Showing posts with label john mccain. Show all posts
Showing posts with label john mccain. Show all posts

9/13/2008

Hurricane Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/10/2008

Thoughts on the 2008 Campaign and a Presidential Endorsement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Republicans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Democrats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The outrage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An American city drowned and has yet to be rebuilt.

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

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

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

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

The endorsement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/08/2008

McCain and the Media: Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/04/2008

The Problem with Palin's Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/03/2008

McCain and the Media: Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/30/2008

The Palin Standard: The Obama-Palin Experience Debate

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

Let's examine the political resumes of both candidates:

Barack Obama

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

Total experience as an elected official: About 12 years

Sarah Palin

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

Total experience as an elected official: About 14 years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This spin exposes other problems for Republicans with their rhetoric:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/29/2008

McCain-Palin Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/27/2008

On Phony Narratives and Media Reponsibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/24/2008

Obama-Biden Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/20/2008

Fickle Democrats' Buyer's Remorse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/18/2008

Rick Warren Christian Forum Analysis

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

Barack Obama

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

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

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

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

John McCain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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

Barack Obama: B-
John McCain: B+

8/11/2008

Russia and Georgia: What Really Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But let's hope not.

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

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

8/08/2008

Lame Political Discourse: Tire Gauges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/05/2008

Lamentations of an Educated Voter: Media Malpractice

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

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

"This is absurd. Are you serious?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it needs to stop.

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

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

8/04/2008

McCain Pickup Option 1: Michigan

By now, everyone has heard reason after reason why the Democrats should win the White House and increase their majorities in Congress this year. Bush is unpopular. Iraq is unpopular. Gas prices are high. The economy is shaky. The natural political pendulum has swung right for the past 6 or 7 years and is now lurching back towards the left. Barack Obama is raising boatloads of money. John McCain is not a gifted political speaker. Most of the electorate thinks the nation is on the wrong track. And the Democrats are seeing their registration numbers climb while the Republicans' numbers are stagnant or falling.

However, John McCain can still win the White House. And a McCain victory seems to be the best shot Republicans have of avoiding a complete shutout in November. In terms of the electoral map, it is true that he will be on defense more than offense, contrary to Barack Obama. However, McCain's pickup opportunities are so significant that if he were to win just one of these states, it would probably drive a stake through the heart of Obama's presidential bid. Over the next few days, The 7-10 will examine a few of these key states. The first post in this series will deal with Michigan, which is worth 17 electoral votes.

Michigan is a light blue Democratic state that is home to a lot of blue collar voters, as well as a lot of gun owners and sportsmen. However, there is also a large labor population due to the automobile and steel industries located there. The largest city in the state, Detroit, is overwhelmingly Black and Democratic. Also, the Upper Midwest is generally less conservative than the South. This explains why Michigan has become something like the New Jersey of the Midwest in that polls suggest Republicans could make a good run at the state, but can never quite pull it out. So it would seem that this state would be a relatively safe bet for Democrats.

This year might be different, however. Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry were all able to win Michigan. Barack Obama is certainly a stronger candidate than John Kerry, and the national electoral climate is more favorable for Democrats than it was in 2004, but he might have a more difficult time carrying the state this time. This year, a toxic combination of incumbency, race, and the ghost of the primary season is threatening to flip this state red.

The Republican brand may be tarnished nationally, but the Democratic brand is the one taking a hit in Michigan. Beleaguered by a struggling automobile industry, the state's economy is suffering. Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm's popularity has plummeted as plants close and factory workers get laid off. Democrats also occupy both Senate seats and control the state House of Representatives. So they cannot blame Republicans for the mess the state is in.

This is one reason why Mitt Romney is receiving so much buzz as McCain's running mate. In addition to his family's personal connection to the state, his economic competence will likely be well received. The economy is the main issue in Michigan right now, and voters there might have soured enough on Democratic governance of the state and Detroit to give a McCain-Romney ticket Republicans' best chance in 20 years to pluck it from the Democratic column.

The issue of race further complicates things. The largest city in Michigan is Detroit, governed by Kwame Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick is hugely unpopular because of his embarrassing legal woes stemming from lying under oath about extra-marital affairs. The city has high crime and unemployment rates and has led many Whites to leave the city proper and relocate to the suburbs. Thus, there is a bit of racial polarization. Blacks will overwhelmingly vote for Barack Obama. But what about suburban Whites who may lean Democratic philosophically, but be more inclined to try something new? Obama's path to victory depends heavily on running up the score in Detroit and holding down his losses elsewhere. If White suburbanites in Wayne County are turned off from Obama because of Kilpatrick, he could be in serious trouble.

Aside from the tarnished Democratic brand and the possibly racialized electorate, the fact that Michigan is close to being a toss-up is also an unintended consequence of the wrangling between the state and national Democratic parties during the primary season. Everybody remembers that Michigan violated party rules by scheduling its primary before it was authorized to do so. As a result, Barack Obama removed his name from the ballot and did not campaign heavily there. John McCain, on the other hand, was locked in a close race against former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Thus, McCain spent a lot of time running ads and holding campaign events across the state. And this is all on top of the reservoir of goodwill he had developed from his 2000 campaign when he won the state's primary.

In light of all these bad breaks for Barack Obama, John McCain is right to concentrate so heavily on this state. Its 17 electoral votes are nothing to sneeze at because if Obama loses Michigan, he will have to offset it by winning Ohio or sweeping the Southwestern trio of Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. But Ohio is not guaranteed and the extent to which the Southwest is turning blue is not yet fully known.

Much has been said about Barack Obama's ability to play in Ohio, Indiana, Georgia Virginia, the Rockies, and the Southwest. But he would be wise to make holding Michigan his first priority because Obama's path to 270 would become a lot more dangerous if he had to cobble together victories in Montana, North Dakota, and the Southwest. His chances of winning Michigan are still at least 50-50, but he is running in a headwind created by the likes of the governor, the state legislature, Detroit's mayor, and the Michigan Democratic Party.

Of course, If Obama is able to hold it, John McCain will be forced to defend all the other Bush states if he wants to win the White House because his pickup opportunities are few and far between. But because New Mexico and Iowa are looking bluer by the day, McCain will be forced to find a pickup opportunity elsewhere. However, McCain's task of winning just one state may be easier than Obama's task of winning three. And for that reason, Michigan looks to be one of this year's hottest contests.

Next installment: Pennsylvania

8/01/2008

The Myth of Arrogance

One of the more interesting criticisms of Barack Obama that has surfaced over the past few weeks is that he is both arrogant and presumptuous. This line of attack dovetails from the inexperienced and elitist charges that have dogged his campaign since he first entered the race. Of course, Obama has helped create the narrative of elitism by making ill-advised remarks about "bitter" voters in rural areas and Michelle Obama's awkward comment about being proud of the United States for the first time in her adult life. This narrative has really hindered Obama with rural voters, Whites, seniors, and blue-collar voters and has provided the main rationale for Hillary Clinton to be selected as his vice president.

John McCain is right to try and drive a wedge between Obama and the constituencies listed above because that's politically potent. Voters have a long list of qualities they like in a future president, but one of them that is difficult to quantify is the empathy factor. Does this politician understand people like me? Can this politician relate to me? Does this politician seem genuinely interested in the concerns of people like me? Given Obama's gaffes, it is easy to see why he is having a bit of trouble with the voters listed above. But no politician can ever please all voters all the time. After all, John McCain is not immune to this inability to make inroads with certain segments of the electorate either, as his struggles with Black voters, young voters, and urban voters suggest.

However, Barack Obama could easily parry these accusations of arrogance. It's an empty line of attack that opens politicians up to allegations of hypocrisy and phony outrage. The problem for Obama, however, is that he must not be afraid to get a bit muddy because taking the high road and trying to coast to victory this November would be a disaster.

Every politician who runs for President is arrogant on at least some level. They are almost always rich. They graduated from Harvard, Georgetown, Stanford, and Yale. They are elitists. They love the media spotlight. And even when they complain about the media, they are usually happy to receive airtime. And because of the office for which they are running (the presidency), they must inherently believe that they are better than any other person in the United States in terms of leadership, intelligence, vision, and political ideology.

That's arrogance. But it's also necessary. Imagine the reaction if a presidential candidate admitted that his rival was more knowledgeable about Issue X than he was. That rival would immediately turn that into a campaign ad that would bury the humble candidate alive. How would fundraisers and donors feel if their candidate spent more time talking about his own shortcomings than his actual strengths? ("Please donate $50 so you can help this mediocre candidate win even though he doesn't deserve it!") Would voters really be inclined to support someone who didn't feel confident about his own chances of victory? ("I don't think I'm going to win, but I want you to vote for me anyway!")

That's not how politics works. Yes, Barack Obama was arrogant in his use of a mock presidential seal at a campaign event earlier this summer. But John McCain was even more arrogant in his accusing Barack Obama of wanting to lose a war before losing an election. The difference, of course, is that the Obama campaign is not making arrogance a central issue of this campaign. However, the McCain campaign is.

Obama has tried to deal with these attacks dismissively. He mocks the attacks. He laughs them off by saying "He knows better." He portrays the attacks as undignified. "That's beneath John McCain." He's "disappointed" in the unfortunate remarks. He is leaving it up to the voters to see these attacks for what they are--stupid.

The problem, however, is that the people who know these attacks are stupid are already in Obama's corner and they aren't leaving him. There are a lot of other voters out there, however, who might consider voting for Obama, but won't because these attacks have resonance. To these voters, if Obama doesn't fight back or denounce them, the attacks must be true. And by not fighting back, that reinforces Obama's perceived weakness in terms of being seen as a strong leader or commander-in-chief. And if he's not willing to stand up for himself, how can voters trust that he will stand up for America?

But is it in Obama's nature to confront these attacks head on? Is his professorial approach to political communication really going to help bring these new potential voters on board? One of Hillary Clinton's enduring qualities was her tenacity. She knew she would get beat up in her campaign, but the difference between her and Obama is that even though she got beat up, she decided she might as well fight.

This is not to say that Barack Obama has to engage in kneecap politics by spreading rumors or dredging up old scandals related to McCain. However, it would be in his best interest to show a little more heart and be a little less cerebral when it comes to mixing it up with McCain. Children get angry when other children talk bad about their mother. Men get angry when someone badmouths their family. People take great offense to others who attack their hometown. Yes, Obama may have offended some of these voters with his "bitter" remarks this spring. But he has a chance to repair some of the damage by showing that he too knows how to stand up for himself and fight.

As the overall political landscape suggests right now in terms of polls, fundraising, the national mood, and right track/wrong track sentiment, John McCain cannot win this election. Barack Obama, however, can lose it. Obama would be wise to learn from the failed candidacies of John Kerry and Al Gore and not be afraid to take it to his rivals with firmness, not disdain.

7/30/2008

Ted Stevens and an Opportunity for McCain

Powerful Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska has been indicted for concealing gifts and services and making false statements. Even though he claimed to be surprised by this, he had been under investigation for many months. Sen. Stevens is well known for the funding he is able to secure for his state, including the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere."

On its face, this latest indictment couldn't have come at a worse time for Republicans who are still reeling from the 2006 midterm elections in which they were heavily punished for their ethical transgressions. Of course, Democrats were not without their ethical woes, but they paled in scope and number to Republicans, as is evidenced by Bob Ney, Duke Cunningham, Mark Foley, and Larry Craig. The Stevens indictment simply reminds voters of Republican corruption and makes Barack Obama's message of "change" and "new politics" a bit more resonant.

Veteran Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye defended Stevens and believed he was innocent. This is not surprising, seeing that both Inouye and Stevens are personal friends. To people outside of Washington, this simply comes across as sleazy Washington politicians protecting their own. This would be another advantage for Obama in that even though he is also a senator, he is not really seen as "Washington." This is a result of his short resume of federal service and Republican reminders that he was just a state senator in Springfield, Illinois, a few years ago.

Obama and congressional Democrats can easily use this indictment for fundraising and another example of why it's important to help elect more Democrats to stamp out the "culture of corruption" they ran against in 2006. And for disaffected voters, they may be more inclined to respond favorably to Obama's "I'm not part of them" image.

However, this news also presents a unique opportunity for John McCain. McCain now has a golden opportunity to burnish his maverick image and fiscal conservative credentials. McCain should be on the campaign trail everyday criticizing Stevens for his waste and lack of ethics. That would instantly grab media headlines because it would show that McCain is standing up to his own unpopular party. That would make McCain look more like an outsider, a reformer, a leader, and yes, an "agent of change."

Outrage from Barack Obama and Democrats is predictable. It's dog bites man. Democrats criticize Republicans all the time. The line between sincere outrage and mere partisan reflexes is blurry enough to blunt the potency of their criticisms.

Outrage from the Republican presidential nominee, however, would be a lot rarer. It's man bites dog. Republicans don't publicly criticize Republicans unless their names are Ron Paul or Tom Coburn.

In short, Ted Stevens is yet one more headache for Republicans, but a political gift for John McCain. For a candidate who is looking to get more out of the media and temporarily change the narrative from Iraq and the economy, this is a perfect opportunity for him should he be courageous enough to take it.

7/27/2008

McCain and the Media

When conservatives and Republicans hear Blacks and other ethnic minorities complain about racism, they commonly tell them to work hard, do their best, and remember that in America all things are possible for people who refuse to stay down after they get knocked down.

When conservatives and Republicans hear poor and financially struggling people complain about the bad economy, housing foreclosures, and not having any money in their bank accounts, they commonly tell them to suck it up, live responsibly, and do whatever it takes to get back on their feet. They also remind them that it's important to build a safety net (a rainy day fund) in case they stumble upon hard times.

This is not to say that legitimate gripes do not exist. However, complaining about racism is not going to give you the education you need to find a good job. And complaining about the big bad government or dishonest corporations is not going to give you your job back after your company goes bankrupt.

When you are down, either in politics or in life in general, you have to work harder to catch up and take advantage of any and all opportunities afforded to you. This makes John McCain's complaining about media coverage seem all the more odd because it not consistent with traditional conservative rhetoric concerning overcoming adversity.

Before this year's nominees were decided, there were about 20 candidates running for president. More than half of these candidates were considered longshots. Some of them didn't help their cause by complaining about not getting enough talk time in the debates. And when they actually did get a chance to participate in the debates, they did not say anything to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack and warrant more attention from the media.

Republican Duncan Hunter was a perfect example of a fine candidate whose struggles were partially of his own making. He was probably the best fit for Republicans this year in that he was aligned with the conservative base on abortion, Iraq, national security, social policy, immigration, and taxes. He also hailed from California and had the chance to make it competitive as the Republican nominee in the general election. But when it was his chance to participate in the debates, he didn't say anything that would make people take notice. He came across as just another conservative Republican and got lost in the shuffle.

Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee, however, were able to escape irrelevance by maximizing their limited opportunities. Ron Paul was not afraid to challenge his rivals on spending and Iraq, thus drawing new attention to his candidacy. Soon thereafter, he was shattering fundraising records. And Mike Huckabee spent more time talking about pocketbook issues and issues of faith than complaining about his lack of media coverage. As a result, restless evangelicals found a home in Huckabee and he became a top-tier candidate. Both Paul and Huckabee earned their media coverage by giving them something to actually cover.

One memorable moment from the Hillary Clinton campaign concerned her outburst at the beginning of one of the one-on-one debates with Barack Obama in which she complained about the favorable media coverage Obama was receiving. She spent precious time criticizing the media for not asking if Obama "wanted another pillow." This was a disastrous move because 1) time she spent complaining about the media was time she wasn't spending presenting her case to the American people, 2) complaining about the media conveyed the message that the campaign was about her and not about the voters, 3) she was driving up her own negatives while not laying a glove on Obama, and 4) she was making news for all the wrong reasons because the headlines coming out of the debate were about this outburst rather than any debating points she actually scored.

Voters are concerned about losing their homes. They are worried about high gas prices. They are looking for an endgame in Iraq. They are concerned about their pensions, access to healthcare, and losing the money in their bank accounts. The last thing they want to hear is a presidential candidate complaining about not being treated fairly by the media, especially if the media are covering a trip that this candidate criticized the other candidate for not taking earlier.

The media are indeed covering Barack Obama more often and probably more favorably than John McCain (though a recent study may suggest otherwise). This could be the result of liberal bias on behalf of journalists, or it could be a matter of simple economics. Barack Obama is simply better for ratings and circulation than John McCain because he has a story nobody has ever heard before. This, of course, does not excuse imbalanced coverage. However, like the current state of race relations and difficult economic times, that's the state of the media in this campaign and John McCain is going to have to figure out how to use it to his advantage.

Consider this picture of John McCain (courtesy of Political Realm). He was riding in a golf cart with former President George H.W. Bush at Kennebunkport, Maine, before giving a press conference while Barack Obama was off on his world tour to the Middle East and Europe. McCain's public relations staff should be taken to the woodshed for allowing this opportunity to slip through their fingers. While Obama was abroad, McCain had the domestic stage all to himself. So instead of scheduling town halls or chatting with the locals about pocketbook issues and getting good photo ops there, the enduring image from the week was of McCain sitting in a golf cart with Bush 41 at an upscale hideaway in Maine. Who wants to cover that? And does John McCain honestly expect a press conference with George H.W. Bush to receive the same attention as Obama's speeches before tens of thousands of screaming Europeans?

But media management is not just about conveying the right imagery. It's also about taking advantage of all opportunities to make news.

Both Barack Obama and John McCain were invited to speak at this weekend's Unity Conference, a gathering of journalists of color and their respective professional organizations. Barack Obama accepted the invitation and took questions from the audience of media professionals there. John McCain, however, declined the invitation citing scheduling conflicts. But how much sense does it make for John McCain to complain about not getting any media attention and then decline a perfect opportunity to get the attention he seeks?

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

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

7/24/2008

Visions of Elections Past

There has been a Republican in the White House for the past 7 years, aided by a Republican-controlled Congress for 6 of those 7 years. This president is tremendously unpopular and has been for years. This year's Republican nominee has embraced this unpopular president and provided near 100% support of his agenda. The economy is shaky. Banks are losing money. People are getting thrown out of their homes. People are commonly shelling out more than $50 every time they go to the gas station. The nation is fighting an unpopular and mismanaged war with mounting casualties. The Democratic nominee has shattered fundraising records, is a gifted speaker, and has cobbled together the support of various disparate demographic groups.

And yet, John McCain is still in this race.

Given all the dynamics of this race and how close it is even though so many indicators suggest that this election should be a blowout, it is difficult for pundits to put a finger on just how this election will turn out. The polls and the campaign dynamics so far all suggest a blowout, a squeaker, a letdown, or an upset are all plausible.

So what's going to happen? Perhaps the clue lies in elections past, many of which mirror the 2008 campaign perfectly.

2008 will be like 1996: The clash of generations.

Barack Obama is the clear frontrunner, just like Bill Clinton was in his reelection campaign. He's youthful. He's charismatic. He's hip. And people seem to like him much like they did the sax-playing Clinton. John McCain is the underdog. He has a hard time making headlines and generating buzz despite his advantages. He has a long record of public service and served valiantly in combat. And a large part of the electorate agrees with his political philosophy. But he's old. He sounds tired. He represents the past, not the future. He's Bob Dole. If this is what 2008 boils down to, this election should be a comfortable one for Obama. It won't be a landslide and Obama might not even win a majority of the popular vote, but this election won't keep everyone on the edge of their seats like the last two elections did. Obama knows he will win. McCain knows he will lose.

2008 will be like 1992 and 2000: Spoilers crash the party.

Third-party candidacies are not rare in presidential politics, but every so often, they have a very significant impact. Ralph Nader's candidacy torpedoed Al Gore's White House bid in 2000. And Pat Buchanan gave many Republicans fits throughout the 1990s. While Ralph Nader won't garner nearly as many votes this time around, former Republican and current Libertarian nominee Bob Barr will. And Bob Barr will wreak havoc on John McCain's electoral chances in North Carolina, Colorado, and Georgia. There are even indications that Barr is hurting McCain to Obama's advantage just enough in the ruby red state of South Carolina to make Obama aides salivate.

John McCain is not the only candidate who has to worry about a gadfly candidacy. Former Democratic Representative Cynthia McKinney will also be on the ballot as the Green Party nominee. She represented a district in Atlanta, thus potentially complicating Obama's dreams of taking advantage of Bob Barr's candidacy and flipping Georgia blue. However, Barr will do far more damage than McKinney in Georgia. McKinney has a very small base of support which consists mostly of Blacks, and it's hard to see why Blacks who are eager to elect the first Black (or rather, biracial) president would essentially "waste" their vote on McKinney. And given her previous run-ins with the law, it's hard to see why many voters would take her seriously.

Imagine these results on election night:

Colorado: Obama 46, McCain 44, Barr 7
Georgia: Obama 44, McCain 43, Barr 8, McKinney 1
North Carolina: Obama 46, McCain 44, Barr 6


Should this materialize, Obama would be well on his way to shellacking McCain and would have to offer Barr a position in his cabinet after Inauguration Day as a token of his appreciation.

Just like Nader, who won less than 5% of the vote nationwide, was able to ruin Al Gore's candidacy in Florida, Ross Perot caused serious heartburn for George H.W. Bush across the nation. Perot's independent bid clearly wounded George Bush and allowed Bill Clinton to win a lot of states that Democrats weren't used to winning.

2008 will be like 1980: Pass the interview first and then win in a landslide.

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

And now 28 years later, should Obama comes across reasonably decent and knowledgeable in the debates, this fairly close election will turn into a rout. If Obama bombs in the debates, the country will simply vote for McCain because even though they may disagree with his policies, they will at least say he is ready.

It is worth noting that 2004 was another potential 1980 election as well. John Kerry had his chance to prove himself marginally acceptable as a campaigner and a candidate, but failed and narrowly lost even though the nation was already beginning to sour on George Bush and the direction of the nation. Inauthentically donning hunting gear and citing the sexuality of Dick Cheney's daughter in the final debate are two fatal mistakes that turned many voters off and sealed his fate.

2008 will be like 1960: The nailbiting beauty contest and the predecessor to "experience vs. change."

Seeing Obama and McCain side by side on television can only work to Obama's advantage just like John Kennedy was able to use the televised debates to his advantage. These debates ruined Richard Nixon because his five-o'clock shadow and sweating did not flatter him. 1960 was a very close election, but Nixon could not capitalize on the image factor. Seeing the youthful and vibrant Obama standing next to the older, tired-looking McCain will not make for good visuals at the debates.

The historic 1960 campaign shared another theme with this year's campaign: experience vs. change. Nixon was the Washington old hand with the lengthier political resume. Kennedy was youthful and fresh. Nixon argued that experience mattered. And he had a valid point. But the voters wanted "change" a little bit more.

Other candidates ran on experience this year and lost.

Chris Dodd and Joe Biden ran on experience and lost in Iowa.
Bill Richardson ran on experience and lost in New Hampshire.
Hillary Clinton ran on experience and lost the nomination.

Will John McCain run on this same losing message and lose the general election?

2008 will be like 2000: The nightmare.

Barack Obama will run up the score in reliably Democratic states like New York, Illinois, and California and narrowly lose the South. The energized Black vote will make him competitive in places like South Carolina and Mississippi, but he won't be able to flip them. John McCain will steal either Michigan or Pennsylvania while narrowly defending the other Bush states, including Ohio. Obama will win the popular vote while McCain wins the electoral vote. This will be an absolute heartbreaker for the Democrats and would likely be met with calls (even from Republicans) to abandon the Electoral College altogether.

Should McCain win in 2008 just like Bush won in 2000 (by losing the popular vote), it will be interesting to see how politicians in Iraq view the results. They may use this as another reason to reject US involvement in their affairs because if politicians who don't win the most votes are able to win the presidency, they may conclude that they don't need that kind of "democracy" in their country.

2008 will be like 1988: The collapse.

2008 will be like 1988. After eight years of Republican control of the White House, the time seems right for the political pendulum to swing in favor of the Democrats. Obama is leading in all the polls and seems to be on his way to a comfortable victory this fall. But he will get tripped up like Michael Dukakis did in one of the debates or be hamstrung by an unflattering picture that makes voters take him less seriously. Visions of John Kerry hunting and Michael Dukakis riding in a tank swirl through everyone's heads. In this scenario, John McCain would win the presidency the same way he won the nomination--by not losing it.

2008 will be like 2004: Anti-Republican sentiment is overrated.

By most media accounts, George Bush was supposed to lose in 2004. He was the bumbling tough-talker who didn't know how to lead the nation. His 9-11 halo was fading and people were beginning to have doubts about Iraq. John Kerry was supposed to provide voters with the opportunity to "get it right" this time and show that Bush's election in 2000 was a fluke.

But Bush won, and the Republicans expanded their majorities in both houses of Congress. People attributed Bush's victory to a weak Democratic candidate or shenanigans in Ohio. But what about the possibility that there was a silent majority of voters who actually liked President Bush and/or his policies?

Four years later, the media and polls are showing the same sentiments that buoyed Kerry. People lampoon Obama as the new messiah. He's not only the presumptive Democratic nominee, but also the presumptive 44th president. People are tired of Republicans, the Bush brand, and conservative principles. So Obama should have this election in the bag. November should merely be a coronation, right? Right?

And then McCain methodically cobbles together enough states to win in November and leaves Democrats, liberals, and the international community wondering yet again how the Republicans pulled this out. It might not be because Obama is weak or because his ideas weren't that popular. It might just be a matter of John McCain and conservatism being underestimated.

The fact that 2008 could plausibly turn out like any of these previous elections makes this election so difficult to handicap. All the indicators seem to favor an Obama victory, but a rookie mistake, a gadfly third-party candidacy, a mishandled debate question, poor stage presence, or the specter of a 2000 repeat are all very real prospects that could throw any and all political analysis and punditry out the window.

What an amazing campaign.

7/21/2008

John McCain and Obama's Trip: A Failure of Bravado

John McCain and Republicans have repeatedly criticized Barack Obama for not visiting Iraq and consulting with the military and political leaders there. Many Republican officials and conservative bloggers mocked him by starting a clock keeping track of how many days it has been since Obama last visited Iraq. These clocks have been common fixtures on Republican and conservative blogs. The Republican National Committee was the impetus behind this clock, as this quote from Chairman Robert Duncan indicates:

"Barack Obama has only visited Iraq once--and that was 871 days ago. Obama's failure to visit Iraq, listen and learn firsthand, and witness the surge's progress demonstrates weak leadership that disqualifies him from being Commander in Chief."
Even Republican vice presidential hopeful Mitt Romney blasted Obama for not visiting Iraq:
"I don’t see how a United States senator who is looking to be the nominee of his party and create policy with regards to terrorism and policy with regards to Iraq could simply avoid going to Iraq and learning about how the surge was working. I mean the surge was working. It's too bad he missed it."
Obama eventually called their bluff and scheduled a trip to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East, and Europe. The McCain campaign initially minimized Obama's trip as an overseas campaign rally (after ridiculing him for not even going), and that's when the wheels came off.

In just one week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has come out in support of Obama's plan by saying he wants military troops to leave Iraq by 2010. President Bush is calling for a "general time horizon" regarding the future in Iraq which contradicts McCain's position of not creating "timelines." And the United States has recently sent mid-level envoys to meet with the Iranians in Switzerland, further buttressing Obama's openness to initiating dialogues with rogue nations. And as the situation in Iraq improves, the battle in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly perilous. Now it might become militarily necessary for troops to be taken out of Iraq and redeployed to Afghanistan to help stabilize the situation there. That further undercuts McCain's message of staying in Iraq until "victory" is achieved. This is all quite validating for Barack Obama while making John McCain's positions look increasingly lonely.

Now Obama is getting favorable press coverage and gets to look presidential shaking hands with the soldiers and leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan while McCain gives press conferences with President George H.W. Bush in Maine. He even scored more political gold by making a tough basketball shot in a gym surrounded by soldiers. The Obama campaign couldn't have asked for better imagery. Even though making a basketball shot has nothing to do with one's ability to govern, Obama actually made himself look cool while perhaps subtly reminding voters of his youth--in contrast to the elder McCain. It also works against the elitist caricature because elitists don't know what to do with basketballs, much less know how to shoot them.

The pictures and videos of Obama shaking hands and smiling with the troops in Iraq shows that the military likes him. Republicans who accused liberals and Democrats of "not supporting the troops" should also have egg on their faces because the cheering troops in the videos that have come from his trip so far suggest that Obama is actually quite popular among them.

So now Obama is traveling from country to country and meeting various military and foreign leaders with all of the major media outlets in tow. He looks presidential. He's receiving enthusiastic crowds. He's giving voters the opportunity to actually see him conducting mock presidential duties. And that undercuts the common McCain attack of Obama being inexperienced because the photos and videos of him in Iraq are suggesting that even if he may be inexperienced, he is at least experienced enough.

Obama obviously won't be an expert on international relations after this one trip, but it's difficult to criticize Obama for not going to Iraq and then criticize him for actually going. And if Obama's not going to Iraq was such a big deal earlier, why are so many Republicans and conservatives minimizing the trip's significance now? Complaints about how much money this trip is costing taxpayers seems a bit silly because his opponents are the ones who goaded him into making this trip to begin with. And McCain has visited Iraq at taxpayers' expense several times, so it would seem that conservatives' outrage is misplaced.

McCain forced Obama to play on his turf and so far, Obama is rising to the challenge. Obama will probably cut into McCain's lead when it comes to military and foreign affairs. And this trip has knocked McCain out of the headlines. And even worse, it will be hard for McCain to criticize Obama's trip in the future without it sounding like sour grapes. Oh, and because he went, McCain lost his talking point about Obama not talking with the military leaders there too.

So McCain has to find a way to make himself relevant again or risk falling too far behind Obama in the polls to catch up without help. One possible way to seize the microphone would be to name his running mate early. But this would give him one less tool in his arsenal that he could use after the Olympics and the Democratic Convention. Another option is to go back to Iraq, but that may make it seem like he's going for political reasons (to keep up with Obama) instead of pragmatic reasons (to get information from the military commanders there).

McCain is making some political hay out of the New York Times' rejection of his essay on Iraq in its op-ed pages. Complaining about media bias is always a good way to drum up support among the conservative base, but it is worth mentioning that the New York Times endorsed John McCain in the Republican primaries and did not endorse Barack Obama (the Times endorsed Hillary Clinton instead). And is it in McCain's best interest to play the victim at home while Obama is looking strong overseas?

The moral of the story is to be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. This is an example of simple politics and talking points backfiring and leaving your campaign worse off than you would have been had you kept your mouth shut.

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.