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Preview: Dick Polman's American Debate

Dick Polman's American Debate

Observations and ruminations, from a Philadelphia Inquirer national political columnist

Updated: 2016-10-17T04:08:32.313-04:00


"A little rough in the sandbox"


We've moved!The "American Debate" blog can now be found at this address: 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 b[...]

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 black[...]

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,[...]

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[...]

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 are supervising the redesign. The work in progress – right now, a construction site – can be accessed today via the new address, 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,, 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 habitués 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.

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 t[...]

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 bac[...]

The brave (and brutish) new world


There once was a time when presidential candidates could utter an awkward unscripted remark, or a crude joke, or a loaded phrase, and conceivably get away with it - particularly when the press was barred at the door.But today, thanks to the democratization of technology, there is no place to hide. There are no private moments, even at an ostensibly private event such as a fundraiser in suburban San Francisco. There is no such thing as "off the record" anymore, because anything and everything shall be recorded and ruled admissable for use in the tumultuous public square.Which brings us to the manner in which Barack Obama was outed for riffing so inartfully about the plight of small-town America. It's a classic example of how the political/media culture has been so profoundly altered during the first decade of the new century.Amidst the political fallout, this issue has been largely overlooked. If you watched Meet the Press on Sunday, you might easily have assumed that Obama's words were transcribed the old-fashioned way, by reporters scribbling in notebooks or hoisting their digital recorders. As Tim Russert phrased it, "Obama went to a fundraiser in San Francisco, made some comments. They became public on Friday afternoon..."But no. Obama was outed by a new breed of watchdog, the "citizen journalist," somebody without the traditional press credentials, in this case an Obama supporter named Mayhill Fowler. Unlike the working journalists, she had a ticket to the private fundraiser in Marin County. She also had an audio recorder. She also had a relationship with Off the Bus, a subsidiary of The Huffington Post, one of those blogosphere outlets where citizens can break news of their own without filtering it through the traditional media.Fowler doesn't fit any of the old press categories. As journalism professor Jay Rosen, an Off the Bus founder, wrote the other day, Fowler "is a particular kind of Obama loyalist...the kind with a notebook, a tape recorder, friends in the campaign, a public platform of decent size, plus the faculty of critical intelligence." And her editor, Marc Cooper, wrote that Fowler "employs a highly personalized, reflective narrative style (that) almost violates all of the conventions of traditional reporting."The faculty of critical intelligence, indeed. At the fundraiser, she heard Obama make some remarks that struck her as problematical or worse, so she posted a piece (screened by an editor) on Friday afternoon. It was a long, discursive exercise, with much of the news buried within. Yet in less than 48 hours, the political-fallout story was on page one of The New York Times. As Cooper puts it, "citizen journalism can do many, many things still inaccessible to the MSM (mainstream media). It's also quite a bit of fun to see how a report like hers can actually set the agenda for the entire national press."So it's a brave new world - and arguably more brutish. Anybody who crosses a candidate's path is now a potential auteur with the power to rewrite the narrative of a campaign. We will long be debating whether this technological development is a boon to our civic dialogue - perhaps reinvogorating democracy by giving average citizens an enhanced opportunity to hold politicians accountable - or whether this is just the latest treacherous form of political blood sport, as well as one more reason why many sane and qualified public servants would prefer not to seek the presidency.It's probably all of the above. Risks aside, it's indisputable, in this particular case, that Fowler latched onto a good story. Obama's poor phrasing suggested any number of things, none of them particularly complimentary to him - a tin ear, a desire to curry favor with an affluent California audience, cluelessness about the nuances of small-town life, or simply inexperience. And it's also worth noting that his initia[...]

Obama and the perils of Cling-gate


Can Bill and Hillary achieve Restoration by exploiting Cling-gate?Perhaps the small-town burghers and downscale workers of Pennsylvania will answer that question when they vote in the primary eight days hence. But, until then, all we can do is speculate - and marvel at the notion that the outcome of this Democratic death march might actually hinge on a single ill-considered verb.No doubt you know the verb already, but I'll highlight it anyway. Here was Barack Obama, recorded a week ago at a private fundraiser: "You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them...And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."As Obama told an audience of steelworkers last night, "I am not a perfect man and the words I chose, I chose badly." He certainly did. Politically, that latter sentence is a potential train wreck. The Democrats have been trying for several decades to reconnect with the white culturally-conservative working stiffs who exited the party during the Reagan era, and it's questionable whether the reconnection process can be enhanced by implying (however inadvertently) that these voters react to hard times by "clinging" to their God and their guns.Church-goers don't "cling" to religion out of bitterness; they tend to see religion as an affirmative pursuit, in both good times and bad. And small-town Pennsylvanians don't "cling" to guns out of bitterness; they happen to enjoy hunting, in a state where hunting has long been a tradition (at least outside of the Obama-friendly Philadelphia region). Obviously, Obama did not intend to paint these folks as dummies who worship and shoot only because they have nothing better to do - why would he want to insult people whose votes he has been seeking? - but that's how the sentence reads. And it would appear that his uphill climb in Pennsylvania has become a bit steeper, given the fact that those people are also the swing voters in this primary.Nevertheless, it's fair to ask - in the interests of proportionality - whether a race such as this, with so much at stake at home and abroad, should hinge on some errant phrasing. The Hillary Clinton counterattack this weekend was truly something to behold; the barrage of Saturday afternoon messages in my email box (11 in six hours) prompted me to suspect that perhaps Obama had promised on Day One to convert to Islam and make it the national religion.If you want to enjoy a belly laugh, here are three reliable suggestions: (1) rent an old Woody Allen movie, especially Bananas, (2) rent Borat, or (3) listen to Hillary Clinton, of all people, attack Barack Obama as "elitist."This is the same woman who, during the past seven years, as evidenced by her tax returns with Bill, has become a millionaire 109 times over; whose husband has long supported the Colombian free-trade deal (which is deemed hurtful to American workers), and long defended his signing of NAFTA (also hurtful); whose husband earned $800,000 in speech fees from Colombian interests; who, during her Senate career, voted in favor of confiscating guns during a national emergency (one of only 16 senators to do so; Obama voted against confiscation); and who, during the Democratic debates, has refused to shed any light on why the Clintons are safeguarding the identities of the global heavy hitters who are bankrolling the Clinton Presidential Library...and whether any quid pro quos are invol[...]

Condi and Bill in the silly season


On the presidential election calendar, April often marks the start of the silly season. April is typically a time for silly stories that come and go within the space a single news cycle (bulletin: a talk-radio loudmouth calls John McCain a "warmonger" - and refuses to apologize!), and silly stories that linger for awhile until people come to their senses (April, 1992: a semi-loon named Ross Perot is the top choice for the presidency, beating Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush in the polls).So it's in the spirit of silliness that today I linger briefly over this week's silliest - and most hilarious - April story: the chatter about Condoleezza Rice showing some interest in the number-two slot on John McCain's Republican ticket. If I hadn't been tracking the stories all week long, I would have sworn that the whole thing had been crafted by Bill Maher's gag writers as some kind of cosmic joke.It all started last Sunday, when former Iraq occupation spokesman Dan Senor surfaced on ABC to declare that Rice was interested in running with McCain and that, in fact, she "has been actively, actually in recent weeks, campaigning for this."Then Senor tried to make his own case for Condi: "What the McCain campaign has to consider is whether or not they want to pick a total outsider, a fresh face, someone a lot younger than him, a governor who people aren't that familiar with. The challenge they're realizing is that they'll have to spend 30 to 45 days, which they wont't have at that point (in the weeks after Labor Day), educating the American public about who this person is. The other category is someone who people instantly say, the second they see that (running mate) announcement, 'I get it, that person could be president tomorrow. Condi Rice is an option.'"Then we had a story featuring McCain's reaction; he politely called Rice a great American and said that her purported interest was news to him. Then we had a story featuring Rice's demurrals, and about her professed intention to return to Stanford. Then we had a story about how she had dazzled conservatives two weeks ago at a Washington confab, and about how conservative leader Grover Norquist viewed her as a great choice for veep. Then we had a story about a new poll which claims that a McCain-Rice ticket would actually win the deep-blue state of New York if matched against a Democratic dream ticket (a classic silly season tabulation, right up there with the aforementioned '92 polls about Ross Perot).Dare we waste (cyber)space by enumerating the gaping holes in this trial balloon?The very last thing McCain needs is to place a Bush enabler on his ticket. His prospects of winning this election - and I believe he has definite prospects - hinges on his ability to distance himself from Bush, not lash himself to the tattered mast by picking one of Bush's credibility-challenged acolytes.If McCain chose Rice, the stench of the last eight years would overwhelm his campaign. He would be forced to explain, defend, reject, or denounce all kinds of golden odlies, such as:Her Sept. 8, 2002 assertion that Saddam Hussein needed to be removed because "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."Her other assertion, that same day: "We do know there have been shipments going into...Iraq, for instance, of aluminum tubes that really are only suited to—high-quality aluminum tools that only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs." (The State Department and the Energy Department had both concluded, long before, that those tubes were to be used for "conventional ordnance production," not nukes.)Her certitude, voiced on July 30, 2003, that Saddam definitely had the goods and therefore had to be deposed by force: "This man was a threat. He had weapons of mass destruction." (Two days before her statemen[...]

A politician, not a messiah


The flip flop is a staple of politics as usual. Here’s a fresh example, starring Barack Obama:A mere five months ago, in Iowa, Obama didn’t like it when outside “special interest” groups sided with his rivals, pumped their own money into the campaign, and ran independent ads against him. Most of those groups were actually affiliated with organized labor – and three quarters of the money came from labor - but he didn’t cut them any slack.Obama assailed these independent groups as symptoms of "the same tired old political textbook that so many Americans just don’t trust anymore." He denounced their independent efforts, and said that he intended to run "a new kind of campaign." Meanwhile, his campaign manager, David Plouffe, cited several prominent unions for their pro-Clinton activities, and complained about how "shadowy" organizations were unleashing a "flood of Washington money" in an "underhanded" attempt to influence the caucuses.In particular, Plouffe assailed AFSCME, referring to the public employes’ union as "Hillary Clinton’s friends in Washington" - that’s the kind of attack that Republicans typically launch, tagging labor as just another Beltway special interest – but AFSCME was hardly alone. The Obama campaign put out a December memo railing against "huge, unregulated contributions by special interests" and singled out, among others, the Service Employes International Union, which had affiliates working on behalf of John Edwards.One liberal commentator, Ari Melber, wrote at the time: "Obama’s concerns sound more like sour grapes – AFSCME and SEIU would probably face little criticism if they were spending money on him."He got that right. Fast forward to the Pennsylvania primary, present day...and the news that SEIU and an affiliated health-care local union are pouring upwards of $1 million into an independent pro-Obama effort that parallels the official Obama operation. Nothing illegal about that, then or now. The issue here is the difference between Obama’s stance, then and now.Of the current outside effort by this "shadowy" "special interest," the candidate has said exactly zilch, uttering nary a whisper of protest. (Nor did he protest when SEIU spent $5 million on his behalf in several other primaries that preceded Pennsylvania.) Apparently he was against "the same tired old political textbook" before he was for it. At times like these, I am tempted to send this message to his ardent devotees: Let us all remember, this guy does not walk on water. He’s a politician who is trying to win, and he will flip where he once flopped if that’s what it takes.And why shouldn’t he? He pays no real penalty for expunging his December convictions. The issue of "independent campaign expenditures" and "special interest campaign influence" is of burning importance to roughly one percent of the general public, and that’s only if you include the good-government reformers and the editorial writers. Few others care about this stuff. And all Democratic politicians, including Obama, are well aware that, during the autumn campaign, labor’s independent expenditures will be crucial to the party’s White House prospects.-------Today, President Bush said a few upbeat words about Iraq, the surge, and the latest Petraeus-Crocker road show. I know, your pulse is quickening already. Actually he signaled his sentiments (the same as his old sentiments) in advance late yesterday, by granting an exclusive interview with the like-minded neoconservative William Kristol (who, naturally, reports to us this morning that Bush is "impressive").Here's what Bush told Kristol. Stop me if you've heard this before: "There is progress...We are better off now than we were prior to the surge. And we're headed toward a day whe[...]

Iraq and rhetorical aspirin


George Orwell, best known for his novel 1984 but renowned in some circles (mine, anyway) for his spirited attacks on the bureaucratic debasement of the English language, would have winced at the evasive euphemisms repeatedly employed yesterday by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.In perhaps his most famous essay, written 62 years ago, Orwell wrote that government bureaucrats and political idealogues had grown fond of "gumming together long strips of words...and making the results presentable by sheer humbug....It is easier - even quicker, once you have the habit - to say, In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption than to say I think." He complained that the typical euphemism "falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details." Orwell likened it to "a packet of aspirins always at one's elbow."Well, it was sure snowing yesterday when Petraeus broke out his aspirin bottle. After completing the modest U.S. troop drawdown that's already scheduled for July, he foresees "a 45-day period of consolidation and evaluation. At the end of that period, we will commence a process of assessment, to examine the conditions on the ground, and over time, determine when we can make recommendations for further reductions."English translation: The place is a mess. We have no idea when things might get better. We're not pulling out any more troops. We're running out the clock on 2008.Actually, I feel bad for the guy. Crocker, too. They're basically tasked with the thankless job of mopping up after George W. Bush and his discredited neocons, and one of the requisite chores is to trudge to Capitol Hill and gum together long strips of words. Nobody is going to shine in that role, waxing Orwellian on a war without end.In a sense it was Crocker who had the worst moment, during a Senate Armed Services Committee exchange with Hillary Clinton (in her best moment), on a potentially far-reaching development that has been largely overlooked, thanks to the relentless media focus on the '08 Democratic primaries. Put on the spot by Clinton, Crocker responded predictably: He blurred the outline.Some quick background. The Bush administration since November has been negotiating a sweeping long-term defense pact with its client regime in Iraq - a pact that, in the draft wording, would require the U.S. to provide open-ended "security assurances and commitments" to the embattled government. Bush and Prime Minister Maliki are aiming to wrap up negotiations this summer. It doesn't take a foreign policy genius to ferret out the implications of such a deal; America would be duty bound to respond, in some military fashion, when the Iraqi government was thought to be imperiled by foreign invaders or "outlaw groups" (again, the draft wording) operating inside the country. It's a blueprint for war without end, although it's couched in classic Orwellian language as a "long-term relationship of cooperation and friendship."Given the fact that such a pact could bind us to Iraq for generations, at further expenditure of taxpayer money and American lives, and foist the Bush legacy on future presidents, one might assume that the American people (more than 60 percent of whom favor a withdrawal timetable) would at least get the chance to have their voices heard - through their representatives in the U.S. Senate. Because, as many legal experts have already pointed out, this deal has all the characteristics of a treaty, the kind that constitutionally requires the approval of 67 senators. After all, when Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower gave security assurances to Japan, South Korea, and the Phillippines after World War II, those pacts were treated as treaties and submitted for Senate ratification[...]

Ten questions for Petraeus


Gen. David Petraeus is back on Capitol Hill, talking about "progress" and pleading for more "patience." We all know the drill by now. Perhaps some lawmaker will ask him questions like these:1. General Petraeus, four years ago you were in charge of training the Iraqi troops to stand up so that American soldiers could stand down. You insisted at the time that the training was going well. In fact, you wrote in The Washington Post: "I see tangible progress. Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt from the ground up...Training is on track and increasing in capacity....Considerable progress is also being made in the reconstruction and refurbishing of infrastructure for Iraq’s security forces...Iraq’s security forces are developing steadily and they are in the fight." That's what you said in 2004. Yet, today, Iraqi troops are still unable to take the lead in any significant battle, and when they tried to take on the Shiite militias in Basra late last month, more than 1000 soldiers deserted - along with some top Iraqi commanders. How do these realities square with your 2004 claims of "significant progress" in the training of the Iraqi troops?2. Following up on that question, when do you realistically believe that the Iraqis will finally be able to defend themselves by fighting their own battles? And what realistic metrics are you using? The date originally envisioned by Iraqi officials was late 2006, but our Defense Department was repeatedly revised that timetable. Now it's supposed to be July of this year, but we all know that is fiction. Given the fact that your 2004 optimism has not been borne out by events, can you now provide more credible forecast criteria?3. General, it's already clear that, at the end of 2008, we will have more troops in Iraq than we did when the "surge" was launched. Yet there is abundant evidence that our commitment is seriously impacting our combat troops. An official Army survey of soldiers' mental health now shows that more than 25 percent are suffering from clinical anxiety, depression, or acute stress - much of it triggered by the repeated redeployments. And the Joint Chiefs of Staff told President Bush last month that they are deeply concerned about these stresses on the soldiers. How long can we realistically be expected to bail out the Iraqis before our own military is broken?4. General, when Prime Minister Maliki sent his government troops into battle late last month against the Shiite militias that are loyal to the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, President Bush hailed Maliki's move as "a defining moment" in the evolution of "a free Iraq." Given the failure of Maliki's military venture, would you agree with your president that this was a "defining moment"? And would you agree with Senator John McCain, who said at the outset of battle that Maliki's move was "a sign of the strength of his governnment"?5. Let's see if we have this right: We're arming the minority Sunnis, and, even though we routinely denounce Iranian influence, we're nevertheless arming the Iranian-backed Shiite Maliki government, which in turn is fighting al-Sadr as well as other Iranian-backed Shiite warlords. Given all these complexities, general, what constitutes "victory" in Iraq?6. General, when you appeared on Capitol Hill last September, you were asked whether the surge strategy would succeed in making America safer. You replied, "I don't know, actually." Do you feel today that the war, as waged during the last seven months, has made America safer? Failing that, have you at least made Americans in the Green Zone safer - or, as we have now learned, is it too risky to even go to the fitness center?7. General, on the issue of incremental U.S. troop withdrawals, there appears to [...]

Blame the Clintons, not Mark Penn


The Clintons were reportedly shocked, shocked to learn this weekend that chief strategist Mark Penn had recently donned his other hat - as CEO of a global consulting firm - and sought to lobby on behalf of a client for a trade treaty that Hillary opposes on the campaign trail. The Clintons let it be known that they were "angry" with Penn, and last night they made it clear that Penn will no longer pilot Hillary's lurching ship.Most voters don't really care when a campaign plays musical chairs with its personnel. As the CEO of Burson-Marsteller, Penn is clearly a prominent figure among his farflung corporate clients (including Countrywide Financial, our top mortgage lender; Blackwater Worldwide, the security mercenaries who have been blamed for reckless and deadly actions in Iraq, Shell Oil, Pfizer and many others), but he is hardly a household name to the American electorate. So I am less interested in Penn than what Penn's rise and fall tells us about Hillary Clinton herself, and about the boneheaded fundamentals of her campaign. Penn has not been the source of her woes, only a symptom.Ever since her campaign was launched, she and Bill have condoned and tolerated Penn's dubious dual role. They appeared not to understand their own problem, that it might be difficult to sell Hillary as the candidate of "change" when their own chief strategist was so enmeshed in the special-interest world of Washington. Clearly, they never demanded that Penn, as a condition of his campaign employment, step down from his executive position and thus distance himself financially from clients whose business needs might clash with Hillary's political needs.Heck, even Karl Rove did that; in fact, Rove did better than that. Back in 1999, at the dawn of George W. Bush's excellent adventure, Rove sold off his Texas consulting firm, and thus avoided all conflict of interest charges during the subsequent campaign. One might have assumed that a Democratic candidate - who bills herself as a fighter against the special interests - would insist that Penn work out a similar arrangement. But no.So, not surprisingly, there was a report last Friday that Penn met with one of his clients, the government of Colombia, for the purpose of helping Colombia secure passage of a bilateral trade treaty that Hillary has publicly opposed because she believes it hurts American workers. Colombia signed up Penn last year; the contract was worth $300,000. There would have been no such contract last year if the Clintons had insisted in advance that Penn wear only his campaign hat, at least for the duration of the campaign.And, lest we get caught up only in the present moment, it's important to remember that this Colombia episode is hardly the first Penn flap. Nearly a year ago, the news surfaced that Burson-Marsteller was fond of advertising its expertise in the art of union-busting. In other words, at a time when Hillary was trying to sell herself as a fighter on behalf of the average worker, her chief strategist's lobbying firm was helping corporations thwart the organizing efforts of unions that sought to help the average worker.For instance, as reporter Ari Berman documented last spring, Penn's firm counseled Cintas, a leading laundry supply company, in its persistent efforts to block its workers from organizing. (The chief officer of Cintas, by the way, had long been a leading fundraiser for Bush.) Penn, in his defense, later said that, notwithstanding his position as CEO of the firm, he had never "personally participated" in offering any union-busting advice. Clearly, however, Burson-Marseller did not enjoy being outed; last year, the firm also erased, from its website, all references to its uni[...]

Obama and the benefits of time


I’m traveling the rest of this week – and not for work reasons – so new postings will be light (today) or non-existent (Friday). The normal regimen resumes on Monday.However, with respect to the Pennsylvania primary, a passing thought did occur to me. This six-week interregnum between Democratic contests is definitely benefiting Barack Obama - as evidenced by numerous polls, all of which show a tightening race. Consider the reasons:1. He’s getting plenty of time to introduce himself to a state where Hillary Clinton is as familiar as Hershey chocolate. Pennsylvanians generally don’t warm to candidates with whom they are unfamiliar; Ed Rendell finally won the governor’s job 16 years after his first try. The Clinton brand has been around since 1992, and if the Pennsylvania campaign window had been a lot narrower, Hillary would be blowing Obama away on name ID alone. But thanks to the elongated calendar, Obama has the luxury of traveling by bus, doing retail politics in small cities and towns, and getting himself known in ways that slick TV ads can never accomplish. Sort of like he managed to do in Iowa.2. He’s had the time to rebound from the Jeremiah Wright crisis. If that bomb had gone off during a tight turnaround between contests, he would have been toast. But his bold speech on race, notwithstanding some lingering concerns, has tamped down the flames, and he delivered it early enough in the Pennsylvania cycle for maximum resonance.3. Cursed by the slow time clock, Hillary created her own little crisis. Obama's woes got trumped by her Bosnia sniper fantasies, thereby rekindling the old doubts about Clintonian credibility. It appeared at first that the cable TV shows, faced with the need to fill air time during this long vote-free interregnum, would be forever flogging the Wright story, but Hillary has given them something new to chew on. And chew on. Nothing stirs the commentators more than footage of a politician lying on camera.4. The horserace story is frozen, and that benefits Obama. Until the Pennsylvania verdict on April 22, Hillary is stuck with her pledged-delegate and popular-vote deficits. She can’t change the basic narrative of the race, and, as these weeks drag by, more and more Democrats are fretting that the contest (translation: prolonged by Hillary) is hurting their prospects for November. In response, Hillary has had to spend valuable time scoffing at suggestions that she should quit. It’s not a good sign when a candidate’s basic pitch is essentially reduced to, "Vote for me so that Indiana can vote, too."5. Without new votes to count, every new superdelegate endorsement receives greater media attention – and that’s another plus for Obama. The drip-drip continues: Bob Casey...Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar...Wyoming Gov. David Freudenthal (a former Bill Clinton administration appointee, no less) signed on yesterday...Former Montana Sen. John Melcher did the same...And so did former 9/11 Commission co-chairman Lee Hamilton. He’s not a superdelegate, but he’s a party elder with strong national security credentials who also co-helmed the Iraq Study Group...And superdelegate Jimmy Carter all but signaled yesterday that he has signed on.6. And without new votes to count, the media watches the money. Obama just endured the worst month of his campaign, yet he still raised upwards of $40 million. That’s reportedly double the Clinton total. The word is that she also has debts in the range of $9 million – not even counting the $5 mil that she recently donated from her own bank account. Obama, again taking advantage of the calendar, is outspending Clinton by a 3-1 margin in the stat[...]

Gas prices and pander politics


In his bid to bond with blue-collar Pennsylvanians during the runup to the April 22 primary, Barack Obama engaged yesterday in some old-school substance-free politicking. He denounced the price of gasoline."Gas prices are killing folks," he said in hardscrabble Wilkes-Barre. "I got an email from a friend of mine. It says, 'just in case you're not living in the real world, being driven around by the Secret Service, it just cost me $85 to fill my tank.'" Obama continued, referring to the oil companies, "They have been in fat city for a long time. They are not necessarily putting that money into refinery capacity, which could potentially relieve some of the bottlenecks in our gasoline supply. And so that is something we have to go after. I think we can go after the windfall profits of some of these companies."Politicians love to rail against high gas prices and Big Oil; it's easy rhetorical populism, a way to stand up for the little guy. And it's a potentially good tactic for Obama, who's trying chip away at Hillary Clinton's Pennsylvania lead by demonstrating that he's more than just a guy who wows the intelligentsia with pretty speeches; that, in fact, he also empathizes with the working stiff (especially the modest-income white male swing voter). And there's no faster route to the heart of the average Joe than a lament about pain at the pump - as he also demonstrates in a Pennsylvania TV ad.But, dandy soundbites aside, it's basically a phony issue.The last thing that presidential candidates want to tell voters is that, quite frankly, there is little they can actually do, once in office, to control (much less lower) the price of gas. There is an increasingly robust global market for oil these days, and America is merely one of the buyers - competing in particular with China and India, two nations with burgeoning economies and a billion people in each. With those nations driving up demand, and demonstrating an ability to pay, then the price of oil will naturally stay high. That's capitalism.Americans like to think of themselves as Number One; woe to the politician who tries to truthfully explain the facts of life in the 21st century. Americans also believe in the right to drive their gas-guzzling SUVs; woe to the politician who tries to explain that voters themselves are actually part of the problem on the demand side. (John Zogby, the pollster, once told me a story: "My son and I went to a book party for Arianna Huffington. She waxed eloquent about the pitfalls of SUVs. everybody listened - and when we left, maybe 11 SUVs were parked outside, waiting to pick up guests. Point is, you can't call on Americans to sacrifice during a presidential campaign. That's a loser.") Yet while demand in America and abroad has sharply increased, supply has not kept pace, for a host of reasons. Such as: OPEC, the 12-nation combine that produces roughly 40 percent of the world's oil, has barely increased its output since 1979. Ongoing civil unrest in Nigeria has hurt production there; Venezuela during the past several years has nationalized its oil fields, and its regime, which is hostile to American interests, has been routing oil to China - oil that was supposed to go to Exxon refineries in Louisiana.But none of that makes for good campaign rhetoric. It's catchier for Obama to attack "windfall profits," as he did yesterday, or for politicians to charge Big Oil with "price gouging," as Republican politicians did several years ago. In fact, when gas prices rose in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, even President Bush asked the Federal Trade Commission to find out whether the oil companies were manipulating the[...]

Gargling the neocon Kool-Aid


I know this is not a big news story in America anymore, but the question is still worth asking:How goes President Bush's Iraq democratization crusade these days - the same crusade that would be waged next year by John McCain?Well, last I checked, America's fighting men and women were putting their lives on the line for the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and for the Badr Organization militia. That's been the situation during the past week, which makes you wonder why Bush bothers to insult the U.S. citizenry with his talk about how we are helping a "young democracy." This is not Thomas Jefferson and John Adams dramatized on HBO, debating constitutionalism and trading rhetorical ripostes. This is about a violent power play in the streets, with American troops caught in the middle.Our client in Iraq, the prime minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki - whose chief ally, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, runs the Islamic Supreme Council (a political party) as well as his own militia (the aforementioned Badr Organization) - last week put his fragile political capital at risk by seeking to crack down on his Shiite rival in Basra, the militia-backed cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Local elections are scheduled for Oct. 1 in Basra, where Sadr is popular. So, the way things work in this "young democracy," Maliki made the decision to engage Sadr's Mahdi Army in street battles - with military victory as his goal, thereby presumably ensuring political victory at the polls for Maliki's allies in the Islamic Supreme Council and in his own Dawa party.True to their shared instincts, both Bush and McCain lauded Maliki at the outset of fighting, and raised the stakes accordingly. Bush declared last Thursday that Maliki's decision to battle Sadr in the streets was "a very positive development," indeed "a defining moment" in the brief history "of a free Iraq." McCain a day later characterized Maliki's move as "a sign of the strength of his government." (If you're trying to differentiate between these two cheerleaders, here's a handy tip: Bush is the one who was roundly booed Sunday night at Washington's baseball opener.)Not suprisingly, over the past few days we have heard nothing further from Bush and McCain about "defining moments" and government "strength" - because, as it turns out, Maliki's Iraqi security forces (the forces that we have long been training to stand up, so that we can stand down) failed in their mission to tame Sadr's fighters. Maliki had vowed to win a clear victory; instead, Sadr's militia ceded almost no ground, and fought the government forces to a standstill.The result - for now, anyway - is a negotiated ceasefire between the rival Shiite groups that was brokered by the Shiite leaders of Iran. Sadr's militia remains virtually intact; Maliki, so recently lauded by McCain for his "strength," basically sued for peace. As a result, he lost face and political capital.McCain's reaction? Today on CNN, he tried to characterize the ceasefire as "very helpful." Then, finally, he admitted that Maliki's military campaign, conducted by his U.S.-trained forces, "was not the success, apparently so far, that we hoped it would be."All of which prompts these questions: Amidst all the attention being paid to the steel-cage match between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, will John McCain be closely questioned about his fealty to the ongoing Iraq fiasco - and to the Bushspeak that, for five years, has repeatedly been contradicted by the realities on the ground? Or are the Iraq realities - all those Shiite factions warring with each other, plus the discontented Sunnis - simply too complicated for most Americans?H[...]

Breaking bread with the vast right-wing conspiracy


While scanning the various Sunday commentaries, I stumbled across these laudatory effusions for Hillary Clinton: "...courage and confidence...political courage...impressive command...her answers were thoughtful, well-stated, and often dead-on...a very favorable (impression) indeed..."The author of this particular newspaper editorial was Richard Mellon Scaife.If that name doesn't ring a bell, here's some short-hand: Richard Mellon Scaife praising Hillary Clinton is roughly analagous to George Steinbrenner wearing Red Sox regalia. Or Keith Obermann vacationing with Bill O'Reilly. Or Woody Allen quoting approvingly from Mein Kampf. Or George W. Bush confessing all his screwups to Cindy Sheehan. Or some other topsy turvy notion, straight out of Bizarro World in the Superman comics.Scaife is the reclusive rich guy who financed what Hillary once called "the vast right-wing conspiracy." She returns to that theme on page 449 of her memoir, referring to Scaife as "the reactionary billionaire who had bankrolled the long-term campaign to destroy Bill's presidency." That's basically accurate.In late 1996, while I was researching a magazine story on the interlocking alliances of conservative Clinton-hunters, I found Scaife's fingerprints everywhere. Scaife, a western Pennsylvania heir to the Mellon fortune, financed something called "The Arkansas Project," an ambitious (and ultimately futile) effort to destroy Bill Clinton's presidency by probing his tenure as governor of Arkansas and unearthing evidence that he had run drugs and murdered people. He also funnelled money to the conservative American Spectator magazine, which at the time was hot on the trail of Bill's various Arkansas paramours.He also funnelled money to the various conservative legal groups that offered legal advice to sexual-harassment accuser Paula Jones. He also sought to prove, via his generous largesse, that a Clinton aide who in 1993 was found to have committed suicide (Vince Foster) had actually been murdered by undetermined assassins, presumably at the behest of the Clintons. The coroner's suicide ruling was repeatedly debunked in the pages of Scaife's newspaper, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review - more on that newspaper in a moment - and Scaife himself told a magazine in 1998 that Bill was a potential murderer: "Listen, (Clinton) can order people done away with at his will. He's got the entire federal government behind him."But Scaife was still wearing his tinfoil hat long after the Clintons left the White House. As recently as three years ago, as Hillary was gearing up to run on her own, some of the Scaife-financed conservative "news" websites were flacking a new Hillary-bashing biography written by Ed Klein, with special emphasis on the "widely rumored" whispers that Hillary was a lesbian...and that her daughter was allegedly conceived during an act of rape.But Scaife's influence extends far beyond his anti-Clinton crusades. He has reportedly donated upwards of $1 billion (in current dollars, adjusted for inflation) to conservative causes and institutions, thereby playing an instrumental role in establishing the think tanks and publications and law firms and watchdog groups that have put liberals and Democrats at a distinct disadvantage over the past four decades. In other words, he stands for everything that the Clintons and their political compadres have long been working against. (And in 1981, when a Columbia Journalism Review reporter stopped Scaife on the street and tried to quiz him about his influence in conservative circles, he called her a "communist," along with a comm[...]

Casey at the bat, and the brushback pitch


Big story this morning, broken by one of my colleagues: Senator Bob Casey, the ever-cautious Democratic centrist whose surname is golden among white Catholic working-class Pennsylvanians, is endorsing Barack Obama today. It's a surprise, because Casey (also a superdelegate) was expected to hang back during the runup to the April 22 primary. Theoretically, Casey will help Obama with the voters whom Obama needs most.Endorsements don't always translate into votes, of course, and maybe Casey's nod won't make any difference in the end. Nevertheless, we can expect Hillary Clinton's message practitioners to lurch into characteristic overdrive today, maybe like this...11:30 a.m., from the spin shop: "Senator Clinton does not need a lecture from Bob Casey about how to reach the hardworking Pennsylvanians who in four weeks will launch her on the road to a party-unifying victory at the Democratic convention. This race is ultimately about the candidates, not about endorsements. Endorsements are not important. We are pleased that Gov. Rendell and congressman John Murtha have endorsed us, and we are confident that the voters will note that importance."1 p.m., from the spin shop: "Bob Casey lost to Ed Rendell in the 2002 gubernatorial primary, and now he is seeking to avenge his defeat by breaking ranks with the popular governor. It is regrettable that, at a time when Senator Clinton is enjoying unstoppable momentum, Bob Casey is reduced to playing partisan political games."2 p.m., from the spin shop: "Some may suggest today that Bob Casey is attempting to settle an old score with the Clintons, by endorsing Senator Obama. Some may suggest that this endorsement is just petty payback for what happened at Bill Clinton's 1992 Democratic convention, when Casey's father, the governor of Pennsylvania, was barred from speaking because of his anti-abortion views. But today Bob Casey is not engaging in this kind of petty payback, as far as we know."3 p.m., from the spin shop: "All endorsements by first-term senators of any state with more than 20 electoral votes, tendered before voters get the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights, should be considered automatically illegitimate. And any presidential candidate with a gift for pretty speechmaking who accepts such endorsements should be considered illegitimate."4 p.m., an open letter to Bob Casey, from prominent donors to the Clinton campaign: "We have long been strong supporters of Democratic senatorial candidates. We request that you re-clarify your position on the Pennsylvania primary, that you keep an open mind, and that you show respect for the electoral process. If you prefer instead to disenfranchise Pennsylvania voters, we have no choice but to remember that you are up for re-election in four years. We have warned House Speaker Pelosi about the consequences of opposing Senator Clinton, and now we are warning you."5 p.m., a special message from James Carville: "Bob Casey is Judas. Sold her out for a money bag and a fistful of silver. Not tryin’ to say that he’s a turncoat betrayer or that she’s the same as Jesus Christ, but there ya go."6 p.m., a special message from Bill Clinton: "There's no good reason for male bullies to gang up on a girl who loves this country. Senator McCain, I know he also loves this country. I think it's a shame that others would try to disrupt an election between these two candidates who at least do love this country."6:10 p.m., from a media availability with Hillary Clinton: "Rev. Wright, Florida. Rev. Wright, Michigan. Rev. Wright, Rev. Wr[...]

More quote marks for McCain


As part of my continuing effort to persuade media colleagues to put quote marks around the word maverick when writing about John McCain, here's his latest pit stop on the flip-flop express.Ten years ago, while burnishing the "maverick" image that has prompted so much swooning among Washington scribes, McCain styled himself as a courageous foe of the tobacco industry. He routinely condemned them and he vowed to take their money. He championed a Senate measure to slap a tax on Big Tobacco - to the tune of $1.10 per pack - and route the revenue to federal programs designed to curb underage smoking.When Big Tobacco squawked, and vowed to spend tens of millions of dollars to stop him, McCain declared, "I'm honored by the attacks by people who have addicted our children and lied to Congress" - the latter, of course, referring to the tobacco CEOs who testified under oath about the safe, non-addictive properties of their products.When he first announced his $1.10 tax plan, he said in a press release: "The health and well-being of America's children is a cause that transcends party affiliation."When fellow Republicans asked McCain how he could dare push for a tax hike and still call himself a Republican, he replied on the Senate floor (June 17, 1998): "Maybe we ought to remember the obligations that we incur when we govern America. We might want to understand that our obligation first of all is to those who can't care for themselves in this society, and that includes our children. Isn't it out obligation - shouldn't it define the Republican party that we should do everything we can to handle this scourge, this disease that is rampant throughout young children in America? Doesn't that define the Republican party?"And when fellow Republicans that day called him a tax-raiser, he replied: "This bill is not about taxes. It's about whether we're going to allow the death march of 418,000 Americans a year who die early from tobacco-related disease and do nothing."Indeed, when McCain was asked earlier that spring on PBS whether he'd give in to his Republican critics, he replied, "Never."Well, you guessed it. McCain has given up. Today he is against the concept of taxing Big Tobacco, after he was for it.Right now, there's a Senate bill - nearing a vote - that would slap a 61-cent tax on every pack of butts, and earmark the money for a children's health program. But as McCain reportedly remarked at a recent policy conference, "Now help me out here: We are trying to get people not to smoke, and yet we are depending on tobacco to fund a program that's designed for children's health? I can't buy that."Who would ever want to buy such a whacky concept? McCain did, of course, but that was in his previous incarnation. McCain 2.0 has recalibrated his convictions, bringing them more into line with Republican orthodoxy. By that standard, the idea of imposing a sin tax on a major industry - one, by the way, that gives most of its money to the Republican party - is ludicrious and, even worse, smacks of liberalism. As such, it was necessary for the "maverick" to stand down.Ten years ago, while championing the tobacco tax, he told GOP colleagues that the vote was about "whether we're going to have the will to serve the public interest, or the special interest."The new McCain has now given us his answer.-------Did you know that Hillary Clinton really did brave sniper fire in Bosnia, after all? See the exclusive video right here.[...]

Under fire, but not from snipers


Maybe she was hoping that the toy companies would agree to market a Hillary Clinton Action Figure. More likely, she was probably hoping that she could inflate her meager foreign policy experience by goading the electorate into swallowing a lie.Now that Clinton has been exposed as a serial peddler of falsehoods, in her retelling of the 1996 visit she made to Bosnia as First Lady, it's worth noting why this campaign episode is important. She has based her increasingly desperate candidacy on the proposition that she is best qualified to be commander-in-chief at 3 a.m. on Day One, and that in turn hinges on the argument that she has passed some of the character tests that are requirements for command. Physical courage, for example.Hence, her desire to make people believe - in direct contradiction to the facts, as captured on video - that she braved sniper fire in Bosnia. And it's not actually the lie that was most telling. It's her attempt to lie about the lie.This week, Clinton has claimed that she merely "misspoke" when she said in a March 17 speech: "I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base." (Whereas, as the video clearly shows, she sauntered across the tarmac, bent down to engage a Bosnian child in conversation, with daughter Chelsea in tow, then continued to saunter.)But in fact Clinton did not "misspeak" (as she insisted again yesterday on Pittsburgh radio); nor was it merely a case of being "sleep-deprived" (as she insisted yesterday in a chat with a Pittsburgh newspaper). Her March 17 remarks were scripted in advance, and even appeared in the text of the speech posted on the Clinton campaign website. It was clearly the campaign's intention to show her braving enemy fire.Nor was it the first time that she sought to rewrite reality.She also apparently "misspoke" in Texas on Feb. 29, when she told an audience: "I remember particularly a trip to Bosnia, where the welcoming ceremony had to be moved inside because of sniper fire." And maybe she was merely "sleep-deprived" in Iowa on Dec. 29, when she said that she and her entourage "ran out because they said there might be sniper fire. I don't remember anybody offering me tea on the tarmac."On Dec. 29, she also told the Iowans that since the airport was too dangerous for a presidential visit, she was sent instead ("if a place was too dangerous, too small, or too poor, send the First Lady")...which, if true, prompts me to wonder why she decided to bring her daughter along. Are we supposed to believe that the Tuzla airport was too treacherous to risk Bill's life, but not Chelsea's?Her last spin offering yesterday was a surrender of sorts. She said that she'd "made a mistake," and that "it proves I'm human." In a sense, she is right. Aspirants for the highest office are very human; by definition, they are often abnormally driven and self-absorbed and prone to believe whatever delusions leap off their tongues.So Clinton is hardly the first to fit that profile. Ronald Reagan, whose World War II experiences never extended beyond the Hollywood lot, used to give speeches implying that his scripted roles were actually real. Lyndon Johnson, as a young congressman in 1942, flew once as an observer on a Pacific bombing mission, but the plane turned back within 13 minutes because of a faulty generator, having never reached its target - yet LBJ later claimed that (a)[...]

The 4,000th death as metaphor


The occasion of the 4,000th American military death in Iraq has actually triggered something akin to a miracle on the home front, forcing people to focus anew (albeit briefly) on President Bush's historic misadventure - at the expense of ignoring (albeit briefly) the potential death spiral of the fractious Democrats.I won't use this milestone to broadly recount how the "cakewalk" morphed into a catastrophe, or to lament on how Bush will be dropping his slop into the lap of his successor. I'll simply note the manner in which the 4000th soldier met his demise (in the company of three comrades), and suggest why the incident is a metaphor for the ill-begotten war.The 4,000th was killed by a roadside, makeshift bomb - in military parlance, an improvised explosive device (IED). How perversely fitting. According to the Pentagon, IEDs for the first time are now responsible for a majority of American military deaths. Twenty-one percent of the first 1,000 deaths were caused by IEDs; 35 percent of the second 1,000 deaths were caused by IEDs; 46 percent of the third 1,000 deaths were caused by IEDs; for the fourth 1000 deaths, it's 54 percent.Why the death toll? Because, as has been well documented, the Bush war planners in 2002 and 2003 did not anticipate that insurgents armed with IEDs would be an obstacle to the vaunted American military juggernaut - because they didn't forsee the possibility of an insurgency, despite CIA prewar warnings. All this, despite Bush's assurance, in an Oct. 7, 2002 speech, that "we will plan carefully" for any conflict in Iraq.The Bush planners, in the early months of 2003, spoke instead of quick surrenders and citizens greeting us with flowers. They hinted at times of a two-week war. They never bothered to draft a plan to secure the thousands of Iraqi munitions caches, which reportedly contained as much as one million tons of explosives; as Gen. John P. Abizaid, the new chief of U.S. Central Command, confessed to Congress when the war was four months old, "I wish I could tell you that we had it all under control. We don't."So explosives, reportedly by the tens of thousands, were spirited away from these ill-guarded munitions dumps, and, by the summer of 2003, IEDs were killing American soldiers, many of them traveling in lightly-armored Humvees that offered little defense from the blasts. Soldiers foraged on their own for scrap metal, in the hopes of shoring up their vehicles. The Pentagon set up a team to figure out how they could combat the IED epidemic; the task-force workers put up a sign on the wall that said "Stop the Bleeding."The bleeding continued, but for several more years the Bush team didn't see the urgency. Military specialists and outside consults reportedly staged presentations on the IED issue for then-Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, the now-disbarred felon Lewis "Scooter" Libby. But the Bush team felt that training the Iraqi army was sufficient, and Cheney hewed to his belief that the insurgency was dying. These sentiments slowed Pentagon efforts to combat the IEDs by, among other things, investing in more solidly armored vehicles.Result: In 2005, the Marines Corps' inspector general was still complaining that the 30,000 Marines in Iraq were traveling in vehicles that were no match for the IEDs. Part of the problem was that, faced with a weapon that nobody seemed to have anticipated during the runup to war, the g[...]

A Hillary surrogate retrofits his convictions


It was excrutiating yesterday to watch Senator Evan Bayh audition on CNN for the job of Hillary Clinton's running mate. One of the requirements, apparently, is that the applicant must be ready and willing to scrap his convictions for the good of the team. By that measure, Bayh probably ensured his status on her short list. Assuming she ever gets the chance to wield such a list.One of the tasks of any Clinton surrogate these days is to pick up the goalposts and move them around, with the aim of supplying Democratic superdelegates with a plausible reason why they should coronate the chronically trailing candidate. And Bayh, who is also being entrusted with delivering his state of Indiana to Clinton in the May 6 primary, spun a very creative argument on CNN.Bayh said that the Democratic nomination should be awarded to the candidate whose primary victories, when added together, represent the most electoral votes in the November election; not coincidentally, Clinton's victorious states currently add up to 219 electoral votes, while Obama's stack up at 202. (I'm not counting meaningless Florida and Michigan, for reasons I explained on Friday.)The absurdity of this argument - that winning big primary states is proof of November electability - is easily demonstrable; in 1980, 1988, and 2004, Jimmy Carter, Mike Dukakis, and John Kerry, respectively, all triumphed during the primaries in a number of big states with a lot of electoral votes, only to be defeated in those states by their Republican opponents in November.But that's not what interests me most about Bayh's argument. The hypocrisy is what interests me most.Here he was yesterday, on CNN: "...we do elect presidents based upon the Electoral College. So who carried the (primary) states with the most Electoral College votes is an important factor to consider because, ultimately, that's how we choose the president of the United States."So Evan Bayh believes that the Electoral College should be an important determinant, both in choosing a nominee and choosing a president? Wait a sec, let's take a quick stroll down memory lane.On Nov. 16, 2000, Bayh appeared on CNN and voiced his support for a constitution amendment eradicating the Electoral College as the means for choosing a president, and relying instead on the popular vote. He said, "I do believe that we should have popularly elected officials in our country. I think our government officials should reflect the will of the governed...we ought to try and make sure that in the future we have the person who gets the most votes hopefully will be the president."Here he is in a speech on April 10, 2001, when he dismissed the Electoral College as outmoded: "Times have changed over the last couple hundred years, and where before we were interested in insuring that every state was adequately represented, now we are a country of people, not just of political subsidiaries. And you can make a compelling case for the direct popular election of the president. You can make a compelling case for the direct popular election of the president...I personally feel that we've moved to the point where we ought to have people choosing the president."Here he is again five years later, in a North Carolina newspaper: "I think our president should be chosen by the majority of the American people." As for using the Electoral College to elect presidents, "I just don't think in the modern era that is appropriate."It should also be noted th[...]

Good riddance to the rule breakers


Scanning the landscape at week's end:There has been a paucity of commentary in this space about Florida and Michigan. And now that the Democratic do-over scenarios have evaporated, I can summarize my reaction in just two words.Good riddance.It's really quite simple. The Democratic National Committee, in its attempt to stop the extreme front-loading of the calendar, established rules barring those states from staging primaries in January. Both states were determined to break the rules anyway, by staging primaries in January. The DNC warned that the states would be stripped of their delegates if they broke the rules. The states ignored the threat and broke the rules. They were then stripped of their delegates. Now they have to live with the consequences. Too bad. Deal with it.Hillary Clinton (who has taken up Michigan's cause only because she desperately needs to find ways to topple frontrunner Barack Obama) claims that this "disenfranchisement" of Michigan will hurt the Democrats in the autumn campaign against John McCain, but that's just spin from a seriously trailing candidate. Six months from now, the Democratic nominee (whoever it is) will be spending a lot of time in Michigan, talking about the kitchen-table economic issues that Michigan voters care about most, issues that typically favor the Democrats, issues that McCain is barely conversant about. Six months from now, the spat over the primary calendar will mean squat to the average Michigan voter. Six months is an eternity in politics.Meanwhile, what a huge relief it is to learn that Florida will not be conducting a do-over primary. It's akin to getting the news that the lunatic distant cousin in your family will not be coming for Thanksgiving after all. Now we can eat in peace.Seriously, can you imagine Florida trying to run a newfangled kind of primary, by mail or whatever, with only 60 days notice? Florida in 2000 couldn't even run a general election with four years notice. Then they brought in touchscreen machines, and, sure enough, in 2004, a state legislator in Broward County won his race by 12 votes because some new machines inexplicably failed to record the votes of 134 people; state law required a hand recount, but there was nothing to recount because the machines had no paper receipts. Then, with two more year's notice, another beaut occurred in 2006. On the Gulf coast, a congressional candidate declared victory by a margin of 369 votes; the only problem was, touchscreen machines in Sarasota County failed to record the sentiments of as many as 18,000 voters.And today? Eight Florida counties are currently junking their touchscreens and changing over to optical-scan voting equipment...and probably wouldn't have been ready in time for any June primary do-over. I have a smidgen of sympathy for the Florida Democratic party, because it is true that the Republican-run state legislature was primarily responsible for passing the bill that mandated a January primary date for both parties. However, the bill was co-sponsored by a Democrat, state party leaders echoed the desire for a January primary, and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson wanted it as well. The DNC's threat to strip the delegates was always clear, and the Florida Democrats ignored it. Nor did I ever hear Hillary Clinton cry "disenfranchisement" back when she assumed she'd cruise to the nomination; it was not until this winter, when it became clear she'd need to sc[...]