She’s Vulnerable.

March 4, 2007

She’s Vulnerable.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, March 4, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: The newest polls show the black vote starting to shift away from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama. Chris Matthews made the point that this shift undercuts “the inevitability factor” – a major component of the Clinton strategy.

Newman: I’ve never bought in on the “inevitability factor.” It was spin from the start.

Salit: No, you didn’t. And now Obama is unraveling it, and Hillary suddenly looks vulnerable.

Newman: She’s always been vulnerable. That’s why her campaign focused so heavily on projecting that she wasn’t.

Salit: The Clintons, and Bill Clinton in particular, have cultivated a strong connection to black elected officials, to the black political establishment and to black voters. That’s been largely unchallenged.

Newman: Right. Except that Obama is black.

Salit: Yes. So, what’s Obama’s political statement? What’s his message as a black leader?

Newman: He’s not pushing that he’s a black leader. He’s leaving that for everyone else to pick up on. But his unstated message to a lot of the traditional black leadership in the Democratic Party is: this is your chance to move away from the traditional civil rights oligarchy, who’ve been pushing you around for 20 years. But he is cleverly, in my opinion, not playing the “black card” at all. In addition, Obama looks like he might be a winner. So the issue for many black leaders isn’t necessarily that they want to put a certificate on their wall saying that they voted for the first black president. They don’t want to be stuck putting a certificate on their wall saying they didn’t.

Salit: You’ve got Congressman John Lewis, veteran of the civil rights era, now a representative from Georgia, a highly respected figure in black politics. The story goes, he’s planning to support Barack Obama and then his phone rings and Bill Clinton is on the other end of the phone.

Newman: What’s the end of that story?

Salit: The end of the story is that Lewis holds back on an endorsement and stays neutral. For the moment.

Newman: Well, when the Clintons are working for neutrality among key black leaders, you know they’re in trouble.

Salit: Right. So the Clintons, who are smart political players, must be thinking, this isn’t a problem for us. Just so long as we can neutralize a stampede. Like what happened with Jesse Jackson in 1988.

Newman: I don’t think that’s analogous. This is not a Jesse Jackson-style campaign. Obama is a bonafide candidate for the presidency of the United States. Jesse never was. Jesse, like Al Sharpton after him, was running to be the top man in the black community, not President of the United States. I don’t think these situations analogize very much at all.

Salit: Okay. If the Clintons can’t count on the black vote as part of their coalition to win the Democratic primary, they’re going to have to look elsewhere.

Newman: Probably the women’s movement, or the women’s vote. I mean, that’s the obvious place. I don’t think that’s any brilliant observation. But, if they had a backup plan, that’s got to be at least a part of it, I would think.

Salit: In terms of the numbers it’s not a bad plan, because black people are only 11% of the country and women are 50% of the country.

Newman: Yes. And women have their own serious gripes with Hillary.

Salit: They do. It’s an interesting question ‘Can she do it without the black vote?’ Chris Matthews asked his panel that question and they split almost 50-50.

Newman: She can’t do it without the black vote, in my opinion.

Salit: Okay. What do the Clintons need to hold on to? Do they need 60% of the black vote? Do they need 40% of the black vote? How much can they afford to lose to Obama?

Newman: It doesn’t turn purely on what percent they have of the black vote.

Salit: Meaning?

Newman: It turns on what percent Obama has of the black vote. If Obama has an overwhelming amount of the black vote, the liberals can’t so easily support Hillary.

Salit: So, it’s not just about the numbers.

Newman: No, it’s about the history.

Salit: It’s about the history, it’s about which candidate has the political luster or the political legitimacy of representing Black America.

Newman: It’s more concrete than that. That’s right what you’re saying. But, there’s more to it. If you take away the black vote and all it symbolizes, she’s in a very difficult position. She has problems with women – particularly women who lean to the right. But on the left, she’s got the big problem of the war.

Salit: So, she’s got problems coming at her from left and right.

Newman: Not to mention the center, which doesn’t have much love for her either. She alienates a lot of people. I even agree with her on some of the issues. But when you put all these factors together, she’s in big trouble.

Salit: If she loses the black vote or if she loses a significant chunk of the black vote, you suggest women voters is one constituency that she can expand into. But I thought you were also going to raise the question, ‘Does she play more to the Right, the blue-collar Red state Democratic voter?’

Newman: Love the husband, doesn’t mean you love the wife. Bill Clinton can go places and win votes that she can’t.

Salit: Okay, so you’re raising her original problem, which is A) can she sell herself “at the center” and B) even if she can, doesn’t that make her even more vulnerable on her left flank?

Newman: I’m sure her people, who are very smart, have thought about this.

Salit: I’m sure they have.

Newman: But, I don’t know if they can overcome it. Their public strategy has been to project She’s a surefire winner. But, privately, what they say is she’s got an outside chance, but this is her only chance, her one historical opportunity. She’s never going to get this close again.

Salit: So, you take a shot.

Newman: Or you get out of the game altogether.

Salit: Well, they made the decision to have Bill join her in Selma for the march today.

Newman: Those are little decisions.

Salit: They’re little decisions, but it says they’re going to contest very aggressively for the black vote – they’re not going to cede the black vote. They can’t.

Newman: What do you think her key people thought about the Obama run? Did they think he was running?

Salit: I believe they thought that he wasn’t going to run.

Newman: I agree. I think they miscalculated. I don’t know Obama’s people. But I know the Clinton people. And, I think they were taken by surprise. Obama made a very, very gutsy move.

Salit: I agree. And, as Chris Matthews was suggesting, Obama’s current strategy is a wise strategy.

Newman: Which is?

Salit: Stay out of the beltway stuff for the moment. Stay on the ground, stay on the stump. Draw those huge crowds. Hillary can’t match him there. Establish his connection to the voters – including, and especially, black voters. Have the story in the media be the size of the crowds and the enthusiasm of the voters. Keep raising money. And let everything else take care of itself.

Newman: I agree that it’s wise. And the reason it’s wise? Wisdom’s always the other side of obvious. But, his most intelligent move was starting super early.

Salit: He had to start super early.

Newman: Number one, he needed the time to get his name out there. And number two, while he’s drawing 17,000, Hillary is going to draw 2000. And if you read enough articles about that, you say Wait a second. Who is this guy?

Salit: Yes.

Newman: Is he really George Washington, and I just wasn’t hip enough to catch on? So, he starts with that, and that’s good. And then the word starts to be: What a super candidate! He’s not the black candidate. He’s the super candidate. I think that’s quite smart. The strategists said Mr. and Mrs. Obama, we’re going to run you as the super candidate. You’re running as Abraham Lincoln. Start studying.

Salit: He’s a quick study.

Newman: I think so.

Salit: Is Rudy Giuliani the “super” candidate on the Republican side?

Newman: He’s certainly “super” to begin with. I don’t know if he’s super enough to hang on to that position. Do you think he can? Here’s one way I think about it. If Obama and Rudy are in the same class in school you might think Rudy is a tough guy and you want to be in his crowd. But, in the long haul, you’re going to decide that Obama is the smartest guy in the class. And you’re going to want to be with him.

Salit: I’m going to answer your question indirectly. If you had to say in one sentence what the country is now looking for in a president, it’s that we’re looking for someone who can unify America.

Newman: Americans are not so naïve to think about that as a bottom line. It’s got to follow from something.

Salit: Okay, it follows from?

Newman: Smartness. Not courage.

Salit: Smartness, not courage.

Newman: We’ve had eight years of stupidity, cloaked in toughness. People are tired of it.

Salit: Okay. When I think about a potential Obama-Giuliani matchup, I think about what happened to Giuliani in New York in 1989. Giuliani was running for mayor for the first time, and he was planning to run a left of center campaign against the rightward moving incumbent Ed Koch. Only Ed Koch was unexpectedly upended in the Democratic primary and Giuliani ended up running against David Dinkins. So, instead of being able to run to the left, he had to run to the right, because he couldn’t go left on David Dinkins, because Dinkins was not only liberal, he was black. So Rudy lost in ’89. He came back to win in ’93, after Dinkins was discredited. But, if the Democrats nominate Obama – does Giuliani end up being forced – again – to run further to the right than he would like to? Because he has no choice, given who Obama is?

Newman: It’s an interesting analogy, but I don’t think it’s relevant, because he’s running as a national Republican and the national party is still controlled by its right wing. That means he’s automatically running on the right.

Salit: Okay. So, your question to me was ‘Can Rudy sustain the super candidate quality all the way to a win.’ Here’s what I would say. I think what he has to do in order to do that, is to make some surprise moves that are out-of-the box, but that allow him to sustain his core support. Now, what would those be? Well, it could it be a strong outreach to independents and some kind of explicit embrace of the independent movement. Would he do that? Could he do that? How does that play inside the independent movement? My intuition is that he has to do something or some things like that along the way.

Newman: Well, he can’t do it this year.

Salit: He can’t do it this year?

Newman: Not in my opinion. Not if things go the way they are.

Salit: Because?

Newman: Because he’s smart enough to figure out that if he makes a play to the independent movement that means talking to Lenora Fulani.

Salit: That’s certainly one version of it.

Newman: That’s the obvious one. But, it’s likely that she’s got to support Obama. So, I don’t know if that’s a real option.

Salit: I have one final question. It’s not the 1960’s, it’s not 1967, it’s 2007, 40 years later. But at the moment, the issues in the presidential race are the direction that Black America is taking and the issue of the war, meaning not just the Iraq War, but America’s role in the world.

Newman: Well, I’ve been saying this for a long time. There are major unresolved issues from the 60s, and they are not whether Janis Joplin was a better singer than Jeanette MacDonald. That’s not the carryover issue from the 60s. The unresolved issues were achieving the full development and empowerment of Black America and the question of whether America is going to be a warring country, an aggressive country. The temporary answer on the latter has been “yes.” Under certain circumstances, with a bunch of neo-cons in charge, the White House can go to war in Iraq and produce havoc. Can that be sustained? Well, they got Bush elected twice. You have to give them that. Can it be sustained beyond that, in the face of what they’ve done in Iraq?

Salit: Can it?

Newman: Hard to say. Because the issue on the table now is not just Iraq, but America’s role internationally. Are we going to be the world’s policeman or are we going to recast ourselves as a country? The utter stupidity of the Democrats allowed the neo-cons to go to war. But perhaps the Democrats are not going to make those mistakes again. All that remains to be seen.

Salit: Thank you.