Thursday, October 09, 2003

Phoenix Debate Wrap-Up

You may think that as a political junkie, I love the debates. I don't. With so many candidates on one stage, the ninety minute format is a joke. No one is really allowed to shine and it's far too easy for people--and comments--to slip through the cracks. For me, it's like covering a Saturday's worth of baseball games in one article rather than taking apart each game individually. That said...

Edwards won. Hands down. He's personable, smart, and confident. More importantly, he pitches policy without coming off as wonky. Even when he's taking on an opponent, it doesn't come off as mean-spirited.

There's a good number of us out there who either cannot fathom why he is not catching on or keep predicting that he's just on the cusp of catching on. Consider me part of the latter. I've been wrong about it in the past, but I've got to say I think it's still coming for John Edwards. My wife points to the fact that he's young, that maybe it's not yet his time. It's a good point, but since when has the Democratic base rejected a candidate because he was too young?

General Wesley Clark was the man to watch tonight. Everyone expected the attacks to begin and boy did they! Basically, the line is that A) Clark supported Bush when it was already clear what a right-wing failure he was shaping up to be; and B) Clark did not always stand against the Iraq war as he has claimed.

The way I see it, in 2001 Wes Clark was making money by giving speeches. He made an unfortunate decision to give one of those speeches in May of that year to a Republican group. He said some nice things about the Bush foreign policy team. Someone videotaped it. When Clark announced he was running for the Democratic nomination, that tape was released to the press and the other Democrats jumped on it.

A few things are overlooked here. 1. Professional speakers often say nice things about the people who pay them. Clark's choice to accept this speaking engagement and compliment Team W represents poor judgment, but not much else. Especially if you take him at his word when he says that he voted for both Clinton and Gore. 2. Who the hell circulated that tape among the press? Republicans. Why the hell doesn't anyone question that? 3. The fact that Clark has not always been the most faithful Democrat is not going to hurt him in the general election. Among the Democratic base, isn't one of his biggest draws the fact that he has appeal to independents and even conservatives? 4. Since when do progressives and liberals mind party-switchers anyway? Arianna? Jeffords? Hello? It seems a little disingenuous to me.

Clark weathered the criticism well, but he and his campaign need to get out in front of the issue ASAP. He should make a joke of it or something. "I was young and I needed the money!" SOMETHING! We understand that he criticized some of Bush's policies at the same speech and that he was just talking about the promise of Bush's foreign policy team with his praise. But he needs to put down the critics once and for all if he's to hold on to his national lead and make gains in key primary states. After all, up until a few months ago, Lieberman was the one holding that same national lead.

I know everyone loves Howard Dean, but I'm beginning to have a little trouble understanding why. As Jon Stewart has famously pointed out, he's got trouble smiling. And there were a few points--the revealing of the backstage Kerry memo was one--where Dean affected his 'there they go again' laugh. I'll be damned if it's not one of the least believable tics any of the candidates has taken to relying on. And even though I know it wasn't part of the debate and it's now old news and I'm just pouring salt on an old wound... the Philadelphia Jets, Howard? All of you guys are reaching hard for that "NASCAR dad" vote. Forget taking over Graham's sponsorship of a race car to prove he isn't effete. Dean needs to watch "SportsCenter" a few times a week if he hopes to even begin having credibility with that demographic.

And speaking of John Kerry's little backstage surprise, claiming that then-Governor Howard Dean tried to deny prescription drug benefits to Vermont seniors... what a cheap trick! I'm just not sure whose cheap trick it was. All of the campaigns distribute short memos on their candidates or their candidates' platforms or their candidates' debate performances throughout the debates. That's a given. But for Woodruff and CNN to work it into the actual debate? They may have thought they were doing Kerry a favor, but it certainly didn't make him look good.

Kerry of course, opened the debate with the phrase, "when I served in Vietnam on a small boat," and I pretty much tuned him out from there. I'm sorry. I know that's not professional. But I just can't seem to get over the feeling that Kerry's speaking to me in semi-meaningless platitudes goosed with uninspiring Kennedyisms.

Once again, Dick Gephardt had fantastic lines, but people still don't seem to be enthused. Unlike Edwards, I understand it. He looks kind of awkward and his policies seem a little too out-there to be credible as general election vote-grabbers. "You remember on your report card... [where] it said, plays well together? [Bush] flunked that part." Great stuff, but the White House isn't won on quips and union endorsements alone.

Joltin' Joe Lieberman. Ah, what can I say about him? He got mean again tonight--Clark was the target this time--and he doesn't wear it well. Especially when he's questioning Clark's credentials as a Democrat. Maybe if he didn't hang out with Bill Bennett so much, I'd buy it. He tried to play nice, saying that even though he disagreed with them, he respected Sharpton, Moseley Braun, Kucinich, and Dean for being consistently anti-war. But he was just using that as a cover to slam Clark (and to a lesser extent Kerry), so it wasn't really credible anyway. And he's not quite as funny as he thinks he is. Therefore, I'm voting Joe off the island.

But Al Sharpton is funny. And he's smart. Not to mention nice. And most importantly, he's got presence. No offense Terry, but I think our new chairman has arrived. He's grabbed the reins at crucial times during all of the debates he's attended with a command that has surprised even the most anti-Sharpton among us. His defense of Edwards bringing up his working-class upbringing was better than Edwards own defense of himself! A kid from the mills showing a kid from the streets how to rise up and make something of himself. That's the type of thing that really inspires Democrats--and all populists--on a real gut level. Sadly, Sharpton has little chance of winning the primary and even less of winning the general, so I've got to suggest he exit gracefully.

Which brings me to Dennis Kucinich and Carol Moseley Braun. My advice to them? Drop out. Dennis: Your brand of leftism is not as popular as you think it is. If it were, Ralph Nader would be President. And Carol: You do not deserve to be President on the merit that you are not a man. I'm not saying you don't deserve it on the basis that you're a woman, mind you. Just that the fact that you're a woman is not some sort of super-qualifier.

posted by Scott | 10/09/2003 | |

Recall Fallout

As you all know, I wasn't too keen on writing about the California recall. That's not to say I wasn't following it. I just wasn't sure how it fit in with the topic of getting the Democratic Party back into the White House. To be sure, the recall will impact the race for the White House. It just isn't 100% clear how.

Some, like Linda Goldston of the San Jose Mercury News believe Arnold's election might help Bush in 2004. She cites the analysis of GOP consultant Dan Schnur who says Schwarzenegger's appeal to both fiscally conservative, socially moderate "soccer moms" (and dads) and working class, socially conservative "NASCAR dads" will help drag voters into Bush's column.

On "Hardball" the night of the election, former communist and now angry conservative pundit David Horowitz declared that California, "is back in play." He also went on the record as saying that the California election "could put New York in play" as well as "states like Wisconsin and Minnesota."

So basically, the argument is that Arnold Schwartzenegger proves to Democratic-leaning voters in the center that the GOP is actually a big-tent party with plenty of room for moderates and even social liberals.

Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a bigger name than George Pataki, Christie Whitman, or Tom Ridge, but the fact of the matter is that none of these socially moderate governors could not deliver their states to the GOP in 2000. New York and New Jersey are especially important to consider because, like California, they consistently elect Democrats to the Senate.

Essentially, the GOP argument hinges on the assumption that undecided voters are stupid. "If we hold up moderates as our party's stars," they seem to be saying, "then we can put Tom DeLay and George W. Bush in charge of policy and no one will be the wiser."

But this just doesn't work out. Look at the New Jersey gubernatorial race in November of 2001. Mere weeks after almost 700 New Jersey residents died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a progressive Democrat was elected governor. This was as George W. Bush's approval ratings were sky-high and the war on terror had begun.

The message? Voters aren't stupid. Democrat Jim McGreevey handed the far-right Republican candidate Bret Schundler a serious loss, despite heavy stumping by Team W. Even though New Jersey voters may have been ready to change their minds and re-elect Dubya, they could tell the difference between the real thing and a proxy.

And it's not just progressives like me who think that the "California is back in play" line is wishful thinking at best. Conservative columnist George Will called the election outcome a "travesty." He argues that the recall gives credence to the theory widely held among Democrats that the GOP will play to win at any cost, even if it means recounts and recalls. (Don't forget redistricting, Mr. Will. That's the extralegal tactic the GOP has used in Colorado and Texas.) Also, in 2004, Team W can no longer blame California's problems on an unpopular Democrat. One of their own will have been in charge of the state's strained economy for almost exactly a year.

So cheer up, Dems! We may have lost Sacramento (for now), but things are looking good for our chances to retake Washington.

posted by Scott | 10/09/2003 | |

Clark To Return Speaking Fees

General Wesley Clark has been giving paid speeches for the better part of the last four years now, but since he's opened his Presidential bid, questions have arisen over whether Clark should continue to give paid speeches during his campaign. The campaign lawyers initially gave him the go-ahead. After all, the speeches were booked long before Clark was an official candidate.

However, there has been some criticism in recent days of Clark for accepting payment for these speeches--especially the ones delivered at universities. There's a distinct FEC rule that bars candidates from accepting money from universities for campaign events.

As Clark apparently learned from Bill Clinton, when questions are raised, answer them and move on. Thus, he has agreed to return all of the payments he's received since declaring his candidacy and will no longer make paid speeches. It's a wise move to clear the air and nip in the bud a potentially sticky situation later on down the line.

Now we have to see what else they're going to throw at candidate Clark.

posted by Scott | 10/09/2003 | |

Oh the Irony!

Bob Graham may be out of the running, but his ads are still out there. This probably gives us a peak into just how much of a surprise Graham's departure from the race really was. The ad links to the URL which redirects to a page on the Graham site. (Which, I should point out, is still active.)

Ignoring the fact that Graham's no longer a candidate for the Presidency, I suggest checking out the site and considering signing the petition.

posted by Scott | 10/09/2003 | |

So THAT'S The Problem With The Kerry Campaign...

A new Washington Post article clears up some of the confusion about the Kerry campaign. Namely, the confusion over why the guy isn't the candidate in person he is on paper.

We all know there are some big names running the campaign. Jim Jordan and Bob Shrum are the most obvious, but a recent addition to the campaign is former NH Governor Jeanne Shaheen. But there have been losses, too. Kym Spell left the campaign to later wind up working as Wesley Clark's spokeswoman. More high profile a resignation than Spell's, however, was that of communications director Chris Lehane. Lehane left the Kerry campaign in a very public dispute with Shrum over how to handle Howard Dean. Or so we thought.

Turns out, when Kerry was readying his official announcement speech, he rejected the one written for him by Jim Jordan and Chris Lehane in favor of an unbeknownst-to-everyone-else version penned by Bob Shrum. Gee, maybe that didn't sit to well with Mr. Lehane?

Either way, Lehane's gone and it exposes a bit of a problem in the Kerry campaign. He never seemed to have one answer for why he voted for the Iraq resolution. The easy speculation, post-Post article, is that he's been getting so many varied answers from his staff, he doesn't quite know which way to go. And that is exactly the kind of flip-flopping that has really damaged Kerry among the base.

posted by Scott | 10/09/2003 | |

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Wes Clark's Campaign Manager Quits

And you thought tonight was going to be all about California...

Clark campaign manager Donnie Fowler has quit the campaign based on conflicts with communications adviser Mark Fabiani and policy adviser Ron Klain. Fowler reportedly felt that the Draft Clark crew was not being listened to by Washington insiders Fabiani and Klain.

People who have been watching and/or involved with the Draft Clark movement and/or the Clark campaign think this is a really big deal. I respectfully disagree based on a few criteria.

1. California. The news that Donnie Fowler jumped ship will be totally squashed--even among political newshounds--by the news that The Terminator is now the governor of California.

2. Donnie Who? The Clark campaign is so young that a defection like this is not really going to make waves among most primary voters. It's not as if Fowler has been with Clark for a year or more, helping him to build major political infrastructure around the country. It's also not as if Fowler was a part of the Draft Clark team. He was just as much a Washington insider as Fabiani and Klain. If he were more of a grassroots campaign worker, Fowler's departure would be much more weighty.

3. What Clark Controversy? Despite what some of Clark's close watchers may think, most people (and by people, I mean Democratic primary voters) do not have the conflict between the Draft Clark folks and the official Clark campaign folks on their radar. It's an intriguing story for insiders, but that's it.

The only way I see this becoming a real problem for the Clark campaign is if it continues. And if it does, then it's a story.


The good news for the Clark campaign tonight is that, even though they lost Fowler, they gained Simmons. Jamal Simmons, who resigned from the Graham campaign just last week, has joined the Clark campaign as traveling press secretary.

posted by Scott | 10/08/2003 | |

Monday, October 06, 2003

Exit, Bob Graham

Sitting Senator and former Governor Bob Graham of Florida has ended his bid for the White House tonight on CNN's "Larry King Live." This should come as no surprise to readers of this blog (or most others, for that matter). Graham trailed in the polls, he trailed in fundraising, and he never seemed to gain the kind of momentum that has boosted Dean, Edwards, Kerry, and Clark at different points in the campaign.

Graham was a powerful and outspoken critic of the Bush administration's foreign policy far before it was fashionable. Though he's somewhat of a hawk, Graham voted against the Iraq war. As former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, he's seen as hugely credible on foreign policy and intelligence issues.

Senator Graham took some ribbing from the media earlier this year for keeping meticulous notes in his journal including such mundane details as specifics on his grooming and eating habits. But perhaps another habit of Graham's should have been more widely recognized by the chattering classes. For over a quarter century, Graham has undertaken "workdays" where he takes an every-day job to gain a better understanding of the kind of work his constituents do. Say what you will about Graham, it's an admirable thing to do.

Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of Graham's announcement is that he did not confirm that he will run for reelection to his Florida Senate seat next year. Florida, as we all know, is very much a state in play and Democrats can scarcely afford to lose any seats in the US Senate.

posted by Scott | 10/06/2003 | |
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