Saturday, February 23, 2008

Bloody Politics II: Dicing McCain

My original prediction for the 2008 presidential election more than 15 months ago was 57-43 for the Democrat.

There's a decent chance that will stand up because John McCain is such a weak candidate.

This week's blow-up over Vicki Iseman underlines McCain's essential vulnerability.

The Candidate from Default, Arizona. Fundamentally, McCain is a default candidate of the Republican Party. First McCain, then Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and finally Mitt Romney were tried on by Republican voters before being discarded like cheap shirts. Of all the Republican candidates, McCain was not as unlikeable as Romney and not as ridiculous as "Rudy's Next Mistress" Giuliani or "Hard-Working" Fred Thompson.

Republican voters didn't really want him, but they ultimately decided to pick "Good-Old John" McCain off the floor and make him their nominee--by default.

The Democrats have a much better default candidate in Hillary Clinton. But it looks like the Dems are finding Barack Obama so electrifying that we're going to reach beyond the known in nominating our presidential candidate.

If there's one thing the nation knows about John McCain: he's no Barack Obama.

Sleeping with Lobbyists. In 2000, Vicki Iseman was a 32 year-old lobbyist who did not look like she had had her first plastic surgery yet. She might have had a face-lift or two since then though. There seems to be broad agreement among the MSM, right-wing blogs, and liberal bloggers that McCain probably did not have an affair with Iseman and that it might not have mattered if he did because McCain's connections with lobbyists or lying is the real issue.

I beg to differ.

McCain was in deep enough with Ms. Iseman that his staffers talked with him several times about the impropriety of their relationship and finally confronted her. The left blogs are saying that the problem was that McCain's connection with Iseman as a lobbyist wasn't consistent with his image as a reformer. But McCain is someone who is clearly comfortable with lobbyists. His main campaign guy for 2000 and 2008, Rick Davis, is a lobbyist. Longtime GOP lobbying bigshot Charlie Black is running his lobbying business from the back of McCain's bus this year. For his campaign people to confront him about the relationship with Iseman, they had to think Iseman was doing something besides lobbying McCain.

Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity.

I'll admit there's a chance that there was no sexual fire behind the smoke between McCain and Iseman. But not much of a chance.

My opinion is that the sexual innuendo involved in l'affaire Iseman has really damaged John McCain's candidacy. The idea of McCain having sex with a lobbyist resonates in a lot of ways. If the Obama campaign means anything, it means that Democrats, moderates, and independent voters want a clean break from the last generation of politics. McCain's involvement with Iseman is so damaging because it illustrates just how deeply McCain is tied to "the politics of the past."

First, there's the fact that McCain's an old-looking 71. The media always prints pictures of McCain that make him look younger and more vigorous than he really is. But it isn't working. One of the main knocks I hear about McCain is that he's "so" old and stories of him sleeping with a "40 year old lobbyist" reminds people of his age in a visceral and creepy kind of way.

Perhaps worse, the idea of an affair with Vicki Iseman reminds voters of the influence of big money over the last generation of office-holders in Washington. It reminds voters of the "old politics" of influence and corruption during Bill Clinton's and George W. Bush's presidencies. By raising his money primarily from the internet, Obama represents a break from "the politics of the past." In being seen as "sleeping with a lobbyist," McCain becomes a powerful embodiment of things about the past that voters want to think they're getting away from.

The other area where his involvement with Vicki Iseman hurts McCain is that it reminds voters of their disdain for Republican hypocrisy. The idea that McCain's in bed with a lobbyist who's young enough to be his daughter reminds voters of all the affairs that moralistic Republicans ranging from Newt Gingrich to Bob Livingston to Rudy Giuliani have had. People don't like adultery, but they especially dislike adultery from the party of evangelical sanctimony. McCain's never been an evangelical and he hasn't made much of an effort to fake it, but Iseman reminds many voters of their contempt for the influence of the religious right in the Republican Party.

The Monster Under McCain's Bed. The worst thing about the whole Iseman affair for McCain is that he has a lot of enemies and they look like they could be dishing dirt on McCain throughout the fall campaign. One of the amazing things about George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign was that Bush had never had enough of a falling out with his fraternity brothers, drinking buddies, or business associates that any of them talked to the media about Bush's days as a hard-drinking, coke-sniffing, party guy.

Not so with John McCain. As David Brooks points out, the person who went to the Times with this story had to have been in McCain's inner circle. Brooks speculates that the problem is the long-standing rivalry between mainstream McCain loyalists like campaign manager Rick Davis and reformist loyalists like John Weaver, but what matters here is that people who have grudges against John McCain have proven that they're willing to take their anger out by reporting embarrassing stories to the media.

This could be the real monster under McCain's bed. Given McCain's self-righteous tilting against the politics of money, his sucking up to the media, his volcanic temper, and the fact that he's been a Senator for 24 years, there must be a lot of people out there who with axes to grind against him. Seen from this perspective, the New York Times story on McCain's involvement with Vicki Iseman might be the first in a long series of juicy revelations about John McCain from the people who have scores to settle.

It could be a long nine months to the election for John McCain.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Bloody Politics 1: Slicing Obama

Notes from Blood Week in American Politics

1. Blooding Barack Obama. It's probably too late for Hillary to come back on delegates, but this is the first week in a long time that Barack Obama has really been bloodied by bad news.

The first two things that nicked Obama were his and his wife's doing. Obama plagiarized Duval Patrick for a passage in one of his speeches.

Borrowing three or four sentences of a distinct kind of formulation was morally wrong even if Patrick is a great friend of Obama's. But even if one accepts the excuses and justifications from the Obama camp, the idea that Obama has been lifting material for his speeches just doesn't sit right. Politicians might steal from each other all the time, but Obama is supposed to be smarter, slicker, and generally better than other politicians. It shouldn't have happened.

But the plagiarism wasn't a big deal by itself. In fact, Obama would have escaped damage altogether but for the fact that his wife Michelle foolishly made a reference to not being "proud" of America in one of her speeches. Part of the magic of the Obama candidacy is that he might end up moving political opinion to the left in the same way Reagan moved it to the right. But this kind of gaffe makes Obama look like the kind of elite, critical leftist that the right's been complaining about for years. I imagine Republican ad people were running various attack ads through their minds as soon as they heard about Michelle Obama's comments. After all, she was pretty much writing the ads for them.

Finally, Barack Obama stated last night that an army captain had told him that his unit had been forced to use captured Taliban weapons because they couldn't get replacements for their own weapons. After Obama was portrayed as very much mistaken about this, Jake Tapper of ABC called the army captain and got a confirmation on the lack of replacements and spare parts. But I don't think that ends the problem for Obama. The fact that Obama was the subject of "controversy" could end up damaging him the same way that Whitewater damaged Hillary Clinton even though there never was any evidence that he had done nothing well. As HRC has learned to her chagrin, just the fact that you're being attacked makes you look guilty.

Obama did the right thing with the information from Iraq. But it still might hurt him anyway.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Shrinking McCain Cuts Down No Obamas

These days when I think of John McCain, I find myself humming the Jimmy Dean song "Big Bad John."

"Big Joh-n-n, Big Bad John"

McCain has to be big and bad--a larger than life soldier, patriot, reformer, and embodiment of everything American--if he's going to beat the apparent Democratic candidate Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

But today, John McCain shrunk dramatically in stature yesterday as a result of New York Times and Washington Post revelations about his "relationship" with a 40 year old lobbyist named Vicki Iseman back in 2000.

Pictures of Ms. Iseman actually make her look much more like a Rudy Giuliani mistress than a "McCain Girl." Unfortunately for Ms. Iseman, Rudy was already involved with mistress Judy Nathan who became Mrs. Rudy no. 3 in 2000. It looks like Iseman settled for John McCain instead and that she was on her way to becoming Mrs. Big Bad John no.3 before she was derailed by McCain's staff.

That's what separates "patriotic and honorable" Republicans like Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, and John McCain from "despicable" men like Bill Clinton--they marry their mistresses instead of abandoning them.

Notes from Underground argues that McCain's campaign planted the leak to get the story out of the way during a dead spot in the Republican campaign.

That may be true, but I don't think the story is going away. I believe McCain's "stature" has been diminished enough that it will take a lot of work for him to recover.

To have a chance in the fall election, McCain has to look so good to voters that they'll ignore his support for the war, opposition to abortion rights, his heavy reliance on lobbyists for his campaign,. and a bunch of other problems. But he won't stand a chance of doing that if his stature is being constantly undercut by these revelations.

And my bet right now is that McCain is going to have a rough ride. He's made a lot of enemies over his last 10-15 years as a reform-oriented media hound and there's a good chance those enemies might start feeding the media with juicy McCain stories.

If that's the case, McCain won't have enough stature to even give Obama or Hillary a good fight.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Obama Wins Wisconsin--Plus a Side of Flies

Barack Obama won a big victory in Wisconsin tonight with a 58-41 margin.

If Obama also wins in one of his home states of Hawaii and Washington State's nonbinding primary, that will substantially narrow the chances for any Hillary comeback.

She pretty much has to win Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania and run the table on all the straggly primaries like my state of Kentucky to have a chance. I don't think super-delegates are going to put her over the top and also think it would be a disaster if they did. Think Hubert Humphrey backroom nomination in 1968 as an example of what being a less than fully legitimate Democratic nominee can get you.

Given that I've been supporting Hillary, all of this is a big disappointment.

That's partly because Hillary's running out of excuses for losing.

She could say that the Wisconsin's primary set up well for Obama because it was an open primary where independents and Republicans could vote on the Democratic side. Moreover, independents broke at least 2-1 for Obama.

But Wisconsin is a swing state and the fact that independents broke for Obama implies that they would be more likely to vote Democratic with Obama heading the ticket.

That's a good argument for Obama being the more electable Democrat against Republican middleweight John McCain.

But there are a couple of flies in the Obama ointment.

The plagiarism issue of Obama lifting passages from the speeches of Duval Patrick rankles. As someone who has evaluated a lot of plagiarism cases, Obama's use of the Patrick speech strikes me as dishonest. I've heard a lot of excuses about politicians stealing lines from each other and Patrick making excuses, but I still think it's wrong and that the issue could chip away at Obama's teflon coating.

Right-wing bloggers have also picked up on Michelle Obama saying that
For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country. And not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change. And I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction. And just not feeling so alone in my frustration and disappointment I've seen people who are hungry to be unified around some basic, common issues and it's made me proud.

It's poor form for any political figure to defy the norms of conventional patriotism in the U. S. It looks like this one might slide by in the glow of the Wisconsin victory, but Michelle Obama seems to be just as much a loose cannon as Hillary Clinton's husband.

That could blow up in Barack's face just like it blew up in Hillary's.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Plagiarism Problem for Obama?

Hmm. I picked up an item by John Nichols in a blog for The Nation about Barack Obama lifting passages from speeches by Masssachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. Nichols emphasizes that the story has been shopped around by people like Howard Wolfson from the Clinton campaign. As a result, I'll need some independent confirmation before I believe it.

However, Nichols does produce an interesting comparison between Obama and Patrick.

Here's Patrick in 2006 on the campaign trail in Massachusetts responding to a
foe's suggestion that he was long on rhetoric and short on substance:
"Her dismissive point, and I hear it a lot from her staff, is all I have to offer is words. Just words. 'We holds these truths to be self-evident -- that all men are created equal' -- just words. Just words. 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself' -- just words.'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country -- just words. 'I have a dream' -- just words."

Here's Obama speaking Saturday night to Wisconsin Democrats:
"Don't tell me words don't matter. 'I have a dream' -- just words. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal' -- just words. 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself' - just words. Just speeches."

I deal with plagiarism issues as a college professor who gives a lot of writing assignments. If a student had turned in something like this as a writing assignment, I would view them as doubly guilty of plagiarism. First, there is the use of Deval Patrick's formulations as though they were Obama's own thought or writing. This includes both the fragments from famous speeches like King's "I have a Dream" speech and the repetition of the phrase "just words" as a way to make Obama's main point about the importance of words. Obama is clearly using Patrick's words here. The second point of guilt is that Obama's speech adjusts Patrick's formulations in small ways that don't change the meaning of the words but make the speech appear to be his own.

I'm not sure about the ethics of plagiarism in speech-making. I know Joe Biden got ripped for lifting stuff out of a Neil Kinnock speech during his previous try for the presidency in 1988. But the issue is complicated here by the fact that speeches by presidential candidates are often fully or partially written by speech-writers. If Obama plagiarized the formulations from Patrick's speech himself, there's a problem. If an Obama speech-writer or intern lifted the stuff from Patrick, the problem is with Obama's staff and not so much with the candidate himself.

It will be interesting to see if the story has legs.

McCain Wants Bush to Be Quayle

During the 2006 Congressional campaigns, I wrote about the way the Republicans used the unpopular and disgraced current president, George Bush, as a Dan Quayle look-alike, scheduling him to rally the troops in the smallest, most out-of-the-way Republican strongholds.

It appears that the McCain Campaign wants to do the same thing. According to the New York Times:
. . . look for Mr. Bush to make solo appearances on behalf of Mr. McCain before evangelicals and in Republican pockets across the country, and to campaign in places where there are important races for the House and Senate, like Idaho and Kansas, which will not be critical destinations for the Republican nominee.

Maybe McCain will have a rule about W not making appearances in towns larger than five hundred. That way, Bush won't embarrass him so much.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Master Mentality and Obama

After Barack Obama's victory in South Carolina, the crowd in Columbia chanted "Race doesn't matter!" and the candidate himself expanded on the theme, arguing that
"his victory disproved those who argue that people "think, act and even vote within the categories that supposedly define us . . . I did not travel around this state and see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina. I saw South Carolina," he said. The election, he said, "is not about rich versus poor or young versus old, and it's not about black versus white. This election is about the past versus the future."
Unfortunately, the past seems to be reasserting itself even as Obama edges into the lead for the Democratic nomination. There's a set of Obama jokes that reiterate the master mentality among whites by posing Obama in the role of omniscient servant.

For example, there is a web site at that has Barack Obama widgets like "Barack Obama thought you could use some chocolate," "Barack Obama warmed up your car for you," or "Barack Obama offered you his seat." On this site, Obama is represented as a kind of super-cool, androgynously handsome version of the butler played by Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day. There's something typically but still disconcertingly white in all of this. The implicit expectation is that Barack Obama would be doing favors and service for white people and that white people are people who can normally expect to be served by black people even if those black people are super-hot presidential candidates. If you're white, Obama will warm up your car, get you some coffee, and find out the weather for you before you even know you need these things done.

I'm surprised they didn't say Obama would shine their shoes.

The link for the widget site came from an article by Slate's John Dickerson on Obama. For Dickerson, this is a matter of whether Obama can become "too cool."

But how could Obama bringing me hot chocolate be too cool?

Dickerson has a couple other examples of the Barack Obama "super-servant":
And on the New York subway Friday morning, one of our copy editors, Ellen Tarlin, heard one woman joke to another: "Obama, will you pick me up after my noninvasive minor surgical procedure?" To which the other replied: "Obama, will you hold my hair back when I puke?"
I'm not sure what to make of this yet. One thing I'm interested in is whether these kinds of people are going to vote for Obama. In a way, I don't see any reason why they shouldn't. But if that's the case, it's a sign of how far we're getting away from the faux macho of the Bush era. It's also an indication of how deeply entrenched the white master mentality is even in those who'll be voting for a black president.