Friday, February 29, 2008

Rules are mere suggestions on Goat Hill

(Originally published 2/29/08)

The chair of a standing committee shall take a recorded vote on any motion if requested by a committee member and sustained by one additional committee member.

– Rule 75 of the Alabama House of Representatives

Presiding over the House of Representatives’ Education Policy Committee Wednesday, Rep. Terry Spicer (D-Elba) gaveled through a measure by Rep. Tammy Irons (D-Florence) that would give legislators oversight over state school board rules for two-year colleges.

Irons, an attorney, insists that her bill simply brings the State Board of Education into compliance with existing statutes and case law.

“I believe totally in openness and accountability … I have no patience for anyone not following the law,” she said.

Opponents say the SBA is exempt from those statutes and fear putting legislators in charge of overseeing a system that has been disgraced by two years’ worth of revelations including financial mismanagement, double-dipping, rampant cronyism, obstruction of justice, bribery, conspiracy and witness tampering. This newspaper sided with them in an editorial last week.

Wednesday’s hearing was bound to be contentious. But when Spicer ordered a voice vote on the measure and ignored repeated, obvious calls by Republican members for a recorded vote, all you-know-what broke loose.

I talked with Spicer on Thursday. He said that members “who were for the bill who didn’t want to be on the record” approached him before the meeting and asked him not to take a roll call vote. Spicer said he was simply looking out for them.

But those seeking protection, he said, were Republican members of the committee facing pressure from their party leadership.

“I find that very, very hard to believe,” House Minority Leader Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn) said in response, noting that the GOP caucus voted unanimously two weeks ago to oppose Irons’ bill.

“I went to the speaker and asked, ‘Is there any need for our members to go to committees anymore?’” Hubbard said.

Hubbard said Spicer, a member of the 30-member Legislative Council that oversees rulemaking for state agencies and an assistant to the president at Enterprise-Ozark Community College, was effectively “ramming a bill through that would give oversight of his job to himself.”

I asked Irons whether she had lobbied members of the committee before the meeting; she said she had not. But she was “watching very closely” as the voice vote was taken, she said: “I know we had the votes.”

I asked Irons whether she also saw Republican members waving their arms around and calling for a recorded vote.

“I sure did, and I also saw the votes were there,” she said.

What does it mean, I asked her, that a bill being pushed in the interest of openness and accountability was gaveled through its only committee stop in violation of House rules and, lacking a recorded vote, without the same transparency she wants to create in the two-year system?

She directed questions about “committee procedure” to Spicer.

Tammy Irons seems like a nice enough person. But I worked as a legislative aide, and I never heard of any member taking a bill – especially a controversial bill – to a committee without having a feel for how it’s going to be received. At the very least, you need to lobby the chairman to hear the bill. You talk to committee members. You try to ferret out any objections or problems to your bill and cut them off at the pass. If there is opposition from lobbyists, you try to work it out with them before the bill is heard so that the wheels will be greased when you get heard in committee. You don’t like surprises, because in committee speak, “TP” – or “temporarily postponed” – equals “R.I.P.”

You have to lobby your bill … unless, of course, someone else is doing it for you.

What happened Wednesday is, unfortunately, no surprise to Alabamians. But it is disturbing that an institution that has so much trouble following its own rules would have the temerity to sit in judgment of rules made by anyone else.

On the blog this weekend, more on this issue and your Super Tuesday II preview.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Democrats' dirty delegate secret is out

(Originally published 2/23/08)

Think the Democratic presidential campaign is in knots now? Hang on.

Barack Obama made it 10-for-10 with victories over Hillary Clinton in contests in Wisconsin and Hawaii Tuesday while trend numbers continued to reflect his increasing reach into her core base of supporters. So-called superdelegates, those Democratic officeholders and party insiders with mystical, hocus-pocus unrestricted nominating powers, became the subject of heavy lobbying from both camps.

Clinton adviser Harold Ickes said Monday that he expects the decision to come down to the 795 superdelegates, who should “exercise their best judgment” with their votes, the results in their home districts notwithstanding.

Ickes then announced that he would hereafter refer to superdelegates as “automatic delegates,” because calling them “superdelegates” insinuates that they have too much power.

(Never mind, I guess, that he had just predicted that they would decide the nomination, thus demonstrating … their power.)

Clinton’s campaign launched a web site listing five reasons why “super-automatic-single-and-looking” delegates should not be expected to vote as their districts did, apparently in hopes of providing political cover to them. Obama’s campaign responded by asking his supporters to “share your story with a superdelegate,” hoping that peer pressure would turn up the heat on anyone getting squishy.

Then, just when we thought understood this delegate madness at least enough to know what to call them, The Politico’s Roger Simon on Tuesday revealed the Democrats’ dirty little delegate secret: Pledged delegates aren’t really “pledged” at all; since nothing in DNC rules binds them to vote for any particular candidate based on that candidate’s performance in his state, they are just as “super” as their more popular (for now, anyway) counterparts.

“The notion that pledged delegates must vote for a certain candidate is, according to the Democratic National Committee, a ‘myth,’” Simon said, calling it “an open secret in the party for years … that has never really mattered because there has almost always been a clear victor by the time the convention convened.”

Simon said one “high-ranking Clinton official” told him that if the nomination is still not settled by the convention in August, “‘everyone will be going after everybody’s delegates.’”

In other words, forget those cute, color-coded delegate count bubbles at the bottom of CNN’s screen. And stock up on popcorn while you can, because once delegates realize that they are all up for grabs, “must-see TV” is going to take on a whole new meaning in Denver.

Thursday, the candidates met in Texas for their last debate before the March 4 contests. Clinton needed to land several body blows against Obama to stop his momentum, but her performance was forgettable – until the end.

Clinton said whatever challenges she faces are nothing compared to those of wounded soliders, such as the ones she observed making their way into opening ceremonies for the Brooke Army Medical Hospital last year.

CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin said Clinton’s response, while eloquent, had a “valedictory” feel to it.

Valedictory: a closing or farewell statement or address.

As Obama basked in the victory of the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3, CNN pundit Gloria Borger noted the difficulty Clinton faced: “She’s running against inspiration,” Borger said.

The bottom line is that wonks don’t match up well against dreamers – especially in this nation, founded on the grandest of dreams.

Stop by the blog this weekend for my take on the John McCain-New York Times dust-up, some new words this election season has produced and a surprise for local readers:

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Hillary’s gender politics cheapens presidential campaign

Editor's note: I realized today that somehow, I neglected to post this column the week it was published. My apologies!

(Originally published 11/3/07)

Asked in Tuesday’s MSNBC debate whether she supported New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s plan to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton gave just the sort of meandering answer her opponents have long awaited.

The Politico’s Roger Simon called it "the worst performance of her entire campaign.

"It was not just that her answer … was at best incomprehensible and at worst misleading. It was that for two hours she dodged and weaved, parsed and stonewalled," he said.

But Clinton tried to spin the disaster into a positive, arguing that all the other candidates – all men – had engaged in "The Politics of Pile-On."

It’s no secret that Clinton has made her gender the cornerstone of her campaign. Her home page invites visitors to "Help Make History." In an endorsement, one congresswoman writes that "As women, we know that our home and work environments directly impact our lives, and that developing an effective energy policy is crucial for the long-term economic stability of our country." (Are they insinuating that men don't know these things?) And other links on the site include "Women Changing America Week" and "Winning Over GOP Women."

Clinton’s chief strategist Mark Penn said this week that “Hillary has the potential … to win almost a quarter of Republican women in the general election.” And after Tuesday night’s debate, a male focus group participant said he believed that “20 million Republican women” would vote for Clinton without telling the GOP men in their lives.

So after being targeted on Tuesday night by her presidential primary rivals, Clinton – naturally – made it about gender.

While picking up the AFSCME endorsement Wednesday, union president Gerald McEntee said, "Some of you may have seen last night’s debate. Six guys against Hillary – I’d call that a fair fight.” Later, when she spoke at her alma mater of Wellesley College, she said that the education she received at the all-women’s school had prepared her for the "all-boy's club of presidential politics."

I’m confused. Is Clinton insinuating that women should vote for her because they are women and so is she? If so, isn’t she cheapening her experience? And doesn’t that denigrate the very social progress that the election of a female president would symbolize?

Republican strategist (and adviser to GOP candidate Fred Thompson) Rich Galen warned that Clinton’s gender-based strategy may backfire.

"Americans may be perfectly happy to have a female president, but they probably do not want a female president who is going to be shattered by being put upon by men – especially if the men she is being shattered by happen to run countries like Iran and Cuba and North Korea and China," he said.

In other words, Clinton may win the sympathy of her fellow Americans. But that sympathy may drive them to vote for someone else.

* * *
South Carolina’s Democratic Party bosses decided this week to bar Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert from the state’s primary. With apologies to Sports Illustrated, the specter of Colbert on a debate stage with other presidential candidates would have been a sure sign that the apocalypse was upon us.

I enjoy good political humor as much as the next guy (or gal, Hillary). But there is a fine line between smart, witty satire and the foundational lack of respect – the visceral disgust, really – that characterizes political satire on Comedy Central, where hosts genuinely seem to hate the institutions they satirize.

None of our presidential candidates is perfect. But anyone whose reputation was made solely on bad impersonations of Bill O’Reilly should stick to armchair quarterbacking from the cheap seats.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Hillary's in trouble

(Originally published 2/16/08)

Frontrunner status is a funny thing in politics.

It’s a good thing to have at the beginning. It’s easier to raise money, get media attention, hire people and attract volunteers if you’re the brand name of the race.

But once voting starts, frontrunners must perform.

This is why Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have played hot potato with the frontrunner label since Iowa: HE’s the frontrunner! No, SHE is! No, HE is! The greater the expectations, the harder they are to meet (just ask Fred Thompson).

Obama and Clinton have traded wins across the country in what may be the most intriguing presidential primary in modern history. But Obama’s seven-state run since Super Tuesday (eight, if you count the U.S. Virgin Islands) has earned his advisers a PhD with distinction in expectation management: Not only is Obama now the undisputed frontrunner, but Clinton’s fortunes have taken such dramatic hits that her campaign is now in full damage-control mode.

Clinton held a conference call Monday with “donors, superdelegates and other supporters” wherein she struggled to convince them that “the nomination is not slipping away from her,” the New York Times reported.

Her supporters have legitimate cause for concern. Her three losses in the so-called Potomac Primaries Tuesday weren’t unexpected, but her advisers acknowledge that she may not win again until next month. And while Clinton will continue to earn delegates even in loss until then, Clinton insiders worry that a continued string of Obama victories will result in an insurmountable tsunami of momentum for him on March 4.

Even so, Clinton advisers, including longtime strategist James Carville, say plainly that a loss in any of three delegate-rich states – Texas and Ohio on March 4 (the old Super Tuesday) and Pennsylvania on April 22 – will spell doom for her campaign.

It’s a dangerous thing to bank your campaign’s fortunes on any single contest. Just ask Rudy Giuliani. He dropped out of the GOP race for president a day after finishing third in Florida, despite having spent nearly a month there.

But Giuliani’s slide began in Iowa. Once again, perception is reality: Giuliani didn’t win any contest before Florida, so in Florida, the perception that he couldn’t win among conservatives became reality. Clinton faces the same uphill battle. She’ll try to remain in the national consciousness as a winner despite the likelihood that all she’ll do for the next three weeks is lose.

* * *

The Democratic race has been so close, pundits have scoured results with electron microscopes looking for the slightest sign that the race may be tilting in one candidate’s favor.

On Tuesday night, they may have found it.

CNN exit polls showed that Obama beat Clinton among women and ran competitively with her in demographics where she had previously routed him: among white voters, seniors and voters primarily concerned with the economy.

For the neck-and-neck race to break, one candidate would have to start making inroads with the other candidate’s core supporters – and that is what appears to have happened during the Battle of the Beltway. Obama’s victories Tuesday were “built on a drastically different demographic than just a week ago,” CNN’s Anderson Cooper said.

As CNN’s Gloria Borger put it, “The question is now, can Obama take this and run with it?”

* * *

On the blog this weekend, find out how much Alabamians have funneled into the presidential race so far and who’s raised the most money in Lee County:

Monday, February 11, 2008

Broken crayons, and other leftover Super Tuesday thoughts

(Originally published 2/11/08)

Some leftover thoughts from Super Tuesday:

  • Several right-wing pundits lamented Mike Huckabee’s better-than-expected performance in southern states. At least one opined that Huckabee’s continued presence in the GOP primary meant that the conservative wing of the party “could not coalesce” around Mitt Romney, therefore clearing the way for the success of a more moderate candidate in John McCain.

    Right – almost. It’s not that the conservative voters of the party “could not” coalesce around Romney. Rather, they would not coalesce around Romney, particularly because of his about-face on the social issues they hold dear.

    This goes to the heart of the philosophical questions confronting voters at the ballot box: Should you support the candidate with whom you most agree, or the candidate you think has the best chance of keeping the other party out of power? More importantly, is it incumbent on any individual voter who espouses a party affiliation to sacrifice his personal convictions for the best interests of that party?

    We’ll explore this more in coming months. But suffice it to say that the answers may lie in the way our country selects its presidential nominees.

  • One Alabamian made national news Tuesday night during coverage of election returns. CNN’s Paul Begala reported that Alabama Democratic Conference Chairman Joe Reed, who is also associate executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, had “guaranteed” a win for Hillary Clinton in this state.

    According to its web site, since its founding in 1960, the mission of the ADC “has been to organize and unify the black vote ... Today ADC’s influence extends into most of the counties in the state.”

    The Associated Press reported that 80 percent of black Alabamians supported Barack Obama on Super Tuesday, rejecting the endorsement of Clinton that the ADC had made in October.

    The good news for the ADC is that it appears to have succeeded in consolidating the black vote; the bad news for the ADC is that there is a serious disconnect between its leadership and the people it is supposed to represent.

  • Speaking of the Democratic primary, it seems that the people of Syracuse, N.Y., have their pulse on the contest as much as anyone. Beating odds that one Syracuse University mathematics professor pegged at less than one in 1 million, Clinton and Obama tied – yes, tied – with exactly 6,001 votes each in the city’s unofficial vote tally Tuesday.

    Alas, absentee and provisional ballots undoubtedly tipped the scale one way or the other. But what happened in Syracuse typifies the neck-and-neck nature of this race: On Super Tuesday, Clinton won 0.4 percent more popular votes than Obama.

  • Finally, you know that I love the map CNN incorporates into its election night coverage. That kind of technology adds a whole new dimension to politics.

    So it was a strange scene, indeed, when Karl Rove appeared on Hannity & Colmes Thursday to analyze the Democratic primary with a 23-by-17 inch dry-erase board. Throughout the segment, he held the board up with his hand and struggled to write on it with markers that lived up to their “dry” name.

    Rove is arguably the best tactical political mind of our time. Many believe he is singlehandedly responsible, for better or for worse, for the election and re-election of George W. Bush. Even so, while CNN anchor John King enjoys the cutting-edge, touchscreen wall map, Karl Rove is stuck with the lap board.

    Giving Rove that board to discuss election strategy would be like handing Michelangelo your kid’s half-broken handful of crayons you dug out of the couch and telling him to get to work on the Sistine Chapel. It’s just wrong.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Romney exit leaves McCain to mend fences

(Originally published 2/9/08)

It’s a good thing I’m a procrastinator.

Here I was, all set to analyze Super Tuesday results for you, when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney shocked influential conservative activists in Washington Thursday with news that he was “suspending” his campaign.

That speech was his best yet. A reporter embedded with the Romney campaign for months noted that the candidate wrote it himself; key staffers didn’t see it until just hours before it was delivered in Washington.

(Sidebar: Candidates are always at their best when they use their own words to express their own ideas. Why don’t they do it more often? Consider Al Gore’s concession speech in December 2000. Gore was nothing of the robotic figure he had taken criticism for being throughout the campaign. Had he shown the country during the campaign the man he was on Dec. 13, 2000, it’s likely he would have given a victory speech on Nov. 7.)

Anyway, Romney’s grand speech managed somehow to be personal, too. As he gave way to presumed GOP nominee-to-be John McCain, the sharp attacks the two exchanged in recent weeks were forgotten, and Romney left only grace in their place. If McCain loses in November, party loyalists who view Romney’s exit as a magnanimous sacrifice will have him in the race again within two years.

For his part, McCain was walking into a den of lions, and he knew it. He has ascended to frontrunner status while being simultaneously attacked from the left and rejected by the right, so U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) reminded the combative crowd that McCain’s Senate record includes more than just campaign finance and immigration reform.

In his speech, McCain approachably yet unapologetically sought to assuage concerns that he is not an appropriate standard-bearer for the conservative principles of the GOP. To sometimes enthusiastic applause, he ticked off issues where he mirrors conservatives, but he also took his lumps by acknowledging his fights with them (his very mention of immigration brought a chorus of boos).

All in all, the speech had a cathartic feel and seemed a satisfying beginning to the inroads that McCain will have to make with the right to win the presidency. It remains to be seen, however, whether McCain will be able to master walking that tightrope between forging the indispensible alliances he needs to win and losing the well-known “maverick” character that one of my smartest friends says makes McCain the “incurable individualist” he may cross over to support in November.

But we may know sooner rather than later. After McCain’s speech, conservative bigwig Richard Viguerie detailed specific things he and others like him will be watching as McCain carries forward. Tops on the list: McCain’s choice for vice president.

Viguerie made no bones that they expect the pick to be someone with impeccable conservative credentials – as the leaders of that movement define those credentials – if McCain hopes to prove himself a true believer to doubters on the right.

Impress your less politically astute friends by explaining to them that this is why the whispers that Mike Huckabee is the odds-on favorite to be McCain’s VP are wrong. Huckabee is simply unacceptable to the Richard Vigueries of the GOP; Viguerie himself wrote a white paper on Huckabee’s record in Arkansas that “exposes his wishy-washiness and support for big government,” according to the paper’s summary.

More likely is a pick from within the right’s affirmed stable – and don’t be surprised if Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour makes the short list.

Next up: Kansas GOP caucuses, Nebraska Democratic caucuses and primaries for both parties in Louisiana and Washington today, to be followed by Democratic caucuses in Maine tomorrow. Check out my blog for more:

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Streamlined field rumbles toward Super Tuesday

(Originally published 2/2/08)

You may remember that last summer, a woman at Barack Obama’s campaign kickoff in Birmingham told me, “I haven’t been this excited about politics since the Kennedys.”

Apparently, she’s not alone.

Obama followed a surprisingly strong victory in South Carolina Saturday with news that he would pick up endorsements from America’s First Family of Politics on Monday.

U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy and his niece, Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy, gave their blessing to Obama’s candidacy at American University in a raucous rally reminiscent of the 1960s. Ted Kennedy seemed to channel his late brothers as he delivered a thundering speech that lauded the intersection of youthful idealism and classic liberalism.

On Tuesday, John McCain won a hard-fought GOP primary in Florida, where one-time frontrunner Rudy Giuliani finished a distant third before dropping out Wednesday. Giuliani’s failed “ambush” strategy proved that you can’t allow the race to go on without you for a full month – no matter what your lead in national polls may be.

Also Wednesday, John Edwards withdrew from the Democratic field, leaving pundits to fantasize for the next 36 hours about the debate between Clinton and Obama (known at my house as “Barack-illy”) in California.

But as it turned out, the much-anticipated showdown was a congenial “conversation,” as CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer called it. On balance, it seemed that Clinton finally delivered the confident, command performance the pundits had awaited. At the end, after Clinton and Obama brushed aside a question about whether they would run together on a Democratic “dream ticket,” Republicans caught a glimpse of their worst nightmare: The two seemed to nearly embrace before glad-handing crowds thronging the stage. GOPers know that Clinton’s tactical experience plus Obama’s X-factor would equal an all but insurmountable challenge in November.

Other quick hits this week:

  • GOP candidate Mitt Romney loaned his campaign another $18 million from his checkbook in January, bringing his total personal investment in the campaign to a disturbing $35 million. No word on whether his banker backs McCain.

  • Romney also wins this week’s award, given for special achievement in pandering. While appearing at a Miami-area rally in a traditional Cuban shirt known as a guayabera, Romney told the crowd he “would never give money to Fidel Castro.” (Were we offering?) Romney sounded as ridiculous as he looked – almost.

  • Presidential politics even found its way into the Miss America pageant Saturday. Miss Wyoming, Jenn McCafferty, introduced herself as being “from the state that moved up its presidential primary, but nobody cared.”

  • Romney and Mike Huckabee are locked in a battle for the conservative vote among Republicans. Exit polls seem to indicate that a significant number of GOP voters shy away from Huckabee because they’re not sure he could win in November. What would this race look like if everyone stopped trying to outmaneuver each other and just voted their conscience? In other words, for you football fans out there, your defense may be strong, but you won’t win the Super Bowl if Tom Brady is in a walking cast; you have to play offense now and then.

OK, folks … Super-Duper Tuesday is upon us. Cable news coverage begins at 4 a.m., and I’ll be mainlining results and analysis well into the night. I’m glad the LAPD devised that huge police, fire and rescue caravan for Britney Spears; by dawn Wednesday, I might need it.

Finally, Alabamians are part of the Super Tuesday parade, so do your part: Get out there and VOTE!