Sunday, February 3, 2008

Dispatches, Volume 7

Living the Dream in Obamaville...

After a final debate showdown in Hollywood and on the heels of a thrilling Superbowl, the biggest primary day in American history deserves the epic treatment it is getting. When the dust settled from this week, two formerly top tier candidates were gone, Obama and Clinton were tied, and McCain completed his resurrection from the political grave to become the frontrunner for the Republican nomination despite professing to not know anything about the economy. Yeah, he’ll be tough to run against. Check out this choice excerpt from Gail Collins at the New York Times:

I am an independent and looking for a president with integrity. Should I vote for John McCain or Barack Obama?

Didn’t we all swear to stop picking the candidate who would be most fun to go on a picnic with? You’re torn between the guy who’s been against the war from the beginning and the guy who’s willing to stay in Iraq for 100 years? Between the guy who wants to pay for a $50 billion-a-year health care program by eliminating tax cuts for the wealthy, and the guy who wants to keep the tax cuts and pay for them by cutting the budget? Get a grip.

Rudy’s shell shacking in Florida marks a fitting end to a campaign that never should have been. You can tell a lot about a person from the way he runs his campaign- if Rudy’s biggest vice (among many) was rampant hubris, so went his campaign, collapsing under the worst strategy any primary candidate has used in decades after he wouldn’t listen to common sense advice. The other departure, of course, was John Edwards. Though I’ve always found him a bit shallow and disingenuous, he is a good Party man, and I’ll give him a separate column in the days to come.

The other big story this week is the Obama endorsement train, which has been, to quote Eliot Spitzer, ‘A fucking steamroller!’ Ted Kennedy was followed by, The Nation, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, the California SEIU, and to add some muscle to the campaign, former WWF superstar Hulk Hogan. Hulk Hogan’s entrance music, “I am a real American,” is so patriotic that little American flags sprout out of the ground when you play it. For Republicans who will try to hammer Obama on national security issues this fall, we’ll counter with the man who not only defeated the Iron Sheik, but also crushed Sergeant Slaughter after his defection to the Iraqi government in the lead up to the Persian Gulf War (yes, that plotline did happen…).

Obama also netted the endorsement of environmental organizer and Rovingstorm reader Billy Parish, who was listed as one of SALON Magazine’s 25 Sexiest Men of 2007. Somewhat surprisingly, Obama overcame Rupert Murdoch’s chummy relations with Hillary Clinton to win the endorsement of the New York Post, proving that the only thing the Post hates worse than liberals is the New York Times.

The poll-mentum and behavior of the campaigns resembles the scrambling and the fury that accompanies fourth quarter dramatics (The Superbowl and Super Tuesday overlapped fleetingly via a 30 second Obama advertisement). Obama was behind by over 20 points nationally as recently as early January, but he is running a devastatingly effective two minute offense. He’s stumping to monster crowds in places like Boise, Idaho (15,000 people), Denver (18,000 people) and Minneapolis, where he sold out the 20,000 seat Target Center in less than 24 hours. His volunteers are pounding the pavement- Saturday there were 1,000 Obama canvassers in New Jersey. The steady roll out of endorsements has led to perpetually positive media cycles, for which David Axelrod should get tremendous credit.

The ability to play the media is no small achievement; the Gore and Kerry losses, not to mention the run up to Iraq, were products of the Republicans mastery of the media. Shaping the media narrative is simply one more playing field where Democrats need to be tough and savvy and not back down from Republicans. In contrast to the manic Obama campaign, Hillary is running out the clock. She goes to bed every night praying it’ll be Tuesday already when she wakes up in the morning. And as sports fans know, running out the clock is only a good idea when your opponent doesn’t have time to catch up. Poll numbers as of Monday morn have Obama ahead in about five of the Super Tuesday states and within the margin of error in many others, including California, Massachusetts and New Jersey. While it’s fair to note that polls have been awfully inaccurate this primary season, one would be hard-pressed to spin the trajectory of the polls, which have been a dead man’s flatline for Hillary and a Google stock upswing for Obama.

California will play the decider for this primary. Yes, yes, of course ‘it’s all about the delegates’, and these primaries award proportional delegates very generously. But unless Super Tuesday ends up being a total wash, the winner of California will likely be seen as ‘the winner’, and seize the accompanying momentum. Obama is going to win, at the very least, several states in the South and Midwest. Clinton, barring a complete collapse, will do well in the Northeast. California is the real prize both campaigns are clawing for. And California’s been there before.

In 1968, Senator Bobby Kennedy and Senator Eugene McCarthy battled to the end, with RFK seizing the day with a 42%-37% victory. Kennedy, of course, was tragically assassinated that night. Because back then most delegates were not awarded through the primary system, the nomination ended up going to the pro-war Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had not even run in the primaries. This fact, compounded with other elements of social turmoil, led a raucous protest outside the Democratic convention in Chicago, which ended in an infamous riot, with policemen beating the hell out of college kids as tear gas flew through the air. Hunter S. Thompson said the Chicago riots ended the 1960s. Efforts to redraft the primary and convention process were headed by Senator George McGovern, who ironically became the first beneficiary of the new system, overcoming great odds to win the Democratic nomination in 1972, which he sealed by defeating Hubert Humphrey in the California primary, 44%-39%. Back then the California primary was in June, a month before the convention. If you’re tired of listening to talking heads now, you’re in for a long nine months.

But the outcome in California will be moot if we can take out the Ice Queen in her own backyard (even though it’s not really even her own backyard). I spent Saturday flyering in Spanish Harlem. Talking to voters in front of Pathway was a sad, trying experience. Everyone seemed beleaguered by life, lots of wheelchairs, lots of disillusionment, three different people who told me they supported Obama, but as felons, couldn’t vote. Given that the prison industrial complex already devotes so much money to putting minorities in jail and keeping them there, the least we could do is return these people their rights as citizens when they get out. Plus, the dramatic expansion of what is considered a felony has cast a wider net than ever over who this affects.

The day turned far more inspirational when a group of about 40 got together for a rally and a march up Lexington Avenue. As we walked down the street chanting slogans, passing out literature and handing out Obama signs to honking cars, I wondered aloud, “I’ve never been on a march like this for a political candidate.” “That’s because this isn’t just a normal political campaign, this is a movement,” my friend Aidil responded. It was a beautiful way to spend an afternoon. Other folks were volunteering all over the city, at Union Square, Columbus Circle, Fulton Street, Harlem, Inwood. I found out at night that my friend Will, a bedrock Republican, spent the afternoon handing out flyers, the first time he has ever volunteered for a political campaign, and that made me Hillary-eyed.

We rendezvoud with other volunteers at a rally in Times Square outside the MTV studios. The energy was off the charts- if you took more than a few seconds to catch your breath, the chanters around you would give you weird looks. The TRL crowd at MTV waved to us in the streets, and we waved and cheered back. Timmy remarked, “I never dreamed the day would come when I would be standing in Times Square willingly, waving to the people at TRL.” Don’t worry Timmy, once Kittens Ablaze gets big you’ll get used to it. Next show is Saturday, February 9th at Fat-Baby in the Lower East Side.

Obama supporters outnumbered Clinton supporters by about 4 to 1 in Times Square, though credit has to be given to the Ron Paul supporters, who looked like possessed witch-hunters, thrusting pocket constitutions in the air and shrieking, ‘When will you wake up America?!’

After the rallies I was walking up 8th Avenue when an old Jamaican woman asked me where I got my Latinos for Obama sign (Oh, to be ambiguously brown-skinned…). It turned out she was on her way to Kinkos to make 200 copies of an Obama info sheet she was distributing to her friends and neighbors. I gave her my sign and we hugged goodbye. The energy and enthusiasm behind this campaign is boundless, and that will propel us to victory. At an event in Newark this morning I was supposed to hand out about a few hundred Obama Vote for Change placards, an easy enough sounding assignment that turned haywire as people grabbed at my clothing, begging, pleading, sometimes aggressively yelling, just to be that much closer to the magic. All for a placard.

Saturday night we went to an Obama fundraiser at a Chelsea loft, which featured a real open bar, soccer juggling, and dancing. In Obamaville even fundraisers are awesome. And the vibe of an Obama event is so positive and fun that you could picture being stranded on a desert island with these people for the rest of your life. And for at least the next three days, we will ride together.

The pride of the Empire State is on the line, the state that produced Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt and elected Senator Bobby Kennedy, and we owe it to that legacy to show some good judgment. Plus, this time Rick Lazio won’t be on the ballot. The choice is clear, and the moment is now. The New York Giants have sounded the clarion call, 2008 WILL be the Year of the Underdog, and it's about damn time.