Sunday, March 23, 2008

What Obama Needs to Do Now

What Obama needs to do now is pick up the phone and call Hillary Clinton. Probably Bill ought to get on another line; call with Michelle. And then ask Hillary to be the vice-presidential running mate. She must say yes. And then the election can get on to a discussion of the economy (Dems win), foreign policy (Dems win), health care (Dems win), the environment (Dems win): then the Democrats can get on with the business of winning. Obama accepting Clinton is the surest path to Democratic victory. It's better than hanging all of Clinton's supporters (about half of the primary voters so far) out to dry. Only Obama can do it. Come on, let's get on with it!

Are White Conservatives Loyal Americans?

I'm struck this week by the double standard that exists in American political discourse between whites and blacks. I mentioned it in the last post but that was a few days ago and the issue has conspicuously not gone away. I'm talking about the insinuation that Barack Obama's pastor, and by association Obama himself, are not loyal because they criticize America. The language used by Rev. Wright is indeed incendiary: Don't say God bless America when you should say God damn America. America's crimes are coming back to hurt us and we shouldn't be surprised. And so on. I'm not interested today in registering my own support or disapproval for this kind of rhetoric (not that it's a secret: I think rigorous self-criticism is essential for any society, a truism since Socrates). What I want to point out (and I wish more people in Big Media would point it out) is that exactly this rhetoric is standard issue stuff in white conservative pulpits every single Sunday and has been since before the Civil War. How is it that white conservatives can rail at America as possessed by Satan, doing the Devil's work, suffering calamity as payback from a righteous Lord, and yet no Republican, conservative politicians are ever called on the carpet to explain their associations with such explicitly anti-American statements? Part of the answer is that white voters have enough power that they cannot be subjected to loyalty tests by others, but they can presume to administer such tests themselves: raw power. Part of the answer is that there continues to exist an essentially racist assumption that the paradigmatic "true American" is a white man, despite the fact that most African-American families can trace their ancestors back in the United States to earlier times than most white families can. And part of the answer is that those essential features of the great American experiment against which the right rails - secularism, tolerance, religious pluralism, individual liberty for all - are either taken for granted today, or undervalued to the point where we don't see conservative rhetoric for the anti-Americanism that it is. People lost their lives fighting to preserve a nation where someone can burn the flag and not be carried off by the police, for example. If you don't understand that, you don't understand what makes the US different from other countries. John McCain is anti-American in this sense, Jeremiah Wright is not.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Taking it to the Heathens

It turns out that a political test for Barack Obama is media discussion of his relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity United Church of Christ. In these electoral contretemps the fundamental decision is often between dissassociation and defense. George W. Bush at times errs on the side of combativeness, Bill Clinton has been a notorious dissassociater. I can think of two reasons why Obama may want to come out, not necessarily as a fighter, but perhaps as an aggressive horizons-broadener, which seems to be the role he was born to play. First of all, I hope that the lesson gets through here that there is a long and full-throated tradition of attacking American society on the right. Fundamentalist (white) Christian groups feel perfectly entitled to rail against an America they see as too secular and too "multicultural." And that kind of speech is perfectly legitimate, for what it's worth, but don't then claim that African-Americans need to pass some sort of loyalty test from white conservatives. There is a long tradition, after all, of Christian missionaries taking it to the heathen, and that brings me to the second point. The few clips of Jeremiah Wright that the cable news channels have been playing over and over again reveal a man strongly influenced by the civil rights-era thinkers Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. One of Malcolm's aphorisms that has always stuck with me was when he said that racism wasn't a black problem, it was a white problem. The moral authority of the church has provided over many years one of the few venues where black leaders were able to openly criticize the larger society. The black community understands this even if the white community does not. Another potent element here is an insistence that moral responsibilty extends beyond the borders of the country. One of MLK's most memorable lines is from his speech on the Vietnam War, where he questions how we could treat browns differently than whites and blacks. Jesse Jackson worked very hard to get out the message of labor rights and environmental protection abroad, during the formative years of "globalization" in the 80s. When Jeremiah Wright, discussing 911, uses the phrase "the chickens come home to roost," this is in fact quite a self-conscious repetition of Malcolm X's language in the event of JFK's assassination. I don't like the occasionally race-baiting tone of this sort of thing, but I also don't think that this tradition of African-American rhetoric is somehow illegitimate or without substance.
Obama's affiliation with this church was a major investment for him (he moved to Chicago after law school), and one that undoubtedly contributed greatly to his credibility as an organizer and politician there. He has to defend the church, and explain its doctrines, and not just appear to be dissassociating himself from them. This relates to the larger fact that a black candidate has to win the overwhelming majority of the black vote to be elected: that's an essential part of his coalition . That brings me back to this idea that Obama must pass tests that others needn't. The Republicans aren't embarrased to have constituencies. They frankly strategize between the fundamentalists, the corporatists, and the suburban oblivious. Obama has to take care of his base, and the black community is a major part (not all) of his base. He's going to give the big speech on this topic in a couple of minutes. If he makes insinuations about the Clintons, that's dirty but acceptable by hard-ball standards. But he will have to stand up for his church and its congregation. It's not fair to expect that a black candidate is supposed to prove that he's not a black candidate. Like MLK and Malcolm X, a black leader still needs to take it to the heathens.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Clinton and Obama Have Responsibilities to the Party

Once a candidate has accepted tens of millions of dollars from contributors and, more importantly, garnered enough support and won enough primaries and caucuses to push other competitors out, that candidate has passed a fail-safe point: they now have incurred a moral responsibility to the members of their party to do what they must in order to win the election. Their feelings about things, their own longer-term plans and ambitions, their sense of their own worth, all of those things now must be put aside in favor of following through and winning the battle as the champion of those who have lent their support. The sovereign voter is an independent party in an election, with their own rights and entitlements. It is not merely a question of what is best for the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, or for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. The over-riding question is, what is best for the voters who want a Democrat in the White House? It's true that there are those who want to elect a specific individual (the first black, the first woman), and those voters may not feel a sense of responsibility to the Democratic Party. You can vote for anyone you want, for whatever reason you want, that's the very meaning of democracy: you're the boss of your own vote. But the candidates themselves have long since passed the point where it is improper to put their own preferences first. The battle is joined, and Clinton and Obama have appointed themselves, by dint of their efforts thus far, the Democratic champions. They now must do what is necessary for Party victory, whatever the cost to themselves. I'm talking about the ticket. When I read that Clinton says that she will fight on to the bitter end, or Obama says that he will never accept the VP spot, they both offend me. I don't care any more about what they want, about their idealizations about how things ought to go. I'm expecting them to cooperate to win the general election, and any willful decision that detracts from that I take as a betrayal. The ticket has to be Clinton-Obama or Obama-Clinton. They have more time to fight over which, but the clock is ticking, and I am impatient with their feelings and ambitions.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Two More Primaries

Florida and Michigan are both must-win states for the Democrats. Bill Clinton cracked the Florida code and brought us Democratic government in the 1990s. The Democrats lost the election of 2004 when they lost the upper midwest. The Party must seat delegations from those states at the convention. The underlying problems with the primary process that led to this fiasco must be addressed in time for 2012, but the fiasco itself has to be dealt with right now, or we are in serious electoral trouble.
We cannot, however, simply seat the delegations as they were determined by the earlier votes. Those primaries occurred well after the DNC announced that the delegations would not be seated. The campaigns would have conducted themselves differently and the outcomes would have been different. So the Michigan and Florida primaries have to be done over. There needs to be some time for the campaigns to go back into those states with a reasonable expectation of making some difference, which suggests sometime in April. it occurs to me that Pennsylvania would have a reasonable complaint if those big primaries were scheduled shortly before April 22. The end of April might be best.
It's not legitimate for Obama supporters to say that seating delegations from Florida and Michigan would be some sort of betrayal. The only reason for someone to resist fair representation for the millions of voters in those two states is that they're already in the tank for Obama. I appreciate the power of rising expectations in the black community because of the Obama phenomenon (I find it intensely inspiring as well). But none of us can insist on the disenfranchisement of others in order to further our own political interests. In fact Obama has a large cash advantage and it's not clear that he couldn't do well in both states. (Here's a suggestion: what about Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm for VP?)
I've been arguing in this blog that the Democrats need to work out some agreement to stop the fighting (Howard Dean's line), but this morning I'm not so sure. The struggle between Clinton and Obama is riveting news; it's what will dominate the political news over the next couple of months. McCain will appear by contrast to be the Bush-in-waiting, while the Democrats continue to work out who will be the next president.
One more comment this morning: a pundit on TV last night characterized Clinton as emotional and angry during crises. I defy anyone to document excessively emotional and angry behavior over policy matters from Hillary Clinton. When it suits them, her detractors say she's calculating and cold. I've never said it on this blog before, but this week I'm really getting the feeling that maybe America isn't ready to elect a woman president. Very disappointing.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Morning After Ohio and Texas

The morning after the Democratic primaries in Ohio and Texas the situation for the Democratic Party is much more problematic than we might have anticipated, considering the fact that the electorate shows every inclination to elect the Democrat, whoever that might be, in November. Of course that circumstance makes the nomination something worth fighting for. If Obama had won last night overall, that would have been the end of it. If Clinton had won large, decisive victories in both Ohio and Texas, that would have meant a whole new race. But Clinton won big in Ohio with approximately 55 percent of the vote, and very narrowly in Texas with maybe three points between them, and Obama expected to pick up some more delegates when the caucus results come in later this morning (Texas assigns about two thirds of the delegates by popular vote during the day, then another third by caucus in the evening. I have no idea why). So the decision was as split as split can be. There's a lot of talk about "delegate math," but the unpledged "superdelegates" are presently rolling around like loose cannons on the deck: they've been drifting over to Obama during his late string of victories, but many of them gave their word to Clinton long ago, and now there is not a case that either is the clear popular favorite (it's not unreasonable to assume that many superdelegates will try to represent the popular vote in their states or in the country as a whole). There are, as of this morning, 256 formally unpledged superdelegates (technically they are all unpledged, remember: nothing legally binds any of them). I'm using today's New York Times coverage by the way. And as of this morning, Obama has 86 more delegates than Clinton out of 2,868 popularly elected delegates so far pledged between them. The superdelegates can still decide the nominee at the convention: it's false to claim that Obama has that locked up. Of course, the nominating rules, complex as they might be, have been known to all since the beginning, and so if Obama does win a narrow delegate win, and even if that occured while Clinton had won the popular vote overall, fair's fair and that will be that. But we're not there yet. Where we are is in a terribly difficult space: the only really big primary left is Pennsylvania, and that doesn't happen until April 22, an eternity from now. Seven weeks of the two Democrats throwing bricks at each other, while McCain gets down to running for president (and McCain, Bush et al pile on with attacks on the Democrats). Obviously (right?) the Democrats need to get together and put Obama and Clinton on the same ticket, but who blinks? There is a case that Obama is the front-runner, but it doesn't amount to much more than the "delegate math" argument, which is just not incontrovertible at this point. In fact I find much more persuasive the fact that Clinton has won California, Texas, Florida, New York, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, and nine other states. Sit down with the Electoral Calculator and tell me which states the Democrats need to carry to win, if you're so impressed with delegate math. And by the way, what can it be but an intemperate bias towards Obama to just dismiss the voters of Florida and Michigan, two absolute must-win states for the Democrats? Millions of people voted in those states. The argument for Obama turns out to be quite thin - I'd say the argument for Clinton is stronger. I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to e-mail both campaigns and beseech them to make a deal. You should too. If enough of us did, they'd start to move in that direction. Obama-Clinton, the ticket I thought was impossible a few weeks ago, looks like the ticket to me now. Otherwise it has to be Clinton-Obama (my preference). Consensus politics.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Morning of Ohio and Texas

It's the AM of Tuesday March 4th, and very likely that by tonight we will know who the Democratic nominee will be. Specifics first: if Obama wins today, even by narrow margins, he'll be the nominee. If he wins by large margins, and does well among whites, women, older voters, less-educated and union voters, he's unstoppable (and perhaps for the national election as well). If Clinton wins today it's not that decisive, but does spell trouble for Obama, as in Clinton could win and the momentum would be changed. The polls suggest that things are very close, with a slight edge if any for Obama (and closeness is good for Obama). In an earlier post I predicted that Clinton would win on Super Tuesday (now fading in the rear-view mirror), and I was wrong. Obama has since then completely dominated the field. But I can't resist pointing out that the media has been dead-set against her, and the Obama campaign has four times as much money, and Clinton is still very much in it. For all that people constantly refer to the Clintons as insiders and cynical establishmentarians, there is no doubt, looking at today's polls, that Clinton is a candidate of the people. Millions of voters have stuck with her, and a poll number getting a lot of play on cable talk this morning is the huge number of people who opine that she should stay in. Tonight will tell the tale, and I'll be posting tomorrow morning, one way or another. Thomas Hobbes said that intelligence was the one resource of which we know we have no shortage, since everyone is satisfied with their share. It's possible that the tipping point was past some time ago and that Obama is already inevitable. But I think that Clinton is still alive. But only if the voters defy these polls and hand her bigger margins than expected.
Meanwhile the question of the Democratic running mate continues to be exciting, also because of the Hillary factor. In earlier posts I've pointed out that if Obama wins the nomination, he pretty definitely needs to pick a woman for his running mate (not out of any abstract sense of justice, which isn't how politics works: the Democrat needs to make the gender gap work to win the election, period). I've been assuming that that running mate won't be Clinton, since Obama would, all other things being equal, be happier without her. But earlier I would have said happier and better off. The old argument was that Clinton's negatives were large enough to counterbalance the loyalties of her supporters. But now the race has unexpectedly (by me, anyway) gone into this protracted, overtime phase. And that starts to look like a case for Hillary as running mate, if she's taking it to the wire with something near half of the votes and half of the delegates (and that's half of the historically high turnout, too). I'm not saying that Obama must accept Hillary on his ticket, like it or not, but the case for her is much stronger now than it was a month ago. Otherwise I like Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, or Kathleen Sebelius.