Thursday, February 28, 2008

February 27, 2008

     2008, I think, is a fine year for American voters.  The almost certain Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, is a genuine hero with a distinguished autobiography, whether you agree with him on issues or not.  I disagree with him on a number of things, but if he were elected I would feel the country was in good, caring hands.
     The Democrats, as we saw again Tuesday night, have two able candidates--articulate, thoughtful and not, in spite of some disagreements, really very far apart on the issues.  On health care, Hillary Clinton would require Americans to have it;  Barack Obama would try to make it cheap enough that everyone would want to have it.  But the fact is that any bill either of them, as president, would send to Congress would change and evolve a good bit before it finally passed.
     The differences between the two seem more about personality that positions.  There's an ease about Obama;  there's also stirring rhetoric and some idealism, which might get bruised if he gets the job.  But he's cool and calm and confident.  Clinton seemed a bit more strident in this twentieth--can you imagine twenty?--debate.  She drew a mixture of applause and boos when she complained about always having to answer first, though one could just as easily say that gave her an advantage.  Obama acknowledged her attacks, saying only that he hadn't whined about them because campaigns are like that.   And, of course, they are.
     Next Tuesday four more states vote.  Two of them--Texas and Ohio--are the big tests, lots of delegates at stake.  And that may decide it.  If not, maybe the superdelegates will have to do that.  Lord knows the Democrats have enough of them--almost eight hundred.  As Geraldine Ferraro--Walter Mondale's running mate in 1984--noted in a recent op ed piece, that's why the party created them.  Old fashioned, small-d democrats like me would rather have the voters do it.  But we'll see.
     In the meantime, we should count our blessings.  Some really good people are running this year.

Monday, February 25, 2008

February 25, 2008

     No, I wouldn't have run the story and I'm disappointed that the New York Times did, on a couple of grounds.
     First, I thought it was bad journalism.  If you're going to run a story about presidential sex, you ought to have it firmly nailed down.  I mean, there was Gary Hart on the good ship "Monkey Business" and there was what's her name, Donna Rice, in his lap, and, hey, not much doubt about what was going on.  And even more flamboyant, Bill Clinton.  Paula Jones announcing her affair with him at a conservative political meeting;  Clinton himself  having, if I remember right, oral sex with Monica Lewinsky while on the phone with a Congressman.  And the semen stain on the dress.  And the jokes about presidential knee-pads.
     And he lied about it under oath:  "I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."  Hunh?  Oral doesn't count. The House impeached him, more for the lying than anything else, and the Senate acquitted him.  It would have been impossible not to report most of that.
     The Times' story lacked any facts.  It talked about McCain aides who suspected an affair, aides who  worried  McCain might be having an affair.  As The New Republic wrote, "the piece delicately steps around purported romance and instead reports on the debate within the McCain campaign about the alleged affair."  One canceled hotel bill, one receipt for a rented beach cottage and the whole picture might have looked different.  But the Times just didn't have the proof it needed to run the piece, it seems to me.
     That's one level of debate.  Another is whether politicians' sex lives, adulterous or not, are any of our business.  I remember the late Hugh Sidey, who covered the Kennedy White house for Time Magazine, saying that all the regular White House reporters knew about the girlfriends, but that somehow there were always other things--the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis-- that seemed more important to write about.  That, of course, was almost half a century ago and times do change.
     Bill Clinton, again, may have proved that presidential sex sometimes must be reported.  Maybe that's his legacy--you can't ignore an impeachment.   But this story?  Even if it were true--and again, I don't think the Times made that case--even if it were true, so what?  It was eight or nine years ago.  Did it make McCain a less effective senator? The story says he wrote letters for some of her clients, but senators do that stuff all the time as a favor to a campaign contributor, an old friend, whomever.  The story offers no proof that he changed a vote, for instance, to make this lobbyist happy.
   So, on both grounds, I think the Times--and I'm normally a fan-- I think the Times messed up.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

February 20, 2008

     Barack Obama broadened his appeal again in Wisconsin.  Hillary Clinton carried white women 52--47, but Obama won among white men 63--34 and won all age groups except for voters sixty-five and older.  He won among self-described Democrats and independents, carried liberals and moderate/conservatives, carried those with and those without a college degree, those who made more than $ 50,000 a year and those who made less.  It may be time for words like "Obamamentum" and "Obandwagon."
     The question is, can Clinton turn this around, and it's not easy to answer.  Her people talk about how she'll do well with working class Ohioans (Ohio and Texas, two big states, vote on March 4th), but Obama carried those working class voters in Wisconsin.  Clinton people talk about prominent Democrats in Texas who support her, but  endorsements often don't matter much.  Momentum--there we go again--does.
     Front-runners have come unglued before:  Edmund Muskie in the Democratic primaries in 1972, for example.  But he started losing after TV cameras caught an emotional outburst--he choked up, broke down, whatever--while denouncing the publisher of a New Hampshire newspaper.  The images were devastating.  Maybe presidents can cry nowadays--I don't think Clinton's tearful moment hurt her, in fact, it probably made her seem more human, more sympathetic--but Muskie's tears back then did him in.  "I was for him,"  I remember a cab driver saying, "until he sat down in the snow and cried."  He, in fact, was standing up, but so what?
     With Wisconsin and Hawaii, Obama has now won ten straight.  I don't remember a front-runner losing after a streak like that.  Walter Mondale and Gary Hart went down to the wire in 1984, Ronald Reagan and President Gerald Ford in 1976, but none of them ever won ten in a row.
     The Economist magazine may have it right this week.  The cover showed Obama and the caption read, "But can he deliver?"   That may be the net question.  I don't know if we'll ever learn how he'd do as president, but as the Democratic nominee?  I think we'll find out.


Monday, February 18, 2008

February 18, 2008

I've seen a few polls this President's Day weekend about who our greatest presidents have been. One of them listed our current president, George W. Bush, as the 10th best ever, another had him third best. What have these samples been smoking? I'm no expert on James Polk or Millard Fillmore, but I'd put them way ahead of this guy, who comes near the bottom of my own personal list. Pollsters explain that recency matters in polls like these; voters give you the names they've heard lately. That would also explain why Bill Clinton was in the top ten, a choice which otherwise be a huge puzzle to me--average, okay, but one of the best? Come on.

No argument, though, about the man both polls picked as our best: Abraham Lincoln. You can make a a case, of course, for George Washington (everything he did was a precedent) or Thomas Jefferson or Franklin Roosevelt, who led the country through a huge depression and a huge war. But it's hard to argue with Lincoln.

For one thing, he had a way with words: "No man is good enough to govern another man without that man's consent." Or, "...we here highly resolve...that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth." Oh, yes, a way with words.

One of the two finalists in this year's Democratic presidential race is a pretty good speaker too. Not in Lincoln's class, of course, but Barack Obama does bring crowds to their feet, chanting, "Yes we can!" and "Ready to go!" and things like that. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, lacks that gift. Her speeches are earnest and informative--she's very good on the specifics on various programs--but they don't pull listeners out of their chairs the way his do.

Mrs. Clinton tends to cite her experience, and she certainly has more of it--more time in the Senate, eight years as First Lady for whatever that's worth--than he does. But then there's Lincoln again. His Washington experience was less than Obama's: two years in the House of Representatives.

My own feeling is that the job tests presidents in unexpected ways. Experience may not help much. Character--think of Lincoln again--can help a president navigate unfamiliar waters and character is what we voters have to try to judge.

Friday, February 15, 2008

February 15, 2008

The President is messing about with my country again. I wish he'd stop.

The President wants the authority to spy on us--tap our phones, stick mikes in our living rooms, open our mail without having to get permission from a court first. The U.S. has a special secret court to handle such requests, but the President doesn't want the bother of dealing with it--a waste of time, he said. But spying on people without having to show a court why you should is not the America that I grew up with.

The President proposes to try some of the Guantanamo prisoners without letting their lawyers know what the charges are against the prisoners or what evidence the government has against them. That is not the America that I grew up in either.

The President says the United States doesn't interrogate using torture. But the CIA has used waterboarding--where they flood you to make you think you're drowning--and a lot of people, including one of the relatively few Americans who have been tortured, John McCain, thinks it is. An America that uses torture isn't the country I grew up in either.

And then there's the President's habit, after signing a bill into law, of telling us which parts of the new law he'll obey, and which parts he won't. The men who wrote the Constitution certainly never imagined an imperial president with powers like that. And that's not part of the country I grew up with either.

This is not new. In wartime, presidents usually want to give the government more power and make the citizens less free. Safety, they say, is the most important thing. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. Presidents never ask the citizens to vote on the issue, of course, and I've always wondered how much freedom Americans would voluntarily give up to be more safe in time of war.

It's a tough question, but not for this president, who would, I think, be perfectly happy reminding us every day of the phrase so popular in the unfree world of George Orwell's novel "1984." The phrase? "Big brother is watching you." W would be happy to help.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

February 13, 2008

Barack Obama's coalition broadened in Tuesday's voting. In Virginia he narrowly carried whites, according to exit polls, carried white men by fourteen points. He carried all age groups; it was only close among voters over 65. He carried liberals and those who called themselves moderate/conservatives.

Maryland was pretty much the same. Of the various demographic and ethnic groups, Hillary Clinton carried only white women. And she was close only among voters over 65. Another top campaign official resigned.

Well, the Wisconsin primary is next Tuesday and then the Democrats are pretty much on hold until March 4th, when Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas and Vermont vote. Clinton backers say she'll do well in the two big states, Ohio and Texas, but when the other candidate has momentum, a lead can evaporate between now and then. Easily.

It might be good for the Democrats if Obama just keeps rolling. If the primaries don't pick the nominee, the party faces a bunch of nasty choices. Will the 796 "superdelegates"--unelected party officials and the like--choose the nominee? And if they do, how will the voters feel about that? Grumpy, quite possibly. And what about delegates from Michigan and Florida? The party said they couldn't have any delegates because they held their primaries too early. But Democrats voted anyway--Clinton was on the ballot--and could she try to get those delegates seated?

Or--this one would be fun--could we actually have a convention that was contested, where it took more than one ballot to elect the nominee? That would probably be the wheelingest, dealingest show in a very long time.

Lots of hard choices loom for the Dems. As George H.W. Bush once said while losing presidential primaries to Ronald Reagan back in 1980, "Nobody said it was going to be easy. Nobody was right."

Saturday, February 9, 2008

February 9, 2008

Okay, assuming John McCain is the nominee, who should the running mate be? Pat Toomey in the Wall Street Journal suggests Gov. Mark Sanford and Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, and, interestingly, former presidential candidate Steve Forbes, among others. The Weekly Standard suggests Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The Guardian offers Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi.
A number of people have said, "Why not Mike Huckabee?" and that's a good question. What McCain presumably needs in a running mate is someone who will appeal to the party's right, the social conservatives, the evangelicals. Most of the men listed here would do that to one degree or another. Huckabee, of course, is an ordained minister, which wouldn't hurt.
Candidates who've dropped out? Probably not Mitt Romney (they don't like each other). Certainly not Rudy Giuliani; conservatives would go bananas. AOL's Justin Paulette wonders about Democratic Sen. Joe Liebermann, a good friend of McCain's. But, if you're trying to reach out to those conservatives, a fusion ticket with a Democrat probably isn't the way to go. Be fun, though. Would Clinton or Obama then have to look for a Republican?
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is another name that pops up. But, of course, we're all just guessing. It's up to the nominee. It should be someone he likes and respects, someone he'd trust to take over if need be. It doesn't always work out well; I'm old enough to remember George McGovern, the Democratic nominee in 1972, saying at about four o'clock in the morning, "Tom Eagleton. I know him from the Senate." What he didn't know was that Eagleton had undergone electric shock therapy for depression. That bothered a lot of people back then and McGovern had to get Eagleton to resign from the ticket. I don't suppose he would have beaten Richard Nixon anyway, but after the Eagleton pandemonium, he carried just one state.
My favorite--an AOL reader suggested this in a comment--is Condoleezza Rice. I've never met her, but she is obviously smart and well-spoken. And wouldn't putting a black woman on the Republican ticket shake up the odds in this seemingly Democratic year? Oh, yes.

Friday, February 8, 2008

February 8, 2008

     What did Willard (Mitt) Romney in?  He looked like a candidate (all those teeth, all those handsome sons) and he sometimes sort of sounded like a candidate, but not really.  He changed his position on lots of issues, trying, I think, to sound like a real conservative.  But the other candidates picked up on the changes.  Mike Huckabee in one of the debates, when Romney told him not to criticize his position shot back, "Which one?"  And John McCain, grinning, agreed Romney was "the candidate of change," something the voters seem to want this year.
     And John McCain seems certain to be the nominee.  Some conservatives mistrust him on some issues.  He supported a bill which would have offered illegal immigrants a path to citizenship;  many conservatives just want to throw them out, though the logistics of that are formidable.  Some conservatives object to McCain's bill regulating campaign spending, seeing that as a restriction on freedom of speech.  But on many other issues--abortion, and federal spending, for example-- he follows conservative orthodoxy, though he was booed when he spoke this week at an annual conservative conference here. 
     What's his base? One joke when he first ran in 2000 (and I've heard it this year, too) is that his real base is the press.  And there's some truth in that.  We like him because he takes us seriously (unlike, say, the Clintons, who despise reporters) and because he tries to answer our questions instead of just parroting some twenty-second soundbite his media guy has told him to memorize.
     And he's a decent man.  When I asked him back in 2000 why he'd included a nasty one-liner about Chelsea Clinton in his speech at a Republican dinner, he said (I went back to my old script to get this right), "On occasion in my life I've done some senseless, stupid, cruel things.  I did then.  I apologized and all I can do is assure those that I've disappointed that I will never do it again."  Most politicians just don't talk like that;  I left the interview impressed.
     He's eight years older now.  He'll be seventy-two soon and would be the oldest president we've ever had if elected;   his health will be a worry.  But he has a biography unlike any other (five years as a POW in Hanoi, for instance) and he has appealed strongly to independents in the primaries.  Clinton or Obama, whomever the Democrats pick, will face a fighter.  That's not the first word I'd use to describe Romney.   

Thursday, February 7, 2008

February 6, 2008

     "The opera ain't over 'til the fat lady sings," is a phrase coined by San Antonio sports reporter Dan Cook.  He was talking about an NBA playoff series between San Antonio and Washington in the 1970s.  But he could have been talking about Campaign 2008.
     Republicans could hear her getting ready to sing Super Tuesday night, standing just off stage, perhaps, practicing a scale or two.  John McCain isn't the nominee, but he's way ahead of Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, who surged surprisingly back to life with support from evangelical Christians in Southern states.  He won five, including Georgia, a biggie.  Nobody thinks he's going to win (nobody I've talked with anyway), but lots of people were wondering out loud if McCain should choose him as his running mate.  Evangelicals have never had one of their own on the ticket;  it might energize them.
     I don't know where Mitt Romney goes from here--down and out, quite possibly.  McCain won the big states--California, New York, and so on.  If momentum means anything, and it often does in politics, he's well on his way.  Romney may simply have taken too many positions on too many issues to be credible by the time voters went to the polls.
     The Democrats?  That's a real race.  Proportional representation, of course, makes it harder to roll up landslide majorities.  So Clinton won California, but Obama will get delegates there, and she'll get some in states he carried, like Missouri.  They're fairly close in delegate count and can look forward to a Louisiana primary and Nebraska caucus this weekend;  Maryland, Virginia and D.C. primaries, next Tuesday;  and two big states--Texas and Ohio, March 4th.  If the fat lady hasn't found her voice by then, we might be headed for something we haven't had in years--a contested, multi-ballot convention.  I went to my first convention in 1960 and I've never seen one.
     Now that would be really something.  Delegates caucusing in this corner and that;  pundits pondering.  And what about Michigan and Florida, the two states the party punished by saying they would get no delegates because they scheduled their primaries early, in defiance of party rules?  Would they show up?  Could they play a role?
     There are enough plots and subplots here for several operas.  I can't wait.

Monday, February 4, 2008

February 4,2008

     It will be the most super Super Tuesday ever.  The term came into use back in the 1980s--the Democrats had eleven contests in 1984 (the Republicans had unopposed president Ronald Reagan, of course). The Dems had twenty-one contests in 1988;  the Republicans, sixteen.  But this is the biggest:  twenty-three primaries and caucuses for the Democrats, twenty-one for the GOP.
     The Democrats will be choosing 1,681 delegates, 42% of the total, 83% of the majority needed to win.  The Republicans' numbers are similar--1,014 delegates, 43% of the total, 85% of the majority needed to win.
     The rules differ from party to party and state to state.  In California, the biggest prize, the Democratic primary is open, independents can vote in it.  The Republican primary is closed--registered party members only, please.
     Will Super Tuesday decide the nominees?  Maybe.  It's more likely to pick a Republican than a Democrat.  That's because the Republican contests are often winner-take-all.  In California, again, delegates pledged to a candidate are winner-take-all by Congressional district, except for a few who are running statewide, but they're winner-take-all, too.  The Democrats use proportional representation;  if you get at least 15% of the vote in the district, you get some of its delegates.  It isn't always very proportional, though.  In a four-delegate district, you could get more than fifty percent of the vote, but still only two of the delegates.
     Handicapping?  Hillary Clinton is favored in New York, her sort-of home state.  Polls have her ahead in other biggies--California and Illinois, for instance.  But Obama is believed to be gaining in many.  His recent flurry of endorsements--Edward and Caroline Kennedy, Maria Shriver Schwarzenegger, the governor's wife in California--surely won't hurt.  Voters who still don't know much about Obama may think--hey, with folks like those behind him, he must be okay.
     On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee insists he's still in.  He won Iowa with strong support among Christian evangelicals, and there are plenty of those in some of the Super Tuesday states--Alabama, for instance.  But Huckabee has shown little life since Iowa.  The GOP race now seems a two-man affair also, with John McCain, whose campaign was moribund last summer, favored over Mitt Romney.  Some conservatives can't stand McCain--wrong on immigration, on campaign finance reform--but he does seem to be the frontrunner this week.
     And if no one wins, it goes on, of course.  Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia vote next Tuesday;  Ohio and Texas, March 4th, and so on.  Ain't we got fun?