Saturday, January 26, 2008

South Carolina forum offered rare glimpse of real Hillary

(Originally published 1/26/08)

The presidential primaries kicked into overdrive this week.

Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney won the caucuses in Nevada (properly pronounced “nuh-VAD-ah,” as Michelle Obama learned), while John McCain edged Mike Huckabee in the GOP contest in South Carolina.

The Democrats’ South Carolina forum, co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, was held on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Monday night. It was the first time the gloves truly came off in the contentious race. I felt like I was watching one of those old Batman shows, you know, the ones from the 60s where words would flash on the screen during a fight?

(Cue music)

You were a corporate lawyer on the board at Wal-Mart!

BAM!

You represented that slumlord in inner-city Chicago!

KA-POW!

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I appreciated that heated exchange between Barack Obama and Clinton. No candidate is as precisely scripted, carefully controlled and perfectly practiced as she. It is as if she draws confidence from being the Stepford candidate. But the slumlord line was delivered with genuine rancor, and it represented – finally – a crack in her porcelain fa├žade. In that moment, if even for an instant, we caught a glimpse of Hillary Clinton, the fighter.

But not everyone appreciated the moment.

“How many children is this going to get health care?” John Edwards plaintively whined at one point.

I’m no fan of negative campaigning. But I do think it’s important to know whether your president has the guts for a fight. I don’t know about you, but I want someone as president who not only has a vision, but also the strength to make it happen. I want a hardheaded negotiator who can drum up legislative support for his agenda not only on the strength of the idea, but also on the strength of the argument. I want someone who isn’t going to back down when challenged. I want someone who strides into a showdown with confidence, because even the best ideas – health care for children, for example – are useless if you can’t win the fights that will make them law.

Back on the GOP side, Fred Thompson mercifully put his disappointing campaign out of its misery on Tuesday after he finished third in South Carolina. Readers who fancy yourselves campaign managers, drop me a line with your analysis of how Thompson managed to enter the race as a strong favorite and then fizzle in such spectacular fashion. Bonus points for all who can fashion their explanations without the words “unattainable” and/or “expectations.”

Thursday’s GOP forum in Florida was the polar opposite of Monday’s exciting Democratic dust-up. One pundit suggested that the candidates had agreed to be nice to each other and to attack Hillary instead.

I have just one word for what ensued:

ZZZZzzzzzzz.

I discussed the mind-numbingly boring results with a friend, and we have some ideas about how to spice things up. I’ll share them with you in coming weeks.

Finally, this week’s pundit prize is the John Moschitta Jr. Award, so named for that guy who would dress up in white coveralls and blabber on about Micro Machines in the 1980s. It goes to CNN’s Amy Holmes. Holmes and fellow pundit Roland Martin, the Moschitta runner-up, are air piranhas on CNN’s set.

Next up: South Carolina Democrats will vote in that state today; on Tuesday, all eyes turn to Florida, where we’ve seen before that anything can happen.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Time for the political two-minute drill!

College football fans have bowl season. Style mavens have Fashion Week. Movie lovers have the Oscars (but that might be a bad example this year). And political junkies have presidential primaries.

Ah, the primaries … the time every four years when obscure delis and diners make national news, when otherwise-politically irrelevant states swarm with national media more comfortable with Starbucks than meat-and-threes, when campaigns finally get to test their candidates’ mettle and when voters have their first say.

It’s like a BCS playoff!

Choosing just one thing to write about from the past week would be like restricting myself to just one thing from Whispering Oaks’ delicious smorgasbord. Who would do that to themselves?

So, in honor of the NFL’s conference championship games this weekend, I offer you the political version of the two-minute drill:

  • Beware the Big Mo. Momentum is the watchword of primary season: Who has it? Who’s lost it? But savvy politicos know that while critical to candidates’ progress, momentum can also be misleading. Hillary Clinton and John McCain had the momentum coming out of New Hampshire. But the reality is that going into today’s contests in Nevada and South Carolina, Barack Obama leads Clinton in delegates 25-24, while on the GOP side, Mitt Romney leads Mike Huckabee 48-19. McCain is third with 15. Winning the nomination is all about delegates. Especially this year, when analysts have begun to raise the specter of old-fashioned floor fights to decide the nominations, the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare may end up having a political application by the time we reach the conventions in Denver and St. Paul.

  • This week’s “????” award goes to CNN pundit Roland Martin. While on the desk Tuesday night, Martin made several odd comments that left his fellow talking heads wondering what he was talking about. Martin should stick to the written word; at least you can go back and read his comments until they make sense … or you pass out at your computer, whichever comes first.

  • CNN’s John King gets the Best Use of Technology award. His touch-screen map (with details!) is one of the top two things about CNN’s returns coverage. (The other is Gloria Borger.) With a color-coded, detailed display of results broken down to the county, King’s presentations are a politico’s dream.

  • King’s map may be cool, but Fox News Channel’s Carl Cameron is, hands down, the best political reporter on TV. Political junkies know he’s one of us. Cameron’s interesting and incisive reporting is all business, but it’s delivered with a breathless excitement that borders on sheer glee. It’s proof that he’s landed his dream job. Who else could get so excited about an interview with the elections supervisor in Dixville Notch? Cameron is known as “Campaign Carl,” and The Hollywood Reporter calls him an “uncaged political animal.” What’s not to love?

  • The One-Liner of the Week belongs to former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. During CNN’s returns coverage Tuesday night, Fleischer dismissed reports that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg may be inching toward an independent run for president, calling Bloomberg’s actions “a flirtation that won’t result in a kiss.”

Temperatures will slide down into the low 20s tonight. So why not live the life of a political junkie for a few hours? Curl up with a mug of hot chocolate and watch the returns.

But don’t blame me if you find yourself watching cable news during the games tomorrow!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sincere or contrived, Emotional Hillary is here to stay

(Originally published 1/12/08)

Sometimes in political campaigns, one moment changes everything.

By dawn Tuesday, political pundits and reporters had all but written their stories about Hillary Clinton’s sound defeat in the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary. After all, Barack Obama rode a tidal wave of momentum out of his win in Iowa last week, and ALL the polls indicated that a double-digit win for him was imminent.

But then came Monday – and The Cry.

If you missed it (and how was ice fishing in Antarctica, by the way?), it wasn’t really a cry. It was a welling-up, an emotional moment of sorts, that Clinton had at a campaign rally in Portsmouth when responding to a question about how she handles the pressures of campaigning.

The Cry led Monday’s evening news across New Hampshire. About 12 hours later, polls opened across the state; 12 hours after that, Clinton had turned sure defeat into sweet victory.

Exit polls (if you still trust polls, after this week) showed that independents weakened Obama by going with John McCain in larger numbers than expected. But after losing among women in Iowa, Clinton carried them in big numbers in New Hampshire.

What brought them back? The Cry.

In that instant, “Clinton suddenly stopped being a calculating, power-hungry cyclops and took on actual humanity,” journalist Sharon Kehnemui Liss wrote.

“Hillary Clinton shows some emotion and (people) say, ‘Wait a minute, the ice queen is melting and there is a real person inside,’” National Public Radio correspondent Juan Williams said.

But Clinton has a reputation for being, well, calculating, so people began to wonder whether The Cry was real.

GOP kingmaker Karl Rove, the Duke of Deception to Clinton’s Wonder Woman, came to her defense – sort of.

“It says something about the peoples’ concern about Hillary Clinton that we are having a debate as to whether or not that was a real moment. But I think … that was a real moment,” he said.

Real or contrived, she’ll take the results, so expect to see more of Emotional Hillary as Super Tuesday draws near.
* * *

Here’s a puzzler: Why aren’t the Republican candidates talking about health care? There wasn’t a single question about it during the Fox News debate Thursday night. There were plenty of questions about the economy, immigration and the war in Iraq, reported to be the top three issues in South Carolina. But that leads me to the next head-scratcher: Why isn’t health care a top issue among the GOP? Health care providers who face hopelessly inadequate federal reimbursement rates that continue to decline – and the 50 million uninsured Americans they serve – would like to know.

And did anyone else notice that Rudy Giuliani didn’t answer the question about how he, as president, would respond to mayors of large cities implementing the same policy toward illegal immigrant crime victims and tipsters that he used as mayor of New York? It was the best question of Thursday’s debate, and he got away without answering it because it came last.

Finally, this week’s Most Annoying Pundit award goes to CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who struggled to complete a sentence without the phrase “political savant” during his network’s primary coverage Tuesday.

Dobbs is just another TV personality who wants to remind you that he breathes rarefied air and is therefore much, much smarter than the rest of us.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Winners and losers from Iowa caucuses

(Originally published 1/5/08)

Compliments of the good people of Iowa, who serve as crash-test dummies of sorts for all manner of presidential primary poppycock, we now have 2008’s first list of winners and losers from the campaign trail.

(Cue jingle: "Iowa! We watch the candidates with our Hawkeyes.")

Winners from Thursday night’s first-in-the-nation-but-curious caucuses include:

  • Democratic candidate and Sen. Barack Obama, who delicately balanced his message of hope with end around attacks on frontrunner Sen. Hillary Clinton designed to chip away at her inevitability. As Oprah Winfrey stumped for Obama in the campaign’s waning weeks, he took advantage of the large crowds by speaking passionately, consistently and convincingly about change. It was a masterful strategy: His eight-point victory, especially in a state with an African-American population of two percent, demonstrated his electibility while showing Clinton to be vulnerable.
  • GOP candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who came out of nowhere to win. Mercilessly attacked by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and nearly a victim of his own missteps, Huckabee managed to stay mostly positive down the stretch. Outspent as much as 15-to-1, his barebones campaign counted on Huckabee’s Everyman quality to resonate with Iowans.
  • GOP candidate and Sen. John McCain, whose endorsement by four newspapers in the Northeast so far have contributed to his increasing momentum. After being maligned for his work on last year’s immigration reform bill and placing his campaign on life support last fall, he is looking like this cycle’s "comeback kid." McCain even convinced the media that his third-place finish in Iowa left him perfectly positioned for the race to come to him in New Hampshire - and he may be right.

Losers include:

  • GOP runner-up Romney, who unloaded millions in Iowa and led the polls until late November. His efforts, including his well-financed attacks on Huckabee and McCain in the final days before the caucuses, enabled Huckabee to say Thursday night, "People really are more important than the purse." Ouch. Unless Romney wins New Hampshire on Tuesday - a prospect made even tougher by McCain’s growing strength there - most observers see it as the end of the road for him.
  • Clinton, the former frontrunner who placed an inexplicable third behind Edwards. Entrance polls indicated she didn’t even win among women, a finding longtime political adviser David Gergen called "remarkable." CNN political analyst Gloria Bolger resurrected the criticism Clinton has drawn for being a chameleon of sorts, asking whether Clinton can "change herself yet again," adding, "She’s running against inspiration. That’s a hard thing to compete against right now."
  • GOP candidate and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who all but skipped Iowa, knowing that he was polling in the single digits. He may be showing well in national polls, but for two whole days, his name was hardly mentioned. In a presidential campaign, that’s anything but good.
  • Democratic candidate and former Sen. John Edwards. Although Edwards tried to spin his runner-up finish as evidence that he and Obama are in a two-man race to the nomination, Des Moines Register political guru David Yepsen said he believes Obama’s strong showing means that the "anti-Hillary vote will start to coalesce around Obama."

Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace is this week’s loser-at-large. Wallace has always come off to me as a condescending elitist, but his testy, browbeating exchange with Huckabee adviser Ed Rollins is among the least professional interviews I’ve seen.

With the circus now in full swing in New Hampshire, Feb. 5 - Super-Duper Tuesday, I guess we’ll call it - is looking like the day of reckoning it was created to be.