Monday, March 31, 2008

Say What? Doublespeak or Worse from the Presidential Candidates

1. Obama and Long Movies

After Obama-supporter Senator Pat Leahy called upon Hillary Clinton to end her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on the ground that she cannot win and her continued efforts will damage the party’s chances in November, Hillary responded forcefully by claiming that his and others’ calls amounted to denying Democrats in the remaining primary states a chance to express themselves at the ballot box. On Saturday, March 29, 2008, Barack Obama distanced himself from Leahy’s position, saying that Clinton should stay in the race “as long as she wants,” while urging that the party unite behind a candidate after the primaries have concluded.

But on the previous day, March 28, Obama, at a rally in Pittsburgh, seemed to be strongly suggesting that Hillary exit the race, by describing the campaign as “a good movie that lasted about a half an hour too long.”

Surely Obama would like the race to end and Hillary to withdraw. No one can blame him for that. In fact, many of us increasingly fear that the fight between Clinton and Obama has turned nasty and that its continuation will diminish, not strengthen, the prospects for a Democratic victory in November. But Obama also knows that to call for Hillary to withdraw despite the outstanding primaries, the closeness of the race, and the absence of a resolution to the Florida and Michigan fiascos, makes him look like a competitor trying to press his opponent to concede before the voting has stopped and he has truly won the campaign. In such circumstances, doublespeak works wonders and Obama has increasingly shown himself adept at it.

2. Hillary and Gun Fire

Is it only a momentary flap or has Hillary seriously shot herself in the foot, so to speak, with her misstatements about her trip in 1996 to Tuzla, Bosnia where she claimed she landed under sniper fire and, instead of participating in a greeting ceremony at the airport, she and others ran with their heads down to waiting vehicles. CBS film of the event shows Clinton and daughter Chelsea being greeted by a little girl on the tarmac who kissed Clinton on the cheek with no sniper fire or running for cover anywhere in evidence.

Hillary is not the first political candidate to misstate the truth, whether purposefully or, as she claims, through a faulty memory. But this misstep has occurred at a particularly crucial point in time. The focus had been almost exclusively on Obama’s statements about the Reverend Wright, statements that had raised serious questions about Obama’s truthfulness. Clinton’s misstatement is even more glaring, as there is video that clearly shows her landing in Tuzla. And I for one will never accept that this was all a function of fuzzy memory. You don’t forget being exposed to sniper fire or, more to the point, you don’t mistakenly remember it when it never occurred. I would be willing to accept the fuzzy memory explanation if such an incident had occurred to Clinton elsewhere. But I’ve yet to read of a trip Hillary made where she was in fact greeted by sniper fire, at least the kind that comes out of guns rather than adversaries’ mouths.

3. Obama and Reverend Wright

On “The View,” an ABC television program featuring a group of female commentators, that aired this last Friday, March 28, 2008, Barack Obama said: "Had the reverend not retired and had he not acknowledged that what he had said had deeply offended people and were inappropriate and mischaracterized what I believe is the greatness of this country, for all its flaws, then I wouldn't have felt comfortable staying there at the church."

So, after remaining a member of the Trinity United Church of Christ for approximately 20 years during which time Reverend Wright made the incendiary remarks shown in often aired videos, Obama tells us now that had Wright not retired, which he apparently did a month ago, he “wouldn’t have felt comfortable staying there at the church.” Does this even mean Obama would have left the church had Wright remained as the active pastor or that Obama might well have remained but with feelings of discomfort? More doublespeak?

Most importantly, how convenient now to tell us of his lack of comfort while there appears no evidence he felt any during the years Wright was pastor and Obama belonged to the church. As to Obama’s claims that he was not present during Wright’s incendiary statements, let’s just say that it begs credulity to believe that Obama was unaware of Wright’s views and statements on the topics addressed in the videos throughout the 20 year period.

Obama’s efforts to distance himself from Reverend Wright’s incendiary statements and to even proclaim his own ignorance of them, while at the same time explaining and justifying his longstanding and very close relationship with Wright and even Wright's anger and remarks, don’t work for me. I see them as an admittedly skilled tap dance by a very talented political player. I have become increasingly cynical about Obama’s attempt to market himself as someone above politics and different from other politicians in the ways they seek office. Rather, this evidences even more clearly Obama’s calculated efforts over the years to build a coalition of constituents and supporters who frequently hold diverse and conflicting views by presenting himself somewhat differently to different groups. And that is precisely what all politicians do. I’d respect Obama more were he not so hypocritical in this endeavor. But, despite my misgivings, Democratic voters in recent polls seem to have accepted Obama’s explanations and his Philadelphia address and continue to support him in the nominating process. Nonetheless, I think the Wright episode will seriously weaken his candidacy in November, assuming he wins the nomination.

4. McCain, Lieberman and Al Qaeda

Will Joseph Lieberman be a vice-presidential candidate again in 2008? I ask that sarcastically but his constant appearances with John McCain have to make you wonder! To be sure, I am disappointed in Lieberman. I didn’t favor dumping him as the Democratic nominee for re-election to the Senate in Connecticut because of his position on the Iraq War but I must confess that now I feel otherwise.

In any case, while some of McCain’s supporters now claim that his misstatement in Jordan about Iran’s relationship with Al Qaeda was not incorrect, his remark was inaccurate and a gaffe and underscored the concerns many, including I, have about McCain’s ability to provide new, inspired and inspiring leadership to America.

As reported on March 18, 2008, in “The Trail,” a daily diary of the presidential campaign appearing in The Washington Post, “McCain said he and two Senate colleagues traveling with him continue to be concerned about Iranian operatives ‘taking al-Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back.’ Pressed to elaborate, McCain said it was ‘common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran, that's well known. And it's unfortunate.’ A few moments later, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, standing just behind McCain, stepped forward and whispered in the presidential candidate's ear. McCain then said: ‘I'm sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda.’”

We have to hope that Lieberman is not emerging as McCain’s Dick Cheney and that McCain is not morphing into but a variant of George W. Bush.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Reflections on Obama's Philadelphia Speech

I viewed significant excerpts last night on television of Obama’s speech on race that he delivered in Philadelphia. I didn’t watch the entire speech but I did read the entire text. Obviously people have reacted in differing ways to Obama’s speech. It did not move or inspire me.

First off, I admit I’ve grown partisan enough in favor of Hillary (despite her and Bill’s obvious flaws), negative enough toward MsNBC, and bored enough toward CNN, that I have found myself watching FoxNews’ conservative commentators more often not because I agree with them on most issues but because I think the coverage tends to be more extensive and the commentary more direct.

I read The New York Times’ editorial this morning that praises Obama to the hilt (“Mr. Obama’s Profile in Courage”). Not my impression. Dick Morris, someone I tend to loathe, remarked last night that, in his view, the reason Obama joined the Trinity United Church of Christ in the first place and stayed there was because, as a black young man originally from Hawaii finding himself in Chicago, that church allowed him entrĂ©e into the black community, something important to him given his political aspirations. I tend to agree. In other words, Obama’s attempt to separate religion and his entirely personal spiritual relationship with Wright from Wright’s political views and style is highly questionable. Wright may well have provided Obama and his family with meaningful religious guidance but Obama’s ongoing association with the church and Wright had a political component as well. I find Obama’s, and The Times’, claims to the contrary to be disingenuous.

And all this talk about Obama’s honesty in his speech, candor in discussing race relations, baring his soul, and drawing a distinction between religion and politics, shouldn’t hide the fact that this speech was a most basic example of political damage control. Frankly, I was particularly annoyed and upset by Obama’s attempt to draw parallels and moral equivalency between Wright’s incendiary language and Ferraro’s comment about the significance of Obama’s race in his political success this year, and then between Wright’s very public, incendiary diatribes and Obama’s own white grandmother’s private admissions to being fearful of black men on the street (something not at all necessarily evidencing racism or paranoia) and making some racial stereotypes that made Obama cringe but that he failed to identify. But, no, The New York Times didn’t call him to task for that or his continuing failure to explain why he remained silent and retained his pastor on one of his advisory panels in the face of his pastor’s history of incendiary political statements and until this political firestorm emerged.

Obama is a very talented speaker, although I wasn’t particularly moved by his delivery last night. And he isn’t the first and won’t be the last to comment about America’s history of racism, race relations and our need to resolve that significant issue. While I can’t quite match Senator Lloyd Bentsen because I didn’t personally know Lincoln, FDR or Kennedy, to whom The Times compared Obama, I knew them sufficiently by their words and courage (Lincoln), words and leadership (FDR) and words and having come to age during Camelot (Kennedy) to say that Obama is no Lincoln, FDR or even Kennedy. Liberals refuse to see him as the astute and articulate politician that he is. They want to elevate him to a stature above that of politician in large part because that fits their political agendas. Obama, whether seen in the context of his relationship (only last Friday admitted, by Obama, to have been far broader than earlier acknowledged) with Rezko, or in his votes of ‘present’ in the Illinois legislature, or in his concessions to business interests when he introduced a bill to protect residents against nuclear radiation, or in his cautious approach to Iraq once he stepped on the national stage, is nothing more or less than a politician, not a “movement” or some transcendent figure. Yes he identified some of the grievances of black and white in his speech last night. But it’s not as if that hasn’t been done before. And what are his solutions? What are his courageous choices? He offered nothing but generalized bromides.

To be clear, I do not believe that Obama harbors Wright’s incendiary views about whites or America. But I also don’t see Obama as the vanguard of a new, enlightened social movement. I see him as another politician, like Hillary, Edwards, McCain and others, albeit with his own political positions and style. I don’t condemn him for that. But I am repelled by the efforts of many to put him on a pedestal. He and his campaign managers felt that any likelihood of success in this campaign meant that he could not be seen as a black candidate, let alone as the candidate of the black community. His triumphant remarks after primary wins alluded to race (e.g., they thought “it” couldn’t be done) without mentioning it. But now, faced by this political firestorm, he has brought race front and center while continuing to emphasize “unity” as his answer to all problems, including race. As I’ve noted previously, he is a master at using buzzwords in his political speeches and did so again yesterday. While I recognize that one cannot separate Wright’s race from his incendiary political statements, Wright’s positions, not his race, are what has offended many, and Obama’s silence, not his race, has raised questions about his courage and judgment.

I recall when Bill Clinton, now reviled by some blacks, sought to find some balance on the affirmative action issue during his presidency. As I admittedly vaguely recall, he acknowledged the excesses of as well as the value in affirmative action programs (and took flack from liberals for acknowledging that there could be any excesses). I’m not suggesting that Clinton was a great president or great man for having done so. But it points out that it isn’t as if no other American until yesterday has sought to address the problems of race in this country and seek to find a middle ground. Clinton was trying to find a middle approach to a hot button issue tied to the history of race in America.

Obama’s speech would have been more impressive had it been delivered in different circumstances. It wasn’t given “voluntarily” at a time when he didn’t have to address the volatile and divisive issue of race but chose to do so. It was given to save his political bacon. We’ll see whether it succeeds in that respect. But he is still not my candidate of choice.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Super Delegates Need to Make Up Their Own Minds

You may or may not like the fact that Democrats count among the delegates to their national presidential nominating convention a considerable number of super delegates. There are 795 super delegates (not including Florida and Michigan), a total of 4048 delegates, with 2025 required to win. Hence, the total number of super delegates constitutes roughly 40% of the votes needed to secure the nomination. (See for extremely useful data on the contest.)

Not surprisingly, Obama’s campaign asserts that super delegates should vote to ratify or reflect the popular vote in primaries and caucuses in the super delegates’ respective states and congressional districts. Since Obama won more states than Hillary and leads in the overall popular vote such a position is not surprising. It serves his self-interest. It also sounds more “democratic.” Furthermore, just such “logic” has provided political cover for some African-American and other super delegates, John Lewis immediately comes to mind, to disavow their previous commitments to support Hillary Clinton and pledge their support to Barack Obama. Doug Wilder, mayor of Richmond and former governor of Virginia, apparently has predicted riots in the streets if the Clinton campaign were to overturn an Obama lead through the use of super delegates. But the contention that super delegates should or are obligated to vote pursuant to the popular vote in their states or districts is, in my view, meritless.

If super delegates are supposed to merely reflect the outcome of primary elections and caucuses in their states or districts, why have them in the first place? To be sure, there are those who oppose having super delegates and I respect that position. But the Democrats chose to have super delegates, just as they chose to apportion delegates by proportional representation rather than winner take all in their primaries and caucuses. Perhaps one or both of these decisions were in error. But having been made, it doesn’t seem fair or right or even smart to change these decisions now. True that having super delegates vote lockstep with the outcomes of voting in their states would not be eliminating super delegates, but it would essentially eliminate them by making them merely pawns of the voters rather than what they were intended to be.

Who are the super delegates? The Democratic Party’s Delegate Selection Rules for the 2008 Democratic National Convention, available on the internet, describes the positions held by the super delegates. These include all Democratic state governors, members of Congress, members of the Democratic National Committee, former Presidents, Vice Presidents, Speakers of the House, leaders of the Senate and House, and chairs of the DNC. These are unpledged delegates. (Rule 9.A.) It would appear that the Democrats decided to include these unpledged party leaders and former leaders among voting delegates at their national conventions beginning in the 1980’s to balance the impact of party activists who tend to dominate primaries and caucuses by allowing party ‘elders’ to bring their individual and collective wisdom to bear on the selection of the Democratic Party standard bearer.

As for the obligation of pledged delegates chosen in primaries and caucuses to actually vote for the candidate to whom they are pledged at the convention on the first or subsequent ballots, the Democratic rules are most interesting. Rule 12.J. provides: “Delegates elected to the national convention pledged to a presidential candidate shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.”

So, even pledged delegates are not required to vote for the candidate to whom they are pledged at the convention, even on the first ballot let alone on any subsequent ballots. And when one thinks about this dispassionately, it makes sense. Does it make sense to require delegates pledged to John Edwards or other candidates who long ago withdrew from the contest to vote for those candidates until released by the candidates even on a first ballot, let alone beyond that? No. What if the leading candidate suddenly lost favor among Democrats perhaps because of late breaking disclosures about him but refused to withdraw from the race? Imagine, for example, if Eliot Spitzer had been a candidate this year and despite the late breaking news of his visits with prostitutes remained in the lead by the end of the primaries and caucuses? Would the logic currently being offered about the role of super delegates or even obligations among pledged delegates make sense? Not in my view. Then, too, keep in mind that some states permitted Republicans to cross over and independents to vote in the Democratic primaries or caucuses, some of whom may have voted to aid the Republicans or simply without regard to assuring the election of a Democrat in November. That is another reason for rejecting the argument that super delegates must follow the popular vote in making their own judgment. (Interestingly enough, according to the media, the Obama campaign is eagerly seeking to register Republicans and independents as Democrats for the Pennsylvania primary which is a closed primary.)

But even absent any of these more dramatic scenarios, it simply does not make sense that super delegates should forego casting their votes based upon their own best judgment and simply vote to ratify or reflect the popular vote in their states or districts. To be sure, their own best judgment may be to support the candidate who won the popular vote perhaps because they believe he or she is the best candidate or that rejecting the popular vote will alienate those who voted and result in defeat for the nominated candidate. Using their own best judgment does not mean remaining committed to a candidate whom they informally agreed to support a year before just to show their loyalty or reap personal political benefit. It means stepping back and evaluating the overall political situation, bringing to bear their life experiences in and outside the political arena, and then exercising their discretion to decide how best to cast their votes at the convention to further the interests of the party and, even more so, the country in the upcoming national election.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Will Pennsylvania Be Decisive?

Things are getting nasty, or nastier, out there on the hustings. Hillary’s chief spokesman comparing Obama to Ken Starr. A Pulitzer prize winning Obama foreign policy advisor (now a former advisor) calling Hillary a “monster.” Where are we headed? And at what cost?

I have been holding my breath, and my pen, for a number of weeks awaiting the outcome of the Ohio and Texas primary elections. Hillary had to win the popular vote in both primaries to truly stay alive. Despite pollsters predicting that she would fail to do so, she won both primaries and Rhode Island’s too, taking three of the four contests held on March 4, 2008. She still trails Obama in the delegate count, as well as in the number of primaries and caucuses won and the total popular vote among Democratic voters, but she is able to claim that she has won in most of the big, industrial states, not even counting Florida and Michigan. While there are two small contests, Wyoming’s caucuses that Obama just won and the Mississippi primary on March 11, along the way, April 22 looms as the date of the next big watershed event, the Pennsylvania primary. But will it be decisive and what may occur between now and then?

It seems reasonable to believe that almost all Democratic leaders, Bill Clinton being one notable exception, hoped that Hillary would not win both Ohio and Texas. I suspect even many of those who strongly support her secretly hoped that she would lose one of the races and then, after some further posturing, bow out of the campaign. But that didn’t happen. Her victories, albeit narrow especially in Texas where she appears to have even lost the overall delegate count because of that state’s odd arrangement of caucus voting following the popular vote, definitely buoyed up her campaign and gave her bragging rights when it comes to big states. Hillary supporters feel that, despite Obama’s appeal to independents and his efforts to bring together blue and red Americans, most of the smaller traditionally red states in which he has easily won primaries and caucuses will vote Republican in the fall. As such, they tend to discount these victories. Obama supporters assert that even if Hillary won victories in key Democratic states such as New York, New Jersey and California, Obama performed well and that either Democrat is likely to carry them in the fall. As such, they tend to discount these victories. What would we do without the spinmeisters, not that I am not guilty of being one at times!

The outcomes on March 4 certainly mean that Hillary will continue to vigorously pursue the Democratic Party nomination and that the race between her and Obama will grow even more strident. At this point, many feel that Hillary is more likely than Obama to win the popular vote in the Pennsylvania primary. It is a northeastern industrial state and parallels have also been drawn between it and Ohio in terms of the demographics of the electorate. The state’s governor is a strong Hillary supporter as well. Her supporters believe that her victory there should count considerably in her pursuit of the nomination in light of her successes in the other large industrial states.

At the same time, because Hillary is in second place by most measures today, or at a minimum is seen as being in second place, a loss by her of the popular vote in Pennsylvania could indeed be decisive in ending her run for the nomination. The pressures on her to concede at that point would be enormous, including by many Hillary supporters. Despite arguments that it shows the strength of our democratic system, I suspect that most Democrats believe that a hotly contested national convention would be the death knell for Democratic prospects in the fall and they wish to avoid it.

But a loss by Obama of the popular vote in the Pennsylvania primary will certainly not lead him to drop out of the race nor would the pressures on him to do so come close to those that would befall Hillary if she were to lose. He is the front runner and will surely be so going into and probably even in the aftermath of the Pennsylvania primary. Hence, a Hillary victory in Pennsylvania may well mean a brokered Democratic national convention with all that portends. This is not to completely rule out the possibility that Obama might withdraw from the race before the convention were he to lose Pennsylvania (and subsequent primaries), but at this point any withdrawal regardless of the outcomes of upcoming primaries appears extremely remote. Obama’s astonishing fund raising numbers, among other indicators, attest to the strength of his support.

Then, too, despite the enormous pressures that would be brought to bear on Hillary if she were to lose the Pennsylvania popular vote, it isn’t at all clear that she would in fact bow out of the race. She might simply refuse, especially if she loses the vote by a hair, and seek to await verdicts in May primaries in Indiana, Oregon, North Carolina and Puerto Rico, among others. She could even decide to remain in the race through the national convention. Many have written of the Clintons’ resolve. But I suspect that if she loses Pennsylvania’s popular vote she will not make it to the convention, even if she hangs on for later primaries.

How have the Democrats gotten themselves into this fine mess? Clearly few anticipated Obama’s emergence as an incredibly popular, well organized, attractive, charismatic candidate. I certainly did not. More importantly, Hillary and her strategists didn’t either. Her performances in caucuses demonstrate that her campaign did not organize well in those states and apparently felt that her victories by super-Tuesday would be enough to wrap up the nomination.

But another “cause” of the present situation is the proportional representation voting system mandated for Democratic primaries by the national Party. By forbidding winner-take-all contests, the Democrats practically ensured gridlock in the case of two equally or almost equally matched candidates. A proportional representation voting system may be more “democratic” in theory than a winner-take-all voting system but historically it often spawns instability and weak governance. In national elections to Congress, the United States uses a so-called single member constituency voting system. This kind of system tends to under represent minority factions (i.e., minority factions in terms of political views, not necessarily in terms of ethnic groups) but also tends to lead to more decisive elections and more stable governance. In this instance, the Democratic nominating campaign voting system has ensured that, between Hillary and Obama, even the candidate who has lost the popular vote in a primary has still walked away with a considerable number of delegates.

Unfortunately, the likelihood that the campaign will grow even nastier than it has is great. There is much at stake for both candidates. The image Obama has sought to convey of a candidate committed to not turning negative on his opponent may constrain him and his campaign a bit, if only to attempt to deny Hillary the argument that Obama is ultimately like all other politicians, including her. But a candidate’s negative advertising is often seen by the candidate, strategists and supporters as merely truth telling with an edge.

It would appear that there is ever more concern among Democrats that this increasingly contentious contest between Hillary and Obama will lead to more and more bloodletting and seriously undermine the prospects for their party’s victory in the fall. Might that concern actually affect the voting pattern in the Pennsylvania and subsequent primaries? Specifically, will some voters who might otherwise vote for Hillary defect to Obama not because they favor him more but because they want an end to this race? I think some feared that might occur on March 4, but even if some voters determined their vote with that in mind, enough remained faithful to Clinton that she prevailed. We shall see how things develop as the weeks unfold.⌂