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On the cusp, a look back and a look ahead

Had a few things gone differently, we wouldn't be swearing in President Barack Obama next January, as it appears we will. Now what? He'll need to manage the agenda carefully.
A weekend snapshot.

A weekend snapshot. Electoral-Vote.com

The McCain-Palin ticket will face a political tsunami over the next two weeks. The Obama-Biden ticket is outspending (by 4 to 1 in key electoral states) and out-organizing the Republicans, employing the same organizational discipline that brought President Bush his 2000 and 2004 electoral victories. The big question now is how much Democrats will add to their congressional majorities. Big margins would bring both big possibilities and big risks.

It already is time to look beyond campaign politics to 2009 governance. Before that, however, these observations should be made about the waning 2008 campaign.

  • We are reminded how much the political fundamentals drive national decisions. There was a strong desire for change this year, putting Republicans at a disadvantage at the outset. Arizona Sen. John McCain, in the last televised debate with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, declared that he was not President Bush, but he nonetheless was hurt by the incumbent Republican administration's unpopularity. The in party gets blamed when things go badly and gets credit when they go well, fairly or not.

    Moreover, at a time when Obama and McCain were running almost even in national polls, the financial meltdown occurred. This gave Democrats — favored by voters in hard economic times — a huge boost entering the campaign's final weeks. Had a major terrorist attack, here or abroad, taken place instead of a financial collapse, McCain would have benefited. But it did not, and that was the way the breaks went.

  • In the Democratic party, Obama rode the desire for change to a narrow victory over New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. His managers also ran a smarter campaign than Clinton's, focusing on non-primary and smaller states, while the Clinton campaign went for wins in big states. Since Democrats decide their nominees by proportional representation, Obama squeaked through. A winner-take-all system, such as Republicans employ, would have produced a Clinton victory.

    On the Republican side, McCain benefited from the winner-take-all system to drive former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney out of the race relatively early. Romney ran quite close to McCain in big states but got no delegates there. A proportional representation system could have given Romney the nomination. The financial/economic crisis would have hurt Romney less than it has hurt McCain. Romney is well versed in such issues, is less tied to the Bush administration, and probably would have had a stronger appeal than McCain on matters most on voters' minds.

    Obama won big by reversing himself and deciding not to accept public financing (therefore, he had no spending limitations) and thus has had a money advantage usually ceded to Republicans.

  • We should recognize how much things have changed in our national politics. President Kennedy made history in 1960 when he was elected the first Catholic president. We are on the verge of electing a biracial president. Major figures in this campaign year included not only Obama but two women (Clinton and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin), three Catholics (Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani), a Latino (New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson), a Mormon (Romney), a Protestant fundamentalist (former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee), and Jewish Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who almost was named McCain's running mate after having been the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000. Despite worries about racism on election day — largely unfounded, in my judgment — the biggest battle of the 1960s, the one about racial, ethnic, gender, and religious discrimination, has been decided.

  • On a down note, our national discourse was fouled to an unprecented degree by bloggers, partisan and ideological groups, radio-TV entertainers posing as analysts, and outrightly biased cable-news commentators who poured much disinformation and toxicity into our national consciousness. There also was a lot of just plain careless reporting. (One example: The widely disseminated report that someone shouted "Kill him!", referring to Obama, at a GOP rally. It never happened.) Palin was not as qualified a vice-presidential candidate as, say, Lieberman or Romney would have been. But she is not the right-wing dunce largely portrayed by media; she certainly is better qualified than Vice Presidents Agnew and Quayle and other No. 2 candidates who have lost. This has taken place at a time when citizens increasingly have turned away from traditional print media as an information source. Voters know they are being misled and resent it. Opinion surveys show "media" and "the press" as being held in as low esteem as, for instance, the Congress. This will be a difficult trend to reverse.


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Comments:

Posted Sun, Oct 19, 12:01 p.m. Inappropriate

You need 50 percent to win.

Obama can't break 49 and he's fallen to 46.

Welcome to the McCain-Palin Presidency.

jabailo

Posted Sun, Oct 19, 12:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Actually, as you must know, you need more than 50 percent in states whose combined electoral votes exceed 270. In fact, you can have less than 50 percent of the nationwide raw vote and still win.

It is possible McCain could win, but the odds are very long. An interesting site that has been crunching the numbers to project the outcome is this:

http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/

Posted Sun, Oct 19, 6:37 p.m. Inappropriate

how much of a protest vote does Bob Barr get if the faithful McCain losing?

Mr Baker

Posted Sun, Oct 19, 9:29 p.m. Inappropriate

Bob Barr's vote is likely to be negligible under any circumstance. He could get some support in his former congressional district.

Obama's endorsement by Colin Powell, made after I wrote my article, will have little impact---although it might have had if extended during the nominating contest or around Labor Day. Late and predictable. About like Russia declaring war on Japan in the closing days of WWII.

Posted Mon, Oct 20, 7:21 a.m. Inappropriate

I think Powell's endorsement could have an impact. Powell is probably the most qualified person to be president who will never run. He's the guy with the golden resume. For him to say (over the course of about a five minute explanation) that Obama has qualities that outweigh his lack of experience (qualities which similarly-inexperienced Palin lacks) he gives cover to a lot of people who would not otherwise vote for Obama because of his lack of experience and his stated far-left agenda. Powell's message by implication is that the current situation will force Obama to lead from the center, and he makes a credible case for it.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Oct 20, 8:23 a.m. Inappropriate

Normally endorsements don't have much effect, but in the latter stages of campaigns there can be a self-reinforcing bandwagon effect. The double whammy of Obama raising more than $150 million in September ($200 million if you add in the DNC haul) and the Powell endorsement on the same Sunday morning may well lead to more folks getting on board what increasingly appears to be a major victory for Obama. It could also further discourage less committed McCain supporters. Enthusiasm or the lack thereof can be a big factor in final vote tallies.

Much less predictable but more interesting were the strong endorsements of Obama, and castigation of the Palin pick, by those two liberal rags The Idaho Statesman and the Salt Lake Tribune, not that they will have any effect on the outcome in those states.

Posted Mon, Oct 20, 11:08 a.m. Inappropriate

"You need 50 percent to win.

Obama can't break 49 and he's fallen to 46.

Welcome to the McCain-Palin Presidency.

— jabailo"

Yeah, right. Welcome to your political wet dream.

political

Posted Mon, Oct 20, 1:15 p.m. Inappropriate

@Ted - which half of Sakhalin Island does Powell get?

On a more serious note, Ted, with this piece you continue to inadvertently paint yourself as a cranky old man who sees himself as an arbiter, but is really just a joe six pack frozen in the mindset shaped in the Vietnam era.

To your point about Romney - yes, Romney could have expressed independence from W, but didn't. And do Americans really want the candidate who was the investment banker in charge of the economy after the last few weeks?

To your point about Clinton as majority leader -- it reeks of intellectual dishonesty (which we have enough of in the pundit class, thank you!). In your book, you make many references to the fact that Hillary is not suited to positions of power or being forced to compromise with opponents.

Look, it's great that you're frank about supporting Obama(he'll be a great president, I believe), but I read your motive that you're trying to absolve yourself for failing to work on Civil Rights issues in an era when you could have made a difference. So never mind the Palin on SNL this week you saw, instead flip back 25 years in the SNL archive and check out "CottonLand."

Posted Mon, Oct 20, 4:23 p.m. Inappropriate

To dericjones:

Strange comments. I don't attempt to paint myself as anything. I offer honest opinions about subjects with which I am conversant and let the chips fall. You can agree or disagree with them.

Vietnam era mindset? Don't know what you mean by that. I opposed the Vietnam war, inside and outside government, from the vantage point of someone who saw it as transparently not justified by any strategic U.S. interest.

If you indeed read my book, you will know that I entered politics before the Vietnam war and motivated strongly by civil rights. I served Hubert Humphrey during the period when he was the prime sponsor of the Civil Rights Act and strongest advocate of civil rights in the political community. I also served as his assistant when the Great Society was formulated and enacted. I spent many years thereafter involved in civil rights- and poverty-related causes. So I am hardly compensating for a lack of prior involvement in those issues---or for anything else.

I did not support Hillary Clinton's Presidential candidacy. I thought Obama offered something entirely different. Indeed I considered her (and her husband before her) as excessively focused on a politically-driven agenda rather than an agenda-driven politics. But the role of a Senate majority leader focuses especially on the ability to be operationally effective rather than an agenda-setter---especailly when his/her party controls the White House. Her job in 2009 would be to advise Obama and help him enact his own agenda. I think Hillary Clinton, especially after her 2008 Presidential campaign experience, could do that quite effectively. Harry Reid, by contrast, has been a small-bore partisan who often has disappointed both his Senate and House Democratic colleagues with his narrow approach to the job. A savvy and ambitious Hillary Clinton would be a big upgrade, as would several other of her colleagues. The Senate Democratic Caucus, of course, would have to make the change but it has been done before. Obama would have to work quietly behind the scenes to trigger such a change. He could not be seen as intervening directly.

Don't know about "CottonLand" 25 years ago on Saturday Night Live or how you think it might relate to Palin. I see her as bright, relatively inexperienced in national issues, but having a genuine populist touch.
She is not my choice for president or vice president candidate but I think the scorn and derision being directed toward her have been over the top and say more about her critics than about her.

Posted Mon, Oct 20, 10:53 p.m. Inappropriate

@Ted
I suppose it's your tone that causes a reaction in me as the narrow conclusions you draw. Perhaps it's just semantics, but why not start with "I find your comments strange" instead of "strange comments" ? I feel your tone presumes an arrogance that somebody who endorsed a ticket with Jack Kemp on it and an apologist for Michael Milken has no right to hold over me or any other Crosscut reader.

Truth be told, I agree with most of what you say in your book and in Crosscut. But the way you project observation as objective truth doesn't seem to fit with a self-styled journalist even in a column format (though, for the record, I would characterize you a longtime insider or wonk or consultant and a only journalism hobbyist).

To your point about Humphrey -- your book points out how weak he was in affecting Johnson's policy. Also, your recollection of traveling to the Jim Crow shows it affected you deeply, but the book reveals little that you did in the cause of Civil Rights. You should be proud to have been working in the cause of what served our nation well, but your personal stories reveal that much of what you did was ineffectual (failing to get Humphrey to split on Vietnam and failing to get McGovern to avoid the $1000 debacle and Eagleton).

To your point about Reid & H. Clinton - you seem to be deliberately talking around my point. You insinuate in your book that Hillary is poorly suited to working out compromises and demonstrating responsible leadership. Whatever. I don't disagree about Reid, but why not suggest Jay Rockefeller or Russ Feingold any of several other prominent Democratic Senators with a pragmatic voting record and history of forging compromise and actually getting some work done? If you don't like Clinton, why suggest her?

Which brings me to my conclusion -- The Cotton Land reference was for you (an Eddie Murphy-Stevie Wonder sketch worth rediscovering). But your point about Palin shows you're being obtuse or intellectually dishonest. George Will, Peggy Noonan, Colin Powell, and my favorite writer, Chris Buckley -- these are all significant minds attached to the conservative movement. Though I disagree with most everything they say, their observations about Palin are spot on and much better reasoned than yours. Ask yourself why that is, would you?

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