Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The heart versus the head

If all political factors were equal, organized labor would be endorsing John Edwards for president. More than any of his rivals, the rich trial lawyer with populist instincts has been effectively plucking labor’s heartstrings – coming out early for universal health care, wooing union leaders one by one, walking picket lines, assailing trade deals that appear to favor big corporations at the expense of working stiffs.

But while labor’s heart is with Edwards, its head may be elsewhere. Labor is concerned that Edwards might be another Dick Gephardt – in other words, a sentimental favorite who can’t win. Gephardt, the former House Democratic leader and labor darling, won support from several dozen unions during the runup to the 2004 Iowa Democratic caucuses…where he proceeded to flame out. Or the fear is that perhaps Edwards might be another Howard Dean. Back in the autumn of ’03, Dean picked up some big-ticket labor endorsements, including the blessing of AFSCME…yet he too flopped in Iowa, quitting the race in late February.

On the eve of tonight’s Democratic debate, sponsored by the AFL-CIO, it’s clear that labor is pondering the electability factor. Put bluntly, labor wants to back a winner. And with Hillary Clinton topping Barack Obama by 22 points and topping Edwards by a whopping 36 points in the latest poll of Democratic primary voters, sheer pragmatism suggests a head tilt toward Hillary.

But that can’t be a very comforting thought.

Organized labor was rarely happy with her husband’s White House tenure – as I mentioned here recently, Bill did little to address the gap between rich and poor, or the exodus of U.S. jobs thanks to globalization, or the wage stagnation that plagued the average worker – and suspicions linger that Hillary might be too close to corporate interests. Some labor activists have also been grumbling for weeks about the fact that Hillary's pollster, Mark Penn, is the head of a public relations firm that has provided union-busting advice to business clients.

And even though she has been talking like a populist lately – lamenting “rising inequality and rising pessimism in our work force,” and declaring that global free trade “is working only for a few of us” – she may well have stoked labor’s suspicions anew the other day, when she defended her decision to take campaign money from Washington lobbyists.

As she told an audience of liberal bloggers on Saturday, "A lot of those lobbyists whether you like it not, represent real Americans…and yes, they represent corporations and they employ a lot of people." She was booed for that remark. (She also pointed out, rightly, that lobbyists also represent nurses and social-service folks, but when a liberal or labor audience hears the word “lobbyist,” it thinks “corporate interests.”)

Tonight, Edwards or Obama may well invoke her defense of lobbyists, in the hopes of sowing fresh doubts among the union members in attendance. But here’s where pragmatism comes into play: Shrewd labor leaders might well conclude that Hillary’s willingness to tell a liberal audience something it didn’t want to hear is actually a testament to her potential electability in November 2008. Swing voters dislike Democrats who are perceived as pandering to their left-leaning interest groups. By braving the boos, on Saturday, Hillary was essentially “doing a Sister Souljah,” a tactic used by her husband in 1992, when he ticked off a black audience (and Jesse Jackson) by rebuking the black rapper for her song lyrics.

Hillary is hardly labor’s first choice, but her daunting Democratic lead, and her early willingness to stake out a general election strategy, should be enough to squelch any consensus labor stampede toward Edwards. And that’s precisely her short-term intention. He’ll probably pick up some endorsements from individual unions late this year, but the umbrella AFL-CIO will probably remain officially neutral. And that would serve her needs just fine; one of her priorities, between now and next winter, is to ensure that Edwards, already outmatched in fundraising, is also denied the grassroots labor resources that would allow him to threaten her in key early primaries - notably Iowa and Nevada.

And Hillary knows that if she does win the nomination, the labor ground game (which was crucial in helping both Al Gore and John Kerry win Pennsylvania and Michigan) would aid her general election candidacy, regardless of labor’s lingering qualms about her solidarity credentials.


I didn’t have the time yesterday to highlight this priceless story out of Florida, forwarded to me by a resident of the Sunshine State, but it’s still worth a rueful laugh or two:

It’s always fascinating to look at the excuses that politicians invent, when entrapped by their own egregious screwups. This one surely ranks with Bill Clinton’s ’98 contention that oral sex is not really sex.

Our story is about a Florida Republican legislature named Bob Allen, who until recently was serving on John McCain’s statewide campaign committee. Allen has been having a few legal difficulties, stemming from the fact that in July he was arrested at a park restroom for offering to perform oral sex on an undercover cop, and for allegedly offering to pay the object of his affection $20 for the privilege.

According to a police report released last Thursday, officer Danny Kavanaugh said he was drying his hands in a stall when Allen twice peered over the stall door, then pushed open the door, joined Kavanaugh inside, and suggested that the two men go somewhere quiet. Kavanaugh wrote that Allen told him, “I was thinking you would want (oral sex).” The officer replied that it would cost Allen $20. Whereupon the lawmaker allegedly said, “Yeah, I wouldn’t argue with that.” Allen was arrested as he sought to lead Kavanaugh to his car.

Anyway, that’s not the priceless part. And the fact that Allen is rated by a Florida gay organization as the worst state House legislator on gay issues (naturally!), and the fact that last May he had introduced a bill outlawing "lewd and lascivious exhibition"…no, that’s all just standard hypocrisy, which doesn’t rise to the level of pricelessness.

What truly distinguishes this guy is his explanation for what happened. It starts with the fact that he’s a white guy, and Kavanaugh is a black guy…and you can probably guess the rest. As he told the police in a tape-recorded statement, "This was a pretty stocky black guy, and there was nothing but other black guys around in the park.” Therefore, he felt he “was about to be a statistic," and therefore he needed to say whatever was necessary in order to escape the scene.

Hence Allen’s legal defense: Scary black people made me do it.

According to the police report, Allen did try to wriggle out of the arrest, by asking Kavanaugh whether “it would help” that he was a state lawmaker. He was told that it would not help. So perhaps he can introduce a bill that codifies a new crime, Relieving Oneself While Black.