Saturday, September 27, 2008

"Beyond the Palin - A Prediction"

Any Republican who watched Tina Fey spoof Sarah Palin tonight on SNL has to be just sick to their stomachs.  Palin has become a punch line, Dan Quayle in a skirt... only more dangerous because of the age and health of John McCain and the perilous times in which we live.

Let's look at what the last two weeks have wrought upon McCain's campaign...  

First you had the banking meltdown and McCain's typically erratic response to the crisis:  first blaming it on Obama, then saying that were he President that "heads would roll" and he would fire the SEC chairman (which the President cannot even do), then engaging in a game of chicken with Obama by threatening to skip Friday's debate to do the work of the country- a move that was seen by all but the most partisan of observers as a nakedly political maneuver.  This mistake was compounded by his canceling on David Letterman and then lying to him about why (claiming to be headed back to Washington, when all the while he was doing an interview with Katie Couric and the next day participating in the Clinton Global Initiative.)  

Palin, in the meantime, remains virtually sequestered, and the media is getting angrier and angrier at not being able to subject her to the requisite scrutiny to which they have subjected McCain, Obama and Biden.  This may be the lesser problem for McCain, as Palin's performance with Katie Couric was no less embarrassing than her performance with Charlie Gibson.  

This was all capped off by a foreign policy debate between McCain and Obama in which a wide range of polling from many media outlets indicated that voters felt Obama emerged victorious.  (If even Fox News is admitting it...)  This is a body blow to the McCain campaign as, rightly or wrongly, he had previously been viewed as being stronger on foreign policy.  But that all went out the window when Obama proved he could play on McCain's home turf and look more Presidential than the clench-jawed, smirking McCain who couldn't contain his contempt for the young Senator for whom has has harbored a deep personal dislike since the day he arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed in Washington.

Obama is polling anywhere from 2 to 10 points ahead in the national polls, consistently in double digits on the issue of the economy, and making gains in key battleground states.  Even  more foreboding is how the conservative punditocracy continues to turn not only on Palin (Kathleen Parker even called for her to withdraw), but in the case of conservative heavyweight George Will, even on McCain himself.

All in all, two weeks that were nothing short of disastrous for the McCampaign, and about the only answer they seem to have is to blame any media member or outlet who is not on board as part of some vast left wing conspiracy... despite the fact that McCain was once a darling of this same media.

So what is McCain's normal response to being backed into a corner?

He is a craps player... literally and figuratively.  So he will try a wild and unpredictable move to change the story and move the game.  That's what he did with this debate stunt this week.  It's also what he did with the Palin selection- a craps equivalent of putting all your chips on 4.  Sure, it will pay off 9-to-5 if you hit, but it's also the least likely number to come up.  McCain went "all in" on a high-risk, high-reward play, and it's now very close to "7-out" and the dealer is reaching for his chips.  Palin may have briefly energized the radical conservative base and religious right, but the hull of his ship on the moderate (responsible? rational?) side was punctured by an iceberg and Leonardo and Kate are trying to find a way off.

There is one play that might accomplish what McCain must in order to stay in the game, and it's a play he literally has to make within the next 96 hours:

Fire Palin.

Would dumping Palin from the ticket (presumably to replace her with Mitt Romney) open McCain up to the judgment questions that he has managed to sidestep thus far?  Perhaps, but with the flood that is the Palin backlash overflowing the riverbanks and headed for town, it might be safe to say that horse has pretty well left the barn.   The McCain campaign is currently bleeding out and they need to apply a tourniquet.  McCain can spin this as "Country First"  - I made a mistake, but I am accountable for my mistakes and I fix them no matter how it makes me look.  He may not win a lot of people back with that line, but he might prevent further hemorrhaging of the sort that is pointing towards an Obama landslide.

McCain can't allow Palin to withdraw for a contrived personal reason, either, as Parker suggests.  He can't appear to have continued to back her when even she knew she was out of her league.  He must be the decider.

Such a maneuver also fulfills two other strategic objectives:

It puts an end to the Palin-Biden debate, which- if Palin's performance with Gibson and Couric is any indication- may turn out to be the final nail in the McCoffin.  Biden is an acknowledged policy wonk and he's outstanding in a short answer debate format.  While in the Presidential race himself, he consistently outperformed both Obama and Clinton.  Palin facing Biden on this stage is like a high school tennis player facing off with Roger Federer.  She's going to be lucky to win a point, let alone a game, a set, or the match.  If McCain can't even trust Palin to campaign on her own without him or face the media on a daily basis (let alone the Sunday shows), they have to know right now they can't let her take the stage with Joe Biden.  But if you pluck Mitt Romney off the bench and put him in the game, he can battle with Biden on issues from a much broader and deeper pool of knowledge than the inflatable backyard variety in which Palin is currently splashing around.

The other thing this would do is throw the Democrats a curveball.  Biden has been preparing for this debate with Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm playing Palin on the scout team.  Subbing in Romney would be an equalizer on the preparation front.

Dumping Palin is the only move that makes sense, fits with McCain's M.O. , and provides him anything to even attempt to spin.  Even if Palin were to somehow find some semblance of a game right now, it may not even matter because so much of the country has already concluded she's the proverbial knife in a gunfight.

Unless McCain has actually accepted that he's cooked, this is the only play that makes sense.

I'm putting my chips on it.

Friday, September 26, 2008

"The Limitations of Ideology"

OK, while I'm waiting on my billet for the campaign, I think I'll give you some thoughts on the financial crisis we're in.

There are limits to liberal or conservative ideology if applied in a distilled, orthodox manner.

I have heard Republicans often make the argument for "personal responsibility" as a substitute for too much government interference in our lives, as if being for regulation or in favor of certain government programs somehow represents being "irresponsible".  In recent days I have heard some continue to stand by de-regulation as a policy and oppose the bailout of the banking industry.  Unfortunately, there are limits to "personal responsibility" when applied as a public policy.

Let's use this example:  why not de-regulate our roads?

After all, we all know what responsible driving is.  Why not simply rely on people to drive defensively and rationally?

The reason is:  the fallibility of human nature.  

Many people will tend to drive aggressively in order to get where they are going more quickly, satisfying a short term need or urge at the expense of responsibility.  And if the only consequence of this was that they might plow into a mailbox or run their car into a ditch, you take a Darwinistic approach and say:  that's what you get.

The problem here is that an irresponsible driver is just as likely to hit you as he is a mailbox!

The same holds true with mortgages.  Failure of personal responsibility on a broad scale has consequences for everyone.  Consumers are fallible:  they are subject to greed, myopia, lack of understanding, or simply being marketed to or taken advantage of.  And businesses will too often take the quick buck without seeing around the bend.

And if the only consequence of this fallibility is that some Wall Street execs go belly up and people who made bad decisions lose their homes, then you could say hey, we feel bad for you, but we can't bail you out.

However, when the mortgage crisis spread to the banking industry at large, it became a problem for anyone with money in the stock market or anyone who needs and deserves credit.  So we have to bail out the industry to prevent a run on the banks and a massive deflation of the stock market as confidence in the market fails... a depression.

Wouldn't it be so much easier if we simply had a common sense "rules of the road" that ensures that lending and borrowing is done responsibly?

Whether you believe government is a necessary evil or a place where a community comes together to work for progress, surely everyone can agree that you can regulate an industry in a common sense manner without compromising the market economy.

One would hope we could agree, anyway.

But this is where small government orthodoxy, in football terminology, out-kicks its coverage. Besides the fact that de-regulation tends to favor those with capital over those who simply work for a paycheck, much like the failure of trickle-down economics, it fails to recognize that it's better even for those with capital if the middle class grows and we have a thriving source of skilled, educated labor and a huge consumer market.  It promotes entrepreneurship and growth in every sector and at every level of the economy.   It provides ample tax revenue to maintain our infrastructure (which we are not doing well enough now- just ask anyone in Minneapolis).  The whole country is more competitive.

Looking out for your neighbor is not simply a bleeding-heart liberal ideal.  It's a matter of self-interest.

Monday, September 22, 2008


Melissa will not stop calling the Internet "the internets".  I think she has been mocking George W. Bush for so long that she has forgotten the actual word.

On Day Two of Camp Obama, it became clear to me that this was much more "orientation" than "boot camp".    It was hard not to notice that we lost close to 50 of the 150 from the day before.  I guess too many people couldn't bear to give up another beautiful weekend day, especially with the Bears playing.  And some probably sneaked a peek at the life of a Deputy Field Organizer in our packets (more on this below) and balked.

Melissa was unfazed, and her degree of unfazed-ness when it comes to the subject of Indiana and Wisconsin continues to surprise me.  This campaign is awash in volunteers (although there is really no theoretical limit to the number that would be effective, provided they are properly indoctrinated).  And the campaign wants a veritable D-Day invasion of Ohio and Michigan.

Much of the morning was devoted to a virtual "Management for Dummies" workshop, much of which I tuned out.  At one point we were shown a list of different styles of leader:   telling, persuading, consulting, joining, and delegating.  When asked for a show of hands, the vast majority of the room claimed to be a "consulting" leader, probably because it's the type of leadership that makes the most logical sense to someone who has not often been called upon to lead.

If it seems like I talk contemptuously about my fellow Campers, I really don't intend to.  But if there was one aspect of the program that surprised me, it was the relative lack of intellectual engagement of the Campers at large.  I expected to be in the mainstream of engagement with issues and professional experience.  What I actually found was a group of low to middle information voters who were either inspired by Barack Obama (but really couldn't articulate any concrete reason why) and/or had little else to do.  But don't get me wrong, I do have a solid degree of respect and admiration for anyone who will roll up their sleeves and actually do something with their passion rather than sit around and talk about it.  On that level, no matter from which direction we come at this, we are all the same, and on that level I felt some kinship with all of them.  I also rather admired the diversity of the group.  It was largely white, maybe 20% black, with a sprinkling of Asian and Hispanic.  I couldn't help but thinking we had more black people in the room than they had at the GOP convention in St. Paul.

After lunch, we got a fairly detailed indoctrination into the life of a Deputy Field Organizer and the 12-hour days (or more) of calling everyone under the sun to recruit volunteers, all of it spent mostly in hastily established field offices buried under various degrees of filth. Not all that different from what I expected to hear, to be honest.  I certainly have an image of the operatives on the ground as a bedraggled band of generally young, gung-ho types with sleeves rolled up and hands deep in the dirt.  And I'm ready to be one of them for a while.  Here is a sample schedule...

Early Morning:  morning rush hour voter registration

9:00  Open field office, review numbers.

9:30  Team meeting.

10:00  Finish data entry, prepare for daytime volunteers - set up voter registration/walk packets, call sheets, enter volunteers into online system, update all volunteers, confirm scheduling of all volunteers online, track hard counts.

11:00  Voter registration/voter contact, one-on-ones

1:00  Lunch

1:30  Touch base with volunteers, see how voter contact or house meetings went, status review of voter registration efforts, plan upcoming meetings and events.  Call & print turf/phone lists.

2:00  One-on-one volunteer reminder calls, call to schedule volunteer shifts or schedule house meetings.

4:00  One-on-Ones

4:30  Dinner/snack and final preparations

5:00  Phone banking, launch evening canvass

9:15  Tally results

9:30  Submit nightly reports, meetings with field teams.

10:30-11:30   Close up shop.

After everyone got a look at this, the remainder of  Camp Obama was devoted to an extended Q&A with Melissa as we all filled out our deployment forms.  I should find out where I am being sent later this week.

Until then, check out my other blogs...

Saturday, September 20, 2008


Climbing inside an historic Presidential campaign begins with Camp Obama, where 150 of us are being trained to be Deputy Field Organizers, going out into districts in battleground states to recruit and manage volunteers, canvassing and phone-banking and getting out the vote... being the ground game that has carried Barack Obama to the cusp of the Presidency.

Camp Obama is taking place at the IBEW hall west of downtown Chicago.  Walking into this room, I am reminded only of a game-faced Michael Keaton rallying angry auto workers in western Pennsylvania in Gung Ho.  I am reminded of this largely because this movie is pretty much all I know of union halls, and this room is sufficiently dull, with a large rostrum in front.

Our emcee for the day is Melissa, a bespectacled abstractly girl-next-door-cute former elementary school music teacher, right down to the chipper bearing and talking with her hands.  One of the first things that strikes me about Melissa's message is that she is fairly certain we're going to win this thing.  I expected to hear a rallying cry of just how tight the race is and how this is a climactic battle between good and evil, and only those of us in the room stand between America and Armageddon.  Yet Melissa makes a point of announcing that we aren't planning for November 4th, but rather, planning for January 20th, to do the work that the country needs to do.  I find this equal parts inspiring and disturbing.  It's inspiring in the sense that the endgame is not the dismissal of John McCain... it really is change.  Yes, we can, indeed.  But I am viscerally disturbed because this is like a football team looking ahead a week to the big rivalry game, yet their mind is not fully on the winnable game in front of them.  You never want to do that!  How about we talk about January on November 5th, god willing...

Melissa's story is rather cute, as well.  When she was teaching, she asked her students to list their heroes.  One said firefighters.  One said her dad.  And another said the President of the United States.  Melissa could not bring herself to write "George W. Bush" on a list of heroes and, like a true politician emerging, pivoted the conversation to Abraham Lincoln and talked about POTUS in the abstract.  So disturbed that young people would only know W when it came to Presidents, she volunteered to work on Obama's campaign the next summer, and quickly made herself indispensable.

The stories of those at my table this morning were varied.  Nick and Don saw polling after the GOP convention, in the midst of the Palin bubble, that showed the candidates dead even and were scared and angry that America might really consider voting for the same policies that have left us in such a world of hurt.  Chad, a quiet and thoughtful 26 year-old bicycle messenger from Pennsylvania who didn't finish college at Penn State, voted for Nader in 2004 and has found himself now truly fired up about politics for the first time.  Harriette, a pastor, flunked out of Northwestern University and lived in a homeless shelter for nine months and now likes being involved in politics at the grassroots level.  Emma is the daughter of civil rights activists, grew up under segregation, and on many occasions spoke with Martin Luther King.  

Emma made perhaps the most profound statement of the day:

Rosa Parks opportunities don't manifest often.

Not only that, but you probably don't even know it's a Rosa Parks moment when you're in it.  What bound all of us together, I found, was a personal desire to not just get Obama elected for what it would mean for the country, but for ourselves to make a mark... what that would mean for us, individually. I have spent a great deal of time reading and watching MSNBC and debating with my friends and evangelizing to pretty much anyone who will listen, but as Melissa said: watching CNN will not get Barack Obama elected.

For myself, I reached a point where it was crystal clear to me that if John McCain were to win, I would have nothing to complain about if I didn't stand up and get in the game.  And should Obama win, likewise I could claim little sense of ownership in this historic development.

My own path to political activism began on 9/11.  I became a news junkie after that, my eyes suddenly open to world events and politics.  It had never mattered to me before, but this shocked my brain into sharp focus.  In the coming months and years, I became a devotee of Meet The Press and a great admirer of Tim Russert and the indispensable role I saw him playing in the American political discourse.  Always a voracious reader, I found myself reading less fiction and sports and more history, politics, economics and current events.  I was suddenly determined to be an informed citizen.  When I studied economics in graduate school, my opinions on issues began to crystallize.  I began to believe that America needed both the liberal and conservative viewpoints represented, and that a desire for the smallest government possible, the lowest taxes possible and fiscal responsibility were not incompatible with the notion that government, rather than a necessary evil, could be a place where the nation could come together as a community to serve the common  good and that it's not acceptable to leave anyone behind.

But what cemented my current party affiliation was what I began to understand about the Republican Party as an organization.  Dating back to Bob Haldeman and Chuck Colson in the Nixon White House, to Newt Gingrich and Ken Starr's Clinton witch hunt, to the Swift Boat Veterans for (cough) Truth, and finally to the utter inability of John McCain and Sarah Palin to tell the truth about anything and the inability of the Republican PR firm, Fox News, to make an intellectually honest argument rather than spew propaganda, I began to recognize a hardwired propensity for hypocrisy, outright dishonesty and dirty politics that went far beyond the typical level of spin one would expect from politics as usual.  The GOP had ceased to represent the honorable conservatism of Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, hijacked by the religious right and lobbyists, ceasing to stand for anything but the quest for power at any price... P.J. O'Rourke's Parliament of Whores.  And the politicization of 9/11 and their own bungling of the Katrina disaster continues to be just galling.

The country needs these people to take a seat on the bench for a term or two while they figure out who they are trying to be, and I needed to get involved in making sure it happens.  I'm inspired by Obama as much as the next guy, and I do believe he has the ability to be one of our great Presidents- something I have never believed in any of the previous elections in which I have voted.  But as we explored our stories, I did come to realize that my motivation was much stronger on the side of defeating McCain, who I once admired and have come to loathe as much as I do his party at large.

So, we spent the entire session up until lunch time exploring our respective stories of self, on the premise that we all needed to truly understand what we were doing here in order to bring the message to others... a reasonable enough approach.  But that message took a strange form after lunch. 

Melissa explained the campaign's philosophy of respect:  respecting each other, those to whom we evangelize, even our opponents.  Mudslinging would not be tolerated.  So in the spirit of respecting even our opponent, the next hour of policy review was essentially an exercise in painting John McCain as the antichrist while avoiding saying the the name John McCain whenever possible.  The resonant dichotomy between McCain and the messianic Obama was working the crowd into a mild lather.  This was programming (with a healthy does of group self-congratulation), turning 150 volunteer organizers with varying command of the complexities of public policy into political Marines in 90 minutes. Semper Politicus.

What we began to see was a laundry list of the most extreme possible takes on everyone's positions.   And after each one, the applause in the room intensified.  This was becoming more pep rally than training session.  I didn't even know if we were cheering the mildly bastardized policies themselves or the participants' ham-handed attempts to elucidate them.

They only care about the rich.  (applause)

Barack Obama wants everyone to have health care and they don't.  (applause)

John McCain wants America to be in Iraq for 100 years.  (The crowd goes wild.)

Barack Obama will eliminate income taxes for seniors making under $50,000.

OK, this one is just what it is, but Chad wryly adds, "while John McCain will not rest until we have more seniors living in poverty!"

My favorite was one participant who referred to our "service economy" thusly:

90% of people serve the 10% with wealth.

Somewhere John Edwards smiled.

Before we got into the 45 minutes of actual training for the day, we were paid a surprise visit by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.  Approximately the same age as Sarah Palin, Madigan is a true politician, and she delivered a motivational address at a blood-quickening pace in a style polished to such a sheen that you can see your reflection in it.

We are energized to get Barack Obama elected as the next President of the United States! 


Madigan then launched into what was essentially a stump speech for Obama.  She served in the State Senate with him, and touted his legislative accomplishments such as an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), ethics reform, and a crackdown on racial profiling which presumably forced the Highland Park police to stop pulling people over for Driving While Black... and he did this all within the constraints of a Republican-controlled state senate.  She called Obama a new Kennedy (hardly a novel comparison but somehow more impactful now) and "our friend", saying "you KNOW Barack Obama!"   I'm not sure what to make of this as I, like the vast majority of the thousands of people working around the country for him, have in fact never met the man.

You are following in Barack Obama's footsteps.  You are community organizers!



(Community organizer!!!!)

We're going to win Illinois...


... and Indiana...


... and Iowa...

(louder applause)

... and Michigan and Wisconsin!!!

(applause rising to a crescendo)

You are making history in the race of a lifetime!!!

(riotous applause)
All that was missing was Howard Dean screaming like a banshee.

So now that the room got a collective shot of adrenalin, it's time to get down to brass tacks.

It's easy to see how Obama's ground game has been so effective, and how the bean counters in his camp have tended to be a step ahead of even the best of political analysts on the national scene.

Volunteers, be they phone bankers or canvassers, fill out tally sheets of how many contacts they made on their lists, and each contact is rated 1-5 on the "Obameter".  1 is someone who is solidly in Obama's camp.  2 is someone leaning in Obama's direction.  3 is undecided.  4 is leaning towards McCain.  And 5 is a McCainiac.

As this data gets pushed back up through the field organization, the campaign gets a very detailed precinct-by-precinct readout on how well they are doing.  National pollsters do not get nearly this granular.

And this is where an enthusiasm gap can really make a difference.  It is easy to get sucked into the national media punditocracy and a handful of bluntly-measured polls and think you're actually getting the picture.  But an enthusiastic corps of volunteers, strategically and comprehensively organized, using classical approaches as well as sophisticated online social networking techniques to reach younger voters, can push those 3's to 2's, those 2's to 1's, and those 1's to being part of the corps of volunteers.  Hillary Clinton had name recognition coming in, but she didn't (or couldn't) build this kind of ground organization and discovered the internet in February.  John McCain doesn't have the means to build such a ground organization, and despite inventing the Blackberry, can't even use a computer.    So the result is the Obama campaign not only getting hands-on in influencing people, but they also have a more comprehensive view of how well they're doing and thus can get much more strategic on the allocation of resources.

Of course, as this was all explained, I wondered aloud if perhaps the most strategic approach with the 4's might not be to encourage them to vote for Bob Barr.  Just as anti-establishment votes that went to Ralph Nader in 2004 were virtual votes for George Bush because they were votes that would have otherwise gone to John Kerry, a vote for Bob Barr in 2008 is a conservative vote siphoned right out of McCain's tank.  It seems to me like it would be easier to convince a McCain lean to vote for Barr than to come over to the, ahem, dark side.

I got nowhere with this.  I'll try again tomorrow.

We closed out the day with the actual mechanics of organizing a canvass or running a phone bank... mostly common sense, but at least getting everyone on the same page.

Before we broke, we got a visit from US Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL 7th), who gruffly and inarticulately commended us all for getting involved, bragged about how great the politics are in his district (given the history of Chicago politics, I'm not sure if this is a good thing), and generally displayed slightly less polish the the remnants of a 1977 Ford Pinto in a red state back yard.

I don't know what I think of any of this yet, but I do like not having to take Chuck Todd's word for it.

See you tomorrow,