Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Formidable Candidate

Anyone who underestimates John McCain does so at her or his own peril.  I remember watching him conduct early New Hampshire town halls more than a year ago.  It wasn’t only that he answered questions; he engaged with the audience – he connected.  Whether or not one buys into the message, the idea of "straight talk" resonates at this moment in our history.  His and its political potency is demonstrated in a comeback that pales Bill Clinton’s in comparison.  McCain’s “fall” in the early stages was attributed to being on the wrong side of the war debate, but I think his rise speaks to a yearning for authenticity felt by a majority of Americans, regardless of party.  If you have any doubt, consider the counterintuitive victory over Romney among those in Florida who consider the economy our most pressing problem.  Voters opted for the “real deal” candidate without economic credentials over the “Jell-O” candidate, a private equity man who shifts with every prevailing opportunity and wind.  Unless something dramatic happens, McCain will be the Republican nominee.  He will be a very formidable candidate.

McCain, and even more so the McCain-Huckabee ticket now being bandied about, offers an unambiguous choice against Hillary Clinton, but most especially against Barack Obama.  In the upcoming months as the debate of ideas takes hold and the hype of horserace dims somewhat, the differences will become clear.  These are serious candidates and they will insist on substance. Americans will be forced to look at where the nominees stand and what they represent.  If, as I continue to hope, Obama emerges on the Democratic side, the oratorical choice between past and future will be given new and more vivid force.

There is no way one can argue that McCain represents the new.  His maverick streak and reputation notwithstanding, he has hardly been a bystander during the so-called Reagan revolution.  That includes virtually 100% support of Bush, for whom he vigorously campaigned in 2004.  He is anti-choice and committed to remaking the courts, one of the core beliefs that he included in his victory speech last night.  He is a serial tax and spending cutter who believes in as little government as possible – "government should get out of the way". as he puts it.  If he does indeed select Huckabee, be assured that we would see even more cracks in that “wall of separation” between church and state.  And let’s not minimize the importance or potential of a running mate.  If we haven’t learned that lesson, shame on us.  If elected, McCain would be the oldest incoming President, one who has a history of serious medical problems.  Succession is and must be an issue whomever he selects.

McCain will be running on national security.  He vigorously supported our country’s two most unpopular and disastrous wars: Viet Nam and Iraq.  He was a heroic victim of the first, which has become the central leitmotif of his narrative.  His unyielding commitment to “victory” in the second is informed by a visceral “not again, not this time”.  It is not just business, it’s very personal.  If George Bush was seeking to complete his father’s unfinished business, McCain is desperate not to experience Saigon redux, even if once again self inflicted by wrongheaded policy.  Of course part of what makes McCain so potentially potent is that his years of sacrifice have effectively inoculated him from all but the most elliptical critique of another misguided war.  Americans don’t suffer the overt criticism of heroes like McCain lightly.  It won’t be easy.

Florida does deserve a footnote: Rudy Giuliani.  The pundits will feed us all kinds of reasons why his candidacy evaporated in this election cycle.  All of them may have merit.  Some of us actually had Rudy as our Mayor and to us the reason for his fall is probably much less complicated.   “America’s Mayor” is an alluring romantic myth; his honor is something totally different.  Perhaps New Yorkers elected him twice (not guilty), but he would never have made it to any other City Hall.  The idea of Rudy was intriguing to people in New Hampshire, where he spent a lot of time and money before “refocusing” solely on Florida.  The reality was less compelling, if not tedious.  He bombed badly in that primary.  So, too, in Florida; they loved Rudy until he moved in and they had to live with him.  If Mitt Romney comes off as plastic, Rudy’s incessant smile (evident in all his TV interviews) is a transparent cover-up of the inherent nastiness that New Yorkers grew to hate, especially in the years between his reelection and 9/11.  Remember the old “What’s my Line” quiz show –“will the real Rudy stand up?”  He did, and that began his fatal decline.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Mighty have Fallen

I am deeply grieved for you my brother…
How the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle.

When America’s “first Black President” was asked about the apparent results in South Carolina, he responded, "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in '84 and '88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here."  Translation, this is a Black man’s state and an ethnic victory.  I wonder if some of Bill’s best friends are Jews?   I have been a loyal supporter and admirer of Bill Clinton since he ran for the presidency in 1992.  Even when he triangulated about his public and personal life, when he faced that disingenuous impeachment, I was on his side.  When he spoke (overly long) at the 2004 Democratic convention, I felt that undeniable yearning.  He was a mighty force.  When he cashed in on his fame and virtually overnight was transformed from a man who didn't even own a home into one of the super rich, I didn’t begrudge him this windfall of good fortune.  Indeed, I admired the good works that he was doing with his foundation, even overlooking the pretension of hoping we would think of it as somehow equivalent to that of Bill and Melinda Gates.

I cut Bill Clinton a lot of slack.  In the last few weeks it’s all gone down the drain. Sadly, it would seem that what his detractors have always contended, is true.  Bill really cares about only two things: Bill and winning, regardless of the cost.  Perhaps most disturbing of all, is the question these last weeks have raised about his sincerity in long claiming to be one of African America’s own.  That Jesse Jackson comment conjures up the guy who makes a moving civil rights speech and then tells coon jokes in the Green Room.  For sure that is much too harsh.  I don’t question his friendship as much as his pragmatic priorities.  Some of the things Bill and the campaign (with, as I suggested in an earlier blog, old Black pol support) have said or implied crossed a very big line.  Perhaps, it’s better to get that race stuff out in the open, but not from those who have painted themselves as colorblind good guys.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not looking for resurrection on January 20, 2009.   For sure Bill Clinton spoke with eloquence (something we’ve so missed) and presided over a strong economy (even if bubble-driven), but his presidency also birthed the divisiveness that is still poisoning our discourse.  Perhaps he didn’t start it – he is always the victim – but it remains part of his legacy.  It is that loss of civility that prompted the Oklahoma “summit” some weeks back, along with it, the self promoted Bloomberg boomlet.   I’m also not looking for a President who can’t make it to the White House without heavy handed spousal support (and mischief) or who thinks (in part because of their complicated relationship) it’s her turn. 

No Bill, it’s our turn.  Yes Caroline Kennedy (NY Times Op Ed), what we’re experiencing now is exactly how it was when your father ran in 1960.  That campaign was also about the future, also involved a youngish standard bearer who was accused of inexperience.  And of course there is another unmistakable similarity.  Your father, a U.S. Senator, told those Houston ministers, he was the Democrat Nominee for President who just happened to be a Roman Catholic.  So, too, is Barack Obama a Senator seeking the Democratic nomination who just happens to be an African American.  Jack Kennedy touched me deeply as a young man in 1960, changed my view about politics and, in some profound way, life.  Barack Obama is doing much the same, not merely for you and your children but for me.  It’s not déjà vu, but something really new.  It’s the same, but refreshingly different in a vastly more complicated world.

When David sang that moving elegy so many years ago, the fallen mighty included Saul the king who had so turned against the young pretender.  Bill Clinton is, in many ways, that king.  Once a very bright light, his time has passed.  Saul was given to irrational rage, possessed of demons, probably clinically so.  Bill Clinton’s rage is understandable, perhaps even poignant; whether it’s clinical I leave to professionals.  No one likes to witness their power waning; they’re being eclipsed by perhaps an even brighter light.  Bill Clinton has not fallen in battle, and I wish him the extended life that he deserves.  With all his faults, we have reason to thank him for the good he did, for “his service to the country”.  There may yet be some small near term victories ahead, but I think yesterday in South Carolina, the mighty took a big and perhaps ultimately decisive fall.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Who Anointed You Buster?

Change agents, by definition, rarely come from inside.  What makes them so threatening to the establishment is as much, who they are, as what they say.  When they emerge from the once disenfranchised, they can be particularly suspect.  To those who came before, they’re perceived as not having paid their dues, not have had to “walk–the-walk”.  Understanding that, explains in part the now more organized resistance of insiders to Barack Obama’s candidacy.  In some ways, this Democratic primary process is all about entitlement, and in that Hillary Clinton is as much a token, as she is the presumptive heir.

Nowhere was this brought home more than in watching interviews with Charlie Rangel and then John Lewis.  Perhaps Bill Clinton has shown signs of exasperation about the challenge to his dynasty.  These two seemed truly angry.  Congressman Rangel went further than most in using the race card against this African American upstart.  Congressman Lewis kept on referring to him as “Mr. Obama, not Senator.  Rangel came up through the streets of New York fighting his way through its complicated precincts of political power.  When his turn came, he assumed the seat once held by the legendary Adam Clayton Powell.  He worked his way methodically from the backbench to the chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.  John Lewis was bloodied on the bridge at Selma.  He protested his way through the terrain of a hostile South, eventually claiming a House Seat from George, a still highly conservative State.  They may have started out as young Turks, but both (Rangel at 77, Lewis at 67) have become elder statesman.  No longer outsiders, they are leaders within the establishment.  It’s been a long journey, and it has not been easy. 

Enter a (relatively) young Harvard educated man, an African American whose father really came out of Africa, but a beneficiary of, rather than a participant in, the “movement”.  So who is this Obama guy, who anointed him to break this important ground for African Americans?  We, one can hear them saying, were neither asked nor did we give our blessing.  Who indeed is this guy who has taken it upon himself to represent us?  Where is his respect for what we have done?  That was the implied message I heard, as these two seasoned and exemplary men spoke in support of Hillary before the New Hampshire primary.  Obama has hit a nerve.  Admit it or not, it was a painful admission that the warhorses of revolution, the outsiders, the “we”, had become the established “them” and it was unsettling.  Like Hillary, they feel a sense of entitlement and, in some significant way, have a greater claim on it than does she.

To be sure, Senator Obama, may well have failed to pay due deference to the old guard.  As a result, his candidacy may have come off as presumptuous.  But in all honesty, would they have done it any differently?  Wait your turn, meld yourself into the past, is simply incompatible with change making. Insiders don’t call upon the revolutionary to usurp their crown.   Of all people, these two men know that better than most.   So, their reaction, however understandable, is emotional not rational.  Perhaps their hurt is compounded by the fact that Obama has claimed to be Joshua, the role they saw for themselves when their Moses, whose life we celebrate this weekend, was prevented from entering the Promised Land.  It is sad, but a fact, that the land was not ready then. Now, their Joshua years, if not passed, are passing.  It is hard to say whether the country is ready for Joshua even now, but let’s not punish the next generation for pushing the envelope further than we were able.

Obama, no question, has hit another rough spot.  Whether it is too late for him, we don’t yet know.  I personally hope not.  If change, if an outsider, was ever needed, it is now.  That those who once were outspoken standard bearers of change now resist it, only makes the argument.  We’ve had the torch passed from one family member to another.  Without comparing the talented and thoughtful Senator from New York with the vapid zealot in the White House, doing so again is as her husband might say, “a throw of the dice”.  I for one would rather take a chance at change, for making a u-turn and heading us in a vastly different direction, audacious as that may be.  But I also recognize where we are and why.

In the end, the country will have to decide who comes first in making that inevitable and essential breakthrough.   Given our history, and our nation’s shameful start in condoning slavery, it’s easy to argue that breaking the color barrier has precedence.  Understanding that women, regardless of color, have been humanity’s effectual underclass since the dawn of time, may tip the scales in the other direction.   It’s no wonder that Black voters overwhelmingly were for Obama in Nevada, while Clinton captured the lion’s share of women.  So the decision could ultimately come down to a numbers game – which group has more votes.  That would be understandable, yet unfortunate.  As, I’ve said often before, it’s a wrenching choice for many of us, and perhaps in the context of breakthrough ultimately a no-lose one.  Will issues, and our eagerness to change win out?  Only the next weeks will tell.  They will no doubt be exciting and may leave both winners and losers somewhat torn and perplexed.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Gender and Race

There is something truly wondrous about this year’s presidential race.  And yes, it has a fairy tale character, though perhaps not the kind that garnered so much attention and heat last week.  Who would have thought as we marched or lobbied for the rights of two disenfranchised groups of Americans decades ago that a woman and an African American would be duking it out for the Democratic nomination?  One of them will very likely take up residence on Pennsylvania Avenue in a year’s time.  Martin King’s vision notwithstanding, not in our wildest dreams.  That both the gender and race cards might show their ugly heads in such a contest was inevitable, albeit disturbing.  I would argue that it’s better to have them on the table; now rather than later.  There is nothing worse or more damaging than an undercurrent of whispers.  Yes America, Hillary is a woman and Barack is Black.  Now you know the truth.

I believe this will blow over.  Ultimately Senator Clinton won’t win because men have piled on her and Senator Obama won’t prevail because of some racial snub.  Backlash sympathy votes have a short shelf life.  At the same time, the reaction to the perceived offences is revealing.  It tells us something that we already know.  Many of us are terribly conflicted about the choice we have to make.  It’s no big surprise that the same people who have long hoped for the day when we could send a woman to the White House, hope equally that we will send an African American.  Having that opportunity at the same time, having to make that choice, is both exhilarating and gut-wrenching.  To be sure, when it comes to the candidates themselves, we have our preferences.  Nevertheless, we feel almost guilty in not supporting the other.  In watching the campaign’s designated spokespeople discuss the race issue today, I was struck by that obvious and undoubtedly shared inner conflict. 

As you know, I’m, solidly for Obama, but it nonetheless pains me deeply to withhold my support from what might be the first female president.  I have no doubt about my choice, but the idea of holding yet another woman back eats at my stomach.  I guess that’s why we are hearing some of the pundits talking about “a ticket”.  Oh, do they want to control the race.  Of course, it would solve a lot of problems, fulfill both dreams.  And it’s true that anything can happen in politics – remember when Majority Leader Johnson signed on with Jack Kennedy?  But I think it’s really unlikely that Hillary will go for second place.  She and Bill are not seeking to restore the Vice Presidency.  Just kidding, I think dream tickets are often in our minds but very hard to fashion.

There remain those who believe the country is not ready for either a woman or a person of color.  It would be naïve to think that not to be the case for some among us.  Nor, based on the last two elections, is there any reason to believe that voters are necessarily driven by their best instincts.  That said, I do believe that we are collectively suffering divisiveness fatigue.  It’s precisely why the Obama candidacy and message of hope and change is so compelling.  In that context, I believe the good impulses might just win out this time.  In these dark days that would be a spot of very bright light.  As we move past gender and race in the days ahead, let’s focus on getting that done.  Let the best person prevail.  There is a chance to do something important this time around and, in that alone, we even have choice on our side.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Time for a Change

Some people point to Ronald Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter as the moment of change.  But it was Dwight Eisenhower whose campaign ran on the slogan, “It’s time for a change”.  While there are significant differences between Ike and Barack Obama, there are also some similarities.   First and foremost is that the catalyst for the country’s mood shift and hunger for change was an unpopular war.  Second is that both in 1952 and today, the country was looking back at an, albeit different, twenty year rule.  Then it was Roosevelt and Truman; now Bush, Clinton and Bush.  Experience was also an issue in 1952.  To be sure Eisenhower had been the Allied Commander in World War II, but he was a political neophyte.  In that regard, Obama is more experienced, but with a resume leaning heavily on the years before he entered the Illinois Senate.  Of course there is that unmistakable contrast.  Ike was then the oldest man to take the oath of office; Barak Obama would be among the youngest.

Needless to say, having first voiced support for Obama more than a year ago, last night was a happy one for me.   It is also important to remember that Yogi was right, “it’s not over till it’s over”.  Nevertheless, yesterday’s vote in Iowa confirmed the country’s hunger for change that I have been writing about over the last twelve months.  Nowhere is that more clearly seen than in the “entrance polls” taken of Democratic caucus participants.  20% of them said experience was most important; 50% change.  That finding was confirmed in the vote where 68% (combining Obama and Edwards) voted for change candidates while only 29% (Clinton) went for experience.

It was a bad night for Hillary Clinton, not only because she came in third, but because her dual central message of experience and electability was undermined.  In her concession speech she “talked” about change, but could not help herself in inserting her thirty-five years of service.  It was a look back that Iowa voters were rejecting.  CNBC’s Keith Obermann pointed out in the post-vote analysis that, were it not for the independent vote, Obama and Clinton were but 1% apart.  He meant it as a cautionary note.  In fact, the independent vote (even more important in New Hampshire) is exactly what puts her electability claim into question.  Democrats alone can’t elect a President; it will take independents.   In that scenario, Iowa suggests that Obama may be the more electable candidate.  It was also very bad news for John Edwards.  He did a tad better than Clinton, and he did it despite more limited resources, but he has been working Iowa for four years.  At the start it was he who was considered the preemptive favorite and all of those man-hours just didn’t pay off.  He moves on to New Hampshire with less than he he started with in Iowa.  He couldn’t turn his second place into a nomination four years ago it probably is less likely today.  Moreover, while his populist message is powerful, the shrill tone that he has adopted seems out-of-sync with a country yearning for calm.  In contrast to Clinton and Edwards, it was a good night for Obama, but as yet not definitive.

I would be remiss in not saying a word about Huckabee and the GOP.  Here too the pundits say his victory expressed a vote for change.  I am not sure that it does.  In fact, I see it more as the last gasp of the so-called “value voters” hold on the country.  However fresh his approach may be in contrast to his rivals, his underlying hyper-conservative message (he would prosecute doctors who perform abortions) not to mention his leaning so heavily on religion are, in my view, yesterday’s news not tomorrow’s.  Conservatives may be imbued with a Crusade approach to today’s global problems, but I don’t think the country really sees us involved in a religious war, or more importantly wanting that to be the case.  Also, the numbers suggest that the Republicans are not even close to narrowing their field.  Huckabee faces almost all of the contenders who entered Iowa, Obama just two – Bill Richardson is still running for Vice President.

Finally, I can’t end this without commenting on the other big news of the Obama victory.  Regardless of what happens ahead, everyone agrees that when an African American can prevail in a virtually all-Caucasian state that is big news indeed.  In that context, America won on January 3rd in Iowa.  For any of us who were involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, it was especially poignant and gratifying.  Again, the jury remains out for the months ahead, but the country may well be ready.  The victory is for tolerance, of course, but perhaps for something much more profound.  Our reputation has been sullied during these last seven years, our moral compass seemingly out of kilter.  The potential election of Barack Obama may suggest not merely our desire for change, but our determination to take back our heritage of being that beacon on the hill.  I hope, for both our sake and the world’s, that it is.