Showing posts with label hillary clinton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label hillary clinton. 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.

8/27/2008

On Phony Narratives and Media Reponsibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/21/2008

Obama Veepstakes: Predictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your predictions?

8/20/2008

Fickle Democrats' Buyer's Remorse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/14/2008

The Clinton Convention Conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/07/2008

The Veepstakes: Hillary Clinton

Any discussion about Barack Obama's potential running mates would be incomplete without Hillary Clinton. I first shot down the idea of an Obama-Clinton ticket back in February and have expressed reservations about it since then despite her obvious strength.

However, time has bolstered Obama's political footing. He is now in a significantly stronger position now than he was two months ago when Clinton was winning Pennsylvania and running up the score in West Virginia. Time has worked to Obama's benefit in that a lot of the hard feelings among Democrats have dissipated and the negative attacks have stopped. Now there is greater unity among the Democrats as they prepare for the fall campaign against John McCain. Hillary Clinton is out of the headlines, thus ceding the stage to Barack Obama. This lack of exposure is gradually weakening her leverage.

In addition to this, polling in various battleground states further weakens Clinton's hand. According to these polls, Obama is leading in Montana, Colorado, Virginia, New Mexico, Florida, and Indiana while trailing by fewer than 5 percentage points in Georgia, Mississippi, Alaska, and North Carolina. These states all voted for Bush in the 2004 election.

The longer Obama remains ahead of John McCain in these polls, the less likely he will need Hillary Clinton on the bottom half of the ticket. Clinton's strongest argument was that she could win the states Democrats needed to win in order to win the election. Also, by claiming that "she wanted her supporters to be respected," she was implying that her supporters were too angry to warm up to Obama and were ripe for McCain to harvest. Some of her supporters are indeed still upset about her defeat and, fairly or unfairly, are penalizing Obama for this. But the polls I cited earlier suggest that Obama is doing just fine with the support he currently has. This, of course, weakens Clinton's main rationale for her candidacy. Either Obama is overperforming, Clinton's supporters were bluffing, McCain is not able to capitalize on these supposed divisions among Democrats, or some combination of the three is happening.

In terms of the electoral map, Hillary Clinton could probably deliver Arkansas and make the neighboring states of Tennessee and Missouri more competitive. Bill Clinton could also be deployed to the Appalachian areas of western North Carolina, southwestern Virginia, central Pennsylvania, and southern Ohio and appeal to the rural Reagan Democrats there. Voters who have good memories of the economy during Bill Clinton's presidency may make voters in the economically depressed Midwest (e.g., Michigan and Ohio) a bit less likely to support John McCain as well.

In terms of her personal image, Clinton has rehabilitated herself in the eyes of Democrats who gained a lot of respect for her because of her grit and her ability to fight. Even Republicans concede that she is tough. She does not have a glass jaw and will not let any Republican attack go unanswered. If Obama is unable to sufficiently beat back Republican attacks with his traditionally soft approach, Clinton could easily clean up the mess because hand-to-hand combat is her political forte. So she could be an effective attack dog for Obama, which is probably just fine because that has traditionally been the role for potential vice presidents on the campaign trail. Of course, Republicans may criticize Obama for not reining Clinton in if she goes on offense, but any attempts to silence her would likely be met by anger from her supporters who are still sensitive about perceived sexism-related injustices Clinton (and themselves by extension) faced during the primary.

The negatives associated with Hillary Clinton are obvious and well documented:

1. The right despises her and her name on the ballot may do more to drive up Republican turnout than John McCain ever could. Democrats are more excited about this election than Republicans are, thus creating an enthusiasm gap. The prospect of the Clintons back in the White House could help neutralize this.

2. The issue of what to do with Bill Clinton would also loom over the campaign. Is Bill Clinton really disciplined enough not to throw the Obama campaign off message with his own histrionic antics? And is there any new Clinton baggage just waiting to bog Obama down? And would Obama's star shine more brightly than the former president's? Or his wife's?

3. Obama's message of "change" would become a bit diluted because of the "back to the future" element of including half of a political dynasty on his ticket. And this political dynasty's approach to politics is much more confrontational, thus further contradicting Obama's more genteel style.

Although Clinton could help him in the Upper South, Obama does not need Arkansas, Tennessee, or even North Carolina to win the election. Obviously, losing North Carolina would be deadly for McCain because if Obama wins North Carolina, McCain will absolutely have to win Michigan and defend Ohio. But because Obama is polling well enough in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio on his own, there is even less incentive for him to choose the junior senator from New York. Despite the recent lovefest in Unity, New Hampshire, Obama clearly does not want to pick Clinton and would like a convenient excuse to reject her. It's in his best interest to simply let things simmer for now though because that will buy him some time and increase the chances of Clinton disqualifying herself either through an unforced error or a new scandalous revelation. (Read Defusing the Hillarybomb for other options available to Obama.)

Despite all the obvious downsides, there is, however, one compelling reason for choosing Hillary Clinton. It has nothing to do with the electoral map or shoring up one's base:

Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.

Hillary Clinton wants to be President. And while she may have sounded conciliatory in her concession speech and her remarks at her joint appearance with Obama in New Hampshire, the fact remains that she lobbed some real hardballs at Obama that flatly discredited his candidacy. Republican-leaning 527 groups are probably creating negative campaign ads using her words against him even as I type this post. Even though her campaign is over, Hillary Clinton is still Barack Obama's rival and must be dealt with carefully.

If Obama does not tap her to be his running mate, she will return to the Senate, where she has a good chance of becoming Senate Majority Leader. That means all legislation must go through her before it reaches Obama's desk in the White House. Would Clinton be so nefarious as to drag her feet when it comes to getting President Obama's agenda passed for the sake of driving down his approval ratings and fostering a sense of buyer's remorse, thus opening the path for her to take over in 2012? Or will she try to flex her political muscle by butting heads with Obama over legislation and dictating the terms necessary for her to shepherd bills through the upper chamber of Congress?

And what if Obama does not choose Clinton and he loses to McCain? Obama's stock value would plummet while Clinton's would soar on the winds of vindication. As a result, Clinton would emerge from the election more powerful than Obama. In 2012, Clinton could run as the "I told you so" candidate, thus reminding voters of the dashed hopes of Obama's failed campaign. Tapping Clinton for veep would help ensure that their political fates are intertwined even in defeat.

In short, the true advantage of a Clinton selection probably lies not in electoral viability this November (as the conventional wisdom indicates), but rather in fewer headaches after the election--win or lose.

Next installment: Mark Sanford

6/08/2008

What We Learned This Primary Season

The primaries are over, the votes have been counted, and the nominees have all but officially been crowned. This year's general election will be between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. Both are senators, but have vastly different personal histories. These histories and their unique personal dynamics will be scrutinized heavily from here on out. So before diving into assessing the general election campaign over the next few weeks, it is prudent to take stock of what has happened so far and what we have learned. Lessons from January may very well help better predict what happens in October.

1. This is a change election. Experience does not matter. In the Democratic primaries, the most experienced candidates were Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and Bill Richardson. Biden and Dodd dropped out after being rewarded with fifth and seventh place in the Iowa caucuses. Bill Richardson tried to trumpet his experience in the four-person debate before the New Hampshire primary only to finish fourth and drop out shortly thereafter. John Edwards tried to position himself as an experienced statesman by criticizing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for their negative attacks. He was subsequently drubbed in Nevada and embarrassed in South Carolina. Inexplicably, Hillary Clinton decided to adopt the "experience" mantle and tried to frame Obama as "too risky" and "too inexperienced." And she lost too. Obama might be "inexperienced," but he won the nomination and raised the most money. The "experienced" candidates didn't. John McCain is the latest politician who is trying to take advantage of the "experience" argument against Barack Obama, but he should do so at his own peril. After all, voters may look at the current state of the nation's economy, Iraq, and gas prices and conclude that "experience" is overrated.

2. If you work the media hard enough, they will believe your spin. Hillary Clinton has made it a point to remind voters, pundits, and journalists that "she won more primary votes" than Barack Obama. Average voters don't really know much about primaries, caucuses, and delegates, so Clinton's statement somehow morphed to "she won the popular vote" and makes Obama look like George Bush in 2000 while Clinton is Al Gore. By the letter of the law, Clinton's "popular vote victory" is true. More people actually did vote for her than Obama. The spirit of the law, however, suggests otherwise. It is important to note that Clinton is able to claim this only by including her votes in Michigan, not giving Obama any votes in Michigan whatsoever, and not including votes in some caucus states that Obama actually won. If you say something enough times, people will eventually begin to think it's true. A second example of this concerns the whisper campaign about Obama's religion.

3. A candidate who is at least moderately acceptable on all levels has a better chance of political survival than a candidate who has several big strengths and at least one big weakness. For months, the Republican race was the more compelling one because there was no clear frontrunner:

Mitt Romney was the competent executive and looked presidential. But he was seen as an emotionless flip flopper and had to deal with unfair suspicions about his religion. He also had to deal with concerns about his true commitment to conservatism because of his moderate record.

Rudy Giuliani had the ability to appeal to moderates and had proven his leadership credentials in the minds of voters because of his performance on September 11. But the Republican base consists of conservatives, not moderates. And this base viewed him as out of touch on the social issues that were important to them.

Mike Huckabee seemed more authentic than the other candidates and was clearly the favorite of the Christian right. His populist message also connected with rural voters. However, his foreign policy and anti-terrorism credentials were weak and he had trouble appealing to voters outside of his base.

Fred Thompson had the name recognition, buzz, twang, and proven conservative record. But he was a terrible debater and did not seem to want to campaign.

John McCain was a credible conservative on spending, terrorism, and social issues. He was criticized for his impurity on some of these issues (e.g., the Bush tax cuts, immigration), but by and large, he was at least moderately acceptable to the most people. As a result, he won the nomination by staving off elimination the longest. McCain's victory showed that a candidate who rates as a 7, 7, and 7 on three issues is politically stronger than someone who rates as a 9, 9, and 3 on the same three issues.

4. All states matter. Hillary Clinton lost the nomination in February. She matched Obama step for step before Super Tuesday, on Super Tuesday, and from March and beyond. But from Super Tuesday to the end of the month, Obama racked up 11 consecutive victories and put Clinton in a hole that was too large for her dig herself out of. Not having a timely campaign apparatus set up in states like Nebraska, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Idaho cost her far more than her victories in Ohio and Pennsylvania could compensate for.

5. Due to campaign finance laws, breadth of support is more important than depth of support. Clinton was able to raise a lot of money out of the gates by racking up $2300 contributions from her most loyal supporters. Unfortunately for Clinton, once a supporter put up $2300, he was not allowed to contribute any further. So she had a lot of money, but from far fewer people. Obama, on the other hand, was pulling in $20, $50, and $100 donations from far more people. So he was able to overcome Clinton financially and eventually dwarf her because one $1000 donation from one person is worth far less than ten $100 donations from ten people. Appealing to regular people who think a thousand dollars is the same as a million dollars is how Obama was able to crush Clinton. Now he has an extensive donor base that he can take advantage of in the general election. John McCain would be wise to copy this approach to fundraising.

6. Iowa and New Hampshire must loosen their stranglehold on the nomination process. Michigan and Florida were penalized for what the other 46 states were privately thinking but couldn't say publicly. I've criticized these states' "me first" mentality many times before. The primary season may be over, but these criticisms are not going away. A more equitable primary system needs to be developed sooner rather than later.

7. Republicans might wish to consider proportional delegate allocation. Mitt Romney and John McCain could have had an epic fight like Obama and Clinton had the "winner take all" system not existed. Romney won several "silver medals" in the early contests and was clearly McCain's strongest rival. Florida was essentially a tie between the two candidates, but it was absolutely devastating for Romney's campaign. Conservatives began rallying behind Romney in their attempt to stop McCain, but it was too late. A proportional allocation of delegates would have given him a fighting chance at a comeback.

8. Democrats might wish to consider eliminating caucuses. Even though they came across as whining and sour grapes, Clinton's criticisms of the caucus system have merit. In a caucus, voting is done publicly and candidates who don't meet the minimum threshold of support can negotiate with other candidates' supporters. Caucuses are held at set times and at set locations that may prevent certain types of voters from participating. For example, voters may have to work, find babysitters, or take care of their parents at the same time the caucus is being held. What kind of system is this?

9. Identity politics may make various demographics feel good, but they are ultimately problematic. Democrats were priding themselves on the prospect of "the first Black president" or "the first female president." And now the party is divided. Superdelegates who really want to support Clinton fear the reaction among Blacks if they take the nomination away from Obama. And now that Obama won, he has to win over the legions of female Clinton supporters who are threatening to support McCain out of protest. The problem with identity politics is that it narrows one's political identity. The more Obama is identified as "the first Black president," the more it trivializes his actual legislative record and political platform.

The Republican Party would presumably care less about identity politics, but until a credible woman or person of color rises high enough in the party and decides to run for president, it is unknown how much resistance such a candidate would face from other Republican voters.

Recommended reading

  • The Republican Rorschach Test
  • The McCain McCalculus
  • Rethinking 2012
  • The Problem with Identity Politics
  • The Problem with the Clinton Brand
  • A Warning to Republicans
  • About Barack Hussein Obama
  • Calling the Democrats' Bluff

  • 6/07/2008

    Hillary Clinton's Path to the Vice Presidency

    Shortly after the primaries in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia almost four months ago, I wrote about the problems Hillary Clinton and her campaign were having in terms of their brand image. Here is a brief summary from my original analysis:

    "To summarize, Hillary Clinton is running on a message that does not match what voters are looking for [experience], chose a poorly worded [egocentric] campaign slogan that embodies the worst conceptions people have of her, and is unable to strongly make the case for her candidacy (e.g., support her brand image) without inviting blowback that would lessen the potency of her attacks. While it is still possible that Obama could stumble and Clinton could emerge victorious, her once near-certain chances of snaring the nomination have gone up in smoke. And a lot of these problems are due to simple marketing problems, rather than Obama's strength."
    Clinton was unable to remedy these problems in time to salvage the nomination. So absent a new scandal, the best she can hope for now is an offer to be Barack Obama's vice president. But her ungracious speech on the same night as his victory speech reflected the same weaknesses that caused her to lose the nomination to begin with and threatened her already slim chances of being offered the Number Two slot.

    Instead of congratulating Obama, she talked about how she had won 18 million votes and how she wasn't making any decisions about what to do with her campaign. While it may have been a bit odd for her to concede that night, talking about how she was a superior candidate to the the candidate who actually won did not go over well and showed that she had not learned one of the reasons why she was even in this situation to begin with. Now she has elbowed her way into the storyline about who Obama will tap for his running mate.

    I recently wrote about how Obama could defuse the threat that Clinton posed. And before Junior Super Tuesday I argued that should not choose Clinton. But in fairness to Clinton, no losing candidate has won such a large share of the popular vote and delegates. So she can't easily be dismissed. She is clearly a formidable candidate with a large and devout constituency. And more importantly, she has actually been the stronger candidate over the past three months.

    Hillary Clinton has made a few mistakes, but it is not too late for her to change her ways and get on Obama's ticket. Here's how she can do it:

    1. Acknowledge Obama as the winner. Pundits everywhere are waiting for Clinton to acknowledge that she lost. The Obama campaign is waiting for this too. Until she does this, she will be seen as a threat by Obama regardless of how much he claims to "admire" and "respect" her. Clinton is still likely harboring dreams of another controversial pastor to sabotage Obama or for him to be further wounded by the radioactive Tony Rezko. Obviously, if Obama were to be crippled by such an event, Clinton could rise from the ashes and be the natural alternative nominee. But until that happens (and it probably won't), she must at least show sincere deference to him. This means she can no longer implicitly diminish Obama by touting her own accomplishments.

    2. Have both Clintons match his transparency and commitment to clean government. Hillary Clinton contradicts a lot of Obama's message. She represents the status quo. He represents change. She represents polarization. He represents unity. She represents the old way of doing business. He represents a new approach to politics. If Clinton wants to be vice president, both she and her husband will have to clean up their acts and let the sunshine in on their political dealings. The donors to the Clinton Presidential Library, for example, will have to be released. Both Clintons must be scrutinized. There are few more valuable commodities than voters' trust, and Obama has earned it. His campaign slogan is "Change we can believe in." Allowing this trust to be sullied by the same political obfuscations that have made voters so cynical to begin with could be fatal to Obama's chances and open up John McCain's path to the presidency.

    3. Don't come across as so eager. The vice presidency is commonly criticized by politicians. John Nance Garner, who was Franklin Roosevelt's vice president, infamously said that "the vice presidency is not worth a warm bucket of [spit]." Even though the vice presidency might seem to be more of a diplomatic office than an executive one at times, it is still a powerful position that can put a politician at the head of the line in terms of getting first crack at the top job in the next election. Clinton knows this. If she makes it on Obama's ticket and he loses, she could always run again in 2012 as the "I told you so" candidate. And if Obama is successful, she could run in 2016. Perhaps her unfavorability ratings will have diminished enough by that time to make voters more comfortable with the idea of giving her yet four more years in the White House. Clinton's presidential ambitions have a greater chance of being fulfilled if she doesn't make these ambitions so obvious. There is no value in Obama selecting a vice president who is seen as merely biding her time. In short, Clinton can be president later or never. Now is no longer an option.

    Again, Obama is well aware of Clinton's strengths. But he has to feel that he is making this choice using his own timetable. It will probably be several weeks before he makes a decision, but if Clinton does not want to remove herself from contention, she would be wise to heed some of the points listed here.

    6/04/2008

    The Obama Veepstakes: Defusing the Hillarybomb

    By now, everyone knows that Barack Obama will be the Democratic Party's presidential nominee. His victory in the Montana primary pushed him over the top, so he now has a majority of delegates.

    Obama gave a powerful speech about his victory last night addressing what lies ahead and even lauded Hillary Clinton's candidacy and her impact on the race. However, Clinton essentially stepped on his victory speech and stole a bit of the limelight by adding her name to Obama's shortlist and defiantly congratulating him on the race he has run, but not on the race he has won or the race that has just ended. Such a carefully crafted sentence is politically loaded and will ensure that until Obama chooses his vice president, this story will linger in the media. Notice how there are two competing storylines coming out of last night: "Who will Obama tap for vice president?" and "What does Clinton want?" Needless to say, Obama's camp is not amused.

    Could Clinton's supporters be overstating their importance? Are traditional Democrats really going to vote for McCain even though they have such disagreements with McCain over the war in Iraq, the economy, abortion rights, and the environment? Are these Democrats really going to place their contempt for Obama over their economic well-being just to spite him?

    Here are Obama's options:

    1. Wait. Waiting will give Clinton's supporters a bit of time to get over their defeat. Over time, their emotions will cool down a bit and they will rally behind Obama because he will be their party's representative in November. Primary fights are brutal, but time should heal those wounds.

    Also, waiting gives Clinton more time and more opportunities to disqualify herself from veep consideration. Obama probably does not want to have to deal with the Clintons (yes, the plural form) anymore, and almost certainly doesn't want to put her on his ticket because she contradicts so much of his message. (Read "Don't Expect an Obama-Clinton Ticket" for more information.) But if he's going to pass over her, he needs to find a reason that will come across as acceptable to the majority of her supporters. They want him to show her some respect. But any new Clinton gaffes, scandals, or attempts to minimize his victory or cast doubt on his electibility should be met with an all expenses paid trip off of his shortlist.

    There is also a strategic advantage to waiting. McCain has not chosen his running mate yet, so Obama could afford to wait a bit. If McCain chooses his running mate first, then Obama could react to that selection with a more careful selection of his own. Choosing Clinton first would cede this opportunity to McCain. And if Obama chooses a running mate first, that would give the Republicans more time to conduct opposition research and attempt to define that candidate before he can do it on his own. Waiting would force a staredown with McCain.

    2. Choose a woman not named Hillary. This is a double-edged sword. Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius seems to be the most attractive female pick right now. As I argued in my first post about Obama's veepstakes, her geography alone will prevent her from being pegged as a liberal because "Kansas liberal" just doesn't resonate. As a woman, she could help Obama tap into the same base that turned out for Clinton. And because she comes from an agricultural state, she could help Obama make inroads with the other group of voters he has struggled with as of late--rural voters. This could be a boon to him in southern Ohio, central Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.

    Obviously, the problem with this option is that a lot of women may say that if Obama is going to choose a woman for his vice president, she should be Hillary Clinton. So choosing a female not named Hillary could be seen as the ultimate insult to Hillary Clinton and her supporters. Again, Clinton said she wants her voters "to be respected." This could place both Obama and Sebelius in a tough situation.

    Another potential female pick would be Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri. She has been a vocal supporter of the presumptive nominee and could help deliver a state that Republicans cannot afford to lose. However, this selection seems a bit less likely because Missouri has a Republican governor and not just any Democrat could win a Senate seat in this fairly conservative state. This is also the argument against selecting Senator Jim Webb of Virginia.

    3. Choose a Clinton surrogate. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and Indiana Senator Evan Bayh were loyal Clinton supporters. Tapping one of them could be seen as an overture of respect because it would show that Obama is trying to bring the two camps together. Both of these picks should have Clinton's seal of approval. Rendell is a popular governor that would take Pennsylvania out of play and Bayh is the most popular politician in Indiana, a state that Obama could challenge with him on the ticket. Both politicians can appeal to rural working-class voters in Ohio and Michigan as well.

    The disadvantage here is the same disadvantage Obama would face by choosing a female other than Clinton. Why take a resident of Hillaryland when you can take Hillary herself? Also, would choosing a male make it more difficult for the Obama ticket to reclaim Clinton's female voters?

    4. Choose a Republican. This would be a bold selection that John McCain would have a difficult time parrying. Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel would immediately bring military and foreign policy heft to Obama's ticket. And it would be proof positive that Obama is serious about "change" because Democrats don't select Republicans to be on their presidential tickets. Another advantage here is that the news about Obama reaching across the aisle to select a Republican would trump the news about Obama snubbing Clinton.

    An unintended third advantage here would be that it would force John McCain to prove his bipartisan credentials as well. The best way he could do that would be to select Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate. If McCain chose a Republican (Romney, Crist, Pawlenty, etc.), Obama could point to Hagel and say that he really does want to bring the nation together while McCain represented the old way of doing things. This would make it harder for McCain and his Republican running mate to start attacking "Democrats" and "liberals" because it plays into Obama's message of politics not being about "us vs. them." Also, McCain would have a harder time picking off Clinton's rural White voters if Hagel were on the ticket because 1) Hagel's a Republican, 2) Hagel's not a liberal, and 3) Hagel is pro-life, a popular position among rural voters.

    5. Reject Clinton publicly, politely, and firmly. This is a risky move that would show voters that Obama is in control of the party now. After all, the idea of a failed candidate forcing his hand does not make Obama look presidential. Obama already has enough problems with his thin resume and the perception that he is weak, especially on terrorism. The Republicans would have a field day with this. "If he can't stand up to the Clintons, how could he stand up to Ahmadinejad?"

    If Obama follows this path, he would have the liberty to conduct his veep search any way he wishes and without the "what does Clinton want?" storylines bogging him down. Clinton would then have to decide what she wants her legacy to be. She will have no choice but to support Obama regardless of her relationship to him because she does not want to be known as helping contribute to his defeat at the polls in November. If she wants to run for president again in 2012 (or 2016), she can't give anybody the idea that she did not work her heart out for her party's nominee in 2008. This option would remove Clinton's leverage, which would obviously enrage her supporters, many of whom still want her to take her fight for the nomination to the party convention in Denver.

    Obama has several options available to him at present. He has the stage to himself now, but only if he takes it. Yes, Clinton is still a political force to be reckoned with, but regardless of "what Clinton wants," she must appreciate the reality of her current political situation.

    Hillary Clinton may command the loyalty of millions of voters who may or may not be receptive to Obama, but she is in no position whatsoever to make any demands of Obama or to force his hand. He won the race, so he calls the shots. It is clearly his Democratic Party now, not hers. Hubris is what caused Clinton to lose the nomination in the first place. And if she overplays her hand in defiance, hubris may ultimately be what causes her to lose a spot on the November ticket as well.

    5/30/2008

    On Religion, Politics, and Denouncements

    It seems that Barack Obama appeals to two types of people. The first type is traditional liberals and run-of-the-mill Democrats. They like his views on immigration, international relations, tax policy, and social issues. They are pro-choice. They are economic populists. They are more receptive to government intervention and regulation. They voted for Kerry. They voted for Gore. And they voted for Clinton. They were all left-leaning Democratic politicians whose political views largely matched their own. They might not have liked these candidates when they were at the polls, but the "D" after their names was more important than the name itself.

    The second type is voters who view Obama as a means of expressing their anger at everything related to politics as we know it today. They hate big money. They hate the idea of corporate lobbyists feeding at the political trough. They hate the 24-hour political news cycle. They hate the media's tendency to focus on stupid stuff. They hate conventional wisdom. And they hate talking heads and incurious journalists who recycle the same old themes. To them, Obama's campaign is as much about them as it is about Obama. To them, an Obama victory in November would represent a triumph of people over the system and everything that makes it undesirable.

    This latter group of voters consists of what I will call "protest voters." Some of these people are independents who dislike partisan rhetoric. A significant number of them are Republicans that Obama affectionately calls "Obamicans." (Even former Bush Press Secretary Scott McClellan may vote for Obama.) And many more are regular voters who have nothing to do with politics at all but believe Obama connects with them in a way that other politicians who came before him haven't. That explains why his donor base is so large and why so many of his contributions are for less than $100.

    Hillary Clinton does not connect with voters the way Obama does because she has run a poor campaign and is blaming everyone for her bleak political situation except herself. It's sexism. It's the media. It's the national party disenfranchising (her) voters in Michigan and Florida. It's debate moderators. It's the right wing smear machine. It's the unfair system of caucuses instead of primaries. It's your mother-in-law and her hairdresser. And that turns voters off.

    John McCain does not connect with voters the way Obama does either because he has one foot in the pool of bipartisanship and independents and the other foot in the pool of the unpopular George Bush and his off-putting allies. Thus, McCain's credibility is under suspicion. He is neither completely trusted by the right nor fully embraced by the middle, so he's suffering from a bit of identity confusion.

    The reason why I referenced Obama's "protest voters" is because of the latest pulpit problem surrounding the Obama campaign. Catholic priest Michael Pfleger gave an incendiary sermon mocking Hillary Clinton and invoking the idea of White entitlement as it relates to the United States' racist past. This kind of rhetoric is common in liberal circles. The reason why this is such a big deal, however, is because Rev. Pfleger gave this sermon at Trinity United Church of Christ, also known as Obama's church--the same church where Rev. Jeremiah Wright gave his now infamous sermon about how September 11 should not have been a surprise to the United States.

    Needless to say, the media are all over this story. Pundits are talking about how this strikes at Obama's "judgment" again. And Hillary Clinton is calling on Obama to denounce Pfleger explicitly. Comparisons between Michael Pfleger and Jeremiah Wright are commonplace.

    This reaction was predictable, but regardless of how one feels about this pastor's remarks, one fact cannot be denied. This year's presidential campaign is setting a very dangerous precedent.

    To start, Obama was not at the church when Pfleger blasted Clinton and invoked White guilt. And how often does Obama go to his church now anyway? He is in the middle of an intense campaign for his party's nomination and likely doesn't have the time to make it back to Chicago every weekend to go to his church. Why should he be held accountable for what that church's pastor is saying? Pfleger wasn't his pastor; Wright was! Why should he have to dissociate himself from that church because of this new pastor? And how offensive are these calls for divorce to people actually agree with Pfleger's remarks?

    Having to disavow or dissociate yourself from an entire organization simply because someone in that organization, no matter how prominent, makes controversial remarks or has a potentially offensive policy is an unfortunate development because it prevents the electorate from focusing on issues that are far more important to their day to day lives. And it threatens to silence any politician whose views or personal history is deemed "too different" for others to accept.

    Until 2000, Bob Jones University, a Christian school, had a policy that banned interracial dating. Should all Bob Jones University graduates have repudiated or boycotted their own college simply because of the school's politically incorrect policy? After all, those alumni paid thousands of dollars to go to that school and went there voluntarily, just as Obama voluntarily joined and stayed at that church.

    There are several politicians who were affiliated with the Conservative Citizens Council, a White-supremacist organization. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, these affiliations lasted as recently as the 2004 election. Should all politicians who were once members or allies of this organization immediately denounce it and sever all ties with it? What about George Allen? What about Haley Barbour? They have won several elections despite these ties. Where were their calls for divorce? George Allen eventually lost his Senate re-election bid in 2006, but that was because he called a rival campaign worker a "macaca," not because of his relationship with the Conservative Citizens Council.

    Jerry Falwell blamed September 11 on gays. How many politicians were still trying to curry favor with his church and that political wing after that? Even as recently as this campaign cycle, politicians, including John McCain, were still trying to win Falwell's endorsement. Where were his calls for divorce? Were such calls as intense as they are for Obama now?

    Freedom of religion is protected under the Constitution. And separation of church and state has been advocated since our Founding Fathers' generation. But it seems that tabloid journalism is threatening this freedom because it is making politicians have to answer for people they have little or no control over. And what is the political statute of limitations for dealing with people who made offensive remarks in the past? Five years? Ten years? Twenty years? And why should we care?

    Imagine that there comes a point when Obama is forced to leave his church because of media and political criticism. How fair is that? How many politicians have been drummed out of their own church because other people who could care less about them don't like what the church preaches? If Obama left his church, where would he go? Would his critics accuse him of mixing political calculations with the covenant? Would the media and his critics go to great lengths to research the backgrounds of all the pastors at this new church? What about the other worshipers who simply want to pray and enjoy Sunday fellowship without having to worry that the punditry will badmouth their church?

    This gotcha game when it comes to religion has shifted from an unseemly though passably politically relevant exercise (e.g., Jeremiah Wright) to an outright offensive distraction. Not only is it offensive to the people who worship at the "offensive" church (nobody likes to have their church and their congregation branded as "wackos"), but it's also offensive to the millions of voters who don't care about this stuff at all and would much rather learn more about how our presidential candidates plan to handle Iraq, the struggling economy, fighting terrorism, and addressing gas prices.

    The United States has a serious complex when it comes to religion. People who don't go to church at all are branded as God-haters. Non-Christians who seek to have their faiths be afforded the same level of acceptance or prominence in society as the Christian faith are excoriated for "forcing their beliefs" on others. Now people who don't go to churches "we" approve of are demonized as insufficiently Christian. And worst of all, this manufactured controversy surrounding Obama is giving license to others to demand that their political enemies pay for the actions of those to whom they are only tangentially related.

    I sense that this latest controversy surrounding Obama will only make these "protest voters" even angrier or create a whole legion of new ones. And uncommitted voters and nonpartisan observers who are wondering how to make ends meet are probably looking at this supposed "pastor problem" and wishing people would just give this guy a break and let him run his campaign. People who were already against Obama don't need to be further swayed by yet another "offensive" sermon. But calling on him to sever ties with people for offenses they once ignored in the past reeks of political opportunism and is deeply offensive to people who don't believe anyone should have to worry about accounting for the shady characters that may or may not exist in their six degrees of separation.

    If our nation continues down this road, there may be no one left deemed "decent" enough to run--unless he never befriended anyone or joined any group or organization whatsoever.

    5/18/2008

    Democrats' Demographics: A Convention Preview

    Super Tuesday Part V takes place on May 20, when Kentucky and Oregon have their say at the polls. These two states are similar to North Carolina and Indiana in that Oregon is considered Obama territory while Kentucky is considered Clinton's turf. The most likely result will be a split decision in which Obama beats Clinton in Oregon by a fairly comfortable margin while Clinton beats Obama in Kentucky by a landslide.

    Given that the results of these primaries are essentially foregone conclusions, what's the news value of these contests? There are two major questions that political observers are waiting to be answered: 1) What is the impact of John Edwards' endorsement, and 2) Will Obama's support among Whites continue to send warning signs to superdelegates?

    John Edwards placed his credibility on the line by endorsing Barack Obama last week. As one of the remaining heavyweights who had yet to endorse, Edwards' endorsement was big political news. And this endorsement essentially stepped all over the news about Clinton's landslide victory in West Virginia. When considering Obama's veepstakes earlier, I noted that the delay in Edwards' endorsing Obama probably removed him from veep consideration. As it turned out, Obama didn't need Edwards' help in winning North Carolina. But it is quite possible that he could have helped in Indiana. Then again, endorsing Obama last week was probably more effective tactically because it got West Virginia out of the headlines. So perhaps Obama and Edwards timed this perfectly.

    But how much does this matter? Given how ineffective Edwards was in 2004 for John Kerry, it is difficult to see how 2008 would be any different--at least regarding North Carolina. However, Edwards might be able to help Obama make inroads among rural Whites in Midwestern states. After all, Edwards was able to win a surprisingly large percentage of the vote in the West Virginia primary despite having dropped out of the contest more than three months ago.

    Hillary Clinton will win Kentucky easily. However, if Edwards is able to help Obama keep Clinton's margin of victory down, he could make an argument that he is still relevant. But should Clinton rack up another 30-40 point victory, it would be obvious that Edwards has very little political clout left and he could no longer seriously be considered as a party heavyweight despite his geography, his drawl, and his good looks.

    As it stands right now, the nomination remains Obama's to lose. All of the metrics are working against Hillary Clinton. Obama has won more states, more pledged delegates, and more popular votes. He has also recently pulled ahead of Clinton in terms of superdelegates. It is possible that Clinton can seize the popular vote by running up the score in Kentucky and Puerto Rico while keeping things close in Oregon, but having to rely on a US territory in addition to the controversial results from Michigan and Florida to win the popular vote probably won't sit well with party officials.

    The only card Clinton has left to play is the demographic card. West Virginia did not net her enough delegates to make much of a dent in Obama's lead, but exit polls there confirmed what Ohio and Pennsylvania suggested: Barack Obama simply isn't doing well enough with downscale, culturally moderate to conservative, rural White voters. It could be because of racial discomfort. It could be because of a lack of cultural affinity. It could be because of political disconnect. Whatever it is, this is very important and Obama needs to find a way to remedy this problem.

    Obama's coalition consists of Blacks, liberals, independents, and highly educated voters. Clinton's coalition consists of Latinos, women, social moderates, rural voters, and Whites. The argument Clinton needs to make to superdelegates is that her coalition is larger than his coalition. Blacks, liberals, and people with doctorates are going to vote for a Democrat in November regardless of who it is. The same could not be said, however, for rural Whites, blue collar voters, and moderates. And independents could go either way. So could Clinton do a better job of keeping more raw votes in the Democratic column even though Obama appeals to a more diverse electorate? Despite all the talk of multiculturalism and breaking racial barriers, the United States remains about 70% White. And while many of these White voters are genuinely concerned only with the issues, many others would like to have a presidential candidate they can relate to as well, as argued by conservative columnist Kathleen Parker.

    A few months ago, the conundrum Democrats had was that they were torn between their head (Clinton) and their heart (Obama). Clinton was the safe choice while Obama was the inspirational one. Ironically, given the way they've presented themselves on the campaign trail over the past few weeks, Obama has turned out to be the more cerebral candidate while Clinton has become the candidate who connects with voters on a gut level. She might pander and she might be divisive, but she is definitely scrappy and has earned a lot of respect for fighting in the trenches and maintaining her never-say-die campaign. John Kerry, Al Gore, and Michael Dukakis were all cerebral candidates. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush connected at a gut level. The cerebral candidates all lost. Clinton's surrogates need to reinforce this distinction.

    John McCain and Barack Obama are trading salvos on an almost daily basis. Even President Bush joined the fray by implicitly attacking Obama before the Knesset in Israel last week. In the event that Bush or McCain finds a major Obama weakness or forces him into a political briar patch, Clinton could position herself as the vetted alternative, thus reminding voters that her well spoken rival from Chicago is still too risky.

    In short, Clinton can still win, but she no longer controls her own destiny. In order to win, she needs help. And she has about three months for this help to come. Giving new life to stories about Obama's struggles with White voters by running up the score in Kentucky would be a good way to start.

    5/08/2008

    Hillary Clinton: What's Next

    In the eyes of most pundits and political observers, yesterday's split decision in the North Carolina and Indiana primaries was actually a devastating blow to the presidential aspirations of Hillary Clinton:

    1. Even though she won Indiana, she only won by 2 percentage points, which is far less than what most people had expected. That disappointing finish really blunted some of her preferred talking points coming out of the election--that she had real momentum and that Obama had real problems among voters in the Midwest. People aren't talking about Obama's inability to win places like Ohio as much as they used to.

    2. She lost North Carolina by such a large margin that it essentially canceled out the popular vote margin she had racked up in Pennsylvania. She can still claim to be leading in the overall popular vote, but given the quasi-elections of Florida and Michigan, this popular vote "lead" is not entirely credible. And more importantly than popular votes, Obama netted more pledged delegates again, thus making the math that much more difficult for Clinton.

    3. There are too few contests remaining for her to catch him. The next three primaries are in West Virginia, Oregon, and Kentucky. After that are the electoral gold mines known as Montana and South Dakota. Puerto Rico is a bit more lucrative, but even that state with its high Latino population won't be enough to put Clinton over the top in terms of pledged delegates.

    Obama gave a conciliatory victory speech last night. He is clearly trying to shift from a primary election campaign to a general election campaign and wants to extend an olive branch to Clinton. Although nobody's pressuring her to give up the fight just yet, the pressure is definitely on her not to tear Obama down any further because doing so would turn most of the party against her. Much to the delight of her supporters, Clinton said she was going "full steam ahead," which is her right, but lots of pundits are wondering why.

    Here are some possible reasons why Clinton is still in the race:

    1. It's so late in the process now that she might as well just let all 50 states vote. And after all, she has said on the campaign trail several times that she was going to campaign everywhere and fight for this election. Dropping out of the race now would undercut her image as a "fighter." And what about Florida and Michigan? She keeps talking about how "their votes should count." Well, if she drops out of the race, how will she fight to have their voices heard? And on a more basic level, she has been running for president for years. If she's going to pull the plug on her presidential bid, she might as well do it when things are officially hopeless. Her political situation hasn't reached that point just yet, but it is getting close.

    2. She wants to go out on a high note. One of the golden rules for athletes is to retire when they're at the top of their game, not when they are fading. Michael Jordan did just that when he sank the game-winning shot at the buzzer in Game 6 against the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals. That shot gave the Chicago Bulls their third consecutive NBA championship and their 6th title in 8 years. Jordan was clearly on top. But then he came back to play for the Washington Wizards a few years later. He was still a formidable player, but there were times when he showed his age and did not intimidate players the way he used to. So even though he was having fun, his legacy was tarnished a bit. Does Hillary Clinton really want her last hurrah to be a narrow escape in a state she was supposed to win comfortably? If she's going to get out of the race, she might be better served by doing so after a strong finish somewhere else. Kentucky and West Virginia seem to be perfect places for her to do so. But that brings up this next option:

    3. She really thinks she still has a chance to win this.
    Clinton should make a significant dent in Obama's delegate lead after West Virginia, Kentucky, and Puerto Rico have their say. Mind you, her gains there will not be enough to totally change the race unless she wins by something like 85-15. However, any pledged delegates she can rack up in these easy states function as superdelegates she doesn't have to plead with later on.

    4. She is crossing her fingers that Obama will self-destruct. Basically, the only way Obama could lose now is for there to be some scandal or incriminating video that exposes Obama as a fraud or a criminal. Jeremiah Wright was the closest thing to a campaign-ending event that has happened so far. Since it happened once, it could happen again. By circling the political shower drain, Clinton could hope that Obama somehow loses his footing and slips down the drain into political oblivion. Anything can happen before the convention, so at least Clinton has a prayer.

    5. She wants to quit, but also wants to pay off her campaign debts. It is common practice for failed presidential candidates to ask their supporters to help retire their debts with one final campaign contribution. Clinton has loaned her campaign millions of dollars. Supporters will be more likely to donate $25 to someone who is still fighting to be president than to a failed candidate who comes across like a political panhandler. Once Clinton drops out of the race, she will lose a lot of her influence among her supporters and she'll have a harder time paying that debt down.

    6. She wants to improve her brand image and/or make a case for Obama's vice president. I argued in February that an Obama-Clinton ticket was not gonna happen. However, if Clinton runs a clean campaign and helps make her base consider him more acceptable, perhaps he could reward her with the #2 slot. However, there are far more attractive options out there for him to choose. And besides, Clinton contradicts too much of his own political message to make such a ticket a cohesive one. Clinton doesn't have to accept Obama's invitation, but if Obama at least makes the offer, it could be good for the Democratic Party because it would heal the base. And besides, does Clinton want to be known for kneecapping Obama and throwing the election to the Republicans? If she does this, she could kiss her chances in 2012 goodbye. Remember, her legacy is on the line too, so she also has a vested interest in resolving this process amicably.

    Obama is doing the right thing by focusing on John McCain. He gains nothing by mixing it up with Clinton anymore, and trying to win delegates he doesn't need in West Virginia and Kentucky would distract him from the more important task of engaging John McCain. Clinton is really in a box now because she can't go after Obama like she used to. All she can do is just present her case to the voters and hope that her retail politicking in places Obama "has left behind" is noticed by rural voters everywhere and superdelegates from rural states because it is these rural (swing) voters that decide elections.

    5/05/2008

    Handicapping Indiana and North Carolina

    May 6 is Super Tuesday III. For voters in Indiana and North Carolina, they will have a chance to either definitively end this race, grant Hillary Clinton one more stay of political execution, or cause voters everywhere to rethink Obama's strength.

    Indiana is a lot like Ohio and Pennsylvania, both of which Clinton won. They are largely rural White states with large blue-collar populations and a handful of major industrial centers. And North Carolina is a lot more like Virginia than South Carolina, both of which Obama won. Like Virginia, North Carolina is a young, ethnically diverse state with a lot of well-educated professionals and university students.

    In short, Obama has far more to lose than Clinton does simply because Clinton is already running as if she has nothing left to lose. Her stock is rising and she is much better at managing expectations. Obama is still reeling from his own controversies and missteps and is having to fend off renewed doubts about his electibility. So it appears that Obama is a bit stalled while Clinton has a little bit of momentum. That will all change after the polls close, however, as pundits and political junkies everywhere will have fresh election data to pore over and new storylines to pursue.

    Here are the four possible outcomes:

    1. Clinton wins Indiana, Obama wins North Carolina. This seems to be the most likely outcome, and both candidates could spin this as a victory. Obama would cite the lack of remaining pledged delegates and winning a state post-Jeremiah Wright as a win while Clinton would claim another victory in a largely rural state, thus reinforcing her argument that she is more in touch with Reagan Democrats. As an added benefit for Clinton, the two electoral contests that follow are Kentucky and West Virginia, states that should be even easier for her to win. So she could possibly build momentum even with a tie in North Carolina and Indiana.

    2. Clinton wins both states or Clinton does significantly better in North Carolina than Obama does in Indiana. This is the Obama nightmare scenario. Yes, the delegate math would still favor Obama, but voters and superdelegates don't care about delegate math if the person winning it is seen as a walking political zombie. It would be much harder for Obama to claim victory (the nomination) because of abstract concepts like "delegate math." If Obama loses both states, the perception would be that Clinton is hot while he is fading. Superdelegates would begin to seriously question the wisdom of throwing their weight behind him because he would have lost three major contests in a row (including Pennsylvania). On top of this, the next two contests coming down the pike are in Kentucky and West Virginia--states Clinton should win easily. That would mean five losses in a row for the "delegate math" leader and favorable press for the self-described Comeback Kid. If this happens, here's the case that Clinton will make to superdelegates: "Obama may have won the first half of the game, but I've won the second half. I know how to fight and claw back even when the chips are down. Can you trust Obama to do the same?"

    3. Obama wins both states, regardless of his margins of victory. It would be very, very difficult for Clinton to continue her campaign because Obama would have won on "her" turf. For superdelegates and pundits who desperately want this race to be over, Obama clinching Indiana would effectively end this race in their minds. They would then pressure Clinton to "reassess" her campaign.

    4. Obama wins Indiana, Clinton wins North Carolina. Should both candidates lose the states they were expected to win, all pundits would probably just call it a day, resign from analyzing politics altogether, and place their money on Mike Gravel winning the White House.

    Here are the voting blocs worth watching:

    Young voters. Early May is normally the time when university students are either in the middle of final exams or are enjoying the week between final exams and graduation. This provides a double whammy for Obama in particular because these voters form such a large part of his base. If it's exam time, 18-25 year olds might be too busy to come out and vote because they're cramming for their classes. If it's downtime, these voters might be more likely to be out of state (or at least out of their voting precincts) because they're enjoying their last week of freedom before graduating, summer school, or starting their new full-time jobs. North Carolina is chock full of large universities: The University of North Carolina and its satellite campuses, Duke University (my alma mater), North Carolina State, Wake Forest, North Carolina A&T;, Appalachian State, and North Carolina Central University are home to tens of thousands of students. If they don't turn out, Clinton would have to feel pretty good about her chances.

    Black voters. North Carolina represents the first state with a sizable Black population to head to the polls since Jeremiah Wright exploded in Obama's face. Black voters were originally reluctant to support Obama (remember those ridiculous "Is Obama Black enough" questions?) because they feared Whites would not support him, but his victory in overwhelmingly White Iowa and his near victory in equally overwhelmingly White New Hampshire confirmed to these voters that he is indeed able to garner significant cross-racial support. Obama acquitted himself in the minds of these voters, and Clinton helped push these voters to him with the racialized tone of her South Carolina campaign. So Blacks got excited and flocked to his campaign. However, Wright has clearly injured Obama and now doubts are creeping back in again about his electibility. Will Blacks come out to the polls? And if so, will Obama win 85-90% of their votes? Should Clinton overperform among Blacks in North Carolina, she will be able to use that as a potent talking point: "I'm working hard for everyone's votes. I know I have some fence-mending to do, but I'm doing it and North Carolina has proved it. Give me a chance." And could Obama really make the South competitive in a general election if Blacks are not completely on board?

    Rural White voters. If Obama is unable to improve his standing among rural Whites in either state compared to Pennsylvania, Democratic superdelegates will have a major cause for concern. These voters, who likely would have voted for John Edwards, would potentially be lost to John McCain in a general election because of "bitterness," "elitism," and the perception that Obama is out of touch. Obama's latest charm offensive of playing basketball and downing beers in local bars may help redefine him as more down-to-earth, but if Obama's coalition is independents, Blacks, and well-educated liberals, is that really broad enough to win a general election?

    Northwest Indiana voters. This corner of the state is a part of the Chicago media market. While the national media are slowly moving on from Jeremiah Wright, the local news stations are probably eating, drinking, and breathing him. Remember, Chicago is essentially Obama's hometown. Are they sick of hearing about the issue? Do they view Obama as damaged goods? If Clinton is able to hold down Obama's margin of victory in the Chicago suburbs, she could be on her way to a healthy victory in the Hoosier State. Questions about Obama's strength among suburban voters may also linger.

    Final predictions

    Indiana: Clinton 54%, Obama 44%
    North Carolina: Obama 50%, Clinton 46%, Edwards 3%

    5/03/2008

    Energy, the Environment, and Political Hypocrisy

    One of the more interesting political sideshows last week concerns the federal gas tax, which is assessed by the federal government to pay for the nation's transportation infrastructure. Revenue generated by the gas tax pays for new roads, tunnels, and bridges; repairing old or damaged ones; and conducting research to determine how and where to build new ones. Currently, the federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon.

    Obviously, the more gas you buy, the more you pay in gas taxes. Some liberals have suggested increasing the gas tax as a way of driving down demand. This, they argue, would result in a cleaner environment and less dependence on foreign sources of oil. It's hard for politicians to not be in favor of either of these issues, especially the latter one because there is a major national security advantage to not having to rely on oil from nations that are either unstable or hostile towards the United States. Both John McCain and Hillary Clinton have stated countless times that they are in favor of reducing the United States' dependence on foreign oil. But curiously, both presidential candidates have advocated repealing the federal gas tax for the summer. John McCain has called for a suspension of the tax from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Hillary Clinton wants to introduce a gas tax holiday bill that would temporarily repeal the tax for consumers and offset it with a tax on energy companies to make up for the lost revenue.

    For both McCain and Clinton, proposing a gas tax holiday seems like good politics. However, it must be said that this also makes for lousy policy and reeks of hypocrisy.

    Here's why a gas tax holiday seems like a political winner. Everybody knows gas prices are going through the roof. Gas is two or three times more expensive now than it was seven or eight years ago. And money that people are spending on gas is money that is not being spent on local businesses, televisions, restaurants, and hotels. So the perception that a politician wants to take real, tangible steps to ease the pain at the pump seems like it would go over well with voters.

    Hillary Clinton does not want to be seen as opposing a tax cut and presumably would want to blunt McCain's political advantage on this issue in the general election. And because Democrats are not known for cutting taxes, this could potentially go over well with voters who may be pleasantly surprised to hear Hillary Clinton of all people on the side of the taxpayers. This also buttresses the perception that she, not Barack Obama, is more in touch with average voters because Obama does not support repealing the gas tax. Working-class voters will look at Hillary Clinton and think that her idea to repeal the gas tax will allow them to make their family trip to Grandma's house, an amusement park 200 miles away, or a weekend vacation in the mountains a little more affordable.

    And for John McCain, he gets to tell voters that he's trying to cut taxes. As a Republican, taxes will always be too high. So advocating a suspension of the gas tax even if it doesn't become law allows him to say he tried to cut taxes like a good Republican should to help all Americans, but had his proposal blocked by the "tax-and-spend" Democratic Congress.

    But like I mentioned earlier, pushing for repealing the gas tax is intellectually dishonest and blatantly hypocritical. Many people have already criticized this idea (here and here). One common theme of these criticisms is the idea that the lost revenue could cost hundreds of thousands of construction jobs. Less tax revenue means less money for road projects. Less money for road projects means fewer projects to go around. Naturally, fewer projects will require fewer workers to complete these projects. And if fewer workers are needed, then that means some people will have to find another way to earn a paycheck. Conservatives in particular would counter that lower taxes would increase revenue, but several prominent conservatives and economists disagree in this case.

    A more obvious criticism is the fact that lower gas taxes and reducing our dependence on foreign oil simply cannot coexist. By making gas more affordable, that will encourage more consumers to buy more gas, which is bad news for the environment that both McCain and Clinton claim to want to protect. In turn, this cheaper gas will decrease supply and ultimately lead to higher gas prices. How can Hillary Clinton and John McCain talk about the importance of energy independence if the gas tax holiday they propose will only make this nation more dependent on the very nations we're trying to gain energy independence from?

    A final criticism is the idea that repealing the gas tax will not save consumers much money. With an 18.4 cents/gallon gas tax, buying 20 gallons of gas means paying $3.68 in federal gas taxes. If a consumer buys 20 gallons of gas every week for the roughly 14 weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day, that would save consumers a grand total of $51. Three or four trips to Domino's Pizza would easily offset this. So in short, Barack Obama has it right when he says this gas tax holiday is a gimmick.

    This is where the second element of hypocrisy comes in that not a lot of people are talking about. Any discussion of weaning the United States off of foreign oil is usually met by calls from conservatives to drill for domestic sources of oil, such as in Alaska, in the Western states, and off the coasts of Florida. Another popular conservative solution is to build more oil refineries.

    However, it seems that conservatives are quite conservative when it comes to money, but not when it comes to energy. Merriam-Webster defines conservative as "marked by moderation or caution." One of the more popular analogies I hear conservatives use to explain their political philosophy is the example of having a canteen of water in the desert. Instead of drinking it all quickly, they use their water conservatively because they don't know how long they will be in the desert. Political conservatives commonly criticize people for not living within their means, for not saving their money, and for not being prepared for when disaster strikes. Conservatives' criticisms of those affected by Hurricane Katrina and the mortgage crisis tend to reflect these themes. ("Why didn't they save their money? Why are they living in such an expensive house? Why didn't they cut down on their spending?")

    These criticisms are well founded. So why do these conservatives not advocate energy conservation? Rather than just drilling for more oil, why don't they recommend driving less or driving more fuel efficient vehicles? Drilling for oil in Alaska or building a new oil refinery will take several years, and like all natural resources, there is only a finite supply of oil deposits available. So that's akin to kicking the can down the road. However, it is easy to use less gas now. Another solution is to increase fuel efficiency standards for new vehicles, but that's commonly opposed because it would presumably cost American jobs and make American cars less competitive because of higher costs. (Never mind the fact that fuel-efficient imports are slowly taking over the American auto market.)

    Driving less, using public transportation, biking, carpooling, and using more fuel-efficient vehicles would decrease demand, reduce the amount of foreign oil we use, and presumably lower prices while benefiting the environment--all benefits that could be enjoyed far sooner than simply more drilling. This would seem to paint John McCain in particular as even more of a hypocrite because in addition to advocating a policy that would only further reduce supply, continue our dependence on foreign oil, and harm the environment as an unintended consequence, he is also advocating a position that flies in the face of what conservatism purports to represent.

    It seems that when it comes to energy, liberals are more conservative than conservatives themselves. And as for the presidential race, even though Barack Obama may be taking the politically riskier position by not supporting repealing the gas tax, he appears to be dead right on the merits.

    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.

    4/23/2008

    The Pennsylvania Aftermath

    Hillary Clinton won yesterday's Pennsylvania primary by 10 points. This margin of victory was healthy enough to allow Clinton to stave off calls for her to withdraw from the race and cede the nomination to rival Barack Obama. More importantly, surviving Pennsylvania allows her to compete in the upcoming primaries in Indiana and North Carolina on May 6.

    Last month I wrote about how Clinton could emerge from the wilderness and salvage her chances at winning the nomination. (Check out Part 1 and Part 2 of "Anatomy of a Clinton Comeback.") In short, here are the five tips I offered:

    1. Contain Bill Clinton.
    2. Don't drop out, regardless of what happens in Ohio and Texas.
    3. Stop complaining and fight.
    4. Wait for Obama to implode.
    5. Turn Iraq into an advantage.

    How did she do?

    Regarding Point 1, Bill Clinton has been considerably better behaved. He's made a few silly remarks, such as suggesting that Obama is the one who played the race card in South Carolina. But compared to how adversely he was impacting his wife's campaign before Super Tuesday, he has not been an obvious net negative. Check.

    As for Point 2, she won Ohio convincingly and won a media victory in Texas even though Obama won more delegates. Winning these states lent credence to her argument that she's been able to win the big states. It also gave rise to whispers about why Obama couldn't close the deal and wrap up the nomination. Check.

    Point 3 was a critical one. Since Junior Super Tuesday, she's been playing hardball by invoking Jeremiah Wright and echoing Harry Truman: "If you can't stand the heat, then get out of the kitchen." So she's been scrapping for rebounds and throwing a few elbows. Even better, Obama seems not to have taken this tip into consideration because he was the one who was whining after the last debate in Philadelphia and was diminished because of it. Check.

    Point 4 has been quite generous to Clinton. March and April have given us "bitter," "God Damn America," whining about debate questions, accusations of elitism, effeminate bowling, and a weak debate performance. What's the scorecard against Clinton? Sniper fire. I'm sure that's a tradeoff she'd be willing to take. Check.

    And as for Point 5, Iraq is not as big of an issue as it once was. Nobody was able to lay a glove on General David Petraeus at his recent Senate testimony and voters seem to realize that regardless of our feelings about our troop presence there, we will be in Iraq for a very, very long time. Being against the war from the very beginning doesn't seem as important anymore, especially now that we're five years into the conflict. Check.

    Looks like Clinton is well on her way. So what about Obama?

    The Pennsylvania primary is significant because in addition to being the first contest in about seven weeks, it is also the first contest that has taken place since several controversies and unforced errors sandbagged Obama. Here are some possible explanations for why he struggled in the Keystone State:

    1. Perhaps he peaked too soon. When Obama was running up the score in February, he put the pledged delegate race out of reach and had all the momentum and campaign cash he could have asked for. But because he never made it to 2025 delegates, he could never definitively put her away. After Super Tuesday, the caucuses and primaries slowed to a trickle, thus placing an even greater spotlight on the bigger states that had yet to vote. Nobody cares that Obama won Vermont or Wyoming. But everybody knows that Clinton won Ohio. Obama may have won a lot more states than Clinton, but his lead in the popular vote is small and he lacks a truly convincing victory in a major blue state outside of Illinois.

    Clinton has constantly reminded everyone that she has won New York, California, New Jersey, Ohio, and now Pennsylvania. In response, Obama correctly argues that John McCain is not going to win those states, but it does beg the question of why Obama is not doing so well among Democrats in Democratic states. Running up the score in places that no Democrat stands a chance of winning in November (places like Nebraska, Alabama, and North Dakota) doesn't mean anything. Being able to hold down New Jersey and Pennsylvania is a bit more meaningful.

    So it would appear that even though the Obama train has left the station, it still has yet to reach its destination because it doesn't seem like the driver knows where to go or how to get there. The fact remains that Obama has not been able to deliver the knockout punch to Clinton. Ned Lamont made the same mistake after beating Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary race of 2006. Obama had the chance to turn out the lights on Clinton in New Hampshire, on Super Tuesday, in Ohio, and just now in Pennsylvania. Voters do seem to like Obama, but they don't quite like him enough to put him over the top yet. Could it be that voters are having second thoughts about him or that Obamamania has reached its peak and is fading?

    2. Burnout. It is worth keeping in mind that no politician can sustain the momentum and enthusiasm Barack Obama has generated. Obama has certainly been able to capitalize on his wide appeal through his fundraising prowess and the diversity that characterizes his supporters. However, this presidential campaign has been going on for over a year now. About 80% of the states had already voted before Pennsylvania, so everyone should know who Obama is and what he stands for by now. The fact that Pennsylvania Democrats rejected him by such a significant margin suggests that either his act has worn thin among voters or that there are a lot of voters who simply have yet to warm up to him. And if they're not aboard the Obama train by now, will they ever be?

    3. Jeremiah Wright is a very, very big deal. The Pennsylvania primary is the first electoral contest that has taken place since "God Damn America" entered our political dialogue. Obama gave a much anticipated speech on race in America last month which was supposed to bring this and other race-related controversies to a close. However, in my analysis of that speech, I argued:

    "The biggest problem with Obama's speech is that it was a bit too cerebral for the voters who most needed to hear it. This is not to say that downscale Whites, for example, are unintelligent or bigoted. However, to appreciate the full value of Obama's speech, one needs to invest the time in sitting down and reading the entire transcript of the speech or watching it on YouTube. However, most voters, regardless of ideology, simply don't do that. Either they don't have regular access to the internet or they simply don't have the time because of their other responsibilities. Or perhaps they do have the time, but aren't interested enough in doing this research on their own. For better or worse, we live in a soundbyte political culture which explains why simple slogans like "cut and run" and "he was before it before he was against it" trump nuance and complexity every time."

    "Of course, Obama was asking voters of all races to be honest with themselves about their own private apprehensions regarding their prejudices. That's fine. And voters who don't feel they need to have this discussion or engage in this introspection are essentially missing the point of the speech. However, politics is not about speeches, nor is it about how well people understand these speeches. It's about how they react to them. My sense is that blue-collar Whites probably did not (or will not) react favorably to this speech even though this is not necessarily their fault or Obama's fault. In these voters' minds, Obama may be well-spoken and inspirational. But when they listen to his pastor's words, they are offended and disturbed. And when they consider the fact that Obama has been closely associated with this pastor for 20 years, they will wonder exactly how much Obama and this pastor have in common."
    Obama may complain about how Hillary Clinton is using Wright as a wedge issue, but her attacks on him are nothing compared to what the GOP will do in a general election campaign. (The North Carolina Republican Party is already causing mischief.) Wright remains controversial and in the minds of many voters, Black and White alike, Obama has not sufficiently addressed their concerns about his relationship with him. And it is quite possible that these reservations were expressed at the ballot box.

    4. "Bitter" bit back. The whole "bitter" miniscandal provided yet another case study in how one can be totally right on the theoretical arguments and totally wrong on the gut-level politics. This is like Obama's self-induced controversy of not wearing a flag pin. It would have been tremendously easy for Obama to simply put on a flag pin even if he privately knew that wearing one was not required to truly be patriotic. However, he chose to argue against political common sense. Since then, he has been dogged by questions about his patriotism. This was an unforced error that has snowballed into something particularly debilitating for him, especially since it dovetails with accusations of snobbery to create an increasingly unattractive caricature of Obama as an unpatriotic Black liberal elitist.

    The same scenario holds true for "bitter." In those much publicized remarks, intentionally or unintentionally, Obama disparaged churchgoers, gun owners, and rural voters in general. Not coincidentally, CNN's exit polls show that Obama lost to Clinton among (wait for it) churchgoers, gun owners, and rural voters. Correlation does not necessarily mean causation, but it's hard to write these results off as anything but rural voters' punishing Obama for stomping on their culture of religion and guns while implying that they are bigots in the process. Whether this punishment will be restricted to Pennsylvania or if it will have longer lasting implications remains to be seen, however.

    5. Obama got off message and started whining. When I wrote about how Clinton could mount her comeback, I said that she should "stop complaining and fight." Clinton got angry at a debate last month in Ohio because she didn't like getting asked the first question all the time. She even criticized the moderators for not asking if "Obama wants another pillow." I thought this was a terrible move for Clinton at the time:
    "This was a stunningly stupid thing for her to say because it only reinforced her negatives, reminded voters that she was losing, sounded petty instead of presidential, and wasted time that could have been better spent articulating her views on something that actually mattered to voters."

    "When sharks smell blood, they attack. And that's what the media did after the debate. Her overall performance at the Cleveland debate was actually quite steady and commendable, but because of her whining, a lot of time was spent responding to that instead of lauding her grasp of policy."
    To be sure, ABC did a lousy job in terms of moderating the debate. Obama has a legitimate beef about not being asked any policy questions for the first 45 minutes of the debate. However, his biggest mistake was complaining about it after the fact. As a result, he lost several precious news cycles that he could have used to sharpen his message and present his case to the voters. A four-point loss would have created far less damaging headlines than those originating from the ten-point loss he endured last night. Obama would have been better served by letting others complain about the media while he simply dusted himself off and got back on the trail. Whining about the bad questions took him off message at the time he most needed his message to get out. Oh, and the media will only get tougher on you once you actually make it into the White House. Just ask the current president. So Obama had better get used to it.

    6. You can't win a battle if you don't fight. Obama is well known for his uplifting rhetoric and his political purity. The problem for Obama, however, as Pennsylvania showed, is that politics is not about honor and unity. It's about votes. And Hillary Clinton has been better at getting raw votes as of late. She may have high negatives, and she may be reinforcing these negatives by pursuing her "kitchen sink" strategy. But none of that matters because it's working. Obama may be the nice guy with the higher approval ratings, but that's not what it takes to win the nomination.

    According to the CNN exit polls 67% of voters thought Obama was "honest and trustworthy" compared to 58% who felt the same about Clinton. 67% of voters thought Clinton attacked Obama unfairly while only 50% felt the same about Obama attacking Clinton. News flash to Obama: Being seen as the more honorable candidate doesn't mean so much if you lose the election. A reputation is useless without the votes to back it up.

    Love her or hate her, Hillary Clinton can fight. And if she's willing to go to the mat for her own candidacy, it suggests to voters that she will be willing to go to the mat for America as President. Obama has done an awful job of defending and standing up for himself. He should be given credit for trying to take the high road and elevate our political dialogue, but nobody remembers who came in second. There are no consolation prizes when it comes to politics.

    If Obama truly cannot take a hit and fight back, it's better for Democrats to find this out now than to find out in September against John McCain. Obama's going to have to be a bit more aggressive and direct because trying to campaign from 30,000 feet and avoid getting a few grass stains on your clothes isn't working.

    7. The Democratic Party is truly divided into two camps and Clinton's camp is larger. Does Hillary Clinton represent the centrist wing of the party while Barack Obama represents the liberal wing? Remember, the Pennsylvania primary was closed to Republicans and independents. This could explain why the race has become so polarized, but this point alone deserves its own post.

    In the end, Barack Obama is still the odds on favorite to win the nomination, but Hillary Clinton has successfully reframed the race in a way that says pledged delegates no longer matter. Her audience now is no longer the voters. It's the superdelegates, and neither candidate can win the nomination without them. And as the doubts about Obama pile up, Clinton's stock value will continue to rise. It appears that May 6 (Super Tuesday III) will be Obama's last chance to put Clinton away. Losing both North Carolina and Indiana would be absolutely disastrous to his campaign. And given how Obama appears to be stalled right now, this is not outside the realm of possibility.

    4/17/2008

    Pennsylvania Debate Aftermath

    Last night Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama participated in their first debate in about two months in Philadelphia. This debate was significant because it represented the last best chance in which the two candidates could impact the race before the Pennsylvania primary on April 22. For Obama, a strong performance likely would have led to a much narrower Clinton victory in the primary, which could easily be spun as a moral victory for Obama who wasn't expected to win Pennsylvania to begin with. And for Clinton, a solid performance would have helped her pad her margin of probable victory in Pennsylvania and help change the narrative that she should simply get out now because Obama is the superior candidate.

    Obama has more money, has won more states, has won more popular votes, and has broader electoral appeal than Hillary Clinton in terms of demographics. However, could Hillary Clinton really be the superior candidate? During the debate last night, Obama's delivery was devoid of the passion and authority with which he normally speaks. He found himself having to deal with the same controversies he thought he had put to rest long ago, such as his patriotism, Jeremiah Wright, and the Weather Underground. While discussing these issues, he seemed both annoyed and dispirited--hardly qualities that appeal to voters. It was quite obvious that he did not want to go down this road yet again. Surely he is being dogged by these questions on a daily basis and wishes these "distractions" would just stop so he could "talk about the issues."

    But that's not going to happen. And worse for Obama, this is only the beginning.

    An important point to remember is that this is merely the Democratic nomination race. While Obama may be able to survive and win the nomination, by no means will he be free from these controversies in the fall against John McCain and the Republicans. They will hammer him on his patriotism, his perceived racist church, and his perceived condescension towards downscale voters on a level that makes the attacks from Hillary Clinton look like flag football. If Obama is unable to take these hits from Clinton, he will be toast when he has the entire Republican campaign apparatus against him.

    Hillary Clinton knows she will never be able to catch Obama in terms of pledged delegates. There simply aren't enough of them left, especially given the Democrats' proportional allocation of delegates. And she likely won't win the popular vote either. However, she does have one powerful card left to play: the doubts of the superdelegates.

    Back when Obama was seen as a blank slate, it was an advantage in that there was no dirt on him. But now negative stories are trickling out and are making Obama look increasingly unattractive. These are not insignificant stories, such as past DUIs or fraternity-style pranks. These are politically significant problems that Democrats should be concerned with.

    One of the questions asked at the debate concerned Obama's feelings about the American flag. This question was likely a result of Pingate (the controversy surrounding Obama not wearing a flag pin on his lapel) and the now famous picture of Obama not covering his heart during the playing of the national anthem. This kind of imagery really matters to a lot of voters, and Republicans can't wait to exploit it. Pingate dovetails with Michelle Obama's remarks about being "proud of her country for the first time in her life" and Jeremiah Wright's incendiary sermons. Is this nation, not long removed from "freedom fries," really prepared to send a candidate whose patriotism is suspect to the White House?

    The case Clinton can make to the superdelegates is that Obama is a paper tiger who is simply too risky and far weaker in a general election than his fundraising and support in Republican bastions like Nebraska indicate. Clinton raised a valid point when she acknowledged that she had a lot of "baggage" at the debate last night. But she also added that she's a known quantity. Clinton is no saint, but at least she could say that the demon that the voters do know is preferable to the demon that the voters don't know. She might have her warts, but she does know how to fight and will not wilt under pressure or criticism. Obama, on the other hand, seems more hesitant and may use his rhetoric of "moving past this old way of doing politics" as an excuse because he really doesn't know that politics is not beanbag.

    Both candidates have a point. But here's some further evidence that buttresses Clinton's argument. Negative politics works. It might not be attractive and it might tamp down voters' enthusiasm, but rarely do nice guys finish first at the ballot box. Everybody decries negative campaign ads and complains about how negative politics is. But they end up voting for these negative candidates anyway because their messages and charges resonate. The Willie Horton ad devastated Michael Dukakis in 1988. The allegations of John McCain fathering a Black child in the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary worked. The windsurfing ad permanently wounded John Kerry. Cerebral messages attempting to appeal to voters on an analytical level rather than a gut level often fail. Strength matters more than smartness when it comes to how people select their leaders. Does Obama know how to fight? If he won't stand up for himself, how do voters know he will stand up for America?

    Should Hillary Clinton win Pennsylvania, she could make a strong case to the superdelegates there that she has a better shot of winning the state than Obama does. Obama could make it to the White House without winning Florida and Ohio because of his strength in places like Colorado and possibly Virginia, but losing Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania would be a disaster from which he could not conceivably make up enough ground to salvage the general election. Superdelegates in California, New Jersey, New York, and Texas likely understand this equation as well. Will they place what's best for the party ahead of what's best for the voters, even if that means tearing the party apart?

    A second point to consider is the idea that Obama's margins of victory in the earlier states could be smaller if these states had the chance to vote all over again. How many people considered themselves strong Obama supporters in the past before the Jeremiah Wright and Bittergate stories broke? How many of these voters wish they could take their votes back and give them to Clinton or even John Edwards? And how much more negative stuff is out there about Obama? Earlier I speculated that the Democratic Party could be irreparably damaged by Clinton winning the nomination on the backs of superdelegates even if she lost the popular vote. However, could more Democrats actually be more content with her potential nomination than was originally thought? Does buyer's remorse exist among Obama voters? And if so, how much? And if this buyer's remorse regarding Obama coexists with serious reservations about Clinton despite Obama's unattractiveness, would this make the prospect of an Al Gore nomination a bit more appealing?

    This race is not over.

    4/15/2008

    Bitter Politics: Advantage Obama?

    Barack Obama's "bitter" remarks have gotten an extraordinary amount of coverage in the media over the past few days (such as here, here, and here). Journalists, pundits, and elected officials of all political persuasions have pounced on these remarks and speculated on how adversely they will impact his campaign.

    Hillary Clinton, for example, has turned the words "bitter" and "cling" into potential political gold by creating a campaign ad slamming Obama as offensive and elitist. She also slammed him at the recent CNN Compassion Forum.

    John McCain, who stayed far away from the Jeremiah Wright controversy, had no problems jumping in the fray by calling Obama's remarks elitist. Perhaps because class arguments are politically safer than discussing race, "straight talk" is easier for McCain to engage in this time around. Regardless, this episode has surely been good for his fundraising.

    Regarding the media itself, there are some who are focusing strictly on the word "bitter" as an insult. Others took offense over the use of the phrases "cling to guns" and "cling to religion" because they seemingly demean their rural voters' cultural identities (churchgoing sportsmen). And more are discussing how Obama is coming off as an elitist in the mold of failed presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.

    However, could Obama actually wind up as the beneficiary of the aftermath of his awkward remarks?

    Comparatively little is being said about the main point of his remarks, which is that these rural voters often vote against their economic self interests because the cynicism and frustration brought about by the loss of jobs in their communities and the lack of affordable healthcare (which affect more than just rural voters) make them more apt to respond to social wedge issues that capitalize on their frustrations, again at the expense of their economic well-being. This was well argued by Obama supporter Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who also appeared in this latest Obama campaign ad.

    And more importantly, the more John McCain and Hillary Clinton try to score political points off of this story, the more it makes both of them look like political opportunists who are thus offering more of the same. This plays right into Obama's message of presenting something new. And the fact that Obama did indeed make a mistake could actually make him appear more humble or more accessible because it shows voters that he too is capable of making a mistake. After all, it is Obama who has traditionally been seen as the second coming of JFK or the political Messiah who could do no wrong.

    Ironically, McCain may have inadvertently helped Obama by reminding voters that he (McCain) "will screw up sometimes and frankly so will you (the media)" but that he has "trust in the American people to get it right in the end." One of the first rules of politics is that when your opponent is digging himself a hole, don't hand him a shovel. McCain may have done just that, even if unintentionally.

    The ongoing frenzy also advantages Obama because open-minded voters (e.g., undecided voters or those who had not written him off from the getgo) who are paying attention realize the point of what he was trying to say and/or accept his apology and simply want to move on. Gotcha politics reeks of talk and phony outrage, but no meaningful dialogue or solutions. Time politicians spend feigning outrage is time they are not spending presenting their own case to voters.

    Could voters reward Obama as a way of punishing the media, the punditry, Hillary Clinton, and his Republican detractors for the way they blew this incident out of proportion? Should this happen, it could be attributable more to a repudiation of politics as usual rather than an actual endorsement of Obama himself. (Consider the uneasy reaction the audience gave when Clinton tried to address this issue recently.) It appears that based on a collection of polls, Obama is actually coming out of this controversy without too much damage. So it would seem that there might indeed be a disconnect between the chattering classes and the actual voters.

    Regarding politics as usual, consider this:

    1. Hillary Clinton found it necessary to talk about how her father taught her how to shoot when she was a little girl. But when asked when she last fired a gun, she said it was not relevant. That reeked of political opportunism because Clinton is not known for being a fierce defender of the Second Amendment. In the end, that made Clinton look like an empress who had no clothes. In response, Obama deftly compared Clinton to Annie Oakley and jokingly said that Clinton should "know better" because she's not "in the duck blind" every weekend.

    2. Barack Obama is a Washington newcomer who has a net worth that is far lower than the other presidential candidates, including those who dropped out of the race. Per her newly released tax returns, Hillary Clinton made well over $100 million in the past eight years.

    3. Republicans sound a bit hypocritical accusing Obama of being an elitist because they are the ones who commonly criticize Democrats for engaging in "class warfare." Barack Obama did not grow up as a privileged child with well-to-do parents. He was raised by his sick mother and his grandparents--hardly typical of children born into wealthy families who lived in gated communities located near elite private schools. And how did Obama go from being the inexperienced candidate who wasn't ready for the big leagues to being Mr. Elitist anyway?

    This in no way diminishes the potential negative effects of these remarks in the general election. And Hillary Clinton may be hoping that uncommitted superdelegates give her a second look. But given how she may have overplayed her hand and how the punditry and the media are really missing the bus on this issue, Obama may actually come out of this controversy on top.

    4/08/2008

    Polling Disconnect

    Gallup recently released a new poll measuring head-to-head matchups between Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama and John McCain. In both instances, the Democrats were either tied with or marginally ahead of John McCain. These results fly in the face of other polls which overwhelmingly show that the majority of Americans think the nation is on the wrong track, that Iraq was a mistake, and that the percentage of voters who consider themselves Democrats is rising while the percentage of voters who consider themselves Republicans is falling.

    Given these data and the advantages that Democrats enjoy on healthcare, the economy, the environment, education, and the generic ballot, why is John McCain performing so strongly against his likely Democratic challengers? Or is it more appropriate to ask why Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are performing so poorly against McCain despite all the advantages they have in the polls and with the electorate's sour mood?

    I offer these five possibilities:

    1. "Purity" on Iraq is overrated because it matters only to liberal Democrats. Barack Obama's trump card in the Democratic race thus far has been his superior "judgment" regarding the Iraq War. He argues that he got Iraq right from the beginning, whereas Hillary Clinton got it wrong. That is fine, but opposing the war from the very beginning does not bring a single soldier home, nor does it end the fighting in Baghdad. Obama may have displayed his superior "judgment" on Iraq by opposing it initially, but the problem is that it ignores the reality on the ground right now. We don't have the luxury of going back in time and having a revote on the issue. The next president, be it Obama, Clinton, or McCain, is going to inherit a messy, volatile, and urgent situation in Iraq. Americans want to know what the plan is from here on out, not what the plan should have been three or four years ago. There are not enough antiwar liberals in the general electorate to make Obama's position a winner on his Iraq "judgment" alone.

    2. John McCain is seen as sufficiently bipartisan. His halo may have dimmed a bit, but the fact remains that McCain benefits from not being seen as a fire-breathing partisan Republican. To be sure, he is a Republican and votes like a Republican. But he has bucked his party and even confronted the President on a few important issues even if they were politically unpopular. Democrats, moderates, and independents probably view his support for "comprehensive immigration reform" as refreshingly pragmatic, rather than predictably dogmatic. His participation in the "Gang of 14" gave Republican partisans fits, but the broader electorate was more likely to view his bipartisan gestures as meaningful attempts to inject a bit of sanity into our political dialogue. He was one of the few Republicans to openly criticize the war's management even though Republicans were clearly circling the wagons (to their own political detriment, as the 2006 election results suggest). This is not token opposition in the eyes of many middle-of-the-road voters. This is not a bunch of protesting when the cameras are running only to vote with your party base in private. McCain has had some substantial disagreements with his party and the White House on several key issues. To Republicans, this may make McCain suspicious. But to the broader electorate, this may make him sufficiently bipartisan. McCain's independence provides an effective foil to Obama's "new politics."

    3. Diehard Obamaniacs and Clintonistas are serious about their dislike for their preferred candidate's rival. Last month I argued that nothing but hot air was responsible for the polls that showed a significant portion of Obama and Clinton supporters willing to vote for McCain instead of the Democratic nominee if their preferred candidate did not win the nomination. But what if such polls are true? Unfortunately, the Gallup poll I cited at the beginning of this post does not provide any crosstabs that would reveal how the politicians' support broke down along political lines. While it is true that Clinton and Obama are beating up on each other significantly right now in advance of the Pennsylvania primary, one would think that these Democratic voters consider themselves Democrats before they consider themselves Obama supporters or Clinton supporters. But given the closeness of the Gallup general election polls, polls suggesting irreparable damage to the Democratic Party cannot be dismissed.

    4. McCain is getting a free pass by the media and his Democratic rivals. With the Republican race all sewn up, there simply isn't much news for the media to cover. Instead, the cable news networks are focusing more on the sparring between Obama and Clinton. This fighting renders both candidates less attractive and makes McCain look more appealing and more statesmanlike by comparison. McCain may have his warts, but as long as the media focus on turmoil in the Clinton campaign or the specter of Jeremiah Wright, nobody will know. And how can the Democrats attack McCain when they are too busy attacking each other? This would suggest that the Democratic nomination needs to end sooner rather than later. They can't drain their huge warchest and focus solely on defining and wounding McCain otherwise.

    5. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are overrated candidates while John McCain has been underrated. The media have focused a lot on Barack Obama's unusual life story which takes him to multiple continents. However, he has been dogged by questions of his experience and is sometimes regarded as all fluff with no substance. Those criticisms are not new. However, the problem is that while Democrats may have decided that his political resume is sufficient (based on his strong performance in the primaries and caucuses thus far), the broader electorate is still not sold on the first-term senator. Throw in controversies like Jeremiah Wright and that further repulses Republicans and independents. So could Obama's ceiling be lower than was originally thought?

    In the case of Hillary Clinton, many loyal Democrats revere her because they loved her husband's presidency. Clinton has shaken hands with the right people, given the right speeches, met with the right community leaders, and built up the right relationships with the right people. She represents the establishment wing of the Democratic Party. And despite Bill Clinton's muddying the waters by injecting race into the campaign, he still remains at the head of the party and is still generally liked. Hillary Clinton commonly argues that "she's beaten them (the Republican attack machine) before and she knows how to beat them again." Based on her defeat of Rick Lazio in her 2000 Senate race and the fact that her husband had won two presidential elections, she has a point. However, could she be overstating her electoral strength?

    Ross Perot was clearly responsible for clearing the path to the White House for Bill Clinton in 1992, as he likely siphoned off more votes from George H.W. Bush than the self-described Comeback Kid because of his focus on economic issues. In the 1996 election, a fairly popular Bill Clinton was only able to win 49% of the vote against a very weak Bob Dole. And Clinton's coattails were not long enough to bring Al Gore to the White House in 2000. When Hillary Clinton ran for the Senate in overwhelmingly Democratic New York in 2000, she beat her opponent Rick Lazio by 12% even though Al Gore won the state by 25%. Her reelection in 2006 was a rout, although the Democratic wave that year certainly helped pad her margin of victory. The point of these four issues is that even though the Clintons have not lost an election since 1992 (not including the proxy election of 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore), their victories are arguably unimpressive. The fact remains that Republicans despise Hillary Clinton and her appeal to independents is limited. So it would seem that even though Hillary Clinton could win, she would not win convincingly. That would explain why she fails to crack 48-50% in the head-to-head polls.

    John McCain had been savaged relentlessly by Republicans during the primary season for not being strong enough in his conservatism. But ironically, Republican voters ended up serendipitously selecting their strongest general election candidate. So it would make sense for him to be performing so strongly in the polls.

    But this is all conjecture. Regardless of which of these five scenarios is true, one fact seems abundantly clear: despite all the Democrats' apparent structural advantages, the November election is likely to be more competitive than Republicans and Democrats think.

    4/06/2008

    Lame Political Discourse: Part 3

    Until the Pennsylvania primaries two weeks from now, there is not much new going on in the political world. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are still fighting each other tooth and nail, John McCain is still trying to cobble together Republican support, and the pundits keep poring over fluctuating polls measuring head-to-head general election matchups. A consequence of these slow news periods is that it is easier for the media to focus on trivial or mundane matters. However, these dry periods also pose a risk for politicians because the magnifying glass of a larger news hole makes it easier for them to be caught flatfooted and for their warts to be exposed.

    The latest political foul ball comes from John McCain, who took offense to a comment liberal talk show host Ed Schultz made prior to a Barack Obama campaign event last Friday. Schultz called McCain a warmonger while he was ginning up the crowd prior to Obama's appearance. John McCain called upon Obama to repudiate the remarks:

    "Mr. Schultz is entitled to his views, [but] I would hope that in keeping with his commitment that Senator Obama would condemn such language, since it was part of his campaign."
    Republican National Committee Chairman Robert Duncan took things a step further:
    "Enough is enough. Senator Obama has an obligation to speak out and publicly reject and denounce--not applaud--the shameful and contemptible remarks made by his surrogates."
    Phony political outrage at its best.

    Politicians are called on to repudiate their supporters' remarks far too often. Hyperbole is common fare for politicians, but at what point does political rhetoric border on the ridiculous? Washington Post columnist Michael Kinsley wrote an excellent piece last month about political hypersensitivity:
    "...I unequivocally dissociate myself from remarks by my second cousin to the effect that my worthy opponent is a 'prize bitch.' My cousin is a dog breeder and thought she was being complimentary. She did not appreciate that such phraseology could give offense to certain segments of the population who are unfamiliar with dogs. Nevertheless, there is no room for canine imagery in a national political campaign, and Cousin Maisie has dropped out of our family in order to avoid causing any distraction from the central issues that we ought to be debating, such as terrorism and health care."
    In the case of McCain and the GOP, however, hypersensitivity is not really what's going on here. It's hypocrisy. For example, John McCain maligned Hillary Clinton in January with this statement regarding her position on Iraq:
    "...[I]ncredibly, incredibly Sen. Clinton decided that she wants to surrender, she wants to raise a white flag..."
    This line of attack impugning the patriotism of their Democratic rivals is pretty standard fare for the GOP, as I addressed here and here. Republicans may say that it is true that Clinton (and the Democrats by extension) wants to "surrender" to terrorists simply because, they argue, it's hard to equate troop withdrawals with anything but that. But if that's the case, then wouldn't Ed Schultz's "warmonger" comments also have some validity, especially given McCain's "bomb bomb bomb Iran" remarks?

    But it gets even better.

    Last year, in response to a nonstory about the spelling of flak jackets, a McCain aide quipped:
    "Obama wouldn't know the difference between an RPG and a bong."
    So this aide essentially called Obama a bonehead and a pothead at the same time. But whatever happened to "condemning such language" and "rejecting shameful and contemptible remarks made by surrogates?"

    The problem with contemporary politics is that you have a bunch of grown men and women who aspire to be our national leaders and represent this nation to the world, but carry themselves as if they are running for 7th grade student council president. Do politicians reduce themselves to pettiness for the sake of driving down turnout among all but their most loyal supporters? Do politicians really believe that childish namecalling, feigned outrage, and gutter-level insinuations espouse true leadership? Are they hoping that some of these charges stick to the point of crippling their rivals? Does intellectual integrity and statesmanship not matter anymore? Why do voters not demand more from their leaders in this regard? And why do the media lend credence to this nonsense by reporting on it in the first place?

    These kinds of back-and-forths between the candidates might be fun for political junkies, but politics is not a sitcom. People are losing their homes and dying in Iraq, but it takes a mild bit of namecalling from a political surrogate to generate this level of political outrage?

    Sometimes politicians just don't get it.

    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.