Friday, June 29, 2007

PBS Democratic Debate -- I Agree With What He Said

It was billed as the All-American Presidential Forum, perhaps in attempt to lure sports fans, but really it was the Urban Affairs debate, held at Howard University in front of mostly African-Americans, hosted by Tavis Smiley, with all the questioners being non-white. In other words, home turf for Dems, discussing issues which will not decide the election. The questions were interesting, thoughtful, and for the most part, ignored, as most of the candidates translated the specific question into “this is about education/crime/health care” and gave their prepared answer.
Obama and Edwards are very lucky that very few people are watching these debates. They have no chance at drawing distinctions between themselves and Hillary, as Kucinich and Gravel attack everyone equally, and Clinton and Biden sound so well prepared and authoritative on every issue, that Obama and Edwards seem out of their depth. All of them are getting better at this (except for Richardson) and the time that is wasted on Gravel’s senescent ramblings gets more and more annoying. Although there was a point last night hen I thought Dodd was actually going to smack him down, which would have been wonderful.
This was on really solid turf for Hillary, Obama, and Edwards, yet the format didn’t give them a chance to really discuss anything. Obama was able to talk to the audience in a different way than the others, and frankly, may be the single best thing about his candidacy. When discussing the shocking HIV/AIDS statistics in the African-American community, he alone was able to talk about the need for the community to take more responsibility.
Hillary may be the best “short-form” debater ever (to coin a term). Give her a minute, she will make her points in a minute, coherently and effectively, give her 30 seconds, she’ll do it in 30 seconds. Unlike virtually every other candidate, she answered the actual questions that were asked, rather than just shifting to her prepared boilerplate. She is a very impressive woman and this was really solid turf for her.
No candidate is hurt more by the two left-wing idealogues than Edwards. In earlier debates, he wanted to draw distinctions between himself and the others on the war and Kucinich and Gravel lumped them all together again. He wants to talk about his superior health care proposals and Kucinich attacks him with the others because he doesn’t immediately knock the insurance companies out of the system. Life is easier when all you do is spout ideology, unfettered by the actual need to either win or accomplish anything. Kucninch and Gravel have the Naderite position in this game – and they get 25% of the time to hurt Edwards, effectively help Hillary, and, like Nader in the past (and maybe future) help the Republicans stay in power.
Just a word on Blabbermouth Bill Richardson – shut up. Okay, that’s two words, but man, is he annoying. And unless he’s spent an awful lot of time in the sun the last month, he was wearing makeup dark enough to be used in a road company of Othello. It looked like he was trying to emphasize his non-white half in this gathering. He reiterated his willingness to boycott the Olympics, saying, pompously, “I happen to think preventing genocide is more important than sports.” Next time he says something like that, someone should ask him if it’s more important than China having most favored nation trade status. Then when he hems and haws over that, they can tell him to just shut up.
Mostly, everyone in the debate agreed with everyone else. The next version of this will be with Republicans, and that could actually be interesting.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Campaign Themes -- Branding the Candidates

We might like to think of the electoral process as a high-minded exercise in political discourse, where like-minded people gather around the best candidates with the most to offer the country in expertise, leadership, experience, and ideas. This is, of course, a fantasy. Political campaigns are high-level advertising campaigns, with the same branding of candidates as exists for cars and soft drinks. Yes, the speeches and debates give us more depth than a 30-second ad, but most people will vote based on second-hand information and something – a look, an ad, a moment – that catches their interest and gives the candidate an edge. Those who run campaigns well know this – whether Reagan’s Morning in America, Clinton’s Third Way, or Bush’s Compassionate Conservatism, the ability to come up with a theme which resonates with the public can overcome all sorts of negatives about a candidate. Similarly, the lack of the theme can allow you to be defines by your opponents, or simply not give the public a positive image of your candidacy to gather around.
After the last Democratic debate, I discussed the themes as I saw them at the time. To recap the top ones: Hillary’s theme is Ready From Day One. Notice how often she harkens back to the concept, when talking about foreign policy or rejecting hypotheticals, she recalls the nature of decision-making in the White House, which she was there for. When asked about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, she made sure to talk about the process of coming up with that policy at the time. When asked about health care, she reminds everyone she has had to deal with that policy and, more importantly, the battle to get it through Congress (‘I’ve done that and have the scars to show for it”); she doesn’t have a health care policy to speak of, but she just falls back on her experience. Obama is New Leadership From a New Generation – everything about him screams how he is unlike anyone else. To borrow from an old New York mayoralty campaign, he is fresh while everyone else is tired...and you are tired of these other people too, of the Clintons, of Edwards, of Biden. Look for him to refine this as he goes on, using the words “new” and “fresh” and “different” as often as possible in speeches and answers to question.
John Edwards, on the other hand, has not found a theme which might resonate. He has spent a lot of time talking about the war, attempting to be the major anti-war candidate. But the debates, with Kucinich and Gravel attacking all of them equally, destroyed the distinctions between him and the other two top tier candidates. He has talked about poverty. He has had programmatic answers, including a fine health care plan. Yet if you ask someone why they support him, there is no unifying theme which could be put on a banner to lead the parade. In his first commercial, he has three memorable points. 1) America’s strength is in its people 2) we must be one America 3) we need to give Americans something to be patriotic about besides war. Pardon me while I yawn. The first sounds more Republican than Democratic – if the strength is its people, why do we need government? It’s not a bad first line if he’s going to follow with “it’s weakness is its government and I will fix that”, but he doesn’t. It’s just feel-good nonsense. The One American theme, as opposed to his Two Americas speeches from 2004, a concept which he apparently is reviving, is meaningless to most voters. It can be fleshed out into something else, a common good philosophy perhaps, but doesn’t grab people. The third one is a lovely turn of phrase, but it ignores how most Americans, especially those likely to vote for a Democrat, think. It is the war that makes them less patriotic, that’s the only thing that they aren’t proud of.
I have thought about a possible theme for Edwards’ campaign, and here is what I have come up with:

John Edwards: Reviving the American Dream

Isn’t that what he is about? For most of the 20th century, the American dream was a simple one – get a good job with good benefits, buy a home, raise your kids, give them the education and help needed to have a better life than you have. Your job provides health insurance and retirement benefits and along with Social Security, your future is secure. Most Americans don’t dream of being rich, they aren’t entrepreneurial, they just have basic desires. That dream is dying. They fear losing their job and with it their health care benefits. Even if they don’t lose the job, the pay increases are not keeping up with the costs of gas, housing, food, and health insurance. The job may provide insurance, but the cost to the workers keeps increasing as wages stagnate. American optimism is fading. We know this because more and more polls have shown that Americans no longer believe that their children will be better off than they are. We know this because the first sign of fear is the resentment of the “other”. In this case, it’s the threat seen from the developing world stealing our jobs. Even more so, it is the perceived threat of immigrants. The anger over immigration is fueled by fear, not just of losing jobs or lower wages, but of the culture changing around them. There are many historical examples of this happening, and many of those were particularly nasty. Everything Edwards talks about can be linked back to this. Health care, ending the war, trade, job security – all of it. He has talked about “two Americas”, but there are three (at least), not just rich and poor (and he has talked about the poor far more than is good for his candidacy, sad to say), but those in the middle. The middle used to aspire to more, now they fear going in the other direction. Back in the 90’s, Bill Clinton said that most Americans would no longer have just one career, but two or three careers. Of course, that’s elitist crap, since most Americans don’t have “careers” they have jobs. And while it’s one thing to go from being a lawyer to a politician, to a college professor, as Clinton did, losing your job, and the wages and benefits that go with it is a harrowing experience. Looking for a new job involves starting over, usually at a significantly lower pay rate. If you lose your job after age 50, you can kiss your lifestyle goodbye. Edwards needs to tell people that he understands their problems, understands their fears, and will do everything he can to deal with them.
Will he find this theme? I don’t know, but America needs to hear it, so I hope he does.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Clinton-Obama '08?

The idea of Barack Obama as Hillary Clinton’s running mate keeps popping up. My friend Dan Coen wrote about it at and thought, based on how nice Barack is being toward Hillary in debates, the possibility may be higher than previously thought. While discussing VP choices certainly seems premature, so is everything about this campaign, so I thought I’d jump in with my opinion. I would be shocked if Obama ran with her. There are several key elements which will go into Hillary’s choice (should she have to make one):

1) Controlability – The Clinton campaign is tightly controlled (and no one has ever not used the word “controlling” about her) and whoever the VP candidate is, he must be on message and careful. Obama tends to drift a bit, expanding on remarks when asked, and that is the last thing they will want. This also would kill Bill Richardson’s chances, as he is notable for running off at the mouth.
2) Stature – The VP candidate can’t be too big. Not size-wise, but stature wise. Hillary has enough trouble getting focus with Bill in camera range, she can’t have a VP who people think should be the President. Obama could well run into trouble with this one, being a more compelling speaker and a warmer presence.
3) Demographic usefulness – Historically, geography was a key component of VP selection. But in a more mobile and homogenized culture, with a candidate who was born and raised in Illinois, first lady of Arkansas, and represents New York, geography is meaningless. What isn’t meaningless is help where the Presidential candidate is weakest, or at least not emphasizing the weakness by doubling it. Hillary’s weakness is white males, and Obama does not help there. Certainly she doesn’t need his help for the black vote, as polls show her as more popular then him there.
Given these elements, Obama is a pretty useless candidate for her, unless it’s part of a deal to get the nomination. The obvious choice is Tom Vilsack, former Governor of Iowa, who left the Presidential race and endorsed her. He’s just experienced enough to be viable as a potential backup President and yet has no stature which would draw away from her. I would consider him the big favorite. The longer shot would be Wesley Clark – he’s been around the campaign track, has the military credibility which can only help a female Presidential candidate, enhances her anti-war cred, and is charismatically challenged, to say the least.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A Different World

Watching the Republican debate just two days after the Democrats could only leave one with the feeling that while they were in the same place, they were not even inhabiting the same world. In spite of the rantings of fringe loonies like Ralph Nader (will the media please stop paying attention to this asshole), the two parties have rarely been further apart in my lifetime. Their views on almost every issue, big and small, is radically different. During the campaign, many of these differences will be muted, but when talking to their own, you see where the candidates are coming from and I found last night’s crew downright scary. I will try and assess how they did, but as I am not their target audience, my grades may not be reliable, and my campaign themes will obviously be filtered through my own viewpoint.

Rudy Giuliani: A- -- (Fighting Terror and Taxes) – That nosed out my other possible theme for Rudy, “Vote For Me or Die”. This was the scariest thing I’ve seen in weeks. I think I’d rather see Hostel II than watch him for an hour. Invading Iraq was right because it was part of the war on terror and we have to stay until they have an “orderly society”. The market will fix health care, just give everyone a 15K tax deduction and let them buy their own (ignoring the uselessness of that kind of tax deduction for most Americans who need health insurance). Oh yeah, and Free Libby. High point was lightning striking as he talked about abortion.

John McCain – B- -- (Tough Enough To Make the Tough Calls) – Restored his street cred by defending the Immigration Reform Bill against the onslaught from the others. Unfortunately, that’s not the right side among Republicans. Opposes a three state solution in Iraq, where he clearly plans on adding as many soldiers as is needed. Joined the general theme, not endorsed by Rudy, that the war was terribly mismanaged. I’ll be shocked if this helped him at all among the faithful.

Mitt Romney – B – (The Future is Bright) – I picked that as the theme because he kept coming back to it, whatever the subject, as if attempting to channel Ronald Reagan. First question was whether the war in Iraq was a good idea, he began by saying “that question is a null set” – way to reach out to the average guy, Mitt. In the answer to one question said “it’s going from a small bore to a large bore” – I assume he’s talking about guns, but he’s a pretty large bore himself. Almost as scary as Rudy. Not as certain he would free Libby. Believes Jesus is his savior, in case you were worried.

Duncan Hunter – B -- (Don’t Tread On Me) – Believes the Iraqis are almost ready to take over the war. Would use nukes against Iraq – to be fair, they all (except Paul, of course) wouldn’t rule it out, but he seemed to have no qualms at all. Only one to talk about jobs, linked with an attack on China’s economic policies. This guy is tough, I think he personally wants to help build the wall on the border. Right near the end he threw his big punch. connecting Rudy (on gun control), Romney (on health care), and McCain (on immigration) with Ted Kennedy – beautiful.

Ron Paul – C- -- (I’m The One Who Read The Constitution) – Look, he ain’t a Republican, he’s a Libertarian, and the Young Libertarian Club members who applauded his answers are irrelevant to the party. Did a dance on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and his answer on immigration seemed incoherent. My favorite answer: when asked about the greatest moral issue today, he said the theory of preventive war. Will definitely not be Rudy’s running-mate.

Tom Tancredo – C+ -- (Damn Furreners) – Immigrants have to forswear all foreign allegiances. Of course, he doesn’t really want to let any in, so that won’t be that big a problem. Seems to feel Iraq is Iraq’s problem, but I’m not sure exactly how that impacts his policy. Sometimes he seems sensible, mostly, he seems unhappy.

Tommy Thompson – D – (I’m The Thompson Who’s Running) – When asked about health care he seemed genuinely excited, having been Secretary of HHS; then gave an answer which was basically that people should stay healthy and that would lower health costs. He would send George W. Bush on a lecture tour of colleges to talk to young people about honesty, integrity, and the value of public service. Really. I swear he said that. With a straight face. I wasn’t on drugs, he really said that.

Mike Huckabee – C+ -- (I’m The Other Guy From Hope) – He believes in God. Said: “we have a tax system which literally steps on peoples heads” – so he doesn’t believe in good English.

Sam Brownback – B- - (I’m Not As Crazy As You Think) – Has a bill to divide Iraq into three sort of states (co-sponsored with Biden?), which McCain derided. His solution to the health care problem is to cure cancer in ten years – seriously. Believes party can’t nominate someone who isn’t pro-life. Oh yes, and Free Libby.

Jim Gilman – C – (I’m The One You Won’t Remember in Six Months) – Thought the Iraq War was a good idea because Saddam was unstable and we had to go into Iraq to stop Iran. Seriously, he said that.

I’m not sure which of these guys is looniest. I’m not sure he can organize effectively, not sure he can handle the pressure, not sure he even has the necessary focus to run a campaign, but if Fred Thompson can’t wipe the floor with these clowns, he just ain’t trying.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Scoring the NH Debate

Most of the punditocracy tends to focus on analyzing debates using the “big score/big gaffe” method – did someone have a great moment or say something that he’ll have to explain for the next week. Then they add in points for style and composure and declare a winner. In reality, style is damn near everything. In the famous Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960, those who listened on radio thought Nixon won, those who watched on TV thought Kennedy did. JFK’s look, especially when contrasted to the sallow and sweaty Nixon, won the day, combined with an authoritativeness which made him seem Presidential. So for this debate, my grades are based on “is this a President?”, with a nod to issues as well.
Candidates listed in general order of polling, with my perceived theme for their campaigns in parentheses.

Hillary Clinton – A – (Ready From Day One) – Looked strong and Presidential, in command of the stage. Shot down Wolf whenever he tried to ask a “theoretical” question, lecturing him on what goes into being a President (she knows, she was there.) No one is hurt by attacking the media to its face. Was able to reinforce her “we’re all basically the same on the war” theme, emphasizing the differences with the Republicans. She was helped on that by the peanut gallery. Wants to eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax – this is her “I’m not a doctrinaire liberal” issue. Led the charge in the curious battle for the gay and lesbian vote – if they’re all going after that, why not just ignore the religious right altogether?

Barack Obama – A - (New Leadership From a New Generation) – In command, countered Edwards’ attacks effectively, although his health care excuse was sort of lame, he sounded good giving it. Also told off Wolf, which can’t hurt. He sounded like a President, and nothing is more important in establishing himself as a credible alternative to Hillary. By the way, all the candidates referred to each other by their last names except for Hillary, who was never called Senator Clinton. Was this a bit of condescension, or just an attempt to not use the sainted (to their audience) name Clinton?

John Edwards – B- -- (?) – He’s a trial lawyer, he’s run this course before, you’d think he’d be better at this. He looked like no one prepped him – attacked Hillary and Obama to their face on not leading the fight against funding, just showing up late to vote. He talked a lot about leadership and honesty, but you need to talk to the audience, the TV audience, to get those elements across. Just accusing someone doesn’t work, you need to emphasize that “I” am not afraid to lead, that “I” have the honesty to admit mistakes when I make them. Who is running this campaign anyway? He was strong on the issues, honestly talking about health care, but if Hillary was helped by the fringe guys, he was hurt. And who the hell told him that endorsing the possibility of an Olympic boycott was not the stupidest idea ever?

Bill Richardson – C – (Been Everywhere, Done Everything) – Okay, he sounded better than last time. But every time he talked about being a Governor and all the things he’s done for New Mexico, I wanted to scream. It’s not that he shouldn’t be talking about it, it just starts to grate on you. Then he launched into his “pro-business Democrat” spiel, which included a Balanced Budget Amendment, Line Item Veto, and eliminating the Alternative Minimum Tax. On Darfur, he wants to send in NATO troops and force the Chinese into helping, boycotting the Beijing Olympics if necessary. Please go away, far far away.

Joe Biden – A —(The Smartest Guy In The Room) – Opened with a strong defense of his Yes vote on Iraq funding. Strong, decisive, sounds like he knows whereof he speaks, sounds like a President. A debate format, with a clock which limits his bloviation, is perfect for him. Also tried the “we all want to end the war” tack, which may hold water with a lot of people. Now if I only believed for a second that he would end it, he would have a better shot.

Chris Dodd – B – (The Smartest Guy In The Room Who Is Clearly Against the War) – Seemed comfortable, knew what he was talking about, emphasized his experience. Also brought up the erosion of our constitutional liberties and said the first thing he would do is restore our rights – well said. Not as intimidating as Biden, but while I think Dodd might be more pleasant to discuss the issues with, Biden’s strength served him better in this format.

Dennis Kucinich – D - (My World Would Be a Better One) – Is in favor of ending the war today, single payer health care, and world peace – and who wouldn’t want those things (health insurers excepted)? He also is in favor of pulling out of the WTO and NAFTA, going for bilateral trade agreements instead. Incredibly, if you eliminate his “kumbaya” moments regarding the world, most Democrats would probably support him on those issues. His doctrinaire position on the war, reminding everyone that compared to him the others have all voted wrong or failed to be aggressive enough concerning the war and ending it, helps Hillary immensely, as does his health care position, which lumped everyone else into a “preserving the insurance companies profits” model. Both of those truly ignore the differences between the other candidates, demeans the specificity of both Edwards and Obama, and gives Hillary the free pass she needs on the issues.

Mike Gravel – F – (Who Am I, What Am I Doing Here?) – There must be a way to have a debate without this senile old fart. You can be sure Hillary would like to keep him around as long as possible, since he uses up time and also attacks everyone equally on the war and everything else, whitewashing the differences between them on key issues and programs.

Of course, many on TV liked Edwards performance more than I did, mostly because they like anyone who starts trouble. You’ll notice that I have no theme for Edwards. I consider that a big problem for him and he has to get one. If you go to his web site, you’ll see some things like “Tomorrow Begins Today” and “Honesty”, but nothing which gives people something to rally around. I’ll talk more about this later.