Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Down in the weeds with Barack Obama

Welcome to the Moe Greene Memorial Debate.

You might remember Moe Greene. He was a Vegas hot shot in The Godfather, the guy who taunted Michael Corleone by boasting, “I made my bones while you were going out with cheerleaders!”

Well, last night, in the latest Democratic fencing match, Barack Obama decided to go to the mattresses. There he was, taking a page from the Moe stylebook, citing his work as a Chicago community organizer, and taunting Hillary Clinton: “While I was working on those streets, watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart!”

Whereupon Hillary, minutes later, carried out her own retaliatory hit: “I was fighting against (Republican) ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Rezco, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago!”

Wasn’t it just six nights ago, in the previous Democratic debate, when these rivals supposedly forged a truce? No way that was going to last. The stakes are way too high. Obama feels like Hillary and Bill have been ganging up on him, and he knows that a victory in South Carolina this Saturday is crucial for his candidacy. Meanwhile, Hillary and Bill would love to flatten his tires before the big ride on Feb. 5. They’re determined to sully Obama’s image so that he seems like just another politician – and to make it clear that, even if Obama decides to bring a knife to the fight, they’ll bring a gun. That's the Chicago way.

The contest this week is to win the allegiance of African-American voters, who are expected to comprise roughly half, or more, of the South Carolina electorate. Obama’s preemptive swipe at Hillary’s Wal-Mart ties (which she never did address, much less refute) was clearly intended to demonstrate that, not only is he now willing to attack, but that she has done far more over the past 35 years than simply “fight for change.” And the fact is, she served for six years on the board of a corporation that is often reviled by liberal and minority leaders as an exploiter of non-union labor.

But Hillary fired back with that Rezco story, and Obama, seeking to defend himself, made matters worse by telling less than the whole truth. Antonin Rezco is indeed a Chicago slumlord, and Obama tried to explain him away by saying: “I was an associate at a law firm that represented a church group that had partnered with this individual to do a project, and I did about five hours worth of work on this joint project.”

Obama merely omitted the fact – long documented in the Chicago newspapers – that he had been friends with “this individual” for 17 years; that Rezko had been a political patron who had raised money for Obama; and that Obama had accepted campaign donations from Rezko during a period when Rezko’s slum buildings were deteriorating. Also, Hillary probably did Obama a favor by failing to mention that Rezko has been indicted by the feds on 24 counts stemming from his alleged shakedown schemes…and that Rezko and the candidate once worked together on a lucrative real estate deal for an Obama family home.

No wonder Obama didn’t want to get bogged down trying to explain the Rezko connection. The problem was, he wound up spending much of the debate wandering in the weeds anyway.

Hillary had him back on his heels, repeatedly, forcing him to explain all kinds of things – his recent remarks about Ronald Reagan, for example. Obama told a Reno newspaper last week that Reagan had been a transformative president and that Reagan had correctly judged the public mood of the early ‘80s. Hillary, purportedly shocked last night, exclaimed, “You talked about admiring Ronald Reagan.”

Black voters in South Carolina and elsewhere are not so admiring of Ronald Reagan, so Obama was thus compelled to explain that he had been praising Reagan’s political skills, not his policies. Now, it just so happens that, on page 404 of Tom Brokaw’s bestselling book, Boom!, Hillary herself is quoted fulsomely praising Reagan’s political skills ("He played the balance and the music beautifully"), and Obama did make a passing reference to this, but the retort didn’t register because he was stuck playing defense at the time.

Later, she also gummed him up with the arcane details of his Illinois legislature record, and again he had to defend and explain. In theory, what better way to dent his halo than to suggest that he was not exactly a profile in courage when the chips were down? She began that phase of the operation with this rhetorical thrust: “You know, Senator Obama, it is very difficult having a straight-up debate with you, because you never take responsibility for any vote, and that has been a pattern.”

The Hillary camp has come up with 129 episodes in which Obama voted “present” as a state legislator - in essence, declining to take a stand on key bills. This is procedurally permissible in Illinois, but Hillary wanted him to expend valuable time trying to explain this, as opposed to parading his charisma and trumpeting his message.

And so he did. Obama gains nothing when he has to talk like this: “In Illinois, oftentimes you vote present in order to indicate that you had problems with a bill that otherwise you might be willing to vote for…most of these were technical problems with a piece of legislation that ended up getting modified.”

He was also compelled to explain why he had voted against a U.S. Senate bill that capped credit card interest rates. Hillary voted to cap the rates at 30 percent, Obama did not. When asked about this – by both Hillary and John Edwards - Obama got stuck in the weeds again, with an explanation that even would have lulled a political science scholar to sleep: “I thought 30 percent potentially was too high of a ceiling. So we had had no hearings on that bill. It had not gone through the Banking Committee…There had been no discussion about how we were going to structure this and this was something that had not gone through the committee and we hadn't talked about.”

All the while, it was amusing last night to see Edwards playing the Kumbaya candidate, traveling the high road. (“This kind of squabbling, how many children is this going to get health care? How many people are going to get an education from this? How many kids are going to be able to go to college because of this?...We have got to understand this is not about us personally. It is about what we are trying to do for this country.”) Quite a mouthful, coming from the same guy who for many months was the most strident attacker on the debate stage, assailing Hillary as a dissembler and corporate tool while Obama stayed civil.

The big question is whether Hillary will reap electoral rewards for taking it to Obama, goading him to explain himself, forcing him into Moe Greene mode. Has she created reasonable doubt in the minds of black South Carolinians – or will she suffer a backlash for her efforts? No predictions here. As I see it, there was only one immediate winner of last night’s debate. It was the guy that all three Democrats were suddenly invoking, while making the case for their own electability:

John McCain.


Speaking of the Republican race, there was breaking news this afternoon. To paraphrase the poet T. S. Eliot, This is the way the candidacy ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper:

"Today I have withdrawn my candidacy for President of the United States. I hope that my country and my party have benefited from our having made this effort. Jeri and I will always be grateful for the encouragement and friendship of so many wonderful people."

So went Fred Thompson's farewell, as the GOP's Great Bubba Hope of 2007 collapses like a bad souffle.