Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Ready on Day One

Hillary Clinton is one of the bright lights in American politics.  She is super bright and has proven herself to be an able senator, widely respected by her colleagues.  She represents her adopted state well and ran a smart initial campaign focusing much of her effort on Upstate New York, where Democrats are weakest.  She came to that race with a well-oiled political organization that, without a presidential campaign to manage, was able to employ its considerable skills and experience on her behalf.  Her reelection campaign was a cakewalk, but well deserved.  She had performed.  That history, combined with the expected strategic support of the man widely, and rightly, considered the most talented politician of his generation, was the context in which the 2008 race began more than a year ago.  For the many months of seemingly endless campaigning leading up to Iowa, the Clinton campaign was constantly described by pundits one and all as “flawless”.  She held a commanding lead in the national polls; smaller but nonetheless impressive in the early states.  Her nomination and election were widely assumed (probably by the candidate herself) to be inevitable.  She had raised a considerable war chest which included $32 Million earmarked for the general election, another expression of confidence.  Indeed, from day one her speeches were aimed as much, if not more, at the general election as at a competitive primary.

Given those overwhelming odds, its surprising that so many candidates entered the race, perhaps the best group of contenders seen in modern times.  Virtually all were credible potential presidents.  But given the inevitable, what were they thinking?  In retrospect, that so many smart people entered the race should have served as an early warning that something was missing in the Clinton juggernaut.  That something first became evident when Barack Obama won Iowa and, through the Internet that Howard Dean had used so effectively four years earlier, had amassed a competitive war chest of his own.  Dean, we all remember painfully, failed in Iowa because of a faulty ground operation; Obama won because of a vastly superior one.  That, too, was a hint of things to come.  The press latched onto the Illinois Senator and began to write Clinton’s epitaph.  New Hampshire changed all that and inevitability was back on track.  The tight schedule that followed worked in her favor; the turnaround story further fueled by some impressive big state victories.  But, to the great surprise of both the Clinton organization and the press, Super Tuesday was big but by no means conclusive.  Obama performed decently where Clinton won and, most significantly began to take a commanding lead in caucus states.  It turns out that his ground organization in Iowa was not an anomaly but part of a fine-tuned machine.  It had both reach and depth.  Local supporters organized systematically for months ahead and then were augmented by the national campaign workers in the final weeks.  Jim Doyle, the veteran politician Governor of Wisconsin, marveled last night on how the nationals integrated seamlessly with the locals, something he had never before seen.

Over confidence has always been the Achilles Heal of politicians.  Not taking the caucuses seriously may ultimately prove a fatal flaw.  But there is something even more significant at play.  Ironically it is an echo of George Bush’s Iraq invasion – no planning for the day after.  Clinton expected to finish off all her opponents on Super Tuesday and apparently made no plans for the day after.  That included expending her war chest and having inadequate organization in place for the races ahead.  Perhaps Bill Clinton’s machine was something of a wonder in 1992 and 1996, but 2008 may prove that Obama’s is better, perhaps substantially so.   And that brings me to Senator Clinton’s most consistent campaign claim – “ready on day one”.  Performance, not words, is what’s required.  Well, if performance and, assumably, management are at issue, this campaign would suggest that perhaps it’s Barack Obama who will be ready on day one.  Apparently a large number of voters think that to be the case.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Big Picture

It’s the Republicans who have given new political meaning to the cliché, “a picture is worth a thousand words”.  So it was particularly striking last night to see the contrasting images projected by John McCain and both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.  McCain made his victory talk standing before a small array of aging politicians.  Clinton in Texas and Obama in Wisconsin were enveloped by thousands of bright excere uited and mostly young faces.  Some younger voters were present at the McCain event, but they were out of the picture, separated by the stage from which he spoke. Clinton and Obama, while also on a platform, spoke from within their midst.  It was a stunning snapshot of where we’re headed in the months ahead, regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination.

2004 seems a distant memory, but many of us pointed to a highly motivated and expanding electorate, thinking that we could recapture the White House.  The flawed candidacy of a wooden standard bearer, and a message that was more against than for anything, left us both disappointed and bewildered.  Those 2004 expanded numbers pale in comparison to what we are experiencing today.  150% more voters came to the polls yesterday in Virginia than turned out the last time around.  That is an astounding statistic.  Both Clinton and even more so Obama are drawing huge crowds – 18,000 with another 2,000 outside for him last night in Madison.  An extraordinary percentage of primary voters are first timers.  All of this bodes well for the country.

It wasn’t only a difference in image that separated yesterday’s winners John McCain and Barack Obama.  The Arizonan couched his remarks in a “time of war” cloak, standing ground against the enemy.  It is of course his perceived strength; a reflection of both his resume and primary interest.  His vocal cadence last night was subdued and serious, if not dour.  This is no “Happy Warrior”.  Apparently convinced that he will face Obama in the fall, he characterized the message of “hope” as a “platitude”.  Some Democrats also feel it lacks sufficient specificity.   But McCain has hung his hat on what the vast majority of Americans see as a failed policy in Iraq.  It is driven by much greater conviction than Rudy’s hanging his candidacy on Florida, but perhaps no less flawed.  The fact is that the majority of Americans, regardless of party, want out.  More importantly, I think McCain misses the underlying mood and yearning of his fellow citizens.  In the most recent polling 71% thought we were on the wrong track, a number that has fluctuated little (never below 68%) for well over a year.   In the context of a country governed by the platitudes of claimed victories (including McCain’s own with regard to the surge), voiced hope takes on profound substance.  Just ask a seemingly blind sighted Hillary Clinton about its power.  Those faces around both Democrats last night were full of hope and they are our future.

Barack Obama insists that the central issue in this campaign is not so much about any one policy but about clinging on to the past verses embracing future — a new mindset and a new direction.  He has maintained a laser like focus on his “can do” message just as did Bill Clinton with the economy in 1992.  Past and future: think about his first televised debate with John McCain and the image you’ll see on your screen.   Make no mistake, that will be a picture which truly speaks louder than a thousand words.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Gender and Race Redux

A number of good female friends have referred me to articles or op-ed pieces pleading the gender case for Hillary Clinton.  It is an easy one to make, and more importantly an understandable one.  As said in a recent post, I too am torn by the choice presented to us in this election cycle.  That both the gender and race barrier have to be broken if America is to finally fulfill the high-minded promise of the Declaration of Independence is indisputable.  Progress remains excruciatingly slow and generally we like to make it serially, one at a time.  It wasn’t only Gerry Ford who couldn’t simultaneously “walk and chew gum”.  So this election has caught those committed to both civil and women’s rights off guard.  Historic opportunity is at hand and we’re faced with an impossible and unanticipated choice; a real conundrum.  Perhaps so, but it may also be that, in the very option given us, we’re further along than any of us dared to believe.

I would argue that 2008 might well mark the moment when the choice between gender and race was rendered irrelevant.  Looking at it objectively, for me the argument that one is “entitled” to a shot at the Presidency more than, or before, the other is a non-starter.  Sexism has deep roots beginning in the first chapter of Genesis where the he-God creates man in his image.  The subjugation of the children of unwilling African slave immigrants is an indelible stain on our past and present.  Perhaps you can make a case for who had it worse – black women often suffered a double blow – but that really is silly.  The “my hurt it greater than yours” is a childhood playground argument.  Deep and devastating wounds are ultimately race and gender agnostic.

The only issue in this primary season is who, among two excellent finalists, will make the better President at this moment in time.  Like most Democrats, I will support the party’s nominee, and do so with a good conscience.  In fact, if that nominee were named Biden, Dodd, Edwards, Kucinich or Richardson I would as well.  We’ve had an extraordinary candidate field this year.  And the choice we have is not really about issues – there is little daylight between Clinton and Obama even on healthcare.  Let’s remember that party platforms and candidate speeches are simply directional signposts.  While we have surely learned the power of Executive Orders of late, fundamental initiatives require legislation.  That means amassing sufficient public support and votes on the Hill.   

For me this primary season is not about race or gender nor is it about policy.  The former has been taken out of the mix and with regard to the latter; John Edwards would be on his way to the White House.  He has been the policy initiator; Clinton and Obama the followers.  No this election is about who we are and how we feel about ourselves.  It is about taking that now delayed bridge to the future – reality not words.  That future is not merely one of substance it is also one of tone.  In fact, I don’t think we can alter the substance without changing the tone.  However she may deny it and express her independence, Senator Clinton is campaigning to restore what indisputably were the good times of her husband’s tenure.  So they were, but they also initiated a level of acrimony that has poisoned the nation’s internal discourse.  We have replaced conversation with shouting.  Bill Clinton may not have started the barnyard fight, but his partisans were, and are, more than willing participants.  The crossfire of militant right and left talk radio is equally distasteful.  At times of conflict, who started it is beside the point.  We have all been its collateral damage.

It’s not that we’re mad as hell and can’t take it any more, it’s that we can’t take being mad any more.  We want out, we want to delete the ugliness from our collective lives, reduce if not eliminate the red and blue divide.  We are damaged and in many profound ways demoralized.  That runs contrary to the essential optimistic national DNA.  And it isn’t a matter of some romantic notion of nirvana, or that substance doesn’t matter.  A positive outlook, some semblance of shared direction, is what has always fueled our economy, defined our self image and established our standing in the world.  Does Barack Obama speak of hope, of change and of the future over the past?  You bet he does.  He has set the underlying conversation of this election.  Would Hillary Clinton be a good President?   I think she has the potential of being one of our better chief executives.  The problem is that we need something more; not the potential of better but of greatness commensurate with our desperate current need.  Not gender over race or race over gender but a unifying, and yes an inspirational, leader.  That isn’t something to which you’re entitled, but something you embody regardless of your name, background or sex.  To me that still translates into Barack Obama.  In the end, I remain confident the majority of Americans will come to the same conclusion.  If not, and regardless of how disappointed, I will readily admit to having been wrong from the start.