy, but did not come across as galvanizing. His knowledge of Iran and how to leverage it economically was impressive indeed. Having said that, Iraq may very well be the issue that saves him since the top three candidates could not clearly state that they would get American troops out of Iraq by the end of their first presidential term in 2013. Even though Richardson is a moderate, his Iraq withdrawal position should be quite popular with the left.

However, the credibility he built up on foreign policy may have been diminished by his weak response to the issue of Social Security. He basically said that Social Security could be solved by growing the economy. Tim Russert seemed incredulous and quipped, "this is not funny money" before giving him a chance to elaborate. Richardson clearly seemed averse to raising taxes or raising the eligibility age, perhaps so he could maintain his appeal among moderates and fiscal conservatives without scaring senior citizens.

Richardson also foolishly made the mistake of veering off topic and reverting to his talking points regarding "getting all of our troops out of Iraq in one year," but he was reprimanded by the moderator for doing so and was forced to express exactly how he planned to do that. His follow-up answer was a bit less convincing.

His worst moment, however, was his unfunny quip to one of the questioners when she asked him about illegal immigration. He said, "You asked me that because I was Hispanic, right?" The audience laughed nervously, but it was clearly an uncomfortable moment and a stupid remark that would have been better left unsaid. Unfortunately for Richardson, his response to the question of illegal immigration was quite sensible and comprehensive, but I think many voters didn't hear what he was saying because they were so put off by his initial remark.

In short, Richardson didn't do much to change the narrative that he is a great candidate on paper, but a disappointing candidate in person. Richardson was a popular dark horse candidate who, in my mind, has gone from being a possible surprise presidential nominee, to being on the VP short list, to being a good Secretary of State choice, to being sent back to New Mexico. Richardson has a lot of good policy ideas, but his delivery seems to be a hybrid consisting of the worst elements of Bush's inappropriateness and Kerry's awkwardness.

Joe Biden started fairly slowly, but gained steam in the second half of the debate. One of his most effective lines was his attack on Clinton asserting that she would have difficulty generating Republican support for her legislation simply because so many Republicans do not like her and would love to politically weaken her by blocking her initiatives. He contrasted this by trumpeting his own success with getting his nonbinding resolution on Iraq passed with the support of a majority of Republicans. Whether pragmatists pick up on this contrast remains to be seen, but it was a strong attack that did not seem like an attack.

Biden's greatest strength was his directness. Several of the other candidates obfuscated and had to be pinned down by the moderator, but Biden was usually much more succinct. He displayed a firm command of all the issues presented to him and took things a step further by addressing why popular solutions to some of the nation's ills are unfeasible. He was clearly frustrated early in the debate as he wanted to express his opinions on Iran and foreign policy in general, but calmed down and made no major mistakes. He has clearly found his niche, but whether he will be able to capitalize on this in terms of fundraising remains to be seen. He is definitely the strongest of the second tier candidates.

Chris Dodd was already in the back of the pack before the debate started, and he did nothing to break out from the pack by the time it finished. In perhaps his most memorable moment, he was given the chance to directly challenge Clinton's electability (by expounding on his assertion that Republicans would be happy to face her) and he demurred just like Obama did. This made him look very weak. He later tried to attack Obama by saying that "proven results" matter in addition to "experience and judgment," but Dodd had already weakened himself so much that this attack on Obama did not really draw any blood. In addition to this, he continued to speak like a senator rather than a president and was generally uninspiring to listen to. He did clearly state that he would have all the military troops out by 2013, but I doubt many people were listening.

Unfortunately, even though he has a credible campaign operation and a respectable campaign war chest, I believe Dodd has slid into political obsolescence. He seems to be a me-too generic Democrat who is less provocative than Mike Gravel and less compelling than Dennis Kucinich.

As for Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, it's hard to to classify these two candidates. Kucinich raised some good points about Iraq, Gravel made a good point about lowering the drinking age to 18, and they both made a few other good points (like Gravel on illegal immigration and scapegoating). However, they also made some totally bizarre statements that remind voters why they will not receive the nomination and why they should not be invited to future debates. Kucinich managed to give a very unpresidential shoutout to his mother ("Hi, Mom!") and advocated paying reparations to the Iraqis (which surely did not go over well) and Gravel said he shouldn't have to repay his credit card debts. I'm sure there are millions of voters out there who owe Master Card and Visa hundreds or thousands of dollars and shook their heads in disbelief when they heard that. For all of Gravel's good moments (like saying he was "ashamed" of Clinton for her Iran vote, calling out Obama for not even voting at all, and his advice to congressional Democrats about ending the war), there are so many other moments that make him seem unstable. The end result is lost time that could have been spent having the more credible candidates flesh out their policy differences more thoroughly.

All in all...

Hillary Clinton did okay during the debate, but should avoid looking ahead to the general election prematurely.

Barack Obama clearly underperformed in this debate and risks having his message co-opted by John Edwards.

John Edwards turned in the best performance of the night with a spirited delivery and some strong attacks on his strongest rival, Hillary Clinton.

Bill Richardson was mediocre. I get the sense that his momentum in Iowa and New Hampshire will fade a bit after this performance.

Joe Biden did a very good job and has the best message on Iraq. As long as the focus remains on Iraq, Iran, and foreign policy, he has a chance to move up.

Chris Dodd was weak and uninspiring.

Dennis Kucinich was Dennis Kucinich. The problem is, voters already know what he stands for and aren't interested.

Mike Gravel made strong, excellent points. But they were clearly overshadowed by his off the wall remark about not having to repay his credit card debt.

It seems like there are now five plausible candidates remaining.

9/25/2007

New Hampshire Debate Preview (D)

All eight declared Democratic presidential candidates will meet for yet another debate at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire tomorrow evening. The debate will be moderated by Tim Russert, host of NBC's "Meet the Press." This will be the first major Democratic presidential debate of the fall. It also may be the final best chance some of the candidates have to make a move in the race, as the Iowa caucuses are only about three months away, more voters are paying more attention, and voters who hadn't paid much attention to the race before may get their first exposure to these candidates tomorrow evening. So this may be the candidates' last best chance to make a good first impression.

Here are my expectations for the debate:

The last Republican debate on Fox was the most contentious of all the debates by far. The exchange between Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul over Iraq likely hasn't been forgotten even by Democrats who are unlikely to vote Republican. It made for great television, provided one of the rare substantive exchanges of policy positions, and really helped voters understand the differences between the candidates. I expect moderator Tim Russert to use his discretion to allow and encourage the candidates to mix it up a bit. Frankly, while most of the Democratic debates have been relatively tame and civil thus far, they have disadvantaged all candidates not named Clinton because they succeeded in doing nothing but maintain the status quo. In other words, the longer the Democrats keep their powder dry, the stronger Clinton's political inertia becomes.

In addition to expecting Russert to set the stage for confrontation, I'm expecting him to grill the candidates a bit more on their policy positions and why their positions are better than their opponents'. On Iraq, look for him to probe the candidates to go beyond "we must get out now" or "cut off the funding immediately" and focus more on where we go from here. Health care, union rights, Chinese products, and Iran should also receive a lot of time in light of Bush's threatening to veto the expansion of the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program, the United Auto Workers' strike, the Chinese product recalls, and Iranian president's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent speech at the United Nations and Columbia University.

Russert may also set some traps for the other candidates which may require them to hedge their bets. He can do this by asking the other candidates why Hillary Clinton is the wrong candidate for the Democrats. Candidates who have avoided attacking her too harshly in the past because they are angling for a cabinet position or the vice presidency slot in a Clinton administration would have to either go for broke and attack her or demure and risk eliminating their chances of seizing the nomination for themselves. This race has been in such statis for so long that this may be the only thing that shakes things up a bit. In light of Clinton's rising polls and burgeoning sense of inevitability, withstanding attacks about why she's not the best candidate may be the only thing that stops her.

Here's what I expect from the actual candidates:

Hillary Clinton: This debate is hers to lose. All she has to do is maintain the status quo. If all the candidates attack her collectively, she will be able to use that to show that she's tough, she's the frontrunner, and she's staying positive while everyone else resorts to negative politics. I expect her to discredit Obama and Edwards' Iraq policies implicitly by stressing how unfeasible their policies are. Iraq is no longer the Achilees Heel that it used to be for her because of how she has finessed the issue thus far. Look for her to continue taking potshots at Bush and the Republicans. In addition to ginning up the base, this also contributes to the aura of inevitability surrounding her campaign. Either get on board now or get left in the cold. She should expect to be attacked more severely than in previous debates, particularly by all candidates not named Obama. If she beats expectations again tomorrow, she will be very difficult to beat.

Barack Obama: Obama clearly seems to have lost some of his momentum, as his standing in the polls has trended downward in Iowa and New Hampshire. I think he has done a good job of introducing himself to voters, but he seems not to have compelled them to support his candidacy. He needs to go on the attack against Clinton in order to bring her back from the stratosphere, but I think he's uncomfortable doing so. His rhetoric about "a different kind of politics" and "the politics of hope" may be contradicted by being too aggressive against Clinton. Obama needs a second act in order to remind voters why they liked him in the first place. Displaying a strong grasp of policy and being able to articulate himself beyond his common slogans would serve him well because lack of depth is still one of the criticisms of his campaign. Look for him to be asked why he did not vote on the condemnation of the Moveon.org ad. John Edwards will probably launch several attacks on Obama, but do not look for Obama to take the bait because his focus is on Clinton.

John Edwards: This debate is particularly important for John Edwards because of how fragile his campaign is right now. His fundraising has lagged behind Obama and Clinton's, and the momentum is clearly on Clinton's side in Iowa, which is a must-win for Edwards. It's his firewall. If John Edwards loses Iowa, his campaign is finished. So look for him to speak with great passion. Even though the debate is taking place in New Hampshire, he'll be speaking directly to Iowans. He should hope he is asked several questions about labor and the UAW strike to burnish his labor credentials because he cannot afford to cede the labor vote to Clinton. Other than Mike Gravel, look for Edwards be on offense more than any other candidate. Also, John Edwards should make sure that Joe Biden does not outshine him when it comes to having a grasp of the concerns of organized labor.

Bill Richardson: Bill Richardson has seen his poll position in Iowa and New Hampshire improve as a result of his humorous "Job Interview" campaign ads. However, he has since seen his momentum and support trail off. Richardson's experience has been co-opted by Clinton, who is now seen as the "experience" candidate. So he needs to find a way to differentiate himself somehow. He does have one ace in the hole that should appeal to moderate Democrats in Iowa and independent voters in New Hampshire: guns. Richardson was the only Democrat to address the recent meeting of the National Rifle Association. Playing up his moderate credentials may endear him to a wing of the Democratic Party that is not well-represented by its presidential candidates in light of the departures of Tom Vilsack, Evan Bayh, and Mark Warner. Of course, Richardson has gone very much to the left on Iraq, but he should have plenty of daylight in the center regarding social and cultural issues.

Joe Biden: There was a presidential debate early Sunday morning in Iowa a few weeks ago that featured a sharp exchange between Joe Biden and Bill Richardson, arguably the two most experienced candidates in the field. The exchange was about Iraq and how many troops should be removed. Joe Biden came out on top in exchange and made Richardson's Iraq policy seem unfeasible. Since then, Biden has been speaking out a lot on Iraq and has made that the main issue of his campaign. (Consider this editorial he wrote that appeared in today's edition of my local paper.) Richardson is generally running 4th in Iowa, so he is the easiest candidate for Biden to catch. Even though they are personal friends, look for Biden to be particularly aggressive with him. Aside from voters who place a premium on Iraq, voters who like Richardson on paper but don't like him in person constitute Biden's main audience. The other candidates have expressed support for his Iraq policy before, but if they do it too much again at the debate, that could be turned into an easy campaign ad for Biden.

Chris Dodd: Dodd does not have much to lose. He is unlikely to be a vice presidential choice (he hails from an already-blue state) and he is unlikely to be a choice for a cabinet secretary (because Connecticut's governor is a Republican and she would likely appoint a Republican to fill his Senate seat), so Dodd might as well just come out swinging and hope he lands a few blows. Dodd is saying all the right things that Democrats like to hear, but his delivery sounds more senatorial than presidential. If Dodd were to speak with a bit more force and a greater sense of authority, he could be the breakout candidate of the night.

Dennis Kucinich: Look for Kucinich to own the labor issue and express genuine outrage over the Chinese product recalls. I expect that he'll get a lot of applause lines, but will ultimately win little new support. Kucinich is not a gadfly candidate, but he does not have much of a campaign apparatus. This may very well be the last debate he is invited to.

Mike Gravel: The threat from Mike Gravel is his confrontational style. He will not be the Democratic nominee, but he might play a role in determining who else it won't be. He is not afraid to challenge the other candidates and may put another more credible candidate in a particularly awkward position. He tried going after Barack Obama in a previous debate, but Obama successfully parried his attack. Will his next target be as lucky? I do not expect him to be invited to any future debates either.

In short, look for Clinton to do what she's been doing in all the debates thus far. Obama has been struggling a bit as of late and needs to present something new. Edwards is in trouble and is going to have a laser beam aimed directly at Clinton. Richardson may try to stay above the fray, but end up lost in the shuffle. Biden is going to ride Iraq to the very end. Dodd has nothing to lose and everything to gain, so he can afford to be loose. Kucinich will be the Democrats' conscience once again, but is not going to move his poll numbers. Gravel will be a wild card yet again who either brings down an unsuspecting candidate or provides more fodder for the late night comedians.

Stay tuned for my post-debate analysis.

8/20/2007

How to Ruin the Top Tier

Even though a sizable chunk of the electorate is still not paying much attention to the presidential race, time is running out for several of the candidates to make a move and position themselves to secure the nomination. Voters are already getting a sense of the underlying storylines of the race so far: Clinton vs. Obama, the demise of McCain, Romney vs. Giuliani, Edwards vs. Coulter, etc. But there are a lot of other intriguing candidates in the race that offer voters something Rudy McRomney and Barack Clintedwards cannot. However, the window for these so-called second-tier candidates is closing fast.

Democrats especially may be averse to attacking Hillary Clinton too forcefully because they are angling for a cabinet slot in her administration or even a spot at the bottom of her ticket as vice president. But like everyone running for the biggest prize in all of politics says, nobody ever runs for vice president. So if these candidates want to be president (not vice president or a cabinet secretary), they're going to have to take some risks because if they continue on their current paths of playing softball, they're going to end up stuck out in the cold or locked out of the White House until 2016.

So here's my free, unsolicited advice for all the second-tier candidates. Since nobody in the media is covering them, I might as well help them out. First of all, it is important for most of these candidates to realize that they benefit from low name recognition in that they still have many opportunities to make a good first impression among voters. People already know Hillary, Obama, Rudy, and McCain, for example. But if you mention the name "Bill," people will think of Bill Clinton instead of Bill Richardson. Similarly, if you mention the name "Mike," there's a better chance they're thinking of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, rather than Mike Huckabee. And "Joe" is Joe Lieberman, rather than Joe Biden.

This low name recognition is a valuable asset because there are surely a lot of voters who are not satisfied with either Clinton or Obama, or Romney or Giuliani. If the voters realize they have more options than the "Big 3," and these new alternatives appear credible, forceful, and compelling, they stand to reap a political windfall in terms of buzz, fundraising, and maybe even better polling. Mike Gravel had a perfect opportunity to capture lightning in a bottle at the first Democratic debate in Orangeburg, South Carolina, back in April. Everybody was so focused on Obama (coming to a Black college in a state with a high percentage of Black voters), Clinton (wife of the closest thing to God on Earth as far as many Blacks are concerned), and Edwards (South Carolina's native son and the vice presidential nominee in 2004) that they didn't even know Gravel existed. Had he outshone all three of them that evening, he would likely be a major contender today.

Obviously, Mike Gravel is going nowhere. Neither is Duncan Hunter. Nor Dennis Kucinich. But the sun has not quite set yet for Mike Huckabee, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson. So here are the questions they need to ask that will undoubtedly catch their top rivals off guard and potentially expose them as emperors who have no clothes.

Take notes, Biden and Richardson!

Hillary Clinton: Why do you repeatedly say the differences between the Democratic candidates are minor and that we should focus on the Republicans? Exactly what is the purpose of these debates if we're not supposed to talk about our differences, or do you feel you are the inevitable nominee? You also said you know how to beat the "right wing machine," and we don't doubt that. But is beating them more important than getting them to join us? Is what's good for Clinton the same as what's good for the nation? Can our great nation really survive another 51% presidency?

Barack Obama: You are to be commended for opposing the Iraq War from the start. And you are right to say that judgment is important. However, your good judgment doesn't change the fact that we are in Iraq now. You gave a good analogy about driving into a ditch at the debate in Iowa and having the judgment and foresight to avoid driving into another ditch in the future. But how do we get out of the ditch that we're already in? We all know there are no good options in Iraq. But exactly what is your plan for resolving this conflict and ultimately bringing the troops home? Coulda/shoulda/woulda is not a plan.

John Edwards: People are criticizing Barack Obama for his lack of experience in politics. As a one-term senator, how are you any different? You said so yourself that you weren't ready to be president in 2004. What happened since then that made you more qualified to be president now? And how are you a better advocate for labor than Joe Biden?

Listen up, Huckabee!

Mitt Romney: You say you are the candidate that conservatives, especially social conservatives, should place their trust in. But didn't you make a similar statement of affirmation to the gay community when you were running for the Senate against Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts? One quality that initially endeared voters to President Bush was his plainspokenness. Would you consider yourself plainspoken in light of how your views have "evolved" on taxes, gun rights, gay rights, abortion, and immigration?

Rudy Giuliani: You once said that Democrats would put the United States on defense while Republicans would keep us on offense regarding terrorists. Seeing that you have often been referred to as "America's Mayor," a symbol of unity, do you think your statement about Democrats and Republicans contradicts your perception of being the nation's healer from September 11?

John McCain: You are running as a fiscal conservative. If this is true, how do you explain the amount of waste that characterized and significantly sandbagged your presidential campaign? How can you be trusted to manage the nation's budget and our taxpayer dollars if you can't even manage your own campaign cash effectively?

Fred Thompson: How can you be trusted to act swiftly and decisively against our nation's enemies if it took you several months just to officially enter the presidential race?

All of these questions involve shining a lantern on what these candidates believe is their greatest strength. Obama has his "judgment" and Iraq war opposition. Clinton has her inevitability and history as the Republicans' nemesis. Edwards has his newfound "experience" and impeccable labor credentials. Giuliani has his 9-11 heroism. Romney has his conservative positioning. Thompson has his no nonsense, plainspoken demeanor. And McCain has his campaign finance reform/fiscal conservative image. Once someone traps them with their own rhetoric and exposes them as all hat and no cattle, this race can become a lot more interesting.

8/19/2007

Iowa Debate Analysis (D)

The 8 Democratic presidential candidates met this morning for a debate on the campus of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. While the punching gloves still have yet to come off in any of the debates so far, this debate provided political observers and voters with some clear and strong differences between the candidates. While the tone generally remained civil, one could sense that there was a lot of resentment and frustration percolating beneath the surface. This resentment and frustration stem from the fact that Hillary Clinton is consolidating her support and pulling away from the rest of the pack in the polls, John Edwards' poll numbers are slowly declining, Barack Obama has been the subject of particularly harsh criticism over his foreign policy credentials and his "Blackness," Clinton is seen as the "most experienced" candidate instead of Bill Richardson and Joe Biden, Chris Dodd can't gain any traction, and the feeling among Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel that they are not getting a fair shake in terms of exposure.

Before I begin my assessment of how well each candidate performed, I must say that ABC did a exceptionally tacky job when they introduced the candidates at the beginning of the debate. While their locations on stage were randomly chosen, they were introduced in order of their strength in the most recent Iowa polls. Clinton, Obama, and Edwards were all introduced first with all three at about 26-27% in the polls, Richardson in fourth with 11%, Biden and Kucinich with 2%, Dodd with 1%, and Gravel with "no support registered." I thought this was very unprofessional, unnecessary, and counterproductive. Mike Gravel did his best to put on a smile after being introduced last with "no support registered," but this so-called "introduction" reeked of disrespect. Why invite all the candidates to the debate if you're only going to try and embarrass them on national television?

Another criticism I had was that some candidates got a lot more talk time than the others. According to the Chris Dodd debate talk clock, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama got about twice as much time to express their views than several of the other candidates. I know this has happened before, but it was particularly pronounced this time. Slighting the other candidates on time in addition to the callous way in which they were introduced was bad form.

Regarding Mike Gravel, I cited in a previous post about an excellent column by respected political analyst Stuart Rothenberg that he be excluded from future debates. Gravel has been something of a loose cannon before, but this time he flat out seemed senile. He turned a question about education into a long diatribe about nukes and somehow got Iran confused with Spain. The five minutes he wasted incoherently rambling could have been given to Biden and Richardson so they could continue their excellent, heated exchange about residual troops in Iraq.

Dennis Kucinich was also not amused by the lack of chances he had to participate and turned in the best line of the night. In response to a question about prayer, he said he's spent the past 45 minutes praying for a chance to speak. Dennis Kucinich seems like the Ron Paul of the Democrats. Like Paul and unlike Gravel, Kucinich has an actual platform. He has the ideas, the passion, and the commitment to his ideas. However, he doesn't have the support. So even though he provides a useful voice in the debates, perhaps future debate organizers should consider excluding him as well.

Chris Dodd seems like the next candidate that should either pack it in or be excluded from future debates. He is trying the best he can, but his presentation sounds too senatorial rather than presidential. When I was listening to him, I simply didn't feel inspired or compelled to support him. Unfortunately, the most memorable thing about Chris Dodd at this morning's debate was the fly in his hair towards the end. I expect him to be the object of ridicule on the late night comedy shows and on YouTube. People seem to rank Chris Dodd as 6th in the Democratic candidates' presidential pecking order, but I can't help but wonder if Kucinich is in a stronger position than he is. Even though Kucinich doesn't have much money, he blows Dodd away in terms of passion and compelling others to support him.

As for the main five candidates:

Again, Hillary Clinton won this debate by not losing it. In terms of her substance, she was outdone by some of the other candidates. However, until someone delivers a fatal blow or at least draws blood, she will remain the frontrunner. The issue of campaign contributions from lobbyists is not going away, so she better find a good way to respond to this question in the future. She also seemed to praise Joe Biden a few times regarding his Iraq policy. Could this be her way of thanking him for helping take down Obama in the previous debate in Chicago? If Clinton is the nominee, would she choose Biden as her vice president?

Barack Obama had a good opening line about preparing for the debate by riding the bumper cars at the Iowa State Fair. The media and the other candidates have really been piling on him as of late and the first question this morning was about his "inexperience." Obama's message of "a new way thinking" is clearly resonating and he has developed a good response to his detractors regarding experience: Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney both had tons of experience, but their failures show that judgment is more important than experience. The problem for Obama is that he can't keep reminding voters that "he was against the war from the start." While that may be his ace in the hole, it doesn't change the fact that the United States is in Iraq now and the next president is going to have to find a way out of it. As for Obama's overall debate performance, he did okay. He made no major mistakes and performed well under pressure. He was clearly the villain on stage this morning. Perhaps because Clinton is untouchable, the other candidates are vying for the #2 slot on her ticket? Or do they think they could be the ABH (anybody but Hillary) candidate?

John Edwards is setting a lot of bait for Obama and Clinton, but neither of them is taking it. Interestingly, Edwards defended Obama as a candidate of change, but the problem is that both Obama and Edwards cannot coexist as "change" candidates. If they split the "change" vote, then Clinton will waltz to the nomination. But could an Obama-Edwards or Edwards-Obama ticket be in the works? Such a ticket would be heavy on change, light on experience, and absolutely loaded with enthusiasm in that a true outsider (Obama) would be paired with a populist crusader (Edwards). Such thinking is a long way down the road, however. John Edwards may view Obama and Clinton as his chief rivals, but he may need to check his rear view mirror because Joe Biden and Bill Richardson flexed their foreign policy muscles at the debate quite well and demonstrated their superior grasp of those issues.

Bill Richardson had a much stronger performance in this debate. His previous performances have been lackluster in that he tended to ramble, had poor stage presence, and seemed unfocused at times. However, he was much more coherent today and reminded voters that instead of merely talking about North Korea, Saddam Hussein, and negotiating, he's actually done those things. Richardson also had a clever line about how while Clinton represented experience and Obama represented change, he represented both. He and Joe Biden had an actual debate over policy regarding Iraq that allowed them both to talk about a complex political issue at a level of detail that most of the other candidates haven't done so far. He knows he is prone to gaffes, but reminded the audience that when it mattered, he has come through (on securing the release of hostages, meeting dictators, receiving American servicemembers' remains from abroad, etc.). That was an effective way to remind voters to keep their eye on the ball, much like John Edwards' hair ad at the YouTube debate earlier this summer. In general, Richardson's performance this morning was undoubtedly quite reassuring to restless supporters who were becoming disillusioned or disappointed with his candidacy. I expect his poll numbers to rise.

Joe Biden very well may have won the debate. A lot of the debate focused on Iraq and foreign policy and allowed Biden to showcase his foreign policy credentials. The fact that Obama, Clinton, and Edwards said "they agree with Biden" was no doubt quite validating. It also seems like the other candidates are slowly coming around to the Biden position on Iraq, which gives him added credibility. Even though the Democratic field is oversubscribed right now, I believe Biden is trying to run as the straight-talking veteran statesman. John Edwards should be particularly concerned about Biden because Biden has more experience, more extensive labor credentials, and a more secure grasp of foreign policy. People seem to think Biden is either running for vice president or a cabinet position, but I think he still has a shot at the nomination. He'll need a little bit of help though. First, he'll need Obama and/or Edwards to fall out of favor. If the inexperience questions continue to dog Obama, they will naturally dog Edwards too. This would allow both Richardson and Biden to rise up. Then Biden will need to best Richardson on Iraq. The main difference between the two regarding Iraq is their positions on leaving residual forces there. If Biden can show that it's impossible to take all the troops out and show that Richardson's plan is irresponsible, then he may very well emerge as the ABH candidate.

In a nutshell:

Clinton should prepare to be bloodied in the future. There's not a lot of time left before the Iowa caucuses, so if anyone else wants to run at the top of the ticket, they're going to have to go after her. She did okay in the debate overall, but only won by not losing. She hardly won the actual debate.

Obama seems to be becoming a polarizing figure among Democrats. The naysayers worry about his inexperience. His supporters like his freshness and the way he talks about politics without being political. He likely hasn't been attacked so heavily in a political contest before, but he's holding up reasonably well.

Edwards is vulnerable. Clinton is way ahead of him in the polls, Obama is getting a lot of media attention, and now Richardson and Biden are knocking on the door. Edwards cannot afford to share political turf with Obama.

Richardson was the most improved candidate on stage. He definitely shored up his support today and did a lot to dismantle some of the negative perceptions that had been surrounding his campaign.

Biden probably won the debate. When will people start asking the question that's been on my mind: "When will he catch on? Could Joe Biden, of 'clean' and 'articulate' infamy, actually be a stronger general election candidate than Hillary Clinton?"

Kucinich had a legitimate gripe about the way he was ignored at the debate. Future debate organizers are going to have to do some serious soul-searching about including him because even though he has no chance of winning the nomination, he does provide an interesting, coherent, and useful voice that showcases the diversity of thought within the Democratic Party. If he's going to be included in future debates, they need to give him fair time to express his views. Otherwise, they shouldn't bother with him. Treating him like political window dressing is bad form.

Dodd was not the invisible candidate on stage today, which was good. However, he was also the generic Democrat on stage, which was not good. And unfortunately, in politics, image and perception matter. Fairly or unfairly, the fly in his hair will be what people remember the most about his performance, rather than his actual policy positions.

Gravel has participated in one too many debates and should end his campaign now before he further embarrasses himself. He should not be invited to any future debates because he serves no useful purpose.

Copyright 2007-2008 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.