I Don't Know, But Alaska!
This morning, I was prepared to put up a post celebrating John McCain’s choice of Mitt Romney for finally bringing to a close the most over-vetted, over-reported, and over-hyped vice presidential selection process in the history of our country, one which resulted in two utterly conventional politicians being tapped for the second slots. But with McCain’s selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate, things are about to get more interesting.
In the short-term, the choice of Palin should play well for McCain. Social conservatives seem thrilled with her. The announcement has also succeeded in getting the national media to pivot its coverage on a dime, away from any more discussion of the Obama spectacular last night. And choosing a woman for the ticket serves as a firm poke in the eye of those political elites in the Democratic Party who pushed hard to keep Hillary Clinton off of their ticket.
But longer-term (for the next two months anyway), there will be plenty of questions. Although Palin seems pretty tough, it remains to be seen how well she will adjust to the mind-boggling crush of national media coverage. Also, I am skeptical that disaffected Clinton supporters (however big their numbers might actually be) will flock to the Republican ticket, once they learn of Palin’s conservative stance on abortion and other social issues. And the question of whether she is prepared to replace the 72 year-old McCain on a moment’s notice will receive intensive scrutiny in the coming weeks, courtesy of the blogs, other media and the Obama campaign. Still, McCain has finally managed to inject some excitement into the Republican political narrative.
For more of my thoughts on Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, you can listen to my morning appearance on Minnesota Public Radio’s Midmorning show here. We spent virtually the entire hour talking about Palin. And, if you haven’t yet had your fix of the Democratic convention, you can hear my reaction to Obama’s speech and a lot more here.
Note: I’ll be back posting on Tuesday, right after the long Labor Day weekend.  - Dean
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Come Together
Well, it looks like the Democrats are finally getting the convention they wanted. Although Joe Biden sounded like he could have used a few more run-throughs of his speech (nothing worse than stepping on your applause lines), his personal story will play well with blue collar Democrats, and his pointed attacks on John McCain’s judgment are among the strongest we’ve heard from a party leader thus far. If nothing else, Biden certainly helped finally move the Democratic Party’s critique of McCain beyond guilt by Bush association.
The risky Clinton double-header also seems to have worked to unify the convention, even though it remains to be seen whether Bill and Hillary were truly able to convince their hardcore supporters and other reluctant voters to fully back Barack Obama. And Bill Clinton’s speaking skills continue to amaze me. Whereas many speakers seem lost in the cavernous arena (like a passenger in a busy, unfamiliar airport terminal), Clinton could have been having a casual conversation with a few old friends, such was his control of the audience and venue.
Now we turn to Barack Obama’s outdoor stadium speech this evening, the last big risk to be taken in Denver this week. The dramatic setting (and MLK speech anniversary) calls out for some classic soaring Obama rhetoric, but he has already signaled his intention to make the strongest possible case yet to those voters feeling economic insecurity, many of whom are still sitting on the partisan fence. Obama will no doubt attempt to strike a delicate balance between inspirational generality and greater policy detail.
For more of my thoughts on the convention, you can listen to my appearance earlier this morning on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Joy Cardin Show here (the 7 a.m. CST hour). I will also be doing convention wrap-up as a guest tomorrow morning on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange. You can listen to that broadcast live here (lower left) at 9 a.m., or catch it later here.
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Post-Partisanship Postponed
Last night’s speeches by former Virginia Governor Mark Warner and Senator Hillary Clinton offered up a telling juxtaposition. Warner’s keynote address was full of the sort of post-partisan rhetoric that propelled Barack Obama through the primary season to the nomination. Just as Obama has done on many occasions, Warner spoke of how the power of bi-partisanship can nurture both good government and the entrepreneurial spirit. But my guess is that in the impending partisan battle now clearly taking shape in the political environment, Warner’s comments will quickly be forgotten.
In contrast, Hillary Clinton provided what will likely be the template for the fall campaign. She combined slashing attacks against the Republican opponent with a recitation of traditional Democratic policy positions on issues like health care, middle-class tax relief, and the environment. Whether you believe the sentiments expressed in the speech were heartfelt or not really depends on your prior opinion of the senator (like everything else), and some will argue that Clinton could have made a stronger case for Obama’s leadership potential, beyond their shared policy preferences. But my sense is that she did what was necessary to unify the party and preserve her own political future. Still, we won’t know for some time whether Clinton’s disaffected supporters will follow her onto the Obama campaign bandwagon.
In the end, I think that these two speeches on the same evening, one post-partisan and the other firmly partisan, underscore just how difficult it will be for Obama to walk the post-partisan walk this fall, given that Democrats seem increasingly anxious about the looming partisan battle. Even watching on television, you could feel the palpable sense of relief among delegates, as Clinton and several other speakers finally tore into John McCain and the Republicans. Given that so much of what Mark Warner said would fit nicely into an Obama stump speech, I was amazed at just how out of place his words seemed last night.
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Brady Bunch Politics
I understand why Michelle Obama gave the speech she did last night, and I think it is fair to say the speech was beautifully delivered. But I have never been a big fan of the campaign reintroduction speech. I was no more favorably disposed to this rhetorical strategy last spring, when John McCain used it (with weak results) in an attempt to jump-start his own sluggish campaign.
There is a fallacy in electoral politics that many of the rough patches experienced by a campaign can simply be explained by the voting public’s unfamiliarity with the candidate and his family (rather than by complex factors like race, gender and ideology), even when that candidate has been running for president for most of the past two years. Last night, the Obama campaign was clearly operating under this assumption, with Michelle Obama talking movingly about her close family, working-class roots, and love of motherhood and country. The campaign no doubt hoped this presentation would make the Obamas seem a bit more like a typical American family.
But the reality is that you don’t reach the cusp of the presidency by being just like everyone else. And campaign reintroductions don’t occur in a political vacuum. As my sampling of Republican reaction after the speech confirmed, the opposition’s parallel narrative of otherness, liberal elitism, and lack of leadership preparation will continue unabated long after the particulars of Michelle Obama’s speech are forgotten, which is why I am always skeptical that these kinds of iterative campaign reintroductions really make much of a difference in the end.
I am not suggesting she should have used her time at the podium to launch a frontal attack on Republicans, or set out her own party’s policy agenda in detail. That is the responsibility of the many elected Democratic officials on hand in Denver to undertake those critical tasks. But as I watched Michelle Obama’s impressive speech last night, I couldn’t help but wonder whether those party elites could have put the evening to better use.
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With the Democratic convention set to kick off on Monday, August 25th, next week is my last opportunity for a break before the onslaught of the fall general election campaign (I’ve been waiting for the rain to end). So, for the first time since late February, I will be away from the website all of next week. Barack Obama will likely make his vice presidential selection during this time, and if it’s someone surprising, I may break radio silence. Otherwise, I will be back on Tuesday, August 26th to resume posting for the conventions. See you soon. - Dean
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Perilous Possibilites Updated
I don’t usually group unrelated updates into a single post, but since both items covered below strike me as similarly interesting for the potential peril they hold for each party’s presumptive nominee going into the conventions, I’ll lump them together in a single post.
First, on Monday I posted an item on John McCain’s campaign swing through Pennsylvania with former governor Tom Ridge. Their appearance together on the stump raised the inevitable speculation about a possible vice presidential nod for Ridge, who is pro-choice on abortion. I suggested that it was highly unlikely (virtually impossible) that McCain would pick a pro-choice running mate. Now McCain has given an interview to the Weekly Standard, in which he says he is open to a pro-choice running mate, and that Ridge merits serious consideration. Even with these new comments, I still don’t think it will happen. Keep in mind that McCain is in a difficult position. He needs to appeal to pro-choice moderates and independents, while also rallying skeptical social conservatives behind his candidacy. By saying that he would personally consider a pro-choice running mate, while eventually picking a pro-lifer, McCain is essentially attempting to have it both ways. Which constituency will ultimately be disappointed remains to be seen, but I’m betting on moderates losing out on this one.
Second, in late July and early August, I posted a pair of items suggesting that the Obama campaign should not be lulled into complacency by the recent lack of Obama-Clinton dream ticket chatter, and that conditions actually appeared to be aligning for some significant convention mischief by hardcore Clinton supporters. Well, while it still looks like Hillary Clinton will not be the vice presidential nominee, it has been announced that her name will be placed into nomination at the convention, something that the Obama campaign had long sought to avoid. Barack Obama now appears to be onboard with the nomination idea, perhaps believing that it is the only option left for avoiding a permanent rift between the two camps. In issuing a joint statement with the Clinton campaign, Obama seems to be focusing on his long-term strategic interest, even if doing so increases the potential for additional headaches at the convention.
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Decisions, Decisions
You may have caught the buzz surrounding Joshua Green’s article on Hillary Clinton in the September issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Green has written previously on turmoil within the Clinton campaign, including an oft-cited piece in February 2008, in which he detailed the events leading up to the departure of campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle. But the new article is getting even more attention, in part because Green had access to (and has posted online) a treasure trove of leaked internal staff emails, memos and other communications from the primary campaign. While the piece documents the dysfunction among Clinton staff, and details the campaign's strategy for dealing with Barack Obama, what is getting the most attention is this surprising conclusion about Hillary Clinton:
Above all, this irony emerges: Clinton ran on the basis of managerial competence—on her capacity, as she liked to put it, to “do the job from Day One.” In fact, she never behaved like a chief executive, and her own staff proved to be her Achilles’ heel. What is clear from the internal documents is that Clinton’s loss derived not from any specific decision she made but rather from the preponderance of the many she did not make. Her hesitancy and habit of avoiding hard choices exacted a price that eventually sank her chances at the presidency.
Given the centrality of the managerial competence theme to Clinton’s campaign messaging, the idea that the candidate herself was paralyzed by an inability to make critical decisions is truly remarkable. All of this reminded me that way back in October 2007, I posted an item discussing why being an effective manager might not be sufficient to meet the threshold for presidential leadership set by many voters. Back then, I was writing at a time when Clinton’s inherent managerial capabilities were taken as a given by political observers. But now, the words of those closest to her have called that fundamental premise into serious question.
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When You Have Three Presidents
For many years, I taught my students that a primary concern of the Founders was that America speak with a single voice in its external affairs with other nations. These statesmen believed that establishing the presidency as a unitary actor was one means of avoiding the conflicting articulation of national interest that can occur when multiple politicians speak internationally on behalf of the country, especially during times of crisis. But the presidential campaign provides an interesting complication for this rule, with two presidents-in-waiting jockeying to appear the most qualified to fill that unitary role.
So it was with a sense of the inevitable that I watched President Bush’s official statement on the conflict between Russia and Georgia be followed closely by similarly presidential statements by John McCain and Barack Obama. With both campaigns eager to cast their candidates as strong leaders on the international stage, this dueling podiums (or podia, if you’d prefer) phenomenon was unavoidable. It would have been refreshing to see both candidates stand down during this crisis so as not to step on the words of a sitting president, but my guess is that neither campaign wanted to give its opponent fodder for yet another negative campaign ad.
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No Choice for McCain
John McCain is campaigning in Pennsylvania today with former governor and homeland security chief Tom Ridge. This engagement and a recent increase in Ridge’s visibility as a campaign surrogate have inevitably fueled speculation that the former Marine could be on McCain’s shortlist for the vice presidential nomination. Given his position as a pro-choice Republican, Ridge has not previously received a great deal of attention as a potential running mate. I don’t think this current outing with McCain changes that very low probability in any meaningful way.
During a recent appearance on ABC’s This Week, Ridge mentioned that he did not believe McCain had a pro-life litmus test for selecting his running mate. Still, whatever the pro-life McCain’s personal feelings on the matter, I can’t conceive of any circumstance under which he would pick a pro-choice running mate. With social conservatives already wary of McCain on a variety of issues, the furor such a move would cause would do incalculable damage to McCain’s candidacy within his party. In fairness, the Democratic base would be just about as likely to cheer a pro-life vice presidential pick by Barack Obama. While abortion is not typically the number one issue on voters’ minds every four years, it continues to exert a profound influence on the underlying dynamics of the two-party system.
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An August Update
You can catch me on Monday morning as a guest on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange. I’ll be participating in an Election 2008 update. We’ll cover the races for U.S House and Senate, and discuss the latest in the presidential contest, as well. You can listen live here (lower left) at 9 a.m, or later here.
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Surrogate Silliness
I wrote in a post yesterday of my surprise that McCain surrogate Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty had uttered some kind words for Barack Obama, when addressing a conservative audience Wednesday morning. Given the current level of negativity in the presidential campaign, I thought that perhaps voters would find this sort of bipartisan gesture to be a breath of fresh air from the potential Republican running mate. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that by the end of the day yesterday, Pawlenty was forced to call a brief press conference, in which he made clear that he did not intend to praise Obama, even if that is how his earlier remarks had been interpreted.
Pawlenty’s original comments on Obama were quite brief, and they by no means constituted an endorsement of McCain’s Democratic opponent. But once word spread among the media and political elites that a potential Republican vice presidential nominee had expressed a positive sentiment about the opponent, the rush was on to ask Pawlenty whether politically that was a smart thing for him to do. Not surprisingly, his speeches later in the day took on a much more negative tone toward Obama. The fact that this small episode caused such a stir yesterday gives one a pretty good sense of just how intense the partisan warfare is likely to be this fall.
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Surrogate Surprise
Surrogates are often dispatched by presidential campaigns to do the sort of political dirty work that does not look good coming from the candidate, himself. While not all surrogates engage in slash-and-burn negative attacks against the opponent, rare is the occasion when a surrogate will say anything even remotely positive about the opposing candidate, no matter how hard he or she is pressed by the media or general public. So, given the relentless drumbeat of negativity currently reverberating between the McCain and Obama campaigns, I was pleasantly surprised to hear McCain surrogate Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty actually offer some kind words for Barack Obama earlier today.
I have written previously about Pawlenty, in the context of his position high on John McCain’s vice presidential short-list, and he appears to still be under serious consideration for the number two spot. In my earlier post, I noted that Pawlenty seemed a bit soft-spoken and passive for a potential running mate, given that the vice presidential nominee typically plays a critical attack role in the general election campaign. But if the race continues down its current negative path, voters may actually find a politician who can acknowledge the humanity of the other side to be a breath of fresh air.
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Pensive Penn
In an op-ed piece posted last night on Politico, former Clinton strategist Mark Penn argues that Democratic nominees typically lose presidential elections when they try to outdo their Republican counterparts on personal qualities like individual toughness and strength of leadership. Penn instead suggests that Democrats should focus on drawing sharp policy distinctions which highlight that the party is right on the issues, while Republicans are wrong. He concludes it is a misplaced emphasis on candidate characteristics rather than superior issue positions that is standing in the way of a Democratic landslide in November.
Two points strike me immediately about Penn’s op-ed. First, he seems to be implying that differences in issue positions between the two parties in this election cycle have been blurred or insufficiently highlighted to provide Barack Obama with the built-in electoral advantage current voter preferences should give him. But it actually seems to me that even with some recent candidate convergence on Iraq and Afghanistan, the two campaigns continue to present differences in issue positions in the starkest of terms on a daily basis, especially on the economy and health care (also mentioned by Penn). I am not sure how simply arguing more forcefully that your side is right and the other is wrong would provide some new decisive advantage to the Obama campaign.
Second, Penn doesn’t provide evidence that voters are any more likely to vote on issues over personality this time than they have in previous presidential elections. I wrote a series of posts (click through the links here) on this very issue late last year, and I have seen nothing new to change my thinking. Just because voter preferences are more closely aligned with Democratic positions this time around, doesn’t mean that voter calculus will be any different than it has been in the past, when it comes to making that final, gut-level decision about which candidate is the stronger leader, and thus more presidential in stature.
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Chafing Dish
Last week, I posted an item suggesting that the Obama campaign should not be lulled into thinking the relative absence of dream ticket chatter in recent weeks means that all is well with former Hillary Clinton supporters. My sense is that conditions may be ripening for a bit of a backlash among hardcore Clinton activists, should Barack Obama announce (as appears likely) someone other than Clinton as his running mate shortly before the convention in late August.
Along these lines, an article posted on Politico over the weekend provides some useful follow-up to my initial post. Clinton activists interviewed for the piece are upset that the Obama campaign does not appear to be offering Senator Clinton the right of first refusal for the vice presidential nomination, given her strong performance in the primaries. Not surprisingly, these supporters also say that the selection of some other female candidate would show particular disrespect for Clinton’s leadership role among women in the party.
Obama does not appear to be leaning in that direction at the moment, and I am not suggesting here that his only option is to instead choose Clinton as his running mate. But I do think his campaign needs a more proactive approach to dealing with this potentially volatile political situation than we have seen from it thus far.
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A piece in today’s Los Angeles Times reports that supporters of Hillary Clinton are planning to use the Democratic National Convention to push for a plank in the party’s platform condemning the pervasive gender bias in the media that they believe Senator Clinton experienced throughout her run for the nomination. While pitched battles over the content of a party’s platform are nothing new, and are usually of importance only to hardcore activists and other political elites, this one could be different.
I have written previously about why Barack Obama should not wait to resolve the Clinton-as-vice president question. If he waits until just before the convention to announce his vice presidential pick, and (as expected) it is not Hillary Clinton, then his campaign could have a rather complex public relations problem on its hands. The combination of a passionate platform fight over gender bias, Clinton’s rejection as a running mate, and delegates voting for Clinton during the roll call vote, could undercut the Obama campaign’s ability to control the news cycle, and derail its attempts to present a unified party coming out of Denver. Although things have been quiet on the dream ticket front in recent weeks, Obama could find himself with one major political distraction on his hands later this month.
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