Having now covered the campaigns for a full day, I completely see why our political media is as dysfunctional as it is. You're shuffled from one event to another. You watch speeches and town hall meetings. You're in big rooms with these candidates and watching them react to thousands of people. And you have to write a column and your editor is probably demanding that you determine who has the momentum. Furthermore, you start to think
that you're equipped to make that determination. If I were to do so, I would say that Hillary Clinton will win today's caucuses, because she had the bigger and more enthusiastic supporters last night, and she gave the better speech. But in reality, I don't have a fucking clue
, and really I don't think anyone does.
Watching a speech is not data that can be used in a "horse-race" story. You're not seeing volunteer action, you're not seeing how many are at the phone banks, you're not seeing the number of precinct captains, and in a race like this, that's what's going to win, because there's very little to suggest that there's even an election tomorrow outside of the occasional channel 3 News billboard advertising "live caucus coverage," and really the Wayne Brady billboard is bigger. There have been very few polls, and while the most recent ones have shown a Clinton lead
, the turnout is fairly impossible to predict. Iowa and New Hampshire's turnout was enormous on the side of the Democrats because the campaigns put resources and face time in there for months. This has been more of a ten-day sprint, and so I'm hearing anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 caucus-goers, which makes the prediction process completely untenable. And the traditional media is gun shy of that type of environment, so they're not going there (although they're polling the heck out of South Carolina, having learned such a great lesson from New Hampshire).
Furthermore, I'm only seeing a piece of the state, albeit the piece with the largest population by far; Las Vegas may be the only city where you can credibly judge things that way. But my colleagues at Calitics
are in the northern part of Nevada volunteering , and they were transferred by the campaign from Reno to Carson City because there were too MANY volunteers. That's at least a data point. So is Obama's campaign buying banner ads on Yahoo! and other search engines that say "caucus this morning at 11am," meaning they know that I'm connecting from Nevada. That's an under-the-radar data point.
As a pundit simply following the campaign from event to event, your data is verbal tics and reactions and other things that are actually indicative of nothing. It could be that David Axelrod flipping out is not the behavior of someone who's winning; it could also be that he's legitimately pissed off about the opponent's campaign making these claims and giving themselves an excuse to downplay the significance of any win by saying that it's Vegas and "the fix is in." Obama's speech was definitely lackluster, for his standards; the crowd appeared to be listening more than buying in to what he was saying, and he fumbled around in the middle. Clinton was really fired up and gave a speech that had emotional highs and lows to a packed high school gym with an overflow crowd in a separate room (which was where we were, as we arrived late; even the OVERFLOW room had a real sense of excitement and an investment in the speech). You actually can't do some sort of psychological analysis and arrive at a conclusion that Clinton knows she's winning and Obama knows he's losing. But that's the only data a lot of these people following the campaign have. And the pundits only typically have a televised feed of that. I'm not absolving them of blame at all, but they're doing the equivalent of gauging the score of a football game by watching the fans in the parking lot.
What you can glean from these events, in fact the only data, is what the two candidates are actually saying, and I wish that reporters would stick to that. So, that long wind-up complete, let me do so:
(oh, and by the way, let me say AGAIN that Edwards was long gone before we got to town, otherwise I'd include him in this story.)
Both Obama and Clinton gave somewhat partisan speeches. Both decried the influence of special interests, both discussed changing our foreign policy of unilateralism, both highlighted "predatory lending" in the mortgage and student loan industries, and both ended up with many of the same ideas (student loan forgiveness in exchange for national service, green energy and green jobs, and an end to the war with fairly vague definitions of what that end would be). Obama, who had international media covering him from Brazil, Korea and Japan just in our little section, talked about the tragedy of homeless veterans (sounds awfully like a certain Mr. Edwards), indexing the minimum wage to inflation (ditto), "healing our racial wounds," a fair criminal justice system, and admonished the crowd "not to demonize immigrants - this is a country built by immigrants." (I appreciated that). He peppered his speech with the usual jokes and stories, like the "fired up, ready to go" story of the lady in the small town in South Carolina, which seems to get more and more like a Paul Bunyan tall tale every time he tells it (I mean, Obama's day up until seeing the fired up lady sounds so progressively horrible, you'd think next time it'll include bad medical news or something). There's a section about that point in the debate where he gave his greatest weakness, and the other candidates gave theirs, and how their weaknesses were things like "I care too much about people" and "I'm frustrated we haven't changed the country", ending with "That's what happens when you're in Washington, you don't speak English. You speak Washington-speak." He talked about how change "comes from the bottom up, not the top-down," and how we have to organize to challenge those special interests that resist progress. But in the end, the message is pretty much this (from notes):
We need a politics based not on ideology, but common sense; not on spin, but straight talk... we're having a friendly battle in the Democratic Party about who we are... are we willing to find unity, to put aside point-scoring and summon the country to a higher purpose? That is why I want to be the President of the United States of America.
OK, I don't think the battle of the Party is to find unity. It's to find the best ways to push the Republicans and successfully set the agenda. We actually do need a politics based on ideology, unless the "common sense" that Obama suggests is actually ideological.
Before you think that this unity stuff is particular to Obama, let me talk to you about Clinton's rally. Her speech was definitely stronger, and more partisan, actually. She said things like "it is not rich people who made America great" and "health care is a right, not a privilege" and "Republicans are the party of ideas - of bad ideas," and she highlighted things like the balloon payment to the failed CEO of Countrywide ($115 million dollars to blow up a company, nice work if you can get it). There was talk about massive deficits under Bush, and stories of health insurers cancelling policies after the patients get sick, and talk of ending the unfunded mandate of No Child Left Behind, and a 21st century GI Bill, and more. But at the very end... well, let me give you over to Matt Stoller
, who was there as well:
After a laundry list of items she's going to get done, she posed a rhetorical question of how all of that would be possible. Her answer? By reaching across the aisle, like she has done in the Senate. I hope she's checked with the Republicans on that one.
She says that all the time, actually, and so did Bill Clinton at his earlier event, highlighting her work with Lindsay Graham and JOHN MCCAIN. Um, don't you two know that you might actually have to RUN against John McCain, and the time for puffing him up to increase your own credibility should kind of be over?
Is there some super-secret polling showing that Americans what to "end the partisan bickering" in Washington and come together for the common purpose? I really don't see that. I see a country who has turned on George Bush and wants to go in a new direction. Yet two of our main candidates BOTH keep stressing this theme of unity, and the third candidate, who actually does reject this, doesn't get any love from the media and has been practically shunted aside. What is behind this?
Actually, I don't think it's so difficult. In a time tailor-made for progressive ideas, when the conservative brand is almost entirely trashed, we have two centrist candidates running to lead the party. They say this every day, and no matter what kind of onion-peeling and "no, what they actually mean is THIS" you try to do, that's pretty much the answer.
UPDATE: Let me revise and extend. The strategy Clinton and Obama appear to be employing is a perfectly normal general election strategy. “Bringing the country together” isn’t all that radical a political theme, and after 8 years of “my way or the highway” conservatism, I can see how it would have some limited appeal. But we’re in the middle of a Democratic
primary. I think it was Stoller in a post about a month ago who wondered if we could be pandered to just a little bit before we were ditched for independents and swing voters. It could be that the first few primaries are open to independents. But yesterday I felt like I was watching the candidates for the nomination of the Independent Party of America, and it rankled me.
And I do believe that this stress tells you how a President Clinton or a President Obama will govern, as well as telling you how much influence progressives will actually have in their subsequent Administrations. Ultimately, as I have said, we the people are going to have to be the “agent of change” through political pressure, movement-building, and successfully using the primary process to take back the party piece by piece (the most important elections on Feb. 5 are for Mark Pera and John Laesch in Illinois, and the most important one a week later is for Donna Edwards in Maryland). Obama at least talks about how he can’t do it alone, and how change happens from the bottom up. And I’m not averse to talking about “working together” with Republicans. But Republicans ARE, and the conservative movement is not likely to give up so easily and watch as an agenda to which they are diametrically opposed gets installed.
Partisanship is a good thing. It gives people choices. There are legitimate differences about how to meet our challenges. The point in between those two differences is not necessarily the best; in fact it’s often the worst. When one side of the political aisle has leaders who believe in the value of that middle point, and the other side believes in the extreme, guess where we’re going to end up. “Screwed” would be the word I would use.
Labels: 2008, Barack Obama, caucuses, Hillary Clinton, Nevada, political ideology, punditocracy