Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hillary's Last Gasp?

Make no mistake about it. I remain a Hillary Clinton supporter. But I despair that she has lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Barack Obama. She has lost the Wisconsin primary election tonight by at least 15% if not more. She may not have organized to win the Wisconsin primary as Obama did but clearly the voters knew her and they decided to support Obama. And, as various commentators have remarked, Wisconsin’s demographics are the kind that, if not unequivocally favoring Clinton, didn’t put her at any distinct disadvantage. It has a primarily white electorate with a substantial percentage of working class families.

While Ohio and Texas, and Pennsylvania, have not yet voted, I now expect that Obama will continue to surge and win those primaries as well. Do I continue to hope that Hillary will be able to reverse her slide in Ohio and Texas? Yes. Do I expect that to happen? No longer. Do I nonetheless urge voters to support her in those states? Absolutely. I was hoping for a smaller margin of defeat tonight that might have suggested that the time and energy she put into Wisconsin during the last week had paid off in making the race closer but the outcome suggests otherwise.

How to explain what has happened? I don’t claim any particular insight. It appears that Clinton did not organize in enough states. I don’t know the details but it appears that she pretty much wrote off the caucus states and perhaps many states that ultimately tend to vote Republican in the general election. But I don’t think her problems are primarily rooted in tactics or even her strategies. Barack Obama has captured the imagination of many Americans, particularly young Americans, African-Americans, upscale liberals, but not only them. A very dear friend who enjoys politics almost as much as I do wrote to me recently in response to my blog to explain why he is supporting Obama. He is a married, white, male in his 50’s. He wrote:

I think what you see is the American people starting to coalesce around this guy and throwing under the bus all the also-ran pols. He is creating a sense that things don't have to be the same, we don't have to accept more of the same with a Clinton or another Bush, not anymore. This young man has talent and an ability to unify people behind a vision that we are all in this thing together. Instead of focusing on cutting up the pie and divvying up the spoils and triangulating, I hear him saying, let's focus and work on what unites us and not what divides us. McCain has some of that, Clinton does not. Of course it is a great risk that he will have set expectations too high, but he is bright and no one expected him to get this far, so let's see. The Momentum game is interesting, but in the end this election is about a wave of expectation that things can be different and better for and between us. I hope he keeps going.

My reaction to my friend’s statements? I think he very articulately captured Obama’s emotional appeal to so many Americans including himself. But that tends to scare me as I can’t help but feel that he has been taken in by Obama’s political hyperbole. I remain unmoved by Obama’s rhetoric and unconvinced that he represents the best choice for president.

The notion that Hillary Clinton is the past while Barack Obama is the future is, in my view, pure nonsense. Her positions on social policy are as enlightened and forward looking as his. If she can be accused of seeking to take a moderate path, knowing that most Americans are in the political center, Obama has been even more attentive to cultivating support among moderates and preaching unity and common purpose, terms that tend to suggest a middle ground. And if triangulation is the act of a candidate presenting his or her ideology as being "above" and "between" the left and right sides of the political spectrum, I humbly suggest that Obama has been far more active and far more successful in portraying himself in that vein. He tacks left on one issue and right on another, appeals to the left in one context but to the moderate on another, all the while remaining purposefully vague.

As to Obama’s constant calls for unity and overcoming political division, what exactly does he mean? Are we to expect that Obama will bring America together on a woman’s right to choose, abortion rights or the right to life? Or on same sex marriage? How about on gun control? Will Obama bridge the gap between blue and red on immigration policy? Or on trickle down economics and American fiscal and monetary policy? Is Obama the one to make the hard choices on social security and Medicare and then be able to effectuate them? Will Obama, most recently exhorting his followers to join him to change the world, resolve the Israeli-Arab dispute, eliminate al Qaida, bring peace between India and Pakistan, restore America to hegemony vis-à-vis China and other parts of an economically surging Asia? Frankly, I doubt it. Do I believe Hillary will accomplish such worthy goals? No, but she is not campaigning on a platform of changing the world.

I’m not opposed to optimism when it comes to problem solving. But I find Obama’s rhetoric short on answers and long on buzzwords. Effectuating real change is enormously difficult. It takes much less for groups to maintain the status quo than to alter it. Change usually involves conflict and struggle. But to hear Obama talk of it, change is incredibly simple. Join his camp, vote for his election and you’re on the way to a better world. I’m sorry if I remain incredulous. Will Democratic voters in Ohio and Texas come to their senses and vote for Hillary? I hope so but I’ve begun to seriously doubt it.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Voting on the Basis of Race

Is it permissible to vote for a candidate because of his or her race or gender but not permissible to vote against a candidate because of his or her race or gender? Is it particularly permissible when the voter and the candidate are both of the same minority community? This doesn’t seem to me to be merely an academic question as more and more black politicians who are superdelegates are turning from commitments to Hillary Clinton to support for Barack Obama.

The New York Times reports today (“Black Leader, A Clinton Ally, Tilts Toward Obama,” NYTimes, Zeleny and Healy, Feb. 15, 2008) that John Lewis, a highly respected and legendary black civil rights leader who committed to Hillary last year, now plans to cast his vote for Barack Obama. “‘In recent days, there is a sense of movement and a sense of spirit,’ said Mr. Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who endorsed Mrs. Clinton last fall. ‘Something is happening in America, and people are prepared and ready to make that great leap.’ Mr. Lewis, who carries great influence among other members of Congress, disclosed his decision in an interview in which he said that as a superdelegate he could ‘never, ever do anything to reverse the action’ of the voters of his district, who overwhelmingly supported Mr. Obama.”

To be sure, this switch is understandable. Black leaders not supporting a black candidate for president who not only now has overwhelming support among black voters but is also doing well among white voters? How does that look? It appears these politicians gave their support to Hillary at a time when they didn’t think Obama had any chance to become a viable candidate. Now that he has shown himself to be competitive, with a real chance to become the nominee, their racial pride and concern with not being out of step with members of their own community have come to the fore. But it appears these black superdelegates are taking an easy way out. Instead of talking of their own sense of black pride as a motivating force for their abandonment of Hillary for Obama, according to the Times article, Lewis (and others) are attributing it to not wanting to go against the wishes of their constituents or even reasons of political expediency, e.g., “in hopes of preventing a fight at the Democratic convention.”

This situation reminds me to some extent of that time during the 1960’s, when I was in my 20’s, when groups of black college students wanted to live in segregated college dormitories, segregated as in limited to blacks. The question at that time was whether this was little more than racism in reverse or whether it was something different – an effort by black students to find and forge a new black identity by living among a critical mass of their own race. This was not immoral discrimination on the part of blacks, it was claimed, because it was not invidious. Those wanting to live among “their own” did not look down upon the others. Rather, the argument ran, this desire to live apart grew out of a history of slavery and racism and represented only a positive sentiment and effort among blacks to find themselves, to build a new, stronger self-identity. That was then, this is now.

While Barack Obama reminds me in some ways of the attractive, bright, articulate Stokely Carmichael in his earlier civil rights years when Carmichael was committed to integration and non-violence, I am in no way seeking to suggest, either expressly or impliedly, that Obama represents or seeks to be a “black” candidate. On the contrary, he has sought to keep his distance from being identified in any such way. He cannot win otherwise. But, he certainly has sought to win widespread support among the black community and has taken steps over the months to combat any perception or claims that he “is not black enough.” More to the point, he is benefiting from and, I would suggest, eager to encourage a surge of black pride in his candidacy that has not only meant electoral support from 80 to 90% of African-American voters in the primaries but now support among black superdelegates at one time committed to Hillary Clinton. Surely these voters, and superdelegates, are making political decisions on the basis of their race. Is that to be condemned, applauded, disregarded or discounted? While I fully understand the phenomenon, it gives me concern.

Monday, February 11, 2008


Obama is on a roll, having won victories in Democratic caucuses in Washington State, Nebraska, and Maine and a primary in Louisiana this past weekend and seemingly poised to triumph in primaries in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia tomorrow. All the talk today is about the big M, Momentum.

The New York Times’ Patrick Healy quoted one superdelegate who has endorsed Clinton as saying: “She has to win both Ohio and Texas comfortably, or she’s out.” Other Clinton superdelegates were quoted as saying they were wavering in the face of Obama’s momentum this past weekend. Most political observers seem to agree that Clinton must at least win the popular vote in the Ohio and Texas primaries on March 4 if she is to stop Obama’s momentum.

Some Clinton advisers have sought to make light of Obama’s heralded momentum, noting that Obama won Iowa big but still did not triumph in New Hampshire and then trounced Clinton in South Carolina but failed to win the big states of New York and California on Super Tuesday. Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s communications director, has stated that “There is no evidence that voters are voting based on momentum — in fact the evidence is to the contrary.”

Writing two days after Super Tuesday, Adam Nagourney, another Times writer, observed:

But once again — as in New Hampshire — the result on Tuesday did not match the fervor that had been signaled by Mr. Obama’s dramatic march of rallies across the nation leading up to the vote. In that dynamic rests one of the central questions about the Obama candidacy, which may well go the heart of whether he can win the presidency. Is this campaign a series of surges of enthusiasm, often powered by the younger voters who form long lines waiting to hear Mr. Obama speak, that set expectations that are not met at the voting booth?

Or is it rather a slow-building force, one that despite faltering in New Hampshire and falling short on Tuesday in big states like California has allowed Mr. Obama to battle one of the most formidable political dynasties to a draw and will eventually propel him to victory?

Momentum. Does it have special significance in this contest or is it always a key factor? On the one hand, one might expect voters who are deeply committed to a candidate to stick by him or her and not defect in the face of losses to a competitor. On the other, not only do many people tend to flock to a winner but this year Democrats definitely want to win back the White House and seem more inclined to align with the candidate they feel has the best chance to win than with their emotional favorite.

And what exactly does momentum mean in the context of a political campaign? Many feel that Rudy Giuliani failed to take momentum into account in deciding to step back from the early electoral contests and wait until the race reached Florida. He seems to have been counting on no single rival gaining momentum or traction before Florida and perhaps on their undermining one another leaving him as the only viable candidate for the nomination. But not only did McCain make a remarkable political comeback from the tailspin of last summer, Giuliani’s minor roles in the contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina deprived him of visibility. It was as if voters felt he was unfairly trying to join a marathon eight miles into the race rather than starting at the beginning and enduring all the obstacles like everybody else.

Then, too, Rudy seems to have suffered from a fate that still threatens Hillary – inevitability or the expectations game. In politics, if not in physics, momentum is in part a function of perception. Do voters believe a candidate is advancing inexorably? gaining strength? or is he or she slipping? losing ground? plateauing? The spinmeisters are constantly busy trying to put their candidates’ performance “in perspective.” Was the candidate “supposed to” do well in that primary? among those groups of voters? in that region? “Success” even among average voters is partly measured by whether the candidate beats the expectations, much as the stock market values a company in part by whether it exceeds Wall Street’s expectations.

Momentum surely has an objective dimension – a candidate who keeps on losing in primaries will not likely be seen as having any momentum even if his or her percentage of the vote steadily increases from contest to contest. But the significance of expectations in affecting momentum can perhaps best be illustrated through two modern examples: Senator Eugene McCarthy did not beat President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary in 1968 but McCarthy so beat the expectations that many to this day believe he did win the primary and thereby chased Johnson from the race. In a similar vein, in 1992, Bill Clinton proclaimed himself the “Comeback Kid” after the New Hampshire primary, suggesting to many that he turned things around and won that contest. But in point of fact, Clinton did not win the primary any more than McCarthy. Both Clinton and McCarthy gained enormous momentum in New Hampshire without winning the vote. They both won the expectations game.

Hillary began as the “inevitable” Democratic Party standard bearer. She may well have sought such a label with the intent to dissuade others from challenging her candidacy. But the risk in such a strategy is that if others do challenge, as Obama chose to do, a failure to trounce the challengers undermines one’s electoral credibility. When expectations intentionally made high to discourage others from competing are not realized a loss of momentum and possibly even a crisis of confidence among the electorate are highly likely to ensue. Hillary seems to have chosen to play this high stakes game. Whether she will suffer the consequences remains to be seen. Ohio and Texas may very well decide her fate.

Monday, February 4, 2008

My Endorsement of Hillary Clinton

Oprah for Obama. Ted Kennedy and Caroline for Obama. Maria Shriver for Obama. Arnold for McCain. Garrison Keeler for Obama.

Do endorsements matter? Do celebrity or high profile endorsements sway the minds and votes of everyday voters? I suspect they do at least somewhat. Endorsements may not be key to electoral victory but they matter and in a close election, such as the Super Tuesday contests between Obama and Clinton, they may make a difference if not the difference.

I’m only slightly surprised that no one has sought my endorsement. Well, I jest. I’m not surprised at all. Only one or two friends have even bothered to ask me my preference, although readers of my blog already know how I will vote on February 5.

As a skeptic and former political scientist, I seriously question the reasons high profile personalities advance to explain their endorsements. There are no doubt a few “pure” endorsements but I suspect most are what I might call “impure.” Some are motivated by clear self interest on the part of the endorser. For example, politicians who might be seeking the vice presidential nomination or a cabinet position or something of value from the candidate being endorsed. But I suspect most are motivated by more muted self interest or personal emotional factors.

Take Ted Kennedy for example. Why did he jump on the Obama bandwagon so very late in the campaign? Was it because he felt that the Clintons, Bill in particular, had gone overboard in their campaigning, alluding too directly to race and gender and otherwise seemingly risking a rift in the Democratic Party, as some have suggested? Or was it because his niece Caroline Kennedy shed her political virginity and endorsed Obama, for reasons that aren’t quite clear. Or was Ted acting on the basis of some animosity or feelings of jealousy toward the Clintons for having emerged as a potential political dynasty, pushing aside the Kennedys from that position? After all, Ted himself lost any chance of ever becoming a viable presidential candidate after Chappaquiddick, despite an effort to upend Carter. Is there some jealousy operating underneath the surface? Was Ted waiting until Obama had proven himself a competitor before deciding to take his side? Surely if Ted’s rationale for supporting Obama was based upon his belief that leadership should pass to a younger generation he would have stepped down years ago from the Senate. But, no, he certainly hasn’t done that!

And Oprah? She was questioned apparently just yesterday as to whether her support for Obama was because of his race, particularly given her propensity not to endorse political candidates in the past. No, she said. She was supporting Obama not because he is black but because he is brilliant. Run that by us again, Oprah. Out from the political shadows to support Obama, the first African-American mainstream candidate for president, because he is brilliant? Why is that simply not believable?

And what about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last minute endorsement of John McCain, after the Governor claimed he would remain neutral in the primary? Well, that’s hardly surprising coming on the heels of Arnold’s last minute support for proposition 93 regarding term limits after he had opposed the proposition in the past. Arnold is notorious for switching directions at any point in time that he or his advisers sense that his political fortunes will be advanced. I don’t doubt that McCain’s policy positions are closer to Arnold’s in many areas but I cannot help thinking that Arnold saw in McCain a winner and wanted to jump on board the McCain express now so that after Arnold’s tenure as governor ends there might be a political appointment in a McCain presidency. Perhaps his family is hedging its bets with his wife’s last minute support for Obama.

Now having “officially” endorsed Hillary in the California Democratic primary, I do feel obliged to deny any impure motives for my decision. Let me quickly distinguish between impure motives and foolish judgment! I have never claimed a monopoly of wisdom and my reasons for supporting Hillary and opposing Barack may be based on mistaken considerations. Nonetheless, despite the drumroll of Obama endorsements on the eve of the vote, I remain unpersuaded.

Despite Obama’s soaring rhetoric and inspiring speeches, I remain unconvinced that he is sufficiently experienced to be the president or that he has shown the kind of consistent good judgment that he so often touts in his stump speeches. Was it Walter Mondale who stole that line from the older woman in the burger commercial “where’s the beef?” to use against Gary Hart? Sometimes I wonder where the beef is when it comes to Obama. I’m as tired of hearing his shibboleths of unity and common purpose as I am Bush’s of liberty and freedom. And yesterday Obama was proclaiming that “we can change the world,” obviously under his leadership. Enough already! Even if Obama has never embraced Reagan’s public policies, I was greatly concerned to hear him adopt a view of the presidency that seems to reflect Reagan and W’s hands off approach to managing government. No, I do not believe that Obama is secretly a Muslim or attended a madrassa or supports Louis Farrakhan, but I do wonder whether his approach to foreign policy might be too similar to Senator George McGovern’s, a candidate I actually supported through the primaries in 1972 but gradually came to distrust, or Jesse Jackson’s, for that matter.

Does my support for Hillary reflect unqualified acceptance of her? Not at all. As I’ve previously written, a year ago or so I said that I would never vote for Hillary. I was turned off by the persona she showed the nation while serving as First Lady and by reports of her personality by some who had been in the Clinton White House, like George Stephanopoulos. She seemed petty, vindictive, cold, calculating and too ideological. Perhaps Bill has a number of those traits but he has had a way of burying them, although his performances of late have been uncomplimentary. Have I now been taken in by a pseudo make-over of Hillary by her handlers? The softer and gentler Hillary Clinton designed to entice skeptical voters such as I? The close to tears episode in New Hampshire, whether planned or not? Other efforts to present a softer candidate? Perhaps. But perhaps she has grown as well, in her campaigns in New York State and now in this presidential rat race. I don’t know. But I have chosen to vote for her on Tuesday. Come join me!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Why I Think the Los Angeles Times Got It Wrong in Endorsing Obama

The Los Angeles Times endorsed Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination for President on its website yesterday, February 1, 2008. Interestingly, the editorial bears a February 3 date, meaning it is calculated to appear in tomorrow’s Sunday print editions, no doubt for maximum impact.

While I am not surprised that the Times editorial board chose to endorse Obama rather than Clinton, I was a bit surprised by some of the board’s logic or its absence. I confess that my surprise was slight as I recently read the board’s editorial in support of proposition 93 on term limits and found it unconvincing and based on faulty reasoning.

I recognize, like almost everyone else, that Obama is a gifted public speaker, has inspired a following and has excited many during this campaign. He and I are not far apart on most public policy issues and I would likely vote for him in the national election were he to be nominated. But, he is not my candidate of choice and I am one of those who believe that he has not been subjected to the kind of public and media scrutiny that a serious candidate for president should be.

I find that Obama is an inveterate user of “buzzwords” (e.g., common purpose) and slogans (e.g., Yes We Can), not unlike the current president. I believe that politicians use buzzwords more to manipulate than to persuade, and more to appeal to the emotions than to reason. Bush apparently became convinced long ago that using certain powerful buzzwords such as “liberty” and “democracy” to describe the reasons for his Iraq policies and his foreign policy in general would lead many Americans to support him. Obama has chosen other buzzwords that have tended historically to touch an emotional chord among Americans. Obama frequently invokes in his oratory calls for unity among Americans, pursuit of a common purpose, and transcending the bickering and divisions between blue and red states. To be sure, given the impact of buzzwords and slogans, I don’t expect Obama or any other politician to abandon them soon. But I think it’s important to recognize them for what they are and to ask more of our candidates than their constant repetition.

The Times, like others, celebrates Obama as a breath of fresh air, an “inspiring leader” with a “deep knowledge of foreign relations” and someone who will turn the page of history rather than return us to the “political duel between two families, the Bushes and the Clintons.” But where are we to find evidence of Obama’s deep knowledge of foreign relations, let alone other evidences of real leadership, courage and accomplishment?

The editorial board, also like others, makes much of Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War in 2002 at the same time that Hillary Clinton was voting to give the President discretionary authority to act militarily toward Iraq, even if she claims it was not to go to war at that point. But, while Bill Clinton was critically assaulted when he termed Obama’s opposition record on Iraq a “fairy tale,” I remain one of those not persuaded that Obama has shown any particular insight or leadership qualities whether on Iraq or on other public policy issues.

In mid-December 2007, blogger eriposte shared some interesting history on Obama on his web page: http://www.theleftcoaster.com/archives/011525.php. I think the credit given Obama for his bravery and insights vis-à-vis Iraq are overblown as are, in my view, his qualifications to be president.

I am also struck by similarities between Barack Obama and George W. Bush, despite their obvious profound differences when it comes to oratory, familiarity with English grammar and many areas of public policy. George W. has none of the charisma, articulateness, eloquence or capacity to mesmerize that Obama has but George W. ran in 2000 on many of the same criticisms and promises about Washington and its political class that Obama is advancing today. George W. was the outsider who had worked well (or so he claimed) with Democrats in Texas to reach political compromise and move forward with bipartisan legislation and he promised to come to Washington and overcome the destructive, divisive partisanship and gridlock between the two political parties, objectives that he, like previous presidents who made similar promises, has failed to accomplish. Bush's representations sounds extraordinarily similar to Obama’s warnings and promises except that Obama has now been in Washington for three or more years and his successes to date in overcoming the blue state/red state divisions and political gridlock are not particularly noticeable.

Finally, in backing Obama, the Times concluded:

An Obama presidency would present, as a distinctly American face, a man of African descent, born in the nation's youngest state, with a childhood spent partly in Asia, among Muslims. No public relations campaign could do more than Obama's mere presence in the White House to defuse anti-American passion around the world, nor could any political experience surpass Obama's life story in preparing a president to understand the American character. His candidacy offers Democrats the best hope of leading America into the future, and gives Californians the opportunity to cast their most exciting and consequential ballot in a generation.

The reference to “race” in this political campaign has been a source of considerable discussion, rancor, condemnation and self-righteousness. Here the Times seems to make Obama’s race (“a man of African descent”) a prominent part of the argument for voting for him. That is disconcerting as are the arguments advanced in the rest of the quoted paragraph. We’ve had African-Americans in high places in the current Administration, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as successive Secretaries of State, yet that hasn’t necessarily diminished “anti-American passion around the world,” assuming such passion is as widespread as the Times editorial board would have us believe. I was struck even more by the Times’ statement “nor could any political experience surpass Obama’s life story in preparing a president to understand the American character.” What in the world were the Times editorialists thinking? How does Obama’s “life story” (most of which most of us know hardly anything about), a man born of a bi-racial couple in Hawaii and raised for a number of years in Indonesia among Muslims, a Harvard Law School graduate who did community organizing in Illinois, prepare him to understand the American character or at least understand it any better than any of the rest of us?

The Times, which I have been reading for more than 30 years, has been experiencing enormous displacements in recent years -- changes in ownership, rapid turnover in key leadership positions, and sudden departures from its editorial board. I’m not sure who the current crop on the Editorial Board is but I think they need to go back to the drawing boards or recruit more insightful members.