McCain campaign hits rock bottom
It is embarrassing to admit it now, but when McCain won the Republican nomination, I bought into the hype about how his campaign would be different from recent GOP presidential campaigns. Well, I didn't buy into it completely - but I did figure that, as someone who had been smeared by Rove tactics in the South Carolina primary in 2000, McCain would mostly focus on the issues. And after all, his primary campaign seemed pretty straight-forward and issue-based (though I paid much less attention to the GOP primary than to the Democratic one).
While there was no chance I was going to vote for him in November, I have always had a good deal of respect for McCain, and when he won the Republican nomination, I thought "well, worst case scenario, he's a lot better than Bush, and he's not going to run the kind of campaign that makes you embarrassed to be an American voter."
During the last couple of weeks, my respect for McCain has dropped almost to Bush levels. Frankly, it is astonishing how far his political brand has fallen in just three or four months. His new attack ads seem like a cry for help from a failing campaign, whose architects just didn't realize how hard it was going to be for a Republican to run in 2008.
Conservatism in general is starting to look woefully outdated in light of the kinds of problems the country faces. In an era in which a Republican administration has created a record budget deficit, and conservatives' deregulation theology helped create the mortgage crisis, there just aren't that many winning conservative issues anymore. And as I have said before, McCain's "the surge worked" mantra misses the forest for the trees completely. Look, I hope the surge has worked, and assuming it has, I hope it continues to work - but I'm still 100% against the Iraq War and the neoconservative approach to foreign policy that led to it.
Which leads me to incredibly low attack ads McCain has launched in the last week. First, McCain accused Obama of canceling a trip to a military hospital in Germany, with an ad alleging that Obama "made time to go to the gym but canceled a visit with wounded troops. Seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras." As the Washington Post has reported, there is no factual backup for the claim about cameras. Moreover, the ad's image of Obama in the gym is taken from an appearance Obama made in front of hundreds of troops in a gym in Kuwait (footage of the visit is on Youtube).
Now, McCain has released an incredibly tacky ad comparing Obama's celebrity to that of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. It is unclear why the McCain campaign thinks there is a legitimate comparison between Obama and two young female starlets who have been involved in sex scandals. And as other bloggers have pointed out, it is strange for McCain to act like Obama's celebrity, image, and magnetism are negatives, when the Republican Senator constantly refers to President Reagan - the last true celebrity to be elected President - as his political hero.
The biggest problem with McCain taking the low road is that it directly contradicts the image he's spent so long cultivating - an image that even many of us on the other side of the aisle had bought into, to some extent. His campaign's new negative approach makes him look petty and whiny, and contradicts his image as a different kind of Republican, which seemed like a crucial element in a potential McCain victory in 2008.
"McCain Captured on Video Resorting to Gonzo Attacks" [New York Magazine]
Why Obama won't pick Sam Nunn as VP
It isn't surprising that Sam Nunn is rumored to be on Obama's short list for VP. He is a moderate-to-conservative Democrat with serious national security credibility, his Georgia background would help balance out the ticket, and he is one of the co-chairs of Nuclear Threat Initiative. Perhaps most importantly for Obama's candidacy, he could help reassure older white Democrats that Obama will look out for their interests, too, and not just those of the black and younger white voters who constitute his base.
However, I think it is very unlikely that Obama will pick Nunn as his running mate, for one major reason: the former Senator currently serves on the Boards of Directors of Chevron and General Electric.
One of the most controversial aspects of the Bush administration has been its close ties to major oil/energy companies and military contractors. During the primary and general election campaigns, Senator Obama has appealed to voters' frustration with this issue, repeatedly promising to take our government back from corporate interests. Picking a running mate who is currently serving on the boards of Chevron, the country's second-largest oil company, and GE, the country's 11th-largest recipient of defense contracts in 2007, would be nothing short of a monumental mistake.
If Obama chooses Nunn as his VP, the liberal commentators and bloggers who have been angered by Obama's alleged "run to the center" will be furious, and the fallout will dwarf the recent dust-up over FISA. And unlike the FISA situation, where many of his supporters (like me) gave him a break because the bill was the only compromise his party could muster after months of negotiations, choosing a VP who is a board member at Chevron and GE would alienate a huge swath of Obama's support. Personally, one of my major criticisms of the Bush administration during the last four years has been the excessive conflicts of interest, and it would be absolutely intellectually dishonest for me not to criticize Obama if he chose a VP with such close ties to big oil and big military contracting.
Finally, the McCain campaign and conservative commentators and bloggers would have a field day if Obama picked Nunn. From their perspective, it would confirm what they have believed (or at least claimed to believe) all along, which is that the controversies over Halliburton, Cheney's Energy Task Force, and Rice's connections to Chevron were all merely partisan politics. Every speech over the last two years in which Obama has criticized corporate influence in Washington would be mined for devastating "flip-flop" ads. We would probably even get one making fun of how Obama has told parents not to let their children drink too many sodas - because in addition to being on the Chevron and GE boards, Nunn's on Coca-Cola's!
I have no idea why most of the mainstream media coverage of Nunn as a potential VP pick has either deemphasized his participation on these boards, or ignored it completely. The cynic in me wonders if they're secretly hoping Obama picks Nunn, just so they can spend the next three months getting ratings with "What happened to Obama the reformer?", "Will Nunn be Obama's Cheney?", and maybe even "Should Obama throw Nunn under the bus?" headlines. All I can say is that I am hoping and praying that Obama's inner circle realizes how huge a mistake it would be to pick Nunn - and given the well-executed nature of the campaign so far, I would be shocked if he is named VP. That said, given his experience, he deserves to be considered for administration posts which do not directly involve energy policy or military contracts.
Why The New Yorker's Obama cover flopped
Writing in yesterday's New York Times, Lee Siegel sums up the biggest problem with the recent New Yorker cover depicting the Obamas a la conspiratorial right-wing email forwards:
The problem is that the cartoon accurately portrays a ridiculous real-life caricature that exists as literal fact in the minds of some people, and it portrays it in terms that are absolutely true to that caricature. An analogous instance would have been a cartoon without commentary appearing in a liberal Northern newspaper in the 1920s — a time when Southern violence against blacks was unabated — that showed a black man raping a white woman while eating a watermelon. The effect of accurately reproducing such a ridiculous image that dwelled unridiculously in the minds of some people would have been merely to broaden its vicious reach. The adherents of that image would have gone unsatirized and untouched.
In satire, absurdity achieves its rationality through moral perspective — or it remains simply incoherent or malign absurdity. The New Yorker represented the right-wing caricature of the Obamas while making the fatal error of not also caricaturing the right wing. [New York Times]
Another thing The New Yorker failed to realize was that the cartoon's audience would be broader than New Yorker readers and others who are familiar with the magazine. As soon as the story was on the internet and cable news channels, the cartoon's audience jumped from niche to mainstream. And most of the media outlets did not make any effort to explain that The New Yorker is a liberal magazine that has broken numerous major stories about Bush administration scandals during the last eight years, or that the magazine's readership is probably going to vote for Obama by a 9-to-1 ratio.
Instead, they approached the cartoon by asking "what would someone with absolutely no knowledge of this magazine think it means?" - which is kind of stupid, but that's how the media approaches things now. The media doesn't ask "what was person X trying to say?" - they ask "in what ways could someone misinterpret what person X said?" As frustrating as that approach to journalism might be, it is also incredibly naive of The New Yorker's editors not to have anticipated the scandal.
But even if The New Yorker had done a better job of clarifying the meaning of the cartoon, which would have preempted the lazy media coverage that ensued, there still would have been a problem. I'm a New Yorker subscriber (so I know where they are coming from), and I have a very sarcastic sense of humor (it is pretty hard to shock me), and yet, the combination of images in the cartoon made me feel uncomfortable. The cover reminded me of shocking early 80's punk rock album covers by bands like the Dead Kennedys - which probably isn't the comparison you want when you publish a magazine people like to put out on their coffee table or read on the airplane.
Jesse Helms and Our Other North Carolina
As someone who grew up in North Carolina during the 80's and 90's, it is hard to find words to convey the role has Jesse Helms played in my worldview. One of the first memories I have of Helms is being told that he had said "vulgar and common" things about my grandfather, Thad Stem, a poet who wrote liberal columns for the Raleigh News & Observer at the same time Helms was a political commentator on a Raleigh television station.
Of course, this wouldn't surprise anyone who is familiar with Jesse Helms. Over the course of his career, "Senator No" made vicious personal attacks against anyone who disagreed with him, often with a racist or homophobic overtone. He called Martin Luther King, Jr. a "marxist and pervert," described the larger civil rights movement as being infested with "communists and moral degenerates," nicknamed UNC-Chapel Hill (my alma mater) "the University of Negroes and Communists," accused popular two-term North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt of being supported by "faggots, perverts, sexual deviants of this nation," called gays and lesbians "weak, morally sick wretches" (and was a key figure in blocking funding for AIDS research), and once said that sitting President Clinton "better have a bodyguard" if he visited North Carolina (note that Clinton lost in NC by less than one point in 1992).
Helms' career will probably be best remembered as the epitome of "the politics of personal destruction"; there is something symbolic about his passing away at a time when many Republicans are admitting that their party needs a new, less cynical playbook. But the various minority groups and politicians Helms targeted were not the only victims of his attacks. One of my biggest problems with Jesse Helms has always been a selfish one: during my lifetime, no one else has done more to hurt my home state's reputation.
During the seven years I have spent living outside of the South (in New York, and now, Washington) I have become accustomed to the extreme, inaccurate stereotypes many Northerners have about North Carolina and the rest of the South. I have had an employer who seemed shocked that my parents, and many of my friends' parents, were college-educated (when, in reality, Raleigh is one of the best-educated cities in the country). I have had people tell me racist jokes about black people, under the mistaken assumption that any Southerner is "safe company" for that kind of comment. And the biggest misconception of all is that everyone in North Carolina is as conservative as Jesse Helms was; in fact, often, the first thing that comes to someone's minds when you say "North Carolina" is "Jesse Helms" (I've even met Europeans who knew North Carolina primarily by Helms).
Of course, I am not claiming that Jesse Helms bears full responsibility for people's misconceptions about modern North Carolina. But he certainly did everything he could to re-enforce those stereotypes. At a time when North Carolina was becoming an example of Southern progress, Jesse Helms was providing the rest of the world with a crude, minstrel show-like caricature of white North Carolinians. Considering the country's changing views on race, it is hard to think of an American politician whose legacy will be as negative as Helms'. George Wallace and Strom Thurmond eventually apologized for their appeals to voters' racism; Jesse Helms was unrepentant to the end. To paraphrase the old saying, while many of us did not agree with Jesse on racial issues, we all know where he stood.
("Our Other North Carolina" is a reference to "Our Other South' ", a beautifully-named chapter in Tim Tyson's book Blood Done Sign My Name, about race relations in Oxford, NC, my father's hometown.)
For the first time, Greenwald is 100% wrong
I have been putting off writing about the FISA compromise because it is too complicated an issue to cover in a short blog post, and because I have mixed feelings about it. In the meantime, I want to address and refute an argument top liberal bloggers are making about presidential election strategy. For a good example of this argument, I will use a post by Glenn Greenwald, who has consistently been one of the best sources of analysis on issues like wiretapping, torture, and civil liberties.
In a post titled "The baseless, and failed, 'move to the center' cliche" Glenn Greenwald argues that centrist Democratic presidential campaigns are "just an unexamined relic from past times, the immovable, uncritical assumption of Beltway strategists and pundits who can't accept that it isn't 1972 anymore -- or even 2002." Basically, his argument is that the reason Democratic candidates have lost in recent presidential elections is that they have run centrist campaigns: "What makes Democrats look weak is their patent fear of standing by their own views."
Greenwald does have a point that Kerry was hurt by the perception that he was a "flip-flopper," although Greenwald somehow fails to mention that his biggest "flip-flops" all involved moving to the left - not to the center or to the right - on the Iraq War issue. The GOP relentlessly attacked Kerry for voting to authorize the war, and then coming out against it later. In the course of one month in late 2003, Kerry went from supporting, to voting against, an $87 billion supplemental funding bill. When asked about the change in position, Kerry gave Rove the ultimate quote for attack ads: "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."
Greenwald does not discuss any of the other major reasons Kerry lost, like the perception that he was a wealthy Bostonian who was out of touch with middle- and working-class Americans, the common stereotype that Massachusetts Democrats are far-left extremists (I grew up in NC, and GOP ads would often attack local Dems by linking them to Ted Kennedy or Tip O'Neill), or the Swiftboat campaign's efforts to brand him as unpatriotic. Note that none of these three major perception problems involved Kerry being typecast as a centrist - instead, they were used to successfully paint him as elitist and ultra-liberal.
Speaking of the Swiftboat campaign, it is important to remember that, while the initial wave of claims about his service were almost completely baseless, they were followed with a second wave of attacks highlighting his Vietnam protest days, especially his act of throwing away his medals. I am sure that some percentage of voters believed both waves of attacks, but I imagine the second wave of fact-based (if loathsome) attacks got traction with a much larger percentage of voters. To the contrary of Greenwald's thesis, being seen as too liberal is close to a death knell for Democratic presidential candidates - and that's the biggest reason Kerry lost.
In contrast with the Kerry example, Greenwald provides an example of a Democrat who won by refusing to move to the center. Of course, it isn't a presidential candidate, because there is no such example in recent American history. Greenwald's example is Chris Murphy, "who ran on a platform of, among other things, ending the Iraq War, opposing Bush policies on eavesdropping and torture, and rejecting what he called the 'false choice between war and civil liberties.'" Murphy also had the advantages of running during the 2006 Democratic congressional landslide (the one that triggered Rumsfeld's resignation the day after the election), and running for office in Connecticut, one of the bluest blue states, in a district which borders New York and Massachusetts, two of the other bluest blue states.
The most glaring omission from Greenwald's piece on the "baseless" idea that Democratic presidential candidates should run as centrists? He doesn't discuss a single one of the Democrats who have been elected president. Presumably, that's because all of the Democratic presidents in the last half-century have been centrists. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton all ran on some issues one would describe as liberal, but on the whole, they are generally described as centrists or moderates.
Greenwald also makes the mistake of misinterpreting poll numbers showing that 8 out of 10 Americans think the country is "moving in the wrong direction" to mean that 8 out of 10 Americans are liberal and/or want to vote for a liberal presidential candidate. I agree that these numbers are very encouraging, but many of those poll respondents are conservatives who want to vote for a different type of conservative from Bush, or who specifically blame Bush himself for the problems, but still intend to vote for the Republican candidate. My point is that low favorability ratings for an outgoing president should not be viewed as a rationale for running on a hard-line ideological platform - especially when one of the biggest complaints about that outgoing president was his bitter partisanship.
Greenwald isn't the only major liberal blogger who seems to have convinced himself that America has suddenly been transformed into some kind of 70/30 liberal Democratic majority. I was shocked by Roy Sekoff's appearance on the Dan Abrams show last night (Sekoff is a founder of The Huffington Post). Sekoff repeatedly mocked the idea of appealing to swing voters (calling them "these ambigious swing voters," as if they don't exist), and insisted that Kerry's and Gore's losses were due to running as centrists. Are Greenwald and Sekoff serious? Do they really think that Obama could compete in places like Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico running as a traditional liberal? Do they really think swing voters are not an essential part of a winning coalition?
How is a five-point lead a "statistical dead heat"?
I'm glad I was not the only one who was extremely confused when I clicked on the headline claiming that CNN's latest poll showed Obama and McCain in a "statistical dead heat," only to find that Obama was still up five points. Nate Silver over at fivethirtyeight.com did some research on the topic, and it turns out that the National Council on Public Polls recommends that "it should not be called a "dead heat" unless the candidates are tied with the same percentages." Of course, calling the race a "statistical dead heat" did get us to click on the link to the story, which was CNN's goal . . . but it really does seem like a bit too much of a stretch.
Also, I'd like to take this opportunity to recommend fivethirtyeight.com wholeheartedly. The founder is a member of Baseball Prospectus, stat geniuses who have helped revolutionize the way people look at baseball (see the excellent book "Moneyball" for more on that movement). With 538 (which is named after the total number of electoral votes), Silver brings that level of stat-obsession to politics, creating a whole new set of interesting ways to look at the election. For example, he calculates things like the odds of Obama losing Ohio, but winning the election, Obama and McCain winning in landslides, and even the possibility of an electoral college tie at 269. It's becoming a must-read for the 2008 election.