Thursday, September 25, 2008

Barack Obama's bad judgment

By DeWayne Wickham

During the primary election season Barack Obama allowed his surrogates to brand Bill Clinton a racist for his combative support of his wife's unsuccessful campaign to win the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

The racism charge was rooted largely in Clinton's attempt to marginalize Obama's landslide victory in the South Carolina primary by linking it to Jesse Jackson's two failed presidential campaigns.

"Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in '84 and '88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here," Clinton said. His words were widely seem by blacks as a racial putdown. By linking Obama's victory to Jackson, a black candidate who lost his two bids for the Democratic Party nomination and not to his own primary victories in South Carolina during his successful White House campaigns, Clinton opened himself up to this charge.

But it was bad judgment for Obama to allow his surrogates to label the former president in that way. In doing so they unnecessarily strained relations between Obama and the man whose support he now badly needs. This became all too clear earlier this month when Obama went to New York City to ask Clinton to campaign for him in the battleground states of Florida, Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Imagine that. Obama, who is poised to become this nation's first black president, went to Clinton's office in Harlem - the symbolic capital of black America - to ask the white man his surrogates called a racist to help him win the presidency.

John McCain's bad judgment

By DeWayne Wickham
The most important question that hangs over Sen. John McCain’s surprise decision to briefly suspend his campaign and thrust himself into the center of congressional efforts to negotiate a plan to bailout the U.S. financial markets is one of judgment.

During his unsuccessful 2000 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, McCain said of the Senate Ethics Committee’s findings on his involvement in the “Keating Five” savings and loan scandal that cost American taxpayers $2.6 billion: “I was judged guilty of poor judgment…it will be on my tombstone and deservedly so.”

Should these words also be used to explain McCain’s snap decision Wednesday to put his campaign’s activities on hold so that he could return to the nation’s capital and insert himself into the search for a solution to this nation’s biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression? Was it an act of political courage or brinksmanship for him to seek such a visible role in the creation of a $700 billion bailout that could come back to haunt its political backers?

McCain, whose “Country First” campaign claims to put love of country ahead of political gain, said it was time to set politics aside and tackle this problem, which if not addressed could have serious ripple effects around the world.

"I do not believe that the plan on the table will pass as it currently stands, and we are running out of time," he said of the rescue bill under consideration when he suspended his campaign.
As the GOP presidential candidate, McCain certainly needed to say something about this financial crisis, the remnants of which the next president will inherit. But it was a big gamble for him to attempt to broker a solution in the middle of his White House campaign.

In urging President Bush to invite him and Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, to the White House to discuss the matter, McCain has taken on a share of the ownership of this financial crisis. While he, of course, hopes that voters will give him high marks for his quick response to this problem, McCain also now stands to shoulder a good bit of the blame if the bailout fails to produce the desired results.

Risk taking of this sort is what McCain did when he tapped Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his vice presidential candidate. Far from the most qualified person for the job, she must have seemed to him to be the best political choice. In picking Palin, McCain strengthened his appeal to his party’s Christian conservative base – and made a measureable gain among white women for his White House campaign.

But as Palin has hit some rough spots in interviews with ABC News anchor Charles Gibson and CBS News anchor Katie Couric, McCain’s selection of her is looking more and more like a bad decision. When she is subjected to tough questions, Palin sounds like the national politics and foreign affairs novice that her resume suggests she is. When the McCain campaign severely limits press access to Palin – as it has done – it makes his selection look like a bad call.

Now, McCain puts a spotlight again on his judgment. If he succeeds in forcing into the bailout bill many of the concessions that he, and others, demand, McCain could reap some big political benefits – given that a recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that voters preferred Obama’s ideas on the economy over those of McCain by 46 percent to 32 percent.

If McCain’s attempt to shape the bailout succeeds, it may propel him into the White House. But if it proves to be another case of bad judgment, it will render him a historical footnote – and make bad judgment an indelible part of his political epitaph.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Need to register black voters, who you gonna call?

By DeWayne Wickham

OK, OK. I know Jesse Jackson put a foot in his mouth a few weeks back when he was overheard complaining about how Barack Obama talks to black folks - and for suggesting that he'd like to snip off a piece of the Democratic presidential candidate's anatomy.

But Jackson apologized and Obama said he accepted the Baptist minister's mea culpa. But have the people running Obama's campaign gotten over that slight? I don't think so. If they had someone on Obama's team would have reached out to Jackson by now to get him to mount a major voter registration effort in support of Obama's White House run.

With just two months left before election day, Republican John McCain took a 4-point lead over Obama among registered voters in a Gallup Poll released Monday. McCain's lead stretched to 10 points among likely voters.

This bad news came just days after I obtained a confidential document from the Obama camp that is even more alarming.

In the battleground states of Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Virginia, hundreds of thousands of blacks who are eligible to vote are not registered to vote.
Thirty-five percent of eligible black voters in the metropolitan areas of Miami and Jacksonville, Fla., aren't registered; 38 percent in Indianapolis, and 27 percent in Detroit.

In the metropolitan areas of Richmond and Norfolk, Va., 40 percent of eligible black voters aren't registered. Thirty-two percent of Atlanta's eligible blacks aren't registered. In Denver, 41 percent of that city's eligible black voters are not on the city's voting rolls.

Jesse Jackson registered millions of blacks during his 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns - and in the years since. But so far, the Obama campaign hasn't called upon him to help get more blacks registered in time to vote in the November general election.

This is a mistake the political strategists running Obama's campaign may soon come to regret.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Can Obama convince voters he's an Omni-American?

By DeWayne Wickham

At its core, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign is a political test of Albert Murray’s belief in the Omni-American.

With two months to go before the election, Obama’s run for the White House is already the most successful political race a black candidate has undertaken in the United States. By winning the nomination of the Democratic Party he has reached a higher rung of the ladder of American opportunity than did Frederick Douglass or Booker T. Washington; Mary McLeod Bethune or Shirley Chisholm; Martin Luther King Jr., or Jesse Jackson, Sr.

The roots of Obama’s White House campaign are firmly planted in the soil that Murray, the brilliant literary and social critic, alluded to in his 1970 book, “The Omni-American.” This blistering assessment of America’s racial divide downplays the importance of race. “For all of their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other,” Murray wrote.

But not until now has much evidence emerged to suggest that Murray’s thesis can be applied to the tissue of America’s body politic.

Obama has tried to make his race an incidental matter, but it hasn’t been easy—despite his strong, white family roots in Kansas. In March, he was forced to confront the issue head on in the wake of some controversial and racially provocative remarks made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of a Chicago church Obama attended for more than two decades.

In distancing himself from Wright, Obama cast himself as an Omni-American.

“I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveholders – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

“It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one,” he said in a nationally televised speech from Philadelphia’s Constitution Center. Now, in the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, Obama faces some more daunting tests. One is a not-so-subtle appeal to racial hatred; the other is a necessary outreach to black voters.

The first surfaced during the GOP convention when former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey told a group of USA TODAY and Gannett News Service reporters that white racism might undermine Obama’s efforts to win the battleground states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“The Bubba vote is there, and it’s very real…There’s an awful lot of people in America, bless their heart, who simply are not emotionally prepared to vote for a black man. It’s deplorable, but it’s real,” he said. It’s also something Republicans have nurtured with the race-baiting “Southern Strategy” they have clung to for four decades.

The other test relates to Jesse Jackson. With hundreds of thousands of blacks unregistered in the battleground states, Obama needs him to lead a major effort to get them on the voting rolls. When it comes to registering blacks, Jackson has no peer. But many inside and outside of the Obama campaign see Jackson as a link to the racially divisive past that Obama is trying to escape.

With the election hanging in the balance Obama shouldn’t be so myopic. A Jackson-led voter registration drive could help propel him into the presidency – and an Omni-American in the White House.

Friday, September 5, 2008

McCain didn't strikeout

By DeWayne Wickham

When John McCain walked onto the catwalk of the stage that protruded out into a sea of Republican faithful Thursday night he must have been thinking: please, don’t blow this.

A week earlier the Democratic Party held a widely acclaimed convention in Denver that was great political theater. The speeches were the stuff of television melodramas and got, mostly, gushing media coverage. The convention was overrun with Hollywood celebrities and sports stars. And the queen of daytime talk shows, Oprah Winfrey, showed up to hear Barack Obama accept the nomination that makes him the first black presidential candidate of a major political party.

When it was all over, Obama had taken an 8-point lead over McCain in a CBS News Poll with just a little more than two months to go before the presidential election.

But things turned sharply in McCain’s favor the day before he entered the Xcel Energy Center, in St. Paul, Minn., to formally accept the GOP’s presidential nomination. On the morning of McCain’s address, CBS News released the results of a poll conducted over three days that put Obama and McCain in a dead heat.

They each had the backing of 42 percent of registered voters. Only a few days earlier a CBS News Poll had given Obama a 48 to 40 advantage in the presidential race. What caused Obama’s lead to disappear is unclear. The verbal barrage speakers at the GOP convention lobbed at him came Wednesday night, after the poll had been conducted.

Even so, I suspect that more than a few of the people who watched the drubbing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin gave Obama in her primetime television address expected a shift towards McCain in the polls.

“I might add that in small towns, we don’t quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren’t listening,” Palin said.

That was a biting reference to an appeal Obama made for support of voters in Scranton, Pa., during the primaries that was followed by this statement in a closed-door meeting with a small group of wealthy supporters in California: “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.

“And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Palin used a bit of this remark – out of context – to paint Obama as a two-faced, political elite who is contemptuous of small-town America. That characterization probably went over well with some of her television audience, which was nearly as big as the 38.3 million viewers who watched Obama give his acceptance speech before 85,000 people in Denver’s Invesco Field.

Palin, a political unknown outside of Alaska just a week before she gave her vice presidential acceptance speech, drew a television audience of 37.2 million viewers; many more than watched Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware accept the number two spot on the Democratic Party’s White House ticket.

So with all of this going for him McCain didn’t need to hit a “walk-off home run” with his speech, which closed out the GOP convention. He just needed to avoid striking out.

McCain didn’t homer or strikeout.

His speech was good, but not great. It was the best address he’s given during this campaign, but it didn’t have people hanging from the rafters. What he succeeded in doing, I think, is hold the ground the GOP had taken – and kept Republicans within striking distance of an upset win in the presidential election.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Bad news for Obama

By DeWayne Wickham

The race for president is now a dead heat.

According to a CBS News Poll taken between Sept. 1-3, the eight-point lead Barack Obama took over John McCain following the Democratic Party's convention last week has disappeared.

What happened to wipe out Obama's advantage is unclear. But this has got to be troubling for the Obama campaign. The poll was completed before Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin gave her keynote address last night. That speech put the Obama camp on notice that the Republicans' vice presidential nominee is a fiery - and combative - speaker who should not be underestimated.

The CBS poll shouldn't be taken lightly either. It found that while the level of "enthusiasm" for Obama among people who say they will vote for him dropped, from 67 to 55 percent, it has grown among people who say they will cast their ballot for McCain, up from 25 to 35 percent.

This movement could reflect not just a softening of support for Obama, but a voter shift away from the Democratic candidate to McCain, the Republican standard bearer.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

GOP convention is almost lily white

By DeWayne Wickham

The number of black delegates at this year's Republican Party convention is the lowest it has been in 40 years.

Just 36 blacks are delegates at the GOP's quadrennial meeting this week in St. Paul, Minn. That's an anemic 1.5 percent of the 2,380 delegates. The last time the Republican Party - which was created in 1854 to stop the spread of slavery - had fewer black delegates was in 1968 when only 26 blacks were delegates to the San Francisco convention.

For much of the 20th century the GOP was wracked by infighting between the party's so-called "black and tan" and "lily white" Southern factions over the racial composition of convention delegates from the former Confederate states.

That open conflict ended in the 1960s. But the Southern strategy the Republican Party embraced in 1968 helped limit the GOP's outreach to blacks - and the growth in the number of black convention delegates. Four years ago there were 167 black GOP convention delegates - the most ever.

Last week there were 1,079 black delegates at the Democratic Party's convention in Denver. That's more than a 500 percent increase over the 209 blacks who were delegates to the party's 1968 convention in Chicago.

Three years ago, Ken Mehlman, then the GOP chairman, apologized in a speech to the NAACP for his party's Southern strategy. He said: "Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way, or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization."

"We were wrong" to do that, Mehlman admitted.

But as the minuscule number of black delegates at this year's Republican convention makes clear, the GOP still has a lot of work to do to overcome that sorry history - and win a decent share of the black vote.

Monday, September 1, 2008

How will Clinton answer Obama's call for help?

By DeWayne Wickham

Just when it seemed Hillary Clinton had been pushed onto the back bench of the presidential campaign, she's being asked to step up her appearances on behalf of Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama. The request came in the wake of presidential candidate John McCain's announcement Friday that he'd chosen Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate on the GOP ticket.

The Obama campaign is now talking to Clinton about how often she can stump for Obama, who beat her in a bruising fight for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination and then ignored the please of her supporters to pick the New York senator as his running mate. Instead, Obama chose Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, a foreign policy expert who helps Obama fend off charges that he has little expertise in that area.

But with McCain's pick of Palin, gender will likely trump foreign policy as a pivotal issue in this presidential race - and that's got to worry Obama's campaign.

"We want her to do as much as she is willing to do. She's a great spokesperson for us and for change....We want her to do all that her schedule will permit," David Axelrod, the Obama campaign's chief strategist, told Britain's The Telegraph of the outreach to Clinton.

But getting Clinton to redouble her efforts for Obama is more a matter of need, than want. When the Democratic Party convention got underway last week, nearly one-third of the women who backed Clinton during the primaries said they wouldn't vote for Obama in the general election.

"You haven't worked so hard over the last 18 months, or endured the last eight years, to suffer through more failed leadership. No way. No how. No McCain," Clinton said during last week's Democratic convention in a pointed call for her supporters to rally around Obama.

After that speech many Democratic strategists said Clinton's strong endorsement of Obama - and the alarm she sounded about a McCain presidency - would convince most of her wavering supporters to vote for Obama.

New York Gov. David Paterson told me that Clinton's address would help her disillusioned female supporters get over their disappointment. "The know they don't want John McCain," said Patterson. But he added many women were asking themselves before Clinton's convention address, " ' When is this party going to recognize us? When are they going to stop having an old boy's network?'."

Clinton's call for party unity and an end to the Democratic party's gender divide may have been undermined by McCain's selection of Palin.

Despite Palin's lack of national and foreign policy experience, going after her won't be easy. biden will have to be careful when he squares off with her in the Oct. 2 debate between the vice presidential candidates. He 'll have to tone down the attack mode he displayed in his convention speech. That kind of combativeness with Palin may cause some undecided female voters and some PUMAs, Clinton supporters whose acronym stands for "Party Unity My Ass," to vote for the McCain-Palin ticket.

According to a recent Gallup Poll, this election may be determined by independent white female voters. While Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly support their party's presidential nominees there's a big split among independent white voters. Although independent white men back McCain over Obama, 51 percent to 35 percent, McCain holds a razor-thin lead among independent white women, 42 percent to 41 percent.

The selection of Palin may have already given McCain a small victory. Obama had an 8 point lead (49 percent to 41 percent) over McCain the day after he went before 85,000 people in Denver's Invesco Field to accept his party's presidential nomination. But the following day it dropped 2 points (48 percent to 42 percent) after McCain announced that he'd picked Palin as his running mate.

And now, ironically, the Obama campaign will have to lean heavily on Hillary Clinton - who many Obama staffers vilified during the primary campaign - to help stave off a shift among these female voters to McCain. But Clinton has not rushed to defend the parapet of Obama's campaign.

"We should all be proud of Gov. Sarah Palin's historic nomination, and I congratulate her and Sen. McCain," Clinton said in a statement. "While their policies would take America in the worng direction, Gov. Palin will add an important new voice to the debate."

Important, indeed.

Palin's introduction into this campaign is a smart tactical move by McCain. Forget about all the pundits who decry her lack of experience in foreign affairs. As this contest is shaping up, inexperience in that area won't matter much to the voter who will decide this election.

With just a little more than two months before voters go to the polls, the outcome of this contest may well depend on how willing - and successful - Clinton will be in convincing disaffected white female voters to pick Obama and Biden over McCain and Palin.