Friday, February 16, 2007

The bad marriage of candidates and bloggers

When I first launched this blog – one year ago today – friends asked me whether I would be able to find enough news to sustain it. Not a problem. I could be tethered to this effort 24/7, and still lack the capability to keep pace.

Consider, for instance, the episode featuring those two outspoken feminist bloggers who were working for the John Edwards presidential campaign until they wound up in the crosshairs of the conservative nexus. The House Iraq debate hijacked my attention span. But what happened to those bloggers (both of whom resigned this week from the Edwards camp) warrants comment, although not for the reasons cooked up by those who have been assailing them.

Some quick background, in case you missed it: A few weeks ago, Armanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwen were hired in order to aid Edwards’ outreach to the liberal, feminist, and youth-oriented blogging communities. (It’s hip these days for candidates to put bloggers on the payroll, yet it’s also risky, and that’s the key point I will address below.) But soon after Marcotte and McEwen came aboard, some conservative voices cried foul, citing some provocative writings that the two women had previously posted on their personal blogs. The critics, who denounced the posts as insulting to Catholics, turned up the heat all last week, until Edwards broke his silence and issued a statement – condemning what the bloggers had written, yet insisting that they stay on the job. But the critics persisted anyway, until finally Marcotte and McEwen decided to quit, rather than risk hurting the Edwards campaign.

Supposedly, the real issue here was that Edwards was condoning anti-Catholic bigotry, because, among other things, McEwan had once written that President Bush was in cahoots with his “wingnut Christofascist base,” and Marcotte had joked in explicit language about what would happen if the Virgin Mary had taken an emergency contraceptive. For these reasons, Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, assailed the Edwards campaign for hiring “two anti-Catholic vulgar trash-talking bigots.”

Indeed, this incident was perfect for Donahue, a prominent conservative activist; he knows that the Democrats are trying to connect more effectively with people of faith, and he knows that Catholics are a key swing voter group in presidential elections. So the Edwards story was potentially a countervailing two-fer. (And Donahue’s take on the incident is echoed today by Dan Gerstein, the ex-press secretary for every conservative’s favorite nominal Democrat, Joe Lieberman. In an online column, Gerstein writes: “Catholics are one of the biggest and most important swing-voting blocs in this country. They often tend to decide elections. So it’s probably not the smartest idea for a leading Democratic presidential candidate to hire people who openly defame Catholicism’s sacred figures by talking about the Lord filling the Virgin Mary with 'his hot, white, sticky spirit'.”)

But the right-wing read on this story is flawed for several reasons. Donahue is hardly a disinterested observer; it turns out that he has his own track record of trash talk. I’m particularly fond of his December ’04 remark on MSNBC, about how “Hollywood likes anal sex” and how “Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews.” Not to mention his remark, earlier that year on the same network, about “the gay death style.” It’s also noteworthy that, after Mel Gibson uttered his drunken anti-Semitic slurs, Donahue came forward to say that it was no big deal: “There’s a lot of people who have made comments which are bigoted who are not necessarily bigots…What kind of blood do they want out of this man?”

More importantly – and this gets to the point I want to make – it’s not exactly breaking news that bloggers and candidates make strange bedfellows. The Edwards campaign may indeed have been foolish to believe that they could have it both ways (hiring bloggers in order to tout Edwards’ cutting-edge sensibility, yet somehow believing that the bloggers’ archives would not become a problem). But such delusions are bipartisan, as evidenced a certain employe of the John McCain presidential campaign.

Conservative blogger Patrick Hynes joined McCain last spring. The first embarrassment occurred when, still writing on his personal blog, he attacked a number of McCain’s rivals without disclosing that he was on McCain’s payroll. The second embarrassment occurred when it was discovered that, prior to joining up with McCain, he publicly declared that America was “a Christian nation.” The third embarrassment occurred last November, when, as a McCain employe, he posted on his personal blog a picture of Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman and invited readers to post nicknames. His readers responded with a sampling of anti-Semitic remarks.

So, if Edwards was condoning anti-Catholic bigotry by sticking with his two bloggers, does this mean that McCain is condoning anti-Semitism by continuing to employ his blogger? Or perhaps it’s wiser to just take the broader view of these incidents, and note the real problem:

Putting bloggers into a political campaign is a task akin to putting the head of a dog on the body of a camel. Or vice versa. The two elements simply don’t mesh very well. Contemporary presidential candidates tend to measure each word carefully, for fear of offending somebody; bloggers inhabit a freewheeling universe were crudeness is often prized and where the intelligence-challenged can spew with impunity. It’s hard to imagine that the gap between candidate and blogger discourse will narrow any time soon – give it 40 years, perhaps when today’s bloggers become senior citizens – so future candidates will risk these kinds of embarrassments if they persist in hiring people with inconvenient archives.

Hynes, the McCain blogger, signaled this fundamental difference in an interview last week: “I would caution against holding candidates responsible for what their bloggers and blog consultants have said in the past.”

Perhaps he should email that remark to the folks who went after Edwards.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The "honorary soul brother" calls in his markers

This little item ran on the wires the other night: “Two key black political leaders in South Carolina who backed John Edwards in 2004 said Tuesday they were supporting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.”

So big deal, right? In terms of sex appeal, a couple political endorsements can’t possibly compete with the ongoing cable TV bulletins announcing that Anna Nicole Smith is still dead. Yet this South Carolina story is not a yawner. What it signifies is that Bill Clinton is working the phones backstage, calling in his markers, and demonstrating that he’s the most potent weapon in his wife’s campaign.

No other pol in the Democratic party can match his clout in the black community (author Toni Morrison once said that Bill was America’s “first black president”), and that fact is crucial to understanding why Hillary Clinton will be strongly competitive in the primaries that follow Iowa and New Hampshire. Right now, she and Barack Obama (with Edwards the third wheel) are working that community quite intensively, because they know that blacks will comprise a disproportionate share of the turnout in early states such as South Carolina. Indeed, in 2004, roughly 49 percent of the South Carolina primary vote was African-American.

Obama, on paper at least, can sink roots in the black community by appealing to racial pride (while seeking, of course, to avoid the broader perception that he is merely a “black candidate”). And reports indicate that Obama was trying to recruit those aforementioned South Carolina black leaders. But, in the end, Darrell Jackson (an influential pastor, public relations man, and state senator) and Robert Ford (another state senator) went with the Clintons. Here’s the key reason:

In their world, Obama is a newcomer who hasn’t paid his dues…whereas the Clintons are demigods who have been building relationships with the black community since Bill’s initial bid 15 years ago. Which helps to explain why a January ABC-Washington Post poll found that Hillary Clinton tops Obama among African Americans nationwide by 53 to 27 percent.

And consider the case of those two South Carolina guys: Jackson’s PR firm did work for Bill as far back as 1992; Jackson has also reportedly agreed to a Hillary contract, even though, he says, a rival campaign offered to double Hillary’s offer. And Ford, while trying to decide who to endorse, says he was “swayed in part by a personal call” from Bill, and that “if Bill Clinton calls you, you’re not going to have much choice.” (Some Obama fans are annoyed by this; as a columnist in Obama's home state complained today, Jackson and Ford "are hatin' on a brother who dares to believe anything is possible.")

So why does Bill Clinton carry so much weight - enough, potentially, to trump Obama’s personal story? Why is his appeal so strong among blacks that he seems capable of transferring it to his spouse?

I remember once asking some black leaders about Clinton’s appeal, and here’s what they said: He’s an honorary soul brother, “more personally at ease with black people than any previous president,” in the words of scholar Roger Wilkins, the son of a famed civil rights leader. Secondly, he exudes empathy; as Anthony Dicks, a South Carolina funeral home operator, once told me, “He gave me a warm feeling.” Thirdly, he defended affirmative action and public education, and presided over an economy that posted the lowest black unemployment rate in history. Lastly – and perhaps most importantly – he was hounded by a federal prosecutor during a sex scandal, railroaded by the same kinds of people who went after Martin Luther King.

But to really grasp the depth of black loyalty toward the Clintons, consider this exchange that I had with Chaka Fattah during the late summer of 1998:

Fattah, the Philadelphia congressman who today is running for mayor, spent that August virtually living on cable TV, insisting to the world that Bill Clinton had not conducted an affair with Monica Lewinsky. He was convinced that the charge was false, because Bill had already publicly insisted that it was false. So, on Aug. 6, for example, Fattah told the viewing audience, “Absolutely, I believe the president…he said, ‘Look, there’s been no sexual relationship.’ He said he didn’t do it!”

Well, 11 days after Fattah’s appearance, Clinton changed his tune and told the American people that he did do it. Whereupon I phoned Fattah and asked him whether he felt that Bill had hung him out to dry.

And Fattah cheerfully replied, “Not at all!”

That’s what I call loyalty. Let’s see Obama try to compete with that.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

GOP admits: if we try to defend our Surge, "we lose"

I mentioned here yesterday, with regards to the House debate on Iraq, that Republicans are in the tough position of defending President Bush’s troop escalation plan, because they have to pretend that they really believe in it. I wrote that their attitude this week will be more dutiful than diehard. Indeed, their discomfort was palpable during the initial hours of debate, yesterday afternoon.

I was struck by the fact that most of them barely mentioned the troop hike at all, or even the Iraq situation in general; rather, most spoke in broad terms about the global terrorist threat, apparently in the hopes of implying that vigilant Republicans recognize the lethality of those who plot against us, while feckless Democrats do not.

Well, now we know why the Republicans have decided to go global: Because they themselves recognize that any attempt to actually defend the troop hike, or to generally defend Bush’s war, is a stone cold loser.

This is what they say. A House Republican memo, outlining talking points for the debate, has surfaced online (somebody first leaked it to Democratic deputy leader Steny Hoyer) . Here’s the key passage:

"Democrats want to force us to focus on defending the surge….The debate should not be about the surge or its details. This debate should not even be about the Iraq war to date, mistakes that have been made, or whether we can, or cannot, win militarily. If we let Democrats force us into a debate on the surge or the current situation in Iraq, we lose.”

That certainly concedes a lot of ground. One would think that a debate over Iraq should focus on what has happened in the war to date, and the mistakes that have been made – such as invading without a postwar plan, disbanding the Iraqi army without any thought to where the soldiers might go, failing to anticipate a Sunni insurgency, and dozens of others. One would also think that a House debate over a resolution condemning the Surge should focus on the current situation in Iraq – since, after all, an assessment of the current situation might actually provide some insights into whether the Surge would work at all. One would think that Republicans might feel an obligation, during a House debate, to defend and explain the Surge to the thousands of American families that are sending Surgers into the fray.

But, as the Republicans acknowledge in their own memo, it is futile to engage on any of those issues. Having concluded that it’s a fool’s errand to defend Bush’s war on the merits, they have decided on the sole remaining option: Change the subject and try, once again, to paint the Democrats as soft on global terrorism.

Why they would expect this strategy to work – given the results of the ’06 elections, and given the fact that most Americans concluded some time ago that the war in Iraq is actually a wasteful distraction from the global battle against terrorism – is anybody’s guess. But, as the memo makes clear, the Bush foot soldiers at this point don’t have the requisite body armor to withstand Democratic attack and engage on the facts.

Perhaps they were hoping today that Bush would bail them out with some fresh talking points; the president had the opportunity to do so, during a late-morning press conference. But, alas, he was no help. In fact, he managed to pour sand into the House GOP's limited weaponry.

Rather than joust with the Democrats over the merits of the troop hike, and the substance of the Bush war policy, the House Republicans have sought to limit their specific Iraq remarks to two arguments: Any resolution expressing disapproval of the troop hike will give aid and comfort to the terrorists, and any such resolution is tantamount to dissing the troops.

House GOP leader John Boehner, for instance, has already said that, by passing the resolution, "we're going to embolden the enemies." Surely the president agrees with that, right?

Wrong. Bush said at his press conference today, "Whether this particular resolution will impact enemy thought, I can't tell you that."

OK, what about the argument that the anti-Surge resolution is akin to dissing the troops? As GOP congressman David Dreier said during the debate, "You cannot claim to support our troops without supporting their mission." Surely the president at least agrees with that, right?

Wrong again. At his press conference, Bush was asked whether those who are speaking out against his troop hike are, by definition, undermining the troops. Here's his response: "I don't think so at all. You can be against my decision and still support the troops, absolutely."

So that doesn't leave his Capitol Hill allies much to work with. But the thing is, Bush knows that talking points don't mean squat at this stage of the war. He said so himself, near the end of the press conference: "What really matters is what happens on the ground (in Iraq). I can talk all day long, but what really matters to the American people is to see progress."

Neither side in the week-long House debate would disagree with that.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The House debate and the politics of pretense

The debate in the House of Representatives over the war in Iraq, which started today after four years of institutional torpor, is actually an elaborate game of pretend. The Democratic leaders are pretending that they have no antiwar agenda beyond the passage of a mild resolution that “disapproves” of President Bush’s troop escalation. And the Republican leaders are pretending that they actually still have faith in what Bush is doing.

The Democratic pretense was obvious on Sunday, when Hoyer appeared with House GOP leader John Boehner on Meet the Press. Boehner quickly baited Hoyer by contending, “Let’s be honest about it. What we’re going to be doing this week is the first step in your effort to cut off funds for troops.” And Hoyer replied, “No, our resolution does not say anything about cutting off funds, John.”

Hoyer was correct, in the literal sense, when he said that the resolution doesn’t talk about funding cutoffs. But he was incorrect to imply that Democrats don’t see the resolution as the crucial first step toward a more substantive antiwar agenda. Of course they do – because their own people have said so.

For instance, it has been widely reported that Speaker Pelosi has already met with the liberals in her caucus, and urged them to back the non-binding resolution as merely the first step. And some Democratic members haven’t been shy about saying so. Carol Shea-Porter, who was elected last November amidst antiwar fervor in New Hampshire, has referred to the resolution as “training wheels for the real thing,” and Joe Sestak, the former three-star admiral who was elected last November in suburban Philadelphia, has already introduced a bill calling for a funding cutoff on Dec. 31. He has called the resolution “necessary” but “insufficient.” This afternoon, during the House debate, Democratic congresswoman Lynn Woolsley touted her own bill to pull out troops within six months of enactment, and warned that, after the nonbinding resolution is passed, "This body will have no choice but to take further steps."

One might argue that the Democratic leadership's pretense is quite unnecessary – given the fact that, at this point, the House Democratic leaders appear to be lagging behind public opinion. As evidenced by the new USA Today-Gallup poll, most Americans don’t think that an anti-Bush resolution is sufficient; they want some raw meat in their antiwar diet. Only 51 percent back the resolution. By contrast, 57 percent want Congress to cap the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, and 63 percent want Congress to enact a timetable and pull out all the soldiers by the end of next year. These numbers are driven by strong independent voter sentiment, and by growing dissent even among Republicans (roughly three in 10).

No wonder the Democrats’ liberal base is hungry for substantive congressional action. After all, antiwar sentiment is now the centrist position in American politics. Consider the views of William Odom, a retired Army lieutenant general who directed the National Security Agency under Ronald Reagan. He argued last weekend for a troop pullout: “Fighting on now simply prolongs our losses and blocks the way to a new strategy. Getting out of Iraq is the pre-condition for creating new strategic options.”

But the House Democratic leadership is staying in pretense mode this week, because its top priority is to attract some Republican support for the resolution and thus demonstrate (for the first time) bipartisan House opposition to Bush. As Pelosi put it today, on the House floor, the core theme of the resolution is “No more blank checks for President Bush on Iraq.” If the resolution contained funding cutoff language, it would be easier for wavering Republicans to stay within their own ranks.

Indeed, there are reports that anywhere from 20 to 60 House Republicans could break ranks and register their disapproval. The Republican dilemma is serious. Outside the reddest congressional districts, antiwar sentiment continues to rise, thereby jeopardizing some members’ re-election prospects in 2008. It speaks volumes that Howard Coble and Walter Jones, two of the most outspoken Republicans in favor of the anti-Bush resolution, hail from North Carolina, a red state with a strong military presence. Another GOP dissenter is Wayne Gilchrest, an ex-Marine and Purple Heart winner, who represents a rural district in Maryland. These Republicans are a more accurate barometer of the restive national mood than the House Republican leaders who are trying to sustain the pretense of unceasing support for the Decider’s mission.

Boehner, on the House floor this afternoon, made the usual arguments against any expression of dissent, contending that any opposition to Bush would be tantamount to a victory for al Qaeda and the terrorists, who “are trying to divide us here at home.” But the neoconservative enablers of this war know full well that, at this point, the Republican leaders are more dutiful than diehard in their support. The uber-neoconservative, William Kristol, said as much this week in his Weekly Standard magazine. He is not satisfied with a show of requisite loyalty; he wants to see some real enthusiasm. He writes, “The large majority of Republicans continue to support the effort in Iraq. But they could do so more outspokenly and more aggressively. They shouldn't view defending the war as simply a grim duty.”

The duty is grim, however, because the Republican loyalists are being hit with fresh embarrassments virtually every day. I mentioned here last Friday that the Pentagon’s acting inspector general has now rebuked neoconservative apparatchik Douglas Feith for concocting prewar evidence that erroneously put Saddam Hussein in bed with al Qaeda (evidence that multiple government agencies and commissions have soundly rejected). But that’s not the end of that story, because Feith has been keeping it alive by digging himself a deeper hole.

The other day on Fox News, for instance, he disputed the Pentagon report by contending that “nobody in my office ever claimed there was an operational relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda.”

Oh really? What’s fascinating about these war planners is that they seem to believe that whatever they claim today will somehow wipe clean whatever they did yesterday. Here’s the factual record: On Oct. 27, 2003, Feith sent a memo to the Senate Intelligence Committee, defending the prewar findings ginned up by his Pentagon office. Those findings claimed a longstanding relationship between Hussein and al Qaeda.

How do we know all this? Because the Feith memo was leaked to a prominent conservative media outlet, which promptly detailed the memo and concluded: “Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein had an operational relationship from the early 1990s to 2003…. there can no longer be any serious argument about whether Saddam Hussein's Iraq worked with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to plot against Americans.”

And what outlet wrote up the Feith memo? Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard.

No wonder the House Republicans are about to endure a very long week.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Why Hillary will never apologize

Hillary Clinton is never going to say that she’s sorry. Politically, she can’t risk it.

As evidenced from her weekend foray in New Hampshire, the Democratic base is virtually demanding some sort of apology – something along the lines of “I was wrong in 2002 when I cast my Senate vote giving President Bush the option of invading Iraq,” or “I am sorry that I made such a big mistake when I voted to authorize the war,” or “I acknowledge the critical error that I made five years ago,” or “I should have slapped that skirt-chasing stinker and walked out for good.” OK, maybe not that last one.

The antiwar liberals, who can be expected to vote in disproportionate numbers in the early New Hampshire primary, had hoped this past weekend to hear some words of contrition. As one Democrat, a financial adviser in Nashua, told her, “I want to know if right here, right now, once and for all and without nuance, you can say that war authorization was a mistake. I, and I think a lot of other primary voters — until we hear you say it, we're not going to hear all the other great things you are saying.”

But here’s what she told the Democratic base: “If we knew then what we know now, I would never have voted to give this president the authority….I'm sorry, what I say is what I believe. I understand that some people disagree or think it's not adequate, but it's what I believe."

Which, I suppose, is one way to equate nuance with conviction.

At various stops in New Hampshire, she said that she “takes responsibility” for her Yes vote. She said that she voted Yes in the expectation that President Bush would keep sending inspectors into Iraq. She said that if she was president back in 2002, she never would have gone to war. She said that if she is president in 2009, she will end the war. (A rough parallel to what Dwight Eisenhower said about Korea during the ’52 campaign.)

And she sought to rally her Democratic listeners by steering their attention to Bush’s execution of the war: “I share the sense of anger, outrage and deep, deep disappointment about what the president did in Iraq…I do not believe it is in American interests to send our young men and women into combat situations when they are trying to figure out who is shooting at them, where they are in the midst of sectarian warfare that they don't understand, being conducted in a language they do not understand, and not knowing whether the person they are allied with today will be shooting at them tomorrow.”

In other words, no apology.

Some observers believe that she can't go on this way - not with Barack Obama (antiwar since 2002) and John Edwards (antiwar since 2005, when he renounced his '02 Senate vote) threatening her on the left flank. John McIntyre, a blogger at RealClearPolitics, argued today that Clinton "will be at too much of a competitive disadvantage in the Democratic race if she continues to dissemble and not give the antiwar Democratic base what it wants to hear on Iraq...(H)er refusal to (apologize) and admit she was wrong only allows her rivals to gain increasing traction on the central issue of the war with the Democratic party's strongest constituency."

But I question whether she will ever take that route. Because if she did try to repudiate herself, she would probably wind up with an even bigger political headache.

Clinton is strongly focused on the swing voters, maybe 10 or 12 percent of the electorate, who will ultimately determine the outcome of the ’08 November election. More specifically, the swing voters in winnable red states, the states that John Kerry failed to carry in 2004. If Clinton was to issue an apologia, she would immediately expose herself to the flip-flop charge - the same charge that doomed Kerry among swing voters. A contrite Clinton would be swiftly painted by her opponents as a waffler who was for the war before she was against it; the Republican National Committee (which is already road-testing the charge that Clinton likes to sing “Kerry-oake”) still has sufficient resources, despite its ’06 defeats, to pound that message.

Some Democratic strategists have long believed that Clinton can’t give the liberal base what it most wants. Kenneth Baer (who is not on the Clinton team) told me back in 2005, “Our last two nominees weren’t perceived as having firm convictions. It rebounded against their character, and that’s why they lost.”

Moreover, Clinton has to guard against the perils of the Romney Effect. I’m talking here about George Romney, not Mitt Romney. A little background, and you’ll see where I’m going with this:

The late George Romney (father of ’08 GOP presidential hopeful Mitt) was the anointed front-runner of the 1968 Republican race – until he sought to explain, in a radio interview, why he had renounced his previous support for the Vietnam war. The Michigan governor complained that, while visiting Nam, he had been duped by the brass into backing the war: "I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam. Not only by the generals, but also by the diplomatic corps over there, and they did a very thorough job." Romney quickly plummeted in the polls, and his candidacy soon evaporated; voters didn't feel comfortable about a candidate who admitted that he was capable of being duped.

In other words, a Clinton apology would provide opponents with the opportunity to paint her as a flip-flopper who is capable of being duped. Which is not the ideal image for the first serious female presidential candidate.

One Democratic strategist, thinking ahead to the ’08 general election, tells me that the Hillary camp wants to allay the (unfair) suspicion, especially among some white male voters, that a woman might be reluctant to use military force in a crisis. Hence the desire, during this campaign, to avoid any incident that would allow rivals to paint her as irresolute. Hillary’s people would prefer that she head into a general election, presumably against a tough-guy opponent such as John McCain or Rudy Giuliani, with the kind of tough-lady image that worked for Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain and Golda Meir in Israel.

The assumption, of course, is that Clinton can first win over the Democratic primary electorate even without hewing to the repudiation ritual, that she can attract a sufficient number of liberal followers without agreeing to take their Iraq litmus test. As evidenced by some of the response in New Hampshire (especially when she said that Republicans fear her more than any other Democrat), she is fully capable of threading that needle. And there is nothing in the early Democratic polls to suggest otherwise.