Saturday, July 12, 2008


As a litigator, I go by two fundamental rules. First and foremost, thou shalt not underestimate your opponent. Second, thou shalt not overestimate your opponent.

These rules apply to contestants in all sorts of competitions. They apply especially well to the combat of electoral politics.

When it comes to Presidential politics in the United States of America, I rarely worry that the first rule will be violated. To survive the nominating process and become the leader of either political party is an enormous accomplishment. Once that process is over, the survivors are then coronated at extravagant, multi-day events at which their names are praised by many of the most accomplished statesmen and women in our nation. How can we help but take their candidacies seriously?

You’d have to be an idiot to underestimate either Barack Obama or John McCain. But the real question is, is it nevertheless possible to overestimate them? I’ve begun to think that the answer is “yes” on both counts.

For months on end, Barack Obama appeared to have near perfect pitch as a candidate. His speeches were soaring, inspiring and in some cases (like his talk on race), precisely what this country needed to hear. The positions he took on issues seemed to be relatively coherent and in line with the mainstream of his party. Once he got off to a lead against Hillary, he gave her precious little room to maneuver. And when, in the latter weeks of the campaign, she finally found her voice, Barack could sit back and play the “prevent defense” to perfection. It was a maestro performance.

Recently though, I’ve been starting to wonder if his advisors are taking the summer off. It’s one thing for a candidate to gradually “move to the center” after he’s clinched a nomination. It’s another to grab a bullhorn and announce “OK, everyone. I’m going to run to the center now. Just throw out an issue and watch me sprint!” Guns? Check. Faith-based anti-poverty initiatives? Check. Partial-birth abortions? Check. FISA? Check. Iraq? Check. Believe me, I’m not arguing with Barack’s new positions on all of these issues. In fact, what he has said on guns, faith-based organizations, and partial-birth abortions is exactly what I advocated in The Creed Room. Those are the three – and only three – issues on which I advocated what might be called “right wing” positions, and I of all people won’t second guess his. But the point here is that, in a very short stretch of time, he reportedly has been moving from his base on literally one issue … after another … after another … after another … after another. Is there any wonder that his funding is drying up?

So how should we interpret this Great Obama Migration? Is it simply a series of attempts to pander? I don’t think so. From what I can tell, the Obama we are seeing now is largely the real Obama. Much of his pandering took place before he clinched the nomination – when he voted against the eminently qualified (if all-too-conservative) John Roberts for Supreme Court Justice, when he touted the D.C. gun law that banned handguns even in one’s own home, and when he spouted the union party line against NAFTA.

I could be wrong, but my sense about Obama is that he sees himself as a natural mediator whose job it is to identify some broad areas in which there is a consensus for change (e.g., health policy, energy policy, Middle East peace policy), and then try to figure out a way to bring the warring parties together to arrive at a solution. A man can fill that role as either a progressive or a conservative, but only by priding himself in the ability to moderate his philosophy when necessary by embracing various positions held by the other side. In these past few weeks, Obama has allowed himself over and over again to reveal positions in which he truly does sympathize with the American right. That’s not a pander. But if he does this too often, too quickly, he can easily be lampooned as thoroughly ambitious and unprincipled. Given his relative dearth of accomplishments as a legislator or executive, for Obama to be seen as void of principles would be the kiss of death.

So, Barack must beware the shape-shifting metaphors. He of all politicians needs to be identified with a coherent philosophy of governance, and unless he wants to take years off from politics to “remake” himself, that philosophy has to be identified with progressivism. Progressives can be listeners, they can compromisers, and they can even be unifiers. But what they can’t do is appear to lose the passion for peace, economic equity, environmental health, and, yes, civil liberties.

When all is said and done, I predict that what Barack will regret most about this summer isn’t allowing his charming daughters to sit for a brief fluffy interview (Why would he regret that, let alone announce his regret?), but voting the way he did on FISA. He’ll have fun explaining that one during his next fundraiser.

This being baseball season, if I had to evaluate Barack’s last few weeks, I’d say he’s hitting .240. But at least he’s above the Mendoza line. I’m not sure the same could be said for John McCain.

Now, the good news for team McCain is that nothing happened that completely destroyed his candidacy. He wasn’t caught “monkeying” around with Donna Rice or “screaming” the names of various states after a bad night at the polls. In truth, McCain’s problem isn’t the quality of his blunders but their quantity. Taken together, they suggest a man whose better days are behind him -- not exactly the impression you want to create when you’re already in your 70s and you’re looking for the most important job in this quadrant of the Galaxy.

Must I go through the list of McCain’s summer bloopers and bad tidings? First, he calls Social Security an “absolute disgrace.” in an attempt to pander to the concerns of workers who are tired of being taxed to help the elderly. Second, his campaign is saddled with the image of chief economic advisor, Phil Graham, castigating those who are critical of our economy as ignorant “whiners.” This is a particularly damaging comment, even though McCain himself didn’t make it, because it reinforces how out of touch McCain is regarding economic issues. Third, when McCain was confronted by a fellow Vietnam vet who questioned him about his failure to support health care benefits for veterans, McCain distorted his own voting record and the amount of support he’s received from veterans groups. Some of these groups have given McCain a miserable rating when it comes to veterans issues, which is truly sad for a man with such a distinguished military career.

Fourth, McCain has had yet another round of struggles with his pet issue, wars in the Middle East. When the President of Iraq finally began speaking favorably about a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops, you’d think McCain would embrace this idea. Not hardly. Initially, he questioned whether Maliki even made the statement, and later he questioned whether Maliki wasn’t simply pandering to a segment of Iraqis who want us to leave. This is the same John McCain who early in the war said that when the Iraqi’s want us out, we’ll have to go.

Fifth, McCain made another of his stupid jokes about killing Muslims. You all remember when he warbled “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ Barbara Ann. But McCain wasn’t singing when someone told him that we are now importing a tremendous quantity of cigarettes to Iran and he responded “Maybe that’s a way of killing them.” The dude didn’t sound like he was joking when he said it. And even if he were, how is that joke funny? It’s not clever. It’s not tasteful. And when stated by a man who should be desperately positioning himself as a man of peace, it is about as friggen stupid as a comment can possibly be. In fact, unlike when he sang the Barbara Ann ditty, McCain came across less as a comedian than as a redneck.

The sixth problem with McCain’s summer isn’t so much what he or his people have been saying recently as what has been recently revealed about his past conduct. This is a time when McCain needs to be making inroads on some group of voters other than white males. Women immediately come to mind. But that sale is going to be lot harder after a certain LA Times article begins to gather traction.

The LA Times reports that after McCain and his first wife Carol were married in 1965,

“McCain adopted her two sons, and they had a daughter together. Then in October 1967, McCain's plane was shot down and he was captured by the North Vietnamese. She became active in the POW-MIA movement. A former model, she dedicated herself to her children and kept the family together, friends said, while awaiting his return. On Christmas Eve 1969, while she was driving alone in Philadelphia, Carol McCain's car skidded and struck a utility pole. Thrown into the snow, she broke both legs, an arm and her pelvis. She was operated on a dozen times, and in the treatment she lost about 5 inches in height.”

Four years later McCain returned to the family after his release from Vietnam. And roughly a decade after his first wife’s accident, he, age 42, left her for an extremely wealthy 24 year old.

The LA Times report quotes an associate of Ronald and Nancy Reagan in saying that the Reagans “weren't happy” with McCain. Carol McCain "was this little, frail person. . . . She was brokenhearted."

“By that time, Nancy Reagan had come to Carol McCain's aid, hiring her as a press assistant in the 1980 presidential campaign. When the Reagans moved to Washington, she was named director of the White House Visitors Office. ‘Nancy Reagan was crazy about her,’ [a witness] said. ‘But everybody was crazy about Carol McCain.’”

Even if everyone hadn’t been crazy about Carol McCain, as that report suggests, my question is exactly who, right now, is crazy about John McCain? Certainly not too many black or Hispanic Americans. And after the story of that first marriage is told, I doubt too many women will be either. They tend to hate to hear about men who, after many years of wives, abandon their disabled wives in favor of someone a hell of a lot richer and younger. Go figure.

It would appear that McCain’s major fan base will largely be composed of white men --especially those who love wars of choice that last a long, long time. This is quite a change for a man who was once a darling of Democrats like me who loved the way he took on GOP orthodoxy and even considered him as a Democrat in GOP clothing.

OK. I understand. He’s running against a relatively inexperienced black man. Atilla the Hun would have a chance if he ran in America against a relatively inexperienced black man. But still, I don’t exactly see McCain right now as the Platonic Form of a Presidential candidate. He can easily be overestimated.

The question is, so what if he can? Should Obama do anything differently once he realizes that he’s not exactly running against a juggernaut? I would say yes. I think he should take McCain’s deficiencies into account in his choice for Veep.

If Obama were running against, say, the 1980 version of Ronald Reagan, my advice to Barack would be that since his opponent is an incredible political talent at the top of his game, the VP choice should be selected 100% on the basis of which person would give Barack the best chance to win the election. But that was a hypothetical; let’s look at reality. Given that Barack is running against a politician who seems to be little more formidable than the 1996 version of Bob Dole, I would urge Barack to use a very different criterion in selecting a running mate.

The fundamental issue shouldn’t be who can most help him win. It should be who can most help him govern. In fact, I’d like that to be virtually his entire concern in selecting a Veep.

Frankly, it may well be true that whoever would do the best job as VP, if elected, is likely to be the one who can best help Obama win in November. I have enough faith in the American public to believe that if they can see two people who genuinely like each other, work well together, and have talents and experiences that complement each other, they will be more likely to elect such a ticket. But this is just an assumption on my part, and assumptions may be wrong. I simply don’t care. John McCain is such a flawed candidate, and Barack Obama has such a historic opportunity to change this nation, that I want Barack to act confidently and ambitiously. I don’t want him to nominate some second rate politician just because s/he can help generate a few extra electoral votes. I want Barack to pick a person who would make an excellent President if called upon to do so and would be an outstanding Vice President as well. I want Barack to select a person who is an impressive leader in his or her own right – a true expert in foreign or economic policy, if not both – and not merely a “name” that helps Barack with swing voters.

Some people would say that I’ve just described Hillary Clinton. And yes, to a degree I have. But I’m not looking for someone who respects herself and her husband a whole lot more than Barack. That’s not a Vice President. That’s a recipe for disaster.

So who would fit the bill? I won’t try to answer that question – not today. But I do have some people in mind. Maybe you all do too. My hope is that when the selection is made, we can all say “Wow. That’s someone who has gravitas.” Find me that person, and I wouldn’t care if s/he’s white or black, male or female, or a resident of the bluest state in the union.

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