Politically Savvy Friends

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Three Weeks to Go & Counting

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

Happy Columbus Day! While the legal holiday is observed on a Monday, it was actually October 12, 1492, that Christopher Columbus saw the Bahamas. As we all know now, he was not the first European to “discover” America, but be careful to whom you say that. I am old enough to remember the late PA Supreme Court Justice Michael A. Musmanno, a wonderfully colorful man who went on a six-week tour of the nation to defend Columbus when Yale scholars declared that Leif Ericson had landed in America first. Ironically, Musmanno died on Columbus Day!

As many of you have reminded me, it’s been weeks since I’ve taken hand to keyboard to share my thoughts about this presidential race. It’s not like I’m vacationing! Between money (read the economy and Wall Street) and politics, my two principal news beats these days, my plate has been very full indeed. Since the presidential conventions, I’ve had two interviews with Barack Obama and one with John McCain and multiple interviews with surrogates. Obviously, both campaigns know how important Pennsylvania and neighboring Ohio (just 30 miles west of me) are in this contest, and I can practically guarantee that if Pennsylvania and Ohio vote alike on November 4, that man will be president.

So, three weeks from decision day, where do we stand? Can you say President Obama? No, wait, could it be President McCain?

In this latest PSF, let me share my thoughts as someone who has spent 25 years in the political world – first, as a behind-the-scenes player, and, now, as an observer and commentator. As always, I welcome your off-the-record views. If you prefer not to get these occasional missives, there’s a button below to get off the list. Otherwise, dear Politically Savvy Friend, read on.


The Wall Street Mess -- Calling FDR:

A friend of mine asked me the other day where was Franklin D. Roosevelt when we needed him. The reference, of course, was to FDR’s famous call in his First Inaugural: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” In the wake of the collapse of the Stock Market, causing most of us to lose more than one-third of our retirement funds, the absence of presidential leadership has been obvious.

It’s not that President Bush isn’t trying. It’s just that nobody cares what he says. His job approval ratings are in the mid-20s, the lowest of his presidency, and most financial analysts concluded that every time he spoke to the nation last week the market dropped some more.

Of course, presidents are not economists, finance wizards, or portfolio money managers. But they do have experts around them that are or should be. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke may know a thing or two, but it’s not clear that even they know how to turn this market or the economy around. We begin this week with some hopeful signs. The stock market has resurged some 900+ points, and we are now seeing some concrete action out of Washington.

What surprised me most is that the Bush administration, having pushed so hard for its Wall Street rescue plan (or bailout, as detractors call it), seemed so unprepared to implement it, once Congress approved the bill a week ago. I would have thought the implementation plan would have been on the drawing board as the Congress debated its inevitable passage. The consequence has been delay, instead of action, and we all saw how Wall Street reacted to that. But concerted global action over this last weekend gives hope that maybe, just maybe, we can regain our footing.

Ultimately, the market will bottom out and eventually regain some, if not all, the losses over the next two years, if not sooner. At least that’s what the experts say. But all this focus on the economy demonstrates like nothing else how important it is to have a president with a team in place to make sure these meltdowns don’t occur and, if they do, to have a plan to minimize their impact on average working people. The Bush administration had neither.

It’s the Economy, Stupid:

When you’re hurting economically, it’s always about you. That’s a basic rule in politics. The candidate who can address your concerns or at least appears sympathetic to your plight will get your support. No surprise, every recent poll puts the economy and jobs as the #1 issue in this presidential race – 57% in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Most of us have felt a lot of economic pain in recent months – unrestrained energy and food price increases, higher unemployment, devaluation of our homes, and now the evisceration of our 401-Ks and IRAs.

Baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964), some 76 million of us, are particularly hurt by the latter, even if it’s just a paper loss (as long as we don’t cash in). My father’s generation had guaranteed company pensions, the so-called defined benefit plans, where the retired employee got a check every month from his employer for as long as he lived. Corporate America abandoned that approach when it became too expensive to sustain, and substituted a plan tied to the stock market wherein employees would deposit part of their own money (often matched partially by the employer) in a 401-K. Gone are those guaranteed monthly pension checks during retirement – except, of course, Social Security. Your retirement security depends on the return of your money set aside in investment accounts of your choosing and always subject to the vagaries of the stock market. That’s why everyone is so angry about what happened on Wall Street and the failure of our politicians to prevent it.

[Parenthetically, the only people left with those old-fashioned pension checks are public employees – teachers, government workers, and elected officials. We, the taxpayers, pay much of that monthly check, and I suspect that this last remnant of defined benefit will disappear in the years ahead, particularly if the typical American retiree appears to struggle while their neighbor who worked for the taxpayer enjoys a comfortable retirement.]

All this is to say that Americans hunger for a president who, not only understands all this, but appears willing to protect our jobs and restore jobs shipped overseas, raise our wages so we can (at least) stay even with inflation, provide affordable health care for all, and maintain our retirement security. It’s a very tall order.

McCain or Obama – Can Either One Make Life Better?

In their gut, most Americans don’t think either John McCain or Barack Obama can really do all that is necessary to make our lives better. Such is our cynicism that it’s easy to say that it doesn’t really matter who wins the White House, at least on the economy. But empathy is important and forced to choose, most Americans think Obama can address the economy better than McCain. In the latest Newsweek poll, those polled said Obama would do a better job on the economy and jobs than McCain by a 54% to 35% margin. Close to the same result in the Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 50% to 30%. We see similar results on health care, 56% to 30% for Obama in the Newsweek poll and 52% to 32% in the Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll.

McCain’s initial response to Wall Street even if taken out of contest (“The fundamentals of our economy are sound.”), coupled with his short-lived suspension of his campaign and refusal to debate Obama until Congress resolved its response to the crisis, made it easy for Obama to portray him as “out-of-touch” and a bit schizophrenic. That’s not fair to McCain, but nothing is ever fair in politics.

Fundamentally, what hurts McCain, in my view, is the general sense that, at least on the economy, he is really not much different than President Bush, someone traditionally hostile to government regulation of Wall Street, generally pro-business, and much more attuned to the interests of the wealthy than working Americans. In short, in difficult economic times, it’s tough to be a Republican politician because it’s so easy for Democrats to affix a label to you.

McCain Tries to Change the Theme Line:

Democrats don’t like it, but the McCain campaign did exactly what a smart candidate does when the number one issue in a campaign is against you – change the issue. Enter Bill Ayers, a ‘60s anti-war radical who cofounded the Weathermen underground movement and participated in the bombing of the NYC police headquarters, the U.S. Capitol, and the Pentagon in the early 1970s, activities that occurred when Obama was a young kid, but actions that caused damage to public property but, fortunately, no death or injury. Not my kind of guy, that’s for sure.

Fast forward to the mid-1990s in Chicago. By this time, Ayers has become a prominent educator in that city, with multiple Masters degrees and a doctorate. Ayers, now a Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois in Chicago, worked with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to write the so-called Chicago Annenberg Challenge, securing $49 million to reform the Chicago public schools over a five-year period. [Walter Annenberg, a Republican who died in 2002, was the billionaire Philadelphia publisher who was President Reagan’s ambassador to the United Kingdom]. Obama was an original member of the board named to distribute that money. Besides their association in this project, Obama and Ayers were board members on the Woods Fund of Chicago, an anti-poverty philanthropic group. It’s also a fact that Obama was in Ayers home when Ayers hosted an event at which then-Illinois state Sen. Alice Palmer presented Obama as her choice to succeed her in the 1996 Democratic primary.

What are we to make of all this? Obama has condemned Ayers’ illegal activity and calls McCain’s attempt to question his character through Ayers as “guilt by association.” He says he never “palled around” with Ayers, as McCain’s running-mate has charged. But McCain and his allies suggest that it’s just not believable that Obama was unaware of Ayers’ background and that he should have, if he had any decent character at all, completely excused himself from any association with this man. [This is similar, by the way, to the same argument made against Obama because of his long-time association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright whose anti-American, anti-white rhetoric was so inflammatory during the primary season].

PSF’ers can make their own judgment about what this says about Obama or McCain, for that matter. The political question is – has it worked to help McCain? Not yet, is my quick answer. Sure it’s “red meat” for the Republican base that wants McCain to attack Obama more vigorously, but the last-minute nature of the attack strikes many as “desperation” politics. The Fox News poll last week found that 61% of those polled said it made no difference to their vote. Even worse for McCain, some 51% said McCain was running a “negative” campaign for president, while only 21% said that of Obama.

So while McCain’s campaign may be right to change the issue from the economy to something else, a character assault on Obama because of his association (whatever it was) with Bill Ayers doesn’t seem to be working, at least not yet. Perhaps a better issue for McCain might be national security.

Sarah Palin (a/k/a Tina Fey) Becomes a Pop Culture Phenom:

Whether you think Gov. Sarah Palin is qualified to be President of the United States, no one can doubt that she has taken America by storm – and thanks to Tina Fey – has singlehandedly restored Saturday Night Live to “must-watch” television.

I have not met Palin, so I don’t know what she is really like in person, but her spunky style has certainly hit a chord with many. But, let’s be honest, she has also become a figure of ridicule – and, at this stage of the campaign, it’s unclear whether the strong support she gets from some trumps the shake-of-the-head others give her. The most recent Newsweek poll gives her a 49% to 45% favorable rating.

Nonetheless, McCain’s choice of Palin, in my view, did exactly what was intended. It brought the Christian conservative evangelicals back on board the Republican ticket. McCain is a social conservative, but he’s never really been comfortable with the Falwell-Robertson ideology. Palin is not only comfortable with that ideology -- she lives her beliefs. That scares some Americans, but it was those Christian conservative voters who delivered the state of Ohio to George W. Bush in 2004 and nearly delivered Pennsylvania.

Fundamentally, I don’t believe that either Joe Biden, who can quite legitimately point to his Pennsylvania roots, or Sarah Palin determines the outcome of this election. The race is between Obama and McCain, not their running-mates. The last vice presidential nominee to make a difference electorally was Lyndon Baines Johnson who delivered Texas – and the White House – to John F. Kennedy in 1960.


Up for Grabs:

As the economy got worse, Barack Obama’s poll numbers got better in Pennsylvania. His lead last week over John McCain ranged from 12% (Marist poll) to 15% (SurveyUSA). Mind you, in September, Obama’s lead was well within the margin of error, ranging from 1% (Strategic Vision) to 4% (Morning Call). So is the recent double-digit bump for Obama a temporary surge, or a predictor of the final outcome?

McCain obviously believes it’s temporary, as both he and Palin criss-cross much of the state and, almost as importantly, their TV ads – and those of groups that support them – continue to run at full strength. Obama hardly thinks PA is decided yet either, as he and Biden stump the state and bring in some heavy-weights like President and Senator Clinton to campaign in Scranton this past weekend.

In short, both candidates act like this state is up for grabs, regardless of the polls. Maybe they know something we don’t know!

The Key for Victory in PA:

James Carville once described Pennsylvania as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. It was a clever line, but not exactly right. In many ways, PA is like 50 states – urban centers, manufacturing river towns, rural deer country, agricultural heartlands, areas that identify with the east coast and other parts that are clearly Midwestern in outlook. PA has liberal Republicans and very conservative Republicans, just as it has liberal Democrats and very conservative Democrats, and both parties have Christian evangelicals. And, yes, many Pennsylvanians have guns, religion, and a small-town ethos. Bottom line, this is a hard state to categorize.

But the keys to victory are not hard to discern.

Four years ago, John Kerry just barely defeated George Bush in PA by 2.5% of the vote, or 144,000 votes out of 4.7 million votes cast. The Democratic victory began in Philadelphia where Kerry racked up a record 412,000 vote margin over Bush. In August, Gov. Ed Rendell told me that he hoped Philadelphia would beat that record for Obama this November. The latest registration figures show it possible: Philadelphia has about 852,000 Democrats, 145,000 Republicans, and 93,000 independents (or other third-party members). Could Philadelphia give Obama a 500,000 vote lead? It would be astounding, but do-able. Last Saturday’s four-stop visit within Philadelphia by Obama was designed to do just that.

The suburbs of Philadelphia used to be a sure Republican thing. No more. In 2004, Kerry carried three of the four “bedroom” counties – Montgomery (by 46,000 votes), Bucks (by 9,000 votes), and Delaware (by 42,000 votes), losing only Chester County (by 10,000 for Bush). This year, McCain thinks he can do better by stressing his “maverick” independent style. What hampers that is the growth of Democrats in these counties. Montgomery County has now turned Democratic by 19,000 votes, with only 10,000 votes separating Republicans from Democrats in Bucks County and 23,000 in Delaware County.

But even if Obama scores big in Southeastern PA like Kerry did, that does not guarantee victory in the state. Pennsylvania has important concentration of voters in the Northeast (Scranton/Wilkes-Barre), Northwest (Erie), South Central East (Harrisburg/Lancaster/York), South Central West (Johnstown, Altoona, Somerset), and the voter-rich area surrounding Pittsburgh in Southwestern PA. And I’ve left out lots other important nooks and crannies of the state.

Allegheny County (Greater Pittsburgh) is almost certainly going to vote for Obama. While not as lopsided as Philadelphia, it is overwhelmingly Democratic. Latest registration numbers have roughly 586,000 Dems here to 254,000 Republicans and 101,000 independents. In 2004, Kerry beat Bush here by 97,000 votes. In my view, Obama has the potential to win Allegheny County by more than 100,000 votes, depending on whether all the new registrants actually turn up to vote, but it is hardly a done deal.

It looks much better for McCain outside Pittsburgh and its immediate environs. Take Westmoreland County, where Democrats have a 49,000 voter registration edge over the Republicans: Four years ago, Bush beat Kerry in this county by 22,000 votes. In Washington County, Dems have a 40,000 registration edge today but Kerry only beat Bush by 552 votes. In Beaver County, Dems lead Republicans by 34,000 voters but Kerry only won by 2,200 votes. Take Lawrence County where Dems outnumber Republicans by 12,000 voters but Bush won by 551 votes. You get the picture.

The conservative Democrats in Southwestern PA can never be taken for granted by a Democratic candidate running statewide. Neither Obama nor McCain have campaigned in this region since late August – although Palin was here last Friday and Michelle Obama is expected on Thursday – but at some point the race will come down to regions west of the Susquehanna River. Both Gov. Ed Rendell and former Gov. Tom Ridge have certainly counseled their party nominees – western Pennsylvanians like retail politics, vote a higher percentage than back east, and are never predictable. In the end, while small in numbers, how Democratic counties like Beaver County and Washington County vote could well predict who wins the state of Pennsylvania.

The Role of Race in PA:

Finally, a word about race. I had a Democratic committeeman from this area come up to me a few months ago and bluntly tell me that he could never support Obama because he’s black. It’s abhorrent to me that anyone would vote for or against someone on the basis of race, gender, or religion, but we all know that it happens in every election. I have written about this in earlier PSFs. While most of us can point to stories from friends or relatives who say they know somebody who will never vote for Obama because of his race, it’s hard to measure the impact of this.

Last spring, Rendell observed that he felt in his race against an African American in Pennsylvania, the white candidate benefitted by as much as five to seven percentage points. He should know, not only as an astute politician but also as one who ran against an African American in 2006, the Pittsburgh Steelers great Lynn Swann, a Republican. If Rendell is correct, then Obama needs a double-digit lead to win PA.

But I don’t know if Rendell is right, especially when it comes to Barack Obama and John McCain. It seems to me that there are so many other legitimate reasons to vote for one or against these candidates that race is consequential only for the true racists, which I hope is less than one percent of the PA electorate, not seven percent.

Still, there is a gnawing feeling that race will play a greater role in this election than anyone wants to admit. There is not much Obama can do about this, although his recent 60-second biographical ad featuring his white mother and white grandparents was a subliminal way to deal with the issue. My gut instinct is what worries some white voters is not Obama but other African Americans like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (notice how they’ve disappeared this election season?) who appear to have made a career blaming whites for everything wrong in the black community. One white woman asked me the other day if I thought Obama would be beholden to those leaders if he won.

Obama deserves to be judged on his own, not by what people think of Jackson or Sharpton – just as John McCain deserves to be judged on his own, not by what people think of George W. Bush. But it’s the nature of politics to obfuscate rather than clarify. We won’t know the role of race in this contest until the votes are counted.

There is always much more that I can opine on, especially here in Pennsylvania. But let me save something for another PSF next week. I’m committed to doing at least one a week through and right after the election. As always, I welcome your comments – and hope to see some of you out on the campaign trail.

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