Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Monday, January 28, 2008
An Attorney Comes to Town…The Blow-Out in Palmetto Country…Getting Ready for War With Machetes and Swords…
There was cause to be nervous in the days leading up to the
I lucked out, getting assigned to a United Church of Christ, where a church member got to the front of the room, peered at the letter and said, “Senator Obama’s written this letter to us. It’s very long, so I’m gonna paraphrase. The primary is this Saturday. Senator Obama is one of our church brothers.You should all strongly consider voting for him.”The service ended with all of us holding hands and singing "We Shall Overcome."
Thursday I did some advance work in Kingstree, where Obama would be speaking to a more rural crowd, and network friendly stump lines wouldn’t quite do the trick. Lines like ‘this country needs a new energy policy’ were met with crickets, and his first two standing ovations occurred when he clarified, “I am a Christian, and have attended the same church for the last 20 years,” and “My first job as commander in chief is to keep all of you safe.” But Obama showed a remarkable ability to adapt, making politics accessible to a large crowd that didn’t follow
Folks asked me why the Obama campaign thought it needed 200 lawyers for voter protection in a Democratic primary, and I wasn’t really sure. But when Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree shows up to help lead the legal training the night before, you know the stakes are high. I showed up to my staging area in
“Voter protection? Hey, everyone, our attorney is here!”
“Well, I’m actually a law student, but…”
“Hey, you’re the attorney?”
“I’m not technically an attorney…”
“Attorney, we’ve got a problem down at
“We’ve always got problems at
“I saw one of the zero tapes, and it wasn’t set to zero. That’s not legal is it?”
“Attorney, I just talked to a man who’s irate because his son couldn’t vote!”
“Is his son registered there?”
“I’m not sure…”
“Attorney, one of our poll workers is yelling at the poll manager!”
“Why is he yelling at the poll manager?”
“Because she won’t let him see the books.”
“He’s allowed to look at the books, right?”
“Can they do exit polls inside the gym? Cuz right now they’re doing exit polls inside the gym.”
I kind of knew the answer to these questions. “Tell the poll checkers and the runners to calm down for now. We need to work with these poll managers all day- let’s be nice to them and try to smooth things out. A couple of these problems might cause issues, but as long as we can work around them we’ll pick our fights for later in morning.”
And who better to bring those fights than Hillary Clinton. Not once, but twice I had to intervene to get her volunteers from distributing campaign literature at the door of the polling location, a blatant violation of a well known rule that requires campaign literature and images to be kept two hundred feet from voting locations. The second time I had to go down in person and drive
But the problems weren’t all caused by the Clintons and testy poll managers. The Party had turned the primary over to the state, which promptly underfunded it, leading to the consolidation of hundreds of polling locations. This left many voters confused and frustrated, showing up to their usual voting locations, now closed, sometimes with no explanations. One of our main jobs was to get voters in Ladson,
And in the end, it was a blow-out. The news channels called the race before a single precinct reported. Our office was overcome with emotion. Pepper Hill, our most troublesome precinct, case 411 out of 511 votes for Obama. There were tears and cheers of joy ricocheting across the halls of the South End Brewery in downtown
And I’ll tell you who agrees- former South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges and former Mississippi Ray Mabus. Mabus, voted in a state poll as the best
Obama pulled 25% of the white vote in
Anyway, I got a little off track. The point is that come Super Tuesday, Obama will win white votes all over the country, and the talking heads will trip over themselves explaining how Obama was ‘able to re-connect with white voters’ as a rationalization of their piss-poor, Clinton-driven analysis. Of course, Hillary wasn’t so confident about getting those white votes anyway. Check out this robo-call her campaign sent out to white areas of
“Hello, This is the Hillary Clinton for President Campaign.
Before you vote on Saturday, you should know that John Edwards voted for permanent trade relations with
You should also know that John Edwards made nearly a half a million dollars working for a Wall Street investment fund. A fund that’s been profiting on foreclosing on the homes of families; including 100 homes right here in
Can you trust John Edwards?”
Putting aside the irony that a
As for John Edwards, the poor guy only won one county, the one he was born in. People felt sorry for him- after we read off one precinct’s result, ‘279 for Obama, 78 for Clinton, 4 for Edwards,’ a couple people murmured sad sighs, ‘Aw, the poor fella, 4 votes, and he was born here!’
Edwards, who brought valuable issues of poverty into the campaign dialogue, now talks about nothing else. He knows his candidacy is no longer viable, a Dennis Kucinich issues campaign with a better looking front-man. While I’m conflicted about the implications of him staying in the race, I’m more confused as to what he hopes to gain by doing so. He has no interest in serving as either candidate’s Vice-President, and the notion that he’ll play ‘king-maker’ at the convention is just ridiculous. By hanging on, he will inevitably be blown out in at least 18 of the Super Tuesday states, leading to more of the awkward on air-interviews that begin, ‘So…Senator Edwards…you’re still here…’ He’s like the third wheel at the end of a Saturday night hook-up scenario (‘I’m getting pretty tired, how ‘bout you, John?’), except the hook-up here is the final fisticuff fireworks between Clinton and Obama.
And what about the black voters? You know, the ones who thought Barack Obama wasn’t black enough, the ones who were so enamored of Bill Clinton, the nation’s ‘first black president.’ They came out in droves for Obama. One of the reasons not talked about much is the role of white volunteers. Almost every white canvasser I spoke with over the past two weeks had some anecdote about a disillusioned black voter who went wide eyed that not only did white people like Obama, they liked him enough to drive down twelve hours to knock and their door and talk about him. They had been spoon-fed the disheartening narrative that a black candidate couldn’t win, and once they knew he could, they came out in droves.
So what next? Some people are worried about Super Tuesday now. It’s coming up around the bend, and
Super Tuesday will be the greatest battle for the soul of the Democratic Party waged since at least 1972, and it’s only 8 days away. Between the State of the Union tonight, the Republican Florida primary, and
As this dispatch signs off, fear not of Hillary’s poll numbers and dirty tactics, but remember the words of Joshua 1:9- “Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee wherever you go.”
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
From a 12-hour drive on Route 95...1/22/08
South Carolina crazies come in all shapes and colors. Our crew spent the day phone banking and canvassing the neighborhoods of North Charleston black voters whose biggest reservation about Obama was that white people wouldn’t vote for him, or, in the case of one generous fellow (Gerald) who fed me cinnamon rolls and Pepsi, that they would, you know…pop him off. I convinced Gerald that Secret Service protection is top notch these days, and that white people seemed to like Obama just fine in Iowa and New Hampshire. He was convinced, and it felt good to actually dispel propaganda on the canvassing trail over breakfast in an undecided voter’s living room, rather than grasping for a voter ID before getting a door slammed in my face. At one point Gerald’s batty mother came in and started yammering about something till he gently shooed her out of the room. “I apologize,” he sighed. “My mother supports Hillary…you have to understand- she’s very, very old…”
But while our work this weekend was for Obama, Saturday the 19th really belonged to the Republicans, who were battling furiously for the South Carolina rabid righters that have delivered the nomination to each of their candidates since 1980. When polls showed McCain with the lead, we jumped in a car and headed to the McCain Victory Party at the Citadel, a private military university. For someone selling himself as the national security candidate, there was virtually no security at the Citadel Alumni House, where I slapped a sticker onto my cowboy hat, grabbed a whiskey and coke, and marched into the staging room where Mac was scheduled to speak in a few minutes.
I had pictured such an adventure as a return to the Lion’s Den. “The Lion’s Den” was a phrase that entered my life when I inadvertently crashed the 2002 New Year’s Eve party of Robbie Sheehan, a prep-schooler who I had mocked incessantly in my high school column, “Two Minutes to Roll.” He had grinned when he saw me, and as a bunch of his football frat brothers made threatening gestures towards me, one whispered, “Welcome to the Lion’s Den.” I spent the ball-drop in the laundry room. Since then, the Lion’s Den has been the steady pursuit of thrusting yourself into situations where you are not welcome and watching the sparks fly.
Sadly, the McCain rally never felt that way. The crowd was tepid and lame. Few had the energy to wave signs, or make any noise besides the occasional “Mac is back” chant. At one point the crowd burst into a wild cry of, “USA! USA! USA!” I found out afterwards the chant had been started by friend Pat, who was bored, and noticed that, “The crowd was practically begging for someone to start a USA chant.” I tried to mingle with Young Republican dandies and backslap the other fellas in cowboy hats, but they seemed more afraid of me than I was of them, violating the rule of the spider. Pat and I were briefly interviewed by a Canadian journalist. I introduced myself as Jack Marton, and explained why McCain was so appealing to young people.
McCain had spent the day watching “There Will Be Blood.” He was introduced by South Carolina House Speaker Thrasher, and came out to “Rocky” theme music. The stage was set for war, but something was off. Maybe it’s because Mike Huckabee is a poor stand in for Ivan Drago. Maybe it’s because McCain doesn’t look a day under 70. Or maybe because the candidate this candidate resembles most is not the John McCain of Straight Talk Express fame, but Bob Dole circa-1996, the tired old silver platter nominee. His voice was meek, his tone soporific. Even his most inspiring punch line wasn’t quite right: “I am not running for president to be somebody, but to do something.” ‘Doing something’ these days probably means bombing Iran, appointing Scalia judges, and dying in office three years into his first term, elevating Lindsay Graham to the presidency. If the media can get off their ass and stop calling him a maverick, this is a platform that will worry the average moderate voter, just as his acknowledgement of global warming and sponsorship of campaign finance laws he doesn’t follow himself (what a rebel!) will alienate him from conservatives, if they’re not mauled to death by the hordes of Mexican immigrants they’re accusing him of giving amnesty to. No, folks, the Straight Talk Express ran out of steam a long time ago, stalling somewhere between Bob Jones University and a shopping expedition in Baghdad.
In this South Carolina primary, McCain actually polled worse among self-proclaimed conservatives and veterans than he did in 2000. He beat a badly outspent Mike Huckabee by 3 points (The Huckster retreated to Chuck Norris’ ranch for a big time fundraiser in response). The Huckster, perhaps the only good man in the Republican Party, graciously accepted his loss, saying he’d rather “lose honorably than win with dirty tricks.” It’s a nice slap against Rove and W, but it also means he could never be the nominee. So long, Huck, it was good knowing you.
The man who really bit the dust was sad old man Fred Thomspon. His farewell speech as forceful as I’ve ever seen him, which is to say, mildly interesting. “The Reagan Revolution wasn’t about one man,” he thundered. He argued it was about patriotism, free trade, low taxes, defending from threats abroad. Of all the candidates in both parties, Fred Thompson tried hardest to connect his principles to Reagan, and in turn, connecting Reagan to the Founding Fathers. But at the end of the day, his farewell speech reminded me much of Dick Gephardt’s goodbye, after he lost Iowa in 2004: ‘Here are the bedrock principles our party stands for. If only there were someone more charismatic than me to represent them…’
Now the Republicans head down to Florida, where Rudy has steadily morphed into the crazy old New Yorker that usually winds up in the retirement homes he’s been stumping at. A rather frightening CNN clip showed him prancing around stage waving a single sheet of paper that represents his new tax plan. “It’s one piece of paper, Wolf! One piece of paper!” CNN correspondent John King politely noted that Rudy’s ‘Let them come to Ft. Lauderdale’ strategy was either genius or ridiculous, though it seemed clear what side King came down on. John King often seems to be the only person on CNN’s fabled ‘Best Political Team on Television’ with any idea of what’s going on. He’ll be doing an analysis of county by county voting trends while Blitzer interrupts him to blurt out, “But John, it’s snowing!” “Yes, Wolf,” he’ll calmly reply. “And snow is harder to navigate than rain.” Meanwhile, Carl Bernstein, who for some reason is relegated to a different table than the rest of the analysts, will be yelling at Anderson Cooper to call on him, but he won’t be able to, because of some argument between Bill Bennett, whose basically a fatter version of Pat Buchanan, and Donna Brazile, whose most impressive accomplishment is managing Al Gore to a loss in the 2000 presidential election. Talk about a ‘we wouldn’t fucking be here if you had done your job correctly’ situation.
Yes, CNN, the best circus on television, though not the best circus in Columbia, South Carolina, which Sunday night was either Barack Obama coming to the Convention Center, or Barnum and Bailey, performing next door.
Obama was magnificent as ever. He inspired and enthralled a raucous bi-racial audience, with men, women and children all swooning over the chance to touch him (I swooned, and I did touch him). I’ll discuss why he gets people more excited than a rock star some other time, but suffice to say he was at his best Sunday night, finally taking the gloves off and going after Bill and Hillary full throttle, with charm and wit, while supporters yelled, “You tell ‘em, Senator!” He went after Hillary’s ludicrous suggestion that he was a Ronald Reagan supporter, clarifying that while he did not agree with Reagan’s policies, Reagan had been a transformative political figure that created a majority coalition. “They called the folks who crossed over to support him ‘Reagan Democrats,’ Obama declared. ‘Well I think this election, it’s time we put together a coalition that has some Obama Republicans!’ And they are out there. Everyone’s conservative dad seems to be thinking about voting for Obama, and even some people at the McCain victory party expressed indecision between McCain and Obama. Trade that for every Democrat who hates Hillary, and all of a sudden you’ve got a no-brainer.
After the Obama rally I was interviewed by another Canadian journalist. This time I gave my real name, and told her why young people are supporting Obama. Hopefully, if Obama and McCain win their nominations, we can push a storyline in the Canadian media about the twin brothers, Janos and Jack, fighting in opposing camps to win the 2008 election. Stranger things have happened. Like this:
It was freezing cold when we left the Convention Center, but a cop held us at an intersection. “Why can’t we cross?” I demanded. The cop shrugged. “Look for yourself.” Approaching the intersection was a pack of elephants, marching in single file. There they were, tired and elegant in the cold night, on their way somewhere new, like the fated Obama Republicans, marching on through, the elephants on parade.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Fear and Voting on The Strip…The Ice Queen Cometh…What Would Woodrow Wilson Do…Romney to the Rescue…
I spent the fall of 2004 working in
The Republicans were up to serious mischief then. First, they adopted the name of one of our partners, America Votes, registering people in poor communities. They then took all the registration forms of people who had registered as Democrats, shredded them, and tossed them in a dumpster. It took a young Republican whistle-blower to reveal they had done this to at least several thousand people, who were now going to show up to polls thinking when they were registered, when they weren’t. If that wasn’t enough for Republicans, they generated an automated robo-call that went out to the greater Las Vegas Hispanic community, telling them their polling locations for ‘Wednesday, November 3rd,’ the day after the actual election. And of course, after this and a thousand and one other ‘Election-related irregularities’, Republicans figured they’d get to the heart of the matter with stricter ID requirements for voters, leaving the Dems to fight once again to uphold the Voting Rights Act.
That’s what’s jarring about this Vegas poll controversy- it’s not just undemocratic, its unDemocratic. Last year a unanimous Democratic committee (including two supporters currently suing to stop what they voted for from happening) allowed for additional polling locations to be set up on The Strip, with all voters who work in the area eligible to vote there. Enter the Nevada Teacher’s
But, as Obama-backer John Kerry once said, “The
Witness Robert Johnson’s cocaine references last week. Didn’t I just write last time about how odd it was that an uber-scripted
Bush and his cronies campaigned the same way, but at least they had some balls once they were actually in power. At least Bush could look the nation in the eye and say, “I know there’s not a goddamn person who thinks this is a good idea, but I’m going to do it anyway.” He ignored the Courts, lied, cheated, invaded foreign countries and destroyed our reputation around the world, but you know what, he’d do it again. He couldn’t even admit to EVER making a mistake during the 2004 debates (“Nothing comes to mind, Jim…”).
As for Bill Clinton? Mark Penn says ‘jump’ and he’s out of there. That’s the fairy tale, Bill, the fairy tale was that we even had a Democratic president in the White House, as opposed to a drowning man thrashing for dear life in a swimming pool, blaming liberals for not making the pool shallower and the lifeguard he banged in the locker room for not rescuing him.
But back to Hillary- nothing grinds my gears more than the “35 years of experience fighting for change” that she’s always touting. Which years are we counting, Hillary? Would that be counting your 16 years as a corporate lawyer at Rose Law Firm? Would that be counting the six years you spent on the Wal-Mart board of directors? Would that be counting the time you spent as a centrist senator, cheerleading the war in Iraq and spouting bellicose rhetoric on Iran? Indeed, being alive doesn’t automatically count towards service of progressive causes- otherwise Ron Paul would be the most progressive person in the race.
Contrast her ‘experience’ with Obama, who has spent his entire adulthood working for the very change he’s now accused of being too inexperienced to enact. Of all the comparisons and precedents to Obama, perhaps the most useful one is Woodrow Wilson.
On McLaughlin Group this Sunday, Eleanor Clift said of John Edwards, “He’s become a sideshow, and everyone seems to know it but him.” Putting aside the irony that the McLaughlin Group is itself a circus act in the eyes of everyone except its insane host and regular guests, Edwards needs to do well in
This sentiment was unfounded, as Kerry beat Clark and Edwards’ combined totals in
Another guy who knows about downsizing is Mitt Romney. A recent Huckabee ad asks whether voters want their president to be “Like the guy you work with, or like the guy who laid you off?” In
Friday I head off to
Friday, January 11, 2008
Now that a day has passed, the dust has settled, and everyone’s calmed down a little, Hillary Clinton’s 39% to 37% victory over Barack Obama doesn’t seem so shocking, does it? Like a team winning when they’re down 2-0 in a best of 7, it was must-win for Clinton, and she got it. Everyone was shocked at 10pm Tuesday night, of course, everyone. Clinton had been drafting a concession speech that day at her hotel, and Obama was working the phones trying to resolve the crisis in Kenya.
There have been a lot of theories bandied about to explain the results, like the Wilder Effect (also called the Bradley Effect), which counts Chris Matthews as a believer. Doug Wilder, an African-American candidate for Governor of Virginia in 1989, barely won despite Election Day polls showing him up 10%. Turns out people would voice support for him in polls, then ultimately vote for his white opponent. Tempting as this theory might be, and it has played itself out repeatedly over the years, times have changed. There was no Wilder Effect detected in Harold Ford’s Tennessee Senate race in 2006, for example. Doug Wilder, incidentally, is notable for serving as the first black governor since Reconstruction. Deval Patrick, elected governor of Massachusetts in 2006 to succeed Mitt Romney, is the second. Wilder is also notable because he ran for U.S president in the 1992 Democratic primaries, and was by most accounts, both articulate and clean.
Another theory abuzz is the legend of Michael Whouley, a reclusive GOTV operative who emerged from the shadows to save Gore and Kerry’s campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire, and apparently did the same here. I asked my friend Adam Hinds, a Kerry staffer in New Hampshire, to comment on Whouley:
“All I know is we were down about 18 points. This bald dude arrives in Manch (Manchester) and walks into one of our weekly field staff meetings. He says, "I know John. And John often waits till he has his back against the wall. He’s like a fucking badger. He did it with Weld too. We're down 18 and there’s 5 weeks to go. So I just talked to John and I said, 'John, okay, you can start getting your fucking ass in gear now.’"
A simpler explanation is that Clinton always had a better ground game in New Hampshire. Obama had been focused on Iowa for months, and while he went into the Iowa Caucuses in a dead heat with Clinton, Clinton had never been dislodged from first place in New Hampshire until these polls a few days ago. The media often characterizes Get-Out-the-Vote efforts as if they are simply products of a well-run Election Day, but getting out the vote is really a process that takes months of preparation- training your staffers, identifying your core supporters, figuring out your leaners, building local momentum, and having loyal volunteers to actually run the Election Day logistics. There are phone calls and more phone calls and post cards and people waving signs and more phone calls and people in beat up cars asking if you need a ride to the polls and freezing kids knocking on your door asking if you’ve voted yet and then some more phone calls. It’s not magic, folks, it’s tedious work that takes hours a day for at least a year to put together. It’s the reason Al Gore could never have jumped into this race and won it. It’s the reason John Edwards did great in Iowa for the second cycle in a row and then nose dived in New Hampshire for the second cycle in a row. And it’s the reason Clinton was able to desperately hold off Obama by a mere two percentage points.
As election night wound down, there were still no results from Durham (UNH campus) or dear Hanover, which led to a series of angry drunken phone calls from the small Dartmouth contingent at the viewing party. The best I could do was get a hold of one stoner at a house I used to live in who said she wasn’t really sure what was happening, though she was pretty sure most of her housemates had voted. When she found out who I was, she reminded me that we played Bombs over Baghdad Beer Pong together in 2006. Those were the days… I also got through to a kid at EBAs Pizza who agreed the situation was bull-shit, but said that he was only 17, and he’d appreciate if I’d get off the line, because there were a bunch of people waiting to order pizzas. In the end Hanover went 58% for Obama, so kudos to them, but I honestly think if the college campuses, which went strong for Obama, had gotten off their keg stands and gotten their damn results in earlier, the news coverage would have showed a neck and neck race breaking in the end for Clinton, not a convincing 5 point victory narrowed to 2 points only after everyone stopped watching.
Some say that angry Bill and crying Hillary seized headlines and carried the day over a complacent Obama campaign. I won’t dignify the media obsession over the crying incident by discussing it further, but there is probably some truth to the difficulty Obama will have in taking on Bill and Hillary if both are on their game. He doesn’t have a lot of big guns in his camp now that Oprah’s back in the studio, but he’s got at least one. 90% of life is timing, and this may be the time to use him.
Jesse Jackson, missteps in more recent years aside (teaming up with Michael Jackson to call Sony Music racist for not promoting “Invincible” comes to mind) still commands an awful lot of respect in the black community. Jesse sharing a podium with Obama on Martin Luther King weekend, a week before the South Carolina primary, in his birth state, where he won the Democratic Primary over Al Gore and Michael Dukakis 20 years ago, is about as potent a non-Bill as you’re going to get. Jackson has been reticent thus far, but his son, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., is a major Obama supporter, and will very likely be a prominent face in the coming weeks. Jackson Jr. seems like a good guy to have around when your opponents are up to shenanigans- a political rival once tried to knock him out of office by financing a retired trucker named Jesse L. Jackson to run against him in the Congressional Democratic primary.
In case anyone is keeping track at home, Bill Richardson bit the dust late Wednesday night. Richardson underperformed again Tuesday, and if his original supporters went to Clinton, that too could account for her margin. Deep down Big Bill knew that things were never going to break his way, not coming off a 2% showing in Iowa. His original game plan was to live to see Nevada, a western state where the Democratic base speaks better Spanish than it does English. But he showed some dignity by bowing out before the embarrassing last stand that so many of his peers succumb to.
As for Brother Edwards, his chips are all in for South Carolina. Even in the lead-up to New Hampshire and Iowa, he had been putting most of his limited media buy in the Palmetto state, the location of his only 2004 primary victory. Back to back losses in the union-heavy Nevada caucuses and his birth state would make justifying his campaign extremely difficult. If he really wanted to be a hero he could drop out, endorse Obama, and campaign with him all the way to the White House.
What surprised me most about the Clinton victory in New Hampshire is that it really seemed like she had a shitty week.
Check out this scene, for example, captured by the New York Times:
“Today, in Dover, Francine Torge, a former John Edwards supporter, said this while introducing Mrs. Clinton: ‘Some people compare one of the other candidates to John F. Kennedy. But he was assassinated. And Lyndon Baines Johnson was the one who actually passed the civil rights legislation.’
The comment, an apparent reference to Senator Barack Obama, is particularly striking given documented fears among blacks that Mr. Obama will be assassinated if elected…Mrs. Clinton’s expression did not change noticeably when Ms. Torge made the comment.”
While the remarks are both creepy and curious given how carefully scripted even candidate introductions are at this stage, Clinton’s lack of reaction is really what gets me. She later rationalized the comparison between her and Lyndon Johnson, explaining that it took LBJ’s experience in Washington to fulfill Dr. King’s vision of civil rights. Experience is the new change, don’t you see?
Now, Mrs. Clinton, I’ve read the Robert Caro trilogy on Lyndon Johnson. I’ve watched his ‘We Shall Overcome’ speech that he gave right before he signed the Civil Rights Act. I’ve gone to the Lyndon Johnson President Library, and I’ve listened to the audiotapes of Hurricane Betsy. Betsy put a third of New Orleans under 10 feet of water in 1965. LBJ flew out there the day after the storm, and when he heard that there were a bunch of kids taking refuge in a school with no power or water, he called the head of a soda manufacturer in northern Louisiana, told him to get some fucking bottled water down to New Orleans already, grabbed a flashlight, sloshed through the water to the school, kicked open the door, and yelled, “Listen up kids, your president is here!”
You, Mrs. Clinton, are no LBJ.
Next, we’ll move to Vegas. It’s telling that even in these revivalist times, Sin City is still the fastest growing city in America. Vegas accounts for over half of the registered Democrats in Nevada, and between the dangerous ghettos and the private gated communities erected in fear of them, and the drunken tourists swerving towards you in rental cars 24 hours a day, it’s a real bitch to get out the vote in that city. Fortunately for Obama, he will have the Culinary Union doing that for him. Clinton and Edwards can show up if they want, but Obama’s got the unions that run the show, and in Vegas, the house always wins…
MartinAir may be the worst airline I’ve ever encountered. My flight to Miami has been pushed back six hours without explanation or apology. Fortunately the airport sells Cuba Libre, an 8% alcohol pre-mixed rum and coke, by the can. Even so, too much airport can make a man crazy. I’m pretty sure I just saw Fred Thompson on line for a pina colada bragging about his tied for 3rd place finish in Iowa. Before you ask me why he would be in San Jose, Costa Rica, ask why he’s not in New Hampshire, where the great tall conservative hope is polling 1% and fading. It seems Republicans’ tendency to skip primaries they’re not going to win sends the wrong message: “It’s better to have not tried at all than to try and fail.” Rudy’s woeful campaign, which refuses to engage the competition for the first five primary states, is looking as pathetic as Joe Lieberman in 2004, when he boldly declared his campaign would be making it’s Last Stand in Delaware (Kerry beat him by 27 points). Rudy has always been painful to watch when he wasn’t dictator of New York City. That was more scary than painful. It’s about time the rest of the country caught on to the Rudy myth, and no small tip of the hat goes to Joe Biden for noting, “A Giuliani sentence consists of a noun, a verb, and 9/11.”
Not that I miss Joe Biden. Some folks seem to like him, not realizing what a pompous windbag he is. How about the Alito hearings, when he used 23 of his 30 allotted minutes for a meandering monologue, to which Alito dryly replied, “I’m sorry, could you repeat the question?” Now he’s gone, and with him Chris Dodd, the guy who moved his daughter to an Iowa school and still pulled in .1%. If I’ll give primary voters credit for one thing, it’s smelling desperation. And it’s nice to see the stage whittled for the last debate. Obama, Edwards, Clinton, Richardson- anyone could have told you these would be the final four a year ago. If I’ve ever seen balls in a spinster, its Richardson manager Dave Contarino, who had the gall to brag about Richardson’s “strong 4th place finish in Iowa” (he polled 2%). “Our 20,000 supporters would have meant a third place finish any other election cycle,” he noted. Damn that high voter turnout- by Contarino’s logic, Obama pulled close to 100% of the vote, if it had been any other cycle, which it wasn’t.
The last Democratic debate used an easy to follow change versus experience motif. Here’s the thing, it’s not that the American people are stupid and don’t realize Obama and Edwards don’t have experience, and it’s not even that they don’t care, because it does make them uncomfortable. But what Clinton, Richardson and the punditocracy don’t seem to get is that experience doesn’t trump change, experience with leadership does. Experience with results does. I can’t think of a single issue since the early 90s where Clinton has shown leadership or gotten results. She’s been in the Senate seven years now, and all that comes to mind, outside of her perpetual shadow campaign for president, is her strong endorsement of the war in Iraq. At least Kerry qualified his support from the beginning. Clinton did no such thing, and didn’t turn against the war until long after public sentiment had shifted. Where was she during the Supreme Court hearings? Hurricane Katrina? FISA? She doesn’t even denounce lobbyists, the easiest bone to throw at the starving progressive base. “You can’t get experience through osmosis,” I’ve seen some editorials claim. Not true- you can learn a lot by being married to the leader of the free world for eight years. But learning how to lead is something you have to do on your own, leading the way governors like Eliot Spitzer lead (Yes, I still like him), the way Senators like Russ Feingold lead, the way Congressmen like Henry Waxman lead.
Let’s be clear, neither JFK nor RFK were leaders in the Senate before they ran for president, and RFK’s most notable achievements as Attorney General were wiretapping Martin Luther King and trying to kill Fidel Castro with an exploding sea shell. JFK argued that Eisenhower and Nixon had been too soft on communism. RFK didn’t come out against LBJ’s war until after Senator Eugene McCarthy’s peanut butter and sandwich brigade had launched the first great New Hampshire primary upset (For the record, LBJ, whose name wasn’t even on the ballot, beat McCarthy 51-44% as a write-in candidate, but the media still spun it as a massive upset. LBJ agreed, in a rare moment of humility).
But what made JFK and RFK so revered in their time and in history is that they had the charisma to make people believe in a better tomorrow, and make people believe that they could lead them there. JFK answered the change versus experience debate by claiming, “Experience is like taillights on a boat which illuminate where we have been when we should be focusing on where we should be going.” And that charisma, from the lips of brilliant people with the right people surrounding them, is better than experience any day. Obama is shining his light on the future, and the people are with it.
Which brings us to Richardson. People who have been around me know that I had a Richardson bumper for quite some time, keeping it long after I gave up on him so I could distinguish my laptop from other peoples’ computers. His rich resume gave him a variety of strategic options for his campaign, and he went with “Guts. Experience. Results.” He stressed that his resume best prepared him for the White House, ready to begin on Day 1. That’s a great message for an establishment candidate, and it was used by Gore and Kerry. Unfortunately, this race already had a bigger establishment candidate in Hillary Clinton claiming the ‘Experience’ mantle. The Richardson strategy team hit a brick wall right there. What about ‘Guts?’ Was he referring to his trips to volatile parts of the world as a diplomat? “You’ve done work in Iraq, North Korea and the Sudan,” Jon Stewart quipped. “Those places all turned out great.” Ok, fine, what about ‘Results?’ This should have been the cornerstone of his campaign- a fairly progressive, widely popular, bi-racial governor from a swing state. Think about that. Doesn’t sound like a dream candidate? You can only focus on so many things in the fast paced primary world, however, and he chose two early on that doomed his candidacy: Fiscal responsibility and an immediate withdrawal from Iraq.
First, there is nothing wrong with fiscal responsibility, but there’s no better way to turn off primary voters than saying, “I’m the Democrat who’s not going to raise your taxes.” Unlike which Democrat, Bill Clinton? Oh, it must be those radical tax plans Gore and Kerry put forward. Or maybe he’s referring to his primary opponents- I can see the Republican ad now: “Barack Obama is going to raise your taxes. Even Democrat Bill Richardson says so.” Thanks Bill, for hammering home the Republican talking point that all Democrats (except you) want to raise their taxes. Self-flagellation was chic in 1992, when we’d been clobbered in 3 straight elections. Not anymore (See Joe Lieberman).
Second, immediate withdrawal. Again, this is a case of primary voters sniffing desperation. “I’ll pull out the troops in 12 months!” “I’ll pull them out in six!” “I’ll do it tomorrow!” “I already did it yesterday!” Look, when Dennis Kucinich says he’ll bring the troops home tomorrow, I believe him. But Richardson was absent from debates about the War until relatively recently, even though he has had national intentions for years, and as the former U.N Ambassador, would have had a platform to strongly oppose the war. But immediate withdrawal, which we all recognize as enormously risky, is a throwaway line to frenzied primary voters. Richardson was desperate, and when he says,. “I’ll pull them out tomorrow,” he lacks the credibility that fueled Howard Dean in 2003 and Obama this cycle. When Time Magazine did a piece on all the army bases and heavy equipment that would make an immediate pullout a logistical nightmare, Richardson said, “Screw it, leave it all behind.” Such immature pandering from such an ‘impressive’ resume was enough to cause the head of his South Carolina campaign to defect to Biden in disgust.
At the end of the day, Bill just got stuck with poor timing. This is the strongest Democratic field since 1960, when John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and Adlai Stevenson battled each other for the nomination. This is the first ever Democratic primary where a major contender being half-Hispanic isn’t particularly noteworthy. “I’m not a rock star,” Richardson always says in his stump speeches. Welcome to the 21st century, Bill. 90% of life is timing, and politics is no different. Good luck in New Hampshire…
Hunter S. Thompson always believed that capturing the mood of an event was more important than being there (He didn’t attend or even watch the fight when he was covering Ali-Foreman), but perhaps it’s taking things too far covering the Iowa Caucuses from a poolside bar in the Costa Rican jungle. Hunter may be gone, but I can say this with certainty, he would have been a happy man tonight. Obama is the once in a generation candidate of our time, and if Hunter got excited watching Jimmy Carter, lord knows how he would have reacted to this.
For him, Washington experience was the last thing on his mind when he was looking for a candidate. In 1988, speaking about George H.W Bush, he pointed out, “He’s got a great resume: Congressman, Ambassador, Vice-President…the last time I heard of a resume that good was Richard Nixon.” Tonight was a victory for the Weird. Not because Obama himself is weird, though his UFO-spotting supporter Dennis Kucinich certainly is. Tonight was a victory for man over machine, which is weird. It was a win for the weird because once you’re in politics long enough, as elected official, operative or media talking head, you cease to be a real human being, and begin to believe that anyone who talks, acts or feels like a human being is weird. ‘You want lobbyists to have less influence in Washington? What are you, crazy?’ ‘You want the troops out of Iraq now? Even Hillary Clinton doesn’t want that! Trust us, we checked- there are only two points of view on this issue, the White House press release and the musings of a centrist Democratic think tank.’ Obama is a real human being. You can see when you watch him, when he chuckles at how silly the theater of politics can be, when he rolls his eyes at inane debate questions, when he interacts with his wife like he loves and respects her as more than just a useful campaign prop.
In a gesture that means a lot to me, Obama is also effusively appreciative of his organizers and volunteers, because he knows it was them, and not the aging B-list of political VIPs usually adorning victory podiums, that carried the day for him.
“I know how hard it is,” he said. “It comes with little sleep, little pay and a lot of sacrifice. There are days of disappointment. But sometimes, just sometimes, there are nights like this.” To me, that said two things. One, he still fucking remembers, which is great. Two, he doesn’t think he’s better than the people who support him. Can you imagine Hillary Clinton thanking her paid organizers before she thanks some useless local dignitary who ‘endorsed’ her? I know John Kerry wouldn’t, because I was there when he didn’t.
The talking heads who bring you ‘coverage’ of this stuff recall the Will Hunting theory: with a few websites, a dose of the real world, and a few bucks on used books from Amazon, we amateurs can become far more informed than the hacks paid to do this every night. How about when the legendary Bob Woodward tried to compare Hillary Clinton’s 29% to Bill Clinton’s 3% in 1992. How convenient to leave out that in 1992, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin was running for president, causing all the major candidates to skip the Iowa Caucus and focus on New Hampshire while Harkin pulled in 75% of the vote. Not exactly an apt comparison, but any fifth grader can tell you that most ‘political scientists’ have never heard of the scientific method.
The biggest ball drop of the new year was probably the drive-by media’s assessment of the “Clinton Political Machine,” recalling their assessment of “Saddam’s Elite Republican Guard.” A blogger pointed out in 2003 that Google generated about 10 times as many results for Iraq’s Elite Republican Guard than it did for the “Elite U.S Marine Corps” that routed it in 2 weeks of fighting. Let’s take a real look at the Clinton Machine. In the 1992 primary, Clinton’s main two opponents were a stale Senator from Massachusetts the election cycle after Dukakis got crushed (Paul Tsongas) and a guy who had been out of office for a decade nicknamed ‘Governor Moonbeam,’ running for president for the third time (Jerry Brown). How he ever got to being the ‘Comeback Kid’ in the first place is stunning. After winning the presidency, Clinton-led Democrats suffered their biggest defeat of the 20th century during the Congressional mid-term elections. Your Machine at work. They then figured out that by selling out the core principles and values of the Democratic Party through ‘triangulation’, dooming the party for a decade, they would beat Bob Dole by 9 points in November. Praise Allah, it’s genius! As fellow Hope, Arkansas resident Mike Huckabee (and also Jesus) would say, “What does it profit it man to gain the world and lose his soul?”
And then on to Hillary. The Machine was so brilliant they were able to score her successive Senate victories over Rick Lazio and John Spencer. Who? Exactly.
What is the Clinton Machine really about? Power. The 50% plus 1 formula. Shift and spin. Shift and spin. Wag your finger no while shrugging your shoulder yes. Their tactics are no different than those employed by Karl Rove, except he had the courtesy to look for the 50% plus 1 vote among his base, instead of the most politically convenient place he could find it.
This article’s not about Bill’s legacy; I’m sure history will remember him fondly as president of the feel-good 90s who didn’t fuck anything up, which is more than they’ll ever be able to say for his successor. Tonight wasn’t a referendum on whether the Clinton years were good or not. For many the Clinton years were a lot like pledge term, a great time, but nothing we ever want to go through again. Besides, any campaign that has to spin their candidate into ‘seeming more human’ is destined to fail. As any marketer will tell you, nothing is more important than framing the question, and while their doing so is only natural, the Machine framing of ‘experienced robot’ versus ‘inexperienced human’ was going to come crashing down eventually. Their pinpoint pollsters should have figured out that America likes human beings for their presidents.
Obama understands framing. What do you think his whole “there are no blue states, there are no red states,” meme is about? It’s about strategy folks, it’s about the first Democratic candidate not to let the media concede any states for him since Franklin Roosevelt.
At the end of the day, Obama only won by 8 points, so let’s not go crazy. The day after I won re-election to Student Body President with 74% of the vote, I passed an old administrator on the street. He shook his head at me and said, “I hope you’ve started thinking about why those 26% didn’t vote for you.” Obama’s got a long way to go before he unites the country and solves the world’s problems. But this is the best first step anyone could have hoped for. For supporters of the Gonzo, happy times are here again.