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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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.


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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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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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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