Sitting by the Phone.

March 2, 2008

Sitting by the Phone.

Sunday, March 2, 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, March 2, 2008 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show” and “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

Salit: Let’s start with what somebody called the “closing arguments” of the race on the Democratic primary side. The Clinton campaign has ramped up its attacks on Obama, specifically on the experience issue. Their closing argument is: ‘This is a dangerous world. National security is the core concern of the American people and of the next president. I’ve got the experience to handle the job. If the red phone rings in the White House at 3 a.m., I’ll know what to do. Obama won’t.’ Obama responds: ‘The issue isn’t just who’s there to answer the red phone at the White House at 3 o’clock in the morning. The issue is what kind of judgment you exercise when you pick up the phone. I showed judgment in opposing the Iraq war. In Mrs. Clinton’s red phone moment, she showed a lack of judgment. She supported the war, which has led to the disaster there.’ These are the closing arguments going into Texas and Ohio. Here’s what some of the commentary has been. She’s desperate. She’s got to throw the kitchen sink at Obama. She’s got to introduce a level of “buyer’s remorse” in people who’ve been captivated by the Obama candidacy. She’s trying to project forward to the general election, arguing that given that McCain will be the Republican nominee, the core issue in November is going to be national security. Some have commented: ‘Wow, it’s really unusual to see this kind of argument made in the context of a Democratic primary because it’s usually a general election argument,’ Those are the closing arguments and the commentary on it. Tell me your thoughts.

Newman: I think Obama’s counter-argument could have been a little stronger. He could have said In Hillary’s “red phone” moment, she handed the phone to George Bush and let him answer. But that said, I don’t think the arguments have anything to do with it at this point in the process.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: What makes a difference now is the ground operation, the vote-pulling capacity, those kinds of factors. A lot of these ads are designed to feed the news cycle – you have to have something, content-wise, in the mix. That’s what they’re doing. At this stage, arguments have little or nothing to do with it. Think about it this way: If you say to an old fogy: Ah, old fogy, those kids are too inexperienced. She or he says: Yes, you bet. If you say to a young person, You’re too inexperienced, they say, I’m not worried about that, or something of that sort. So, how do these arguments impact? Do you think that these young voters who have gotten 30 days older since they started supporting Obama are now going to say Well, maybe the old fogies are right? No. Do you think the old fogies are going to suddenly say I like the young people’s approach? No. Is it effective in the last 24 to 48 hours? Not at all, as far as I can see.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: I think the election is going to be somewhat close in both states. The way the polls look now, it looks like Obama has more momentum in Texas than he has in Ohio. But, the votes will get cast and counted momentarily.

Salit: Howard Wolfson for the Clinton campaign and David Axelrod for the Obama campaign debated one another for 20 minutes on the George Stephanopoulos show.

Newman: They were more rehearsed than the last time they squared off on “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer,” but were still pretty bumbly.

Salit: They work off of their talking points. That’s roughly what they do. They deliver their talking points.

Newman: Yes.

Salit: But here’s the thing. The most interesting part of that discussion for me was towards the end when they got into an exchange about their respective coalitions. Axelrod, on behalf of Obama, says: ‘Look, Senator Obama is putting together the kind of broad coalition that the Democrats need to have in order to assure victory in November. It’s Democrats, it’s independents, it’s moderate Republicans. That’s our coalition. Senator Obama has the unique capacity to pull together that coalition’ – the implication being that this includes elements that might otherwise go to the Republicans – and ‘that’s why Obama should be the nominee.’ And then Wolfson responds with: ‘Well, wait a second. The Clinton coalition relies substantially on support from women and from Latinos. They are the swing elements because that’s exactly who the Republicans can peel away in November. Consequently, the argument that a coalition in the primary shows who can eclipse the Republicans in November points in favor of Mrs. Clinton, because she’s got those blocs and those are the swing constituencies. So she’ll be more competitive in November.’ How do you react to the two coalitions and the characterization of them?

Newman: I think if Axelrod had greater skills in thinking on his feet, he could have stressed even more in his response to Wolfson something like: These big states you keep talking about that Hillary carried – California, New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey – there’s not one of them that’s not going to go Democrat, even if we ran Donald Duck.

Salit: Exactly.

Newman: So your point is empty. Unless you’re trying to tell us that Mrs. Clinton is going to go to California or New Jersey or New York (which she represents as one of two Democratic Senators) and say “Don’t vote for Barack Obama.” Unless you’re saying that, then what you’re saying just makes no sense whatsoever. So, Howard, tell me if that’s what you’re saying. Because the Democrats who are voting, the independents who are voting, the American people who are voting want to know if that’s what Hillary Clinton is going to do. End of story.

Salit: To that point, the question of how the Clintons are going to play a scenario in which Obama becomes the nominee was raised on Chris Matthews. Of the four panelists, three of them said: ‘Oh, the Clintons will campaign, maybe not entirely wholeheartedly, but they’ll work for an Obama victory. They’ll want to be on the winning team…’

Newman: Or, in the case of Bill, he’ll stay out of it, to help Obama win.

Salit: Yes. But one member of the panel said: ‘Well, it’s not altogether clear whether they’re really going to do that or whether they might be perfectly happy with a McCain presidency for a whole host of reasons.’

Newman: They’re not going to be happy with a McCain presidency. I don’t think it’s an automatic “done deal,” but I believe they will campaign for Obama if he wins. They will because this is too big a situation for them to completely indulge their egos, which are substantial of course…but they will campaign.

Salit: They can’t play it any way other than that.

Newman: Not and stay in the Democratic Party.

Salit: You brought up Bill’s negative effect on his wife’s campaign. The Matthews panel did a retrospective review of this. They seem to conclude that he was a net negative.

Newman: In the primaries so far?

Salit: Yes.

Newman: He hurt her in South Carolina, that’s what it really comes down to. I don’t think there would have been a different result in South Carolina if Bill had been in the Bahamas on vacation. But I think he did hurt her. He played it unnecessarily negatively, as Cynthia Tucker said on one of the panels, ‘displaying the kind of negativity which people don’t like about Bill Clinton,’ as opposed to his other positive assets. So, I think it was a bad choice on his part.

Salit: Now they have Bill out working the circuit in Ohio, outside the major cities, without a lot of television cameras following him around. He’s a good “on the ground” campaigner, and people love seeing him and presumably he’s a part of why she’s looking like she’s in a stronger position in Ohio.

Newman: Yes.

Salit: There was a brief discussion about the John Lewis switch in endorsements. The Georgia congressman, a long time civil rights leader, had been a Hillary supporter and switched his endorsement this week to Obama. Cynthia Tucker commented that he made the switch, but not fast enough to prevent a challenge to his re-election. He’s being challenged in a Democratic primary by an insurgent who is an Obama supporter. She predicts that Lewis will hold on this election, but she’s pointing to a political and generational change in black politics that spins off the Obama campaign.

Newman: There’s a big change going on in black politics in this country. Black politicians have to pay attention to it. So John Lewis is.

Salit: The Stephanopoulos panel spun various scenarios relative to the November election: McCain vs. Obama. George Will said that the bottom line is that this is an election that’s about change and McCain can’t be the candidate of change. He’s tied himself to the Bush administration, to the war, all this kind of stuff. And then David Brooks says: ‘Well, that’s not really quite where it’s at. McCain can say I don’t need to be a candidate of change, because my entire career has been about change. Campaign finance reform, bringing together Republicans and Democrats across the aisle…’

Newman: And as has been pointed out to him every time he says that, 50 more right wing conservatives will say ‘And that’s why I’ll never vote for that son of a gun.’

Salit: Yes.

Newman: That’s his dilemma.

Salit: I’m not trying to take us back to the “closing argument” argument – but let’s take a look at this issue of Americans’ attitudes towards national security. One of McCain’s strengths as a candidate, obviously, is his biography. Not just his personal biography, his record as a war hero, but his record as a civilian leader with vast experience in military affairs. What he’s trying to tap into, and what Clinton is trying to tap into, is an underlying sense of insecurity on the part of the American people about the relationship between America protecting its interests through the use of military force versus getting caught up in a bad war, a no-win war, a destructive war, a war that’s made us less secure. How do you characterize the conflicts that the American people feel?

Newman: As I’ve been saying for a very long time, the ultimate question of this upcoming general election is going to be war vs. not war, being policeman of the world vs. not being policeman of the world. I think it’s going to come down to that. The American people don’t want to find ourselves in a war every three years. They don’t want to pay the price for bringing democracy to one Middle Eastern country after another. I think that’s clear. Of course, if the choice is winning the war that we’re already in or losing the war that we’re already in, the American people will go for winning. Who in their right mind says Oh, no, I’d prefer losing that war. And McCain and the pro-war people will keep saying “This is a sure fire win.” Well, there’s no sure fire win. There’s never been a sure fire win. It also seems to me there’s a curious flaw in McCain’s argument. If what he believes in is that the decisions have to be made by the generals and military leaders on the ground, then what’s the relevance of McCain’s experience to being president?

Salit: Yes.

Newman: That’s an odd and curious position he’s in, in a way.

Salit: One final question. We watched Matthews and Stephanopoulos and I watched McLaughlin and none of those shows discussed the announcement by Mike Bloomberg that he’s not running for president, after a year of intense media speculation that he might.

Newman: They didn’t talk about it because there’s no relevance to it. Should I put out a press release saying I’m not going to run also? Should you put out a press release saying that you’re not going to run? What’s the relevance? There are three hot candidates right now. That’s what’s relevant. That’s what everybody’s going to talk about.

Salit: Thanks.