Saturday, May 31, 2008

Today's DNC decision to set the pace for summer campaigns

(Originally published 5/31/08)

As you’re perusing your newspaper this morning, the Democratic National Committee is finally getting down to the ugly business of dealing with its delegate mess.

You have heard – probably 3,000 times by now – about the decision by the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee to excommunicate the delegates from Michigan and Florida because those states held their presidential primaries before the DNC-approved starting date.

The Democratic candidates agreed not to campaign in either state.

And it wasn’t any big deal, until Barack Obama began to build a lead over Hillary Clinton on Super Tuesday and in the caucuses that followed.

As’s Joe Conason put it, Clinton’s “attitude toward the validity of the Michigan and Florida primaries shifted radically when she became certain that she was likely to win them – and when she also realized that she needed their delegates to compete.”

Clinton and her people argue that Democrats can’t afford to enforce its own party rules because it would risk alienating voters they need in the fall. After all, Clinton’s surrogates argue, Michigan is full of those working-class white folks we’ve heard so much about, and Florida – you remember what happened there in 2000, don’t you? (wink, wink) – it’s a swing state, for crying out loud!

For their part, Obama and his supporters argue that neither state’s results accurately reflect the will of the voters: In the case of the former, Obama had withdrawn his name from consideration, and Clinton won on what Fox News’ Brit Hume called “a Soviet-style ballot;” in the Sunshine State, many folks argue that because they thought the DNC wasn’t going to recognize their delegates anyway, they didn’t go to the polls at all.

In its prega—I mean, pre-meeting rundown, CNN succinctly summarized the issues Rules and Bylaws Committee members will have to decide:

  • How many delegates to seat, if any, from each state: Michigan lost 156 to the penalty, and Florida has 210 at stake. Party lawyers ruled Thursday that the DNC can legally enforce a 50 percent delegate penalty on each state.
  • How to apportion the delegates it does choose to seat: This is easier with Florida, where the popular vote broke 50 percent for Clinton and 33 for Obama. But it’s much tougher with Michigan, where Clinton won 55 percent of the votes to 40 percent cast for “uncommitted.”
  • What to do with the popular votes: If delegates are seated, popular votes represented by those delegates can be counted. Again, Michigan is the challenge here; does Obama get all the “uncommitted” popular votes?

Early money is on at least half of each state’s delegates being seated, with Michigan’s delegates being split 50-50.

And fellow political junkies, rejoice: CNN will provide live coverage of the meeting beginning at 8 a.m. central today and stream wall-to-wall video of the meeting on its web site.

Whatever happens, Obama is expected to come away from Saturday’s action retaining at least an 80-pledged delegate lead going into Sunday’s Puerto Rico primary and the Montana/South Dakota finale on Tuesday.

Yes, the primary season finale. It has finally come.

But today’s meeting in Washington will go a long way toward determining whether the general election campaign actually starts on Wednesday morning, or whether we are still talking primary politics through August.

On the blog this weekend, a look at the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee’s “Dean 25,” and some cool news about Alabama’s window into the Democratic National Convention:

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Senate failures lead Alabamians to consider recourse

(Originally published 5/24/08)

Alabama lawmakers will return to Montgomery Tuesday to try to do in five days what they couldn’t in three months: Pass a budget to fund this state’s schools.

I blogged about this earlier this week when the Alabama Senate failed to pass the education budget before the regular session expired at midnight Tuesday. The title of the post was, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, sen-a-tors have got to go.”

“Let’s throw them all out, thoroughly fumigate the building and start all over,” I said. Every one of them is either part of the failed leadership of the upper chamber, or they lack individual leadership ability to put a stop to the madness that is the Senate.

I joined many others across the state this week in a familiar refrain: What can we do? What can regular Alabamians do in the face of the repeated failures of our elected officials and their consistent disrespect for our will on things like PAC-to-PAC reform, a rewrite of the State Constitution, tax reform and a myriad of other issues?

The answer: Not much. Elections are still two years away. In the meantime, there’s not much recourse for anyone looking for sensibility in Montgomery. We lack even the ability to recall the worst legislative offenders.

One potential solution is initiative and referendum, commonly known as I&R. Basically, it gives citizens their own lawmaking pen and allows them to do for themselves and their state what their elected officials can’t -- or won’t.

I&R is by no means a panacea. Critics argue that it is an end-run around the Founders’ intentions to have a deliberative legislative branch. And if significant filing thresholds don’t accompany I&R, there is a tremendous potential for abuse. (Just ask any Floridian about pregnant pigs.)

Supporters argue, of course, that if elected officials were responsive to the needs of their constituents, I&R wouldn’t be used.

In any event, I&R would have to come to Alabamians by way of a constitutional amendment, the language of which would have to be approved by … yes, the Legislature.

And since I&R would mean that Alabama’s legislators would have to share their lawmaking power, you can guess how well it’s gone over: This year’s bill proposing I&R never saw the light of day.

Alabamians are manifesting their disgust with Montgomery in different ways. Some advocate patient, persistent, positive change; others, like Libertarian and former gubernatorial candidate Loretta Nall, favor revolution, hard and fast.

Nall is busy recruiting people to don straw hats and overalls and show up on the steps of the State Capitol next with pitchforks, shovels, rakes, etc. “We won’t be using them on anyone, but we want to get the message across that if things don’t change, there will be war ... very shortly,” she writes.

But for all their rightful disgust with the State Senate, Alabamians aren’t responding to the sound of Nall’s battle trumpet. “Alabama is long overdue for a little revolution,” she writes. “Where the hell is everyone else?”

The answer to her question is why almost every senator who stands for re-election has a 99.99999 percent chance of returning in 2010. They know Alabamians’ track record where this is concerned: Either we have all contracted some mysterious disorder that causes us to collectively forget the indignities we’ve suffered at the hands of those who govern us, or we’ve just been too abused to notice when the latest injuries occur.

On the blog this weekend, links to Loretta Nall’s planned uprising and an analysis of a potential Obama-Clinton ticket.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A great idea from our 'right honorable friend!'

(Originally published 5/17/08)

I knew that if I waited long enough, one of the presidential candidates would deliver an idea that would really fire me up.

On Thursday, it finally happened.

In a speech about his vision for the country, GOP nominee-to-be Sen. John McCain rattled off a laundry list of policy benchmarks he hopes to meet by the end of his first term.

McCain also promised to “set a new standard for transparency and accountability” with “weekly press conferences” meant to “regularly brief the American people on the progress … our policies have made and the setbacks we have encountered.”

And then there was this:

“I'll ask Congress to grant me the privilege of coming before both houses to take questions and address criticism, much the same as the prime minister of Great Britain appears regularly before the House of Commons,” McCain said.

Are you kidding me? An American equivalent of Prime Minister’s Questions?

Is this campaign season, or Christmas???

Prime Minister’s Questions is the gold standard for political junkies. It’s a weekly grilling to which the British Prime Minister subjects himself (or herself, as it were) in the name of being accessible to all citizens through their representatives.

Yes, the British gave us American Idol … and Simon Cowell. But PMQ is a different – a better – kind of reality show.

According to 10 Downing Street’s web site, PMQ began in 1961 with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. His biography says Macmillan “expected his tenure to be short-lived.

“Instead, he had considerable success in restoring both party and national morale and confidence,” the bio reads.

Was it coincidence that Macmillan pioneered PMQ, with the idea of giving MPs (members of Parliament) from all parties an opportunity to question the prime minister on any subject?

I don’t think so.

Over the years, PMQ has become a news item all its own. When quick-witted Tony Blair was in the arena, the Wednesday morning rows became something of a cult phenomenon. But as the increasingly raucous rounds of questions delivered by boisterous MPs have drawn international attention to PMQ, it has also attracted domestic scorn.

So McCain’s proposal understandably drew curious consideration from British media. Thus, this staid – and characteristically British – assessment:

“The weekly half hour PMQ sessions in the Commons are often rowdy affairs with party leaders trading insults spurred on by baying MPs,” the BBC remarked. “But they allow the main opposition party leaders to put the prime minister on the spot on a subject of their choice and backbench MPs to raise issues on behalf of constituents.”

If you’ve ever seen PMQ, you know that navigating the experience requires the best political skills a politician can muster. Thirty minutes is a lifetime when you’re faced with grumpy, confrontational opposition-party backbenchers with carte blanche to come after you.

But it serves a notable purpose in British politics: Prime ministers are never more than six days away from having to account for their decisions – when Parliament is in session, at least.

One has to wonder how American history would be different if our president came before the citizens’ representatives every week – and how those representatives’ own actions would change, knowing the president is just waiting to hit back.

An American president, slugging it out, toe-to-toe with Congress every week?

Now that’s what I call a campaign promise!

On the blog this weekend: Links to all kinds of PMQ info, an update on the federal shield law for reporters and disturbing news from the Supreme Court.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Eyes squeezed shut, Clinton campaign fights on

(Originally published 5/10/08)

We're just about there, folks.

Tuesday brought us Round 3,462 in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hillary Clinton needed a big win in Indiana and at least a close race in North Carolina to close her delegate gap with Barack Obama.

She got neither.

In the wake of Obama's North Carolina landslide and the two-point squeaker Clinton pulled out in Indiana, cable's talking heads began discussing how a general election matchup pitting Obama against GOP nominee-to-be John McCain would look. By Wednesday morning, pundits had all but called the code on her flat-lining campaign. The New York Post, a tabloid known neither for mincing words nor tact, splashed her picture on the front page: "Toast!" the headline screamed.

Over the next 24 hours, Clinton acknowledged that she had loaned her campaign another $6.4 million over the past month alone, superdelegate and former U.S. senator and presidential candidate George McGovern switched sides to support Obama, and people began wondering when –- not if –- the trickle of superdelegates toward Obama would turn into a flood.

So we're just about there ... aren’t we?

Maybe not.

This planet's punditry might have cashed out. But the Clinton campaign lives in a different world, and she's still at the table.

"It's full steam to the White House!" she declared Tuesday night.

Her surrogates made the cable news rounds, dragging their political defibrillators along behind and insisting that Obama's fatal disconnect with white working-class Democrats dooms his campaign to defeat in November.

Clinton talkers Paul Begala and Lanny Davis appeared on CNN live via satellite from their alternate reality. Davis insisted that the two-point Indiana nail biter was "a great victory for Hillary Clinton," and Begala blabbered himself into a nasty exchange with former Bill Clinton adviser Donna Brazile with his now-infamous comment that Democrats cannot win in November with just "eggheads and African-Americans."

Let's just put it this way: Begala is lucky he had the safety of spatial separation.

Clinton supporters, and Clinton herself, incessantly mentioned Obama's previous statement that Indiana would be the "tiebreaker." Curiously, they didn’t hold to those same semantic standards when it came to Clinton’s assertion that North Carolina would be a "game-changer" in the race.

The Clinton campaign's determination to ignore reality reminded me of my three-year-old daughter. When she's caught doing something wrong, she smiles and squeezes her eyes shut, almost as if she's trying to imagine herself into a "happy place" where she's not in trouble.

Following Tuesday's contests, Hillary smiled at her Indiana victory party. Then she headed on to West Virginia, Oregon and Kentucky, her eyes squeezed tightly shut.

* * *

As I was writing this column, I thought about how long this process has been going on: 16 months ... and still counting. Sure, that's a good amount of time, but what really put it into perspective was realizing that when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton announced their campaigns for the presidency, I had only known I was expecting my baby girl for seven weeks.

She began crawling last Wednesday.

I realized that there has never been a day since my daughter has been born that Clinton and Obama haven't been running for president –- and we're not even to the general campaign yet.

Someone call the code.

On the blog this weekend, more on the growing divide among Democrats, and a link to that incredible Begala-Brazile exchange that you have to see to believe.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Week of Wright, Riley, Folsom’s actions and double-dipping

(Originally published 5/3/08)

This week has been crazy. And I’m not just talking about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his Amazing Traveling Media Circus.

Wright will be in Columbus next week to lead revival services at a local church. Part of me wants to go to see him for myself, without the filter of the ubiquitous media. But part of me wants to stop feeding the beast that is this story, because I am, after all, part of the ubiquitous media.

On Thursday, my blog formally moved to this newspaper’s Web site. It’s been a project getting all the bugs worked out. Thursday night, technical hurdles at the venue foiled my grand plans to live-blog Gov. Bob Riley’s keynote address to the Lee County Republican Party. But it was still worth the trip.

Riley closed the door on speculation that he might run for vice president with John McCain by making perhaps his strongest statement to date on the issue: “I will never run for another office,” Riley said.

“Told you,” I heard a woman murmur to another.

But Riley said he intends to remain active in the GOP’s fundraising and candidate recruitment efforts, he said, as long as it takes for Republicans to win control of state government. This week’s action on Goat Hill is evidence of why.

Legislators outdid themselves in the crazy department this week. In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. displayed just the most recent example of the Legislature’s disrespect for the people and laws of this state when he set aside a controversial gambling bill that had stalled that body for six weeks.

In doing so, Folsom blatantly ignored several senators who requested a recorded vote on the motion. Since it was passed on a voice vote, Alabamians will never know who supported the motion – or whether it really had enough votes to pass in the first place. Without that accountability, it amounts to nothing more than a unilateral and arbitrary action by one man – Folsom.

Here’s what I don’t get: On one hand, they wanted it to appear that they were following one rule — voting to set aside the bill — but they completely ignored another rule – the Constitutional provision guaranteeing a recorded vote.

Why go to all that trouble? It’s not like members of that chamber care about what Alabamians think, anyway.

On the House side, legislators passed a bill to override the double-dipping ban – the premier reform in Alabama’s two-year colleges – instituted by Chancellor Bradley Byrne and the State Board of Education.

The bill would clear the way for public employees who also serve in the Legislature or in other elected positions to receive two state paychecks: one from the budget of their day job, the other for writing the budget for their day job.

Five House Republicans crossed party lines to support the bill, while four House Democrats joined Republicans who opposed it. Twelve members apparently left their spines in the cloak room and voted simply, “Present.”

Some legislators have complained that the double-dipping ban unfairly excludes public employees from serving in the Legislature. But as they say in Yiddish, “Az och un vai.” Legislators – and certain very powerful lobbyists – might not like it, but Alabamians don’t particularly care for the way their elected leaders have gorged themselves at the public trough for years without shame.

On the (new!) blog this weekend: What Alabama Democratic Party chairman and superdelegate Joe Turnham is hearing behind the scenes, and the names of those who crossed the aisles in the double-dipping vote.