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.


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.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Gargling the neocon Kool-Aid

I know this is not a big news story in America anymore, but the question is still worth asking:

How goes President Bush's Iraq democratization crusade these days - the same crusade that would be waged next year by John McCain?

Well, last I checked, America's fighting men and women were putting their lives on the line for the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and for the Badr Organization militia. That's been the situation during the past week, which makes you wonder why Bush bothers to insult the U.S. citizenry with his talk about how we are helping a "young democracy." This is not Thomas Jefferson and John Adams dramatized on HBO, debating constitutionalism and trading rhetorical ripostes. This is about a violent power play in the streets, with American troops caught in the middle.

Our client in Iraq, the prime minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki - whose chief ally, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, runs the Islamic Supreme Council (a political party) as well as his own militia (the aforementioned Badr Organization) - last week put his fragile political capital at risk by seeking to crack down on his Shiite rival in Basra, the militia-backed cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Local elections are scheduled for Oct. 1 in Basra, where Sadr is popular. So, the way things work in this "young democracy," Maliki made the decision to engage Sadr's Mahdi Army in street battles - with military victory as his goal, thereby presumably ensuring political victory at the polls for Maliki's allies in the Islamic Supreme Council and in his own Dawa party.

True to their shared instincts, both Bush and McCain lauded Maliki at the outset of fighting, and raised the stakes accordingly. Bush declared last Thursday that Maliki's decision to battle Sadr in the streets was "a very positive development," indeed "a defining moment" in the brief history "of a free Iraq." McCain a day later characterized Maliki's move as "a sign of the strength of his government." (If you're trying to differentiate between these two cheerleaders, here's a handy tip: Bush is the one who was roundly booed Sunday night at Washington's baseball opener.)

Not suprisingly, over the past few days we have heard nothing further from Bush and McCain about "defining moments" and government "strength" - because, as it turns out, Maliki's Iraqi security forces (the forces that we have long been training to stand up, so that we can stand down) failed in their mission to tame Sadr's fighters. Maliki had vowed to win a clear victory; instead, Sadr's militia ceded almost no ground, and fought the government forces to a standstill.

The result - for now, anyway - is a negotiated ceasefire between the rival Shiite groups that was brokered by the Shiite leaders of Iran. Sadr's militia remains virtually intact; Maliki, so recently lauded by McCain for his "strength," basically sued for peace. As a result, he lost face and political capital.

McCain's reaction? Today on CNN, he tried to characterize the ceasefire as "very helpful." Then, finally, he admitted that Maliki's military campaign, conducted by his U.S.-trained forces, "was not the success, apparently so far, that we hoped it would be."

All of which prompts these questions: Amidst all the attention being paid to the steel-cage match between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, will John McCain be closely questioned about his fealty to the ongoing Iraq fiasco - and to the Bushspeak that, for five years, has repeatedly been contradicted by the realities on the ground? Or are the Iraq realities - all those Shiite factions warring with each other, plus the discontented Sunnis - simply too complicated for most Americans?

Here are two possible scenarios for next November:

(1) Voters simply tune out the war. They have no patience to differentiate between Shiite factions or keep the names straight (see fourth paragraph). Being Americans, they prefer a clean fight with designated good guys and bad guys; denied that in Iraq, they wash their hands of the whole mess and go to the mall. They look at the candidates, and figure that maybe the one with the most military and foreign policy experience is best qualified to clean things up, whatever that means. Advantage, McCain.

(2) Voters lead busy lives and don't have the time to figure out all the factions in Iraq. So they skip to the bottom line and instinctively recognize that the constant ebb and flow of sectarian fighting, and the shellings of the supposedly safe Green Zone, are all signs of the ongoing chaos that undercuts Bush's incessant booster rhetoric - and here is McCain saying the same stuff. Advantage, Democrats.

Candidate McCain is currently embarked on a biographical tour, backed by a 60-second TV ad that culminates with the newly-freed POW reciting his Navy serial number from a hospital bed. It's powerful material that plucks traditional American chords. Assuming (just for the heck of it) that the Democrats manage not to implode this summer, the autumn race is likely to be close. And the outcome may well hinge on whether McCain's heroic profile is deemed more important by swing voters than the fact that he is Bush's echo on Iraq, still gargling the neocon Kool-Aid.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Breaking bread with the vast right-wing conspiracy

While scanning the various Sunday commentaries, I stumbled across these laudatory effusions for Hillary Clinton: "...courage and confidence...political courage...impressive command...her answers were thoughtful, well-stated, and often dead-on...a very favorable (impression) indeed..."

The author of this particular newspaper editorial was Richard Mellon Scaife.

If that name doesn't ring a bell, here's some short-hand: Richard Mellon Scaife praising Hillary Clinton is roughly analagous to George Steinbrenner wearing Red Sox regalia. Or Keith Obermann vacationing with Bill O'Reilly. Or Woody Allen quoting approvingly from Mein Kampf. Or George W. Bush confessing all his screwups to Cindy Sheehan. Or some other topsy turvy notion, straight out of Bizarro World in the Superman comics.

Scaife is the reclusive rich guy who financed what Hillary once called "the vast right-wing conspiracy." She returns to that theme on page 449 of her memoir, referring to Scaife as "the reactionary billionaire who had bankrolled the long-term campaign to destroy Bill's presidency." That's basically accurate.

In late 1996, while I was researching a magazine story on the interlocking alliances of conservative Clinton-hunters, I found Scaife's fingerprints everywhere. Scaife, a western Pennsylvania heir to the Mellon fortune, financed something called "The Arkansas Project," an ambitious (and ultimately futile) effort to destroy Bill Clinton's presidency by probing his tenure as governor of Arkansas and unearthing evidence that he had run drugs and murdered people. He also funnelled money to the conservative American Spectator magazine, which at the time was hot on the trail of Bill's various Arkansas paramours.

He also funnelled money to the various conservative legal groups that offered legal advice to sexual-harassment accuser Paula Jones. He also sought to prove, via his generous largesse, that a Clinton aide who in 1993 was found to have committed suicide (Vince Foster) had actually been murdered by undetermined assassins, presumably at the behest of the Clintons. The coroner's suicide ruling was repeatedly debunked in the pages of Scaife's newspaper, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review - more on that newspaper in a moment - and Scaife himself told a magazine in 1998 that Bill was a potential murderer: "Listen, (Clinton) can order people done away with at his will. He's got the entire federal government behind him."

But Scaife was still wearing his tinfoil hat long after the Clintons left the White House. As recently as three years ago, as Hillary was gearing up to run on her own, some of the Scaife-financed conservative "news" websites were flacking a new Hillary-bashing biography written by Ed Klein, with special emphasis on the "widely rumored" whispers that Hillary was a lesbian...and that her daughter was allegedly conceived during an act of rape.

But Scaife's influence extends far beyond his anti-Clinton crusades. He has reportedly donated upwards of $1 billion (in current dollars, adjusted for inflation) to conservative causes and institutions, thereby playing an instrumental role in establishing the think tanks and publications and law firms and watchdog groups that have put liberals and Democrats at a distinct disadvantage over the past four decades. In other words, he stands for everything that the Clintons and their political compadres have long been working against. (And in 1981, when a Columbia Journalism Review reporter stopped Scaife on the street and tried to quiz him about his influence in conservative circles, he called her a "communist," along with a common pejorative slang for the female genitalia.)

Yet this very same guy, in the same Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, was gushing about Hillary in his signed commentary yesterday. And this was because Hillary herself stopped by early last week to shoot the breeze with Scaife and his editorial writers for 90 minutes. Result: "(A) lesser politician - one less aself-assured, less informed on domestic and foreign affairs, less confident of her positions - might well have canceled the interview...I have a very different impression of Hillary Clinton today than before last Tuesday's meeting - and it's a very favorable one indeed."

Nobody is quite sure why Scaife has suddenly morphed into a pussycat; there have been various reports that Scaife admires Bill's post-presidential work on global issues, or that he's boosting Hillary because he thinks she beatable in November, or he's merely trying to stick it to his estranged wife (with whom he is immersed in an ugly divorce) because she is reportedly a Barack Obama supporter. Or maybe he was sincerely dazzled last week by Hillary's wonky presentation.

Whatever. What most interests me is why Hillary decided to seek out Scaife and sit with him in the first place.

At a time when Obama is still getting grief for his long association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, it's worth debating whether Hillary can justify enlisting, as a new best friend, the same guy who has called her own husband a murderer - and whose money has long empowered the conservative movement that Hillary views as an impediment to social and economic progress. A reasonable case can be made that Richard Scaife's money has had more impact on the life of the average citizen than Jeremiah Wright's rhetoric.

Yet, as a short-term tactic, Hillary's sitdown with Scaife was arguably a smart move. Upscale liberals probably scoff at Scaife's paper, but those folks are voting for Obama anyway. Culturally conservative Democrats in western Pennsylvania are more likely to read Scaife's paper, and Hillary badly needs those people to turn out on April 22. Secondly, by declawing somebody like Scaife, the Clinton camp can float the message that she's not such a polarizer after all, that she too has the potential to unite Americans across partisan lines. (Indeed, a Clinton spokeswoman said yesterday that the candidate "has demonstrated the ability to bridge old divides and get things done. Winning over Mr. Scaife is just another example.")

But with yet another Democratic senator today declaring support for Obama - Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the 64th superdelegate to back Obama since Feb. 5, as opposed to just nine for Clinton - it may be too late for the trailing candidate to shed her polarizing image. Scaife helped cement that image, and breaking bread with the guy won't make it go away.


On the broader issue of when (or whether) candidates should (or should not) be judged by the company they keep, I wrote about the outbreak of '08 proxy scandals in my Sunday print column.


And on the veracity front, this might not rank with Hillary's fantasy claim of dodging sniper fire, but nevertheless it stands as another tall tale from the trail:

Barack Obama has claimed that he owes his "very existence" to the Kennedys, because, in his telling, the legendary family provided the student scholarship money that enabled his future father to visit America in 1959 and meet his future mother. Turns out, however, that the Kennedys didn't kick in money for that particular program, which involved the airlifting of Kenyan students, until 1960.

The Obama campaign came clean yesterday. Unlike Hillary on the Bosnia falsehood, at least Obama didn't try to blame it on sleep deprivation.