Thursday, January 31, 2008

Let Us Know When You've Identified the True Conservative

Today we're watching the footage of Rudy Giuliani endorsing John McCain for the Republican nomination. Meanwhile Real Clear Politics shows McCain leading for the nomination by six points, but what's more, McCain beats either Clinton or Obama in the general; no other Republican candidate beats either one. And what is the focus of conservative pundits today? McCain is "not a conservative." This liberal thinks he looks plenty conservative, but what do I know? Well gang, it's an interesting theological discussion, but if you'll excuse us, there's a nation that needs leadership. We'll be in Washington governing, if you ever want to stop by after you've identified the true conservatives. It's always fun to hear your stories about the old Reagan days. See ya.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Beware the Kingmaker

Barack Obama no doubt benefits from the endorsement of Ted Kennedy, but I wonder about the plan to tour around together, sit next to each other, etc. Maybe two cases of hubris feeding off of each other. The obvious opening for the Clintons: say that Obama is the candidate of the old liberal left, and that Clinton will not only do better in the general election, but also will govern from the center. This is exactly the primary strategy of Bill Clinton in 1992, by the way. Obama would be well-advised to stay his own man and not get too closely identified with the old lion, who is clearly out for his last hurrah.
I was interested by the endorsement of Obama by Kathleen Sibelius, governor of Kansas and also of dynastic political roots. She's very talented and gave the Democratic response to the State of the Union address the other night. (I e-mailed the Kerry campaign about her in '04, never got a response.) A woman on the ticket might not be such a bad idea if Obama beats Hillary in the primaries...and now Googling around a little after writing the preceding, I discover that James Carville has made the same suggestion.
Meanwhile, today we see the media criticizing Clinton for holding a victory rally in Florida (the Washington Post story by Dana Milbank is a good example). It's all a sham, the argument goes, because there were no delegates at stake. It's true that had the candidates campaigned in the state, the results might have been different. But over 800,000 voters went in to the polls and voted for Clinton. Wouldn't it be disloyal on the part of the Clinton campaign to fail to acknowledge the participation of over 800,000 supporters? And shouldn't the Obama campaign have staged something similar by way of thanking the 500,000+ people who voted for Obama in Florida yesterday? The punditocracy is decidedly missing a populist touch on this one.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Rainbow Party Pays the Price

These are historic times for the Democratic Party, that now has an opportunity to become the dominant political party in American life. The Democratic coalition is gelling into something solid while the Republican one is fracturing. Demographics are on the side of liberalism as the Republicans can only try to keep as many people from voting as possible, for as long as possible. But what were the odds that the first absolutely credible woman candidate and the first absolutely credible black candidate would emerge during the same election? As a Party loyalist I wince at the stresses and tensions that this situation brings, but rejoice that it is the Democrats who are, to use a Clintonian trope from the nineties, the "bridge to the future." This sort of thing is not easy, as the Clintons, who did so much throughout the nineties to forge the rainbow party that we now are, notably by appointing, supporting and including far more than token numbers of blacks and women to all levels of government, are discovering. Rising expectations and deep cynicism among blacks lead to a quick perception that the Clintons are unfairly attacking a black man, a misperception confirmed as fact by an irresponsible media. But my point today is precisely that this sort of tension and problem is strictly unavoidable; it's something that we as a society have to work through. It is easier for whites to look away rather than confront old problems, but the leadership of the Democrats is now taking us in the positive, though difficult, direction. Both Clinton and Obama swear to avoid the trap of racial division at every dust-up, but no matter how hard they try there is is again, five minutes later.
Obama's entry into national political life, seemingly out of nowhere, was brilliant in its conception: he established himself as the candidate who happened to be black, rather than the black candidate (and let's acknowledge the historic achievement of Jesse Jackson in 1988), and he did it by getting white support. That was the breakthrough accomplishment. Now there is another, trickier task, that is to overcome the well-grounded suspicion and alienation of black voters, to move the community into issues-based voting as distinct from race-based voting. So far as I can see, the black community is showing us just as encouraging evidence that this is happening as white voters in Iowa and, of all places, South Carolina are showing that they are ready for a black hero. But we are tottering back and forth between the old way and the new, and it is Senator Clinton, I would submit, who is paying the highest price.
There are some clear advantages to Obama's position. Clinton supporters (like me) are by and large ready and in fact eager to support Obama if he is the nominee, while Clinton's negatives combined with her role as "establishment" make her, not him, seem like the riskier candidate for the general election (although I don't agree that she actually is the riskier). The difference in the alchemy of a black candidate and a woman candidate is difficult and fascinating. No one is talking about large numbers of women sitting out the election if they are hurt and disappointed. There is not the sense of the justice of payback for historical grievances in the "gender" (sex is actually the right word, for another post) case that there is in the racial one (although perhaps there should be).
There is a certain euphoria to the whole thing that tempts one to forget about the larger battle to come in the general election. The fact that the Clintons are notorious masters of the Dark Arts of politics continues, to my mind, to be a reason to support them. The Republican corporate mafia, with their racist troops and Christian dupes, will not react with the same sensitivity to a candidacy of a non-white or a non-man.
As to my predictions for the coming weeks, I continue to predict that Clinton will do well in Florida and then go on to lock up the nomination on "Super Tuesday," at which point Obama will face one of his toughest tests yet. A Clinton-Obama ticket is possible (the Clintons will be amenable if that would help them win, Obama will see that the vice-presidency is the logical step to continue running for president), an Obama-Clinton ticket is much more problematic and unlikely. No reason for Obama to want to be saddled with the Clintons. I admit, meanwhile, that the race is indeed open, and Feb. 5th may well be a mix of various outcomes that involve us all in complex calculations (a wonkish way of admitting that Obama is still in it). And it is true that John Edwards can play king-maker here by staying in and taking votes form Clinton. Grisell was arguing this morning (over pancakes and Meet the Press) that it's not clear that Edwards' voters would be Clinton voters, and I admit there's some ambiguity there, but with things this tight even if 30 percent of his voters would otherwise go with Obama he would still be shooting down Clinton. Finally, a significant bit of incoming for an old Dem like me: Sen. Kennedy will endorse Obama. Kennedy and Kerry: two guys who know things that I don't know.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Obama's Discussion of Reagan

Barack Obama drew fire from his Democratic opponents this week when he compared himself to Ronald Reagan.  In 1980, Obama said, Reagan's victory took the country in a new direction.  The conservatives, he went on to say, had had the most new ideas over the past two decades (pointedly including the 1990s).  Clinton, by contrast, had failed to change the national direction after 1992.
The Clintons and John Edwards (and Paul Krugman and other pundits) pounced on Obama for these remarks, arguing that the liberal cause must repudiate, not praise, Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement whose champion he was.  But Obama didn't say that conservative policies were effective or a good idea.  He was making a different point, about the historical moment and the momentum of ideology and history.  For better or for worse, the conservative movement has been, in fact, the most well-defined philosophically, and the most effective popularly, in American politics since the 1970s.  This is in the nature of the pendulum swing of history, an inevitable reaction to the stagnation of the liberal approach to government that dated, by Jimmy Carter's time, all the way back to the FDR 30s (the political success of conservatism was not inevitable, but the movement was).  So it wasn't entirely fair for Obama's opponents in the Democratic ranks to charge him with irresponsible burnishing of the Reagan myth (not entirely fair).
 However I do have a problem with Obama's remarks, particularly as they were clearly meant to draw a contrast between himself and both Clintons.  Obama was implying that unlike the Clintons, and like Reagan, he, Obama, is a potentially pivotal "agent of change."  I must say I fail to see the parallel with Reagan here.  Reagan was the spokesman for a systematic ideology that generated specific policy proposals.  Barack Obama can claim no such mantle.  I don't know of a single point of either ideology or policy where there is any essential distinction between Obama and the other Democratic candidates.  He leads no movement, he offers no radical reapproach to the federal government.  In fact, both Clinton and Edwards do a better job of laying out specifics.
What we really have here is a swipe at Bill Clinton.  I can appreciate that Obama is feeling a bit angry and threatened from getting beat up on by the mighty Bill Clinton, larger-than-life popular former president.  It is indeed an unprecedented spectacle, and I saw a report today that some Clinton friends and loyalists are warning Clinton to back off.  But if Obama, in the privacy of his own thoughts, is telling himself that he, unlike Bill Clinton, is a pivotal, dialogue-changing figure like Reagan was, that's an error of judgement that does not reflect well on him. 

Friday, January 18, 2008

Rudy Skeptic

Count me as a Rudy skeptic. His decision to skip the early primaries has sunk him. Over the summer Giuliani turned out to be a surprisingly strong campaigner. New York City is maybe the ultimate venue for retail politics, a patchwork of ethnic and class enclaves where politicians have to walk down the sidewalk shaking hands and looking people in the eyes, and Giuliani has mastered this art. What an error, then, to deliberately keep him off of the battlefield in the first rounds. I think that his campaign anticipated that he would look vulnerable in these weeks between New Hampshire and Florida. I doubt that they anticipated that John McCain would rise Lazarus-like to become the front-runner once again. McCain kills Giuliani. Giuliani wanted to run Bush-Cheney 2004, "Vote for me or the terrorists will kill you." But McCain has better national security and foreign policy credentials than Giuliani. And even if one assumes that on security McCain and Giuliani are a tossup, McCain is more conservative on social issues than Giuliani: he's always been against abortion, he's a western rancher's senator who opposes environmental regulations, he's been a major backer of the red-meat flag-burning amendment, etc. So if the choice comes down to those two, conservative Republicans will vote for McCain, for once voting for the more electable candidate for the general election. The next three rounds are South Carolina, Nevada, and Florida. If McCain wins any two out of those three, he locks up the nomination. This wonderful four-way split goes poof and we're back to reality. Meanwhile Romney is in serious trouble. His argument is that he's racking up the most delegates, but he should be more worried about his popularity. The national polls tell the story. Strange scenario de jour: McCain kills off Giuliani, the electorate wakes up to the fact that Huckabee is unelectable, but the inexplicable aversion to McCain doesn't evaporate, and Republican primary voters turn to: Thompson after all. And then they lose the election.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Notes on New Hampshire

First of all, shame on the media. I'm particularly disenchanted with Chris Matthews and MSNBC in general for losing their cool and flying off on this anti-Clinton, anoint Obama tear during the voting yesterday (insult to injury: "We can't tell you the results yet because we don't want to influence it, BUT..."). I've said it several times now: the Clintons, these supposed "establishmentarians," get exactly the same help from the "liberal media" today as they did 16 years ago: a swift kick in the teeth. Another thing I've been saying for a long time is that the Obama phenomenon has helped Clinton all along by giving her some competition. As to the view that the Clintons are the most conservative of the Democratic contenders, well, hello general election. I like blogging because it makes one more accountable. I was for Kerry in 2004 from way out a year or more before the primaries, but I confess that I wobbled when Dean surged in December 2003. If everybody rallies around someone, OK. I've always said I'll support Obama (or Edwards) enthusiastically if they are nominated. But I continue to think that Clinton would be the more formidable Democratic president. As to the criticism (from Donna Brazile for example) that the spectacle of the Clintons throwing punches in a tight spot diminishes their "aura" or something, look, they're the stars of their own movie. They don't want to retire and cultivate legacies and all that, they want to be in the show, today. And that means winning and losing and taking the chops.
As to the Republicans, Democrats need to beware McCain. McCain would be the best national candidate for the Republicans. Romney is an executive soliciting a job: his emotional engagement with the process is too professional, and the personal money he has had to spend is an embarrassment particularly when the contrast is with Huckabee and McCain. Giuliani made a strategic mistake, I think, in skipping both Iowa and New Hampshire. Now Huckabee, McCain, and Romney are all ahead, in his path, needing to be taken down. Late surging is going to come out of the South, and Huckabee and maybe Thompson will be the beneficiaries (Thompson still looks alive from a Southern perspective, but only just).
Next day addendum: Polls from South Carolina show Thompson dead last with maybe 4 percent. "Stick a fork in him," as they say.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Republicans Want Obama

National elections run on different principles than primary elections. National polls tell a different story from state-wide primary polls. And so far as the national election goes, Republicans have been quick to seize on the development of an Obama win in Iowa and some polls showing Obama ahead in New Hampshire. They had nothing but good things to say about him in their debate this week. Why are the Republicans excited by the prospect of an Obama nomination? Several reasons: Obama, from their point of view, is less formidable of an opponent than the Clintons would be. The Clintons have long since established that they can take a pounding and give as good as they get, while Obama, with his platitudes and conciliatory rhetoric, appears much softer for a roughing up (this will be a factor for him even after inauguration, should he win). McCain would beat Obama, and that's the only Republican-winning match-up where I would say "would" instead of "could." McCain could beat Clinton. That's the other story, the re-re-resurrection of John McCain. My view is that the suddenly tangible prospects of a McCain candidacy and an Obama candidacy are dangerous waters for the Democrats. If Huckabee is nominated the Republicans lose. I was going to go on to say that the Republicans won't nominate Huckabee, but I don't think anybody knows what the GOP primary electorate is going to do, especially once it goes to the South. McCain is the best Republican to put up in the general, and so it's a worrisome development that the public is finding its way back to him. Romney and Giuliani are both capable of putting up a fight and getting lucky. Thompson is out of it, although I was surprised at James Carville and Mary Matalin on Meet the Press last week who seemed to feel strongly that he was still in. Surely they must know something that I don't know? But in the general the Clintons beat any of them, only McCain would have a chance. The Democrats' best hope is Hillary vs. anybody but McCain.