Thursday, January 31, 2008

January 30, 2008

     Now they are four.  Sort of.  Kind of.
     The Republican race is between Mitt Romney and Florida winner, John McCain, and the early betting is on McCain.  Technically, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul are still in the race, but they're not doing much and they are not getting and won't get much news coverage.  And coverage matters.  You can't shake enough hands in the twenty-plus states that vote next Tuesday to make a difference;  it comes down to news coverage and TV ads, mostly.  And it's a two-man race.  Republicans like order, like to have a nominee, and probably dislike primary scuffling more than Democrats.  So there's a good chance Super Tuesday could decide it.
     The Democrats have a two-person race, too.  Technically, former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel hasn't withdrawn (unless I missed it, and I might have) but he's not campaigning and doesn't matter;  it's between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
     That's harder to pick.  Clinton was in the field first, organizing.  But Obama is hot, coming off South Carolina.  And I think Bill Clinton annoyed a lot of voters by going negative against Obama.  Can candidate Clinton get ex-president Clinton to shut up?  We'll find out.  And who'd be in charge in a new Clinton White House anyway?  And would he still be romancing interns?  Or would it be her turn?  Hard questions all.
     The late Molly Ivins, a gifted political reporter, used to say that American politics was the best free entertainment the world has ever known.  She'd have loved this one.  I miss her.    

Monday, January 28, 2008

January 28, 2008

     I don't think endorsements matter much.  Maybe a trade union's, if it can turn out its members.  Or a governor's, if he has a good organization in his state.  But mostly not.  But when three Kennedys endorsed Barack Obama Monday, that may have been special, the exception that proves the rule.
     Why?  Because it was emotional, more than political.  Because three people who remember the Kennedy legend--the kid brother, his son, the murdered president's daughter--all compared Obama to JFK.  They said Obama reminded them of Kennedy, of those hopes, those times, the belief that a political movement really could change the country and the world for the better.
     The hand-held signs the packed crowd waved didn't say Obama, they said "Change."  And the crowd didn't chant Obama's name--well,once or twice, maybe--they chanted things like "Yes, we can."  Edward Kennedy was young back then;  he's the white-haired, liberal lion of the Senate now, needing to wear glasses for his speech, but he reminded the mostly young crowd--the event was at a university--of the spirit of the sixties, the hopes of change.  And change,of course, did happen.  The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act passed.  Legal segregation vanished.  End of racism?  Of course not, but change for the better, for sure.
     And when Obama spoke, he talked of change.  He didn't promise it;  he told the crowd, and the other crowd watching on TV, that if they joined him, all of them together could make change, transform the country, maybe light up the world.  And listening--he gives a very good speech indeed--listening, you could believe.
     I don't know if he'll win the nomination;  I don't know if he'll win the presidency.  But listening, you could believe.  And if you think, as I do, that American politics has been shabby and unpleasant in recent years, that belief was a welcome shock.
     Robert Kennedy used to end his stump speech in 1968 with a quote from George Bernard Show: "Most men see things as they are and ask why.  But I dream things that never were, and ask why not."  Listening to Obama, you could dream again.  A fine feeling, for a change. 

Sunday, January 27, 2008

January 27, 2008

     Onward!   For the Republicans it's on to Florida this Tuesday.  Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani has been campaigning there, ignoring the earlier states.  But his poll numbers have been dropping and Florida may end up like South Carolina--a battle between John McCain and Mitt Romney.  But it'll be a different kind of fight.
     The states McCain has so far won, like South Carolina, are states with open primaries--primaries, in other words, in which independents can vote, and they've voted for him..  Florida's primary is closed--only registered Republicans can play.  Will McCain do as well with that electorate?  We'll find out.  If he wins, he'll head into Super Tuesday, February 5th, on a real roll.  If not, it'll be wide open, with McCain and Romney battling it out, unless Giuliani wins, which seems unlikely.
     The Democrats head straight into Super Tuesday and the game, of course, has changed.  In Iowa and New Hampshire you can--in fact you have to--do retail politicking--twenty people in a coffee shop or a living room.  That won't work in big states with many markets--California, New York, Illinois and so on.  Campaigning in those states is mostly by TV spots and depends more on how much money you have than on how many stops your plane or bus can make in a day.  Free media--news coverage--matters too.
     The Clintons know this, of course, so it was no surprise to find Bill Clinton attacking the press for unfairness toward his wife in the days before the South Carolina vote.  What may have been a surprise, though not to those who know the couple, was his emergence this past week as a full-fledged co-candidate. He took over the last few days in South Carolina;  she moved on to other states.
     And that raises a question for voters:  how do they feel about a co-presidency?  If he's a co-candidate, wouldn't he be a co-president, too?  As columnist Frank Rich noted in the New York Times, "Any Democrat who seriously thinks that Bill will fade away if Hillary wins the a Democrat who, as the man has said, believes in fairy tales."
     And of course there'll be more and more press scrutiny of the former president and what he's been doing since he left office, scrutiny which might help or hurt the Clintons depending on what it turns up.
     Anyway, stay tuned.  Boy, is it ever not over.      

Thursday, January 24, 2008

January 24, 2008

     The Democrats vote in South Carolina this Saturday and it's probably fair to say that if Barack Obama loses, his run for the presidency is done.  So the stakes are high and, not by coincidence, the campaign has gotten ugly.
     Bill Clinton, who had been campaigning the way a dignified, white-haired ex-president might be expected to campaign, has turned into his wife's attack dog, a role the vice presidential candidate usually plays in the general election.  Obama's consistent opposition to the war in Iraq is "a fairy tale."  Not true, but hey, it's a campaign.  Obama's doing a hit job on him, or was it his wife, and the press is out to get him too.  "Shame on you," he lectured one reporter.  Well, maybe, Mr. President, it ought to be shame on you.
     On the trail, Clinton (the ex-prez, not the candidate) talks a lot about his record, about what "I've" done or what "we've" accomplished.  If the quotes I see in the papers are accurate, he sounds a lot like a man running for a third term.  And maybe, of course, he is.
     No one really knows how anybody else's marriage works, or doesn't work, and certainly the Clintons have always operated as a team.   Mrs. Clinton talks a lot about her experience, though the one policy initiative she was most publicly involved in--health insurance, proposed  during her husband's first term--was, of course, a disaster.  Who would be calling the shots in a Hillary Clinton administration?  We don't know;  it's fair to guess it would be some kind of partnership, but who would be in charge?  Good question.
     One other thing rankles a bit--the impression the Clintons project that they're entitled to another lease on the White House.  The fact is, it's not a family franchise the way Buckingham Palace is for the Queen.  We've already had twenty years of Bushes and Clintons being in charge.  If we elect Hillary, will Jeb be waiting in the wings?  I don't know about you but I'd  like a new name--Smith or Jones, maybe.  Or Obama or McCain, come to that.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

January 20, 2008

Nevadans and South Carolina Republicans have sounded off and the race in both parties is still wide open, though some candidates are limping a bit. One--California Congressman Duncan Hunter--has dropped out but that's okay because most folks probably never knew he was in.

Otherwise? Hillary Clinton won Nevada but not really. The New York Times reported that Barack Obama actually wound up with one more delegate than Mrs. Clinton, which only proves that caucuses are complicated things. A really meaningful test will come next Saturday, when South Carolina Democrats hold their primary. That may be something of a make or break state for Obama. Roughly half the primary voters, maybe more than half, are likely to be black and if he can't score well among them, he could be in real trouble down the road. Good news for Clinton in Nevada: she did well among Hispanics in the first state in which they were a sizeable chunk of the electorate.

The Republicans? Bad news for Mike Huckabee, who won in Iowa with the backing of evangelical Christians. There are plenty of those in South Carolina, too--about 60% of Republican voters, according to the exit polls. But while Huckabee got four in ten of them, about a quarter of them voted for McCain.

It must have felt good for McCain, winning in the state that wrecked his candidacy eight years ago. But there is a caution flag out for him, too. The states he's won--New Hampshire and South Carolina--held open primaries; independents could vote. They were a big plus for McCain, whose margin with them was sometimes better than with Republicans. The next big test is Florida on January 29th, and that's a closed primary; only registered party members can vote.

So, onward. The Democrats face South Carolina and then both parties will vote in Florida. Will anyone have a lock on the nomination before the Super Tuesday slugfest February 5th? Beats me.

Friday, January 18, 2008

January 18, 2008

We haven't had one of these in about forever, but a multiballot convention might be possible now. It really might.
The Republicans have had four contests so far and three different winners--Mike Huckabee in Iowa, John McCain in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney in Wyoming (he won eight delegates, no big deal) and Michigan. This adds up to no front runner. It's unlikely that this weekend's events--Nevada caucuses for both parties and a South Carolina primary for the GOP--will change that.
South Carolina did McCain in in 2000. A stunningly dirty campaign featured a rumor that he'd fathered a black child. The McCains do have a black daughter, as it happens, but they adopted her from an orphanage in Bangladesh. We should all hope that the negatives will be less nasty this time and that the McCain camp will be quicker to label lies for what they are.
So, on Sunday there probably still won't be a GOP frontrunner and it's entirely possible there'll be no frontrunner heading into February 5th, when Republicans hold primaries and caucuses in 21 states.
The same thing could happen to the Democrats. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton split Iowa and New Hampshire; Michigan and Wyoming were Republican events. And who knows? Even February 5th might not produce a clear frontrunner. This raises something political reporters recently have only dreamt of--an actual, contested convention, with the nominee not chosen on the first ballot. I mean, what if Fred Thompson does well in South Carolina? What if Rudy Giuliani is rewarded for planting all those palm trees in Florida? Wouldn't that be a treat?
The Republicans' last multiballot convention was more than half a century ago, in 1948, when New York Gov. Thomas Dewey was nominated on the third ballot. The Democrats' last one was four years later, in 1952, when Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson was nominated, also on the third ballot. It is only fair to note that both these nominees lost--Dewey to Harry Truman and Stevenson (twice) to Dwight Eisenhower.
No one, of course, wants to emulate 1924 when the Democrats took 103 ballots to nominate John Davis, who wound up losing to Calvin Coolidge anyway. But it would be kind of fun, don't you think, to hear Charlie, or Katie, or whomever saying, "And as we prepare for the fifth ballot, there seems to be movement toward...." Be different anyway.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

January 15, 2008

     It was silly to think we could have a presidential campaign with a serious black candidate and not have race as an issue.  Now it is an issue, sort of, kind of.   Senator Hillary Clinton probably started it when she said that Martin Luther King's dream "began to be realized when President Johnson passed the (1964) Civil Rights Act."
     Not exactly.  Both men worked to help the Act become law.  King did it as a moral leader, the Gandhi of his generation, who could, with his words, energize a nation to pursue a dream.  Johnson did it as the president who'd been a senator, who knew all the arms to twist.  The Senate passed the bill by summoning 67 votes to end a filibuster which had lasted fifty-seven working days, and lots of people deserve some of the credit.  Republican Senate leader Everett Dirksen, quoting Victor Hugo: "Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come."  Democrat Clair Engle of California, mortally ill, unable to speak, pointing to his eye to indicate that was how he wanted to vote.  Lots of people.
     And King and Johnson talked, of course.  The next year King urged a voting rights bill.  Johnson agreed, said a march would help. They marched at Selma, Alabama, and state troopers clubbed them.  John Lewis, now a Congressman from Georgia and a Clinton backer, got a fractured skull that day. They marched again with federal protection.  The bill passed.  Two very different men who shared a goal.
     We haven't reached the goal of ending racism, of course.  But we have inched forward.  Those bills, which those two very different men helped pass, meant progress.  We keep moving forward, though not quickly.  It is silly, surely, to suggest that Senator Clinton would want to slow that progress.  It is silly as well to suggest that Barack Obama would.  John Lewis says Obama is "no Martin Luther King" and that's probably true, but who among us is?  No country gets a star that bright very often.
     We can argue about tactics.  Did school busing work?  Is affirmative action a good idea?  But surely Clinton and Obama and most of us believe in the words that got us started:  "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...."  And surely Clinton and Obama and most of us nowadays could still march to the old civil rights movement hymn:  "Black and white together, we shall overcome some day."  It's coming;  it's just not coming quickly.   

Sunday, January 13, 2008

January 13, 2008

Okay, it's Michigan's turn. Troubled state. Unemployment is at 7.4%, highest of any state, almost 50% above the national average. And Mitt Romney, whose dad was governor there, is talking jobs. "What Michigan is experiencing the whole nation will experience unless we fix what's happening in Michigan...." Well, no.

The whole nation is not as dependent on the automobile industry as Michigan. The whole country hasn't lost jobs because Americans buy more foreign cars than they used to. Romney also jumped on John McCain for saying that some of those Michigan jobs are gone forever. But, of course, they are. "I had to give some straight talk," McCain said. "Jobs...have left and will not come back, but we're going to create jobs, we're going to create a new economy."

And of course that is what will have to happen if Michigan is to recover. You can't go back to the old Big Three carmakers; you have to go in new, high tech directions. Romney's home state, Massachusetts, has done well at that, sparked by the runoff from universities like MIT and Harvard. Do any of the candidates know how to do that in Michigan? If one of them wins, we may find out.

Meanwhile, polls in Michigan show McCain and Romney about even, with Mike Huckabee within striking distance in third place. Unlike the other two, Huckabee stresses his religion. "For a long time, those of us who are people of faith have been asked to support a candidate who would talk to us. But rarely has there been one who comes from us." He means himself, of course. He also stresses his opposition to abortion, and plans to stay in the state through the primary, hoping to upset the frontrunners.

The others? Fred Thompson is in South Carolina. Rudy Giuliani has in effect conceeded all the early states and is hanging out in Florida. I mean, what the heck, the beaches are good and there's terrific seafood if you know where to go. He's been there so long that by now he probably does. Who needs the presidency anyway? Try the pompano.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

January 9 (out of sequence)

If you like politics, New Hampshire's primary was about as good as it gets.

There was Barack Obama, the Democratic winner in Iowa, finishing second behind Hillary Clinton, who was third in Iowa. There was Mike Huckabee, the Republican winner in Iowa, finishing third in New Hampshire behind John McCain, who was fourth in Iowa. There was Mitt Romney, who spent millions in these early states, finishing second again. Who's a frontrunner now? I have no idea.

And even the calendar has gotten complicated. The next test for Republicans is Michigan on the 15th. The Democrats punished Michigan for moving its primary to such an early date by voting to strip the state of all its delegates to the party convention. They did the same thing to Florida, which moved its primary up to January 29th. It's hard to imagine those two big states won't eventually have delegates at the convention. The eventual nominee will probably demand it, but for now Republicans will be campaigning hard in them. Democrats won't.

January 19th? Nevada caucuses; it's the first time the state has tried caucuses. Stay tuned. We're used to the South Carolina primary, but this year it's on two different dates--the Republicans on Jan. 19th, the Dems on the 26th. The Democratic race may be the more interesting. About half the state's voters in that contest will be black. The Clintons have always done well with African-American voters; Maya Angelou called Bill Clinton the first black president. But how will his wife do against Obama who, of course, is black?

Florida votes on the 29th--again, only Republican delegates are at stake. It's where former New York mayor Rudolf Giuliani--7th in Iowa, 4th in New Hampshire--has spent a lot of time, but so many others will have won so many other events by then it may not do him any good.

And then Super Tuesday, twenty-four states including the heavy hitters--New York, California and so on. That may decide it. But look at the wonderful, confusing weeks we'll have between now and then. This really is about as good as it gets.

Friday, January 11, 2008

January 10, 2008

     According to data posted on the internet by the Center for Responsive Politics, the various presidential candidates raised about 420 million dollars in the first three quarters of 2007.  More by now, of course, but those numbers aren't available yet.
     Some raised more than others.  Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were the leading Democrats:  she, with over ninety million;  he, with eighty.  Long shot New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has dropped out, raised over eighteen million;  Dennis Kucinich, who hasn't, raised about two.
     Is this fair?  Well, no.  A Clinton starts out with huge advantages--husband an ex-president, all the lists he assembled during his campaigns, and so on.  An Obama has fewer advantages;  a Kucinich, apparently, fewer still.   And so we come back to an old question:  should we switch to public financing? 
     It's available now, of course, but there's a catch.  If you take government money, you have to agree to government spending limits--state by state.  So when Senator Clinton announced early in 2007 that she wasn't going to use public financing, other potential candidates knew that if they did, they were going to be outspent big time.
     How would pubic financing work?  You could do it in several ways--simply give the campaigns money,  mandate free TV time for them, or some combination of those.  What it would do, of course, is lessen the power of the fat cats--the corporate bundlers, the law firms, the lobbyists.  It would mean less influence by various interest groups on the election process and, therefore, more clout for the average voter.
     Do we want this?  Congress doesn't;  public financing bills get proposed from time to time but don't pass.  Is that because the Congressmen are already elected, have lists from their last campaign and that people thinking about running against them now probably don't?  What do you think? 

Monday, January 7, 2008

January 7, 2008

     Tension time, today and tomorrow.  Candidates sweating, campaigns facing death.  Negatives springing up in New Hampshire's fertile soil.  No wonder;  the vote's coming up, and while Iowa removed some long shots--senators Biden and Dodd--New Hampshire may kill off a one-time frontrunner.  Or two.
     But it isn't, as some wise person once said, over 'til it's over."  One poll has Barack Obama ten points ahead of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, which sounds like a landslide.  But if you keep reading, you learn that the poll's margin of error is plus or minus five points, so the seeming landslide is in fact a statistical tie.  And while polls are useful, they are snapshots, not predictions.
     Still, it's fun to see that Clinton, as well as Obama, is now the candidate of change.  She's been in the public eye for fifteen years now so that may be a stretch.  But if she gets away with it, more power to her.  And if she doesn't, her campaign may well be over.
     The Republican race is harder to read.  Mike Huckabee's victory in Iowa was based on the votes of evangelical Christians and there are fewer of them in New Hampshire.  But Mitt Romney in recent appearances has sounded evasive and flip-floppy.  John McCain in the big weekend debate called him the "candidate of change" not meaning it as a compliment.  And when Romney told Mike Huckabee not to criticize his position on an issue, Huckabee shot back, "Which one?"
     Actually, if I could have one wish magically granted, it would be for more civility--not in the campaign, which has been quite polite so far, but in the Congress.   I can remember Robert Michel of Illinois, the Republican leader in the House from 1980-1995, talking about how they'd argue an issue hammer and tongs but, at the end of the day, you'd still be friends with the folks you'd been yelling at.
     That changed for many reasons:  leaders like Newt Gingrich preferred partisanship to collegiality;  more and more visits made home to campaign or raise money;  and so on.  Members don't know each other as well as they used to.  Maybe you can't go back, but Congress worked better back then and maybe, just maybe, some of the new people who get elected this year will want to give civility a try.


Friday, January 4, 2008

January 4, 2008

     It was different--Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee, not Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney--and it was fun.  Now on to New Hampshire and what happens there.
     First, the Democrats.  Hillary Clinton, trumpeted by many in recent months as the inevitable nominee, has lost that aura.  She has the money to come back in New Hampshire and her spokesmen now say they're ready for a marathon campaign.  But there are worrisome signs for her.
     Change was the issue most Democratic caucus goers cited in Iowa and, of course, that was Obama's issue.  Clinton cited her experience.  Obama had a huge lead over Clinton among independents (41--23%).  They make up the largest voting bloc in New Hampshire and can vote in either party's primary there.  Obama led among young and middle-aged voters;  Clinton, only among those over sixty.  That's not to say that New Hampshire independents will vote the same way as those in Iowa but, if you're a Clinton backer, it's not a good sign.  And I have a feeling--no poll question quite asked this--that a lot of Americans are fed up with twenty years of Bushes and Clintons and just want somebody new.
     Anyway, if you're Clinton, New Hampshire is probably a make or break state.  Robert Shrum, a veteran Democratic consultant who was John Kerry's senior strategist in 2004, told the New York Times, "If Hillary doesn't stop Obama in New Hampshire, Obama is going to be the Democratic nominee,"  and that sounds about right.  Her husband finished out of the money in Iowa in 1992, then finished second in New Hampshire, labeled himself the Comeback Kid and won the nomination.  A repeat of that seems unlikely.
     Republicans?  A whole different game.  60% of Iowa's Republican caucus goers told entrance pollsters they were evangelical Christians.  Mike Huckabee got 46% of them, far ahead of Mitt Romney's 19%.  But New Hampshire Republicans are less evangelical, more anti-tax.   Huckabee has been attacked for raising some taxes as governor of Arkansas, though he answers that he's cut others.  He's likeable, has a sense of humor even about himself--unusual in presidential candidates--but will New Hampshire Republicans support a candidate who doesn't believe in evolution?  I don't know.
    Huckabee's win in Iowa hurts Mitt Romney, who spent time and money in the state.  It doesn't much hurt John McCain, who didn't and who won the Granite State eight years ago.  So New Hampshire could end up a battle between Romney and McCain.  Both parties may have two-person races by next Wednesday. 
     One thing's for sure:  real voting is a lot more fun than straw polls, don't you think?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

January 1, 2008

Bob Herbert reminds us in today's New York Times that 1968 was forty years ago, now that we're in '08, and we haven't really gotten over it yet.

'68 started with an unpopular president, Lyndon Johnson, waging an unpopular war in Vietnam. A relatively unknown senator, Eugene McCarthy, ran against Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Kids flooded the state for him; "neat and clean for Gene" was the slogan; and he got 42% of the vote. Johnson withdrew, though an aide told me years later that some time after making his withdrawal announcement, Johnson did consider rigging a draft. He decided not to.

Robert Kennedy ran and seemed to spark hope among all kinds of Americans. And then Martin Luther King was murdered and American cities burned. Kennedy broke the news to a mostly black crowd in Indianapolis and said in a moving and almost incoherent speech, "I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times." And then he was killed and a great many Americans who thought they could change the world decided that no, they couldn't.

And here we still are. What we need, I think, is a president who again wants to change the world. This administration has cheapened the United States, lowered its standards, dirtied its image around the world. This administration claims the right to use torture, the right to imprison people it doesn't like indefinitely without letting them know what they're accused of or what, if any, evidence there is against them. It has held prisoners secretly in foreign countries. It has claimed the right to tap our telephones and read our mail without court orders. It has claimed the right to start wars, though the Constitution says Congress is supposed to do that. And so on and so on. It's a long list.

I hope the next president, whoever he or she may be, goes back to the older America, the one the men who wrote the Constitution had in mind, a limited government, a president with limited powers, not a king, a government of laws and not of men. We need a leader like that; I hope we get one.