Thursday, April 24, 2008

"A little rough in the sandbox"

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If we all weren't so focused on the slow-motion Democratic death march, we would have already spent some time this week talking about "McNasty" and debating whether reports of his "volcanic temper" would imperil his prospects for the White House.

I am referring, of course, to John McCain. You may remember the name. He's the guy currently cruising America on his "It's Time for Action Tour," while Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton busy themselves with the ongoing task of pounding each other to jelly.

Obama and Clinton are on the front page every day, their perceived character flaws in full view. McCain's signature character flaw - his well-documented propensity for blowing his stack, for lashing out at colleagues and little people who cross him - did actually make it to the front page last Sunday, in one newspaper, but that little fire sputtered and died amidst the mega-focus on Pennsylvania's primary.

In a normal primary season, the story in The Washington Post would have garnered a great deal of attention. A united Democratic party would have circulated it. The cable TV chatterheads would have relentlessly flogged it. Bloggers would have feasted on the story's choicest tidbits, like the time McCain screamed at the young leader of the Arizona Young Republicans, jabbing a finger in the factotum's chest, calling him an "incompetent little (bleep)" all because the poor guy had rigged a speaking platform at the wrong height. Or the times that McCain hurled profanities at Republican colleagues in the midst of tirades. Or the time that he tried to wreck the career of a young Arizona Republican aide named Karen Johnson, all because Johnson had dared to verbally rebuke McCain during an encounter that had occurred years earlier.

The temper story was essentially vetted yesterday by Michael Gerson, now a Post columnist, who served six years as Bush's chief speechwriter. He wrote yesterday that McCain is a tad off the charts, even for Washington: "I can report that it is not common for one member to tell another '(expletive) you' - as McCain did to Sen. John Cornyn during the immigration debate."

This kind of material has surfaced before - actually, back in 1999, when he was gearing up for his first presidential campaign. At the time, many suspected the undetectable fingerprints of the rival George W. Bush campaign. (I know, it's hard to believe.) Word quickly circulated about a shouting and shoving incident between McCain and Iowa Senator Charles Grassley that took place in 1992, and there were incessant insinuations that McCain's long POW stint had rendered him dangerously imbalanced. McCain was forced to defend himself; during a GOP debate in late 1999, he spun his temper as a badge of honor ("From time to time, those of us...who stand in an independent fashion are going to break some China"), and also as an opportunity for Reaganesque self-mockery (reacting to a rival's statement by satying, "a comment like that really makes me mad"). But the temper factor was rendered moot when McCain's candidacy collapsed.

Now it's back. Indeed, it was back before The Post got around to bringing it up. Back in February, Mitt Romney's surrogates rediscovered it. One prominent Romney practitioner was Rick Santorum.

This, of course, was before Santorum got the memo that it was time for all good Republicans to fall in line behind McCain, and he has dutifully obeyed. But he was against McCain before he was for him, as evidenced by what he said about McCain in a robocall to voters on Super Tuesday: "I don’t think he has the temperament and leadership ability to move the country in the right direction." Then Santorum followed up in remarks to a reporter: "(McCain) is a little rough in the sandbox. Now this is coming from someone who is pretty rough in the sandbox too, but I am rough because of the causes I believe in and the issues and try not to make it personal, try not to make it strident. So I think it's a legitimate issue to have out there only because it's an issue that will be out there, and we'll hear a lot about it if he is the nominee."

I suspect the Democrats will find ways to talk about McCain's temperament, assuming they are not still consumed with the rites of self destruction. It's a legitimate character topic - far more valid than whether Barack Obama is Muslim, a lie that has reportedly been embraced by 15 percent of the American public - but the fact is, a temper is not by itself a disqualifier for high office. For a lot of high achievers, a temper is simply part of the package.

Bill Clinton had a bad temper ("purple rages" in the words of ex-aide George Stephanopoulos). Richard Nixon had bad temper (yes, he did precipitate Watergate, but he also was balanced enough to open China and negotiate arms deals with the Soviets). Dwight Eisenhower had a bad temper, a vein in his forehead wout pulsate, and his face would take on the coloration of a hot stove burner (one aide, Merlo Pusey, wrote that "sometimes his anger is aroused and it may set off a geyser of hot words. The President's emotions are close to the surface"). And in my own backyard, we had Mayor Ed Rendell, who once got so ticked at a pesky reporter that he put her head in a hammerlock as he walked down the hall.

I tend to think that most Americans won't be perturbed by the news that McCain cusses out colleagues, given the fact that most Americans probably believe that U.S. senators deserved to be cussed out. But a new ABC-Washington Post survey suggests that the Democrats may be able to leverage the temper factor. When people were asked whether McCain's temperament would help or hurt his ability to serve effectively as president, 48 percent said yes and 37 percent said no.

Those numbers were garnered a week before the Post ran its story, which means only one thing: The character issue first floated nine years ago has become part of the national consciousness. But what we can't know, for another six months, is whether it will be trumped by whatever tag the Republicans try to hang on Clinton or Obama.

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"American Debate" is moving. Today's entry has been cross-posted at the new site, which will be fully operational in early May. The new address, suitable for book-marking, is http://go.philly.com/polman

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Take these candidates, please!

Six weeks of bowling and Bittergate and Pastorgate and nonexistent Bosnian snipers....and for what? The Pennsylvania results have essentially changed nothing. There is seemingly no cure for the chronic Democratic migraine - and the fear, among so many members, that they are tearing themselves asunder.

Memo to the voters of Indiana and North Carolina: Take these candidates, please!

Now that Hillary Clinton has secured her solid Pennsylvania victory, we know two things - both of which we basically knew before:

1. She will slog onward against increasingly heavy odds. (And why shouldn't she, given the fact that she just won another big state and again demonstrated that she is the preferred candidate of the working-class whites who will be crucial to Democratic hopes this autumn?)

2. Barack Obama can't seem to seal the deal, thereby torturing the sizeable number of exhausted Democrats (including many unpledged superdelegates) who yearn for closure.

Obama's attempt last night to spin the defeat was empirically absurd. Hewing to the loser's ritual of flying to the next state while the bad news is still being tallied, Obama shared this assessment of the Pennsylvania race with a group of Indiana supporters: "We rallied people of every age and race and background to the cause."

Problem was, he lost all the older voter categories, starting at age 45. He lost white people, both genders. And with respect to every background, he lost the working-class folks, the union members, and the non-college educated. He lost suburbanites (including two of the suburban Philadelphia counties, Montgomery and Bucks, that he needed to win by comfortable margins), small-town dwellers, and rural residents. He lost the white Catholics and he lost the Jews. He lost the culturally-conservative Democrats on Bob Casey's home turf, Lackawanna County, by a 3 to 1 margin.

And let's return to the racial factor for a moment, because there is a jarring and highly sensitive finding that showed up in the exit polls. Thirteen percent of white voters statewide said that the race of the candidate was important to them; of those voters, 74 percent cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton. This is arguably a warning sign that Obama may face a higher racial hurdle than many observers have generally assumed.

An arguably bigger problem is his persistent deficit among late-deciding voters. I mentioned here yesterday that, in most primaries, Obama has stumbled at the finish line because voters making up their minds during the final 24 hours have tended to break for Clinton, the known quantity. Well, in Pennsylvania it happened again. Eleven percent made up their minds on the last day; 6 out of 10 wound up breaking for Clinton, thereby padding her victory margin.

All told, he appears to have won only five of the 67 Pennsylvania counties. The template for victory was Ed Rendell's '02 gubernatorial campaign, which notched victories in 10 counties - winning overwhelmingly in Philadelphia and its suburbs, then basically hanging on everywhere else. Obama didn't even get the winning margins he needed out of Philadelphia.

So it's easy to see where this campaign is headed: nowhere fast. Clinton's Pennsylvania win (by more than 200,000 votes, slashing his national popular vote lead by more than 25 percent) will gain her some breathing space - forestalling any pro-Obama stampede by the unpledged superdelegates, and prompting some donors to pony up the money that she so badly needs (given the fact that she's currently awash in red ink). She'll net more Pennsylvania delegates than Obama, thanks to her victory, but not nearly enough to appreciably dent his national lead. And Obama will have to reload, yet again, and demonstrate in Indiana that he can relate to, and win over, the lunch-bucket Democrats.

They essentially split the delegates there...he recoups whatever he lost in Pennsylvania delegates by winning a majority of North Carolina delegates...she wins West Virginia...he wins Oregon...she's got the seniors, he's got the kids...she's got the whites, he's got the blacks...she's got the bowlers, he's got the brie-eater...she the whiskey, he the wine...tomato/tomahtoe, let's call the whole thing off.

But nobody seems to know how. And therein lies the danger for Democrats this autumn.

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I had more thoughts on Pennsylvania and the Democratic race during an hour-long conversation last night on PBS' "Charlie Rose" show. And so did my betters: historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Washington journalist Al Hunt, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, Time magazine's Mark Halperin, and Jacob Weisberg of Slate.
The video is posted here.

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"American Debate" is moving. Today's entry has been cross-posted at the new site, which will be fully operational in early May. The new address, suitable for book-marking, is http://go.philly.com/polman

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The undecideds versus the newbies

"So whattaya think?"

I'm getting that question a lot, as Pennsylvania Democrats - old and new - head to the polls today in expected record numbers. And I generally respond like this:

"Beats the heck out of me."

Naturally that is not viewed as a sufficient response, but, given the events of January, when Hillary Clinton foiled the predictors and won New Hampshire, it seems wise not to bloviate excessively about the unknowable. This is an election season like no other in my long memory, and we alleged seers have been chastened too often already.

So I'll confine myself to discussing a couple factors that could well shape the Pennsylvania results:

The army of the undecideds. The final round of polls report that roughly 10 percent of the Pennsylvania voters had not yet decided between Clinton and Barack Obama. That's a sizeable number of people; if, as widely expected, this primary draws a record two million voters (or 50 percent of the Democratic registration), this means that 200,000 Democrats haven't made up their minds.

And if the past is prologue, this translates into a sizeable advantage for Clinton - one that could arguably add several percentage points to a Clinton victory.

Notwithstanding Obama's successes in 2008, the inescapable fact is that he has been a poor closer. In most of the primaries thus far, he has been spurned by those voters who withheld their choice until the eleventh hour. The late undecideds have broken for Clinton in almost every contest, opting to go with the known quantity instead of taking a leap with the new guy.

The exit polls tell the tale. A sampling:

In Ohio, 12 percent of the voters decided on the final day. Clinton won those voters by 11 points, and the overall contest by 10.

In Texas, 11 percent decided on the final day. Clinton won those voters by nine points, and the overall contest by four.

In Massachusetts, 18 percent decided on the final day. Despite Ted Kennedy's ballyhooed Obama endorsement, Clinton won those voters by a whopping 20 points, and the overall contest by 15.

In New Mexico, 14 percent decided on the final day. Clinton won them by 11 points, and the overall contest by one.

In California (a state where an Obama win would have shoved Clinton toward the exit door), 14 percent waited until the last day, and Clinton won them by eight points, cementing her victory.

Even in states where Obama was victorious, the undecideds trimmed his margins. In Virginia, 10 percent decided on the final day, and he split them with Clinton, roughly 50-50. In Wisconsin, 12 percent held back until the final day, and they too split roughly 50-50.

It's hard to imagine that undecided Pennsylvanians will break for Obama today; the state's political culture has long preferred familiar brands to the flavor of the month. And the latest surveys indicate that the undecideds are heavily concentrated on Hillary-friendly turf. A poll sponsored by MSNBC, McClatchy and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports a Clinton lead of only five points statewide, but finds that 11 percent of the folks in the so-called "T" region (between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia) were still undecided on primary eve.

Logic suggests that the late-deciders will stick with the person they know, rather than take a risk on Obama. Clinton's eleventh-hour TV ad, the one where she touts herself as the candidate best able to handle everything from Osama bin Laden to energy crises, seems aimed squarely at these voters. If she wins tonight, the undecideds could be crucial in padding her margin and helping her spin the bragging rights to maximum advantage.

And yet, there is also...

The army of the newbies. Roughly 307,000 new Democrats (potential first-time voters and party-switchers) have signed up for this primary. Assuming an overall record turnout of two million, the newbies could be roughly 14 percent of the total. And by every measure, Obama appears poised to win the newbies by a landslide. Nearly half of the new registrants hail from Obama territory - Philadelphia and its suburban counties (Bucks, Chester, Montgomery, Delaware, plus Lehigh and Berks); and roughly a third hail from counties with big college populations (Centre has Penn State, and Union has Bucknell). Some pollsters think that Obama will get anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of the newbies statewide.

So maybe the newbies trump the undecideds, in terms of sheer numbers and greater motivation to vote. Or not. The bottom line, for Clinton, is that her needs tonight are greater than Obama's. She needs to roll up a huge popular-vote victory - say, a 200,000-vote margin (attainable via a 10-point victory with two million people voting), in order to slash deeply into Obama's national lead of 700,000. She needs something of that magnitude to sell to the unpledged superdelegates. The newbies and the undecideds will help determine her future.

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"American Debate" is moving. This entry has been cross-posted at the new site, which will be fully operational in early May. The new address, suitable for book-marking, is http://go.philly.com/polman

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Just finished a gig as guest online chat host at The Washington Post. It's all about the primary. The transcript is here.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Washington Post wants you

I'm doing an online lunch-hour chat for The Washington Post at noon EST Tuesday, as guest chatterer, talking about the Pennsylvania primary and the state of the race. You're invited to visit the site and send in good questions, before or during the gig.

Always pleased with where they are

Whatever happens in the Pennsylvania primary tomorrow night, rest assured that Hillary Clinton’s spinmeisters will have it covered. Here’s a rhetorical tip sheet.


Scenario: Clinton wins in a landslide, by 10 percentage points or greater, trimming her national popular vote deficit to about 500,000, and cutting slightly into Obama’s national pledged delegate lead.

Spin: "It was 3 a.m. for America, and the common-sense voters of Pennsylvania answered the call. The bowlers and hunters of this great state stood up to the barrage of Obama TV ads, the flood of Obama money, and the hype about hope, and they simply said enough! The bowlers and hunters and worshippers and whiskey drinker all believe – as we do – that Senator Obama is an honorable man and a patriotic American, and tonight we are confident that they will join us in urging that Senator Obama immediately end his candidacy in the interests of party unity.

"He had a great run, while it lasted. We salute him for his contributions to this marathon race that we, of course, had anticipated all along. We always knew, even in our earliest planning stages, that April in Pennsylvania would prove to be the crucial time and place, the pivotal turning point, and we’d like to assure Senator Obama that his inclusion on Senator Clinton’s list of prospective running mates is virtually guaranteed. Unless, of course, she decides that Senator Obama would be more useful working for the next eight years as an assistant to the roving ambassador-in-chief."



Scenario: Clinton wins by modest single digits, a far cry from her original 20-point lead in the Pennsylvania polls, and she gains virtually no ground in the national pledged delegate count.

Spin: "A win is a win is a win. We always knew that this would be a close primary, and we always knew that many voters would inevitably be influenced by the barrage of Obama TV ads, the flood of Obama money, and the hype about hope. We always anticipated, even in our earliest planning stages, that Pennsylvania would be merely one marker in a long and arduous campaign, and now we will press ahead, firm in our belief that only a divided and fractious Democratic party can beat John McCain in November.

"As Senator Clinton has always stated, she is honored to share this race with Senator Obama - just as she is honored to question both his fitness for office, and his troublesome associations with people who might not love this country the way he undoubtedly does. We know that some want Senator Clinton to quit this race, just because she trails nationally in popular votes, pledged delegates, polls, states won, and campaign contributions. But real fighters don’t quit just because they don't always win. In fact, we sought all along to ensure that Senator Clinton would be the heavy underdog well into the spring season, in order to better demonstrate her fighting capabilities. That's why we changed campaign managers, fired our chief strategist, and allowed Senator Obama to win all the caucus states. All told, we’re very pleased with where we are."



Scenario: Clinton loses Pennsylvania.

Spin: "We're very pleased with where we are. We always knew that Pennsylvania would be a very tough environment for us. However, we strongly believe – as we have always believed – that the primary results in any state with 12 letters in its name, conducted at a point in the calendar when many potential voters are likely to be distracted by baseball games and spring cleaning, should be deemed an inaccurate representation of the electorate’s mood, and therefore illegitimate.

"Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania are crucial to this party’s prospects in November, and therefore we urge Senate Obama to join us in calling for re-votes in all three states. We think this would be an excellent way for Senator Obama to demonstrate his love of America, which of course is unimpeachable, as far as we know. We are confident that Louis Farrakhan, Rev. Wright, and William Ayers will not influence his decision to support a Pennsylvania re-vote.

"But even if Senator Obama retains his negligible national lead after all the re-votes, and after the remaining nine primaries are conducted, we nevertheless believe there should be no rush to judgment, and that the people should be heard. We’d like to see the democratic process play out. Accordingly, Senator Clinton, in the interests of fairness, fully intends to reset the primary calendar and start over. Come June, we’ll see you all in Iowa. Iowa, the great state of corn. When Senator Clinton was a child, traveling through Iowa on car trips, she often ate corn..."

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"American Debate" is moving. This entry has been cross-posted at the new site, which will be fully operational in early May. The new address, suitable for book-marking, is http://go.philly.com/polman

Friday, April 18, 2008

Attention all readers!

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you this special announcement:

This blog is being moved to a new platform, with a new address. Or, to put it more colloquially, this blog will soon have a new look. The changeover process officially begins on Monday.

My overseers at Philly.com are supervising the redesign. The work in progress – right now, a construction site – can be accessed today via the new address, http://go.philly.com/polman. I’m quite fond of the Americana iconography; now I won’t need to wear a flag pin.

Another big change is immediately obvious: the presence of advertisements. I have no problem with doing my bit for commerce. We all have to eat and pay the bills; if the new media are indeed the journalism vehicles of the future, they will naturally require sufficient revenue. Please be patient until your eyes adapt to the new aesthetic.

My online archives – the last 26 months of work – will remain stored on the old blog, forever accessible at this old address, www.dickpolman.blogspot.com, unless Google goes out of business. All new archives, starting with April 21, 2008, will be stored on the new blog.

Another big change: Readers wishing to post comments will be required to register on the new site. It’s free, naturally, and only needs to be done once. If you click on “post a comment,” the policy is further explained. The purpose is obvious: to raise the quality of the conversation, by making everyone more accountable for what they write. I assume that this policy will reduce the comment traffic for awhile; inevitably, some of you will bridle at the requirements. But I’m confident that, long term, many regular habitu├ęs of the old clamorous neighborhood will pick up and move to the new clamorous neighborhood.

I intend to ease into the changeover. Beginning Monday, and for the next several weeks, I plan to post simultaneously in both locales. The changeover will be completed – with this old site used strictly as an archive repository – on Friday, May 2, assuming that I suffer no cognitive glitches. Most importantly, I sincerely appreciate your continued patronage.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Obama shaken, rattled, and rolled

Just how bad was Barack Obama's debate performance last night? Not as bad as Britney Spears' song-and-dance routine at the MTV Awards. Not as bad as Bill Buckner's legendary error during the '86 World Series. Not as bad as Bob Dylan's music during his God phase. Not as bad as John Travolta's Scientology cinema experiment in Battlefield Earth. Not as bad as Mike Dukakis' fateful ride in a military tank.

In other words, Obama could have done worse. Neverthless, if he still harbors any hopes of driving Hillary Clinton from the Democratic race by scoring an upset victory in Pennsylvania, he might be wise to get real. It's hard to imagine that he won over the working-class, culturally-conservative Democrats who constitute the swing vote; if anything, his performance during the first 45 minutes of the debate may well have cemented their suspicions.

Obama's devotees will no doubt complain today that the ABC News inquisitors were grossly unfair, that they focused their fire on Obama while leaving Hillary Clinton relatively unscathed, and that they asked too many dirtball questions at Obama's expense. (George Stephanopoulos to Obama: "Do you think Rev. Wright loves America as much as you do?") Whatever. Whining about the media is the last resort of losers. The bottom line is that Obama didn't successfully adapt to the environment. For instance:

1. He muffed his latest explanation of his recent remarks on small-town America. He said last night: "The point I was making (last week at a private San Francisco fundraiser) was that when people feel like Washington's not listening to them, when they're promised year after year, decade after decade, that their economic situation is going to change, and it doesn't, then politically they end up focusing on those things that are constant, like religion. They end up feeling 'This is a place where I can find some refuge. This is something that I can count on.'" (italics mine)

I doubt that churchgoing small-towners will be satisified with that. They worship for affirmative spiritual reasons - "in good times and in bad times," as Clinton quickly pointed out last night. They don't think "politically" about the importance of worship. And, most importantly, they don't merely "end up" worshipping.

Obama defenders might dismiss all this as quibbles over wording. But, as Obama himself frequently points out, "words matter." And his latest words on the matter aren't likely to charm the voters whom he needs to break through in Pennsylvania.

Nor did he ever try to turn the tables, and offer a policy critique of the '90s, when the Bill Clinton administration fought for free-trade deals that hastened exoduc of jobs in those same communities. At one point in the debate, Hillary gave him an enormous opening when she lauded her husband's record ("an economy that lifted everybody up at the same time"). He failed to take it. Hillary gave him another opening when she lauded the importance of "good union jobs where people get a good wage." It's a matter of record that unions lost clout during the Clinton era, in part because her husband, even when he had a Democratic Congress, didn't push hard for legislation that would have curbed union-busting. But Obama didn't point this out, either.

2. He was only semi-coherent while discussing his ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. When asked to explain why in 2007 he had disinvited Wright to his announcement of candidacy, he said: "This was (because of) a set of remarks that had been quoted in Rolling Stone Magazine and we looked at them and I thought that they would be a distraction since he had just put them forward...They were not of the sort that we saw that offended so many Americans. And that's why I specifically said that these comments were objectionable; they're not comments that I believe in."

Huh? I thought this guy was supposed to have a golden tounge. He sounded rattled, fatigued, or both.

Clinton then took the opportunity to remind those culturally-conservative Pennsylvanians that Wright had delivered a sermon, right after 9/11, essentially blaming America for the terrorist attacks. Whereupon Obama felt compelled to say: "Absolutely, many of these remarks were objectionable. I've already said that I didn't hear them, because I wasn't in church that day. I didn't learn about those statements until much later." And regarding why he disinvited Wright to his announcement of candidacy, "that was on, that was on something entirely different...That, that was on a different statement."

Oh.

Imagine you were a Pennsylvania swing voter, wary of Obama or simply undecided, and you were watching this debate, and you were trying to unpack these responses. You may well have asked yourself: "He only thinks that Wright's 9/11 sermon was 'objectionable'? He kept Wright away from his candidate announcement not because of his 9/11 statements, but because of some other statements? Are we supposed to assume those other statements were worse? But wait, I did hear him say that he didn't learn about Wright's 9/11 statements 'until much later'...but when was that? And, hey, ya think it's plausible that a sharp guy like Obama wouldn't have known about Wright's 9/11 sermon pretty quickly? Without, like, six or seven years going by?"

3. He even failed to slam-dunk the easiest hot-button question of the evening. It came, via videotape, from a lady in Latrobe: "I want to know if you believe in the American flag. I am not questioning your patriotism, but all our servicemen, policemen and EMS wear the flag. I want to know why you don't." (ABC co-host Charlie Gibson added, "It's all over the Internet," as if that somehow validated the question.)

His response: "I have never said that I don't wear flag pins or refuse to wear flag pins. This is the kind of manufactured issue that our politics has become obsessed with and, once again, distracts us from what should be my job when I'm commander in chief..."

Instead of answering straightforwardly, Obama lied.

Contrast his statement last night with what he said on Oct. 3, 2007, when a TV reporter in Iowa asked why he wasn't wearing a flag pin: "You know, the truth is that, right after 9/11, I had a pin. Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we’re talking about the Iraq war, that (pin) became a substitute for, I think, true patriotism, which is (about) speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security. I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest. Instead, I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great and, hopefully, that will be a testimony to my patriotism."

Apparently, he decided last night that a truthful response would not be a sufficient pander; either that or he was too rattled to remember what he had once said. The bottom line, however, is that he had a golden opportunity to demonstrate the idiocy of this phony issue. He could have simply said this:

John McCain doesn't even wear a flag pin. In fact, when eight Republican candidates debated last autumn, seven of them did not wear flag pins.

4. He fumbled his responses to the newest scandale du jour, his Chicago associations with William Ayres, an English professor and neighbor who had been a bomber for the Weather Underground during the late '60s, and who remains unrepentant, telling The New York Times - on 9/11, no less - that "I don't regret setting bombs; I feel we didn't do enough."

Stephanopoulous broached this topic, which guarantees that the Ayres saga will be moving through the mainstream media bloodstream at least for the next few days. It had largely been simmering at the margins of the race. But now, on the eve of the Pennsylvania vote, it's potentially toxic for Obama, because many small-towners of a certain age don't have particularly fond memories of the days of rage.

Obama's initial impulse was to try to finesse the subject, then change it: "(Ayers) is not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis....The fact is, is that I'm also friendly with Tom Coburn, one of the most conservative Republicans in the United States Senate, who during his campaign once said that it might be appropriate to apply the death penalty to those who carried out abortions. Do I need to apologize for Mr. Coburn's statements? Because I certainly don't agree with those either."

Yeah...but was Obama well served by equating a U.S. senator with a guy who may have been connected to as many as 25 domestic bombings (the number claimed by the Weather Underground)? Obama's vague answer - that Ayres "is not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis" - gave Clinton an opening, and she drove a Hummer through it.

She said: "Senator Obama served on a board with Mr. Ayers for a period of time, the Woods Foundation, which was a paid directorship position. And if I'm not mistaken, that relationship with Mr. Ayers on this board continued after 9/11 and after his reported comments, which were deeply hurtful to people in New York, and I would hope to every American, because they were published on 9/11 and he said that he was just sorry they hadn't done more."

Again, imagine you were an undecided, culturally-conservative swing voter, and you were hungry for information about this new guy Obama, and now you were hearing about Ayers for the first time. And Obama gave a vague answer, whereupon he was immediately trumped by Clinton's revelation that Obama and Ayers served on a board together. The result? It looked as if Obama had been trying to minimize the association by hiding something...thereby making a relatively minor story look worse than it is.

By contrast, Clinton was crisp in her responses. Her full mea culpa on the Bosnia sniper lie - "I'm very sorry that I said it. And I have said that, you know, it just didn't jibe with what I had written about and knew to be the truth" - left little opportunity for follow up. And she was crisp and detailed when the debate finally moved to the policy front, particularly when the ABC inquisitors asked whether she would dare defy (may we all bow our heads in reverence at the mere mention of his name) General David Petraeus. Yes, she said, even if the surge is going well next January, she'd still require an incremental pullout plan: "You know, thankfully we have a system in our country of civilian control of the military."

Obama also had some good moments late in the debate, on substance. During an exchange about the future solvency of Social Security, for instance, he suggested the possibility of raising the payroll tax, Clinton knocked him for that and suggested instead that somebody should appoint a bipartisan commission to study the matter...and Obama quickly pointed out that, when a bipartisan commission last met, back in 1983, it wound up raising the payroll tax, and that the sky didn't fall.

But the viewing audience is biggest during the first 45 minutes, and it's questionable whether a sufficient number of Obama skeptics stuck around to hear him recoup on policy. So I score the night for Clinton...with John McCain smiling in the wings.


This piece has been cross-posted here, for easy emailing to friend or foe.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Actions speak louder than words

Focusing on his real audience - the unpledged Democratic superdelegates, and the independent voters who will ultimately swing the November election - here's what Barack Obama needs to say tonight during the debate in Philadelphia (assuming he hasn't sufficiently damaged himself already):

"...I'm glad that Senator Clinton has again brought up my remarks about small-town America, because I do have a few things to say about that. Obviously, as I have repeatedly admitted, I regret my choice of words and intended no disrespect. Yet while we continue to fight over words, we risk ignoring the real problem: that actions speak louder than words. And it is the actions of several recent administrations - or perhaps I should say inactions - that have put small-town hard-working Americans so deep in the hole.

"I'm speaking not just of President Bush, of whom we naturally expected so little, but also of my opponent's husband, of whom we expected so much.

"Senator Clinton has called my words 'elitist.' But where was she during the '90s, when she was supposedly gaining White House experience, when Bill Clinton took a series of actions that benefited the elite at the expense of the small-town worker? It is a matter of record that NAFTA, which President Clinton fought for and signed in 1993, without sufficient protections for domestic workers, has severely hastened the exodus of jobs from so many of these towns, and worsened the living conditions of the very people that Senator Clinton professes to speak for today.

"In 2000, her husband also successfully pushed for giving permanent trade privileges to China, again without adequate safeguards for adversely affected American workers. Her husband also said, 'the evidence is clear that not just in the long run but in the near run, we'll have more job gains than job losses' out of these trade deals. Well, tell that to the small-town workers in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in America. In fact, one of the Democratic congressmen here in Pennsylvania, Tim Holden, said a few years back that 'Pennsylvania has been the most adversely affected state in the union as a result of these trade agreements that we entered into.' Those were elitist actions, and actions speak louder than words.

"You know, it was Henry Ford who once said, 'I gotta pay my workers enough so there is somebody to buy the cars they are making.' But now we have a situation where companies are firing their own customers. They're shipping the jobs overseas, then goods get made overseas, then the goods are shipped back here to be sold - but the problem is, laid-off Pennsylvanians can't afford to buy them. That's all the result of elitist actions, and actions speak louder than words.

"By the way, organized labor leaders noticed all this happening back when Senator Clinton was partnering with her husband. Way back in 1995, one top Democratic labor strategist said in the newspapers that 'there's a lingering feeling among many in the rank and file that you can't quite put all your trust in this guy.' Another said, 'They screwed us on NAFTA, what have they done for us?' I'd invite Senator Clinton, who today champions the economic underdog, to tell us why she never uttered a word of protest during her in-house training for the presidency.

"Yes, actions speak louder than words - and so do statistics. The Census Bureau reported in 2000 that the income gap between rich and poor actually widened during the Clinton years, and that every household income category below $80,000 lost ground during the Clinton years. The median wage, adjusted for inflation, was actually lower than what it had been in 1989, when the first George Bush took office. And, in fact, during the final year of the Clinton era, the average CEO compensation at Fortune 500 companies was $37.5 million, while the average worker salary of all companies was $38,000.

"So let's take a break from all this back-and-forth about bad wordplay, and give this issue the context it deserves. I would expect John McCain to make the 'elitist' charge, because it's a great way to divert attention from his new economic plan - which offers fiscally irresponsible tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans, including CEOs, at the expense of the small-town Americans whom he professes to revere, and which offers huge new tax cuts to the same corporate sector that is outsourcing these jobs I'm talking about. But I expected better from Senator Clinton. The least she can do, right now, is to explain the elitist economic actions of the Clinton era - explain and defend, or reject and denounce. Unless she truly believes that actions are less important than words.

"Senator? Go right ahead."

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The brave (and brutish) new world

There once was a time when presidential candidates could utter an awkward unscripted remark, or a crude joke, or a loaded phrase, and conceivably get away with it - particularly when the press was barred at the door.

But today, thanks to the democratization of technology, there is no place to hide. There are no private moments, even at an ostensibly private event such as a fundraiser in suburban San Francisco. There is no such thing as "off the record" anymore, because anything and everything shall be recorded and ruled admissable for use in the tumultuous public square.

Which brings us to the manner in which Barack Obama was outed for riffing so inartfully about the plight of small-town America. It's a classic example of how the political/media culture has been so profoundly altered during the first decade of the new century.

Amidst the political fallout, this issue has been largely overlooked. If you watched Meet the Press on Sunday, you might easily have assumed that Obama's words were transcribed the old-fashioned way, by reporters scribbling in notebooks or hoisting their digital recorders. As Tim Russert phrased it, "Obama went to a fundraiser in San Francisco, made some comments. They became public on Friday afternoon..."

But no. Obama was outed by a new breed of watchdog, the "citizen journalist," somebody without the traditional press credentials, in this case an Obama supporter named Mayhill Fowler. Unlike the working journalists, she had a ticket to the private fundraiser in Marin County. She also had an audio recorder. She also had a relationship with Off the Bus, a subsidiary of The Huffington Post, one of those blogosphere outlets where citizens can break news of their own without filtering it through the traditional media.

Fowler doesn't fit any of the old press categories. As journalism professor Jay Rosen, an Off the Bus founder, wrote the other day, Fowler "is a particular kind of Obama loyalist...the kind with a notebook, a tape recorder, friends in the campaign, a public platform of decent size, plus the faculty of critical intelligence." And her editor, Marc Cooper, wrote that Fowler "employs a highly personalized, reflective narrative style (that) almost violates all of the conventions of traditional reporting."

The faculty of critical intelligence, indeed. At the fundraiser, she heard Obama make some remarks that struck her as problematical or worse, so she posted a piece (screened by an editor) on Friday afternoon. It was a long, discursive exercise, with much of the news buried within. Yet in less than 48 hours, the political-fallout story was on page one of The New York Times. As Cooper puts it, "citizen journalism can do many, many things still inaccessible to the MSM (mainstream media). It's also quite a bit of fun to see how a report like hers can actually set the agenda for the entire national press."

So it's a brave new world - and arguably more brutish. Anybody who crosses a candidate's path is now a potential auteur with the power to rewrite the narrative of a campaign. We will long be debating whether this technological development is a boon to our civic dialogue - perhaps reinvogorating democracy by giving average citizens an enhanced opportunity to hold politicians accountable - or whether this is just the latest treacherous form of political blood sport, as well as one more reason why many sane and qualified public servants would prefer not to seek the presidency.

It's probably all of the above. Risks aside, it's indisputable, in this particular case, that Fowler latched onto a good story. Obama's poor phrasing suggested any number of things, none of them particularly complimentary to him - a tin ear, a desire to curry favor with an affluent California audience, cluelessness about the nuances of small-town life, or simply inexperience. And it's also worth noting that his initial response, early last weekend, was defiant, as if he couldn't grasp why his remarks were troublesome. All these factors are worthy of discussion, because many Americans are still scavenging for meaningful clues to the man's character - in part because he's still so new to the national scene.

The downside, of course, is the enhanced potential for brutish behavior among those who inevitably seek to exploit the information unearthed by citizen auteurs. Case in point, yesterday, was Connecticut Senator Joe McCarthy....excuse me, I meant to say Joe Lieberman. Asked by his friends on Fox News whether Obama's recent remarks suggest that he might be a Marxist, Lieberman replied: "Well, you know, I must say that’s a good question....I’d hesitate to say he’s a Marxist, but he’s got some positions that are far to the left of me and I think mainstream America."

With respect to our new YouTube culture, let's recall that one potential presidential candidate, Republican George Allen, was virtually destroyed in 2006 after an audience auteur, working for the opposition and armed with video, caught the Virginia senator uttering "macaca," a common slur word aimed at immigrants. Allen lost his Senate race in part because the state's burgeoning immigrant electorate perceived that his moment of spontaneity - as forever enshrined on YouTube - was a revealing clue to his true character, and they voted thumbs down. Barack Obama must now seek to ensure that New Media misadventure does not become a Macaca Moment.

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Two undisputed Pennsylvania political gurus, Terry Madonna and Michael Young, now believe that Obama has screwed up, big time: "Obama's words are likely to do serious damage to his campaign in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania working class voters constitute about 40 percent of the Democratic vote. Obama's claim to understand and to identify with them has been dealt a serious blow after a largely successful two-week surge in the state. The Clinton campaign is already capitalizing on the controversy. It may be enough to propel her to that big victory that seemed so unlikely only a few days ago."

On the other hand, a new survey from the Quinnipiac pollsters shows Hillary Clinton up by only six points in Pennsylvania. Another, sponsored by Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times, has her up by only five. I suspect that Obama would be relieved to lose by either margin.

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I had other thoughts about the Obama incident this morning on Philadelphia NPR, joined by David Paul Kuhn of Politico.com. The link is here.

I had yet other thoughts about the Obama incident while guesting last night on "The Charlie Rose Show," on PBS. The link is here. As well as here.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Obama and the perils of Cling-gate

Can Bill and Hillary achieve Restoration by exploiting Cling-gate?

Perhaps the small-town burghers and downscale workers of Pennsylvania will answer that question when they vote in the primary eight days hence. But, until then, all we can do is speculate - and marvel at the notion that the outcome of this Democratic death march might actually hinge on a single ill-considered verb.

No doubt you know the verb already, but I'll highlight it anyway. Here was Barack Obama, recorded a week ago at a private fundraiser: "You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them...And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

As Obama told an audience of steelworkers last night, "I am not a perfect man and the words I chose, I chose badly." He certainly did. Politically, that latter sentence is a potential train wreck. The Democrats have been trying for several decades to reconnect with the white culturally-conservative working stiffs who exited the party during the Reagan era, and it's questionable whether the reconnection process can be enhanced by implying (however inadvertently) that these voters react to hard times by "clinging" to their God and their guns.

Church-goers don't "cling" to religion out of bitterness; they tend to see religion as an affirmative pursuit, in both good times and bad. And small-town Pennsylvanians don't "cling" to guns out of bitterness; they happen to enjoy hunting, in a state where hunting has long been a tradition (at least outside of the Obama-friendly Philadelphia region). Obviously, Obama did not intend to paint these folks as dummies who worship and shoot only because they have nothing better to do - why would he want to insult people whose votes he has been seeking? - but that's how the sentence reads. And it would appear that his uphill climb in Pennsylvania has become a bit steeper, given the fact that those people are also the swing voters in this primary.

Nevertheless, it's fair to ask - in the interests of proportionality - whether a race such as this, with so much at stake at home and abroad, should hinge on some errant phrasing. The Hillary Clinton counterattack this weekend was truly something to behold; the barrage of Saturday afternoon messages in my email box (11 in six hours) prompted me to suspect that perhaps Obama had promised on Day One to convert to Islam and make it the national religion.

If you want to enjoy a belly laugh, here are three reliable suggestions: (1) rent an old Woody Allen movie, especially Bananas, (2) rent Borat, or (3) listen to Hillary Clinton, of all people, attack Barack Obama as "elitist."

This is the same woman who, during the past seven years, as evidenced by her tax returns with Bill, has become a millionaire 109 times over; whose husband has long supported the Colombian free-trade deal (which is deemed hurtful to American workers), and long defended his signing of NAFTA (also hurtful); whose husband earned $800,000 in speech fees from Colombian interests; who, during her Senate career, voted in favor of confiscating guns during a national emergency (one of only 16 senators to do so; Obama voted against confiscation); and who, during the Democratic debates, has refused to shed any light on why the Clintons are safeguarding the identities of the global heavy hitters who are bankrolling the Clinton Presidential Library...and whether any quid pro quos are involved. Not to mention any deals that may have been struck with the felons whom Bill pardoned in his final days as president (the Clintons are blocking release of those records as well).

The Republicans are also trying to paint Obama as "elitist," but that's the standard GOP template (twice used successfully by George W. Bush - a graduate of Phillips Academy Andover, Yale University, and Harvard Business School, son of a former president and grandson of a former U.S. senator). It's particularly amusing to hear that "elitist" label being thrown around by John McCain, given the fact that McCain is married to a multimillionaire heiress; that McCain wants to extend the Bush tax cuts that help the rich at the expense of the working class; and that he has spent weeks tweaking his mortgage assistance proposal, which originally offered homeowners the same quality of aid that Herbert Hoover extended to Great Depression victims nearly 80 years ago. (Another thigh-slapper: William Kristol - descendent of a Manhattan intellectual family, and son of a New York University professor - used his New York Times column today to argue that Cling-gate is proof of Obama's attitudinal ties to...Karl Marx.)

But I digress. Hillary was more fun to watch this weekend, as she went into blue-collar overdrive - waxing nostalgic about how as a youngster she was taught to shoot a gun; walking into a bar and downing a drink in one gulp; telling a faith forum last night how she always feels "the enveloping support and love of God"....by tomorrow, I half expect to see her marching in the Lehigh Valley, clad in a bowling shirt, with a 12-gauge in one hand and the New Testament in the other, with John Mellencamp's "Small Town" blasting on a loudspeaker.

But that's politics. If she can successfully brand as "elitist" a guy who was raised by a single mother far from the comfortable suburban trappings that she enjoyed as a child...well, to the victor goes the spoils. If Cling-gate buoys her Pennsylvania vote tally, and helps her surpass the 10-point margin she won in Ohio, Obama will have to deal with the consequences - including talk, encouraged by the Clinton camp, that he's just another rareified Adlai Stevenson egghead.

Hillary will take it to him during the debate on Wednesday night, probably in the first 10 minutes (unless they reprise the traditional opening spat over who has the better health insurance plan). His challenge is similar to what happened during the Wright controversy. He has to turn this flap to his advantage, reframe the issue in a broader context, make the case for an economic populism that connects with Pennsylvania's working-class voters - and force Hillary to explain why those same voters, long ignored and taken for granted, received so little help from the Bill Clinton administration.

Obama screwed up badly during that fundraiser in San Francisco. But it's the successful politician who bounces back from adversity, aided by outsize powers of persuasion. He tried out a few lines last night, and no doubt there will be more. We'll soon see whether Obama has the gift that saved Bill Clinton from Bimbo-gate in 1992.

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Regarding any further thoughts on Cling-gate, I'm guesting tonight on PBS' "The Charlie Rose Show," sharing a segment with Joe Klein of Time magazine. Bob Casey holds forth during the first 30 minutes.

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In a Sunday print column, I wrote about the "experience" issue, with the inevitable historical references.

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Last night, during the sixth installment of HBO's splendid John Adams miniseries, the president was urged by his fellow Federalist party members to drum up war fever against France. Even though the partisans were well aware that France posed no real threat, they insisted that if the president stoked war sentiment, he and his party would benefit greatly during the imminent election season. But Adams, concerned with dividing his countrymen and sowing domestic factionalism, adamantly refused.

Imagine a president behaving like that.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Condi and Bill in the silly season

On the presidential election calendar, April often marks the start of the silly season. April is typically a time for silly stories that come and go within the space a single news cycle (bulletin: a talk-radio loudmouth calls John McCain a "warmonger" - and refuses to apologize!), and silly stories that linger for awhile until people come to their senses (April, 1992: a semi-loon named Ross Perot is the top choice for the presidency, beating Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush in the polls).

So it's in the spirit of silliness that today I linger briefly over this week's silliest - and most hilarious - April story: the chatter about Condoleezza Rice showing some interest in the number-two slot on John McCain's Republican ticket. If I hadn't been tracking the stories all week long, I would have sworn that the whole thing had been crafted by Bill Maher's gag writers as some kind of cosmic joke.

It all started last Sunday, when former Iraq occupation spokesman Dan Senor surfaced on ABC to declare that Rice was interested in running with McCain and that, in fact, she "has been actively, actually in recent weeks, campaigning for this."

Then Senor tried to make his own case for Condi: "What the McCain campaign has to consider is whether or not they want to pick a total outsider, a fresh face, someone a lot younger than him, a governor who people aren't that familiar with. The challenge they're realizing is that they'll have to spend 30 to 45 days, which they wont't have at that point (in the weeks after Labor Day), educating the American public about who this person is. The other category is someone who people instantly say, the second they see that (running mate) announcement, 'I get it, that person could be president tomorrow. Condi Rice is an option.'"

Then we had a story featuring McCain's reaction; he politely called Rice a great American and said that her purported interest was news to him. Then we had a story featuring Rice's demurrals, and about her professed intention to return to Stanford. Then we had a story about how she had dazzled conservatives two weeks ago at a Washington confab, and about how conservative leader Grover Norquist viewed her as a great choice for veep. Then we had a story about a new poll which claims that a McCain-Rice ticket would actually win the deep-blue state of New York if matched against a Democratic dream ticket (a classic silly season tabulation, right up there with the aforementioned '92 polls about Ross Perot).

Dare we waste (cyber)space by enumerating the gaping holes in this trial balloon?

The very last thing McCain needs is to place a Bush enabler on his ticket. His prospects of winning this election - and I believe he has definite prospects - hinges on his ability to distance himself from Bush, not lash himself to the tattered mast by picking one of Bush's credibility-challenged acolytes.

If McCain chose Rice, the stench of the last eight years would overwhelm his campaign. He would be forced to explain, defend, reject, or denounce all kinds of golden odlies, such as:

Her Sept. 8, 2002 assertion that Saddam Hussein needed to be removed because "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

Her other assertion, that same day: "We do know there have been shipments going into...Iraq, for instance, of aluminum tubes that really are only suited to—high-quality aluminum tools that only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs." (The State Department and the Energy Department had both concluded, long before, that those tubes were to be used for "conventional ordnance production," not nukes.)

Her certitude, voiced on July 30, 2003, that Saddam definitely had the goods and therefore had to be deposed by force: "This man was a threat. He had weapons of mass destruction." (Two days before her statement, David Kay, Bush's top weapons inspector, had told administration officials during a briefing that he had found nothing.)

Her insistence, during the spring of 2002, that the 9/11 attack had been a complete surprise: "I don't think anyone could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center." (Back in 1998, that exact scenario had been war-gamed by terrorist experts, in consultations with the Federal Aviation Administration; in 1999, the CIA-affiliated National Intelligence Council had warned about al Qaeda flying aircraft into symbolic American targets.")

Could this Condi silliness morph into something real? The Democrats should be so lucky.

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Speaking of silliness, let us today consider Bill Clinton. It may soon be time for Hillary to ship him off to a private fund-raiser in Guam, where perhaps security guards can foil YouTube by confiscating all camera-ready cellphones in advance.

Yesterday, Bill actually decided to talk (and talk) about the lies that Hillary recently told about being under sniper fire in Bosnia. He said it was so unfair that she has been criticized for that. He said that it was all the media's fault. (Naturally.)

Here's what he said while stumping for his spouse in Indiana, courtesy of NBC: "A lot of the way this whole campaign has been covered has amused me...there was a lot of fulminating because Hillary, one time late at night when she was exhausted, misstated, and immediately apologized for it, what happened to her in Bosnia in 1995. Did y'all see all that? Oh, they blew it up....I think she was the first first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt to go into a combat zone. And you would’ve thought, you know, that she'd robbed a bank the way they carried on about this. And some of them when they're 60 they'll forget something when they're tired at 11:00 at night, too."

At least when Bill said, in 1998, that he "didn't have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," he was only uttering one falsehood. The remarks above are replete with falsehoods:

Hillary didn't just lie about sniper fire "one time late at night." She did it on a number of occasions, including the light of morning. And she didn't "immediately" apologize for it; she stuck with her story for days, even after it was being questioned, and apologized only after she was busted by the video footage from 1996 (not 1995, as Bill had said.) And she wasn't the first first lady since Eleanor to visit a war zone; Pat Nixon went to Saigon in 1969, a fact that has been in the news since late March.

Earlier this morning, Hillary's office issued a statement thanking Bill for his concern, but stressing that the sniper story "was her mistake, and she takes responsibility for it."

Memo to Bill, who is imperiling his reputation as the smartest pol of his generation: When your wife is caught lying on camera, just leave it alone. Bringing it up again, and seeking to rationalize it, is the ultimate in silliness.

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I'm guesting on MSNBC's Hardball tonight (5 p.m. EST), probably at the bottom of the hour. No doubt we'll be discussing this story - and whether, as a result, Obama will lose some votes in Philadelphia on April 22.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A politician, not a messiah

The flip flop is a staple of politics as usual. Here’s a fresh example, starring Barack Obama:

A mere five months ago, in Iowa, Obama didn’t like it when outside “special interest” groups sided with his rivals, pumped their own money into the campaign, and ran independent ads against him. Most of those groups were actually affiliated with organized labor – and three quarters of the money came from labor - but he didn’t cut them any slack.

Obama assailed these independent groups as symptoms of "the same tired old political textbook that so many Americans just don’t trust anymore." He denounced their independent efforts, and said that he intended to run "a new kind of campaign." Meanwhile, his campaign manager, David Plouffe, cited several prominent unions for their pro-Clinton activities, and complained about how "shadowy" organizations were unleashing a "flood of Washington money" in an "underhanded" attempt to influence the caucuses.

In particular, Plouffe assailed AFSCME, referring to the public employes’ union as "Hillary Clinton’s friends in Washington" - that’s the kind of attack that Republicans typically launch, tagging labor as just another Beltway special interest – but AFSCME was hardly alone. The Obama campaign put out a December memo railing against "huge, unregulated contributions by special interests" and singled out, among others, the Service Employes International Union, which had affiliates working on behalf of John Edwards.

One liberal commentator, Ari Melber, wrote at the time: "Obama’s concerns sound more like sour grapes – AFSCME and SEIU would probably face little criticism if they were spending money on him."

He got that right. Fast forward to the Pennsylvania primary, present day...and the news that SEIU and an affiliated health-care local union are pouring upwards of $1 million into an independent pro-Obama effort that parallels the official Obama operation. Nothing illegal about that, then or now. The issue here is the difference between Obama’s stance, then and now.

Of the current outside effort by this "shadowy" "special interest," the candidate has said exactly zilch, uttering nary a whisper of protest. (Nor did he protest when SEIU spent $5 million on his behalf in several other primaries that preceded Pennsylvania.) Apparently he was against "the same tired old political textbook" before he was for it.

At times like these, I am tempted to send this message to his ardent devotees: Let us all remember, this guy does not walk on water. He’s a politician who is trying to win, and he will flip where he once flopped if that’s what it takes.

And why shouldn’t he? He pays no real penalty for expunging his December convictions. The issue of "independent campaign expenditures" and "special interest campaign influence" is of burning importance to roughly one percent of the general public, and that’s only if you include the good-government reformers and the editorial writers. Few others care about this stuff. And all Democratic politicians, including Obama, are well aware that, during the autumn campaign, labor’s independent expenditures will be crucial to the party’s White House prospects.

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Today, President Bush said a few upbeat words about Iraq, the surge, and the latest Petraeus-Crocker road show. I know, your pulse is quickening already. Actually he signaled his sentiments (the same as his old sentiments) in advance late yesterday, by granting an exclusive interview with the like-minded neoconservative William Kristol (who, naturally, reports to us this morning that Bush is "impressive").

Here's what Bush told Kristol. Stop me if you've heard this before: "There is progress...We are better off now than we were prior to the surge. And we're headed toward a day when the Iraqis are going to be able to manage their own affairs from a security perspective. But we're not there yet."

Then today he said that "it's clear we're on the right track," and that "progress" was being made.

But rest assured that, regardless of whatever Bush says now, it can’t possibly compete with what he articulated five years ago, almost to the day, in a message to the Iraqi people. Here it is, verbatim from the White House transcript of April 13, 2003:

"You’re free. And freedom is beautiful. And, you know, it’ll take time to restore chaos and order – order out of chaos."

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Iraq and rhetorical aspirin

George Orwell, best known for his novel 1984 but renowned in some circles (mine, anyway) for his spirited attacks on the bureaucratic debasement of the English language, would have winced at the evasive euphemisms repeatedly employed yesterday by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

In perhaps his most famous essay, written 62 years ago, Orwell wrote that government bureaucrats and political idealogues had grown fond of "gumming together long strips of words...and making the results presentable by sheer humbug....It is easier - even quicker, once you have the habit - to say, In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption than to say I think." He complained that the typical euphemism "falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details." Orwell likened it to "a packet of aspirins always at one's elbow."

Well, it was sure snowing yesterday when Petraeus broke out his aspirin bottle. After completing the modest U.S. troop drawdown that's already scheduled for July, he foresees "a 45-day period of consolidation and evaluation. At the end of that period, we will commence a process of assessment, to examine the conditions on the ground, and over time, determine when we can make recommendations for further reductions."

English translation: The place is a mess. We have no idea when things might get better. We're not pulling out any more troops. We're running out the clock on 2008.

Actually, I feel bad for the guy. Crocker, too. They're basically tasked with the thankless job of mopping up after George W. Bush and his discredited neocons, and one of the requisite chores is to trudge to Capitol Hill and gum together long strips of words. Nobody is going to shine in that role, waxing Orwellian on a war without end.

In a sense it was Crocker who had the worst moment, during a Senate Armed Services Committee exchange with Hillary Clinton (in her best moment), on a potentially far-reaching development that has been largely overlooked, thanks to the relentless media focus on the '08 Democratic primaries. Put on the spot by Clinton, Crocker responded predictably: He blurred the outline.

Some quick background. The Bush administration since November has been negotiating a sweeping long-term defense pact with its client regime in Iraq - a pact that, in the draft wording, would require the U.S. to provide open-ended "security assurances and commitments" to the embattled government. Bush and Prime Minister Maliki are aiming to wrap up negotiations this summer. It doesn't take a foreign policy genius to ferret out the implications of such a deal; America would be duty bound to respond, in some military fashion, when the Iraqi government was thought to be imperiled by foreign invaders or "outlaw groups" (again, the draft wording) operating inside the country. It's a blueprint for war without end, although it's couched in classic Orwellian language as a "long-term relationship of cooperation and friendship."

Given the fact that such a pact could bind us to Iraq for generations, at further expenditure of taxpayer money and American lives, and foist the Bush legacy on future presidents, one might assume that the American people (more than 60 percent of whom favor a withdrawal timetable) would at least get the chance to have their voices heard - through their representatives in the U.S. Senate. Because, as many legal experts have already pointed out, this deal has all the characteristics of a treaty, the kind that constitutionally requires the approval of 67 senators. After all, when Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower gave security assurances to Japan, South Korea, and the Phillippines after World War II, those pacts were treated as treaties and submitted for Senate ratification.

But the Bush regime doesn't intend to go that route.

Clinton has complained about this several times during the Democratic debates; she has been far more vocal on the issue than Barack Obama. And when Crocker brought up the "cooperation and friendship" pact yesterday - explaining that America must exhibit "continued resolve and commitment," that this pact would provide the necessary "authorizations and protections," and that, rest assured, "Congress will remain fully informed as these negotiations proceed" - Clinton threw out a simple question:

"Does the administration plan to submit this agreement to our Congress?"

Here was Crocker in response, with Orwell turning in his grave: "At this point, senator, we do not anticipate that the agreements will have within them any elements that would require the advise and consent procedure, we intend to negotiate this as an executive agreement."

English translation: Buzz off.

(By the way, Clinton has long been sponsoring a bill that would deny federal money for the implementation of such a pact, unless that pact was sent to the Senate for approval. As she said yesterday, after Crocker uttered his Orwellism, she finds it "odd" that Bush wants to submit the pact to the Iraqi Parliament for ratification, but not to the U.S. Senate. And yes, you read that correctly, that is Bush's intention.)

But at least one member of the Bush team isn't swaddling his words. It was Dick Cheney, three weeks ago, who best summed up the administration mindset; when asked whether he was cognizant of the national polls showing that two-thirds of Americans viewed the war as a mistake, he dismissively replied: "So?" Orwell would have been grateful that, for once, somebody had not sought to dull the pain of candor by reaching for the aspirin.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Ten questions for Petraeus

Gen. David Petraeus is back on Capitol Hill, talking about "progress" and pleading for more "patience." We all know the drill by now. Perhaps some lawmaker will ask him questions like these:

1. General Petraeus, four years ago you were in charge of training the Iraqi troops to stand up so that American soldiers could stand down. You insisted at the time that the training was going well. In fact, you wrote in The Washington Post: "I see tangible progress. Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt from the ground up...Training is on track and increasing in capacity....Considerable progress is also being made in the reconstruction and refurbishing of infrastructure for Iraq’s security forces...Iraq’s security forces are developing steadily and they are in the fight." That's what you said in 2004. Yet, today, Iraqi troops are still unable to take the lead in any significant battle, and when they tried to take on the Shiite militias in Basra late last month, more than 1000 soldiers deserted - along with some top Iraqi commanders. How do these realities square with your 2004 claims of "significant progress" in the training of the Iraqi troops?

2. Following up on that question, when do you realistically believe that the Iraqis will finally be able to defend themselves by fighting their own battles? And what realistic metrics are you using? The date originally envisioned by Iraqi officials was late 2006, but our Defense Department was repeatedly revised that timetable. Now it's supposed to be July of this year, but we all know that is fiction. Given the fact that your 2004 optimism has not been borne out by events, can you now provide more credible forecast criteria?

3. General, it's already clear that, at the end of 2008, we will have more troops in Iraq than we did when the "surge" was launched. Yet there is abundant evidence that our commitment is seriously impacting our combat troops. An official Army survey of soldiers' mental health now shows that more than 25 percent are suffering from clinical anxiety, depression, or acute stress - much of it triggered by the repeated redeployments. And the Joint Chiefs of Staff told President Bush last month that they are deeply concerned about these stresses on the soldiers. How long can we realistically be expected to bail out the Iraqis before our own military is broken?

4. General, when Prime Minister Maliki sent his government troops into battle late last month against the Shiite militias that are loyal to the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, President Bush hailed Maliki's move as "a defining moment" in the evolution of "a free Iraq." Given the failure of Maliki's military venture, would you agree with your president that this was a "defining moment"? And would you agree with Senator John McCain, who said at the outset of battle that Maliki's move was "a sign of the strength of his governnment"?

5. Let's see if we have this right: We're arming the minority Sunnis, and, even though we routinely denounce Iranian influence, we're nevertheless arming the Iranian-backed Shiite Maliki government, which in turn is fighting al-Sadr as well as other Iranian-backed Shiite warlords. Given all these complexities, general, what constitutes "victory" in Iraq?

6. General, when you appeared on Capitol Hill last September, you were asked whether the surge strategy would succeed in making America safer. You replied, "I don't know, actually." Do you feel today that the war, as waged during the last seven months, has made America safer? Failing that, have you at least made Americans in the Green Zone safer - or, as we have now learned, is it too risky to even go to the fitness center?

7. General, on the issue of incremental U.S. troop withdrawals, there appears to be a Catch-22 in the Bush administration's position. If the situation in Iraq is "fragile," to use the word of one official, then it's deemed foolish to send troops home, because that would make the situation worse. Yet even when Bush officials speak of "progress" in Iraq, it's still deemed foolish to send troops home, lest the progress be jeopardized. In other words, apparently we can't draw down when things are bad, and we can't draw down when things are good. Is there a third scenario that has escaped us, that would allow for gradual withdrawals?

8. General, one of your staunchest supporters is Senator John McCain. After he returned from his most recent trip to Iraq, McCain said, "We're succeeding. I don't care what anybody says." Could you please provide a more nuanced assessment? For instance, the State Department has determined that Iraq this month is providing less electricity to its citizens (58 percent of demand) that it did during the same month one year ago (66 percent of demand). President Bush originally intended to make Iraq safe more democracy. Would it be more realistic, as a measurement of success, to strive to at least make Iraq safe for electricity?

9. General, the experts who advised the original Iraq Study Group have now issued a new report. This report concludes that Iraqi political reconciliation - the ultimate goal of the surge - has been "slow, halting and superficial," and that the political divisions are "so pronounced" that we are no closer to leaving Iraq than we were one year ago, in the early phase of the surge. Do you have any evidence that further American military deaths, and further American expenditures (at the current rate of $3 billion a week), will somehow convince the warring Iraqi factions to reconcile?

10. Last September, President Bush told the deputy prime minister of Australia that, with respect to the American surge in Iraq, "we're kicking ass." Seven months have passed. General, are we kicking ass?

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UPDATE: We have an answer to question #6...well, sort of an answer. Asked again today whether the war is making America safer, Petraeus replied: "It can only be answered by history, once the outcome in Iraq has been determined."

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UPDATE: Not even Petraeus feels comfortable joining McCain in the waving of pom poms.

Here was McCain on Iraq this morning, the "maverick" in full Bush mode: "We can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success."

Here was Petraeus, a few hours later: "We haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel. The champagne bottle has been pushed to the back of the refrigerator."

Monday, April 07, 2008

Blame the Clintons, not Mark Penn

The Clintons were reportedly shocked, shocked to learn this weekend that chief strategist Mark Penn had recently donned his other hat - as CEO of a global consulting firm - and sought to lobby on behalf of a client for a trade treaty that Hillary opposes on the campaign trail. The Clintons let it be known that they were "angry" with Penn, and last night they made it clear that Penn will no longer pilot Hillary's lurching ship.

Most voters don't really care when a campaign plays musical chairs with its personnel. As the CEO of Burson-Marsteller, Penn is clearly a prominent figure among his farflung corporate clients (including Countrywide Financial, our top mortgage lender; Blackwater Worldwide, the security mercenaries who have been blamed for reckless and deadly actions in Iraq, Shell Oil, Pfizer and many others), but he is hardly a household name to the American electorate. So I am less interested in Penn than what Penn's rise and fall tells us about Hillary Clinton herself, and about the boneheaded fundamentals of her campaign. Penn has not been the source of her woes, only a symptom.

Ever since her campaign was launched, she and Bill have condoned and tolerated Penn's dubious dual role. They appeared not to understand their own problem, that it might be difficult to sell Hillary as the candidate of "change" when their own chief strategist was so enmeshed in the special-interest world of Washington. Clearly, they never demanded that Penn, as a condition of his campaign employment, step down from his executive position and thus distance himself financially from clients whose business needs might clash with Hillary's political needs.

Heck, even Karl Rove did that; in fact, Rove did better than that. Back in 1999, at the dawn of George W. Bush's excellent adventure, Rove sold off his Texas consulting firm, and thus avoided all conflict of interest charges during the subsequent campaign. One might have assumed that a Democratic candidate - who bills herself as a fighter against the special interests - would insist that Penn work out a similar arrangement. But no.

So, not surprisingly, there was a report last Friday that Penn met with one of his clients, the government of Colombia, for the purpose of helping Colombia secure passage of a bilateral trade treaty that Hillary has publicly opposed because she believes it hurts American workers. Colombia signed up Penn last year; the contract was worth $300,000. There would have been no such contract last year if the Clintons had insisted in advance that Penn wear only his campaign hat, at least for the duration of the campaign.

And, lest we get caught up only in the present moment, it's important to remember that this Colombia episode is hardly the first Penn flap. Nearly a year ago, the news surfaced that Burson-Marsteller was fond of advertising its expertise in the art of union-busting. In other words, at a time when Hillary was trying to sell herself as a fighter on behalf of the average worker, her chief strategist's lobbying firm was helping corporations thwart the organizing efforts of unions that sought to help the average worker.

For instance, as reporter Ari Berman documented last spring, Penn's firm counseled Cintas, a leading laundry supply company, in its persistent efforts to block its workers from organizing. (The chief officer of Cintas, by the way, had long been a leading fundraiser for Bush.) Penn, in his defense, later said that, notwithstanding his position as CEO of the firm, he had never "personally participated" in offering any union-busting advice. Clearly, however, Burson-Marseller did not enjoy being outed; last year, the firm also erased, from its website, all references to its union-busting expertise.

The important point here is that even after these embarrassing stories surfaced, and even after a number of prominent national union leaders complained in writing to the Clintons about Penn's conflicts and the mixed campaign message that his conflicts implied, nothing changed. The Clintons didn't force Penn to make any changes. And Penn continued to wear his two hats, thereby laying the groundwork for the most recent political embarrassment. At a time when Hillary's campaign may well hinge on whether she can bond successfully on April 22 with Pennsylvania's downtrodden workers, it didn't help that her chief strategist was trying to feather his own nest by working a trade deal deemed hurtful to workers.

So the Clinton's purported fury with Penn is badly misplaced. They enabled Penn from the beginning, and thereby made it easier for Barack Obama to capture the "change" label and tie Hillary to the "status quo." They have only themselves to blame. (Meanwhile, they're still allowing Penn to keep polling for the campaign.)

And they certainly can't blame Penn for Hillary's latest credibility embarrassment. She managed this one all by herself.

For weeks on the campaign trail, Hillary has been repeating an anecdote ("I heard a story that just kinda haunted me...") about an uninsured Ohio woman, Trina Bachtel, who lost her baby and died because a hospital turned her away; according to Hillary, the woman was denied care because she failed to come up with a $100 fee. You can see the yarn in action on video.

Well, it turns out that Hillary's tear-jerker was wrong in most key respects: (a) the woman was actually insured, (b) the woman was not refused medical care, (c) the woman - who did die after her baby was stillborn - was under the care of an obstetrician affiliated with a hospital. And that purported $100 fee? That's as true as Hillary's snipers.

The fact is, Hillary did "hear a story." As an Ohio newspaper reported on Friday, and as the New York Times followed up on Saturday, some sheriff's deputy in Ohio first told Hillary a second-hand yarn about what he had heard about Bachtel. But he got most of the facts wrong...and Hillary didn't bother to have the facts checked out by her staff before doing a rhetorical polish on the stump.

On Saturday, the Clinton campaign promised to excise the Bachtel yarn from the standard stump speech. In all probability, this incident will now be trumped by the news of Mark Penn's departure as chief strategist. But both stories are essentially the same, in this respect: it is the candidate who is ultimately responsible for campaign quality control.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Obama and the benefits of time

I’m traveling the rest of this week – and not for work reasons – so new postings will be light (today) or non-existent (Friday). The normal regimen resumes on Monday.

However, with respect to the Pennsylvania primary, a passing thought did occur to me. This six-week interregnum between Democratic contests is definitely benefiting Barack Obama - as evidenced by numerous polls, all of which show a tightening race. Consider the reasons:

1. He’s getting plenty of time to introduce himself to a state where Hillary Clinton is as familiar as Hershey chocolate. Pennsylvanians generally don’t warm to candidates with whom they are unfamiliar; Ed Rendell finally won the governor’s job 16 years after his first try. The Clinton brand has been around since 1992, and if the Pennsylvania campaign window had been a lot narrower, Hillary would be blowing Obama away on name ID alone. But thanks to the elongated calendar, Obama has the luxury of traveling by bus, doing retail politics in small cities and towns, and getting himself known in ways that slick TV ads can never accomplish. Sort of like he managed to do in Iowa.

2. He’s had the time to rebound from the Jeremiah Wright crisis. If that bomb had gone off during a tight turnaround between contests, he would have been toast. But his bold speech on race, notwithstanding some lingering concerns, has tamped down the flames, and he delivered it early enough in the Pennsylvania cycle for maximum resonance.

3. Cursed by the slow time clock, Hillary created her own little crisis. Obama's woes got trumped by her Bosnia sniper fantasies, thereby rekindling the old doubts about Clintonian credibility. It appeared at first that the cable TV shows, faced with the need to fill air time during this long vote-free interregnum, would be forever flogging the Wright story, but Hillary has given them something new to chew on. And chew on. Nothing stirs the commentators more than footage of a politician lying on camera.

4. The horserace story is frozen, and that benefits Obama. Until the Pennsylvania verdict on April 22, Hillary is stuck with her pledged-delegate and popular-vote deficits. She can’t change the basic narrative of the race, and, as these weeks drag by, more and more Democrats are fretting that the contest (translation: prolonged by Hillary) is hurting their prospects for November. In response, Hillary has had to spend valuable time scoffing at suggestions that she should quit. It’s not a good sign when a candidate’s basic pitch is essentially reduced to, "Vote for me so that Indiana can vote, too."

5. Without new votes to count, every new superdelegate endorsement receives greater media attention – and that’s another plus for Obama. The drip-drip continues: Bob Casey...Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar...Wyoming Gov. David Freudenthal (a former Bill Clinton administration appointee, no less) signed on yesterday...Former Montana Sen. John Melcher did the same...And so did former 9/11 Commission co-chairman Lee Hamilton. He’s not a superdelegate, but he’s a party elder with strong national security credentials who also co-helmed the Iraq Study Group...And superdelegate Jimmy Carter all but signaled yesterday that he has signed on.

6. And without new votes to count, the media watches the money. Obama just endured the worst month of his campaign, yet he still raised upwards of $40 million. That’s reportedly double the Clinton total. The word is that she also has debts in the range of $9 million – not even counting the $5 mil that she recently donated from her own bank account. Obama, again taking advantage of the calendar, is outspending Clinton by a 3-1 margin in the state where he can potentially break her campaign.

All told, Clinton may think it’s a boon to cast herself in the role of Rocky, but perhaps she forgets the plot. Rocky lost.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Gas prices and pander politics

In his bid to bond with blue-collar Pennsylvanians during the runup to the April 22 primary, Barack Obama engaged yesterday in some old-school substance-free politicking. He denounced the price of gasoline.

"Gas prices are killing folks," he said in hardscrabble Wilkes-Barre. "I got an email from a friend of mine. It says, 'just in case you're not living in the real world, being driven around by the Secret Service, it just cost me $85 to fill my tank.'" Obama continued, referring to the oil companies, "They have been in fat city for a long time. They are not necessarily putting that money into refinery capacity, which could potentially relieve some of the bottlenecks in our gasoline supply. And so that is something we have to go after. I think we can go after the windfall profits of some of these companies."

Politicians love to rail against high gas prices and Big Oil; it's easy rhetorical populism, a way to stand up for the little guy. And it's a potentially good tactic for Obama, who's trying chip away at Hillary Clinton's Pennsylvania lead by demonstrating that he's more than just a guy who wows the intelligentsia with pretty speeches; that, in fact, he also empathizes with the working stiff (especially the modest-income white male swing voter). And there's no faster route to the heart of the average Joe than a lament about pain at the pump - as he also demonstrates in a Pennsylvania TV ad.

But, dandy soundbites aside, it's basically a phony issue.

The last thing that presidential candidates want to tell voters is that, quite frankly, there is little they can actually do, once in office, to control (much less lower) the price of gas. There is an increasingly robust global market for oil these days, and America is merely one of the buyers - competing in particular with China and India, two nations with burgeoning economies and a billion people in each. With those nations driving up demand, and demonstrating an ability to pay, then the price of oil will naturally stay high. That's capitalism.

Americans like to think of themselves as Number One; woe to the politician who tries to truthfully explain the facts of life in the 21st century. Americans also believe in the right to drive their gas-guzzling SUVs; woe to the politician who tries to explain that voters themselves are actually part of the problem on the demand side. (John Zogby, the pollster, once told me a story: "My son and I went to a book party for Arianna Huffington. She waxed eloquent about the pitfalls of SUVs. everybody listened - and when we left, maybe 11 SUVs were parked outside, waiting to pick up guests. Point is, you can't call on Americans to sacrifice during a presidential campaign. That's a loser.")

Yet while demand in America and abroad has sharply increased, supply has not kept pace, for a host of reasons. Such as: OPEC, the 12-nation combine that produces roughly 40 percent of the world's oil, has barely increased its output since 1979. Ongoing civil unrest in Nigeria has hurt production there; Venezuela during the past several years has nationalized its oil fields, and its regime, which is hostile to American interests, has been routing oil to China - oil that was supposed to go to Exxon refineries in Louisiana.

But none of that makes for good campaign rhetoric. It's catchier for Obama to attack "windfall profits," as he did yesterday, or for politicians to charge Big Oil with "price gouging," as Republican politicians did several years ago. In fact, when gas prices rose in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, even President Bush asked the Federal Trade Commission to find out whether the oil companies were manipulating the market at the consumer's expense. The FTC found no such evidence. As one energy analyst drily noted in 2006, the companies weren't "price gouging"; rather, this analyst said, they were charging the highest price that the global market would accept - which is another definition of capitalism, at least in its more rapacious form.

Democrats also have a big blind spot on this issue. They'll get on the stump and call for cheaper gas prices, yet the laudable environmental measures that they champion are virtually guaranteed to drive the price higher. For instance, I remember a 45-cent spike at the pump in California five years ago, and the politicians yelled "price gouging" - while somehow overlooking the fact that the state had just enacted strict environmental rules that forced refineries to mix in two new low-pollution fuel blends. And two years ago, there was a national spike in gas prices - thanks in part to a new congressional law requiring that the oil refineries convert to cleaner fuel blends for the warmer weather, a process that slowed production and tightened supply.

Meanwhile, it's amusing these days to hear some Democrats still pine for Al Gore. Gore's whole pitch is that gas prices should be a lot higher, in order to wean more Americans from their cars; to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to ease traffic congestion; to lower the pollution-related health risks and costs. He knows darn well that if he was ever to be a candidate again, there's no way he could say on the stump what he truly believes, not if he wants to win.

In fairness to Obama, he did call yesterday for the investment in new technologies, "so we can replace the internal combustion engine," but such a process, even if fully engaged, would require decades to complete. And many energy analysts believe that high gas prices are beneficial, because they would hasten the day when alternative fuel sources are economically viable.

That, too, is capitalism. But such talk won't work on the stump, and sure won't deliver Pennsylvania in this election cycle.

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But speaking of Pennsylvania, congressman John Murtha did Hillary Clinton no favors yesterday when he declared that she would win the state primary by double digits. Murtha, who has endorsed Clinton, would have been far wiser to lowball the expectations for victory - particularly since the latest polls show that the contest is tightening. One new survey even puts Obama ahead.