Contexts, Normalcy and The Wright Stuff.

April 27, 2008

Contexts, Normalcy and The Wright Stuff.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Every Sunday CUIP’s president Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, April 27, 2008 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show” and “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

Salit: Congressman Artur Davis from Alabama was part of a “group debate” on the Stephanopoulos show. Davis is an Obama supporter. His argument was that the trouble Obama is having in winning support from white working class men will remedy itself if Obama is the Democratic nominee, so people don’t need to be so hysterical about it. He argued that at this stage of the primary process in 1992, Bill Clinton was at 26% among white male voters. And that every primary that the Democrats have had for the last ten cycles or so, except for 2004, the process went until June. So basically what you’re seeing is a normal state of affairs for the Democratic Party. Do you agree with his description of normalcy?

Newman: Well, in one way, it’s impossible to disagree with. Obviously, this is normal because it’s what’s happening. In certain ways, it is comparable to primaries of the past. In other ways, it’s not comparable. But, to state the obvious, it is what it is. It’s this particular campaign and it will play out as it plays out. Will there be hard feelings? There’s always hard feelings.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: I’m not a big racetrack person, but I’ve been to enough racetracks to see people bet on a certain horse and sing its praises, and then see it race two weeks later and call it a dog and bet on another horse to win. These things change in a flash. For various reasons, they’re either voting for Clinton or for Obama, but when that race is over, that race is over. And people will start to consider the new picture, where they’re involved in a general election race between a Democrat and a Republican. I’ve thought since the very beginning that the race favors the Democrats. They should do well, no matter which candidate they choose. What will the longer term effects of a heated Democratic primary be? Well, there’ll be millions of them, all kinds of different effects, in different places with different people. I think it would be foolish to try to lump those all together and try to come up with a general pattern.

Salit: Continuing on that point, there was a lot made of the polls that show that 26% of people who voted for Hillary say if Obama is the nominee, they won’t vote for Obama, they’ll vote for McCain. Pat Healy from The New York Times, mapped out that you have to take those polls with something of a grain of salt.

Newman: Let’s not forget that the polls couldn’t figure the results in New Hampshire three days before the election, never mind eight months before the general election. Come on, give me a break.

Salit: There’s a heat of the moment passion for the candidate that you’re supporting. I’m supporting such and such candidate and I won’t support anybody but that candidate.

Newman: And that’s this moment, not every moment.

Salit: Yes. And by and large the consensus is that when the primary is over and there is a nominee, the Democrats will unite around a particular candidate. There’s nothing in this scenario that suggests otherwise. Now, to go to the millions of longer term impacts that you were just referencing, one that concerns Matt Dowd, now a Republican consultant, is the extent to which young people who have been motivated to participate in the primary process are largely supporting Barack Obama and that if Obama isn’t the nominee, there will be a very significant fall-off of participation among those newly energized voters.

Newman: And do you know what the Democratic hierarchy will say about that?

Salit: They’ll say?

Newman: They’ll say Good. If those young people don’t have the stick-to-it-iveness to support Democratic values, we’d just as soon have them get the hell out. That’s what they’ll say.

Salit: And, We can still win the election without them.

Newman: And if we pick up any of them, that’s good. If most of them decide to quit politics altogether, we’re used to that. We’ll still be ahead of the game.

Salit: OK. Another soft spot which is raised in every single cycle since Jesse Jackson ran for the presidency in 1984 is what happens with the African American vote. Obama is carrying 90% of the black vote. If Obama’s not the nominee, given the way the race card has been played by the Clintons, given what Bill Clinton has done, the argument is you’re not going to get full-scale participation in the general election by African Americans.

Newman: I’ll take that bet any time. The black vote will go overwhelmingly for Clinton, if she is the nominee.

Salit: I agree. Then there is a side issue which some pundits find interesting, which is how Bill Clinton is regarded by the African American community. Cynthia Tucker from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution says he’s really damaged his relationship to the African American community. How do you react to that?

Newman: To do a little psychology here, Bill Clinton is the kind of person who actually gains in popularity by damaging his relationships and then going back and saying ‘Oh, that was really bad of me.’

Salit: So true.

Newman: He’s that kind of person. He can say all kinds of things and then he can apologize for them and he winds up very, very popular. I don’t think he’s damaged his reputation in this way. I don’t buy that.

Salit: The funny thing is that Bill Clinton has not always been popular with black voters, nor has he always had a strong relationship with them. In 1992, when he ran and won the presidency for the first time, there was a tremendous amount of friction and animosity in the black community towards him because of certain political plays that he made to compete for southern blue collar white voters. There is a sort of amnesia on the part of the analysts.

Newman: The bottom line truth that Democrats and the smart Democratic pundits always keep in mind is that the Democrats are running against the Republicans. And black people, with good reason, don’t like the Republican Party.

Salit: Matthew Dowd observed that we started out this season with a likely Democratic Party win. Now he thinks we’re looking at a probable Democratic Party win. This is based on the damage that the party is doing to itself through this torrid primary season.

Newman: All the Democratic Party needs is a one-vote margin.

Salit: Yes, that’s all they need to win the White House.

Newman: There you go.

Salit: Where would you put yourself on the “likely” vs. “probable” scale? Has it gone from likely to probable in your view?

Newman: No. I think it’s about where it was when it started. The Democrats should win. And I don’t think anything that has happened should change that dramatically.

Salit: Donna Brazile talked about John McCain’s candidacy and his relationship to the Republican Party. McCain captured the nomination but was very unpopular with a lot of groups in the party. But, unlike the eventual Democratic nominee, he has lots of time to do the repair work. Still, Donna Brazile observed, McCain, to use her language, can’t get control of the Republican Party. He’s the nominee, but he’s really not in control of the party. That’s the Republican side. On the Democratic side, you have a bitter primary contest which is going to have whatever ramifications. Anyway, going back to my question about normalcy, and whether all of this is normal, how are the parties doing?

Newman: I haven’t seen any polls recently, but the last ones I did see, they were both unpopular. The Republicans were slightly more unpopular than the Democrats. I think that’s probably holding up throughout all of this. Pardon me if I make a philosophical point, but things matter contextually, not as things in themselves. Most things matter contextually. So when you change the context, what matters is going to change. This is where we are right now and so things matter in the way they do relative to the context we’re in right now.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: When we change the context, what matters is going to change. And it can change on a dime. On a dime. The biggest thing to say about Pennsylvania is that through all of this hullabaloo, nothing much changed. Hillary was expected to win. And she did. She was expected to win by between six and ten points and she did. It was a state, in some ways, made for her. Then all these things happened and people say ‘Oh it was this that caused it, or this that caused it.’ And no doubt, these things played a role. But it wasn’t as if there was this shift so large that they have to explain it – it was about the expectation. And that’s been true for most of the primary, even through all of the hullabaloo about it. The most unexpected thing that happened through this whole Democratic primary was Iowa.

Salit: Right.

Newman: Who did you think was going to win South Carolina? Yes, you can talk about, ‘Well, blacks said he wasn’t black enough,’ and so on. But, when push came to shove and you got to a state with a huge black vote, who did you expect was going to get the vote? Hillary? I don’t think so.

Salit: I think that’s very important.

Newman: It’s not that nothing makes a difference. It’s that things make a difference, or derive their meaning, in context.

Salit: At the point in the primary process when South Carolina was up, it was a critical moment for Obama to have a big win and to make a big statement. The conditions were ripe for him to do it and he did that. As you say, there was every reason to believe that he could do that. But, it also had a certain force because of the context. That’s also true for Pennsylvania and for Hillary. The primary process was at a particular point and Pennsylvania was tailor-made for her.

Newman: Well, I’m saying something slightly different than that.

Salit: OK.

Newman: I’m talking about expectations. I’m saying that the more rational minded and serious people expected from the get-go that Obama would knock the hell out of South Carolina. And he did. The Hillary people expected from the get-go to come up with what they’ve come up with in Pennsylvania, and they did.

Salit: How’s Obama doing, do you think?

Newman: What do you mean?

Salit: Psychologically. A lot of the commentators said he’s unhappy when he’s forced off the high ground and down into the mud.

Newman: I think that’s slightly generous of them to say that. I think he is unhappy when he has to do that. But it’s because he doesn’t do it terribly well. I think he’s tired.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: I think he’s tired and his team – and this is subtle and psychological and it’s probably nonsense – but I think they’re playing somewhat of a defensive waiting game.

Salit: Meaning?

Newman: They’re letting things play out, generally speaking. I’m not even saying that it’s the wrong game. I’m just saying it’s not an easy game to play because you’re constantly on the defensive. So, I think the campaign is tired. I think it was much more alive when it was upbeat and going to win a lot of stuff, rather than to just not lose a lot of stuff. In sports, which is the obvious metaphor here since this is a race, I’ve seen it go both ways. Sometimes you play simply to back in and it works just fine – you do just back in. And, as they say in sports, if you lose your last 15 games, but the other team doesn’t win all of theirs and you just back in and win by a half a game, that’s as much of a win as winning by 30.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: And then, you see what happens next. So, I’m not even prepared to say that they’re playing it the wrong way. But, I think it is fair to say that the way in which they’re playing it impacts on how he and the campaign feel about things and therefore what they project. And, I’m sure that if Obama wins the nomination and Team Obama looks back on it, they’ll say they did just fine.

Salit: They are already saying how can you fault us for backing in when nobody in their right mind would have expected we’d get in at all?

Newman: And there’s some truth to that. I still think that he and they could be doing more with this. I think Obama could more directly say All Hillary’s tough talk on the campaign trail is much tougher than I’ve ever heard her in Washington. You never hear her talk this way in Washington. She went along with an awful lot of stuff. Now she’s a tough talker, because she’s just talking to beat me. She’s not talking to give expression to what the American people want. She’s a pro-war candidate. Don’t forget about that. When it was time to come out against the war, she didn’t and I did. That was a tough moment. He could do that more.

Salit: I just reread a couple of sections from the speech that Obama gave that was his major speech against the war. And he said, ‘It’s not that I’m against war in all situations. I’m against dumb wars, and this is a dumb war.’ That was a very tough statement to make. One last question about the topic that everyone says no one wants to talk about – Rev. Wright’s appearance on Bill Moyers and elsewhere this week.

Newman: Did you see it?

Salit: Yes, I saw him on Moyers. What you see in Rev. Wright is what you would expect. He’s a moderate progressive, he’s a nationalist, he’s a theologian and he has a voice that’s connected to a large segment of the African American community. No surprises there. I thought Donna Brazile’s comments on the Stephanopoulos show today were useful because there was all this discussion ‘Well, why did Wright do the interview now? The timing on this is terrible.’ But I thought what Donna said was instructive. She said that what you have to understand about where Rev. Wright is coming from is that he feels and many people in the black community feel that the attacks on Obama relative to his relationship with Rev. Wright are attacks on the black church and attacks on the black community, and they want to respond to that. They feel that they have to respond to that. They feel that they’ve been publicly maligned and that they have an obligation to speak out and be more public.

Newman: What you’re saying makes good sense. As was pointed out at the very beginning of this thing, what Rev. Wright said gets said not only in church, but in the black community, ad infinitum every day of the week. And many things get said in other communities also relative to their own religious/moral/political positions. It seems so strange that Americans like to talk about – correctly so, I think – the great meld, that all these things get melded together in America. But the great meld wouldn’t have any significance if the items that make up the great meld aren’t significantly different when they’re separated. And they are. So, the talk that goes on in the Jewish community and the talk that goes on in the Christian Right community and the talk that goes on in the Latino community, are contextualized. If you argue that what comes up at the end of the process of the meld, should be there from the beginning, you misunderstand everything. You misunderstand America. Some people don’t like that, but that’s nonetheless how the country works. You come up with compromised positions, different ways of talking. So the ways that you talk if you’re a United States Senator are different from the ways you talk if you’re a black church leader in Chicago. People are aghast and shocked by that. But it makes no sense to be aghast and shocked by that. That’s how the country is historically, and no doubt will be for a very long time and may be forever. If these were earlier days and if my mother gave some of the speeches that she gave in our kitchen in the United States Senate, she’d be regarded as to the right of David Duke.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: But my mother wouldn’t give those speeches in the United States Senate. That’s the very point.

Salit: Exactly.

Newman: And she was actually, by general standards in the Jewish community, something of a liberal.

Salit: Yes, Fred. Thank you.