Saturday, April 26, 2008

Surrogates offer steady diet of spin -- if you still have an appetite

(Originally published 4/26/08)

The good news: Hillary Clinton’s win in Pennsylvania on Tuesday assured political junkies like me of at least another month of drama and fun.

The bad news: It will come at the high cost of more canned commentary from the candidates’ smarmy surrogates.

As campaigns unfold, consultants make a lot of dough by presenting the events of the day in a positive light for their candidate.

One of my friends compares it to Hamburger Helper: They all start with the basic ground beef, but one ends up with cheesy jambalaya, the other with tomato basil penne.

It’s called spin, and it’s why the talking heads trot out to dutifully deliver the day’s dose of rhetoric – and it always has a dubious basis in reality.

Clinton’s Pennsylvania win opened a new battleground in her campaign’s war of words with Barack Obama's camp. Barely 12 hours after giving her victory speech in Philadelphia, Clinton proudly told an assembled crowd, “I have received more votes, from the people who have voted, than anybody else.”

Why the awkward sentence? It’s half true: She’s counting the votes cast for her in the disputed Michigan and Florida primaries.

The other half of the truth, the half she doesn’t mention, is that Democrats agreed not to campaign in Florida and Obama’s name wasn’t even on the ballot in Michigan.

It was as if Clinton smelled blood in the water. Her surrogates spent the rest of the week on offense and in overdrive, crowing in voce forte that Pennsylvania exposed Obama’s fatal flaw: He can’t seem to win among working-class white men, a demographic crucial to Democrats in traditionally blue states, so the party would be engaging in a “suicide pact” (Clinton surrogate Lanny Davis’ words) by nominating him.

Obama’s people shot back that Clinton won’t win purple states, like Colorado and Iowa, and she can’t win red states he can make competitive – like Virginia and others across the South.

And then, as they say, it was on.

She says: He hasn’t won a single blue state other than his own, while she has won big in traditionally blue states, including California, New York and Massachusetts.
He says: Traditionally blue states will be blue in November no matter who tops the ticket.
She says: Obama is “running away from” debates with her in Indiana and North Carolina.
He says: The 21 debates they’ve had already are plenty. (Obama surrogate and former DNC chairman David Wilhelm wins the one-liner award this week for this offering: “I don’t get a sense that the American people are crying out, ‘Give us that 22nd debate,’” he said.)
She says: Superdelegates should “respect the will of the voters” as reflected by the popular vote.
He says: Superdelegates should “respect the will of the voters” as reflected by pledged delegates.
They seem to agree on only one thing; curiously, it’s the one thing that is farthest from the truth: How good this extended, bruising battle is for the Democratic Party. Democratic officials publicly dispense happy thoughts: Registrations are up. People are excited about the race. But privately, they know that participation and excitement to be wrapped up in the individual candidates. Neither candidate’s supporters espouse similar excitement about the other candidate; in fact; many indicate that they are more likely to vote for John McCain than the other Democrat – if they vote in November at all.

And that, friends, is why Howard Dean stays in a persistent projectile sweat these days.

* * *

On the blog this weekend, a big announcement!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Dreadful ABC debate likely last in series

(Originally published 4/19/08)

Are the news networks just trying to out-awful each other when it comes to presidential debates?

ABC started Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate from Philadelphia in negative territory for its ill-advised and poorly considered decision to allow “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos to co-moderate with Charlie Gibson.

Stephanopoulos, of course, was a senior adviser to Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and served as communications director during his first administration.

Unfortunately for ABC (and the 10.7 million Americans watching), the beginning was the high point.

For all their strained efforts to nail the candidates on something – anything –Gibson and Stephanopoulos squandered the tremendous opportunity made possible by huge ratings by focusing on old issues, innuendo and the latest recapitulation of old Internet rumors before mentioning those other campaign issues: Iraq and the economy.

Washington Post pundit Tom Shales said the two “turned in shoddy, despicable performances;” Philadelphia Daily News writer Will Bunch said they “disgraced the American voters, and in fact even disgraced democracy itself;” Editor and Publisher’s Greg Mitchell said it was “perhaps the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate this year.”


According to the Associated Press, by midafternoon Thursday, ABC News’ web site had drawn more than 15,600 comments, with negative comments outnumbering positive ones eight to one.

Responding to the criticism, Stephanopoulos sounded like Saddam Hussein’s information minister, who repeatedly insisted, “There are no American soldiers in Baghdad:”

“The questions were tough and fair and appropriate and relevant,” Stephanopoulos told the AP.

Well, maybe if relevance is relative. Compared to what the candidates think of, say, the New Kids on the Block reunion, the questions were relevant. But compared to the things that were not asked at all – like what they think about Jimmy Carter’s current trip to the Middle East to meet with Hamas leaders, the skyrocketing cost of oil or their ideas on what the role of the federal government should be in the church-vs.-state battle being played out in West Texas between state officials and a polygamous cult – I’d say Stephanopoulos was stretching the definition of “relevant” a bit.

As Gibson and Stephanopoulos questioned Barack Obama about Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers (and if you’re thinking, “Who?” you’ve demonstrated the point), so could they have asked Clinton about disgraced Democratic fundraiser Norman Hsu, jailed on charges of strong-arming campaign contributions for her, or former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, known among GOP hacks as “Sandy Burglar” for his theft of highly classified documents from the National Archives.

“It is clear that, as leaders, we have a choice who we associate with and who we apparently give some kind of seal of approval to,” Clinton said in debate Wednesday.

Apparently, that’s true for everyone except Hillary Clinton.

And so, as the long-awaited Pennsylvania primary rolls around Tuesday and rescues politicos from six weeks of manufactured news purgatory, we may have seen the last Democratic debate of the 2008 campaign: The inherent advantage his oratorical ability gives him in debate notwithstanding, Obama now says that the 21 debates Democrats have had are enough. Given Wednesday’s debacle, it’s no surprise.

Here’s hoping that the general election season will somehow provide voters with the miracle of hearing from their candidates in debate without the distraction of bumbling, stumbling middlemen muddying the water.

On the blog this weekend, more about gas prices and the fan club for that Iraqi information minister (yes, there really is one!).

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Does Every Child Matter? Candidates will decide

(Originally published 4/12/08)

Last week, I challenged our presidential candidates to ditch their television ads for the month of May and donate the money that would have been spent to air them to domestic violence shelters and/or child welfare programs.

I’m still waiting to hear from them.

But I don’t take rejection well, so I renew the call again this week, bolstered by another report that paints a bleak picture of child welfare in America.

Last week’s report from the Centers for Disease Control informed us that an estimated 91,000 babies a year old and younger are victims of nonfatal child abuse or neglect in a year. This week, the Every Child Matters Education Fund released a report that ranks the 50 states on 10 standards of wellbeing for children.

“Geography matters greatly when it comes to the ability of U.S. children to be healthy and survive to adulthood,” the report noted. For example, children in the lowest-ranked 10 states are three times more likely to die before the age of 14, five times more likely to be uninsured and eight times more likely to be jailed as teens, it said.

The ECMEF exists to stop child abuse, help working families with child care, expand preschool education and after-school programs and ensure that children receive good health care. And while we’re encouraging the candidates to do some good, the ECMEF is trying to get their attention.

The ECMEF also produced “Homeland Insecurity: Why Children Must Be a Priority in the 2008 Presidential Campaign,” a fascinating but disturbing report in which ECMEF researchers consider the effects of current policies on America’s youngest citizens. The report also encourages voters to pose tough questions to candidates about how – and whether – those candidates will spotlight and work to meet the needs of children during the 2008 campaign and beyond. (One example: “More than 3 million children nationwide were reported abused and neglected in 2006. What are your plans to keep all children safe from violence in their homes, schools, and communities?”)

So, come on, candidates … Give voters a welcome respite from the increasingly insufferable commercials with which you’ve browbeaten the country for months. Shelve those ads for a few weeks; give those dollars a better purpose. The lives you save could be your supporters someday.

* * *

In other news, as anti-China protesters traded their credibility for juvenile attacks on Olympic torchbearers this week, activists called on President Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing and Americans to boycott the corporate sponsors who participate. China’s dismal human rights record demands it, they say.

There was another Summer Olympics hosted by a country with a poor human rights record – indeed, one of the worst in history. But there was no U.S. boycott of the 1936 Games in Berlin, and against the backdrop of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi propaganda declaring “Aryan racial superiority,” Alabama native Jesse Owens won four gold medals.

Since when does political change occur in any country as the result of a limited, targeted boycott by outsiders? True revolution happens from within, and it can only be sparked when the oppressed see evidence of the vibrant life beyond their borders. The Olympic Games is a celebration of sport, of human achievement and of humanity itself, regardless of the political boundaries that divide us. It’s a reminder, every four years, of the world that could – and can – be.

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On the blog this weekend, links to all the ECMEF stuff mentioned here, and where Alabama ranked.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Candidates can hit the child abuse prevention jackpot

(Originally published 4/5/08)

A media watchdog group reported this week that when it comes to destination advertising for presidential candidates, nothing beats the Wheel – of Fortune, that is.

CNN tells us that Barack Obama has spent more than $1 million on "Wheel" so far, followed by Hillary Clinton at $815,000 and John McCain at $168,000 (remember, he’s still catching up from having just missed the dreaded BANKRUPT wedge last summer).

Why “Wheel?” It’s "inexpensive but also efficient," because it typically follows the news and leads into prime time, according to the story.

My first thought was to propose a riveting showdown around the “Wheel” for the candidates. This is the year for change, right? So, out with old – Tim Russert, stuffy debates and browbeating questions – and in with the new: Pat Sajak, Mystery Wedges and Free Spins! How better to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the show than with “Wheel of Fortune: I Want to be President Edition” and categories like, “Famous American Pastors,” “Disavowed 90s trade deals” and “Quotes from Chairman Mao?”

Alas, our candidates’ plotters and planners would surely disapprove; after all, Clinton didn’t challenge Obama to the Pennsylvania bowling match until he had already plunked one right into the gutter. But a girl can dream.

And then I read the rest of the article. Spending on all individual television shows is dwarfed by what the candidates are already dropping on local news: a whopping $36.7 million combined.

Suddenly, the story wasn’t funny anymore.

If you ever bump into me at the grocery store, ask me about any political issue you want. But be prepared for your ice cream to melt if you bring up campaign finance. I’ll pack your ears all day long about the evils of money in the system, how it is the Berlin Wall between Americans and good policy, how it enslaves well-meaning public servants with shackles of silver.

So when I consider the kinds of problems our nation faces, and then I read that our presidential candidates have spent $40 million on television ads so far, it makes me sad for my country. And then it makes me angry.

But there was another report this week: 91,000 babies a year old and younger are victims of nonfatal child abuse or neglect in a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Of those, 30,000 were one week old or younger when the abuse or neglect occurred.

The worst part? Experts believe these numbers are low.

But, advocates say, better access to prenatal care, drug treatment, education and early intervention programs can do a lot to put a stop to this outrage.

Hey, candidates: Do you really believe in change? Here’s a challenge for you: Scrap your TV ads for next month and donate that money in your ad budget to domestic violence shelters and/or child welfare programs.

I dare you.

It will impress voters, who will also appreciate the break from those omnipresent spots. But more importantly, your dollars will make the most critical of differences in the lives of the little ones you’ll help protect.

  • Finally, the nation observed the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. yesterday. A survey released this week reports that 76 percent of Americans believe that the United States is ready for its first black president. Perhaps that’s a fitting indicator of King’s legacy: indicative of all that King and his work accomplished, but also telling of the work left undone.

  • Stop on by the blog this weekend.