Thursday, May 29, 2008

Job McDole

I am pleasantly surprised that Barack Obama turns out to be scrappy in his jousting with John McCain. Of particular interest is the back-and-forth about the war in Iraq, and foreign policy in general. Apparently, McCain means to slam Obama's honor, patriotism, integrity, manliness, etc., each and every time the young whippersnapper so much as dares to mention foreign policy or military matters. I'm sure McCain will learn to pedal the rhetoric back a bit as he adjusts to the pace of a summer-long campaign. The one soldierly virtue that the Republicans need this time around, and that McCain has in abundance, is steadfastness: don't wait for McCain to start going wobbly when the polls are down. The other soldierly virtues, not so much; the problem for the classic Republican national security campaign that McCain will run (and that won in 2004) is that anybody paying attention can see that a hawk is exactly what the USA doesn't need at this juncture. Politically speaking, the war is exceedingly unpopular. The war aim isn't clear, criteria for "victory" are very fuzzy. The President, speaking at the Air Force Academy graduation yesterday, said that he was going to make clear what victory and closure would consist of, and then launched into an impossible rhetorical laundry list (secular democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan; the region at peace and prosperity; no "havens for the terrorists," and three or four other "items"). It was almost a self-parodic illustration of the extent of the quagmire. Meanwhile, Barack Obama (unlike Hillary Clinton) offers an unambiguous alternative: his stated goal all along has been to extricate the US from Iraq as quickly as possible. If the election thus becomes a referendum on the war - vote for McCain if you think that the war is a good idea, vote for Obama if you don't - by all indications McCain loses. Add to this personality differences: McCain is all prickly impatience, and he is unable to conceal his contempt for opponents, while the laid-back Obama dishes out a feel-good rhetoric of conciliation, and comes out of the primaries with a reputation as the high-roader. McCain is badly whipsawed. He can't win without conservative support, but the sense of the electorate is that the conservatives have had their turn at bat and it's time for a new inning. McCain, the angry old man (and notably pale of visage I might add) is coming to this scenario out of central casting. Obama should keep on talking about the war, about diplomacy, about national security. Take that issue away from McCain and he's got precious little left to fight with.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Will the Left Sink the Democrats?

The left has decided that Barack Obama is their candidate. That's not news, although why the left coalesced around Obama rather than Clinton or Edwards is a matter that bears some speculation, as either of the other two are at least as left as Obama on the issues (Edwards was the farthest left in this primary season). What is news is that the left turns out to be a problem as we find ourselves in an exceedingly delicate political situation here in the far endgame of the Democratic primaries. I will try to be as direct as possible: both the left and the black voters are failing to appreciate the gravity of Obama's problems with working class whites. They are also making the big mistake of construing all of Clinton's voters as anti-Obama voters, ignoring two things: 1) many of those voters have been supporting Clinton since way before Obama emerged as the front-runner, and 2) many (almost certainly most) of Clinton's voters are motivated primarily by economic concerns. They see Clinton as the best hope of economic improvement. Clinton's voters are for the most part voting for Clinton, not voting against Obama. It was disappointing to hear an African-American caller on C-Span's Washington Journal the other day denigrating Clinton's supporters as ignorant crackers and Rush Limbaugh dittoheads. I would expect people who have been unfairly maligned for political ends to be sensitive to not doing that, but I guess I'm too optimistic. And that brings me to Florida and Michigan. I was also disappointed to hear Rachel Maddow on MSNBC making a distinction between what she called an "ethical" position - Michigan and Florida ought to be disenfranchised because they "didn't follow the rules" - and a "strategic" position - Clinton's, that is, what is needed to win the nomination. This manages to imply that Clinton is unethical and at the same time that the voters of Michigan and Florida deserve to be punished for some wrongdoing. Double nonsense. The situation with Florida and Michigan is a fiasco, to be sure, but now the reality is that the Democrats need both states to win the election. Contrary to what some of my Democratic friends seem to think, this election is not going to be an easy thing. We cannot write anyone off, concede any battle. Maddow, like a lot of Obama supporters, wants to silence Michigan and Florida because she's in the tank for Obama. What about consensus? What about representation? Who are these boutique "progressives" who turn out to be obtuse about consensus politics, alienated from working class people, disdainful of rural whites, hostile to compromise? Populists they ain't, folks, and this old-fashioned liberal says that if the Democratic Party loses the current wide-open opportunity to become a real alternative for ordinary working class whites, it might mean another generation of Republican power. What we are now going to find out is, how wise is the leader? Will Obama show that he is a bigger person than so many of his supporters are turning out to be?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Depends on What You Mean By "Rise"

It's not surprising that the success of the candidacy of Barack Obama is causing dramatic effects in the politics of the South. But Obama has taken us into the land of unforeseen consequences, and small surprises, and lessons, abound. Mostly this morning I am thinking about the Democratic Party. The Party now needs to rise to the historical moment, define itself, show that it can win elections, and present a clear (enough) and compelling (enough) vision and agenda to govern. Right now we are working out what exactly the Democratic coalition is, and until that comes into focus we will not be able to develop a coherent philosophy, because we don't at the moment know who we are. These abstractions are made very concrete by the political news coming out of the Old South. A "perfect storm" scenario has developed as the candidacy of Obama has at long last awakened the sleeping giant of the Southern black electorate, at the same time as the Republican Party is left holding the bag of an alarmingly bad economy, a hugely unpopular war, and a president whose disapproval ratings are higher than those of Richard Nixon's on the eve of his resignation. Add to this decades of immigration into the region of people, white, black, and otherwise, who don't share the political instincts and tropes of the old, apartheid South.
But Democrats need to be careful. Consider the lessons of the recent victory in a special election of Travis Childers to Congress in a heretofore safely Republican district in Mississippi. Childers won with overwhelming support of black voters there, and their numbers had been greatly increased by the Obama phenomenon. But he also was able to gain enough white votes to win because he is a staunch Dixiecrat, against gun control, against abortion rights: someone who would have had to run as a Republican in many other regions of the country. The key lesson in this is about party loyalty: the bridge between social conservatives who are disenchanted with the economic and foreign policy of the Republican establishment and African-American voters in the South is the Democratic Party. A Party that represents real black civic power and enfranchisement, while still appealing to traditional regional values, can only be based on the concept of Party loyalty at this point; later on we can grow into our new coalition. Right now it's just a practical reality that the Dixiecrats need the African-American vote, and the African-American community needs white allies. This is not the same conceptual equation as building something on "the left," or winning a battle between conservatives and liberals. For that matter, many Southern blacks are also strong Christians, law and order folks, and so on.
Meanwhile the race issue, that has floated the Republicans' boat so many times in the past, threatens to sink it now. In the special election in Mississippi Republicans were quick to play the race card (look, it's not some "dirty little secret" that the GOP uses racist tactics in the South; apart from national security rhetoric and Christian rhetoric, race baiting has long been the main tactic of the GOP in the region). But this time, running ads "tying" (I'm not sure how "tying" works) Childers to Obama had the effect of rallying the newly-galvanized black voters to Childers' cause. It works both ways: if the main issue in Republican rhetoric in the South is going to be built around the point that Obama is black, that means that the Republicans are distinguished from the Democrats mainly on race, and not in a good way. Nor can the Republicans simply walk away from their base, which has helped them win so many times before: somewhere around one-third of the Republicans' voters are frankly, explicitly racist at least in the sense that they would decline to vote for a black, and they will tell you so if asked (roughly mapping onto the one-third who identify themselves as "Christian fundamentalist," sadly enough. What happens to the GOP if being a self-identified Christian comes to mean that one is against racism?).
That brings me to the last point. Jon Stewart on The Daily Show this week ran clips of racist white voters in West Virginia. One middle-aged woman in a diner said that granting the history of conflict between blacks and whites, she was frightened of black candidates and would vote against them. To many of us (myself included) this may seem like a rather bizarre way to process America's history of slavery and racism (all Stewart had to do to get his laugh was run the clip and mug at the camera in disbelief), but we have to take a deep breath and try to listen to these people, understand their fears, and communicate with them. The Democratic Party will go on to govern in the years ahead, and to transform the country in the needed ways, if we can present an alternative political reality to people like her.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Radicals Don't Want to Talk Either

I think I can fill in a little bit more than just adding to the liberal chorus of outrage over Bush's comments to the Knesset to the effect that the Democrats, through the practice of diplomacy (disdained in itself by the Bush administration), commit appeasement like Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler. Three points:
1) The radicals and terrorists reject negotiation, just as Bush does. It is a canard to suggest that Obama thinks that "some argument" will change the minds of radical religious militants. Obama (and Carter) are trying to engage now-marginalized moderate Arab voices, as any sensible diplomacy must. What Bush's rhetoric does is to imply that any representative of, say, Iran or Syria is a "terrorist," something not even the Israelis would claim: thus Bush dangerously distorts grave matters of foriegn policy in the name of holding on to political power.
2) What needs to be repeated enough to get through to the popular consciousness is that the Republicans plan to run a national security campaign against the Democrats. In the 2004 election Vice-President Cheney publicly stated that a Democratic victory would make terrorist attacks more probable. It might be that the Democrats should engage with this issue, rather than trying to change the subject: voters can decide at the polls whether the appropriate approach to reforming America's diplomatic profile in the years to come is engagement or belligerence. There is no doubt that John McCain would continue with the current belligerence.
3) Common sense: if you are a radical anti-American of any kind, and particularly if your goal is to alienate the Arab world from the USA, what you want is for the Republican conservatives to stay in power. It greatly legitimizes Al Qaeda and other such groups when they are portrayed by the Americans as military foes, whereas the European approach, to view them as a problem for law enforcement, both diminishes them and has proved much more effective in terms of both security and diplomacy. I'm sure Osama bin Laden is hoping for a Republican victory, just as Raoul Castro is: that would help to keep them in business.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

How the Rules Are Helping Clinton

Today Senator Clinton is trying out the line that "If we'd had the Republican rules I'd be the nominee right now, and if the Republicans had had our rules they'd still be fighting." This may be true on both counts (that's uncertain), but it misdirects our attention away from the real differences between the two parties and the real political consequences of those differences. The point of the proportional allocation on the Democrat side was to promote consensus democratic practice. The idea was to force the candidates to negotiate with each other, with the goal of a more inclusive ticket. I very much support this commitment to building a populist Democratic Party, not least because it acknowledges the fact that in our system, the voter is sovereign: we are electing the representative of the people's will, not a king or a queen. And the fact is that the Democratic rules have put Clinton in her current position, namely that Obama really has very little choice but to put her on the ticket. The people have spoken because they were allowed to speak. The primary voters have divided themselves into two halves, and that forces the leaders to bring the two halves back together. This is the people leading, and the leaders following: exactly what the proportional delegate allocation was meant to achieve. In the more pluralistic future that is fast approaching this difference between the parties could be decisive, if the Democrats become the populist party, as we should.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Morning After Indiana and North Carolina

Yesterday morning I opined that yesterday's primary would only be decisive if Obama won both states. This morning I'm not so sure: Obama has won North Carolina by 15 points, 56% to 41%, while Clinton squeaked by in Indiana at the low end of a 2 point difference. I had expected the hockey game to continue, and as someone who's been for Clinton since last summer, I even had my clever post headline (if nothing else) for today: "Don't Tell Obama, I'm Still With Mama." Pretty good, eh? But that's not how I feel. What I'm thinking about are three things: 1) Now I can finally, really feel the inspiration of a charismatic young black Democrat who has a solid chance to win the presidency. That feels really good, my caution as a party loyalist prevented me from letting myself go with those feelings up until now. 2) I'm starting to worry about the general election, and specifically about whether Obama will be able to draw enough white votes to win. The news from the primaries is good on that: Indiana is an overwhelmingly white state and about half of the Democratic primary voters pulled the lever for Obama yesterday, and his unexpectedly large margin of victory in North Carolina means that he managed to draw significant white support there as well (I know that Southern whites are sensitive about the stereotype that they're more racist than everybody else, and I think that some white Democrats in North Carolina didn't like the part that they'd been assigned in the script that they were handed). But the fact that he has not, in fact, managed to win white majorities in big states, and this among Democratic primary voters, looks like the biggest political issue going forward. 3) I am convinced that he needs to put Clinton on the ticket, both out of respect for the Democratic Party ethos of consensual democracy and for more pragmatic political reasons (actually those reasons are the same, come to think of it). Probably the best thing for Clinton to do (assuming that she wants the VP spot, I think that she does want it) is to withdraw, go home, and wait for the Obama campaign to do the math. The best thing for Obama to do is to contact her privately and offer her the job, and start working on getting the Democrats into the White House in 2008.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Morning of Indiana and North Carolina: United We Stand

Tonight we will learn of the results in the primary voting today in Indiana and North Carolina. It is possible that Obama can put down Clinton's campaign for the nomination, if he wins both states. However, as of this morning things are not trending his way in either state, although Indiana is (fittingly) a "jump ball," in a state that Clinton was long expected to win. More worrisome is the degree to which Clinton is narrowing his lead in North Carolina. Any outcome other than a double Obama victory means that the boxing marathon continues.
But this brawl is only over who will be at the top of the ticket. The ticket is decided, and it has been decided by the electorate. Consider the facts, as of this morning: Out of 2,831 total pledged delegates so far, Obama has a 155 lead (and remember that something will still have to be done about Florida and Michigan). Out of approximately 29 million popular votes cast so far, Obama leads by 600,000. The Democratic Party is having a primary, not a winner-take-all election. The goal of the process is to select a winning ticket for November. Consider, also, the demographics: Obama has the black voters, the under-30 voters, the college-educated and urban professionals. Clinton has the older voters, the rural voters, the union voters and blue-collar voters, and enjoys a significant gender gap in a party that is 55% women. Whichever one gets the nomination, they will desperately need (not just need but desperately need) the other to retrieve and rally their respective supporters. The good news is that they can do that: Obama can rally the African-American voters and younger voters if he is the VP candidate, the Clintons can rally the working-class whites and older voters if Clinton is the VP candidate.
I think that that part of it is decided already, folks: we are now involved in an endgame to determine which of them will be on the top of the ticket.

Operation Obfuscation

Just a note on some discussion of Rush Limbaugh's "Operation Chaos" on MSNBC last night. Limbaugh has been telling his audience that Republicans should cross over and vote for Clinton in the primaries, his ostensible thesis being that Clinton would be easier to beat in the fall. The MSNBC crew (Matthews, Barnacle) hit the common sense points: 1) Limbaugh doesn't really have the pull to swing a point in a primary, Democrat or Republican; 2) more interestingly, it's at a minimum debatable which candidate, Clinton or Obama, would be the more formidable candidate in the general election (I for one suspect Clinton would be stronger, although at this point it looks like either one would probably win). But I'm posting about this because no one on MSNBC made what I take to be a likely explanation of Rush's schtick (besides that it's some theater for Limbaugh, who is essentially an entertainer): it has been widely reported over the past few primaries that Republicans are crossing over to vote in the Democratic primaries. These are Republicans that are being pulled off of their party, and who are trying to elect the next President, no sabotage intended, and that is very bad news for the GOP: evidence of a real realignment. I think Limbaugh is intentionally obfuscating that. His theatrics divert attention from an embarrassing discussion.