May 2011: The President’s frenemies on the Left

A tip of the cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

These days, President Barack Obama could well ask: with friends like these, who needs enemies?

Indeed, the harshest criticism of the President’s foreign and domestic performance has come recently from high-profile figures on the Left who had avidly supported Senator Obama in the 2008 campaign. In some cases they have excoriated Obama in deeply personal terms. And many of those with liberal-left buyer’s remorse have gone public with their discontent.

Consider Princeton academic Cornel West who described the President, a fellow African-American, as “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.” West added some racial swipes at the President, claiming that he “has a certain fear of free black men. It’s understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin.” (Joan Walsh of Salon called West’s outburst a “vicious and deeply personal rant.”)

Then there is actor Peter Fonda, one of the President’s many Hollywood supporters in 2008, now feels differently. Obama’s handling of the Gulf of Mexico BP oil spill angered Fonda, and he decided to launch an attack while at the Cannes film festival, telling reporters: “I sent an email to President Obama saying, ‘You are a f***ing traitor,’ using those words… ‘You’re a traitor, you allowed foreign boots on our soil telling our military – in this case the Coast Guard – what they can and could not do, and telling us, the citizens of the United States, what we could or could not do.”

For Matt Damon, another left-of-center movie star, Obama’s education policy apparently triggered discontent. In April he complained: “I really think he misinterpreted his mandate. A friend of mine said to me the other day, I thought it was a great line, ‘I no longer hope for audacity. He’s doubled down on a lot of things, going back to education… the idea that we’re testing kids and we’re tying teachers salaries to how kids are performing on tests, that kind of mechanized thinking has nothing to do with higher order. We’re training them, not teaching them.”

(Obama did have a clever response to Damon, delivered at the White House Correspondent’s dinner: “I’ve even let down my key core constituency: movie stars. Just the other day, Matt Damon — I love Matt Damon, love the guy — Matt Damon said he was disappointed in my performance. Well, Matt, I just saw The Adjustment Bureau, so…right back atcha, buddy.”)

It is not only celebrity leftists (Fonda, Damon, Harry Belafonte, Ed Asner, etc.) who have ratcheted up the criticism of the President. The ACLU and civil liberties advocates have been dismayed by the Obama Administration’s national security and defense policies.

Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald has been sharply critical of Obama’s continuation of many of President George W. Bush’s War on Terror tactics (rendition, indefinite incarceration of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, etc. ) and his aggressive foreign policy (the increase in drone attacks, ordering the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden, and intervening in Libya).

Greenwald recently wrote that “Obama has either equaled or exceeded Bush/Cheney” in asserting presidential power. “That Obama refuses to seek Congressional approval for his war (and his top officials even suggest they have the power to defy any Congressional bans) — while Bush sought and obtained Congressional authorization for his — should be added to that ever-growing list.”

Ignoring the Peanut Gallery on the Left?

The best political course of action for the President, who can be somewhat thin-skinned, is to ignore the invective of his disappointed supporters on the Left. He must recognize that most voters will judge him on his performance, not on his ideological purity. Democratic Party activists may hate compromise (as do their counterparts in the Tea Party), but compromise is the stuff of effective politics.

To some extent, Obama faces a self-created problem. His “Hope and Change” campaign and his lofty rhetoric in 2008 raised unrealistic expectations. It was inevitable that he would fail to keep promises both small (like shutting down Gitmo) and large (declaring, absurdly, in his acceptance speech: “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”) and that his failure would alienate some, especially many liberal-left “true believers.”

Yet catcalls from the Left may actually help Obama with 2012 swing voters—such criticism serves to validate Obama as a moderate, not the wild-eyed socialist as some on the Right characterize him. In fact, having over-the-top critics on the extremes—Hollywood leftists and right-wing Birthers—helps locate the President in the center of the political spectrum. And in American politics, the center is where you win elections.


Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Advertisements

November 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Campaign 2008: five observations, “small wind” power, Cold War espionage redux, and other commentary

With a tip of the cap (for borrowing his catch-phrase) to New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

HERE ARE FIVE “MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK” OBSERVATIONS ABOUT THE 2008 CAMPAIGN:

1. In the end, consider the key to the 2008 presidential election not President-elect Barack Obama’s lofty inspirational rhetoric, nor the inadequacies of the message-challenged McCain campaign, nor the drag of the GOP’s unprepared vice presidential nominee, but something much more elemental: money. The old journalistic imperative of “follow the money” helps explain why Obama will sit behind the Oval Office desk in January. USA Today reports that Obama raised $750 million for his presidential run, shattering records, and his huge advantage in campaign fund-raising translated into a huge advantage in television advertising. In the general election Obama spent $240 million on TV ads versus McCain’s $126 million, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. Obama dominated local television advertising (as the Nielsen Media Research numbers show) and his massive war-chest allowed him to underwrite Get Out the Vote efforts in the key swing states of Florida and Ohio and compete (and win) in the historically red states of North Carolina and Virginia.

2. The failure of the American mainstream media in covering campaign 2008 was not, as some on the Right would argue, the open cheerleading for Obama, nor negative reporting about McCain and his running mate Gov. Sarah Palin, but rather what was ignored or received relatively light coverage—in the general election it was Obama’s decision to forgo public campaign financing, breaking the joint pledge he and McCain had made during the primary season. There was very little sustained criticism of Obama’s flip-flop on campaign finance reform, formerly a favorite cause for liberal newspaper editorialists.

The coverage of Obama’s final week 30-minute infomercial—which, it can be argued, happened only because of his unfettered Internet fund-raising—was largely positive. If a conservative candidate had purchased a late-campaign infomercial at great cost after renouncing a pledge to observe federal funding limits, would the media have focused on the message or on the perceived betrayal of good government? To ask the question is to answer it.

In the Democratic primaries it was the free pass the mainstream media gave to Obama in the crucial months of December 2007 and January 2008. Most mainstream newspaper and network reporters repeated the David Axelrod-fashioned narrative that Obama was a bipartisan agent of change and hope without validating any of those claims, or examining Obama’s Chicago past in any detail. That helped Obama to victory in the Iowa caucus and the early primaries.

3. The 2008 election should have, once and for all, demonstrated the unreliability of exit polls. Before being adjusted to match the actual vote totals, these polls  produced flawed results in the Democratic primaries, overstating support for Obama (by some seven percentage points).  Prior to the general election, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg (in an interview with Huffington Post) acknowledged the shakiness of the measuring stick: “The biggest problem with exit polls is… we do know that young voters are much more likely to do an exit survey and seniors are much less likely to do an exit poll. So exit polls are heavily waited to young people, which normal bias favors Democrats especially this year.”

And a  Rasmussen Reports survey found evidence of the Shy Tory Factor (or Shy Conservative Factor), where Republicans are more reluctant and Democrats more willing and eager to participate in exit polls.

Not surprisingly, then, in the general election exit poll numbers overstated Obama’s support, a fact noted by former Bush strategist Karl Rove in a Wall Street Journal column:

… for the third election in a row the exit polls were trash. The raw numbers forecast an 18-point Obama win, news organizations who underwrote the poll arbitrarily dialed it down to a 10-point Obama edge, and the actual margin was six.

The early exit polls in California also wrongly suggested that Proposition 8, which sought to bar gay marriage, would lose. Again, it’s clear that pro-Prop 8 voters didn’t cooperate with exit pollsters in proportion to their numbers.

The clear flaws in exit polls—in 2000, 2004, 2006, and 2008—should silence the conspiracy theorists of the Angry Left who have argued that any discrepancies between the polls and actual votes in the Bush-Gore and Bush-Kerry elections represented vote fraud by the Republicans.

But don’t hold your breath for Seven Stories Press to recall “Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen?: Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and the Official Count” by Steve Freeman and Joel Bleifuss, which stridently made the vote fraud case, or for the authors to acknowledge that they were wrong.

4. The prolonged recount of the Franken-Coleman Senate race in Minnesota has highlighted another truth: voting is an imperfect process. Americans should recognize that human error and mechanical failures mean that all election results have a margin of error. By all accounts Minnesota has a solid election system, with an auditable paper trail, and yet anyone looking at the contested ballots (including a vote for the Lizard People) and the dispute over absentee ballots can see that any recount will involve some subjective judgment.

5. Will the last Republican in New England please turn out the lights? When Connecticut’s Chris Shays lost his Congressional seat, it meant that the GOP cannot point to a single member of the House of Representatives from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine or Connecticut. And how long will Republicans hold onto the U.S. Senate seats in Maine if the national party doesn’t welcome libertarian views on social issues?

WILL THE FUTURE OF WIND POWER BE SMALL, NOT LARGE? There’s a growing trend towards “small wind” —wind turbines for residences, small cities, organizations and businesses, according to an article in the Boston Globe. The Globe reports:  “The future of wind power may be a lot smaller than you think, and the nearest windmill may be right around the corner. The landscape, many believe, is going to be dotted with them.” This grass-roots wind power may indeed prove more effective than the “large wind” vision of massive wind farms on- or off-shore.

COLD WAR ESPIONAGE IS BACK IN THE NEWS. From Europe comes word that an Estonian defense ministry official, recruited by the Russians at the close of the Cold War, may have passed NATO and European Union secrets to his Kremlin handlers. Der Speigel reports that “the case is a disaster for Brussels.”

And from England, the Daily Mail alleges that a leading “peace” advocate and Labor Party member of Parliament, Cynthia Roberts, was a spy for Czech intelligence.

The Sunday Mail ran a surprisingly harsh editorial about the Roberts affair, drawing a broader lesson from her alleged treachery:

In some cases, the connections went far deeper. We may never know how many union officials, front-bench spokesmen, ordinary MPs and others were secret sympathisers of Soviet power, frightened victims of KGB bedroom blackmail, or actually in the pay of Warsaw Pact intelligence services.

The wretched saga of Cynthia Roberts reminds us of just how close the links were between Western socialists and the Communist world. Mrs Roberts sordidly provided her services to the doomed Czech Communist regime, one of the nastiest in all Eastern Europe.

IN REALITY, LINCOLN’S “TEAM OF RIVALS” WAS DYSFUNCTIONAL and President-elect Obama shouldn’t be looking to such an arrangement for success, or so Dickinson College history professor Matthew Pinsker would have us believe, according to his Los Angeles Times essay on the topic. Obama has praised Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” which claims Lincoln’s inclusion in his cabinet of three contemporary rivals for the presidency (William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates) proved to be a masterful stroke. Pinsker begs to differ (“Lincoln’s Cabinet was no team. His rivals proved to be uneven as subordinates. Some were capable despite their personal disloyalty, yet others were simply disastrous.”) and his account should give Obama some pause as he brings his primary rivals (Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden) into his administration.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM HERMAN MELVILLE’S NARRATOR IN “BILLY BUDD”: “Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!

October 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Five campaign questions, VW’s tasteless ads, a few Nov. 4th predictions, and other observations

With a tip of the fedora to legendary New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

HERE ARE FIVE QUESTIONS ABOUT THE 2008 CAMPAIGN worth further consideration:

1. What does this past year tell us about American racial attitudes? Whether or not Sen. Barack Obama wins the presidency on Tuesday (and it looks like he will), his meteoric rise proves that Americans want to live in a meritocracy–where candidates are judged on their potential to lead and personal qualities and not on their skin color. Obama’s presence at the top of the Democratic ticket has to be seen as a sign of racial progress. It doesn’t mean America has solved the problem of racism, personal or structural, but it does represent a huge and welcome step forward, no matter the outcome Nov. 4th.

2. Will Obama’s brilliant and well-managed campaign translate not only into victory on Tuesday, but also into effective governance if he reaches the Oval Office? Admirers of the Illinois Senator argue that his management of a multi-million dollar campaign effort demonstrates previously untapped executive ability. This, they argue, will serve Obama well in any putative presidency. Yet it’s not clear that the skills called upon to win an election are the ones needed to make policy decisions, foreign and domestic (see: Karl Rove and George W. Bush).

3. Whatever happened to campaign finance reform? That is a question with an answer: it died a quick and relatively quiet death when Obama decided to forgo federal funding. It has proved to be a masterful strategic decision ($150 million in September fundraising alone!), but problematic for those who fear the corrupting influence of big money. The San Francisco Chronicle quotes Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies: “I think Democrats are going to rue the day (Obama) did this. Republicans are not going to let this happen again.”

4. Will McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate cost him the election? Conventional wisdom has been that American voters make their decision based solely on the top of the ticket, with the elections of 1968 (Nixon and Agnew), 1976 (Carter and Mondale), and 1988 (Bush and Quayle) proving that a presidential candidate can win with a less-than-stellar vice presidential selection. This campaign may be different. The continuing debate about whether Palin would be ready to assume the presidency hasn’t helped McCain with independents, according to several polls. And McCain’s choice of Palin was cited by a number of prominent moderate Republicans as one of their reason for endorsing Obama. On balance, Palin has to be considered a significant net minus for McCain.

5. Will Saturday Night Live prove to be more important in shaping public opinion about the candidates than any traditional news program? Yes. SNL’s impact on both the Democratic primaries (first raising the issue of the media swoon for Obama) and the general election (with Tina Fey’s defining caricature of Sarah Palin) has been much greater than that of any of the network nightly news. That’s fitting for what the Boston Phoenix’s Steven Stark has dubbed the American Idol Election.

WHAT ON EARTH COULD VOLKSWAGEN BE THINKING WITH ITS BIZARRE “ROUTAN BOOM” commercials, fronted by Brooke Shields? The ads suggest American women are getting pregnant to justify buying VW’s minivan (the Routan) and the tagline of this lame campaign is “Have a Baby for Love, Not German Engineering.” Advertising agencies can make memorable commercials (see Nike Football’s “Fate” for an example), but that requires creativity, not lowest-common-denominator vulgarity.

THE UNBEARABLE DARKNESS OF BETRAYAL? Did the Czech-born novelist Milan Kundera inform on a fellow countryman to the Communist secret police in 1950? He has denied the allegation, and is threatening to sue the Czech weekly that reported the story. Miroslav Dvoracek, the man who Kundera allegedly turned in as a Western spy, served 14 years in prison. His wife commented: “He [Kundera] is a good writer but I am under no illusions about him as a human being.”

JEFFREY GOLDBERG OF THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY HAS A DEVASTATING CRITIQUE OF AMERICAN “AIRPORT SECURITY” entitled “The Things He Carried,” which exposes the sham of “security theater.” Current security practices are designed to reassure travelers and catch “stupid terrorists,” Goldberg concludes, something evident to any frequent flier.

A FEW PREDICTIONS FOR ELECTION DAY: expect lots of delays at the polls, problems with confusing ballots, misleading exit polls, and the broadcast and cable news networks holding off on declaring the winner. For the record, my prediction for the Electoral College outcome: Obama/Biden, 297 electoral votes; McCain/Palin, 247. Obama will win by moving the 2004 red states of Iowa, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico into the Democratic fold in 2008.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM AMERICAN HEARTLAND POET CARL SANDBERG (1878-1967): “A politician should have three hats: one for throwing into the ring, one for talking through, and one for pulling rabbits out of if elected.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!

September 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Obama: Electoral College winner, popular vote loser?, Why Palin’s policy cram course isn’t working, Ageless athletes, and other observations

With a tip of the hat to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

WILL SEN. BARACK OBAMA WIN THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE VOTE, AND THUS THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY, but lose the popular vote on Election Day 2008? It’s not an entirely implausible scenario. The Democratic presidential nominee leads Republican candidate John McCain in the national polls (as can be seen in RealClearPolitics’ poll compilation), and has moved ahead, narrowly, in a series of polls in several key battleground states won by George W. Bush in 2004: Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, Virginia, and North Carolina. Based on the polls, Obama’s Electoral College lead has begun to expand.

But it’s more than likely the national polls will tighten again, and the race will remain very close on a state-by-state basis. McCain’s relative vote-garnering strength in blue states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and New Jersey suggests that he will keep the contests there closer than George Bush did (and Bush won the 2004 election by some 3 million votes over Democrat John Kerry). Further, if McCain can improve on Bush’s 2004 showing in populous California (where Kerry won by 9.9%) and New York (Kerry by 18.3%), and stay close to the Bush 2004 vote totals in the rest of the country, McCain could very well top Obama nationally when all ballots are tallied, while still losing in the Electoral College because of a few key battleground states switching to the Democrat.

Take New York state, for example: if McCain can increase his vote share to 45% (not an impossible level, considering that Bush reached 40% in 2004), it would represent an additional 300,000-400,000 votes for the Arizona Republican versus Bush’s totals. Prior to the Wall Street bailout crisis, McCain had pulled within 5-8 percentage points of Obama in New York, and it’s likely he can stay within 10 points of the Democrat.

Yes, Obama may win a number of formerly red states, with victories in New Mexico, Colorado, and Iowa, appearing likely, but they will be narrow wins, and his net vote gain won’t offset McCain’s likely improvement over 2004 in the Northeast and industrial Midwest.

If this scenario plays out—where Obama triumphs in the Electoral College, and McCain wins the popular vote—will the Illinois Senator’s legitimacy be challenged (as Bush’s was in 2000)? Will Republicans suddenly decide that it’s time to abandon the Electoral College? If this happens, it wouldn’t be the first role reversal in Campaign 2008.

THERE’S A REASON WHY SARAH PALIN’S FRANTIC CRAM COURSE IN FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC POLICY IS FAILING, as could be seen in her one-on-one interviews with Katie Couric—you can’t cram for context. Gov. Palin’s inability to discuss any Supreme Court rulings she disagreed with other than Roe v. Wade, or to cite any of John McCain’s regulatory achievements, or to provide a coherent defense of her foreign policy bona fides, proves that you can’t manufacture a personal body of knowledge in politics and American government overnight.

It is, of course, possible for a candidate to memorize a list of policy positions, but the problems surface on follow-up questions that go beyond the campaign briefing book. If you haven’t followed the American civic debate closely over the years (and the Alaska governor was vague about what she reads and where she gets her information when questioned about it by Couric), you’re not going to be able to answer in depth.

Palin’s struggles bring to mind the educator E. D. Hirsch’s views on cultural literacy, that students need a common core of knowledge to make sense of what they encounter in the classroom. It is not enough for students to decode the literal words in a text, Hirsch argues, if they don’t understand their meaning and context. It appears that Palin does not have a baseline understanding of constitutional government, or of many of the key issues in American foreign policy, and making up that knowledge deficit during a contested political campaign is problematic, to say the least.

CAMPAIGN 2008 HAS PROVOKED A NUMBER OF “OVER THE TOP” PRONOUNCEMENTS. Two quick examples from the Right: Tony Blankley’s bizarre column “Media Campaigns Hard for Obama,” in which he tries to link mainstream journalists who he claims favor Obama to Nazi propagandists; and Archbishop Raymond Burke’s argument that the Democratic Party risks becoming “the party of death” because of its support of abortion.

TWO SEEMINGLY AGELESS ATHLETES set personal records on the last Sunday of September, proving that peak performances can come late in a career! New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, 39 years old, won his 20th game of the season (a 6-2 win over the Red Sox) for the first time in his long major league career. And New York Jets quarterback Brett Favre, who is about to turn 39, threw six touchdown passes, a personal best, in the Jets’ 56-35 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. Fittingly, Favre was wearing a New York Titans throwback jersey.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM PHILOSOPHER JOHN STUART MILL (1806-1873): “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind..”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!

August 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Palin and the Iron Lady gambit, American voters and racism, Country crossover, and other Campaign 2008 observations

With a wave of the political banner to legendary New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…(campaign version!)

PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL JOHN MCCAIN’S CHOICE OF ALASKA GOVERNOR SARAH PALIN AS his running mate is, conventional wisdom holds, a risky move for the Republican standard-bearer because of Palin’s lack of foreign policy experience. But Palin exudes a certain toughness—from her willingness to take on the Alaskan political establishment to her lifelong NRA membership—and McCain may be counting on the “Iron Lady” factor: voters are more likely to vote for a hard-edged, conservative (e.g., Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir) than for a softer, more conciliatory female candidate. The new-found respect for Sen. Hillary Clinton expressed by many on the Right was generated, it can be argued, from Clinton’s perceived “toughness,” especially on foreign policy (she did, after all, threaten Iran with “obliteration” if it attacked Israel with nuclear weapons).

IF BARACK OBAMA LOSES HIS HISTORIC RACE FOR THE PRESIDENCY, WILL WHITE RACISM be the cause? That’s been the theory advanced by some pundits, including Jacob Weisberg of Slate (“Racism is the only reason Obama might lose“) and New York Magazine’s John Heilemann (“The Color-Coded Campaign: Why Barack Obama Isn’t Doing Better in the Polls“).

But as Matt Bai noted in his op-ed, “The Race Isn’t About Race,” in the New York Times:

While it’s entirely possible that Mr. Obama’s race is costing him some support, it’s also true that the electorate that voted in the last two presidential elections was almost symmetrically divided between the two parties. It would defy the laws of politics if, at this early stage of the campaign, moderate Republicans and conservative independents were to reject Mr. McCain (a candidate many of them preferred back in 2000) simply because they don’t like George W. Bush.

Bai has it right, it seems to me. The question boils down to this: would white working-class swing voters cast a ballot for a very liberal Senator named Barry O’Brien with, in Bai’s words, “remarkably little governing experience and almost none in foreign policy…”? Enough of these culturally conservative voters didn’t support the liberal John Kerry nor the (then) centrist Al Gore. Why would yet another Ivy League-educated candidate, whose dispararging comments about working class voters (“They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”) have been widely publicized expect to automatically pick up the support of Reagan Democrats?

WITH REAGAN DEMOCRATS IN PLAY, SUDDENLY COUNTRY MUSIC IS POLITICALLY CORRECT, as Sen. Obama chose to play Brooks and Dunn’s “Only in America” after his acceptance speech at the close of the Democratic National Convention. Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn were George W. Bush supporters (and the song was featured in the 2004 Republican campaign), but Brooks said that they were “flattered” by Obama using the song: “Seems ironic that the same song Bush used at the Republican Convention last election would be used by Obama and the Democrats now. ­Very flattering to know our song crossed parties and potentially inspires all Americans.” (Another Brooks and Dunn song, “That’s What It’s All About,” has been playing at McCain rallies.) In another crossover, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” was the country-tinged song played after Sen. McCain announced Sarah Palin as his VP pick, a song Entertainment Weekly noted was “by Bon Jovi (a prominent Democratic supporter) and Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles (who played a Democratic convention event earlier this week).”

KID ROCK, THE DETROIT SINGER/SONGWRITER, DOESN’T THINK MUCH OF CELEBRITIES ENDORSING POLITICAL CANDIDATES. Kid Rock (AKA Robert James Ritchie) commented: “I truly believe that people like myself, who are in a position of entertainers in the limelight, should keep their mouth shut on politics because at the end of the day, I’m good at writing songs and singing.” He added: “What I’m not educated in is the field of political science. And so for me to be sharing my views and influencing people of who I think they should be voting for … I think would be very irresponsible on my part.”

Meanwhile, former Saturday Night Live comedian Al Franken has picked up momentum in his race against Republican incumbent Norm Coleman for the U.S. Senate seat. The two are now tied in the latest public opinion polls. Should Franken win, will more liberal Democrat celebrities decide to run? Among those mentioned as possible candidates: Alec Baldwin, Jon Bon Jovi, and George Clooney.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM ARGENTINE FABULIST JORGE LUIS BORGES (1899-1986): “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!

July 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Veeps and Swing States, Che’s dark legacy, the Big Dig and the Big Lift, and other observations

With a tip of the straw boater to legendary New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

WHO WOULD JOHN McCAIN AND BARACK OBAMA SELECT FOR THEIR RESPECTIVE RUNNING MATES if they put aside all considerations except winning key swing states? For McCain, former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge represents the best choice for the GOP ticket to contest Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and perhaps even New Jersey (more so than McCain-Romney). For Obama, Hillary Clinton as VP would provide the most lift in Ohio, Michigan, and Florida by appealing to ethnic working class Democrats and older women.

Yet it’s unlikely Ridge and Clinton will be the vice presidential choices. Ridge’s pro-choice stance makes him a difficult sell to Republican evangelicals. Obama doesn’t want to share the stage, or spotlight, with the more experienced Clinton. So, it can be argued, the candidates will not let Electoral College math drive their VP-picks and that’s where political decision-making veers from the rational.

IT WAS TELLING THAT COLOMBIAN COMMANDOS DISGUISED THEMSELVES IN Ernesto “Che” Guevara t-shirts to trick Marxist guerrillas into freeing 15 kidnap victims. That the brutal Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, idolized Guevara—the Argentine revolutionary icon—is yet another part of Che’s dark legacy, albeit a predictable one. That an American director, Steven Soderbergh, should seek to glorify this ruthless proponent of a failed Marxist ideology (as he does in his new movie) is less understandable.

THE LAND OF THE BEAN AND THE COD can now proudly lay claim to the world’s greatest public works boondoggle—the mismanaged Big Dig. The Boston Globe reports that the error-plagued project (grandly entitled the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel) “will cost an additional $7 billion in interest, bringing the total to a staggering $22 billion…” The debt will not be paid off until 2038, according to the Globe, and the state government’s solution to the crushing debt? Borrowing more! It was Albert Einstein who defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

JEFF JACOBY OF THE BOSTON GLOBE quarreled with Sen. Obama’s oratorical treatment of the Berlin Airlift (in Obama’s July 24th speech), with the often-fiery conservative columnist zinging the Democratic presidential hopeful for failing to mention President Harry Truman’s pivotal role and the courage of the U.S. pilots involved. Jacoby added:

…Obama seemed to go out of his way not to say plainly that what saved Berlin in that dark time was America’s military might. Save for a solitary reference to “the first American plane,” he never described one of the greatest American operations of the postwar period as an American operation at all. He spoke only of “the airlift,” “the planes,” “those pilots.” Perhaps their American identity wasn’t something he cared to stress amid all his “people of the world” salutations and talk of “global citizenship.”

Jacoby’s criticism is partially valid, but the Berlin Airlift was a combined Anglo-American operation, with more British pilots (39) dying than American (31) during the course of the nearly year-long resupply effort. (The 1950 movie “The Big Lift” offers an in-depth look at the harrowing conditions faced by pilots flying into Berlin.)

SPEAKING OF ANGLO INFLUENCES, LOOK NO FURTHER THAN THE NEW BATMAN MOVIE “THE DARK KNIGHT.” The two stars, Christian Bale (England) and Heath Ledger (Australia), the director (Christopher Nolan, a Brit), and two key supporting actors, Michael Caine and Gary Oldman (both Londoners) prove that Batman isn’t as American a franchise as you might think.

THE LATE DALE DAVIS, PUBLISHER OF THE SANTA BARBARA NEWS-PRESS USED TO JOKE THAT every American man believed he could do three things well: drive a car, make love, and run a newspaper. Of course whether that proverbial guy actually could perform adequately was a completely different question, Davis would add. Sam Zell, the Chicago “turnaround maven” who engineered the takeover of the Tribune Company for $8.5 billion in 2007 has discovered that running newspapers these days isn’t as easy as it looked from the outside, and BusinessWeek calls it “a transaction that’s shaping up to be one of the most disastrous the media world has ever seen.”

As Zell slashes newsroom payrolls, sells many of Tribune’s papers, and belatedly admits he misjudged the financial situation, the question now becomes whether this self-described “grave dancer” will run the company into the ground. Zell’s hand-picked former Clear Channel executives clearly don’t know what they are doing. It adds up to hard times for some of the country’s major metros (like the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.)

IT’S A TOSS UP AS TO WHETHER RAPPER LUDACRIS OR ACTOR JON VOIGHT demonstrate better the absurdity of entertainers pontificating about politics. Ludacris embarrassed the Obama campaign by releasing a rap video insulting both Hillary Clinton and John McCain, while Voight contributed a pro-McCain op-ed to the Washington Times warning about Obama’s plans to introduce socialism to the United States. With celebrity friends like these, who needs enemies?

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM JOURNALIST THEODORE “TEDDY” WHITE: “To go against the dominant thinking of your friends, of most of the people you see every day, is perhaps the most difficult act of heroism you can perform.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!

Critiquing Campaign 2008’s coverage

When Americans cast their votes for president in November, how well informed will they be about the candidates and the issues? Their level of knowledge will reflect, in some measure, the performance of news organizations and journalists covering the Long Campaign of 2008.

Here, from this observer’s vantage point, is a brief critique of Campaign 2008’s news coverage so far, with the positive, the negative, and yet to be addressed coverage questions.

CAMPAIGN COVERAGE POSITIVES:

Coverage of the issues. Academics, media critics, and public interest groups have long attacked mainstream news organizations for sacrificing coverage of public policy issues (the broccoli of the political process) in favor of horse-race or personality coverage (the sugary, unhealthy dessert). That hasn’t been the case in this campaign. Along with the reporting of candidate gaffes and campaign tactics, the mainstream media has more than adequately covered the positions of the presidential candidates on key issues.

The nation’s elite newspapers (the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal) have explored the candidate’s policy positions in depth, and their websites offer even more detailed comparisons. While the broadcast and cable networks have served up less issues coverage, the websites of CNN and Fox News do carry pertinent information on the candidates’ positions.

And prospective voters who don’t know by now that Senators Obama and Clinton plan a rapid American withdrawal from Iraq and Senator McCain favors staying the course, or that the Democrats endorse greater government intervention in health care and Republicans counter with market-driven solutions, aren’t paying attention.

The reality, however, as Steven Stark of the Boston Phoenix recently pointed out, is that most American presidential elections aren’t “big issue” driven, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Those surprisingly informative debates. While it’s true that a skilled debater may or may not make a proficient president (as Daniel Boorstin argued in The Image in 1961 after the Kennedy-Nixon Great Debate), debates can help voters looking for a better sense of a candidate. The numerous 2008 primary season debates, organized and moderated by major news organizations, contributed positively to the winnowing-out process.

Mike Huckabee’s folksy debate performances spurred his surprising rise early in the Republican campaign. The debates highlighted the kookiness of Ron Paul, Mike Gravel, and Alan Keyes (although Keyes’ inclusion by the Des Moines Register in its GOP Iowa debate was questionable.)

The two most interesting debates, both on the Democratic side, were held in Philadelphia. In the first, Hillary Clinton’s waffling on the question of then New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to grant driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants raised questions about her inevitability. In the second, held just before the Pennsylvania primary, Obama looked ill-at-ease as he struggled with tough questions from Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos over Bittergate and his connections with his controversial pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Weather Underground figure William Ayers. Obama’s faltering performance caused some wags to ask if the Illinois Senator struggles with the Gibson-Stephanopoulos duo, how he will respond to the Ahmadinejads and Hugo Chavezs of the world? Not surprisingly, Obama ducked any further one-on-one debates with Clinton.

Questions of character and vetting the candidate’s past. Yes, a presidential candidate’s past, including his or her associations, and character, should matter and to the extent their past touches on those questions, it’s journalistic fair game. That John McCain is surrounded by former and current lobbyists while declaring his independence from special interests matters; thanks largely to reporting from the New York Times, voters have learned about this contradiction. That Barack Obama spent 20 years in a church whose pastor espoused black liberation theology and spouted anti-American rhetoric matters; thanks largely to initial reporting from Brian Ross at ABC News, voters know about it.

CAMPAIGN COVERAGE NEGATIVES:

Journalistic Obamania. Campaign 2008 has also featured the unprecedented spectacle of journalists openly favoring a candidate, Sen. Obama, a phenomenon aptly mocked by Saturday Night Live. There’s NBC reporter Lee Cowan who admitted “it’s almost hard to remain objective” and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews confessing to “a thrill up my leg” after an Obama speech. Clinton supporters Lanny Davis and Terry McAuliffe even lauded Fox News, the cable news network detested by the Democratic Left, as the most “fair and balanced” in its primary coverage; McAuliffe claimed the media was “in the tank for Obama”, adding that “every independent study has said that this is the most biased coverage they’ve ever seen in a presidential campaign.”

It actually hasn’t been that bad. A recent survey by Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University suggests that “the dominant personal narratives in the media about Obama and Clinton were almost identical in tone, and were both twice as positive as negative, according to the study, which examined the coverage of the candidates’ character, history, leadership and appeal—apart from the electoral results and the tactics of their campaigns.” Of course this study covered the first months of 2008, where much of the most over-the-top Obama media-fawning took place in late 2007 and early 2008. The Pew researchers concede: “The year 2008 started off extremely well for Obama. Positive assertions commanded 77% of the narrative studied about him from January 1 -13.” That, of course, Clinton supporters would note, is when such cheerleading mattered most in the run-up to Iowa and New Hampshire.

Misleading polls. Why news organizations place any credence in opinion polling remains a mystery. This campaign season has exposed the weakness of relying on polling, especially exit polls, as they were consistently wrong in projecting the winner’s margin in the Democratic primaries, most likely because of the Shy Tory Factor (voters refusing to participate in the exit polling). Further, the appeal of Obama for younger and African-American voters, and Clinton for older, working-class women—groups with spotty voter participation histories—has wreaked havoc with turnout models.

Predicting, not reporting. Who hasn’t been annoyed by the “talking heads” need to predict? In the fall of 2007, we were told that Clinton and former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani were the inevitable nominees, that Senators McCain and Obama were long-shots. Then, after pronouncing Clinton dead, conventional media wisdom was proved wrong when the New York Senator ran off a string of primary victories in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky. NBC’s Tom Brokaw had it right on the night of the New Hampshire primary when he warned: “I think that the people out there are going to begin to make judgments about us if we don’t begin to temper that temptation to constantly try to get ahead of what the voters are deciding….”

UNADDRESSED COVERAGE QUESTIONS:

How will coverage of Campaign 2008 change in the months ahead? The race between Senators Obama and McCain will be hailed as an historic one: the first time an African-American has been a major party’s nominee for the presidency. There is the danger that the mainstream media’s coverage will focus on race (“Will Americans vote for a black candidate? Is America ready for diversity in the White House?”) and that will represent a journalistic failure.

There are sharp distinctions between the candidates on the major issues (foreign policy, Iraq, the economy, health care, judicial philosophy, social issues); voters have plenty of reasons to vote for, or against, the candidates without any reference to race. The question should not be whether Americans are ready to vote for a black presidential candidate, but rather whether they are ready to vote for a charismatic presidential candidate whose philosophy and positions are further to the left than any Democratic standard-bearer since George McGovern. If it is true that the political center has shifted leftward, then they may very well elect the Senator from Illinois.

A wildcard for the remainder of Campaign 2008: the impact of quasi-news coverage from comedians, bloggers, YouTubers, Huffington Puffers, and other alternate media sources. Political historians will have their hands full trying to figure out whether, or how much, voters were swayed by the sudden blooming of a thousand alternative media flowers (and a few media weeds) in this 2008 election season.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!