Thursday, March 6, 2008

Dispatches, Volume 11

Fear and Loathing in the Mother of All Swing States...From the Land that Hope Forgot…Making a List and Checking it Twice…Every Spark of Friendship and Love Will Die Without a Home…

Mansfield, Ohio is a dreary, gloomy place. Last Saturday our team descended on its frozen streets for a day of canvassing. Friday had been great- the Obama operation in Columbus was the smoothest operation I had seen to date. There were no frills, no spontaneous chants of “fired up, ready to go,” no saccharine speeches to pump up volunteers, just a lot of work to be done, and a lot of people doing it. And that’s what you’re looking for after a nine hour drive through the night. But the word on the street was that help was needed in Mansfield, a post-industrial town 70 miles north of Columbus that makes Claremont, New Hampshire look the French Riviera.

Of the first ten houses on my walk lists, two buildings had been demolished, five were boarded up, and one was a homeless shelter. Things picked up for me a little bit as the day went on- I found a some stray Obama supporters here and there, though even they had a forlorn look about the whole thing, definitely not Obamamania. One cracked out resident asked me who I was supporting. Keep in mind that I had just handed him Obama literature, and was wearing an Obama headband and two Obama buttons on my jacket. I told him I was supporting the good Senator. He flashed a gold toothed smile. “Oh, good! I thought you were supporting George Bush! Go Obama!” Other members of my team actually had worse days than I did, reporting that between a third and half of the houses on their walk lists were boarded up, a most intense personalizing of the home foreclosure crisis. I had always assumed things in Ohio weren’t exactly great, but the dilapidation was more than I could have imagined.

The highlight of the canvassing experience belonged to Britt, who stumbled across a vagrant named Stony in an alleyway. After she asked him for directions, he insisted on accompanying her for the rest of the canvass, explaining that God had been telling him to look for a sign. “Maybe this is the sign,” Britt offered. Stony agreed, noting that he had only been on the way to the tobacco store to trade his cd for three dollars anyway, something he could do later. Stony canvassed all day, and after it was all over, pledged to volunteer for Obama for the remaining days until the primary.

While we were listening to Stony’s exploits at the Mansfield headquarters, a distinguished looking gentleman walked in. He explained that he was a State Representative for the area, and was checking in to see how the operation was running. When asked if he had endorsed Obama yet, he shook his head. “I certainly support Senator Obama, but you have to understand…Governor Strickland has the entire Democratic Party machine behind Clinton. He’s giving her all of the State Democratic Party offices for her to run her campaign out of, and pushing people to not lease space to the Obama campaign. He’s got a list of all the people who have endorsed Obama, including all us State Reps.” He paused. “He’s making a list, and checking it twice…”

Looking back, the influence of Strickland and perhaps the last functional machinery operating in the state of Ohio cannot be understated. Governor Ted Strickland is not just any random Party Apparatchik official- as Hillary Clinton’s presumptive running mate he had an enormous personal investment in the outcome of this primary. Strickland comes from the God, guns and gays wing of the Democratic Party, and if we're gonna make the tent big enough to embrace governors like him, he should have the decency not to intimidate supporters of Obama, who represent the inclusive coalition we will need to govern effectively.

Saturday night we attended a rally with Governor Kathleen Sebelius, who some consider a possible Obama VP. She is the two-term Governor of Kansas, no small feat for a Democrat, and her approval ratings are among the highest in the country. What we saw at the podium that night was someone who could be the first female president. She wasn’t a firebrand, and didn’t demand incessant rounds of applause in her stump speech. But she was precise, in command, and most importantly, soothing in much the same way Obama is. When she speaks of bleak times in the present, it’s only in the context of hope for the future. No one will ever call her shrill. Sebelius would make an excellent Vice Presidential nominee, and I’ll place her in the same boat as Ray Mabus and Jim Webb for that slot. Mark Shields, of Jim Lehrer New Hour fame, was on hand for the event- in fact, Timmy gave him directions to the event when he wandered into the Obama office. He was the most disarmingly friendly person of fame that I’ve ever come across, and I invited him to check out the RovingStorm Dispatches. If you’re reading this, Mark, welcome to the site!

Earlier in the weekend I had run into my Vegas co-worker Kevin Griffith, who after serving as Obama’s communications director in South Carolina now had the sweet-ass job of handling celebrity surrogates in Ohio. This is actually a job I had at Dartmouth for the Kerry campaign. It had its cool moments, like hosting Vanessa Kerry around campus for an evening (she’s pretty fun, actually). A less cool experience was hosting the C-List Celeb Brigade that stormed through town the day before the New Hampshire Primary. Strung out from late hours working on the campaign and drinking, I got a call to go find a tan van parked on the edge of the town green. Inside I found Max Weinberg, John Heinz, and Jason Priestly, who I did not recognize, much to his offense. I was never a fan of 90210… I muttered to myself as I led this entourage, which included a few other people I hadn’t heard of and their handlers around campus student centers, unable to answer the simple question posed to me, which was why an undecided Ivy League student voter would possibly be swayed by Jason Priestley. Max Weinberg was a hit though, and I had to rescue him from a swarm of acapella girls.

Thing’s were a little cooler here on the Obama campaign though, Kevin assured me. “Arcade Fire is coming to do four free shows in the state. If you stick around you’ll probably get to see them.” Timmy almost had a heart attack. The choice was clear. We finished a more routine day of canvassing in the Obama friendly Columbus suburbs, and gunned it for Nelsonville.

Live from Nelsonville

Nelsonville is an odd little town, full of hipsters, the scene of one of the great late 19th century mining strikes. Our crew of five was among the last people let in to a 450 person opera house. The mood was electrifying, and the band fantastic. Win, the lead singer, opened, “We drove 13 hours to be here, and every second was worth it!” He explained that the following song was written right before the 2004 election, when they knew Bush was going to win. “Hopefully our next album will be more optimistic…”

First Song:

Second Song (footage from Ohio tour):

At one point, Win stepped up to the mic, transparently as giddy to be there as we were. “You know, I don’t if it’s making any difference us being here…but we’re just so excited to be a part of it all…imagine, finally someone we can believe in! Thank you so much for having us!”

Third Song:

“This is a song Sam Cooke wrote about segregation. We recognize that it’s being sung by a rich white guy, but it still inspires us…”

Fourth Song:

Fifth Song:

Sixth Song:

“I know it’s lame when celebrities tell you what do with your life. Not that we’re celebrities…But just please vote for Obama!”

Seventh Song:

As an encore, an old Lennon classic…

Eighth Song:

The energy, the humility, the magic meeting the moment- Arcade Fire is the perfect band to stump for Obama, and the perfect way for us to end our weekend. We drove through the night, arriving in New York City an hour before Margot had to be in court over a predatory lending/home foreclosure case. It’s all connected, a seamless web.

So why did Clinton win Ohio? The first reason is that the people of Ohio have nothing to look forward to, nothing to hope for. It is the land that hope forgot. There is nothing that any president can do to restore the steel towns that pepper the countryside. Springsteen said it himself:

Now main streets whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back to
Your hometown… your hometown… your hometown…

Of course, that was in 1984, and things have gotten worse, not better. Hope doesn’t resonate in these parts, not like fear of the other and the machinations of local party hacks working for Lord Strickland.

Some say that the two-front attack of personally smearing Obama and promoting herself as more likeable worked for Hillary this round. As usual in Clintonian politics, the short sightedness of her strategy is breathtaking. As far as I’m concerned, the trifecta of rabid fear mongering, racism and praising John McCain over her Democratic rival keep her in the solidly ‘despicable’, let alone ‘unlikable’ camp. First, there was the “3am” ad, in which Clinton, through images of a sleeping child, implied that Obama was ill-equipped to be president in an age of terror. The ad was replayed all over the media ad nauseum. If you want to find it, use Google, because this site has too much decency to play it here. Fear mongering of this kind is exactly why Hillary Clinton would make a horrible president. Deep at her core, if she still has one, she doesn’t believe that Democrats can ever lead this country without succumbing to the same paranoia driven foreign policy that have mired us in Iraq for six years. Obama has said throughout his campaign that he doesn’t just want to end this war, but that he wants to change the mindset that got us into war. This is the clearest distinction between the candidates. A vote for Clinton is a vote for saber rattling, carpet bombing and a prolonging to the war in Iraq, which she will announce the day she takes office.

I have included two clips below. In the first, she touts her and McCain’s experience, disparaging Obama’s experience as “a speech he gave in 2002.” Thanks Hillary, I’m sure that will play well in the general. The second is evidence that Hillary campaign darkened Obama’s face and widened his face and nose in an image, in an attempt to make him look menacing. As the site explains, there is no way to prove this with complete certainty, but the image alteration could not have been an accident, the image was on the Clinton campaign site, and the campaign originally denied knowing about the image’s existence, even though it was on their website as they claimed that!

All this leads me to making the second major distinction between Obama and Clinton, and that is class, as in classiness and dignity. Everyone knows what ugly skeletons lay in the Clinton closet, and most of us would wince at the thought of unpacking the new ones that have accumulated since Bill left office. But Obama has not gone after Clinton on any personal level, keeping the brunt of his offensive about the war, NAFTA, the divisiveness of the Clinton years, all rooted in observable fact. During her monumental losing streak, Clinton never once congratulated Obama on his victories, and in the end stopped acknowledging his existence at all. In contrast, the first thing Obama did in his speech on Tuesday night is congratulate Hillary on running an excellent campaign in Ohio and Texas, this after he called John McCain to congratulate him for winning the Republican nomination. Obama would bring back a décor of dignity and respectability to the White House which has not only been missing during the Bush years, but was dreadfully absent during the Clinton years.

So, what next? As most of you know, the pledged delegate count still significantly favors Obama, and according to rumors, the Superdelegate totals between the candidates may equalize as soon as tomorrow. Obama is expected to do well in many of the states remaining, such as Wyoming, Mississippi and North Carolina. Clinton, who has a Strickland clone in Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, will probably do well in Quaker country. But the votes simply aren’t there for Clinton to catch up, barring some absurd chicanery in Michigan and Florida, which I wouldn’t rule out. The campaign will drag on for another few weeks, maybe another few months…This will become a game of stamina, and provide a much needed respite to old man McCain, who can sit on the sideline and take potshots at Obama, knowing Hillary will back him up.

These are ugly times, folks, but no one said dismantling the machine would be easy or pretty. As for me, my next trip is to New Orleans, where I’ll lead a crew of law students in helping Katrina victims navigate the horrendous laws designed by Bush and Congress to ‘rebuild’ the Gulf Coast. I don’t when the next political Dispatch will come. This isn’t CNN, after all, and I don’t have to waste your time when I have nothing to say. But to beleaguered supporters in Obamaville, keep your head up. We won Texas, after all, and some say his ground organization there is the most impressive one since LBJ. A poll today shows McCain beating him there by one point in the general election! Hillary is not the worst nemesis Obama will have to deal with as Leader of the Free World. This is a test for him that will build character. This is a test he will pass, a battle he will win, a longer war for change that has only just begun. And so, like rough riders we roll…

1 comment:

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