Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Leader of the Pack

As we near North Carolina and Indiana, Obama is finally speaking out strongly against Reverend Jeremiah Wright, but unfortunately, like John Kerry before him, seems to have little idea of how to respond convincingly to aggressive tactics. Obama is still ahead and the math is still on his side, but...there is a growing sense that Hillary may somehow be able to pull this off. Dorothy Wickenden in a "Talk" piece in this week's New Yorker echoes what I've been saying on my blog--and in my book, Anything for A Vote--about the 1988 election setting the tone for twenty years worth of negative campaigning, but she and I draw different conclusions. Hillary, she believes, is stripping the bark from Barack Obama, just as Lee Atwater, Republican hit man, promised to "strip the bark from that little bastard [Michael Dukakis] and make Willie Horton his running mate."
I don't believe Hillary's actions are anywhere near as offensive as Atwater's--I don't think she has yet claimed, for instance, that Barack would release serial killers from jail if elected. Secondly, Atwater's tactics worked. Despite Wickenden's assertion that the "civility" of Barack Obama and John McCain has "lifted them above the pack," I believe that Hillary, still growling and frothing, has a definite shot at this just because she is so ready to mud-wrestle. But, as I wrote the other day, we haven't gotten anywhere near 1988-level election nastiness--1988 was the year we were letting go of Ronald Reagan and finding out it wasn't "morning in America," after all. The level of anger was very, very high--much more so than now, even with Iraq and the economy.
However, I do long for a few George H.W. Bushisms like “I stand for anti-bigotry, anti-Semitism and anti-racism” or “I’m going to make sure that everyone who has a job, wants a job.” Hillary, Barack, John--they're just too well-spoken these days....even when they're insulting each other.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Justice denied....

No sooner do I weigh in on voter registration issues in Florida (see below) when the Supreme Court returns a 6-3 decision upholding the legality of Indiana's tough voter ID law, which insists that every voter produce a valid photo ID before being allowed to vote--a passport or driver's license. This was expected, but it is a shame nonetheless. The justifications for the law “should not be disregarded simply because partisan interests may have provided one motivation for the votes of individual legislators,” Justice Stevens wrote. This is what is known, not as blind justice, but justice with without peripheral vision. Once again, as I wrote this morning, no one has proved that voter fraud consisting of pretending to be someone else when you vote is prevalent in this country anymore. If it is, let's see the statistics. Absent those, these Voter ID laws are intended to keep poor and mainly Democratic people from voting. And they will work.

Ohio Redux?

Damien Cave's scary article in the New York Times today underscores the fact that voting in Florida in the general election of 2008--if we ever get candidates for said election, that is--is going to be a hit-or-miss proposition for many people, especially Democrats. The Republican-controlled state legislature has passed laws which are akin to those on the books in Ohio in their severity. The League of Women Voters may have to pay penalties of fines of up to $1,000 if they turn in forms late. Republican Bureaucrats will scan driver's licences and compare Social Security numbers. The Times article quotes Joe Pickens, a Republican who served on the Florida House’s Ethics and Elections Committee in 2005 and 2006, as saying, with great pomposity: "Some say we err on the side of caution. I would say that’s the place we should be.”
Democrats are saying that all of this is just a way to exclude new voters, Democrats in the main, from poorer neighborhoods, who tend not to have correct ID. The same types of bureaucratic snares were set for Democratic votes in Ohio in 2004, and many people think that, because of this, John Kerry lost the election. That is debatable. What is not debatable is that Republicans have yet to actually come up with any statistics which show that fraudulent voter registration is a real issue in this country anymore.
As I have said in the past, this election will not be decided by "floaters," who travel from state to state voting numerous times for the same candidate. But, if it's down to a close one on election eve, it may be decided by Republican officials whose main goal is to keep poorer Democrats from voting.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Cry Havoc

Well, it's off to Indiana and North Carolina. More and more people are claiming that Hillary's persistance is destroying the Democrats in 08, while others claim that the fight is a valid one which will in the end strengthen the party.
I do like the fact that others are coming around to what I've been saying all along, however, which is that we have only just now started to see the dirty tricks. Lisa Schiffren at The National Review’s The Corner, a conservative blog, quoted in yesterday's New York Times:

"By what reckoning has this primary fight been so nasty? So dirty? So mean? We have all seen much worse. If anything, until this past month the questions and the charges have been much too dainty. Barack Obama is a stranger to most of the electorate. It is just fine to question any and all of his associations and political views. Failure to do so is malfeasance; failure to highlight his weaknesses as a leader would be some kind of suicide pact for an opponent."

Well, the last bit is a little silly, since in these attacks most charges are either wildly exaggerated or even made up out of wholecloth--so that even strengths become "weaknesses," as we saw in the Swiftboating of John Kerry--but it's good to hear that people are finally getting it. The dirty tricks have just started and, so far in that regard, Hillary is winning, despite the kind of scolding she got from the New York Times in their finger-waving (taking a cue from Bill?) editorial, "The Low Road to Victory." In it, they claim that "voters are getting tired of [negative campaigning]; it is demeaning the political process; and it does not work." Whaaa? "Demeaning the political process?" Excuse me, Pollyanna, it is the political process. And of course it works--it has worked for over 200 years, and it worked in 1896 when the William McKinley-loving New York Times hired a group of shrinks to assail William Jennings Bryan as a nut and a degenerate.
The Times ends with a cry for Hillary to "call off the dogs." Nonsense. "Cry havoc," I say, and let them slip. The fun is just beginning.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Deep in the Kitchen

On the eve of this PA primary, which Hillary must really win by an impressive margin in order to have a fighting chance, both she and Obama have released new commercials attacking each other. As regular readers know, I, seemingly alone among the pundits, have not been all that impressed with the level of nastiness in this campaign so far--I mean, compared to 1988 or 1964, it's like watching two private school kids thumb their noses at each other--but now the ads are catching up to the glories of "Daisy" in '64, to the horror of "Revolving Door" and the sheer breathless hilarity of "Tank" in '88.
Hillary's new "Kitchen" ad has the makings of a classic. She brings in images from the Great Depression, World War II, 9/11, the current recession, the Iraq war and ends by quoting Harry Truman: "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen." (Politicians on the losing side of things almost always turn to Truman because of his 1948 comeback victory against Thomas E. Dewey. Doesn't matter if they're Democrat or Republican--George H.W. Bush claimed Truman would have "voted Republican" were he alive in that 1992 Bush-Clinton contest.)
I always say about attack ads, one, they work, despite what people claim when asked if they like them. And two, the more gratuitously absurd they are--and "Kitchen" is pretty absurd--the better they work. Tying these unrelated images together is completely ridiculous, as is tossing in a hackneyed line from a president who was often ineffectual and despised by his own party ("To Err is Truman" was a favorite line of the time). And, of course, Hillary's time in the White House was not, after all, as president.
Obama's response is a pallid ad called "He Has What It Takes," which is far too short in the visceral, gut-level image department to have any effect--it bores from the beginning, with Obama nattering on about how we are "one people, united." A nice message, but, in nice vs. nasty, nasty always wins out.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Great White Whale

The day before one of the biggest primaries of the year--and who would have guessed twelve months ago that we would still be battling it out within the Democratic party--and each candidate is "criss-crossing" Pennsylvania, as the pundits like to say, seeking votes and delegates. While I don't agree with Nora Ephron's over-simplification in a recent column that the next president will be elected by angry Pennsylvania white men, I do agree with her when it comes to not counting Hillary out. She simply does not stop coming at you. As an angry (New Jersey) white man myself, I find this both admirable and a little disconcerting, so I can understand how those PA dudes must be feeling. However, my gut instinct is that Hillary is going to win in PA bigger than expected, because Obama is, ever so slightly, back on his heels a little. Whether it was the debate commentators, Hillary, or Obama himself, with "Cling-gate," he had finally been "defined." A "narrative" has been created for tomorrow's primary, one all the media will now be following. It ain't Moby Dick, but I guess it will have to do. We'll see who gets harpooned.....

Friday, April 18, 2008


I think the current brouhaha over the questions asked of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the Philly shootout of a few days ago is quite amusing. Should George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson have queried these two over such trivial matters as absent flagpins or faulty Bosnia memories? Where was the substance?
Well, I say wearily, since when is substance a part of staged presidential "debates" these days? Where did anyone ever get the idea that real matters of importance are discussed in these so carefully managed events? Back in 1960, in the Kennedy-Nixon debates, moderated by the likes of Howard K. Smith, both candidates were actually asked about substantive issues and gave lengthy answers. But --aha! Since those watching on television decided that Kennedy won, simply because he looked a helluva lot better than Nixon, substance was almost entirely lacking the next time anyone even dared have another general election debate, which was in 1976, between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.
Ever since, tiepins, and "gotcha's" like "There you go again!" have ruled the day. This is why most people I know can seldom watch an entire debate all the way through. It's just too painful.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


I have, as readers of this blog will know, been a little disappointed in the level of dirty tricks played so far in the only active portion of this election, the Democratic primary, but last night's debate between Hillary and Obama at least aired out a certain level of nastiness. General consensus is that Obama was continually on the defensive, assailed by Hillary for his "clinging to guns and religion" remark, forcing poor Obama to say that he understood that hunting was "culturally" important (there's his inner anthropologist again!). Obama also had to defend his relationship with Bill Ayers, former Weather Underground bomber, whom he called, rather hilariously, "a guy in my neighborhood," as if the two met hanging out on their stoops sipping tallboys.
Well, we'll see if this does Hillary any good. Polls show her once-commanding Pennsylvania lead shrinking ahead of this Tuesday's primary and Obama holding a strong lead among Democrats in general, who think he can beat McCain in the fall. I think this game of "gotcha" will ultimately work against Hillary--and personally, for a lover of a good dirty trick--bags full of cash exchanging hands, sexual innuendos, really nasty smears--this is a little bit like being tickled to death. Get it on, folks, or forget about it.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Game

At yesterday's "compassion forum" (sigh) held near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as we approach the primary on April 22, Hillary acquitted herself well, going after Barack Obama for his supposedly elitist statements about the working class clinging to guns and religion and prejudice because they were bitter have-nots. Having finally gotten an issue she can strike the Teflon Obama with, she has gone to town with it, and just in time, with her once-commanding lead in PA shrinking.
But it just underscores the odd, almost Alice in Wonderland nature of this Democratic primary so far. Really, Obama's statements were not elitist--merely honest, if a bit too generalized--and I get the feeling most people know that. But by the rules of The Game (as presidential politics was being called as far back as 1796) we have to accept that she has scored some points, that Obama has committed an error.
Presidential politics is the first and greatest of our national pastimes, as I often say. In the 19th century, voter turn out was consistently in the high 70% (reaching an all time high of 82% of eligible voters in the truly crooked election of 1876). While we haven't reached that in the 20th or 21st centuries, this current contest, preliminary as it is, is really reaching out to voters. In the last few elections, the Game got kind of boring--that lost in space feeling you get when a baseball game enters the sixth inning and you know nothing, ever, is going to happen--but I am happy to see that we are all keeping score and cheering. And jeering.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Gee, I'm Sorry. I Really Am.

Just back from lovely Roanoke College, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Salem, Virginia, where I had a nice time talking to members of the student body about dirty tricks in American presidential elections. My impression was that most of the kids hadn't heard about many of the election stories from our fabled and fraudulent past--no one aged 18-20 raised his or her hand when I asked if any of them knew who Willie Horton was--but everyone present seemed to feel that negative politics played a powerful role in the elections they had witnessed so far, and that the question of who was being more negative was a major debating point in the Hillary-Obama clash to date.
The students at Roanoke were very tuned in to the constant apologies going on this campaign, as well as the firings of aides who had made comments deemed insenstive. One young woman asked me if this was the first campaign where such apologies and dismissals were such a major factor, and I think, to this extent, it is. It's quite amusing really--can we really imagine Teddy Roosevelt apologizing to William Howard Taft for going him "a fathead with the brains of a guinea pig?" Or Harry Truman apologizing to Richard Nixon for telling voters they might to go hell if they voted for the Trickster in 1960?
The most recent "I'm sorry," of course, features West Virginia Senator John D.
Rockefeller IV, who said in an interview that McCain's time dropping bombs on North Vietnam did not prepare him for the everyday concerns of ordinary Americans. What is there in that to apologize for? The McCain campaign, apparently feeling they had a winner with this one, also demanded that Barack Obama, whom Rockefeller supports, should apologize as well! (And Obama did.)
All of these apologies, as well as the demands for same, are in the main insipid and politically inspired. And I predict, once we hit the general election, that they will soon stop.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

An Amazon's Bosom

Here's a look at the campaign of 1840, between Democratic incumbent Martin Van Buren and Whig challenger William Henry Harrison, one of my favorite when it comes to the triumph of illustion over fact. I start with a quote from Thomas Elder which I think summarizes the way American politicians view presidential elections.
It also contains the strangest attack ever made against a sitting president, by a Congressman aptly named Charles Ogle.

“Passion and prejudice properly aroused and directed…do about as well as principle and reason in a party contest.”
-- Thomas Elder, Whig politician

Martin Van Buren didn’t know it when he entered the presidency in 1836, but he was a “gone Chicken” before he had barely begun—all thanks to the Panic of 1837, the worst economic recession the country had yet seen.
That this panic was partially the result of Andrew Jackson’s monetary policies made things even worse for Van Buren. Under Jackson, the United States government made millions of dollars by selling land to speculators. The government then deposited the money in Jackson’s “pet” banks—run by cronies of his—instead of the Bank of the United States, which Jackson had gutted. These local banks made large loans, often to speculators who bought even more land from the government. Add to this vicious circle high inflation, a crop failure in 1835, and a new “hard money” law which forced banks to repay money borrowed from the government in specie rather than currency and, by the summer of 1837, America’s economic life had ground to a standstill. The Panic would last for several years, forcing factories to close and sending families to beg on the streets.
The Whigs held their first national nominating convention in December of 1839, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A strange thing happened—the boisterous convention, attended by farmers, disgruntled bankers, pro-tariff and anti-tariff forces, slaveowners and abolitionists—resembled nothing more than a passionate Democratic rally. Henry Clay hoped to be the Whig candidate (a young Illinois lawyer in attendance, Abraham Lincoln, pronounced him the “beau ideal of a statesman”) but because Clay was a Mason, the Antimasons would not vote for him. The nomination instead went to Old Tip, William Henry Harrison. His vice-presidential ticket balancer was Virginia Senator John Tyler.
The Democrats knew they were in trouble when they met in Baltimore in May to pick their candidate—and thousands of Whigs were waiting for them in the streets, marching and chanting:

With Tip and Tyler
We’ll bust Van’s biler.

Well, maybe you had to be there, but it certainly got the Democrats attention. The times they were a-changin’ but there was nothing the party could do but renominate Van Buren. They balked once again at Richard Johnson, who “openly and shamefully lives in adultery with a buxom young negro,” as one anonymous letter-writer had it, but in the end, he was nominated, as well.

The Candidates

Democrat: Martin Van Buren:
Martin Van Buren was basically a fairly decent guy from a rich family with a lot of government service behind him who didn’t know how to handle an economic crisis. He was seen as the lackey of the popular “people’s President” whose vice-president he had been. The first cartoon portraying the Democratic Party as a donkey appeared during this election. Jackson rode the beast, Van Buren walked behind it, hat in hand, saying obsequiously “I shall tread in the footsteps of my illustrious predecessor.”

Whig: William Henry Harrison
Harrison, at 68, was getting up there in years, but he still inspired a great deal of loyalty as war hero. And, in one of the most successful makeovers until George Herbert Bush went from New England preppie to Texas aw-shucks oilman, this Virginia aristocrat would soon become a “just-folks” guy with a log cabin constituency.

The Campaign
The Whigs were handed a wonderful gift at the beginning of the 1840 campaign. Just after their convention, The Baltimore Republican published a remark supposedly made by a Whig backer of Henry Clay about Harrison: “Give him a barrel of hard cider and a pension of two thousand a year and, my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in a log cabin, by the side of a ‘sea-coal’ fire and study moral philosophy.”
This was meant to be an insult, but the Whigs turned it into the campaign’s greatest asset. In almost no time, Harrison became the “log cabin and hard cider” candidate, a guy who hung out with the coonskin cap boys, plowed the back forty with his own hands, and was always ready to raise a glass of cider. Forgot about Harrison’s Virginia ancestry and ownership of at least 2000 acres of land—Harrison was now a man of the people. The Whigs organized huge rallies attended by thousands of people, and held parades four and five miles long. The log cabin symbol was everywhere: there were log cabin-shaped newspapers, songbooks, pamphlets, and badges. You could buy Log Cabin Emollient or whiskey in log cabin-shaped bottles from the E.C. Booz distillery, from which we get the name booze.
The Democrats protested, mostly in vain, that Harrison wasn’t born in a log cabin, didn’t drink hard cider, and, when you came right down to it, anyway, was not even that great a war hero (Harrison, a mediocre strategist, had sustained heavy casualties in the fight at Tippecanoe). It didn’t too a bit of good. Crying “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!” the Whigs charged onward. Because Democrats whispered that Harrison did nothing without his political handlers—that he was “An Old Gentleman in Leading Strings”—he was actually sent out to make a few stump speeches, becoming the first presidential candidate ever to do so. Democrats groaned that the man talked about nothing at all, but crowds gathered everywhere to hear him.

The Winner: William Henry Harrison
The popular vote was closer than some people expected it to be: Harrison’s 1,275,390 votes winning out over Van Buren’s 1,128,854, but Old Tip killed in the Electoral College, 234 votes to the President’s 60. An incredible 78 percent of eligible voters turned out.
The contest had been so vitriolic that there was no kissing and making up afterwards. “We have been sung down, lied down, [and] drunk down,” wrote the Wheeling Times. “Right joyous are we that the campaign of 1840 is closed.” The Whigs were not exactly gracious in victory. Harrison’s election, they proclaimed, was proof that voters had “placed their seal of condemnation upon a band of the most desperate, aspiring and unprincipled demagogues that ever graced the annals of despotism.”

Running off at the Mouth
A Congressman named Charles Ogle made a three-day-long speech in the House of Representatives saying that the White House was “as splendid as that of the Caesars and as richly adorned as the proudest Asiatic mansion,” that Van Buren had mirrors nine feet high in which he admired himself, that he slept on fine French linens, ate from silver plates with forks of gold, and—most incredibly—that he had caused to be constructed on the White House grounds a pair of “clever sized hills” that resembled “an Amazon’s bosom, with a miniature knoll or hillock on its apex, to denote the nipple.”
This was, as Democrats and even some horrified Whigs protested, a bunch of really weird lies but the speech was distributed nationwide and further set up the dichotomy between the supposedly aristocratic Van Buren and his supposedly countrified opponent Harrison.

Mum’s the Word
The Democrats attacked Harrison for the way his handlers –among them Thurlow Weed, the brilliant Tammany operative who was managing the campaign – kept him from replying even to the most innocuous queries about political issues. Was “Granny Harrison” senile? Was he a “man in an iron cage?” The Whigs denied this, but in private the prominent Whig Nicholas Biddle cautioned “Let the use of pen and ink be wholly forbidden [to Harrison] as if he were a mad poet in Bedlam.”