Posts about Politics

Spitzer screwed

Hoo-boy, is this going to be a story. We forget, though, that politicians are the most human of humans. They are at the base of base motivations.

Questions are not attacks

Hillary Clinton’s ringing phone commercial has been called an attack ad. It’s not. Since when is questioning a candidate’s qualifications and comparing them to your own an attack? If even discussion of experience and ability becomes politically incorrect, our politics are in deep trouble. Qualifications and policies should be the essence of a campaign.

I heard that commercial referred to as an attack ad when I was interviewed the other night for More 4 news in London and I see it again in David Brooks’ column today. No, an attack ad is one the goes after character instead of qualification, one that tries to create scandal as political leverage, one that’s nasty rather than informative. We know attack ads when we see them. This is no attack ad.

Brooks is arguing that Obama’s campaign faces a fundamental choice: to continue to argue that he can bring a politics of reconciliation to Washington or to lose that, the essence of his campaign, and go on the attack. If, indeed, the Obama camp launches attack ads, that’s true.

But let’s not mistake substantive debate for attack. It’s legitimate for Clinton to question Obama’s experience and abilities in foreign affairs. And it’s legitimate for Obama to question various of Clinton’s qualification. And I do wish they’d discuss differences on issues and policies at every opportunity. Out of that debate comes a better election.

I’ll define the Obama campaign’s problem a bit differently from Brooks: They will be drawn to specifics on both qualifications and policies now, specifics they have masterfully avoided so far in their puffy clouds of rhetoric.

Brooks argues that the lesson here may be that you can’t change politics. That may well be true. But I don’t think Obama is teaching us that lesson. I’ve been saying that he has been running the ultimate political campaign, one built on political rhetoric and style over substance. But Brooks comes around to nearly this view at the end:

In short, a candidate should never betray the core theory of his campaign, or head down a road that leads to that betrayal. Barack Obama doesn’t have an impressive record of experience or a unique policy profile. New politics is all he’s got. He loses that, and he loses everything. Every day that he looks conventional is a bad day for him.

Besides, the real softness of the campaign is not that Obama is a wimp. It’s that he has never explained how this new politics would actually produce bread-and-butter benefits to people in places like Youngstown and Altoona.

If he can’t explain that, he’s going to lose at some point anyway.

So if he is forced to explain that and if he does it well, it could actually be good for him. Depends on what he has to say. And now we have five months to hear it. I think that’s a good thing for the campaign.

(Repeated disclosure: I voted for Clinton.)

Don’t bet on them

It’s amazing that reporters love horse-race coverage since they’re so damned lousy at it. Hillary Clinton has the nomination locked up. Rudy Giuliani is the sure nominee. Mike Huckabee is surging for the long haul. John McCain’s campaign is dead. Mitt Romney’s the one to beat. Hillary Clinton’s campaign is dead. Everything’s over last night.

Any idiot can bet on a horse and lose. And there’s a word for them. Losers.

Obamania

I’m a day late linking to an amusing skewering of Obamania by David Brooks in yesterday’s Times. He writes about Obama Comedown Syndrome.

Up until now The Chosen One’s speeches had seemed to them less like stretches of words and more like soul sensations that transcended time and space. But those in the grips of Obama Comedown Syndrome began to wonder if His stuff actually made sense. . . .

Barack Obama vowed to abide by the public finance campaign-spending rules in the general election if his opponent did. But now he’s waffling on his promise. Why does he need to check with his campaign staff members when deciding whether to keep his word?

Obama says he is practicing a new kind of politics, but why has his PAC sloshed $698,000 to the campaigns of the superdelegates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics? Is giving Robert Byrd’s campaign $10,000 the kind of change we can believe in?

If he values independent thinking, why is his the most predictable liberal vote in the Senate? A People for the American Way computer program would cast the same votes for cheaper.

And should we be worried about Obama’s mountainous self-confidence?

These doubts lead O.C.S. sufferers down the path to the question that is the Unholy of the Unholies for Obama-maniacs: How exactly would all this unity he talks about come to pass?

Journalists’ votes matter

Media have an Obama problem they’re going to have to grapple with now or after the election: They love him. They hate Hillary. And the gap between the two is clearly seen in coverage, which surely is having an impact on the election.

This, to me, only gives more weight to the argument that journalists should be disclosing their allegiances and votes. Reporters are not just covering the story. This year, they are part of the story. The ethic of transparency that I have learned online and that journalists apply to everyone they cover should also apply to them. I say that journalists have a responsibility to reveal their own views and votes — even as they endeavor to report apart from them with fairness, completeness, accuracy, and intellectual honesty — and we have a right to judge their success or failure accordingly as we also have a right to judge their roles in the stories they are covering.

No, I don’t buy for a second that journalists don’t have opinions. They’re human. To say that they are above opinions is just another means for journalists to separate themselves from the public they serve, to act as if they are different, above us. But journalists couldn’t do their jobs if they didn’t have opinions, if they didn’t have a reason to do this story over that, if they didn’t have a goal. Yet this is the fiction some journalists tell when they try to prove they are opinionless by not voting. As far as I’m concerned, that’s only evidence that they are trying to delude themselves or us.

And this year, the media’s role in the Obama wave is an angle of the story that itself warrants reporting. Says Bill Clinton:

The political press has avowedly played a role in this election. I’ve never seen this before. They’ve been active participants in this election.

Don’t you want to know the opinions of the political press? Don’t you want to be able to judge their reporting accordingly? what makes them think that they can and should hide that from us?

* * *

Terence Smith wrote a dead-on column about the delta between negative Hillary and positive Obama coverage:

The coverage of Hillary during this campaign has been across-the-board critical, especially since she began losing after New Hampshire. . . .

And her campaign has taken the tough-love approach with the reporters who cover it, frequently ostracizing those they think are critical or hostile. That kind of aggressive press-relations strategy may sometimes be justified, but it rarely effective. Reporters are supposed to be objective and professional. But they are human. They resent the cold shoulder, even if they understand the campaign’s motivation.

The result is coverage that is viscerally harsh: her laugh is often described as a “cackle.” Her stump speech is dismissed as dry and tiresomely programmatic. She is accused of projecting a sense of entitlement, as though the presidency should be hers by default, that it is somehow now her turn to be president. When she makes changes in her campaign hierarchy, she is described as “desperate.” . . .

And on Obama:

By contrast, has the coverage of Obama been overly sympathetic? Have reporters romanticized the junior Senator from Illinois? Have they glamorized him and his wife? Did they exaggerate the significance of Ted Kennedy’s endorsement? Have they given him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his meager experience?

Of course they have.

His rise to front-runner is described as meteoric, his speeches as mesmerizing, his crowds as enraptured, his charisma as boundless. Obama is characterized as the second-coming of JFK, etc. etc. It is all a bit much.

On NPR, media watcher David Folkenflik says:

Many reporters admit privately that they feel differently about the two candidates. And there’s a phrase that’s surfaced to described the phenomenon that’s afflicted MSNBC’s [Chris] Matthews: the Obama swoon.

And why should reporters get away with saying that privately? I want a camera in the voting booth with Chris Matthews — he of the too-frequent too-late apologies — to verify the obvious. I want to know how they’re voting.

But some journalists try to evade that legitimate question by not voting, as if that absolves them of opinions and blame. Len Downie, editor of the Washington Post — and by that evidence, a damned good editor he is — has long argued that by not voting he keeps himself pure: “Yes, I do not vote. . . . I wanted to keep a completely open mind about everything we covered and not make a decision, even in my own mind or the privacy of the voting booth, about who should be president or mayor, for example.”

Sorry, but I still don’t buy that and I fear that excuse is seeping down to others in his staff. Here is the Post’s Chris Cillizza — a fine political correspondent himself — arguing that not voting makes him objective:

. . . [O]bjectivity in covering these races means that you stay objective before, during and after the contests. As, or perhaps more, importantly, however, is the obsession among some people to sniff out a reporter’s “secret” political leanings. Time and time again, I find people commenting on this blog and elsewhere accusing me of having a pro-Clinton or pro-Obama or pro-McCain or pro-someone else viewpoint. I know in my hearts of hearts that I don’t have any of those biased viewpoints, but if I did vote — even in a local or county election — it would add fuel to the fire of those folks who think I am a secret partisan.

I have to say I smelled some Obama roses blooming in this from Cillizza on Howie Kurtz’ show:

KURTZ: Chris Cillizza, you could argue about whether this Kennedy endorsement was a big deal, but what a collective swoon by the media — ask not why this was such a big story. Are they totally buying into Obama as the new JFK?

CILLIZZA: Well, you know, I do think, Howie, that in the Democratic Party, people have been waiting for the next JFK. A lot of people thought or maybe believed it was Bill Clinton. And I think Barack Obama is the next obvious heir to that legacy. It’s a powerful story, and I think as much as the media gets accused of bias, in the decade I’ve spent in it, I don’t think it’s bias as much as it is good storylines. And I will be frank — this is a very interesting, fascinating storyline….

If you are looking for the next John F. Kennedy, I believe he is it.

After a line like that, there is good reason to ask where his heart is. You can stay away from the voting booth but that doesn’t make you into the Tinman.

I agree with John Harris, head of Politico, who calls this a tedious argument — “a subset of the most endless and least satisfying debate in the whole profession: Is true objectivity ever possible?” Harris does vote — sometimes.

It is admirable that [Politico colleagues] Mike and Jim cleave to a scientific ideal of journalistic detachment, the way a surgeon cannot tolerate even the slightest bacteria on his instruments. Their piety on this subject is especially notable in an era when traditional lines governing journalism (or even who counts as a journalist in the first place) have blurred, and many new arrivals to the business don’t care at all about old notions of neutrality and fair-minded presentation.

But Jim is right that I find his obsession a bit silly — and a bit self-deluded. . . .

My belief is that being a journalist for an ideologically neutral publication like Politico, or the Washington Post, where I used to work, does not mean having no opinions. It means exercising self-discipline in the public expression of those opinions so as not to give sources and readers cause to question someone’s commitment to fairness.

But Harris turns around and says he didn’t vote in the primary because he didn’t want to declare a party and then have readers make assumptions about where he stands. So he’s pulling the same trick: He’s trying to hide his opinions. Isn’t that a form of deception by omission? Isn’t it at least coy?

I like his scientific analogy but I’ll take it a different way: A scientist surely has desires. A doctor studying cancer naturally wants to cure it; she’s against cancer. That doctor has opinions and beliefs, hypotheses to prove or disprove. But intellectual honestly will demand disproving a hypothesis that is wrong even if she believed it to be true. One can have opinions and still be factual, fair, honest, truthful. Indeed, it is easier to judge that scientist’s work by knowing what she’s looking for.

Steve Baker of Business Week goes one step farther:

I think it’s impossible for a person who thinks about politics, and cares about it, not to prefer one candidate to another. It’s fine for journalists not to broadcast our political views, but why pretend that we don’t have them? What’s important is to be fair. And if we want to keep our views secret, well that’s why it’s good that voting booths have curtains.. . .

I don’t think either Harris or Baker goes far enough. I believe that journalists should vote. They are citizens — and some get mad at me when I refer to amateurs as citizen journalists because they demand the label, too. They are human, too — they have opinons. They also have ethics that demand that they try to be — repeating the list of verities — fair, honest, complete, intellectually honest and I believe most hold to that. But now add the ethics of transparency and openness — and trust in the public you serve — and I believe that especially this year, journalists owe it to us to tell us what they’re thinking. The only thing worse than an agenda is a hidden agenda.

: I didn’t think it was necessary to append this to every post on the topic but judging by the comments, it couldn’t hurt: I voted for Clinton in the primaries.

The cult of change

Paul Krugman today on the Obamaniacs:

I won’t try for fake evenhandedness here: most of the venom I see is coming from supporters of Mr. Obama, who want their hero or nobody. I’m not the first to point out that the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality. We’ve already had that from the Bush administration — remember Operation Flight Suit? We really don’t want to go there again.

Hands off, Howard

Howard Dean says he is thinking about trying to avoid a brokered convention. How? By brokering a deal between the candidates this summer. The last person I want picking our nominee is Howard “Loser” Dean. That and the disenfranchisement of voters in Florida and Michigan is just too much interference from the party, separating voters from our right to choose. Leave it alone, Doctor.

: LATER: Now I see that Dean is pushing Florida and Michigan to hold second primaries. That’s offensive. The voters in both states already voted. By redoing it, I’d bet Dean would be advantaging Obama, he of the momentum. I repeat: disenfranchising the voters in these two dates is undemocratic and unDemocratic and trying to change their votes is even worse. I knew that Dean as the head of the party would be trouble.

Join the chorus

(This is crossposted from Comment is Free, where the comments are always interesting. It repeats a bit of what I said here yesterday and replaces and expands on an earlier post.)

The contrast in Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns — and their voters — is starkly illustrated in their Super Tuesday speeches.

Obama is the orator, Clinton the manager. Obama’s crowd behaves like a devoted cult Clinton’s like a well-behaved class. Obama has succeeded — with considerable help from media — at portraying his campaign as a movement, while Clinton’s is, well, a campaign.

Obama’s 21 minutes:

My problem with his campaign is also illustrated in this speech. Though he catalogues his issues — Iraq, health care, the standard list — his message is made up of little more than stock marketing taglines. He’s not so much running for office as branding himself.

Listen to last night’s medley of his greatest hits: “Our time has come… Our movement is real… Change is coming to America… We are more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and always will be the United States of America… This time can be different…. Not this time. Not this year…. This time we have to seize the moment…. This fall, we owe the American people a real choice…. We have to choose between change and more of the same, we have to choose between looking backwards and looking forward. We have to choose between our future and our past…. We can do this… We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek…. Yes we can…. Yes we can….” Cue crowd chanting: “Yes we can…”

His supporters, including many New York friends of mine, buy his image and believe he is less political and that he is indeed different. I think he’s more political and his campaign is the greatest example of the selling of the president I’ve yet seen. To state it harshly, I say that relying on these stock phrases — believing that we are going to swallow empty oratory about “change” punctuated with chants of “yes we can” — is a cynical political act.

But then again, I can’t argue with the fact that it’s working. It’s working with voters and it’s certainly working with the media, which have given Obama more attention through much of the campaign. Here’s a chart from Daylife showing Obama getting more coverage even as they racked up equivalent delegate counts.as Clinton amasses more delegates.picture-30.png

Media like Obama’s story. It’s a better story, they say. That is, if the real story is about personality and oratory over issues and competence. See this discussion about some Kennedys’ endorsement of Obama (note not about other Kennedys’ endorsement of Clinton) between the Washington Post’s media critic, Howard Kurtz, and political correspondent, Chris Cillizza, on CNN:

KURTZ: Chris Cillizza, you could argue about whether this Kennedy endorsement was a big deal, but what a collective swoon by the media — ask not why this was such a big story. Are they totally buying into Obama as the new JFK?

CILLIZZA: Well, you know, I do think, Howie, that in the Democratic Party, people have been waiting for the next JFK. A lot of people thought or maybe believed it was Bill Clinton. And I think Barack Obama is the next obvious heir to that legacy. It’s a powerful story, and I think as much as the media gets accused of bias, in the decade I’ve spent in it, I don’t think it’s bias as much as it is good storylines. And I will be frank — this is a very interesting, fascinating storyline….

If you are looking for the next John F. Kennedy, I believe he is it.

You can hear him aching to cover to the Second Coming of the Kennedy. That is obviously a better story than the Second Coming of the Clintons.

Now watch the brief clip of Clinton’s Super Tuesday speech posted on YouTube by her campaign. She delivers the same essential message and about the exact same issues but without the chanting and cheering behind her – without the excitement:

When I complained on my blog that I want to hire a manager not a spiritual adviser for the White House — especially after eight years of grossly incompetent management from someone who thought he had a cause — my commenters responded with their dreamy wishes for an uplifting Obama administration instead. Said one: “I don’t want an executive, I want someone to stoke the fires of political engagement so that the people will be involved in thier government again.” Said another: “We don’t want an executive to lead us – we want someone who will amplify our voices and give us the ability to reach into government.” Nevermind the job title is chief executive.

Indeed, commenter Andrew Tyndall argued that management is a turnoff: “The virtue that many Democrats in the party’s base hail as ‘competent management’ is an attribute that many non-Democrats may see as the vice of being ‘wedded to bureaucracy.’ It may be that a liberal Democrat who talks in generalities, rather than specifics, has an easier time persuading those voters who are reflexively against big government that he does not have the heart and soul of a bureaucrat — or ‘manager’ to use BuzzMachine’s less pejorative term.”

So I appear to be the odd man out. Maybe I should just join the chorus. Ch-ch-ch-changes:

(Disclosures: I am a partner at Daylife. And I voted for Clinton yesterday.)