Saturday, September 27, 2008

One Debate Down

Some quasi-random thoughts about last night's debate:

- I wouldn't be surprised if we see the same kind of radio/television split that was observed after the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 (although obviously the audience last night was much more heavily t.v.-based). McCain's body language as captured by the television pool (which often went to a split screen) was by far the worst element of his performance - he appeared to be completely refusing to look at Obama and talked directly at moderator Jim Lehrer, rather than to his opponent or to the cameras. At times he appeared to be clenching his jaw shut so hard I feared for the safety of his teeth. On style points, Obama won hands down (although even he looked more tired and a little less chipper than he usually does).

- Neither candidate landed a body blow: McCain's attempts took the form of repeated assertions that Obama "doesn't understand" (I counted at least seven deployments of that phrase), and the line was totally undermined by Obama's clear understanding of the issues under discussion. Obama got in perhaps the most effective rebuttal of the night, saying to one of McCain's points "John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shia and Sunni. And you were wrong." That was good, and effective, although Lehrer jumped in at the end and stole the moment.

At least one other time, though, Obama was teed up perfectly to lambaste McCain, and he almost got there, but petered out at the last second:

"McCain: ... And spending, I know, can be brought under control because I have fought against excessive spending my entire career. And I got plans to reduce and eliminate unnecessary and wasteful spending and if there's anybody here who thinks there aren't agencies of government where spending can be cut and their budgets slashed they have not spent a lot of time in Washington."

Perfect setup, right? All that "time in Washington" (which, by the way, was a bad thing a few days ago) and nothing to show for it but more spending every single year. Here it comes:

"Obama: I just want to make this point, Jim. John, it's been your president who you said you agreed with 90 percent of the time who presided over this increase in spending. This orgy of spending and enormous deficits you voted for almost all of his budgets. So to stand here and after eight years and say that you're going to lead on controlling spending and, you know, balancing our tax cuts so that they help middle class families when over the last eight years that hasn't happened I think just is, you know, kind of hard to swallow."

The transcript doesn't quite capture the trail-off at the end, but it was disappointing. I hope the next time this question arises (and it will, because McCain gets pretty excited about cutting agency spending) Obama's got a better answer queued up.

- Missed opportunities aside, Obama sounded focused and completely assured on foreign policy, and I am entirely sure that I would feel comfortable with him making decisions about when to negotiate and with whom, and about his ability to really reach out and improve America's standing in the eyes of the understandably distrustful world community. I can't say that about McCain anymore. His actions over the last few weeks and even last night should be enough to give anyone pause. It didn't help that he stumbled over the Iranian president's name a few times (although to be fair it is a tough name), but I suppose that's better than changing the Pakistanti president's name entirely (McCain called him Kadari, his name is Zardari - close, but no cigar).

- On the whole, I think it was basically a tie. And a tie, in this case, works to Obama's favor. He had to show that he could hold his own on foreign policy against John McCain, and he did that, plus some. McCain's attempts to denigrate Obama's judgment came across as petulant and nasty, and his unwillingness to look Obama in the eye was just more of the same.

If you missed the debate, the full transcript is here, and C-SPAN's Debate Hub has video, analysis, and much more. Now on to the next: Biden and Palin will meet next Thursday at 9 p.m. EDT.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Few Quick Things

1. I'm glad there will be a debate tonight, and I will have more thoughts on that after it happens.

2. There are several things about Palin's interview this week with Katie Couric that I want to pass along: the withering LATimes review, Hendrik Hertzberg's comments at the New Yorker, and James Fallows' take. And then there's the video. The last response on that clip, where Palin can't come up with any examples of McCain supporting regulation of Wall Street during his Senate career, reminded me of Eisenhower's response to a press conference question about Nixon's accomplishments as vice president ("If you give me a week I might think of one, I don't remember"), which was turned into a tremendously effective ad by the Kennedy campaign.

Palin's interview ability hasn't informed since Charlie Gibson (maybe if they'd let her practice a little more she'd get better at it?). Her responses seem to consist of barely-digested soundbytes, repeated until she thinks she's given an answer of adequate length. Her inability to spell out exactly how Alaska's proximity to Russia and Canada is supposed to be some sort of foreign policy free pass (when that has inexplicably become the campaign's major talking point about her experience) is remarkable, as is the way she manages to avoid answering almost any question in a straightforward manner without weaving talking points in willy-nilly. At any rate, I think a very poor showing. Here's the full transcript of part one, and of part two.

3. John McCain's pseudo-suspension of his campaign this week was a silly stunt (Fallows goes so far as to call it the worst self-inflicted campaign move ever). It bought him some news coverage and (perhaps a good thing for the campaign) distracted from Palin's Couric disaster, which surely would have gotten much more coverage if not for the maneuver, but it certainly didn't help the bailout negotiations, and adding the element of uncertainty about tonight's debate was unhelpful and, frankly, just a bit annoying, not only for the country but perhaps especially for the folks at Ole Miss, who have been preparing for this debate for many months.

4. George Will sometimes makes me a little crazy, but his column this week is almost spot-on. McCain's actions over the last few days have been perplexing and erratic, and more than a little worrisome.

5. Also, I should point out this essay by early Palin backer and conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, who is now calling on Palin to step aside. "As we’ve seen and heard more from John McCain’s running mate, it is increasingly clear that Palin is a problem. Quick study or not, she doesn’t know enough about economics and foreign policy to make Americans comfortable with a President Palin should conditions warrant her promotion. ... Palin’s recent interviews with Charles Gibson, Sean Hannity, and now Katie Couric have all revealed an attractive, earnest, confident candidate. Who Is Clearly Out Of Her League."

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Events of the Week

- First, let me just say that if you are as uncomfortable as I am with the turns this presidential campaign has taken in recent weeks, take a few minutes to read some coverage of the 9/11 Service Forum held on Thursday night. I haven't been able to find a video, but there's a transcript here. Both McCain and Obama spoke, and both kept the partisan sniping to a minimum while discussing their plans and visions for the promotion of national service. I wish that the two campaigns had been able to come to some agreement and arranged for a truly joint appearance where the two candidates could have shared the stage for longer than three seconds and actually had a conversation, but even listening to them separately you could get a sense of where the campaign might be if it was just these two guys talking about the issues. McCain sounded like himself again - he was funny, positive, and quite pleasant. We haven't seen him like this out on the trail for a while, but this event reminded me of the McCain who inspired me to jump into the political fray all those years ago.

Unfortunately, the John McCain of 1999 is not the McCain of today (Thursday's brief interlude notwithstanding). I'm sad to have to say this, but the John McCain who's out there blatantly telling lies he knows are lies is not the guy I poured my heart out for in the 2000 primaries. That John McCain used to say "I want the presidency in the best way, not the worst way." This John McCain's campaign spokesman responded to media criticism of its distortions by saying "We're running a campaign to win. And we're not too concerned about what the media filter tries to say about it." You know, things have gotten pretty bad when it takes Barbara Walters to call a spade a spade, but the campaign doesn't care about that. They're going to keep lying.

- I am glad to see the Obama campaign stepping back up with some stronger criticism of the Republican attacks and going on some offense of their own. But I hope they'll drop the ad which makes fun of McCain for not using a computer, which is simply in poor taste (and could backfire among the folks around the country who don't use computers for one reason or another). Cut out the shenanigans, talk about the issues.

- And now, "The Interview." Yes, I watched it. Yes, I thought both Gibson and Palin survived. But in watching how Palin responded to the questions, I noticed in her style of speaking and answering questions an uncanny resemblance to the way then-Governor George W. Bush handled his major media interviews during the Republican primaries in 2000. It was remarkable.

Palin's prep-team had done a very good job. She got through most of the questions easily, although it did appear at times like she was reading the answers from invisible notecards in the air. Like Bush, though, Palin seems to think that if you just repeat a short sound-bite over and over again, that will suffice for a complete answer. If she had to depart from the script at all, it was clear that she was slightly uncomfortable (although that practiced poise didn't ever quite slip, even during that deer-in-headlights Bush Doctrine moment).

All of the stories about Palin's rise to power, frightening management style, her husband's very ambiguous and active role in her administration, and her extreme lack of interest in foreign policy notwithstanding, we still know very little about Palin's positions on the issues or about how she would handle herself if exposed to the same kind of media scrutiny that the other candidates have faced during their time in national life. She needs to hold a press conference, she needs to do more interviews, she needs to let the American voters get to know her before they have to go into a voting booth and possibly cast a ballot for her as VP. No more hiding.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

When Enough Really Is Enough

They're at it again. As they did in 2000 and 2004, the Republican presidential campaign operatives trained at the Knee of Rove are doing their level best to distract voters from the issues by throwing up a smoke-screen of personal attacks, manufactured controversies, and complete misrepresentations of fact. To use an old cliché (as if we haven't had our fill of those lately), "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me." What what would "fool me thrice" say about the American voter?

Honestly, this is so far beyond ridiculous it's sickening. McCain comes out and says the thing he likes least about campaigning is the negativity and personal attacks. Well look, if there's one person in this campaign who could STOP this nonsense in its tracks, it's John McCain. He knows better than this. He believes better than this. And yet he stands there and pretends to fuss about it while his Bush/Rove smear-expert staffers carry out this absolutely disgusting campaign of gutter-politics at its worst.

Obama's campaign is not entirely beyond reproach, of course. But comparing McCain's record to Bush's and calling Palin out for the complete falsehoods she's been whomping up out on the campaign trail aren't personal attacks, they're points of fact.

Here's Obama yesterday: "Enough. I don't care what they say about me. But I love this country too much to let them take over another election with lies and phony outrage and Swift Boat politics. Enough is enough. We've got an energy crisis. We have an education system that is not working for too many of our children and making us less competitive. We have an economy that is creating hardship for families all across America. We've got two wars going on, veterans coming home not being cared for -- and this is what they want to talk about. You know who ends up losing at the end of the day? It's not the Democratic candidate. It's not the Republican candidate. It's you, the American people. Because then we go another year, or another four years or another eight years without addressing the issues that matter to you."

He's right. Today he and McCain are supposed to meet at a 9/11 commemoration ceremony. Let's hope they come together and call a halt to these unhelpful, unhealthy and unnecessary negative ads and nasty attacks. It's well past time to muzzle the dogs of war and have a debate about the real issues. McCain and Obama both promised a campaign we can be proud of, but no decent person could possibly be proud of the turns this campaign has taken these last few days. It's shameful, and it must end. The American people deserve better.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Who Is Sarah Palin?

After we heard that AK governor Sarah Palin had been chosen as McCain's running mate, I wrote that I am "anxious to see how Palin handles the klieg lights of the national media circus." Well, it seems that the McCain campaign may simply see to it that she doesn't have to face the national media anytime soon.

Marc Ambinder reports that a "senior McCain campaign official" told him "Gov. Sarah Palin won't submit to a formal interview anytime soon. She may take some questions from local news entities in Alaska, but until she's ready -- and until she's comfortable -- which might not be for a long while -- the media will have to wait. The campaign believes it can effectively deal with the media's complaints, and their on-the-record response to all this will be: 'Sarah Palin needs to spend time with the voters.'"

Well that's one strategy. And given the way Palin and other speakers at this week's Republican convention went after the media, it's not a surprising one. But I don't think it serves the country well. A big glitzy rollout followed by sixty days of campaign events and one nationally-televised debate are simply an insufficient introduction to a modern vice-presidential candidate, a person who could be called upon, at a moment's notice, to take up the duties of the presidency. The American people don't know Sarah Palin: we don't know her positions on very many issues; we don't know her management style; we don't know how she'd react in a crisis.

We've learned a little bit about her biography in the last week, and it is a compelling life story. We've learned that she's managed to become a very popular governor in Alaska in the last eighteen months. We've learned way too much about her family and their personal business. We've learned that she can deliver a few mean-spirited attack lines and land a partisan punch without breaking her smile.

We've learned that she can tell blatant untruths without a moment's pause, such as when she claimed to have "told Congress thanks but no thanks" for that now-infamous Bridge to Nowhere earmark project. Here's the full analysis of that comment from the non-partisan I guess she was for it before she was against it. We've learned that she's against earmarks, except for when she's hiring lobbyists to push for them, or personally traveling to Washington to beg for them. You'd think it would have been a little embarrassing for the campaign to admit that some of Palin's Wasilla earmarks (which amounted to some $27 million during her tenure as mayor) had even made it onto McCain's annual lists of outrageous pork-barrel projects, but they simply ignored that particular revelation.

What little we've learned about her positions on the major issues facing our country today is, quite frankly, rather unnerving. She does not believe global warming has been caused by humans, saying in an interview just last week "A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location. I'm not one though who would attribute it to being man-made." She does not believe that women should be permitted the right to choose an abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. She believes (in fact, she "fiercely advocates") that we should drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and as governor has filed a lawsuit against the EPA for listing the polar bear as a threatened species (that's the EPA under George W. Bush, mind you). These are hardly mainstream positions.

We've learned that Palin was a founding director of indicted senator Ted Stevens' 527 fundraising group from 2003 through 2005, and that she delighted in his endorsement during her gubernatorial campaign in 2006. We've learned that she at least considered in the abstract the question of banning books from the Wasilla Public Library while she was mayor, and we've learned there there's a very serious investigation going on in Alaska now to determine whether Palin acted improperly in (apparently) trying to get her ex-brother-in-law fired from his job as a state trooper. We've learned that she's a little confused about the Pledge of Allegiance. In a survey filled out during her 2006 gubernatorial campaign, Palin was asked if she was "offended" by the phrase 'under God' in the Pledge. She responded: "Not on your life. If it was good enough for the founding fathers, it's good enough for me and I'll fight in defense of our Pledge of Allegiance." The Pledge of Allegiance, of course, dates only to 1892, and the phrase "under God" wasn't added until 1954. At least a few of the founding fathers would probably have been rather uncomfortable with the whole idea, actually, but they're not around anymore.

These last four paragraphs are provided simply as a way of pointing out what we can say that we know about Sarah Palin after the last week of coverage. And, so far as I can tell, that's about all we know of her. We cannot say that about the other three principal nominees. John McCain and Joe Biden have been in political life longer than I've been alive, and I have no doubt whatever of their qualifications, their views, their reputations, and their personalities. Barack Obama has been in the national spotlight for more than four years now, and has been through the ringer of a national campaign for just about the last two. He, McCain, and Biden have done countless interviews, allowing their views on the issues to be heard, dissected and parsed by the media, the bloggers, and the American people. They have debated repeatedly over the course of this - seemingly endless - campaign, allowing their political opponents to jab and punch back at their stances on the issues, teaching the skeletons in their closets to dance, making their case to the American public.

Sarah Palin hasn't done any of this, and it is utterly laughable for the McCain campaign to blame reporters for daring to think it appropriate to ask the same questions of her that they have asked of the other candidates over the course of their national political careers. Roger Simon said it in a wonderfully-satirical Politico column yesterday: " We have asked pathetic questions like: Who is Sarah Palin? What is her record? Where does she stand on the issues? And is she is qualified to be a heartbeat away from the presidency? ... Bad, bad media." We're heard some pretty outrageous arguments about Palin's foreign policy experience, including the one that being the governor of the state closest in proximity to Russia confers some sort of osmosis-based qualification. But when reporters have asked McCain campaign spokesmen to explain Palin's foreign policy decisions, they can't do it. They keep trying to twist the question around to what Obama hasn't done, or what McCain has done. Well I've heard Barack Obama talk about foreign policy, and I know he can do so intelligently, extemporaneously, and at length (here's a transcript of a long interview with Fareed Zakaria from this summer, for example). I've never heard Sarah Palin do this, and from the sounds of it, I'd better not expect to anytime soon.

It is true that Palin is the vice-presidential nominee, as McCain surrogates like to remind us. But as John McCain said earlier this year, "we all know that the highest priority [in a VP choice] is someone who can take your place." Does John McCain truly believe that Sarah Palin is ready, today, to be president of the United States?

I don't.

Do you?

Barack Obama chose as his running mate a man whose presidential qualifications are unassailable. John McCain chose someone who seems to have gotten the Republican base excited but who the country knows next to nothing about. If the American people are to have the option of making an informed judgment about Sarah Palin before election day, the McCain campaign must allow her to speak, to answer questions about her record and her views and her temperament. At this time, with these stakes so high, we simply cannot have an enigma a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Friday, September 05, 2008

These Are the Times ...

Recent events (combined with my chronic inability to keep my mouth shut about politics, no matter how hard I try) compel me to commit to a much more regular posting schedule here for at least the next couple months. The stakes we face in this election are, quite simply, so high that those of us who feel strongly about the issues facing our country have an obligation, even a duty, to speak our minds.

So, beginning tomorrow with an examination of the state of the race, look for more frequent posts here. Feel free to comment on them if you like; I'll appreciate your views as well.