Friday, February 01, 2008

The Democrats' Hollywood comity

It’s fitting that the two Democratic finalists debated last night in the Los Angeles theatre that hosts the Oscars. The envelopes, please...

Most cringe-worthy imagery: Democratic party leaders were not well served by CNN, which kept training its cameras on the Hollywood celebrities in attendance. Look, there’s Diane Keaton wearing white gloves! And Stevie Wonder in cornrows! And Rob Reiner (twice)! Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are on stage trying to talk about the everyday vicissitudes of the average Joe...and, meanwhile, the cameras are focused on people who probably define "poverty" as the inability to afford a Porsche Cayenne Turbo SUV. This kind of imagery hurts the Democrats in the heartland.

Most invoked Republican: John McCain. His name was first invoked by Obama barely 30 minutes into the debate, and five times thereafter. Obama was intent on making the case to undecided primary voters, particularly former John Edwards voters, that he, not Hillary, would be a more formidable candidate against McCain. He repeatedly stressed this theme, which suggests that he’s not yet confident of his standing with the Democratic base; by contrast, Hillary never tried to trump him and argue for her own superior electability, which suggests that her confidence level is higher on the eve of Tsunami Tuesday.

Still, when Obama linked the electability theme to Hillary’s 2002 Iraq war authorization vote, he racked up a few debating points: "I would be the Democrat most effective in going up against John McCain or any other Republican…I would offer a clear contrast, as somebody who never supported this war, thought it was a bad idea. I don’t want to just end this war, I want to end the mindset that got us in the war in the first place." And speaking of the war...

Worst defensive crouch: Hillary. After 18 debates, she still has the same problem. Whenever the discussion turns to what happened during the prelude to war, she is back on her feels, trying in vain to explain herself. I’ve already written at length about her ’02 vote, and her various attempts to defend it; without reprising the whole topic, suffice it to say that she can’t extinguish it with a few well-chosen phrases. Her defense is convoluted, and doesn’t play well in a debate format.

By contrast, Obama can reduce his position to a sentence – he was against the war then, and against it now – notwithstanding the fact that he has voted in sync with Hillary to fund the troops. And even though this particular debate was civil (more on that below), he still managed, repeatedly, to link her war vote to his larger theme about judgment. He took her line about being "ready on day one" and gave it a twist: "It is important to be right on day one."

On the other hand, I question whether many undecided Democrats are going to base their decisions on what the candidates were doing or saying about Iraq nearly six years ago.

Smartest response on a politically sensitive topic: Hillary. A black worker wanted to know why the candidates aren’t addressing the growing problem of joblessness and wage loss in the black community, caused by "the flood of immigrant labor." That was a tricky one, given black-brown tensions in some locales, and the fact that Hillary and Obama are competing for both black and Latino votes next Tuesday.

Obama, perhaps mindful that he needs help from Latinos in the California primary, stood up for Latinos and said that the questioner was "scapegoating." Hillary’s answer was far more nuanced. She stood up for the average worker: "I believe that in many parts of our country, because of employers who exploit undocumented workers and drive down wages, there are job losses. And I think we should be honest about that. There are people who have been pushed out of jobs in factories and meat processing plants and all kinds of settings."

Hillary has a lot of support among downscale workers, and they probably appreciated that. And then she segued into her Latino-friendly pitch for a comprehensive path to citizenship – requiring illegal immigrants to learn English, pay taxes, and wait in line – and "once we have those conditions met, and people agree, then they will not be in a labor market that undercuts anybody else's wages." She was substantive without being wonky, and deftly defused the issue’s underlying racial tensions.

Lamest response on a politically sensitive topic: Hillary. When it was pointed out that many Democrats are worried about Bill Clinton’s role in a Hillary White House, she switched to auto-pilot: "At the end of the day, it is my name that's on the ballot. And it will be my responsibility as president and commander in chief, after consulting broadly with a lot of people who have something to contribute to difficult decisions, I will have to make the call. And I am fully prepared to do that....and that is what I'm asking to be entrusted to do."

But that answer didn’t begin to address the substantive questions that have been raised lately about Bill Clinton’s various business, consulting, and fund-raising endeavors, and whether his activities might complicate her White House decision-making.

For instance, Obama did her a favor by failing to bring up the New York Times investigative story that ran yesterday. It disclosed that Bill and a mining financier recently did a business deal with the despot who runs Kazakhstan; that the financier has since donated $30 million to Bill’s charitable foundation; and that Bill has been trying to get the Kazakh despot a job heading up an international group that champions democracy and free elections. Meanwhile, this despot, who rigged his own election in 2005, has been denounced for human rights violations…by Senator Hillary Clinton. And this is just once case study.

Most gallant moment since Walter Raleigh spread his cloak over a puddle for Queen Elizabeth I: Obama, at debate's end, pulling out Hillary's chair so that she could stand. This visual was no doubt intended to replace the "snub" visual, whereby Obama appeared to turn away from Hillary on State of the Union night. And just in case the chivalry visual wasn't enough, they smiled upon each other at such close range that they seemed on the verge of a lip lock. Hey, cosmetics matter. They wanted to send a message that the Democrats are in no danger of tearing themselves asunder (unlike many times in the past).

They also realize that the race could go on for awhile, way past Feb. 5, and become a guerilla war for delegates. Hence their civility last night (a deliberately sought contrast to the McCain-Romney enmity). Hillary and Obama clearly sense the need to pace themselves, and that might be good advice for the rest of us.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bile and guile with a smile

When the mood strikes him – as it did last night, with the GOP brass ring finally in sight – John McCain can sure be a duplicitous rascal.

In the final Republican debate before the Feb. 5 primaries, McCain took Mitt Romney apart. He gleefully tormented his rival – bile with a smile - while Romney just sputtered and whined. McCain was hit with a few tough questions along the way, but he shrugged them off, bobbing and weaving and stonewalling…and Romney, perhaps still reeling from his critical primary defeat in Florida, let him get away with it.

In other words, there wasn’t much "straight talk" from McCain last night. But if the Feb. 5 voters are in the hunt for a wily SOB, they’ve probably found him. As the fabled baseball manager Leo Durocher supposedly said half a century ago, "Nice guys finish last."

In fact, we saw the frontrunner in a variety of guises:

McCain the dirty trickster. He repeatedly insisted – as he had during the final 48 hours in Florida – that Romney waved the white flag back in April 2007, by supposedly endorsing a secret timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. Romney had said no such thing.

In his interview that month with ABC News, Romney said that President Bush and the Iraqi prime minister should establish a set of confidential "timetables and milestones" that would help them measure progress "in terms of the strength of the Iraqi military and the Iraqi police and the leadership of the Iraqi government." And when the reporter sought clarification, and asked whether Romney, as president, would veto any timetable on troop withdrawals, he replied, "Of course."

Romney, visibly flustered, again tried to point all this out last night, but McCain stuck with his charge. He argued that Romney had engaged in surrender talk simply by uttering the word timetable, which was a "buzz word for withdrawal" back in the spring of ’07 - and, worse yet, it was a Democratic buzz word. McCain was clearly flogging a lie, but it worked brilliantly as a debate tactic, because it forced Romney to spend precious time playing defense.

And the clever part was that McCain wove the lie into his larger narrative – the true part – about how he had vocally supported the surge early last year while virtually everyone else, including Romney, was silent or circumspect. All the while, Romney was lamenting about how he had been wronged, and I suspect that many Republican viewers reacted by thinking, "Deal with it, girly man."

McCain the artful dodger. When the questioning got tough, he climbed aboard the double-talk express.

It was pointed out, for example, that back when he opposed the Bush tax cuts, he complained that they were skewed too heavily toward the rich. Yet now he supports making those tax cuts permanent. So, he was asked, if those cuts were too skewed to the rich before, aren’t they still too skewed to the rich?

Naturally, it was an inconvenient question, since it reminded Republican viewers that he had assailed the Bush cuts and had offered a liberal populist rationale for doing so. He thus stonewalled the question. Instead of talking about 2001, he time-traveled to 1981: "I was part of the Reagan revolution. I was there with Jack Kemp and Phil Gramm and Warren Rudman and all these other fighters that wanted to change a terrible economic situation in America with 10 percent unemployment and 20 percent interest rates. I was proud to be a foot soldier."

Yet Romney, rather than pouncing on McCain’s transparent evasion, offered only a mild rejoinder, then went wandering off into a policy rap about entitlements. And that was the pattern last night.

A questioner also reminded McCain that the senator’s original immigration reform bill had featured a path to citizenship for illegals. He was asked whether he would vote for that same bill today if it came to a vote on the Senate floor (which is tantamount to asking whether he still supports a path to citizenship, an idea that is anathema to much of the conservative base).

He replied: "It won’t. It won’t..."

Question: "But what if it did?"

Again he replied: "No, it would not." He said he now believes that border security trumps all other immigration issues (it is, he says, "the mandate of the American people"), and he explained his new priorities before adding testily, "if you want me to go through the description all over again, I would be glad to."

Yet Romney, rather than pouncing on McCain as a flip-flopper, as just another Washington politician who bends with the prevailing winds (in this case, the conservative base), he stayed silent.

McCain the counter-puncher. Early in the debate, when Romney tried to rally conservative voters by citing McCain’s various past heresies, McCain basically said, "I’m proud of my conservative record," and quickly pivoted to the offense, ticking off a litany of Romney’s alleged failings as governor of Massachusetts. And Romney, in response, took the bait. He said, "OK, I got a little work to do here," and launched into a lengthy rebuttal that only served to keep him stuck on defense. The quality of his rebuttal was beside the point; what mattered was that, again, he was kept busy trying to explain himself, and that’s not where a candidate wants to be.

McCain the rabbit-puncher. Every once in awhile, without provocation, and simply because he seemed to enjoy it, McCain gave Romney a whack to the kidneys. During a civil disquisition about the experiences that qualify a candidate for the White House, McCain said of Romney’s business background, "He’s a fine man. And I think he managed companies. And he bought and he sold and sometimes people lost their jobs. That’s the nature of that business."

And again, Romney let it go. All told, if this guy can’t find a way to keep his footing, and take the fight to McCain in the scant time remaining before Feb. 5, then he probably deserves to lose.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Flight of the phoenix

John McCain, the phoenix of American politics, is now marching with confidence toward the GOP nomination. Barring an unforeseen reversal during the next seven days, he seems well positioned to cement his top-dog status when 20 more states weigh in, from coast to coast, on Feb. 5.

The stars appear to be aligning in accordance with his most fervent wishes:

1. By winning the Florida primary last night, he demonstrated broad support among mainstream GOP voters - under state party rules, only registered Republicans were allowed to vote – and that was critical, because his previous primary victories were powered by independents and crossover Democrats. And he can also brag that he finished on top in the first big state on the primary calendar – and a swing state in the November election.

2. In victory, he can now reasonably argue that he’s more than a one-trick pony. National security is his pet issue, yet the voters favored him by five percentage points over Mitt Romney despite the fact that they cited the economy (not McCain’s strong point) as the overriding issue.

3. Mike Huckabee, the evangelical candidate, helped McCain greatly last night by pulling tens of thousands of evangelical Floridians away from Romney. Absent Huckabee’s presence in the race, many evangelicals (40 percent of the primary electorate) probably would have gravitated toward their backup choice, Romney. And Huckabee plans to stay in the race, trolling for votes and delegates in many of the Feb. 5 states, thereby threatening again to dampen Romney’s vote tallies – and making it easier for McCain to prevail.

4. Rudy "Noun-Verb-9/11" Giuliani bade farewell last night – thereby demonstrating, as many of us had foreseen 10 weeks ago, that his idea to skip all the early primaries and camp out in Florida bordered on the delusional. (He spent in excess of $50 million on his White House quest...and won exactly one delegate. Rudy's candidacy brings to mind that movie scene in The Fugitive, when a derailed train plummets in flames down an embankment.) And this too is good for McCain. Rudy will endorse McCain today, and many of the national-security conservatives who were hoping to vote for Rudy can easily slide over to the like-minded McCain – further buoying McCain’s bullish prospects in Feb. 5 states such as New York, New Jersey, and California.

But McCain is not home free; as the fine print of the Florida exit poll makes clear, he still hasn’t won over the diehard voters on the right. Romney beat him by 10 points among those voters who described themselves as conservative (62 percent of the primary electorate); conversely, McCain was heavily favored by the 28 percent of Republican voters who said they were moderate, the 11 percent who said they were liberal. He was also the strong favorite of those who said they rarely or never attend church, but he was spurned by the devout.

Meanwhile, he was the first choice of those voters who said they’re dissatisfied with President Bush (33 percent of the primary electorate), but the second choice of those who are happy with Bush. He was also the second choice of those who want to
ban abortions, and the second choice of those who want to deport all illegal immigrants. (Regarding the latter item: Hispanics comprised 12 percent of the GOP turnout, and they voted overwhelmingly for McCain. This was the guy who supposedly had no chance to get the GOP nomination, because of his support for giving illegals a path to citizenship. Last night, Republican Hispanics gave him a big boost toward that nomination. He would regard that as poetic justice.)

In other words, the conservative GOP base is not sold on him yet. One question in the days ahead is whether, and to what extent, the base is willing to embrace the guy, its past litany of grievances notwithstanding. This assumes that they have a viable alternative. Mitt Romney can stay in the game, but, in order to do so, he will need to spend more of his kids’ inheritance; to demonstrate that he has an authentic core and is therefore more than just a pandering weathervane; and to somehow convince evangelicals that a vote for Huckabee is a wasted vote, tantamount to a vote for McCain. (When the three survivors will debate on CNN tonight, it will be instructive to see whether Romney tries to marginalize Huckabee.)

Fortunately for Romney, he has the personal bucks for major TV ad buys coast to coast over the next week, while the relatively cash-strapped McCain will be out there scrounging for free media coverage. But McCain excels at the latter, and it’s worth noting that Romney’s saturation of the Florida airwaves – he ran 4475 ads; McCain, a mere 470 – didn’t give him sufficient bang for the buck. As any admaker will tell you, it can be tough to sell a product that consumers don’t want.

So, in a sense, it’s all down to Romney. As he scans the landscape today, he sees McCain poised to sweep the Feb. 5 northeastern states and probably California (where Gov. Schwarzenegger is McCain-friendly). He sees Huckabee still on the trail, working the Feb. 5 southern states (Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas), garnering votes that he badly needs. Where does Romney plant his flag and win (finally, for the first time) a fully contested primary? Will the McCain-haters - including members of the party's corporate establishment - buck him up anyway, and urge him onward? And remember, most of the big contests are "winner take all," which means that you get zilch delegates if you don't finish first.

For now, Romney insists he'll tough it out and try to gather all the McCain-averse voters beneath his banner. On Fox News early this morning, he said: "This has come down to a two-person race. That with Mayor Giuliani out and with Mike Huckabee having done so poorly here in Florida, that the options are me or John McCain, and that will bring a lot of conservatives together, if I'm successful in that effort. And I think in that case, there's a ceiling as to how many votes Senator McCain will get, that's the hope."

Let’s see how long Romney is willing to dip into his deep pockets. Because if he doesn’t, this race is essentially over, and the last man standing will have completed his improbable rise from the political grave.


UPDATE, on the Democratic side:

The headless chicken has toppled over.

John Edwards is pulling out today. I wrote his political obituary a week ago, so there's no need here to revisit the reasons for his demise. The big question now is where his voters are most likely to land.

The common assumption is that his departure will help Barack Obama, since it would appear that he and Obama had been splitting the anti-Hillary vote. But perhaps that's too facile.

Edwards was drawing much of his support from white working-class/blue-collar voters - the same cohort that is strong for Hillary Clinton. One can argue that these voters would never embrace Hillary (since they were drawn to Edwards because of his anti-corporate populism, whereas they probably view Hillary as a corporate establishment Democrat), but voters make choices for all kinds of reasons, and some Edwards supporters might simply view Hillary as tougher and more seasoned than Obama. Some might also be more comfortable breaking the gender barrier than the race barrier. And with respect to a key Democratic issue, Edwards' universal health care plan more closely resembles Hillary's plan than Obama's.

Tellingly, the exit polls in last night's meaningless Florida Democratic primary indicated that Edwards' voters would be equally "satisfied" with either Hillary or Obama as the nominee. On the other hand, perhaps many fans will take their cues from Edwards, who will undoubtedly endorse one of the finalists.

All we can say for certain at the moment is that the CNN Democratic debate tomorrow night - the first one-on-one meeting of Hillary and Obama - could be more riveting than the Super Bowl.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bush, the final annotations

The good news is that George W. Bush has finally delivered the last State of the Union speech of his ruinous presidency. The bad news is that I am compelled to annotate it.

Don't feel obliged to stick around. You know the drill. He offered his usual string of fact-challenged assertions, spoke anew about his old delusions, evaded all mention of several critical national ills for which he bears considerable responsibility, and, all told, generally exasperated the landslide majority of Americans who view January 20, 2009 as Liberation Day.

Let's back up the TiVo and pause at random moments, with the president talking in italics:

Let us show (our fellow Americans) that Republicans and Democrats can compete for votes and cooperate for results at the same time.

That's his requisite call for bipartisanship, just like last year ("the wisdom of working together") and the year before ("a spirit of goodwill and respect"), but it's always meaningless. Last night, fresh from his paean to cooperation, he quickly demanded that the Democrats make permanent his tax cuts for the rich; that the Democrats pass his bill on domestic electronic surveillance, or risk being accused (by him) of endagering the lives of fellow Americans; and that the Congress sit quietly and again allow him to conduct the Iraq war, and to entangle America in a long-term alliance with Iraq, as he sees fit, despite the strong polling evidence that two-thirds of the American people reject his lead and view the war as a mistake.

Wages are up, but so are prices for food and gas. Exports are rising, but the housing market has declined. At kitchen tables across our country, there is a concern about our economic future. In the long run, Americans can be confident about our economic growth.

Wages are "up," but he left out the part about how income inequality has widened during his reign, at a rate not seen since the pre-Depression era. As for gasoline - the average price for a gallon jumped from $1.39 in January 2000 to $3.07 in January 2007 - we can thank Bush for some of that. The Iraq war, lest we forget, was supposed to pay for itself, thanks to Iraq's oil revenues, and increased production was supposed to help give us low prices here at home. But the war not only curtailed Iraq oil production, it roiled the entire Middle East region, sowing instability and hampering oil investment. And note Bush's line about how Americans be can confident "in the long run" - an open-ended contrivance that promises light at the end of the tunnel.

We have other work to do on taxes. Unless the Congress acts, most of the tax relief we have delivered over the past seven years will be taken away.

His idea of tax relief was to skew the windfall toward the most affluent citizens, at the expense of most Americans. According to economists, Americans with incomes exceeding $1 million have enjoyed tax relief 30 times greater than the average working stiff. And that was just the '01 Bush tax cut. The inequalities were greater in the '03 tax cut, and these are what Bush wants Congess to make permanent.

Just as we trust Americans with their own money, we need to earn their trust by spending their tax dollars wisely....American families have to balance their budgets; so should their government.

The Republican Congress and this Republican president jacked up spending to levels not previously seen since Democratic President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. When the GOP ran Congress, before the party was thrown out of power in 2006, Bush never once vetoed a spending bill. Indeed, John McCain's line on the campaign trail is that, because of all the big spending, his party has lost its way. But now that the Democrats run Congress, Bush is suddenly talking a different game, and trusting in the public's amnesia.

The people’s trust in their government is undermined by congressional earmarks, special interest projects that are often snuck in at the last minute without discussion or debate. Last year I asked you to voluntarily cut the number and cost of earmarks in half. I also asked you to stop slipping earmarks into committee reports that never even come to a vote....If these items are truly worth funding, the Congress should debate them in the open and hold a public vote.

Same hypocrisy as above. I seem to recall, just last year, that Bush signed off on roughly 580 earmarks (at a price tag of $15 billion) in an appropriations package. The goodies included $24 million for something called the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program and $9 million for something called the Points of Light Foundation, a project started by his dad. More generally, earmarks exploded during the Republican era, and Bush never uttered a peep. Here's an excerpt from congressional testimony two years ago: "In 1994, when the Congress was taken over by Republicans, there were 4,000 earmarks on appropriations bills. Last year there were 15,000. It's disgraceful, this process." The speaker was McCain.

Our objective in the coming year (in Iraq) is to sustain and build on the gains we made in 2007, while transitioning to the next phase of our strategy. American troops are shifting from leading operations to partnering with Iraqi forces and, eventually, to a protective overwatch mission.

There it is, a new Bush buzz phrase - "protective overwatch mission." Apparently that's the lame duck's gift to his successor, an open-ended, long-term American presence in Iraq, the terms of which he intends to negotiate with the fragile regime, with no oversight or signoffs from Congress.

Progress in the provinces must be matched by progress in Baghdad. We’re seeing some encouraging signs. The national government is sharing oil revenues with the provinces. The parliament recently passed both a pension law and de-Ba’athification reform. They’re now debating a provincial powers law. The Iraqis still have a distance to travel...

One year ago, the Iraqi government was supposed to meet 18 benchmarks, as measurements of progress. One year later, notwithstanding the U.S. military escalation, it has accomplished only three. As for Bush's reference to "de-Ba'athification reform" (allowing former Ba'athist party members to return to government work, as a sign of national reconciliation), he not surprisingly failed to mention certain salient facts. The law was passed on a day when the parliament barely achieved a quorum, meaning that less than a third of the members voted for it; and many former Ba'athists believe that the complicated language will wind up expelling even more of them from government. Just last week, a senior Iraqi official told Newsweek that the law was "a big mess, perhaps worse than if we had done nothing." And lastly, in his State of the Union speech one year ago, Bush declared, "Americans will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced." This year? Not a single word about holding the Iraqi government accountable. Army Brigade Combat team and one Marine Expeditionary Unit have already come home and will not be replaced. In the coming months, four additional brigades and two Marine battalions will follow suit. Taken together, this means more than 20,000 of our troops are coming home.

That still leaves 10,000 more troops in Iraq than before his "surge." And he conveniently omitted the fact that he has been under pressure - from his own military - to pull at least some troops out of Iraq, due to the strains he has placed on the armed forces. As Army Chief of Staff General George Casey recently testified, "the current demand for our forces exceeds the sustainable supply," and earlier this month he said that "the surge has sucked all the flexibility out of the system....the Army is out of balance."

America is leading the fight against global poverty...

That would be a more admirable pursuit if Bush was also leading the fight against domestic poverty. But apparently not. The number of Americans living below the poverty line has increased by 5.3 million since Bush took office.

America is a force for hope in the world because we are a compassionate people...

Bush has wrecked our reputation in the world. A recent report by the bipartisan Commission on Smart Power, sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, concludes: "America's image and influence are in decline. America may be less well regarded today than at any time in our history." And according to polls conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and, a majority of people in 10 of 15 surveyed nations now say they don't trust America to act responsibly.

Let us create a new international clean technology fund, which will help developing nations like India and China make greater use of clean energy sources.

I cite that line not because of its topic, but because of his passing reference to China. Regarding the entirety of his speech, this was his sole reference to China - which is quite regrettable, considering China's key role in our economic woes. But it's understandable that Bush would not want to discuss that role, since it would expose, once again, his failings. Thanks to his economic decision-making (deep tax cuts, expensive new spending, and a war of choice costing roughly $10 billion a month), the national debt has grown considerably, and we're now increasingly dependent on other nations to finance that debt. We're particularly in hock to China, which reportedly now holds IOUs worth roughly $1 trillion. It goes without saying that if a Democratic president had weakened America in this fashion, the Republican message machine would be in overdrive.

...the state of our union will remain strong.

Mike Huckabee gets the last word. Asked last night whether the state of our union is strong, the Republican candidate replied: "I think it's in trouble. To say anything less than that would be dishonest."

Monday, January 28, 2008

Bill's pride and the loss of Camelot

Edward Kennedy's endorsement of Barack Obama is clearly a major blow to the Clintons - and not just because the senior keeper of the Kennedy flame is tight with the kinds of primary voters that Obama needs most (downscale workers, union members, and Hispanics); and not just because Ted will stump for Obama in key Feb. 5 states (probably California, New Jersey, Hispanic-heavy Arizona, and certainly Massachusetts, which has almost as many delegates as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina combined).

Indeed, it's uncertain whether Ted's florid face and rhetoric are enough to sway large numbers of voters. Yes, his endorsement of Obama and his rejection of the Clintons are unprecedented (due in part to his distaste for Bill's anti-Obama campaigning); he has traditionally stayed above the fray during Democratic primary seasons. But is he really capable of sprinkling enough Camelot fairy dust to shift the ground game? I wonder.

Nevertheless, this much is surely clear: Ted's nod to Obama represents a major blow to Bill Clinton's pride, to his political and personal self-esteem.

Lest we forget, when Bill first ran for president in 1992, he saw himself as the heir to the Kennedy flame. His campaign even unearthed a photo from 1963, showing young Bill at the White House, during a Boy's Nation event, shaking hands with JFK himself. He wanted the public to see him as a virtual Kennedy, an inspiration to a new generation.

It's all there on page 418 of his hefty memoir, My Life. Bill told the '92 Democratic convention delegates, "Thirty two years ago, another young candidate who wanted to get the country moving again came to the convention..." Recalling that moment in his memoir, he then writes, "I wanted to identify with the spirit of John Kennedy's campaign." And six months later (page 474), shortly before he was sworn into office, he made a pilgrimage to the Kennedy gravesite, where he knelt, "asking for wisdom and strength."

Indeed, Ted Kennedy is repeatedly lionized in the memoir as a brilliant rhetorician, visionary policy wonk, and fabulous playmate:

Bill writes that, as a young man, he was blown away by Ted's funeral farewell to his fallen brother Bobby. The eulogy "was magnificent...closing with words of power and grace I will never forget." (page 123)

Bill lauds Teddy for making "an emotional plea" for universal health care way back in 1978. (page 260)

Bill rhapsodizes about "sailing and swimming," early in his presidency, with Ted and a passel of Kennedys on Martha's Vineyard. Apparently Caroline and Chelsea jumped into the water from a high platform on the yacht, whereupon Ted and Bill tried to goad Hillary into doing the same. But Hillary demurred, "with her usual good sense." (page 540)

Bill fondly recalls that it was Ted who had Bill's back during the '94 battle for health care reform; in fact, when Ted got his Senate committee to pass a reform bill, it was "the first time legislation providing universal coverage had ever even made it out of a full congressional committee." (page 601)

Bill writes that Ted cared deeply about Bill's agenda and performance, that Ted was the only senator "who regularly provided me with a typed 'to do' list." (page 713)

Bill praises Ted's agenda and performance, notably Ted's child health care plan. (page 761)

Bill not only bursts with pride about his Ted ties, he also proudly recalls how John Kennedy Jr. "had come to one of my first New York campaign events in 1991." And after JFK Jr. was killed, Ted "gave another magnificent eulogy."

All told, it must be tough for Bill to suffer these repeated blows to his pride. First he was dubbed the first black president by poet Toni Morrison; now Toni Morrison is backing Obama, and black voters are fleeing from the Clintons in droves. And now even the Kennedy torch was been torn away from him - and entrusted, by orders of its senior steward, to a candidate who is deemed to be the embodiment of a new generation.

Bill has long sought to fuse the Kennedys and the Clintons, to make them synonymous in Democratic politics, but Ted has now severed the link, and made it easier for Obama to argue that Democrats can have the former without the latter. Moreover, some of Ted's remarks today can be read as a rebuke of the Clintons: "(Obama) will be a president who refuses to be trapped in the patterns of the past. He is a leader who sees the world clearly without being cynical. He is a fighter who cares passionately about the causes he believes in, without demonizing those who hold a different view."

This jolt to Clintonian pride may well be enough to induce Bill to dial himself down on the campaign trail, or at least to ponder how he might want to spin this embarrassment in his next memoir. After all, the first one was only 1008 pages.


Meanwhile, let's fact-check one of Bill's remarks in South Carolina, the kind of talk that helped drive Ted into the Obama camp. At the eleventh hour, Bill tried to equate Barack Obama with Jesse Jackson, in an effort to pin the "black candidate" label on Obama and thus minimize his potential appeal. Bill said, "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice, in '84 and '88. And he ran a good campaign. And Senator Obama is running a good campaign."

The facts: (1) In '84 and '88, South Carolina held caucuses, which attracted a fraction of the people who showed up on Saturday night. (2) Jackson's rivals didn't campaign in South Carolina, in either year, twice ceding the state to Jackson, who was born there. (3) The '84 caucuses were so insignificant that Jackson "won" by finishing behind "Uncommitted." (4) In '88, he had the state to himself, in caucuses again ignored by the media and political community, and only won 41 percent of the participants.

Which brings us to Hillary's latest defense of her spouse. Asked yesterday to comment on Bill's remarks, she said: "I think everyone who knows Bill knows that he's both a great student of politics and history."

A "great" student of history? Only with the aid of grade inflation.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Obama's Saturday night massacre

The term Saturday night massacre entered the political lexicon during the Watergate scandal, but maybe it now needs to be updated, in the wake of the brutal thrashing that Barack Obama has meted out to the Clintons in South Carolina.

We shall soon see whether Obama can captalize on his success. I am somewhat skeptical that he can. But his performance last night was indeed impressive. Where to begin:

1. This was the first slaughter of the Democratic primary season, a 2-1 victory margin, unless you count Hillary’s performance in the mid-January Michigan beauty contest, where she was the sole name on the ballot.

2. This was the first time that a Democrat (or a Republican, for that matter) has won more than 50 percent of the vote in any of the multi-candidate contests. And it was powered by black voters who abandoned their loyalties to the Clintons in order to deliver a stinging rebuke. (If Hillary wins the nomination, she had better hope that she can woo them back.)

3. Obama attracted more voters (295,000) than the total number of voters who turned out for the South Carolina Democratic primary four years ago (290,000) – a fresh indicator of his ability to stoke enthusiasm. And with respect to the top finishers in the state GOP contest one week ago, Obama garnered more votes than John McCain and Mike Huckabee combined (279,000).

4. Obama won every region of the state, every education level, and every income level. He finished first among married voters, and first among single voters. He was the top choice in the cities, suburbs, and small towns.

5. Obama was the top choice of independents (23 percent of the voters in this open primary were independents), thereby demonstrating, again, that he traffics effectively in the middle of the road – which is where presidential elections are determined. Hillary was the least popular choice, finishing behind John Edwards.

6. South Carolina’s voters rebuked Bill Clinton; clearly, they were not charmed by his descent from president emeritus to junkyard dog. Nearly six in 10 voters said that Bill’s loose lips were an important factor in their decision; of those voters, 48 percent broke for Obama, 37 percent for Hillary. And with respect to the voters who made up their minds during the final three days (when Bill was in especially high dudgeon), nearly half broke for Obama, and only 19 percent went with Hillary.

7. It’s beyond dispute that Obama owes his decisive victory to African-American voters; they comprised 55 percent of the primary electorate, and Obama won 78 percent of their votes. But Obama, pitted against two white candidates, did draw 24 percent of the white vote, and he dueled Hillary to virtual draw among white males. (Some pre-primary polls had suggested that Obama’s share of the white vote would be as low as 10 percent.)

8. Thanks to Obama's drawing power, the Democrats attracted 530,000 voters in South Carolina; last weekend, the Republicans, with a larger field of candidates, drew only 442,000. The enthusiasm gap, noted in previous states, continues.

No wonder the Clintons were so anxious last night to move on. Bill gave a pep talk (and talked and talked, mostly about himself) that barely mentioned South Carolina. He spoke instead about “a big victory for us in Florida in just a couple of days” (referring to the Tuesday night beauty contest, in which no delegates will be awarded, but where the Clintons hope to spin a symbolic win); and, more importantly, he talked up the big-state contests on Feb. 5 “when millions of Americans finally get into the act” (translation: South Carolina was chump change).

And the Clintons are smart to turn the page with all deliberate speed. Democratic voters in New York and New Jersey and California (among others) might not care a whit about what happened in South Carolina. With this accelerated calendar, a 10-day span seems like a lifetime. An ostensibly meaningless Clinton victory in Florida on Tuesday night would afford the spouses an opportunity to frame a new momentum narrative on the eve of Feb. 5. Reports indicate that 400,000 Florida Democrats (taking advantage of the state’s early-voting option) have already cast ballots, which means that the Sunshine State turnout will likely dwarf the South Carolina turnout, and (assuming a Hillary victory) give the Clintons symbolic bragging rights in a big, diverse state.

Moreover, black voters won’t dominate the turnout in New York, New Jersey, and California – the big states that will get the lion’s share of the publicity on Feb. 5. The Clintons and their surrogates have been trying to label Obama as merely the “black candidate” – Bill did it again yesterday, by comparing Obama to Jesse Jackson - and they’ll probably look for ways to spin the South Carolina results as further proof. (They’ll try to be subtle about it, of course, and then they’ll blame the media for reporting it.)

For instance, in California, more Latinos than blacks are expected to vote in the Feb. 5 primary, and the Latino mayor of Los Angeles is working the streets for Hillary. Fairly or not, Latino voters have been traditionally averse to supporting black political candidates. We’ll hear more about this phenomenon in the days ahead. Obama fared poorly among Latino voters in Nevada last week; Latinos were not a factor in South Carolina. It was no accident that Obama, in his victory speech last night, mentioned how he had stood up for his “Latino brothers and sisters” when he was a community organizer in Chicago.

Nor was it an accident last night that a few dozen white supporters were positioned behind Obama as he spoke. His future hinges on whether he can build on his decisive South Carolina victory and sell himself as the candidate of diversity – and whether he can successfully frame this historic contest on his own terms. He argued last night that, rather than being about race versus gender, “it is about the past versus the future.”

In that sense, he is challenging Democratic primary voters, regardless of race or gender, to make an historic decision of their own. In the weeks ahead, they have to decide for themselves whether fealty to the Clintons (and their hardball brand of politics) is still the operative impulse. Tribal loyalties die hard, however, and while many Democrats are clearly afflicted with Clinton fatigue, there is still a sense, among many others, that the hardball tactics now being directed at Obama would stand the party in good stead when redirected this autumn against the Republicans.


UPDATE: Reliable reports are circulating that liberal lion Ted Kennedy will endorse Obama on Monday. If so, that will be the second stinging rebuke of the Clintons in less than 48 hours.