Monthly Archives: August 2008

McCain rolled the dice and – so far – he’s a winner

As expected, the Democrats have pounced on the Palin choice as a gimmick that is both patronizing to women and directly undermines McCain’s promise to pick a VP on the basis of their ability to serve as president.  Moreover, it weakens the Republican line of attack that Obama is short on experience.  In short, it is a clear signal that McCain – like Mondale in 1984 with his choice of Geraldine Ferrarro – knows his candidacy is in trouble and has resorted to desperate measures.

Despite this obvious and expected line of attack, however, on the whole it appears that the choice of Palin as his vice presidential nominee has had the effect for which McCain hoped; he rolled the dice and – so far – it has come up big.  Let me cite three bits of circumstantial evidence in support of this claim:

First, on the night of the announcement, I perused the network news to see how they were covering the story. On CBS, they were doing a comparison of Obama’s experience to Palin’s!  Note this – it wasn’t a comparison of Biden’s experience with Palin’s – it was Obama’s and Palin’s!  This is precisely what McCain and Republican strategists want to see – a debate on experience that continually reminds voters to consider Obama’s lack thereof.

Second, the pick has apparently bolstered McCain’s once tepid support among the Christian right. Here’s the NYT coverage of James Dobson’s reaction the Palin nomination, (Dobson is frequently described as an accurate barometer of the evangelicals’ political views):

“James C. Dobson, the influential conservative Christian leader who said in the primaries that he could never vote for Mr. McCain, said the selection of Ms. Palin had won him over. If he went into the voting booth today, Mr. Dobson told the talk radio host Dennis Prager on Friday, ‘I would pull that lever.’”  (And note the headline to that article: Campaigns Shift as McCain Choice Alters the Race)   Again, this is precisely what McCain hoped to do – protect himself from attacks from his own right flank that he is not conservative enough. Palin now becomes his conduit to the Christian right – McCain has inoculated himself against charges that he is too moderate without having to repudiate any of his own issues.

Third – how many of you are going to watch the Republican convention now?  I thought so – in choosing Palin, for better or for worse, McCain has temporarily captured the headlines and guaranteed a larger audience for the Republican convention.  This provides him with the opportunity to reach out to the disaffected Clinton supporters and potential swing voters.

Keep in mind that none of this would have happened had Obama put Clinton on the ticket; in so doing, he would have essentially closed this option for McCain. But also keep in mind that Palin has not yet been thoroughly vetted by the media, and she may still yet stumble on her inaugural tour of the nation.  For this reason, her unveiling at the convention looms large.

Is it Biden vs. Palin, or Obama vs. Palin?

Unlike the “Republican establishment” (as reported by the NYT) faithful readers of these posts were not surprised by McCain’s decision to think outside the box and choose a woman as his vice presidential candidate. As I suggested in my previous post, the decision was practically guaranteed when Obama failed to select Hillary Clinton. But Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska, was not on my short list – indeed, she was not on my list at all. I confess that my speculation focused more on Olympia Snowe, the moderate Senator from Maine. (The optimal choice, had she not been so closely linked to the Bush administration, was Condi Rice – despite my “tease” at the end of my previous post discussing the Biden choice, Rice was never going to happen.) Not surprisingly McCain was smarter than me. On paper, at least, Palin is a brilliant choice for several reasons.

Before I parse the reasons why I think this was an excellent selection, keep several things in mind. First, the ultimate impact of this choice depends on Palin herself. If she shows indications that she is in over her head, then all the calculations that went into this selection are for naught. Second, the media will overstate the impact of this choice on voters’ decisions – historically, the VP choice has a very limited impact on the electoral outcomes. Of course, this race is in many respects unprecedented and thus potentially raises doubt regarding just how relevant previous elections are to this one. There’s been so many firsts in this campaign that it is hard to estimate just how much stock we should put in historical precedent.

Keeping these caveats in mind, here’s why I think this was a great choice.

Undoubtedly, the Democratic attack line will be that this woman is simply too inexperienced to be one heart beat away from the presidency. Just a few years ago she was the small-town mayor in Alaska – now she’s next in line to be President! Compared to Biden, with his years of national experience in the Senate, particularly on foreign policy, this choice smacks of political desperation (the name Geraldine Ferraro comes to mind). When Biden was interrogating Petraeus about the surge, Palin was lecturing members of the local zoning board. This line of attack is so obvious that McCain must have anticipated it. So what was he thinking?

This is what I think he was thinking. First, the Democrats tread in dangerous waters whenever they raise the specter of inexperienced candidates; the obvious Republican response will be a variation of: “our inexperienced candidate will learn on the job one heart beat away from the presidency – your inexperienced candidate will BE president.” The more Democrats push the inexperience angle, the easier it is for Republicans to remind voters who is REALLY the risky candidate.

Second, Palin’s life story is precisely what McCain wanted in his vice president. The impact of her decision among the Christian right not to terminate her pregnancy when she learned her child had Downs syndrome can’t be overstated – it will go a long long long way to convincing evangelicals who to date have shown only tepid support for McCain to come out and actively support his campaign. It thus inoculates him on the right without his having to change any positions – she becomes his surrogate to the evangelical community.

Similarly, she scores points among women whose sons are fighting in Iraq – her oldest son will be fighting in Iraq. So she understands what is at stake there as well – it’s more than an abstract foreign policy issue to her.

In short, she has confronted the difficult choices that will be key issues in this campaign. Her ability to juggle family and job (five kids and she gets elected Governor!) will send just the right signal to working mothers everywhere that she can break the glass ceiling while understanding how difficult that task really is. This doesn’t mean she wins all of  Clinton’s women supporters – her prolife stance will undoubtedly put many of them off – but certainly some of them will give her a second look after Obama’s apparent snub of their first choice. Her firing of the Republican party officials for ethics violations and her defeat of the establishment Republican governor will put her squarely in the McCain maverick mold. And her husband’s jobs as a blue collar oil worker and owner of a small fishing business provide a symbolic link to the “common man”  (and not incidentally her middle-class roots may take the spotlight off of Cindy McCain’s wealth just a bit.)

Now – there are dangers lurking in this choice beyond the obvious inexperience – there’s a whiff of potential scandal involving a brother in law that the media will undoubtedly pounce on, so one needs to be cautious until this vetting is done. More importantly, she needs to do more than survive her public unveiling – she needs to show confidence on the public stage. The first big test will be her speech at the Convention. First impressions matter, as Dan Quayle found out – he never really recovered from the poor opening performance he gave when presented as Bush’s vice presidential choice in 1988. Palin’s resume won’t be enough – she has to deliver the goods by showing poise, toughness and the ability to take a punch.

And then there will be the debate with Biden – she needs to show she belongs on the same stage with a veteran Senator. But this is an opportunity as well, particularly if Biden – notorious for putting foot in mouth when off script – blunders and says something that women view as demeaning toward Palin and her candidacy. It wouldn’t be the first time this happened with Biden.

I said in an earlier post that by failing to select Clinton as VP, Obama opened a door for McCain to use his choice to differentiate his candidacy from Obama’s, but I wondered if McCain had the imagination to seize the opportunity and select a woman. He showed that he does – that he realizes what is necessary to win this campaign. Given the fundamentals, which favor the “generic” Democratic candidate over the generic Republican, he can’t afford to miss any opportunities. On the other hand, Obama made a mistake (in my view), but it was far from a fatal mistake. Unless he makes a string of small gaffes like this, the choices of Biden and Palin likely will have little long-term impact, based on the history of past vice presidential selections; the more important policy issues – the war in Iraq, the economy, gas prices, health care – will trump the vice presidential choices when voters enter the booth. It’s easy to forget this in the media frenzy over McCain’s choice.

A final thought. Less than 24 hours after Obama made the most important speech of his life, almost no one is talking about it. That is the brilliance of McCain’s choice. For now, in the first crucial decisions of their campaigns, McCain showed daring and a desire for change, while Obama played it safe – too safe, in my view. But there is a long way to go, and the McCain/Palin ticket faces an uphill climb. We’ll see if the Republican convention can push them toward the pinnacle.

If I get a chance, I’ll try to get back to Obama’s speech and the Democratic convention, which now seems like a lifetime ago.

Hillary Clinton’s speech: In praise of unity, if not Obama

A cursory glance at the major media headlines confirms what I suspected would happen: the cumulative thrust of the coverage of the second day of the convention focuses on Hillary Clinton’s call for party unity on behalf of Obama’s campaign. This is accurate as far as it goes, but it leaves out perhaps the more significant part of the story: What Hillary did NOT say:

She did not repudiate in any manner her criticisms of Obama that she leveled during the primary campaign – that he is not ready to be president.  She did not praise his leadership qualities – temperament, skills, experiences, etc. She said almost nothing about him as a candidate. Instead her message was quite clear:  I am supporting him, and asking you to do so, for the sake of Democratic party unity so that we can win the presidency in the fall.  It was an endorsement of Obama as the party’s standard bearer – not an endorsement of Obama’s qualities as president.

Historically, Hillary is not the first presidential candidate forced to make this type of speech on behalf of a rival.  And in comparison to some noteworthy previous efforts, her speech appears quite effusive in its praise of Obama.  Those of you who can recall Ronald Reagan’s tepid speech in support of Gerald Ford in 1976, or Ted Kennedy’s “the dream will never die” speech at the 1980 Democratic convention, when he basically ignored the actual nominee Jimmy Carter, can appreciate how much better Clinton’s speech in support of Obama was than these previous efforts.

But she could have done more.  Why didn’t she?  It is tempting to claim that she is bitter, or resentful, or that the Clintons simply can’t bear to get off the stage.  But this strikes me as going too deep into psychoanalysis and does not give her enough credit. I think there is a simpler answer: raw politics combined with personal conviction.  The fact of the matter is that Clinton remains a huge power broker in the Democratic party.  She controls about half the delegates at this convention, and by most measures won more popular votes than Obama in the nominating campaign.  Indeed, if you take out the 9-day period  from February  9-19, when  the Democrats held 10 contests, including 4 caucuses, in 11 days and Obama won convincingly in every one, (he outpolled Clinton in popular votes in these contests by an astounding 62% to her 37%, winning 2.2 million votes to her 1.3 million) Clinton is the party nominee by a comfortable margin.  What happened in those 11 days is the subject of another post, but by Feb. 19, the media narrative had irrevocably altered. Although Clinton changed her campaign message at that point to emphasize a more centrist policy message, went on the attack against Obama, and regained her footing, she was never able to overcome the shift in media and voter perception.

In short, Clinton went into last night’s speech with two essential but somewhat conflicting convictions: that Obama was the party nominee and that it was in her interest – and the party’s interest – to do everything possible to insure that he wins in November. At the same time, however, she believes she would make the better president, and that given the opportunity she would do better in the general election.  Given these somewhat contradictory impulses, I thought she did the only thing she could do last night: give an impassioned plea for party unity, but without violating her fundamental belief that she is the better candidate. She remained true to her core convictions – an admirable trait, even if you don’t agree with them.

But will Bill show the same restraint?  We’ll find out….

Live blogging Day 2 of the Democratic Convention

Presidential party conventions used to be filled with intrigue and suspense, as party leaders gathered to decide which candidate would be the party standard bearer. No longer. Rather than a means of choosing a party’s nominee, conventions now serve as the opening salvo in the general election. The nominees are already known. Conventions today thus lack the unscripted atmosphere associated with conventions of yesteryear, with their deal making in smoked-filled back rooms, but they are no less important for the party’s future. Conventions today are elaborately scripted productions, with every speech and event choreographed to focus on the dominant theme. Little is left to chance.

With this background, what must the Democratic convention accomplish?

The primary purpose must be to humanize Barack Obama. Most of you who have been reading these posts are invested in this election, and have been following the contest since the beginning of the nominating process. Keep in mind, however, that most Americans are only now beginning to pay attention to the presidential campaign. In this respect, the party convention is an opportunity for Obama to create a favorable and lasting first impression with the vast majority of American voters. Make no mistake, the single biggest campaign factor that Obama can control that will influence this election is how he comes across to the median American voter. He needs to convince Americans that he can be trusted as president, and to do that he must, in part, demonstrate that he understands them. There is a huge degree of uncertainty about Obama. To have a successful convention, then, Democrats must start the process of humanizing Obama while also convincing Americans that he can be trusted to lead.

Last night was the first step in this process. Rather than watch the convention, I listened on the radio. Obviously the Kennedy speech was emotional but my guess is that its impact will not spill over to influence Americans’ perception of Obama. In contrast, Michelle Obama’s speech was critical. As I listened to her speech, three things stood out:

1. She was careful to give credit to Hillary Clinton, but did so in a way that did not allow Clinton’s delegates to stampede the convention – after acknowledging Clinton’s contribution, she followed immediately by hailing Joe Biden. Look for this to be the strategy through the convention – Obama will provide carefully choreographed moments for the Clinton delegates to vent, but always under controlled conditions.

2. When she begin to talk about her working class roots, her accent subtlety changed.

3. She made certain to mention her love of America – a clear effort to compensate for her much-publicized comment during the primary season.

Last night was nicely choreographed ending just in time for the evening news.

But the biggest hurdle and potential for going off script comes in a few minutes – when Hillary Clinton gives her speech. She’s up next….will she stick to the script? Will her delegates? Stay tuned…

Hillary has just finished. It was a masterful example of misdirection. On one level, she urged unity behind Obama, but in a way that barely masked that she saw this as her moment to validate her own campaign and she was laying the groundwork for another run. It was Hillary’s best stump speech, in effect hitting her campaign themes, but covering herself by remembering periodically to urge support of Obama in the general election – not in terms of his candidacy, but in terms of fulfilling hers. It was really quite impressive and done so subtly that it will be easy for the pundits to miss the main message. I hope you were able to see the wooden expressions on Michelle and Joe Biden’s faces. That said everything.

Joe Biden – lost opportunity?

As you all know by now, Obama has chosen Delaware Senator Joe Biden to be his running mate. Assuming Joe doesn’t say something off the cuff in the next two days that will get him kicked off the ticket  – a big assumption – he will likely be ratified by the convention this week. My email predicting that Biden would be a poor choice (I think I compared him, unfavorably, to Dick Cheney) prompted – as I expected with the Cheney comparison – some heated objections from you.  So let me explain by way of providing some brief background on the vice president’s role today.

Presidency scholars typically date the advent of the “modern” vice presidency to Walter Mondale, the Minnesota Senator who served as Carter’s vice president from 1977-81.  Previously, vice presidents were chosen primarily for their ability to a) secure the nomination for the president and/or b) for their vote getting potential in the general election. Once in office, they typically exercised very little influence. Most were shunted to subsidiary roles heading obscure commissions, sent overseas to attend state funerals, and generally waited to see if the President would die in office.

Mondale changed this.  Carter relied on him for insight into how the Washington establishment worked.  Carter had campaigned as a Washington, DC outsider, with very little national experience, and was smart enough to realize he needed someone who understood Capitol Hill.  Mondale, unlike previous vice presidents, received an office in the West Wing, developed an extensive staff, met alone with Carter for weekly meetings, and generally was an effective adviser who enjoyed strong relations with the President.

Ever since Mondale, every vice president has assumed a more integral policy and advising role. This has had two ramifications for the selection of the Vice President. First, it has elevated the need to choose a VP with whom the President feels some comfort. Now, as I indicated in my previous email, that comfort sometimes takes a while to achieve (Reagan and Bush I) and sometimes it disappears (Clinton and Gore). But generally presidential candidates today do not want to choose a VP with whom they do not have some rapport.  By all accounts, Biden and Obama are comfortable with one another. The exception – and it is an important exception that applies to Obama – is if there is a potential vice presidential candidate who carries some electoral clout or who can otherwise bolster the ticket.  In that case, electoral considerations may outweigh compatibility issues.

This leads to the second implication of the Mondale modernization of the vice president’s role. It is now possible to “sell” your vice presidential choice not just in terms of the nominee’s delegate or vote getting ability, but also their policy expertise. If they are perceived to compensate for a presidential candidate’s weaknesses – say, inexperience in the ways of Washington, or a lack of foreign policy gravitas – then they may enhance the presidential ticket. Or so the argument goes.

This was Bush II’s rationale for choosing Dick Cheney – he wasn’t selected because he could bring Wyoming into the Republican fold!  Cheney has extensive foreign policy experience within the executive branch as well as having served several terms on Capitol Hill.  As an added virtue, he had no presidential ambitions of his own, so Bush did not worry that at some point Cheney’s interests might clash with Bush’s (see Gore and Clinton after 1996). My point here is not to defend (or critique) Cheney’s policy views – I leave that to you. But I do claim that, among the modern vice presidents, Cheney has been among the most effective for serving as an influential adviser and in helping the President achieve his own policy goals.  That’s the additional quality that a president wants from the vice president today.

Now consider Biden.  Obviously, he wasn’t selected because he’s going to bring Delaware into the Democratic column. He has some electoral virtues – he may help with the Catholic vote, he may bring in blue collar workers in Pennsylvania (an important swing state), he has extensive experience in the Senate.  But these are marginal benefits at best. In fact, Biden was chosen to be Bush’s Cheney – to compensate for Obama’s perceived weakness on foreign policy.  As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Biden has extensive foreign policy experience.  But it’s the wrong type of experience, in my view.

Senators, by the nature of their job, are not conceptualizers or managers – they are counter punchers, and from a partisan and constituency-based perspective. Biden has spent his lifetime viewing foreign policy through a senatorial perspective. That means conducting oversight of the executive branch policy and intervening when he sees partisan and/or constituency benefits. It is largely a reactive role.  Biden has never been forced to manage foreign policy, or implement it. This shows in his handling of the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq. In both instances he has largely supported the primary thrust of the policy, while critiquing its implementation. Obama says he never would have voted in favor of the Iraq war resolution. But Biden did. Note that Biden’s foreign policy activity to date is appropriate in his role as Senator; he is expected to oversee the executive branch’s conduct of foreign policy.   But it is a far cry from running the Defense Department in wartime, as Cheney did with Bush I, or sitting in the Oval Office next to the President while he decides whether to launch military action, as Cheney did with Ford.  In short, Obama may find out if he is elected that Biden’s foreign policy expertise is not what he needs in the Oval Office.

Let’s be clear here – selecting Biden is not a disaster.  My guess is he will cost Obama very little at the polls, and may even prove to be marginally beneficial. But this was Obama’s first major choice as the presumptive nominee, and he lost an opportunity to solidify his image as an agent of change. Biden is a white male who has twice failed in his bid to be president and who brings very little to the table electorally beyond a perception of foreign policy experience and it is the wrong type of foreign policy experience in my view.  More importantly, on the signature issue, which arguably did more than anything else to bring Obama the support of the Democratic, left – the Iraq War – Biden voted the “wrong” way.   So what kind of signal does the choice of Biden send?  Rather than change, it looks like Obama is trying to take on McCain in an area – foreign policy -where Obama cannot beat McCain.  Choosing Biden is a decision to fight this election on the wrong terrain, from Obama’s perspective and, I suspect, from that of Obama’s core supporters.

Perhaps more significantly, he has provided an opening for McCain to use his vice presidential selection to demonstrate the imaginative leadership that Obama’s choice does not do by, for example, choosing a woman as his VP.  At the same time, McCain can use Obama’s snub of Clinton as an opening to woo her core supporters who are more centrist and thus more amenable to entreaties from a “maverick” Republican.

If he is smart, McCain can take advantage of Obama’s miscue – but will he?  In my next post I’ll examine McCain’s short list of vice presidential candidates. Condi Rice, anyone?