Thursday, April 24, 2008

"A little rough in the sandbox"

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If we all weren't so focused on the slow-motion Democratic death march, we would have already spent some time this week talking about "McNasty" and debating whether reports of his "volcanic temper" would imperil his prospects for the White House.

I am referring, of course, to John McCain. You may remember the name. He's the guy currently cruising America on his "It's Time for Action Tour," while Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton busy themselves with the ongoing task of pounding each other to jelly.

Obama and Clinton are on the front page every day, their perceived character flaws in full view. McCain's signature character flaw - his well-documented propensity for blowing his stack, for lashing out at colleagues and little people who cross him - did actually make it to the front page last Sunday, in one newspaper, but that little fire sputtered and died amidst the mega-focus on Pennsylvania's primary.

In a normal primary season, the story in The Washington Post would have garnered a great deal of attention. A united Democratic party would have circulated it. The cable TV chatterheads would have relentlessly flogged it. Bloggers would have feasted on the story's choicest tidbits, like the time McCain screamed at the young leader of the Arizona Young Republicans, jabbing a finger in the factotum's chest, calling him an "incompetent little (bleep)" all because the poor guy had rigged a speaking platform at the wrong height. Or the times that McCain hurled profanities at Republican colleagues in the midst of tirades. Or the time that he tried to wreck the career of a young Arizona Republican aide named Karen Johnson, all because Johnson had dared to verbally rebuke McCain during an encounter that had occurred years earlier.

The temper story was essentially vetted yesterday by Michael Gerson, now a Post columnist, who served six years as Bush's chief speechwriter. He wrote yesterday that McCain is a tad off the charts, even for Washington: "I can report that it is not common for one member to tell another '(expletive) you' - as McCain did to Sen. John Cornyn during the immigration debate."

This kind of material has surfaced before - actually, back in 1999, when he was gearing up for his first presidential campaign. At the time, many suspected the undetectable fingerprints of the rival George W. Bush campaign. (I know, it's hard to believe.) Word quickly circulated about a shouting and shoving incident between McCain and Iowa Senator Charles Grassley that took place in 1992, and there were incessant insinuations that McCain's long POW stint had rendered him dangerously imbalanced. McCain was forced to defend himself; during a GOP debate in late 1999, he spun his temper as a badge of honor ("From time to time, those of us...who stand in an independent fashion are going to break some China"), and also as an opportunity for Reaganesque self-mockery (reacting to a rival's statement by satying, "a comment like that really makes me mad"). But the temper factor was rendered moot when McCain's candidacy collapsed.

Now it's back. Indeed, it was back before The Post got around to bringing it up. Back in February, Mitt Romney's surrogates rediscovered it. One prominent Romney practitioner was Rick Santorum.

This, of course, was before Santorum got the memo that it was time for all good Republicans to fall in line behind McCain, and he has dutifully obeyed. But he was against McCain before he was for him, as evidenced by what he said about McCain in a robocall to voters on Super Tuesday: "I don’t think he has the temperament and leadership ability to move the country in the right direction." Then Santorum followed up in remarks to a reporter: "(McCain) is a little rough in the sandbox. Now this is coming from someone who is pretty rough in the sandbox too, but I am rough because of the causes I believe in and the issues and try not to make it personal, try not to make it strident. So I think it's a legitimate issue to have out there only because it's an issue that will be out there, and we'll hear a lot about it if he is the nominee."

I suspect the Democrats will find ways to talk about McCain's temperament, assuming they are not still consumed with the rites of self destruction. It's a legitimate character topic - far more valid than whether Barack Obama is Muslim, a lie that has reportedly been embraced by 15 percent of the American public - but the fact is, a temper is not by itself a disqualifier for high office. For a lot of high achievers, a temper is simply part of the package.

Bill Clinton had a bad temper ("purple rages" in the words of ex-aide George Stephanopoulos). Richard Nixon had bad temper (yes, he did precipitate Watergate, but he also was balanced enough to open China and negotiate arms deals with the Soviets). Dwight Eisenhower had a bad temper, a vein in his forehead wout pulsate, and his face would take on the coloration of a hot stove burner (one aide, Merlo Pusey, wrote that "sometimes his anger is aroused and it may set off a geyser of hot words. The President's emotions are close to the surface"). And in my own backyard, we had Mayor Ed Rendell, who once got so ticked at a pesky reporter that he put her head in a hammerlock as he walked down the hall.

I tend to think that most Americans won't be perturbed by the news that McCain cusses out colleagues, given the fact that most Americans probably believe that U.S. senators deserved to be cussed out. But a new ABC-Washington Post survey suggests that the Democrats may be able to leverage the temper factor. When people were asked whether McCain's temperament would help or hurt his ability to serve effectively as president, 48 percent said yes and 37 percent said no.

Those numbers were garnered a week before the Post ran its story, which means only one thing: The character issue first floated nine years ago has become part of the national consciousness. But what we can't know, for another six months, is whether it will be trumped by whatever tag the Republicans try to hang on Clinton or Obama.

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"American Debate" is moving. Today's entry has been cross-posted at the new site, which will be fully operational in early May. The new address, suitable for book-marking, is http://go.philly.com/polman

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Take these candidates, please!

Six weeks of bowling and Bittergate and Pastorgate and nonexistent Bosnian snipers....and for what? The Pennsylvania results have essentially changed nothing. There is seemingly no cure for the chronic Democratic migraine - and the fear, among so many members, that they are tearing themselves asunder.

Memo to the voters of Indiana and North Carolina: Take these candidates, please!

Now that Hillary Clinton has secured her solid Pennsylvania victory, we know two things - both of which we basically knew before:

1. She will slog onward against increasingly heavy odds. (And why shouldn't she, given the fact that she just won another big state and again demonstrated that she is the preferred candidate of the working-class whites who will be crucial to Democratic hopes this autumn?)

2. Barack Obama can't seem to seal the deal, thereby torturing the sizeable number of exhausted Democrats (including many unpledged superdelegates) who yearn for closure.

Obama's attempt last night to spin the defeat was empirically absurd. Hewing to the loser's ritual of flying to the next state while the bad news is still being tallied, Obama shared this assessment of the Pennsylvania race with a group of Indiana supporters: "We rallied people of every age and race and background to the cause."

Problem was, he lost all the older voter categories, starting at age 45. He lost white people, both genders. And with respect to every background, he lost the working-class folks, the union members, and the non-college educated. He lost suburbanites (including two of the suburban Philadelphia counties, Montgomery and Bucks, that he needed to win by comfortable margins), small-town dwellers, and rural residents. He lost the white Catholics and he lost the Jews. He lost the culturally-conservative Democrats on Bob Casey's home turf, Lackawanna County, by a 3 to 1 margin.

And let's return to the racial factor for a moment, because there is a jarring and highly sensitive finding that showed up in the exit polls. Thirteen percent of white voters statewide said that the race of the candidate was important to them; of those voters, 74 percent cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton. This is arguably a warning sign that Obama may face a higher racial hurdle than many observers have generally assumed.

An arguably bigger problem is his persistent deficit among late-deciding voters. I mentioned here yesterday that, in most primaries, Obama has stumbled at the finish line because voters making up their minds during the final 24 hours have tended to break for Clinton, the known quantity. Well, in Pennsylvania it happened again. Eleven percent made up their minds on the last day; 6 out of 10 wound up breaking for Clinton, thereby padding her victory margin.

All told, he appears to have won only five of the 67 Pennsylvania counties. The template for victory was Ed Rendell's '02 gubernatorial campaign, which notched victories in 10 counties - winning overwhelmingly in Philadelphia and its suburbs, then basically hanging on everywhere else. Obama didn't even get the winning margins he needed out of Philadelphia.

So it's easy to see where this campaign is headed: nowhere fast. Clinton's Pennsylvania win (by more than 200,000 votes, slashing his national popular vote lead by more than 25 percent) will gain her some breathing space - forestalling any pro-Obama stampede by the unpledged superdelegates, and prompting some donors to pony up the money that she so badly needs (given the fact that she's currently awash in red ink). She'll net more Pennsylvania delegates than Obama, thanks to her victory, but not nearly enough to appreciably dent his national lead. And Obama will have to reload, yet again, and demonstrate in Indiana that he can relate to, and win over, the lunch-bucket Democrats.

They essentially split the delegates there...he recoups whatever he lost in Pennsylvania delegates by winning a majority of North Carolina delegates...she wins West Virginia...he wins Oregon...she's got the seniors, he's got the kids...she's got the whites, he's got the blacks...she's got the bowlers, he's got the brie-eater...she the whiskey, he the wine...tomato/tomahtoe, let's call the whole thing off.

But nobody seems to know how. And therein lies the danger for Democrats this autumn.

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I had more thoughts on Pennsylvania and the Democratic race during an hour-long conversation last night on PBS' "Charlie Rose" show. And so did my betters: historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Washington journalist Al Hunt, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, Time magazine's Mark Halperin, and Jacob Weisberg of Slate.
The video is posted here.

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"American Debate" is moving. Today's entry has been cross-posted at the new site, which will be fully operational in early May. The new address, suitable for book-marking, is http://go.philly.com/polman

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The undecideds versus the newbies

"So whattaya think?"

I'm getting that question a lot, as Pennsylvania Democrats - old and new - head to the polls today in expected record numbers. And I generally respond like this:

"Beats the heck out of me."

Naturally that is not viewed as a sufficient response, but, given the events of January, when Hillary Clinton foiled the predictors and won New Hampshire, it seems wise not to bloviate excessively about the unknowable. This is an election season like no other in my long memory, and we alleged seers have been chastened too often already.

So I'll confine myself to discussing a couple factors that could well shape the Pennsylvania results:

The army of the undecideds. The final round of polls report that roughly 10 percent of the Pennsylvania voters had not yet decided between Clinton and Barack Obama. That's a sizeable number of people; if, as widely expected, this primary draws a record two million voters (or 50 percent of the Democratic registration), this means that 200,000 Democrats haven't made up their minds.

And if the past is prologue, this translates into a sizeable advantage for Clinton - one that could arguably add several percentage points to a Clinton victory.

Notwithstanding Obama's successes in 2008, the inescapable fact is that he has been a poor closer. In most of the primaries thus far, he has been spurned by those voters who withheld their choice until the eleventh hour. The late undecideds have broken for Clinton in almost every contest, opting to go with the known quantity instead of taking a leap with the new guy.

The exit polls tell the tale. A sampling:

In Ohio, 12 percent of the voters decided on the final day. Clinton won those voters by 11 points, and the overall contest by 10.

In Texas, 11 percent decided on the final day. Clinton won those voters by nine points, and the overall contest by four.

In Massachusetts, 18 percent decided on the final day. Despite Ted Kennedy's ballyhooed Obama endorsement, Clinton won those voters by a whopping 20 points, and the overall contest by 15.

In New Mexico, 14 percent decided on the final day. Clinton won them by 11 points, and the overall contest by one.

In California (a state where an Obama win would have shoved Clinton toward the exit door), 14 percent waited until the last day, and Clinton won them by eight points, cementing her victory.

Even in states where Obama was victorious, the undecideds trimmed his margins. In Virginia, 10 percent decided on the final day, and he split them with Clinton, roughly 50-50. In Wisconsin, 12 percent held back until the final day, and they too split roughly 50-50.

It's hard to imagine that undecided Pennsylvanians will break for Obama today; the state's political culture has long preferred familiar brands to the flavor of the month. And the latest surveys indicate that the undecideds are heavily concentrated on Hillary-friendly turf. A poll sponsored by MSNBC, McClatchy and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports a Clinton lead of only five points statewide, but finds that 11 percent of the folks in the so-called "T" region (between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia) were still undecided on primary eve.

Logic suggests that the late-deciders will stick with the person they know, rather than take a risk on Obama. Clinton's eleventh-hour TV ad, the one where she touts herself as the candidate best able to handle everything from Osama bin Laden to energy crises, seems aimed squarely at these voters. If she wins tonight, the undecideds could be crucial in padding her margin and helping her spin the bragging rights to maximum advantage.

And yet, there is also...

The army of the newbies. Roughly 307,000 new Democrats (potential first-time voters and party-switchers) have signed up for this primary. Assuming an overall record turnout of two million, the newbies could be roughly 14 percent of the total. And by every measure, Obama appears poised to win the newbies by a landslide. Nearly half of the new registrants hail from Obama territory - Philadelphia and its suburban counties (Bucks, Chester, Montgomery, Delaware, plus Lehigh and Berks); and roughly a third hail from counties with big college populations (Centre has Penn State, and Union has Bucknell). Some pollsters think that Obama will get anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of the newbies statewide.

So maybe the newbies trump the undecideds, in terms of sheer numbers and greater motivation to vote. Or not. The bottom line, for Clinton, is that her needs tonight are greater than Obama's. She needs to roll up a huge popular-vote victory - say, a 200,000-vote margin (attainable via a 10-point victory with two million people voting), in order to slash deeply into Obama's national lead of 700,000. She needs something of that magnitude to sell to the unpledged superdelegates. The newbies and the undecideds will help determine her future.

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"American Debate" is moving. This entry has been cross-posted at the new site, which will be fully operational in early May. The new address, suitable for book-marking, is http://go.philly.com/polman

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Just finished a gig as guest online chat host at The Washington Post. It's all about the primary. The transcript is here.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Washington Post wants you

I'm doing an online lunch-hour chat for The Washington Post at noon EST Tuesday, as guest chatterer, talking about the Pennsylvania primary and the state of the race. You're invited to visit the site and send in good questions, before or during the gig.

Always pleased with where they are

Whatever happens in the Pennsylvania primary tomorrow night, rest assured that Hillary Clinton’s spinmeisters will have it covered. Here’s a rhetorical tip sheet.


Scenario: Clinton wins in a landslide, by 10 percentage points or greater, trimming her national popular vote deficit to about 500,000, and cutting slightly into Obama’s national pledged delegate lead.

Spin: "It was 3 a.m. for America, and the common-sense voters of Pennsylvania answered the call. The bowlers and hunters of this great state stood up to the barrage of Obama TV ads, the flood of Obama money, and the hype about hope, and they simply said enough! The bowlers and hunters and worshippers and whiskey drinker all believe – as we do – that Senator Obama is an honorable man and a patriotic American, and tonight we are confident that they will join us in urging that Senator Obama immediately end his candidacy in the interests of party unity.

"He had a great run, while it lasted. We salute him for his contributions to this marathon race that we, of course, had anticipated all along. We always knew, even in our earliest planning stages, that April in Pennsylvania would prove to be the crucial time and place, the pivotal turning point, and we’d like to assure Senator Obama that his inclusion on Senator Clinton’s list of prospective running mates is virtually guaranteed. Unless, of course, she decides that Senator Obama would be more useful working for the next eight years as an assistant to the roving ambassador-in-chief."



Scenario: Clinton wins by modest single digits, a far cry from her original 20-point lead in the Pennsylvania polls, and she gains virtually no ground in the national pledged delegate count.

Spin: "A win is a win is a win. We always knew that this would be a close primary, and we always knew that many voters would inevitably be influenced by the barrage of Obama TV ads, the flood of Obama money, and the hype about hope. We always anticipated, even in our earliest planning stages, that Pennsylvania would be merely one marker in a long and arduous campaign, and now we will press ahead, firm in our belief that only a divided and fractious Democratic party can beat John McCain in November.

"As Senator Clinton has always stated, she is honored to share this race with Senator Obama - just as she is honored to question both his fitness for office, and his troublesome associations with people who might not love this country the way he undoubtedly does. We know that some want Senator Clinton to quit this race, just because she trails nationally in popular votes, pledged delegates, polls, states won, and campaign contributions. But real fighters don’t quit just because they don't always win. In fact, we sought all along to ensure that Senator Clinton would be the heavy underdog well into the spring season, in order to better demonstrate her fighting capabilities. That's why we changed campaign managers, fired our chief strategist, and allowed Senator Obama to win all the caucus states. All told, we’re very pleased with where we are."



Scenario: Clinton loses Pennsylvania.

Spin: "We're very pleased with where we are. We always knew that Pennsylvania would be a very tough environment for us. However, we strongly believe – as we have always believed – that the primary results in any state with 12 letters in its name, conducted at a point in the calendar when many potential voters are likely to be distracted by baseball games and spring cleaning, should be deemed an inaccurate representation of the electorate’s mood, and therefore illegitimate.

"Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania are crucial to this party’s prospects in November, and therefore we urge Senate Obama to join us in calling for re-votes in all three states. We think this would be an excellent way for Senator Obama to demonstrate his love of America, which of course is unimpeachable, as far as we know. We are confident that Louis Farrakhan, Rev. Wright, and William Ayers will not influence his decision to support a Pennsylvania re-vote.

"But even if Senator Obama retains his negligible national lead after all the re-votes, and after the remaining nine primaries are conducted, we nevertheless believe there should be no rush to judgment, and that the people should be heard. We’d like to see the democratic process play out. Accordingly, Senator Clinton, in the interests of fairness, fully intends to reset the primary calendar and start over. Come June, we’ll see you all in Iowa. Iowa, the great state of corn. When Senator Clinton was a child, traveling through Iowa on car trips, she often ate corn..."

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"American Debate" is moving. This entry has been cross-posted at the new site, which will be fully operational in early May. The new address, suitable for book-marking, is http://go.philly.com/polman

Friday, April 18, 2008

Attention all readers!

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you this special announcement:

This blog is being moved to a new platform, with a new address. Or, to put it more colloquially, this blog will soon have a new look. The changeover process officially begins on Monday.

My overseers at Philly.com are supervising the redesign. The work in progress – right now, a construction site – can be accessed today via the new address, http://go.philly.com/polman. I’m quite fond of the Americana iconography; now I won’t need to wear a flag pin.

Another big change is immediately obvious: the presence of advertisements. I have no problem with doing my bit for commerce. We all have to eat and pay the bills; if the new media are indeed the journalism vehicles of the future, they will naturally require sufficient revenue. Please be patient until your eyes adapt to the new aesthetic.

My online archives – the last 26 months of work – will remain stored on the old blog, forever accessible at this old address, www.dickpolman.blogspot.com, unless Google goes out of business. All new archives, starting with April 21, 2008, will be stored on the new blog.

Another big change: Readers wishing to post comments will be required to register on the new site. It’s free, naturally, and only needs to be done once. If you click on “post a comment,” the policy is further explained. The purpose is obvious: to raise the quality of the conversation, by making everyone more accountable for what they write. I assume that this policy will reduce the comment traffic for awhile; inevitably, some of you will bridle at the requirements. But I’m confident that, long term, many regular habitu├ęs of the old clamorous neighborhood will pick up and move to the new clamorous neighborhood.

I intend to ease into the changeover. Beginning Monday, and for the next several weeks, I plan to post simultaneously in both locales. The changeover will be completed – with this old site used strictly as an archive repository – on Friday, May 2, assuming that I suffer no cognitive glitches. Most importantly, I sincerely appreciate your continued patronage.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Obama shaken, rattled, and rolled

Just how bad was Barack Obama's debate performance last night? Not as bad as Britney Spears' song-and-dance routine at the MTV Awards. Not as bad as Bill Buckner's legendary error during the '86 World Series. Not as bad as Bob Dylan's music during his God phase. Not as bad as John Travolta's Scientology cinema experiment in Battlefield Earth. Not as bad as Mike Dukakis' fateful ride in a military tank.

In other words, Obama could have done worse. Neverthless, if he still harbors any hopes of driving Hillary Clinton from the Democratic race by scoring an upset victory in Pennsylvania, he might be wise to get real. It's hard to imagine that he won over the working-class, culturally-conservative Democrats who constitute the swing vote; if anything, his performance during the first 45 minutes of the debate may well have cemented their suspicions.

Obama's devotees will no doubt complain today that the ABC News inquisitors were grossly unfair, that they focused their fire on Obama while leaving Hillary Clinton relatively unscathed, and that they asked too many dirtball questions at Obama's expense. (George Stephanopoulos to Obama: "Do you think Rev. Wright loves America as much as you do?") Whatever. Whining about the media is the last resort of losers. The bottom line is that Obama didn't successfully adapt to the environment. For instance:

1. He muffed his latest explanation of his recent remarks on small-town America. He said last night: "The point I was making (last week at a private San Francisco fundraiser) was that when people feel like Washington's not listening to them, when they're promised year after year, decade after decade, that their economic situation is going to change, and it doesn't, then politically they end up focusing on those things that are constant, like religion. They end up feeling 'This is a place where I can find some refuge. This is something that I can count on.'" (italics mine)

I doubt that churchgoing small-towners will be satisified with that. They worship for affirmative spiritual reasons - "in good times and in bad times," as Clinton quickly pointed out last night. They don't think "politically" about the importance of worship. And, most importantly, they don't merely "end up" worshipping.

Obama defenders might dismiss all this as quibbles over wording. But, as Obama himself frequently points out, "words matter." And his latest words on the matter aren't likely to charm the voters whom he needs to break through in Pennsylvania.

Nor did he ever try to turn the tables, and offer a policy critique of the '90s, when the Bill Clinton administration fought for free-trade deals that hastened exoduc of jobs in those same communities. At one point in the debate, Hillary gave him an enormous opening when she lauded her husband's record ("an economy that lifted everybody up at the same time"). He failed to take it. Hillary gave him another opening when she lauded the importance of "good union jobs where people get a good wage." It's a matter of record that unions lost clout during the Clinton era, in part because her husband, even when he had a Democratic Congress, didn't push hard for legislation that would have curbed union-busting. But Obama didn't point this out, either.

2. He was only semi-coherent while discussing his ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. When asked to explain why in 2007 he had disinvited Wright to his announcement of candidacy, he said: "This was (because of) a set of remarks that had been quoted in Rolling Stone Magazine and we looked at them and I thought that they would be a distraction since he had just put them forward...They were not of the sort that we saw that offended so many Americans. And that's why I specifically said that these comments were objectionable; they're not comments that I believe in."

Huh? I thought this guy was supposed to have a golden tounge. He sounded rattled, fatigued, or both.

Clinton then took the opportunity to remind those culturally-conservative Pennsylvanians that Wright had delivered a sermon, right after 9/11, essentially blaming America for the terrorist attacks. Whereupon Obama felt compelled to say: "Absolutely, many of these remarks were objectionable. I've already said that I didn't hear them, because I wasn't in church that day. I didn't learn about those statements until much later." And regarding why he disinvited Wright to his announcement of candidacy, "that was on, that was on something entirely different...That, that was on a different statement."

Oh.

Imagine you were a Pennsylvania swing voter, wary of Obama or simply undecided, and you were watching this debate, and you were trying to unpack these responses. You may well have asked yourself: "He only thinks that Wright's 9/11 sermon was 'objectionable'? He kept Wright away from his candidate announcement not because of his 9/11 statements, but because of some other statements? Are we supposed to assume those other statements were worse? But wait, I did hear him say that he didn't learn about Wright's 9/11 statements 'until much later'...but when was that? And, hey, ya think it's plausible that a sharp guy like Obama wouldn't have known about Wright's 9/11 sermon pretty quickly? Without, like, six or seven years going by?"

3. He even failed to slam-dunk the easiest hot-button question of the evening. It came, via videotape, from a lady in Latrobe: "I want to know if you believe in the American flag. I am not questioning your patriotism, but all our servicemen, policemen and EMS wear the flag. I want to know why you don't." (ABC co-host Charlie Gibson added, "It's all over the Internet," as if that somehow validated the question.)

His response: "I have never said that I don't wear flag pins or refuse to wear flag pins. This is the kind of manufactured issue that our politics has become obsessed with and, once again, distracts us from what should be my job when I'm commander in chief..."

Instead of answering straightforwardly, Obama lied.

Contrast his statement last night with what he said on Oct. 3, 2007, when a TV reporter in Iowa asked why he wasn't wearing a flag pin: "You know, the truth is that, right after 9/11, I had a pin. Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we’re talking about the Iraq war, that (pin) became a substitute for, I think, true patriotism, which is (about) speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security. I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest. Instead, I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great and, hopefully, that will be a testimony to my patriotism."

Apparently, he decided last night that a truthful response would not be a sufficient pander; either that or he was too rattled to remember what he had once said. The bottom line, however, is that he had a golden opportunity to demonstrate the idiocy of this phony issue. He could have simply said this:

John McCain doesn't even wear a flag pin. In fact, when eight Republican candidates debated last autumn, seven of them did not wear flag pins.

4. He fumbled his responses to the newest scandale du jour, his Chicago associations with William Ayres, an English professor and neighbor who had been a bomber for the Weather Underground during the late '60s, and who remains unrepentant, telling The New York Times - on 9/11, no less - that "I don't regret setting bombs; I feel we didn't do enough."

Stephanopoulous broached this topic, which guarantees that the Ayres saga will be moving through the mainstream media bloodstream at least for the next few days. It had largely been simmering at the margins of the race. But now, on the eve of the Pennsylvania vote, it's potentially toxic for Obama, because many small-towners of a certain age don't have particularly fond memories of the days of rage.

Obama's initial impulse was to try to finesse the subject, then change it: "(Ayers) is not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis....The fact is, is that I'm also friendly with Tom Coburn, one of the most conservative Republicans in the United States Senate, who during his campaign once said that it might be appropriate to apply the death penalty to those who carried out abortions. Do I need to apologize for Mr. Coburn's statements? Because I certainly don't agree with those either."

Yeah...but was Obama well served by equating a U.S. senator with a guy who may have been connected to as many as 25 domestic bombings (the number claimed by the Weather Underground)? Obama's vague answer - that Ayres "is not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis" - gave Clinton an opening, and she drove a Hummer through it.

She said: "Senator Obama served on a board with Mr. Ayers for a period of time, the Woods Foundation, which was a paid directorship position. And if I'm not mistaken, that relationship with Mr. Ayers on this board continued after 9/11 and after his reported comments, which were deeply hurtful to people in New York, and I would hope to every American, because they were published on 9/11 and he said that he was just sorry they hadn't done more."

Again, imagine you were an undecided, culturally-conservative swing voter, and you were hungry for information about this new guy Obama, and now you were hearing about Ayers for the first time. And Obama gave a vague answer, whereupon he was immediately trumped by Clinton's revelation that Obama and Ayers served on a board together. The result? It looked as if Obama had been trying to minimize the association by hiding something...thereby making a relatively minor story look worse than it is.

By contrast, Clinton was crisp in her responses. Her full mea culpa on the Bosnia sniper lie - "I'm very sorry that I said it. And I have said that, you know, it just didn't jibe with what I had written about and knew to be the truth" - left little opportunity for follow up. And she was crisp and detailed when the debate finally moved to the policy front, particularly when the ABC inquisitors asked whether she would dare defy (may we all bow our heads in reverence at the mere mention of his name) General David Petraeus. Yes, she said, even if the surge is going well next January, she'd still require an incremental pullout plan: "You know, thankfully we have a system in our country of civilian control of the military."

Obama also had some good moments late in the debate, on substance. During an exchange about the future solvency of Social Security, for instance, he suggested the possibility of raising the payroll tax, Clinton knocked him for that and suggested instead that somebody should appoint a bipartisan commission to study the matter...and Obama quickly pointed out that, when a bipartisan commission last met, back in 1983, it wound up raising the payroll tax, and that the sky didn't fall.

But the viewing audience is biggest during the first 45 minutes, and it's questionable whether a sufficient number of Obama skeptics stuck around to hear him recoup on policy. So I score the night for Clinton...with John McCain smiling in the wings.


This piece has been cross-posted here, for easy emailing to friend or foe.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Actions speak louder than words

Focusing on his real audience - the unpledged Democratic superdelegates, and the independent voters who will ultimately swing the November election - here's what Barack Obama needs to say tonight during the debate in Philadelphia (assuming he hasn't sufficiently damaged himself already):

"...I'm glad that Senator Clinton has again brought up my remarks about small-town America, because I do have a few things to say about that. Obviously, as I have repeatedly admitted, I regret my choice of words and intended no disrespect. Yet while we continue to fight over words, we risk ignoring the real problem: that actions speak louder than words. And it is the actions of several recent administrations - or perhaps I should say inactions - that have put small-town hard-working Americans so deep in the hole.

"I'm speaking not just of President Bush, of whom we naturally expected so little, but also of my opponent's husband, of whom we expected so much.

"Senator Clinton has called my words 'elitist.' But where was she during the '90s, when she was supposedly gaining White House experience, when Bill Clinton took a series of actions that benefited the elite at the expense of the small-town worker? It is a matter of record that NAFTA, which President Clinton fought for and signed in 1993, without sufficient protections for domestic workers, has severely hastened the exodus of jobs from so many of these towns, and worsened the living conditions of the very people that Senator Clinton professes to speak for today.

"In 2000, her husband also successfully pushed for giving permanent trade privileges to China, again without adequate safeguards for adversely affected American workers. Her husband also said, 'the evidence is clear that not just in the long run but in the near run, we'll have more job gains than job losses' out of these trade deals. Well, tell that to the small-town workers in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in America. In fact, one of the Democratic congressmen here in Pennsylvania, Tim Holden, said a few years back that 'Pennsylvania has been the most adversely affected state in the union as a result of these trade agreements that we entered into.' Those were elitist actions, and actions speak louder than words.

"You know, it was Henry Ford who once said, 'I gotta pay my workers enough so there is somebody to buy the cars they are making.' But now we have a situation where companies are firing their own customers. They're shipping the jobs overseas, then goods get made overseas, then the goods are shipped back here to be sold - but the problem is, laid-off Pennsylvanians can't afford to buy them. That's all the result of elitist actions, and actions speak louder than words.

"By the way, organized labor leaders noticed all this happening back when Senator Clinton was partnering with her husband. Way back in 1995, one top Democratic labor strategist said in the newspapers that 'there's a lingering feeling among many in the rank and file that you can't quite put all your trust in this guy.' Another said, 'They screwed us on NAFTA, what have they done for us?' I'd invite Senator Clinton, who today champions the economic underdog, to tell us why she never uttered a word of protest during her in-house training for the presidency.

"Yes, actions speak louder than words - and so do statistics. The Census Bureau reported in 2000 that the income gap between rich and poor actually widened during the Clinton years, and that every household income category below $80,000 lost ground during the Clinton years. The median wage, adjusted for inflation, was actually lower than what it had been in 1989, when the first George Bush took office. And, in fact, during the final year of the Clinton era, the average CEO compensation at Fortune 500 companies was $37.5 million, while the average worker salary of all companies was $38,000.

"So let's take a break from all this back-and-forth about bad wordplay, and give this issue the context it deserves. I would expect John McCain to make the 'elitist' charge, because it's a great way to divert attention from his new economic plan - which offers fiscally irresponsible tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans, including CEOs, at the expense of the small-town Americans whom he professes to revere, and which offers huge new tax cuts to the same corporate sector that is outsourcing these jobs I'm talking about. But I expected better from Senator Clinton. The least she can do, right now, is to explain the elitist economic actions of the Clinton era - explain and defend, or reject and denounce. Unless she truly believes that actions are less important than words.

"Senator? Go right ahead."