Oh What Tangled Webs They Weave

It’s not easy being a political spinner. You need to be able to say the most outrageous things with a straight face and then hope someone takes you seriously. Senator Hillary Clinton employs some of the best, but they’ve got their work cut out for them this week. And so far their efforts are, at best sad. And bordering on embarassing. For example, in a conference call with reporters today, Chief Clinton Campaign Strategist Mark Penn claimed Senator Barack Obama must win all four of the states voting on March 4th or recognize that Democratic voters are feeling “buyers remorse.” Excuse me?

Just a week ago President Bill Clinton was claiming that his wife must win primiaries in Texas and Ohio or acknowledge defeat. A United Press International story quoted him as saying “If she wins in Texas and Ohio, I think she will be the nominee. If you don’t deliver for her then I don’t think she can.”

That, however, was on February 21st. In those long ago days, most polls showed Senator Clinton leading Senator Obama in Texas. Now she trails him. Back then polls showed Senator Clinton led Senator Obama in Ohio by eight or more points in most polls. He’s since cut that lead by at least half.

In other words, the odds of Senator Clinton carrying both Texas and Ohio are shrinking faster than her lead among super delegates. Having boxed themselves into needing to sweep those states, the Clinton spinners are in trouble.  They could say that, upon further consideration, she now only needs to win either Texas or Ohio. But that’s pretty lame. And she could lose both states.

So where’s the good news heading into March 4th? Rhode Island. Polls still show Senator Clinton leading Senator Obama in Rhode Island by double digits. (Senator Obama seems to have a lock on the fourth state voting that day — Vermont.) So the Clinton campaign spinis that Senator Obama must win four-out-of-four next Tuesday in order to force Senator Clinton out of the race. Otherwise, there’s clearly a growing groundswell against his candidacy.

Say what? The Clinton firewall has shrunk from Ohio and Texas to Rhode Island?

You have to hand it to Mr. Penn. He’s got the straight face part of his job down well. He bolsters this ludicrous contention by noting that Senator Obama’s campaign is likely to outspend the Clinton former juggernaut by $18.4 million to $9.2 million in the four March 4th contests. Apparently, that $9.2 million difference explains what happened to the 20 percent+ lead in Ohio Senator Clinton enjoyed just two weeks ago. What does Mr. Penn have to say about support for his candidate that is so tenuous a few million dollars in advertising can bust it loose?

Still, it’s kind of sad. Less than two months ago, Senator Clinton’s success was inevitable. She was going to wrap up the nomination by Super Tuesday. Now, her presidential dreams depend on … wait for it … the small, but mighty … the Ocean State … yes … on Rhode Island.

OK. Clearly the Clinton campaign is trying to lower expectations. This being America, the land of 24 hour commercials interrupted by occasional news cable channels, the Clinton campaign spin will get some attention. Some of the media might even bite. If it becomes conventional wisdom, Mr. Penn will have done his job. But the odds of that are slight.

Here’s a suggestion to the Clinton campaign: just say Senator Clinton is going to continue fighting for this nomination until it’s clear one of the two candidates has wrapped up enough delegates to win. Period. No arbitrary tests. No must-wins. No spin. Just count the delegates.

This kind of honest approach would be refreshing. Surprising, but refreshing. But can Senator Clinton and her team can break the spinning habit. It apparently is a hard one to break.

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Is GOP Trying to Remain the Minority Party in California?

The Democrats in California have it way too easy. Keeping their majority in the legislature is simple — all they have to do is show up and read the newspaper. The GOP will have done something to communicate to the state’s voters that they’re out-of-step, out-of-bounds or out-of-their-minds.

Two stories in today’s Sacramento Bee illustrate the point. The first involves a bible study course sponsored by Assembly Minority Leader Mike Villines. Studying scripture isn’t the problem. If lawmakers want to study the bible or Shakespeare or Orson Scott Card, I don’t really care. The intolerance of the leader of those study sessions, however, is reminding independent minded voters, however, of how exclusionary the GOP can be sometimes.

Ralph Drollinger, who teaches these weekly bible classes, attacked lawmakers attending a rival bible fellowship class that embraced people of all faiths without insisting that they accept Jesus Christ as Messiah. Writing on his Capitol Ministries web site, he labeled this approach as “more than disgusting to our Lord and Savior.” His basic message is that you either accept in a manner that meets Mr. Drollinger’s criteria or your spiritual beliefs are meaningless. To believe in Jesus Christ as anything other than the messiah “is a deadly lie,” according to Mr. Drollinger.

People can believe what they want. If Mr. Drollinger believes his way is the only heavenly highway, well good for him. I think he’s wrong. So do the Catholics he once described as practicing a “false religion” according to the Bee. But then, my guess is we disagree on lots of things. The Bee also quotes him as saying that it is “sinful for a woman lawmaker to be away from her children four days a week while in Sacramento.”

What’s harmful to Republicans is not the specific rantings of this zealot. It’s that it belies their claim to being the party of the “Big Tent.” Mr. Drollinger’s views, presumably, reflect the perspective of those attending his GOP sponsored classes. Inviting a religious  bigot into the capitol, one who vilifies and literally damns those who disagree with him as “sinful” and an “affront to God” could explain why the tent isn’t as big as the GOP claim, and why it’s doomed to get even smaller in the state over time.

The second article in today’s Sacramento Bee concerns efforts to tighten up a tax loophole that allows wealthy Californians to purchase yachts, RVs and other big ticket items, park them out-of-state for 90 days, and avoid paying Califonria state sales and use taxes on the purchase. Republicans refuse to close this tax dodge, some of them claiming they are protecting the job of the “immigrant who sprays fiberglass on a boat …” according to the Bee.

Compared to the state’s multi-billion dollar deficit, there’s not a lot of money at stake here: about $21 million. But every dollar counts. So Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democrats in the legislature want to extend how long the purchased item needs to remain outside of California from 90-days to one year. Republicans are blocking the measure. The highly regarded and bi-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office said the change would not detrimentally impact the state’s economy. Many of the Republicans, apparently blessed with information from a higher source, disagrees.

Apparently GOP lawmakers believe that the tax code they inherited upon taking office is sacrosanct, flawless and untouchable. Never mind logic. Never mind the facts. Never mind fairness. Republicans oppose tax increases. Period. That means the tax code cannot be changed, even if that means defending indefensible tax loopholes.

These two stories point out an absolutism among Republicans that make most Californians uncomfortable. Why should independents, Democrats and moderate Republicans support a party who considers them damned by God? Who would rather take medical care away from poor children than force the rich to pay a sales tax on the RVs and yachts they buy?

Republicans hold just 15 seats in the 40-member Senate. Two of those seats are vulnerable. If they go to challengers the Democrats would have the two-thirds vote they need in the upper house to pass anything they want.

In the Assembly, Republicans hold only 32 of the state’s 80 Assembly seats. That’s only five seats away from complete irrelevancy. The state would be better served by a more balanced legislature. One in which pragmatism is acknowledged as a virtue, not a sin. One where seeking solutions is more important than blindly adhering to the strict construction of campaign platitudes. Republicans who long for the days of Ronald Reagan should remember he was one of the most pragmatic governors in the state’s history. He was also one of the most tolerant.

But the California Republican party of Ronald Reagan is gone. The GOP now seems to be in the hands of politicians out-of-step with the majority of Californians. And the Democrats proclaim, “Hallelujah!”

Should Clinton Withdraw Before March 4th?

The drumbeat has started. We first heard it concerning the Republican nomination race. By February 5th Senator John McCain had pulled ahead and it was time for former Governors Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee to politely give up. Governor Romney did; Governor Huckabee didn’t. As a result, I believe, Governor Huckabee is emerging as the stronger future GOP candidate. He’s been able to get in front of groups and gain the support of constituencies that would have been impossible if he had called it quits after Super Tuesday.

Now the gentle urgings of withdrawal are being heard in the Democratic presidential campaign. Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter suggests departing from the playing field before the Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4th, “would be the best thing imaginable for Hillary’s political career.” Robert Novak, writing in the Washington Post, puts the issue in terms of what’s good for the Democratic Party. “[T]he sooner she leaves the race, the more it will improve the party’s chances of defeating Senator John McCain in November.”

I think they’re both wrong.

As long as Senator Clinton runs a positive campaign, she’ll boost her own political standing as well as strengthen the Democratic party’s general election outlook. She’ll have an opportunity to promote her ideals, to change the public’s perception of her as a policy wonk out-of-touch with common people. Consider: if she had dropped out before the Democratic debate in Austin last week, no one would have heard her closing statement — which so potently explained the reason for her candidacy her campaign has turned it into a 60-second commercial now airing in Texas and Ohio.

At the same time, she is forcing Senator Barack Obama to refine his message and to provide the specifics that back up his soaring rhetoric. Interestingly, he’s doing just that with his own advertisement, urging voters to log onto his web site to download his 64 page “The Blueprint for Change.”

Between now and March 4th Senator Clinton should use every day to explain why she’s striving for the nation’s highest office. That means talking about her own strengths, not Senator Obama’s weaknesses. Any time spent trying to convince voters Senator Obama is unqualified to be president, she’s helping Senator John McCain and the GOP. She’s also wasting time and opportunity. Her attacks to date have been, without exception, ineffective. It’s foolish to continue a strategy that’s proven to be a failure. Unless she wants to convince voters she’s incapable of learning from her mistakes.

Just look at the media responseto her attack on Senator Obama’s brochures concerning her positions on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The press has focused attention on the issues Senator Obama hopes voters will think about, not the ones that favor her own campaign. And in scolding her opponent (“Shame on you, Barack Obama”) she distracts from her more attractive attributes — intelligence and a history of caring about those without power). Besides, she shouldn’t be the one out there attacking Senator Obama — that’s what surrogates are for. Instead, Senator Clinton needs to talk more about what she’ll do for working Americans.

Mr. Alter and Mr. Novak are right in stating that Senator Clinton’s and the Democratic party’s future depends a great deal on what Senator Clinton does in the next several days. Everything Senator Clinton does from now through the rest of the campaign shapes her political image and, perhaps, her political legacy. She can position herself as a caring leader or a down-and-dirty politician. She can keep the focus on issues Democrats, independents and swing Republicans care about or she can divert attention to petty, meaningless attacks.

Her future is in her own hands.

Why Clinton’s 1993 Health Care Reform Plan Failed

In 1993 Democrats ruled Washingon. They held the White House and both chambers of Congress. Health care reform polled favorably with voters and then Governor Bill Clinton had made its passage a key part of his successful presidential campaign. Yet, the Administration’s health care reform package failed dismally and helped Republicans takeover both houses of Congress in the 1994 election.

Senator Hillary Clinton, who led the Clinton Administration’s health care reform efforts, blames its defeat on special interests. Senator Barack Obama claims her approach to developing and promoting the reform package was to blame as well. On this point, he’s right. If anything, he understates the point.

There’s a post on my health care reform blog that goes into the details. What’s significant about this is not that the political clumsiness of then First Lady Clinton’s undermined the chances of meaninful health care reform 15 years ago. It’s what her failure to recognize her own contribution to its failure says about what a second Clinton Administration might be like.

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Clinton Showing Signs of Desperation

Senator Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign is becoming desperate and it shows. The once inevitable 44th President of the United States is on the verge of losing her dream, so the desperation is understandable. The danger, however, is that if she fails to handle her looming defeat well, she’s likely to harm her party’s chances in November and damage her own reputation and standing among Democrats.

The reason for her desperation? She’s on a major losing streak. Senator Barack Obama has won primaries or caucuses in 10 states plus the one for Democrats Abroad. Yes, Senator Obama was expected to win those states, but not by the margin he earned. The Clinton campaign, spent considerable resources and time in Wisconsin, only to lose last Tuesday’s primary by an embarrassing 17 points.

But that’s not the only depressing news for Senator Clinton and her team. Since early February, Senator Obama has been consistently leading her in national polls according to RealClearPolitics.com, which tracks these things. In the past four weeks the Obama campaign has raised substantially more money, garnered more big-time endorsements, drawn bigger crowds and all but guaranteed he’ll arrive at the Democratic nominating convention in August having won more delegates. (According to the Associated Press, Senator Clinton needs to win approximately 57 percent of the remaining delegates to overtake her rival’s count.)

Senator Clinton claims to already possess the maturity and experience required of a president. The core of her campaign message is that she has the solutions to fix the nation’s problems and is ready to start on Day One — no assembly required. So here she is, facing a crisis — she’s may lose the nomination. How does she handle it?

In the run-up to Wisconsin her campaign turned increasingly negative. It didn’t work. She’s declared the primaries in Ohio and Texas as where she’ll turn the campaign around. She still has a substantial lead in those states, but Senator Obama is whittling away at them.

Her response: go even more negative. After all, if it didn’t work in Wisconsin, why not pour it on? According to the Washington Post, Senator Clinton is launching a new offensive against Senator Obama that “flatly asserts her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination is not prepared to serve as commander in chief.”

OK, as charges go, there are far more vicious or nasty ones. It’s absolutely appropriate for her to claim her long experience better qualifies her to lead the free world. And charges like this are nothing new: the first President George Bush made them about her husband back in 1992.

But Senator Clinton is no longer saying she’s better qualified, she’s saying Senator Obama is not qualified. And that’s stepping over the line. First, because it’s not true. He’s at least as qualified, if not more so, than then Governor Bill Clinton was in that 1992 campaign.

Second, these are the kind of charges that come back to haunt a candidate — and the candidate’s party. These are the charges that show up in Republican commercials in the fall. You can almost hear Senator John McCain in an October debate with Senator Obama claiming, “I’m not the one saying you’re not qualified to be president — Senator Clinton is saying it.” That’s not the kind of moment that will endear her to Democratic voters going forward.

Senator McCain has shown a willingness to follow Senator Clinton’s lines of attack. After his win in Wisconsin, Senator McCain pledged to “… fight every moment of every day in this campaign to make sure that Americans are not deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change,” a statement that could have been come verbatim from Senator Clinton.

It’s totally appropriate for Senator Clinton to draw distinctions between herself and her opponent. But statements she’ll need to eat when she endorses him in August aren’t necessary. First, they don’t work well. She’s been denegrating his experience for weeks yet he’s now the frontrunner. Second, it plays to Senator Obama’s strength as the candidate who wants to set aside the old politics of rigid ideology and nasty politics.

By going negative she gives him the opportunity to respond, as he did in the Washington Post story with statements like “Today, Senator Clinton told us there is a choice in this race, and I couldn’t agree with her more. But contrary to what she was saying, it’s not a choice between speeches and solutions. It’s a choice between the politics of divisions and distractions that did not work in South Carolina, that did not work in Wisconsin and that will not work in Texas.”  You don’t win political contests by allowing your opponent to remind voters why he’s the better candidate.

Senator Clinton has been counted out before. The New Hampshire primary was just two months ago. Significantly, her come from behind win there was not the result of going negative. On the contrary, it was because she showed herself as a human being, not just a politician, that surprised the pundits.

Tonight’s debate will see whether it’s the lessons of New Hampshire or Wisconsin that she’s taken to heart.

“How Specific is Specific?” Or “Do Campaign Promises Matter?”

Senator John McCain and Senator Hillary Clinton have launched a non-coordinated attack on Senator Barack Obama. Both Senators McCain and Clinton attack Senator Obama for being eloquent. This is, apparently, a grave  weakness in a candidate. Fortunately, the flaw was overlooked in the 1940s and 1960s when FDR and JFK were in office. In the new millennium, however, being able to motivate and inspire voters is something politicians are expected to avoid. Instead, candidates must offer specific solutions to as many problems as possible.The more dully, the better.

The attacks on Senator Obama aren’t subtle. Senator McCain, while declaring victory in Republican Wisconsin primary proclaimed,  “I will fight every moment of every day in this campaign to make sure that Americans are not deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change.” I’d rather he fight every moment of every day for justice or the defeat of terrorists, but at least he’s proving he’s a fighter. His target, the individual of deceiving eloquence, although unnamed is obviously Senator Obama. There were few, even in Senator Clinton’s own campaign, who thought Senator McCain might be referring to her.

At nearly the same time, Senator Clinton, while not declaring victory in the Democratic Wisconsin primary (actually, while pretending there was no such thing as Wisconsin, the Green Bay Packers, or cheese), warned voters that this election is “… about picking a president who relies not just on words, but on work, hard work, to get America back to work. Someone who’s not just in the speeches business.” No one in the audience thought the target of her ire was Senator McCain. There were, however, several motivational speakers listening — including former members of the Clinton Administration — who were slightly miffed at her denigrating the “speeches business.”

In addition to being excessively motivation, the criticism of Senator Obama is that he’s insufficiently specific about his solutions for the challenges facing the United States. For Senator Clinton, this fault has become central to her new campaign theme: he’s for change; she’s for solutions. Yet, his web site is just as wonky as hers. OK, nearly as wonky. He’s got specifics on health care, job creation, education, Iraq and a raft of other issues. How specific does he have to be to satisfy Senators Clinton and McCain? What is the specific standard for specificity?

Maybe someone at Fox or CNN could add up how many points there are in each of the candidate’s multi-point plans — the most points win. Or, they could print out and stack each candidate’s policy papers — the tallest pile gets a gold star.

The attacks on Senator Obama are not only silly, they’re meaningless. Yes, there are issues we know the new president will face on Senator Clinton’s oft cited “day one” in the Oval Office. But what really tests a president are the unanticipated issues. For President Kennedy it was the Bay of Pigs and the October Missile Crisis. For President Johnson it was the unexpected developments in Viet Nam. For President Nixon it was the opportunity to visit China. For President Carter it was the taking of hostages in Iran while for President Reagan it was the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev. For the first President Bush is was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and for the first, and maybe only, President Carter it was the Republican takeover of Congress. For the second President Bush it was the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

These weren’t campaign issues. These weren’t debated by the candidates. There were no election year policy papers for the presidents to rely on. What makes a president’s legacy is the stuff that just happens. How they deal with it is based, in part, on their prior experience. How successfully they deal with it depends, in part, on their ability to rally people behind a common cause.

What’s especially ironic about all this focus on substance is the stated willingness of all three presidential candidats to compromise on specifics. Each talks about reaching across party lines to create important public policy. That means they’re willing to trade away some items (let’s call them specifics) in their own plans. That, after all, is what happens when you compromise: everyone gets something; everyone gives up something. Consensus doesn’t mean “my way or the highway” it means finding “our way.”

And that, in turn, means the specifics of which Senator Clinton is so proud and Senator McCain is so demanding (and Senator Obama actually has), don’t matter all that much. They’re more bargaining chips than campaign promises.

Voters seem to get this. Senator Clinton has spent time, money and surrogates attacking Senator Obama for lacking specifics and being too eloquent. Yet he keeps winning primaries. Senator McCain is now jumping on the anti-eloquence bandwagon. I doubt if it will work much better for him.

If they don’t find something else to talk about soon, they’re both going to wind up just listening to what promises to be a very eloquent inauguration address come January 20, 2009.

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Dynasties and Presidential Politics

In the world according to Hillary Clinton the Democratic nomination process should be over by now. The plan was simple: out-fundraise and out-organize her opponents. Earn enough delegates after Super Tuesday to coast to the summer convention. It was all inevitable. She had the experience, the name recognition, the political skill to win the White House in November and make history along the way. Didn’t work out that way — even for the Clintons.

Two individuals stood in her way Senator Barack Obama and President George Bush.

The impact of Senator Obama is well known and well documented. On January 3, 2008, he won the Iowa caucuses and the Clinton aura of inevitability vanished. But well before then, February 19, 2000 to be precise, then Governor George Bush may have sealed her fate. On that date he trounced Senator John McCain in the South Carolina primary — after a dirty, vicious campaign — and clinched the Republican nomination. The following January he was sworn in as president.

President Bush’s policies and politics makes it likely the Democratic nominee will win in November. It’s the very existence of a second President George Bush that makes it less likely the nominee will be President Hillary Clinton.  That’s because her election would mean two families will have occupied the Oval Office for a minimum of 24 years — and, conceivably, for 28 years. It means she’s running as the candidate of change when the Bush family and the Clinton clan have served as president of two decades.

If we were finishing the second term of the McCain Administration the dynamics would be substantially different. First, the country would likely be in much better shape. Second, another Clinton presidency would be considered in a different context. That’s because there’s something worse about two families holding the nation’s highest office over 20 consecutive years than one family having the presidency twice. I don’t think it’s just a matter of counting years, either. It’s keeping the presidency within two families that doesn’t feel right to voters. There’s a fatigue factor involved. There’s a sense of “enough of the Hatfields and McCoys, let’s give someone else a turn.” It’s time for a change.

And after Presdient Bush the younger, people want change. Senator Obama has tapped into that resevoir of momentum and is a win in Texas or Ohio away from earning the Democratic nomination. Change doesn’t mean returning Bill and Hillary Clinton to the White House. All the billboards and campaign signs in the world won’t change that.

Voters get it. They see Senator Obama and see change. They look at Senator Clinton and see a dynasty (and are reminded of a second). Senator Obama represents the 21st century; Senator Clinton the 1990’s. Senator Obama is about moving forward. Senator Clinton isn’t.