Friday, March 14, 2008

The thread of truth in the web of lies

If Barack Obama wins the Democratic nomination, his longtime church pastor is going to be a big political headache.

Most voters won't hold Obama responsible for the Rev. Jerimiah Wright's most provocative pulpit pronunciamentos. Most voters won't automatically assume that Obama shares the views expressed at the Trinity United Church of Christ. But for those voters who are prone to believe that Obama is insufficiently American, or a Muslim foreign agent who is bent of destroying America from within, certain Wright rhetorical tidbits will fit the profile just fine.

From 2003: "The government gives (blacks) drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."

From 2006: "America is still the No. 1 killer in the world...We are deeply involved in the importing of drugs, the exporting of guns, and the training of professional killers...We bombed Cambodia, Iraq and Nicaragua, killing women and children while trying to get public opinion turned against Castro and Ghadhafi...We supported Zionism shamelessly while ignoring the Palestinians and branding anybody who spoke out against it as being anti-Semitic...We care nothing about human life if the end justifies the means...We started the AIDS virus..."

From 2001, five days after 9/11: "We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost."

Those excerpts are a treasure trove for voters who want to believe the worst about Obama. (The Obama-as-Muslim scenario is actually contradicted by the fact that Wright's church is Christian, but this will be overlooked.) I can foresee the circulation of this kind of meta-rumor: "Barack Obama, who was schooled as a Muslim in a foreign country and who was sworn into office on a Koran, and who refuses to wear an American flag pin or place his hand on his heart during the Pledge of Allegience, has for 20 years entrusted his soul on Sundays to a pastor who rails against 'God damn America,' attacks Israel, and blames our own country for 9/11."

And I know first-hand that the rumors have legs; if anything, the rumors have metastisized. One emailer wrote me yesterday: "I know someone who watched the debates. According to this person, at the start of the one debate she said that Obama just stood there during the Pledge of Allegiance while the other candidates placed their hands over their hearts. I have been looking for video of this ever since. Have you seen this?" I wrote back to say that, if Obama had ever behaved that way on national television, at the start of a presidential debate, we would all have been talking about it. I told her that this particular rumor was just a new form of the old Pledge of Allegiance lie that has been circulating for many months.

But back to the Wright factor. When ABC News aired a segment on Wright yesterday morning, a Obama spokesman said that the candidate "does not think of the pastor of his church in political terms. Like a member of his family, there are things (Wright) says with which Sen. Obama deeply disagrees. But now that he is (newly) retired, that doesn't detract from Se. Obama's affection for Rev. Wright, or his appreciation for the good works he has done."

And here's Obama himself, quoted yesterday in a Pittsburgh paper: "This is a pastor who is on the brink of retirement who in the past has made some controversial statements. I profoundly disagree with some of these statements. Obviously, I disagree with (the 9/11 sermon). Here is what happens when you just cherry-pick statements from a guy who had a 40-year career as a pastor. There are times when people say things that are just wrong. But I think it's important to judge me on what I've said in the past and what I believe."

Most voters probably accept that line of reasoning. But it's not just the paranoid who could pose problems for Obama. Many Jewish voters have been slow to embrace Obama - in the exit polls thus far, they reportedly have favored Hillary Clinton by six percentage points - in part because they too have heard the rumors and seen the viral emails. Wright's remarks championing the Palestinians as victims of "state terrorism" will further compel Obama to spend more time allaying their concerns.

Jewish voters are a fraction of the electorate, but they are disproportionately strong in the biggest electoral states. For instance, if senior Jewish Floridians Florida cherry-pick some of the false rumors and tie them to Wright's documented words, Obama as nominee could face serious obstacles in that crucial state. It needs to be remembered that a grand lie is often spun from a thread of truth.

Obama's whole campaign is a daring appeal to our better angels; the problem is that some people are often prepared to believe the worst. Obama is merely battling Hillary Clinton at the moment; if he wins the nomination, he will be battling the basest impulses of human nature.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The latest Clinton Keystone spin

On a conference call with journalists late this morning, the Clinton spinners basically spelled out their strategy for wresting the nomination away from Barack Obama. The overlapping items:

1. Market the April 22 Pennsylvania primary as the most important event on the political calendar between now and the August convention, on the assumption that Hillary will win it.

2. Market Pennsylvania as a microcosmic cross-section of America itself, on the assumption that Hillary will win it.

3. Market the Pennsylvania primary as a bellwether contest that will demonstrate which candidate is best positioned to win the general election. On the assumption that Hillary will win it.

4. Pile up the largest possible victory margin in Pennsylvania, in the hope that, by the end of the primary season, and with Florida and Michigan perhaps re-voting, Hillary can wipe out Obama's national lead in the popular vote.

Mark Penn, the chief strategist and pollster, pushed the first item vociferously ("this is an incredibly important state"). Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter cited a recent Obama campaign memo which seemed to indicate that Obama was just as focused on some of the states that vote in May; indeed, the Clinton team will float the notion that Obama is insufficiently committed to competing in Pennsylvania and is therefore insulting Pennsylvanians. Nutter suggested that Obama will be satisfied to merely play "political rope a dope" in the state.

But this spin was later undercut - inadvertently, of course - by the ever-locquacious governor, Ed Rendell. During the conference call, he mentioned in passing that Obama has hired one of Rendell's former political lieutenants to work the state, a smart ground-game guy who helped Rendell win both of his gubernatorial races. Rendell then told us that Obama, by making such a hire, would be "formidable" in Pennsylvania. Which prompts me to wonder: why would Obama bother to hire that strategist if he wasn't planning to take the primary seriously?

(Obama, on his plane this morning: "We will go there, we will campaign vigorously, we will spend money, we will have staff on the ground, I will spend a lot of days in Pennsylvania...we’re going to compete actively and we want to try to win the state like we tried to win every other state...We think they’re all important, and Pennsylvania is important. Now we do think the other nine states afterwards are also important, so we’re going to be spending time there as well, but there’s no notion whatsoever that we are ceding Pennsylvania. We’re going to try to compete there as hard as we can." He has also agreed to debate Clinton in Philadelphia on April 16.)

Anyway, regarding items two and three: The Clinton people - making their electability argument to fence-sitting superdelegates nationwide - want to frame the Pennsylvania primary as a mini-general election. Their pitch is that if Hillary wins the primary, it means that she'd win the state in November (yes, it's a critical state in any winning Democratic scenario); and if Obama loses the primary, it means that he'd lose the state in November.

They're conveniently forgetting something: The state's primary electorate differs greatly from the state's general electorate. The primary is closed to independents - one of Obama's strongest constituencies. Which means that Hillary has a structural advantage on April 22. It's a different deal in November, when all can participate; independent voters are likely to swing the state, and, although the Clinton spinners are loathe to say this, Hillary is far less popular among independents than Obama. That has proven to be true in virtually every open primary.

Rendell, at one point, had to partially concede that an Obama loss in the primary would not necessarily foreshadow an Obama defeat in November: "Nobody is saying that Barack Obama would definitely lose Pennsylvania in the fall. Absolutely not."

Rendell also tackled item four. Clearly, the Clinton team does not want to be in the position of asking the superdelegates to overturn the verdict of the primary electorate. (And a good thing, too, since that would tear the party apart.) They seem to grasp that it would be bad PR to wrest the nomination away from the guy who has more pledged delegates and more popular votes. So since it will be nearly impossible to pass Obama in the delegate count, the goal is to surpass him in popular votes. That way, at least the Clinton team would have something they could wave at the superdelegates. Rendell has already teed up the talking point: "Which is more democratic - to give the nomination to (the winner of) the popular vote...or to the leader in pledged delegates?"

There were other matter of interest (aside from spokesman Howard Wolfson's deadpan observation that Geraldine Ferraro "is no longer a member of the campaign's finance committee"). Wolfson was asked about a new poll that shows Clinton leading Obama by 18 points in the Pennsylvania primary - yet shows Obama performing better than Clinton in an autumn matchup in Pennsylvania. Doesn't that contradict item three? His response: "Different polls show different things."

Also, Wolfson was asked how, having built up the importance of Pennsylvania, the Clinton campaign would react if Obama winds up winning the primary. Would that mean the Democratic race is effectively over?

Uh, well, he said, the Obama campaign "would publicly promote that notion." Then more stalling: "Should Senator Obama be successful, that's obviously a decision voters should make." (Whatever that means.) Then, finally, "if our optimism is not borne out, we can revisit the question."

Translation: If they lose Pennsylvania, they'll just move the goalposts again.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Archie Bunker at the kitchen sink

As Hillary Clinton falls farther behind the frontrunner - her delegate gains last week have been wiped out, courtesy of Barack Obama's landslide wins in Wyoming on Saturday and Mississippi last night; she has received 700,000 fewer popular votes; in the pledged delegate count, she trails by roughly 160 - one can only imagine what new rhetorical weapons she will unleash upon Obama, as part of her "kitchen sink" strategy.

But whatever she comes up with, it may be hard for her to top Geraldine Ferraro. When last seen on the national stage, 24 years ago, veep candidate Ferraro worked with presidential nominee Walter Mondale to lose 49 states in a Ronald Reagan landslide. Today, she's a Clinton surrogate and member in good standing of Clinton's finance committee. In that capacity, she's trying to do her part to diminish Obama before it's too late.

Her apparent tactic of choice is to morph into Archie Bunker.

As I briefly referenced late yesterday, Ferraro told a California newspaper the other day that "if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position." And, as I also noted, her assertion reminded me of something that baseball pitcher Bob Feller said 62 years ago about Jackie Robinson, shortly before Robinson broke the color line: "If he were a white man, I doubt that they would even consider him as big league material."

In 1946, after Robinson signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, whites typically sought to denigrate the notion that he had risen on his own merits (notably, his rare athletic gifts). They typically argued, as Feller did, that he was in favor only because he was black - a bizarre argument, since at the time the number of blacks playing big-league baseball totaled exactly zero.

Now consider Ferraro's remark. By attributing Obama's strong position to the color of his skin, she is denigrating his rare political gifts - all of which have actually enabled him to transcend the de facto color barrier that, until now, has prevented black candidates from ascending to the top tier.

Or look at it this way: If Obama is indeed well positioned in this campaign primarily because he is black, why is it that no black has ever achieved this position before?

It's tragic for the Democratic party that one of its pioneer feminists would sound like Archie Bunker in his easy chair on All in the Family, grousing about affirmative action, about how blacks are getting a leg up solely because of their race. Because this is the message of reverse racism, widely embraced by whites who believe that they're getting a raw deal in an unfair modern world. (Witness Ferraro's anger at being criticized for her Obama remark; her latest retort is, "I really think they're attacking me because I'm white.")

Clinton has characterized Ferraro's remark as "regrettable," but that's basically the extent of it. In fact, I bet the Clinton camp doesn't mind at all that her lament has gained wide circulation. For proof, just consider the political landscape in Pennsylvania, and her current political requirements:

Clinton needs to roll up a huge popular vote victory on April 22, if she hopes to make even a dent in Obama's national delegate lead. To trump Obama's expected victory margin in Philadelphia (blacks and white liberals), and perhaps in the Philadelphia suburbs (affluent, highly educated white liberals), Clinton needs a huge outpouring of support, elsewhere in the state, from working-class and culturally conservative whites. That's a sizeable demographic in Pennsylvania; accurately or not, a lot of those folks believe that blacks have unfair advantages in today's society. And, with respect to Ferraro's remark, if they can be encouraged to assess Obama not on his merits, but as an affirmative action symbol, all the better for Clinton.

But even if Clinton somehow manages to get the nomination in this fashion, I wonder whether she will be able to eradicate all the dirt that has accumulated in the kitchen sink.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Rumblings in the hinterlands of Illinois

If this was March 2006 - as opposed to March 2008, which is dominated by an historic presidential race, and (fleetingly) by the rise and fall of "Client 9" - we would be fairly transfixed by what occurred last Saturday night in a reliably Republican congressional district that extends westward from the outskirts of Chicago.

This is the district where ex-House Speaker Dennis Hastert reigned for more than two decades; where other Republican congressmen reigned before him; and where George W. Bush posted solid victories in 2000 and 2004. This district is home to the town of Dixon, where Ronald Reagan grew up. This district includes rural stretches that political analyst Michael Barone has called "traditionally some of the most heavily Republican territory in the country."

Yet, in a special House election on Saturday night, made necessary because of Hastert's recent resignation, this district chose a Democrat. A Democrat who had never run for office before. A Democrat who wound up winning even Hastert's home county, on the way to a six-point victory, 53 to 47 percent.

Some desperate Republican spinners have tried to insist that Bill Foster's victory over Republican Jim Oberweis was some kind of aberration, triggered perhaps by Oberweis' unlikeability (he had run unsuccessfully for statewide office three times in the past). Nice try. This is a district where, in a normal year, any Republican candidate with functioning brain cells can get elected to Congress. Hastert, in all his races, typically drew 65 percent of the vote or better. Plus, Oberweis spent $2 million of his own money (he's a dairy magnate), and got another $1.2 million from the National Republican Campaign Committee (the GOP's strategy arm) in Washington. Plus, Hastert stumped for him. So did a current House leader, Roy Blunt. And so did a guy who supposedly would have extra sway with the reliably Republican voters, John McCain.

And Oberweis still lost by a healthy margin. This tells us something important. A high-ranking Republican aide reportedly tells Politico that, as far as the GOP is concerned, "symbolically, losing Hastert's seat is like the toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad." I doubt that Hastert would welcome such a crude metaphor, but we get the gist. There's no way to shrug this one off.

This event needs to be put in context, one that only ratifies its significance. House Republicans, sensing that 2008 will be a repeat of the 2006 debacle, are bailing out of the chamber this year in heavy numbers (roughly 14 percent of the current GOP roster); choosing "retirement," they fear precisely the kind of result that occurred in Hastert's old bailwick.

These departures will make life even tougher for the National Republican Campaign Committee, which now has to defend a lot more seats - at a time when it's seriously strapped for cash, thanks to the reluctance of donors to ante up in a bad political environment. The NRCC in January reported having about $6.4 million in the bank; its Democratic counterpart had $35.4 million. Traditionally, or at least before President Bush wrecked the party, House Republicans were always far better financed than the House Democrats.

Worse yet, the sleaze factor, which was strong in 2006, is still lingering. One of the incumbents, whom the party will be compelled to defend, is Arizona congressman Rick Renzi, who sees no problem in pursuing his re-election bid despite the fact that he is currently under indictment on 35 federal corruption charges.

And as for the NRCC itself, the party's campaign arm recently discovered that a fair chunk of its money - reportedly, in the six figures - had gone mysteriously missing, and that its financial records may have been falsified repeatedly over the past few years. Apparently, its newly-departed treasurer is the focus of an FBI criminal investigation. (This is another story that would have drawn more public attention in a normal year.) I am tempted to make a joke about the GOP's so-called reputation for fiscal responsibility, but, instead, let us merely nod in bemusement at the news that ex-treasurer Christopher Ward in 2004 had also worked for the Orwellian-named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

House races typically get short shrift from the public in a presidential election year, but it's clear, from the Saturday result in Illinois, that a Democratic president in 2009 might find himself (or herself) enjoying an augmented congressional majority. One gets the feeling that the grassroots electorate is poised to vote Democratic, and is merely waiting for the party to get its act together. Assuming it can.


Speaking of the party, has anybody else noticed that Barack Obama picked up a new superdelegate - or, more specifically, a newly created superdelegate?

Obama did a TV ad in that Illinois district for Bill Foster. Foster, by winning, automatically becomes a superdelegate. He'll back Obama, the home-state guy.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Hillary Clinton may soon lose a superdelegate, the aforementioned Client 9. If/when Eliot Spitzer steps down, he will be replaced in the governor's chair by his Democratic number two, David Paterson, but Paterson (already a Hillary superdelegate) will not be replaced until the next election. In other words, no Democratic lieutenant governor.

Taken together, these events translate into a potential net gain of two superdelegates for Obama. Plus, we also have the Mississippi primary tonight; an expected strong Obama win is likely to influence those seven superdelegates as well.

So I wonder: why does the trailing Democratic candidate presume to think that she can offer the leading Democratic candidate the second spot on her ticket?


Geraldine Ferraro, the '84 Democratic veep candidate and '08 Hillary surrogate, quoted in a California newspaper last Friday: "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position."

Baseball pitcher Bob Feller, speaking in 1946 about Jackie Robinson: "If he were a white man, I doubt they would even consider him as big league material."

Get my point?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Ed's Clintonian spin (and a Client 9 bonus)

Notwithstanding the Clinton camp's attempts to paint last week's primary victories as evidence of "momentum," and notwithstanding their latest flurry of attacks on Barack Obama (he's not ready to command, he's just like that right-wing blue-noser Ken Starr, he's not a Muslim "as far as I know"), I wish to provide, as Hillary herself would put it, a reality check:

In the competition for pledged delegates last week, she gained almost no ground on Barack Obama. And she will probably lose ground again tomorrow.

No spin can mask that fundamental fact. For instance, the latest CBS-tabulated results show that, for all her electoral success in Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island last Tuesday, she has managed to trim Obama's lead by only six delegates. Then, when you factor in the results of Saturday's Wyoming caucuses (where she lost by another landslide), her net gain over the past week stands at four delegates. And when you factor in tomorrow's Mississippi primary (where African-Americans will vote heavily), and the resulting delegate allocations, Clinton's March gains are likely to evaporate completely.

In other words, Obama will have nearly the same pledged delegate lead (ranging, in various media estimates, from 110 to 142) that he had when the month began. It would not be a surprise, six weeks hence, if Clinton trims that gap by winning Pennsylvania; however, anything short of a landslide would not yield her enough delegates to truly change the dynamic. Moreover, her likely modest gains could well be erased again, two weeks later, in North Carolina (a large black electorate) and perhaps in Indiana (Obama has generally performed better in the red states).

Given these realities, it's no surprise that the Clintons keep trying to shift the goalposts, work the media refs, and consider all options, even nuclear. Clinton herself, in a Newsweek interview, has just hinted that she might be willing to violate the most basic Democratic rules of behavior in her pursuit of victory: "Even elected and caucus delegates are not required to stay with whomever they are pledged to." (italics mine)

Clinton surrogate Ed Rendell, the governor of Pennsylvania, pitched in yesterday on Meet the Press, with all the subtlety of a buffalo attempting a balletic pirouette.

One of his basic goals was to denigrate all the contests that Obama was won. For starters, he dismissed all the Obama caucus victories, because, in his words, caucuses are "undemocratic" - which, if true, prompts me to wonder why Clinton spent so many months and so many millions contesting Iowa, where she repeatedly extolled both the people and their electoral tradition.

Overall, Rendell basically dismissed Obama as a guy who does "wonderfully well in Wyoming and Utah and places like that," somehow omitting the fact that Obama has waxed Clinton with primary victories in places like Wisconsin (critical Democratic state that was closely contested in the autumn elections of 2000 and 2004), Virginia (red state that is turning purple), Colorado (same description as Virginia), Maryland (reliable blue state), Missouri (America's bellwether, and a red state in 2000 and 2004) and Louisiana (potentially winnable southern state, especially if African-Americans are energized). And does Rendell really believe that reliably blue California and New York won't vote Democratic in November, even if primary loser Obama is topping the ticket?

Rendell also made the usual Clintonian pitch for Florida and Michigan, lauding her meaningless victory in the former, and claiming that her meaningless performance in Michigan - alone on the ballot, she got only 55 percent of the vote - was really a testament to her strength.

But enough of that. The most significant moment yesterday came when Tim Russert asked Rendell whether he thought that Obama was qualified to be president. Rendell replied, "I think he's qualified" - certainly qualified enough to be vice president, and, moreover, if Obama turns out to be the nominee, Rendell said he would work his heart out for him.

Well, those were certainly inconvenient remarks - given the fact that Clinton during the past week has suggested precisely the opposite about Obama's creds. Here she was last Monday: "I think it's imperative that each of us be able to demonstrate we can cross the commander in chief threshold, and I believe that I've done that. Certainly Senator McCain has done that. And you'll have to ask Senator Obama with respect to his candidacy."

Rendell was then asked to square his assessment of Obama as "qualified," with Clinton's intimation that Obama is not.

His response: "Well, I, I think he's ready. He's not nearly as ready as Hillary Clinton is, there's no question about that. But, look, make no mistake about it, he's a talented, dynamic politician and, and a, and a good senator, and I think he would make a fine president..."

Russert, moments later, asking the key question: "But if, in fact, there's a possibility Obama may be the Democratic nominee, would it be better, in the interest of the Democratic Party, that the Clintons not suggest that he hasn't passed the threshold to be commander in chief?"

Rendell: "Well, sure. Look, there, there's rhetoric in a campaign on all, on all sides, and I, I think the, the issue should be framed as 'ready compared to Hillary Clinton.' And, and that's the way I would frame the issue going forward."

(Here's Obama on Monday afternoon, at an event in Mississippi, addressing himself to Clinton: "If I’m 'not ready,' how is it that you think I should be such a great Vice President?")

I bet the Clinton camp is less than thrilled with Rendell today. If Clinton's spinners are going to successfully distract the public from the fact that their delegate deficit remains unchanged, that they have won half as many contests as Obama, and that they have garnered 591,000 fewer popular votes than Obama in all the states that have awarded delegates, spin discipline is essential.


By the way, there are reports that Karl Rove has become an unofficial, informal advisor to John McCain. (Indeed, two weeks ago, Rove told an audience at the University of Pennsylvania that McCain should embark on a national tour to "reintroduce himself" to the American public, to highlight his biography...and, sure enough, McCain's campaign late last week announced that he intends to do just that.)

Democrats no doubt fear that Rove will concoct negative talking points to use against Obama, should he become the nominee. But why should Rove even bother, when Hillary Clinton is busy doing that work for him - by impugning Obama's commander readiness?

To Ed Rendell, the attacks on Obama by his own candidate are mere "rhetoric." To Karl Rove, they are the sweetest music since the Beatles.


Has George W. Bush lived up to Ronald Reagan's legacy? Not a chance, especially if one assesses Reagan the man as opposed to Reagan the myth. I explored this issue yesterday, in a book review for The Washington Post.


Hypocrisy alert, featuring "Client 9":

What is it with these male politicians, anyway? Do they have delusions of omnipotence, or what? Do they fool themselves into thinking that there are still secrets in this new world of transparency, and that nobody will ever ferret out a disconnect between their public and private behaviors?

Last year we had (among others) Senator David Vitter, the Republican whose "family values" image turned out to be at variance with his yen for mercenary nookie. And now, today, we have New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, billed last summer by USA Today as "one of the next great hopes of the Democratic party," a Democrat whose "reformer" image - including a 2004 crusade against a call-girl ring - appears to have been trumped by the revelation that, just last month, he paid for intimate services rendered in a Washington hotel a member of a call-girl ring.

His payment: $4300 (partly an advance, for future services).
His request, according to a prostitute quoted in a federal court document: "(H)e would ask you to do things, like, you might not think were safe."

Start an office pool on when this guy is going to quit his job. But don't dally.

By the way, there's a sentence that typically appears in news stories about the governor: "Spitzer, who is widely known to harbor presidential ambitions..." I don't suppose we'll be seeing that one again. Unless he tries to form a bipartisan rogue ticket with Rudy Giuliani.