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Archive for April, 2008

HNN, April 29, 2008

Now that Senator Barack Obama has denounced his pastor in clear, unequivocal language, he should make two more statements to put this unhappy episode behind him. For starters, Obama should apologize for not breaking with Wright sooner, and for failing to stand up to him over the years, especially after Wright’s hurtful “chickens coming home to roost” remarks after 9/11. In this apology, Obama could acknowledge what so many Americans in this nation of armchair psychologists seem to know already – that Wright served as a father-figure to Obama, who grew up basically fatherless, making a confrontation earlier very difficult. Americans love personal apologies – just ask the former apologist-in-chief Bill Clinton, or the nation’s most unrepentant celebrity, Pete Rose. Moreover, the one false note Obama made in his North Carolina press conference came in claiming that Wright had never been his spiritual mentor.

But the second and more important move Obama must make, is to resurrect the magic from his great national political debut, his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. Obama has to explain why he chose to reject Wright’s path. He should acknowledge how tempting it is to succumb to African-American anger or Ivy League cynicism, as so many people he knows have done. What makes Obama exceptional is that he chose a different path – and articulated it so beautifully in 2004. Obama’s Philadelphia speech was more intellectual and more guarded. If Obama lets loose emotionally and rhetorically, soaring past his controversial minister to again conjure up a compelling vision of a united America, we might be able to stop the cries for Obama to right Wright’s wrongs, and return to the heady days, just weeks ago, of “Yes we can.”

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HNN, April 29, 2008

During Senator Barack Obama’s bad week last week, when he lost Pennsylvania, Jimmy Carter’s rogue diplomatic mission to the Middle East did not help. I know of no surveys tracking the impact of Carter’s Hamas hug on Obama’s popularity. Still, Democrats who want a muscular, effective American response to Islamism noticed. Having this presidential has-been embracing terrorists haunted Obama, with Carter as the ghost of Christmas past preying on fears that Obama himself will be the ghost of Christmas future, perpetually globetrotting, blinded by moral relativism, imprisoned by lovely rhetoric and high ideals, absolving dictators and terrorists of their anti-American sins and crimes against humanity.

In fact, Obama forcefully condemned Carter’s meeting with the Hamas leadership. Nevertheless, acting more shrewdly than fairly, Senator John McCain pounced. McCain understood that Carter’s trip made the time right to exploit one Hamas leader’s recent pronouncement that “We like Mr. Obama.” McCain responded: “I never expect for the leader of Hamas… to say that he wants me as president of the United States.” The Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s inflammatory reappearance on Monday, praising Carter, denouncing Zionism, further eased McCain’s Obama-Carter-Hamas bankshot.

Had Jimmy Carter succeeded as president, Barack Obama would be emphasizing their parallels. Like Carter in 1976, Obama has rocketed to presidential-level prominence with a simple, compelling message. Like Carter, Obama has little formal foreign policy experience. And like Carter, Obama seems most comfortable with the Democratic Party’s post-Vietnam, anti-war wing.

Unfortunately, Carter’s high ideals often produced great disasters. Although he successfully facilitated the Camp David Accords and Panama Canal return, Jimmy Carter inherited a demoralized nation — and left it deeply depressed. In abandoning the Shah of Iran, Carter eased the Islamist takeover there, a critical turning point in Islamism’s rise worldwide. When the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary goons kidnapped American diplomats, Carter’s impotence saddled America with the image of a musclebound giant in ways still haunting the country.

Like a substitute teacher losing control, Carter ricocheted between being contemptibly weak, and unduly harsh. Carter’s mix of high ideals and rank amateurism in dealing with the Soviet Union made him take everything too personally, and miss the mark tactically. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan he felt insulted, after all his lovely overtures. In 1980, Ronald Reagan did not win a mandate for conservative revolution but triumphed in an ABC election – voters wanted Anybody But Carter.

As an ex-President, despite his laudable commitment to fighting disease and building houses for the homeless, Carter’s diplomatic efforts are often laughable. Carter has frittered away his credibility by kowtowing to dictators and outlaws, from China to North Korea, from Zimbabwe to Nepal. His perceptions of Israel have been particularly skewed and harsh. His book accusing Israel of the South African crime of Apartheid, was sloppy and intellectually lazy – slapping on an inflammatory title while only perfunctorily discussing the charge in the text.

On this recent Middle East trip, Carter demonstrated his bias and self-delusion. By laying a wreath at Yasir Arafat’s grave, Carrer dishonored the memory of two American diplomats Arafat ordered killed in Khartoum in 1973, George Curtis Moore and Cleo Noel, in addition to thousands of other terrorist victims. After undermining American policy by meeting with Hamas’s leaders, Carter proclaimed that Hamas was clearly committed to a cease fire – until his hosts clarified that their offer was more ambiguous. And in his post-trip New York Times op-ed, Carter again showed that his delusional diplomacy rests on his distorting of history. Carter said “Hamas had been declared a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel,” without mentioning the terrorism that prompted the designation. Carter said “Eventually, Hamas gained control of Gaza,” without mentioning the violence Hamas used against fellow Palestinians to gain that control.

There is nothing wrong with Carter being pro-Palestinian. He errs by failing to use his credibility with Palestinians to wean destructive Palestinian forces like Hamas from their addiction to terrorism. Sanitizing Hamas feeds delusions that enable more violence.

Unfortunately, Carter is a hero to those in the Democratic Party who, doubly traumatized by the Vietnam and Iraq wars, pooh-pooh any threats to America because America does not always handle the threats effectively. Some prominent liberals such as Paul Berman and Peter Beinart have argued that it is particularly absurd for liberals, academics, intellectuals, students, feminists, and gays to ignore the dangers of Islamism.

As a prominent opponent of the Iraq War, Barack Obama has deep roots in this “Peace Camp” that too often overlooks grave threats to peace. Moreover, Obama’s stated willingness to meet with America’s enemies, including the anti-American, anti-Semitic, sexist, homophobic President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also reeks of this appeasement-oriented Carterism.

Obama’s challenge – and opportunity – is to move beyond American foreign policy’s simplistic hawk-versus-dove, deluded-peacenik-versus-paranoid-warrior polarities. Obama must bury Carterism and Bushism along with the assumption that the only choice is the false choice between them. He must show he recognizes that there is a time for peace and a time for war, a time to boycott and a time to negotiate, a time to defy and a time to concede.

The world is too complicated, for someone to become president stuck singing in only one key. America’s next leader must synthesize Jimmy Carter’s idealism with George W. Bush’s anger, George H.W. Bush’s coalition-building patience with Ronald Reagan’s saber-rattling resolve, Bill Clinton’s ability to charm the world with Richard Nixon’s ability to understand it.

Those skills are difficult to demonstrate while campaigning. But Obama was right to distance himself from Carter’s amoral grandstanding and Wright’s wrongheaded rants. Obama should worry about how to reassure American voters who see the evil in the world, without alienating his base among those who are far quicker to see faults in America than in America’s enemies.

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HNN, April 23, 2008

 

 

With her substantial Pennsylvania primary victory, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has again proven to be the Timex candidate. Like the occasionally unfashionable but always durable watch, she “takes a licking but keeps on ticking.” As the Democratic nomination standoff starts resembling World War I’s relentless trench warfare, worried Democrats wonder when it will end. Paradoxically, despite running a campaign as anachronistic and as twentieth-century as the Timex slogan, Hillary Clinton is hinging her campaign on a postmodern argument that the stronger candidate may not be the one with the most popular votes – or delegates won.

Hillary Clinton has proved Thomas Edison correct. In politics as in technology perspiration frequently trumps inspiration. No one can deny that she has been impressively indefatigable, unyielding and buoyant. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton are indomitable political thoroughbreds. Just as they persisted despite repeated humiliations during Bill’s 1992 campaign, just as both she and her husband soldiered on throughout the Monica Lewinsky scandal of 1998-1999, Hillary Clinton has come back and won, whenever she needed to, whenever pundits eulogized her.

Barack Obama has successfully flummoxed the Clintons. These once cutting-edge, fresh-faced baby boomers have run a surprisingly flat, frequently outdated campaign, more television-based than internet-savvy, more rooted in yesterday’s techniques and agendas than today’s technologies and trends. In one nostalgia-drenched campaign ad in Pennsylvania, Hillary Clinton reminisced about playing pinochle. Young voters are as likely to have played pinochle as they are to have pinned their first loves – or, to be more accurate, their first casual hook-ups. Earlier, while Barack Obama’s supporters led by the hip-hop-star will.i.am transformed a lyrical Obama speech into the addictive, infectious music video “Yes We Can,” a Silicon Valley hotshot supporting Hillary Clinton produced a cheesy, kitschy, Disneyfied ditty pronouncing “Hillary for you and me – bring back our de-mo-cra-cy.” Predictably, in Pennsylvania Clinton voters again skewed older and more traditional while Senator Barack Obama’s voters were younger and hipper.

Yet by refusing to quit, Hillary Clinton has made a case that she might be the stronger candidate against John McCain. Just as her husband turned a simple case of obstructing justice to hide adultery into a postmodern, multi-dimensional nationwide morality seminar that depended on what the meaning of the word “is” was, many of Hillary Clinton’s arguments would make my most Derrida-dazzled, postmodern colleagues proud. McCain, like most nominees before him, won the nomination by winning the most votes and thus the most delegates. Today, we find ourselves balancing out Hillary Clinton’s eight big state wins versus Barack Obama’s small state wins, assessing her strength among swing voters versus his deep ties to the base. One Web site, http://www.realclearpolitics.com offers five different estimates for the popular vote totals, with Obama leading by half a million in the first, to Clinton leading by 122,000 votes, counting Florida and Michigan.

In fairness, this is more than a Clinton con. Just as state electors chosen by popular vote select America’s president, party nominations rely on delegates to the national convention chosen by popular vote – except for the 795 Democratic leaders and officeholders designated as super-delegates. To confuse further, state Democratic parties have generated a thicket of obscure exceptions and rules, the national Democratic Party undemocratically and punitively invalidated the votes of Michigan and Florida for holding primaries too early, and our computer age invites wacky multivariate analysis that look compelling with full-color visual aids.

Democrats are justifiably worried that this continuing battle may threaten their chances of winning the presidency. Then again, the Clintons teach the opposite. Perhaps, whoever can survive this Clinton-Obama knockdown will have precisely what it takes to win in November – then lead America effectively.
AFTERTHOUGHT on Barack Obama’s thoughts while wolfing down proletarian food in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Reporters asked about Jimmy Carter’s meeting with Hamas leaders, Obama replied: “Why can’t I just eat my waffle?” Perhaps this incident was misreported. Maybe the candidate said: Why can’t I just continue to waffle?

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HNN, April 13, 2008

If Otto von Bismarck’s longstanding bon mot still holds that law-making is as messy as sausage-making, a carnivore’s codicil suggests that tough campaigns frequently make mincemeat out of candidates’ reputations. The great risk to Democrats as the Pennsylvania primary looms is that the process will diminish both their talented front-runners. Recently, both Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama unintentionally highlighted fundamental paradoxes defining their respective campaigns — and political identities. Hillary Clinton continued twisting and turning her First Lady legacy every which way, so it could either appear like all things to all people – or like one distorted mishmash alienating everybody. At the same time, Barack Obama committed a classic gaffe, wherein he said what he really believed, which of course required him to backtrack from it repeatedly and apologize profusely.

Hillary Clinton’s have-her-cake-and-eat-it-too approach to the 1990s plays out on two dimensions. She simultaneously exaggerates her influence within the Clinton administration and the greatness of the Clinton record. But what happens when a Clinton policy which she opposed sours? On Friday April 11, the New York Times ran a front page article about this Clinton conundrum regarding Bill Clinton’s 1996 controversial welfare reform.

Back in ‘96, to shore up his re-election effort, President Clinton signed a bill that fulfilled his 1992 campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it.” The President had already vetoed welfare legislation the Republican-dominated Congress passed twice. Clinton’s pragmatic political guru Dick Morris insisted he sign this third bill, which forced welfare recipients to work and limited individuals’ benefits. This legislation deeply divided the already fractious Clinton White House. First Lady Hillary Clinton and her liberal allies fought the legislation intensely. Ultimately, Bill Clinton overcame his doubts to avoid giving the Republicans a club they could use to bash him.

During the next, relatively prosperous, ten years, the welfare reform appeared to be one of Bill Clinton’s great successes. Now, the Times reported, with the economy souring, criticism of the legislation is mounting. But what’s a former First Lady to do? If she repudiated her husband’s record by telling the truth about how much she hated the policy she risked reminding everyone about how politically impotent she had been. Instead, Hillary pulled the Clinton twist, claiming she supported the legislation for pragmatic reasons, tried to fix it as a Senator but the evil George W. Bush thwarted her efforts, and, besides, the legislation was pretty darned good anyway. Voters have every right to wonder if the policy was so good why it needed fixing, and how one of Hillary Clinton’s great internal defeats became one of Billary’s shared triumphs.

Voters should be equally vexed with Barack Obama who, in a private fundraiser on April 6, revealed the Ivy League elitism lurking behind his “Yes We Can” populism. Showing an unhealthy ability to alienate the “Reagan Democrats” and swing voters Democrats desperately need to recapture the White House, Obama speculated that rural voters in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” due to their bitterness over their economic situation. In one pithy comment, Obama insulted gun owners, church-goers, opponents of illegal immigration, and, for good measure, suggested that economic frustrations clouded the little people’s good judgment.

The comment was a pretty apt summary of Thomas Frank’s popular analysis of Republican success, “What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.” In that 2004 book, Frank captured the frustrations of a generation of Democrats who could not understand how so many people could be so stupid as to abandon the noble Democrats for the benighted Republicans. The only possible explanation, Frank suggested, was what Marx would have called “false consciousness,” that millions of voters in the heartland, distracted by the “culture wars” voted against their best economic interests. This analysis resonated among the Democratic activists, and Ivy League thinkers who form the backbone of the Democratic party – and represent Obama’s core constituency.

The problem is that, for some crazy reason, American voters, even the lower class ones, don’t like being told they are stupid. This dismissive approach is particularly problematic coming from a well-educated newcomer promising to heal America’s wounds – and gearing up to face the former war hero John McCain in November.

Bill and Hillary Clinton are no less elitist than Barack Obama, but years in Arkansas taught them to hide it better. Barack Obama is no less inconsistent than Hillary Clinton on welfare reform, but his experience as a community organizer in Chicago allows him to obscure it better. With less than two weeks to go before the Pennsylvania showdown, both candidates are going to campaign aggressively. Yet, both in promoting themselves and in knocking down their opponent, they have to be thinking about winning in early November as well as in late April. To do that, it seems, Hillary Clinton may need to tell a bit more of the truth – and Barack Obama may need to tell a bit less of it.

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HNN, April 9, 2008

With the resignation of Hillary Clinton’s top – and highly overpaid – strategist, Mark Penn, the Clinton campaign once again appears to be a Keystone Cops operation. (Penn’s private public relations firm was lobbying for Colombia and Free Trade agreements precisely when Hillary Clinton was opposing expanding such agreements, or forging new ones). In 1992 and 1996 Bill Clinton did Better Than Expected, wowing observers with smart, disciplined, nimble campaigns. In 2008, Hillary Clinton has done far Worse Than Expected, depressing even many devotees with her cloddish, clunky, top-heavy, poorly managed and often clumsy campaign.

True, campaign reputations are often circular. In the all-or-nothing world of politics, winning campaigns become brilliant; losing campaigns become mismanaged. Sometimes, however, candidates have run great campaigns and lost – such as Ronald Reagan in 1976 against Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination, and Gerald Ford in 1976 against Jimmy Carter for the Presidency. Reagan left Republicans so keyed up, his nomination in 1980 was virtually assured; Ford forded a 30 point gap in the public opinion polls, falling just short of winning.

Win or lose – and the contest is still not over – Hillary Clinton’s campaign will be remembered as a series of miscalculations and missed opportunities. The arrogance of her operation, dismissing Barack Obama’s challenge as insignificant and failing to develop a strategy after Super Tuesday, is inexcusable. The sloppiness of her operation, failing to find the Reverend Jeremiah Wright videotapes in December and January when they could have killed Obama’s campaign, or holding on to failing leaders for far too long is unjustifiable.

In the continuing American psychodrama that is the Clintons’ public life, the contrast between Bill Clinton’s professionalism and Hillary Clinton’s amateurishness is striking. It highlights the fact that Bill Clinton is both a natural and a well-practiced politician, trained in the art of wooing Americans for over thirty years. Despite all her self-puffery as a leader for three decades, Hillary Clinton is a relative newcomer to the art of selling yourself to the American people. She lacks her husband’s natural grace and his years of experience – and it shows.

But watching the debacle unfold, it is hard not to wonder if, once again, we have all been given front row seats to the latest round of the operatic Clinton marriage. Does Bill Clinton’s fall in the campaign from revered ex-president as rock star to overbearing political hack reveal some kind of unconscious death wish he has for her candidacy? Does Hillary Clinton’s inability to manage her people more effectively and her odd choice to resume her identity as Bill’s partner after eight independent years in the Senate spotlight reflect a deep neediness disguised as aggressiveness or loyalty?

Such speculation emerges because the story is so full of pathologies – and of anomalies. Hillary Clinton’s operation should have been as formidable as her husband’s, even if she lacks his experience. Could the first serious woman candidate for the American presidency be undermining herself somehow? Perhaps Clinton fatigue has not only set in among so many Democrats – but among the Clintons as well.

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HNN, April 2, 2008 

Let’s face it. While the three leading presidential candidates are all talented, they all lack an essential qualification for the presidency – executive experience. Barack Obama may be a silver-tongued orator, but his background as an academic, a community organizer, and a lawyer did not hone much managerial expertise. Hillary Clinton may be a passionate activist, but – despite her famous 3 A.M. commercial — her background as an academic, a First Lady, and a lawyer did not give her many tough decisions to make, under pressure, with different factions in her office advancing opposing ideas. And Senator John McCain may have spent years in the United States Military, one of the world’s best training grounds for management, but he started as a flyboy and when he returned was at the Naval War College then at the Senate as military liaison. In fact, all three would have to say that their Senate offices were the most complex bureaucracies they even ran – which is not saying much. Clearly, being governor is better training for the presidency which is, after all in the executive branch.

This shared shortcoming is important. As an academic I know what of I speak. Having been minimally managed and having done minimal managing, I am well aware of the skill set I lack. I don’t know about creating a vision for an organization, about seeing how it is implemented in levels below me, about how to reconcile my vision and views with those of others, or with my institution’s organizational culture. I happily avoid all the interpersonal baggage that comes from all these interpersonal dynamics, but I recognize that this is not my realm.

This problem is intensified because the modern presidency has grown too big for one person. In each election, Americans are actually choosing between two opposing teams. In an age of weakened parties, the teams have a Republican or Democratic flavor, but are most affected by the leader at the top. Like a privately held corporation, the modern presidency ostensibly reflects the boss’s desires, but the hundreds of key appointees in the executive branch, managing thousands of government workers, enjoy wide discretion. Franklin D. Roosevelt had less than a hundred White House staffers, only 71 presidential appointees in 1933, and 50 different agencies reporting directly to him; half a century later, Ronald Reagan had over 350 White House staffers, 600 presidential appointees, 1700 employees in the Executive Office of the President, and approximately two million governmental employees overall.

Of course, in this game of presidential campaigning, biography is not destiny. Former senator John F. Kennedy figured out how to lead, and former governor George W. Bush would get a “needs improvement” on his management report card if presidents underwent the same kind of supervisory process many corporate managers endure. Moreover, it is hard for any of the three leading candidates to claim more substantive executive experience than the other. Still, given the complexity of the presidency, the federal bureaucracy, and the challenges America currently faces, the combined managerial inexperience of Senators Clinton, McCain and Obama is unnerving.

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