Sunday, March 30, 2008

Party faithful fume as Democratic race drags on

(Originally published 3/29/08)

You may remember reading here last month about the “Democrats’ dirty little secret:” Under Democratic National Committee rules, there’s really no such thing as a “pledged” delegate. Theoretically, they’re almost all up for grabs at the convention.

Much to the chagrin of DNC Chairman Howard Dean and others hoping for a united party going into November, that free-for-all is looking more likely.

Clinton gave an interview this week wherein she signaled her willingness to go after those so-called pledged delegates in Denver in August: “Every delegate with very few exceptions is free to make up his or her mind however they choose,” Clinton said. “We talk a lot about so-called pledged delegates, but every delegate is expected to exercise independent judgment.

CNN said it was at least the fifth time that Clinton or a surrogate had raised the idea in the past month.

Key to the delegate battle will be the perception of electability. Obama’s supporters will argue that Clinton is polarizing to the point of being radioactive; she won’t be able to perform in so-called purple and red states. Obama’s argument will be built on the idea that Democrats have a chance to do well in states where they are generally not competitive at the national level (read: states where he has won primaries and caucuses in sometimes eye-popping numbers), and that will be good for Democratic candidates downticket.

Clinton’s supporters will argue that Obama hasn’t done well among “lunchbucket Democrats,” or the sort of working white Democrats who delivered a big win for Clinton in Ohio and are expected to do so again in Pennsylvania. Why worry about purple states, Clintonistas will say, if you can’t turn out the votes in and nail down the blue ones?

In a related item, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a group of 20 institutional Democratic fundraisers are engaged in an ugly fight over comments Pelosi made that she believes superdelegates should support the leader of the party’s pledged delegates at the convention.

The group, which supports Clinton, sent Pelosi a stern letter, all but threatening to pull their support for her fundraising efforts in the House unless she backs off of her statement., whose leadership supports Obama, came to Pelosi’s defense, calling the group “fat cats” engaged in the “worst kind of insider politics” and made up of “billionaires bullying our elected leaders into ignoring the will of the voters.” MoveOn began a fundraising campaign of its own – this time, to replace whatever money might be withheld by those donors because of Pelosi’s remarks.

The flap portends big trouble for the Democrats because, as CNN reported, it “illustrates the widening gap in the party between some of its traditional financial backers, many of whom support Clinton, and a Netroots donor base that leans toward Obama.”

All of this is taking its toll on Democratic voters. Also making news this week was the “bitterness index,” a new poll showing that 51 percent – fully half – of the Obama supporters surveyed would be “dissatisfied or upset” if Clinton wins the nomination, and 19 percent would vote for Republican John McCain instead. Likewise, 41 percent of Clinton supporters said they would be unhappy if Obama was their party’s nominee, and 28 percent said they would vote for McCain.

All of that adds up to a summer forecast that is as sunny for McCain as it is stormy for Democrats.

On the blog this weekend: All the good things from this week as well as a look at Meghan McCain’s blog.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Win or lose, Obama's speech was good for America

(Originally published 3/22/08)

Ever since the national press began taking marching orders from Saturday Night Live and started giving Barack Obama the once-over a couple of weeks ago, it was just a matter of time before the country was introduced to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., the now-former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Digital clips of Wright’s sometimes vulgar rants against racial inequality, available on YouTube, looped continuously on cable news networks, and the furor surrounding them continued to grow. Obama released strongly worded statements condemning his spiritual mentor’s remarks and spent the weekend making the rounds with national news networks. But the issue refused to die, and top fundraisers grew increasingly uneasy. Obama decided to take the issue on in a nationally televised address.

Pundits said the speech would make or break his campaign, and Obama seemed to agree. He wrote it himself, sharing it only with top aides in the few hours preceding its delivery.

The smart political move for candidates faced with continued and deepening controversy is to disavow and disassociate themselves from the problem – and the quicker, the better.

But as Obama said, his history hasn’t made him the most conventional candidate. So in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, Obama put the finishing touches on a speech that was making its way into American lore by lunchtime.

The speech was nothing short of remarkable. Politics aside, its language and structure were something to behold. Obama’s rhetorical skills have never been questioned; indeed, some believe that he has made it to this point in the presidential sweepstakes precisely because of the grandeur of his oratory.

But even when they are beautifully interwoven in speech, words are just words until they are given brilliance by the soul of their author. That’s what happened Tuesday: Applied to issues like racial hatred and discrimination, which are among the ugliest chords in our nation’s song, Obama’s soaring rhetoric took on a transcendent quality.

There was truth to Obama’s words. He couldn’t disavow Wright; any attempt to do so would rightly ring hollow. He couldn’t excuse Wright, so he didn’t try. Instead, Obama transformed his potential Waterloo into an opportunity to discuss one of the dirtiest secrets in American culture. More daring than speaking truth to power, Obama spoke truth to voters, seemingly determined to let the chips fall where they may.

And then there is Obama himself. The mixed-race son of two culturally divergent parents, raised in corners of the globe from Indonesia to Hawaii to Kansas, a recipient of some of the best education our world has to offer and married to a descendent of “slaves and slave owners,” charged at various times throughout the campaign with being too black or not black enough: Who better to deliver this speech? His unique story all but demands it; indeed, with his oratorical ability and life experience, he is perhaps the only person who could.

If Obama wins the Democratic nomination for president or the presidency itself, Tuesday’s speech will be seen as the turning point. If he loses, pundits will point to it as a lesson for newbies not to stray from their consultants’ proven playbooks. But either way, his country owes Barack Obama a debt of gratitude for his courage to hold up a mirror and encourage our discussion on the 800-pound gorilla that remains entrenched in America’s national psyche.

On the blog this weekend: Links to Obama’s history-making speech, and the blog’s first poll.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Legal, moral debates linger in wake of Spitzer scandal

(Originally published 3/15/08)

Political watchers were stupefied this week by the meteoric downfall of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in disgrace after being linked to a high-dollar prostitution ring.

Spitzer’s scandal opened the door to all sorts of moral and legal debates, among them the criminalization of prostitution. Harvard University uber-law professor Alan Dershowitz led the way with the “prostitution-is-a-victimless-crime” argument.

Betrayed, and with her personal life exposed before the world, Silda Spitzer stood beside her husband twice this week as he faced the hungry press. Pundits exhorted her to take the couple’s three teenage daughters and leave Spitzer. They speculated about how much she knew about his indiscretions and when she knew it. Would Silda Spitzer consider prostitution a “victimless crime?”

And what about those daughters, ages 13, 15 and 17, ashamed by their father, embarrassed before their friends, thrust into a scandal of someone else’s making? Their relationships with their dad will never be the same. Are they not victims?

As for the call girl herself, within 24 hours of Spitzer’s resignation, New York tabloids had tracked down ‘Kristen,’ a 22-year-old aspiring singer who says she left a broken home at 17.

A 22-year-old woman making $1,000 an hour, a victim? Ludicrous, Dershowitz said.

Long Island journalist and broadcaster David North said it best: “Spitzer has three daughters … Did it cross his mind that ‘Kristen’ is also somebody’s daughter? As a former Manhattan district attorney and state attorney general, he knows firsthand not just that prostitution’s profits frequently support organized crime, but also that it can enslave women.”

Indeed, said Equality Now Executive Director Taina Bien-Aime, far from being a “victimless crime,” prostitution is “just another form of gender apartheid.”

Policy debate aside, Americans couldn’t get enough of the story:

  • Media outlets breathlessly reported the salacious details of Spitzer’s alleged tryst, one even providing video and still shots of Spitzer’s room, 871, at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.
  • New York State Lottery Officials had to close down betting on 871 Tuesday when wagers on it hit $5 million.
  • Spitzer, the call girl ring and ‘Kristen’ herself dominated Google search trends throughout the week.
  • ‘Kristen’s’ social networking page got tens of thousands of hits before it was taken down, and cable news networks analyzed her vocal abilities and discussed the possibilities of book and movie deals in her future.
  • Late-night talk show hosts feasted on the story with off-color jokes of all kinds; David Letterman used the story for Top 10 lists three nights in a row.

Perhaps just as disturbing as Spitzer’s downfall and the personal humiliation of his family is what Americans’ fascination with it says about us.

Also this week, the CDC released stunning findings that 1 in 4 teenage girls in America has a sexually transmitted disease, and nearly half – HALF – of African-American girls ages 14 to 19 have an STD. These numbers alone are “overwhelming,” in the words of one physician. But it gets worse: The study only included teen girls, and it only accounted for four diseases, leaving out other prevalent STDS like HIV, syphilis and gonorrhea. The stark and underreported reality of this story is that the STD infection rate among American teens is much higher – and much scarier – than anyone seems willing to accept.

On the blog this weekend, how the Spitzer scandal relates to the CDC study, and the Incredibly Stupid Statements File.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Democratic race muddled again as delegate showdown looms

(Originally published 3/8/08)

Super Tuesday giveth clarity to the Democratic race for president; Super Tuesday II taketh away.

Hillary Clinton managed to combine positivity and negativity ahead of Tuesday’s action: She appeared on late-night talk shows, most notably Saturday Night Live, while her surrogates turned up the heat on Barack Obama as he fumbled with NAFTA. The result: A candidate who was 0 for her last 12 primary contests had a 3-for-4 night that included wins in her self-described firewall states of Ohio and Texas.

The headlines on Wednesday focused on Obama and the opportunities he missed to slam shut the door on Clinton. Some pundits have opined that the SNL skits shamed mainstream media into getting tough with Obama for the first time.

(If that’s true, what does it say about American media that it only examines and improves the investigative quality of its work under pressure and satirical scrutiny from a late-night comedy sketch show?)

Anyway, if nothing else, the campaigns will continue at least until April 22 in Pennsylvania – where Clinton enjoyed an 11-point lead before her cleanup on Super Tuesday II – and most likely until the convention in Denver in August.

Speaking of the convention, Democratic Party leaders have their hands full with the delegate mess in Michigan and Florida. Both states have been sanctioned by the DNC and their delegates sidelined for their insistence on holding primary contests before the allowed date of Feb. 5, but governors from both states are calling on the Democratic National Committee to find some way to make count the votes cast in those states’ too-early primaries.

Clinton’s name was the only one on the Michigan ballot, prompting Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume to describe it as “a Soviet-style ballot.” Obama had withdrawn his name – and didn’t actively campaign in Florida – in keeping with an agreement the candidates made not to campaign in the sanctioned states.

But both are powerhouse states important to Democrats’ hopes of retaking the White House in November, so it’s bad karma to not seat their delegates. DNC Chairman Howard Dean proposed that the states hold new nominating contests, but the states are balking at coughing up the $25 to $30 million that do-overs would require.

(By the way, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is a rumored potential running mate of GOP nominee-in-waiting John McCain. It’s no secret that Republicans would prefer to run against Clinton than Obama. By helping Clinton secure Florida’s delegates now, Crist could be helping McCain later.)

In an unrelated item, Obama announced this week that his campaign raised $55 million in February alone, smashing the record for any amount ever raised by any candidate in a single month. Clinton didn’t have a shabby month, either; drawing in $35 million in contributions during February and raising $4 million in two days this week.

Hey, here’s an idea: If Clinton and Obama are serious about seating delegates from Michigan and Florida, why don’t they pool their February cash and split the costs of new contests even-steven? The votes will all be counted; the candidates will get their delegates; taxpayers won’t have to foot the bill; and we can all pretend – for a moment, at least – that rules actually matter when it comes to elections.

It’s almost enough to make Howard Dean scream with joy.

On the blog this weekend: Some early but revealing information on general election matchups, and I reveal a little-known group of disenfranchised voters in Texas.