Will Reverend Wright Destroy the Obama Campaign?

Senator Barack Obama repudiated his pastor today. In a press conference that veered from the political to personal and back again, he expressed his disappointment, anger and outrage at Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s continued statements concerning the United States, race and other issues. Reverend Wright had spent the past few days at various events and holding press conferences of his own. While it initially appeared he might be toning down his rhetoric, that ended yesterday when he restated some of his more poisonous assertions.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. The Reverend Wright controversy arose weeks before the Pennsylvania primary. It would have been nice for the Obama campaign if it had peaked then allowing him to focus on other matters in the build-up to critical contests in Indiana and North Carolina next Tuesday. Instead, Reverend Wright brought the issue raging back to dominate the last few news cycles. Just in time to distract Senator Obama from applying the political focus he needs to on the nuts-and-bolts issues of importance in Indiana.

So instead of talking about trade and health care and jobs and fuel prices, Senator Obama is talking about race. Race is the last issue his candidacy — which is built in no small part on his transcending the issue — wants to put front-and-center.

The obvious irony here is that Reverend Wright may haved torpedoed the chances of America’s first black president more effectively than the combined might of the Republican Party and the supporters Senator Hillary Clinton. Both have played the so-called race card, but ineffectively. Senator Clinton’s campaign used the issue so ineptly it hurt her campaign and aided Senator Obama. But that’s yesterday. Now all Senator Clinton needs to do is sit back and let Reverend Wright do her dirty work.

Whether Reverend Wright swiftboats his parishiner will be determined by voters in Indiana. If Senator Obama won there he’d be all but certain of the Democratic nomination. Should he lose it Senator Clinton will be able to plausably claim only she can win in November. Prior to the latest Reverend Wright flare-up polls showed the race in Indiana a dead-heat. Those polls don’t mean much now. And more recent ones show Senator Clinton taking the lead.

Thanks to Reverend Wright it’s a new ballgame in Indiana — one that favors Senator Clinton.

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Super Delegates are Going to Have to Actually Work!

When the dust settles in a few weeks both Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama will have won a few more primaries, questioned each other’s integrity and capabilities, and failed to wrap up the nomination. Which means the Democratic Party’s super delegates will need to come forward and make a decision.

This is not what they had in mind. Being a super delegate was supposed to be a sure ticket to a big party in Denver come August, not a requirement to anger a powerful leader of the party. Yet that’s what they’re in for. Go with Senator Clinton and the insurgents backing Senator Obama will long remember. Go with Senator Obama and Senator Clinton’s clan will never forget. Denver’s a nice place, but the ticket just got a lot more expensive.

In making their fateful decision, super delegates will likely consider: 1) what’s in it for them; 2) which candidate has the best chance to win in November; and 3) which candidate will have the strongest coattails for the party in November.

The first question is unique to each individual. I addressed the third question in an earlier post. So let’s chat about the second issue for a moment. The headline on Yahoo! Politics today is “Poll: Clinton has better chance than Obama of beating McCain.” Too bad the headline doesn’t really match the content of the story. The story describes an Associated Press poll testing how the two Democrats fair in heads-up competition against the presumptive GOP nominee,  Senator John McCain. Senator Clinton leads Senator McCain 50 percent to 41 percent. Senator Obama and Senator McCain are in a statistical tie at 46 percent-to-44 percent.

But come on. It’s April. And this is 2008, the year of the hit-and-miss polls. There’s a long way to go until November. And Senator McCain has gotten pretty much a free ride of late while the Democrats have been perfecting their circular firing squad techniques. The good news for Democrats is that there’s plenty of ammunition available for the general election. Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen recently pointed out a number of flip-flops by Senator McCain that greatly undermines his appeal to indpendent voters and many Democrats. As she notes: “The Bush tax cuts: McCain voted against them as a senator, but now says he would make them permanent as president. Immigration: he cosponsored a bill in 2005 to make it easier for those in the country illegally to become citizens, but now says that if his own bill—his own bill!—came to a vote on the Senate floor, he would vote against it. After Columbine, he called for more gun control; after Virginia Tech, he said more gun control was unnecessary.”

I point this out not to pick on Senator McCain, but to underscore that polls on the November election don’t mean much now. The public perception of the candidates will change considerably and often in the next six months. Both Senators Clinton and Obama have strengths and weaknesses the GOP will exploit. Senator McCain has weaknesses that make easy targets for any Democratic nominee. In other words, there’s no way of knowing whether Senator Obama or Senator Clinton will fare better against Senator McCain in the general election. But both are likely to do well.

Which leaves the super delegates to ponder the issue of coattails. And, of course, their own self-interest.

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Hillary Clinton’s Big State Fantasy

With Pennsylvania finally behind us, the Democratic presidential primary circus now moves on to North Carolina and Indiana. Two more weeks of Senator Hillary Clinton claiming that Senator Barack Obama can’t win the big states. Two more weeks of her chiding him for failing to close the deal.

The gist of Senator Clinton’s argument is that only she can win the big states needed by Democrats to win in November against Senator John McCain. The argument is not entirely spin. Senator Clinton has proven her ability to win over the conservative Democrats needed for victory in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.

These are important states. Pennsylvania, for example, went Democratic in every presidential election between 1992 and 2004, albeit, not by much. In 1988, however, then Vice President George Bush defeated former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in the Keystone state. The reason, according to many, is that Governor Dukakis couldn’t appeal to the Reagan Democrats — the same Democrats Senator Clinton is winning over.

But that was then and this is now. Soon-to-be-president George Bush had the benefit of the President Ronald Reagan’s help in appealing to conservative Democrats. Although the Reagan Administration limped through its final years, its coattails were much stronger than that of President George W. Bush. Nor was the economy as troubled as it is today. Nor was there a divisive and unpopular war being waged. Democrats have a lot of advantages in 2008 they lacked in 1982.

Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other big states will be hard fought. And many Reagan Democrats will find Senator McCain an attractive candidate. But it is also interesting to note that polls show Senator McCain barely ahead of Senators Clinton and Obama even though he’s been cruising above the bruising Democratic civil war. Eventually the Democrats will unite and concentrate their fire on Senator McCain instead of one another. It is unlikely Senator McCain will go up in the polls as a result.

Democrats are evenly split between two strong candidates. This does not mean that a vote for one is a vote against the other. While that’s certainly the case for some, this year Democrats seem to be for their candidate more than against the other. Senator Clinton won California, New York and Massachusetts — all big states.

But no one realistically thinks they’ll go for Senator McCain in November. Even in Ohio and Pennsylvania, the vast majority of Senator Clinton’s supporters will rally behind Senator Obama. Her argument implies her supporters will stay home in November or, worse, vote Republican. That’s simply not true. Nor would most of Senator Obama’svoters desert her in the general election. Once the nomination is settled, the vast majority of Democrats will realize the need for change. Senator McCain isn’t a break with the past. Either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama would be.

Then there’s the fact that Senator Obama has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to win over independents and moderate Republicans while Senator Clinton tends to polarize these voters. This means Senator Obama can go after the voters Senator McCain needs to win better than Senator Clinton. It also puts into play states like New Mexico and Colorado if Senator Obama is the nominee, electoral votes that would be solidly GOP if Senator Clinton gains the nomination.

Over the next two weeks Senator Clinton will repeat her claim that Senator Obama cannot “close the deal” in spite of his financial edge. This, she points out, shows voters are having second thoughts about him.

Excuse me, but wasn’t she the inevitable nominee? The wife of a former president with higher name recognition, a larger mailing list and fund raising base than any non-incumbent Democrat presidential candidate in recent history?

Senator Obama has been on the national stage for four years, beginning with his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. Senator Clinton has been part of the national consciousness since 1992. Who was it that failed to close the deal? Senator Obama is running against a political institution. That he remains ahead in the popular vote and among pledged delegates is a remarkable feat. That Senator Clinton failed to wrap up the nomination months ago is a remarkable failure.

So we’ve got two more weeks of the Clinton campaign spin. It will be interesting to see if the talking heads challenge or amplify her case. They need something to talk about for at least another two weeks. And so does she. 

Dangerous Silliness in Democratic Primary

There’s a lot of debate over whether the endless primary between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is helping or hurting the Democrat’s chances in November. I’m one of those who believe it can be a good thing. The primaries are toughening up the eventual nominee. It’s keeping the focus on the Democratic candidates and their issues. And it’s building important grassroots capabilities throughout the country.

In other words, it’s better to have the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s deplorable rhetoric raised in April than first appear in October. It’s better to have a nationally televised debate on April 16th than to have the Democratic nominee desperately seeking coverage. And it’s better to have Pennsylvania’s on-the-street political operatives well rehearsed.

What’s dangerous, however, is the kind of sniping the candidates and their camps are engaged in. As I’ve written about before, the Democrats are spending too much time doing the GOP’s work. Now the debate is over who is more elitist than the other. Senator Clinton attacks Senator Obama for saying small town Pennsylvania voters are bitter and Senator Obama faults Senator Clinton for being a hunting enthusiast.

Are these really the issues they want to be focused on? What happened to health care and the economy? Peace in the Middle East and maintaining a strong defence? Improving our schools and caring for our aged?

The upcoming debate (Philadelphia on April 16th) is an opportunity for the candidates to get the Democratic story back on track. One of these two Senators is going to be the Democratic nominee. If the debate is substantive and policy oriented, the neverending primary season will be helpful to that eventual winner. If not, the race in November is going to be much closer than it might otherwise have been.

Political Consultants and Conflicts of Interest

The departure of Mark Penn from Senator Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign highlights a core problem raised by the rise of today’s elite hired guns known as political consultants. They are in the business of selling their time, access and “strategic vision.” That core problem: they promise more than they deliver and they too often bring more baggage than an FBI wiretap.

Many political consultants start their careers with good intentions. They work for candidates and causes whom they believe in. They charge for their expertise, experience and skill, but that’s only fair — especially when it’s a fair price. But then comes a few successes or valiant failures. The consultant gets known. They get admired. They’re now in demand. So they create an infrastructure or join an existing one and that means getting more clients just to keep the apparatus busy and paid for. The result: more clients paying more money for less of the time and attention. And the more clients the more likely conflicts of interest arise.

In Mark Penn’s case it involved a meeting on behalf of his firm, Burson-Marsteller, with Colombia’s ambassador to the United States concerning a free-trade agreement Colombia wanted but one of his other clients, that would be Senator Clinton, opposed. To both Senator Clinton’s and Mr. Penn’s credit, he’s now left the campaign — sort of. Apparently he’ll still be available by phone and the campaign will continue to use Mr. Penn’s polling firm. But at least he’s officially out of the campaign.

Not all consultants face-up to their conflicts as appropriately. In 1988 I was chief of staff to California’s then-Lieutenant Governor Leo McCarthy. Lt. Governor McCarthy was then running for the U.S. Senate against then-incumbent Pete Wilson. As a state employee I was involved in campaign activity only after hours, but that was enough to provide a ringside seat to campaign consultants gone amuck.

Lt. Governor McCarthy’s consultants were David Doak and Bob Shrum recently off of a narrow reelection victory for California’s other Senator, Alan Cranston. For the McCarthy campaign, however, they were a disaster. Not only did they bleed campaign dollars from the campaign, the television ads they created were generally regarded as mediocre or worse. But the worst offence was Mr. Shrum’s meeting with Occidental Petroleum concerning a Los Angeles City ballot measure. Senator Wilson claimed to be an environmentalist, and was, of sorts. But protecting California’s coastline from oil drilling was a critical issue for Lt. Governor McCarthy. With one headline (and yes, it made the headlines) Mr. Shrum undermined his client’s campaign.

Did Mr. Shrum apologize? Or better still, resign the campaign? Nope. He just continued to draw his expensive fee for lackluster work. Senator Wilson won. Did Mr. Shrum’s career suffer? Nope. He continued to help a host of Democratic presidential candidates lose — but at least his fees haven’t gone down.

My point is not to lambaste Mr. Shrum. He’s neither special nor unique among his profession. Nor do I consider political consultants to be worthless — overpriced, perhaps, but not worthless. What interests me is the nearly mystical belief candidates have that they need a top tier consultant to win. Their presence  not only infuses the campaign with political experience, it gives the candidate confidence and reassures contributors.

That the confidence is often misplaced just doesn’t seem to matter much.

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