Powerful Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska has been indicted for concealing gifts and services and making false statements. Even though he claimed to be surprised by this, he had been under investigation for many months. Sen. Stevens is well known for the funding he is able to secure for his state, including the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere."
On its face, this latest indictment couldn't have come at a worse time for Republicans who are still reeling from the 2006 midterm elections in which they were heavily punished for their ethical transgressions. Of course, Democrats were not without their ethical woes, but they paled in scope and number to Republicans, as is evidenced by Bob Ney, Duke Cunningham, Mark Foley, and Larry Craig. The Stevens indictment simply reminds voters of Republican corruption and makes Barack Obama's message of "change" and "new politics" a bit more resonant.
Veteran Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye defended Stevens and believed he was innocent. This is not surprising, seeing that both Inouye and Stevens are personal friends. To people outside of Washington, this simply comes across as sleazy Washington politicians protecting their own. This would be another advantage for Obama in that even though he is also a senator, he is not really seen as "Washington." This is a result of his short resume of federal service and Republican reminders that he was just a state senator in Springfield, Illinois, a few years ago.
Obama and congressional Democrats can easily use this indictment for fundraising and another example of why it's important to help elect more Democrats to stamp out the "culture of corruption" they ran against in 2006. And for disaffected voters, they may be more inclined to respond favorably to Obama's "I'm not part of them" image.
However, this news also presents a unique opportunity for John McCain. McCain now has a golden opportunity to burnish his maverick image and fiscal conservative credentials. McCain should be on the campaign trail everyday criticizing Stevens for his waste and lack of ethics. That would instantly grab media headlines because it would show that McCain is standing up to his own unpopular party. That would make McCain look more like an outsider, a reformer, a leader, and yes, an "agent of change."
Outrage from Barack Obama and Democrats is predictable. It's dog bites man. Democrats criticize Republicans all the time. The line between sincere outrage and mere partisan reflexes is blurry enough to blunt the potency of their criticisms.
Outrage from the Republican presidential nominee, however, would be a lot rarer. It's man bites dog. Republicans don't publicly criticize Republicans unless their names are Ron Paul or Tom Coburn.
In short, Ted Stevens is yet one more headache for Republicans, but a political gift for John McCain. For a candidate who is looking to get more out of the media and temporarily change the narrative from Iraq and the economy, this is a perfect opportunity for him should he be courageous enough to take it.
Powerful Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska has been indicted for concealing gifts and services and making false statements. Even though he claimed to be surprised by this, he had been under investigation for many months. Sen. Stevens is well known for the funding he is able to secure for his state, including the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere."
When conservatives and Republicans hear Blacks and other ethnic minorities complain about racism, they commonly tell them to work hard, do their best, and remember that in America all things are possible for people who refuse to stay down after they get knocked down.
When conservatives and Republicans hear poor and financially struggling people complain about the bad economy, housing foreclosures, and not having any money in their bank accounts, they commonly tell them to suck it up, live responsibly, and do whatever it takes to get back on their feet. They also remind them that it's important to build a safety net (a rainy day fund) in case they stumble upon hard times.
This is not to say that legitimate gripes do not exist. However, complaining about racism is not going to give you the education you need to find a good job. And complaining about the big bad government or dishonest corporations is not going to give you your job back after your company goes bankrupt.
When you are down, either in politics or in life in general, you have to work harder to catch up and take advantage of any and all opportunities afforded to you. This makes John McCain's complaining about media coverage seem all the more odd because it not consistent with traditional conservative rhetoric concerning overcoming adversity.
Before this year's nominees were decided, there were about 20 candidates running for president. More than half of these candidates were considered longshots. Some of them didn't help their cause by complaining about not getting enough talk time in the debates. And when they actually did get a chance to participate in the debates, they did not say anything to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack and warrant more attention from the media.
Republican Duncan Hunter was a perfect example of a fine candidate whose struggles were partially of his own making. He was probably the best fit for Republicans this year in that he was aligned with the conservative base on abortion, Iraq, national security, social policy, immigration, and taxes. He also hailed from California and had the chance to make it competitive as the Republican nominee in the general election. But when it was his chance to participate in the debates, he didn't say anything that would make people take notice. He came across as just another conservative Republican and got lost in the shuffle.
Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee, however, were able to escape irrelevance by maximizing their limited opportunities. Ron Paul was not afraid to challenge his rivals on spending and Iraq, thus drawing new attention to his candidacy. Soon thereafter, he was shattering fundraising records. And Mike Huckabee spent more time talking about pocketbook issues and issues of faith than complaining about his lack of media coverage. As a result, restless evangelicals found a home in Huckabee and he became a top-tier candidate. Both Paul and Huckabee earned their media coverage by giving them something to actually cover.
One memorable moment from the Hillary Clinton campaign concerned her outburst at the beginning of one of the one-on-one debates with Barack Obama in which she complained about the favorable media coverage Obama was receiving. She spent precious time criticizing the media for not asking if Obama "wanted another pillow." This was a disastrous move because 1) time she spent complaining about the media was time she wasn't spending presenting her case to the American people, 2) complaining about the media conveyed the message that the campaign was about her and not about the voters, 3) she was driving up her own negatives while not laying a glove on Obama, and 4) she was making news for all the wrong reasons because the headlines coming out of the debate were about this outburst rather than any debating points she actually scored.
Voters are concerned about losing their homes. They are worried about high gas prices. They are looking for an endgame in Iraq. They are concerned about their pensions, access to healthcare, and losing the money in their bank accounts. The last thing they want to hear is a presidential candidate complaining about not being treated fairly by the media, especially if the media are covering a trip that this candidate criticized the other candidate for not taking earlier.
The media are indeed covering Barack Obama more often and probably more favorably than John McCain (though a recent study may suggest otherwise). This could be the result of liberal bias on behalf of journalists, or it could be a matter of simple economics. Barack Obama is simply better for ratings and circulation than John McCain because he has a story nobody has ever heard before. This, of course, does not excuse imbalanced coverage. However, like the current state of race relations and difficult economic times, that's the state of the media in this campaign and John McCain is going to have to figure out how to use it to his advantage.
Consider this picture of John McCain (courtesy of Political Realm). He was riding in a golf cart with former President George H.W. Bush at Kennebunkport, Maine, before giving a press conference while Barack Obama was off on his world tour to the Middle East and Europe. McCain's public relations staff should be taken to the woodshed for allowing this opportunity to slip through their fingers. While Obama was abroad, McCain had the domestic stage all to himself. So instead of scheduling town halls or chatting with the locals about pocketbook issues and getting good photo ops there, the enduring image from the week was of McCain sitting in a golf cart with Bush 41 at an upscale hideaway in Maine. Who wants to cover that? And does John McCain honestly expect a press conference with George H.W. Bush to receive the same attention as Obama's speeches before tens of thousands of screaming Europeans?
But media management is not just about conveying the right imagery. It's also about taking advantage of all opportunities to make news.
Both Barack Obama and John McCain were invited to speak at this weekend's Unity Conference, a gathering of journalists of color and their respective professional organizations. Barack Obama accepted the invitation and took questions from the audience of media professionals there. John McCain, however, declined the invitation citing scheduling conflicts. But how much sense does it make for John McCain to complain about not getting any media attention and then decline a perfect opportunity to get the attention he seeks?
The audience at the Unity Conference was likely a hostile one seeing that people of color are reliably Democratic. However, the conference participants were there as media professionals, rather than partisans. And given Republicans' problems with voters of color, McCain could have made news by courageously showing up. Instead he gave Blacks, Latinos, and Asians yet another reason to think that McCain (and Republicans by extension) simply don't care about them or the issues that are important to their communities. Oh, and he gave Barack Obama yet another night of positive headlines because he showed up and took questions.
Again, the media are arguably covering Barack Obama more often and more favorably than John McCain, but McCain has certainly had his opportunities to make news. However, on more than one occasion, he simply chose not to participate or did not take full advantage of the golden opportunities that have come his way. And he has no one to blame for that but himself.
There has been a Republican in the White House for the past 7 years, aided by a Republican-controlled Congress for 6 of those 7 years. This president is tremendously unpopular and has been for years. This year's Republican nominee has embraced this unpopular president and provided near 100% support of his agenda. The economy is shaky. Banks are losing money. People are getting thrown out of their homes. People are commonly shelling out more than $50 every time they go to the gas station. The nation is fighting an unpopular and mismanaged war with mounting casualties. The Democratic nominee has shattered fundraising records, is a gifted speaker, and has cobbled together the support of various disparate demographic groups.
And yet, John McCain is still in this race.
Given all the dynamics of this race and how close it is even though so many indicators suggest that this election should be a blowout, it is difficult for pundits to put a finger on just how this election will turn out. The polls and the campaign dynamics so far all suggest a blowout, a squeaker, a letdown, or an upset are all plausible.
So what's going to happen? Perhaps the clue lies in elections past, many of which mirror the 2008 campaign perfectly.
2008 will be like 1996: The clash of generations.
Barack Obama is the clear frontrunner, just like Bill Clinton was in his reelection campaign. He's youthful. He's charismatic. He's hip. And people seem to like him much like they did the sax-playing Clinton. John McCain is the underdog. He has a hard time making headlines and generating buzz despite his advantages. He has a long record of public service and served valiantly in combat. And a large part of the electorate agrees with his political philosophy. But he's old. He sounds tired. He represents the past, not the future. He's Bob Dole. If this is what 2008 boils down to, this election should be a comfortable one for Obama. It won't be a landslide and Obama might not even win a majority of the popular vote, but this election won't keep everyone on the edge of their seats like the last two elections did. Obama knows he will win. McCain knows he will lose.
2008 will be like 1992 and 2000: Spoilers crash the party.
Third-party candidacies are not rare in presidential politics, but every so often, they have a very significant impact. Ralph Nader's candidacy torpedoed Al Gore's White House bid in 2000. And Pat Buchanan gave many Republicans fits throughout the 1990s. While Ralph Nader won't garner nearly as many votes this time around, former Republican and current Libertarian nominee Bob Barr will. And Bob Barr will wreak havoc on John McCain's electoral chances in North Carolina, Colorado, and Georgia. There are even indications that Barr is hurting McCain to Obama's advantage just enough in the ruby red state of South Carolina to make Obama aides salivate.
John McCain is not the only candidate who has to worry about a gadfly candidacy. Former Democratic Representative Cynthia McKinney will also be on the ballot as the Green Party nominee. She represented a district in Atlanta, thus potentially complicating Obama's dreams of taking advantage of Bob Barr's candidacy and flipping Georgia blue. However, Barr will do far more damage than McKinney in Georgia. McKinney has a very small base of support which consists mostly of Blacks, and it's hard to see why Blacks who are eager to elect the first Black (or rather, biracial) president would essentially "waste" their vote on McKinney. And given her previous run-ins with the law, it's hard to see why many voters would take her seriously.
Imagine these results on election night:
Colorado: Obama 46, McCain 44, Barr 7
Georgia: Obama 44, McCain 43, Barr 8, McKinney 1
North Carolina: Obama 46, McCain 44, Barr 6
Should this materialize, Obama would be well on his way to shellacking McCain and would have to offer Barr a position in his cabinet after Inauguration Day as a token of his appreciation.
Just like Nader, who won less than 5% of the vote nationwide, was able to ruin Al Gore's candidacy in Florida, Ross Perot caused serious heartburn for George H.W. Bush across the nation. Perot's independent bid clearly wounded George Bush and allowed Bill Clinton to win a lot of states that Democrats weren't used to winning.
2008 will be like 1980: Pass the interview first and then win in a landslide.
The country is pessimistic and desperately wants to change direction. They're fed up with the current leadership, but don't want to take a gamble on the new kid on the block until he has successfully proven himself as at least marginally competent and acceptable. This is what happened with Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Carter was an unpopular president and the nation was in a sour mood because of the Iranian hostage crisis and oil prices, but voters were reluctant to send Reagan to the White House. After he held his own in the debates, however, undecided and independent voters flocked to the California Republican in droves.
And now 28 years later, should Obama comes across reasonably decent and knowledgeable in the debates, this fairly close election will turn into a rout. If Obama bombs in the debates, the country will simply vote for McCain because even though they may disagree with his policies, they will at least say he is ready.
It is worth noting that 2004 was another potential 1980 election as well. John Kerry had his chance to prove himself marginally acceptable as a campaigner and a candidate, but failed and narrowly lost even though the nation was already beginning to sour on George Bush and the direction of the nation. Inauthentically donning hunting gear and citing the sexuality of Dick Cheney's daughter in the final debate are two fatal mistakes that turned many voters off and sealed his fate.
2008 will be like 1960: The nailbiting beauty contest and the predecessor to "experience vs. change."
Seeing Obama and McCain side by side on television can only work to Obama's advantage just like John Kennedy was able to use the televised debates to his advantage. These debates ruined Richard Nixon because his five-o'clock shadow and sweating did not flatter him. 1960 was a very close election, but Nixon could not capitalize on the image factor. Seeing the youthful and vibrant Obama standing next to the older, tired-looking McCain will not make for good visuals at the debates.
The historic 1960 campaign shared another theme with this year's campaign: experience vs. change. Nixon was the Washington old hand with the lengthier political resume. Kennedy was youthful and fresh. Nixon argued that experience mattered. And he had a valid point. But the voters wanted "change" a little bit more.
Other candidates ran on experience this year and lost.
Chris Dodd and Joe Biden ran on experience and lost in Iowa.
Bill Richardson ran on experience and lost in New Hampshire.
Hillary Clinton ran on experience and lost the nomination.
Will John McCain run on this same losing message and lose the general election?
2008 will be like 2000: The nightmare.
Barack Obama will run up the score in reliably Democratic states like New York, Illinois, and California and narrowly lose the South. The energized Black vote will make him competitive in places like South Carolina and Mississippi, but he won't be able to flip them. John McCain will steal either Michigan or Pennsylvania while narrowly defending the other Bush states, including Ohio. Obama will win the popular vote while McCain wins the electoral vote. This will be an absolute heartbreaker for the Democrats and would likely be met with calls (even from Republicans) to abandon the Electoral College altogether.
Should McCain win in 2008 just like Bush won in 2000 (by losing the popular vote), it will be interesting to see how politicians in Iraq view the results. They may use this as another reason to reject US involvement in their affairs because if politicians who don't win the most votes are able to win the presidency, they may conclude that they don't need that kind of "democracy" in their country.
2008 will be like 1988: The collapse.
2008 will be like 1988. After eight years of Republican control of the White House, the time seems right for the political pendulum to swing in favor of the Democrats. Obama is leading in all the polls and seems to be on his way to a comfortable victory this fall. But he will get tripped up like Michael Dukakis did in one of the debates or be hamstrung by an unflattering picture that makes voters take him less seriously. Visions of John Kerry hunting and Michael Dukakis riding in a tank swirl through everyone's heads. In this scenario, John McCain would win the presidency the same way he won the nomination--by not losing it.
2008 will be like 2004: Anti-Republican sentiment is overrated.
By most media accounts, George Bush was supposed to lose in 2004. He was the bumbling tough-talker who didn't know how to lead the nation. His 9-11 halo was fading and people were beginning to have doubts about Iraq. John Kerry was supposed to provide voters with the opportunity to "get it right" this time and show that Bush's election in 2000 was a fluke.
But Bush won, and the Republicans expanded their majorities in both houses of Congress. People attributed Bush's victory to a weak Democratic candidate or shenanigans in Ohio. But what about the possibility that there was a silent majority of voters who actually liked President Bush and/or his policies?
Four years later, the media and polls are showing the same sentiments that buoyed Kerry. People lampoon Obama as the new messiah. He's not only the presumptive Democratic nominee, but also the presumptive 44th president. People are tired of Republicans, the Bush brand, and conservative principles. So Obama should have this election in the bag. November should merely be a coronation, right? Right?
And then McCain methodically cobbles together enough states to win in November and leaves Democrats, liberals, and the international community wondering yet again how the Republicans pulled this out. It might not be because Obama is weak or because his ideas weren't that popular. It might just be a matter of John McCain and conservatism being underestimated.
The fact that 2008 could plausibly turn out like any of these previous elections makes this election so difficult to handicap. All the indicators seem to favor an Obama victory, but a rookie mistake, a gadfly third-party candidacy, a mishandled debate question, poor stage presence, or the specter of a 2000 repeat are all very real prospects that could throw any and all political analysis and punditry out the window.
What an amazing campaign.
John McCain and Republicans have repeatedly criticized Barack Obama for not visiting Iraq and consulting with the military and political leaders there. Many Republican officials and conservative bloggers mocked him by starting a clock keeping track of how many days it has been since Obama last visited Iraq. These clocks have been common fixtures on Republican and conservative blogs. The Republican National Committee was the impetus behind this clock, as this quote from Chairman Robert Duncan indicates:
"Barack Obama has only visited Iraq once--and that was 871 days ago. Obama's failure to visit Iraq, listen and learn firsthand, and witness the surge's progress demonstrates weak leadership that disqualifies him from being Commander in Chief."Even Republican vice presidential hopeful Mitt Romney blasted Obama for not visiting Iraq:
"I don’t see how a United States senator who is looking to be the nominee of his party and create policy with regards to terrorism and policy with regards to Iraq could simply avoid going to Iraq and learning about how the surge was working. I mean the surge was working. It's too bad he missed it."Obama eventually called their bluff and scheduled a trip to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East, and Europe. The McCain campaign initially minimized Obama's trip as an overseas campaign rally (after ridiculing him for not even going), and that's when the wheels came off.
In just one week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has come out in support of Obama's plan by saying he wants military troops to leave Iraq by 2010. President Bush is calling for a "general time horizon" regarding the future in Iraq which contradicts McCain's position of not creating "timelines." And the United States has recently sent mid-level envoys to meet with the Iranians in Switzerland, further buttressing Obama's openness to initiating dialogues with rogue nations. And as the situation in Iraq improves, the battle in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly perilous. Now it might become militarily necessary for troops to be taken out of Iraq and redeployed to Afghanistan to help stabilize the situation there. That further undercuts McCain's message of staying in Iraq until "victory" is achieved. This is all quite validating for Barack Obama while making John McCain's positions look increasingly lonely.
Now Obama is getting favorable press coverage and gets to look presidential shaking hands with the soldiers and leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan while McCain gives press conferences with President George H.W. Bush in Maine. He even scored more political gold by making a tough basketball shot in a gym surrounded by soldiers. The Obama campaign couldn't have asked for better imagery. Even though making a basketball shot has nothing to do with one's ability to govern, Obama actually made himself look cool while perhaps subtly reminding voters of his youth--in contrast to the elder McCain. It also works against the elitist caricature because elitists don't know what to do with basketballs, much less know how to shoot them.
The pictures and videos of Obama shaking hands and smiling with the troops in Iraq shows that the military likes him. Republicans who accused liberals and Democrats of "not supporting the troops" should also have egg on their faces because the cheering troops in the videos that have come from his trip so far suggest that Obama is actually quite popular among them.
So now Obama is traveling from country to country and meeting various military and foreign leaders with all of the major media outlets in tow. He looks presidential. He's receiving enthusiastic crowds. He's giving voters the opportunity to actually see him conducting mock presidential duties. And that undercuts the common McCain attack of Obama being inexperienced because the photos and videos of him in Iraq are suggesting that even if he may be inexperienced, he is at least experienced enough.
Obama obviously won't be an expert on international relations after this one trip, but it's difficult to criticize Obama for not going to Iraq and then criticize him for actually going. And if Obama's not going to Iraq was such a big deal earlier, why are so many Republicans and conservatives minimizing the trip's significance now? Complaints about how much money this trip is costing taxpayers seems a bit silly because his opponents are the ones who goaded him into making this trip to begin with. And McCain has visited Iraq at taxpayers' expense several times, so it would seem that conservatives' outrage is misplaced.
McCain forced Obama to play on his turf and so far, Obama is rising to the challenge. Obama will probably cut into McCain's lead when it comes to military and foreign affairs. And this trip has knocked McCain out of the headlines. And even worse, it will be hard for McCain to criticize Obama's trip in the future without it sounding like sour grapes. Oh, and because he went, McCain lost his talking point about Obama not talking with the military leaders there too.
So McCain has to find a way to make himself relevant again or risk falling too far behind Obama in the polls to catch up without help. One possible way to seize the microphone would be to name his running mate early. But this would give him one less tool in his arsenal that he could use after the Olympics and the Democratic Convention. Another option is to go back to Iraq, but that may make it seem like he's going for political reasons (to keep up with Obama) instead of pragmatic reasons (to get information from the military commanders there).
McCain is making some political hay out of the New York Times' rejection of his essay on Iraq in its op-ed pages. Complaining about media bias is always a good way to drum up support among the conservative base, but it is worth mentioning that the New York Times endorsed John McCain in the Republican primaries and did not endorse Barack Obama (the Times endorsed Hillary Clinton instead). And is it in McCain's best interest to play the victim at home while Obama is looking strong overseas?
The moral of the story is to be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. This is an example of simple politics and talking points backfiring and leaving your campaign worse off than you would have been had you kept your mouth shut.
Delaware Senator Joe Biden was probably the greatest candidate nobody heard of in the 2008 primary season. Even though Joe Biden was ranked as the secondmost underrated candidate after Bill Richardson last fall, the veteran senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was mired in the back of most polls and placed a disappointing fifth in the Iowa caucuses.
His debate performances were mostly sharp, as he eschewed partisan rhetoric and empty promises for the sake of being honest about this nation's challenges and even offering specifics to match his solutions. He won a lot of plaudits for his federalization policy regarding Iraq, which remains as the plan with the most specifics when compared to John McCain's "We are winning and we can't surrender" rhetoric and Barack Obama's "We have to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in" rhetoric. His Democratic rivals often found themselves agreeing with him--a point not lost on the Biden campaign which subsequently created a compilation of these praises entitled "Joe is Right."
Biden's presidential campaign may be over, but he has been getting a lot of buzz as of late about being at or near the top of the Obama veepstakes. I have long argued that Biden had a good shot at being chosen because he was such a formidable candidate even though he underperformed in Iowa. Here is what I wrote back in January when Biden dropped out of the race after the Iowa caucuses:
"As for Biden, should Obama win the nomination, do not be surprised if Obama considers him as his running mate because the message of Obama '08 is quite similar to the message of Biden '88 and adding Biden to the ticket would lend Obama's presidential campaign some much needed pragmatism and experience to assuage voters who are not content solely with his message of "change." Ironically, the final reason why this might not be such a far-fetched possibility is because of Biden's mouth. Short of choosing a Republican, the selection of Biden as his running mate would be the ultimate showing of the unity of Obama's message. This is said in reference to Biden's stepping all over his own campaign rollout by referring to Obama as "clean and articulate." Obama-Biden would be the Democratic version of Huckabee-McCain and would make for a spectacular general election campaign."Let's examine these points in greater detail:
To start, Biden passes the Commander-in-Chief test. His record of public service covers more than three decades. Thus, he could not be pegged as a political greenhorn the way Obama is being pegged. Voters who have reservations about Obama's inexperience should be assuaged by Biden's years in Washington because Biden could serve as a sort of old hand behind the scenes. Republicans could not call him a Washington insider either because John McCain has been in government for almost as long. And attempts to portray Biden as the center of political gravity in an Obama White House would be retorted with questions about Dick Cheney's power in President Bush's White House.
Foreign policy is Biden's strongsuit. John McCain has a tremendous edge over Barack Obama when it comes to international affairs and foreign policy knowledge. Biden should help blunt this by compensating for Obama's perceived weakness on the subject. Combining Obama's international appeal with Biden's pragmatism regarding world affairs may prove quite formidable.
Hillary Clinton's supporters will likely be upset with anyone Obama chooses who is not named Hillary, but they may find Biden more acceptable because he created the Violence Against Women Act. John McCain has been making a play for disaffected Clinton supporters, but may have lost them when he was unable to answer a question about why birth control was not covered by insurance even though Viagra was. Contrasting this with Biden's Violence Against Women Act should be enough to keep most of Clinton's female base solidly behind Obama.
Even though Biden hails from a small state that traditionally votes Democratic, he could be a tremendous help to Obama in the Midwest. Biden is a carbon copy of the "bitter" voter who "clings" to guns and religion. Thus, Biden should have great appeal in rural Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. He should also help keep New Jersey out of reach for the Republicans. Biden is a gun owner and would likely be seen as more credible on gun rights than leading Republican veep prospect Mitt Romney. And voters who are still uncomfortable with Obama's demographics and religious views should find Biden, an Irish Catholic, considerably more reassuring. That would give him another edge over Romney, whose faith may be viewed with skepticism. And in terms of his lifestyle, Biden uses public transportation to commute home from Washington every night instead of a private jet. So he is most definitely not an elitist.
Short of choosing Governor Tim Kaine, Joe Biden would likely present Democrats with the best chance of stealing Virginia in November. He is well known throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and could appeal to voters in the rural southwestern part of the state, which is similar to central Pennsylvania and southern Ohio. It is also worth noting that southwestern Virginia is quite similar to western North Carolina. If Biden can keep McCain's margins among rural and White voters (also known as John Edwards' base) down in North Carolina while Obama cleans up among Blacks and younger voters in the college towns of Raleigh, Charlotte, Chapel Hill, Durham, and Winston-Salem, it is conceivable that North Carolina could turn blue. And if that were to happen, this election would be over.
Like Obama, and unlike Evan Bayh, Biden is a talented public speaker with a good sense of humor and a folksy style. His biggest problem is his tendency to be long-winded and to put his foot in his mouth on occasion. However, I would argue that his foot-in-mouth tendencies would be a benefit to Obama in that by virtue of being chosen by Obama, it would show that Obama simply doesn't care about these gaffes. And if Biden's boss doesn't care so much about it, then perhaps the media and voters shouldn't care so much either. That would help keep the media from focusing so much on any awkward statements Biden may make.
The other problem Biden will have to deal with is renewed criticisms of plagiarism from his 1988 campaign. However, at a time in which violence is increasing in Afghanistan, banks are going bankrupt, and people are paying $70 to fill their gas tanks, voters might not care so much about a politician not giving proper attribution in a speech he made twenty years ago.
In short, Biden should definitely be in the top three on Obama's shortlist. He is a policy heavyweight who appeals directly to the rural White voters Obama is struggling with. He also has no real negatives that the GOP can exploit without looking like hypocrites and brings little in the way of baggage. And unlike Hillary Clinton, Biden and Obama genuinely like each other. Many Democrats who lamented the demise of the three most experienced Democrats this primary season (Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd) would react with glee to this pick. And Republicans would probably react with horror because he is both a defensive and offensive pick who shores up Obama's base and threatens McCain's.
Obama would be wise to give Joe Biden serious consideration.
The liberal magazine The New Yorker provided the latest bit of controversy with the cover of its latest issue. If you haven't seen this provocative cover by now, you can access it here.
The New Yorker essentially took every false impression of Obama and meshed them together into cover art that can accurately be described as brilliant, tasteless, courageous, and slanderous. While some may have found this cover tasteless or irresponsible, cries for censorship seem a bit overboard and will not gain much traction.
Voters who understand satire know what this cover is all about. Barack Obama is dressed as a proud Arab Muslim while an angry-looking Michelle Obama is dressed as a radical Black militant with a machine gun and an afro. Both are doing a "terrorist fist jab," as opposed to a more benign fist bump. No flag lapel pin is to be found on Obama's shirt, but an American flag is burning in the fireplace under a portrait of Osama bin Laden, whom Obama reveres. After all, Obama is an unpatriotic terrorist sympathizer who has no allegiance to the United States and can't wait to destroy this nation from within.
The New Yorker's combination of satire and hyperbole should (emphasis on "should") lead voters to realize that these persistent rumors about Obama are completely unfounded and that this caricature of him is obviously both invalid and silly. However, voters who didn't buy into these Muslim rumors to begin with or who later arrived at the truth about Obama didn't need this magazine cover to prove these rumors false. Also, it is important to note once again that The New Yorker is a liberal magazine. Obama's liberal base would be more likely to read this magazine than other voters, but they were already comfortable with Obama and understand the satirical aspect of the cover. So that begs the question of exactly who The New Yorker's audience was. (Imagine the outrage if a conservative publication like the National Review had used this cover!)
Notice my use of the word "should" in the previous paragraph. Remember, this nation is not long removed from "freedom fries," accusing people who disagreed with President Bush's war policies of being "against America," and viewing flag pins as the only unequivocal way to express one's patriotism. But these voters don't read The New Yorker. Many of them have probably never even heard of it. And they probably weren't going to vote for Obama either. These voters will probably look at this provocative magazine cover and conclude that his lack of forcefully denouncing it means the caricature must be true. Obama can't win with these voters and shouldn't waste his time with them.
Yes, a significant part of the electorate is decidedly anti-Obama for reasons that are unrelated to his liberal ideology. Think about all the advantages a generic Democrat has over a generic Republican on issue after issue in most polls. There's an unpopular war, a shaky economy, an unpopular two-term Republican president, and greater dissatisfaction among voters with the Republican Party. But Barack Obama the candidate is only barely beating John McCain the candidate. So it would seem that Obama's underperformance in spite of so many favorable indicators to the contrary is at least partially due to an anti-Muslim, anti-Black vote. The anti-liberal vote doesn't care one iota about Obama or The New Yorker either, but at least their opposition is more benign.
The danger for Obama is that these kinds of stories only get people talking about the very stuff Obama is trying to avoid--not because he's a closet Muslim radical, but rather because it takes him off message. He would much rather talk about his plan for the economy and Afghanistan than how offended he was by some magazine cover. And because Obama is still new to the political scene, voters are still forming their impressions of him as a politician. Surely, he would rather define himself than have others define him the way Tony Rezko, Jeremiah Wright, Michael Pfleger, Wesley Clark, Jesse Jackson, and now The New Yorker have done with varying degrees of success.
As for political ramifications, this controversy is not good news for Hillary Clinton either. Some of her campaign volunteers were responsible for spreading some of these rumors before the Iowa caucuses last fall. And Clinton herself did not definitively swat down rumors about Obama's religion by claiming that he was not a Muslim "as far as she knew." In other words, her veepstakes odds may have become a little longer.
Of course, the fact that people are at least talking about this magazine cover is good for society because dialogue breeds understanding. Anytime the nation talks about ethics and race, progress is being made. Obama's candidacy is forcing everyone to reassess issues of race, religion, and gender.
Also, as an unintended advantage for Obama, voters who disagree with his politics may support him regardless because they view his election as a means by which they can repudiate the media, the punditry, and tabloid journalism in general. They might not like his politics, but they are fed up with the sideshows, phony outrage, misplaced priorities, insincere retractions, and forced expressions of contrition that have plagued this campaign season.
Having said all that, this controversy illustrates another problem with the nexus of politics, the media, and voters.
When voters complain about their politicians not offering enough specifics, media feeding frenzies like this magazine cover are often to blame. Until voters demand more from their politicians and audiences demand more from the media, it will only be a matter of days before the nation is distracted yet again by another surrogate- or media-induced controversy. Politics should be about governance, but it is treated as an extended soap opera in which people spend more time dissecting and anticipating missteps than actually analyzing their policies. Our short attention spans are exploited by the media whenever they seize on these distractions.
At what point will voters and the media stop focusing on these sideshows? Why should anybody care what Pundit X, Talking Head Y, and the staff at Media Organization Z think? This campaign should be about Barack Obama's and John McCain's plans for the nation. Our political discussion should be about the economy, taxes, immigration, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Supreme Court, domestic spending, and foreign policy. But this pragmatism is nowhere to be found, as the campaigns have come to be defined by flag pins, fist bumps, cooking recipes, genitalia, Vietnam, pastors, White entitlement, and now magazine covers. Again, while it is good that the nation is discussing issues of race, gender, and religion, even if awkwardly, it must be stated that the way in which our nation's political dialogue can so easily be derailed by peripheral matters is doing everyone a great disservice.
Barack Obama and John McCain are experiencing great difficulty keeping their surrogates in check and on message. Last week, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson got in trouble by making a vulgar remark in regards to his frustration with Obama. The media had a field day with this, as they couldn't stop talking about Jackson's diminished stature or possible fissures on Obama's left.
The McCain camp, however, would not be outdone. Shortly after Jackson's mouth got him in trouble, chief economic advisor and former Texas Senator Phil Gramm created even more controversy by claiming the United States was in a "mental recession" and accusing us of being "a nation of whiners." (You can access the video clip here.) Obviously, voters don't like to be called names, but on top of that, in an election in which economic anxiety is weighing heavily on voters' minds, these remarks could not have come at a worse time.
Of course, this brouhaha was catnip for pundits and journalists. Gramm tried to backpedal a bit by claiming our political leaders were the "whiners," not the actual voters. But he did not retract his statement at all, nor did he apologize. McCain has since cut ties with Gramm and said that he doesn't speak for his campaign. McCain and Gramm are personal friends who share a long history, but he really didn't have much choice because had Gramm stayed on board, that would have made McCain risk looking out of touch with voters' needs. And lingering complaints about Barack Obama waiting so long to dissociate himself from his church would ring hollow because McCain would still have his association with the advisor who claimed that voters were whiners.
That's politics. Fine.
But what if there were real kernels of truth to what Gramm was saying? I wrote about the need for consumers to practice fiscal responsibility earlier this year when the economic stimulus rebate checks were being debated in Congress. I argued that the economy was worse for people who brought about their ruin through their own poor financial decisions:
"Consumers who paid their bills on time never had to worry about subprime mortgages. Consumers with tight wallets who bought board games or comic books for Christmas instead of DVD players and laptop computers aren't worrying about paying down credit card debt. Lower-income consumers who are driving Corollas instead of Camrys and station wagons instead of SUVs aren't worrying about expensive car insurance and high car payments."Gas prices notwithstanding, Gramm was likely arguing that consumers should live within their means and that those who haven't been doing so are really feeling the pinch now.
Many consumers seem to have forgotten this and tried to live above their paychecks. This was made easier by offers of no payments for 6 months, 0.9% financing, and two-for-one specials. Nice cars with powerful engines and big homes in well-to-do neighborhoods are expressions of wealth that usually take years to acquire. But telling voters that they should have bought a 27" regular television instead of a 40" flat-screen one or that they should have bought a base model car instead of a limited edition model car is the exact kind of "eat your vegetables" rhetoric that voters tune out. President Jimmy Carter learned this the hard way when he talked about the need for voters to conserve energy and reduce waste only to be ridiculed and have his message be dubbed the infamous malaise speech.
Solutions without sacrifice seems to be a common theme that voters respond to.
Voters want to find a solution to our nation's energy crisis. But they don't want to drill in certain areas or increase fuel efficiency standards for automobiles.
Voters want to pay less for gas. But they don't want to drive slower on the highway. And they want to keep driving their SUVs and cars with V6 engines.
Voters want to increase social services and have a better transportation infrastructure. But they don't want to pay the higher taxes necessary to support them.
Voters want to win the battle in Iraq. But they don't want to send their own family members over there to fight even though the military is stretched thin.
Voters want to increase border security and crack down on illegal immigrants. But they don't want to pay the higher prices that would result from their deportation.
Voters want the best possible health care they can get. But they don't want to give up their smoking, drinking, overeating, junkfood, and couch potato lifestyle.
Voters don't want to be overwhelmed by the economy. But they don't want to give up the houses they should not have moved into or the cars they should not have bought.
Voters want the best, brightest, most pragmatic, most worldly, and most prescient people to occupy the White House. But they (voters and the media) don't want to ask them any substantive questions during the campaign because they get bored (or they think their audiences will get bored) by gory policy details. (What happened this primary season was a travesty.)
This mentality seems to start young and only become more glaring with age.
Students want to get good grades. But they don't want to study for their classes. So they use CliffsNotes or complain to their teachers when they get a B or a C.
Overweight people want to be thin. But they don't want to go on diets or exercise regularly. So they get surgery or complain about discrimination against fat people.
Adults want to be wealthy. But they don't want to stop spending their money on sales, dresses, and video games they can't do without. So they use their credit cards and spend money they really don't have.
Politicians have unfortunately seized on this "solutions without sacrifice" mentality by making promises they can't keep and offering broad goals that we can all agree with, unencumbered by pesky specifics. And voters lap it up like candy.
After September 11, a grieving nation was solidly behind the president and ready to do whatever it took to get the United States back on its feet and help bring justice to the terrorists who attacked us. President Bush then told the nation to "go shopping."
John McCain talks about fiscal responsibility with government finances. But he won't include defense spending when it comes to balancing the budget. Thus, the Iraq War would essentially be financed by simply printing more money, thus further weakening the dollar--a practice that could have consequences that more than offset the fiscal discipline exercised by working within the non-defense portion of the budget.
Barack Obama talks about the need for standing up to President Bush and his prosecution of the War on Terror. One of the central parts of Bush's anti-terrorism policy is the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act which grants telecommunications companies immunity in the event that accusations of warrantless wiretapping were pursued in court. Obama was long opposed to FISA, but ultimately supported an amended FISA compromise that kept this immunity intact.
Voters from all over the political spectrum are criticizing McCain and Obama for their apparent contradictions. McCain is a warmonger who will break the budget and Obama is an opportunistic flip-flopper. But the truth of the matter is, both politicians' decisions have merit in that prosecuting a war and gathering intelligence are complex issues that cannot be reduced to 30 second campaign ads or a slogan on a bumper sticker. So voters are excoriating both candidates for actually taking the complexities of geopolitical reality into consideration.
Back to Phil Gramm.
As was the case with Wesley Clark, perhaps Gramm should have been a bit more tactful when giving his remarks. As a result, like Clark's remarks, the central part of his message was obscured by how the message was delivered. However, he has touched upon something very real, not just about our struggling economy, but also about our own responsibilities to ourselves, our families, and our government.
You can't get something for nothing. And no complex problem has a simple solution. For voters to expect otherwise is irresponsible. There's only so much that a politician, media organization, or government agency can do. The rest is up to a mature and pragmatic citizenry. And in light of the fallout from Gramm's remarks, it seems that many of us still don't get it.
Jesse Jackson stepped in it again this week by criticizing Barack Obama during what he thought was a private conversation. He was a guest on a Fox News political program and was talking with another Black guest when he was off the air. However, his microphone was still on and the remarks were caught on tape. Jackson was complaining about Obama's support for faith-based initiatives and accused him of "talking down to Black people." In an unfortunate moment of bravado, he then told the other guest that he "wanted to cut Obama's nuts off." Jackson has since apologized for his "crude remarks," but the damage had already been done, and not to Barack Obama. This story proved to be a bit too sensitive for male journalists to cover, as this humorous compilation reveals. (Hat tip: TV Newser)
What is happening regarding Black leaders of yesteryear like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton is nothing new, but the media have been slow to catch on. I first mentioned how Barack Obama represented a changing of the guard more than a year ago in regards to Al Sharpton:
What does Sharpton do when his role within the Black political community and the Black community in general is diminished? What does Sharpton do when he does not have to be kowtowed to in order to deliver the crucial Black vote for Democratic candidates? What does Sharpton do when he has such a long history of civil rights activism and is treated like a gadfly only to watch a first term senator come out of nowhere and be so unbelievably well received?Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are the media-anointed spokesmen for the Black community. However, many Blacks don't believe Jackson and Sharpton speak for them. Blacks are not a monolithic voting bloc at all. They overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, but often have conservative values. These values include self-reliance and personal responsibility.
What does any animal do when it feels threatened? It lashes out. And that's why Sharpton is worried.
Jackson and Sharpton run contrary to this philosophy. While the history and effects of institutionalized racism and discrimination in America can never be forgotten, a growing number of Blacks are tired of simply blaming White injustices for the ills in their communities. Citing racism as the reason why you dropped out of school, discrimination as the reason why your child is a drug addict, and the lack of reparations as the reason why your neighborhood is riddled with gang violence doesn't hold water. Blacks want to improve their communities and realize that even though they don't have control over government policy (except at the ballot box), they do have control over themselves.
Many Blacks, including national figures such as Colin Powell and Bill Cosby, have spoken out about the need for Black men to be more involved in their children's lives and for Black children to stay in school. These people have been criticized by the Jackson wing of the Black community for "acting White" or having "a lack of pride in their Blackness," but this resistance is getting weaker and weaker. Even though it may be a tough message for some people to hear, it is a message of truth that cannot be disputed. Barack Obama is only the latest leader to remind Blacks that there comes a time when you simply have to stop blaming others for the mistakes you make.
The political consequences of Jackson's remarks are obvious. Obama benefits anytime he is criticized by people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Jackson and Sharpton are seen by many Whites and Republicans as radical Black leftists. Falling out of favor with them makes Obama look reasonable by comparison and works against the caricature of him as an angry race-baiting liberal closet Black Muslim. By extension, that helps put more distance between him and the likes of Louis Farrakhan and Jeremiah Wright, thus further increasing his appeal among Whites. It also makes Obama look more moderate because Jackson is seen as one of the figureheads of the liberal fringe. Jackson's complaints do not reveal any real danger on Obama's left flank because these Black voters are going to vote for him in November anyway.
Jackson's stature within the Black community is diminished. He did nothing to help his cause with his macho talk during what he thought was a private moment. Blacks who have grown tired of the same old arguments are only going to be more drawn to Obama's message of taking responsibility rather than simply complaining about still not receiving their forty acres and a mule. Older Blacks may be more receptive to Jackson's message, but there is a growing generation gap that consists of younger Blacks whose lives were not shaped by the civil rights movement and desegregation and older Blacks who still remember what it was like to have to drink from "colored-only" water fountains and endure blatant racism as they walked down the street. Racism obviously still exists and is a serious problem, but this new generation of Blacks, starting with Obama's generation, is less inclined to buy into the traditional arguments about race relations that have been debated for decades without arriving at a meaningful consensus.
Obama's candidacy has advantaged this nation by forcing people of all races to reassess race. He is forcing people not just to merely consider the prevalence or perpetrators of racism in today's society, but also how we can discuss it intelligently and arrive at new solutions. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton don't offer any of this, and that is why their relevancy is restricted to journalists who are too lazy to search for new Black voices who offer new messages and new ideas.
One name that keeps being mentioned as a rising political star is South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, a Republican currently serving his second term. Sanford may be the governor of a relatively small state, but he is far from a political unknown. After George Allen's "macaca" meltdown, some pundits looked to Sanford to fill the void left by the former Virginia senator as a consensus conservative by running for president this year. There were even a few Draft Sanford movements online that persist to this day.
Sanford is young, handsome, a Washington outsider, and a strong fiscal conservative. The anti-tax wing of the GOP would love to see him on the ticket. He is also a small government Republican with a libertarian streak. So he would appear to complement John McCain in that regard.
However, he might not be the best pick for McCain because even though Sanford is a relatively popular second-term governor, he will likely have a lot of explaining to do for his South Carolina record. The problem isn't so much Sanford as it is the legislature he has to work with. His libertarianism has been a common source of friction between him and the state legislature. The South Carolina legislature routinely overrides his vetoes and behaves in such a way that polarizes large segments of the state's population. So the legislature's antics are marring Sanford's record.
South Carolina's government is overwhelmingly Republican. The lieutenant governorship and all statewide offices are controlled by Republicans. The only Democratic statewide office holder is Superintendent of Education Jim Rex. Republicans have a 73-51 advantage in the state house and a 27-19 advantage in the state senate. Both senators and four out of the six congressmen are Republicans. So Democratic opposition can't really be blamed for South Carolina's ills.
For example, the South Carolina legislature recently passed a bill allowing Christians to profess their faith by the creation of a license plate displaying a cross and the words "I Believe." The bill passed the legislature unanimously and became law without Governor Sanford's signature. (Many legislators thought it was a bad bill, but nobody wanted to see their name in an attack ad claiming "they voted against God.") Opponents of the bill have filed a lawsuit claiming that this license plate violates the separation of church and state because similar license plates for other faiths do not exist and would have to meet far more restrictions before being approved, such as not being able to incorporate any text.
South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer even offered to personally pay the $4000 fee required by the Department of Motor Vehicles to begin production of the plates. In light of the potential lawsuit, Bauer remained defiant:
"We're not going to back down. We're going to fight for a change. I'm tired of seeing Christians back down in fear of a lawsuit."It is worth noting that South Carolina has a very strong evangelical Christian presence. Blue laws are still enforced, as some businesses are not allowed to open before 1:30pm on Sundays. Sunday alcohol sales were prohibited until voters finally overturned that law at the ballot box this spring. Legislation banning sex toys even made it to the house floor two years ago.
Knowing the history of Christian conservative influence on South Carolina's government, this license plate controversy should not come as a surprise. But should Sanford be tapped to be McCain's running mate, he will likely have to take a stance on the license plate issue at the risk of exacerbating McCain's problems with the evangelical wing of the party or alienating the moderates and independents he desperately needs. These moderates and independents (and even some conservatives) are devout Christians, but many of them are also increasingly uncomfortable with the blurring of the lines between politics and faith. This could also bolster Barack Obama because his message of inclusion and unity could contrast with the South Carolina legislature's polarization. Sanford would also have to explain why he never signed (or vetoed) the bill or why he couldn't keep his lieutenant governor in check.
To be fair, Mark Sanford has tried to control the legislature with his veto pen, but the legislature commonly overrides his vetoes and enacts policies that are fiscally unwise or otherwise divisive. This doesn't matter to Sanford's political opponents because they will claim that as the chief executive of the state, ultimate responsibility for the state rests with him.
It is also worth noting that Sanford did not endorse McCain before the South Carolina primary in January. McCain narrowly won that contest, but by not endorsing him when he needed it most, Sanford likely lost a bit of his clout in the McCain camp. He did eventually endorse McCain, but by then, absent an unbelievable comeback by Mike Huckabee, it was clear McCain would be the nominee. By contrast, Florida Governor Charlie Crist endorsed McCain shortly before the hotly contested Florida primary, thus burnishing his standing with McCain through his loyalty.
Looking at the electoral map, Sanford doesn't do much more than solidify Republican support in the South. However, the South is the base of the GOP. If McCain is unable to carry this region on his own, then he has a serious problem that cannot be remedied with Sanford or any other candidate. At the very best, Sanford could make it a bit tougher for Barack Obama to pick off North Carolina and Georgia, but Sanford will be of little help in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.
His fiscal conservatism should help McCain win New Hampshire, but again, that is a state that McCain should be competitive in without any help. After all, he won that state's Republican primary in 2000 and 2008. So all in all, Sanford is neither an offensive nor defensive pick. He doesn't help hold Republican states that are significantly threatened (he won't be of much help in Virginia or Ohio) and he doesn't help McCain pick up vulnerable Democratic ones either (e.g., Pennsylvania).
In addition to this, Sanford's national profile is a bit too low. Voters outside of the South know very little about him. The brand of Republicanism he and his legislature practiced in South Carolina may make these voters less comfortable with McCain because South Carolina Republicanism is very different from the more moderate brand of Republicanism one can see in Colorado or Wisconsin. Democrats will probably attempt to tie Sanford to the evangelical wing of the party, thus making a McCain-Sanford ticket less appealing in the competitive states McCain needs to win. Running up the score in Kentucky and Alabama will not get him to 270.
All in all, Mark Sanford may look like a strong contender on paper, but he appears to introduce a lot of controversies that McCain can ill afford. Unfortunately for Sanford, many of these controversies are not due to his own actions, but rather to the tribalistic actions of the state legislature he has limited control over. And because his endorsement was "a day late and a dollar short," he would not appear to have the inside track to the vice presidential nomination. The fact that he doesn't do much to expand McCain's map the way Mitt Romney, Tom Ridge, or Tim Pawlenty does should serve as another disqualifying factor.
(For two very comprehensive and well written South Carolina blogs, I recommend reading The Palmetto Scoop and Elonkey.)
Next installment: Joe Biden
Any discussion about Barack Obama's potential running mates would be incomplete without Hillary Clinton. I first shot down the idea of an Obama-Clinton ticket back in February and have expressed reservations about it since then despite her obvious strength.
However, time has bolstered Obama's political footing. He is now in a significantly stronger position now than he was two months ago when Clinton was winning Pennsylvania and running up the score in West Virginia. Time has worked to Obama's benefit in that a lot of the hard feelings among Democrats have dissipated and the negative attacks have stopped. Now there is greater unity among the Democrats as they prepare for the fall campaign against John McCain. Hillary Clinton is out of the headlines, thus ceding the stage to Barack Obama. This lack of exposure is gradually weakening her leverage.
In addition to this, polling in various battleground states further weakens Clinton's hand. According to these polls, Obama is leading in Montana, Colorado, Virginia, New Mexico, Florida, and Indiana while trailing by fewer than 5 percentage points in Georgia, Mississippi, Alaska, and North Carolina. These states all voted for Bush in the 2004 election.
The longer Obama remains ahead of John McCain in these polls, the less likely he will need Hillary Clinton on the bottom half of the ticket. Clinton's strongest argument was that she could win the states Democrats needed to win in order to win the election. Also, by claiming that "she wanted her supporters to be respected," she was implying that her supporters were too angry to warm up to Obama and were ripe for McCain to harvest. Some of her supporters are indeed still upset about her defeat and, fairly or unfairly, are penalizing Obama for this. But the polls I cited earlier suggest that Obama is doing just fine with the support he currently has. This, of course, weakens Clinton's main rationale for her candidacy. Either Obama is overperforming, Clinton's supporters were bluffing, McCain is not able to capitalize on these supposed divisions among Democrats, or some combination of the three is happening.
In terms of the electoral map, Hillary Clinton could probably deliver Arkansas and make the neighboring states of Tennessee and Missouri more competitive. Bill Clinton could also be deployed to the Appalachian areas of western North Carolina, southwestern Virginia, central Pennsylvania, and southern Ohio and appeal to the rural Reagan Democrats there. Voters who have good memories of the economy during Bill Clinton's presidency may make voters in the economically depressed Midwest (e.g., Michigan and Ohio) a bit less likely to support John McCain as well.
In terms of her personal image, Clinton has rehabilitated herself in the eyes of Democrats who gained a lot of respect for her because of her grit and her ability to fight. Even Republicans concede that she is tough. She does not have a glass jaw and will not let any Republican attack go unanswered. If Obama is unable to sufficiently beat back Republican attacks with his traditionally soft approach, Clinton could easily clean up the mess because hand-to-hand combat is her political forte. So she could be an effective attack dog for Obama, which is probably just fine because that has traditionally been the role for potential vice presidents on the campaign trail. Of course, Republicans may criticize Obama for not reining Clinton in if she goes on offense, but any attempts to silence her would likely be met by anger from her supporters who are still sensitive about perceived sexism-related injustices Clinton (and themselves by extension) faced during the primary.
The negatives associated with Hillary Clinton are obvious and well documented:
1. The right despises her and her name on the ballot may do more to drive up Republican turnout than John McCain ever could. Democrats are more excited about this election than Republicans are, thus creating an enthusiasm gap. The prospect of the Clintons back in the White House could help neutralize this.
2. The issue of what to do with Bill Clinton would also loom over the campaign. Is Bill Clinton really disciplined enough not to throw the Obama campaign off message with his own histrionic antics? And is there any new Clinton baggage just waiting to bog Obama down? And would Obama's star shine more brightly than the former president's? Or his wife's?
3. Obama's message of "change" would become a bit diluted because of the "back to the future" element of including half of a political dynasty on his ticket. And this political dynasty's approach to politics is much more confrontational, thus further contradicting Obama's more genteel style.
Although Clinton could help him in the Upper South, Obama does not need Arkansas, Tennessee, or even North Carolina to win the election. Obviously, losing North Carolina would be deadly for McCain because if Obama wins North Carolina, McCain will absolutely have to win Michigan and defend Ohio. But because Obama is polling well enough in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio on his own, there is even less incentive for him to choose the junior senator from New York. Despite the recent lovefest in Unity, New Hampshire, Obama clearly does not want to pick Clinton and would like a convenient excuse to reject her. It's in his best interest to simply let things simmer for now though because that will buy him some time and increase the chances of Clinton disqualifying herself either through an unforced error or a new scandalous revelation. (Read Defusing the Hillarybomb for other options available to Obama.)
Despite all the obvious downsides, there is, however, one compelling reason for choosing Hillary Clinton. It has nothing to do with the electoral map or shoring up one's base:
Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.
Hillary Clinton wants to be President. And while she may have sounded conciliatory in her concession speech and her remarks at her joint appearance with Obama in New Hampshire, the fact remains that she lobbed some real hardballs at Obama that flatly discredited his candidacy. Republican-leaning 527 groups are probably creating negative campaign ads using her words against him even as I type this post. Even though her campaign is over, Hillary Clinton is still Barack Obama's rival and must be dealt with carefully.
If Obama does not tap her to be his running mate, she will return to the Senate, where she has a good chance of becoming Senate Majority Leader. That means all legislation must go through her before it reaches Obama's desk in the White House. Would Clinton be so nefarious as to drag her feet when it comes to getting President Obama's agenda passed for the sake of driving down his approval ratings and fostering a sense of buyer's remorse, thus opening the path for her to take over in 2012? Or will she try to flex her political muscle by butting heads with Obama over legislation and dictating the terms necessary for her to shepherd bills through the upper chamber of Congress?
And what if Obama does not choose Clinton and he loses to McCain? Obama's stock value would plummet while Clinton's would soar on the winds of vindication. As a result, Clinton would emerge from the election more powerful than Obama. In 2012, Clinton could run as the "I told you so" candidate, thus reminding voters of the dashed hopes of Obama's failed campaign. Tapping Clinton for veep would help ensure that their political fates are intertwined even in defeat.
In short, the true advantage of a Clinton selection probably lies not in electoral viability this November (as the conventional wisdom indicates), but rather in fewer headaches after the election--win or lose.
Next installment: Mark Sanford
The 7-10 wishes everyone a happy and safe Independence Day holiday.
Given the holiday, political news has pretty much come to a standstill. After the holiday, although many people won't be paying attention to politics because of the dog days of summer, the main story will be the selection of vice presidential running mates by John McCain and Barack Obama. This political cease fire affords political observers a rare opportunity to take stock of how various potential running mates are faring, unencumbered by the 24-hour news cycle.
Over the next few weeks, I will assess some of the more popular names being tossed around for vice presidential picks. In my first installment, I will focus on McCain's chief rival from the primaries: Mitt Romney.
The former Massachusetts governor seems to be the most logical and most beneficial pick for John McCain. I was originally skeptical about his political future, but have since become more bullish about his chances.
Romney will not help deliver Massachusetts, but it could make the light blue states of New Jersey and Michigan a bit more likely. The fact that he is Michigan's favorite son and that Michigan's economy is faltering under Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm's leadership makes Michigan perhaps the single best Republican pickup opportunity after New Hampshire. Gov. Granholm's struggles make Romney's business experience an even stronger asset. This street cred Romney has on the economy has the added bonus of potentially putting an end to the nagging questions about McCain's knowledge of economic issues. And given today's fragile economy and rising gas prices, voters outside of Michigan may also respond favorably to Romney's economic message.
But McCain won't be the only person who benefits from this selection. If McCain wins the election, he would likely serve just one term. This would then put Romney next in line to ascend to the presidency in 2012. And if McCain loses the election, Romney's stock value will have increased so much by supporting the Republican nominee and defending conservative values that he should be the frontrunner in the 2012 campaign.
Of course, every rose has its thorns. The Republicans are trying to hammer Barack Obama on changing his positions for political expediency. Framing him as a typical politician may be smart because the more voters doubt Obama, the more comfortable they will feel with McCain. However, adding Mitt Romney to the ticket will make it a lot harder for the Republicans to attack Obama on changing his positions because of Romney's infamous contortions on gay rights and abortion rights. McCain even mocked Romney as the candidate of change in one of the debates.
Also, McCain has a charisma deficit that is only further magnified by Obama's galvanizing speaking ability. Romney would not do anything to offset this, as his inability to connect with voters is partly to blame for his failed run for the nomination.
His great personal wealth could help McCain keep up with Obama's advertising budget, it would also remove another weapon from the GOP arsenal. Having a net worth of over $200 million would only make Republicans look ridiculous as they try to label Barack Obama as an elitist even though he is worth far less. It could also bring back stories of Cindy McCain's net worth, which some estimate at over $100 million. That might take away some of the edge from attacks on Michelle Obama.
In terms of demographics, his Mormonism would undoubtedly help him in the purple state of Nevada, which is right next door to the home base of Mormonism--Utah. But this is a mixed bag because McCain is having trouble solidifying support among the evangelical wing of his base. This is unfair to Romney, but the primaries proved that there is significant resistance to him because of his faith. Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee capitalized on this.
Should McCain choose Romney, the Obama campaign may feel more optimistic about evangelicals either staying home or even voting for Obama who is making inroads with the religious community by talking about faith. These voters are not happy about Romney's previous positions on issues important to them, like gay rights, gun rights, and abortion. This would open up North Carolina, Georgia, Missouri, and possibly Arkansas (if the Clintons campaign for him there). If Obama snatches North Carolina, that would force McCain to win Iowa and Wisconsin. If Missouri goes blue, that would force McCain to add Minnesota to his column. Money McCain has to spend defending traditional red states like North Carolina is money he is not spending on offense in Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Minnesota.
In short, the three main benefits of a Romney selection would be money, Michigan, and economic competence. But he neutralizes several Republican weapons and may potentially do McCain harm by not shoring up his base in the South. McCain could certainly do worse than selecting Romney, but this pick may introduce a bit too many unintended consequences to make McCain comfortable selecting him.
Next post: Hillary Clinton
Due to his military service, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the threat of terrorism, national security is John McCain's calling card and is the one issue where he outpolls rival Barack Obama. Using the strategy perfected by Karl Rove of attacking an opponent's strength, McCain's military service has been sharply criticized by both the right and the left. CNN commentator Jack Cafferty even wondered if McCain's military service is overrated.
Former General Wesley Clark created a firestorm of controversy last weekend when he criticized John McCain's presidential leadership ability:
"I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces, as a prisoner of war. And he has traveled all over the world. But he hasn't held executive responsibility."CBS's Bob Schieffer then reminded Clark that Barack Obama did not have this experience either to which Clark quipped, "Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president."
Republicans and the McCain campaign immediately called on Obama to repudiate Clark's remarks. In addition to putting Obama on the defensive, Wesley Clark likely took himself out of contention to be his running mate.
Given the bluntness of his remarks, Republican outrage was predictable (although they may be overplaying their hand by using this as an opportunity to attack Clark's military record in return). However, what is lost in the ensuing political posturing, denouncements, and expressions of outrage is the actual message Clark was trying to convey.
Wesley Clark was arguing that getting captured by enemy forces has no correlation with executive leadership. And even though this may be impolitic to say, he makes a valid point. The fact that McCain endured torture and made it home alive without dishonoring his uniform or the nation he served obviously makes him a hero worth everyone's respect. But at the same time, the fact that he got shot down and captured by the enemy has no bearing whatsoever on his ability to be President. Wesley Clark was arguing that executive judgment and being the victim of an enemy attack have no relationship. It's obviously difficult criticizing a former POW on anything related to the military, but this point is at least worth considering.
Having your house broken into does not make you an authority on home security measures. (It does, however, make you uniquely qualified to talk about the impact of crime.)
Being diagnosed with a terminal illness does not make you an authority on cutting edge medical research. (It does, however, make you uniquely qualified to talk about the effect of such an illness on families.)
Having to apply for food stamps does not make you an authority on entitlement reform. (It does, however, make your perspective on the reasons why people need federal assistance a bit more credible.)
Wesley Clark is arguing that being captured by enemy forces makes John McCain an authority on talking about the demands faced by our armed forces in combat, not on executive leadership. The problem is, even though Clark's argument is valid, it is politically foolish because criticizing McCain's military service only reinforces Barack Obama's lack of military service and shifts the conversation back to McCain's strength. Also, time Obama has to spend defending McCain's war record and distancing himself from his surrogates is time not being spent hammering Republicans on the economy.
Interestingly, this conjures up the 2004 presidential campaign when John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, had his patriotism and military credentials impugned by people who had never even worn the uniform. George Bush, who never served in a combat zone, was seen as tougher on national security than McCain in 2000 and Kerry in 2004. It seems that McCain learned the lessons of hardball politics and the art of swiftboating and was determined not to become their latest casualty.
Barack Obama never served in the military. He was too young to be drafted during the Vietnam War and spent most of his adulthood living during peaceful times. Obama himself has been quite civil and respectful regarding McCain's military service and even turning it into a pivot by reminding voters of McCain's flawed judgment as it pertains to the chaos in Iraq. But as the fallout from Clark's remarks illustrates, attacking one's military credentials is risky business, no matter how valid the point may be. A bit more tact on behalf of Wesley Clark may have led the media to question the actual substance of his remarks rather than the way the remarks were delivered.
Score one for John McCain.