Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Obama's Pastor

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright won't go away.

That's what's so wrong about Rev. Wright, as far as Barack Obama is concerned.

In America, everyone is free to believe what he/she wants to believe, and everyone is free to say (just about) anything he/she wants to say.

Our laws do draw the line at certain points. But it's our freedoms that allowed Jeremiah Wright to stand in the pulpit of his church and call upon God to "damn America."

Rev. Wright is entitled to his opinions, and he has expressed them frequently. But Obama, who apparently does not share Rev. Wright's views even though he spent many years as a member of Wright's congregation and listened to Wright's hate-filled messages Sunday after Sunday, is being weighed down by the minister's words.

"When I say I find these comments appalling, I mean it," Obama said. "It contradicts everything I am about and who I am."

What seems contradictory to me is the relationship between Obama's words and his actions. Is Obama saying he finds Wright's words "appalling" now that he wants to be president and needs the support of white blue-collar voters to make it happen -- but those same words were acceptable when Obama represented a mostly black state senate district in Illinois and heard Wright utter them as the pastor of his church?

Obama has no shortage of defenders for why he spent nearly two decades in Wright's church -- where he remains a member after Wright's retirement.

"Having been deserted at age 2 by his father," writes Maureen Dowd in the New York Times, "Obama has now been deserted by the father-figure in his church, the man who inspired him to become a Christian, married him, dedicated his house, baptized his children, gave him the title of his second book and theme for his presidential run and worked on his campaign."

Dowd is a diehard supporter of Obama's campaign, and that is something she is certainly entitled to be. But even the most devoted supporters can do only so much for a candidate. At some point, the candidate can no longer allow his surrogates to make his apologies for him.

Obama still needs to explain to a dubious public why he remained in the church for two decades and listened to Wright's assertions that the federal government manipulated AIDS to apply a "final solution" to blacks in America and that God permitted the September 11 attacks to happen because America had been practicing its own brand of terrorism abroad.

That's something Obama did not do at a news conference in Winston-Salem, N.C. And, try as she might, Dowd cannot apologize for Obama's lapse in judgment -- if one can call it that.

"Tuesday was more than a Sister Souljah moment," writes Dowd, "it was a painful form of political patricide. 'I did not vet my pastor before I decided to run for the presidency,' Obama said. In a campaign that’s all about who’s vetted, maybe he should have."

That seems a rather tame defense to me. Obama didn't need to investigate Wright. Obama was a witness. He sat in the pews of Wright's church for two decades and heard the minister's sermons himself. How much vetting did he need?

And how's this going to play with the blue-collar white voters?

(I assume they're the same voters Obama accused of clinging to their religion in times of crisis.)

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A 'Near-Perfect' Pick?

Hardly a week goes by that there isn't a column by someone who claims to know the best choice John McCain can make for running mate. Stuart Rothenberg is no exception.

Rothenberg says, in Roll Call, that he knows who would be a "near-perfect pick" for McCain -- Joe Lieberman.

It's an intriguing notion.

I know there have been times in American history -- primarily in the early days of the republic -- when an individual was elected vice president under two different presidents.

But I believe Lieberman would be in a position to make his own kind of history. I don't think anyone has ever been nominated for vice president by both of the major parties -- and in elections separated by only eight years.

Lieberman could be the first Jewish nominee in both parties. He's already been through one national campaign so he's been thoroughly vetted. No unpleasant surprises in his closet.

And he's devout in his support for the Iraq War -- and McCain. Lieberman, after all, endorsed McCain in December -- when the Arizona senator's chances looked somewhat bleak.

Offhand, though, I can think of a couple of drawbacks. For one, Lieberman is 66 years old. He doesn't exactly add the elements of youth and vigor that the 72-year-old McCain needs in a running mate. And I'm not sure he brings the kind of social conservatism that McCain needs to improve his standing with those voters.

Lieberman has been given a grade of "F" by the National Rifle Association. He has been critical of George W. Bush's veto of embryonic stem cell research. He criticized Bush's Medicare plan. He voted against Bush's Social Security plan.

Yet, he did stand with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, some Democrats, and the Republican-controlled Congress in opposing the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube three years ago.

Is Rothenberg right? Is Lieberman a "near-perfect pick" for McCain?

Monday, April 28, 2008

Where Have We Heard That Before?

Every once in awhile, something happens that makes me stop whatever it is I'm doing and go, "Huh?"

Such a moment occurred today, when I heard about the admission by a 73-year-old man in Austria, who acknowledged that he had held his own daughter prisoner underneath his house for 24 years, had raped her repeatedly, had fathered more than a half dozen children with her -- and no one had any notion that anything was wrong in the household.

Apparently, the man managed to explain his daughter's sudden disappearance in 1984 by claiming that she had run away from home.

And then he was able to explain the sudden appearances of three of his children/grandchildren by saying his daughter had abruptly returned and left the children with him.

He and his wife got Good Samaritan points from their friends and neighbors for taking the children in and adopting them.

A medical emergency with one of the children who had been kept captive with the man's daughter exposed the "house of horrors."

And for the second time in the last couple of years, residents of a small, idyllic community in Austria, less than 100 miles from Vienna, were confronted with a case of a woman who had been kidnapped, held captive and raped for years -- and then the case came unraveled and the locals were left to ask themselves how all this could have happened under their noses.

I don't want to stereotype anyone, and I don't wish to be politically incorrect, but this sounds a lot like what the Germans and the Austrians and the residents of their satellites in eastern Europe were saying about the concentration camps at the end of World War II.

The camps were out there in plain sight. The smoke from the ovens was there in the sky for everyone to see in the closing weeks of the war.

Yet, when the allies revealed what had been going on, the locals all said, "We didn't know what was being done." And "What could we have done if we had known?"

The argument has some validity, on the surface. But if you dig a little deeper, there are some disturbing elements.

I know we've had some disturbing cases in the United States. Jeffrey Dahmer's neighbors in Milwaukee have to live with the realization of what he was doing in his apartment and no one apparently said anything about what may have been heard or seen around there over the years. Authorities were only summoned when the stench from Dahmer's apartment began to intrude into his neighbors' living space.

And there was the notorious case in New York City in the mid-1960s when a young woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death near her home in Queens. Although she screamed and cried out for help, according to news reports, more than three dozen witnesses in the neighborhood did nothing to help her. One witness even reportedly opened his door and watched the fatal assault and never tried to summon help or stop what was happening.

I know it's hard to be sure what goes on behind the closed doors of someone else's home.

But these Austrian cases are disturbing for another reason. They're disturbing for what they reveal about the mindset in that part of the world.

There just seems to be something in the culture of that part of the world -- maybe it's an Aryan culture thing -- that frowns on asking questions when one's suspicions are aroused even slightly. Don't get involved. Don't know anything about what others are doing.

It's like the familiar line often recited by Sgt. Schultz on the TV show Hogan's Heroes. It's a prophetic line, really.

"I know nothing!" he used to insist. "Nothing!"

Edmund Burke is often cited as the source of a great quote, although I have yet to see a definitive attribution to him. Whether he said it or not, it seems appropriate to this case -- and others like it.

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Uncommon Touch

As Dick Polman writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer, it's hard to imagine that the Democrats could find a way to lose this year's presidential election to John McCain.

"Yet, McCain is deadlocked in the polls with his two Democratic rivals," Polman writes. "He is traipsing around the nation on his 'Time for Action Tour,' blissfully unscathed and husbanding his septuagenarian strengths, while the Obama and Clinton armies burrow ever deeper into their respective trenches, emerging every so often to impale themselves on barbed wire, generally mimicking the bloody stalemate on the western front in World War I."

With the media spotlight focused squarely on the Democrats' battle for the nomination, it's no wonder that it looks like the eventual survivor will be too bloodied to successfully turn back an electoral challenge from the rested and ready McCain.

But is McCain going to be ready? Does he have the answers to America's problems?

Some have suggested that supporters of Obama and Clinton may defect to McCain or choose not to participate in the general election at all, but Ann McFeatters of the Boston Herald believes that "mainstream" members of both parties will support their nominees.

Democrats will support their ticket, and so will Republicans, McFeatters says. "The issues are simply too critical" to support someone else or stay at home.

Although the discussion has focused on the Obama or Clinton supporters who swear they will not support their rival in the general election, McCain is having his own problems in his party.

Frank Rich observes, in the New York Times, that even though the issue has been settled in the Republican Party, more than 800,000 of Pennsylvania's Republicans voted in their presidential primary last Tuesday. McCain won again, but "more voters than the margin ... that separated Hillary Clinton and Mr. Obama" voted for Ron Paul against McCain.

"Those antiwar Paul voters are all potential defectors to the Democrats in November," Rich writes. As are, he points out, the Republicans who voted for Mike Huckabee.

Typically, both parties lose a few voters to the other side, but perhaps, by and large, McFeatters is right. Most self-described Democrats and Republicans will vote for their party's nominee.

That means, of course, that the issue will be decided -- as it usually is -- by the "independent" group of voters in the middle. Sometimes, when those voters feel they have a viable third option (as they apparently felt they had with Ross Perot in the 1992 race), they take it, but they have no such option in 2008.

Peggy Noonan, former speechwriter for President Reagan, writes in the Wall Street Journal that George W. Bush has lost his political base, and that will harm McCain.

"In Lubbock, Texas -- Lubbock Comma Texas, the heart of Texas conservatism -- they dislike President Bush," Noonan writes. "He has lost them. I was there and saw it. Confusion has been followed by frustration has turned into resentment, and this is huge. Everyone knows the president's poll numbers are at historic lows, but if he is over in Lubbock, there is no place in this country that likes him. ... He has left on-the-ground conservatives ... feeling undefended, unrepresented and alone. This will have impact down the road."

In the New York Times, Ron Klain speaks of Bush this way: he is the "shadow" hanging over McCain.

"The question of how a presidential nominee deals with a sitting president of his own party is one of the trickiest dilemmas in a campaign -- a challenge that is underappreciated by most observers," writes Klain. "It is no accident that in the elections since World War II when a candidate has tried to succeed the sitting president of his own party (1952, 1960, 1968, 1988 and 2000), that candidate has failed to capture the White House four out of five times."

Foreign policy is important, of course, and with McCain unable to distiniguish between Sunnis and Shiites, it will continue to be important -- because, if nothing else, McCain represents a continuation of the Bush foreign policy. If McCain cannot tell the difference between the two main branches of Islam (and their acrimonious relationship with each other), his (allegedly offhand) comment about a 100-year occupation of Iraq being necessary may have more than an element of truth behind it.

Frankly, writes J. Peter Scoblic in the Los Angeles Times, "McCain's foreign policy is far more consistent than it seems. Much like George W. Bush, McCain sees the world in oppositional terms -- us versus them, and good versus evil. ... To [McCain], it is a 'transcendent struggle between good and evil.' This alone tells us much of what we need to know."

But what's hitting Americans in the face right now is the state of the economy. If you're having trouble putting gas in your tank or food on the table or even keeping a roof over your head, that trumps just about anything that's happening half a world away.

Some writers have linked Bush's anemic approval ratings to the performance of the economy (although, truthfully, his approval ratings were struggling before the recession, and they appear to have suffered from the cumulative effects of the Iraq War, the Terri Schiavo case, Hurricane Katrina, Harriet Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court, etc., as well as the current economic woes).

In the National Journal, Ronald Brownstein writes that "Bush’s epic descent" in his approval ratings puts McCain in an awkward position as the presumptive nominee of the outgoing president's party.

McCain must walk a delicate tightrope, defending Bush's policies on the one hand, promising to make things even better on the other hand. It's a tough sell.

The headline on the National Journal piece calls the phenomenon "McCain's Economic Undertow." With gas prices likely to exceed $4/gallon at some point this year, food prices shooting through the roof, an out-of-control mortgage crisis and other economic problems certain to emerge, Americans have to wonder if they can trust the economy to a presidential candidate who has admitted that he doesn't know much about economics.

Brownstein puts the economic factor into perspective.

"The economy has grown under Bush (2.5% annually after inflation), but the rate of growth has trailed the pace under every president since Dwight Eisenhower, except George H.W. Bush," he writes. "Likewise, federal data show that job growth has averaged less than 1% annually under this Bush -- lower than it was under any president since World War II. The median income ... has declined slightly since Bush took office, after rising 16% under Bill Clinton. The number of Americans in poverty has increased by 3.5 million under Bush after declining by nearly 8 million under Clinton."

McCain has been trying lately to show that he has a Clintonesque abillity to "feel your pain" in his visits to poverty-stricken areas of America (where "hope" and "change" could be regarded as antiquated concepts), but that weeklong tour of the "forgotten places" often misfired, according to Matt Stearns of McClatchy Newspapers.

"McCain, the longtime scourge of congressional 'earmark' spending who's promised to veto every bill with earmarks if he's elected president, was aboard a ferry (in Alabama) that's financed by a $2 million earmark in a 2005 spending bill," observes Stearns.

"There were other jarring moments," Stearns writes. "In Youngstown (Ohio), McCain sounded like a populist, decrying an education system in which those who live in affluent areas have access to better schools than those who live in poor areas. Yet he defended the system of paying for schools through local taxes, which helps create that dichotomy because rich localities can afford better schools than poor ones can."

I think that anyone who says the Democratic nominee can or cannot win the general election at this point has jumped to a flawed conclusion.

It's only April 27. We have more than six months to go until Election Day, and a lot can happen in that time. But both major party candidates will have flaws to deal with and fences to mend within their parties.

Each nominee can be expected to exploit weaknesses that have been exposed. I expect a photo finish in November.

In the end, I think the vote will be split down the middle. Maybe the circumstances would imply an easy win for the Democrats, but I think the electorate is just as polarized as it was eight years ago. The Democrats might win just because they have been out of power for the last eight years and the sliver of a swing vote that exists in this country decides to give them a chance.

But I haven't seen any evidence in the latest polls that persuades me that either Obama or Clinton has more of an edge in a confrontation with McCain than the other does at this stage of the campaign.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory?

To judge from some of the columns being written about the presidential race, there are people out there who believe that Barack Obama's nomination is pre-ordained. To prevent him from taking his victory lap is obstructionist.

What happened to all the self-righteous talk in Democratic circles about how every vote should count, every vote should matter?

Nearly 20% of the states have not participated in the presidential primaries yet -- including a couple of reasonably large states, Indiana and North Carolina, that are slated to hold their primaries a week from next Tuesday. Are we to disenfranchise those states, even though no candidate has enough pledged delegates to secure the nomination?

Actually, this is a natural extension/outcome of something I witnessed as a young reporter in Arkansas a quarter of a century ago.

In the early 1980s, I was working as a newspaper reporter in central Arkansas. Former Gov. Bill Clinton was trying to return to the governor's mansion, after having lost a bid for re-election in 1980. Clinton was forced to wage a runoff campaign to win the Democratic nomination for governor, and I was assigned to the campaign.

During that two-week runoff period, I alternated between covering the Clinton campaign and the campaign of his opponent. On one occasion, I recall flying with Clinton in a small private plane. As we flew to a rally in southeast Arkansas, I mentioned to Clinton that I had heard that the supporters of the third-place finisher in the primary (who had received about 23% of the vote) were thinking about not voting in the runoff.

To be candid, I don't remember what I was going to ask Clinton next. I never got the chance to follow up on whatever my train of thought happened to be.

Clinton looked at me and said, "It doesn't bother me if they stay at home."

That statement was typical (to me) of Clinton's political pragmatism. To Clinton, it was a simple matter of mathematics. If the vote total loses 23% in the second round, that lowers the bar for the leader -- which was Clinton.

To apply a sports analogy, all he would have to do is "hold serve" and retain all his votes from the earlier primary -- and he would win the nomination.

That's the lesson Democrats should have learned in 2000. Winning is what matters. It's the only math that matters.

Forgive the return to sports, but it's certainly appropriate in this case. As legendary football coach Vince Lombardi said, "Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing."

In the 1982 primary, Clinton received 42% of the vote. When the runoff was held two weeks later, his share of the vote against a single runoff opponent was 54%. In the earlier primary, the third-place finisher received nearly 130,000 votes, but Clinton's actual vote total went up by less than 5,000 votes in the runoff.

If everyone who voted for the top three candidates for governor in the primary participated in the runoff as well, that left 125,000 participants who voted for the third-place finisher in the original primary unaccounted for.

Which means that Clinton's opponent could have raised his vote total by well over 100,000. Voters are not required to vote in every race on a runoff ballot.

But Clinton's opponent in the runoff only increased his vote total by about 40,000 votes -- not enough to overcome a 70,000-vote deficit in the earlier primary.

That knowledge always led me to believe that most of the third-place finisher's supporters did, indeed, "stay at home."

And that's the point. Winning is what matters.

Twenty-six years later, it's still a matter of mathematics. Only this time, Clinton wants everyone to participate. And, apparently, so does his wife.

What changes is whose ox is being gored.

"Hillary Clinton, flush with her 200,000-vote win in the Pennsylvania primary, is suggesting that the popular vote should settle the presidential nomination," writes June Kronholz in the Wall Street Journal. "But that plan ... is built on some shaky calculations -- or may depend improbably on Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory that can't vote for president."

(And, by the way, former President Clinton, often referred to as "the big dog" by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, has been taken off his leash in the campaign and is now being presented front and center to the electorate.

("Dubbed the 'Billification' of Sen. Clinton's campaign by some insiders, Mr. Clinton has become something of a strategist-in-chief in recent weeks," says Monica Langley in the Wall Street Journal. "He has been pushing for harder and sharper attacks on Sen. Obama."

(Also by the way, since Langley brings it up, Bill Clinton did not coin the phrase "comeback kid" as a reference to himself on New Hampshire primary night in 1992. That phrase was used about him at least 10 years earlier -- by cartoonist Michael Gauldin. It referred to his eventually successful bid to unseat incumbent Arkansas Gov. Frank White in a cartoon that portrayed the two politicians as boxers in the old-fashioned "tale of the tape" boxing posters.

(How do I know? Well, Gauldin and I were journalism students together at the University of Arkansas. He graduated the year before I did. Until Gauldin was appointed Clinton's press secretary in 1987, he was a self-employed editorial cartoonist, and I kept up with his cartoons on a regular basis. I lived in Arkansas until 1988, and I had the "comeback kid" cartoon itself on my refrigerator door for several months. I thought it was funny.)

Increasingly, this campaign seems anti-democratic to me.

Paul Krugman writes, in the New York Times, that "[t]his wasn’t the way things were supposed to play out" in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. "'Yes we can' has become 'No she can’t.'"

There might be some reasons to re-consider the rush to nominate Obama.

For one thing, Carl Hulse of the New York Times reports that Republicans increasingly see Obama as a liability for the Democratic ticket.

"The growing Republican emphasis on Mr. Obama could also help Mrs. Clinton plead her case that she is more electable, bolstering her argument to superdelegates that Republicans are poised to pounce on her relatively untested opponent," Hulse writes. "Her advisers have been frustrated that some top Democrats rate Mrs. Clinton a greater liability for the party’s candidates in conservative parts of the country -- a view still held by some strategists -- even though she has shown a capacity to withstand Republican attacks."

One can get a hint of what may be to come in the question posed by conservative political journalist Fred Barnes in the Weekly Standard: "Is Obama who he says he is?"

And there are rumblings about Obama's judgment -- from some of his supporters.

"Many who have been disposed to admire Obama, including me, see these matters as raising troublesome questions about his judgment and character," writes Stuart Taylor Jr. in the National Journal. "Many of us have come to wonder whether the purportedly post-ideological Obama is so close to his party’s business-bashing, pacifistic left wing as to skew his judgment on matters ranging from the capital-gains tax to Iraq. Perhaps our suspicions are mistaken. But Obama has hardly laid them to rest."

Some people insist that both Clinton and Obama are electable. John Dickerson writes in Slate that there are good cases to be made for both candidates.

From across the Atlantic Ocean comes the proclamation from Gerard Baker of the Times of London that, because of this protracted battle for the nomination, the Democrats are squandering a sure thing in the 2008 presidential election.

"Four-fifths of the American public think the country is on the wrong track," writes Baker. "The president wallows in the highest disapproval ratings since polling began. The Republican Party has spent most of a decade bungling almost everything it touches, abandoning its principles and sinking into a mire of corruption, hypocrisy and incompetence.

"And here we are, six months from a presidential election, and it is the Democrats once again who seem to be staring defeat in the face."

Using history as his yardstick, Robert Stacey appears to (partially) confirm Baker's assertion in the Charlotte Observer. "It has been 32 years since a Democrat won a majority of the popular vote. The last to do so was (Jimmy) Carter, who won a whopping 50.1% of the votes in 1976. He defeated Republican incumbent Gerald Ford, the man who pardoned Richard Nixon and carried the burden of Watergate and the Vietnam War into the election."

In typically British fashion, Baker compares what's happening to a soccer game: "It's like a soccer match in which one team keeps conceding a penalty in the final minutes only to watch as the opponents repeatedly boot the penalty kick high into the stands."

I'm an American. I also happen to be a Democrat. And, although my earlier sports analogy is more international in flavor, if we're going to use a sports analogy to describe what's happening in Democratic Party politics, I would prefer an American sports analogy.

American football will do nicely.

This game isn't in overtime yet. The schedule has it being played into June. Right now, it's kind of like the most recent Super Bowl. The early favorite has been on the ropes but has been making some big plays in the fourth quarter. The upstart may need some last-minute heroics to pull it off.

It's intriguing because it's different. In most Super Bowls (as in most presidential nomination campaigns), the issue is decided early and everyone can settle into party mode, nibbling on goodies and mingling with other guests. But this year, the game required more involvement -- and the result was more exciting, more memorable than usual.

Maybe that's what will happen in the presidential race.

Lionel Barber, Edward Luce and Andrew Ward say, in the Financial Times that the matter will be resolved by the end of June.

According to the authors, Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean believes the "superdelegates" will support the candidate they perceive to have the best chance of defeating John McCain in the fall, a perception that is likely to be based on the performances of the candidates in the last six to eight weeks of the primary campaign.

"He said there was nothing in the DNC’s rules that would prevent the party’s unelected superdelegates, who make up about a fifth of the overall delegate tally and who will ultimately pick the winner, from 'doing what they want.'"

I'm not saying that Baker is entirely wrong, however. Clinton and Obama do seem to be beating each other up. But keep in mind that the spotlight hasn't been divided between the parties for more than a month. All the attention is on the Democrats, which only serves to magnify everything.

Even so, Baker makes a point when he says, "There's a popular view among Democrats and the media establishment that the reason for the party's current disarray is that it just happens to have two most extraordinary candidates: talented, attractive, and in their gender and race, excitingly new. But there's an alternative explanation, which I suspect the voters have grasped rather better than their necromancers in the media. Both are losers.

"The longer the Democratic race goes on, the more obvious it appears that each is deeply, perhaps ineradicably flawed."

The fact that both candidates are "flawed," as Baker suggests, is better than some of the theories and excuses being offered by some in the press these days.

Geoff Garin, a strategist for the Clinton campaign, asserts in the Washington Post that Clinton is being held to a different standard than Obama. Garin's defense of Clinton's campaign tactics seems to dissolve into -- dare I say it? -- bitter whining at the end -- "in America," Garin says, "fair is supposed to be fair."

Well, that depends on what one's definition of "fair" is -- in the context of political reporting. The Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of the press. It doesn't guarantee you will like what the press has to say.

Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University, observes in The New Republic that, a few decades ago, "it was very difficult for Democratic presidential candidates to hold their party's diverse electoral coalition together. That was because Democrats were ideologically divided and Republican presidential candidates like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan found it relatively easy to pick off conservative Democratic voters when they were running against liberal Democratic candidates like George McGovern and Walter Mondale.

"Since the 1970s, however, the American electorate has undergone an ideological realignment with conservative voters strongly loyal to the Republican Party and liberal voters reliably pulling the lever for the Democratic Party."

That shift, Abramowitz points out, favored Republicans in the first half of this decade, but has been leaning to the other side in the last couple of election cycles.

Has the Democratic campaign been so negative that it wiped out the party's advantage on domestic and foreign issues?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Winning the Battles, Losing the War

Charlie Cook says, in the National Journal, that Hillary Clinton is winning the battles in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, but she's losing the war. He calls it her "political purgatory."

That's not a bad way to put it, actually.

"If this contest were still at the point where momentum, symbolism, and reading tea leaves mattered, Clinton would be in pretty good shape," writes Cook. "Everything she has needed to happen is happening now. ... but it’s happening about three months too late."

Jackie Calmes and Mary Jacoby observe, in the Wall Street Journal, that Clinton's win in the Pennsylvania primary "is stoking concerns about Sen. Barack Obama's appeal in a general election, even as party leaders ... admit he remains the favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination."

A voice I always pay attention to when it comes to political matters is the one belonging to Michael Barone. He's been the co-author of the biennially published Almanac of American Politics since its inception in 1972. There may be no one in America who knows more about voting patterns in every state, every congressional district.

Writing for U.S. News and World Report, Barone raises the possibility of a finish that is reminiscent of the 2000 campaign, suggesting that Clinton could win the popular vote in the primaries while Obama finishes with the most delegates.

"My sense is that the superdelegates don't want to make their own decisions; they want to ratify someone else's decision," says Barone. "The problem is that the results are sending us to a situation in which superdelegates have to decide which decisions they will ratify."

Hillary may be losing this war, but she's finally doing what Karl Rove has been insisting that she needed to do.

Clinton "pummeled" Obama, Rove says, which "should cause concern in the Obama HQ."

Rove is partisan, of course, so it shouldn't surprise anyone when he writes in the Wall Street Journal, "The Democratic Party has two weakened candidates."

I must admit, it amuses me when he writes that "Mrs. Clinton started as a deeply flawed candidate: the palpable and unpleasant sense of entitlement, the absence of a clear and optimistic message, the grating personality impatient to be done with the little people and overly eager for a return to power, real power, the phoniness and the exaggerations."

It seems to me the complaints could just as easily have applied to Rove's former boss eight years ago.

"And what of the reborn Adlai Stevenson?" asks Rove. "Mr. Obama is befuddled and angry about the national reaction to what are clearly accepted, even commonplace truths in San Francisco and Hyde Park.

"How could anyone take offense at the observation that people in small-town and rural America are 'bitter' and therefore 'cling' to their guns and their faith, as well as their xenophobia? Why would anyone raise questions about a public figure who, for only 20 years, attended a church and developed a close personal relationship with its preacher who says AIDS was created by our government as a genocidal tool to be used against people of color, who declared America's chickens came home to roost on 9/11, and wants God to damn America?

"Mr. Obama has a weakness among blue-collar working class voters for a reason."

It's clear the Democratic nominee will have some work to do to win an election that should be a slam dunk.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

It's About Electability, Stupid

In the aftermath of Barack Obama's loss to Hillary Clinton in the Pennsylvania primary, campaign manager David Plouffe is making the argument that Obama is "uniquely positioned to expand the electoral map in ways that Clinton cannot. That ... will give Democrats more ways to win the presidency."

Clinton's campaign has been selling the electability angle for awhile. But it's becoming more important as the candidates near the finish line in the primaries and a nominee still hasn't been chosen.

Adam Nagourney writes, in the New York Times, that " just when it seemed that the Democratic Party was close to anointing Mr. Obama as its nominee, he lost yet again in a big general election state, dragged down by his weakness among blue-collar voters, older voters and white voters. The composition of Mrs. Clinton’s support -- or, looked at another way, the makeup of voters who have proved reluctant to embrace Mr. Obama -- has Democrats wondering, if not worrying, about what role race may be playing."

I must say that I'm gratified that the campaigns seem to be acknowledging (finally) the matter of electability. That's been my concern from the beginning. It was a big reason why I supported John Edwards for president -- until he dropped out of the race. I felt he was the most electable Democrat.

If you sincerely want change, you have to be electable.

I've been bothered by a kind of pie-in-the-sky attitude I've seen among the Obama supporters that just didn't reflect reality. And I've been concerned that there was an obsession in the Clinton campaign with a (frankly) exaggerated claim of experience that overlooked what Al Gore might call the "inconvenient truth" about presidential politics.

What it's really all about is electability.

Voters have to like you before they're going to vote for you. It's part of the unique relationship that Americans have with their president.

If the voters don't like you, they're going to have to dislike your opponent even more -- or they're going to have to be prepared to hold your opponent accountable for whatever awful circumstances prevail in the land.

In 1968, voters didn't necessarily like Richard Nixon. But they blamed Hubert Humphrey for Lyndon Johnson's foreign policy.

In 2000, surveys showed that more voters would prefer to have a beer with George W. Bush than with Al Gore. Even though Bush didn't win the popular vote, he was electable enough (with the help of the Supremes) to win the Electoral College.

The surveys didn't ask voters which candidate made them feel more threatened. The surveys didn't ask voters which candidate they would trust to make the right decisions about fighting terrorism or invading foreign lands.

The surveys didn't ask voters which candidate would be better equipped to handle a natural disaster or a recession and gas prices of $3.50/gallon or more -- and other scary issues (Sam's Club and Costco announced today that they will limit how much rice customers can purchase because of "recent supply and demand trends." What does that mean? And which presidential candidate is ready to deal with a food shortage crisis -- on top of a fuel crisis and a mortgage crisis?).

The media seem intent on focusing on the "first" angle of the Democratic campaign -- for the first time, a major party will nominate a black or a woman for president.

In my experience, historic "firsts" seldom win presidential elections (and, as a student of history, it seems to me that most of those "firsts" occurred in the early days of the republic, when everything was a "first").

"Firsts" are symbolic, and they serve the purpose of warming up the public for the eventual (usually more acceptable) winner yet to come -- in another election.

They "break the ice," you might say.

There's been a lot of nostalgic talk in this campaign about John F. Kennedy. It's worth remembering that Kennedy wasn't the first Catholic nominated for president, but he was the first one to be elected.

And, Now, It's On to Indiana and North Carolina

Barack Obama can't close the deal.

That's what Maureen Dowd says in the New York Times.

"Now that Hillary has won Pennsylvania, it will take a village to help Obama escape from the suffocating embrace of his rival," writes Dowd. "Certainly Howard Dean will be of no use steering her to the exit. It’s like Micronesia telling Russia to denuke."

Dowd seems frustrated and impatient that Clinton won't get out of the way.

But she did win the Pennsylvania primary yesterday -- fair and square. And she did (apparently) get just about enough votes to claim the double-digit victory in percentage points that the "experts" said she needed to keep her campaign for the nomination alive.

Perhaps the temptation was just too great to resist.

But Chuck Raasch, political writer for Gannett News Service, called the outcome in the Keystone State a "bitter ending" for Obama.

"Bitter?" Perhaps. But an "ending?" I don't know if I would say that.

I mean, what has really changed since they counted the votes in Pennsylvania?

Obama still leads Clinton in delegates. We have one less primary remaining on the political calendar -- and all of the largest states have been heard from now.

Unless Clinton can win all the remaining primaries by margins that are much larger than her strongest showings so far, she can't win the nomination without the help of the superdelegates. But Obama probably can't win enough delegates in the remaining primaries and caucuses to clinch the nomination, either.

Tuesday's victory prevented a predicted stampede of the superdelegates to Obama's side -- but that may be only a temporary reprieve.

We'll be seeing more of an attempt from both sides to woo the superdelegates in the coming weeks -- what John Podhoretz calls, in Commentary, the "big superdelegate suck-up."

Superdelegates know that neither Obama nor Clinton can win the nomination simply through the primaries and caucuses and pledged delegates. Superdelegates know that the decision will come down to them. And superdelegates also know that it is to their advantage for the campaign to continue and for the barrels of pork they're being offered to get bigger and bigger.

According to Pew Research Center, "electability" is an important factor in the hunt for superdelegates, but "neither candidate has a demonstrable advantage to tout."

So I wouldn't expect a stampede of superdelegates until either Clinton or Obama actually wraps up the nomination. Once that's a done deal, everyone will want to be with the winner.

But, until we know who the winner is, accumulating offers of goodies for their votes makes the superdelegates the real winners.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Recession or Slowdown?

There seems to be some disagreement about whether the economy is in a recession.

Maybe it's a matter of semantics.

The Wall Street Journal reports, in its economics blog, that George W. Bush insists the country is in a "slowdown," not a "recession."

Well, whatever one calls it, the result is less money in my pocket.

Steve Forbes writes that he knows where the economy went wrong and how to get it back on track. (Do you think he wants to be McCain's secretary of the treasury?)

I'm hardly an economist -- although economists all seem to have a different idea about what will make a sluggish economy perk up, so I guess it wouldn't matter whether I actually agreed with anyone. (I think it was Harry Truman who said, "If you lined up all the economists end to end, they'd point in different directions.")

What this country needs is an economic strategy. But you can't execute an effective strategy if you won't admit that there is a problem.

A good place to start would be a real energy policy.

This afternoon, on my way home from work, I stopped to get some gas. I paid $10 and got about 3 gallons of gas. With any luck, that will get me to the weekend.

At the neighborhood gas station where I buy fuel for my truck, the prevailing rate is $3.45/gallon. Keep in mind that we haven't seen the price increase that usually accompanies the special blend for the summer driving season.

That should show up at the beginning of May. (In case you were wondering what to do with that rebate check -- whenever it arrives -- the oil companies apparently have a suggestion.)

To go along with the higher fuel prices, I'm paying more for food. In fact, it costs more to keep the basics on hand. Never mind a few of life's luxuries.

I'm not planning any road trips this summer -- long, short, or otherwise. Are you?

Monday, April 21, 2008

An Historic Day

Tuesday is an historic day.

And I'm not just talking about the Pennsylvania primary, although that is important. If you're one of my readers in Pennsylvania, I urge you to set aside some time to vote.

Actually, in addition to the primary, Tuesday is the 38th anniversary of Earth Day. But I'm not really talking about that, either.

It's been a long time since the primary in Pennsylvania had any significance. In fact, 2008 is the first presidential primary season in a long time that has meant anything in most states.

About four-fifths of the states have voted now, and the Democrats still haven't settled on their nominee. The primaries that will be held next month and in early June may not provide the Democrats with a definitive nominee so it's possible we may yet see some public arm-twisting -- and there may be a lot more going on behind the scenes.

Indiana, which holds its primary in two weeks, hasn't had a meaningful Democratic presidential primary since Bobby Kennedy and Gene McCarthy were running against each other 40 years ago -- and primaries weren't nearly as numerous then as they are today.

In 1968, most delegates were still being selected in smoke-filled rooms by party elders. That's how Hubert Humphrey won the nomination -- and one of the great unanswered questions of history will always be, would Humphrey have won the nomination anyway, even if Kennedy hadn't been assassinated the night of the California primary?

Well, the truth is that Humphrey won the nomination at a Chicago convention that was marred by anti-war riots in the streets. Such a spectacle hardly awaits the winner of the Obama-Clinton battle when Democrats convene in Denver.

Waiting for Humphrey in the fall of 1968 were his opponents -- American Independent Party nominee George Wallace and former Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee.

It's Nixon who adds a touch of historical irony to tomorrow's political proceedings in Pennsylvania. It was 14 years ago on Tuesday that Nixon died after suffering a stroke four days earlier.

Nixon had his private demons, and they certainly helped to guide his presidency to its downfall. But he also had some impressive achievements in office, a fact that clearly was not lost on the man he defeated in 1972, George McGovern.

Speaking of Nixon 11 years after the landslide triumph that Nixon's burglars helped to secure, McGovern said, "President Nixon probably had a more practical approach to the two superpowers, China and the Soviet Union, than any other president since World War II. ... I think, with the exception of his inexcusable continuation of the war in Vietnam, Nixon really will get high marks in history."

That was the outcome to which Nixon devoted his efforts from the minute he and his wife climbed on board the helicopter that took them away from the White House on Aug. 9, 1974. By the time of his death, Nixon wanted to be eulogized as a man of vision and a peacemaker.

In the two decades that passed from the time he left the White House until the day he died, Nixon managed to achieve a remarkable transformation in the public eye.

Well, perhaps it wasn't that remarkable, given some of the things he achieved earlier in his life. But most observers who watched his presidency collapse like a house of cards in 1973 and 1974 probably wouldn't have wagered that he would be remembered as warmly as he was at his funeral in late April 1994.

April 22 has had seemingly more than its share of big events -- not just Nixon's death. It was on April 22, 1945, when (reportedly) news reports convinced Hitler that defeat was inevitable, and he concluded, in his bunker, that suicide was his only option -- although he apparently did not take that option for another week.

By April 22, 1983, the German magazine Der Stern claimed that Hitler's diaries were found in wreckage in East Germany. And, 10 years later, on April 22, 1993, the Holocaust Memorial Museum was dedicated in Washington.

As I mentioned earlier, Tuesday is the 38th anniversary of Earth Day (first held in 1970). And, although I said this isn't about Earth Day, perhaps (indirectly) it is. Nixon, after all, created the Environmental Protection Agency.

Physicist Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, was born on April 22 (in 1904). Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin was born on April 22 (in 1870), and Pravda began publishing on April 22, 1912.

Football player-turned-Army-Ranger Pat Tillman was killed in action on April 22, 2004.

One pornographic film star was born on April 22 (Marilyn Chambers, known for Behind the Green Door) and another one died on April 22 (Linda Lovelace, star of Deep Throat, which inspired the nickname that was given to Mark Felt, who was the Watergate informant who kept Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein focused on their investigation of the Nixon White House).

But the death of Richard Nixon (who is shown, in the photo that accompanies this post, greeting former POW -- and future presumptive Republican presidential nominee -- John McCain) remains the most significant event of April 22.

Because Nixon, even 14 years after his death, remains perhaps the most fascinating figure from the second half of the 20th century.

And he continues to fascinate, if for no other reason than the fact that he will always be a Shakespearean figure in American history.

He held his heart's desire in the palm of his hand, and it slipped through his fingers and crashed on the floor.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Judgment Day Draws Nigh

In less than 48 hours, Pennsylvanians will be going to the polls. They'll be the first voters to cast ballots in the presidential race in more than a month.

And what a month it's been.

Although the most damaging issues that have been raised about Barack Obama have originated, interestingly, from his own camp, the Hillary Clinton camp has been ready to pounce on them when raised.

But being reactive instead of proactive lacks presidential assertiveness. Clinton's camp also has been trying to bring up some questions about Obama on its own, but those issues haven't had the staying power of Rev. Wright or "bitter" blue-collar workers looking to guns and religion as surrogates for financial security -- or the latest, his acquaintance with an anarchist from the Weather Underground.

As an observer of the campaign for The Sunday Times, Sarah Baxter notes, "If it is too late for Clinton, 60, to turn the race around, she has only herself to blame, according to Karl Rove, the architect of George W. Bush’s two presidential election victories. Democrats regard him as the master of the art of negative campaigning.

"'Her problem is not the attack on Obama, it is the timing,' he told The Sunday Times. 'She was complacent at the beginning and took him for granted.'”

Rove is correct. Clinton is paying the price for not acting more boldly, more decisively earlier in the campaign.

But, when you're trailing, as Clinton is, late is better than never.

"Clinton feels her rival is finally being properly vetted after last week’s televised debate," writes Baxter. "The debate went extremely badly for the thin-skinned Obama, who was irritated by questions he regarded as personal trivia. Voters are more likely to perceive them as important matters of character and judgment."

Of course, when such vetting is done late in the process, it opens the door for other problems down the road. The survivor is deprived of time to dispose of troublesome issues.

"The danger is that she will ultimately bequeath the Democrats a wounded candidate," says Baxter, "not the new John F. Kennedy, but an effete liberal known as 'Snobama,' the 2008 version of John Kerry, the last election loser. If so, his image will have been defined not by Republicans but by a Democrat."

I disagree with the suggestion that it would be Clinton's fault if Obama is unable to overcome these problems -- or others yet to come. Whether it is the Clinton campaign or John McCain's campaign or the media that raises the question, the point is that the question has been raised. And voters will want to hear his answer to the question.

Obama has claimed repeatedly in the campaign that he has better judgment than Clinton, and that would make him a better president, even though he admits that Clinton has more experience. If he is unable to deal with issues of his character and judgment, then he is unprepared for the rough-and-tumble nature of presidential politics.

Rove appears to agree with me.

"Rove argues that it is 'superficial' to blame Clinton for behaving like a Republican towards Obama," Baxter says. "(Rove says) 'He’s been countering it as best he can by saying it is unimportant and a distraction, but Americans don’t care if she’s doing the Republicans’ dirty work for them. They just want to know more about Senator Obama.'”

I disagree, however, with Kirsten Powers of the New York Post, who says that an "endless family feud" in the Democratic Party will translate into a Republican victory in the fall.

McCain has issues of his own. He's wrapped up his nomination, but he still has some unhappy elements of his base to bring around.

But that's a topic for another day.


I haven't seen very many endorsements in Pennsylvania -- possibly more will be published on the eve of the primary or even the day of the primary -- but all the ones I've seen support Obama.

Allentown Morning Call: "[O]n the issues, the differences between the Obama and Clinton platforms are thin or non-existent. He has set himself apart by enunciating a vision of a different America, one that people recognize as resting on the nation's founding principles. His vision calls upon 'the better angels of our nature' just as Abraham Lincoln did."

Bucks County Courier Times: "[T]he professional way he's conducted his campaign and the deft organization he's put together, which has outmaneuvered Clinton, is impressive. We believe Obama would bring the same professionalism to the executive branch of government since he isn't tied into lobbyists and special interests."

Philadelphia Inquirer: "Obama has demonstrated the resilience to bounce back from challenges in this long campaign. His speech in Philadelphia on race relations quelled the immediate political furor over his former pastor's anti-white rhetoric. But Obama's address did more than serve his own political needs. It called on blacks and whites to consider each other's legitimate motives, and to move beyond conflicting perspectives. Turning a tempest into an opportunity for national reflection and action is a sign of leadership."

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "Sen. Obama has captured much of the nation's imagination for a reason. He offers real change, a vision of an America that can move past not only racial tensions but also the political partisanship that has so bedeviled it."

Washington (Pa.) Observer-Reporter: "[T]he realities of sitting in the White House are always quite different from what they say on the campaign trail. Between the two, we prefer to look to the future with Obama rather than to the past."

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Forecasting the Weather

It may have seemed, to the casual political observer, that the subject of Barack Obama's acquaintance with William Ayers (of Weather Underground infamy) suddenly popped up during Wednesday night's debate.

But, as Joanna Weiss writes in the Boston Globe, the story has been sort of floating around for quite awhile.

And, as Weiss summarizes the words of Clint Hendler of the Columbia Journalism Review, "the slow rise of the Ayers story -- and its seemingly sudden appearance Wednesday night -- largely reflects Obama's surge to front-runner status, which brings more scrutiny."

If Obama wins the nomination, he's going to have to get used to a fundamental change in his life. Every word he says, every relationship in his life, every occupational endeavor will be scrutinized more heavily than ever. This is 2008, not 1995 when he was running for state senator in Illinois.

And it was in 1995, by the way, when Weiss indicates that this story had its roots.

"The news that Obama held a campaign event at Ayers' home in 1995 and served with Ayers on a Chicago community board, was either damning or innocuous, a worthy disclosure or a sure sign of the decline of political journalism," Weiss reports.

When ABC's George Stephanopoulos brought up the subject Wednesday night, Weiss says, "[i]t was, for many Americans, an introduction to a subject that could linger in the public consciousness for months."

It's already been whispered about for a few years.

"In January 2005, in a progressive liberal blog called 'Musings & Migraines,' a Chicago-based blogger named Maria Warren -- whose writing suggested she was to the left of Obama -- recalled watching the candidate give a 'standard, innocuous little talk' in 1995, in the living room of Ayers and his wife ... when Obama was running for the state Senate," Weiss reports.

Apparently, that blog is still up and running. I found it fairly easily and located the entry to which Weiss refers. You can read it here.

The blogger went on to say, "By voting to confirm Condoleezza Rice for Secretary of State you confirmed my opinion of you as someone who will not come through when it counts. You voted with the entire Republican membership rather than your compadre, Dick Durbin, and the man you supported for president, John Kerry. Your sense of collegiality is ridiculous under the circumstances.

"What are all those people who thought you walked on water thinking now?"

That's a relevant question, now that the Ayers story has bubbled to the surface.

"When Obama became a presidential contender, it was conservatives who picked up on the (Ayers) story," Weiss says. "Soon, the story turned up in the mainstream American press ... At that point, conservative bloggers began to question whether the major media organizations would challenge Obama on the relationship."

Well, the challenge is out there now. If Obama's judgment is as good as he claims it is, this would be a good time to demonstrate it.

Not that there has been a shortage of opportunities lately.

"The Democrats are doing everything they can to blow this presidential election," writes Bob Herbert in the New York Times.

"This is a skill that comes naturally to the party. There is no such thing as a can’t-miss year for the Democrats. They are truly gifted at finding ways to lose."

As Will Rogers said, "Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Great Expectations

By nature, I wouldn't say I'm a gambling man.

Sure, I take some chances now and then. I've filled out the NCAA Tournament brackets whenever I've been working in an office where that sort of thing is done. A few times in my life, I've gone to the horse track.

I'm certainly not an habitual gambler.

But, if it were possible to do such a thing, I'd be willing to bet that Hillary Clinton never expected things to turn out the way they seem to have turned out in this election season.

I think that would be a pretty safe bet.

She believed her role would be historic, that she would be smashing another barrier for women. The history books would list her as the first woman to be nominated for president by a major party, and they might record her as the first woman elected president.

That's what I think she (and many of her supporters) envisioned when she embarked on her campaign to win the Democratic presidential nomination.

She didn't think there was any chance that, in the history books that have yet to be written, her role in the 2008 campaign would turn out to be that, by April, she would be the lone roadblock remaining in the nomination path of Barack Obama, seeking to be the first black presidential nominee.

Obama's path to the nomination has been taking on the look of historical inevitability in the last couple of months. Those candidates who have served as temporary obstacles to his coronation in Denver in August will be remembered as footnotes in the history books.

A clear sign of that sense of inevitability comes when writers are using that word to describe your opponent's campaign.

"With Sen. Hillary Clinton widely expected to win Pennsylvania's Democratic primary on Tuesday, most of the focus is on the margin," Amy Chozick writes in the Wall Street Journal. "Anything less than a double-digit victory could solidify the perception that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is the inevitable Democratic nominee."

The latest player in this game of Great Expectations would be Pennsylvania. The Democrats in that state will vote on Tuesday, and the prevailing wisdom is that Clinton will win. But the margin is what counts now. As Chozick observes, if Clinton wins by less than double digits, Obama may as well be the winner.

Margins won't really matter in November. In most states, a candidate will receive all of a state's electoral votes if he/she merely receives more popular votes than the other candidate.

But in the race for the Democratic nomination, margins affect how many delegates a candidate receives at the national convention from a given state.

And, at this stage of the campaign, Clinton needs to win in Pennsylvania by such a convincing margin that she not only gains ground in the delegate count but she also creates enough doubt about Obama in the minds of voters that her victory has a "domino effect" on the remaining primaries.

That's the only way, many political experts say, that she can salvage her campaign and be nominated for the presidency.

Is it possible? Well, that remains to be seen.

The latest polls I've seen show Clinton's lead in Pennsylvania dwindling to a few percentage points.

Rasmussen Reports says Clinton's lead is 3 points, 47% to 44%. Zogby reports nearly the same numbers, although it finds that Clinton leads by 1 more percentage point, 47% to 43%.

Public Policy Polling sees a volatile race that has been swinging from one candidate to the other in recent weeks -- and currently favors Obama, 45% to 42%.

Survey USA is the only survey I've seen with polling results that show Clinton even approaching the kind of margin she needs, 54% to 40%.

If Obama truly has a date with destiny, then he's not out of the woods, even if he holds Clinton to a three- or four-point margin -- or if he wins Pennsylvania, as Public Policy Polling suggests could be possible.

His recent remarks haven't been laid to rest yet. They're still sources of trouble for him, and they will remain so in Republican hands this fall if he doesn't deal with them.

Kimberly Strassel is clear, in the Wall Street Journal, what she thinks Obama's mistakes were.

"He has likely given Hillary Clinton a new lease on the Pennsylvania primary," she says.

As I just pointed out, the polls aren't showing that kind of shift in momentum -- yet. But such shifts have been known to occur in the final weekend before a primary or election.

"He's given Mrs. Clinton fresh superdelegate ammunition," Strassel continues. And "'Yes We Can' has devolved into 'Who the Heck Is This Guy?'"

Byron York points out, in The Hill, that sometimes the attempt to explain an ill-chosen word, like "bitter," or a poorly expressed analogy, as Obama was guilty of in Wednesday night's debate, can be damaging on their own.

"Would you rather be associated with a ’60s radical who plotted to bomb the Pentagon and to this day believes, as he said a few years ago, 'I don’t regret setting bombs; I feel we didn’t do enough,'" writes York, "or would you rather be associated with -- slight pause, please -- Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.)?"

The "'60s radical" is William Ayers of the notorious Weather Underground. Obama acknowledged being acquainted with Ayers. He also acknowledged begin acquainted, in a collegial sort of way, with Senate colleague Coburn.

Obama and Coburn are polar opposites politically.

"Obama needs to tell us more about his relationship with Ayers," York says. "It’s important because voters might well wonder whether that relationship, coupled with Obama’s longtime relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is the beginning of a pattern ... in which Obama seems quite comfortable with people who really, really, really don’t like the United States of America.

"It’s a reasonable question, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) was right to suggest that Republicans will raise it in the general election campaign if Obama is the Democratic candidate."

They might be even more inclined to ask questions when they stop and think that "Hanoi Jane" Fonda has given her informal endorsement to the Obama campaign.

A savvy advertising man doesn't need much more to "connect the dots" for a TV viewer. The Weather Underground and "Hanoi Jane" were pretty powerful symbols of the radical left during the Vietnam era.

Paul Krugman suggests, in the New York Times, that Obama should be more concerned about his incorrect assertions than his word choice, and he may be right about that.

"There are, indeed, towns where the mill closed during the 1980s and nothing has replaced it," Krugman writes. "But the suggestion that the American heartland suffered equally during the Clinton and Bush years is deeply misleading. In fact, the Clinton years were very good for working Americans in the Midwest, where real median household income soared before crashing after 2000."

Obama should remember that, whatever one thinks of him personally, Bill Clinton left office with a budget surplus.

No matter what he does between now and January, George W. Bush will leave office with a budget deficit.

I doubt anyone expected that eight years ago.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Verdict: Clinton Wins Lackluster Debate

I admit, I didn't watch all of last night's debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

But, in their last head-to-head confrontation before Pennsylvania's voters go to the polls, the media's verdict is that Clinton won a victory over Obama that was -- shall we say? -- less than inspiring. And it seems to me that "inspiring" was the minimum that Clinton needed to achieve.

The headline in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, "Obama, Clinton debate delivers no knockout punch," seems to sum it up rather well.

* "This was not a good debate for Obama," says Chuck Todd of NBC News. "But it wasn't a great debate for Clinton either."

* In Slate, John Dickerson observes, "[Primary voters] might wonder how [Obama] could, with a straight face, decry Hillary Clinton for taking snippets of his remarks out of context and blowing them up, when he has done the same so expertly and so frequently with John McCain's claim about America's 100-year commitment to Iraq."

In the New York Times, David Brooks suggests that it isn't ABC's fault that the Democratic candidates looked bad.

"Obama and Clinton were completely irresponsible," Brooks writes. "As the first President Bush discovered, it is simply irresponsible statesmanship (and stupid politics) to make blanket pledges to win votes. Both candidates did that on vital issues."

Even so, Tom Shales says, in the Washington Post, that ABC was the "clear loser" in its telecast of the debate.

Shales criticizes the performances of ABC's moderators, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, and observes, "Cable news is indeed taking over from network news, and merely by being competent."

Maybe the most important aspect of the debate was what it implied.

Michael Goodwin writes, in the New York Daily News, "Obama is clearly guilty of horrible judgment, and maybe worse."

Did the debate change the dynamics of the race for the nomination? I doubt it. Did it change the dynamics of the general election? Again, I doubt it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Will Lieberman Address GOP Convention?

Is Joe Lieberman going to speak to the Republican convention in September?

That -- to use a phrase of which my late mother was fond -- would be a real "show stopper."

Lieberman, of course, was the Democrats' nominee for vice president on Al Gore's ticket in 2000. But Lieberman supports John McCain for president this time -- apparently because Lieberman shares McCain's position on the Iraq War.

And now, according to Manu Raju in The Hill, the now-independent senator from Connecticut "is leaving open the possibility of giving a keynote address ... at the Republican National Convention."

If it seems odd that a prominent member (or, in this case, former member) of one party would give a speech at the convention of the opposite party, it shouldn't.

Former Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, a Democrat, spoke to the Republican convention four years ago, Raju points out. And, Raju continues, "Miller, who was planning to retire from the Senate at the end of 2004, had little to lose by crossing his party."

If Miller's objective was to "cross his party," then he was to be congratulated for doing such a good job. Raju rightly observes that Miller's speech was "scathing" in its criticism of Democratic nominee John Kerry.

Miller, it might be noted, has not -- to my knowledge -- been invited to so much as attend either of this year's conventions.

After Connecticut's contentious Democratic primary in 2006, it was somewhat doubtful that Lieberman would be invited to this year's Democratic convention. And it became less likely when Lieberman endorsed McCain's candidacy in December.

But, as Raju observes, Lieberman's "decision to caucus with Democrats ... allows them to hold their narrow 51-49 majority." Aside from the war, Lieberman's voting record seems to be in line with most Democrats in the Senate.

Lieberman could be expected to be somewhat restrained in a hypothetical speech to the Republicans later this year, if only to protect his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

After all, if the Democrats add to their majority in the Senate this year, as expected, they would be free to replace Lieberman as a committee chairman.

And, even if things remained unchanged in the Senate, if the Democratic nominee for president is elected, the party wouldn't lose its control of the Senate if forced into a tiebreaker. The new vice president, as president of the Senate, would be expected to support the party.

So Lieberman has plenty of incentive to avoid burning any bridges with the Democratic leadership -- unlike Zell Miller four years ago.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Pope Arrives in America

George W. Bush, his wife and one of his daughters greeted Pope Benedict today when the pope arrived at Andrews Air Force Base.

I had expressed the hope yesterday that the pope would take the opportunity of his visit to Washington and New York to speak about violence in our society. As I mentioned, it would be particularly timely to do so, with tomorrow being the one-year anniversary of the massacre at Virginia Tech.

The pope may yet talk about the violence in our society, but, for now, his attention appears to be riveted to pedophile priests and the apparent negative impact they've had on church attendance and contributions to the collection plates.

"It’s difficult for me to understand how it was possible that priests betrayed in this way their mission to give healing, to give the love of God to these children," the pope said.

"It was unclear whether these would be the last words from Benedict on the issue," wrote Ian Fisher and Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times, "which ruptured the faith between parishioners and priests and has cost the church some $2 billion, or whether it was an opening signal of both reconciliation and more to come. Church officials have said they expected the pope to address the scandal more than once during his visit, and there is speculation that he may even meet with some victims."

If the pope is truly concerned about the well-being of the youngest, most vulnerable members of his flock, maybe he should say a few words, while he's here, about a case in Louisiana. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments tomorrow on whether Louisiana can execute a man who raped his 8-year-old stepdaughter.

I've known some women who were victims of rape. It's a terrible experience they endured, and many of them live with that experience every day. Sometimes rape victims are murdered, but the ones I know weren't murdered. They're still alive, and so is the girl who was raped in the Louisiana case.

I would be completely in favor of a lengthy prison sentence for this man.

But, while I know that sexual assault leaves psychological scars on its victims, especially the young ones, I have to wonder if capital punishment fits the crime.

Is that something the Supreme Court should dictate? Or is it a matter for each state to decide?

What's the answer?

Who's Bitter Now?

Barack Obama has a 95% chance of being the Democrats' nominee for president, writes Charlie Cook in the National Journal.

That's precisely what Cook said last week, before the furor over Obama's "bitter" remark. And, even though Cook concedes that Obama can be kept from winning the nomination, it will take regular setbacks like that for another month or so to do so.

"Alone, this incident is hardly enough to derail Obama's nomination," says Cook. "It would take much more than that. While Obama's delegate lead over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is not large, it is very difficult to overcome given how few states are left to vote, how hard it is to close a gap under the Democrats' proportional representation system and that the remaining undecided superdelegates hardly seem ready to march lock step into the Clinton column."

Currently, Cook's estimates indicate the nomination is not in jeopardy. But winning the nomination is only part of the battle.

"Even a cursory look at the national and state-by-state polling shows that voters are predisposed to vote Democratic and vote for change this year," Cook writes. "But swing voters have to be comfortable with the change they are asked to make. For undecided voters being asked to support a 46-year-old black man with a relatively thin résumé on the national or statewide level, this kind of story does not make them comfortable."

John Judis contends, in The New Republic, that Obama may well be the one who's bitter when the drama finishses playing itself out.

"Along with the revelations about Obama's pastor Jeremiah Wright," writes Judis, "his remarks in San Francisco will haunt him not only in the upcoming primaries in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia, but also in the general election against John McCain, assuming he gets the Democratic nomination."

The problems that have been plaguing Obama are of his own making.

"Obama does have an astounding eloquence and an ability to put a position across," says a clearly concerned Judis, "but that eloquence has been reserved largely for anti-war and good-government positions. ... [W]here McCain is most vulnerable and where voters are most likely to smile on a Democrat -- on everyday economic issues -- Obama's heart doesn't appear to be in it."

The Democrats debate in Philadelphia on Wednesday night. If I were you, I'd watch.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Electoral College Math

Back in 2000, George W. Bush ridiculed Al Gore's budgetary calculations as "fuzzy math."

His listeners always roared their approval and frequently began to chant "fuzzy math, fuzzy math," especially when there were network news cameras nearby.

In Bush's mind, I assume that any math that is more involved than 1 + 1 is "fuzzy."

And it might be tempting -- for Democrats and anyone who is leaning Democratic this year -- to dismiss any scenario dreamed up by the Republicans in which John McCain wins this year's election in the Electoral College as "fuzzy math."

But Richard Baehr, political director of American Thinker, insists that "McCain is in very good shape for the general election run."

You may ask, how so?

"The Republicans have landed on the one candidate in their party ideally suited for the race this year," writes Baehr, "with broad appeal among Democrats and independents, a veteran and war hero during a time of war, a candidate with a reputation for being a straight talker (and not talking down to voters, or outright lying to them), and with real strength in larger swing states. McCain is also benefiting from the fact that the Democrats continue to snipe at each other rather than at him, and each candidate has exposed weaknesses in the other, which become ammunition for McCain in the fall campaign."

Baehr points out that the most reliable daily tracking polls are currently showing McCain with an 8-point lead over Hillary Clinton and an 8-point lead over Barack Obama.

"I do not expect McCain to win by an 8-point margin in November," Baehr concedes. "Nor do I expect a blowout win of that size for the Democratic nominee.

"The last time the Republicans achieved an 8-point national popular vote margin, George Herbert Walker Bush won 40 states and 426 Electoral College votes against Michael Dukakis in 1988. The last time a Democratic candidate had a margin that large was Bill Clinton with his 8-point win in 1996, and he won 31 states and 379 Electoral College votes. Lyndon Johnson in 1964 is the only other Democrat who won by more than 8% since FDR."

Keep in mind that the only number that matters in the election is 270. It's not rocket science. A candidate needs 270 to receive a majority of the votes in the Electoral College.

Bush just barely got enough electoral votes to win the last two elections -- and he needed the help of the Supreme Court to pull it off eight years ago.

The only math that counts is the Electoral College math. And, right now, those numbers favor McCain.

If you have further doubts, Baehr goes on to break down the Electoral College math -- and there's nothing fuzzy about his conclusions.

"The Electoral math looks this way: if Florida and Ohio are safe for McCain, and Virginia and Missouri are too, as they now all appear to be, then McCain has a base of 260 Electoral College votes of the 270 he needs to win," asserts Baehr.

"He would need to only win 10 from among the states Bush won last time that are in play this year: Colorado (currently tied), New Mexico (3-point Obama lead), Iowa (4-point Obama lead) and Nevada (4-point Obama lead), and several tempting blue states in which McCain is currently competitive."

Baehr acknowledges, "It is a long way ‘til November, and the Arizona senator could be hurt if the economic downturn is deeper and longer than most economists expect it to be, or if the Iraq situation starts to unravel again.

"The Democrats are likely to have a large money advantage in the fall campaign. But they may also have a candidate tied to Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and his anti-American rants, and a candidate and his wife who can't seem to escape appearing to be condescending to those not of their social/economic/educational class."

Baehr continues, "None of this will matter to those on the left, or to young people who are buying Obama's content-free but well-delivered messages on hope and change.

"But to many Americans in the 'flyover zone' who do not live for politics but still vote every four years, John McCain may appear to be more tested, and a safer choice in troubled times than his young and untested opponent.

"At least that is what the polls now show."

And, at the moment, polls are all we have. They're like snapshots of the electorate. They may not tell you what you want to hear -- like a snapshot that makes you look heavier than you want to be or was taken right after you got a bad haircut.

But the polls tell us where we stand in April. There's still time to lose a few pounds or get a haircut that is more becoming.

The election is still more than six months away. That's the math Democrats need to be concerned about right now.

The Week In Front Of Us

The next presidential primary is still a little more than a week away, but that doesn't mean that the week immediately in front of us will have no important dates.

On Tuesday, Pope Benedict is scheduled to visit the United States. I'm not Catholic, and I'm sure regular churchgoing Catholics have been advised repeatedly by their priests of the pope's itinerary, but my understanding is that he is scheduled to arrive in Washington, where he'll spend a few days, then he will spend three days in New York before returning to Rome. While the pope is in the United States, he will observe his 81st birthday.

I don't believe the pope is scheduled to visit Philadelphia, although it would be appropriate if he did. Yesterday, Cardinal Justin Rigali was scheduled to observe the close of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's bicentennial celebration with a Mass at Villanova University.

Still, visits to Washington and New York give the pope the opportunity to speak about violence and terrorism in the world. He will, after all, be visiting the two cities that were targets of terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. It's the first papal visit to those cities since those attacks.

And, along with being the pope's birthday, Wednesday is the first anniversary of the deadly campus shootings at Virginia Tech.

Parents have long experienced anxiety about sending their sons and daughters to college campuses each semester, and their worries have been extensive, from fears of bad grades to all the other distractions that wait for naive youngsters away from home for the first time.

The threat of violence has always been there, but, particularly in recent years, that threat seems more pronounced. It didn't start with Columbine High School in 1999 or Virginia Tech last year -- or Northern Illinois this year -- but parents can hardly be blamed if they feel there's no safe place to send their children for an education anymore.

As the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope could reassure these parents -- and others in the community -- who worry about violent acts they feel powerless to prevent.

But that may be unfair to Pope Benedict. As USA Today observes, the pope "possesses none of the telegenic ease of his charismatic predecessor. While John Paul II misspent some of his youth as an actor, the only role Benedict XVI seems comfortable playing is the geek. And while John Paul II was very much at home in the modern world, Benedict XVI seems to greet our age with a sneer."

Popes, after all, are people. And each person is different.

We may be expecting too much of John Paul from Benedict.

We should give him a chance to answer USA Today's question: "[W]hich face of Catholicism will he present to the American people -- the one that scolds or the one that embraces?"

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Obama's Minister Keeps Raising Questions

Lanny Davis was a special counsel to President Clinton. He's candid about his support for Hillary Clinton in this year's Democratic presidential nomination campaign.

But, with his eye trained on the general election campaign, he's also candid about his misgivings about Barack Obama's relationship with his former pastor. And the negative impact it could have on Democrats' hopes for recapturing the White House in November.

After observing that Newsweek's Joe Klein chastised him on CNN for "spreading poison" when Davis raised legitimate concerns about Obama and Rev. Jeremiah Wright, he is blunt about the staying power of these questions.

"Attacking the motives of those who feel this discomfort about Senator Obama's response or nonresponse to Reverend Wright's comments is not just unfair and wrong," Davis writes in the Wall Street Journal. "It also misses the important electoral point about winning the general election in November: This issue is not going away. If many loyal, progressive Democrats remain troubled by this issue, then there must be even more unease among key swing voters -- soft 'Reagan Democrats,' independents and moderate Republicans -- who will decide the 2008 election."

Temporarily, Obama's problems with his minister have taken a backseat to his comments about blue-collar Americans who are "bitter" about economic hardship.

James Romoser writes, in the Winston-Salem Journal, that "Obama stopped short of a direct apology, saying only that he regrets any offense caused by his choice of words" when he was questioned by the newspaper about his comments about "bitter" blue-collar voters clinging to guns and religion.

Word choices are critical in presidential campaigns, and, as I suggested in this blog yesterday, words really are all that voters have to assess Obama's claim to have the best judgment to be president. He's been in the U.S. Senate for three years. His record isn't very extensive.

In the absence of a record that demonstrates his actual deeds, all we have are his words. And, for that matter, his actual deeds indicate no disagreement with his minister in the past -- except for his claim that he would have left the church if Wright had not retired.

But that's an easy claim to make. It's hardly likely that Wright will return to the pulpit full time to make Obama prove the validity of his words.

Whether fairly or unfairly, there are times when Obama's campaign reminds me of Jimmy Carter's race for the presidency in 1976.

Like a bolt of lightning from out of the blue, Carter won numerous primaries in 1976, eliminating both George Wallace and Hubert Humphrey as presidential contenders, once and for all, and establishing himself as the choice of voters in Democratic primaries.

But he insisted on making problems for himself with his choice of words, right up until the election. And, while many people believe Gerald Ford cost himself the election by pardoning Richard Nixon in 1974, it may well be that what really cost Ford a full four-year term in the White House was his assertion, in the second presidential debate, that there was "no Soviet domination" of Eastern Europe -- when clearly there was.

At the time of the "Eastern Europe" gaffe, the momentum had been with Ford. But the remark took on a life of its own and halted whatever momentum Ford had.

Even so, when the votes were counted on Election Day, it turned out that a shift of only about 25,000 votes in Ohio and Wisconsin could have reversed the outcome in Ford's favor.

And, even as president, Carter ran into problems with his word choices. Sometimes, the word choices weren't even his -- but he got stuck with them, anyway. The infamous malaise speech in the summer of 1979 never mentioned that word, but Carter's critics used the word incessantly.

Like a Siamese twin, "malaise" became permanently attached to Carter's presidency.

That kind of thing happens in other areas, not just presidential campaigns. The word "rapture," for example, never appears in the Book of Revelation, yet it has become linked to the stories of the End of Days -- and, without it, the authors of the "Left Behind" series of books would have had no story to tell.

But I digress.

Issues have lives of their own, and mortals often seem powerless to control them. Sometimes, issues that one may think will be around for awhile will actually disappear quite quickly on their own.

And sometimes, issues that seem destined to disappear turn out to be resilient -- and long-lived.

Not convinced? Read Fred Barnes' column in the Weekly Standard.

To bring you up to speed, John McCain and his allies have been demanding that Obama apologize for remarks that were made by Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia about McCain's experiences in Vietnam.

Rockefeller happens to be a supporter of Obama. He is not a spokesman for Obama.

"Of course the whole thing was largely playacting -- in other words, political theater," says Barnes. "Sure, Rockefeller's attack was nasty, unfair, and over the top. So what? McCain has heard much worse. He certainly did during his 2000 presidential bid. He did when he championed immigration reform. He's no stranger to the nasty, unfair, and over-the-top side of politics."

But, as Barnes goes on to point out, "2008 is different and not just for McCain. Peter Baker of the Washington Post has aptly dubbed it the 'Year of Taking Offense.' It's mostly fake. Candidates and their minions pretend to be offended by some sharp attack by an opponent. And the opponent or a campaign flunky pretends to be sorry."

Obama is, essentially, a novice in national politics. People who have been around national politics much longer than he has have been thwarted in their efforts to determine which issues can be fatal if not addressed satisfactorily -- and immediately.

The issue of Obama's relationship with Rev. Wright is more significant than some people -- mostly on Obama's side -- have indicated.

And Davis generously tries to save Obama and his campaign staff some anxiety on this issue.

"One thing is for sure," Davis writes. "If Mr. Obama doesn't show a willingness to try to answer all the questions now, John McCain and the Republican attack machine will not waste a minute pressuring him to do so if he is the Democratic Party's choice in the fall. But by then, it may be too late."

Davis has certainly had some experience in dealing with the "Republican attack machine."

Obama would be well advised to pay attention to what he has to say.