Politically Thankful

An economy in meltdown mode, the lamest of duck-like Administrations, two hot wars, a worldwide war on terror, carnage in India, the Middle East a powder keg with Iran going nuclear and so on and so forth. Without sounding like a Billy Joel song, there’s a lot to be concerned about this Thanksgiving. Yet, there’s always something in the cup, even if that proverbial cub is half broken. So here’s a short, incomplete and random list of things to be thankful for, politically, this day of being thankful. Feel free to leave a comment with your own list.

1. Be Thankful Change is Coming.  The election of Senator Barack Obamais thanks-worthy on so many levels. Even leaving aside the culture change that is sure to come with an African-American family int he White House, there’s the hope of a competent government addressing tough problems in a realistic, pragmatic fashion. While President-elect Obama symbolizes the change he promises, his campaign and transition indicate a level of competence not seen in Washington in years.

2. Be Thankful the Bush Administration is Leaving. Even supporters and admirers of President George W. Bush have to thankful that his tenure in the oval office is coming to an end. He’s done some things right, but overall, his record as president is abysmal. While coming to office as the champion of “compassionate conservatism” his administration proved to be neither compassionate nor conservative (fiscally, at least). After eight years America’s standard of living has declined, our standing in the world has declined, and we lack the ability to unify even in the face of tremendous challenges. January 20th can’t come too soon.

3. Be Thankful for Checks and Balances in Washington. It might look like the Democrats are in complete control of the federal government. They won the White House, increased their majority in the House and are just two votes shy of being able to overcome Republican filibusters with two Senate seats remaining. As any reader of this blog has determined, I’m a Democrat. Yet the idea of one-party rule — regardless of the party — concerns me deeply. Time and again, when one party gains too much control over the government it overreaches. Until the laws of unintended consequences is repealed, having a check on absolute power is a good thing. It forces the majority to pause, listen to the opposition and make adjustments. The result is (usually) better legislation than would have occurred if the party in power were unchecked.

4. Be Thankful the Democratic Party is More Diverse Than It Was Before. While lacking super-majorities, the Democrats in Congress have substantial majorities to work with. While some fear this will result in liberals running amok, the reality is, the Democratic majorities are far from homogeneous. As Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post pointed out, there’s a large number of moderates and conservatives in the most recent classes of lawmakers. Approximately one-third of the Democratic House majority come from districts with”Republican underpinnings (at least at the presidential level.” The Democratic Leadership in both houses will need to accommodate these members if they hope to keep their majorities. The result should be more thoughtful legislation which, while progressive, could avoid swinging the pendulum too far to the left.

5. Be Thankful for Checks and Balances in Sacramento. Democrats increased their majorities in the California legislature, but failed to achieve the two-thirds super majorities they need to safely ignore Republicans. That’s a good thing. The bad thing is that the Republicans in Sacramento are so fixated on avoiding new taxes (while preserving tax breaks, no matter how unfair, already in place) that Sacramento has become a childish, dysfunctional example of government gone silly. Ideology is great. Making a political point is to be expected. Destroying the state’s economy in the name of ideological political points is governmental malpractice. Legislators of both parties need to grow up, quit hiding behind worn out slogans, and start solving problems. Then we’d really have something to be thankful for.

6. Be Thankful Americans Rejected the Politics of Division. Many had come to believe that the way to electoral success in America was to demonize your opponent. That was the Karl Rove approach to winning — and it worked. This year we had Senator John Edwards calling health insurance executives “evil”Governor Sarah Palin rallying the “real America” against the socialists who fail to “see America like you and I see America.” Senator Edwards lost and so did Governor Palin and her running mate, Senator John McCain. Americans are tired of “us versus them” politics. That doesn’t mean it’s gone away entirely; just ask a Wall Street CEO. But the strategy of demonization and division backfired. Senator John McCain’s aura of being a straight shooter shattered when he descended into the Rovian mud. So did his dream of becoming president.

7. Be Thankful There’s Always Another Election.  Change was a campaign slogan this year, but it’s been an American reality since our founding. Every two years we hold those in power accountable. Certainly, there are obstacles. Incumbency is still the most powerful factor in any particular election, followed closely by money. Yet each election night tells a story and brings change. It keeps those in power accountable and, as importantly, nervous. And that’s a good thing.

So that’s my short list for Thanksgiving. I hope you’ll add to it. And I hope you and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday.

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A VP for Change

Senator Hillary Clinton and former-Senator John Edwards are both under consideration by Senator Barack Obama’s as a running mate.Senator Obama himself has said, on numerous occasions, that Senator Clinton would “be on anyone’s short list.” And the Associated Press, among others, reported that Senator Edwards is in the running. Both would be poor choices.

In fact, Senator Obama should rule out anyone who has been on a national ticket of late. Yes, that would include former Vice President Al Gore, but that’s the price to be paid when “change” is the core principal of your campaign. (OK, I’d make an exception for Vice President Gore, but c’mon, what are the odds he’d take it? That would make him the Crash Davis of politics.*)

Senator Clinton stands for many things. Some good (those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling) and some not so good (much of her campaign from March through May). She’s a return to the 90’s, not a choice for the 21st century.

Senator Edwards has been around the track too many times as well. He’s lost twice for the presidential nomination and once as the running mate to Senator John Kerry. But there’s a bigger problem with Senator Edwards: his approach to politics is incompatible with Senator Obama’s. Yes, both are genuinely committed to lifting up the nation’s poor and to helping the middle class achieve greater security. But while Senator Obama’s approach is open, inclusive, and civil, that of Senator Edward’s is harsh, exclusive and borders on demagoguery. Senator Obama talks of “disagreeing without being disagreeable.” Senator Edwards demonizes his opponents

Senator Obama needs a running matethat demonstrates to independents and moderate Republicans that he’s serious about a more civil, results oriented political culture. That means steering clear of running mates that divide the country into “us” and “them.” It means finding someone with a proven ability to rise above partisanship in order to deliver meaningful change.

I’ve already written about how well Senator Evan Bayh meets this requirement. I haven’t looked into her background deeply, but from what I have read, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano might fill the bill, too.

Senator Obama’s greatest strength is the promise of change. Looking backward on the single most important decision a presidential nominee makes undermines the premise of his campaign. Yes, conventional wisdom and the talking heads urge him to go with Senators Clinton and Edwards. But if he listened to them, he’d never have run in the first place, let alone won the nomination.

* For the trivia fans amongst you: Crash Davis was the character played by Kevin Costner in Bull Durham who became the home run king of minor league baseball in virtual anonymity.

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?

Obama’s Candidacy Gets a Boost and a Problem from South Carolina

Senator Barack Obama scored a resounding victory in South Carolina’s Democratic primary. Earning 55 percent of the votes, he doubled Senator Hillary Clinton’s total of 27 percent and three-times the 18 percent Senator John Edwards received. It was a primary he had to win to stay competitive going into Super Tuesday on February 5th. He did more than win, he achieved a picture-perfect landslide. So why should he be worried?

Because before South Carolina and the Nevada caucuses last week, Senator Obama was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. After South Carolina he is in tottering on becoming an African American candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, and that’s quite a different thing.

This isn’t his strategy nor is it his intent. Senator Obama embraces the historic nature of his candidacy, but he has carefully crafted a strategy that puts his calls for change and a new kind of politics front-and-center. His intent is clearly to run a broadband campaign. Being perceived as narrowcasting undermines this effort.

Yet the Clinton campaign, and the response Senator Obama needed to make, moved race to the forefront. The media incessantly focused on race during the past two weeks . (Is there anyone who doesn’t know blacks were expected to make up 50 percent of the vote in South Carolina?) And in their analysis of the results, it was the number one topic of discussion.

Senator Obama is aware of the danger and is already working hard to escape it. In his victory speech he returned repeatedly to his desire to be a president for all Americans. “The choice in this election is not about regions or religions or genders. It’s not about rich versus poor, young versus old and it’s not about black versus white. It’s about the past versus the future,” he said at one point in the speech. 

He also emphasized the support he received from South Carolina’s Latino population (never mind that represented less than two percent of the vote). And his staff was no doubt busy reminding reporters that he received 24 percent of the votes cast by white South Carolinians (Senator Edwards received 40 percent of their votes and Senator Clinton 36 percent according to the MSNBC exit poll). But the mere fact he had to make the effort — the mere fact I’m writing this post — underscores the bind he’s in.

If Senator Obama lets himself get pigeon holed he diminishes his electability. Americans don’t tend to elect presidents who are too identified with a single constituency. Former Governor Mike Huckabee is finding this out. He’s perceived as the candidate of the religious right, making it difficult for him to reach out to the broader electorate. He’s fallen from a statistical tie for the lead in Tuesday’s Florida primary to a more distant third.

Senator Obama has proven himself a savvy political pro. He had a restrained response to attacks from the Clinton campaign. This made clear who was going negative.  Then in the debate he pushed back hard. He demonstrated a resolve and toughness that, to many at the time, seemed to indicate the Clintons were “getting inside his head.” In reality, it was a reminder that he learned the art of politics in Chicago and was more than ready to play in the big leagues. While the bickering gave Senator Edwards, the “grown up” in the debate, a boost, it clearly didn’t hurt him with South Carolina voters.

Now the challenge for Senator Obama is to get the media talking about something other than race. His most potent strategy would be to deliver a couple of heavy duty policy statements between now and February 5th. The topics aren’t important, but the detail and substance will be. The benefits of this approach are two-fold.

First, it counters the “where’s the beef” charges Senators Clinton and Edwards are and will be challenging him on. They will claim he’s high on charisma, but lacking in substance. A boring, six point plan to solve an issue of the day blunts their attacks. Second, each policy speech forces the media to focus on what he’s saying for a news cycle. It makes them pay attention to Senator Obama the candidate — without any preceding modifier other than “one of the front runners.”

And leading up to February 5th, that would be a very good thing for his campaign. At least as good as a landslide in South Carolina.

Obama Needs to Reframe Health Care Reform Debate

In the Democratic presidential debate held in South Carolina on January 21st, Senator Barack Obama was put on the defensive over his health care reform package. Both Senator Hillary Clinton and former Senator John Edwards blasted Senator Obama for putting forward a proposal that fails to cover all Americans. Universal coverage, they claimed, is the Holy Grail of health care reform, at least in the Democratic Party.

And they’re right. Polls consistently show health care is one of the highest priority issues Democratic voters consider when selecting a candidate. Being perceived as the candidate who doesn’t care about universal coverage is not a recipe for success in Democratic primaries. By allowing Senators Clinton and Edwards to frame the debate as their universal coverage packages versus Senator Obama’s plan “that leaves 15 million Americans uninsured,” the Illinois Senator is at a severe disadvantage.

What’s surprising is that Senator Obama is on record as favoring universal coverage. Last year I wrote on my health care reform blog a post concerning a speech Senator Obama made to Families USA. In his talk, Senator Obama lamented the politics-as-usual approach to health care reform all too common in the nation’s capitol. “While plans are offered in every campaign season with ‘much fanfare and promise,’ they collapse under the weight of Washington politics, leaving citizens to struggle with the skyrocketing costs.”

Senator Obama told his audience that his goal would be to find a way to make universal coverage a reality, but warned it would probably take him four years to do it. As I wrote then, “By being agnostic about the means, a president could actually achieve the desired end. On the other hand, a president could take a ‘my way or the highway’ approach like the Clinton Administration did in the 1990s. The result from that effort: nothing much.”

Here it is, a full 12 months later. Senator Obama’s health care reform plan focuses on controlling costs. It does not require every American to purchase coverage, but instead tries to make the cost of coverage affordable for more Americans. There’s nothing wrong with that as a goal, especially if you’re plan is defined as part of a journey, not the ultimate destination.

There’s also nothing wrong with tying a mandate to buy coverage with a mandate for carriers to sell coverage to all applicants. Recent polls in California, where a health care reform package including these twin mandates is being considered by the State Senate, shows a majority of Democratic and Independent voters supporting this approach. Perhaps surprisingly, nearly four-in-ten Republicans back these requirements. This is also the road to universal coverage proposed by Senators Clinton and Edwards. 

The California reform debate suggests a way for Senator Obama to reframe the debate. Liberal and union opponents of the mandate to require individuals to buy insurance condemn the provision for forcing consumers to purchase something that may be beyond their means. Supporters argue there are safeguards and hardship exemptions that will prevent this.

Senator Obama needs to seize on the legitimate concern voters have that government safeguards don’t always work. He should say something along the lines of, “Senators Clinton and Edwards want to force you to buy health insurance and to trust them that it will be affordable. That’s putting the cart before the horse; trust before the proof. I’m saying ‘let’s prove we can make coverage affordable,’ then we’ll see if mandates are required. They’re forcing you to buy before you see the price tag. I’m going to show you the price tag first. Then we’ll continue to the march to universal coverage.”

This is consistent with his past statements. The key is to focus on his long term vision (which, I assume, includes universal coverage) while positioning his opponents as typical politicians who promise everything and ask voters to trust them to deliver. It’s a more complicated, nuanced message than the others have, but it’s better than simply accepting the charge that his health care reform plan is out of step with Democratic voters.

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Democrat’s Debate on Health Care Reform Echoes California’s

There were a lot of fireworks during the Monday night debate among the three major Democratic candidates. Some of the more interesting sparks involved health care reform. What struck me is how closely the debate echoed the health care reform wrangling taking place in California with Senator Hillary Clinton and former Senator John Edwards playing the role of Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Senator Barack Obama filling in for the legislature’s Democratic leadership.

The differences among the Democratic candidate’s health care reform plans are inconsequential when compared to those put forward by the Republican candidates for president. (The New York Times offers a quick summary of the proposals). But that’s not going to stop campaigns embroiled in a close nomination fight from emphasizing what differences do exist.

On one side: accessibility. The health care reform plans of Senators Clinton and Edwards emphasize universal coverage. Every American must be insured either through government programs, their employers, or purchasing their own medical plan. Senator Clinton went so far to say advocating anything less than universal coverage was contrary to the principles of the Democratic party.

This accessibility argument mirrors that of Governor Schwarzenegger, who back in January of last year made universal coverage one of the core principles of his health care reform plan. He fought hard to keep it in the compromise plan he reached with Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, Assembly Bill ABX1-1. As it is, he was unsuccessful. Studies indicate ABX1-1 will help 70 percent of California’s uninsured obtain coverage, not 100 percent. Think of it as “mostly” universal coverage.

Then there’s the other side: affordability. Senator Obama’s health care plan doesn’t require people to purchase coverage. He believes most Americans want medical insurance and would buy it if it was affordable. His plan focuses to a greater degree than do his opponents’ on the need to corral the spiraling cost of health care and of health insurance premiums.  

In leaving out the mandate to buy, Senator Obama’s reform package is similar to that introduced by Speaker Nunez and Senate President Pro Temp Don Perata more than a year ago, Assembly Bill 8. The proposal expanded coverage, but without the mandate to buy. It was, as the sponsors admitted, not universal coverage. The Democratic leadership, and their allies among Labor and liberal groups, thought it unfair to force people to buy coverage that might be priced beyond their means.

In Senator Clinton’s mind, apparently defines Speaker Nunez and Senator Perata, both of whom endorse her, as bad Democrats. (Whether it makes Governor Schwarzenegger a Clinton Republican is unknown).

In tonight’s debate, Senator Obama tried to cast the debate as one between access and affordability. He failed and he remained on the defensive. Calling for universal coverage is simply good politics, even if affordability is potentially the most potent public policy.

What finally bridged the gap in California was the introduction of an “affordability standard” to the mix. As initially introduced, the idea was to exempt individuals from the obligation of obtaining coverage if the cost of premiums and out-of-pocket expenses exceeded a specified percentage of their family’s income. The specifics of the affordability standard evolved during the negotiations, and it is still a source of continued contention. The concept, however, remains the same.

Senator Obama would to introduce an affordability standard into the presidential debte — and to specifically mention how it became a part of the California health care reform compromise. Doing so allows him to remain consistent to his priorities, while showing how his approach can lead to (near) universal coverage. And, of course, aligning himself with Speaker Nunez and Senator Perata before the February 5th primaries couldn’t hurt. Besides, it would be fun to see how Senator Clinton would explain how her Democratic Party litmus test includes the Legislative Leadership, but not her rival for the nomination.

Does Edwards Hold Key to Obama’s Success?

In the beginning (of the Democratic presidential nomination process) there was Senator Hillary Clinton and there was everyone else. Something happened along the way and the candidate voted Most Certain to Succeed found herself in a tough race. Senator Barack Obama has managed to stay close to the once and once-again front-runner. He’s likely to win in South Carolina next week, which will give his campaign a boost going into the February 5th elections when more than 20 states will select delegates. In fact, more than half the delegates attending the nominating convention will be determined that day.

February 5th can’t come soon enough for the Clinton campaign. With so many caucuses and primaries occurring on one day, the retail elections are over. This is the closest America comes to a national primary. And in this kind of election Senator Clinton has two advantages: 1) she’s the best known candidate and can boast of broad support everywhere; and 2) her opponents are divided. While her victory in Nevada shows she can win a majority of the votes in a state (with 98 percent of the Nevada’s precincts counted she has 51 percent to Senator Obama’s 45 percent. Interestingly, he’s likely to have earned one more delegate from today’s caucuses than did Senator Clinton).

February 5th is when Senator Clinton can put the nomination away. To do so, however, she’ll have to deflate the Obama boom. He’s got at least one, potential, advantage going into Super Tuesday. He’s built a significant lead in South Carolina, the last remaining primary between now and the first Tuesday in February. If he’s to have a chance that day, he’ll need the boost to his momentum only a victory in South Carolina can provide.

Former Senator John Edwards needs to win in South Carolina, too. He’s a native son of the state and it’s the only primary he won in his unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign. He represented the state’s northern neighbor for six years in the U.S. Senate. If he can’t win in South Carolina it’s unlikely he’ll win anywhere. And it’s unlikely he’ll win in South Carolina.

If New Hampshire taught us anything it’s not to believe in the polls. Which is why Senator Edwards will and should continue to make a strong effort there even though the polls show he’s a distant third in the state. Real Clear Politics is a web site that, among other things, tracks and averages polls throughout the country. Their average for the Democratic Primary in South Carolina has Senator Obama in the lead with 43.2 percent (how’s that for false precision? Poll results to the tenth percent!). Senator Clinton follows with 33.6 percent and Senator Edwards averages only 13.2 percent (to complete the picture, The surveys in the average were published within the week. In none of them did Senator Edwards pull in more than 15 percent support.

(Again, these are polls we’re talking about. Sometimes they’re right. The Real Clear Politics average for the Republican primary in South Carolina had Senator John McCain edging out former Governor Mike Huckabee 26.9 percent to 25.9 percent. Former Governor Mitt Romney was third with 14.7 percent followed by former Senator Fred Thompson with 14.6 percent. The results: with 95 percent of the precincts in, Senator McCain was ahead 33 percent to 30 percent for Governor Huckabee. Senator Thompson was third with 16 percent followed by Governor Romney with 15 percent. As I said, sometimes they’re right, but sometimes they’re wrong. The problem is we don’t know which is when until after the election.)

A lot can happen in a week. Senator Clinton may get a bump coming out of Nevada. One of the other candidates may stumble creating an opening for Senator Edwards. Under the radar negative campaigning may make a difference. Anything could happen.

But what will most likely happen is that Senator Edwards will finish a distant third. He’s pledged to stay in the race until the convention, but he has to say that, at least through next Saturday. If he were to hint he was calling it quits beforethe primary the result would be that many of his supporters would likely shift to a candidate they think can win.

So it’s not a question of what he says before South Carolina, it’s what he does afterward that matters. Staying in the race after a poor showing there would be, at best, quixotic and at worst egotistical. Some might argue that by continuing on he’ll garner enough delegates to deadlock the convention, making himself the king/queen maker. But that’s a long shot, especially since his staying in the race likely helps Senator Clinton sew up the nomination.

All three of the candidates have earned support based on their personalities, experience and policies. But let’s face it, some folks are supporting Senators Obama and Edwards because they don’t want to see Senator Clinton get the nomination. Right now this anti-Clinton vote is split, which works to her advantage. If Senator Edwards were out of the race, most of these voters would wind up backing Senator Obama.

It’s also likely more than a majority of Senator Edward’s true blue supporters consider Senator Obama their second choice. After all, their messages are very similar. It’s their styles and approach that differs greatly. Added to Senator Obama’s already substantial support these Edwards campaign refugees could make a difference in some states on February 5th. Perhaps enough of a difference to keep the Obama Brigade marching forward. And maybe enough to win him the nomination.

Of course, helping Senator Obama’s campaign may not be a consideration for Senator Edwards. He may not see much of a difference between him and Senator Clinton.

Or Senator Edwards may stay in the race beyond February 5th simply because that’s what he wants to do. It’s his right and his choice to make. It’s a decision that won’t make him the nominee, but it’s one that will likely influence who is.

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