Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Now What?

At the end of the movie "The Candidate," after Robert Redford's character (Joe McKay? Mike McKay? Something like that) pulls off a huge upset and gets elected to the U.S. Senate from California, he turns to his handlers and asks, "Now what?"

We might well ask ourselves the same question right now. About President-elect Barack Obama, about the near-term fate of our economy and our country, and even, in my case, about my blog and the Sovern Nation website.

It's only taken me a week to get around to sharing my post-election thoughts. Election Night was a wee-hour blur of pizza slices and spreadsheet numbers and Twitter messages. The next two days were spent doing election postmortems, both on the radio and at a California Historical Society panel. I spent part of the Morning After in downtown Oakland, getting the reaction of older African Americans to the historic election of a black president. Then I knocked off our final parody song of the campaign, to the tune of "American Pie," with the as-usual off-key help of my newsroom buddies, Mark and Angela. And I've been really busy buying a house and planning my wedding - so no, I haven't had a chance for that post-election vacation just yet!

But now I do have a few moments to reflect on what we've all been through, and what it all means.

(Before I do that, though, a few quick housekeeping notes: The Election Night Live Blog was a great success, with 242 different people taking part in the online conversation. And I don't think more than five or six of them were related to me. Thanks to everyone who joined the fun! If you'd like to hear the audio recap of the general election campaign, a two-minute special sound piece I did that aired Election Morning, click here. You can hear the story about elderly African Americans reacting to the election here, and you can hear "Bye Bye to the Republican Guy" here - our biggest hit campaign song ever, with many complimentary emails and a couple dozen requests for copies).

So. Barack Obama beat John McCain. I know that I said he would, in my last blog, but that didn't reassure a lot of the anxious Democrats I know. They were, to put it mildly, freaking out. But this election just wasn't that close. I was way off on the Electoral College, but I did do pretty well on that popular vote prediction. I said Obama would win with 52.5% of the vote, and that McCain would get 46.5%, a six-point spread. The not-quite final numbers? Obama has 52.6%, and McCain has 46.1. That's as good as I've ever done at these things.

But I really didn't think Obama would roll up such a huge win in the Electoral College. I was sure the Republicans would pull out some of those too-close-to-call swing states, but instead they all went for Obama - except Missouri, which still isn't decided. McCain is winning the Show Me State by 5000 votes right now, but they still have thousands of absentee ballots to count.

Obama won North Carolina and Indiana by a single point each, Florida by two, Ohio by four. He carried Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Nevada in double-digit landslides. In most states, either the polls were right, or they understated Obama's support. There was no Bradley Effect. The racist vote was swamped by the turnout of young people and black voters, and by the huge gender gap American women gave the Democrats. In retrospect, probably any Democratic nominee could have beaten John McCain, given the tattered economy and all the built-in disadvantages for the GOP. If she had beaten Obama in the primary, Hillary Clinton would be president-elect right now. In many ways, the Democratic primary was like one of those conference championship games in football that people call "the REAL Super Bowl," matching two top teams for the right to play a lesser-regarded one from the other conference. McCain was the weak sister from the patsy conference, and the Democrats the elite powerhouse.

It's no mystery how Obama won. He ran a first-rate campaign, the most disciplined and best-organized I've ever seen, avoided serious missteps, and stayed positive, upbeat and hopeful. When the economy collapsed, and McCain thrashed about, Obama remained cool, calm and collected. He reaped the benefit of the enormous antipathy the electorate feels toward the Republican Party in general, and President Bush in particular. And when he got the lead, he sat on the ball and ran out the clock, to borrow another football metaphor.

And now we will have our first African American president.

That still feels like an extraordinary thing to say. After a few months, when he's screwed up a couple of things and the economy is still sputtering and our troops are still in Iraq, people may start to forget that Barack Obama is a Black President, and will treat him just like any other beleaguered chief executive, and that is as it should be (of course I hope nothing at all goes wrong, but let's be realistic here!). But right now, Obama's election feels so deep and visceral and earth-shaking. I went out the next morning and saw people running for the bus, and rushing to catch their trains, and I thought, what are these people doing? Don't they know how different everything is today? How can they go about their everyday lives when something so profound has taken place?

Of course, in our day-to-day lives, maybe it's not that profound. If you didn't have a job a week ago, you probably still don't. If you were going broke last week, Obama's election didn't magically replenish your bank account. The president doesn't really have that much impact on us individually; your mayor or governor probably affects you much more.

But then there was the young black man who told me he's going to go back to college, because if Obama can win the White House, he can certainly get those last few credits. There was the middle-aged black woman who is suddenly inspired to finally start her own business. There was the 60-something Oakland street vendor, originally from Louisiana, who said "I finally feel like I have a place in society, that all of us matter, not just white folk."

In my neighborhood, there are only two people who routinely fly American flags from their houses on the Fourth of July, or Flag Day. When I went out last Wednesday morning to walk the dog, a few hours after Barack Obama was elected president, I counted six American flags fluttering in the November breeze on my street alone. Brand new flags, flown proudly, saluting the country that wasn't too afraid to take such a bold and giant step. I can't possibly feel what an African American must feel right now, looking at the handsome black face that will represent America to the world. But I can think back on three centuries of oppression, slavery and racial hatred, and marvel at how far we've come. Yes, we have a long way to go, but as Martin Luther King Jr. famously declared on the steps of the Montgomery County Courthouse in 1965, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

I can still remember asking my mother and stepfather in early 1968 whether Rev. King was going to be the next president. I had only known one, name of Lyndon Baines Johnson, but King was making as much news as any of the presidential candidates - McCarthy, Humphrey, Kennedy, Wallace - and a speech I'd seen him deliver on TV had given me goosebumps. I guess I was too young to understand that the White House was the exclusive province of white men. My eternally optimistic mom gave me a diplomatic answer, something along the lines of "I really don't think so, but you never know!" It was left to my much blunter stepfather to deliver the crushing blow: "What are you talking about? Quit your daydreaming. America will never elect a black president." A few weeks later, King was dead. We cried at school. There were riots in the streets. He was right, I thought.

It only took 40 more years, but I'm happy, for all our sake, to be able to say, finally, that he was wrong.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Obama Beats McCain

There you have it - tomorrow's headline today. KCBS - where we report the news before it even happens.

I am going out on a not very precarious limb with my quadrennial presidential prediction. This is my 69th, and final, pre-election blog posting (I will be blogging live on Election Night, but that's another matter).

If I'm wrong, John McCain can wave my words in the air and crow with glee, but something tells me he'll have much bigger media fish to fry if he pulls off one of the biggest upsets in history and beats Barack Obama.

I've been predicting presidential results since 1972. Yes, I was only 11 years old, but somehow, something told me that Nixon would wallop McGovern. Maybe it was Walter Cronkite. Maybe it was my dad. Maybe it was Thomas Eagleton's shock therapist. I simply can't remember.

I have a pretty good track record - I've gotten seven elections right and only two wrong. But I have to warn all you anxious Obama backers that it's the last two in a row that I've blown. In 2000, I detected the weirdness in the air but I read it exactly backwards: I predicted that George W. Bush would win the popular vote but that Al Gore would capture the Electoral College. Oops. And then in 2004, I really believed that John Kerry would win Ohio, and thus the presidency, but it didn't happen that way. So maybe you'd better take my prognostication with a big rock of salt.

This time though, I can back up my prediction with some actual returns, even before most of us go to the polls. As is the tradition, the voters of Dixville Notch, New Hampshire have already voted and announced the results. Have you ever been to Dixville Notch? It's a tiny hamlet way up there in the Great North Woods of northern New Hampshire, where most of the town's 75 residents run a beautiful White Mountains resort called The Balsams. I went to camp not too far from there - which brings me to another Nixon reference, oddly enough. I still vividly remember August 8, 1974. The owner of the camp summoned all the older boys to his cabin. President Nixon was announcing his resignation on television, and the camp director thought at least some of his campers should experience this historic moment. As we boys quietly exulted in the end of the Nixon presidency, I looked over at the camp's owner - whose name has quietly faded from my aging brain - and was stunned to see him sobbing. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he watched his beloved president leave office in shame. "This is a sad day for America, boys," he kept murmuring. "Such a sad day."

Suffice to say, Dixville and environs are Republican strongholds, even to this day. The good people of the Notch almost always vote GOP. In fact, since 1960, only one Democrat has carried Dixville Notch, and that was Hubert Humphrey, who beat Nixon narrowly there in 1968 (I think our camp director votes in a different township).

Until today. Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the first returns of the 2008 presidential election: in Dixville Notch, the vote, just past midnight, was: Barack Obama, 15; John McCain, 6; Ralph Nader, 1.

Now Dixville is no bellwether. As I said, it almost always votes Republican, with the exceptions of 1960 and 1968, which means in the last dozen elections the town has picked the winner seven times, and went with the loser the other five. But if Obama can win a landslide in the Notch, it doesn't bode well for McCain's chances across the Granite State.

This campaign has been a long, tiring, thrilling, fascinating, exasperating two-year slog. As Barack Obama said the other day, since this race started, babies have been born who have learned to walk and talk. Some of them have learned more about public policy in that time than Sarah Palin has. The candidates have spent more than a billion dollars, which is obscene. People have given their every ounce of energy for one candidate or the other; the 44-year-old state director of Obama's Nevada campaign collapsed and died of a heart attack yesterday, not long before Obama's own grandmother passed away, hours shy of perhaps seeing her little Barry become president.

For me, this campaign began in late 2006 - I think it was November, but it could have been October - when I interviewed the smart and lanky junior Senator from Illinois while he was on a book tour in San Francisco. Tall, thoughtful, deliberate almost to a fault - that was how I described him to my friends and family. Handsome, charismatic and obviously very intelligent - but damn, he stammers a lot, and seems to take an awfully long time coming up with those beautiful words.

Two years later, he's cut down on the ums and uhs, and he's also cut down every opponent in his path. Less than 24 hours from now, he will cut down the nets, to use a basketball metaphor, as he celebrates his election as President of the United States. He will be one of our youngest presidents. Only the third sitting Senator. Only the third representing Illinois (Lincoln and Grant precede him, although, like Obama, neither was born there; Ronald Reagan was, but ran as a Californian). The first Northerner since Kennedy (counting the first Bush as a Texan, not as the Connecticut Yankee he really was). The first Democratic President without a Southern accent since, again, JFK. The first president who is a graduate of Columbia University! (That's a tough one to believe, but it's true. Both Roosevelts attended Columbia Law School, and there have been quite a few Supreme Court Justices from Columbia, but Obama will be the first Columbia College grad to occupy the Oval Office).

And, of course, he will be the first non-white president. The first biracial, the first black, the first with African blood (as far as we know).

Barack Obama began his unlikely quest for the presidency with talk of hope, and change, and audacity. At times, his campaign has been anything but audacious. Certainly in its closing days he has played it quite safe. But he is going to ride that gale force wind of change right into the White House. We can't possibly exaggerate the social and cultural import of this moment. Tears of joy and pride will flow tonight in black communities across America. People will shake their heads in awe, even some of those who will have voted against him. Others will shake their fists in fear and anger. It will be up to Obama to prove them wrong, to win them over with his deeds, not his words, in the coming years.

Who in the world would want to be president right now? An economy in collapse, a world at war, a health care system run amok, overwhelming challenges in the fields of energy, security and finance.

Barack Hussein Obama, that's who. Someone asked him the other day what keeps him awake at night as the election approaches. "Not winning or losing," he answered with a smile. "Governing."

He's going to get his chance. It says it right here: Barack Obama 52.5%, John McCain 46.5%. Electoral College: Obama 291, McCain, 247.

That's my official prediction. I would give Obama 311, but Ohio has burned me before so I'm leaving it in McCain's column. I think this race has tightened in the closing days, so Obama doesn't get the landslide some are predicting. I think he could actually end up with 367 electoral votes, but that would mean sweeping most of those usually Republican battleground states. The final Gallup Poll predicts a 55%-44% victory for Obama. The final CBS News-New York Times pre-election poll forecasts a nine-point margin for Obama. I say it narrows to six in the end.

We will provide unprecedented resources at KCBS just so you can see if I'm right, or if you are, and what kind of history American voters will make this year (the first black president or the first female vice president? The oldest president? The first Vietnam vet?). Live coverage on the radio, of course, with non-stop results beginning when the first Eastern polls close at 4pm, plus interviews and analysis around the clock. You can listen to us in tinny old AM at 740 or now in lush stereophonic glory at 106.9 FM, or online at KCBS.com. We will have a beautiful red and blue Electoral College map on the website, where we will update the running vote totals once every 60 seconds, along with links to the results from every single county in every single state in America. I will be "live blogging," something I've never done before, on the Sovern Nation home page at www.sovernnation.com. I'll zap off a note or two whenever something meaningful happens, like when the pizza gets delivered to the newsroom or Obama wins Florida. I will post pithy comments from readers and listeners, too. You can follow along with KCBS on Twitter, with the latest delivered right to your cell phone, or however that Twitter thing works. And of course you can listen to any of our Election Night audio on demand on the website, too.

Tune in and hold on tight. It should be an amazing night. It's not often we can guarantee that an election will make history. This will be one you will remember forever.


Thursday, October 30, 2008

The View from the Middle

Where I live, the presidential election is settled. Barack Obama is poised to carry California by the widest margin in state history. The latest Field Poll gives him a 22-point lead over John McCain here, and if that holds, he will not only fare even better than former Governor and favorite son Ronald Reagan did in 1980 and 1984, but he will also surpass the record 18-point victory posted by LBJ in his 1964 landslide over Barry Goldwater.

But I have traveled all across the country during this campaign, and I know that Californians are not necessarily representative. I have talked with voters in 13 states, including battlegrounds North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado and Nevada. Many of them have a completely different view of the candidates, and of this election.

In Green Bay, Wisconsin, Democrat Jeannette Potteiger told me about her father, a lifelong Democrat who hasn't actually voted since 1972. This time, he's voting - for John McCain. Why? "He wants to vote against Obama," she told me. "Because Obama's black." Some of her friends in Milwaukee feel the same way. "They've actually told me they would never vote for a black man, so they're voting for McCain. It makes no sense, because they completely disagree with McCain on the issues, and they agree with Obama. It's sad, actually."

Nick Weinberger of Columbus, Wisconsin has encountered some of the same racism. He's a Republican who will vote for McCain. He scoffs at Obama's roots as a community organizer. "Come on. A city planner? What the hell is that?" He asked me. No, a community organizer, I explained to him. "Whatever. That doesn't qualify you for the presidency." On the other hand, he thinks Sarah Palin is "fun" and "a pistol." He, too, has friends and family who simply won't vote for Obama because of his race. He's heard friends go off on five-minute long racist tirades about Obama, full of racial invective I won't repeat here. "There's better reasons to vote against Obama than his skin color," Weinberger told me. He's especially concerned about Obama's tax and economic policies.

McCain's derisive attacks on Obama as "Barack the Wealth Spreader" do seem to be resonating with middle-class Middle Americans. Never mind that if Obama really were a Socialist, they'd be the ones who would benefit the most. Never mind that Obama's tax plan, as he describes it, would lower their taxes. Some are legitimately afraid he will come take their hard-earned pay, and maybe their guns too while he's at it. Others are looking for an excuse to vote against him. Some don't trust Obama, or believe him when he insists only those making more than $250,000 will have to pay more. Obama didn't help his cause by suddenly lowering that threshold in his infomercial last night, to $200,000. Joe Biden took it even lower yesterday, to $150,000, although that may have been a typical Biden slip of the tongue, not an articulation of actual policy. Obama would do well to suggest that if McCain doesn't want to share the wealth, then he must want to keep concentrating it. But of course, we all know how faithful candidates are to their campaign promises, so who's to say that a President Obama, with a filibuster-proof Senate and a 100-seat majority in the House, won't propose an entirely different tax plan?

You don't really have to go to Wisconsin, or North Carolina, or Virginia, to find racists who might vote for Obama if only he were white. We've got them here in the progressive, enlightened Bay Area too. Voters have expressed that kind of bigotry to my face, if not into my microphone. I did a story on it yesterday. I ran into Senator Barbara Boxer and she didn't particularly like it. "I was just listening to your comments about race. I hate stories like that," she told me. "You're just giving voice to racism." At first I copped out by saying, well, we have to do the race story. But then I defended it more legitimately. "Wait a second," I told her. "It's real. The racism is out there. It's a serious issue. You can't ignore the elephant in the room." Besides, it's a lot better to expose bigotry than to ignore it and pretend it isn't there. She didn't agree, saying we're just legitimizing the racism by airing it, and giving these people a forum.

It will be difficult to measure the impact of racism in next week's numbers, but if Obama doesn't win, you can bet plenty of pundits and pollsters will try.

Beyond the Midwest, and the Middle Class, there's another kind of Middle Earth in this election. It's inhabited not by hobbits in search of a ring, but by voters in search of a candidate. They are the middle-of-the-road undecideds. Some people find it hard to believe anyone could still be undecided. But they're out there. One Northern California voter told me, he's a loyal Republican who's fed up with President Bush and the GOP. He says his party abandoned fiscal conservatism a long time ago, and he's more moderate than the party is on social issues. But he's having a really hard time voting for Obama. He doesn't think the first-term Senator is ready to be president, and he's wary of his economic policies. So five days before the election, he just can't commit either way.

Then there's the Tennessee Democrat I met outside Lambeau Field in Green Bay. He really wants to vote for McCain, because he respects his military service and thinks he'd make a better leader than Obama. He swears he's not racist, but he's ready to jump ship from the Democrats this time because he says he just doesn't know where Obama will take the country. But he was absolutely appalled by McCain's pick of Sarah Palin for vice president, and now he's torn. Obama or McCain? He told me he probably won't decide until he steps into the voting booth.

On the coasts, the race is over. Obama will sweep the Far West, with the exception of Palin's Alaska and maybe McCain's Arizona (although if it's a landslide, Obama could even embarrass McCain in his home state). He will also carry the Eastern Seaboard, from Maine all the way to Virginia, and maybe even as far south as North Carolina. But the presidency will be decided in the great middle of the country, the places we fly over on Jet Blue. If big swaths of that map turn blue next Tuesday, then the racism won't have mattered after all. If they stay red, then we'll know that McCain's 11th-hour economic arguments and scare tactics - "John the Fear Spreader" - will have carried the day.

Fresh interviews, analysis, ballot measure stories and the latest polls, all at www.sovernnation.com

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Time Stands Still

My life is crazy busy. Yours probably is, too. Days whiz by. It's impossible to figure out where whole blocks of time go. Sometimes I yearn for the days when I had a mindless, menial job where I'd look up at the clock and watch the hands move in slow motion.

But with a week until Election Day, the presidential campaign feels that way all of a sudden. The campaign clock is M o v i n g. L i k e. T h i s.

Will November 4th never get here? We're in a holding pattern. The candidates are repeating the same arguments, over and over again. The polls aren't changing that much. The counting of ballots seems anticlimactic. The suspense is s-l-o-w-l-y draining out of what once was a scintillating race.

Candidates and their handlers know when they've lost. Despite his outward optimism, you can see that losing feeling on John McCain's face. He's going through the motions, but his campaign is collapsing around him. Sarah Palin is straining at the reins, already positioning herself for 2012. Her aides and McCain's are sniping at each other. She's ignoring the McCain team's instructions and talking points and veering from their prescribed message. The former Romney aides who jumped on the McCain bandwagon when their own man's crashed and burned are already undermining Palin, to bolster Romney's chances against her the next time around. The Republican National Committee is withdrawing advertising dollars from states where McCain can no longer compete, and is spending some instead in places he shouldn't have to defend, such as Montana. Some within the RNC are even debating whether that's good money after bad, and whether those dollars would be better spent defending imperiled Congressional seats instead.

Can anyone gaze into the future right now and really see John McCain standing on the steps of the Capitol, delivering that Inauguration Address on a clear, cold January morning? Or striding into the House Chamber to a standing ovation to give his first State of the Union speech? No, when you close your eyes and picture the next president in those defining moments - it's Barack Obama you see.

Does this mean it's really over? Well, no I suppose not. Something weird could happen. All the polls could be wrong. The country could be even more racist than we thought. Obama could admit he's a Marxist.

But reason and experience tell us that next Tuesday's results are all but set in stone now. This is shaping up as the biggest Democratic landslide in more than 40 years. The Democrats will have 58, maybe even 60, seats in the U.S. Senate. Nancy Pelosi will preside over perhaps a 100-seat majority in the next Congress. Barack Obama won't just win the presidency - he may have a mandate, or what passes for one in an era of bitterly contested, razor-close elections.

When this election began, each party's presidential candidate mapped out his path to victory. The problem for John McCain is that he's painted himself into a corner. He has only one escape route, and it's narrow, and daunting. He must hold every single state that George W. Bush won in 2004, and if he loses even one big one, or two smaller ones, then he must wrest Pennsylvania from the Democratic column. That's why McCain and Palin are spending so much time in Pittsburgh, and in the rural, rednecky areas between Philly and Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, new routes to Electoral College triumph are opening up for Barack Obama like spokes from a crossroads. His initial strategy was to defend all the states won by John Kerry four years ago, and somehow capture one of McCain's big ones, or two of his smaller ones. Now he's got multiple options: he could win Virginia and Iowa, and clinch the presidency. Or he could take away Ohio. Or maybe Florida, plus North Carolina. Or he could lose all of those, but win Indiana, Colorado and New Mexico. Or how about parlaying blood-red Nevada, Missouri, Montana and - gasp - McCain's home state of Arizona into a stunning victory?

Okay, if that last scenario happens, then it's a landslide, and Obama will have won every other state I just mentioned. Which could actually happen. Obama is comfortably ahead now in Virginia, Iowa, and, in some polls, Ohio and Indiana too. He's narrowly ahead in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, and he's catching McCain in Montana and Arizona. He's neck-and-neck in Florida, North Carolina and Missouri.

All that's left is for the Big Clock to strike Poll Closing Time one Tuesday from now. If Obama wins big, he could have more than 270 projected electoral votes once the polls close in the Mountain states - around 7pm California time, 10pm on the East Coast, even while Californians are still voting. If some of those Eastern states are too close to call, or if McCain closes the gap in the final days, then it might take another hour or two to settle things.

In the meantime, we will cover whatever developments there are, order the pizza for Election Night, put up our big maps, and wait.

It will all come too soon for John McCain. It can't happen fast enough for Barack Obama.

N.B.: You might want to check out our story about robocalls, their illegality in California, and the sexy one that's got a Bay Area Republican candidate for Congress in hot water. Also, the latest polls of course, updated every day, and much more at www.sovernnation.com

On Election Night, I will live blog as we go, with constant updates, results, calling of states, etc. - as soon as someone shows me how to do that!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Governor's New Clothes

Now we know, the chant was wrong all along. It should have been "Shop, Baby, Shop!" not "Drill, Baby, Drill."

So Sarah Palin, along with Todd and the kiddies, went on a little high-end shopping spree. A few of them, in fact. As our buddies at Politico first reported, the Republican National Committee dropped about $150,000 on clothes and accessories for the Palins, mostly for the hockey mom herself. That buys an awful lot of hockey sweaters. Big deal, right? They need new outfits for their turn in the national spotlight.

The rub is that Palin sells herself as a small-town everywoman, a middle class working mom who's one of us, a regular Joanie Sixpack. She mocks big city values with derisive scorn, and pokes fun at the liberal elite who think they're too good for the rest of us. So where did she shop? Target or K-Mart? Wasilla Navy Surplus? No, she stocked up on designer outfits at Neiman-Marcus, Bloomie's and Barney's. On the eve of the the September 11th anniversary, hubby Todd was getting new duds at Atelier New York, while Sarah was spending thousands at Saks Fifth Avenue. While I was dodging urine balloons from protesters in my scuffed chinos on the streets of Saint Paul, she was off on a spree at the Minneapolis Neiman-Marcus.

Most of the clothes were actually purchased for her, by a personal shopper working for the Republican National Committee. The new wardrobes were bought in New York City, St. Louis and Minneapolis - big cities all, at high-end department stores not found in the likes of Wasilla, or even Anchorage or Juneau, for that matter. I guess the fall moose-hunting garb at the local Fred Meyer wasn't snazzy enough.

It's also galling that the Palins would drop that kind of money on fancy new duds in the midst of a global economic collapse. It's insensitive, to say the least, and it borders on illegal, since candidates aren't allowed to spend campaign donations for their own personal use. But the money came from RNC contributions, not donations directly to McCain-Palin, which skirts that particular restriction and probably makes the purchases legal.

Hats off to the Politico reporters for poring over last month's campaign finance statements and discovering those expenditures. I've spent plenty of hours wading through those documents in the past and while they often contain interesting tidbits (hmm, that famous actor gave him that much money? hey look, a friend of mine made a donation!), the list of spending usually just runs to things like phone bills and TV ads. Although if you closely examine the just-released reports for the first two weeks of October, you will see that the McCain campaign spent more than $22,000 on a celebrity makeup artist for Governor Palin - almost twice as much as it paid its chief foreign policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann (and a reminder: we have had a "Follow the Money" link to the FEC disclosure filings on our site for well over a year now, so you can always read all these reports for yourself).

And of course, every now and then, you strike gold with something like John Edwards' $400 haircuts.

And that's why I don't buy the McCain campaign's feigned indignation over this mini-scandal, or the complaints from the conservative talkers about the gotcha media's latest anti-Palin crusade. Their mocking of Edwards' haircuts was relentless; Rush Limbaugh still refers to him as "Breck Girl." There's no difference between the hypocritical Edwards preaching about poverty while getting overpriced coiffures and the hypocritical Palin splurging on Valentino. Or Cindy McCain telling voters her husband is the true champion of the middle class - while she's wearing a single outfit that's worth more than $300,000. Palin is complaining now that the fashion flap reflects "gender bias" on the part of the media, but it's certainly not sexist to point out the dissonance between what a candidate says and what she, or he, does.

A terse John McCain says Palin's outfits will be donated to charity after the election. His spokesman says "that was always the plan," from the moment the clothes were purchased. That doesn't really pass the smell test - not when the clothing designer at Saturday Night Live reports that Palin complained about the outfits he wanted her to wear on the show last week, insisting he dress her in something nicer.

My sources within the McCain team say campaign manager Steve Schmidt is absolutely livid over Fashiongate (just coined that, sorry), that he threw a fit over the tone-deaf blunder by the RNC. It shows a lack of coordination between the McCain money and the party's - even though the clothing purchases were disclosed under the "coordinated expenditures" of the committee's money. It's another example of the clumsy nature of McCain's campaign, which has lacked the top-down discipline and organization of Obama's all along.

I was going to write some more about the polls today, because we are absolutely inundated by them right now, but my fashion plate was too full to pass up. We do have a completely revamped "Who's Winning?" polling page, with a veritable cornucopia of survey data, graphs, charts, an interactive Electoral College map and poll analysis, all of which I am updating every darn day. And I promise to write tomorrow in response to all the questions I keep getting about how the various polls could be so wildly disparate.

But for now, the horse race takes a back seat to the clothes horse. The irony is that Sarah Palin is getting all these new clothes - just as more and more voters are realizing that she's not wearing any.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

McCain's Economic Crisis

Now we know why America is running out of money:

Everyone is giving all of it to Barack Obama.

It's been an amazing 24 hours for the Obama campaign. First, he drew an incredible 100,000 people to a rally near the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Remember those amazing pictures of his big rally in Portland last spring? With 65,000 people or so along the river? He blew that away with even more people crowding along the Mississippi this weekend, and then drew another 75,000 to Kansas City. They say that as goes Missouri, so goes the nation. Well, Obama may just take the Show-Me State, and if he does, President Bush will be showing him in to the Oval Office.

Then, this morning, Colin Powell announced that he's endorsing Obama for president. This has been rumored for months, and we thought it might happen at the Democratic National Convention, but many prominent Republicans, including senior members of the Bush family (that means both Presidents Bush) had been imploring Powell not to go public with his support for Obama. He finally decided to, announcing his endorsement on "Meet the Press," and then, well, meeting the press, outside the studio, where he elaborated on his decision. Rush Limbaugh is already dismissing the endorsement, saying Powell is only backing Obama because they're both black, pointing out that he's never endorsed any "white liberal inexperienced politicians." But Powell says it's because he's disappointed in McCain's campaign, disgusted by the focus on Williams Ayers, appalled by the selection of Sarah Palin ("she is not ready to be president") and impressed by Obama's intellectual capacity and calm, thoughtful nature.

Colin Powell doesn't carry the weight he once did, but let's face it: he was the first black National Security Advisor, the first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first black Secretary of State. If not for his wife's reluctance, he could easily have been the first African American Vice President, or even President. Not only is he a Republican, but he was the front man for President Bush's ill-advised invasion of Iraq. He's still enormously well-respected and influential. And while they're pooh-poohing it now, you can bet the McCain team would have loved his endorsement, and trumpeted it far and wide if they had gotten it.

So how does Obama top a record-setting rally and a headline-grabbing endorsement? With a simply astounding campaign finance report for the month of September. One day before it's due, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe sent us all a video e-mail, announcing that Obama raised more than $150 million last month. This, on top of the $65 million he raised in August, and the untold millions he's raking in this month, which won't be reported until after Election Day.

A month ago, after Obama pulled in that $65 mill for August, some worried that he would have trouble maintaining that pace. The Republican National Committee had matched him, dollar-for-dollar, that month. John McCain is limited to the $84 million he gets in public money, but the RNC can raise and spend freely, and it has. Obama would need to keep raising at obscene levels in order to compete with the entire Republican war chest.

He's done it, in breathtaking fashion. $150 million in a single month? Do you have any idea how off-the-charts ridiculous that is? Just to put it in perspective, I remember covering then-Governor George W. Bush's presidential campaign in 2000. I was at a Bush event when he went over the $100 million mark for his campaign, which was a new record. For his entire campaign, all two years of it. No one had ever approached that figure before. Four years later, Bush and John Kerry combined to raise and spend about $650 million. Obama has raised $215 million in the last two months, and will probably top $300 million, or even approach 400 million, for the final 90 days of the campaign. He should easily beat that $650 million record - all by himself.

Now while Democrats may exult in Obama's fundraising success, and do cartwheels every time they see yet another national Obama ad during a World Series or NFL game (spots McCain can't afford to match) or on a swing state TV station, I think this kind of spending is out of hand. It's made a mockery of the public financing law. Democrats can argue that the end justifies the means, and it's fair for Obama to say that he's not "buying" the election; the American people are. Most of his donations come from everyday citizens giving 50 or 100 dollars, not from corporate titans and powerful lobbies seeking influence. As long as Obama remembers who elected him (if he wins), and remains beholden to Joe Sixpack - um, I mean John Q. Public - then that money won't have corrupted anything. But there's still something terribly unseemly about spending that much money on a political campaign, especially at a time when it's so desperately needed for other things. Too bad Obama can't appeal to everyday Americans to dig deep to end poverty, help the homeless and feed the hungry, and then turn around and give all that money to charitable organizations. I suppose, in his own way, that's what he intends to do with it, if he makes good on his campaign promises. But I still find the whole concept of political fundraising distasteful and inappropriate, which is why I would love to see true public financing of all elections.

As for Joe Sixpack, in case you somehow missed the truth about "Joe the Plumber" (that he's not named Joe and isn't a licensed plumber, among other things), you can hear our report about that from last Friday here.

So, on a weekend when Sarah Palin went on Saturday Night Live to prove she gets the joke and can laugh at herself (the material was hysterical but I still think Tina Fey does a better Sarah Palin than Sarah Palin does), Barack Obama added still more resources to salt this thing away in the home stretch: Colin Powell's blessing and 150 million more of your hard-earned dollars. Crisis? What crisis? His challenge will be to figure out how to replenish everybody's wallets if and when he moves into the White House.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Plumbing the Depths

"Good evening everyone, and welcome to the third and final presidential debate. Our first question is for Senator John McCain. Senator, what would you do about the economic meltdown and the credit crisis?"

"Well, Bob, let me just say, first off, that I know all of America joins me in turning our thoughts tonight to one person, someone who we're all deeply concerned about in this difficult time."

"Oh, you mean Nancy Reagan? Who's in the hospital with a broken pelvis?"

"No, my friends, I mean Joe the Plumber. His name is Joe Wurtzelburger. He's out there in Toledo, Ohio, wondering how he's going to be able to buy a small business, take over the plumbing business, if Barack Obama becomes president and seizes all of his bank accounts, and redistributes all of his wealth to less fortunate plumbers."

"I see. And on the credit crisis? Your plan, Senator?"

"My friends, the markets are clogged. The entire system is stuck. The credit system is simply jammed and stuck and clogged. And at times like these, when my opponent is turning to his socialist crony terrorist friends, like Warren Buffett and Paul Volcker, my friends, that's when we need the people who are the backbone of this economy, the very foundation of what makes us a great nation, to unclog those economic pipes, and that would mean, of course, my great dear friend Joe Wigglebasket, Joe the Plumber from Ohio."

"You would put this Joe the Plumber in charge of the economy?"

"I would, Bob, and here's why. Who better to take a wrench to the rusty pipes of our economy, to the festering septic tank that is Congress, to seal our leaky borders, than my incredibly close friend, I love him like a brother, Joe Whiffenpoofer, the plumber from Ohio."

"Um...Senator, before I give Senator Obama a chance to respond, is that your entire plan to jump start the economy?"

"Did you say jump start, Bob? Then in that case, I'd also like to give a shout out to Mike the Mechanic...."

And we'll let Saturday Night Live take it from there this weekend!

Wow, just imagine the field day that Jon Stewart, Jay Leno, David Letterman et al. are going to have with this Joe the Plumber situation. Just think of the blue jeans and butt cracks that we'll be seeing in late night skits the rest of this week. And all because John McCain needed some way to connect with the American people on the economy.

Now, I have to say, I actually think Joe the Plumber was an effective device for McCain in this debate. It allowed him to put a face on the impact of Barack Obama's plan to raise taxes on the rich. It gave him a way to scare the undecided about what Obama might mean for their pocketbooks. But it would have helped if a) McCain got Joe's name right (it's Wurzelbacher, not Wurtzelburger); b) McCain had actually ever met the man he kept calling his old buddy and friend; and c) if Joe were actually a working class guy. He can afford to buy a business that makes about $280,000 a year? I think he's doing okay then. Besides, have you ever met a poor plumber? The guys who fix my pipes are making bank.

John McCain was definitely the aggressor tonight, which was no surprise at all. He still came off like your cranky neighbor, though. Instead of wandering around the stage, as he did at last week's town hall, he wandered around rhetorically, often starting an answer strong and then meandering away to some other point without ever completing the original thought. He also kept rolling his eyes during Obama's answers, which I found a bit annoying. But I thought, overall, that he performed a little better in this debate than the other two.

Obama, meanwhile, was his usual steady self, if a bit more defensive. McCain forced him to explain himself on everything from Ayers to Acorn to Abortion, but I thought Obama finessed those answers quite well. He comes off as calm and reasonable, and that, more than anything, may be why he's surged ahead of McCain in the polls. Right now, in a time of crisis, the American people seem to want calm and reasonable, not twitchy and tense. McCain's debate performances make you wonder if he's off his meds, and that's not the presidential demeanor most voters are seeking.

Still, the voter reaction to these debates baffles me a little. On substance, I thought McCain narrowly won the first one, I called the second one a draw, and I would say McCain won the first half of this debate and Obama the second half. But the polls keep showing really lopsided wins for Obama. That's rare in presidential debates; often, they are toss-ups. Our CBS News poll of 500 undecided voters gave Obama a huge win tonight, with 53% saying he clobbered McCain, 22% picking McCain as the debate winner, and 24% seeing it as a tie. The CNN poll of debate-watchers (not just undecided ones) had 58% saying Obama won, and 31% giving the nod to McCain. Those are landslide numbers. I think people are predisposed to like Obama more, and they're also turned off more and more by McCain's cantankerous nature and constant, sometimes condescending and sarcastic, needling of Obama. And the more people hear that Obama won, the more of them think he won, even if they didn't say so at first. That will reinforce the perception that Obama's won all the debates and probably add to his lead in the polls.

By the way, as I expected he would be, Bob Schieffer was terrific, learning from all the other moderators' mistakes, asking mostly excellent questions and following up effectively. Most importantly, he got out of the way and made himself pretty much invisible for nice fat chunks of the show, allowing the two Senators to engage each other directly and actually have a vigorous debate, instead of trading stump speeches.

There are 19 days, and counting, until Election Day. We'll see what the polls say in the next few days, but it doesn't appear this final debate plugged the leaks in John McCain's support. He's already abandoned ship in Michigan. Now the Republican National Committee is pulling out of Wisconsin and Maine. McCain is playing a defensive game, shrinking his efforts to snatch a state from the Democratic column to just Pennsylvania, where he's falling far behind, and New Hampshire, where he still has a chance. He's retrenching, concentrating his resources on holding on to the Bush states from 2004, namely Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. He's close to writing off Iowa. And Obama's actually winning now in almost all of those states. The latest poll I just saw from Virginia has Obama up by ten points there, which is simply astounding.

As Bob Dylan famously sang, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. William Ayers and his friends liked that line so much they named the Weather Underground after it. After this debate, you don't need a plumber to see that John McCain's campaign is circling the drain, and if he doesn't find the stopper...really soon...even old Joe What's-his-name won't be able to rescue him.

(To hear our story about Joe the Plumber (yes, including an interview with him!), about the debate in general, or to hear the other interviews we did afterwards, please click here. To see the latest polls (the national numbers and some state-by-state polls), please click here.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Obama's Surge

More than a year ago, John McCain told me, while visiting the Bay Area, that he'd rather lose an election than lose a war, and so he was stubbornly calling for a "surge" of U.S. troops in Iraq - sending even more soldiers to fight a war that most Americans no longer supported, at a time when one of the leading Democratic presidential contenders, Barack Obama, was calling for the exact opposite - a timely withdrawal.

Just as stubbornly, Obama continued to oppose the surge even after violence in Iraq began to diminish - though that's not entirely attributable to the increase in American forces there. Obama still says the surge wasn't a good idea, and won't admit it's worked, something that infuriates McCain, who thinks he doesn't get enough credit from the media or voters for his lonely insistence that we send more troops to Iraq, not pull out the ones who were already there.

Today, the economy, not the war, is the overriding issue as we enter the home stretch of the longest, costliest presidential campaign in American history. And today, we can report a surge of a different sort, one that Obama can endorse, because he may ride it all the way to the Oval Office.

Many polls have been showing Obama pulling away from McCain, but our new CBS News-New York Times survey shows Obama rolling toward a victory of landslide dimensions.

Our survey unit polled 1070 adults, 972 of whom are registered voters, from last Friday through yesterday (Monday). Fifty-three percent of them say they will vote for the Obama-Biden ticket; 39% say they'll vote for McCain-Palin. Six percent still aren't sure. That gives Obama a whopping 14% lead. Just one week ago, our poll taken the day before the second presidential debate had Obama winning by just three points, 48-45.

What's happened since then? Well, the second presidential debate swung a lot of independent voters from McCain to Obama. People who were leaning toward McCain but weren't quite sure, have changed their minds, and now say they support the Democrat. Last week, McCain led Obama among independents, 49 to 39%. Now, Obama is winning the independent vote, 51-33. And more than 80% now say they've made up their minds for good, and won't change it again. That doesn't mean they won't, of course, especially if something dramatic happens in tomorrow night's third and final debate, but it bodes well for Obama and ill for McCain.

Digging a little deeper into the voter Q and A, we find that people are really turned off by McCain's and Palin's personal attacks on Obama. Twenty-one percent say they think less of John McCain now than they did a few weeks ago, citing his negative campaign and his choice of Sarah Palin as running mate. And McCain's criticism of Obama's relationships with former Weather Underground leader William Ayers and controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright don't seem to be having the desired impact. Eleven percent of those surveyed say they're bothered by Obama's association with Wright, nine percent are troubled by the Ayers connection, and four percent say they don't like that Obama is a Muslim (he's not; he's a Christian). But 56% say they're not bothered at all by anything in Obama's past.

Obama also holds commanding leads on questions about temperament and personality, ability to handle the economy, and understanding voters' problems - the very character and style issues that tend to decide modern American presidential elections. Fifty percent have a favorable opinion of Obama, and 32% don't. But only 36% like John McCain, while 41% look at him with disfavor. Only 32% have a favorable opinion of Sarah Palin.

A few more numbers: 82% of Hillary Clinton supporters now say they will vote for Obama; Obama is beating McCain handily among men, women, moderates, and all ethnic groups except whites. But here's a wrinkle for you: McCain had been enjoying a significant lead among white voters - it was 15% just one week ago - but that margin is gone. In this latest poll, 46% of whites say they'll vote for McCain, and 45% will vote for Obama.

If McCain can't win the suburban, moderate white vote - and right now he's not - he simply can't win this election.

Obama is also gaining in the state-by-state battleground polls, building big leads now in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania and pulling ahead in New Hampshire, Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina, New Mexico and even Ohio, Nevada and Florida. If I haven't buried you in numbers yet and you want more, remember that I update the latest polling information every day, complete with brief analysis, from the national polls and the swing states, on our website at this link. It's like a mini-blog for junkies and wonks.

But these are just polls, you say. They're notoriously wrong. They don't mean a thing.

Ah, but they do. The science of polling is still not exact, especially when one of the presidential nominees is half-black. But it's been refined quite a bit since my Sociology 101 seminar back in college (not to mention since I did a remarkably unscientific survey of CBGB's patrons in 1978 for my high school sociology class). Just as an example, I point you to Gallup's Daily Tracking Poll, a survey we feature prominently every day on the Sovern Nation polling page. At this point in 2004, many polls had John Kerry leading, by between two and four points. The tracking poll had Bush winning, by five, and its final survey the day before the election showed Bush beating Kerry by two points.

Bush beat Kerry, by two and a half points.

Today, that poll has Obama up by nine over McCain. Not quite the margin CBS News has for Obama, but still reflecting a surge of support for the Democrat, a surge that Obama can enthusiastically embrace. With three weeks until the election, John McCain must fear he may just get his wish.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Fire in the Belly Goes Out

It's finally dawned on John McCain: he'd rather lose an election than lose his soul. After weeks of pandering, opportunistic flip-flopping and, worst of all, telling voters that an Obama presidency would be dangerous and risky, implying that Obama would coddle terrorists and may even be one himself, McCain, in a moment of sudden clarity, spoke the truth the other day.

Maybe you saw it, or heard it. If not, watch it here. For more than a week, ever since McCain and Sarah Palin ramped up the Obama-hangs-out-with-domestic-terrorist-William Ayers routine, the crowds at their rallies had been growing increasingly lynch mob-like, shouting out racist epithets and punctuating the candidates' references to Obama with alarming cries of "kill him!," "traitor!" and "terrorist!" McCain and Palin did nothing to calm their venomous fury. But on Friday, just as some anxious Republicans were encouraging McCain to go after Obama with even more intensity, the Arizona Senator finally stepped back from the abyss. Twice during a town hall event in Wisconsin, he not only refused to take the bait from voters, he actually set them straight, refuting their assertions that Barack Obama is dangerous and scary, and that he's even - gasp! - an "Arab," as one woman put it.

"No," said McCain. "Senator Obama is a decent person...and a person that you do not have to be scared, as president of the United States." Later he called Obama "a decent family man" and assured that woman that Obama is not an Arab. His audience didn't want to hear it. Some gasped in astonishment and cried out "What?" in disbelief. Others booed.

You can't really blame them. For weeks they've been told just the opposite. Had the McCain campaign not fueled the rumors, not spread the innuendo, not insinuated that Obama is some sort of radical socialist Allah-lover, then that belief would be confined to the online world of conspiracy theorists and lunatic fringe bloggers (I, by the way, consider myself a lunatic mainstream blogger, so there). So the McCain-Palin camp absolutely deserves some of the blame here, and their sudden shift leaves many of his supporters not sure what to believe.

It's a relief to watch McCain see the light, to see him remember how he felt in 2000 when he was savaged by the vicious, underhanded attacks of the Bush-Rove campaign machine. You have to wonder if, deep down, he's realized he is not going to win this election, and he'll be damned if he's going to go out with no class at all. Or, if, instead, he recognizes that he can't possibly win on character attacks, and that his only hope is to tack towards the high road and re-focus on the issues, in particular the economy.

I've been salivating thinking about this Wednesday's debate. Both Obama and Joe Biden had challenged McCain in recent days, telling rallies that if McCain had nasty things to say about Obama, he'd better look Obama in the eye and say them to his face on Wednesday, instead of skirting the sensitive issues when they're together and saving the vitriol for the campaign trail. But now, with McCain backing down, I wonder if the Ayers issue will come up at all during the debate. Unless Bob Schieffer asks about it, and even if he does, I have a sneaking feeling that McCain will go soft, and lay into Obama on legitimate policy differences instead. That won't be as entertaining, but wouldn't it be refreshing?

The problem for McCain, though, is that once again, he has undercut his own most effective argument. For months, from late in the primaries until the conventions, his case against Obama was built on the Democrat's lack of experience and readiness. It's a legitimate argument: Obama simply hasn't been in elective office that long, has a thin resume in the Senate, and was, at least initially, quite vague on many major issues. But then McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, and there went that approach. Since then, his main thrust has been that Obama is naive, dangerous and untrustworthy; that voters don't really know who he is or what he would do; and that his questionable past associations raise real doubts about his true intentions for America.

Oops. Can't argue that one anymore either. Not when you just said "he's a decent family man" and that there's no reason to fear an Obama presidency. Now it's McCain whom voters aren't sure about. What does he really think? It's hard to know. The very same day, the McCain campaign released a new TV ad attacking Obama again on the Ayers issue, raising the same old fears about him and labeling him "too risky" to be president. At the end, McCain says, as always, "I'm John McCain, and I approve this message." Do you? Then why did you just contradict it in front of hundreds of voters?

Clearly, McCain is conflicted, or perhaps unable to rein in the baser instincts of his campaign managers. For a brief moment Friday, McCain veered toward sanity and reason, not toward saying whatever he must to win. McCain himself has said before that he always seems to sabotage his own political ambitions, that something inside keeps him from grabbing the brass ring, that in the end he tends to say or do something that keeps the biggest prize just out of reach. He may have just done it again, but at least this time, he really did put country first. We'll see if he stays on that path.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

That One Won

It happened in the middle of last night's second presidential debate. Barack Obama and John McCain were squabbling over who voted for what, when, on energy - an issue McCain returned to time and again, just as his running mate Sarah Palin did in her debate last week, apparently because the Republican campaign has decided it's their winningest issue now.

McCain, in a sarcastic, smart-alecky way, challenged the audience to guess who voted for what he called a "Bush-Cheney" energy bill, and who voted against it. Who voted for it? "That one," he said, gesturing toward Obama. And who voted no? "Me," McCain said proudly.

I sat bolt upright in my KCBS newsroom chair, where I was simultaneously watching the debate on TV, recording it in our digital audio system, logging the best sound bites and inhaling some excellent Szechuan food. I nearly spilled my black bean chicken.

"Did he just refer to Obama as 'that one'?"

Indeed he did.

It struck me as dismissive and disrespectful, but it is striking some African Americans as veiled racism. I'll leave it to others to decide that, but it was a moment that really stood out in the debate. It's become clear that McCain barely tolerates Obama, maybe not even as much as Palin tolerates gay people. He doesn't like to shake his hand, he barely looks at him during these debates, and the only time McCain even acknowledges Obama's presence is when he's scoffing at his experience and ideas.

But can you imagine the uproar if Joe Biden had referred to Sarah Palin as "that one" last week? There would have been howls that Biden was sexist and patronizing. Maybe it was an innocent turn of phrase, but I have a feeling this may be what everyone's talking about in the morning.

On substance, I thought this debate was essentially a draw. McCain had some strong moments (that one wasn't one of them), showed some initiative with that new mortgage buyback proposal, and wasn't quite as cantankerous as in the first debate. But Obama fared better in the town hall format than many people expected him to, parried McCain's thrusts quite deftly, and I thought looked far more relaxed and presidential. McCain seemed stiff and awkward as he lurched about the debate stage, while Obama was smooth and debonair. He has a disarming smile and a calm demeanor, while McCain comes off as irritated and a tad desperate.

And Obama succeeded in turning McCain's best lines against him. McCain had obviously practiced that quip about how sorting through Obama's tax plans is like "trying to nail jello to a wall," but Obama disemboweled it with his own comeback, telling McCain "the straight talk express just lost a wheel." When McCain returned to his signature argument of the first debate, that Obama just isn't ready to be president, the Democrat hit back with a dramatic list of McCain's most unstable foreign policy moments.

Obama clearly expected McCain to come out on the attack, as did so many pundits (not this one), because he beat him to the punch in the early going, using his very first answer to link McCain to the Bush economic policies. But, though he criticized Obama all night long, McCain didn't drop the gloves the way some thought he might, never bringing up William Ayers or Reverend Wright or any of the other Obama bogeymen that Sarah Palin's been flogging on the campaign trail lately. That kind of attack wouldn't have played well with the town hall crowd, and McCain was wise to avoid it. The problem for him now is, he didn't win this debate. The CBS News poll of undecided voters who watched it had 40% declaring Obama the winner, and 26% picking McCain. The rest thought it was a tie. A CNN survey of debate-watchers, not just undecideds, gave Obama a 54-30 landslide.

There were some other extremely encouraging numbers for Obama, and gloomy ones for McCain, in that CBS poll. Before the debate, 59% of those uncommitted voters thought Obama understood their needs and problems, and 33% thought so of McCain. After the debate? Obama's empathy index soared to 80%, while McCain's inched up to 44%. That says a lot about which man related more to the average viewer. Only 42% of these undecideds thought Obama was ready to be president going in to the debate; coming out, the figure is 58%.

So John McCain failed in his two central tasks: convincing voters Obama can't do the job, and that he, not Obama, feels their pain on the economy. Obama, on the other hand, closed the sale to a few more voters who weren't sure about him before. That means, even if this debate was a rough draw, Obama really won it, because McCain didn't score the decisive blow he needs to change the trajectory of this campaign.

And I don't know about you, but I'm really looking forward to Bob Schieffer in next week's final debate. Jim Lehrer was pretty good in the first one, Gwen Ifill was simply terrible last week, and Tom Brokaw was mediocre tonight. But Schieffer will be fantastic. Time constraints? Rules? One-minute rebuttals? Forget all that nonsense. Who cares about the format? The moderators don't even seem to remember what it's supposed to be half the time. The voters want real engagement on critical issues, not 90-second stump speeches with no follow-up. Just when a topic gets interesting, the moderator veers them off on a new course. That serves no one's interest. Let them have at it, for extended battle, on a few issues. Next week, they'll be sitting around a table with Schieffer, who brooks no nonsense on "Face the Nation" every Sunday morning. He knows exactly how to follow up, how to make someone answer a question, and how to slice through the garbage to the heart of the matter. McCain will be even more desperate, and he'll have no choice but to come at Obama with everything he's got. He might even rip off Obama's nicotine patch and call him a terrorist junkie. Now that one - I can't wait for.

New polls, post-debate interviews, video clips and even the entire debate, all available right now at www.sovernnation.com

Monday, October 6, 2008

Fit To Be Tied

So, I was playing around with one of those interactive Electoral College maps the other day (here's a good one), and started creating what I consider an extremely plausible scenario. Here it is: John McCain holds almost all of the states that President Bush won in 2004, including the big ones - Florida, Ohio, Missouri, North Carolina, Virginia and Nevada. At the moment, Barack Obama has actually pulled ahead in the polls in most of those states, but his leads are narrow, and you simply can't discount the race factor in most of those particular swing states. So I'm not willing to bet just yet that Obama will win any of those.

Just as realistic is the assumption that Obama will hang on to the battleground states that John Kerry carried last time - namely, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. He's winning, but not by much, in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but he's pulling away in Pennsylvania and of course, McCain is completely conceding Michigan now, which is an astounding development.

That really leaves only one swing state for McCain to turn from blue to red: New Hampshire. Obama's winning there too, but those "Live Free or Die" folks have a soft spot in their hearts for flinty mavericks, so let's say they pull the lever for McCain in the end and he swings those four electoral votes into the Republican column.

But I think Iowa, which went for George W. Bush last time, is just about in the bag for Obama, and he's got a real shot at flipping Colorado and New Mexico from red to blue, too. So Obama could steal three states from the Republicans, while McCain snatches just one from the Democrats.

Hmm, that sounds like it would be pretty close. So I clicked on the map to check that electoral vote total and - gasp! - it came out Obama 269, McCain 269.

Yes, that's right. A tie. And I wasn't even trying to create a tie - I was just plugging in what I thought was most likely on that particular day.

So what happens then? I knew the basics, but I pulled out the good old U.S. Constitution (you remember that - it used to be the governing document of the United States), and flipped to the 12th Amendment (and also the 20th) to brush up on some of the finer points.

You think Bush-Gore in 2000 was a national nightmare? Just wait for this one, folks. We'll make Kenya and Zimbabwe look like models of electoral stability. Here's what would happen:

First of all, the new Congress would be sworn in on January 3, 2009. Then the newly elected House of Representatives would choose between Obama and McCain for president. Each state gets one vote, regardless of size or number of Representatives. California gets one - so does Rhode Island, etc. Presumably, each state would cast its vote along party lines, based on which party has a majority of the state delegation. But perhaps some states would feel compelled to support whichever candidate carried that state. In any case, right now the Democrats control 26 states, the Republicans 21, and the other three are split, 50-50. If the Democrats increase their majority in November, they could have more than 26.

But a candidate needs to win at least 26 of the 50 states to be elected president, and the House only has until March 4th to get the job done. If Obama and McCain each got 25 votes - neither would be president.

In the meantime, the Senate gets to choose the vice president, independently of what the House does. So we could end up with an Obama-Palin administration (the mind reels....) or a McCain-Biden regime.

The Senate is split right now, 49 Democrats and 49 Republicans, but the two independents, erstwhile Democrat Joe Lieberman and Vermont Socialist Bernie Sanders, caucus with the Dems, giving them a de facto 51-49 edge. The Democrats are likely to have at least 55 seats in the new Senate, so Biden would most likely be elected vice president (although, with Lieberman very much a pariah now among the Democrats, and an enthusiastic McCain supporter, a 50-50 tie would be a real possibility if the GOP somehow holds on to all its open seats).

So if Biden is chosen veep, and the House can't choose a president by March 4th....then Biden becomes president! If neither chamber can elect someone - then the presidential order of succession kicks in, which makes Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi the 44th president of the United States (one more caveat here: the House is empowered to pass a law designating someone else president if it so chooses, but if it can't even decide between Obama and McCain, that's not likely to happen).

So there you have it: an absolute mess that would gridlock government and plunge the country into a blistering partisan cluster@#$!.

Is it likely to happen? No. But it could. As we've learned the last few years, American presidential politics has become stranger than fiction.

In reality, in the few days since I started mulling this over, the tenor of the race has shifted, and Obama has opened up significant leads in even more of the red states. As of this writing, an Obama landslide looks more likely than this far-fetched tie scenario. But we've still got a month, and two more debates, to go, and Lord only knows what twists and turns are still in store.

For the very latest polls, and some analysis thereof, please click here. I will talk to you again after this next debate!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Governor Palin's Reading List

Maybe you saw the last installment of Katie Couric's exclusive interview with Sarah Palin, in which Palin was unable to name what newspapers and magazines she reads on a regular basis. Through my contacts in Alaska, I have obtained a copy of Palin's secret subscription list, which I reproduce here for your benefit:

U.S. Moose and Wolf Report
Hockey Mother Jones
Halibut Today
Drill Bit Quarterly
Good Iglookeeping
Better Homes and Icefields
Working Unwed Mother
The Wasilla Street Journal
The Midnight Sun-Times

and, of course, the National Enquirer.

I felt compelled to dig up this information after watching last night's vice presidential debate between Palin and Joe Biden. It became pretty clear, pretty quickly that Governor Palin doesn't have a very broad knowledge base. She does, however, have a full arsenal of doggone folksy expressions and a remarkable repertoire of winks and smiles.

One could argue that Sarah Palin won that debate, simply because she didn't embarrass herself with some obviously dreadful gaffe, and never had a desperate moose-in-the-headlights moment. On the surface, at least, she seemed to rediscover the frontier woman pluckiness that won the hearts of so many Middle Americans during the Republican National Convention.

One would be wrong, however. I refuse to lower the bar that low. I've watched the debate twice now, and I had to stop compiling my list of Palin's misstatements, factual errors, filibustering platitudes and evasive, time-wasting non-answers because it was giving me carpal tunnel syndrome. Biden had his share of b.s. too, misrepresenting some of John McCain's positions and some of his own, but by and large, he answered the questions, more directly than Palin, or for that matter, Obama or McCain did in their debate.

In fact, I think of the four candidates, Joe Biden has given the best performance so far, by far. He was uncharacteristically restrained and respectful. He stayed on point. He listened to the question, remembered to answer it, listened to his opponent's answer, responded to that, and demonstrated an impressive breadth and depth of knowledge, especially on foreign policy. On subtance, Biden won this debate in a crushing landslide. On style, Palin gets some points for her frisky country governor routine, but not enough to negate Biden's overwhelming advantage on everything else.

Last week, my take on the first presidential debate was out of sync with the polls. I thought McCain did well, and may have beaten Obama, by a narrow margin. But surveys showed most voters, especially the undecided, declaring Obama the winner.

This time, it turns out I agree with the voters. CBS News polled 500 undecided voters who watched the vice presidential debate. Forty-six percent of them say Biden won. Only 21% thought Palin did. The remaining 33% say it was a tie. CNN polled voters in general who watched the show, with 51% giving the win to Biden and 36% picking Palin, although by 54 to 36, those voters found Palin the more likable of the two.

In the CBS poll, 18% of those previously uncommitted voters now say they will vote for Obama. Ten percent of them have decided to vote for McCain. Fifty-three percent have a better opinion of Biden now, and only five percent think worse of him. Palin scored well in that regard too, with 55% saying they like her more now, but 14% say they like her less after the debate. And 98% see Biden as knowledgeable about important issues - only 66% say Palin is, although that's a huge improvement from the 43% who thought that about her before the debate.

Palin echoed McCain in her stubborn refusal to stop repeating false facts. She said U.S. troops are below pre-surge levels now. They're not - something you would think the commander-in-chief of the Alaska National Guard, whose son just joined those troops, would know. She said Obama voted to raise taxes on families making as little as $42,000 a year. That's simply not true. She kept calling the general in charge of American forces in Afghanistan "General McClellan." His name is General David McKiernan - which Biden must know, but to his credit, he never corrected Palin. That's an old habit of Biden's, something he's done since his first campaign for the Senate; when his opponent makes a mistake like that, he lets it slide, or even pretends he doesn't know the right information either, so as not to show up the other debater.

Palin, on the other hand, was quick to jump on Biden when he complained that the McCain-Palin energy plan is all about "drill, drill, drill."

"The chant is 'Drill, Baby, Drill,' Senator," she corrected him, seeming to savor the moment.

I thought the debate's most powerful moment came near the end, when Biden choked up while remembering the death of his wife and daughter, and near-death of his younger son, in a car crash in 1972. It seemed real, uncontrived, and it really connected with those watching, according to those voter meters CNN uses. From that point on, Biden was more forceful, as if he sensed the end of the debate was near and he was going in for the kill.

He got it, like a head shot on a moose in Denali.

Besides, I can't watch Palin anymore without thinking of Tina Fey. For me, the Alaska governor has become a caricature, and if she can't shake it, she's doomed.

I can't wait to watch Saturday Night Live this weekend. In the meantime, I'm sending Gov. Palin complimentary subscriptions to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Anchorage Daily News.

She may want to skip the section where they print the polls, though, because nothing happened in this debate to stop the McCain-Palin slide, or really to alter the race in any way. That burden falls on John McCain himself, in next Tuesday's town hall face-off with Barack Obama.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Ready For Round Two?

If the election were held today, Barack Obama would win - but a lot of voters would be confused, since Election Day isn't until November 4.

Except - the election is being held today. And tomorrow. And for the next five weeks. That's because more and more states allow Early Voting, so people are already casting ballots in Ohio, Virginia, Georgia and other key states.

I can't imagine voting before Election Day. I want every bit of information before making my decision. What if a candidate is caught doing something horrible a few days before the election? Or dies? I see no reason to vote until I really have to.

Many undecided voters say they've been waiting for the debates to help them make up their minds. Well, the debates started last Friday - and it's clear which way those voters are breaking. This race is starting to jell now, and although it could certainly whipsaw in another direction at any time, it's becoming Obama's to lose.

I thought John McCain did very well in the first debate. Expectations were lowered by his schizoid behavior in the days before it, his will-he-show-or-won't-he soap opera and the "suspension" (such as it was) of his campaign to help address the financial crisis. But I thought he came out strong in the debate's opening moments, took the fight to Obama and displayed his impressive knowledge of the issues, both foreign and domestic.

Obama won by not losing, though. He held his own against McCain, made no glaring mistakes, and by the end of the evening, proved he belonged on the same stage as his veteran opponent, establishing his "presidential" credentials. Obama was far more gracious and respectful than McCain, who came off kind of like the cranky neighbor who always complains about your dog tearing up his garden. That irascible attitude seemed to annoy a lot of undecided voters, and Obama clearly has passed a significant hurdle with many of them this week: they've decided that he is ready to be president, despite McCain's rather pointed assertions to the contrary.

Our new CBS News-New York Times Poll finds that of those who watched the debate, 51% thought Obama won, and only 26% thought McCain did. Overall, including people who didn't see the debate but heard about it later, 41% said Obama was the winner, and 21% said McCain. Other polls support those findings. More importantly, voters in the swing states came to the same conclusion. In Florida, for example, where McCain has been holding a small but steady lead, the Quinnipiac poll found those who watched the debate scoring it for Obama, by a margin of 49 to 34%. As a result, Obama has surged ahead of McCain there, 51-43.

In Ohio, which has been a dead heat with McCain barely ahead, debate-watchers told the Quinnipiac pollsters that Obama won the showdown (49% to 33%), and suddenly, Obama has taken the lead in the Buckeye State, 50-42. There's a similar story in Pennsylvania, where Obama's lead over McCain had been dwindling. Now Obama is way ahead, by an astounding 54 to 39%. In Iowa, which voted for President Bush last time, Obama's got a 16-point lead now, according to the new KCCI-TV Poll. In Virginia, Nevada and bellwether Missouri, all swing states that were Republican red in 2004, Obama has caught and passed McCain.

It's not just the debate, of course. Voters think Obama is better-equipped to manage the economy, and they're also losing confidence in Sarah Palin. The more interviews she does, the more she sinks in the surveys. Palin's answers - on Russia, on the bailout, on the Supreme Court, even on what newspapers she reads - are dropping as many jaws as the opening scene of "Springtime for Hitler" in "The Producers."

One conclusion is inescapable - the pundits' opinions don't matter nearly as much as our critics think they do. The voters made their own judgment of that debate, regardless of what we professionals thought. Most experts I spoke with called it pretty much a draw, and many gave McCain a slight edge. But the voters gave Obama a clear victory. You can't blame that on the liberal media conspiracy.

There is deepening concern in the McCain camp. A whiff of desperation is creeping into their rhetoric. You can hear the panic among the conservative talk show hosts as they ratchet up their vitriol. They can feel this thing slipping away.

It isn't over, of course. Sarah Palin has a huge chance to redeem herself in Thursday night's vice presidential debate. Again, the expectations have been lowered, to a ridiculous level. If she's vibrant and sparkling, homespun and funny, zinging Biden with folksy Alaska one-liners, and can somehow muddle through the tougher fact-based questions with enough stock phrases about reform and change and shake-up, then she could surprise those who think she's just going to babble, drool, and spew non sequiturs until her head spins around and explodes. Joe Biden could call her "darling" and "sweetie," veer off on some long-winded digression about his childhood in a Welsh coal mine, and then reminisce about Abe Lincoln's TV appearances during the Mexican-American War. Barack Obama could show up for next week's town hall debate in a dashiki and bandoliers.

Or, on a more serious note, there could be a major terrorist attack, or some other foreign policy emergency that undermines the voters' emerging confidence in Obama's readiness. And, of course, there is the potential racism factor, which could subtract five to seven points from what Obama's getting in all these polls, and that could swing enough of those battleground states back to McCain.

But for the moment, the narrative of this election is being set - and it's setting in Obama's favor. We'll see if The Great Debates, Round Two - Biden vs. Palin - does anything to keep the cement from hardening.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Suspended Animation

Sorry I haven't blogged for a week, but I suspended my coverage of the campaign due to the economic crisis. Other bloggers put themselves first; I put my country first. How can I be blogging, in a fog of self-indulgence, when highly leveraged financial institutions run by altruistic billionaires are crashing all around me?

Now I return from my self-imposed exile, only to see John McCain stealing my idea. In case you haven't heard, McCain announced today that he will suspend his presidential campaign (after another 24 hours of speeches and appearances) to focus his energy on solving the Panic of 2008. Sadly, this would mean postponing Friday's much-anticipated debate with Barack Obama, but hey, sometimes sacrifices have to be made.

(Truth be told - I was off in Wisconsin and Illinois, on a very fun sports junket with three colleagues, watching the Chicago Cubs clinch a division championship, the Green Bay Packers get whupped by the Dallas Cowboys, and Magic Slim and the Teardrops blow the roof off a blues club in the Windy City. I also spent some time interviewing voters in the swing state of Wisconsin - fascinating, revealing conversations that will air later this week and next, and about which I will blog in a day or two).

So what's the truth behind McCain's latest bold maneuver? Is he really as selfless as he claims, willing to lose an election to save an economy? Or is this a cynical ploy, designed to back Obama into a corner and reclaim the mantle of the maverick?

One thing is certain: we have yet more proof that John McCain is never afraid to throw long. At the low point of his campaign, when Obama was riding a glorious post-convention surge, McCain went to the far end of the Republican bench and plucked Sarah Palin from the wilds of Alaska, stunning the pundits and producing a surge of his own, vaulting him right back into the lead. Now, with the polls showing Obama pulling away again, with the economic distress depressing McCain's support and pushing the Democrat back up by six to ten points, McCain goes deep again. This time, he boldly proposes putting politics on hold, postponing Friday's debate, and challenging Obama to put country first, as McCain always promises to do. Is it risky? You bet. Is it a mistake? It may well be. Does McCain really want to send voters the message that he can't handle his Senate duties and run for president at the same time? Is anyone in Washington really clamoring for McCain and Obama, neither of whom has been a leader on economic issues in the Senate, to come rushing back to the Capitol and solve this crisis? Is the Senate going to be so busy on a Friday night re-working the bailout proposal, that the two presidential candidates can't spend a few hours in Mississippi debating foreign policy and national security?

As of this writing, the Friday debate goes on, as scheduled. Obama responded with the obvious line of reasoning: we need to debate now more than ever. It may be appropriate to tone down the partisan bickering in time of crisis, but the American people only have six weeks to make a critical decision, and it's even more important than it was a few days ago that the rival candidates put their policies on the table for all to see. He resisted the impulse to take a nasty jab at McCain's apparent inability to multi-task, though he did say, gently, that "America needs a president who can do more than one thing at once."

The darkest view of McCain's gambit could be that he's not ready for Friday's debate. It's the presidential campaign version of "the dog ate my homework." In this case, the economy ate my debate prep. The paper is due in two days and McCain just realized he hasn't memorized the names of all the new world leaders yet. But maybe this is what's really behind it: It's a clever ploy to buy more time for Sarah Palin. Yes, it all comes back to the Drilla from Wasilla. The McCain campaign is going to suggest moving the first presidential showdown to next Thursday, replacing the one and only vice presidential debate, which would be postponed to some unspecified date, later in October. That would give Palin a few more precious weeks to do her own homework. The Obama camp is not likely to bite though, so expect the debates to go on as planned.

Which means the Republicans will again be able to denounce Obama as a selfish Messiah who values his own ascent more than the economic well-being of the hard-working American middle class. But that's not likely to stick. Moving your presidential campaign to Washington, in the midst of an economic crisis, isn't ending politics as usual; it's as naked a political move as you'll ever see. Remember the last time a presidential candidate used a national crisis as an excuse to seek refuge from a rough campaign? His name was Jimmy Carter, and his "Rose Garden strategy" during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980 backfired miserably. Suspend the campaign? Just long enough to delay the debates? McCain may need another kind of suspension - of the voters' disbelief - for this one to work.

Listen to McCain's announcement, Obama's response, and Katie Couric's exclusive sit-down with Sarah Palin tonight, along with the very latest polls (Fox News puts Obama ahead too, not just ABC), all on www.sovernnation.com

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

That's the Ticket

So, Tina Fey made a triumphant return to Saturday Night Live this weekend to deliver a dead-on caricature of Sarah Palin.

Now, it might be time to bring back Jon Lovitz and his Pathological Liar routine...to skewer John McCain.

I strive for non-partisanship in this blog. I call 'em as I see 'em, and I try to afflict both sides, no matter my politics or theirs. This is not an advocacy site - I'm a political reporter and I try to offer insight, analysis, and a behind-the-scenes glimpse of life on the campaign trail, all with a healthy side of humor. So let me say up front that every presidential campaign takes liberties with the truth. They all distort, and bend, and exaggerate. They take things out of context, and they take their rival's offhand comments and harmless jokes and blow them out of proportion. The Obama campaign is as guilty of that as any I've seen.

But the McCain campaign is going way beyond that. This campaign isn't just fudging a little bit. It seems to actually be lying, and it's rare that we in the media say such a thing. And the worst offense, to me, is that when it gets caught - the McCain-Palin campaign denies that it's lying, and keeps repeating the lies.

You don't have to take it from me. Maybe you think I'm part of the liberal media conspiracy. You can take it from Karl Rove, or from the Wall Street Journal. Look, if they accuse John McCain of lying in his campaign ads, it's probably true, right?

The saddest part of this is that it's coming from John "Straight Talk" McCain, a man who has always claimed to place his honor and integrity above all else, at least in his political life. Has he sold his soul to become president? Is he so close to tasting the ultimate political success, that he's letting his campaign managers run roughshod over the truth, his reputation be damned? Has McCain decided the end justifies the means, no matter how low and nasty?

Here are a few of the lies that bother me the most:

McCain, on the stump, cackles with glee as he tells a roaring crowd about his running mate, Sarah Palin, "I love that she sold the governor's plane on eBay! And she made a profit!"

THE TRUTH: No she didn't. Palin did put the jet on eBay, but nobody bought it. The state ended up selling it through a traditional broker, and at a $500,000 loss.

McCain, on The View last week, insists that Palin has not asked for or accepted any federal earmark spending for Alaska while governor, only while Mayor of Wasilla, and that she vetoed pork-barrel bills as governor.

THE TRUTH: Palin has requested almost $200 million in earmarks for Alaska this year, and that's on top of the $256 million in pork she snagged from the feds last year. That gives Alaska, far and away, the most federal earmark dollars, per capita, in the nation. But Palin herself keeps repeating, on the stump and in her lone interview so far, that she is "against earmark abuse."

Palin has also used that same tired line about the Bridge to Nowhere - "I told Congress thanks, but no thanks" - so many times now that even she isn't delivering it with the same conviction.

THE TRUTH: Palin campaigned for the $223 million bridge, fought for the money from Congress, and lobbied to get the bridge built. After the project became a national symbol of earmark abuse, Congress killed the proposal - and then, and only then, did Palin switch her position and oppose the idea of the bridge. She still took the money, though, and spent it on other projects in Alaska.

But the McCain-Palin campaign's lies go way beyond Palin's record. They also show up in the attack ads slamming Barack Obama. One cited Obama's "lipstick on a pig" quip - which came in the midst of a discussion of McCain, President Bush and economic policy - and, with the words "Obama on Sarah Palin" across the TV screen, asserted that the Democrat had "smeared" Palin. McCain finally admitted yesterday that he did nothing of the sort, and that Obama didn't really call Palin a pig. But will as many people hear his retraction as saw that ad?

Another ad takes Obama's committee vote in the Illinois Senate for "comprehensive sexual education" for children - specifically, a plan to teach kindergarten kids how to recognize and report inappropriate touching in case someone tries to molest them - and twists it into something sick. The ad claims that Obama wanted to teach little kids about sex, before teaching them to read, and therefore Obama is "wrong for your family."

McCain and Palin also keep lying about Obama's tax proposals. The Republicans are used to blasting Democrats as "tax and spend," so maybe it's a reflex response; they don't actually read the other guy's plans, they just assume he wants to raise everyone's taxes. But I've read two different independent, nonpartisan, objective analyses of Obama's economic plan so far (I won't ruin them for you by giving away the ending), and both concluded roughly the same thing: that Obama's plans, as outlined, would result in lower taxes for 80 to 90% of Americans. Not higher. Lower. But McCain and Palin keep telling voters that Obama will raise their taxes. How many people will actually read those plans to learn the truth? Very few. Most will simply nod their heads and assume the war hero is giving them the straight dope.

And therein lies the danger. McCain is either poorly informed, extremely confused, or dishonest. Maybe he thinks that he can just keep repeating the lies for seven more weeks and no one will notice. But people have noticed. So he really should stop. Because too many people believe the lies. Do we want this election decided by dishonesty? Don't we want the best person with the best ideas to win? Shouldn't each side present its vision for the future to the country, which will then pick the one it likes best? That's what democracy is all about.

Otherwise, John McCain will start telling people his running mate is....um....Morgan Fairchild! That's right! I met her while moose hunting and asked her if she wanted to be vice president! And if he repeats that one enough, people will soon forget all about this Sarah Palin person.

Hey, that's the ticket!

P.S. I learned today that the phrase "lipstick on a pig" was first coined by our old friend and KCBS colleague Ron Lyons. The first confirmed usage of that expression was in 1985, on the radio in San Francisco, by Ron, describing the Giants' plan to spruce up Candlestick Park, since their plan to build a new ballpark was going nowhere at the time. Those who knew Ron will immediately recognize that it sure sounds like one of his folksy, earthy expressions. But I had no idea the etymologists gave him official credit for that one. Ron, you can take your rightful place in the cultural pantheon now. We miss you.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tough Sledding

Sarah Palin made her unscripted debut tonight on ABC News. Those who already love her will probably think she was smashing, but anyone viewing her performance objectively will probably come away deeply concerned, if not aghast.

Deprived of the witty, biting speech she's been delivering in one form or another for the past week, Governor Palin had to rely on her own knowledge and political instincts. Generally speaking, the latter did not fail her, but the former came up woefully short.

Charlie Gibson grilled a nervous Palin on foreign policy and energy. Tomorrow, his series of interviews continues, presumably on domestic issues and questions about her family, and her record in office. I thought he was tough and persistent, in a calm, understated way, but certainly fair.

It became clear, fairly quickly, that Palin really is in over her head. She displayed little grasp of major international issues, even the simplest ones. Admittedly, American foreign policy is incredibly complex, but one would expect the governor of our country's vastest state, one that borders two foreign countries, to know the basics. Having traveled with Governor Schwarzenegger to both China and Mexico, I can guarantee you he knows far more about foreign affairs than his Alaskan counterpart does, and less than five years ago, he was a Hollywood actor (of course, he was born in Austria, which gave him a head start).

What stunned me the most was that Governor Palin had no idea what the Bush Doctrine was. It seemed as if she'd never even heard of it. Granted, most Americans probably couldn't explain it on demand, either, but they're not governors and they're not running for vice president. I'm sure most American high school students could though, since they've probably had to write about it on social studies tests, just as we had to explain the Monroe Doctrine or the Truman Doctrine once upon a time.

Considering that President Bush outlined his radical shift from previous American policies of deterrence and containment - to one of unilateral, pre-emptive strikes - in a major speech to a joint session of Congress after the September 11th attacks, a speech that millions upon millions of Americans watched, I was flabbergasted to see Sarah Palin stare blankly at Gibson when he asked if she agrees with it. She stammered through an answer that laid her ignorance bare, to the point that Gibson finally had to explain it for her. The McCain spinmeisters can play this however they like, but few unbiased viewers will see it their way.

Now, in all likelihood, most American voters probably won't be bothered by Palin's shaky answers on this and other key questions (when asked by Gibson what insights into recent Russian policies Palin has gained from Alaska's proximity to Russia, the governor gushed, "They're our neighbors! You can actually see Russia from some of the land in Alaska!"
Maybe she mind-melds with potato farmers while gazing out from the Aleutians towards Kamchatka). The voters already inclined to like Sarah Palin don't care about the Bush Doctrine, haven't met any foreign heads of state either, and probably don't have passports. They will respond to her confidence and spunkiness, and will probably get mad at Charlie Gibson for being mean to her. So it remains to be seen if media criticism, and the negative headlines that will no doubt be generated by the blistering attacks I assume the Obama campaign will unleash tomorrow, will dull any of Palin's sudden sheen.

In fact, the timing of this may work against Obama, because he plans to start ignoring Palin, and to refocus his campaign against McCain. Now the next 24 hours will be dominated by reaction to the Palin interviews instead, not to mention the landfall of Hurricane Ike.

But any American who cares about this country should watch these interviews, with deepening worry. Palin came off as an ill-informed hawk, someone who will be forced to rely on the knowledge and judgment of others when it comes to critical matters of national survival. That sounds an awful lot like the president 80% of the country thinks has done a terrible job, and considering that Palin's being advised by some of the same architects of his foreign policy - the one she'd never heard of - it's going to take more than lipstick for the McCain campaign to pretty this one up.