Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Storm Warnings for Democrats While McCain Closes In On Victory

Let me tell you a secret. I want this whole primary season to be over. Soon!

As long as Obama and Hillary continue to duke it out, the media will keep focusing on the contentiousness of the Democratic race while John McCain is free to define himself to the public on his own terms. And that’s only part of the problem. The danger to Democrats is twofold.

First, as Noam Scheiber, in The New Republic, points out, we are facing a debacle like the one in 1980 when Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter and they mutually self-destructed at the convention.
When Democrats contemplate the apocalypse these days, they have visions of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton slugging it out à la Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter at the 1980 convention. The campaign's current trajectory is, in fact, alarmingly similar to the one that produced that disastrous affair. Back then, Carter had built up a delegate lead with early wins in Iowa, New Hampshire, and several Southern states. But, as the primary season dragged on, Kennedy began pocketing big states and gaining momentum. Once all the voting ended and Kennedy came up short, he eyed the New York convention as a kind of Hail Mary.

Any candidate trailing at the convention must employ divisive tactics, almost by definition. For example, much of the bitterness in 1980 arose from the floor votes Kennedy engineered to drive a wedge between Carter and his delegates. At one point, Kennedy forced a vote on whether each state's delegation should be split equally between men and women. Carter counted many feminists among his delegates, but the campaign initially opposed the measure so as to deny Kennedy a victory. "You had women who were with Jimmy Carter who were crying on the floor," recalls Joe Trippi, then a young Kennedy organizer
I think that while Scheiber's portrayal is basically correct, he overstates his case. There are significant differences between the 1980 presidential race and the one going on today. That fractious convention was far from the only reason Jimmy Carter lost, although it sure didn’t help.

Unlike today’s situation, Carter was a sitting president, presiding over an abysmal economy that included stagflation; high unemployment; a gasoline shortage that saw a return to long gas lines at the pump, reminiscent of the 1973 gasoline shortage; and the hostage crisis in Iran. Then, he topped it off by giving the his famous “malaise speech.”

In addition, Carter blew a major debate. He sought to portray Ronald Reagan as a right wing nut and dangerous hawk. But what lasted in the public’s mind was that Carter revealed he consulted with his 12 year old daughter Amy for her views on nuclear weapons policy, which became fodder for late night comedians.

Then, Reagan’s famous question: “Are you better off now than four years ago?” turned Carter’s slim lead into a landslide for Reagan. That question probably had more to do with Carter’s defeat than the divisions coming out of the Democratic Convention that year. In this election cycle, it's the one question that could win for the Democrats.

So, back to the present and the bigger danger for this presidential race. It’s that while the public and the media are focused on the contest between Clinton and Obama, John McCain has been given a free hand to define himself to the voters and the media. And the media is already in love with him. Here’s what Scheiber has to say about that.
Ideally, the Democrats would be exploiting this tension like mad. They would highlight the anti-Catholic, anti-gay ravings of John Hagee, the evangelical minister whose endorsement McCain recently accepted. They would ridicule his chumminess with supply-side Neanderthals like Jack Kemp and his flip-flop on the Bush tax cuts. They'd dwell on McCain's less-noticed association with crony-capitalists during his tenure as Commerce Committee chairman.

Instead, something close to the opposite is happening. McCain's courtship of the lunatic right and his ties to K Street have largely been hidden from view, while the Democrats' dirty laundry has been aired for swing voters.
Scheiber’s right about that part, of course. But it’s not just that the media is otherwise engaged and so is missing these points.

Of course, a press corps that can’t mentally multi-task and keep their eye on one story line is nothing new. But it’s more than the fact that they have the attention span of a gnat. This press corps has also fallen head over heels in love with John McCain so they are not inclined to cover these things with any accuracy. Indeed, they’ll give him a pass instead.

Right on cue, this op-ed in today’s New York Times explains what is going on with the press corps and why.
It is certainly no secret that Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is a darling of the news media. Reporters routinely attach “maverick,” “straight talker” and “patriot” to him like Homeric epithets. Chris Matthews of MSNBC has even called the press “McCain’s base” — a comment that Mr. McCain himself has jokingly reiterated. The mainstream news media by and large don’t cover Mr. McCain; they canonize him. Hence the moniker on liberal blogs: St. McCain.

What is less obvious, however, is exactly why the press swoons for
According to Neal Gabler, the press sees a kindred spirit, a candidate with ironic distance from the process, who senses the absurdity of it all, just as they do. They admire what they perceive as McCain’s shared cynicism.
Though Mr. McCain can be the most self-deprecating of candidates (yet another reason the news media love him), his vision of the process also betrays an obvious superiority — one the mainstream political news media, a group of liberal cosmologists, have long shared. If in the past he flattered the press by posing as its friend, he is now flattering it by posing as its conspirator, a secret sharer of its cynicism. He is the guy who “gets it.” He sees what the press sees. Michael Scherer, a blogger for Time, called him the “coolest kid in school.”
Paradoxically, the press corps first fell in love with McCain back in 2000 because of his perceived honesty. He was not the typical politician. He named his bus “The Straight Talk Express” and presented himself as a bi-partisan maverick, willing to buck his own party’s orthodoxy. To the reporters, he was accessible and refreshingly honest. Now it’s not his honesty, but his lack of the same that they love. It’s their little inside joke with their candidate.
Yet the reporters, so quick in general to jump on hypocrisy, seem to find his insincerity a virtue. When an old sobersides like Mitt Romney flip-flops, he is called a panderer. When Mr. McCain suddenly supports the tax cuts he once excoriated, or embraces the religious right, or emphasizes border security over a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, we are told by his press acolytes that he doesn’t really mean it, that his liberal cosmology will ultimately best his conservative rhetoric. “Discount his repositioning a bit,” Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate, wrote two years ago, “and McCain looks like the same unconventional character who emerged during the Clinton years.” The article was subtitled “Psst ... He’s Not Really a Conservative.”
Indeed, how reminiscent is that of Michael Kinsley’s ridiculous piece about a month ago on why liberals love McCain?

Paul Krugman predicted, in a NYT column, that the press, who seem to also love Obama, will turn on him in the election because, at the end of the day, their real love affair is with McCain. Indeed, Krugman quotes Bob Somerby’s prediction that the press will “Dukakisize Obama.”

I believe it’s true. In the end, they’ll turn like a pack of jackals on Obama just as they did on Gore and Kerry. But they’d be even harder on Hillary. As Gabler explains, here’s why.
The candidates who are dead serious about politics, even wonkish, get abused by the press for it. Mr. McCain the ironist gets heaps of affection. In this race, though, it has forced some press contortions. While John McCain 2000 was praised for being the same straight talker off the bus as he was on it, John McCain 2008 is praised precisely because he isn’t the same man. Off the bus he plays to the rubes (us) by reciting the conservative catechism; on the bus he plays to the press by giving the impression that his talk is all just a ploy to capture the Republican nomination.
What a searing indictment of the lack of seriousness of our national press corps. Their frivolity indeed makes Daily Howler Bob Somerby’s epithet for them true. They are clowns!

But while they are clowning, the average American is losing because McCain doesn’t have a clue about how to fix the economy. Indeed, he’s our next Herbert Hoover. And he thinks we should stay in Iraq for a hundred years and bomb Iran to boot. I don’t think that’s irony. It’s his legitimate position.

Meanwhile more about the press corps’ bias:
This suggests that love is blind. It also suggests that seducing the press with ironic detachment, the press’s soft spot, may be the best political strategy of all — one that Mr. McCain may walk on water right into the White House.
And while he’s walking on water with the mainstream media’s acquiescence, the progressive bloggers are fighting over Hillary or Obama. Nobody’s paying attention to McCain, and certainly nobody is watching the watchers in our media.

And that’s how we will lose the election that we should have won!


Ed said...

Karen, I agree with your sentiments 100% and your characterization of the Carter administration (remember the road race Carter was in and fainted? He was doomed because he seemed just as weak as the economy).

However, the reality is we have a fight on our hands until one of the Democratic nominees bows out of the race. So, McCain gets a free pass until the race is over and there's really nothing that we can do about it, short of asking Super-delegates to commit prematurely.

And, the truth is, Hillary Clinton can only win IF there is a long campaign that goes the distance. So, anyone supporting Clinton would have to accept the protracted battle while McCain gets a free pass.

Hotly contested nomination battles are bad for any party's chances in the general election. In 1976, Reagan challenged the sitting President Ford just as Kennedy did Carter in 1980. The result was a fractured Republican party. Ford feels he could have beaten Carter in 1976 if Reagan had campaigned for him in key battleground states.

Then there was 1968 and 1972 for the Democrats.

Any way you look at it, the Democrats need to end this. But, ending it would mean rallying around Obama. Thoughts?

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

All your points are good and valid, Ed. I am conflicted. I certainly have no objection to Obama. But I think Hillary has gotten a raw deal from both the media and some bloggers.

I think she has a right to finish this thing. There's nothing worse than the regret you can feel if you give up and always wonder why or what if.

I agree that the longer the fight between Clinton and Obama goes on, the more opportunity John McCain has to define himself. And the more bloodletting we do, the harder it is to unite.

On the other hand, everybody jumped on the John Kerry bandwagon too quickly last time. All our unity did not guarantee him a victory either.

He turned out to not be a good candidate and he didn't run a good campaign. Maybe if the vetting process had been longer and more truly competitive, we'd have gotten a better candidate then.

If Obama comes out of this a winner, I hope he might be the stronger for it. If he can't weather Hillary's attacks, he sure won't be able to take the much stronger hits the Republicans will lob at him.

Having said that, I hope that it ends with one or the other having a clean and clear victory before the convention.

The worst thing would be for it to go to the super delegates and for them to appear to be ignoring the will of the voters. I'm not in favor of the super delegates overturning the results of the primaries and caucuses even to benefit my chosen candidate.

If people perceive that the process was rigged, we will surely lose in November.

Anonymous said...

I'm not worried about McSame at all. The voters are not tuned in to the election now. It's too early. Plenty of time for the economy to get worse and Iraq to drag on. We will bury him in the Fall.
If we prematurely end the nomination process, half of this party will never forgive the other half. You are right that that will not be a winning situation.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

Good points anonymous 5:40. I am conflicted and not quite as confident as you are about McCain.

The reason for my anxiety is that he seems to have captured the fancy of the press corps. While Democrats are still fighting each other, not only is McCain free to define himself, but as my post points out, he's getting a hefty hand from the media in doing it.

Because of his crony relationship with a corporatist media, McCain mostly gets a pass on any negatives.

At the same time, I agree that all the calls for Hillary to quit are premature. The race is close and there are still 10 other primaries or caucuses to go. And there is only a 130-vote difference in pledged delegates between the two and less than a one percent difference in the popular vote.

That doesn't make her a spoiler, as some would have it. A spoiler is somebody who stays in when they have no mathematical chance of winning. That's not the case here.

Nor is it true that her strategy is to pressure super delegates if she comes up short on the pledged delegates and popular vote. Her strategy is to let the voters actually decide.

And there is a double standard when it comes to anything Hillary. When she won in New Hampshire, fair and square, Obamamots were all over the blogs screaming that she had stolen the election and demanding an investigation of New Hampshire.

They were confident that New Hampshire had become a banana republic that stole elections.

But when Hillary won the primary in Texas but then somehow lost the less democratic caucus (for some reason, Texas had a two process system) and ended up with less delegates than Obama, they are gleeful and brag. Somehow that's not stealing anything.

Every accusation they've hurled at Hillary is actually a projection and accusation of themselves. They are the ones with the sense of entitlement. They are pushing the inevitability of Obama, which is just as arrogant as "the inevitability of Hillary" was. I was always turned off by that strategy too. Still am when it's used by the other side.

I also think that many of them have lost their sense of fairness and even their moral compass.

If Hillary appears to be cheated, I will have as hard a time re-uniting with the Obama campaign as they claim they would have in voting for Hillary should she win.

And that's new for me. I always, always pushed for unity. But frankly, their tactics and rhetoric have been a huge turn off.

I've always said I'm a contrarian. I like fair play. And I usually feel compelled to defend an underdog, which is what Hillary has become. And an underdog who is being treated unfairly at that!