Monday, April 28, 2008

The Politics of Association: Should Catholics Disown the Pope?

Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's former (and now denounced and severed) pastor, is only one of several "warriors" that have surfaced since the start of the primary season who are stuck in a time warp - an angry civil rights advocate who's fighting a little too hard, a little too late. His record of achievement when it comes to community service and social work is admirable, but the residual anger and bitterness he still harbors is, well, a little dated.

It's not all that different from fossils of the second-wave feminist movement like Geraldine Ferraro and Gloria Steinem, women of admittedly revolutionary achievement who also held on to the anger a little too long, and surfaced briefly in this campaign season with their own takes on race, gender, or both. Steinem pitted sexism against racism in a January 2008 New York Times piece, and Ferraro, the first female vice presidential candidate in U.S. history, suggested that Barack Obama owes his current stature in the country to being black. She defends her position to this day, even after being booted from the Clinton campaign in March.

We then briefly had Sir Elton John dismissively alleging that all opposition to Hillary Clinton's candidacy is a function of Americans' misogynistic attitudes.

And John McCain said he denounces supporter John Hagee's anti-Catholic comments and his assertion that America's policy towards Palestine resulted in its being attacked by terrorists - very Wright-esque - but he still solicited Hagee's endorsement, telling ABC's George Stephanopoulos he is "glad" to have it.

Finally, filmmaker/writer Nora Ephron has expressed her "seasoned" opinion about white men being either sexist (Obama voters) or racist (Clinton voters), even suggesting - pretty self-assuredly - that "white men cannot be relied on, as all of us know who have spent a lifetime dating them."


These characters have a public platform because they earned it through a multitude of achievements that have benefited all of us and provided stepping stones to something better.

The problem is, times have changed and the social milieu has evolved, but they're still adhering to their age-old agendas, confused, for instance, by the betrayal of third-wave feminists that don't mind supporting Obama, or young, "post-racial" blacks, some of whom feel that Clinton or McCain have the experience and/or character to lead the country in a more competent way than Obama might.

Many of these iconic old-timers are still standing firm in empty battlefields - that, to their credit, they themselves helped clear - poised and adrenalized with their combat boots on, holding strong to the batons they should have passed on long ago.

In a presidential race with no incumbent, where race, gender, religion, age, generational gaps, and multi-ethnic lineage all figure more prominently than they have in decades, they feel (post-maturely) re-energized. And they're pretty loud about it.

But you can't completely blame them. They did spend most of their lives passionately and dedicatedly promoting their agendas. It's not easy to break away from that, even after the war has largely been won. They do need to understand, though, that anger or screaming foul doesn't rile people up the way it used to. When you're downtrodden, you fight to be noticed and acknowledged. Once you're noticed and acknowledged, you want to reach out and peaceably start a conversation to be able to work together.

Jeremiah Wright spoke to the NAACP on Sunday night about the differences in everything from the academic learning patterns to the clapping-to-music styles of black and white children, where he arguably suggested that even their little brains may be physically and structurally different. This is (sort of) supported by (now debatable) research carried out in the 1970s that lumped American and African black children against American and European white children, and it's eerily reminiscent of a similar equal-but-not-the-same argument by Richard Hernnstein and Charles Murray in their 1994 book The Bell Curve, which caused a furor among minority racial groups and whites alike.

Wright's speech at least tangentially echoed much of its theme and content.

But the unavoidable twenty-first century question flapping obscenely in the face of these age-old contentions is: what about a half-black, half-white child raised partially by an Indonesian stepfather, who went to Harvard for his law degree?


Look, the fighting part is over - the time now is for a conversation. Obama artfully articulated this in his landmark Philadelphia speech on race. Provocation and aggression at this time in history will not bring about this conversation, but impede it.

Speaking angrily about white oppression of blacks to a generation of white hip-hop fans - most of whom have never lynched, enslaved, or asked a black person to sit at the back of a bus - is likely to alienate them and drive a wedge between them and their black classmates, friends, colleagues, or significant others. For many - and Jeremiah Wright might find this hard to believe - it may force them to see color significantly and divisively for the very first time.

Similarly, the residual anger in Steinem and Nora Ephron may alienate many young men who are the reformed products of their own struggle spanning decades. Many of these men have never thought of their female counterparts as anything less than what they think of themselves. And they're okay with a conversation. Why all the yelling?

Effectively, these "warriors" may end up reintroducing the very sentiment into a new generation that they worked so hard to remove from the old.

Many elements of the mainstream media (which is not monolithic despite what they would have you believe, as isn't the black community that Wright claims to represent) have jumped on this in their typical, sensationalist, ratings-driven "gotcha" fashion.

Denounce or reject?

Disown the comments or disown the pastor?

Do you choose your family like you choose your pastor?

If not - you can disown either of them, can't you?

This is where we get into the juvenile pastime of painting everything with the same brush, or trying to squeeze complex, nuanced, context-dependent, historically rich, delicate issues into neat, narrow little boxes so that they can be understood in simple true-false form by the average second grader.

So, as my personal tribute to this journalistic style, practiced by the likes of Fox News "anchor" Sean Hannity, I am proposing that he, as a Catholic, disown the Pope.

I also propose that he call for any Catholic running for president to disown the Pope. And I don't say this baselessly. I come prepared with a collection of delightful (out-of-context) quotes and events as some pretty potent ammunition.

First, Pope Benedict XVI (Cardinal Josef Ratzinger), with his distinguished career, doesn't seem to believe that non-Catholics can make it to heaven: "[Followers of other religions are] in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the [Roman Catholic] church, have the fullness of the means of salvation." That's from the Ratzinger-penned Dominus Iesus, jointly issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Those in this "gravely deficient situation" also include non-Catholic Christians - and when the Lutherans complained, the Pope labeled their concerns "absurd".

Second, on the condemnation of Galileo by the Catholic Church in 1633 for suggesting that the Earth revolves around the Sun, Pope John Paul II acknowledged the Church's error. Cardinal Ratzinger, however, maintained that " the time of Galileo the Church remained much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself. The process against Galileo was reasonable and just." What? This "process" included over eight years of persecution and house arrest. For being right.

Third, in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI infuriated Jewish groups worldwide by meeting with the unabashed anti-Semitic Polish priest Reverend Tadeusz Rydzyk, with whom he had pictures taken at Rydzyk's summer residence. Rydzyk has suggested, among other things on his own Maryja radio station, that Jews are benefiting from the Holocaust by way of a "Holocaust Industry", and that the Polish government is in the "pockets of the Jewish lobby": here and here.

Fourth, as is widely known, the Pope was able to infuriate Muslims around the world (without drawing a single cartoon, by the way), when he said the following: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

Finally, on homosexuality: " is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder."

So Sean Hannity, a Catholic, should probably not plan a run for the presidency without first publicly disowning the Pope. He should also call on any Catholic presidential candidate to disown the Pope before running. He'll probably say that there's a difference between a pastor and a pope. Yes, Sean, an anti-Semitic Pope is worse than a racist pastor.

So should he do it?

Of course not.

Those quotes, all of which made news worldwide, are not all in context. And Christ the Savior being the only pathway to salvation is a fundamental Catholic concept, which, by the account of most Christian leaders, means that the rest of us, including the Jews, are going to hell.

So how much should Hannity distance himself from the Pope? Should he disown him? What comments should he disavow? What lines from Scripture should he publicly state his disagreement with to get the vote of the Jews who don't want to accept Christ as their Savior but would still like their candidate to think they're going to heaven? Will the same be asked of a Catholic candidate that was asked of Barack Obama?

No, and it shouldn't be asked of anyone.

Religion is just like that. One man's pastor is another's lunatic. One man's God is another's mythical figure. We all go into the church, mosque, or synagogue and hear our priests, imams, and rabbis say some pretty outlandish things on occasion. Being religious means believing, without material proof, that you know the infallible truth.

And this "truth" isn't prone to debate, or to proof by experimentation - it's about wooden arks, worldwide floods, and men living inside whales, and prophets ascending to heaven on winged horses from Jerusalem, and the parting of seas, and virgin births - it has no place in the presidential election campaign of a secular, democratic country. Religion, for all of the good - and bad - it may cause, cannot be debated on the basis of rationality or logic. Faith by definition means to believe without material proof. The gap cannot even hypothetically be bridged as it can with human-made philosophy or ideology - because it's the word of my god against yours.

That is why the Founding Fathers wanted to keep it out of the affairs of the state. And that is why it should be kept out of presidential campaigns.

To his credit, the only candidate that has maintained a relative silence on his personal faith is John McCain - the Republican.

That - is change. And hope.

Now that Obama has (smartly) denounced Jeremiah Wright to the satisfaction of the electorate, he may be able to get away with not wearing that flag pin. In a thinking, insightful, non-Hannity world, though - neither would have been an issue.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Obama's Strongest Case for Electability to the Superdelegates

"Change" Will Beat McCain in the General Election, Not "Experience"

'Electability' has almost uniformly been at the bottom of the list of criteria that voters have based their choices on - so why is it at the heart of Hillary Clinton's central argument in support of herself?

Because she knows that for her, this election isn't about the pledged delegates anymore; she cannot overtake Barack Obama's lead. So her electability argument is directed squarely at the superdelegates.

And it is deeply flawed.

Caught up in shaking off the numerous kitchen sinks thrown his way, Barack Obama hasn't been able to satisfactorily respond to Clinton's notion that only she can take this thing all the way to November. He doesn't only need to formulate a response - he needs to make it the central focus of his campaign from here onwards. Fortunately, there is a very simple and very effective way to do that:

Bring back the 'change' versus 'experience' argument.

Hillary Clinton has run her campaign on her experience. Is that applicable in the primary season?

Yes - she has more 'experience' than Obama.

But what about in the general election? Will she:

(i) keep telling voters to elect the candidate with more 'experience' - clearly leading them to vote for John McCain, who trumps her easily on it; or

(ii) change her tune and start saying that 'experience' is not as important as she thought it was back during the primaries?

Everything that Hillary Clinton has used against Barack Obama in the primaries - from amount of experience needed, to answering that 3 am phone call, to 'actions, not words' and 'solutions, not speeches' - goes against her in the general election against McCain.

Think about it - by any form of measurement, John McCain has decades more of experience - whether it's military, government, or life experience. He has also probably really answered a few 3 am (give or take an hour or two) phone calls as a ranking member of the Senate Committee of Armed Services. And by working across the aisle with Russ Feingold, Ted Kennedy, and Joe Lieberman, often to the chagrin of his own party members, McCain also appears to many voters, including independents and Democrats, as scoring well on 'actions' and 'solutions'.

Is Clinton going to go into the general election against John McCain touting these factors as her basis for electability? If she does, he walks all over her. If she changes her tune, she loses her credibility, instantly becoming a flip-flop artist.

On the other hand, the theme that can work against John McCain is 'change': change in foreign policy, change in the Iraq war strategy, change in the Bush tax cuts, and so on. These are the things that McCain can legitimately be challenged on and beat on the basis of - lack of judgment, blind conformity, and adherence to old-school 'Washington politics'.

The 'change' argument is the only one that will work against McCain in the general election.

And Hillary Clinton cannot make the change argument in the general election anymore. Only Barack Obama can.

Barack Obama can, holding on to the same platform of hope and change that brought him this far, go safely into the general election against McCain and draw a clear, irrefutable contrast with the other side without losing a shred of consistency or credibility.

Hillary Clinton cannot: if this is about experience, Clinton loses to McCain. If it's about change, Obama wins against him.

This is Obama's strongest argument to the superdelegates now. He ought to say it more often. Simply by using Clinton's own words against her.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Why Can't Hillary Clinton Close the Deal?

Watching the post-Pennsylvania primary coverage, you’d think Hillary Clinton has pulled an unprecedented upset by beating out Barack Obama with a “decisive” 10-point margin.

There are two components to the spin.

First, why wasn’t Senator Obama able to close the deal in Pennsylvania, despite outspending Clinton 3 to 1 with record amounts of money in the state? And second, why can’t Senator Obama win big states that Democrats need in the general election?

Obama wasn’t able to completely close the 20 point gap in this one state – Pennsylvania – despite the millions he spent, and according to Clinton, that makes him unelectable.

Does that mean the superdelegates should now gravitate towards Clinton, who (i) cannot close the much wider, nationwide 130+ delegate gap even if she gets up to 70% of the remaining delegates in the primary season; and (ii) has run out of money at least twice in the last two months, even having to loan her campaign $5 million at one point?

So the first question probably brings up even more questions.

How was Obama even able to raise the money to outspend Clinton 3 to 1?

Why wasn’t Clinton able to raise as much money – if not more money – than Obama, having been a multi-term New York senator, not to mention First Lady for eight years with a wildly popular Democratic president?

Why did she have to loan her campaign millions of dollars earlier in the primary season?

How is it that Barack Obama, after outspending Clinton 3 to 1 in the state, still has over $41 million in the bank while her campaign was in debt when the polls closed in Pennsylvania? Is he more advantaged than the 100-million-dollar Clintons?

Let’s step outside of Pennsylvania and ask the bigger question.

How is it that a black man – whose first name rhymes with Iraq, last name with Osama, and middle name literally IS Hussein – has come out of nowhere, de novo, with no prior political connections and just over one Senate term, singlehandedly dethroning the Clintons, who are virtually royalty in the Democratic Party establishment, if not in the entire country?

With the immense stature and recognition that Hillary Clinton has had nationwide over almost twenty years, how is it that has she not been able to defeat the unknown-till-very-recently Obama by more than just 10 points in Pennsylvania after six weeks of Jeremiah Wright, Bittergate, Bill Ayers, his weakest performance ever in a debate that was watched by over ten million people, and an initial lead of more than 20 points?

Moving on, the answer to the second question is shorter. Winning large states in a primary has very little to do with winning them in a general election. The Democrats in these states voted for either Clinton or Obama during the primaries because they had a choice among multiple Democratic candidates. In the general election, they won’t have that choice, and will most likely vote for whichever Democrat is going against John McCain, whether it's Obama or Clinton.

Every primary election season has those that swear they will vote for the other party if their favored candidate isn’t made their party’s nominee - don’t forget the hordes of Republicans who loudly and publicly vowed to vote for Hillary Clinton if the not-too-conservative John McCain ended up as their nominee. Now that the fight has died down and the GOP has almost uniformly coalesced around McCain, does anybody seriously believe that these Republicans – such as Ann Coulter or Bill Cunningham – will still vote Democratic in November? Come on.

Either Democratic candidate will be able to carry the states that Clinton has said only she can carry in a general election.

When (yes, "when", not "if") Obama is the nominee, Massachusetts will not suddenly go the way of McCain because Clinton won it in the primary. In the same way, whichever Democrat won Texas (Clinton by popular vote, Obama by delegates) is very unlikely to carry it in the general election.

That brings us back to the media coverage. Despite popular opinion, the media has helped Clinton all along, by treating this as a “close”, “neck-in-neck”, “tight” race, even though it was effectively over more than six weeks ago.

So don't fall for the electability argument. Clinton cannot take McCain down for one simple reason: she could not – and cannot – take down Obama.

Clinton Did Obama a Favor in Wednesday Night's Debate

The Clinton-Obama ABC debate on Wednesday was almost universally slammed for being off-message, with almost an hour consisting of "Gotcha!" type questions irrelevant to voters. There is also consensus on Barack Obama's performance being his weakest in the now twenty one debates that have taken place during the Democratic primary season.

It is true that Wednesday night didn't exactly do wonders for him. However, it didn't derail his almost inevitable path to the nomination either.

What it did do is give him an excellent practice drill for what he'll be dealing with in the general election, when the Republicans come at him with full force.

This couldn't have happened at a better time. This was the perfect time to have this practice round for four important reasons:

1. Even if Clinton beats Obama by a 20-point margin in Pennsylvania and beats him by 10 points in each state that's left, she's unlikely to overcome his lead in pledged delegates or the popular vote - EVEN IF Michigan and Florida are counted as they are. That's without Obama's name on the Michigan ballot. Try it yourself: So he's got this locked up. Only a really big scandal - much bigger than Jeremiah Wright (which Obama survived), Bittergate, or Bill Ayers - could possibly convince the superdelegates to overrule his lead. Basically, if Obama had to falter in a debate, it's better he did it now than earlier, before he had a solid delegate lead; or later, when the Republicans will be lunging at him with all of their ammunition.

2. Obama has a lot of money - several times more than Clinton. His campaign raised over 30 million dollars in February - and over 50 million in March, at least 20 million more than Clinton. Most people agree that the primary reason he has managed to close the gap in Pennsylvania is that he has outspent Clinton three to one. His momentum after a better-than-expected Super Tuesday performance and during the string of 12 primary/caucus wins in a row in February allowed him to raise record-breaking amounts of cash. If any of the controversies that have plagued him in the last six weeks - coupled with a sub-par debate performance - had come up back then, he may not have raised this kind of money, and may have had reason to worry. However, this week alone, he will again have spent over 3 million dollars on television ads in Pennsylvania, which cannot be matched by Clinton.

3. The "Gotcha!" issues WILL come up in the general election. He will likely be swift-boated, 527ed, and attacked relentlessly by the Republicans. Hillary Clinton and moderators George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson did him a FAVOR by allowing him to "practice" dodging and dealing with these attacks at a time when, if he screws up a bit, it takes very little away from his almost inevitable pledged delegate and popular vote lead. Again, it's better that this happened now: any earlier, and it would've affected his chances of winning the states that he did. Any later - meaning after he becomes the nominee - and his first "practice round" would have been against the Republicans in the actual general election, obviously a big risk.

4. Many Democratic leaders, including undecided superdelegates (including one of Hillary's campaign advisors, in a gaffe) have said that there'll be a nominee by June. If they're serious about that, and there is indeed a nominee in June, it can only be Obama, for both mathematical and political reasons. If Clinton is the nominee, it'll have to be under extenuating circumstances, where the superdelegates overrule the pledged delegate lead somehow by coming out in droves to vote for her, and that is not likely to happen by June. The only way her chances become a little better is if the fight goes to the convention. This is why Clinton is going negative and attacking so much. Her only road to the nomination is to prove him unelectable to the superdelegates. There is no other way for her to make it.

Now, to win, Clinton needs to get the superdelegates on her side.

To get the superdelegates on her side, she has to prove Obama unelectable in the general election against McCain.

To prove him unelectable to the superdelegates, she has to attack him, and stress his negatives as strongly and as often as possible.

Because both of them hold virtually identical positions on issues and policy, the nature of these attacks has to be based on character deficiencies and compromised credibility.

The attacks damage him not only among Democrats and Republicans, but among independents, who John McCain attracts as well. This is the swing voter group that the Democrats need this time in November to nab the presidency.

Here's the question: how long will the superdelegates allow Clinton to skewer Obama incessantly as she's doing - when he's almost certainly the Democratic nominee? Are they willing to risk damaging Obama and blowing yet another opportunity to take the country back - for Clinton - who has a less than 5% (being generous) chance of scoring the nomination?

Democratic National Committee leader Howard Dean, who has intelligently picked up on this (as I'm sure many other uncommitted superdelegates have, or will very soon), has said that he wants "a decision now":

This realization is unavoidable for Democrats. Obama will be the nominee. The debate was great for him - it allowed him to see what he's in for, with the help of Clinton and the moderators. He didn't exactly hit it out of the park, but he managed to hold his own. Now, he has plenty of time to consult with his advisors to generate counter-strategies.

Despite what Hillary Clinton says, the media has actually helped her by treating this is as a "neck-in-neck" or a "tight" race, when it has been practically over for weeks. Democrats - including Barack Obama - should now thank Hillary Clinton and the ABC moderators for doing their nominee and their party a favor for once, by readying him for the general election.

Clinton will probably win Pennsylvania. Obama will win North Carolina - which should seal the deal for most remaining undecided superdelegates - that's my guess at where the race ends, if it hasn't already. It's probably time to forget about Obama versus Clinton and start focusing on Obama versus McCain in the general election.