Obama’s Contagious Hope, Hillary’s Contagion: Part II

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I know I now sound like a senile broken record, but the saga continues. Each time I run into the “Hillary experience” or “proven track record” arguments, I get nausea. Hillary’s only track record is in the Senate, and her Senate record is very Bush, very hawkish, and very careful in preparations for a presidential bid. Even if we conceded, for the sake of argument, that she was a co-president from 1992-2000 (and don’t care about the constitutional smell-test), playing behind the scenes president doesn’t count because you’re ass isn’t on the line. But all of the voice-finding, shfits in campaign strategy, misinterpreted statements by Billary, and today changing her campaign manager in mid-game, don’t seem like examples of someone who is “ready for day one” or whose track record is proving reliable.

Meanwhile, Obama’s positive messages and excellent results in Washington, Nebraska and Louisiana highlight that Americans just may be better people than the Clintons have calculated. As so, here is another good New York Times by Frank Rich keeping the Billary contagion in perspective:

February 10, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist
Next Up for the Democrats: Civil War
By FRANK RICH

WHAT if a presidential candidate held what she billed as “the largest, most interactive town hall in political history” on national television, and no one noticed?

The untold story in the run-up to Super Tuesday was Hillary Clinton’s elaborate live prime-time special the night before the vote. Presiding from a studio in New York, the candidate took questions from audiences in 21 other cities. She had plugged the event four days earlier in the last gasp of her debate with Barack Obama and paid a small fortune for it: an hour of time on the Hallmark Channel plus satellite TV hookups for the assemblies of supporters stretching from coast to coast.

The same news media that constantly revisited the Oprah-Caroline-Maria rally in California ignored “Voices Across America: A National Town Hall.” The Clinton campaign would no doubt attribute this to press bias, but it scrupulously designed the event to avoid making news. Like the scripted “Ask President Bush” sessions during the 2004 campaign, this town hall seemed to unfold in Stepford. The anodyne questions (“What else would you do to help take care of our veterans?”) merely cued up laundry lists of talking points. Some in attendance appeared to trance out.

But I’m glad I watched every minute, right up until Mrs. Clinton was abruptly cut off in midsentence so Hallmark could resume its previously scheduled programming (a movie promising “A Season for Miracles,” aptly enough). However boring, this show was a dramatic encapsulation of how a once-invincible candidate ended up in a dead heat, crippled by poll-tested corporate packaging that markets her as a synthetic product leeched of most human qualities. What’s more, it offered a naked preview of how nastily the Clintons will fight, whatever the collateral damage to the Democratic Party, in the endgame to come.

For a campaign that began with tightly monitored Web “chats” and then planted questions at its earlier town-hall meetings, a Bush-style pseudo-event like the Hallmark special is nothing new, of course. What’s remarkable is that instead of learning from these mistakes, Mrs. Clinton’s handlers keep doubling down.

Less than two weeks ago she was airlifted into her own, less effective version of “Mission Accomplished.” Instead of declaring faux victory in Iraq, she starred in a made-for-television rally declaring faux victory in a Florida primary that was held in defiance of party rules, involved no campaigning and awarded no delegates. As Andrea Mitchell of NBC News said, it was “the Potemkin village of victory celebrations.”

The Hallmark show, enacted on an anachronistic studio set that looked like a deliberate throwback to the good old days of 1992, was equally desperate. If the point was to generate donations or excitement, the effect was the reverse. A campaign operative, speaking on MSNBC, claimed that 250,000 viewers had seen an online incarnation of the event in addition to “who knows how many” Hallmark channel viewers. Who knows, indeed? What we do know is that by then the “Yes We Can” Obama video fronted by the hip-hop vocalist will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas had been averaging roughly a million YouTube views a day. (Cost to the Obama campaign: zero.)

Two days after her town-hall extravaganza, Mrs. Clinton revealed the $5 million loan she had made to her own campaign to survive a month in which the Obama operation had raised $32 million to her $13.5 million. That poignant confession led to a spike in contributions that Mr. Obama also topped. Though Tuesday was largely a draw in popular votes and delegates, every other indicator, from the candidates’ real and virtual crowds to hard cash, points to a steadily widening Obama-Clinton gap. The Clinton campaign might be an imploding Potemkin village itself were it not for the fungible profits from Bill Clinton’s murky post-presidency business deals. (The Clintons, unlike Mr. Obama, have not released their income-tax returns.)

The campaign’s other most potent form of currency remains its thick deck of race cards. This was all too apparent in the Hallmark show. In its carefully calibrated cross section of geographically and demographically diverse cast members — young, old, one gay man, one vet, two union members — African-Americans were reduced to also-rans. One black woman, the former TV correspondent Carole Simpson, was given the servile role of the meeting’s nominal moderator, Ed McMahon to Mrs. Clinton’s top banana. Scattered black faces could be seen in the audience. But in the entire televised hour, there was not a single African-American questioner, whether to toss a softball or ask about the Clintons’ own recent misadventures in racial politics.

The Clinton camp does not leave such matters to chance. This decision was a cold, political cost-benefit calculus. In October, seven months after the two candidates’ dueling church perorations in Selma, USA Today found Hillary Clinton leading Mr. Obama among African-American Democrats by a margin of 62 percent to 34 percent. But once black voters met Mr. Obama and started to gravitate toward him, Bill Clinton and the campaign’s other surrogates stopped caring about what African-Americans thought. In an effort to scare off white voters, Mr. Obama was ghettoized as a cocaine user (by the chief Clinton strategist, Mark Penn, among others), “the black candidate” (as Clinton strategists told the Associated Press) and Jesse Jackson redux (by Mr. Clinton himself).

The result? Black America has largely deserted the Clintons. In her California primary victory, Mrs. Clinton drew only 19 percent of the black vote. The campaign saw this coming and so saw no percentage in bestowing precious minutes of prime-time television on African-American queries.

That time went instead to the Hispanic population that was still in play in Super Tuesday’s voting in the West. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles had a cameo, and one of the satellite meetings was held in the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s smart politics, especially since Mr. Obama has been behind the curve in wooing this constituency.

But the wholesale substitution of Hispanics for blacks on the Hallmark show is tainted by a creepy racial back story. Last month a Hispanic pollster employed by the Clinton campaign pitted the two groups against each other by telling The New Yorker that Hispanic voters have “not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates.” Mrs. Clinton then seconded the motion by telling Tim Russert in a debate that her pollster was “making a historical statement.”

It wasn’t an accurate statement, historical or otherwise. It was a lie, and a bigoted lie at that, given that it branded Hispanics, a group as heterogeneous as any other, as monolithic racists. As the columnist Gregory Rodriguez pointed out in The Los Angeles Times, all three black members of Congress in that city won in heavily Latino districts; black mayors as various as David Dinkins in New York in the 1980s and Ron Kirk in Dallas in the 1990s received more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote. The real point of the Clinton campaign’s decision to sow misinformation and racial division, Mr. Rodriguez concluded, was to “undermine one of Obama’s central selling points, that he can build bridges and unite Americans of all types.”

If that was the intent, it didn’t work. Mrs. Clinton did pile up her expected large margin among Latino voters in California. But her tight grip on that electorate is loosening. Mr. Obama, who captured only 26 percent of Hispanic voters in Nevada last month, did better than that in every state on Tuesday, reaching 41 percent in Arizona and 53 percent in Connecticut. Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign’s attempt to drive white voters away from Mr. Obama by playing the race card has backfired. His white vote tally rises every week. Though Mrs. Clinton won California by almost 10 percentage points, among whites she beat Mr. Obama by only 3 points.

The question now is how much more racial friction the Clinton campaign will gin up if its Hispanic support starts to erode in Texas, whose March 4 vote it sees as its latest firewall. Clearly it will stop at little. That’s why you now hear Clinton operatives talk ever more brazenly about trying to reverse party rulings so that they can hijack 366 ghost delegates from Florida and the other rogue primary, Michigan, where Mr. Obama wasn’t even on the ballot. So much for Mrs. Clinton’s assurance on New Hampshire Public Radio last fall that it didn’t matter if she alone kept her name on the Michigan ballot because the vote “is not going to count for anything.”

Last month, two eminent African-American historians who have served in government, Mary Frances Berry (in the Carter and Clinton years) and Roger Wilkins (in the Johnson administration), wrote Howard Dean, the Democrats’ chairman, to warn him of the perils of that credentials fight. Last week, Mr. Dean became sufficiently alarmed to propose brokering an “arrangement” if a clear-cut victory by one candidate hasn’t rendered the issue moot by the spring. But does anyone seriously believe that Howard Dean can deter a Clinton combine so ruthless that it risked shredding three decades of mutual affection with black America to win a primary?

A race-tinged brawl at the convention, some nine weeks before Election Day, will not be a Hallmark moment. As Mr. Wilkins reiterated to me last week, it will be a flashback to the Democratic civil war of 1968, a suicide for the party no matter which victor ends up holding the rancid spoils.

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8 Comments

Filed under Essays, Obama 08

8 responses to “Obama’s Contagious Hope, Hillary’s Contagion: Part II

  1. Gabriel

    Well, I see that the Obamamania virus has crossed the pond. Let me be honest, as someone who has at least read the US Constitution, I do not like the idea of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton presidencies. In fact, I favor Obama (maybe it’s the early symptons of contagion), but reading a few of your latest posts, it is clear to me that you are using a double-standard and she is not getting any sympathy from you. True, Hillary has put a lot of emphasis on experience when her experience record is not that impressive. True, her husband carried too much political baggage. But Obama only has the “hope” and “change” things going. His message sounds good and makes people optimistic, but can he deliver? I am a bit worried of repeating a similar situation we had with Bush Jr. He came accross as being a “compassione conservative” that would unite the parties and we know what happened there (how he was elected a second time is still a mistery to me).
    Anyway, what do we know about Obama other than the soundbites? Who is he going to partner up with? What is his economic plan. I hope it is not tax anyone who makes a decent leaving and give it to those who do not work (you would understand this point if you paid taxes here). A lot of questions unaswered for people to get so carried away with his candidacy.

  2. eric

    All very good points, Gab. The nice things about blogs is that opinions are like a-holes as the saying goes, it the forum allows me to be very one sided.

    Have I considered Obama’s limited experience vs. the limited experiences of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush? Yes, and I think there are some differences. The problem with Bush was that he surrounded himself with others who he let run the show. This was very untransparent, very much in the same way the Bill may be in the background in a Hillary White House or, as she has confessed to doing, Hillary was hiding behind the scenes in the Bill administration.

    So far, yes, we need to roll the dice a little with Obama. He has explained his policy about his cabinet officials and secretaries — he wants quality and people to tell him when he’s wrong.

    Overall, I think at this time in history, Obama’s vision of a better future and people’s belief in that future outweighs those old skool doubts.

    Plus, let’s be honest as attorney who have had to learn a thing or two about the Constitution. How much power does the executive have? The president needs to be a leader. The Congress, when it wants to, has the real power — something it neglected to do during the last 8 years.

  3. Gabriel

    I like your point about transparency. If he carries on that pledge, that would be a 180 turnaround from this presidency.
    But I disagree on presidential power. They have substantial influence on laws because of their veto power. They also take the lead in drafting the budget, which sets the tone for public spending and they are our voice abroad, which as we now know our political capital is limited. I am all for taking a gamble, but seems a bit contrary to the “crucial” element of these elections.

  4. eric

    Gabriel,

    The “crucial” element of these elections in terms of “experience” is just pure spin fluff. Why are these elections any more crucial than any other elections? in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union, the first war in Iraq and a recession, we voted for one of our least experienced politicans for president.

    If, and I agree with you here, the president’s greatest role is as a leader and tone-setter, then I think that Obama is the best of the bunch. He has, more than any other candidates in generations, moved Americans to say that they believe in the U.S., and that coming after a horrendous 8 years.

    The rest of his success depends on how well Obama is able to select the right cabinet and staff members. And sadly, there just aren’t that much variety out there for either party, and the candidates who would most likely fill Obama’s cabinet would be the same ones who’d fill Hillary’s.

  5. ReWrite

    I think Bush has proven how an Executive gone wild can exert a lot of control. He signed more executive orders than any other president. I have the stats at home, but more orders by a huge margin.

    Bush has claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws (also more than any other president) enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution.

    And beyond the above and veto power; the president also selects federal court judges, which these days is pretty important. The supreme court is pretty middle of the road compared to Bush’s other selections.

    Anyway.

  6. Randy Bergmann

    Eric,
    Another piece worth reading about Obama and Billary from Mr. Brooks, from today’s NYTimes:

    There’s a big difference between the Republican and Democratic campaigns: The Republicans have split on policy grounds; the Democrats haven’t. There’s been a Republican divide between center and right, yet no Democratic divide between center and left.

    But when you think about it, the Democratic policy unity is a mirage. If the Democrats actually win the White House, the tensions would resurface with a vengeance.

    The first big rift would involve Iraq. Both Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have seductively hinted that they would withdraw almost all U.S. troops within 12 to 16 months. But if either of them actually did that, he or she would instantly make Iraq the consuming partisan fight of their presidency.

    There would be private but powerful opposition from Arab leaders, who would fear a return to 2006 chaos. There would be irate opposition from important sections of the military, who would feel that the U.S. was squandering the gains of the previous year. A Democratic president with few military credentials would confront outraged and highly photogenic colonels screaming betrayal.

    There would be important criticism from nonpartisan military experts. In his latest report, the much-cited Anthony Cordesman describes an improving Iraqi security situation that still requires “strategic patience” and another five years to become self-sustaining.

    There would be furious opposition from Republicans and many independents. They would argue that you can’t evacuate troops just as Iraqis are about to hold national elections and tensions are at their highest. They would point out that it’s insanity to end local reconstruction and Iraqi training efforts just when they are producing results. They would accuse the new administration of reverse-Rumsfeldism, of ignoring postsurge realities and of imposing an ideological solution on a complex situation.

    All dreams of changing the tone in Washington would be gone. All of Obama’s unity hopes would evaporate. And if the situation did deteriorate after a quick withdrawal, as the National Intelligence Estimate warns, the bloodshed would be on the new president’s head.

    Therefore, when a new Democratic administration considered all these possibilities, its members would part ways. A certain number of centrists would conclude that rapid withdrawal is a mistake. They would say that the situation had changed and would call for a strategic review. They’d recommend a long, slow conditions-based withdrawal — constant, small troop reductions, and a lot of regional diplomacy, while maintaining tens of thousands of troops in Iraq for the remainder of the term.

    The left wing of the party would go into immediate uproar. They’d scream: This was a central issue of the campaign! All the troops must get out now!

    The president would have to make a terrible decision.

    Which brings us to second looming Democratic divide: domestic spending. Both campaigns now promise fiscal discipline, as well as ambitious new programs. These kinds of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too vows were merely laughable last year when the federal deficit was running at a manageable $163 billion a year. But the economic slowdown, the hangover from the Bush years and the growing bite of entitlements mean that the federal deficit will almost certainly top $400 billion by 2009. The accumulated national debt will be in shouting distance of the $10 trillion mark. With that much red ink, the primary-season spending plans are simply ridiculous.

    It’d be 1993 all over again. The new Democratic president would be faced with Bill Clinton’s Robert Rubin vs. Robert Reich choice: either scale back priorities for the sake of fiscal discipline or blow through all known deficit records for the sake of bigger programs. Choose the former, and the new president would further outrage the left. Choose the latter and lose the financial establishment and the political center.

    This is the debate that Democrats have been quietly rearguing during the entire Bush presidency. The left wing of the party is absolutely committed to winning it this time. It will likely demand the clean energy subsidies and the education spending, the expensive health care coverage and subsides to address middle-class anxiety. But no Democratic president can afford to offend independent voters with runaway spending. No president can easily ignore the think tank establishment, which is rightfully exercised about the nation’s long-term fiscal health.

    It would be another brutal choice.

    As William J. Stuntz of Harvard Law School wrote in The Weekly Standard, the Democrats have conducted their race amid unconstrained “Yes We Can!” unreality. Because the Democratic candidates appear to agree on so much, they’ve never tested each other’s policy proposals or exposed each other’s assumptions. But governing means choosing, and reality will be unkind. The artificial unity between the Democratic center and the Democratic left would be smashed by the harsh choices of 2009. My guess? The centrists would win.

  7. eric

    Randy,

    I see the article’s point, and I do believe that whomever wins this year will have a very difficult presidencies with the economy and cleaning up Iraq.

    Nevertheless, this article does little more than to promote the fear-mongering and propel the status-quo ad infinitum. The argument that we must always elect people who will have almost no noticeable effect on the policies and workings of our government is absurd.

    Will Iraq before difficult for Obama? Yes, it will without a doubt. At first it was the Sunni/insurgent’s fault and now it is all the Iranian/Shiites’ fault and now we can’t leave so that we can protect the Sunni interests is also laughable. The Arabs and Persians don’t want us in Iraq, but if we leave it will weaken our relationship with them? I think that threatening to leave is the best way to get a coalition of Muslim and foreign states to take charge of our mess. It is arrogant to think that we alone can solve the mess and benefit from the mess.

  8. Machiavelli expounds on this better than anyone, the cost of creating a “new Republic” in a destroyed country/society.

    Sad that no one reads him, less, understands the power of his philosophies.

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