Monday, March 24, 2008

Shades of Gray

After the nonstop voting frenzy of February and early March, the first days of spring have felt like the dog days of this presidential nominating season: kind of sleepy, a bit of a lull between primaries, not so much to blog about. Each day does seem to bring another little twist or blip, whether it's John McCain's gaffes in Iraq, or another advisor to Obama or Clinton shooting from the lip. But without a looming primary or caucus to drive the election calendar, some of the pressure and tension is off. Obama has even gone off to St. Thomas for a few days of vacation. McCain is back here in California, raising money and laying the groundwork for a November run at our 55 electoral votes.

We filled some of the down time with our latest campaign song, "Crocodile Barack," and in case you missed it on the radio, well, there it is, just click on that handy link. (For that matter, if you somehow didn't hear our Hillary Clinton song, here's that one, too).

The major campaign event of the month turned out to be the Jeremiah Wright controversy, which broke while I was off for a little break of my own, in Yosemite. Rev. Wright has been on the political radar for many months now, and some of the Hillary Clinton supporters who criticize us for alleged Obama favoritism had been forwarding links to me, with some of his more outrageous statements. But once videos of some of Wright's fire-and-brimstone started running in heavy rotation on the cable news channels, Obama had no choice but to address the words of his longtime pastor and spiritual mentor.

Obama's speech in Philadelphia was brilliantly written, I thought, and much has been said and written about it elsewhere. It was really more of a scholarly talk than a traditional campaign address: long, slow, thoughtful, laid out in a linear and logical way. It could have been a summation in a legal case, except for the absence of an emotional appeal to the jury at the close. I know people who think it was the greatest speech they've ever heard, but let's not get carried away. I don't know that I would call it Lincolnesque. At 37 minutes, it was 18 times longer than the Gettysburg Address. But it was deeply personal, and so much more reflective than a typical political speech. It also disabused me of a notion that's been kicking around my brain for a year or so now: that Barack Obama reminds me too much of George W. Bush.

Before you scoff loudly at that idea (maybe it's too late), consider the parallels. In 1999, while covering the presidential campaign of then-Governor Bush, I found him to be a reasonably pleasant guy whom many voters found inexplicably (to me) charismatic. He was a man of limited government experience, relying heavily on his personality and likeability, who avoided reporters at all costs and whose policy details were as thin as his resume. Does that sound familiar? When I covered Obama in late 2006 and early 2007, he steered clear of the media, gave vague speeches full of platitudes and lofty catch phrases, avoided answering specific policy questions, and leaned mostly on his status as a fresh face and celebrity author. At the California Democratic Convention last spring, Obama was the only one of the eight presidential contenders who did not hold a news conference or conduct any interviews. He's made himself more available as he's fleshed out his positions and gained more experience, both in government and on the campaign trail, but he's still the only major candidate this year who hasn't done an interview with KCBS.

But that speech on race has changed my thinking. Can you imagine President Bush giving a talk like that - not to mention writing it himself? What would he say? "I am the son of a rich, powerful white man...and, um, a rich, powerful white woman, too." Obama's words reflected deep contemplation, and an intellect able to translate that soul-searching into powerful speech that seemed honest and real. Bush sees everything in black and white; Obama offered us shades of gray. That kind of nuanced thinking is rare in national politics. But the world isn't black and white, and it's refreshing to hear a presidential candidate choose candor over demagoguery, especially on a subject as critical to America - and so close to my own heart - as race.

QUICK HITS: Bill Clinton returns to the Bay Area to address this year's state Democratic convention, this Sunday in San Jose. Let's see if he gets mad at us again, or brings his sax this time...John McCain holds fundraisers Wednesday at Pebble Beach and the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton...What do you think of Bill Richardson's new facial hair? I think the Van Dyke gives him a more Latin look, and makes him look a little more manicured, which could work to his advantage if he's Obama's running mate...but we'll save that V-P analysis for later in the campaign.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

And the Race Goes On...

...and on, and on...

What if they held a presidential nominating contest and nobody ever won?
Actually, I don't know what the big hurry is. Whoever decreed that the arbitrary date of March 4th is when we should determine our presidential nominees - when the general election isn't for another nine months? I find this primary season rather exciting, and fascinating, and it appears record numbers of voters do, too, so why not let it entertain us for a few more months? As Oscar Wilde once said, "The suspense is terrible. I hope it lasts!"

Hillary Clinton came dangerously close to ending it Tuesday, but instead pulled off the Clinton family's latest miracle comeback, turning Sort of Super Tuesday into just another milepost on the long 2008 campaign trail. She won a predictable landslide in blue collar Rhode Island, took Ohio by a surprisingly impressive margin, and pulled out a nailbiter in the Texas primary. At this writing (almost 2am in California; it's been a long night!), the Texas caucus results are coming in by Pony Express or something, so all I can tell you is that Barack Obama has a narrow lead in the after-hours portion of the Texas voting. Obama did wallop Clinton in Vermont, but that too was a foregone conclusion. For his trouble there, I think Obama wins eight delegates, a new bong and a lifetime's supply of Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey.

(By the way, we have a lifetime's supply of sound from last night's festivities, including Hillary Clinton's rousing victory speech, Barack Obama's tepid "But I'm still winning" speech, John McCain's nomination-clinching valedictory, and Mike Huckabee's farewell comedy routine, er, I mean, concession speech. Not to mention analysis galore, from the likes of San Francisco State whiz Joe Tuman. By morning, I'm sure we will have heard from Marc Sandalow, Carla Marinucci, Phil Matier and many others, so check the KCBS home page or Sovern Nation Featured Audio for the very latest interviews).

(And while I'm on this ADD digression, did you know you can download all our audio, including our hit songs, on iTunes, for free? If you subscribe to the Sovern Nation podcast there, they even download automatically to your computer so you never miss any...)

And now back to our primary.

Later today, John McCain will go to the White House, where he will be anointed with oil by President Bush, officially commencing the fence-mending portion of the Republican primary process. You can bet the Democrats will TiVo every bear hug and smile-for-the-cameras grin of the Bush-McCain lovefest, to display this fall for the 70% of voters who think Bush is a lousy president. But for now, McCain has no choice but to gladly accept the endorsement of the man who savaged him in 2000 with some of the lowest blows in modern American politics. He still needs to reassure the conservatives who don't trust him. He will also gain instant access to the apparatus of the Republican National Committee, including the Bush family's fundraising database, which will be invaluable to McCain if he's able to opt out of public financing.

Meanwhile, Clinton and Obama go on to Pennsylvania, for what amounts to Iowa and New Hampshire redux, except this time in a state that is much more representative of the rest of the nation. It's big, it's diverse, it's urban, it's rural. It's got manufacturing and farms, street gangs and Amish, Polish Catholic steelworkers and patrician Main Line WASPs. If the Dems brawl like Eagles fans, it will certainly help McCain, who will be busy marshaling resources for the fall and honing his November message. If they can stay civil (say, more like Packers fans), then at least the Democrats will benefit from an awful lot of free media attention and the concentrated focus of all these engaged voters. They will have the spotlight to themselves, so they'd best use it wisely.

But no matter who wins Pennsylvania - I assume Obama will win Wyoming this Saturday and Mississippi next Tuesday, but they're not that consequential - this thing probably won't be settled, even after the last Democrat in Puerto Rico votes June 7 (please write to my news director, urging him to send me to P.R. to cover that one!). By our reckoning, there are 1088 delegates left to give out - but only 745 of them will be determined by the voters. The rest are uncommitted superdelegates. At this hour, Obama needs at least 513 to win the nomination; Clinton needs 602. That makes it virtually impossible for either one of them to clinch this at the polls. If they split the remaining delegates, and the supers divide evenly, then Obama wins. But if Clinton gets on a little bit of a roll, she could easily claim enough delegates to keep Obama from being the nominee, while still falling short herself. You can see how the math could work for either of them still - or, more likely, neither one - leaving the nomination in the hands of the dreaded superdelegates.

Is the bloom off the rose for Obama? Did he peak too soon? Are the voters having second thoughts? I was going to explore those questions here, but it's long past time to put me to bed - even if we can't say the same yet for the Democratic presidential race.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Do I Hate All Women, or Just Hillary?

That's what an emailer asked me last week, after hearing my latest parody song, this one about the Clinton-Obama race, and seeing me opine on CBS-5 TV that the media are saying negative things about Hillary Clinton simply because there is bad news to report about her. Another asked "when will the misogyny end?" Every time we report anything negative or even mildly critical about Clinton, the newsroom phone rings off the hook and the email box fills with vitriol.

Believe it or not, folks, I don't hate women. Ask anyone who knows me and they'll laugh at the idea. Really hard. And, whether the humorless critics who get so incensed at our reporting want to accept it or not, our news coverage is not based on the gender, race, ethnicity or any other physical or innate attribute of the people we cover, unless it's germane to the story in some way.

Reporting that Hillary Clinton has lost 11 straight nominating contests, or is shaking up her staff, or is falling behind in the polls, or has gone from frontrunner to underdog, is not sexist. Any more than it is racist to report that Barack Obama has questionable ties to an indicted Chicago developer, or that Louis Farrakhan's endorsement of him makes some Jews uneasy, or that he's still a little vague on some critical policy questions and doesn't do enough interviews with the media. And yes, we have reported on these things, even though the Clinton crowd refuses to believe it.

Are the media "nicer" to Obama and harder on Clinton? I really don't think so. There are a lot of factors at play: he's a relative newcomer to politics, so there's less to pick on. She has a long, and controversial, history. He's had a remarkable streak of success and good luck the last two months, while she's had some stumbles. No one raised this issue when she was way ahead and presenting herself as the inevitable nominee. When we all did stories on how women loved her, I got no complaints. But as soon as Obama started to pull ahead, and draw massive crowds, and generate this extraordinary buzz, the nasty comments started coming. People need to step back and see the bigger picture. Have you met some of those people who hate Hillary Clinton, in an irrational, visceral way? They don't hate her because she's a woman. It's because of who she is, what she believes, or who she's married to. Most of the people who represent me in government - my City Councilperson, my County Supervisor, my Congresswoman, both of my U.S. Senators - are women. Nobody seems to resent their gender. They're all strong, powerful, outspoken women. I know them all well. Rarely do I hear anyone hate on them - well, except Barbara Boxer, some conservatives really detest her. But the point is, I think the anti-Hillary sentiment is just that - anti-Hillary. It's not misogyny. And it's not coming from the reporters who are covering this campaign, many of whom are smart, high-achieving women themselves.

In other news - and I apologize for not blogging for a little while - Ralph Nader is in again, and this time he's got former San Francisco Supervisor Matt Gonzalez as his running mate (you can hear our live KCBS interview with Gonzalez here). Meanwhile, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote in the New York Times that he is not going to run for president. But former Atlanta Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney is, and she's likely to win the Green Party nomination.

What's it all mean? It means maybe three percent of the vote siphoned off the left, which will hurt the Democratic nominee. If Clinton comes back to beat Obama, then Nader and McKinney could do even better, attracting disappointed progressives. But if Obama is the nominee, I don't think they're likely to make that big a difference. Now if the disenchanted conservatives run a fourth-party candidate, that could really hurt John McCain, but right now I just don't see who that candidate would be.

Lots of other things in the news - including the spat over Hillary's "red phone" commercial, Congressman and superdelegate John Lewis switching from Clinton to Obama, John McCain accidentally calling himself a liberal - and you can read or hear all about those on the Sovern Nation home page.

We'll be back to cover the Texas Two-Step and the Ohio showdown (poor Vermont and Rhode Island are being ignored, but I promise they won't be by me, especially since I lived in the Ocean State for six years), Tuesday night on KCBS and on the website too.