Democrats’ Debate Bad News for the GOP

The best hope Republicans have of keeping the White House is a divided Democratic Party. And if this were a typical election year, they’d probably get their wish. Democrats have elevated snatching defeat from the jaws of victory to an art form and their preferred method is the circular firing squad. That’s why Thursday night’s debate between Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama was such bad news for the GOP. It proved that this time, the Democrats desire to win is overcoming their tendency to self-destruct.  

The Clinton and Obama debate was striking in its civility and cordiality. It was the political version of a 1960’s vintage Love-in, without the illegal substances and absent the Jefferson Airplane soundtrack. Contrast this with Wednesday night’s Republican debate. The two leading candidates there, Senator John McCain and former Governor Mitt Romney, seemed to be auditioning for the WWF. The debate should have been held in a cage.

This is not to say all is sweetness and light on the Democratic campaign trails. Leading up to the debate, Senators Clinton and Obama threw several sharp jabs at one another. They’ll no doubt resume this sport as Godzilla Tuesday, February 5th, draws near. Yes, President Bill Clinton has stepped back from his role as Attack Dog in Chief, but the two campaigns continue to “draw distinctions” in sometimes harsh and pointed ways.

But both realized such behavior was ill-suited for Thursday’s debate. It was too historic an occasion — the Democratic nominee will be either a woman or an African American. It was too intimate a setting — they sat side-by-side with no other candidates on stage to distract the eye. And they both had other agendas.

For reasons I discussed in an earlier post, Senator Clinton needed to show she was capable of bringing people together. You don’t do that by attacking your opponent. Senator Obama needed to bring forward his inner policy wonk. Tearing down your opponent distracts from building up your own substantive credentials. They were each on a mission and both succeeded.

The result was a debate marked by humor, compliments and a meaningful discussion of important issues like health care, immigration and the war in Iraq. Most significant, both candidates went out of their way to assure voters they would work together in the general election regardless of which one of them was the nominee. And they appeared sincere.

Meanwhile, the distaste Senator John McCain and former Governor Mitt Romney have for each other was palpable in their debate. There they were at the Reagan Library violating the former president’s 11th Amendment “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” It was downright blasphemous.

The Republicans can’t afford a divided party. They will start the general election already deep in a hole. Their party leader, the sitting president, is immensely unpopular. The economy is turbulent, and probably will remain so through the rest of 2008. And then there’s that unpopular war they support. To hold onto the White House they need to catch a few breaks.

Given the several months left between now and election day in November, there’s plenty of opportunities for the Democrats to oblige. Yet, based on the attitude and behavior on display during the debate, any such gifts are likely to be few and far between, and only grudgingly made.

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Then There Were Two: Clinton versus Obama

It’s hard to believe that less than a month ago there were eight candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.  But Senators Joseph Biden and Chris Dodd dropped out after Iowa. Governor Bill Richardson withdrew after New Hampshire and Representative Dennis Kucinich accepted reality shortly after the South Carolina primary. Today Senator John Edwards suspended his campaign. That leaves only Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Oh, and former Senator Mike Gravel, too. However, he’s failed to raise either money or support, failing to get even one percent of the vote in any caucus or primary to date. So although he deserves better, he’s not really a factor.

So it’s now down to Senators Clinton and Obama. Democrats have a clear choice — not based on the issues, but on character, vision, experience and their approach to politics.

On most policy matters the Senators positions are very close. In tonight’s debate they’ll make the most of what little differences they have, but for the most part these nuances don’t mean a lot.

On the other hand, when it comes to how they approach politics and how they’re likely to govern there are real differences. Senator Clinton’s political career has been marked by constant attacks from her opponents. The right wing really were out to get her and her husband, President Bill Clinton, during their years in the White House. Listen to any conservative talk show and the vitriol leveled against her is harsh, cruel and vicious.

The result is a politician with an understandable bunker mentality. Listening to Senator Clinton one gets the feeling she sees the world as those who are with her and those who are against her. Us versus them. Within the Clinton camp the inevitability of her election was an article of faith and Senator Obama’s threat to reaching the promised land (apparently 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the promised land in the Clinton gospels) is nothing short of blasphemy.

In this regard, her political style is similar to that of President George Bush. In the current Administration, loyalty is highly prized, seemingly more than competence. Opponents are more than, well, opponents. They’re at best misguided and at worse unpatriotic enemies of all that’s right.

Senator Clinton’s bunker is, thankfully, more porous than President Bush’s. He’s the extreme case. She’s more open to working with opponents. She demonizes the enemy less, is capable of admitting mistakes and of evolving her position in a sincere effort to find the right solution. Yet, even though it’s a less virulent form, her world view is remarkably similar.  As is her husband’s, which could explain the anger he’s flashed on more than one occasion when reporters ask obvious, but to him, unfair, questions.

If she’s to wrap up the nomination quickly, Senator Clinton needs to vacate the bunker — or at least lower its walls a bit. She needs to emphasize the times in her career when she’s reached out to those who disagreed with her to accomplish a greater good. She needs to show the ability to break away from the harsh partisanship that pervades Washington. And she needs to do so soon.

Senator Obama’s political career has been different. He learned the art in the rough context of Chicago politics, but he quickly established himself as a bridge builder. He worked with Republicans in Illinois on tough issues like expanding health care and confronting the state’s approach to the death penalty. He seems to have lived out his constant phrase of “disagreeing without being disagreeable.”

This ability — and desire — to seek compromises that incorporates the views of his opponents stands in stark contrast to how Washington has operated for the past 15 years. Senator Obama seems more interested in co-opting the other side than demonizing them.

The other side of this coin, however, is that it makes understanding what he stands for difficult to define. Senator Clinton has more five-point plans on more issues than a herd of policy wonks. Senator Obama has … some. Senator Clinton plays on this dynamic by proclaiming herself ready to lead on Day One. Senator Obama’s response is that he’ll be right on day one, but that pithy rejoinder does little to bolster his credentials as being ready to lead the free world starting January 20, 2009.

Does this mean Senator Obama should whip together a few more five-point plans? Well, yes, it does. He can still emphasize his current theme, that this is an election between yesterday and tomorrow. But if he’s to deflect the attacks from the Clinton campaign, he needs to find his inner wonk. He needs to explain in more detail what tomorrow looks like. And he needs to do so soon.

Why the need for speed? First, because half the delegates to the Democratic Convention up for grabs this coming Tuesday. Second, because in a two person race (sorry Senator Gravel) the odds are one of the candidates will begin to be perceived as wrapping things up. The media, needs something to fill up time between commercials, A horse race makes for an easy story, but someone needs to pull away. That creates the tension — can anyone stop her?  will he stumble before the finish line? — that grabs viewers.

This tendency to simplify things also means, in a two person race, only one can be considered “winning.” And being labeled as the one who is “losing” is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. To avoid being on the wrong side of this equation, both candidates need to break out of their comfort zone. Whether either can, however, remains to be seen.

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Pre-Super Tuesday Unscientific Presidential Survey

With former Senator John Edwards and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani dropping out of the race, the choices voters face heading into Super Tuesday’s coast-to-coast primaries is a lot clearer. So let’s see where readers of these blogs are at.

The third unscientific survey is here and will remain open until 5:00 on February 5th, before the first states report their results (I hope). This round, instead of just stating your preference for your party’s nominee, you’ll get to consider possible general election match-ups, too.

Your votes are anonymous and it only takes a minute to complete the survey (literally a minute). I hope you’ll participate. After all, the more the merrier.

Please click here to take the survey.

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John Edwards and the Importance of Having a Story

Former Senator John Edwards suspended his presidential campaign today. There were lots of reasons for his failure to generate the support needed to keep him in the race for the Democratic nomination. But much of it comes down to having a less compelling story than the others.

When he ran for the nomination in 2004, Senator Edwards had a great tale to tell. The son of a mill worker he lifted himself up to wealth and political success through hard work and a willness to take on the big corporations on behalf of the little guys. He spoke eloquently of the two Americas: the one of the powerful and the one of the powerless. He was a product of the latter, but had proven his ability to succeed in the former. And he would put those skills to work to bring all Americans together.

In this first campaign, Senator Edwards was viewed as one of the more moderate candidates. He was passionate, but didn’t demonize his opponents.  In 2008, this changed. His positions grew more liberal and his rhetoric more harsh. He didn’t just condemn corporate greed, he pronounced them evil.  His new message was that he was a fighter for the poor and middle-class. He was the one willing to take on the enemy and he had the toughness to win.

This might have been a winning message in previous years, but it came up against the stories embodied by Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. She was the tough former first lady, experienced and a proven leader who offered voters a chance to make history: electing the first woman president. He was the young, charismatic change agent with a history of coalition building, inspiring rhetoric who offered voters a chance to make history: electing the first president of color.  Their stories were simple. Their candidacies historic. Senator Edwards, on the other hand, was another angry candidate who promised new policies, but old politics.

Senator Edwards often complained, accurately, that he was too often marginalized by the media. That’s because the media sells stories and his wasn’t nearly as compelling as those of Senators Clinton and Obama.

Now the question is, of the two remaining candidate’s, whose story is the most compelling? And who can bring together the resources, organizational skill and political savvy to successfully use their story?

McCain Proves He Can Win A GOP Primary; Giuliani Proves He Can’t

Sure, Senator John McCain won the New Hampshire and South Carolina Republican primaries. To purists in the party, however, these victories required a Barry Bonds size asterisk: they were open to non-Republicans. In fact, but for the margins he built up among independents, exit polls show Senator McCain would have lost to former Governor Mitt Romney in New Hampshire and to former Governor Mike Huckabee in South Carolina, in both cases by one percent.

Which makes Senator McCain’s five point victory over Governor Romney in Florida’s Republican-only primary today all the more significant. Not only does Senator McCain win all the state’s delegates, he erases the asterisk.

 Ironically for a candidate who is considered an outsider by many Republicans, Senator McCain’s candidacy in the Sunshine State was bolstered by two major establishment endorsements: that of Florida’s Governor Charlie Crist and its Republican U.S. Senator, Mel Martinez.

Florida was fiercely contested by all the Republican candidates and not just as the boost it will promised leading up to next Tuesday, when 19 states will select delegates to the Republican convention. It was also the state in which former Mayor Rudy Giuliani chose to make his stand. After claiming to have sat out of the earlier primaries and caucuses, Mayor Giuliani staked his candidacy on a strong showing in Florida. He failed. Senator McCain received 36 percent of the vote while Governor Romney’s pulled in 31 percent.  while Mayor Giuliani is barely holding on to third place with 15 percent of the vote; just ahead of Governor Huckabee’s 14 percent.

As expected, Governor Huckabee has already pledged to continue campaigning through Super Tuesday. After all, Alabama, Georgia and other conservative states, including his home base of Arkansas, are scheduled to vote on February 5th. Even with little cash left Governor Huckabee is likely to pick up a significant number of delegates.

I had thought Mayor Giuliani would stick around another week, too. I figured he should do well in New York and New Jersey at the very least. Yet polls show him trailing Senator McCain in both states — and things are likely to get worse for him. New Yorkers remember that on September 10, 2001, Mayor Giuliani was extremely unpopular. With his poor showing in Florida they also know he won’t be president any time soon. Embarrassing him on his home turf might appeal to some GOP voters while others will simply prefer to cast their vote on a candidate with a real chance.

Losing New York would not only harm his political standing, but, perhaps worse, it would bruise his ego. Someone even mentioned it would be bad for his consulting business, too. The rumor is that he’ll drop out of the race while in California on Wednesday and endorse Senator McCain. 

The Republican nomination is rapidly becoming a two person race. While Governor Huckabee will continue to be a factor in some states, in most he’ll finish a distant third. Given his campaign’s financial straits, I’d be surprised if he stays in the race for long after February 5th.

Which means the big question is whether Senator McCain’s asterisk-free momentum can overcome Governor Romney’s bottomless war chest. It will be interesting to watch the answer emerge.

Statistical Ties Abound in Reader Presidential Survey

As before, the results were extremely close in the second Alan Katz Politics Blog Unscientific Presidential Survey. (Here’s a link to the results of the first survey).

Democrats: On the Democratic side, Senator Barack Obama finished first, but Senator Hillary Clinton was right behind him. In the first survey, they tied with identical vote totals. This time, it was a statistical tie, with Senator Obama slightly ahead in the raw vote. Former Senator John Edwards finished a distant third. When asked if they would be willing to support a GOP candidate in the general election, Democrats split with half the respondents mentioning Senator McCain and half claiming they wouldn’t vote for a Republican.

Republicans: There was quite a reshuffling of the results among Republican respondents. In the first survey, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani finished first, just ahead of Senator McCain who was followed closely by former Governor Mitt Romney. Former Governor Mike Huckabee was a distant fourth.

This time, Governor Romney finished first, but in a statistical tie with Senator McCain. Mayor Guiliania finished way back in third and Governor Huckabee trailed even further behind. When asked if they could support a Democrat in the general election, half the respondents answered no, but half said they could support Senator Obama.

Independents: Last time there was a fair number of independent voters participating in the survey and Senator Obama took first place. Not this time, and those that did vote must not realize that Mayor Giuliani is headed for the exit. He came in first, followed by Governor Romney. Go figure.

The Issues:Not surprisingly, when asked what were the two most important issues they would consider in supporting a candidate, the Economy was the runaway top response. And given the nature of the primary blog, Health Care Reform’s second place finished was to be expected as well.

Thanks to all who participated. I’ll wait for the dust to settle from Florida and then we’ll launch our third survey before Super Tuesday. Stay tuned.

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The Second Alan Katz Politics Blog Unscientific Presidential Survey

The results are in from South Carolina and Florida votes on Tuesday. Looks like a  good time for another unscientific presidential survey.

The first poll (linked to the health care reform blog as this one hadn’t been created yet) wound up with Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama tied among Democrats; former Mayor Rudy Giuliani just edging out Senator John McCain on the Republican side and Senator Obama easily winning with Independents. Since then we’ve seen winners and losers and several candidates withdraw. So, let’s see what’s changed.

This second survey will remain open until 5:00 on January 29th — just before results from Florida start coming in. It only takes a minute (literally) to complete. I hope you’ll join in. Please click here to start the survey.

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