Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Is the Electorate Disgusted?

On Super Tuesday it may not come down to Iraq, or terrorism, or the economy, or immigration.

Leave that for the general election. What will matter on Tuesday is whether a big enough chunk of the American electorate decides the most important thing is that those issues be dealt with by a post-partisan president.

Barack Obama has been called the post-partisan candidate, but Republicans have one too in John McCain

It is difficult to picture either of them smearing an opponent, or letting backers do the smear. If supporters outside their campaign tried the kind of swift-boating that blew up John Kerry’s candidacy in 2004, can anybody imagine Obama or McCain failing to react quickly, loudly and insistently to demand the operation stop?

On the other hand, it is easy to imagine Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney disassociate themselves from the attacks — yet quietly not disapprove, either

What else can be expected from Hillary and The Man Who Did Not Have Sex With That Woman. The couple spent the last two weeks making it clear once again that the divisiveness of the 1990s cannot all be blamed on Republican slime merchants.

In a way, one can’t help but admire the subtleness with which they brought up the race issue to hurt Obama, like when Bill Clinton dismissed Obama’s South Carolina landslide by pointing out Jesse Jackson won the state in 1984 and 1988

The triangulation is brilliant: here was the “first black president” stating a straightforward fact of American political history, that a particular Democratic candidate of the 1980s won South Carolina twice, but never got the nomination — and there he was, also, reminding us at the same time that it’s black thang, you see.

Not that Republican slime merchants have gone away, either. Just as brilliant as Clinton’s Jesse-equals-Barack moment was Mike Huckabee’s decision to withhold a particularly slimy television ad — and make the announcement at press conference while releasing the spot to reporters, thereby making sure it aired in news stories (for free!) and made a splash on You Tube

There’s an expression in Spanish for that: “to throw the stone and hide the hand.”

Romney has yet to do anything as hilariously despicable, but no one is going to out-pander the clip art candidate.

The former Massachusetts governor (was the entire state on drugs when it elected him?) doesn’t just look like a model for those generic drawings of an office “boss” that illustrate a thousand cheesy brochures. He sounds like a cartoon, too

Just before his defeat in Florida Romney decided that the best strategy was to drone on about how John McCain was not a true conservative because he works with Democrats too often (even on immigration reform, the traitor!), was endorsed by the liberal New York Times, and considered being John Kerry’s running mate while he, Mitt Romney, is the real heir to the Reagan legacy of family values, low taxes, small government.

Yawn. Everybody knows the rest. It’s what “conservatives” are expected to parrot, even if there is not one item on the list that hasn’t repeated ad nauseum since 1980, when the ideas truly were fresh. Romney’s unwillingness to speak in any language other than quarter-century-old Republican boilerplate leaves him as a candidate without a single interesting thought or original initiative.

That, of course, is good enough for doctrinaire fanatics who listen to Rush Limbaugh, just like the discreet viciousness of Billary goes unnoticed by drinkers of Clintonite Kool-Aid. The question is who else will turn out to vote on Tuesday.

Are there enough Democratic voters who think it good thing that Obama reaches out to Republicans in promising sweeping change? Are there enough Republican voters who admire McCain for risking his conservative credentials by standing up for sensible immigration policy?

Are there enough voters who have had enough?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Obama and the Obvious

The issue of affirmative action is absent this presidential campaign so far, even though neither Democrats nor Republicans have been loath to exploit race and ethnicity when convenient.

Republicans — John McCain excepted — have used the legitimate problem of illegal immigration as a cover to ingratiate themselves with that swath of the electorate that is made uneasy by Spanish-speaking immigrants, whether illegal or legal. It’s an embarrassment for their party.

Democrats’ race wars have their own weird charm. Did she say LBJ and not MLK should get credit for civil rights? Or is he falsely claiming she said that? And is it more historic to be the first woman president, or the first black president? Because you know, women have historically been more oppressed than blacks. No, wait…isn’t it the other way around?

In their own way, as pathetic as the Republicans.

But affirmative action, which was big news in 2003 when the Supreme Court made a ruling in the University of Michigan case that displeased both sides of the debate, has been practically ignored by the major candidates.

None of their websites treats affirmative action as a major policy issue. Neither has it been a factor (has it been mentioned at all?) in debates — so much so that when the conservative National Review Online just a few days ago wanted to castigate Hillary for her position on racial preferences, it had to refer back to a press release from her Senate office about the Supreme Court’s decision in the Michigan case, back in 2003.

Of the major candidate’s websites, it is Barack Obama’s that contains the most direct references to affirmative action. It has three of his speeches that mention it: at the commemoration in March last year of the Selma voting rights march, at historically black Howard University in September, and a month later in East L.A.

That Obama spoke about affirmative action in front of a largely Hispanic crowd is not without meaning. Neither is the fact that anti-affirmative action activist Ward Connerly, who organized efforts to ban racial preferences in California, Michigan and Washington, now has his eyes set on Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Does it foreshadow where the affirmative action debate is heading? With all the anger about immigration, and referendum fights in five states, will the two issues become linked?

If they do, the link will not connect all immigrants to racial preferences — just those deemed to be a “minority.”

The way affirmative action works, no Albanian immigrant who owns a plumbing business will qualify for ethnic small business set-asides, but his Hispanic competitor will. Similarly, when applying to college the children of that Albanian will not get an extra boost because of ethnicity, while the son of a Hispanic brain surgeon will be considered disadvantaged, and get an edge he does not need.

This system says immigrants who are Hispanic, like blacks but unlike immigrants from Europe (nobody is sure what to do about Asians), carry impediments that can only be left behind with outside help. Like a disease of some sort.

Sounds like something the rabid anti-immigrant right might rant about. But no. It’s the left that supports ethnic preferences insulting to its supposed beneficiaries.

Republicans have zero credibility on the issue. Most of the pack is too tainted by pandering to xenophobes, and even if McCain took a strong position against racial preferences, it would be dismissed as a case of Republicans doing what Republicans usually do.

Which is why the demise of affirmative action can only be set in motion by a Democrat. And who better than Barack Obama, an intended beneficiary by reason of ethnicity, yet also someone who clearly does not need anybody’s patronizing help?

In those three speeches on his website, Obama defended racial preferences. But in an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” last May, he said affirmative action should become “a diminishing tool for us to achieve racial equality,” and seemed to recognize it would be ludicrous for his children to be treated as anything other than “folks who are pretty advantaged.”

Sometimes, what leadership requires is courage to spell out the obvious.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

As Hispanic-Heavy Primaries Near, Will Immigrant-Bashing Stop?

Has the air gone out of the anti-immigrant windbags? There is evidence the last couple of weeks that Yes, maybe.

The loudest immigrant basher, Tom Tancredo, dropped out of the race. The noisiest huffer and puffer among candidates with a realistic shot, Mitt Romney, learned that peddling fear of immigrants didn’t help him break out of the middle of the pack in Iowa and New Hampshire, and was not much of a factor in his win in Michigan.

And the only Republican who has not used immigration as a wedge issue, John McCain, won in New Hampshire. He won after being all but Officially Pronounced Dead last summer when he refused to scurry toward Tancredoness along with most of the rest of his party (it must be said in all fairness that another notable non-scurrier, for everything else he has done to make the world a worse place to live, is George W. Bush).

Meanwhile, over at the Dems, candidates have been so busy debating whether it is harder to run as a black man than as a woman that they have yet to discover what a “Hispanic” is, beyond the ritual taco munch on the campaign trail.

Up next: South Carolina January 26, Florida January 29, and “Super Duper” Tuesday February 5.

Clinton, Obama and Edwards are unlikely to become excited about Hispanic voters in South Carolina, where there are few; all three are assiduously boycotting Florida (while still praying for a good showing) because the Democratic National Committee did not like the early date for the state’s primary.

But for the GOP, South Carolina provides an opportunity for the return of pandering to xenophobes

The state is not in want of GOP hard-liners alarmed at the foreign hordes intent on forcing red-blooded Americans to speak Spanish (or at least intent on forcing us to have to press 1 to hear English). There is no price to pay, at least not in South Carolina, for kissing up to that crowd — the Hispanic vote in the Palmetto State’s Republican primary will be miniscule, and so is the number of non-Hispanic South Carolinian Republicans offended by the tactic.

Still, nobody is running for president of South Carolina. So candidates will be smart to keep in mind that what they say here will echo in the Florida primary. In Florida, too, the Neanderthal wing of the Republican Party has not gone extinct. But Florida’s is the first primary in which the Hispanic vote matters

Florida’s non-Cuban Hispanics, as well as those who are Cuban but were born or brought up in the United States, are as aware as anybody else in the country that some of the Republican candidates — okay,] all of the Republican candidates, except McCain — have been unable to restrain themselves from bad-mouthing immigrants, even as they insist the problem is with illegal immigrants only. Even Giuliani, an unabashed admirer of immigrants while mayor of New York, has not resisted the temptation to stick in a quick kick.

Older Cuban voters — my dad’s generation, those who came to the United States as adults to escape Castro’s gulag — have different priorities. Their number one issue remains American policy toward Cuba. But once that litmus test is passed (Huckabee is the Republican least trusted on Castro) other issues count also. And nobody, not even the most hyper-sensitive, politically correct left-wing Chicano activist from East L.A., is touchier about linguistic and ethnic attacks than these traditional, very conservative retired Cubans

Put it like this: In general election between a Republican anti-Castro hardliner who is not friendly to Spanish-speakers, and a soft-on-Castro Democrat who just loves [end itals] Hispanics, older Cuban voters will either stay home or grudgingly vote for the Republican (see Dole-Clinton, 1996). But in a Republican primary in which every candidate competes to have the hardest anti-Castro line, the attitude toward Spanish and immigration may well be the tie-breaker.

Will Republicans stop pandering to the xenophobic right in Florida? How will they handle immigration in California, Colorado, New Jersey and New York, all of which have significant Hispanic populations, and all of which have primaries on Super Tuesday?

Correction: Last week I wrote that 1968 was “the first election in which most boomers voted.” Had I done my math right I would have realized that the first wave of boomers, born in 1946, turned 21 (the voting age until 1971) in 1967. And that, as my editor points out, makes 1968 the election in which the first (but not “most”) boomers voted.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Two Good Candidates This Time?

What we have after Iowa and New Hampshire is the possibility of a presidential race between two candidates who are charismatic, honest and thoughtfully moderate.

It may make for a November the likes of which Baby Boomers have never seen.

Call 1968 the first election in which most Boomers voted, and count from there. The presence of Richard Nixon automatically disqualifies 1968 and 1972 on two of the three counts (his saving grace: Nixon was no rabid right-winger), and still in 1972 McGovern was further to the left than any Democrat in American history.

In 1976 neither Carter nor Ford had charisma. In 1980 and 1984 Reagan had plenty of charisma, but nobody has ever accused him of being an intellectual or of not being conservative enough. In 1984 and 1988 Mondale and Dukakis came straight out of liberal Democrats’ central casting. In 1992 and 1996 we had Clinton, whose parsing of the meaning of “is” makes him unfit to claim intellectual honesty, and we also had Poppy Bush and Bob Dole—nice guys, not driven by doctrinaire demons, but not exactly bursting with personal magnetism

Over the last two elections the younger Bush ran against two thoughtful Democrats who were moderate or at least realized the virtue of appearing so—but Gore and Kerry never managed to loosen up.

And then there is W. himself. Let’s just say he’d probably be a blast to have a beer or three with

That’s 40 years and ten elections in which more often than not [begin ital] both [end itals] candidates disappointed.

Is the end of the streak of awfulness?

Of the leading Republican candidates, Romney and Thompson are paint-by-the-numbers conservatives, with their soporific talk about guns and lower taxes. Can’t they think of something fresh, 20 years after Ronald Reagan left office? Giuliani may be a strong leader and moderate in domestic issues, but in the international arena he is capable of performing the improbable feat of making the United States even less respected than it is now. Ron Paul? As radical in his own way as George McGovern.

That leaves McCain and Huckabee. The latter has his own quiet brand of likeability (the first fundamentalist with irony, somebody called him), and seems more pragmatic than the stereotypical Christian conservative. But people who reject the basics of modern scientific thought cannot be called thoughtful.

Over on the Democratic side (where Richardson should give it up, Kucinich should return to his flying saucer, and Mike Gravel…who [begin itals] is [end itals] Mike Gavel?), Hillary Clinton has constructed a public persona so opaque, even post-tears, that it is no longer possible to tell what she is or is not. And Edwards has converted himself into a Democratic version of Mitt Romney, mouthing platitudes stale since Hubert Humphrey

Which leaves Obama. And the possibility of Obama versus McCain in November.

The Democrat’s appeal is that he has the power to recast the image of the United States abroad and at home. An Obama presidency will make America less race-conscious—we will look at him and see him as the president, not just as the black president. Overseas, the recasting is even more necessary—but is Obama too eager to run around the world embracing dictators? How well does he distinguish between diplomacy to prevent war (Iran, North Korea) and diplomacy to bring democracy (Cuba)?

McCain, too, has the power to make this country be itself again, with his principled stand against torture, his refusal to play immigrant basher along with most other Republicans. Even war opponents who are honest will admit (at least to themselves) that his support for the Iraq surge is born of honest conviction, not desperation or ignorance. But I keep thinking back to his “Bomb Iran” moment, singing it to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann.” And I wonder what making light of such a grave affair says about the man.

They both bear watching. As does the exciting possibility that for the first time, millions of Americans will know what it feels like to vote for a presidential candidate they actually like, instead of the lesser of two evils.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Worse Than a Bad Movie

What can you say about a guy who tries to free hostages, a guy who brings affordable heating oil to poor people?

What can you say? What you can say about Hugo Chávez is that you are on to him.

A few days ago the Venezuelan president mounted a media circus in neighboring Colombia, where he bragged he was going to convince his left-wing comrades in the terrorist Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, known by their Spanish acronym FARC, to release three hostages (including a three-year-old child) they have held for years

Along for the ride were former Argentinean president (and current First Husband) Néstor Kirchner, a Brazilian official with close ties to president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, the French ambassador in Caracas, the Cuban ambassador in Caracas, and a pretty ugly American named Oliver Stone.

Yes, him. He was hoping, of course, to humbly be of help in Chávez’s humanitarian gesture.

Besides, “I have no illusions about the FARC,” he told reporters, “ but it looks like they are a peasant army fighting for a decent living.”

No illusions, mind you. Just a heroic army of the Little People fighting for what’s right. Even if they kill, main and kidnap a few thousand innocents. Sort of like Al-Qaeda, right? Didn’t Oliver compare Al-Qaeda to the Minutemen of 1776? No? Ooops, no, that was Michael Moore. Sorry, I sometimes confuse which Hollywood director who admires Fidel Castro said what about whom.

One thing for sure, the celebs are not missing a beat as Fidel slowly makes his transition from this world to the other—they are learning to heap praises on his disciple Hugo.

A “great man,” Stone called Chávez

“One of the Earth's wisest people,” he once said of Castro.

Here in the United States, Chávez’s greatness is being sung by Joe Kennedy, son of Bobby, who is appearing in television and radio commercials thanking CITGO, the government-owned Venezuelan oil company, for providing millions of barrels of discounted heating oil to impoverished Americans.

It’s how Chávez sets himself up: the liberator of hostages, the provider of warmth. Freedom and security. What more could anybody want?

Maybe, “socialism or death.”
That’s the slogan in Chávez’s Venezuela, as well as in Castro’s Cuba. And they do not mean Euro-socialism, either. They mean hard-line Marxism-Leninism. They are saying, in essence, that Cubans and Venezuelans either accept a one-party state without freedom of speech, or they die. It’s an ideology Castro tried to spread through force of arms in the 1960s and 1970s, funding and training guerrillas movements to make the Andes into another Vietnam, in the words of Che Guevara

FARC and another Colombian group, the Ejército Nacional de Liberación, or ELN, are just about the last holdouts from that violent era

Now Chávez is trying a different tactic: soft power. The discounted oil. The effort to free hostages.

In the United States, the oil shipments make him look like a compassionate world leader who cares about shivering poor folks in American inner cities, Indian reservations and rural hamlets.

Which makes it more difficult for Washington to paint him as the dictator wanabe that he is.

And in Colombia, he comes off as the architect of a plan to relieve the suffering of long-held hostages and their families. A humanitarian gesture on his part even if FARC reneges, as they have at this writing. Of course, what he is really seeking is the destabilization of Colombian democracy, presided over by his regional archrival Álvaro Uribe. He sees it as a necessary step in spreading his “Bolivarian Revolution” across the South American continent.

Regional leaders of democracies like Kirchner and Lula are as blind to the danger as Oliver Stone. The difference is that the main harm Stone can do is make a bad movie.