Friday, August 29, 2008

Obama's Acceptance Speech, McCain's Pick

I didn't see the camera pan to the Clintons last night when Obama gave his speech. The Democratic party must have decided to put Obama centerstage and to move on from the 90s. Not so fast - the Sarah Palin pick means that Hillary Clinton's response (and attacks) will be more critical than ever in shaping what happens this fall.

Barack Obama delivered a preeminently political speech, not an oratorical performance, last night. He may have written most of the speech himself, but it was clear that he had taken the advice from pollsters and consultants to heart. He systematically went down a checklist of what he had to do: specificy what he meant by change, attack the Republicans, address social cultural issues, speak to independents, and most importantly, address the attacks that have come his way. He erred on the side of meat rather than bones in his speech so that the celebrity charge would lose some wind. Some fellow partisans may have wanted more oratory, but Obama did not think he had the luxury of thinking of the history books right now. He has to win first.

There was a new line of attack today that we might hear a little more of - the idea that it's not that John McCain doesn't care, it's that he allegedly doesn't get it.

John McCain came to his decision to pick Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate only recently - this decision will surprise even Republican insiders. This is change not only that we can believe in, but, as was intended, change that confounded everyone (as a Joe Lieberman pick would have been), showing the campaign's willingness and ability to think outside of the box and on their feet. In this sense, the maverick is back. But note that the Palin is a through and through conservative: pro-life, pro-guns, pro-drilling, anti-gay marriage. This pick doesn't look like a concerted bid for the independent voter more than it is a bait for the soccer moms.

This decision will no doubt annoy some female Republican senators who were passed over. The Obama camp should jump on this: picking an inexperienced person purely for her gender is everything Hillary Clinton would have fought against. Is it wise to elect a ticket in which Palin will only be a heartbeat away from the presidency? The McCain campaign saw the immense groundswell of support that still exists among women for Hillary Clinton, and saw an opportunity they could not pass. And so throughout the Democratic Convention, the Republicans overtly and unabashedly tried to court the Clinton supporters. The question remains however, whether or not Hillary Clinton supporters will go for any woman (especially a pro-life one), or if their support is non-transferable. Nevertheless, picking Palin this soon after Obama's acceptance speech also reveals the aggressiveness of Team McCain. They would not allow Obama's momentum to carry into the weekend without some Republican headlines.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

On Populism and Celebrities

Although populism almost always wins, the Republicans have found a way to mock populism via the "celebrity" charge. It is their only recourse to Barack Obama's idea that he wanted to bring the convention to the people by taking it outside to INVESCO field. Why haven't Democrats used it? Because Democrats have been so often (and successfully) painted as elitist (as was the case for Adlai Stevenson and John Kerry), they would be perceived as condescending if they used it. (This is analagous to the fact that Democrats have more leeway to criticize racial minorities, and Republicans have more leeway to critize military commanders).

The celebrity charge is potent. It has turned an intellectual, a law professor into a Paris Hilton. Still an elitist, but also vacuous; a hybrid and seemingly contradictory charge that we have not seen in American politics for a long time.

Nevertheless, Republicans will get a taste of their populism tonight. Our democracy turned mobocracy is not a partisan condition, but a universal reality. Mock the celebrity, and you mock the mob and the screaming groupies. The Obama campaign's appropriate defence should be that the celebrity charge is an attack not only on Obama but his adoring fans.

To sharpen their criticism, Republicans need to get at a very subtle premise underlying much of Obama's support, especially among the youth. It is their generational envy and those who lived through the 60s: the Civil Rights movement, the marches on Washington, MLK's speech at the Lincoln memorial. Obama has tapped into their nostalgia and set himself up as the new incarnation of old icons. (It is not enough that Republicans ask for meat on the speech's bones. Since when did politicians give us anything more than rhetorical bones in their speeches?) If Republicans manage to sever this mythological link - which they are beginning to do with the "celebrity" charge - they may yet break the convention bounce that Obama is likely to get after tonight.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Bill Clinton and Joe Biden Do Their Part

Tonight's was a hard speech for Bill Clinton to deliver, probably as hard as the one he had to give owning up to the Lewinsky connection. Yet, how great is our democracy when it can make a former president of the United States eat his words and utter new ones in deep contradiction to what he has been feeling inside for the last year on the campaign trail. At any moment, I was waiting for a gaffe, back-handed compliment, a freudian slip, a faux pas. He spoke ponderously today, more steadily and slowly than he normally does. No extemporaneity, because he couldn't afford to slip and make a mistake. He picked up steam though, and was much better when he threw anti-Republican jibes than when he was praising Obama. In his denunciations he was no longer halting; Bubba was back on the roll. For all our talk of how American elections have become personality-centered, and despite the humongous shadow that Bill Clinton has cast on the Democratic party, even he had to yield and tow the party line. And that, I think, puts democracy in The Democracy.

Tonight Biden delivered the red meat for his democratic audience in earthy, urgent tones. Biden doesn't need to deliver the poetry, he can leave that to the top of the ticket. His job is to attack, to connect with town hall questioners, to conduct retail politics. Tomorrow, with calculated counterpoise, Obama will deliver his signature oratory - half-sermon, half-recital - and it will elicit more thundering applause, because of the size of INVESCO field, than any other nomination acceptance speech in the history of the republic has received. The meeting of hands however, do not guarantee the changing of hearts, and the newly crowned Democratic nominee should not allow the applause to get to his head.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hillary Clinton's Cadenza

Tonight Hillary Clinton was in rare form, at least in contrast to the way her critics normally perceive her. She was unselfish and generous. Knowing how much she wanted to be the Democratic party's nominee, she performed either a herculean act of self-abnegation or showmanship. Either way she deserves credit.

Looking at the charged convention floor, I wonder if Obama did the right thing in picking Biden. Clinton kept the delegates standing through most of her speech like no other speaker has yet done at this convention. Obama probably picked Biden because he knew they could work together, but looking at what Hillary Clinton does for party faithfuls, I'm not sure that he made the right strategic choice to maximize his chances for the White House.

So, the nagging question remains: is the party finally united? Probably not. There is a long road to healing and having Hillary Clinton on prime time television probably only reminded her supporters how close she came to making it. For these supporters, I suspect that her performance tonight elicited more wistfulness than catharsis.

The fact is Hillary Clinton had no choice but to do what she did tonight. If she gave a tepid endorsement, she would forever be blamed the spoiler if Obama loses the election in Fall. If she conceded defeat tonight and declared her political fortunes vanquished, her fans will probably want revenge. The only thing left to do was to give an unequivocal endorsement of Obama, while at the same time keeping her place as heiress apparent. Comeback kid she will be.

Clinton solidified her political standing tonight in a way that her primary wins in Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania combined did not. Now, she can no longer be accused of standing in Obama's way; with her endorsement now so unequivocal, whatever happens in November, she will neither be the spoiler nor the sour grapes. She is poised for another run in 2012 or 2016, depending on what happens. For Clinton die-hards, this may be a reason not to turn out to vote this year, and there's the rub.

If this speech was successful, there probably aren't many Democrats left angry enough that they would want to punish their party by voting McCain, but there are significant Democrats left who may not turn out for Obama. Now, the Obama campaign must think of a strategy to lure the wistful Clinton supporters out to vote.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Who did Better - Teddy or Michelle?

Teddy, by far. Because his speech rided on a lifetime of accomplishment, because the Democratic convention floor was applauding his life, not his rhetoric. His was the more moving performance not because he emoted, but because he wore the stripes of 46 years of service to the country on his countenance even as the point of his speech was not to congratulate himself but to promote another.

Michelle Obama gave an eloquent speech, but it can no more allay doubts of her patriotism than one infelicitous remark can prove her lack thereof. A woman and a man is measured by much more than a speech, even one given as a keynote address to the Democratic nomination comnvention. (There is also something insidiously retrogressive, as opposed to progressive, about the fact that she had to prove that she was a normal, non-threatening, loving mother and wife.) Nevertheless, liberals will cheer and conservatives will sneer.

Tomorrow, we are going to ask the same silly question: can a single speech Hillary Clinton gives on the convention floor unite the Democratic party in one magical fell swoop? Watch the media coverage and see that this will be the underlying question in all the "analysis."

There is a deeper problem here. We seem to think that images and words can substitute for action and service. When the poll numbers are down, politicians give a speech, send the wife, display the kids, talk the talk. No, not just Barack Obama. John McCain shall do the same next week. And we wonder why we will have the same reaction. Just that this time, conservatives will cheer and liberals will sneer.

We tend to forgive political gimmicks when it's our guy doing it. To get to the White House, he needs to do what he needs to do to bring about real change. But if it's not our guy doing it, then all of a sudden the campaign tricks are cheap and cynical. But both sides play gimmicks, but we are sometimes too partisan to admit this as a systemic condition. When the pot calls the kettle black, neither will clean up the soot, and the American people suffer for it.

So Teddy gave a great speech tonight. But to say so almost does him a disservice, because his performance tonight is trivial in the light of the hundreds of pieces of legislation he sponsored, the thousands of speeches he gave on the floor of the Senate, and the millions of lives he bettered. All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. Teddy put on a great show for his buddy, but he is way more than a player.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Intellection and Intuition

The talk of town these days is that Senator Barack Obama is either just too cerebral, or refreshingly so.

Assessing the Senator's weak performance at the Saddleback Faith Forum, Michael Gerson wrote in the Washington Post, "Obama was fluent, cool and cerebral -- the qualities that made Adlai Stevenson interesting but did not make him president. " Yet to others, cerebral is good. "Obama's cool, cerebral style may be just what we need," wrote Eleanor Clift of Newsweek.

It has occurred to me that people who agree or disagree with my thesis about The Anti-intellectual Presidency have tended to be divided on the question of whether or not a president's political judgement should be based on intellection or intuition. This division may appear to some to map crudely along partisan lines: some liberals and Democrats tend to value reliance on the intellect; some conservatives and Republicans prioritize instinct. I think there is more agreement than meets the eye.

Insofar as there is a partisan disagreement, populist Republicans are probably right that as a general political rule, visceral trumps cerebral. The Obama campaign is starting to recognize this, with their choice of vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden, someone who speaks with passion and sometimes, apparently, without much prior thought.

But I don't think many people are against intellection as a method for decision-making. It is surely a strawman argument that President Bush does no thinking and that Karl Rove was the brain behind his decisions. The key is that Bush pulls off the semblance of intellectual diffidence, even though he must do a lot of thinking behind the scenes. Like others have said of President Dwight Eisenhower, President Bush has mastered the highest political art that conceals art itself.

Now, there is still an argument to be made for judgment to be based on intuition rather than intellection, but it is a weak one. "Go with your gut" may be a familiar refrain, but even if intuition is less error-prone than intellection, there is one reason that recommends against its excessive use. Intuition is non-falsifiable. No one can prove what he feels in his or her gut. So when President Bush told us that he looked into Vladamir Putin's eyes and saw a soul, we could only take his word for it that he saw what he saw. We couldn't test the claim; we couldn't even debate it. This can't be what democracy is about, because democracy is conducted with the deliberation of public reasons, not the unilateral assertion of private emotions.

If I am correct, then no one disgrees with the importance of intellection as a decision-making method, even as there is disagreement on the political utility of projecting or hiding such intellection. The disagreement is about the image, but we can scarely deny the importance of the process of intellection. Because they have failed to make this distinction between image and process, those who disagree with the appearance of intellection have also wrongly concluded that the process of intellection should have no place in leadership.

Anti-intellectualism is politically powerful, but it is in the end self-defeating. Suppose I feel in my gut that intellection is key to decision-making. How will someone who disagrees with my gut instinct prove my intuition wrong? Only by argument, debate, intellection.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

What Joe Biden Brings to the Ticket

Here is what the Obama campaign is hoping to achieve and communicate with their VP pick:

-If Obama cannot attack without soiling his image, Biden will and will do so with his inimitable and authentic vitriol.
-If Obama is an intellectual who is out of touch, Biden is a working class man who knows everyone he meets on his daily train commute to and from Wilmington.
-If Obama is inexperienced in foreign affairs and too fresh-faced in Washington, Biden is experienced and the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
-If Obama is a young black man, Biden is an old white man.

The veepstakes reveal what Team Obama thinks are their weakest link, and they have sought to address them in the person of Joe Biden. All told, if Biden represents the old Democratic party, the party of unions and blue collar workers, Obama represents the new.

Because no VP candidate will be able to seal every one of the principal candidates' weakest links, both campaigns will be taking a risk in evitably leaving some gaps open. For Obama, he's still going to have a problem with women voters, some of who would be allayed by the fact that Biden is an older man with working class roots, but some of whom would not be thrilled that Obama passed over Hillary Clinton and Katherine Sebelius. For Obama supporters too quick to put the blame on the avaricious Clinton, they are seriously underestimating the groundswell of support that still exists for her.

When McCain picks his VP this Friday, he too shall inadvertently reveal his hand about what he thinks his weaknesses are. Curiously, if Obama was trying to balance the old and new wings of his party, McCain shall be trying to balance existing factions of the Republican party that were first united under Ronald Reagan. Whoever McCain ends up with, it seems likely now from his shortlist that he will continue to have some problems coalescing the religious right within his party.

In a battle where both candidates will have admitted, via their VP picks, their weakest link, both sides will now spend the rest of the Fall campaign scouting for remaining crevices in the armor of the other to assault. For all the vetting that has gone on through the primaries season, these crevices can sometimes emerge to become incredible vulnerabilities. In American election-speak, an undetected vulnerability is called the "October Surprise," and no amount of vetting in years past have proved sufficient to prempt these.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

A Carnival of Anniversaries

This is going to be the political year of anniversaries.

Hillary Clinton is going to speak at the Democratic convention 88 years to the day women were given the right to vote.

Barack Obama will give his nomination acceptance speech 45 years to the day Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I have a Dream" speech.

And John McCain will name his vice-presidential candidate on his 72nd birthday on August 29. (Yes, while Clinton and Barack will be commemorating historic events, McCain will be highlighting his age.)

Everything is strategic these days. One week before the Democratic Convention in Denver, the Obama campaign is poised to announce their vice-presidential pick, and this will happen no later than this Saturday. Whereas sometimes campaigns have waited till the convention to unveil the vice-presidential candidate, the Obama campaign doesn't plan on waiting this year. There is no fear of an anti-climatic let down at the convention because superstars Hillary and Bill Clinton, and Al Gore have signed up to rally the crowd (with John Edwards now conspicuously left out, of course). The steady crescendo of celebrities will culminate with Obama's speech at the 75,000 seater INVESCO field. Team Obama knows just how to psyche the media up.

The McCain campaign isn't planning on sitting around either. They know that they will have to break the momentum of the Obama campaign coming out of the Democratic convention, so McCain plans to name his vice-presidential nominee on August 29, the day after Obama officially accepts his nomination

So what about the actual veepstakes? It is now unlikely that Hillary Clinton will be Obama's pick. She's already been assigned her prime time speaking slot on the second night of the convention on August 26, paving the way for the VP nominee to give his/her speech on the third night of the convention (as has traditionally been the case). Clinton's supporters would not have been agitating to have her name formally listed for the nomination roll-call if they sensed that she was going to be Obama's running mate. That leaves Joe Biden (more likely now that McCain has been pounding Obama on Iraq and Georgia and polls are closing) and Evan Bayh as the principal contenders for the job.

On the Republican side, it looks like Tom Ridge was seriously considered, at least until the trial ballon burst. No one has observed that the reason why John McCain was so on (the conservative) message in the Faith Forum last weekend is that he cannot afford to test his base's patience if there is even the slightest chance that he will do so by picking the pro-choice Tom Ridge or any other less than perfectly conservative candidate. That is why McCain was so ruthlessly on point on judges, marriage, and abortion at the forum hosted by the evangelical pastor, Rick Warren. Charlie Crist is definitely out because there are too many rumors about him being in the gay closet and McCain is unlikely to pick a potentially ticking timebomb. Mitt Romney continues to head the list of most possible choices (and by the way his pro-life turn was fairly recent as well) together with Tim Pawlenty.

So - anniversaries, veepstakes, and intrigue. Let the conventions begin!

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When Pandering Isn't a Choice

Watching John McCain at the Faith Forum with Pastor Rick Warren, one could come away thinking that he is in full pander mode. The party maverick in him has been fully exorcised. Now he delivers the punch lines, one after another. General Patraeus is his hero, activist judges should not be on the bench, life begins at conception. For fellow partisans, he delivered a conservative homerun this weekend. Many wise political observers concur that McCain was ruthlessly on message, and Obama was congenial, though a little too tentative and thoughtful.

For one reason, this was to be expected. McCain was with a sympathetic audience, so he could deliver the lines they wanted to hear without qualms. Comfortable as Obama purports to be with his faith, he is a Democrat, and every Democrat must equivocate before an evangelical audience.

But, it could still be asked - why was McCain so dedicatedly on message (whether or not he was properly sequestered inside a "cone of silence")? If he already has the evangelical vote (which for the most part he does), why is he delivering the punch lines? One would think that someone who already has his base would be trying to woo the other side. Conversely, why is Obama setting himself up for a difficult, if not a losing, battle? Why is he so significantly less risk-averse than McCain?

Obama is trying, and McCain is securing, and I think this says a lot about the electoral dynamics of the 2008 elections. Obama is going for big game here - he is trying in Virginia and Georgia (all 50 states, as Howard Dean attests), so heck, why not try with evangelicals - and we should not underestimate either the scope or the riskiness of his ambition, especially given the unsettled score with Clinton supporters within the Democratic party. McCain, on the other hand, is making comparatively only perfunctory efforts to reach the median voter - who, as we know in a two-party system ultimately decides elections - suggesting that he does not think he has secured his base.

McCain is delivering the lines his base wants to hear because he cannot afford another crack in the faltering Republican armor, especially given that right now, he is flirting with the idea of picking a pro-choice vice-presidential candidate, Tom Ridge. McCain may have been entirely authentic in his professions this weekend, but it is still revealing that he did not (and perhaps could not) choose to take the strategic path of trying to increase his lead among independents. Obama's relative equivocation on faith and conservative issues probably did not impress most evangelicals, but most Americans are not evangelicals.

Many liberals think that McCain was in full pander mode this weekend. Maybe he was, or maybe he was being authentic, but I am surprised that McCain isn't trying harder to reach across the aisle to coddle the independent voter who may not buy every one of his conservative punchlines. Revealed preferences seem to indicate that he doesn't think he has a choice. Here's the danger: for all of McCain's determination and perceived obligation to deliver an ideologically pure message, it may not resonate as strongly as it certainly did in 1980. Because it's 2008.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Georgia and the Task of Global Leadership

Both US presidential candidates have denounced Russia's military actions in Georgia in recent days. "Russian actions, in clear violation of international law, have no place in 21st century Europe," said John McCain. His opponent, Barack Obama, echoed the sentiment: "I condemn Russia's aggressive actions and reiterate my call for an immediate cease-fire." These noble-sounding statements barely scrape the surface of what will be required of them as president.

The emerging narrative that these statements help endorse is that Russia was the clear wrong-doer here, but it was actually Georgia which had first sent in troops to rein in the breakaway province of South Ossetia that precipitated the Russian response. This is why President Bush initially gave a more measured response than the presidential candidates, citing Russia's actions to be "disproportionate." This is the difference between leadership and campaigning. Whereas Bush would have to mediate between two or more parties, the candidates have the easier job of simply condeming one side.

As both presidential candidates struggle to sound more hawkish than the other in protecting America against global unrest, we should remember that most foreign policy crises are not a 3AM call for which the simple answer is just to send in troops. President Bush is weighing the long term consequences of aggravating an important global power against the need to address a short term problem. This is more Cuban Missile Crisis than Operation Desert Storm.

When President Bush ordered that the US air-lifted 2,000 Georgian troops from Iraq back home, and stopped short of sending American assistance, he recognized that this crisis, while non-trivial, isn't just about the seccesionist enclave of South Ossetia in Georgia. It is about the former states of the Soviet Union playing off Russia and the West in a game not too different from what was happening half a century ago. This crisis could conflagarate dozens of other brewing border and ethnic disputes in the Caucasus.

Two decades after the declared fact, the cold war, or at least its aftershocks, is not over. We are certainly not yet graduated from a world in which wars of aggression between states have ceased to occur. Terrorism is not the only, maybe not even the central, threat to global security in our time. (Obama missed his opportunity to make this powerful argument this week; instead he appeared weak in the face of a resurgent Russia.) Yes the world is simpler if we could name one foe, unfortunately, the challenges to our security are manifold. The next US president, like every one before him who had had to learn on the job, would have to do more more than condemn and chastise errant nations in a world not cleanly divided between the good and the evil. As a global leader, he would have to bring together a smorgasbord of actors, all of whom will have legitimate self-interests, and none of whom will be guiltless.

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Thursday, August 7, 2008

Live Discussion on Washingtonpost.com August 8

Tomorrow, August 8, at noon ET, I'll be answering questions on "political stupidity" in the US with Rick Shenkman, author of Just How Stupid Are We? at Washingtonpost.com. Feel free to submit questions before or during the session here.

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

So What if Obama is a Celebrity?


John McCain's much talked about ad comparing Barack Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton was meant to depict Obama as a clueless, out of touch, uppity Europhile. On first blush, this ad belongs to the same genre of the ad featuring John Kerry wind-surfing in 2004. Not quite, I propose.

The problem with the celebrity charge is that many celebrities are anything but out of touch. Their trade makes them consummate populists. Just look at the reaction to Paris Hilton's spoof ad in response to McCain's ad. Pampered, clueless star of the Surreal Life notwithstanding, people are lapping it up. Incidentally, Paris Hilton, like most celebrities, is cool, good-looking, and young. That's Obama. McCain, not so much. Oops.

Maybe Obama is a celebrity, but so what? Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Venture, Bill Bradley and Ronald Reagan were all celebrities. (For a longer list of celebrities turned politicians, see here.)

McCain's ad then, is sending out mixed messages, and, as his campaign consultants will soon find out, not all of them are bad. So contrary to the Obama camp's lamentation, the McCain campaign is not going all negative this week. And I suppose that is, inadvertently, a good thing.

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