Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Challenging Candidacy Comes to an End

It was a nice touch. John Edwards returned to New Orleans, the shattered city where he began his presidential campaign, to announce that he was withdrawing from the race. Well over two years have passed since George W. Bush stood in Jackson Square and lied about his intention to do whatever he could to repair the damage that Hurricane Katrina—and three levels of incompetent government—had inflicted on the people of Louisiana. But Edwards did not return in order to take one more shot at an increasingly diminished and thoroughly discredited president. Instead, he was there to remind us all of our own complicity in the neglect of this great city and its people, hundreds of thousands of whom will, it appears, never be able to come home.

The usual pundits on the usual networks spent a small part of yesterday speculating on Edwards' failure to gain traction in his competition with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. They even entertained the possibility that they may have been partly to blame. Edwards, after all, had beaten Senator Clinton in Iowa, but was still treated as an afterthought as the campaign moved on to New Hampshire. From the beginning, he was the third wheel, and even coming in second did not change that fact. The Democrats were about to make history with one of two political superstars and John Edwards was simply in the way. Clinton and Obama were box office; Edwards was not.

As you might suspect, media types rarely enjoy critical self-examination, and the subject changed quickly. Perhaps we should blame Edwards for his own problems, they said. Nobody told him to get that $400 hair cut (of course, nobody told reporters to cover that event like it was the fall of Berlin, either, but never mind). Didn't he open himself up to charges of hypocrisy by speaking endlessly about poverty while living in an ostentatious mansion? Mother Teresa of Calcutta did not spend her weekends dropping in for dye jobs and hair extensions at José Eber. Yes, that was it, Edwards undermined his own appeal by not living in a shanty and not getting the six dollar special at Supercuts.

Also, there were the polls. Sure, Edwards managed to eke out a narrow second place finish over Clinton in Iowa, but his numbers in New Hampshire still projected him to a third place result. Why give him equal billing until he has earned it? The talking heads insisted that all it would have taken for John Edwards to be the new media darling was a victory in New Hampshire. Or Iowa. Or Nevada. Or South Carolina.

There is some truth to this, of course, but it ignores two rather obvious responses. First, the arrow between media attention and public support goes in both directions. In 1984, Gary Hart's unexpected second place showing in Iowa thrust him into the national spotlight, and the resulting momentum fueled his upset victory over Walter Mondale in New Hampshire. Edwards might have benefited similarly from that sort of unpaid advertising. Second, and more telling, Rudy Giuliani continued to be treated as a serious presidential candidate even as he stumbled to consecutive single-digit finishes in all of the early primaries and caucuses. Perhaps Edwards does not have as strong a complaint against the media as, say, Ron Paul (who raised millions of dollars but received Kucinich-like treatment), but he certainly faced a consistent benign neglect from the press corps and their talking head pundits.

None of this, however, really explains why John Edwards was unable to mount a successful campaign for president. Obviously, he lacked Barack Obama's eloquence and charisma, but he surely compared favorably on both counts to Hillary Clinton. Yeah, a few people probably did fall for all that hypocrisy talk and the media's idiotic obsession with the most important haircut since Samson met Delilah, but that story was played out long before the onset of 2008. And though he may have received less news coverage than his rivals, he spent plenty of time on screen. He wasn't exactly Duncan Hunter.

In my view, Edwards' problems were more fundamental, and they tell us a lot about how we see ourselves as a country and how we expect our presidential candidates to behave. We might begin, in fact, where the former senator's own campaign started, in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Successful politicians typically tell us pleasant and reassuring things about ourselves. Edwards did not. Instead, he reminded us of the widening gap between what we want to be and what we have become. His backdrop was not Ronald Reagan's mythical shining city of a hill. Instead, it was symbolic of how badly we have fallen short, how we—not just George W. Bush, but we—have failed to keep our promise to fellow Americans who desperately need our help. John Edwards was the candidate of cognitive dissonance.

Barack Obama has compared himself to Reagan, and in many ways the comparison is apt. Ronald Reagan excelled at telling America what it wanted to hear, that we were a good, generous, and confident people and that we could overcome any obstacle in our path by harnessing our ingenuity and our righteousness. Obama's message is, in that respect, nearly identical. Indeed, it is even slightly more appealing. His text may be borrowed from the Gipper, but it is his subtext that is truly seductive: not only will an Obama presidency restore hope and unity to the United States, but it will also validate our fondest wish that the greatest stain on our national honor—centuries of racism and bigotry—may finally begin to fade.

Hillary Clinton, unable to master her rival's soaring rhetoric, takes a different—but similarly appealing—tack. In her world, the horrors of the early 21st Century—Katrina, Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib—are the work of the incumbent president. Her campaign insists that we are blameless for the deterioration of our national soul over the past seven years. The restoration of the House of Clinton will return us to that time before our country became both laughingstock and pariah. We can once again be the can-do, peacemaking, internationally beloved America that we were in the Roaring '90s. We need only banish George W. Bush and his corrupt political party. They are at fault for the degradation of America's good name; we the people are not.

One candidate promises a better future; another tempts us with a return to a more glorious past. Against such opponents, how did John Edwards ever stand a chance? His was perhaps a message of hope, but it was the message of hope offered by the counselor at Alcoholics Anonymous. Move past denial and admit you have a problem. Then roll up your sleeves and get to work on digging yourself out of the hole you have helped create. Seek forgiveness from those you have harmed and offended. Be a better person.

The problem with the A.A. message is that it only works when you have hit rock bottom. We are, at least in the minds of most Americans, not there yet. We prefer to think that the solutions to our problems are relatively easy and can be accomplished by either embracing charismatic leadership or turning back the clock to a happier, gentler era.

John Edwards offered us only a mirror and a shovel, one with which to look honestly at ourselves and the other to begin the hard work of making things right. And now he is gone.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

We're Ready to Make a Projection

With about six percent of the vote in (I'm just guessing at the number), we can now project that John McCain will be the Republican nominee for president of the United States. In fact, we'll go a step further: McCain will dominate the Super Tuesday primaries next week to the point that Mitt Romney's campaign will be all but over before Valentine's Day. We're not yet prepared to announce McCain's running mate, but the short list will begin with the names of socially conservative, economically successful GOP governors with a record of toughness—or at least tough talk—on immigration. (Shame for Mike Huckabee that he blew it by running for president.)

So exactly how does a four point defeat in one state doom Romney, who trails McCain this morning by only 23 delegates? Simple. Rudy Giuliani's exit from the race is imminent, and the scandal-ridden former mayor appears poised to endorse his fellow war hawk. But even if he doesn't, McCain will still pick up most of what's left of the Giuliani base, providing him with an additional ten percent of the vote, more or less. Huckabee, still enjoying his momentary celebrity, seems determined to soldier forward despite the increasingly negative verdict of the GOP electorate. Huckabee's persistence will deprive Romney of his full share of socially conservative voters, leaving him unable to close the gap with McCain.

The Super Tuesday results should, therefore, be decisive. McCain will win most of the big states on either coast, while Romney and Huckabee fight it out in the heartland. Romney's problem is that evangelicals, the key to any strategy that seeks to capture the Republican nomination from the right, have simply not warmed to him. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that this is because the former Massachusetts governor has so blatantly flip-flopped on the issues they care about most. But let's also leave room for the likelihood that at least some of the Christian right's rejection of Romney stems from their discomfort with his Mormon faith. Either way, there isn't much room for a breakthrough at this stage, especially with Huckabee still hanging around.

We shouldn't forget that McCain's return to electoral prominence was accomplished on a shoestring budget. Mitt Romney has poured more money into this campaign than any other GOP candidate, maybe more than all of them combined. No matter: first he was whipped by the underfunded Huckabee in Iowa, and now he is being taken down by a second poverty-stricken campaign. McCain's victory in Florida combined with Giuliani's likely abandonment of his megalomaniacal dream ensures that the Arizona senator will now be able to raise some serious cash and compete on far more favorable terms. Romney thus loses his one big edge.

In short, it's over.

The good news for the Republicans is that they will be able, starting one week from today, to begin planning their general election strategy. How do they sell a 72 year old bar of soap to an electorate whose median age is in their forties, and most of whom have long since moved on to liquid anti-bacterial cleansers? Yeah, I know, I'm straining hard for the analogy here, but you get the idea. Unfair and ageist though it may be, it will be difficult to frame a septuagenarian pillar of the Washington political establishment as an agent of change. But at least the party has several months now to roll out McCain 2.0.

The bad news is that the presumptive nominee remains poorly situated to take on the Democrats. I mentioned this a couple of posts back, but it bears repeating. The problem with running as an Iraq War enthusiast is that you're in a bit of a no-win situation. If the Surge remains "successful", the War will continue to decline as a key issue in the presidential election. Should the situation in the Middle East suddenly deteriorate, however, McCain will inherit the mantle of that failed policy. Barring the intervention of another terrorist attack on U.S. soil, McCain will have a difficult time turning 2008 into yet another referendum on the War on Terror.

What does that leave him with? Not much, really. He will likely position himself, with some justification, as a bipartisan healer, someone who can reach across party lines after eight years of unceasing conflict. The difficulty with such a position, of course, is that either Democratic candidate will have a ready response. If Barack Obama is the nominee, McCain's calls for unity will be trumped by a much more inspiring advocate of the same principle. If Hillary Clinton gets the Democrats' nod, McCain will likely be drawn into a knockdown, drag out fight that will blunt any message of reconciliation.

As it is shaping up, the 2008 election will be about the economy, an issue the Republicans have largely been able to avoid since the Twin Towers fell. In his effort to win the GOP nomination, McCain has already painted himself into the typical Republican corner of trickle-down economics. Somehow, the senator must give voters some hope that he has at least an idea or two that George W. Bush hasn't already run into the dirt. If McCain has that idea, he has yet to propose it. But at least he now has several months to come up with one.

Finally, John McCain has so far been given a free pass on issues of character and integrity. That will now change. An electorate whose memory may not go back to the disco era is about to be reintroduced to the Keating Five scandal. I've talked about this before, so I won't belabor the point now, but it's pretty tawdry and it at least hints at the sort of corruption that finished off Rudy Giuliani as a serious candidate (minus the girlfriend). Perhaps voters will decide that several years in the Hanoi Hilton trump every subsequent flaw in a man's life. Regardless, we are about to find out.

For my money, then, the big winner in Florida yesterday was the Democratic Party. Let's be clear, though: any party that can entrust Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi with positions of power is perfectly capable of embracing defeat and failure even under the best of circumstances. But after yesterday's results, the Democrats' task just became a little easier.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

One Brief Shining Moment

On the morning that Ted Kennedy took the oath of office as a brand new United States Senator, Barack Obama was just over one year old. Herbert Hoover and Winston Churchill were still alive. Most television stations aired only black and white programming. The Syracuse Nationals and Chicago Packers competed in the National Basketball Association. The audio cassette tape had just been invented.

Yesterday, Kennedy, now in his mid-seventies, endorsed his younger colleague, Senator Obama, for president. This became the big story of the day on the 24-hour cable news networks, eclipsing even the lead-in to George W. Bush's final, pointless State of the Union address. Bush did recapture the spotlight by actually delivering the speech, but at least as the Democratic presidential race went, Obama won his third consecutive news cycle. To listen to the talking heads, one would have thought that JFK himself had given his blessing to the Illinois senator.

Endorsements, of course, are usually overrated, making a difference mainly in the case of elections and candidacies that have not been well publicized. Just over a year ago, Howard Dean received the support of one Albert D. Gore, Jr., the man most Democrats believe was cheated out of his own tenure in the White House by corrupt Floridians and a constitutional coup at the U.S. Supreme Court. Gore's endorsement, appearing to finalize Dean's meteoric rise to the top of the Democratic field, earned its own day or two of relentless media attention. In the end, however, John Kerry prevailed without his former colleague's assistance.

I am always fascinated by watching the media cling to old narratives, particularly when it relates to former presidents who are, to increasing numbers of voters, figures of ancient history. Those with even the vaguest childhood memory of John Fitzgerald Kennedy have recently crossed the threshold into their sixth decade of life. Yet pundits took turns yesterday remarking in breathless tones just how much the martyred president's kid brother's endorsement would mean to the Obama campaign. The mantle of Camelot had been passed, with King Arthur's daughter and nephew there to witness the sword being retrieved from the stone for a second time.

Ted Kennedy remains a complicated figure in American politics and American history. On the one hand, he has been an enormously effective legislator, achieving some of the few liberal victories in an era of conservative dominance and amassing, by force of will, a legacy that exceeds that of any other current member of the Senate. On the other hand, he literally and figuratively drove the family business off the bridge.

On July 16, 1969, the Kennedy name was political magic, a dynasty in full bloom even in defiance of the cowardly acts of two assassins. Since that day, and the tragic drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne, nothing has been the same. Barely a decade later, Ted would lose his own bid for the presidency to the embattled Jimmy Carter, and the Kennedy mystique would forever retreat to the far northeastern corner of the country. Trials of Kennedys and Kennedy cousins would follow, one for rape (acquitted) and one for murder (convicted). Ted Kennedy's weakness for women and drink would make him, through most of the 1980s and 1990s, a staple of late night monologues and skit comedy shows.

Perhaps multiple decades of watching American politicians in action have made me overly cynical. Nevertheless, I had to shake my head at the solemn pronouncements of those credulous pundits who told us that the Kennedy endorsement resulted from Teddy's disgust at Bill and Hillary Clinton's campaign tactics, and especially Bill's supposed deployment of the race card in South Carolina. The fresh faced young men and women who appear before the camera on CNN and MSNBC must not fully understand that Edward M. Kennedy has, in nearly five decades of electoral politics, seen it all, and is almost certainly immune to the bickering and innuendoes that attach themselves to every presidential campaign.

This is, after all, a man whose loyalty to party and the liberal cause did not deter him from pursuing his own ambitions by taking on a sitting Democratic president and helping to soften him up for an eager Ronald Reagan. Without Reagan, there is no Reaganomics, no Vice President Bush, and no President Bush, senior or junior. Ted Kennedy did not single-handedly thrust the arc of history into this ruinous direction—Carter would have been a weak incumbent regardless—but he didn't, at the very least, do much to keep it from happening.

As for the siren song of Camelot itself, I am not so certain that Barack Obama should welcome the analogy. John Kennedy was inspiring, though his supposed charisma did not prevent him from coming within a whisker (and perhaps some Chicago shenanigans) of losing to the unsavory Dick Nixon. More important, however, his presidency, at least in its early stages, suffered from precisely the sort of inexperience that Hillary Clinton says endangers an Obama administration. When the generals came to him with their foolish plan to retake Cuba by sending a ragtag squad of expatriates to the Bay of Pigs, all of JFK's instincts told him he should demur. But lacking confidence in own judgment, he okayed the plan in spite of himself, setting into motion a disaster that would cement Fidel Castro's despotic hold on his island nation for the next half century.

Kennedy would go on to have better moments, most notably his masterful handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but even for a shortened term, Camelot was bereft of much significant legislative accomplishment. And of course, there is also that little matter of the Vietnam War. His apologists insist that Kennedy would have ended the conflict in Southeast Asia had he lived and been re-elected, but nothing in his three-year reign particularly supports that conclusion. Perhaps this was yet another case where JFK, fearing the appearance of weakness, resisted his own better judgment. Or perhaps his apologists are simply wrong.

In any event, Senator Obama is clearly not responsible for the mistakes or misdeeds of those who endorse him, much less a president who died when he was two years old. It is certainly possible that the Kennedy endorsement will help the senator with older, working class, and Catholic voters. If nothing else, it allowed him to keep Hillary Clinton on the defensive for another day.

But if it had been me, I would have asked Teddy to wait until after the Florida results were announced. As much as the media wishes to discount a likely Hillary victory in the Sunshine State, it is unlikely that they will be able to resist the story, especially with the candidate herself swooping in this evening to claim the win. A Kennedy endorsement on Thursday could have been timed to stem any momentum Senator Clinton might gain from tonight's results.

Regardless, I suppose we will learn one week from tonight whether the Kennedy name and aura retain the power to alter votes or whether it was all just one brief shining moment.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Sunshine Superwoman

Immediately after Florida's laughably inept performance in November, 2000, I probably would have supported a constitutional amendment banning the Sunshine State from participating in the next five presidential elections. And that was before anyone knew just how disastrous the result would be. I'm mostly past that now, but I still haven't forgotten that the incompetence of Florida voters and the corruption of their elected officials have resulted, at least indirectly, in the needless loss of nearly 4,000 American lives, the denigration of the Bill of Rights, the worldwide humiliation of our country, and the stain of torture on our national reputation. Oh yeah, and an economic policy that has buried our grandchildren in debt, diminished our standard of living, and reduced our currency to the point that Europeans use shredded dollar bills as confetti at their weddings.

OK, so maybe I'm not entirely over it after all.

Regardless, for better or for worse (and by that, I mean for worse) Florida remains a part of the United States, as well as the most critical swing state of the 21st Century. Ohio may be the new Florida in the eyes of some political observers, but the latter has seven more electoral votes and that gap will only increase with each new census. In theory, Democratic and Republican candidates don't necessarily need Florida to win the presidency, but in 2000 and 2004 they certainly did.

Armed with that knowledge, the Democrats did something dumb last year. Because the Sunshine State violated the party's newly sacred rule that only four states may hold primaries or caucuses in January, the Dems stripped Florida of its convention delegates. This, of course, was done in order to preserve the role of South Carolina, a state that has supported the Democratic nominee exactly once since 1960, as the first southern participant in the presidential selection process.

I guess I understand the basic logic here. If every state were allowed to leapfrog the pack, Super Tuesday would have been held six months ago, long before the various candidates had the chance to raise money and earn an honest hearing from the electorate. I also realize that three of the four states granted January exemptions—Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada—will be closely fought in November. But punishing Florida to placate South Carolina makes sense only if you assume that Democratic party chair Howard Dean owns a chain of hotels and restaurants in Myrtle Beach (which he does not, to my knowledge).

Meanwhile, delegates or no, Florida will conduct their primary elections, both Democratic and Republican, tomorrow. At that time, they appear poised to euthanize the political career of Rudy Giuliani, an act that will at least begin to compensate the rest of us for the damage they did eight years ago with their butterfly ballots and hanging chads. Indeed, the robust GOP race has turned into the equivalent of college basketball's Final Four, with Giuliani and John McCain competing for the socially moderate warhawk vote and Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee battling for the hardcore economic and cultural conservatives. The winners of each semifinal will move on to final round, beginning February 5, while the losers will, if they persist, play only a consolation game of no interest to anyone.

As for the Democrats, Hillary Clinton surely regrets her pledge to stand with the national party and resist the temptation to campaign in Florida. The results out of South Carolina were obviously devastating to her, and the post-election news cycles have been all about Barack Obama's crossover appeal and Bill Clinton's overbearing insertion of himself into the contest. Hillary would, obviously, like to change the subject.

To that end, she announced yesterday that she would visit Florida one millisecond or two after the polls close, thus drawing attention to her likely victory there without technically breaking her vow to eschew any actual electioneering. Her opponents in the Obama campaign and in the media are naturally crying foul, saying that the former First Lady has broken the spirit, if not the letter, of the candidates' agreement. The Clinton camp responds by arguing that Obama's national advertising buy on CNN does the same thing, given that these ads have been airing in Florida as well as everywhere else. It's a weak claim—Clinton could have responded by simply doing the same thing—and it probably won't end the chorus of derision that will accompany her late night visit to Miami (or wherever she ends up).

I would have counseled a bolder approach. If I were in charge, Hillary Clinton would be crisscrossing the Sunshine State as we speak, dancing the Conga in Hialeah, chatting with seniors in St. Pete, and hamming it up with Mickey in Orlando. Barack Obama would squawk about the broken pledge, but he would suddenly be on the defensive. As far as the damage this might cause Hillary, I would calculate that a bold move (even in defiance of a previous agreement) would sit better with the electorate than the weasely choice of showing up the moment the primary is over (maybe it depends on what the definition of "is over" is).

Back in 1980, Ronald Reagan, having been unexpectedly manhandled by George H.W. Bush in the Iowa caucuses, arrived at a scheduled debate in New Hampshire supposedly to face Bush one on one. In fact, that had been the agreement made between the two candidates. Instead, Reagan brought along several other Republican hopefuls, insisting that they, too, had the right to participate. The moderator moved to prevent the Gipper from speaking, but before he could, Reagan responded defiantly, "I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green!" The man's name was actually Breen, but it didn't matter; Ronnie looked strong, and Bush, silently witnessing the unanticipated contretemps, appeared passive and weak. When Reagan subsequently won big in New Hampshire, nobody focused in the fact that he had, indeed, broken the rules, only that he was once again the frontrunner.

Florida has a right to be heard, Hillary could say, and if Howard Dean doesn't like it he can go into the corner and practice his scream. Obviously, she wouldn't use precisely those words, but she would plunge unapologetically into the strip malls of Sarasota and the women's clubs of West Palm Beach. Obama would have enough sense not to follow her into this ambush, but he would still be on the sidelines looking a little like Poppy Bush slumped in his debating chair all those years ago.

The Clintons, however, remain risk averse, a trait that may yet cost them—er, I mean her—the presidency.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Oh No, Mr. Bill!

Before we all get too excited about ex-presidents and the level of decorum that we should expect from them, let's first take a deep breath and remember this little nugget from former President Harry Truman:

"Nixon is a shifty-eyed goddamn liar, and people know it. He's one of the few in the history of this country to run for high office talking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time and lying out of both sides."

Suffice it say that nothing Bill Clinton has said on the campaign trail in 2008 has quite reached that level of invective.

In yesterday's Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall presents the You Tube video of Bill Clinton "discounting Barack Obama's expected victory in South Carolina by explaining that Jesse Jackson won the state twice". Marshall's headline: "Try to Explain This".

Well, OK, Josh, I'll take a swing at it. I'd say that Mr. Clinton was doing what candidates and their surrogates have done since this ridiculous era of sequential primary elections commenced in the 1970s. He was spinning expected bad news in an effort to make a crushing defeat appear less damaging. Or, to use your own words, he was "discounting Barack Obama's expected victory in South Carolina".

And he succeeded brilliantly, by the way. Obama's winning margin in the Palmetto State stunned most casual observers and even some experienced pundits. He was supposed to win by about 10-15 points; he won by 28. Bill Clinton, however, effectively applied the asterisk to what was otherwise Obama's most triumphant moment to date. "Wow," people will say, "Barack Obama just blew Hillary out in South Carolina." But now a lot of them will add, "Of course, Jesse Jackson won that primary twice."

On one level, then, Bill Clinton played the expectations game with all the skill of a gifted, lifelong politician. Think of South Carolina as an outlier, he told the press, and not a bellwether. Don't give Senator Obama momentum that he hasn't yet earned. John McCain's people did the same thing a couple of weeks ago in Michigan, rationalizing their loss to Mitt Romney by noting that the latter's father was once governor of the state. The early primaries are all about spin.

Still, this is not just any year, and Barack Obama is not just any candidate. Politicians in the 1980s could patronize Jesse Jackson (and did they ever) knowing that he had no realistic shot of winning the nomination. Obama, on the other hand, represents a legitimate threat to Hillary Clinton's presidential ambitions. This puts her and her husband in the uncomfortable position having to weigh the potential impact of their comments on African American voters, who remain a critical part of the Democratic Party's electoral base. If they stay home in November, the country is in for an additional four years of Republican rule.

In that sense, Bill Clinton's gambit was a risky one. He had to know that the press has an insatiable appetite for stories about race and racial division. He must have anticipated that he would be accused of playing the race card and dismissing Obama as "the black candidate". Bill Clinton has built up a strong reservoir of goodwill among African Americans, but even the most robust support can evaporate if handled carelessly. Should Hillary Clinton win the Democratic nomination, bridges will obviously need to be rebuilt, and Bill keeps adding to the number of forthcoming reconstruction projects.

On the other hand, at what point does it become unreasonable to expect politicians not to speak about what is openly and obviously true? The African American vote in South Carolina is one of the largest in the country. According to exit polls, roughly 80% of black voters supported Senator Obama. Thus, the senator's Palmetto State victory doesn't necessarily portend success in states with dissimilar demographic circumstances.

Perhaps I should say that the fact of Obama's victory may be unremarkable. The extent of that win, however, should legitimately worry the Clintons. Despite Bill's controversial words, Obama far exceeded anyone's expectations in South Carolina. He would have won even with a substantially smaller African American turnout. He did not win the white vote, but he did surprisingly well. Bill Clinton's pre-debate spin may have been accurate, but his argument simply does not account for the margin by which Senator Obama defeated his wife.

Returning to Clinton's remarks, though, it remains unclear why there is anything inherently improper about questioning the representativeness of a given state's electorate. Here's what Time magazine said about Mike Huckabee just prior to the Iowa caucuses:

"A second place finish for Huckabee also raises the unflattering specter of another evangelical minister, Pat Robertson, who placed a surprise second in the Iowa Republican caucus in 1988, only to have his presidential campaign peter out soon after."

I don't recall anyone accusing Time of playing the "Evangelical Card".

If Bill Clinton compared Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson, then Obama compared the former president to Richard Nixon during his recent discussion of the Reagan legacy. It is clear to me which is the greater insult. In fact, I wouldn't consider being equated with Reverend Jackson to be any kind of insult at all.

Finally, on the question of decorum and how ex-office holders ought to comport themselves, who really cares? America loves Harry Truman despite his comments about Nixon. Hell, they love him even more because of those comments. And does anyone think that Dick Cheney's memoirs (tentatively entitled, "How I Dragged America into a Ditch and Beat Her Senseless") will betray even an iota of dignity? Former presidents and vice presidents come in all varieties. That's a good thing.

Politics is a big kids' game, and it's time for the pearl clutchers on the cable news networks to grow up. Not every allusion to race is racism. What Barack Obama is facing right now is a mere appetizer to the full menu of indirect and direct racializing his candidacy will receive from the Republicans this fall should he win his party's nomination.

Increasingly, it appears that he can take it, which is perhaps the best news of all for the Democratic Party.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Identity Politics and the 2008 Election

Back in our nation's bicentennial year, something unusual happened. Alabama and South Carolina voted for the Democratic nominee for president of the United States. So did every other state of the old Confederacy except Virginia. Mississippi and Massachusetts cast their electoral votes for the same man, Jimmy Carter. Carter was clearly more liberal than his Republican opponent, Gerald Ford, though the distance between them was not enormous. Still, the South rejected the GOP in 1976 and cast its lot with a left of center Democrat. It has not done so since.

It is because of the 1976 election that many pundits believe Ronald Reagan deserves most of the credit for turning southern voters away from a century of supporting Democrats at the national level. Those with a bit more knowledge, however, understand that the turning point actually occurred sixteen years earlier with the doomed campaign of Barry Goldwater. Aside from his native Arizona, Goldwater won only five additional states in 1964. They were the states of the Deep South, stretching from Louisiana to South Carolina. In short, 1976 represented what must appear, to those studying electoral maps for the first time, to be a fluke election, the only time in nearly a half century that the Democrats actually won majorities in Dixieland.

Anyone who was around back then, of course, remembers precisely what happened. Jimmy Carter was the first competitive southern presidential candidate since Reconstruction (no, Texas doesn't count). Southerners supported him out of a surge of regional pride. Despite his moderate politics, Carter was one of them. They would reject him four years later as he ran for re-election, but in 1976, their Southern identity superseded any thoughts of ideology or any desire to back the more conservative incumbent president.

My point, obviously, is that we have been down this road before. The identity politics that attach themselves to the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaigns are as old as electoral competition itself. Care to take a guess as to how the Catholic vote split when John F. Kennedy made his successful bid for the top job in 1960? I've never seen the polls, but I'd be willing to put up serious bucks on the proposition that Greek-Americans supported the Democratic ticket in 1988, the year Michael Dukakis ran, far out of proportion to their usual electoral habits.

And yet, as usual, you bring race and gender into it and everyone seems to get either squeamish or shrill. ran a story datelined Charleston, South Carolina, discussing the dilemma faced by African American women trying to decide between the two Democratic frontrunners. Would they support the female candidate or her black opponent? A loud, angry reaction followed, with many readers appalled that CNN would suggest that black women might base their votes on skin color or chromosome set. Here's an example, one of the relatively few not filled with gratuitous invective:

"I am neither black, nor a woman and yet I find this headline (from CNN's homepage) offensive. Does CNN think the only difference between these two candidates is their race and gender? Apparently they think black women lack the intelligence to reason beyond 'Hmm...he's black and I'm black. But she's a woman and I'm a woman. I really have no idea who to vote for!' It's insulting to say the least."

In fact, it's not at all clear to me why that is insulting. The article never suggests that race and gender are the only factors influencing African American women as they make their decisions. Indeed, the writer specifically says that "[w]hile race and gender play a role, most women [in Charleston] say they plan to vote based on the issues." But many of them are also weighing the possibility that people who look like them might finally, after 232 years of mostly imperfect democracy, crash through the glass ceiling that rests below the Oval Office carpet.

Nobody thought this was offensive when Catholics were involved. Nobody thought this was offensive when southerners were involved. Indeed, I have yet to hear this sort of protracted umbrage when anyone suggests that Mitt Romney will do especially well among Mormons (which had a lot to do, by the way, with both his victory in Nevada and the unwillingness of most of the rest of the GOP field to contest the state).

This is a primary election between two people on the Democratic side who believe the same things, care about the same issues, and vote almost identically on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Those who must select between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama don't have a lot to go on. That's why you keep hearing so much about experience and electability. To answer the blogger's question above, to some extent CNN probably does think that the main difference between these two candidates is their race and gender. And CNN is essentially correct.

But you know, even that's not really the point. When southerners flocked to the Carter camp in 1976, they were doing so in opposition to what had, by then, become an established preference for conservative and/or Republican presidential candidates. Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford had differences that far exceeded those that separate any of the three remaining Democratic contenders in 2008. Nevertheless, voters in Dixie wanted to be able to tell their children that, finally, more than a century after their ancestors made war against the United States government, a baby born in Birmingham or Biloxi could once again grow up to be president. Further, they may also have felt that a Georgian would understand them and their concerns better than a man whose life had been spent shuttling between Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Washington, D.C. Who am I to tell them that they were wrong?

There is, very simply, nothing improper about weighing a candidate's race or gender—or, for that matter, religion or region—when determining one's vote for president. Not only is it a rational part of the decision making process, but it has been going on since the day the ink dried on the Declaration of Independence. It took a woman and an African American, however, to make it controversial.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Can Anyone Spare Some Change?

If you have spent even five minutes listening to the cable TV news broadcasters, you know by now that 2008 will be a Change Election. This is, of course, simply another way of saying that the electorate is fed up with the incumbent president. There isn't a lot of variety here: you have your Change Elections, and you have your Don't-Need-to-Change elections. The latter favor the party in power, and the former do not. This is fairly common knowledge, even if pundits' pronouncements often sound as though someone has finally decoded the Rosetta Stone.

Still, nothing is certain. The "out" party occasionally wins a Don't Change election, usually because their opponent fails to run on the incumbent's record. Think Al Gore in 2000, who foolishly fell for all that talk about "Clinton Fatigue" that dominated commentary that year (yeah, I know, Gore really won the election, but it shouldn't have even been close). It is more difficult to think of an incumbent party nominee winning a Change Election. Hubert Humphrey came close in 1968 when he belatedly rejected Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam War. Harry Truman may have pulled it off in 1948, but the quality of polling back then makes it difficult to know for sure.

In any case, you don't need Bill Schneider of CNN to tell you that a Change Election is forthcoming. You need merely to peruse the presidential approval ratings. Even with relatively less bad news coming out of Iraq, President Bush's popularity numbers have settled in the low 30s and are unlikely to rise absent an unexpected economic turnaround. The last time the "in party" faced such bleak prospects was in 1980, when the hapless Jimmy Carter was sent packing after a single term in the White House. So the deck is very much stacked against the Republicans in 2008.

Given this context, the GOP appears poised to do something very risky. They are on the verge of nominating John McCain to face off against either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. As appealing as McCain may be based on his war hero past, he is anything but an agent of change. The Arizona senator assumes that the supposed success of the Iraq surge has vindicated his wisdom and courage in the area of foreign policy, and perhaps it has. Unfortunately for him, however, it has also placed him squarely in the same camp as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Americans are looking for a president who will keep them safe, but they have tired of fruitless pre-emptive wars and they want their soldiers home from the Middle East.

Should McCain receive the Republican nomination, we will, for the first time since 1960, elect a sitting senator as Commander in Chief. Even so, McCain's tenure in Congress far exceeds that of either Obama or Clinton. The former is a fresh face; the latter is associated more with her role in a presidential administration. Only McCain will be viewed as an old Washington hand at a time when the electorate is fed up with politics as usual. The day McCain entered the House of Representatives, Barack Obama had not yet reached drinking age. When Arizona elected him to the U.S. Senate, Hillary Clinton was still the unknown First Lady of Arkansas. McCain may claim to be a maverick, but that won't change the fact that his rebel act is a quarter century old.

I suspect that Washington Democrats, off the record, would tell you that they would much rather face Senator McCain than Mitt Romney. Romney has not exactly distinguished himself so far as a presidential candidate, but he becomes less wooden every day (though the tree-to-human ratio remains unfavorable). More important, though, Romney can claim full immunity from the politics of the District of Columbia. He can boast executive experience, business success, and a record of bipartisan accommodation, which does, of course, have less to do with his own skill set than it does with the realities of life in Democratic Massachusetts.

If the Republicans are to succeed in 2008 where Hubert Humphrey failed forty years earlier, they will have to disassociate themselves as completely as possible from the failed, unpopular occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In that sense, their task will be much more difficult than that faced by Humphrey. Even Democrats in 1968 had had their fill of LBJ and his Vietnam obsession. This year, by contrast, a majority of the Republican base continues, all empirical evidence to the contrary, to insist that George W. Bush has achieved some form of presidential greatness.

Thus, it will be impossible to make the big, dramatic break with Bush that Humphrey made with Johnson during his presidential bid. To do so would be to risk alienating the base upon which any successful campaign would have to be built. The differences, therefore, must necessarily be symbolic. Romney's outsider status and his bipartisan record in Massachusetts fit the bill. McCain's eight-year embrace of the Bush Administration does not. This is not a picture that Republicans want to see dominate the airwaves in October.

Obviously, even Romney would have his work cut out for him in a year when the Republican president has done so much to drive his party down. But he would at least be able to start from a position of relative strength. Against even a short-term Democratic U.S. Senator, he would be the outsider.

Anything can happen in politics, of course. Nobody should write John McCain off entirely. Clinton and Obama bring their own risks and baggage to the table, and either is potentially beatable. Further, the arcane math of the Electoral College, favoring small and rural states, continues to favor the Republicans. But any notion that Senator McCain is the GOP's strongest presidential contender is, in my view, greatly mistaken.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

When Negative Turns Nuclear

For the most part, I have been unmoved by the breathless concerns of pundits about the growing dispute between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Nobody could have expected that the race for the Democratic nomination would stay positive from beginning to end. We are dealing with preternaturally ambitious people here, both of whom have the chance to fulfill their greatest personal dream. Within reason, we should expect them to do whatever it takes to win. If that means getting personal, making veiled accusations of corruption, or malfeasance, or incompetence, then those charges will be leveled. If it requires dancing dangerously close to the exposed wire of race in America, then dance they shall. As I mentioned previously, if nothing else, this is good preparation for the war that awaits when the Republican hit machine starts firing up later this year.

But there are limits, and Senator Obama may have crossed one yesterday. Speaking to a reporter from CBN (Pat Robertson's "network"), the senator argued that he, and not Clinton, was the safest choice for the Democratic nomination. The reason, he said, was that his supporters might not back his rival if she defeats him:

"I have no doubt that once the nomination contest is over, I will get the people who voted for her. Now the question is can she get the people who voted for me?"

At one level, of course, this simply restates the argument that Obama has made throughout his campaign, that he can mobilize people who would not otherwise go to the polls. The more obviously egocentric phrasing, then, might come out something like this: a lot of folks who are turning out now will stay home in November if charismatic, inspiring Barack loses out to dull, prosaic Hillary. One could, therefore, interpret Obama's comment as little more than a continuation of the themes he has been pushing since he entered the race.

But that's not exactly what he said. He could have said, "Can she get the people who voted for me to come out to the polls on Election Day?" He did not. Indeed, it takes only a slight leap of paranoia to wonder whether the comments were intended as a veiled threat. One way, after all, to help ensure that Obama's supporters would vote for Hillary Clinton in November would be for the senator himself to hit the campaign trail in full force on her behalf. His statement to CBN provides no promise that he would do so.

Many Democrats today still blame Ted Kennedy for undermining Jimmy Carter's bid for re-election in 1980. For the most part, this is a specious claim. By the end of that year, Carter's presidency had been judged such a comprehensive failure that his defeat was nearly inevitable (indeed, it was only fears about Ronald Reagan's supposed extremism that kept the polls close until the final week). In any event, to the extent Kennedy hurt Carter, it was not by running against him; the case against the president was already clear and Kennedy did little to add to it. Rather, the damage came post-convention when the vanquished Massachusetts senator largely ignored the incumbent's pleas for a full-voiced show of Democratic unity.

Voters' memories are often short. What is said in January tends to stay in January. There are occasional exceptions, of course: George H.W. Bush's charge in 1980 that Reagan was dabbling in "voodoo economics" stung and stuck, but it did not prevent the Gipper from winning the White House. But so far, at least, nothing has been said between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that threatens to enter into the Republicans' general election talking points, let alone make it into Bartlett's Book of Quotations. Indeed, the only reason we are hearing about the Dems' war of words rather than the equally heated Republican food fight is because all the star power resides on the Democratic side: Bill and Hillary and Barack vs. John and Rudy and Mitt is simply a charisma mismatch.

The key, however, is for the Democrats to emerge from their convention unified in their struggle against the Republicans. This requires at least token efforts on all sides to generate a strong vote for the potential winner. Should Obama win, it will be necessary for Hillary Clinton to reassure women that they weren't robbed of the chance to see a female president in their lifetime. If Clinton gets the nod, Obama must assist in allaying any disappointment that might be felt by young people and African Americans. This is the minimum and unspoken agreement that all contenders make when they compete for votes within their party. Further, regardless of their towering personal concerns, both Obama and Clinton have to realize the enormous stakes involved in the 2008 election.

In the end, of course, there will likely be no replay of Ted Kennedy's petulant act from 1980. Hillary Clinton will almost certainly campaign for Barack Obama if he wins the Democratic nomination, although perhaps sparsely and without great enthusiasm. More important, Bill Clinton, as the only popular living ex-president from his party, will almost certainly throw himself fully into the battle both because that's his job and because he seems to love being on the trail.

Obama, too, will come around in the event of a Clinton victory. Indeed, he will do so with all the vigor of a relatively young man who knows that he can run again and, if necessary, again. Another two-term Clinton presidency would conclude with Obama, at 54, fully eighteen years younger than John McCain is today. Deep in his ambitious heart, the senator might hope for Hillary's defeat, but he will make darn sure that nobody will blame him should that occur. (This all assumes that Clinton would not tap Obama to be her running mate. My guess is that she wouldn't. The Clintons are cautious and may be worried about the risks of making history on both ends of the ticket.)

Still, Obama's statement to Pat Robertson's network was not helpful. First, it sends a signal to his followers that may persist, if only slightly, even after he endorses Hillary Clinton this summer, assuming she wins. Second, in the racially charged atmosphere that has largely been concocted and stoked by our pathetic, substance-free news media, Obama has to understand that his words might be taken as a suggestion that African American voters will reject Clinton after what she and Bill have said and done during the campaign. Finally, given all the discussion of race over the past few weeks, we seem to have all but forgotten that this campaign also means a lot to many American women. The implication that Obama's supporters might not be energized by the prospect of electing the country's first female chief executive will not sit well with a lot of voters.

In the end, we should not make more of this than it is. The campaign is long and things get said, and not all of them will be well thought out or helpful. Bill Clinton, for example, probably wishes by now that he had conjured up a better image for Obama's candidacy than that of a "fairy tale". Nevertheless, the potential for permanent damage does exist and candidates must stay on the right side of that electrified fence. Negative campaigning is not only inevitable in a race of ideological soul-mates, it's also quite healthy preparation for the road ahead. But that shouldn't provide anyone with a license to go nuclear.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

2004 Redux?

To listen to the cable TV pundits, you would think that John McCain's comeback from several months of electoral oblivion represents the greatest turnaround in American political history. In fact, this sort of thing happens all the time. Immediately, of course, we think of Harry Truman and his defeat of Thomas Dewey in 1948, an upset memorialized in that famously mistaken Chicago Tribune headline ("Dewey Defeats Truman") from the morning after his victory.

In fact, McCain's accomplishment comes nowhere close to rivaling that of Truman, a man who held the underdog label from the start of the campaign until the very last vote was counted. McCain, by contrast, actually enjoyed frontrunner status during the early months of 2007. In that sense, his return from the dead most closely parallels the fate of John Kerry four years ago.

Like McCain, Kerry was the clubhouse leader whose inaugural voyage into presidential waters went poorly. His early campaign was so unimpressive that, by December of 2003, Kerry even trailed Al Sharpton in at least one of the horserace polls. Dissatisfied Democrats sampled a variety of alternatives including Wesley Clark, Dick Gephardt, and Joe Lieberman. As the calendar turned to 2004, they had seemingly settled on Howard Dean, the previously unknown former governor of Vermont. Ultimately, however, Democratic voters rejected the frenetic Dean as unelectable, flirted briefly with John Edwards, then returned, finally and reluctantly, to their previous frontrunner. Rather than capturing the hearts and minds of his fellow Democrats, Kerry became the party's standard bearer almost by process of elimination.

It is risky to draw analogies between different years and different parties, but it is also, in this case, irresistible. If McCain is Kerry, then Dean's role is filled by Mike Huckabee, the candidate who inspires the grassroots true believers, but whose fervor and unpredictability worry the party bosses, who care only about winning elections. The part of Edwards can be played by Mitt Romney, the unnaturally attractive but untested newcomer (yeah, I know, this one is kind of a stretch; Edwards never had to reboot his entire ideological hard drive). Rudy Giuliani is Joe Lierberman, the virulent warhawk admired by the media, but wholly unappealing to the electorate. Finally, Fred Thompson can serve as this year's Wes Clark, the supposed "X" factor who was expected to stir up the race in unexpected ways, but ended up making barely a ripple.

OK, this is fun, but the comparisons are obviously imperfect. For one thing, I really have nobody to fill in for Dick Gerphardt, the veteran warhorse back for his last hurrah. I guess if Dan Quayle or Steve Forbes had chosen to take one more dip into the pool, our set would be complete, but no such luck. Anyhow, my point is not simply that the 2008 GOP race resembles the 2004 march of the Dems. Rather, it is to demonstrate that McCain's Lazarus act is fairly ordinary, having just occurred four winters ago.

But more than that, I think there may be a cautionary note here for the Republican Party. After Democrats swallowed hard, abandoned their December crushes, and handed their nomination to Senator Kerry, they painfully relearned precisely why they had rejected him in the first place. We'll never know for certain whether Kerry truly was more electable than Howard Dean or John Edwards, but we do know that he was not elected and that his campaign was often listless and phlegmatic. Say what you want about Dean, but when the Swift Board Liars came a-callin', the Great Screamer would have called them out with a vengeance. Kerry, on the other hand, responded cautiously, in a careful and timid manner that actually lent credence to their vile slander.

Indeed, this sort of gratuitous caution, this unwillingness to risk any betrayal of honest passion was, in fact, one of the reasons that the Democratic electorate had strayed from Kerry to begin with. Not only did they see their opponent, George W. Bush, as the leader of a failed and megalomaniacal administration, but they also understood from their 2000 experience that there was no depth to which the Republicans would not sink to maintain their grip on power. They desperately searched for a champion, a warrior, before eventually settling for a man whose wartime heroism, they assumed, would compensate for his rhetorical weaknesses. In the end, of course, undecided voters found Kerry every bit as unappealing as his fellow Democrats did the previous year.

John McCain, like Kerry, has a remarkable and heroic back story, McCain's being even better than Kerry's. Nevertheless, GOP voters spent most of 2007 searching for an alternative to their leading candidate. They generally liked McCain, but they viewed him as an ineffective campaigner. The straight-shooting reputation that he had built up so carefully back in 2000 had instead given way to that of yet another guarded politician, eager to please and unwilling to offend. Further, they worried that McCain had turned from maverick to reflexive compromiser, always aiming for the path of least resistance in dealing with the Democrats. More than anything else, though, they worried that the senator would no be up for the rough and tumble of a general election campaign. When Chuck Norris blurted out the other day that McCain was too old to serve, he was only giving voice to what numerous Republican had long whispered behind closed doors.

Make no mistake: GOP disenchantment with John McCain also had a lot to do with his stands of various hot-button issues. Anti-immigration extremists have not forgiven him for his comprehensive approach to the issue. Interest groups and their supporters remain rankled by the senator's commitment to campaign finance reform. Low tax crusaders question his fealty to their agenda. Still, the initial rejection of McCain's candidacy exposed some very significant weaknesses in the Arizonan's ability to connect with and inspire voters. These weaknesses have not disappeared.

We do not know yet whether John McCain will be the Republican nominee for president. He still must cast aside Romney and Giuliani on his way to the GOP's Minneapolis convention. But like Kerry in 2004, Republicans may find that many of the same weaknesses that cooled their own ardor for their war-hero candidate may also turn off independents and weak partisans in November. The Iraq War, supposedly the senator's strongest issue, may not be enough to save his candidacy. If the Surge continues to "succeed", the war will increasingly recede as a salient issue. If casualties again begin to mount, McCain will be doubly vulnerable.

Sometimes, as the Democrats discovered four years ago, the safe choice isn't always so safe after all.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Let's Get Ready to Rumble!!!

I have sometimes wondered, usually when otherwise unoccupied and holding a malt beverage, where we came up with the cliché about the gloves coming off. This phrase, of course, is generally applied by lazy political journalists to any situation in which previously friendly—or at least circumspect—opponents finally begin to level personal attacks against one another. It could be a boxing metaphor, a reference to bare-knuckled pugilism, as opposed to the use of the regulation padded handgear that scrambles men's brains more gently and gradually. Or, perhaps the source is the sport of hockey, in which every serious fight is preceded by players dropping those large, unwieldy gloves that protect critical body parts, but lend themselves poorly to fisticuffs. I suppose I could find the answer on the web, but I guess I don't really care all that much after all.

In any event, as I sampled the usual news and politics websites this morning, I wondered how long it would take me to find the first mention of this phrase in connection with last night's Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina. I didn't have to wait long; the very first site I visited ( began its post-debate analysis by observing that "[t]he gloves came off quickly Monday night…" Perhaps concerned that the campaign would conclude without the full deployment of every available cliché, CNN also observed that the candidates "traded blows" and that "sparks fl[ew]" in this "Democratic slugfest".*

The stable of wannabe sportswriters must be quite robust down at the House that Ted Turner Built in Atlanta. One of the more irritating choices that the network has recently made has been the decision to label some of its election coverage as "Ballot Bowl '08", as though the stakes here involved a trophy and bragging rights rather than the power to bomb cities and send armies to their deaths. If we have yet seen a more blatant admission of a broadcaster's willingness to trivialize politics and elevate drama over substance, I am unaware of it. Yep, friends, in the end it's all just a big game. CNN might as well hire Chris Berman away from ESPN, so he can lend his own tiresome act to the "Most Trusted Name in News":

"Down in South Carolina, Barack of Ages Obama takes on the First Lady of Scold, Hillary Clinton. Obama is hit hard, but he won't go down, rumblin', bumblin', stumblin' toward the goal line. If he wins on Saturday, he…could…go…all…the…way! Meanwhile, the polls show John Edwards falling back-back-back-back-back, and he is gone. Whoever wins the DNC Championship will face either John McCain Mutiny, Mitt Me in St. Louie Romney, or Rudy "Don't Take Your Love to Town" Giuliani in the Supah Ballot Bowl in November."

Sorry, I got a bit carried away there.

As for the debate itself, CNN determined that "the only clear winner in the Democratic slugfest is Republican John McCain". Evidently, a little bickering between candidates in January is somehow supposed to aid the Republican cause in November. It's funny how often this sort of thing is alleged, and how rarely it is empirically demonstrated. Indeed, the last two times we had a non-incumbent presidential election—1988 and 2000—the side with the nastiest primary contest won the presidency. The brutal battle between Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush toughened up the latter and probably helped him defeat Michael Dukakis, who emerged from a much friendlier Democratic contest. Twelve years later, the GOP race between George W. Bush and John McCain set new standards for nastiness, and yet Bush (sort of) won the presidency over Al Gore, whose primary season battle with Bill Bradley lacked fireworks.

One hesitates to generalize from a sample size of two, but I think it makes sense that a candidate who is tested at the beginning of the year will be better prepared for the pummeling he or she will take after Labor Day. (Pummeling! Now they've got me doing it.) As I suggested in an earlier post, one of the problems with John Kerry's 2004 primary campaign may have been that it ended too quickly, before Democratic voters could see how Kerry might actually stand up to a full-bore negative advertising campaign. Had Democrats known how ineffectively Kerry would respond to the Swift Boat Liars later that year, they would almost certainly have reconsidered their choice.

For my money, then, this was the best Democratic debate so far. Personal attacks remain as much a feature of contested campaigns as bumper stickers and lapel buttons. Clinton and Obama didn't say anything about one another that the Republicans won't be saying in nine months. If anything, airing the dirty laundry in January will give it the feel of old news by the time McCain or Romney raises these issues after the conventions. And in case nobody has been paying attention, the gloves, as it were, have been off on the GOP side for weeks.

In one respect, the big winner of the debate was Barack Obama. He simply must prove himself capable of operating not just at the level of ideas, but at the visceral level of personal, take-no-prisoners politics. His shot at Senator Clinton for serving on the WalMart board of directors was a good one, perhaps the best attack he has made to date. Obama still does not seem entirely comfortable with negative campaigning, but at least it's a start. More debates are on the way, and they will become more pointed as the race increasingly turns into a two-person battle (indeed, John Edwards, who otherwise did well last night, has already started to sound a bit like a third wheel).

These are not nice people that the Democrats will be facing in November. To get the first Bush elected, they shamelessly exploited racial tensions and played to the most vulgar stereotypes of African American men as predators. To clear the way for the second Bush, they smeared John McCain through his adopted daughter, and then slandered John Kerry, a genuine war hero, as a coward and traitor. Hillary Clinton, if she is the nominee, can look forward to a rehash of all the greatest scandal-mongering hits of the 1990s, with a few more lies added to the mix. Barack Obama, for his part, can expect to endure an autumn of whispers about his Kenyan father, his mixed-race heritage, and, of course, whether or not he spent time in fundamentalist Islamic schools.

If we must use boxing metaphors, then let's regard Senators Clinton and Obama as sparring partners. One of them will ultimately fight for the Heavyweight Championship of the World against someone who will pull no punches, and will probably hit below the belt. Unless they use this training to hone their technique, whichever Democrat advances will enter the ring unprepared. If they go easy on each other, they could face the same fate as Kid Kerry in the last title bout in 2004. So I say to Hillary and Barack, "A-let's get ready to ruuuuuummmmbbbbllleee!"

I can't decide now whether I need to take a shower or simply type up my application for employment at CNN.

* The CNN website changes their content fairly regularly, and their story on last night's debate has already been altered. Thus, no link.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Happy MLK Day!

Through the twisted logic of Monday holidays, we celebrate Dr. King's birthday today, nearly a week after he would have turned 79. I have no idea how the Reverend might have felt about this, but I'd like to think he would have approved. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a great advocate of working class Americans; indeed, he was in Memphis on that terrible April day in 1968 to express his support for a strike by local sanitation workers. I suspect that the benefits of a three-day weekend for those who labor would appeal to him.

This morning's headline on suggests that the "popular view of MLK [is] losing complexity". I haven't read the article, but the point is well taken. On the one hand, of course, this is to be expected. Transcendent historical figures are nearly always reduced, to some extent, to the sum of their most popular traits. Thus, Abraham Lincoln is the Great Emancipator, ignoring the man's clearly stated ambivalence about issues of race and slavery. Harry Truman arrives in the 21st Century as a paragon of straight-talking honesty; few remember that he owed his political career to a corrupt Kansas City political machine. We are aware, of course, of the fact that half of the men whose faces are carved into Mt. Rushmore once owned other human beings are property, but we minimize the offense with stories of kind treatment and eventual freedom.

And so it is with Dr. King. To many Americans, his life can be reduced to three historical events: the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington in 1963, and his martyrdom five years later. Young people may be forgiven if they believe that Dr. King was controversial during his lifetime only among the vilest and most ignorant (and usually southern) racists. The Dr. King who annually appears on our television screens in January is a benign and unchallenging figure, a man who seemingly rose above the politics of his day.

In reality, MLK was, for most of his life, a very unpopular figure among white Americans from California to Maine. It may be hard for anyone born after 1960 to believe, but civil rights laws were fought by dozens of mainstream politicians outside of the Deep South. Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for president in 1964, opposed federal interference in "state's rights" and voted against most major civil rights legislation. He was joined by a young Congressman from Texas named George Herbert Walker Bush. The idea that the national government could impose its will on Alabama and Mississippi, even in the cause of basic human dignity, was sharply debated among people who were otherwise considered unprejudiced, at least by the standards of the 1960s.

Further, there was never a moment in Dr. King's life in which he desired to be above the politics of his time. His life was spent in the political arena and his struggle did not end with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His thirst for social justice extended to broader social, economic, and even foreign policies. Eventually, Dr. King became a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, viewing it as another violation of poor and working class people, the draftees who made up such a disproportionate share of the soldiers fighting and dying unnecessarily.

His stand on Vietnam earned him mostly contempt from white America and its leading news organizations. Dr. King, they said, without precisely using the words, had overstepped his bounds. He no longer knew his place. Read the patronizing thoughts of the "liberal" Washington Post in 1967:

"Dr. Martin Luther King's Vietnam speech was not a sober and responsible comment on the war but a reflection of his disappointment at the slow progress of civil rights and the war on poverty. It was filled with bitter and damaging allegations and inferences that he did not and could not document."

Or this guest editorial from the Chicago Tribune that same year:

"The unctuous Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been something of a hindrance to the civil rights movement since he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize. Since the award, he has specialized in speaking in Olympian tones, rather than addressing himself to the practicalities of the civil rights movement."

By the time of his death, Dr. King was very clearly associated with the political left in America, though it is unclear that he ever thought of himself in that way. The fight for African American equality was not simply an ideological fight; some conservatives of the day, notably Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois, laudably supported the end of apartheid in the United States. But in his support for workers' rights, economic justice, and peace in Southeast Asia, Dr. King's worldview increasingly came to overlap with that of such celebrated liberals as Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy.

It is difficult to say whether the current embrace of Dr. King's words by some American conservatives is disingenuous or simply ignorant. Perhaps the most offensive abuse of MLK's memory is the pulling of one of his most famous quotes entirely out of context. In his speech on the Capital Mall, Dr. King spoke of a dream in which "my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Almost forty-five years later, this ringing eloquence has taken on a sadder second life as a right-wing justification for ending most programs designed to redress the racial imbalances that still exist in educational and employment opportunities. Affirmative action, conservatives howl, judges people by the color of their skin rather than their character. So does institutionalized racism, of course, but that fact is conveniently elided by those conservatives who fancy MLK as their ally.

But Dr. King was the sworn enemy of inequality, and it borders on ridiculous to assume that he would view the situation today as the final culmination of his dream. He may or may not have supported specific plans or policies, but it strains credulity to suggest that he would advocate legal colorblindness in a society in which color still has so many ramifications for life chances, life goals, and even life expectancy. One day, he said, he hoped his children would live in a nation in which they would be judged solely on their character. Though we have made enormous progress since 1963, that glorious day remains in our future.

How will we know we have reached that day? Certainly, we will find evidence in the statistical record, with income and educational gaps disappearing and infant mortality finally uncorrelated with skin color. We will know when white Americans stop referring to calls for social justice as "playing the race card". We will know when African Americans no longer tense up at the sight of a police cruiser in their rear view mirror.

Perhaps as much as anything else, we will know when all Americans embrace Martin Luther King's birthday as their holiday, and regard Dr. King as the full peer of those men whose faces look down from that granite mountain in South Dakota.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Six Down, 45 1/2 to Go

Seven things we learned yesterday from Nevada and South Carolina (the reference to 45 ½, by the way, denotes the fact that South Carolina Democrats have yet to cast their ballots):

1. On the one hand, the Democratic race for president remains a tossup. All that we learned for certain yesterday is that John Edwards' name will not be on the general election ballot in November. Not only does his third place finish in the strongly pro-union state of Nevada spell the effective conclusion of his presidential ambitions, but snow will fall in Honolulu before either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton name the former vice presidential candidate to the ticket for a second time—nobody wants to be associated, even indirectly, with John Kerry's pathetic 2004 bid for the White House. Edwards will probably hang on through next week's South Carolina primary (it's his native state), but anything other than a highly unlikely first place finish will likely have him dropping out before the Super Tuesday contests of February 5. Still a relatively young man, perhaps Edwards can hope for a cabinet position in a Democratic administration. He might also make one last attempt to restore his presidential viability by running for—and winning—the North Carolina governorship. But for 2008 at least, only two serious Democratic candidacies are left, and they are essentially tied.

2. Having said that, Barack Obama faces his first must-win contest this Saturday in South Carolina. Perhaps must-win is a bit strong—he will charge ahead to Super Tuesday regardless of the outcome in the Palmetto State—but a loss next week will effectively break the tie with Senator Clinton, leaving her the strong favorite for the nomination, going into February 5 with possibly unstoppable momentum as well as a critical aura of electability. Recent polls indicate that African American voters have surged to Obama in recent weeks and South Carolina represents the first test of that proposition. As the campaign progresses, the Illinois senator's viability will increasingly depend on receiving strong African American support. If this doesn't put him over the top in South Carolina, then it becomes much more difficult to imagine a winning strategy anywhere else.

3. For a campaign that seemingly never makes mistakes, the Obama camp made a rather big one last night. Almost as soon as the caucuses were completed, the senator's campaign manager was on television attempting to spin his man's loss as a victory. Obama, argued David Plouffe, may have lost the popular vote in Nevada, but he actually gained more convention delegates. Since delegates, and not votes, determine the Democratic nomination, Plouffe suggested that Hillary Clinton was the evening's loser. This, of course, is nonsense: the early, small-state primaries are important not because of the relatively paltry number of delegates they contribute to the candidates' ledger, but rather as barometers of each contestant's popular appeal. Senator Clinton won the Nevada caucuses regardless of whatever arcane electoral math may have given her colleague an additional, unearned delegate. To hear the campaign spin a loss like this makes Senator Obama sound like just another manipulative politician, something he promised never to be. Even worse, it gives off a whiff of both desperation and poor sportsmanship.

4. John McCain's "big win" in the South Carolina Republican primary encapsulates everything wrong with the American system of selecting presidents. McCain defeated Mike Huckabee by only about three percentage points, but is, on that basis, now the undisputed frontrunner in the race for the GOP nomination. The Arizonan's narrow victory resulted, more than anything else, from a split in the conservative Republican vote between Huckabee and Right Dead Fred Thompson. McCain still polls relatively poorly among Republicans and Christian conservatives, two constituencies he will desperately need if he comes out of the GOP convention as his party's standard bearer. After his troubling musings about the Bible and the Constitution, it is a bit of a relief to see Huckabee once again relegated to the second tier of candidates, but any fair analysis of the South Carolina results would suggest that the former Arkansas governor's performance kept him essentially tied with McCain and spotlighted the latter's remaining weaknesses among the party faithful. (Unlike Obama, however, at least Mike Huckabee didn’t try to spin his loss into some sort of accounting triumph.)

5. Mitt Romney got very lucky. Today's story should have been that the Mittster's fourth place performance down south validated fears that either his ideological flip-flopping or his Mormon faith would render him unelectable below the Mason-Dixon Line. Instead, along with Clinton and McCain, Romney is receiving equal billing as one of the three Saturday winners for his victory in the Nevada caucuses. Since he was the only serious candidate to campaign meaningfully in the Silver State, Romney's showing there should have been no more remarkable than his win a couple of weeks ago in Wyoming, an event that was all but ignored by the political media. Oddly enough, the former Massachusetts governor owes the publicity surrounding this latest victory to the Democrats. Because Clinton, Obama, and Edwards spent over a week shuttling between Las Vegas and Reno, the press showed up to report on them. Thus, Romney enjoyed spillover coverage from journalists who would not even have been in Nevada except for the closely fought Democratic race. As the saying goes, if a tree falls in an empty forest it may not make a sound. Wyoming was that empty forest; Nevada, thanks to the Dems, was not.

6. John McCain's narrow victory in South Carolina, growing wider with every retelling, has greatly reduced the possibility that either party will face a brokered convention this summer. The Democratic race has been a two-person show since New Hampshire. It now appears that the GOP contest is following suit, with McCain and Romney the only two candidates retaining significant viability. As I've noted previously, Rudy Giuliani loses badly every time John McCain wins. McCain's strengths are Giuliani's strengths, simply contained in a more appealing and less corrupt package. The fact that Rudy decided to run advertisements in Florida predictably exploiting 9/11, but this time callously including actual footage of the disaster itself, suggests that his campaign has entered desperation mode. Perhaps he can somehow carve out a victory in the Sunshine State with a combination of New York retirees and firebreathing Cuban nationalists, but the prospect seems increasingly remote. Thus, the GOP can likely expect a two-man race from here on out. And two-candidate contests, almost by definition, do not lend themselves to brokered conventions.

7. Duncan Hunter, we hardly knew ye. And we're glad.

UPDATE: Welcome to all of you who were attracted here by the Wall Street Journal link (thanks, WSJ). Please take a look around. A lot of Election 2008 posts below and in the archives. Y'all come back now, y'hear.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

On Media Bias

Over on the sporting pitch, controversy, as usual, envelops the announcement of the latest voting for membership in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Many of the arguments contest the qualifications of one Jim Rice, a Boston Red Sox slugger from the 1970s and 1980s. To a large extent, the debate centers around whether Rice's impressive statistics were impressive enough for enshrinement, given that a) he had a relatively short career, and b) he was a right-handed power hitter who played his home games in a ballpark that disproportionately favored righties.

But the most interesting feature of the dispute involves the alleged role of certain grudge-bearing sportswriters in denying Rice his plaque in Cooperstown. It seems that the selection of each year's class of Hall of Famers is determined primarily by a vote of members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, at least those scribes who have belonged to that organization for at least a decade. Evidently, Mr. Rice did not possess the sweetest of dispositions during his playing days and often treated members of the press with disdain. Consequently, some argue, one of the most feared power hitters of his generation may never receive his rightful recognition because some sportswriters simply didn't like him.

Journalists are, despite their affectations, human beings just like the rest of us. As such, they have their biases and their vanities, their quirks and their obsessions. Treat them badly enough times, and maybe some of them will find a reason to keep you out of the Hall of Fame. Kiss up to them, throw them clever quotes and provide them with penetrating analyses, and perhaps your borderline record of 220 wins and your so-so 3.20 earned run average may be enough to earn you the 75% share of the vote needed to achieve baseball immortality.

If sportswriters can be so moved, what about those who report on politics for a living? Surely, they cannot be unaffected by the kindnesses shown them and insults suffered. They would—and do—argue that their professionalism provides a buffer between the ego and the journalist, and I don't doubt that for a moment. Still, no buffer is impervious and not even the most diligent professionals can entirely ward off their emotions. In my business (college teaching), many professors have taken to asking students to provide identifying numbers, rather than names, on their examinations, so all worries about potential bias can be eliminated. (Teaching, like journalism, is a very personal business, and believe me when I tell you that every instructor has students she adores unreservedly and students she detests thoroughly.)

A number of bloggers devote significant attention to the alleged biases of the political media. Quotes are isolated, often badly out of context, that supposedly prove that some reporter or another has it in for one of the presidential candidates. As you might expect, some of these claims are more persuasive than others. The treatment of Al Gore in 2000, for example, is particularly difficult to understand without arriving at the conclusion that members of the press corps absolutely despised him. Nevertheless, claims of prejudice generally have a partisan edge to them—conservatives and liberals alike see the media as biased against their side—and where you stand in this case almost certain depends, as they say, on where you sit.

I'm a bit of a hard sell on this issue because I've known and talked to plenty of reporters in my time, and I've heard them make scathing remarks about various political officeholders. In their actual copy, however, it is impossible to locate even a trace of that hostility. If I am capable of failing students that I personally like—and I am—then why should I not believe that the working press is able to do the same thing in their realm of responsibility?

Further, the sorts of biases reporters do have almost guarantee that they will seem gratuitously adversarial to supporters of any given politician. First, good political journalists see their job, in large part, as probing for weaknesses, often mercilessly. They suffer liars very poorly and react badly when smoke is blown in their faces. Second, they generally possess a belief that frontrunners deserve particularly close scrutiny, and they will often push the favorite far harder than the underdog (and, to be sure, they also have a vested interest in creating highly competitive races that generate greater public attention). Finally, just like the rest of us, a few reporters are probably just lazy, finding a story line—Hillary Clinton has high negatives!—and beating it to within a centimeter of its life.

Still, lines are being crossed today that weren't even approached in the past. One factor, for example, that separates today's media coverage from that of the Murrow-Cronkite era is the rise of the opinion journalist. Thirty years ago, there was nobody like Bill O'Reilly or Keith Olbermann in any serious news department. Network telecasts may have permitted a certain bit of commentary (Eric Severeid on CBS, Howard K. Smith on ABC), but even then blatant partisanship was studiously avoided. I know that the asinine claims of liberal media bias are rooted in this era, but that was largely the product of people who couldn't handle the truth—racism and sexism were wrong, we were losing in Vietnam, and Dick Nixon was a crook—and thus projected their anger on the messenger.

Unfortunately, when real reporters interact with opinion journalists, the result can, in fact, be detrimental to the profession. The Lou Dobbs Hour of Hate (or whatever he calls it these days) has its own stable of correspondents, but occasionally one of CNN's actual journalists appears on the show and is suddenly made to answer loaded questions about illegal "aliens" and their propensity for stealing American jobs and tax dollars. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, attempting to play along with the satirical spirit of Olbermann's "Countdown" arrives for a segment on Dick Cheney's hunting accident wearing a bright orange protective jacket, clearly ridiculing the veep (who richly deserved it, but still...). This collision of journalists and commentators has done a great deal to blur the line, in the minds of the public, between reporting and advocacy.

And, of course, we now have an entire cable news network so dedicated to biased coverage of events that it ironically styles itself "fair and balanced". Started by a Republican political consultant, Fox News has done more than any other outfit to advance the notion that all truth is relative and that no reporting can truly be honest. In particular, their employment of Brit Hume, once a respected White House correspondent for ABC news, falsely reminds viewers that it's all just a game and that it always has been.

So what am I saying? First, as long as journalists are human beings, there will be some bias in news coverage, probably based more on personal relationships than ideological predilections (I may have more to say about John McCain's cozy relationship with the media in a future post). Nevertheless, the extent of that bias is greatly exaggerated on all sides of the political spectrum; the vast majority of reporters play it straight the vast majority of the time. (This is even true of sportswriters, by the way: over 70% did, in fact, support Jim Rice's candidacy for the Hall of Fame this year despite the man's supposed obnoxiousness, and most of the ones who didn't were swayed primarily by the statistical record.)

The advent of advocacy journalism, however, and especially the unfortunate rise of Fox News, has made it more difficult for most citizens to distinguish opinion from reporting. Moreover, the appearance of "real" journalists on many of these opinion programs emphatically worsens the problem. Dana Milbank and Howard Fineman and the rest probably enjoy their newfound fame, but they ought to consider the price being paid by their profession. Let Bill and Keith, and certainly Chris Matthews and Don Imus, find guests more appropriate to the format. Give us more Rachel Maddow and less Richard Wolffe.

Finally, if reporters are going to appear on opinion shows, they ought to be made to show their cards. They should stop hiding behind their journalistic shields and let us know what they, personally, really think of the candidates. At least then, we can know where we stand. To their credit, sports reporters who get mixed up in the opinion game rarely try to pretend they are above it all. They tell you straight away that they think Jim Rice and Barry Bonds are jerks.

And, really, the stakes in November are just a little bit higher than those involving whether Jim Rice gets a seat in the Catfish Hunter/Tony Pérez wing of marginal Hall of Famers.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Obama Goes Negative (Sort of)

Let's say you're the candidate who has promised to bring our country together. You've pledged to elevate the tone of American politics and to avoid the sort of bickering and mudslinging that has alienated so many citizens—especially young citizens—over the past quarter century. Not only has this position allowed you to flourish in the race for the presidency, but it also made you, at least briefly, the frontrunner for your party's nomination. But now your most serious opponent is busy scoring points against you by going negative and questioning your preparation for higher office. How do you fight back without undoing your hard-won image as the good guy, the uniter in a world of dividers?

If you're Barack Obama, you do so by praising Ronald Reagan.

Speaking to reporters in Reno, Nevada, Obama startled the Democratic faithful by asserting that the Gipper "changed the trajectory" of American politics and provided voters with the sort of leadership they craved during the 1980s. Commentators struggled to explain why a relatively liberal Democrat who had just been endorsed by Nevada's most powerful labor union would single out the conservative, union-busting Reagan as his role model. Lawrence O'Donnell, appearing on MSNBC's "Countdown", theorized that Obama was seeking the votes of independents in the upcoming California primary by lauding the state's one-time governor. Others suggested that perhaps this was an attempt by the senator to burnish his credentials as a bipartisan healer.

Relatively few observers, however, immediately recognized that this was, in fact, Obama's most stinging attack on Hillary Clinton to date. Consider what he actually said:

"I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating."

The first and most obvious swipe is the Illinois senator's suggestion that the Clinton presidency lacked historical significance. Obama knows that Bill Clinton's record in the White House represents the strongest argument in favor of Hillary's candidacy. I do not mean this in the sexist Chris Matthews sense that she owes her senate seat to sympathy over Bill's philandering. Nor am I arguing that without her fortuitous marriage she would be nothing more than a successful, but unknown, Washington lawyer; with her copious gifts, Hillary Clinton would likely have been a significant political player regardless of whose ring she wore. Nevertheless, Senator Clinton's major calling card in this presidential race happens to be her experience as a key adviser and leading participant in a highly popular and successful presidency. When she talks about experience—hers vs. her opponent's—this is what she means.

But here was Barack Obama, while supposedly remarking on the Reagan years, raising the possibility that Bill Clinton's administration may have been, in the big scheme of things, a failure. President Clinton's inability to alter the national trajectory, by implication, set the stage for the ruinous reign of George W. Bush. Without saying so explicitly, Obama effectively argues that Hillary's experience does not prepare her to navigate a new course for the republic, but rather to provide another four or eight years of impotent triangulation. Oh, and just in case that didn't burn, Obama also gratuitously, if obliquely, compares Bill Clinton to that universal symbol of corruption, Richard Nixon (rather than, say, Jimmy Carter, the trajectory-challenged president whose failures actually made the Reagan Revolution possible).

But the senator wasn't done yet. After consigning Slick Willie and Tricky Dick to the same dustbin of history, he took a further shot at "the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s". True, his specific reference was to government growth and accountability, but the comment nonetheless allowed Obama to remind voters of the Clintons' association with the controversial Baby Boomer generation. The "excesses of the 1960s and 1970s", after all, went well beyond the growth of federal entitlements. Once more, Barack Obama took the opportunity to remind the electorate that the Clintons represent a controversial past while he heralds a brighter future.

As candidates go, Senator Obama rivals Mitt Romney for his careful sense of control and ability to choose his words carefully. The difference, of course, is that Obama is far more inspiring than Romney and he has not, over the course of his career, taken both sides on nearly every major issue. But make no mistake: the comments that Barack Obama made in Reno were not off-the-cuff musings. They were a well-crafted—and devastatingly negative—response to Hillary Clinton's claim that her experience qualifies her for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Still, two problems remain for the Candidate of Change. First, in attempting to go negative without appearing to do so, Obama must necessarily be subtle. Still, to be successful, even subtle attacks must leave a mark. In this case, however, the senator's main point may have been lost by pundits and voters who concentrated on the unexpected praise of Reagan rather than the embedded assault on Bill Clinton's presidency. In all likelihood, Obama hoped that his remarks would start a conversation in the media over whether Democrats should really want to settle for four more years of Clintonism. Perhaps that debate will emerge today, but it certainly did not begin on Senator Obama's cue.

Second, and even more risky, Obama must still be careful how he chooses to deliver his suggestively negative comments. In particular, he might want to avoid too many statements that appear to praise prominent conservative Republicans. At the moment, Obama's candidacy is built around three distinct constituencies, all of which he will need in order to claim victory. One of these groups, young voters, will probably not care about a reference to a president who left office before many of them were born. Another, African Americans, may not have fond memories of the Gipper, but might still be focused on what Senator Obama stands for and what he represents. The third group, however, consists of highly educated, middle class white professionals, liberals who are attracted to Obama's message of change and hope. These generally progressive Democrats see Ronald Reagan's administration as the beginning of the era of poisonous conservatism that has resulted in the current Bush administration.

Characteristically opportunistic, John Edwards immediately blasted Obama for referring to the Gipper in reverent tones. In addition to reminding voters of Reagan's hostility toward organized labor, Edwards added that the 40th president "created a tax structure that favored the very wealthiest Americans and caused the middle class and working people to struggle every single day." Such attacks are, of course, common on the campaign trail, but this one is different. At some point in the foreseeable future, John Edwards is likely to drop out of the presidential race, and his voting bloc—traditional liberals and union diehards—will be up for grabs. Until yesterday, it seemed likely that Senator Obama would attract a good share of these disaffected Democrats. Yesterday, that number almost certainly dwindled, at least temporarily.

For better or worse, politics is about both hope and fear, ringing eloquence and dirty pool. Hillary Clinton will not stop attacking Barack Obama unless or until he drops from serious contention for the Democratic nomination. Obama, for his part, knows that he cannot let these broadsides go unanswered. At least for now, he is trying to disagree without sounding disagreeable. He may ultimately find, however, that the subtle approach can sometimes be more risky than the full frontal assault.