Friday, March 7, 2008

Democratic Draw

Now Hillary Clinton knows how Republicans feel. Usually, GOP candidates have to overcome media disdain and establishment calls to declare defeat and get out of the race. This time she's the target of the collective liberal swoon for Barack Obama. But after her victory yesterday in Ohio and a nailbiter in Texas, we see little reason that the New York Senator shouldn't fight on.

That wouldn't please the Democratic panjandrums who desperately want a nominee now that John McCain has wrapped up the Republican race. The party superdelegates who were all for Mrs. Clinton when she was "inevitable" are now hoping she'll drop out and spare them a painful decision. A herd of them -- they prefer the camouflage of numbers -- have reportedly even been plotting to break together for the Illinois orator.

But yesterday's message from actual Democratic voters was hardly a decisive verdict for Mr. Obama. The Illinois Senator continued to do well among better educated, wealthier, more liberal and younger voters. He maintained his domination among African-Americans. But Mrs. Clinton regained the advantages that she showed earlier in the campaign among blue-collar Democrats, union households, women, seniors and Hispanics.

Perhaps most important, according to the exit polls, she was able to expose a significant vulnerability that Mr. Obama would have against Mr. McCain -- his lack of experience on national security. She made that a major theme of the campaign's final days, running a much-noted TV spot about a President needing to answer the phone at 3 a.m. Mr. Obama turned that into a retort about Mrs. Clinton's bad "judgment" in voting for the Iraq war, which resonated with antiwar voters.

But Mrs. Clinton seems to have won the larger argument, as voters in Ohio said she would make a better Commander in Chief by 57% to 40%. If even Democrats have their doubts about Mr. Obama's national security credentials, he'll have an even harder task persuading independents in November against the Arizona war veteran.

Mr. Obama retained his narrow delegate lead after last night, and must still be considered the favorite. But that's all the more reason for Democrats to want to make him compete in more primaries. Democrats have a history of nominating candidates who come out of nowhere but turn out to have what the larger electorate decides are major liabilities. Think Michael Dukakis, or Jimmy Carter's near collapse after a 22-point lead in the summer of 1976.

According to the exit polls, a mere 57% of Democrats in Ohio, and 52% in Texas, gave Mr. Obama credit for having a "clear plan for the country." The media have also only begun to explore the Senator's rise in the boiler room of Chicago politics, as with the fraud trial of his former fund raiser Tony Rezko that started this week. If he is the nominee, Mr. Obama will be stronger in the fall as a result of the greater scrutiny now.

Mrs. Clinton would bring her own weaknesses into the fall campaign, not least her implausibility as an agent of "change." We certainly understand the desire of many Democrats to be free at last from their codependency with both Clintons. But they should also make sure Mr. Obama isn't one more leap into the November unknown.


Media finally a bit embarrassed by their Obamamania

Life imitating art or just a coincidence? A study of campaign coverage found the media took a sharper look at Barack Obama the week after "Saturday Night Live" spoofed journalists enthralled by his candidacy. The NBC comedy show on Feb. 23 opened with a mock debate where journalists were rough on Hillary Clinton while being starry-eyed about Obama. It matched complaints the Clinton campaign had made - and she even referenced the comedy skit during a real debate last week.

During the week, Obama was the dominant person in 69 percent of presidential campaign stories, according to a study by Project for Excellence in Journalism. That's the biggest percentage one candidate had received in any week this year. Many of the stories took a tough look at Obama, such as a Feb. 25 ABC "World News" study on his Illinois legislative record and a "CBS Evening News" report on his career three nights later.

It's hard to say whether "SNL" acted as a de-facto assignment editor, since some of the stories were probably being prepared before the NBC show aired, but it did seem to crystallize a thought that had been percolating, said Mark Jurkowitz, the project's associate director. "There were a lot of factors at play," Jurkowitz said. "But there's no question the skit, if nothing else, was perfectly timed."

With no primaries last week, news outlets had the time to look at other stories, as well as the time to look at their own performance. The Washington Post, New York Times and ABC's "Good Morning America" all ran stories addressing whether the media has been fairly covering the Obama-Clinton contest. "Saturday Night Live" this past weekend opened its show with another fake debate where journalists played easy for Obama. This time, the skit ended with an appearance by Clinton herself.

The project studies 48 different media outlets, including newspapers, Web sites and television networks, as part of its examination of campaign coverage.


Slippery money standards from the Obama campaign

Presidential candidate Barack Obama has made "audacity" a campaign theme -- and it's proving to be an apt word for his relationship with campaign finance laws. A case in point is his recent outrage at the activities of a pro-Hillary Clinton 527 group called the American Leadership Project. Headed by former Bill Clinton aide Roger Salazar, ALP queued up a series of ads to run in Ohio and Texas reminding voters that speeches don't solve problems on health care and the economy. The ads don't mention Mr. Obama by name.

Obama Campaign Manager David Plouffe nonetheless cried "smear campaign" and said that groups like ALP amounted to "Swift-Boat style" attacks. Mr. Obama's lawyer, Bob Bauer, said he believed the group was breaking the law by not registering as a political committee. And because it's not incorporated, its actions would expose its donors and aides to criminal liability and a "very, very miserable experience." There would be a "reckoning," he vowed.

If the idea was to scare off the group's donors, it almost worked. The ads didn't appear for days leading up to Tuesday's primary, until funding from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union came through to get ALP spots on air in Ohio and Texas on Monday and Tuesday. The American Leadership Project argues it doesn't qualify as a "political committee" because its proposed ads stop well short of "express advocacy." Instead it should fall under the category of "electioneering communications." We'll leave further legal parsing to the theologians of the election laws.

For all its indignation, the Obama campaign doesn't mind playing it both ways when convenient. One example is the Senator's own easy relationship with spending on his behalf by organized labor. According to the Federal Election Commission, the Service Employees International Union was spending some $1.4 million to support his candidacy in Ohio and Texas, including direct mail, phone-banking and union outlays to pay for "volunteers." Meanwhile, the Fund For America, another so-called 527 group funded by George Soros and the SEIU, is funneling $400,000 to groups buying ads to attack John McCain. What gives?

Mr. Obama had no trouble complaining when John Edwards was the beneficiary of such spending. In Iowa, an SEIU local threw a reported $750,000 into TV ads for Mr. Edwards, and Mr. Obama criticized what he called "huge, unregulated contributions from special interests." He insisted such efforts were "a way of getting around the campaign finance laws."

Mr. Obama calls his campaign a new kind of politics, and he's to be commended for raising around $50 million in February alone, much of it from donors who aren't the usual suspects. But his selective indignation on spending by so-called 527 groups and his recent waffling on federal funds for the general election don't fit the image. The campaign finance laws may be a contraption, but Mr. Obama has lashed himself to their restrictions. As self-styled and vocal "reformers," Barack Obama and John McCain have both proven this election season that campaign-finance reform makes hypocrites of everyone.


Obama's Well-Aged Beef

The television images are striking. A handsome young candidate, an adoring audience, a beautifully delivered speech in which he offers to bring us together as a nation, and speaks of his "movement for change:" "I don't want to spend the next year or the next four years" he says, "re-fighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s. I don't want to pit Red America against Blue America, I want to be the President of the United States of America." Nice rhetoric. Is it real or is it theater? Relax: it's theater.

A visit to Barack Obama's website reveals that this is not a candidate who is offering a new left-right synthesis-a new way of looking at our politics and bridging the old Red-Blue divide. Instead, what we see in 60 pages of policy proposals and commitments are the same old ideas of the Democratic Left. Even the rhetoric is old.

On economics: "I'm in this race to take tax breaks away from companies that are moving jobs overseas and put them in the pockets of hard working Americans who deserve it. And I won't raise the minimum wage every ten years-I will raise it to keep pace so that workers don't fall behind. That's why I am in it. To protect the American worker."

The same old disputes come back to us with this on unions: "Obama will ...fight for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act" (this is the failed proposal to eliminate the secret ballot on unionization, of which Obama was a co-sponsor). And this on Social Security: "Obama will protect Social Security benefits for current and future beneficiaries alike...he does not believe it is necessary or fair to hardworking seniors to raise the retirement age. Obama is strongly opposed to privatizing Social Security." And this on taxes: "Obama is committed to repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans."

On foreign policy: "Obama will immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq. He will remove one to two combat brigades each month, and have all of our combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months." On Iran: "Obama believes that we have not exhausted our non-military options in confronting this threat; in many ways, we have yet to try them." And of course the belief that we can talk our enemies out of their hatred: "The United States is trapped by the Bush-Cheney approach to diplomacy that refuses to talk to leaders we don't like."

In the 60 pages of words, there's hardly a major new idea or an idea that departs significantly from the Democratic Party's agenda since the New Deal. It's all here: the activist government, the ambitious programs without reference to costs, the appeal to some people's sense of victimization. There is also one striking omission-a list of anything that Senator Obama has actually done in the course of his brief career to advance any of these goals.

The point is that there is nothing here to back up a candidacy that is based on bringing the nation together to effect change. It's a rehash of the same policies and programs that the Democratic Left has been pushing--largely without success--for the last 40 years. For some people, as least, the era of big government is not over.

What appears to qualify this candidacy as a candidacy of change is not the policies or programs it relies on but the fact that the same old ideas are coming from a new and telegenic messenger. It is no wonder, then, that this messenger has excited and attracted young people. If you've never heard this message before, and if you don't have any background in the politics of the last two generations, you might think these ideas will be generally accepted. But anyone who has followed American politics over more than the last year knows that there is real disagreement in this country about the role of government, about trade, about taxes, about confronting the nation's enemies. If Senator Obama is ultimately elected, and if his program ultimately adopted, it will certainly bring about change, but no one should be under the illusion that this is a message of reconciliation, or that the American people as a whole will rally around these ideas. Ask George McGovern.

The Obama program has been attacked with the slogan "Where's the beef?" This attack is misplaced. There's plenty of beef; the problem is that it's very well-aged.



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