Politically Savvy Friends

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Political Independence Day

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

Happy Independence Day! In a political year of so many firsts, it’s easy to forget how novel this whole experiment in American democracy was 238 years ago when some wealthy white men met in Philadelphia to declare independence from an incompetent king and a despotic Parliament in Great Britain.

The notion that a colony could assert its own rights to elected representation and govern itself, separate and apart from its mother country, was mind-boggling at the time. The revolution of 1776, labeled by some historians a “conservative” revolution, clearly unleashed the “radical” belief among millions in the years that followed that political independence is a goal worth fighting – and dying – for. The killing of innocent Zimbabwe citizens by the Mugabe murder squads, when their only crime was a desire to exercise the basic democratic right to choose a new leader, demonstrates that the fight for democratic freedom begun in 1776 is still not won for many in 2008.

We should remember that as we proudly fly the flag on the Fourth of July, enjoy our family picnics, and ooh-and-aah to fireworks displays across the country.

Much has happened since my last PSF, so forgive a little bit of catch-up. As always, if you do not want to receive these political emails, just use the unsubscribe key. But I hope you will read on, and, more importantly, send me your personal comments, observations, and off-the-record opinions (and tips) about all things political. If you want to know more about me, see some of my recent TV stories, or post a public reaction, just log onto my blog at www.delanosden.blogspot.com.


The Summer of Our Discontent:

Nobody beyond the Washington Beltway is really happy about the direction of the country or the state of our economy these days. With four dollar a gallon gasoline, a stock market in rapid decline, a depressed housing market and growing foreclosures, and the rising costs of just about everything, family budgets are stretched beyond belief. Sometimes I wonder if the politicians in Washington really understand the pain.

In some of the latest polls in June, only 13% (LA Times/Bloomberg Poll) to 16% (Wall Street Journal/NBC Poll) of those polled think the country is heading in the “right” direction. Put another way, only 14% (both Gallup Poll and Newsweek Poll) are “satisfied” with the way things are going in this country. I can’t remember poll numbers this pessimistic.

While you have to wonder who these contented people really are, the fact is the vast, vast majority of Americans (76% to 84%) are unhappy about the state of the nation. And why not? It’s a rare family that has not seen its standard of living decline this year, as wages and salaries fail to keep even with rising costs. In short, Americans are in the dumps, both economically and emotionally.

Where is President Bush?

When it comes to dealing with the economy or addressing the energy crisis, President Bush is perceived by many Americans to be AWOL. Only 9% (LA Times/Bloomberg Poll) think Bush’s economic policies have left us better off today than we were before he took office in 2001. Some 75% say the Republican White House has made things worse.

With just six months left in office, the president is doing what many lame ducks do – escape Washington by traveling all over the world. But given how bad things are in this country and how indifferent he and his administration appear to be to problems that are stripping the value out of our wallets, it’s no surprise that his popularity is at all-time lows.

Every poll conducted in the last four weeks shows President Bush with job approvals ranging from 23% to 30%. His disapproval ranges from 64% to 73%. Unless something changes in the next few months, President Bush is likely to leave office as one of the most unpopular presidents in recent history.

Parenthetically, some have suggested to me that George W. Bush is the worst president in American history. That’s a judgment better left to historians. Lots of presidents left office deeply unpopular (like Harry Truman), only to be resurrected years later. For Bush to be the worst president in history, he would have to beat such undistinguished predecessors as Millard Filmore, James Buchanan, and Chester Arthur. Another standard to consider is that only 16 presidents of 43 were reelected to a second term: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland, McKinley, Wilson, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush. Of those, three did not get to complete their second terms (Lincoln, McKinley, and Nixon). So credit President Bush with being in very rare presidential company. As for his legacy, that’s a column for later.

Where is the Congress?

The lack of presidential leadership on our major problems is matched by the seeming indifference emanating from both parties in the Congress. Only 13% to 19% in the four most recent polls (FOX/Opinion Dynamics, AP-Ipsos, Gallup, and Wall Street Journal/NBC) approve of the job Congress has done.

What’s there to approve? The partisan bickering has deadlocked the joint, and only on rare occasion (like the economic stimulus package) have both parties come together for action.

Having worked in that body for 14 years once upon a time, let me say that the Congress is inherently incapable of leadership, especially when there is little leadership out of a lame duck White House. With 535 politicians, often with separate agendas, it takes very strong House and Senate leaders to corral the troops, and I don’t see that leadership in either party right now.

It’s also unfair to blame only the Democrats who have a narrow majority in both houses right now. As a representative body, the rules allow the minority party, especially in the Senate, to block the majority’s agenda at almost every turn. The Republicans have done that, sometimes for good reasons, but it adds to the perception of inaction.

In a few months, voters will get the chance to rate the Congress by assessing their individual representative and (in some states) their senator. In early July, most pundits think the Democrats will pick up seats in both the House and Senate. If that happens, it’s not because the Democratic-controlled Congress accomplished much this last year. In truth, the public is blaming the Republicans, via unhappiness with President Bush, for the mess we’re in. Fair or not, when times are tough, the party in the White House almost always gets the blame.

The Race for the White House:

If you live in a must-win state like Pennsylvania, you are already being saturated with television ads from both John McCain and Barack Obama. People often ask me why the candidates don’t take a break this summer like they did in the old days. Well, truth is this election is up for grabs, and neither candidate can afford to let the other get a head start. So the public is doomed to a never-ending campaign on our TV screens.

With the mood so sour on President Bush, it’s a wonder that McCain is even in this race at all. But he is, in part because of his unusual background and in part because the nation is still uncertain about Obama.

Forget the national match-up polls. They are meaningless because we don’t elect presidents by popular vote [just ask Al Gore]. The presidential contest comes down to a state-by-state battle for electoral votes, and that’s what gives McCain hope that a Republican can win the White House this year.

I’ve seen one electoral college map that gives McCain 194 electoral votes to Obama’s 185, with 270 needed to win the White House. Thirteen states are up for grabs in this scenario. Another map, which allocates every state based on local opinion polls no matter how narrow the lead, gives Obama a whopping 317 votes, by awarding him states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, states in which he currently leads by single digits within the margin of polling error.

Both campaigns are much too smart to think these early electoral college maps are predictive. Here’s my all-inclusive list of early-summer “battleground” states that will determine the next president: Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Many of these 18 states may be lost to one candidate or the other by mid-September after both presidential conventions conclude. But in the meantime, watch Obama and McCain criss-cross the country with strategic stops in the states listed above.

Some Personal Reflections:

As PSF readers know, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing presidential candidates over the years. I just had my third chance this year to sit down with Barack Obama when he was in Pittsburgh last week, and I’m looking forward to my first chance for a sit-down chat with John McCain in the near future [I have interviewed McCain in one of those media scrums, but that hardly counts for creating impressions].

As a journalist and political analyst (although one of those rare ones who worked on the government and campaign side before leaping to the dark side of media), I try hard to be scrupulously objective in these encounters. Generally, the campaign gives much less time than needed – I was given 5 minutes of air time with Obama that stretched to 6 minutes, 40 seconds, because of his answers – but you do form some judgments in both their demeanor before and after the interviews, as well as the way they answer your questions.

Obama is smart, politically astute, cordial, thoughtful, and careful in his answers. In this third interview, he acted like he remembered me (although that could be good staff work), but I’m not convinced that he does (unlike Hillary Clinton who spouted off things from our earlier off-camera conversations that evidenced she really did remember). I don’t fault the candidates for this, as they meet so many local journalists that one encounter probably seems like another.

Much more importantly, Obama’s answers to my questions were direct. In particular, I asked him about whether he could relate to the pain of average Americans (after all, he’s now a millionaire) which he answered (in my view) honestly, acknowledging that his circumstances today allow him to absorb the pain at the pump (unlike most of us) but stressing that he is not far removed from his days of struggle and reflecting that he is probably the closest to a “middle class” candidate for president in a long time.

You can watch my full interview with Obama, including his answers to my questions on presidential leadership, energy (especially clean coal technology), the Pennsylvania primary and upcoming contest here, and his plan to replace the White House bowling alley with a basketball court. Just click http://kdka.com/video/?id=43059@kdka.dayport.com. I’ll give equal time to McCain in my next PSF, after I sit down with him.


Up for Grabs:

Early in the PA primary season, I wrote that Obama could beat Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania, if he did certain things, including camping out in western PA as per the Ed Rendell campaign playbook of 2002. Obama did not do this, and Clinton won the state by 9 percent. The western part of the state (indeed, almost all parts of the state outside Philadelphia) supported Clinton. While Obama won the city of Pittsburgh, he lost Allegheny County (where Pittsburgh is located) and was trounced in the neighboring southwestern counties that Democrats must win to carry the state. In Fayette County, for example, 79% of the Dems voted for Clinton over Obama.

Will these Democrats, even at Hillary’s urging, vote for Obama in November? To be absolutely honest, I don’t know. The most recent Rasmussen poll has Obama ahead by 4 points, 46 to 42. Considering that John Kerry only defeated George Bush by two points in Pennsylvania, it’s hard to consider the Keystone State as anything but a battleground in the months ahead.

What Obama has going for him is the economic mess that argues for change. Few people want a “third term” for George Bush, the very clever mantra Democratic pundits have used to frame John McCain. What he has going against him is that he is still not well known on a personal level and is subject to every suspicion and insinuation that his opponents can dredge up and that the conservative folks in this state could buy into.

And, yes, race will play a role, too. Gov. Rendell was excoriated by some when he suggested that an African American running for office in PA automatically loses five to seven percentage points because of race. Rendell cited his own campaign against former Pittsburgh Steelers great Lynn Swann, an African American Republican. Whether the governor should have played political pundit is one thing, but Rendell was absolutely correct in his observation. Race does still matter to enough people that in a close election it can make a difference.

If Obama could beef up his PA schedule, so could McCain. McCain has spent even less time in PA than Obama. The Republican visited Pittsburgh just once during the primary, and is scheduled to make his first post-primary stop here next week. He did spend a day in the eastern part of the state last week, and I suspect we shall see a lot of both nominees in the months ahead.

History is pretty clear on the importance of Pennsylvania. The last Democrat to win the White House without PA was Harry Truman in 1948, and only two Republicans in U.S. history (beginning with Lincoln’s win here in 1860) have won the presidency without Pennsylvania – Richard Nixon and George Bush.

Statewide Contests Below the Surface:

Quickly now, can you name the candidates for State Treasurer? How about the challengers to state Attorney General Tom Corbett or Auditor General Jack Wagner? Surprise! Pennsylvanians will elect its three statewide row officers this year, positions that are often stepping stones to Governor and Senator.

Republican Corbett’s opponent for the state’s top legal job is Democrat John Morganelli, the district attorney of Northhampton County (back east in Allentown, PA). Democrat Wagner’s opponent for auditor general is Republican Chet Beiler of Lancaster County, a local businessman. So far, neither Morganelli nor Beiler have been particularly visible, while the incumbents do everything they can to say in the news.

The open seat for state Treasurer, the seat given up by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, features a race between two Philadelphians – Republican Tom Ellis, a former Montgomery County commissioner, and Democrat Rob McCord, a Montgomery County venture capitalist. McCord was much more visible in the primary because he had opponents, unlike Ellis, so perhaps has a slight leg up in this mostly invisible contest.

While there is so much other state and local political intrigue to opine on, I’m going to halt this here, asking my PSF’ers to give me the chance to pen something over the holiday weekend. If some events get rained out this weekend, I just might get Part II out on Monday! In the meantime, I hope you and your family have a terrific Fourth of July celebration. Despite our current travails, this is a great country because of the sacrifices of so many men and women. Few among us would want to live in any other nation, especially those for whom this kind of democratic debate would risk torture and death. The optimist in me knows that it won’t be long before America is back on a roll again.


WJCM4all said...

I’m very disappointed in your recent Delano Den update. Why? Like 92% of the so-called journalist political analyst and professors you “pile-on” without a critical thought in your head. For example, your reference to President Bush is typical. Like “group thought” you conclude that he is a lame duck doing nothing. In reality, had the “do-nothing” Congress passed his first energy package we would have at least another 1 million barrels of DOMESTIC OIL in the pipeline that would have a material impact on prices and especially on speculation.
You call him a “lame duck” and perhaps the worst president but the so called “lame duck” has gotten all the funding for the war against terrorism (including Iraq and Afghanistan without time tables). The “lame duck” is demonstrating that his foreign policy is making a difference in the middle east, North Korea, and even the French seem to like us.

Again your “critical thinking” is in the closet and your basis is showing as you gush all over Obama as “smart, politically astute, cordial, thoughtful, and careful in his answers”. When you talk to Obama next time you might ask him what economic theory proposes tax increases during an economic turndown? You might ask him how a person with the “good judgment” needed to be president could sit in a church for over twenty years and support it with his money when that church engaged in racial hatred and condemned an America that has twice “saved the world”, provides the bulk of funding for the United Nations, won the cold war freeing millions to live again (remember tear down that wall) and has spent some seven trillion dollars on the “war against poverty”? You might ask him what kind of president would withdraw support from America’s allies (Israel, Iraq, and Columbia to name a few) while sucking up to the dictators and tyrants committed to destroy Israel, Iraq, and Columbia? You know you can’t ask these questions because the interview would be over before it started. But you will throw a few puff balls and then tell me the Obama is “smart, politically astute, cordial, thoughtful, and careful in his answers”.

Come on Jon you know better than this.

Bram Reichbaum said...