Showing posts with label media. Show all posts
Showing posts with label media. Show all posts


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.


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.


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.


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.


Why Pundits Are Often Wrong

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

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

1. Follow conventional wisdom and echo popular sentiment.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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+


Lame Political Discourse: Stupid Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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?


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.


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.


The Obama Caricatures Revisited

The liberal magazine The New Yorker provided the latest bit of controversy with the cover of its latest issue. If you haven't seen this provocative cover by now, you can access it here.

The New Yorker essentially took every false impression of Obama and meshed them together into cover art that can accurately be described as brilliant, tasteless, courageous, and slanderous. While some may have found this cover tasteless or irresponsible, cries for censorship seem a bit overboard and will not gain much traction.

Voters who understand satire know what this cover is all about. Barack HUSSEIN Obama is dressed as a proud Arab Muslim while an angry-looking Michelle Obama is dressed as a radical Black militant with a machine gun and an afro. Both are doing a "terrorist fist jab," as opposed to a more benign fist bump. No flag lapel pin is to be found on Obama's shirt, but an American flag is burning in the fireplace under a portrait of Osama bin Laden, whom Obama reveres. After all, Obama is an unpatriotic terrorist sympathizer who has no allegiance to the United States and can't wait to destroy this nation from within.

The New Yorker's combination of satire and hyperbole should (emphasis on "should") lead voters to realize that these persistent rumors about Obama are completely unfounded and that this caricature of him is obviously both invalid and silly. However, voters who didn't buy into these Muslim rumors to begin with or who later arrived at the truth about Obama didn't need this magazine cover to prove these rumors false. Also, it is important to note once again that The New Yorker is a liberal magazine. Obama's liberal base would be more likely to read this magazine than other voters, but they were already comfortable with Obama and understand the satirical aspect of the cover. So that begs the question of exactly who The New Yorker's audience was. (Imagine the outrage if a conservative publication like the National Review had used this cover!)

Notice my use of the word "should" in the previous paragraph. Remember, this nation is not long removed from "freedom fries," accusing people who disagreed with President Bush's war policies of being "against America," and viewing flag pins as the only unequivocal way to express one's patriotism. But these voters don't read The New Yorker. Many of them have probably never even heard of it. And they probably weren't going to vote for Obama either. These voters will probably look at this provocative magazine cover and conclude that his lack of forcefully denouncing it means the caricature must be true. Obama can't win with these voters and shouldn't waste his time with them.

Yes, a significant part of the electorate is decidedly anti-Obama for reasons that are unrelated to his liberal ideology. Think about all the advantages a generic Democrat has over a generic Republican on issue after issue in most polls. There's an unpopular war, a shaky economy, an unpopular two-term Republican president, and greater dissatisfaction among voters with the Republican Party. But Barack Obama the candidate is only barely beating John McCain the candidate. So it would seem that Obama's underperformance in spite of so many favorable indicators to the contrary is at least partially due to an anti-Muslim, anti-Black vote. The anti-liberal vote doesn't care one iota about Obama or The New Yorker either, but at least their opposition is more benign.

The danger for Obama is that these kinds of stories only get people talking about the very stuff Obama is trying to avoid--not because he's a closet Muslim radical, but rather because it takes him off message. He would much rather talk about his plan for the economy and Afghanistan than how offended he was by some magazine cover. And because Obama is still new to the political scene, voters are still forming their impressions of him as a politician. Surely, he would rather define himself than have others define him the way Tony Rezko, Jeremiah Wright, Michael Pfleger, Wesley Clark, Jesse Jackson, and now The New Yorker have done with varying degrees of success.

As for political ramifications, this controversy is not good news for Hillary Clinton either. Some of her campaign volunteers were responsible for spreading some of these rumors before the Iowa caucuses last fall. And Clinton herself did not definitively swat down rumors about Obama's religion by claiming that he was not a Muslim "as far as she knew." In other words, her veepstakes odds may have become a little longer.

Of course, the fact that people are at least talking about this magazine cover is good for society because dialogue breeds understanding. Anytime the nation talks about ethics and race, progress is being made. Obama's candidacy is forcing everyone to reassess issues of race, religion, and gender.

Also, as an unintended advantage for Obama, voters who disagree with his politics may support him regardless because they view his election as a means by which they can repudiate the media, the punditry, and tabloid journalism in general. They might not like his politics, but they are fed up with the sideshows, phony outrage, misplaced priorities, insincere retractions, and forced expressions of contrition that have plagued this campaign season.

Having said all that, this controversy illustrates another problem with the nexus of politics, the media, and voters.

When voters complain about their politicians not offering enough specifics, media feeding frenzies like this magazine cover are often to blame. Until voters demand more from their politicians and audiences demand more from the media, it will only be a matter of days before the nation is distracted yet again by another surrogate- or media-induced controversy. Politics should be about governance, but it is treated as an extended soap opera in which people spend more time dissecting and anticipating missteps than actually analyzing their policies. Our short attention spans are exploited by the media whenever they seize on these distractions.

At what point will voters and the media stop focusing on these sideshows? Why should anybody care what Pundit X, Talking Head Y, and the staff at Media Organization Z think? This campaign should be about Barack Obama's and John McCain's plans for the nation. Our political discussion should be about the economy, taxes, immigration, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Supreme Court, domestic spending, and foreign policy. But this pragmatism is nowhere to be found, as the campaigns have come to be defined by flag pins, fist bumps, cooking recipes, genitalia, Vietnam, pastors, White entitlement, and now magazine covers. Again, while it is good that the nation is discussing issues of race, gender, and religion, even if awkwardly, it must be stated that the way in which our nation's political dialogue can so easily be derailed by peripheral matters is doing everyone a great disservice.


On Political Opportunism and Manufactured Controversies

The 2008 presidential campaign is turning out to be the campaign of surrogates and guilt by association. John McCain, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and many other candidates have had to apologize for and/or distance themselves from some of their supporters who have made provocative, embarrassing, or downright offensive remarks. Some of these transgressions and embarrassments happened on the campaign trail, as was the case with Black Entertainment Television founder and Clinton supporter Bob Johnson who alluded to Barack Obama's past drug use. In other instances, the controversial remarks happened several years in the past, as was the case with Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor.

Some of these remarks are truly outrageous and deserve to be covered by the media. Any politician affiliated with a person who makes such remarks should rightfully be prepared to explain them. However, we appear to have reached a level of hypersensitivity and absurdity in which feigned outrage stems from truly stupid remarks that nobody should really care about, such as former Obama adviser Samantha Power's calling Hillary Clinton a monster. She was subsequently fired after the Clinton campaign pounced on the remarks as crude.

The fallout from these incidents should serve as a fair warning to all candidates that in the first YouTube presidential campaign, all of their words and all of the words of anyone moderately associated with them are fair game. For better or worse, any surrogate who has engaged in the slightest bit of impropriety or who had made an embarrassing remark 10 years ago will be scrutinized carefully.

In the grand scheme of things, these silly stories don't matter much. Now that both nomination races are settled and there are only two candidates to cover instead of ten, journalists have far less material to work with. Naturally, that means every minor transgression, misstatement, contradiction, or embarrassment is going to be scrutinized heavily by the media. This may be good for partisans and political junkies who care about such minutia, but it is ultimately unimportant and provides a great disservice to the broader electorate. Even worse, it seems as if the media are trying to create dustups and controversies on their own just to give politicians something to respond to, no matter how stupid it is, and shape the political dialogue rather than having the candidates shape it themselves.

Exhibit A: One of the media storylines gaining traction is the idea that Barack Obama is having trouble with White voters, and especially White women. The primary results in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky confirmed this. As a result, Obama has had to work a bit harder to appeal to these so-called Reagan Democrats lest he risk losing them to John McCain.

But why is this such big news? Democrats in general tend to do worse among White voters than Republicans do. People of color and immigrants are more likely to view the Democratic Party as friendly and receptive to their interests. So if Barack Obama is having such trouble attracting White voters, why won't the media examine why John McCain is having such trouble with Black voters or evangelical voters? Or is Obama's inability to attract support from one group of voters more significant than McCain's?

An alternative explanation for Obama's troubles is Rush Limbaugh's Operation Chaos in which Republicans were encouraged to vote for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries in an attempt to drag out the contest and have Clinton and Obama continue to bloody each other up while McCain sat on the sidelines and conserved his resources. These voters were never going to vote for Obama in November. But they were never going to vote for Clinton either. Now there are polls saying that a significant number of her supporters are considering staying home or voting for McCain. Some of these voters are indeed dejected or angry over Clinton's loss. But surely others don't really care because these voters weren't loyal to Clinton to begin with. Perhaps it is only lending greater credence to Limbaugh and his influence, but the fact that this idea hasn't received greater follow-up coverage is unfortunate.

Exhibit B: Shortly after Obama clinched the nomination, he assembled a team that would be responsible for spearheading his search for a running mate. This happens all the time and is usually of no consequence. However, the leader of this search team, Jim Johnson, had ties to the subprime loan industry and received controversial housing loans.

This was a poor political decision by Obama because it contradicted his message of change, transparency, and decent governance. Republicans, the media, and McCain's campaign pounced on this as an example of "poor judgment," and Johnson soon resigned from the team.

Obama lamented that we had reached the point in our politics where we had to "vet the vetters." He has a point because should he win the election, how will he be able to appoint people to his cabinet and various administrative offices if anyone who has any blemishes or scuff marks from dealing with Washington is automatically disqualified? Almost every politician is tied to a lobbyist, a corporation that has engaged in questionable business practices, or a major donor/fundraiser whose contributions might not be entirely clean. Unless Obama is going to bring in a truckload of outsiders who know nothing about how things actually get done in Washington and have no relationships with anybody in Washington at all, this controversy regarding Johnson is going to come back up over and over again.

And if Jim Johnson is going to be criticized for having ties to the seedy subprime loan industry, should McCain adviser Carly Fiorina not be criticized as well for her business ties to Iran?

Exhibit C: After Jeremiah Wright, Bob Johnson, Jim Johnson, and "monster" comments, everyone should have been put on notice that the spotlight on everyone's surrogates and their surrogates' histories was real.

Despite this, John McCain foolishly scheduled a fundraiser with Texas Republican Clayton Williams, who once said that if women were being raped, "they might as well just lie back and enjoy it." These remarks are obviously offensive and indefensible. However, Williams made these remarks in 1990. So one would think the statue of limitations has run out on these remarks. But in today's political climate, that was not going to happen. Once Democrats and the media found out about this, the outrage forced McCain to cancel the fundraiser.

What were once questions about Obama's "judgment" suddenly became questions about McCain's "judgment." However, the McCain campaign should have learned that if they wanted to attack someone for their surrogates' ties, they were giving free reign for their opponents to attack them for the very same thing. This is why they should not have been surprised when the controversy surrounding Williams blew up in their faces. And now McCain risks giving this story legs by claiming ignorance of these remarks and not returning Williams' campaign contributions. Whatever happened to "repudiate" and "denounce?"

But this is all political wrangling. Lost in all of the noise is the fact that neither politician was directly involved in these transgressions. They were wounded by surrogates and people who were only tangentially related to their campaigns. It is true that you can learn a lot about a person by the company he keeps, but at what point does genuine and legitimate outrage become political opportunism, media hypersensitivity, or a failure of journalism?

Most of these guilt by association stories are certainly not the best use of journalists' time, but that is the sorry state of journalism today. Journalists and politicians are outraged over the wrong things. And perhaps because the nomination races are settled and there's not as much news to cover, the lack of news is causing journalists to be a bit less selective in regards to what they cover. And when they do cover something, they often fail to dig a little deeper and instead opt to manufacture their own controversies to advance convenient media storylines. And that's a shame.


Footprints of a Giant: A Tribute to Tim Russert

This is a post I never expected to write--at least not for another 20 years or so.

NBC Washington bureau chief and moderator of Meet the Press Tim Russert died today as a result of an apparent heart attack. He was 58.

I found out about this terrible news when I got home from work this afternoon and turned on the TV so I could watch Hardball with Chris Matthews. My eyes became misty as I tried to take in the magnitude of this loss. This was a double blow for me personally because not only did he set the gold standard for political analysis, but he was also a damn good journalist.

Political junkies everywhere knew Mr. Russert. (I can't bring myself to call him "Tim." As an amateur analyst, I consider it disrespectful.) Mr. Russert's political acumen was matched by no one, and I mean no one. Even people who didn't follow politics closely knew who this man was. They respected him and enthusiastically let him into their dining rooms every Sunday morning over breakfast for Meet the Press. And they did this for 17 years.

There was nothing glitzy or bombastic about him. While others had their digital maps and electronic panels, Mr. Russert had his portable whiteboard and dry erase markers. He was pure class. His questions were tough, but never unfair. His political analyses were sharp, but never wonky. He clearly knew what he was talking about and could express himself in such a way that even regular people could make sense of what he was saying and come out of watching his interviews feeling that they had learned something.

Mr. Russert was the one political analyst that would make me stop what I was doing just so I could hear what he had to say. Mr. Russert was the one political analyst that made me actually scour a news website just so I could download podcasts of his interviews. Mr. Russert was the one political analyst I could listen to for a whole hour without wanting to change the channel or throw something at the screen.

Mr. Russert was a tough journalist who always played it straight. He didn't have any axes to grind. He didn't try to play gotcha with his guests. He didn't shout or talk over anyone. He didn't waste anyone's time by throwing softballs. He didn't enter an interview without having done his homework first. He didn't blow smoke like so many other pundits and pass it off as "analysis." His opinions were actually worth listening to.

Chris Matthews is good. Judy Woodruff is good. Ronald Brownstein is good. Howard Fineman is good. Stuart Rothenberg is good. Charlie Cook is good. And Bill Schneider is good.

But they aren't Tim Russert.

Those are going to be some very, very large shoes to fill. David Gregory and Chuck Todd were clearly being groomed to succeed Mr. Russert someday, but I don't think anyone anticipated having to fill this giant's shoes so soon.

For me personally, watching Mr. Russert inspired me to improve the quality of my own political analysis. I didn't want to be the kind of analyst who called people stupid or losers or America haters or Bible thumpers. I wanted to be the kind of analyst people respected. I wanted to be the kind of analyst who commanded the open ears of people who were genuinely interested in what I wanted to say. I only regret that I didn't have more opportunities to study Mr. Russert's work; he was taken away far too soon.

What a terrible loss for the world of politics and for the institution of journalism. And for Mr. Russert, I hope you enjoy watching the rest of this campaign play out from above.

Thank you, Mr. Russert, for being the consummate professional.


What We Learned This Primary Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended reading

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

  • 5/30/2008

    On Religion, Politics, and Denouncements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    The Future of Cable News

    (Note: This is a continuation of my previous post examining what "fair" and "balanced" mean. This post examines their impact on cable news.)

    In the case of MSNBC, Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" draws the highest ratings of any show on the network. Liberals may call this show "fair," but it is certainly not "balanced." Conservative guests are rare, so the show comes across like a liberal political echo chamber at times. His show has an obvious liberal bent, especially towards Barack Obama. But does Olbermann come across as sympathetic to Obama because he believes Obama has made fewer major gaffes in comparison to Hillary Clinton and John McCain? Or does Olbermann come across as sympathetic to Obama because he actually agrees with Obama's political beliefs? And when was the last time Olbermann has had anything positive to say about Republicans or the President?

    What will happen to Olbermann's show if Obama wins the election? Countdown has drawn rave reviews from liberals who view his show as a sort of watchdog ready to expose the excesses and improprieties of the Bush White House to the masses. But will he continue to serve as a tenacious watchdog against an Obama White House and call Obama out when he reneges on a campaign promise or engages in unseemly political behavior? What if Obama runs an administration that is so squeaky clean compared to the current administration's that Countdown simply runs out of material? Could this show really survive as an Obama cheerleader?

    How about MSNBC in general? A McCain presidency would probably keep Countdown on the air in its current form. McCain and his advisers would likely routinely make Olbermann's "Worst Persons in the World" list, and the likelihood of staying in Iraq under McCain's stewardship would allow him to continue to rail against the war.

    A Clinton presidency would likely do the same because of the "say anything" nature of her campaign and the sleaze that has come to define the Clinton brand. But unlike a McCain presidency, a Clinton presidency would give Olbermann a chance to present himself as an honest broker because there likely wouldn't be any shortage of avenues of impropriety for him to investigate and criticize. Calling Olbermann and MSNBC liberals would lose a bit of its potency because how often do liberals criticize liberals?

    As for the Fox News Channel, Bill O'Reilly's "The O'Reilly Factor" is the most watched cable news program and regularly trounces CNN and MSNBC in the ratings, although Countdown has occasionally beaten O'Reilly in in the demo (adults aged 25-54) as of late. O'Reilly's show has an obvious conservative bent, as is evidenced by his use of conservative icons such as Michelle Malkin as his substitute hosts. Liberals on this show are commonly treated like pinatas, and extending invitations to fringe left elements only makes the rhetorical slaughter easier while making O'Reilly look reasonable by comparison.

    Fox's 9pm show, "Hannity and Colmes," is even more partisan. Even though the show is called "Hannity and Colmes," it is clear that Sean Hannity, the conservative, controls the show and dominates the discussion while Alan Colmes, the liberal, sometimes offers what can only be described as token opposition. Conservatives may view both of these shows as "fair," but they too are not "balanced."

    O'Reilly, Hannity, and Fox would love to have a Hillary Clinton presidency because she is familiar and she can drive up Fox's largely conservative audience. But her chances of winning the nomination are slim. Barack Obama is more of an empty slate. Jeremiah Wright will be looming in the background, but to what end will his name be invoked? If Wright trumps President Obama's day-to-day governance as far as Fox or other media outlets are concerned, then that would be neither "fair" nor "balanced." A President McCain would maintain the status quo, especially given the fact that Democrats control Congress, but at what point will the status quo become tired? Fox News came to prominence as a result of the failings of Bill Clinton and the early successes of George Bush. Fox has thrived on these foils, but both political families might be completely removed from the White House after this year's election. What next?

    In short, cable news needs to develop contingency plans in the event that a candidate who forces them to change their business model ends up winning the election. Kicking George Bush around and blaming Democrats for everything can only get you but so far.

    Dissecting "Fair and Balanced"

    (Note: This is the first of two posts addressing the meaning of "fair," "balanced," and "fair and balanced." This post addresses what these terms mean and how they are flawed. The second post addresses their potential effects on cable news in the future.)

    CNN is "the most trusted name in news."

    MSNBC is "the place for politics."

    Fox is the source for "fair and balanced" news.

    All three of these cable news stations use these slogans to strengthen their brand image among viewers. CNN is the credible station. MSNBC is the station for people who want politics first and news second. And Fox is the station for people who are fed up with biased reporting. Of these three slogans, it is Fox's that will be scrutinized in this post because its veracity will truly be challenged by the results of this fall's election. Seeing that all news stations should strive to be "fair and balanced," this post should not be construed as a scathing critique of Fox in particular. (Fox just happened to choose a very good slogan.)

    To start, "fair" and "balanced" are not interchangeable. "Fair" means that a situation is analyzed impartially or objectively. In other words, bad news is not spun as good news and good news is not spun as great news. Likewise, good news is not diminished and bad news does not go unreported. There is no Republican side or Democratic side when it comes to news. There are only facts. And these facts should be met by viewers of all political leanings with acceptance, be it enthusiastically or grudgingly.

    "Balanced" means that all viewpoints are given equal consideration when analyzing or discussing an event. This often means having a liberal and a conservative be given equal time to present their arguments. Unfortunately, however, this "balance" usually means having a bomb-thrower on the left debate a fire-breather on the right. The ensuing shoutfest makes for good television, but it doesn't make for good journalism. And because most voters are somewhere in the mushy middle, moderates, independents, and people who fall into some other political category may not find partisan bickering particularly well "balanced."

    One common complaint, usually among conservatives but also among liberals, is the aspect of "media bias." Media bias is often cited in response to negative stories about the chaos in Iraq, reporting on transgressions and missteps by politicians, analyzing the campaign contributions of journalists, and nuanced or selective reporting.

    I wrote about media bias here last winter, but I also highly recommend this recent piece by respected political analyst Stuart Rothenberg on why criticizing Republicans these days is objective, rather than partisan:

    "But let's not pull any punches about the state of the GOP: You can't nominate mediocre candidates or candidates from divided state or local parties, have Members of Congress admitting to affairs that produced children, have Members' homes and offices raided by the FBI, have Members go to jail, have Members picked up in airport bathrooms and have an unpopular president pursuing an unpopular war during a time of increased economic anxiety and still expect to be popular--or to turn things around.

    "Yes, I know, the Democrats have had their share of embarrassments. For every Republican embarrassment, there is a Democratic one.


    "Still, it seems to me, and to most people I talk with, that far more Republicans are involved in these problems and investigations of late, especially involving Washington figures. Democrats haven't had anything close to resembling the Jack Abramoff fiasco, for example, during the past few years."
    Rothenberg makes a good point, but unfortunately, this is where "fair and balanced" often ceases to be either "fair" or "balanced."

    First of all, what may be "fair" is not always "balanced." And what may be "balanced" may not always be what audiences want. How many Republicans wanted Ron Paul to be excluded from the debates, for example? If a television show wished to address September 11, for example, a "balanced" panel might include speakers who viewed it as a terrorist attack against the United States by vile radicals who seek to destroy our way of life as well as speakers who viewed it as a response to perceived American terrorism or aggression abroad. How many people would automatically tune out the latter group of speakers or instantly cite their inclusion in the panel as an example of "liberal media bias" even though the panel is actually "balanced?" And does the fact that this panel is "balanced" make it inherently "unfair?"

    In the case of "fair," consider President Bush's approval ratings. By all polls, Bush is a decidedly unpopular president. He has recorded the highest disapproval ratings of any president in modern history. (This is according to reputable polls by CNN, USA Today, and Gallup.) In other words, he is in the same league as Carter and Nixon, at least as far as these polls are concerned. He has been under 40% for about two years now. Partisan defenders of Bush may say that this kind of "negative coverage" and "Bush-bashing" is not "fair," but numbers and statistics have no bias in this case. There is no "balance" when it comes to this. (Consider this graph that has tracked Bush's approval ratings since his inauguration.) The same poll questions are being asked every month and the news is being reported in the same way. So even though stories about "Bush's popularity reaching a new low" may not be positive, they are indeed "fair." "Balance" is irrelevant in this case.

    Surely these defenders were happy to trumpet the polls that showed the President with approval ratings above 60%. And shortly after September 11, his approval rating spiked above 90%. Why did polls matter then, but not matter now? When polls actually do matter now, partisans gleefully cite the even more dismal approval ratings of the Democrat-controlled Congress to show that Bush is not the least popular person in Washington. But if reporting on polls is only "fair" when it makes one's preferred politician look good, then it's not really "fair" at all and the quest for "balance" when it's not necessary only further erodes the idea of "fairness."

    (This post is continued here.)


    Race Relations: Questions for the Fall

    Now that it is more certain than ever that Obama will be the Democratic nominee, he has shifted to a general election strategy that focuses on John McCain while ignoring Hillary Clinton. The rigors of a general election campaign will force Obama to present his message to voters who are more hostile to his candidacy than voters in a primary election campaign. The 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns brought us frivolous issues like drunk driving arrests, post-Vietnam patriotism, fuzzy math, windsurfing, cursing at journalists, and earth tones. The impact of these issues on one's ability to govern was limited, but the media made a very big deal out of them anyway.

    However, one issue that is almost certain to provide a subtext of this fall's campaign is the issue of race. Barack Obama has done a reasonably good job of staying away from proactively making race relations the core of his candidacy. His contributions to the discussion have largely been in response to media-generated inquiries (e.g., "Is Obama Black enough?"), the rhetoric of his political opponents (e.g., comments about his middle name and Hillary Clinton's South Carolina campaign), and circumstances surrounding those he once associated with (e.g., Jeremiah Wright).

    Kevin Merida of the Washington Post penned an excellent column addressing racist incidents targeting Barack Obama campaign volunteers in Indiana and Pennsylvania. Some of the incidents mentioned in the article are quite discouraging, as they were directed against teenage supporters of the senator, both Black and White, in broad daylight.

    In addition to being a good read, this article is significant because it represents the easiest angle from which the media tend to address any discussion of race in America. The media are guilty of walking on the same trodden path, fighting the same old battles, and relying on the same tired talking heads for "insight." In the case of Obama, this means identifying him as "Black" even though he's biracial, and playing up the "White racism" directed at him and his supporters.

    We've talked about this story many times before, and it's not going away. How many more times do we have to explore whether Blacks overuse the "race card" or whether Whites are insensitive to the concerns of people of color? This is not to trivialize the issue of race by any means, but it does make many people hope that if we as a nation are going to try and address this issue, we will at least explore new ways to discuss it.

    I encourage you to read Merida's article and think about these questions. These would be good questions for the media to pursue, rather than the same old assignments of blame and obfuscations:

    Is it possible to be a racist and a Christian at the same time?

    Is it possible to love America and harbor blanket hatred towards an entire segment of the American population at the same time? Can one be both patriotic and racist?

    Is one group of people called upon to denounce the misguided members of their race more often then members of another group?

    To what extent are racism and economic conditions related?

    Has Obama truly exercised restraint in playing up these issues in the media? Have the media been helpful, harmful, opportunistic, or derelict in examining the racism swirling around his campaign thus far?

    Does the near monolithic support of one candidate among one demographic group overshadow the near monolithic support of another candidate among another demographic group in terms of scrutiny? If so, why is there such a disparity?

    Why are some people so reluctant to acknowledge that the issue of race is a bigger and more persistent problem than they may think? (It's amazing that people are still saying things like "Hang that darky from a tree!" in 2008.) And by the same token, why are some people so eager to tar others as racists at the slightest perceived injustice?

    Why are some people so ready to interpret any criticism of Obama as evidence of racist tendencies? And how can one distinguish between people who have legitimate criticisms of Obama and people who use these criticisms to mask their own racism?

    How will Republicans deal with voters who openly support them out of racism against Obama? How strongly will they denounce such voters? Will they denounce racist voters with the same fervor they had when they called on Obama to denounce Jeremiah Wright? Will voters demand that Republicans do so? How hard will Republicans work to overcome the perception that their party is a haven for bigots?

    Would some of the criticisms surrounding Obama (e.g., Pingate, Bittergate, Wrightgate, Muslimgate) have survived as long as they have in the media and among voters had he been White? Are similar warts among other candidates being ignored?

    How have rumors about Obama's religion persisted for so long? And who is perpetuating them? And how can elected officials who knowingly spread this misinformation be held accountable?

    How much responsibility should people of all races (including Whites) take in an attempt to achieve racial reconciliation or at least arrive at a bit of civility in our dialogue about the subject? And who constitutes the next generation of leaders who will push the discussion of race in a new direction? Why are people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton still the first "leaders" the media consult when seeking "insight" about race?

    For better or worse, race is not going away this fall, so pundits, politicians, and voters should get used to it. Regardless of how it plays out in the weeks and months ahead, Obama's candidacy presents the nation as a whole a unique opportunity to address this subject in a raw and substantive way that is more productive than the same tired discussions we as a nation are used to having. Some voters might not be comfortable being confronted with this issue yet again, but given Merida's article, perhaps the reason we even have to discuss it at all is not because of Obama himself...


    The Importance of Name Identification

    I was watching television with my wife a few days ago. We were watching MSNBC's "Race for the White House," which is basically a political junkie's dream show: nothing but punditry, punditry, and more punditry. Political junkies are so well acquainted with Washington's pundits, columnists, and opinion makers that the mere mentioning of their last names evokes strong expressions of support or disgust: Scarborough, Bennett, Hume, Maddow, Smerconish, Borger, Dowd, Brownstein, Gergen, Will, Freidman, Robinson, Olbermann, Schneider, Buchanan...

    Anyway, the pundits were talking nonstop about the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama post-Indiana/North Carolina. Should Clinton drop out? Will Obama choose her as VP? What happened to Bill Clinton's political skills? Was she pandering with the gas tax? Who made the biggest gaffe? Of course, I was happily taking in all of the pundits' hot air, both nodding in agreement and shaking my head in disbelief. My wife was watching the show with me too, but she wasn't paying much attention to what the pundits were saying. She was just happy watching television with me.

    After the show had to take a commercial break, my wife broke her silence:

    "Poor John McCain..."
    Intrigued by my wife's sudden foray into political analysis and punditry, I had to ask why.
    "Because nobody's talking about him anymore."
    Interestingly, I had no response to this. And it was difficult to concentrate on the rest of the show from then on. I couldn't help but think that even though my wife does not follow politics much at all and has no clue who people like Jill Zuckerman and Roland Martin are, she very well may have been onto something that I haven't heard many of the "professionals" touch on so far.

    Most pundits seem to believe that the extended race between Clinton and Obama is hurting the Democratic Party. I've tended to agree with this view, and there have been polls suggesting that their supporters may vote for John McCain or stay home if "their candidate" doesn't win the nomination. White women, a major part of Clinton's base, are sensitive to the idea that "men" unfairly forced her out of the race. Blacks, a major part of Obama's base, are sensitive to the idea that "Whites" took the nomination away from "their" candidate.

    These are very real problems. But then I think about what my wife said.

    Nobody's talking about John McCain. It's as if Clinton vs. Obama is the main event while Obama vs. McCain (the more likely November scenario) is the undercard. In other words, the primary election seems more important than the general election this year. Democratic voter registration and party identification have increased substantially compared to 2004. Democrats have been outvoting Republicans in almost all of the primaries so far this year. Democrats are clearly more enthusiastic about the upcoming election than Republicans. Both Clinton and Obama have been all over the news for months, while John McCain's name is barely mentioned. I would not be so quick to call this "media bias," but the fact is that there simply isn't much news to report on the Republicans these days simply because that race is finished.

    If Clinton and Obama continue battling each other through June and Clinton takes her fight all the way to the convention, this news will continue to dominate the airwaves the way it is now. Once the Democrats finally have a nominee, he (or she) will be matched up against some guy that either nobody knows or everyone has forgotten about. Obama and Clinton may be beating each other up to their collective detriment. However, they are also at least getting their names out there. And if my wife is any indication of average voters who don't follow the 24-hour political newscycle, perhaps the real loser in the Clinton-Obama fight is John McCain.

    Think about why there is so little turnover in congressional elections. It's not simply because of gerrymandering or the idea that voters really like their congressmen. It's also because their challengers often don't have the money or the megaphone to get their message out. So when it's time to vote, voters see one name on the ballot they do know and one name they don't. Unless the person is a partisan supporter or a partisan critic, more often than not he will vote for the person whose name he has at least heard of. This would seem to render one's unfavorability ratings moot. After all, Hillary Clinton has been able to win 49% of the vote in the primaries and caucuses thus far despite her "sky high negatives."

    This post is not intended to be an endorsement of any candidate. However, John McCain had better make himself a part of the discussion sooner rather than later because he risks fading into political obscurity as far as nonpartisan and less engaged voters are concerned. Hillary Clinton and Republicans have argued that Barack Obama is "too risky" to be President because nobody knows much about him or his resume. Ironically, however, the "riskier" choice to these voters may very well be the candidate nobody is talking about right now. Will name ID trump policy positions and resumes at the ballot box in November? Talking with my wife a few days ago suggests that this may very well be more of an issue than the pundits realize at present.


    Wrong Approach, Wright Results

    The big political story today concerns Barack Obama's public and emphatic rejection of his longtime pastor and spiritual adviser Jeremiah Wright. This pastor has become a major political liability for Obama, so it is no surprise that he had to divorce him so publicly.

    I have avoided writing much about Wright because his unpredictability would make any analysis of his remarks have limited validity. But because today's developments appear to be the last major chapter in this complicated nexus of religion and politics, it is reasonably safe to tackle this issue now.

    Regarding my personal beliefs about the pastor, I believe Jeremiah Wright makes a few valid and powerful points, even if they are not what mainstream America is comfortable hearing at times. However, his delivery and confrontational style often overshadow the substance of the message he's trying to convey. Jeremiah Wright suffers from the same problem that prevents supposed Black spokesmen Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton from being taken seriously by the broader populace. All three of them put mainstream America on the defensive with their accusative rhetoric and their tendency to absolve themselves of any responsibility for improving the lives of their constituents, thus preventing the very people they want to reach from actually listening to what they have to say.

    Most pundits are saying that Wright and Obama are angry at each other. Wright feels disrespected by Obama and the media. Obama feels betrayed by Wright for sabotaging his campaign at the worst possible time. Others simply think Wright is absolutely crazy. However, unlike most pundits, I believe Jeremiah Wright knows exactly what he's doing, and Obama should be grateful for it. I don't think this is about increasing his profile so he can sell books or drive up his own church's membership. Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama have a relationship that goes back about 20 years. He introduced Obama to Jesus Christ and officiated his wedding ceremony. This is not a relationship that can be destroyed by a few high octane speeches and a spate of controversial interview remarks. Wright clearly supports Obama and reminded everyone of his loyalty to his campaign as recently as his speech at the NAACP dinner a few days ago.

    Wright knows that he, Obama, and Obama's electoral appeal are not compatible. The more the media and pundits focus on Wright's incendiary remarks and Obama's tepid and insufficient rejections of these remarks, the worse it is for Obama's campaign. Wright knows this. And because of his long friendship with Obama, he couldn't possibly want Obama's campaign to fail. It is quite possible that Wright is simply being selfish. However, I also believe his "going off the rails" and further muddying the waters with yet more controversial remarks served not to draw attention to himself as a way to drag Obama down or give himself a few extra minutes of fame, but rather to benefit Obama in the long run:

    1. Obama got to come down on the side of popular opinion by flatly rejecting him. Even his harshest critics who were unsatisfied with his previous lukewarm statements of disapproval should be placated by his firm rejection of Wright today. For some voters, it may very well be "too little, too late." However, for other voters, it will be "better late than never" or "it's about time." That's far better than "what's taking him so long?"

    2. Obama got to look strong in his rejection of Wright. Doubts about his strength and toughness have dogged him for months. So this helps improve his political image. After all, if he can't stand up to his own pastor, how can he stand up to our nation's enemies?

    3. Obama got to put this controversy behind him. Anyone who dredges this up again will do so at his own peril because Wright and Obama have essentially gotten divorced. Obama made sure to remind everyone that Wright's future remarks should no longer be attributed to Obama's own beliefs. And in the event that Wright self-destructs again, Obama has an easy way to deal with it: "I've already flatly rejected Wright and have said that he does not speak for me or my campaign. Let's move on."

    4. Obama got to look reasonable in comparison to "this loony pastor." And the crazier Wright's remarks became, the better they actually made Obama look. Nobody knows how much overlap there is between himself and Wright, but at least Obama is not going around accusing the federal government of introducing AIDS into Black communities. The reels of tape showcasing Obama's eloquence and appeals for unity make Wright look more like "the crazy uncle" Obama has referred to many times before. And as an added bonus, so to speak, Wright is looking more like a kook in the minds of the electorate than a racist. While neither label is good, I would venture that it's at least marginally better to be seen as a fool than a bigot.

    5. Obama can now say to nervous or uncommitted superdelegates that his "pastor problem" has been resolved, thus improving his electibility. The chances of rival Hillary Clinton winning the nomination took a big hit because the potency of one of her biggest weapons has just been reduced significantly.

    6. Republicans who continue to invoke Wright will likely be tarred with "fearmongering" or "race-baiting" from now on, which is usually not a winning proposition. That will provide a perfect foil for Obama's message of positive governance and unity. Moderates and independents will be less likely to respond to this Republican "red meat" because in their minds, Obama has done all he could reasonably be expected to do regarding resolving this problem.

    7. Obama can finally get back on message in time to deal Hillary Clinton her death blow in North Carolina and Indiana. Losing Indiana would probably keep Clinton in the game. And because Obama is not expected to win the upcoming contests in Kentucky and West Virginia, Clinton could seize a bit of momentum which would prompt more "is Obama fading?"-type stories. Getting past Wright gives him a fighting chance of preventing this from happening.

    Nobody really knows what's going on in Wright's mind or what his true intentions were, but I believe Wright is more intelligent than what he's given credit for. By essentially sacrificing his own brand image, he did Barack Obama a huge political favor.

    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.