"In contrast to the vitriolic rants you'll find on some political blogging sites, Palmer gives in-depth analysis and commentary." --Dan Cook, The Free Times


Bhutto's Assassination: The Political Impact

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated just hours ago after a campaign rally in the town of Rawalpindi. This attack will have a significant impact not just on American foreign policy, but also on the American political scene.

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza argued a few minutes ago that Rudy Giuliani will benefit from Bhutto's assassination because it would shift the political dialogue back to terrorism and national security. Cillizza was roundly criticized in the comments section after his post for appearing insensitive to the tragedy and placing politics above mourning.

Before I go any further, I must stress that I strongly disagree with those who criticized Cillizza for assessing the political impact of this tragedy. The fact is, politics never sleeps. And while it may appear unseemly at times, politics is always in play whenever a tragedy happens. It happened with the JFK assassination and LBJ's succession. It happened with the Columbine shootings and gun control. It happened with the 9-11 attacks and war. It happened with Hurricane Katrina and the inefficiency of government. And it's going to happen again with this.

The job of a political analyst is to assess the political impact of news that affects this nation. Again, while that may seem crass, that is what we are charged with doing. In light of this terrible assassination, our thoughts and prayers are most certainly with Bhutto's family and the Pakistani people. But we must not forget that there will be consequences for this, and that we should seek to assess these consequences. That's what we as political analysts do.

As for the impact of this attack on our politics, there will be some serious questions about the financial assistance the Untied States sends to Pakistan. And there will be renewed skepticism about President Pervez Musharraf's ability to govern Pakistan effectively and his commitment to holding free and fair elections next month.

Regarding the presidential race, I disagree with Cillizza. I believe the renewed focus on national security and terrorism will benefit John McCain more than Giuliani even though Giuliani will certainly benefit more than most other candidates. The reason why is because John McCain is well-positioned to win New Hampshire. Rudy Giuliani is not going to win Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Michigan. He will have to wait until Florida to possibly win a state. McCain could snatch Giuliani's national security mantle and start racking up victories before Giuliani even gets on the scoreboard. Independent voters in New Hampshire who were planning to vote for Obama may decide to vote for McCain instead. (More on Obama later.)

McCain is also a much more credible on national security and military affairs than Giuliani is. And McCain still has a lot of appeal among independent and Democratic voters just like Giuliani does. But McCain has the better resume and also has the experience of having run for president in 2000. And finally, McCain is closer to the Republican base than Giuliani on abortion and gun rights.

This news could not have come at a worse time for Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. Neither Mike Huckabee nor Mitt Romney has much foreign policy experience. However, Mitt Romney is in serious danger of being overtaken by McCain in New Hampshire. Mike Huckabee could be eclipsed by Romney in Iowa, but because both of them are weak in terms of foreign policy experience, it's a wash. And because this news changes the subject from moral values and Christianity, that further disadvantages Huckabee but is a net positive for Romney because the questions about Mormonism will be shoved off the front pages and Romney seems to have more going for him in the eyes of voters than simply social issues.

As for the Democrats, this news may prove fatal for the campaigns of John Edwards and Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton is going to make a strong case that now is the time to have a firm, experienced, steady hand in the White House. Even voters who don't agree with Clinton's overall platform will have to acknowledge the merits of this argument. My thinking is that voters only respond to messages of "change" and "inspiration" when they feel safe. But when they feel threatened, they will be more likely to err on the side of caution and stay with what's familiar. Aside from his poor campaign skills, that's one of the main reasons why John Kerry lost to George Bush in 2004. The "change" Kerry was offering was a bit too risky to too many voters "during a time of war," as Bush cleverly framed it.

Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden will also look more attractive in light of this tragedy, as each of them is highly experienced. However, I believe Joe Biden is the best positioned to truly make some noise in the Iowa caucuses. Richardson's credibility is suspect because his Iraq policy is often seen as overly simplistic or unreasonable (getting all the troops out, "no residual forces") and Dodd is so far at the back of the pack that not many people are really listening to his message even though he is obviously quite intelligent. Biden has been prescient about issues of foreign policy in the past and his Iraq plan was widely praised. He also correctly identified the threat posed by Pakistan at a recent debate. He is polling fourth in most Iowa polls. Voters who are seeking experience, but don't like Clinton may view Biden as an alternative.

Iraq has been off the front pages for the past few weeks, which has benefited Congressional Republicans. For the presidential race, when domestic policy is off the front pages, that benefits the candidates who are seen as having foreign policy heft. These candidates are McCain, Giuliani, Clinton, Biden, Richardson, and Dodd. Talk about Christmas, changing our politics, family values, and corruption in Washington will have to take a back seat to talk about foreign affairs and strength for the next few days. For the sake of Obama and Edwards in particular, they had better hope that the political dialogue returns to domestic policy before the Iowa caucuses next week because voters want to feel secure before they want to feel inspired.


On Faith and Politics

Politics has generally been put on hold for Christmas, although some people in the early caucus and primary states might not think so, as they are bombarded with flyers, pamphlets, and phone calls from the various campaigns on an almost daily basis.

The Christmas holiday has served three purposes this year as it relates to the politics. First of all, it provides campaigns, candidates, and voters alike a brief respite from the daily stump speeches, meet-and-greets, interviews, and crowded school gymnasiums. Secondly, it has given pundits and the media a chance to dissect the candidates' Christmas ads, how authentic they are, and how well they connect with voters. And finally, it serves as the impetus of this particular writing: the role of religion in the presidential campaign.

Christmas is obviously a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ and is probably the single most important holiday of the year for Christians around the world. However, these candidates' Christmas ads do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they form the latest chapter in a disturbing series of overtures that blur the line between being open about one's faith and overtly trying to appear more religious than one's rivals. And that is very dangerous.

Perhaps the United States has been on this course for years, given the ascendancy of the religious right, composed primarily of conservative evangelical Christians. There have been several high profile cases and news events that have been of the utmost importance to these evangelical voters: assisted suicide, Terri Schiavo, gay marriage bans, and getting closer to overturning Roe vs. Wade due to John Roberts' and Samuel Alito's confirmation to the Supreme Court. The threat from radical Islamic terrorists has also heightened the sense among many people that a religious war between Islam and Christianity is imminent or already upon us. The media have addressed religion in extended documentaries this year, as was done by CNN with its highly acclaimed "God's Warriors."

Faith has played a leading role in the 2008 presidential campaign as well. CNN sponsored two forums on faith and politics earlier this summer in which the Democratic presidential candidates sat down and discussed the role of faith in their lives while taking questions from members of the audience. These forums were roundly criticized as "a sham, a fraud, and a travesty" by National Clergy Council President the Reverend Bob Schenck.

One of the more innovative aspects of this year's presidential campaign so far has been the YouTube debates. These debates gave regular people a means through which they could confront the candidates directly and pose questions to them that pundits and media professionals might not ask. However, one of the questions at the Republican YouTube debate this fall came from a man holding a Bible and asking sternly if the candidates "believed every word in this book."

Mitt Romney has been the source of much scrutiny since the inception of his campaign because of his religion. A Mormon, he is viewed with suspicion by many evangelical Christians who view Mormonism as a cult. Romney has been unfairly dogged by questions about his faith on the campaign trail and has struggled to placate his critics and skeptics. Rival Mike Huckabee helped create more controversy by linking Mormonism to Satan. (He later blamed the media and apologized.) Earlier this month Romney even went so far as to give a speech on how he viewed faith in America. (Click here for an excellent discussion about Mormonism in modern America.)

On the Democratic side, Barack Obama has received a lot of scrutiny from voters who wonder if he is a Muslim. Of course, it didn't help that members of Hillary Clinton's campaign staff were behind a whisper campaign falsely accusing him of being a Muslim who wanted to take down America from within. It also didn't help when esteemed political figures like former Nebraska Senator and Clinton ally Bob Kerrey appealed to voters' fears while disguising his remarks as praise.

And now with the Christmas ads, there's talk about subliminal religious messages, overt religious messages, and cries of upsetting people over innocuous religious messages. (Rowan Williams of The Times of London has a timely reminder that "God is for life, not just for Christmas.")

It seems that religion (read: Christianity) has become the new "support our troops" psychological weapon that Americans are using to impugn the patriotism and character of other Americans. Somehow, if you don't support President Bush's war policies, you "want America to surrender to the terrorists." And now if you don't wear your religion (read: Christian faith) on your sleeve, you "are a God-hating liberal who wants to wants to take God out of the public square." Both of these are obviously ridiculous lines of thinking, but they are quite real. No politician wants to be caught on the wrong side of this divide, so everyone falls over each other in their attempts to out-Christian their rivals. Why else would Rudy Giuliani place such an emphasis on receiving the endorsement of Pat Robertson? Why else would John McCain, who once denounced evangelical leaders as "agents of intolerance," give a commencement address at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University? Why else did Romney feel pressured to give that detailed speech on faith earlier this month? (Did the rise of "the legit Christian" Huckabee have anything to do with it?)

I believe the electorate is asking the wrong questions of their presidential candidates, and the media are complicit in their misguidedness. So long as one's faith would not prevent that person from governing effectively, it really shouldn't matter how often a politician goes to church, which church he goes to, or if he even goes to church at all. Voters should look to their pastors, rabbis, imams, and holy books for religious guidance and spiritual comfort. They should look to their elected officials for leadership and wisdom regarding economic, foreign, domestic, and social policy.

It's a travesty that Romney is being penalized for his faith while Huckabee keeps getting distracted by journalists who question the integration of his faith into his campaign. It's a travesty that Democrats are penalized for being perceived as unfriendly towards religion because they do not place issues like the Pledge of Allegiance and the Ten Commandments at the top of their agenda. And it's a travesty that of all the possible questions CNN's managers could have selected for that YouTube debate, they had to ask a question about how much of the Bible each candidate believed was true.

Lou Dobbs has complained in the past about the influence religion has in American politics. And other people, including conservative Christians, are beginning to become a bit uncomfortable with all this talk about religion as well. Peter Wehner, a former aide to President Bush, recently wrote a column warning Huckabee about the emphasis he has placed on religion in his campaign:

"Invoking one's faith is not unprecedented in American politics and is not, by itself, disconcerting. It can even be reassuring. But it is also fraught with danger. If certain lines -- inherently ambiguous lines--are crossed and faith becomes a tool in a political campaign, it can damage our civic comity and our politics and demean our faith...

"...[F]or those of us who are Christian, there is an important context to bear in mind: Jesus's entire ministry was directed against the pretensions of earthly power, and Christianity is trans-political, beholden to no party and no ideology. The City of Man and the City of God are different, and we should respect and honor those differences."
Dennis Byrne of the Chicago Tribune also has had enough of all this religious talk:
"The bigotry of secular purists has created a backlash, and, as is often the case, the backlash goes too far. The moral and religious beliefs of public officials inescapably guide them in their decision-making. It can't and shouldn't be otherwise. And voters have a right to consider what principles guide the candidates in the exercise of their office.

"But to require a detailed accounting of all those beliefs to see if they conform to a particular sectarian belief goes beyond what a democracy can or should tolerate."
Impartial observers abroad may look at this intersection of faith and politics and wonder how we are different from the enemies we are trying to defeat abroad. But it seems that many of us are too blind to consider this and would repudiate such remarks as being anti-American without addressing the actual substance of these remarks.

Mike Huckabee in particular should be credited with prompting this discussion--not about faith per se, but about its role in selecting a president. As for his political fortunes, because of how tightly he has woven faith into his campaign, he now runs the risk of being seen as a one-dimensional candidate--the Christian candidate. And that may turn off a lot of moderates and even Democrats who once viewed him as a conservative with a smile.

Religion and faith are hugely important issues. Too bad they seem to be important for all the wrong reasons, at least as far as politics is concerned.


Tancredo's Lesson for Democrats

Earlier this week, Tom Tancredo officially dropped out of the presidential race. His campaign had been plagued by anemic polling, insufficient fundraising, and the inability to gain any real traction. Perhaps the biggest problem Tancredo had was that he had no real niche that wasn't already filled by another more viable candidate. In the words of CNN political analyst Bill Schneider:

"I would say all of the other Republican candidates...adopted some parts of Tancredo's tough line on illegal immigration. Now, what happens when you out-Tancredo Tancredo? You don't need Tancredo anymore. And that's why he's getting out."
Let's be honest. Tancredo stood no chance of winning the Republican nomination. However, his candidacy was important for one reason: He tapped into the anger stemming from illegal immigration and successfully pushed his Republican rivals further to the right on this issue. John McCain in particular learned the hard way about appearing soft on this issue.

Most Republicans and some Democrats get it now. Almost all of them are talking about border security, penalties for employers that hire illegal workers, and restricting social services for those who are not in the country legally. Tough new laws at the state level are addressing the failings of the federal government on this issue. People everywhere regardless of party are incensed about this issue and right now, the Republicans are paying a lot of attention to it.

However, the Democrats have remained relatively silent on this issue. And that is a big mistake. The Democrats' strategy is to let the Republicans appear so mean and dispirited towards "undocumented workers" that moderate voters and (especially) Latino voters in places like Florida, Texas, and the Southwest will penalize them at the ballot box. The Democrats seem to believe that by not demonizing and scapegoating (mostly Latino) illegal immigrants, they are cultivating a new politically loyal constituency, much like the solidly Democratic Black vote.

However, this strategy is flawed for several reasons:

1. Democrats stand to lose more votes than they could gain. Illegal immigration is hot. Republicans are as concerned about illegal immigration as Democrats are about Iraq and health care. Disaffected and moderate Republicans who might otherwise consider voting Democrat might view their softer immigration views as a dealbreaker. They could be so turned off by Democrats' perceived coddling of illegal immigrants that they continue to vote Republican. And the majority of Democrats also believe in adopting a harder line on this issue as well, so there's the added risk of Democrats voting Republican based on this issue alone.

2. Latino voters have lower rates of voter participation than Blacks and Whites. What's the point of cultivating a new base of voters if these voters can't be counted on to get to the polls? And what's the point of antagonizing voters who are actually more likely to show up? And since illegal aliens can't vote anyway, when do these politicians expect to be rewarded for not adopting a harder line on this problem? Or are politics more important than governance?

3. Legal immigrants are sometimes the angriest about illegal immigration. While most of these legal immigrants are sympathetic to illegal immigrants (because of fears of racism and scapegoating all immigrants, regardless of status), there is still a sizable minority that supports cracking down on this problem. These people who came to the United States legally often had to wait for months or years for the embassies and consulates abroad to approve their visa paperwork. They often had to pay hundreds of dollars in fees, attend rigorous interviews, and even undergo extensive background checks. In other words, these people had to work hard for their citizenship and permanent resident status. To see people who simply hopped over a border fence or overstayed their tourist or student visas makes these legal immigrants very, very angry. I have personal experience with this issue, as it was painstakingly difficult and prohibitively expensive for me to bring my wife to the United States as a permanent resident. Knowing that millions of people skirted this process by entering the country illegally is an insult to the millions of other people who played by the rules. So Democrats might win over the votes of illegal immigrants (if they ever become eligible to vote), but they also risk inflaming other immigrant groups--groups that tend to vote Democratic.

4. This is the strongest issue for Republicans in that their position on illegal immigration is more widely shared than their views on other issues. There are great philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats on Iraq, health care, taxes, terrorism, the environment, gay marriage, and gun rights. However, only the most liberal Democrats support the rights of illegal immigrants. 2008 is a very winnable election for Democrats, but if they nominate someone who is soft on this issue, Republicans could potentially ride this issue all the way to a third consecutive Republican term at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

When Hillary Clinton received that question about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants at the debate in Philadelphia that presaged her downfall, the other Democrats should have used that as an impetus for developing their own immigration platform. Clinton actually gave a sensible answer on this issue, but she got in trouble when she tried to have it both ways. Of course, that debate was almost two months ago. But while this issue may have faded away from the forefront of the Democratic race, this issue has not faded away from the general electorate at all. And if the Democrats aren't careful, they are going to risk making a sizable portion of this electorate angry.

Hillary Clinton provided the first warning to Democrats. Tom Tancredo provided the second one. Should the 2008 election hinge on illegal immigration and the Democrats lose, the most ironic thing about this defeat would be that the Democrats lost the election by pandering to people who can't even participate in the election to begin with.


On Media Bias: Part II (The Nature of Media)

(Note: This post is a continuation of my initial post on media bias.)

Let me address the nature of the media in general:

The news media like to focus on change. News would be very boring if everything remained static, right? Imagine if the media started reporting how many people did not die on the roads this holiday season. Nobody would really care about that because it's not news. There's no "change" involved. But if 3 people died in an accident, that would be news.

Here's another example: Everybody remembers Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. But how many people remember what was happening in New Orleans prior to Katrina? Probably not many because there was nothing to report. There was no "change" that had compelled us to pay attention.

By definition, "conservative" means "does not change" or "changes slowly." This definition alone pits conservatism at odds with the media, which focus almost exclusively on change. A lack of change would sound the death knell for newspapers, internet sites, and television stations everywhere.

Consider this: After being panned for months, the surge in Iraq is now producing positive results. And the media are covering Iraq more favorably. A "change" happened--that is, the situation in Iraq changed from ominous to more hopeful. Earlier, conservatives commonly criticized the media for focusing so much attention on car bombings, Iraqi civilian casualties, and dead American soldiers than on the rebuilding of schools, distributing toys to children, and repairing the country's infrastructure. Do you hear these conservatives complaining about "liberal media bias" now?

Changes in mass communication and Republicans' political success have also given rise to increased media scrutiny, which is often misidentified as media bias.

Regarding political successes, Republicans have won five of the last seven presidential elections and will have held the White House for 28 of the last 40 years by the election next fall. Republicans also controlled Congress from 1994 until 2006. And with the exception of a brief period in the Senate thanks to party-switching former Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont, Republicans controlled the Senate for six of President Bush's first seven years in office.

Since Republicans controlled all the levers of power in Washington for so long, it would naturally follow that Republicans made the most news. The media fulfilled their responsibilities to the public by reporting on these politicians' activities and scrutinizing them through interviews, extended pieces, fact-checking, and so on. Since Republicans had all the power, they should have received most of the scrutiny. Why would the media invest so much time in criticizing Democrats who had so little power and often had so little input regarding the bills that made it out of Congress? And if the media aren't allowed to provide negative coverage of political activities and legislation, then what's the point in even having political opposition or checks and balances? Or are we supposed to take these politicians at their word?

Now that Democrats control Congress, it is clear that the media have been tough on them as well once the initial honeymoon ended at the start of the year. Whenever Congress passes another funding bill for Iraq, the media report on how the Democrats "caved in and gave Bush what he wanted." The media have criticized the Democrats for acting like a weak opposition party for not holding members of the Bush administration accountable, not standing up to Bush, passing fiscally irresponsible bills laden with earmarks, and not following through on their campaign promises to enact sweeping ethical reforms.

So what about changes in mass media?

When Bill Clinton was president, the media dutifully reported his problems with Whitewater, Paula Jones, and Monica Lewinsky, just as the media dutifully reported Reagan's problems with Iran-Contra and the amnesty bill he signed.

However, and this is very important, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were president before media demassification and new media became so influential. CNN was the only game in town for cable news throughout the 1980s and about half of the 90s. MSNBC and Fox News did not exist. Blogs did not exist. The internet was not the internet. And if you had said "YouTube" fifteen years ago, people would have thought you were talking to your television set. Most people still relied on traditional newscasts to find out what was happening in the world and on the campaign trail.

But 2007 is very different from 1987 or, even 1997. Media demassification has led to politics-only news sources, such as The Politico and Real Clear Politics. There are also influential blogs (Daily Kos, Red State), opinion shaping bloggers (Michelle Malkin, Arianna Huffington) and talk radio programs (Rush Limbaugh, Air America) that keep the heat on politicians of all persuasions. More media outlets mean more scrutiny, and politicians had better get used to it.

It seems that people who cry the most about media bias often don't seem to do so until it happens to their candidate or a member of their political party. And until that happens, these people seem content with gleefully sitting back and letting the media go after their opponents with their "hard hitting questions" and "tough interviews."

But this is not media bias, nor is it hardball journalism. More often than not, it's simply partisanship.

On Media Bias: Part I (The Candidates)

(Note: This post is divided into two parts. To read the second half of this post, click here.)

As the Iowa caucuses draw closer and politicians become increasingly concerned with making momentum-stalling gaffes on the campaign trail that could derail their nominations, the media they have relied on for much of the year to help shape and advance their campaigns has now become a double-edged sword.

Politicians love the element of control--control over their message, control over their legislation, and control over their opposition. However, the one variable that is often out of politicians' control is the media. The media are notorious for building people up one day and then savagely tearing them down the next. The media are also infamous for catching politicians red-handed and providing a means by which moments of infamy can be replayed over and over again, as former Virginia Senator George Allen could attest to.

However, one of the most enduring criticisms I hear from politicians, pundits, politicos, and partisans is the allegation of media bias, especially against conservatives and Republicans. These criticisms have led to fault lines, especially in cable news, as people view CNN and MSNBC as friendlier environs for Democrats and Fox News as more benevolent to Republicans.

The focus of this particular post is not to provide a content analysis of the cable newscasts or their hiring trends. While at first glance, one may buy into this notion of bias, there are so many other examples to the contrary to suggest that even if the media are not always nonpartisan, they are decidedly not biased in that they collectively constitute an equal opportunity risk.

First of all, it is important to stress that negative coverage is not always the same as biased coverage. Every campaign gets caught in stumbles, contradictions, improprieties, and awkward moments. And it is the media's duty to report on those. The media have a responsibility to their audience to address legitimate, substantive issues, such as what role Bill Clinton would play in a Hillary Clinton presidency, why Barack Obama voted "present" (rather than "yea" or "nay") on several controversial issues when he was in the Illinois state legislature, whether Mitt Romney is a credible conservative given his moderate rhetoric in the past, and whether Mike Huckabee has ethical problems. This should be fair game. For politicians to bemoan this type of coverage simply because it's unflattering displays a certain level of silliness that is beneath them. It would behoove these politicians to simply own up to their mistakes or address these negative stories head on, rather than just whining about "media hit jobs."

However, the media have also gone to great lengths to cover frivolous nonissues that have poisoned our political dialogue. The greatest tragedy of this coverage is that it has often come at the expense of discussion about more important topics.

Earlier this year, Barack Obama had to deal with insulting questions like "Is he Black enough?" These questions frustrated Obama so much that his wife Michelle even got involved. And when Oprah Winfrey endorsed him, he had to deal with stories about her only doing so because he was Black. Why did this endorsement and the debate that followed receive more airtime than his views on why illegal immigrants should be allowed to have driver's licenses?

We also have the media to thank for associating the word "cackle" with Hillary Clinton. When was the last time a politician's laugh received so much attention? And why should we care? I remember there being a story a few weeks ago about Clinton's shoelaces becoming untied. Are these people serious? It seems that the media do not allow politicians to be human anymore. Imagine the fallout if a politician couldn't suppress a burp at a diner at a campaign stop while the cameras were rolling! What madness!

John Edwards hasn't escaped the knives of the media either, as the stories about his mansion and expensive haircuts are well known to everyone. On the money front, Mitt Romney is actually the wealthiest candidate running for president this year, but the "rich" label has stuck to Edwards, thanks to the media. But in defense of both Edwards and Romney, why should one's wealth even be an issue at all? Shouldn't we want to elect a candidate who knows how to manage and grow his money? Would we really be comfortable electing someone who makes $45,000 a year and pays $750 a month for a 3-bedroom apartment? And why is it okay to talk about a $400 haircut while we ignore politicians who spend their money on exotic houses, imported wines, and designer suits?

If Mike Huckabee thinks he's being unfairly targeted with questions about religion now, he should look at Mitt Romney. Media coverage about Romney's faith rivals coverage about Obama's "Blackness" in terms of sheer absurdity. However, perhaps to evangelical Christians (regarding Romney) and skeptical Blacks and Whites (regarding Obama), maybe these really are important issues. But the media are complicit in fueling this dissonance by devoting so much time to issues that have absolutely no relevance whatsoever to one's ability to govern effectively. If the media could use their influence to make John Edwards' haircut a national story, couldn't they also have used their influence to minimize the significance of Romney's religion or Obama's race?

This is not to say that all of Mike Huckabee's gripes are unjustified, as he is now having the content of his ads scrutinized. First, he received criticism for not being serious when he used Chuck Norris in one of his earliest campaign ads. Then he was criticized again for using the term "Christian leader" to describe himself in another ad. The latest controversy is about the perceived image of a cross in his latest "Merry Christmas" ad even though the "cross" was really just a part of a bookshelf. Why not just take these ads at face value and focus on his platform?

Rudy Giuliani has had to deal with questions about his relationship with his ex-wives and children. Some people might say these are important stories because it's important that the President be "a family man." But why? Ronald Reagan was on his second wife and Bill Clinton had tinges of infidelity swirling about him, but both were elected. After all, when the bombs are falling and your finger is on the nuclear button, does anybody really care if you played board games with your children every Friday night?

There was a time when Fred Thompson's wife was receiving more media coverage than Fred Thompson himself. That talk has been replaced by talk about how little energy he has on the campaign trail and how disappointing his candidacy has been. Talk about his actual record, on the other hand, is a bit harder to find. Of course, prior to jumping in the race, the media (and conservatives alike) had annointed him as the great conservative hope for disaffected Republicans based on the fact that he "looked" presidential and was an actor. Is that all it takes to get people to pay attention to you? Where was the "liberal media bias" when everyone was fawning over Fred?

Joe Biden was lambasted by the media for using the phrase "clean and articulate" to describe Barack Obama. I doubt that his campaign has ever fully recovered from the damage this nonstory caused. More people remember the word "articulate" than know about his well thought out Iraq plan, which is a travesty given that Iraq is probably the single most important foreign policy challenge facing this nation.

Dennis Kucinich unfairly received a question about UFOs during a debate this fall. Media outlets had a field day covering the aftermath of that. The fact that his views on labor, health care, Iraq, and impeachment are shared by a large segment of the Democratic base doesn't seem to matter because everyone just remembers "Dennis and the UFOs."

It seems that the only candidates who have not been brutalized by the media's focus on pabulum have been John McCain, Bill Richardson, and Chris Dodd. McCain had to deal with stories about disarray in his campaign and running out of money, but those were legitimate issues because they struck at his own viability. That's simply negative coverage, not stupid coverage.

Bill Richardson has generally flown under the radar. He received favorable media coverage for his "Job Interview" ads and has also been criticized for running a lackluster campaign and performing poorly at the debates. However, the media have not really piled onto him.

Dodd hasn't generated much coverage in general, be it good or bad (aside from joking about the fly in his hair at one debate). It could be because he is mired in the 1-2% range of most polls. Or it could be because he hasn't had any breakout moments that generated news. Or it could be that he hasn't made any mistakes. Or it could be that he doesn't fit into the "Clinton vs. Obama" storyline in the Democratic race. Whatever it is, it's too bad because he is a competent, disciplined politician that sits in the Democratic mainstream.

Ron Paul is in a totally different category. After being treated as something of a gadfly for most of the year, the media have been forced to take him a bit more seriously as of late because of his unbelievable fundraising. I get the impression that nobody really knows how to cover his campaign because nobody expects him to win even though he has such strong support online and is raising so much money.

One final thought. Regarding the presidential race, the media commonly talk about six Republican candidates (Huckabee, Romney, Thompson, McCain, Giuliani, and Paul). However, they usually only talk about three Democrats (Edwards, Obama, and Clinton). Yes, Richardson, Dodd, and Biden are polling far worse than Obama, Clinton, and Edwards are, but they are all credible candidates because they are raising money and have campaign staff in several states. If anything, the media are biased in favor of the Republicans regarding the presidential contest because while they are covering almost all of the Republican candidates (excluding the single-issue and vanity candidates), they are only covering half of the Democrats. This is not to say that this coverage is always meaningful, however.


Roadmaps to the Nomination (R)

Back in September I provided my take on how the Democratic presidential candidates could snare their party's nomination. Much has changed since I wrote that original analysis, so an updated one is warranted. However, in this post I wish to address the Republicans.

The 7-10 is not a partisan blog. However, I've tended to focus a bit more on the Democratic race simply because it has been much easier to figure out. On the Republican side of the ledger, there is overwhelming evidence that the laws of political physics have been suspended or thrown out altogether. (I wrote more about that confusion over the summer.)

But after taking all the debate performances, polling, momentum, potential scandals, and gaffes into consideration, here is where I believe the Republican candidates stand in their quest for the GOP nomination with their chances of winning in parentheses:

Rudy Giuliani (30%)

Rudy Giuliani has had a particularly tough November. The Judith Nathan and Bernie Kerik scandals are not going away and other candidates are gathering so much momentum that it threatens to knock Giuliani out of the race before he even wins a state.

One of the biggest problems for Giuliani now is that Hillary Clinton has faltered. How are Clinton's political fortunes related to Giuliani's viability? Well, I speculated back in September that Giuliani was at risk because one of the main pillars of his campaign was his ability to defeat Clinton:

"Ironically, another major problem for Giuliani is one of the selling points of his candidacy--Hillary Clinton. Again, Giuliani has said repeatedly that he is the one Republican who can defeat her. But what happens if Clinton somehow stumbles and is no longer a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination? The Republicans won't need a Hillary-slayer if she doesn't even become the nominee! So then one of the pillars of his candidacy would be moot. Even though Republicans may look with glee at [Clinton's scandals and missteps], I can't help but wonder if bad news for Clinton is also bad news for Giuliani. Whether Giuliani likes it or not, Democratic voters get their crack at Clinton before he does. [And should Clinton falter,] this would open up the door for Romney, Thompson, McCain, or Huckabee--all of whom are more in tune with the party base than Giuliani is."
In light of Obama's ascension and the negative, petty stories surrounding Clinton's campaign as of late, Clinton is looking less and less inevitable. Republicans are paying close attention to Clinton's trajectory and if they conclude that she won't be the nominee, then they will feel more comfortable nominating someone they actually agree with on the issues, rather than simply nominating someone they think can beat their nemesis.

Giuliani had been relying on skipping the early voting states for the sake of Florida, which would propel him into Super Tuesday. However, this strategy is looking increasingly perilous not just because of Clinton's problems, but also because of Huckabee's and Romney's strength. Romney in particular is a serious threat to Giuliani because he has deeper pockets and a more impressive resume. Romney could also plausibly win Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, and South Carolina. Should that happen, he would have incredible momentum that might be a bit too powerful for Giuliani to overcome. Basically, the national frontrunner risks being overtaken by the early state frontrunner. (Of course, Mike Huckabee has thrown a major wrench into this discussion of who the early state frontrunner is, but Romney is still the more viable candidate based on his campaign apparatus and appeal outside of the evangelical community.)

For Giuliani to win the nomination, he'll need Huckabee to block Romney in Iowa and McCain to block Romney in New Hampshire. Two losses by Romney in those two states should effectively end his campaign before he enters the friendlier confines of Michigan, where his father had served as governor. Also, should Romney lose both states, the media will focus more on Huckabee's and McCain's rise while ignoring Giuliani's possible third or fourth place showings in both states. If the race for the conservative alternative to Giuliani drags on, that will work to Giuliani's advantage. His name recognition should then be enough to carry him to victory in Florida and in the Super Tuesday states because there won't be a clear rival. The lack of a consensus conservative candidate would leave the nonconservative Giuliani as the beneficiary.

Mitt Romney (25%)

The Romney campaign is in a major state of panic right now. After investing so much time and money into Iowa and South Carolina, some second tier guy from Arkansas comes out of nowhere and overtakes him in the polls in just a few short weeks. Mike Huckabee's meteoric rise is not a good development for Romney because he significantly complicates his early state strategy, which is the opposite of Giuliani's megastate strategy.

Huckabee's rise illustrates the discomfort that evangelical Christians have with Romney. It's not fair, but it is real. Romney is saying all the right things that social conservatives want to hear, but it is obvious from the shifting polls that his support was soft. This soft support results from three factors, listed in no particular order: 1) evangelical Christians' reluctance to support a Mormon candidate, 2) a perceived lack of credibility resulting from Romney's flip-flopping on social conservative issues, and 3) his sterile demeanor and perceived lack of warmth which hinder his ability to connect with voters on the campaign trail. Mike Huckabee trumps Romney on all three of these issues, which explains why he is gaining ground at Romney's expense.

Romney does have one thing going for him, however: the perception of him as being more than just a social conservative candidate. With Huckabee, there's still a sense that he is just "the evangelicals' candidate." However, Romney is seen as a social conservative and a fiscal conservative. Romney should take advantage of Huckabee's perceived one-dimensionality and stress how he is more electable than Huckabee is. Even though Iowa has a large number of social conservatives, Romney should try and make a play for fiscal conservatives' and moderates' support. It is unlikely that Romney can win the majority of evangelicals' support in Iowa at this late stage, so he should just try to hold Huckabee's margins down on that front while he runs up the score among other types of Republican voters. Romney could stop Huckabee with a victory in Iowa because a victory there would lead to an easy victory in New Hampshire. Two consecutive victories would be hard for Huckabee to stop even in the Bible Belt state of South Carolina because of all the favorable press Romney would receive. South Carolina's evangelicals may prefer Huckabee to Romney, but the electability gap would send these voters to the somewhat acceptable Romney.

If Romney emerges as the alternative to Giuliani, he would have an advantage in that he is comparatively more scandal-free. Social conservatives and gun owners who have reservations about Giuliani would then likely gravitate to Romney, especially if it looks like the Democratic nominee will be someone other than Hillary Clinton. Romney's camp should find solace in the fact that he is more viable than Huckabee and only needs to stop him once.

Mike Huckabee (20%)

I predicted as early as May that Huckabee would be public enemy #1 for Romney. And in August I warned that Huckabee was an underrated candidate. It now looks like voters, the punditry, and the media have finally discovered the former Arkansas governor and he is peaking at just the right time.

A second tier candidate no more, Huckabee now has a realistic chance of winning the Iowa caucuses. Much to the chagrin of Romney, Huckabee has become the social conservative that evangelicals had been looking for. This candidate was supposed to be Fred Thompson, but he undewhelmed voters on the campaign trail and has not shaken the perception that he is not taking this campaign seriously. Huckabee has filled this void and has become the "none of the above" Republican who also appeals to evangelicals who felt their concerns were not being addressed by the other candidates.

Huckabee's immediate threat is Romney. While Romney can knock out Huckabee with an Iowa victory, Huckabee cannot do the same to Romney because Huckabee has no chance of winning New Hampshire, where social conservatism is far less prevalent. So here's the Huckabee calculus:

1. If Huckabee loses Iowa to Romney, he is finished.

2. If Huckabee wins Iowa and Romney wins New Hampshire, South Carolina will be the tiebreaker state that permanently eliminates one of these candidates.

3. If Huckabee wins Iowa and John McCain wins New Hampshire, Romney is finished. South Carolina will then eliminate the loser of the Huckabee vs. McCain battle. The winner will go on to become the alternative to Giuliani.

Huckabee would be particularly difficult for Giuliani to defeat because Huckabee could also credibly claim that he beat "the Clinton machine" in Arkansas. However, Huckabee would overwhelm Giuliani among social conservatives and voters who are turned off from Giuliani's scandalous past, marital history, and divisive rhetoric. Huckabee is also a better fit for Republicans on abortion and guns. Both have served as executives, but the edge would go to Huckabee because being a governor entails more responsibility than being a mayor. Giuliani would have to be careful talking up New York's size while diminishing Arkansas because rural and Southern voters may rebel against him. Both candidates also have legal controversies to deal with, such as Huckabee's pardons and Giuliani's police details for his mistress and Bernie Kerik. Thus, these weapons will be rendered useless because invoking them would create blowback. And talk about "strict constructionist" judges won't have much resonance when they are pitted against a candidate who is more credible on conservative issues.

Huckabee has been successful in getting the media to pay attention to him. Now it's time for his second act. Huckabee should now focus on inviting new voters into his camp. Evangelicals are already sold on his candidacy. But his appeal among other voters remains suspect. He now needs to demonstrate his competence on economic and foreign policy issues to prove that he is not just a one-dimensional candidate.

John McCain (15%)

Not much has been said about McCain as of late. However, he has silently been picking up important endorsements in New Hampshire. He also picked up an endorsement from Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. McCain is benefiting from the dogfight between Giuliani, Romney, and Huckabee. As they tear each other down, McCain looks more and more presidential. And Huckabee's rise doesn't adversely impact McCain because both candidates draw from two different bases with minimal overlap.

McCain has written off Iowa, so his campaign all comes down to New Hampshire. But he needs a bit of help. Should Huckabee defeat Romney in Iowa, that would weaken Romney in New Hampshire. This would make it easier for McCain to emerge from New Hampshire victorious because Huckabee is not a threat to him there. Also, McCain will need someone other than Barack Obama to win Iowa because if Obama wins Iowa, New Hampshire independents be more inclined to vote in the Democratic primary than in the Republican one, thus sapping McCain of the independent votes he needs.

If Romney wins Iowa, it will be difficult for McCain to stop his momentum in New Hampshire, which neighbors Massachusetts where Romney served as governor. This is not to say that McCain can't beat Romney, but it would be far easier to do so if Huckabee takes care of Romney in Iowa first. So for now, McCain and Huckabee are allies. If Huckabee makes it to South Carolina, South Carolina will be the do or die state for both candidates. McCain could potentially do well in South Carolina, a state that has a large military population, and in Michigan, whose primary he won in 2000. Should the last two Republicans standing be McCain and Giuliani, Giuliani will be in serious trouble because McCain is much tougher and much more credible on national security than Giuliani is. And despite his warts, McCain is also closer to the Republican base on abortion, gun rights, and social issues in general.

For now, consider McCain a sleeper candidate.

Fred Thompson (8%)

The biggest problem for Fred Thompson is that the image no longer trumps the candidate. He has made several mistakes on the campaign trail and has generally been an unimpressive candidate since his much anticipated entry this fall. (You can read more here, here, and here.) Mike Huckabee has planted his flag on what was supposed to be Thompson's political territory. And because of Romney's organizational strength and deep pockets and McCain's silent ascension, Thompson is now seen as Plan C or D for anti-Giuliani Republicans. He needs these candidates to falter and/or cancel each other out, thus prompting Republicans to give Thompson a second look.

To win, Thompson needs Huckabee, Romney, and McCain to all enter South Carolina wounded. Here is the Thompson calculus:

1. Thompson's enemies are Romney, Huckabee, and McCain.

2. If Romney wins Iowa, Huckabee and McCain are finished. South Carolina will come down to Romney vs. Thompson, a battle Thompson could win because he has been a consistent conservative and has the right geography. Evangelical support will be interesting to watch because Bible Belt South Carolinians will have to choose between the Mormon Romney and the non-churchgoing Thompson.

3. If Huckabee wins Iowa and Romney wins New Hampshire, McCain is finished. South Carolina will become a three-way contest between Thompson, Huckabee, and Romney. Huckabee would likely have the edge in this contest because the Confederate flag flap may have fatally injured Romney and Thompson. While both candidates gave answers to this question that pleased most Americans, South Carolinians are none too pleased because of the significance of the Confederate flag in their lives.

4. If Huckabee wins Iowa and McCain wins New Hampshire, Romney is finished. McCain would take Romney's place in the three-way battle in South Carolina. This would be a difficult battle to handicap because the evangelical vote would go to Huckabee, the military vote would go to McCain, and anti-McCain and anti-tax voters would go to Thompson. South Carolinians punished McCain in 2000 and the anti-tax wing here is quite strong. These anti-tax voters may look at Huckabee's record with suspicion. Thompson may emerge as the hybrid candidate who embodies the best of his rivals.

5. If Thompson loses South Carolina, he is finished.

6. If Thompson wins South Carolina, he will be well positioned in Florida, another Southern state. However, Thompson's biggest problem is that he really doesn't have a political base anymore. McCain is the defense wing candidate. Romney is the business wing candidate. Giuliani is the moderate wing candidate. And Huckabee is the religious wing candidate. For Thompson to win, he will need the other candidates to cannibalize each other first and then for Giuliani to be seen as unacceptable to Republicans because of his "New York values."

Ron Paul (1.5%)

Ron Paul remains difficult to quantify. He is no longer the gadfly candidate in the field who was the target of much consternation and ridicule. His fundraising and creative politicking have caused his rivals to take notice and respect his candidacy.

But what will his fundraising and dedication among his supporters mean? And is his support really higher than what the polls suggest? The true gauge of his support will be ascertained from the New Hampshire primary results. New Hampshire, a state with strong independent and libertarian streaks, may provide Paul with a show of support that surprises everyone. But can this lead to an actual nomination?

My thinking is that there are a lot of voters who are committed to other candidates who like Ron Paul, but fear that he is not viable. This is the same type of thinking that likely typifies supporters of candidates like Duncan Hunter, Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden. If Paul beats Thompson, McCain, Romney, Huckabee, or Giuliani in any state, that will serve as enough validation for these voters to switch allegiances and support Paul.

I do not expect Paul to drop his candidacy even after another candidate appears to be the inevitable nominee. If the GOP race comes down to Paul vs. some other candidate, perhaps Paul's purity on taxes and the Constitution would put him over the top. But would the Republican Party really give Paul the nomination at their party convention?

None of the above (.5%)

The political schizophrenia among Republican voters this year has never been seen before. Normally Republicans rush to crown their party's heir apparent. This is the consensus candidate who has worked his way up the party ranks. It happened with Nixon, Reagan, the elder Bush, Dole, and the current Bush. Because Cheney is not running and the leading candidates all have a serious deficiency, Republicans have been particularly fickle with whom to support. That candidate was John McCain before it was Fred Thompson before it was Mitt Romney before it was Mike Huckabee, all while Rudy Giuliani has remained at or near the top of all national GOP polls.

What will happen if Huckabee wins Iowa, McCain wins New Hampshire, Thompson wins South Carolina, Romney wins Michigan, Giuliani wins Florida, the Super Tuesday states break evenly, and Ron Paul wins 10-15% of the vote everywhere? What will happen if no single candidate emerges with a majority of delegates? What will happen at the GOP national convention next summer? Will the party nominate someone who is not even a current candidate? Could that someone be Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour? Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue? Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice? Indiana Senator Richard Lugar? This scenario is not likely, but it would be a dream for political junkies everywhere if it were to materialize. And while this is unlikely, given how many other unlikely scenarios have actually come to fruition in the GOP race so far this year, maybe a brokered convention is a more realistic possibility than we may think.

Only 18 more days before Iowa...


The Clinton Campaign: Crafty or Crass?

Hillary Clinton has been at the center of several unsavory news stories over the past month or so. However, the past two weeks have been particularly brutal.

First, her campaign rhetoric reached a whole new level of ridiculousness when they dredged up Barack Obama's old writings from kindergarten and accused him of wanting "to fulfill some long-held plans" to be President. When this tactic backfired, the Clinton campaign criticized the media for overreacting to "a joke."

Then it was revealed that some of Clinton's campaign staffers were behind the false rumor campaign about Barack Obama's religion. The staffers claim to have acted alone, but this exposed Clinton as engaging in the same "politics of personal destruction" that she commonly rails against on the campaign trail.

As if that weren't enough, the latest brouhaha between Clinton and Obama involves one of Clinton's major supporters, Bill Shaheen. Shaheen, husband of probable New Hampshire Senate candidate and former governor Jeanne Shaheen, brought up Obama's past drug use, which he had admitted long ago. Shaheen then (eagerly) wondered how Republicans will use this a potent weapon:

"It'll be, 'When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?' There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It's hard to overcome."
Of course, these kinds of comments reek of the stench a phrase like "I'm not saying you beat your wife, but that's just what I heard" has. While the actual charges might not be true, it still leaves a lingering impression in voters' minds.

Pundits have been quick to sound the death knell for Clinton. They are saying that Clinton has become desperate because she's truly worried about Obama's rise in the polls and are speculating that Shaheen had to be acting alone because of how reckless his comments were. This may all be true, but I can't help but wonder if there's more to the equation than this.

Could Clinton's attacks on Obama actually benefit Clinton by sacrificing short term grief for long term gain?

Conventional wisdom says that John Edwards will be the beneficiary of the sniping between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. This thinking is based on the principle that "If A attacks B, C will be the nominee." Voters will get tired of the two leading candidates going back and forth with each other and will reward the candidate on the sidelines who is seen as taking the high road.

Of course, Obama is not the one slinging mud here. However, because the "Hillary vs. Obama" storyline has been so ingrained in voters' minds for so long thanks to the way the media have framed the Democratic presidential race, Obama may unfairly be seen as rolling through the mud with Clinton even if Obama is merely parrying Clinton's attacks.

But here's how these over-the-top attacks benefit Clinton. By sliming Obama, she is elevating Edwards. (Of course, Edwards is all too happy to let the food fight between his two rivals go on.) But an Edwards victory in Iowa would be far better for the Clinton campaign than an Obama victory would be. John Edwards is trailing Clinton worse than Obama in almost all state and national polls. He also has less money available in his campaign coffers. So Clinton could more easily overtake him later on. An Obama victory in Iowa, however, would ignite Obama's campaign so much that voters who like him but have reservations about his electoral chances would have these fears extinguished. Obama could then take advantage of his huge campaign staff, couple that with his deep pockets, and go the distance. That's a much more difficult task for Edwards, but the longer Edwards stays alive, the more advantageous it is for Clinton. So it is in her interest to ensure his viability.

Of course, there is the issue of whether the Clinton campaign can even survive yet another negative news story or mini-scandal. I would venture that they probably can because this campaign has been able to maintain its frontrunner status since its inception despite the stigma of Clintonian sleaziness. This latest stinkbomb about Obama and drugs may be embarrassing, but it also may very well be part of the overall Clinton plan.


Oprah, Obama, and Race! Oh my!

Much has been written about Barack Obama and the support he's receiving from Oprah Winfrey. Most of what I've read has focused on how she will benefit his campaign, how she may be a more compelling speaker than he is, how much celebrity endorsements matter, and how Hillary Clinton must be fuming over the way the race has gone over the past few weeks.

However, I've been hearing a lot of rumblings primarily from conservatives, Republicans, and Whites about this story that have annoyed me: that the only reason why Oprah Winfrey is supporting Barack Obama is because he's Black. The latest gripes I've heard about this came from Justin Jackson over at Political Derby and the comments to a post written by prominent conservative blogger Michelle Malkin.

Now, before I go any further, keep in mind that Barack Obama's chief appeal is his message of transcending our differences for the sake of unity. But it would seem, at least according to these conservative critics, that Blacks should not embrace this message as well lest they be accused of supporting him "just because he's Black."

White movie stars, White lawmakers, and White icons have endorsed White politicians in America for centuries, but not once have you heard anyone say "it's because the guy running for office is White." When Whites endorse Whites, it's race-neutral. It's "because of the issues." When Chuck Norris endorsed Mike Huckabee, for example, did you hear any of this stupid conjecture about him doing so because Huckabee was White? But when Oprah endorses Obama, suddenly "it's because Obama's Black." Why the double standard?

This thinking is offensive for another reason. When you ascribe race as the primary reason for something happening, you are completely ignoring the possibility that perhaps the decision in question was based on its actual merits. Conservative critics of affirmative action should be familiar with this argument. But do these critics really think that the calculus behind Oprah's endorsement was that simple? Do these critics think that Black electoral behavior is really that straightforward? For those who are criticizing Oprah for supporting a candidate "just because he's Black," why did she not endorse Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign? Why didn't she throw her support behind Colin Powell in 1996? Why didn't she get on the Carol Mosley-Braun bandwagon in 2004? The Mosley-Braun snub should be an even bigger surprise because she's a Black woman! Or is Obama different because he's much more viable?

I am not an Obama supporter, but I do acknowledge that there are many things about Obama to like. He seems more in touch with average people and he talks about things with a greater level of sincerity that many other politicians only pay lip service to or avoid talking about altogether, especially when it comes to issues important to Blacks (like cleaning up rap and hiphop). He did not grow up detached from reality because he did not spend his entire life living in a gated community, attending prestigious academies, and getting cushy jobs that he didn't have to work for because his parents set him up for them. He exudes youth, vigor, optimism, and freshness unlike most of the other politicians you see running around Washington. He actually does seem different in that he has infiltrated Washington and is not one of the "good ol' boys." And he is a bit more internationally minded than the other candidates in that he knows firsthand about how we are perceived around the world and how our actions here impact our relations elsewhere. (I gained the same perspective living and working abroad.) This is not to say other candidates don't have this worldly knowledge and experience, but Obama seems more sincere with it because of his deeds. Seemingly small gestures like getting tested for AIDS in Kenya mean a lot to people around the world who view the United States as aloof. (Interestingly, I remember talking with a conservative coworker about Obama's Africa trip and the coworker said, "big deal." Actually, considering how little attention most other politicians pay to Africa, to a lot of voters, this is a "big deal." But I digress...)

In light of all these positive qualities, it is easy to see why Obama is so popular and why he is so appealing to so many people even across racial lines. America has never been confronted with such a candidate before, so a lot of voters view Obama's candidacy as a way to send a message about what America represents. And there are a lot of jaded voters out there who would like to give Obama's "new politics" a try, especially seeing that the normal way of doing things has failed so miserably.

But to these conservative critics, none of that has entered the equation. To these critics, nobody, including Oprah, could possibly support Obama for any of these various reasons. His Blackness somehow supercedes all his other qualities. His skin color matters more than his policy positions, his biography, or his political philosophy. And that is insulting to Oprah, insulting to Obama, and insulting to his supporters, regardless of their race.

And this situation is fraught with Catch 22's. Where were these conservative critics when the media and voters kept asking "is Obama Black enough?" Oprah hadn't even endorsed Obama then. And what if Oprah had endorsed a White candidate? Had she endorsed John McCain, for example, there would have been a flurry of news stories about "why Obama can't attract the Black vote." Oprah would have been bombarded with questions about why she didn't support "the Black candidate." So now that she has endorsed "the Black candidate," people are saying "it's because Obama's Black." Well, which one is it? I suspect that conservatives probably wouldn't have said anything about a McCain endorsement. So why should they be more critical of an Obama endorsement? Or are Black people not supposed to support Black candidates, even if they are really just candidates who happen to be Black?

Where was the conservative outrage when Fred Thompson was attracting the endorsements of other Southern White male politicians? These politicians thought that Thompson, a fellow Southerner, would be the best representative of their political objectives. Where was the conservative outrage when Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani were tripping over each other for endorsements from the evangelical community? These evangelicals were supporting these candidates because they thought they would be the best advocates for evangelical Christian issues despite their obvious pandering. Where was the conservative oturage when Mitt Romney was attracting endorsements from other Mormons? Aren't these supporters displaying the same level of superficiality that they are accusing Oprah of doing with Obama and his race?

Then again, why did conservatives criticize Al Gore so heavily for failing to carry his home state of Tennessee in the 2000 presidential election, even though basing one's support for a particular politician on something as simple as geography or home state affiliation is apparently so wrong? John Edwards was similarly savaged for "failing to deliver his home state" of North Carolina for John Kerry in 2004. So perhaps there's another explanation.

I believe it's human nature for people to look out for their self interests and support people who are like themselves. This loyalty can be based on a shared geography, military affiliation, political party, alma mater, membership in a fraternity, gender, or even religion. But conservatives seem not to want to talk much about these other criteria that we use to make decisions about where to place our political support. Race is the easiest one to use as a scapegoat. And since conservatives are the ones who commonly talk about how race should never matter, why are they the ones who are throwing race back in everyone's faces by delegitimizing Oprah's support for the candidate of her choice who just happens to be Black?

And if she is supporting Obama because he's Black, then who cares? Why should people not be allowed to do so? One only need look at the mayoral races of New Orleans and DC to find evidence of this! And how many times have Whites supported other Whites just because they're White? The North Carolina Senate races with Jesse Helms come to mind, for example. If race matters to these voters, then let them vote according to the issue they care about! It's just a bit unfair to penalize one group for doing this while turning a blind eye to another group who does the exact same thing. It reminds me of conversations I commonly heard as an undergraduate at Duke University in the dining halls there. Many White students would look at the lone table of Black students and ask "Why are all the Black students sitting together?" These same White students were completely oblivious to the fact that there were 20 other tables of White students doing the exact same thing.

Conservatives often say that race should not be a prism through which people see the world. While that may certainly be ideal, it ignores reality. Race might not matter to some people, but it does matter to others. One person's race is another person's abortion. One person's abortion is another person's Iraq. Or Confederate flag. Or gay marriage. Or tax cuts. Or Southerner. Or West Virginian.

Blacks and Whites are alike in that they both want to preserve their self interests. However, a lot of these White conservatives who are griping about Oprah right now are hypocritical because they often do the exact same thing they are accusing her of doing. However, the difference is that these White conservatives have the ability to hide behind the invisibility of their race while Blacks are less able to do so because of the conspicuousness of theirs.

It seems that Barack Obama would like to move past all this. But in the event that some of his supporters can't, then they should be allowed to retain their ignorance without criticism, unless these conservative critics don't only single out Blacks for such superficial thinking.


The Impact of Oprahbama

Talk show luminary Oprah Winfrey teamed up with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama over the weekend to host several political rallies in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. These events were well-received in the media and attracted thousands and thousands of supporters. Fellow South Carolina blogger Not Very Bright wrote extensively about the South Carolina rally that took place yesterday. (You can find specific links here, here, and here.)

While much has already been written in the blogosphere about what happened regarding Oprah's campaigning for Obama, The 7-10 will focus a bit more on what her endorsement and campaigning actually mean and how it will impact the presidential race.

For starters, Oprah Winfrey is a net positive for Obama. We all know that Oprah's megaphone is absolutely huge. And when she talks, her audience listens. Anyone who has ever written a book and had it mentioned on her show can attest to this. However, this is not to say that her audience (primarily older women) will allow Oprah to make their decision about for whom to vote for them. But at the very least, she will bring a lot of new voters into the process who will likely have little knowledge about the candidates' actual policy positions. And in that event, Obama stands to benefit simply because these new voters "trust" Oprah and may defer to her judgment. Keep in mind that even if only 1% of the people are swayed enough by Oprah's endorsement to actually vote for him in the primaries and caucuses and you have 100,000 people, that translates into an extra 1000 votes for Obama. And given the tightness of the race in Iowa, that extra 1000 votes matters. And should these voters ultimately decide to vote for a different candidate, it's still a net plus for democracy simply because Oprah is getting more people involved in the political process.

This is a huge media coup for Obama. Local media in Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire will be talking about these rallies today and maybe tomorrow on their 6:00 and 11:00 newscasts. Local newspapers will have their resident columnists opining about how electric the atmosphere was. This story will likely make the rounds in college newspapers and on college students' Facebook and MySpace pages as well, which is an added bonus because of how strongly Obama performs with the under-30 crowd. All of these elements provide the Obama campaign with favorable media coverage at no expense to them. It's positive, it's viral, and it's free. Obama's media strategists are loving every minute of it.

John Edwards benefits by being able to portray himself as a regular guy. Barack Obama had television megastar Oprah Winfrey campaigning for him at a football stadium. Hillary Clinton countered this by bringing out political megastar Bill Clinton. All this star power, glitz, glamour, and headline-grabbing would seem to put John Edwards at a disadvantage. However, rather than being "the odd man out," he could use this as an opportunity to contrast it with his humble roots and his appeal to regular people. "John Edwards doesn't stand with superstars and movie stars. John Edwards stands with you, the family trying to make ends meet. John Edwards stands with you, the family struggling to pay for health care..." While I do believe that Oprah is a net positive for Obama, I do believe there's also always the risk of blowback in that anytime "Hollywood" gets involved in politics, the average person in "Middle America" may be turned off by that and be drawn to the politician who most embodies a sense of "averageness."

Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani should be thanking their lucky stars. Rather than talking about the scandal brewing about Rudy Giuliani's then mistress receiving a taxpayer-funded security detail, the media is focused on Obama and Oprah. And rather than focusing on Wayne DuMond and remarks Mike Huckabee made about AIDS fifteen years ago, the story of the day is Oprah and Obama. To be sure, these stories will not go away, but they do at least buy Giuliani and Huckabee some time for them to think of explanations for these stories that will better placate the media and their critics.

Long-shot veterans (McCain, Richardson, Dodd, and Biden) can use the media frenzy over Obama and Oprah as a foil. These four have the most extensive resumes of all candidates in the field. Like the way Edwards can play up his humble roots, these four can play up their pragmatism and resolve. "While Obama is acting like a rock star with Oprah, John McCain/Bill Richardson/Chris Dodd/Joe Biden is keeping his eye on the ball by keeping pressure on President Bush regarding Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, and the CIA regarding the destroyed waterboarding tapes. That's the leadership these dangerous times require. This is a serious leader for serious times." The media and voters often love an underdog story, so the more Obama becomes Goliath in terms of media attention, the more that allows Dodd, Biden, and Richardson to play the role of a political workhorse called David on the Democratic side. McCain's a Republican, obviously, but he could contrast his record and his vision with that of Huckabee, who has come to be seen as the Republicans' Obama and is no longer looking as much like the David he was a few short weeks ago.

There is a risk that Oprah will make Obama's campaign seem more about "big people" than the "little people" who comprise the base of his support. Obama commonly talks about how "we" can change Washington and how "we" can change politics as usual. The thing is, however, that "we" does not really include the rich and famous. Anyone who uses populist rhetoric knows that "we" is referring to average people who are not so well connected. Will Oprah dilute this "we" by overshadowing the "little people" that "we" has come to encompass in Obama's campaign? John Edwards certainly hopes so.

Having said all that, I find Obama's candidacy to be in a stronger position now than before Oprah became a part of it. But is he peaking too soon? After all, there are still three weeks before the Iowa caucuses and he is now running the risk of setting the bar of expectations a bit too high. But then again, given the lack of actual political shopping days left before Christmas, perhaps Obama's on the right track.


The Iranian NIE (New Incredulous Explanations)

In my mind, one of the biggest political stories going on these days concerns the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's capability to develop nuclear weapons. This fall there has been a steady drumbeat to war, as was evidenced by the Kyl-Lieberman resolution in the Senate and President Bush going so far as to warn us about "World War III." But according to the NIE, Iran stopped its weapons program four years ago and is farther away from getting the bomb than was commonly thought.

That alone is a big story, but that led to a new story that's not being addressed at all: the criticism from conservatives who are skeptical about the NIE's validity. These conservatives are trying to downplay the meaning of the NIE because "the intelligence has been wrong before" and because "Iran is still a threat." (You can read some of these criticisms from the Boston Globe, former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, and the National Review.)

I'm all for a free exchange of ideas and a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to the government and the media. But it should never serve as a distraction from the real issues at hand. And I worry that this is exactly what is happening now. And the general public is too apathetic and too distracted to care.

One common criticism I've been reading is that the intelligence is not to be trusted because it was wrong the first time regarding Iraq. So why should we trust the intelligence now? Because hopefully the intelligence community has learned something since taking us to Iraq. And if they haven't, then someone should be held accountable for getting the intelligence wrong again. And if this recent NIE is also inaccurate, heads need to roll because this is too important to not get right the first time.

And why are these people so critical of the intelligence to begin with? By extension, they are criticizing the intelligence gathering community. This community consists of military personnel and Department of Defense personnel. But aren't these neoconservatives who are so big on war with Iraq and Iran supposed to be the Pentagon's allies? Why are they denigrating the very community they rely so much on to accomplish their geopolitical objectives?

Why are these people more concerned with the accuracy of the intelligence than with the disconnect between the intelligence's findings and Bush's rhetoric about "avoiding World War III?" And rather than breathing a sigh of relief that the Iranian threat might not be as ominous as was once feared, why are they bellyaching about how the intelligence may be faulty? Would these same detractors be questioning the intelligence as fervently as they are now if the intelligence said that Iran had an actual bomb? Or is it only okay to criticize intelligence findings if these findings contradict your political wishes?

And why isn't this story getting more play in the media? Why isn't the public hopping mad about this? This isn't another one of those inside baseball stories that nobody outside of Washington cares about. This is about our national leader making irresponsible and provocative statements about the threat another country poses, which has led to chest-thumping from Republicans in particular raising the specter of a pre-emptive nuclear war. And these irresponsible statements are based on information that is not true now and was not true at the time these statements were made!

Where is the outrage? Where are the congressional Democrats? Where are the hearings? Where is Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee? Where is Jay Rockefeller, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee? Where are the Democratic presidential candidates? And where is the contrition among the Republican presidential candidates? Where are the voters who should be asking these Republican presidential candidates and Hillary Clinton about what went wrong?

Why are supposed "news" channels like CNN and MSNBC devoting their precious airtime to stories about Natalee Holloway and Stacy Peterson? Why are we more concerned with a presidential candidate's speech about faith than with our chief executive's rhetoric about World War III? Why are we more concerned with which superstar endorses which presidential candidate than the obfuscations the president's press secretary gives about what the president knew and when he knew it? And why is the president allowed to take credit for being so cautious about something now that he had been so reckless about in the past?

It's like Bizarro Land. It just doesn't make any sense. This nation is in trouble.

Edwards the Invisible, Edwards the Vulnerable

A month ago I wrote about how John Edwards could pivot from attacking Hillary Clinton to taking advantage of the frustration that had been building among Barack Obama's supporters because of his perceived lack of "fight."

Since then, a lot has happened in the Democratic presidential race. Hillary Clinton has not had a single good week of press since the debate in Philadelphia. Some of her problems were of her own creation, such as how flummoxed she became over the driver's licenses for illegal immigrants question. Others were unnecessary distractions from her campaign, such as the revelation that one of her staffers in Iowa was responsible for the rumor spreading over e-mail about Obama being a Muslim. And then there was news that was great for America, but not so great for her (or Bush), such as the recent National Intelligence Estimate saying that Iran's nuclear weapons program was much less threatening than Bush had been making it out to be. (The problem for Clinton here is that she was much more hawkish on Iran than her Democratic opponents.)

The other major change has been in the polling--particularly Barack Obama's well-timed ascent. He has pulled ahead of Clinton in Iowa and has significantly closed the gap in New Hampshire. He also now has megastar Oprah Winfrey campaigning for him. And he is being a bit more aggressive in his attacks on Clinton. It seems like Obama has all the momentum and is peaking at the right time.

So what does this mean for Edwards? Well, you may have noticed that while Clinton and Obama continue their back and forth, Edwards has become considerably less aggressive. During the summer, Edwards was adopting a highly combative tone. This coincided with Clinton overtaking Edwards in the Iowa polls. Edwards strategy back then was to throw as many grenades and set as much bait as possible in an attempt to get his rivals to respond to him and generate media coverage for his campaign. However, I thought Edwards sounded angry and petty, and I criticized him for that here.

But now that the race has changed and Clinton is the one who is lobbing stinkbombs at Obama (such as quoting his kindergarten teacher about his presidential ambitions), Edwards has changed his tune. Say goodbye to throwing mud at Clinton, and say hello to sitting on the sidelines with a smile on your face. Edwards is now quietly sitting back and letting his two rivals slug it out. After a long year of campaigning and attacking each other, Edwards is banking on the idea that the voters are growing weary of all the pettiness taking place and will reward Edwards for taking the high road and staying above the fray. The thinking here is that Iowa voters will get sick of the negativity and bickering between Obama and Clinton and throw their support to Edwards. The old political adage, "If A attacks B, then C will be the nominee" seems to be Edwards' strategy here.

But is it enough? It seems that there is a new threat that Edwards may have to worry about. Consider this: The Democratic candidates are all trying to carry a particular mantle. Clinton is the "experience" candidate. Obama is the "change" candidate. Of course, Edwards is also trying to be the "change" candidate, so he is having to compete with the better funded and better polling Obama. This is perhaps his biggest problem. Now it seems like Edwards is trying to run as the "outsider" candidate.

Fair enough.

But what does one make of the Iowa voters who are throwing their support behind Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd? According to Real Clear Politics, the average level of combined support for these three candidates in Iowa is from 10-15%. Richardson has been in the low double digits and high single digits for months. Biden is consistently polling outside of the margin of error. And Dodd is pulling in a steady 1-3%, which is higher than Mike Gravel, whose numbers are commonly in asterisk territory. The point I am trying to make here is that there are a lot of voters out there who either 1) are looking for something other than change, experience, or an outsider, or 2) do not believe Clinton, Obama, or Edwards are credible messengers of what they purport to represent. Because of how much the media has concentrated on Clinton, Obama, and Edwards, this 10-15% of Iowa voters is obviously paying enough attention to the race to dig a bit deeper and focus on all the candidates, not just those who are grabbing all the headlines. And if neither Clinton, Obama, nor Edwards has been able to make the sale to these voters yet despite all their campaign ads and all their media coverage, it is quite possible these voters view that trio as a last resort.

What could these 10-15% of voters be looking for if it's not change, exerience, or an outsider? Perhaps not coincidentally, Richardson, Biden, and Dodd each have more government experience than Clinton, Obama, and Edwards combined. And they have impressive records of their legislative accomplishments and a firm grasp of foreign policy. These are not sexy things for a politician to campaign on, but they do form the meat and potatoes of competent governance. Pay special attention to the word competent. That is the one buzzword that hasn't gotten a lot of play in the media. And these three veterans can all run on competence and back it up with their records.

Will Richardson, Biden, and Dodd instruct their supporters to throw their support behind the one of them who emerges as the most viable in the caucuses? If these three camps work together, they could plausibly break the 15% threshhold of viability that is required to survive in the Iowa Democratic caucuses. And of course, there is likely a significant portion of supporters of the top three candidates whose support is soft. Perhaps they are unaware that they have other options. After all, Clinton, Obama, and Edwards have sky high name recognition in Iowa. Richardson, Dodd, and Biden don't. So if one of those veterans emerges in the caucuses, they may be able to peel off more support from the top three candidates than the punditry believes.

As an added bonus, Richardson, Biden, and Dodd could all take the competence mantle and all run on change, experience, and being an outsider. "Change" can be viewed as a change from the incompetent Bush to competent leadership. Their "experience" can easily trump Clinton's. And because they are not the media darlings, they could claim to be "outsiders" in that they are not media flavor of the month politicians.

I wondered in August if John Edwards would make it to Iowa. It looks like he will, but what will happen after that? Should Obama win Iowa, how could Edwards continue? After all, Obama is also running on "change" and being an "outsider." Should Clinton win Iowa, how could anyone continue? And should Edwards win, does anyone think Clinton or Obama is going away? Not with all the money they have! But now what if Richardson, Biden, or Dodd emerges from Iowa with a strong second or third place showing even if Edwards wins? Does he have enough resources and enough political heft to stave off yet another avenue of attack?

Edwards is really in trouble. He's not completely doomed just yet, but he is clearly in the most precarious position of all the Democrats right now. He has no real niche all to himself.


The McCain McCalculus

This fall, media coverage of the Republican presidential candidates has generally been about 1) Fred Thompson's entering the race and his subsequent crash back to earth, 2) the tit-for-tat between Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, 3) the meteoric rise of Mike Huckabee in Iowa, and 4) Ron Paul's impressive fundraising.

However, there has been one story that has largely gone unreported: the silent ascendancy of John McCain in New Hampshire. Like Huckabee has done in Iowa, it seems that John McCain is placing all his chips in New Hampshire and is using that as his launching pad to the nomination.

Much had been said and written about McCain's demise earlier this year by the punditry and the chattering classes of Washington. He was left for dead when news surfaced that his campaign was almost out of money and that a lot of his campaign staff resigned, was fired, or defected to another Republican's presidential campaign. But after retooling his campaign operation and stringing together a few credible and solid debate performances, he has begun to turn a few heads.

The latest entity to be impressed is New Hampshire's Union Leader, which endorsed McCain earlier this week. The endorsement, written by the paper's publisher Joseph McQuaid, cites his battle scars and courage to stand alone even when it's not politically expedient to do so as the reason behind their endorsement:

"We don't agree with him on every issue. We disagree with him strongly on campaign finance reform. What is most compelling about McCain, however, is that his record, his character, and his courage show him to be the most trustworthy, competent, and conservative of all those seeking the nomination. Simply put, McCain can be trusted to make informed decisions based on the best interests of his country, come hell or high water."
And this shows that McCain has filled the niche I had expected him to fill earlier.

While others were writing McCain off, I warned back in July and August that such talk was premature because he could emerge as the last man standing if Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney are seen as flashes in the pan. That has already happened to Thompson. And as Rudy Giuliani's record in New York receives further scrutiny, that may unravel his campaign as well. And of course, Mike Huckabee is positioned to deal a crippling blow to Mitt Romney in Iowa.

A few months ago, I said that one of the problems with John McCain was that he had no base. Consider this: Mike Huckabee is the candidate for social conservatives and the evangelical Christian wing of the party. Mitt Romney is the candidate for fiscal conservatives and the business wing of the party. Rudy Giuliani is the candidate for national security conservatives and the moderate wing of the party. The appeal of John McCain now is not that he has no base, but rather that he is actually a consensus candidate. Social conservatives should appreciate the fact that McCain is pro-life. Fiscal conservatives should appreciate how he shuns earmarks and vows so stridently to veto pork-laden bills. National security conservatives should be pleased with how McCain has supported the mission in Iraq even when it was politically radioactive. And moderates still remember McCain's "independence," as was demonstrated by his participation in the "Gang of 14" and the "comprehensive immigration reform" he supported. But if McCain is getting attacked from all sides, doesn't that mean there's something about him that everyone can like?

In September, I said that John McCain is the Joe Biden of the Republicans in that he is the elder statesman whose appeal increases the more Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney trash each other's records as they try to portray themselves as more conservative than they were earlier in their political careers. Rudy Giuliani's accusing Mitt Romney of running a "sanctuary mansion" and the lack of empathy Mitt Romney displayed towards Mike Huckabee on the issue of financial assistance for the children of illegal immigrants only serve to elevate the humble and pragmatic McCain at their expense.

This is not to say that McCain has a large margin for error. To be sure, New Hampshire is the state he must win in order to remain viable. But this task looks considerably less daunting than it once did about four months ago. However, he will need some help. And that help is coming from Mike Huckabee.

For McCain to win New Hampshire, he needs Mike Huckabee to beat Mitt Romney in Iowa first. An Iowa victory by Romney would likely lead to a Romney victory in New Hampshire, where Romney has been leading the polls for months. However, a Huckabee victory in Iowa would be followed by lots of news coverage about Romney's demise and how he couldn't close despite having spent so much money there. And as an added bonus for McCain, an Iowa victory by Huckabee would not threaten McCain in New Hampshire because New Hampshire Republicans are far less socially conservative than Iowa Republicans are. Unlike Huckabee and Romney, Huckabee and McCain draw from two totally different bases.

Should John McCain win New Hampshire, he would be well positioned to win Michigan, which he also won in 2000. As for South Carolina, there is a high population of military retirees in this state. Fort Jackson, a major Army base, is also located here. These military voters have high respect for John McCain and remember him from the 2000 campaign. So he would have a reasonable chance here too, although Huckabee is a greater threat to him here than in New Hampshire because of the high number of evangelicals, especially in the Upstate around Spartanburg.

Basically, McCain needs to win 3 of the 4 early states in order to emerge as the conservative alternative to Giuliani come Super Tuesday. And does anyone really believe that Rudy Giuliani is more credible on national security and terrorism than war veteran John McCain? But he needs Mike Huckabee to help pave the way for him first by clearing out Romney. Should this happen and McCain win the nomination, he would definitely owe Huckabee. Could McCain repay the favor by asking Huckabee to be his vice president? Republicans' chances in the general election would certainly be enhanced if this were to happen.

Copyright 2007-2010 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.