Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Quick Follow-Up Thought About the Bailout Bill

Why is it that, when Tom Delay finds himself in a situation of must-pass legislation like this, he pushes the must-past legislation farther and farther from the center, until not a single Democrat can support it, and then passes it on the strength of his own caucus alone, in order to blame the Democrats for being obstructionists--while Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid use the same scenario to run all over Washington, bloviating about the need for compromise? If I were Speaker Pelosi, I'd call a press conference for Noon today and I'd say, "Wall Street, your fears are unfounded: the Democratic caucus is going to pass a bill today that funds Secretary Paulson's request, together with re-instituting Glass/Steagall, repealing all of Mr. Bush's tax cuts for the super-wealthy, restoring sanity to the capital gains tax, funding a national health insurance program, launching an immediate draw-down of the troop presence in Iraq, and raising the minimum wage."

Okay, so maybe those last two are a bit over-the-top, but the point is that the Republicans in the House don't have to like the bill for it to pass, and the Republicans in the Senate don't dare try to filibuster it. The Democrats could at a stroke make themselves the heroes of both Wall Street (by getting the thing passed all by themselves) and Main Street (by passing it in a form that people could actually live with), while the Republicans would have the choices of either standing against a solution to the crisis for the second time in less than a week, or voting for something they would not ever, in a million years, vote for under any other circumstances.

Pelosi and Reid should even call it the "Repairing the Preposterous Incompetence of the Past Eight Years Act of 2008," or something--include language that calls for an end to Bush's "signing statements," his unauthorized wiretaps, I mean to say: they could put almost anything in this bill and it would still escape filibuster as long as Paulson got his money. "The Republicans had their chance at voting for a compromise bill," Pelosi and Reid could say, "and they voted against it. Now we're going to do the business of the people without them, if necessary."

Personally I'm inlined not to wonder about this idea as if it were a hypothetical. Personally I'm inclined to call upon all my regular readers who have Democratic representatives in either one or both chambers of congress to write to those representatives with this very suggestion. It's not too late for us to make not just political-, not just electoral-, but, gosh, actual legislative lemonade out of this monstrous situation. All it takes is the will to use this unusual position of power in which we find ourselves.

And friends, it pains me to say this, but Tom Delay would never have hesitated in such a position.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida Click Here to

Monday, September 29, 2008

So... What Now?

The news of the year--if not the millennium--broke Monday afternoon with the failure of a House of Representatives vote on the compromise bailout bill for Wall Street. The bill failed 205-228, with a mere 95 of the 228 "no" votes coming from the Democratic caucus, this after John McCain's campaign manager Steve Schmidt had appeared on Meet The Press and prematurely afforded Mr. McCain specific credit for marshaling the Republicans in the House to support the measure.

As he left Washington in snarling funk, Mr. McCain spoke neither to reporters nor the President. But shortly after adjourning from the scene of his limelight-grab-gone-horribly-wrong, McCain bizarrely tried to blame Senator Obama for a failure to lead his own caucus (despite the fact that fewer Democrats voted no), and simultaneously suggested that the assignment of blame is opportunistic and inappropriate in a time of such crisis. In an uncharacteristically blistering commentary, CNN pundit and long-time Republican operative David Gergen placed the blame for the bill's failure at the feet of John McCain and the House Republican caucus. Shortly thereafter on CNBC another former Nixon employee, Chris Matthews could be heard on television doing the same thing.

No matter: By the time the last vote was cast, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was already well on its way to having its worst single-day loss in history: a collapse of over 750 points. This was matched only by the blood-letting on the broader indices--which lost between six and ten percent of their value, each. In all it is estimated that over $1.2 Trillion in wealth disappeared from the planet on the day's events. It suffices to say that, if the general public didn't understand the importance of passing this once wildly unpopular legislation, the sudden evaporation of their 401K balances is certainly proving to be enlightening after the fact.

In a just universe, Senator McCain would find himself in the worst of both worlds at this moment, politically. Having undertaken the jarring and reckless-seeming "suspension" of his campaign to adjourn to Washington and assist in the passage of a bill nobody then wanted, he would now be perceived as largely responsible for the failure of that same bill to pass, at precisely the moment that everyone else in the country was waking up to its importance. But politics, as we all know, is not a just universe.

It remains to be seen just how many dots the persuadable voters in the middle can be trusted to connect, and to that extent the question of McCain's Orwellian efforts to blame the entire fiasco on his opponent could still carry some traction. After all, it was Pelosi and the House Democrats voting for the bill in large numbers while it was still almost universally distrusted on Main Street, and it was an obvious "lack of leadership" that caused the bill not to pass, albeit not on the part of the person Senator McCain is endeavoring to blame.

Meanwhile, a bill of some form will simply have to pass--sooner rather than later--if the global economy is to continue to function in anything like a recognizable incarnation for the next many, many years. Another day (or perhaps two more days) of the sorts of losses that were experienced in the equities markets in this one day, and the entire system could easily be thrown into a "self-exciting vibration" that continued to get worse without further outside stimulus, as margin traders and cash-poor institutional investors desperately tried to liquidate their remaining assets to cover their positions.

We have yet to see any polling data on the public's ability to keep up with these extraordinary circumstances, or on its ability to lay blame where it belongs--but an initial wave of dread that broke over this author when it seemed that Democrats would be cornered into voting for something nobody seemed to want has now, paradoxically, turned to electoral optimism--in light of the further meltdown of the Dow.

It is certainly true that Mr. Obama will have to navigate some troubled waters if he hopes to ascribe enough responsibility to his counterpart without seeming to be the very things he's been most effectively accused of. But it is even more obvious at this moment that Senator McCain is the one who finds himself teetering on the very precipice of oblivion, in light of the very specific chronology over which all of this drama has unfolded. After all, he can claim the benefit of having neither Paul Volcker nor Robert Rubin serving as advisors on his campaign, counseling him to keep a cool head and a close countenance on the matter until the full weight of the issue is known and obvious (as Senator Obama does).

Indeed now that the full weight of the issue is known and obvious, the election is quite possibly no longer even the biggest of Mr. Obama's challenges. As of Monday afternoon at 4:00PM, the real challenge for Obama might just well have officially switched to that of how on earth he will govern an insolvent country.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida Click Here to

Sunday, September 28, 2008

From Here, McCain's Task is At Least Simpler

The avalanche of bad news, gaffes, ugly mis-truths and near-farcical attempts to change the dynamic of the race have left John McCain squarely on the outside looking in. This much is not news. He trails in the Gallup Tracking Poll by eight points at the time of this writing, 50-42, and in other national tracking polls by percentages ranging from five to seven. His vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin on Sunday flatly contradicted his apparently strongest position against Barack Obama in Friday night's debate--that of opposing take-out strikes against terrorist bases in Pakistan, leaving the Republican candidate in the awkward position of having to explain that Ms. Palin should be allowed to say one thing from behind a podium, and another while holding a cheesesteak in her hand:

She would not [attack bases in Pakistan]. She understands and has stated repeatedly that we're not going to do anything except in America's national security interest. In all due respect, people going around and… sticking a microphone while conversations are being held, and then all of a sudden that's—that's a person's position… This is a free country, but I don't think most Americans think that that's a definitive policy statement made by Governor Palin.

Elsewhere, Senior McCain Advisor Rick Davis' deal with the devil under the heading of suspending McCain's campaign must have contained some fine print that he neglected to read, and late Sunday evening the news broke that Mr. Davis had apparently undertaken some fairly elaborate measures to hide his $15,000/month retainer from Freddie Mac. The upshot is that, perhaps anticipating this very accusation more than a year ago, Mr. Davis executed paperwork indicating that he had been separated from the employ of his own consulting firm--but then officially instructed the McCain Campaign itself to deposit his entire salary into a bank account in the firm's name. Whatever he'd hoped to accomplish from such maneuvers, it seems unlikely that this is the last to be heard of this story.

With early voting already underway in several key states, and a generally tepid review of his Friday evening performance (the best non-partisan appraisal this author could find over the weekend was that the debate probably changed few peoples' minds), the situation in John McCain's campaign could undoubtedly be described as downtrodden, if not actually bleak. And then there is the latest round of state-level polling, as reported on fivethirtyeight, shows among other things that Barack Obama's lead in Virginia had consolidated to such an extent that it is now classified there as "Likely DEM," rather than "Leans DEM"--which is cinemademocratica's standard for lighting a state in the candidate's color.

With all of the Kerry states except New Hampshire once again solidly in the fold, plus Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado, and now Virginia, Senator Obama is shown by our standards to enjoy a twelve-electoral-vote cushion above the magic number, the two sides tallying 282-to-163 with the states of Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Indiana all as yet un-lit for either candidate:

It's a self-evident truth at this point, but it bears repeating for its significance alone: There is no good news for Mr. McCain on this map. If the election were to take place today, and all of the remaining states were to be called for Senator McCain (and incidentally he's currently trailing by amounts greater than the margins of error in Nevada and New Hampshire, too), Senator Obama would still win in a relatively un-dramatic election night canvass, with the prizes necessary to put him over the top being declared shortly after 11:00 eastern time, as near-blowout races finally ended in Colorado and New Mexico.

The opportunities for game-changing shakeups of the race, as has been written about before in these columns, is also all but at an end for Senator McCain--since each race shakeup increases the likelihood that the public will either see themselves as being manipulated, see the campaign as a circus, or both. The Arizona Senator is probably stuck with Governor Palin, for one thing--not least because at this point there really isn't anyone else who would be willing to take the job and wouldn't also infuriate the same right-wing base that was so galvanized around the McCain candidacy when he chose the Alaska Governor in the first place. There are even unconfirmed rumors that, after several practice sessions, Palin's debate-prep team has essentially given up trying to keep the Governor from humiliating herself and the ticket on Thursday.

But if things are bad for McCain and his team--as they surely are--then the one benefit from such a position is the reduced need for complex thinking. The candidate no longer need concern himself with specific states on the map, indeed probably should dispense with retail-level politicking altogether, in favor of appearances on national platforms like The View. (Well... maybe not The View.) He needn't concern himself with honing a razor-thin message that will appeal at once to specific constituencies in tiny pockets of disparate states, and can instead work on restoring his core-image to the generic American voter.

Paradoxically, this is when Mr. McCain is at his best, anyway. When he stands on stages in Roswell and Ann Arbor and promises specific things to specific groups, it all but definitionally rings hollow; this is, after all, supposed to be the man who will tell you off to your face if he's sure he's right. All the effort he's put into tailored content has had the exact opposite of its intended effect this summer and fall--tarnishing as it has our idealized imgae of a man who would put the whole country first, ahead of his chances to become President. And each time he says this same thing about Senator Obama, he loses half a dozen votes more for sounding partisan and disingenuous. Karl Rove may have been a genius tactician (indeed he may not), but his hand-picked successor Steve Schmidt is proving that ugly campaign tactics for Republicans are no more a one-size-fits-all proposition than positive and uplifting messages are, for Democrats.

Probably the last, big shakeup that McCain could bring to the race--one that wouldn't ring gimmicky with an increasingly dubious undecided middle (precisely because it would indeed change the candidacy at its foundations)--would be to summarily dismiss both Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Davis, replacing them with long-trusted friends. These would be people who could guide McCain through the tangled thicket of contrasting himself with the increasingly popular and confident Senator from Illinois, without actually having to abandon the principals that once so attracted Democrats and Independents to him in the first place. John McCain needs men at the helm of his campaign who trust the candidate to be himself, and who aren't too cynical to trust the American people to be able to keep up. He needs Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham to resign from the U.S. Senate, and take over the day-to-day operations (Graham) and message control (Lieberman) in a way that would, at last, play directly to McCain's strong suits, instead of fanning all of this sex-education-for-kindergarteners, bullshit.

Now that's a shakeup the American people would pay to see. Maybe even literally.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida Click Here to

With Another Day's Distance, Obama Won

Regular readers surely know that I was less than whole-hearted in my satisfaction with Senator Obama's performance in Friday night's debate--at the time. Initial reactions included frustration over Obama's decision not to confront McCain about his erratic behavior ahead of time, disappointment that McCain was being allowed to frame himself as a spending-cutter, and confusion over what seemed to be a casual approach by Obama to vetting the outrages of the current Administration in the Middle East. Then, almost immediately afterward, I watched the network wrap-ups, the late local news, followed by Nightline, and on channel after channel all I could find were clips of Obama looking smooth, Presidential, and totally in charge of the conversation.

In Yesterday's column I noted that Obama had significantly out-performed my own assessment, with respect to the polling data that was at that time available, and allowed that persuadable voters probably employ a completely different rubric for determining who gave the superior performance. Obama might, I theorized, have looked uncomfortable and shrill by playing the matter the way I might have, in his shoes. Undecided women might have been turned off by too forceful a thrust-and-parry from the champion of hope. Certainly, in the minds of anyone forced by the event's bizarre Friday-night time slot to watch in de facto silence from a crowded restaurant, the night was a clear and uncontested victory for Team Blue.

Many of these daily articles are the fruits of concepts I start thinking about as much as a day or two in advance, and today's column was scheduled to be a missive suggesting that Obama won by being stylistically superior, while McCain would've won if people were still relegated to deriving their impressions from the radio. I'd planned to riff on the Kennedy/Nixon debate in 1960, weaving a thread about the incumbent party seeking a third consecutive term in power, vs. a far more telegenic and potentially unproven young upstart. The grisled Cold Warrior would show up ready to win on the issues, while the whipper-snapper would arrive prepared to look Presidential for the TV-cameras. (And by the way, if you haven't read three such columns already, you're behind on your political-junkieism.)

But a funny thing happened along the way to that column: I've had another day of competing inputs and another night to sleep on the matter, and I am prepared to conclude that Mr. McCain didn't win the debate on points, either.

Without expecting in advance that I would come to such a conclusion (which is different from calling it unbiased), I woke up this morning to the realization that I can now clearly recall only three specific moments from the entire proceeding: Mr. McCain being unable to say the name of the Iranian President, Mr. Obama calling attention to McCain's profoundly unsettling behavior toward the government of Spain, and the whole, "John, you act as if the Iraq war started in 2007," exchange, which at the time frustrated me because I felt Mr. Obama was leaving himself open to the flip-flop charge on the question of the Surge, but which now seems, at the very least, to have been a "standing eight-count" for McCain in an already wobbly performance, fraught with combative body language and a disrespectful lack of eye-contact.

The polls continue to see the event as a clear victory for Obama, too: Gallup scores the event 46-34 for Obama--about as lop-sided a victory for the good guys as that ragingly slanted polling firm could ever be expected to grudgingly concede about anything. True to form, the Republicans are running ads that lift tiny snippets of the proceedings out of context as a way of suggesting that their guy came out on top--but the thrust of the argument this time (that Obama isn't ready) doesn't seem to be resonating, precisely because it was Mr. McCain whose pre-debate behavior was so inexplicable and rash. Tracking polls that don't even reflect any post-debate opinions are showing Mr. Obama at either +5 (Hotline and Gallup), or +6, (Rasmussen and Research-2000), and nobody in punditry expects these numbers to close over the next few days.

Even without the effects of the debate, Mr. McCain and his party are staring up from a far deeper well than was the case even seventy-two hours ago: McCain himself is losing Pennsylvania, tied in Missouri and North Carolina, and dangerously behind in Virginia. He must win all four of these states to be President (as well as hold Ohio, Florida, Montana, West Virginia, and Nevada), and if the election were held today he would probably lose in at least three of them. There is late word that Senate Minority Leader Mitch ("The Bitch") McConnell is suddenly tied with his relatively little-known Democratic challenger in his bid for reelection to the Senate from Kentucky. The Media General News Service reported yesterday that Libby Dole, already trending behind in her race for reelection against Kay Hagen, has visited the state she is supposed to represent only thirty-three days over the span of two years. The generic congressional ballot once again favors Democrats by double-digits.

McCain now desperately needs what he was trying to accomplish with his mid-week campaign suspension, with ever-narrower likelihoods of success: He needs to shake up the dynamic of the race, in such a way so as not to come across to the shakeup-weary electorate as desperate and gimmicky (the way the last effort did).

One thing left to try is easing his running-mate off the ticket--an option that was once only popular with firebrand leftists like myself, but which was recently called for by Kathleen Parker of the National Review:

No one hates saying that more than I do. Like so many women, I’ve been pulling for Palin, wishing her the best, hoping she will perform brilliantly. I’ve also noticed that I watch her interviews with the held breath of an anxious parent, my finger poised over the mute button in case it gets too painful. Unfortunately, it often does. My cringe reflex is exhausted.

When Couric pointed to polls showing that the financial crisis had boosted Obama’s numbers, Palin blustered wordily: “I’m not looking at poll numbers. What I think Americans at the end of the day are going to be able to go back and look at track records and see who’s more apt to be talking about solutions and wishing for and hoping for solutions for some opportunity to change, and who’s actually done it?”

Meanwhile Jack Cafferty, a generally middle-of-the-road commentator for CNN, also came out earlier this weekend with a call for Palin to step down, blasting the idea that she might someday become President as something that, "if it doesn't scare the hell out of you, it should." It now seems there are a great-many Republicans and independents who would applaud a decision to replace Governor Palin--but for the small problem that her obvious pool of replacements would either refuse the offer or infuriate the Republican base.

So what does that leave? Well, it leaves dirty tricks: Barack Obama is a Muslim, Barack Obama is an extremist black-Christian with ties to Reverand Wright (neat that he can be both, isn't it?), Barack Obama and Paris Hilton are having a bastard child. Your guess is as good as mine, but at this point you can be relatively confident that this is McCain's next play. It's all he has left. The Governors of Missouri, Ohio, Colorado, and Virginia are all Democrats. Stealing isn't going to be enough this time. At the moment, dirty tricks are the only thing standing between John McCain and a concession speech.

And it will fall to the rest of us to be ready with our "contact us" links to the media, to respond swiftly and forcefully to every dirty attack. The Obama campaign will do its part (far better than John Kerry ever did), but the rest of us will have to press the media to remain vigilant. My guess is that they will, precisely because they themselves are already fatigued with the McCain/Schmidt antics-generator, and will let almost none of their forthcoming accusations stand on their own, unchallenged. Which makes the job ahead for John McCain all the tougher. Indeed at the moment, at least, pulling out a victory would for John McCain be perhaps the toughest in modern political history. It could still happen, but today--unequivocally--it wouldn't.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida Click Here to

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Quo Vadis, Undecideds?

My initial impressions of last night's Presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain were less than whole-heartedly supportive of Mr. Obama's performance. There were several areas in which I felt that the opportunity to damage Mr. McCain passed by the wayside, and at least one in which I felt Mr. Obama left himself needlessly vulnerable by not forcefully responding to an attack, either.

Most of these dissonances were experienced during the first segment of the debate, the bailout talks, particularly since Senator Obama demurred on John McCain's erratic, borderline wacky behavior of the past few days ("Senator McCain, you've been telling the American people I'm reckless for ten months; how much more reckless does it get than quitting your campaign to fly to Washington and dynamite a fragile compromise on the bailout bill?"). He also passed on the opportunity to undermine McCain's promise to cut taxes ("With a Democratic congress, Senator, you're not actually going to do anything on domestic policy, other than chew up the next four years of the American peoples' time, threatening vetoes"); and he needlessly ceded the field on the subject of earmarks, making him look apologetic for his own record instead of hitting back harder on McCain's--which is nothing short of abysmal.

On the foreign policy side of the ledger, Mr. Obama seemed much stronger. He was loaded for bear on the subject of Iraq and had the advantage of a downhill field, anyway, since the public is so monumentally sick of the conflict. But spending the first half-hour of the contest talking about the Wall Street meltdown should have helped Obama more than it helped McCain, and that seems rather not to have been the case.

One possible explanation for this disparity is that the various things that occurred to me in real time to say, had by their very nature not been vetted through the campaign debate team or focus-grouped. If your whole (six-digit) job is to keep your candidate from blowing this whole thing with a gaffe, the first lesson you would have beaten into his head over the past week is, THOU SHALT NOT TALK OFF-SCRIPT. If I'm right, then the end result would naturally be a performance that seemed less than completely responsive to the other fellow, and certainly less spontaneous. But personality plays a big part in all of this, and on balance one could argue that Obama's temperament may have been far better served by sticking with a slightly less confrontational, slightly less reactive, slightly less free-wheeling approach. What might have worked for a hypothetical Senator Dave O'Gorman in such a setting might, in the mouth of Senator Barack Obama, have sounded forced and shrill and too far out-of-character.

Which brings us to the other major problem with trying to analyze a debate: We all bring our own expectations and our own anxieties, neither of which track with those of the remaining persuadable voters in the middle. As much as I wish Senator Obama could have nicked-up his opponent in the ways described above, it was Obama who won the undecided voters, according to an instant poll conducted last night by CBS; it was Obama who won the women's vote, according to another instant poll conducted last night by CNN; and it was Obama who won--going away--the votes of all those many people who were forced by the time-slot to witness the whole thing from their neighborhood Applebee's on a ceiling-mounted TV with the sound off. (And no, I don't have a poll with which to back up that last conclusion: I don't need one.)

These are all crucial voting blocs for Obama to either win-over or hold, and I can't in good faith empathize with any of them, any more than I can claim in good faith to empathize with most of the reactions being registered by most of the electorate on most of what has happened for this entire campaign. Obama is at this very moment winning 66-26 on the CNN main-page's admittedly unscientific poll, which is about as far to my guy's advantage as I could have imagined things being after the most lop-sided debate performance in the history of the universe--and certainly wholly out of step with what I felt had actually happened.

This being said, even the pundit reactions afterward were far more ambitiously supportive of Senator Obama than I was prepared to be, with Mark Halprin leading the charge (he of the notorious "I wonder what John Kerry meant just then when he said 'global test'" remark, in 2004), giving the debate squarely to Obama, by a grade of A- to B-. Over on ABC news, George Stephanopolous graded things a little closer, with Obama winning B+ to B. Though he did take some time in his analysis on Nightline to comment that McCain had looked "washed out," while Obama had appeared "even darker than ususal" (emph. orig.) -- two comments which, if there were any justice in the world, would have instantly alienated him with, well, just about every registered voter in the country. I would put the link here but ABC would rather I spend thirty minutes on its website, watching the same plug for a dreadful-looking new TV-series, while searching in vain for any actual content. Send your angry cards and letters to Walt Disney, care of hell.

Other reactions, courtesy of the positively outstanding political news aggregator site, Taegan Goddard's Political Wire, included Ezra Klein: "Give McCain this: He did an extremely good stylistic job in an extremely hard situation. I doubt he could have offered a better performance. But the polls suggest that undecideds broke hard for Obama anyway. Which suggests that McCain's problem is what he's saying, not how he's saying it." James Fallows took time to note something that I couldn't, with my head buried in a laptop: "Obama was acting as if this is a conversation; McCain, as if he could not acknowledge the other party in the discussion." Indeed in the blog comment space, all the buzz this morning is about McCain's angry, condescending-looking posture and apparent lack of eye-contact.

In the end, Senator Obama didn't actually need to do any of the things that I spent the actual debate wishing he would: He didn't need to land a decisive blow. He didn't need to call McCain out on some of the Republican's Orwellian contradictions. He didn't need to be scrappy and confrontational, the way I am scrappy and confrontational. Ronald Reagan, lest we forget, was the choice many more Americans wanted to make than had actually made it, at the time of the first debate--frightened as they were by his supposed recklessness. Reagan took the stage in that first debate, acted Presidential, and the matter was decided on that basis alone.

If the analogy is a valid one, then all Senator Obama had to do last night was fight McCain to a draw--and by all accounts he did much, much better than that.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida Click Here to

Friday, September 26, 2008

Live Blogging The Debate (Hit Refresh to Update)

FINAL THOUGHTS: Obama's biggest job was to look Presidential, and he got over that hurdle. McCain had to look capable and not reckless, and Obama let him look like those two things. The professionals are saying that this debate won't change the fundamental dynamic of the race, and I wonder if that's true. The analysts are saying that Obama did better stylistically, and that could be true, but the American people want to be led and McCain certainly looked tougher.

10:36PM - "I know how to heal the wounds of war," is really preposterous. And McCain gets away with it for batting last.

10:35PM - Obama needs to hit McCain on the "stubborn-ness" thing, since it's clearly -- CLEARLY -- McCain who's being stubborn, of these two candidates. And instead? He goes for narrative. I'd like to feel positive about this country, but first we've got to strip the bark off this reckless old man to your right, Senator Obama.

10:34PM - We've been listening to McCain say "I've been involved" for ninety minutes, and I wonder if that's going to pay off in the long run -- at the end of the night he sounds like a guy who's frustrated that everyone hasn't rolled over for his resume.

10:33PM -The "Economy in decline / can't hold military superiority" bundle is a terrific argument; will Joe Lunchbox be able to connect all of those dots?

10:32PM - Hit 'em where it hurts, Obama. It's a big world out there, and there's a lot of threats on the board -- and Obama is scoring a big, late touchdown on this question.

10:30PM - "If we lose in Iraq, it will embolden Al Queda," is a line we've been hearing for six years -- call me an eternal optimist, but I think the persuadable public is *OVER* this message.

10:29PM - Okay, one more time: these guys said they were gonna keep us safe, and they let Bin Laden slip away. And Obama is right that the country is greatly diminished on the world stage, and he's making great points. But it's really, really late.

10:27PM - Obama has a chance to hit McCain really hard (sound familiar?) and he's not doing it (sound familiar?). He does a little better with non-proliferation, but the problem is that McCain doesn't lose anything by coming out in favor of whatever Obama wants on the subject.

10:27PM - By the way, it would have been nice if McCain had bothered to answer the actual question, instead of plugging Joe Lieberman like a film clip on a late-night talk show.

10:26PM - Does anyone think the country is safer from terrorist attack than it was on the day after 9/11? I dare say that even the lowest- of low-information voters is going to buy that.

10:25PM - McCain just set the state of Nevada *ON* *FIRE*. He may end up winning this debate (I think he has), and actually losing ground on the map. He gave away Iowa with his opposition to ethanol, and he gave away Nevada with storage of nuclear waste. What's he thinking?

10:24PM - Awfully late in this debate for Obama to point out that McCain votes against energy independence. Is anyone still listening to that kind of substance?

10:24PM - Obama has a great position on Russia. And I know I'm biased, but I just love listening to him talk about the (un-necessarily narrow) corridor we've found ourselves painted down into, in dealing with them. He just gets it.

10:21PM - Is McCain really sure that the persuadable voters in the middle can juggle Ukraine, Ossetia, Georgia, and a pipeline? I'd be surprised if most of the people who haven't picked a candidate even know that those places are all close to each other on the map.

10:20PM - "I went there once" is something McCain is going to get away with (and score huge points for) because Obama didn't call him on the body armor lie, most of an hour ago.

10:19PM - McCain talking knowledgeably about a pipeline should be a good talking-point for him, but I wonder -- do we really want to pick the guy, of these two, who knows more about pipelines, to be our next President?

10:18PM - Obama hits Bush on the "looking into his soul" comment and, by association, McCain, on being reactive and belligerent about Russia. Does "both sides need to show restraint" really sound naive? It doesn't sound naive to me, but I'm biased.

10:16PM - Russia is yet another softball for Obama, given McCain/Palin's rhetoric on the subject over the past few weeks. If Obama doesn't retort McCain's "three tries to get it right" comment (still forthcoming), he'll be on the defensive again.

10:15PM - What McCain's doing now is putting a lot of chips on the Kissinger square, here, and if he's wrong about the facts Obama isn't going to let McCain off the hook about it like Kerry did in 2004.

10:13PM - Obama is winning the debate now, but I'm terrified that he didn't start winning it until the bullies in all the living rooms around the country were already high-fiving each other and drowning-out the rest of the telecast.

10:11PM - Spain is the first home run for the good-guys. And by the way, Kissinger *did* say that he would agree to unconditional talks with Iran. He did, he did, he did, he did, he did.

10:10PM - Bush being with Obama and not with McCain on reaching out to Iran is huge. Don't be afraid, Team Blue, the public is sage enough to get this--I just wish Obama could be painting McCain as more reckless, which he is.

10:09PM - Oh by the way, Mr. McCain, it's you -- this time -- who doesn't understand the country you're talking about. The Secretaries of State issue is pure gold for Obama.

10:07PM - Tough, direct diplomacy with Iran. and the "not talking to punish" answer, are terrific points-scoring moments for Obama. McCain comes back on the "without precondition" business, which, I think, is an unforced error by McCain. The American public is war-weary right now, right or wrong. Talking to people "without precondition" doesn't sound nearly as scary as it would have six years ago.

10:06PM - Good answer from Obama here right now, the idea that Iran is being strengthened by what McCain wants to do in the Middle East. Team-Blue was ready for this one.

10:03PM - Most Americans will know that McCain's Iran answer is pandering to the Jewish vote, but in the past that hasn't "hurt" with the rest of the country as much as a pandering answer usually does, in other matters. Will Obama come back strong on the League of Democracies idea, which is the most reckless, terrible idea in modern history? Will he hit back on the failure of McCain to tell the difference between Al Queda and Iran?

10:02PM - I just asked my viewing partners who's winning this debate and they called it a draw right now, which might suggest a Nixon/Kennedy dynamic. I'm not looking at the screen because I'm looking at what I'm typing, and they aren't typing so they can see the TV images. Is Obama doing better than I think he is?

10:00PM - "We took our eye off Afghanistan," is a great line for Obama because he's got the public on his side with this. He's got McCain on the "muddle through" comment, which McCain definitely said.

9:59PM - No, Barack, do not get into a narrative-war -- this isn't the right way to play this. You need to hit him for NOT answering the question with anything ELSE, besides narrative.

9:58PM - "I have a record" is a set-piece from the McCain team, but it leaves him open to a fairly obvious comeback. Will Obama take this chance to say, "That's the whole problem"?

9:57PM - "This business about bombing Iran" just made everyone in my room cringe. Is he going to say he never sang "bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb-Iran"?

9:56PM - This answer from Obama is his strongest yet, precisely because it's the thing he should have been doing for most of an hour: point out that it is McCain who is reckless, impulsive, and not trustworthy on his campaign pledges.

9:55PM - "Nobody talked about attacking Pakistan" is a terrific comeback, as long as he didn't. If he did, you can count on a commercial running about it in... oh... about ten seconds.

9:54PM - McCain is winning on Pakistan. Period. Obama looks reckless, and McCain is getting away with being the more bellicose candidate by a country mile. Right now a persuadable voter would think a new war is more likely under Obama than McCain, and that's a huge win for McCain.

9:53PM - By this time in the first debate of 1980, Reagan had already won it, "just by not being a scary choice." Anybody think Obama has met that standard?

9:50PM - The "do we need more troops in Afghanistan" question from Lehrer is a hanging slider for Obama to hit out of the park on redeployment, but only if he closes the deal and doesn't make it sound like he's for a draft. In fact, why isn't Obama hitting McCain on his town-hall comment about not being opposed to re-instituting the draft?

9:49PM - Obama brings up Bin Laden, which is good. He fights back on the "dangerous" thing, which is good, and McCain is quoting people who have damaged credibility on the ground, anyway. I think Obama is winning this. Obama is loaded for bear on Iraq, and it's a downhill field for him, anyway, because the public is sick of Iraq.

9:47PM - Obama is ready on the troop funding issue, which is good. He looks ready and he's turning the tables on McCain. Good job, but, again, too little too late. He certainly shouldn't be turning this into a "tactics vs. strategy" argument. The Afghanistan vs. Iraq thing is a(nother) obvious weakness for McCain, and Obama is bloodying his nose on this score.

9:45PM - "Doesn't understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy" is a great zinger line -- except for the small problem that most of us don't, either. The "let us win" comment is a perfect opening for Obama to hit McCain about the body armor language.

9:44PM - "You were wrong," is a good line. Obama looking a little tougher on this one.

9:42PM - McCain just said this was about the future (that's a good play for him), but then he went back to talk about the surge. McCain should stand accountable for the whole "we didn't wear body armor" comment -- and Obama instead is using his comeback to talk committee inside-baseball (and just admitted it), and even gave a nod to Biden which leaves the door open to the charge that he'll need a handler to manage foreign policy.

9:41PM - If Obama really was opposed to this war in 2002, that's great -- but it leaves him open to a big comeback: he wasn't in the United States Senate in 2002, he was in the Illinois legislature. He's doing better with the "we took our eye off the ball" stuff, and the spending in Iraq, but he hasn't really foreclosed on McCain, who will *surely* come back with an experience comment.

9:40PM - Let's see if Obama does better when the question is about something he's been prepping for.

9:39PM - McCain learned from Iraq that you can't have a failed strategy? Shouldn't he have known that already?

9:38PM - Obama has picked this moment to try to tie McCain to Bush, that's the good news -- the bad news is that he's trying to win a cut-spending-war with McCain, and that just makes the public think that McCain really is a cut-spending guy, which he isn't.

9:37PM - This "low taxes are the best recipe" business is pure Bush doctrine, and Obama is letting him get away with it.

9:36PM - Why isn't Obama hammering on this whole cutting-spending thing? You can't stimulate the economy out of a recession by cutting spending.

9:35PM - This isn't a good night for Team Blue, period. Obama sounds like the guy trying to defend a bad track-record. Personally I don't get it. But then, I didn't get it in 2000, either.

9:33PM - McCain doesn't sound like someone who's too worried about holding Nevada, right now. All the waste from those nuclear plants goes to Yucca Mountain and there's not a person in the whole Silver State who wants any more of it in his back yard.

9:32PM - Obama gets his first good line of the debate -- "using a hatchet where you should use a scalpel," and finally gets to Iraq, but a reasonable person has to ask if it's too little too late.

9:30PM - Obama on pure defense right now. No reason for it. McCain is the one with the bad track-record on all of these subjects and he's getting away with murder. Every time Obama gets a chance to push back, he changes the subject instead. I'd say he's losing fair-and-square, at the moment. Something like 4-1. This "google for government" thing is a horrendous misstep, it makes him sound like a camp counselor.

9:29PM - Unforced error by McCain, using "DoD" as a casual figure of speech--makes him sound like a beltway insider.

9:28PM - "We've let government get completely out of control" is a huge opening for Obama -- if he doesn't get hammering McCain about the fact that this is not the time to trim government, he's going to lose this debate.

9:26PM - Obama in charge with a pragmatic answer about budget realities and, finally, he's looking to the future with what he wants to do as President. Is he just now relaxing a little bit and getting into a groove? McCain may have already won this thing--a lot of people don't pay nearly as close attention after the first question or two. This is all good stuff, though: the science stuff, the energy independence stuff, the infrastructure stuff. McCain, of course, will say that none of this can be paid for.

9:25PM - "Under your tax plan, John, and this is undeniable" is Obama's first time on offense all night, and he looked good doing it. McCain should be on the defensive right now, and he's looking like it.

9:24PM - Is Jim Lehrer taking a nap?

9:23PM - Now wait a minute, McCain can't just decide that we're not going to move on the next question.

9:22PM - Why don't Democrats ever hit the other guy in these things? We're a quarter of the way into the debate and Obama hasn't swung back once.

9:21PM - Our first "My Friends" of the night! Everybody in the room has to drink, now.

9:19PM - Obama hits back, but he still needs to push McCain on his own track-record on earmarks, and he's still reluctant to do that for some reason. Steven Colbert asked McCain about this when McCain was running for President in 2000, and if Colbert knew about it in 2000, I refuse to believe that Obama's people didn't know about it last night.

9:17PM - McCain has the upper hand right now because Obama tried to change the subject, which makes him look guilty on the subject of earmarks -- which is a major missed opportunity for Obama. McCain has a far, far worse track-record on the subject and Obama didn't say a word about it.

9:16PM - Barack, you've just been pitched a softball -- if you don't hit it out of the park, you're going to look weak. Talking about the difference between earmarks and tax-cuts makes it sound like you're trying to duck the question of earmarks, when in fact you should be hitting back hard on this issue.

9:15PM - Now, wait a minute -- that business about how Republicans came to Washington and got changed by Washington -- that's not going to begin to cut it with the general public.

9:13PM - This "American worker" thing isn't going to cut it. It's non-responsive and dreamy and a lot of people will recognize that he's still being defensive about the "economy is strong" gaffe in Jacksonville.

9:11PM - Obama is hitting the issue of the past awfully, awfully hard here -- he's making this about the track-record, and the public will respond to him better, I think, if he's the guy with the better plan for what's next. He should be hitting this, to be sure, but not all front-loaded in this way.

9:10PM - Hey, John? You're not going to make anybody feel more comfortable about your age if you start a debate answer with a wistful homage to the letter-writing prowess of Dwight Eisenhower. Obama left a golden opening, and McCain blew it.

9:08PM - I don't think Obama's strongest gambit on the financial crisis is to waggle his resume at us like this -- he should position himself as the guy with the better ideas moving forward; McCain is just going to come back with his own "I warned about this, I warned about that..."

9:07PM- Neither of these guys looks like he's completely in charge of the discussion right now but Obama looks more comfortable by a longshot.

9:06PM - Crazy of McCain to start by saying that he's not feeling well -- he wanted it to be about the way things have been going, but that's an enormous unforced error on his part, to leave the infinitive about his physical well-being dangling out there like that.

9:05PM - Took Obama a minute or two to get comfortable but he got his shot in, at the end.

9:02PM - ROUND ZERO GOES TO.... Barack Obama looks far more statesmenlike and in charge of his situation. McCain looks very, very reluctant to be there.

8:55PM - I'm at the home of a friend and we're getting ready for the big show. Hit your refresh button from time to time to see the most current update. Final pre-game questions: Will Obama win the stature war? Will McCain appear as confused as he's acted in the past few days? Will he rech back for a big touchdown?

I'll know at the same time you do..... Click Here to Read More...

The Biggest Day of John McCain's Life?






To say of this election's fall finish that it hasn't unfolded the way John McCain and Steve Schmidt were planning is to engage in droll understatement. After a respectable (if also, for some of us, infuriating) Sarah Palin bounce from his own convention, McCain appeared to have all the initiative in the national dialogue--repositioning himself as the only candidate who could say he was for change and then actually deliver on it.

That message resonated with a still-credulous pool of undecided voters to such a degree that one of my colleagues had to stop wearing a button that said, "I'm Voting for CHANGE!" because people kept approaching her at gas pumps to ask which candidate she was intending to endorse with that sentiment. Everything seemed to be perfectly in place for the third incarnation of Lee Atwater: Set the other guy back on his heels with a convention that makes the discussion all about him instead of issues; grin smugly like the guy who's still holding his best pin-move in reserve; steal the other guy's big issue; attack, attack, attack.

Seems like a long time ago now, doesn't it.

So--what the hell happened? Well this author has been saying it almost from the very moment that it was unfolding in real time, but you'll have to forgive him if he takes this opportunity to say it now, again: The wheels started coming off exactly two weeks ago, when Sarah Palin's interview with Charlie Gibson aired on the same day that John McCain was savagely, pitilessly filleted by the undecided-friendly panelists of ABC's midmorning talk show, The View.

From there we had the Lehman / AIG / Merill meltdown the following Monday, during which Mr. McCain could be found standing on a stage in Jacksonville telling us in Bush-ian tones of befuddled helplessness that the fundamentals of our economy are strong. In the Lee Atwater playbook this is known as "stripping the bark off," by which one campaign wounds the other on likability grounds, then pins it with an unpopular position on a key issue. You show Mr. Dukakis riding in a tank, and then you run the Willie Horton ad. Not the other way around. If there's irony in this whole mess (and surely there is), it is that this time around the Republican nominee inflicted this exact, textbook maneuver--on himself.

After a week in which the Obama people hammered McCain mercilessly and deservedly for his track-record advocating for less government oversight, week-2 of the crisis began with Treasury Secretary Paulson pitching a three-page bailout bill with a price tag so whopping as to cripple the fiduciary discretion of all successive Presidents of this great land for the foreseeable future. The public outcry was immediate and bipartisan and left only Senator McCain with the narrow corridor for wiggling, since his patrons at the White House were (and are) just about the only people in the country who seem to want the bill.

Oh, and entirely by the way in case you missed it, the Treasury quietly let slip yesterday that they have no basis whatsoever for the $700 billion price-tag. "We didn't base it on a specific data-point," an un-named but high-ranking Treasury official said, "we mostly just needed a really big number."

...I'm sorry, let me just repeat that: The same Treasury Department that has been telling us all week that the economy will come totally unhinged if this bill isn't passed immediately, admitted yesterday afternoon that it doesn't actually have the faintest idea where it got the figure for how much this was going to cost. And if you can decide for yourself whether that's hilarious or horrifying, do me the favor of telling me too, please.

By Wednesday McCain had all but irretrievably lost Colorado (along with New Mexico and Iowa) and was receiving news that North Carolina and Missouri are both now tied. McCain's Senior Campaign Advisor and longest-serving confederate, Rick Davis, was accused--on the front page of the Wednesday New York Times--of having taken a retainer from Freddie Mac in the amount of $15,000 a month for over four years, right up to the very moment that the federal government seized control of the institution. Well after the McCain campaign had started running ads accusing Senator Obama of being in cahoots with that very same institution.

And then, a little after noon on Wednesday, the campaign could find itself signing at the front door for a small package from CBS, containing an advance copy of the final version of Katie Couric's two-part interview of Sarah Palin. The highlight of the first segment? Well, it could be that Governor Palin was unable to cite examples of McCain's track-record on encouraging government oversight. ("Yes, Katie, but he's also known as the maverick, takin' shots from his own party, and the other party, tryin' to get people to see what he's tryin' to accomplish.") The highlight of the second segment? How about Palin's inability to explain why Alaska's proximity to Russia qualifies her for foreign policy leadership. ("Alaska has a very narrow maritime border between a foreign country, Russia, and on our other side, the land-- boundary that we have with-- Canada. It-- it's funny that a comment like that was-- kind of made to-- cari-- I don't know, you know? Reporters.")

We all know what happened next.

In total exasperation, the McCain team pulled the grandaddy of all electoral stunts: what has increasingly been described even in mainstream media outlets as a "call for a time-out"--hoping that the drama of a campaign suspension would wipe all of these other stories off the media map, and maybe even scuttle a debate at which McCain would otherwise have little chance of escaping a discussion of his role in repealing the Glass/Steagal Act. And never mind the fact that the McCain team didn't actually suspend anything (its television ads have continued to run in full force, everywhere), or that his presence in Washington was understood to be useless by all but the most politically un-astute respondents in a hasty Survey-USA poll that found only 10% support for his actions.

It may well have been the biggest election gamble in modern history, and it hasn't worked. In an uncharacteristic fury, Dave Letterman invested over ten minutes of his Wednesday night program to assail the decision and its architect--including a cutaway that showed Mr. McCain not jetting-off to Washington, but rather being prepped by a makeup artist for an interview across town with the same Katie Couric who'd been planning to highlight her frightful encounter with the Senator's running-mate.

Then Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour went public with a call that the debate go forward as planned--together with all the major newspapers in the state. Meanwhile, when Mr. McCain finally arrived in Washington (over twenty-four hours after his suspension announcement), his appearance seemed to scuttle, rather than facilitate, a fragile consensus on the final language in the bill. Individuals loyal to McCain have spun this story in a variety of ways, but history will know better: McCain yesterday was the champion of nothing, the maverick standing up to nobody. Indeed he was considerably the more reckless and opportunistic of the two major candidates for President.

All of which leaves McCain with only today to salvage the situation. At the moment he is claiming (with a straight face) that the broad outlines of a compromise are in place (just as they were before he arrived), and that he may now therefore adjourn to Oxford. This is not an argument the public is likely to buy unless truly newsworthy progress on the bill ends up being made in the hours remaining for Friday business.

By taking this particular gamble, Mr. McCain has broken over his knee the first cardinal rule of gambling: always minimize your losses on the losing hands.

Instead, having been dealt a flop that consists of a two of clubs and a spoonful of ant poison, Mr. McCain has decided to bluff--by swallowing the ant poison right there at the table, and then betting the farm on the two of clubs. And none of the other players have anything to gain by folding: The general public doesn't want a Friday compromise on the bailout. The Republicans in the House of Representatives don't want a Friday compromise on the bailout. The Republicans in the Senate, who were for the compromise before Mr. McCain showed up to fan the partisan flames surrounding the issue, no longer want a Friday compromise on the bailout. Only Mssrs. McCain, Paulson, and Bush are still of the opinion that the sun will not rise tomorrow if this deal isn't done by the time Mr. Obama takes the stage in Oxford. And I know I've said it before, but my friends, that's just not the company Mr. McCain needs to be keeping at the moment.

My personal take is that a compromise bill that would give Mr. McCain enough cover to come to Mississippi as conquering hero is vanishingly unlikely, but beyond that relatively safe bet I haven't a clue what will actually happen instead. The GOP ticket can afford neither to show with its tail between its legs and no compromise on the bill, nor to allow Mr. Obama to have the initiative that would attach to yet another reversal. There can be little hope that Mr. McCain could conjure yet another "shakeup" of this election on such short notice, or that this as-yet hypothetical new shakeup would have any traction at all with an increasingly shakeup-fatigued electorate.

If there's a fourth option I haven't considered, then McCain supporters had better hope that he and Steve Schmidt are smarter than I am about what that option might be--and, more importantly, that they get started availing themselves of it, immediately.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida Click Here to

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Whatever It Is, I'll Be Writing About It Live

Just a quick post to let loyal readers know that I'll be "live blogging" whatever ends up happening tomorrow evening -- be it a debate, or a ninety-minute exclusive between Obama and Jim Lehrer, or what-have-you.

Any guess as to what it might be? Will there be a debate? I haven't figured out how to run a poll yet, so feel free to log in with a comment.

My own personal intuition is that McCain is maneuvering into position to pull a "Jim Bunning" -- the Kentucky Senator who, in 2004, said he would debate his Democratic opponent but only via closed-circuit TV and only if he knew all of the questions in advance. McCain could say that he regrets having to stay in Washington but that the situation is so fluid there that he can't leave, but since everyone is waiting on the edge of their seats, he'll offer to participate via satellite uplink. Then, of course, he could have a staffer positioned four feet off-camera, feeding him the answers.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

PS: Look for a more conventional post between now and then--topics will include the second installment of the Katie Couric interview with Sarah Palin, and the McCain's un-suspended, suspended campaign.

Have a good night, everybody. Click Here to

(Since it Isn't Governing) Is it Politics? Or Health?

Several facets of the McCain-suspension story have come into clearer subjective focus in the overnight hours, though it must be said at the outset that there have been few additional facts. While many of us have been preoccupied with the potential for McCain to duck his debate commitment, spare Sarah Palin from any further public access, and yet somehow actually score political points in doing it all, an alert reader of these columns has suggested that the reason for this decision could easily be far more serious than even that Machiavellian little passion-play might suggest. John McCain might at this hour be gravely ill.

In his announcement of this development he looked nothing short of terrible--worse even than his interview a few days earlier with Sixty Minutes. Indeed he hasn't looked himself for weeks, as far as this author is concerned--which is really saying something when you're talking about a seventy-two year old who spent the four defining years of his adulthood chained to a wall.

Last night, as part of Dave Letterman's unscheduled, ten-minute roast of McCain for ditching his scheduled appearance on The Late Show, the program cut away to a behind-the-scenes glimpse of McCain being prepped for an interview with Katie Couric on the CBS Evening News (the cut away intended to show that McCain had misrepresented the urgency of his need to cancel the appearance on the other, taped program). As seasoned a pro as Mr. Letterman is at skewering people of all stripes, he actually missed this one--presumably because he was too personally wounded to stop talking long enough to notice: But in the background, over Letterman's own commentary about McCain's double-booking, as the candidate is shown being prepped by a makeup artist, one can actually hear Mr. McCain, repeating line fragments in a robotic, almost desperate monotone--sounding less like someone who's made countless appearances on national television and more like someone trying to convince that he can get through the whole thing without passing out.

And then there is this: It's only been a few hours, but since McCain's announcement he has yet to be seen again in public.

Meanwhile, the originally suggested reasons for this move continue to hold their own orbit, with the idea of canceling the vice presidential debate emerging as the preferred message of McCain surrogates, despite the fact that essentially no one outside the GOP campaign sees any reason not to continue with the original program. The prospect of Sarah Palin appearing in a vice presidential debate opposite Joe Biden just sunk in the esteem of McCain insiders by a few further points, after Palin's dreadful, borderline horrific performance with Katie Couric last night on the very same CBS Evening News into which McCain had broken for that creepy makeup rehearsal.

The talking-points memo from within the Republican campaign, discussing how to spin the story into a vote-getter for McCain, has also leaked--making the matter look even more calculated and disengenuous than it had before, which personally I didn't think was even possible. The Rick Davis / Freddie Mac retainer issue is gone from the national consciousness, the McCain team has saved precious advertising money by not running spots during the suspension (recently clarified, thanks to an alert reader), and nobody anywhere is talking about anything else this morning, other than this decision. To that extent, McCain has won the news cycle by limiting the damage that could have resulted if the original breaking story of yesterday had been allowed to reach critical mass.

But here's the thing: even low-information, persuadable voters in the middle have a relatively low threshold for manipulation at the hands of these "shake-up-the-race" moments. When you pick for your running mate a woman who needed six and a half years and five transfers to complete a bachelor's degree in journalism, they go along with it (until, that is, they find out that she is an avowed liar, but that's another column). But when you do that, and then you cancel the first day of your own convention to hold a hurricane telethon, and then you breathlessly announce this move, too, shortly after the others, people gradually stop feeling "shaken up" and start feeling insulted.

Senator Dole tried the same tricks in 1996--a comparison Mr. McCain could surely live without, given its implications--and they flatly didn't work. From promising a shakeup in his vp choice (anyone remember who it was?), to resigning from the Senate to campaign full-time, to promising a complete reversal of tactics in the second debate that never materialized, by the time he really knew which shakeup might have worked, the other guy was giving the victory speech from a stage in Little Rock.

Then there is the question of voter information and knowledge. It's not usually such a desperately risky move to insult the intelligence of the people still undecided in late September, but when they're already predisposed to question your actions it gives the press an unusual opportunity to impart to them a civics lesson. And here the news for Mr. McCain only gets worse, since his presence at a closed-door meeting of the Senate Banking Committee is not only not essential, it's not even appropriate.

Chris Dodd would summarily throw Mr. McCain out of the meeting room, if McCain even did intend to interject himself into the markup, which he manifestly does not. Were Dodd to feel as though he needed GOP input on the matter, he'd turn six inches to his right and ask the ranking Republican on the banking committee, Senator Richard Shelby. Mr. McCain has one role in this process, and it comes at the very end, and it's to be one among 100 votes, yea or nay. Something he could do by chartered flight from the debate theater, if Mr. Obama wasn't able to persuade his colleagues to suspend the vote until after the debate--which of course he could.

As noted in these pages yesterday, the public is polling at a ten-percent approval rating for McCain's attempt to sidestep Friday's debate. But that's a first-look number, and these things are notoriously changeable. The story will cement itself as a shamelessly political play--or not--in this morning's and this evening's news cycle. Which means only one thing for loyal readers of Cinema Democratica: contact the major media outlets of this country (not using op/ed, but by actually reaching the newsroom), and politely but firmly point out that McCain can offer no justification for his actions. Insist that any stories run today on the subject include discussions of the workings of the Senate, and by extension of Mr. McCain's limited role in forging a consensus on the bill. Insist on seeing Mr. McCain in public. Insist, at base level, that this nonsense be pressed by the entity that we all used to know without being reminded, is called "the press" for a reason--that has nothing to do with movable type.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida Click Here to

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


While most of us were plodding through another routine day of McCain missteps and deceptive ads, the McCain people themselves woke to the news that their senior campaign advisor, Rick Davis, would stand accused in the nation's leading newspaper of receiving a $15,000 a month stipend from Freddie Mac. And this wasn't some quiet whisper of innuendo, either--this was a carefully researched story which flew right into the teeth of McCain's recent economic counter-offensive, built around the insinuation of an Obama tie to that very same institution. If they didn't do something, right away, Mr. Davis would find himself standing in front of one of those ominous brick facades someplace, with flashbulbs going off in his face as he desperately tried to explain this story away.

Their first stab at changing the game was to dig deep into their usual playbook of feigned outrage and overt denial. "The New York Times is an Obama Advocacy Organization," said campaign Director Steve Schmidt, in a media conference call considered blistering even by the already bellicose standards of the campaign. "They have obscured their true intentions — to undermine the candidacy of John McCain and boost the candidacy of Barack Obama — under the cloak of objective journalism.”

It didn't work. By noon the major media outlets of the country had adopted the conference call as their exigency for reporting the original story--something on which they had heretofore demurred, pending named sources. Instead of chastening the press into its more familiar, more besotted posture with pretend anger and disappointment, the conference call had the effect of bringing the propriety of the Davis retainer into the full-frontal consciousness of every persuadable voter in the country. Clearly it was time for plan-B.

And so it was, at roughly 2:30 this afternoon (September 24), that Mr. McCain announced he was "suspending his campaign" to return to Washington and concentrate on the pressing matter of negotiating an acceptable Wall Street bailout bill. You heard that right: he said he would suspend his campaign for President, with less than six weeks until the election, to resume his day-job as a Senator for the duration of the bailout talks. If nothing else, the fallout from the revelations about Mr. Davis were gone in an instant--like so much snow falling on a warm road.

Since Mr. McCain refused to take any questions from the press (surprise, surprise), it is not actually clear what his announcement of a suspension actually means--whether, for instance, he intends to discontinue his television ads, or just his traveling campaign appearances. Neither is it clear whether the suspension applies equally to Governor Palin, who was scheduled to sit down for a very public blood-letting at the hands of Katie Couric, later today. By immunizing himself from the need to stand accountable for the announcement in real-time, Mr. McCain avoided the pressing matter of whether this "suspension" will be an actual, legal suspension, in the actual, legal sense of the term--which carries the advantage of excusing him from debt repayment but also prohibits him from any form of campaigning--or just a sudden refusal to talk to anyone. Surely a person could be forgiven for expecting him to try to have this matter both ways.

What is known, at this hour, is that McCain has also called on both Senator Obama and the Presidential Debate Commission to indefinitely postpone the first Presidential debate, originally scheduled for this Friday evening at nine o'clock eastern time. It is also known that the first effort at bipartisanship in this matter was actually floated by Senator Obama, who called McCain early this morning to suggest that the two of them publish a joint communique on the financial situation--a suggestion to which McCain reportedly agreed in principal during that very telephone conversation, only to officially respond several hours later with a call for postponing the upcoming debate.

Obviously it is impossible to ascribe verifiable motives to the McCain team in this matter, though I would argue that the campaign has already shown its hand with respect to how it intends to proceed in framing the conversation about their decision--namely, as a choice to "put the country first," instead of choosing selfish personal objectives like winning a measly Presidential Election campaign. When asked about the move at a luncheon sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, McCain Political Director Mike DuHaime was in full, on-message glory, casting Obama as a boogeyman of personal aggrandizement in the face of national crisis:

Quite frankly, I think you could ask Sen. Obama if he’s going to do what he thinks is right. I mean, he has never -- I believe -- never once made a decision that is an unpopular decision or went against the orthodoxy of his party, and was one that was one that was a tough decision to make. . . . Sen. McCain has done that throughout his entire career, his entire life -- not just in politics, but his life.
Somebody pass The Key Grip a box of tissues, please.

At the very least, these kinds of comments certainly suggest a problem for McCain in his challenge of passing the "sniff test" for today's decision, since it would seem improbable that such remarks hadn't been prepared and maybe even focus-group tested well in advance. Granted, if the suspension is indeed a purely a cynical attempt to shake up the race once again (after the Sarah Palin game-change failed to stick), then there is at this hour no smoking-gun proof of same. But the timing of this announcement is most assuredly its most damning aspect--since neither Mr. McCain nor any of his principal advisors felt it necessary to issue such a call last week, when the meltdown was in full swing and the fate of the entire financial sector was hinging on the emergency infusions of liquidity from the Treasury to the Fed.

Having waited this long, and only now deciding that the matter merits such superlative action, McCain has left the door wide open to charges that he is undertaking a last, desperate measure to avert final and absolute collapse in the popularity of his candidacy. Already today, in addition to the Rick Davis bombshell, CNN/Time Magazine battleground polls showed Obama comfortably ahead in Pennsylvania and Colorado (without at least one of which it seems impossible for McCain to win), and none other than Fox news issued the results of its latest national tracking poll, showing Obama ahead by an improbably large and comfy six percentage points--well outside the margin of error.

For the moment very few voices outside the McCain campaign would seem prepared to take Mr. McCain's maneuver on good faith. SurveyUSA even crashed an astoundingly quick (and by that measure probably not very accurate) poll on the question, and found just ten percent support among its 1,000 respondents for the idea of indefinitely postponing the debate. Snubbed at the last moment by the candidate, Dave Letterman spent well over nine minutes of his program this evening, drubbing the decision and its architect with an abandon more befitting the emergency replacement, Keith Olbermann. The University of Mississippi itself, the host of Friday's festivities, responded with an official statement, saying,

The University of Mississippi is going forward with the preparation for the debate. We are ready to host the debate, and we expect the debate to occur as planned. At present, the University has received no notification of any change in the timing or venue of the debate. We have been notified by the Commission on Presidential Debates that we are proceeding as scheduled. We will keep you posted as information becomes available.

Now maybe that's not quite the same as saying, "We hereby decree that John McCain is full of shit." Or--well, maybe it is.

In Washington, meanwhile, Joe Klein has proposed changing the topic of the first debate from matters of foreign policy to questions about the bailout and the economy as a whole--an idea which carries a Machiavellian adroitness all its own, in that it carries the appearance of empathy for McCain's concern, without actually letting him off the hook. Incidentally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has also said that he doesn't see how it would do any good to have the two major candidates for President hanging around, gumming up the final negotiations with un-constructive posturing. To which this author says, if Reid hasn't flushed McCain's cover, at the very least he certainly has a point. Indeed late this afternoon, as this column was going to press, it was announced that the broad outlines of a deal had already been reached--hardly the sort of intractable crisis that would support a decision to cancel a prearranged campaign event as important as the first Presidential debate.

In what may be the most delicious turn of all, under the general heading of testing the public capacity for gullibility, the McCain campaign responded to the news of a tentative deal by suggesting that if the final bill hadn't been passed by Friday, he would categorically refuse to attend the debate at its appointed hour, but--get this!--for the good of the nation McCain would be happy to reschedule that debate to take place in the slot originally reserved for the vice presidential debate, apparently permanently excusing Governor Palin from the need to stand answerable to the American Public in any venue, under any auspices, anytime, anywhere, ever.

How all of this will play is necessarily a matter of pure conjecture. The waters here are so uncharted that I defy anyone to take a clear assessment of the future of this election. We may be looking at the last gasp of basic integrity and reason in American electoral politics; we may be looking at nothing short of a credible excuse to finally make good on progressives' oft-repeated threats to leave the country. Certainly we've heard the last of the Rick Davis / Freddie Mac retainer for awhile--perhaps forever.

But in American electoral politics it seems safe to presume that there are two things a major candidate must never do: One is to let the general public see the cynicism of its maneuvers for what it really is, and the other is to let the other guy see you sweat. Looking calculated and disingenuous kills your chances with women, I would argue, while looking weak will kill your chances with men. If I'm right, McCain's decision will play dreadfully in the living rooms of this once and soon-to-be great country of ours, if it hasn't already.

If I'm right, John McCain himself just sealed the deal on a Barack Obama Presidency.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida Click Here to

With Colorado, Obama Crosses 270 (Almost)

Regular readers will recall a column from a few days ago in which I took the interactive map on www.270towin.com and variously lit- and un-lit its states according to those that were projected as "safe DEM" or "likely DEM" (blue), "safe GOP or likely GOP" (red), and "leans DEM" or "leans GOP" or "tossup" (still un-lit). At that time, still mid-way through the state-by-state polling reaction to the Wall Street meltdown, the tally I came up with was an impressive 260 for Mr. Obama: all the Kerry states, minus New Hampshire, plus Iowa and New Mexico, solidly in his column.

Moreover, the list of un-lit states was for Mr. McCain alarmingly widespread and, in most cases, traditionally solid for Team Chickenhawk--ranging from Florida and Virginia in the east, to Montana and Nevada in the west, and passing along the way through several states without any one of which McCain is placing a congratulatory phone call on November 4th instead of receiving one. In all, McCain could only count on 170 electoral votes, by the rubric I'd employed to light my map:

We may also recall that state polling of this sort is notoriously laggard, by its very nature--and that even as Mr. Obama's bounce in the national polls seemed to have topped out or at least paused to catch its breath (about which much more, anon), the earlier column suggested that individual states could still shift into- or out of someone's column on little explanation beyond the sheer inertia of this very, very big change in the dynamics of this election. So it may come as little surprise, then, when I report to you on the basis of the latest few rounds of state polling, that Mr. McCain's map has managed somehow to get considerably worse.

For one thing, neither Pennsylvania nor Michigan have held to the tightening trend-line we were seeing last week and the week before--a trend which would have seen Mr. Obama sinking time resource and field personnel into Kerry states at a pace that could easily be spun by Steve Schmidt as a sign of frantic trouble for Camp Blue. Not anymore. The fivethirtyeight regression shows neither state in the ominous "lean DEM" category, and indeed the margins in both states have opened to an extent that neither appears to be a sound investment for McCain. Only in New Hampshire has the GOP ticket continued to keep things close, with fivethirtyeight still calling it tight enough to qualify for a "lean DEM" (if only just), and so we leave that Kerry state, and that Kerry state alone, un-lit for Mr. Obama.

But in the meantime, new battleground polling data has continued to flood the blogosphere apace, and with it news that one of the states on which Mr. McCain had been counting, North Carolina, has been downgraded to "lean GOP"--a development that would be less shocking if the state had not seen such enormous influxes of well-educated, urban professionals (ironically in the banking sector), or if the GOP ticket was reversed. Never mind: without North Carolina on election night, McCain simply and unequivocally cannot win the election.

Even worse, two successive polls in Colorado, one released on the 18th showing D+4, and the other released on the 21st and showing D+7, have prompted the fivethirtyeight team to shift Colorado from "leans DEM" to "likely DEM," which by our protocol allows the state to be lit up blue for the first time in this entire election. The new Obama coalition--without winning any single one of the states that remain genuinely in play, without winning New Hampshire or Florida or West Virginia or Montana or Ohio or Missouri or Nevada or Virginia or Indiana or North Carolina--garner an electoral tally of 269, enough to force the election to the House of Representatives. Should Mr. Obama carry the first congressional district of Nebraska, which he fully expects to do, this tally becomes 270 and the matter is settled on election night. Mr. McCain, by contrast, has seen his solidly reliable total dwindle to 155 over the same timeframe--losing not just North Carolina from the previous count but teetering now on the verge of losing South Carolina to the undecided category as well.
Clearly what McCain needs desperately at this moment is a fresh infusion of good news. Too bad for him.

It happens that, shortly after ten o'clock last night, Newsweek released to the larger media the story that for the past three years the McCain Campaign's Manager, Rick Davis, has been receiving a personal retainer from Freddie Mac in the amount of $15,000 per month. This, you understand, a mere days after the team of Lost 'Nam / Lose Iran went to the front page with an advertising buy accusing Obama of being in cahoots with that very same institution. (And by the way, CNN's main page doesn't include a single reference to the story. Readers are encouraged to use the "contact us" form on the CNN website to vociferously and repeatedly complain, until they do.)

If the Davis story blooms into a full-blown round of incoming for McCain (as we can help to ensure happens by pressing our favorite media contacts for more coverage), the end result could easily be a juxtaposition of McCain-distortion and McCain-guilt so Orwellian that not even a seasoned double-talker like Rick Davis can survive it. Pressing this story could, conceivably, result in Mr. Davis' resignation from the campaign--and with that development it seems vanishingly unlikely that Mr. McCain would have the time and down-range luck to recover.

Other news stories of recent cycles have been less substantial, but hardly less damaging to the McCain/Palin cause, either. First there was the kerfuffle over McCain's thirteen automobiles, at least three of which were produced by foreign emblems. Ordinarily neither I nor the general public would have a lot of patience for the playing-up of a story like this (file it under "so, what?" if you ask me), but for the small problem that Mr. McCain has been repeatedly quoted in Michigan as saying that he never, ever buys a vehicle that isn't from an American manufacturer. In a bizarre attempt to repair the damage, the McCain team swiftly responded with the news that only one of the cars is actually Mr. McCain's, and that the rest are registered to him but driven by other members of the family--apparently proving once and for all that using national television to admit felony insurance fraud is preferable in this country to driving a car that happens to have been built in Japan.

Meanwhile, Nevada has become a quietly looming, recurring news story that hurts McCain every time it gets a mention. Between the massive influx of semi-idle Californian volunteers whose productive efforts would have been wasted in their own state, to the enormous registration drive being carried out at this very moment by the Obama campaign, and the very real possibility that Washoe County (Reno and Sparks area), a previously reliable Republican stronghold, could tip blue in this election cycle, the silver state may yet tell a deciding part of the overall story and, if it does, it won't be a story with a happy ending for the GOP.

There is also growing push from within the mainstream press to refuse to cover Sarah Palin any longer, until she assents to greater access. And while the general public no longer trusts the mainstream press to be outraged by Palin's refusal to talk to them, the story has nonetheless bitten hard into Palin's appeal, on the related grounds that it begs serious questions about her ability to govern. In a recent tracking poll, Ms. Palin's favorable/unfavorable split was revealed to have switched from +10 or +12 to something more in the range of -6, making her now the least popular of the four major candidates--even after Mr. Biden laid a hand on the shoulder of a wheelchair-bound supporter and said, "We're asking you to stand up to the negative ads, and stand up for Barack Obama." I don't know much about elections, but I think you can take it as read that, when you're running behind a guy who said those things to somebody in a wheelchair, you're having a bad week.

The Obama/Biden ticket is now polling nine points ahead in the latest national track, a change of eleven points from just eleven days ago, and pushing hard on the outside envelope of a margin that can be closed by even the most capable and luck-smiled candidacy, which McCain/Palin manifestly is not. With a little over sixty hours until the first debate (as these words are written), the situation for McCain/Palin could hardly seem capable of getting any worse. Except for the small problem that it is, indeed, going to get worse: This evening Ms. Palin will be interviewed by the humorless and unimpeachable Katie Couric, the same journalist who so humilated Cindy McCain that the latter has not assented to a single interview of any kind, since.

All of us should of course remain vigilant at this hour to the very real prospect of Karl Rove / Bob Corker dirty tricks. Each of us should, this very hour, pick a major media website and use its contact form to demand a thorough vetting of the Rick Davis / Freddie Mac retainer. Everyone should volunteer at his or her local field office, not just to phone bank but to door-knock; as ugly a process as this is, it's a proven winner--a recent article in fivethirtyeight points out that every twelfth successful door-knock nets the campaign a vote from someone who would not otherwise have supported the candidate.

But all of us should do one more thing, along the way, too: We should enjoy what's happening in this election campaign, right now. We should savor it. We should delight in it. We should own it and quietly revel in it. The good guys are winning--and it's been far too long since the last time that was true.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida Click Here to

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

On the Subject of the Debates

An article appeared yesterday on one of the larger political news aggregator sites, suggesting that Presidential debates have little meaningful impact, It's a compelling article, written and edited by smart people with lots of supporting detail and an air of confidence in its conclusions; all-in-all, an entertaining read. There's only one small problem: it's also unambiguously wrong.

To begin with, there aren't really enough data points from which to draw such a conclusion--there have only been, if you can believe this, twenty-four modern, televised debates among candidates for President, spanning a paltry nine elections (from 1960 to the present, excluding 1964 and 1968). In many of these elections there was little chance that the debates could make much difference, precisely because the matter was all but decided in advance. It's something we tend to have forgotten over the past two or three intensely polarized elections, but it's still true in larger context: most Presidential contests aren't very competitive. Walter Mondale was never going to be President, and neither was Bob Dole, and an unusually lop-sided performance in a debate wasn't going to change that for either one of them. Indeed it didn't.

Moreover, a close election unto itself isn't necessarily one in which big shifts are automatically easier to accomplish. John Kerry obliterated George Bush Jr. in the first 2004 Presidential debate, and got very little bump from it--but not because the debates aren't at least potentially powerful tools for shaping public opinion; the reason it didn't happen in that race is because the population had already locked-in to its choice of one candidate or the other. As close as the race was (indeed there is more than a smattering of evidence that we anointed the wrong winner), opinions were far too solidified to be changed in large numbers over anything that happened the last weekend in September.

What it takes for a Presidential debate to move the popular opinion is a situation in which the public really doesn't want one of the two candidates to win, but can't quite bring itself to feel comfortable with the other. In the modern era we've had three such elections: in 1960 the public didn't want Nixon but was afraid to vote for Kennedy; in 1980 the public didn't want Carter but was afraid to vote for Reagan; and in 2000 the public didn't want Gore but was afraid to vote for Bush.

If you buy this argument, then you will note almost immediately that these three elections have three things in common: first, they were all races in which the guy the public "feared" also had the inside-track to closing the deal. Second, they were all races in which that guy convinced the public that he could handle the job by over-performing in the Presidential debates, and ultimately won. And third, they all bear at least some structural verisimilitude to the situation we have right now.

In 1960, the general public was fatigued by the suddenly scandal-tainted Eisenhower Administration and predicted (presciently, as it turned out), that integrity in the White House was not likely to be improved under Eisenhower's bombastic and already tarnished Vice President. But still the same, many people were simply terrified of the idea of a young, relatively inexperienced, second-term Senator with a decidedly hush-hush problem of "other-ness" (in his case, for his time, being a Catholic was every bit as scary as Obama's supposed other-ness is to many people, now). It fell to Kennedy to convince the general public that he wouldn't be green, reckless, or beholden to the Pope--and he did so, famously and convincingly, in the first-ever televised Presidential debate. In the end his other-ness resulted in a race closer than it should have been, but Nixon objections notwithstanding, he won.

In 1980, the general public was more than fed-up with Jimmy Carter, but his polarizing and apparently war-ready opponent had been effectively portrayed in Carter's ads as a celebrity who wasn't ready for the job. Carter, a retired Navyman, argued that these times of international turmoil and threats-from-without should trump concerns over economic malaise (and any finger-pointing that might otherwise follow therefrom), and that people should return his party to office on the exclusive grounds of fear of the unknown movie star. Stop me when any of that starts to sound familiar, won't you.

We all know what happened next: In a performance that was at once warm, endearing, and yet far more masculine than the President's, Reagan secured a landslide win in what had been up to that time a fairly close-run contest--uttering his famous "there you go again," line as his power-play of empathy for the fatigue that Americans had come to feel about the tired, one-trick campaigning tactics of the incumbent, as much as for any policy related to taxes and spending. "Reagan won that first debate and the larger election," a Presidential historian once said in a PBS interview, "just by not being crazy." The incumbent party, having over-played its hand on the "not-ready" argument, had no second-act and spent much of the final five weeks of the race in a state of near-total confusion and disarray.

Fast-forward to 2000, when even Mr. Bush's most fervent supporters knew (if only privately) that he was not going to win any Nobel Prizes for Chemistry any time soon, but who shared with the larger public an overwhelming sense of exhaustion with the Clinton Administration's divisive tactics for weathering pointless scandals in the White House. The anointed Clinton-successor, Al Gore, didn't even campaign with his boss and did not want to be directly associated with him during his campaign. Indeed at the 2000 Florida Democratic Party convention, when I personally tried to start the chant, "Four More With Gore!", which I thought was pretty snappy and a darned-good argument under the circumstances, I was quickly hushed-up by a campaign operative who hastily explained in whispered tones that the Vice President didn't want to be seen as "four more" of anything. And I believe it was it at that moment that I resigned myself to his ultimate defeat in the election.

Bush, for his part, needed only to prove that he could speak in complete sentences and wasn't quite as moronic as he'd been made out to be in Democratic circles--and the best platform on which to do this was the first Presidential debate. Whether the public would have thought he pulled it off or not, absent Mr. Gore's bizarre and hiss-laden performance that night, is an unanswerable question; but the larger point stands: Bush won that debate and "won" the larger election on the basis of not being quite so over-matched by the supposedly more statesman-like opponent against whom he was running.

If Mr. Obama is any student of history at all, he would be well-advised to ignore the articles that suggest he can do little to improve on his already solid lead this Friday. The race feels to all but the most ardent McCain supporters as if it is Mr. Obama's to lose, but he still faces the uphill battle of winning-over an unusually large swathe of undecided voters--precisely because his race and his supposed inexperience make him such a theoretically "scary" alternative to the man almost nobody still wants to win the job.

If Obama is relaxed, comfortable, plays within his game and doesn't give-in to the temptation to reach back for a knockout punch--if he "passes the living room test," as the Republicans wondered aloud about Kerry in 2004--then we will all see it in a second, perhaps even larger bump in the post-Lehman structural advantage he's been enjoying in this race.

I can't wait.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida Click Here to