MUSINGS

March 17, 2008

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by Charles Bierbauer

We thought we left things in good hands when South Carolina nudged the primary process forward. In January, we gave a nearly decisive boost to John McCain’s campaign, and put Barack Obama back on track for a heady two-person race for the Democratic nomination. Not a bad job for a state looking to have an early impact. Yet look at the mess we’ve got now.

DO-OVERS

Democrats in Florida and Michigan have discovered that haste makes waste. How many times have we told our children that? In their perceived urgency to reach the head of the queue, those states ignored the parental admonitions of the Democratic National Committee. You’ll lose your delegates’ seats at the convention; they were warned to no effect.

Whether Hillary Clinton was the crafty kid to stay on the ballot—just in case—or Barack Obama was the obedient child to remove his name is no longer the issue. Voters in Michigan and Florida were afforded incomplete options. “None of the above,” the choice Michigan voters had, does not constitute a vote for Obama.

With the likelihood neither Obama nor Clinton will have sufficient delegates to secure the nomination without a floor fight in Denver, the states in disarray must be addressed. Michigan Democrats want a second primary on June 3d. Can they legally do that? Why not! Enfranchising is better than disenfranchising.

Florida is contemplating a mail-in re-do. What does that portend? Need we remind you of the general election fiasco of 2000 in which ballots were lost, ballots were not counted, absentee ballots remained, well, absent, voters got butterflies when they saw one confusing ballot layout, and those dastardly hanging and pregnant chads were the bane of election commissioners and the delight of late-night comedians. Why is it always Florida that amuses and appalls us?

What’s to be done? Let ‘em vote. Who’s to pay? Frankly, I don’t care. The state parties for being unruly children. The DNC for not exercising parental authority. The campaigns. Anybody but the voters. Not their mess.

THE KEYSTONE STATE

I was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in Pennsylvania, and bleed Nittany Lion blue (also Gamecock garnet). Without being smug about it, I’m kind of pleased Pennsylvania voters have the next great say in the Obama-Clinton battle.

The race for the presidency was not meant to be decided by a few self-important states that stampeded to the head of the process. What’s wrong with all 50 states having a say in the matter? Disproportionately, yes. But not disinterestedly. Few would have guessed the race would last this long, but it’s not a bad thing. Starting so early is another matter. Perhaps in 2012 every state will want to hold back to have the decisive vote in June, July or August. Regional primaries, anyone?

SUPERDELEGATES

Who elected them? No one. They are the anointed. Party officials, elected office holders (not elected for this role), and appointed stakeholders. The stakes, as the Democrats’ superdelegate system was conceived, were to keep the party from being hijacked by a candidate out of the mainstream. Ask Walter Mondale. Or Gary Hart, for that matter.

This year, though many superdelegates eschew the notion of a nomination being decided in a smokeless back room, the 842 supposedly “unpledged” delegates are almost surely going to hold the votes that push Obama or Clinton above the nomination threshold that neither is likely to reach by the end of the primaries.

The superdels’ dilemma is whether to vote their conscience or vote in conformity with the primary results in their home states. It’s a choice, but there’s an awful lot of hand-wringing going on. If you’re a superdelegate, you’ve got a vote. Use it. Or did you just plan to party?

SURROGATES

Whether it’s former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro or the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, candidates bear the brunt of their supporters’ outrages and indiscretions. Muzzles are impractical. The First Amendment frowns on them.

Clinton and Obama surrogates, official or not, are free to say what they think.
The candidates, though, have little latitude. They must either acknowledge or refute those expressions, especially when they are hateful and disrespectful. It’s best when candidates act quickly and speak for themselves.

SEX

Surely, you didn’t think we’d leave out Eliot Spitzer, the latest politician to trip over his own hubris. It should be the national lament that the best and the brightest are no longer attracted to politics. ‘Nuf said.

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Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns for CNN from 1984 through 2000.  He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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WAS TUESDAY SUPER?

February 11, 2008

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by Charles Bierbauer

Super Tuesday did what we thought it could.  And, then again, it didn’t.  It sorted out the Republicans and stretched out the Democrats.

Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama are in a race that could run right up to the Democrats’ summer convention if the Democrats want to risk the bloodying that might entail.  Mitt Romney has bowed out, as much to avoid the continued bludgeoning Republicans might endure had he stayed in.  John McCain is the nominee apparent.  Mike Huckabee will eventually fold his evangelical tent.  He has made his point that the conservative Republican right is uneasy with McCain, perhaps enough to get Huckabee a spot on the McCain ticket.

The good news for McCain is that he can anticipate some rest and replenishment, though there are still primaries and delegates to be won before the nomination is a lock.  But in McCain’s experience, Super Tuesday may have only been surpassed by the day he was freed as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.  This is a different kind of relief, but again a measure of vindication for McCain’s perseverance just months after his campaign appeared to be dying.

The bad news for Clinton and Obama is that there will be little rest, and the need for financial replenishment won’t go away.  There are more primaries this week and next.  Texas and Ohio in March.  Pennsylvania in April.

What do we know that we didn’t know before Super Tuesday?

The Democratic Party has some real rifts in the appeal of its candidates along ethnic and gender lines.  Obama can attract white votes, especially now that John Edwards is out of the race.  He’s still dominant with African-Americans.  Clinton has an edge with women, and since women are a majority of all voters, that edge is critical.  She is strong with Hispanics who don’t line up with African-Americans.  Broad strokes, of course, but sharp enough to suggest that each state presents unique challenges based on its demographics.  Note how many Super Tuesday states were won by wide majorities.

The Republican Party has a gulch between its very conservative wing and its moderate middle.  Romney could not buy enough votes with all the money he pulled out of his own pocket.  Huckabee did not need much money to appeal to the evangelicals and didn’t have much to broaden his appeal.  McCain is on his way to the nomination because he was the only Republican acceptable to moderates and independents and, therefore, the only candidate with a chance of a November victory.

What did we know that Super Tuesday confirmed?

The primary calendar always favors those who can make the long haul.  A candidate first has to get noticed—the retail politicking of Iowa and New Hampshire facilitates that.  A candidate needs to gain traction—the elder George Bush called it the “Big Mo” of an early caucus or primary victory.  Momentum brings money for the long haul.  In the long haul, delegates are what matters.

It is much easier to win—or lose—delegates on the Republican campaign where winner-take-all or winner-take-most states abound.  It is a much longer slog on the Democratic campaign where delegates are mostly apportioned according to the actual vote.  If Obama and Clinton continue to divvy up the primaries, the uncommitted party officials who are “super delegates” become the critical deciding force.

The calendar, of course, is brutal.  It begs reconsideration. The states’ mad competition to be among the first to cast votes created the Super Tuesday dash through more than 20 states.  Ironically, the states that abandoned March or even April dates may wish they’d held what may turn out to be a more decisive place in the process.

Michigan and Florida especially jeopardized their impact by defying Democratic Party rules in order to leap to the head of the queue.  The party retaliated by stripping away the two states’ convention delegates.  We’ve undoubtedly not heard the last of that action if the Clinton-Obama race remains so tight that Michigan and Florida delegates would be decisive.  Al Gore’s Florida lawyers must already be preparing their legal briefs.

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Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns for CNN from 1984 through 2000.
He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university.  Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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BLOOD ON THE FLOOR

January 28, 2008

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by Charles Bierbauer

Barack Obama’s victory in the South Carolina Democratic primary was—what’s an adequate word?—dramatic, overwhelming, impressive, gratifying, satisfying.  How, then, dare one suggest that there is still a measure of insufficiency in Obama’s triumph?

Obama more than doubled the vote for his closest competitor Hillary Clinton.  He outpolled Clinton and John Edwards combined.  According to exit polls, Obama was first with women, younger voters, college graduates and higher income voters.  Clinton won Horry County; Edwards won Oconee.  Obama won all the rest—Upstate, Midlands, Low Country.  He won 78 percent of the Africa-American vote.

Obama was justifiably elated Saturday night.  “We’ve got the most votes, the most delegates, the most diverse coalition,” he told supporters who jammed Columbia’s
Convention Center.

And 24 percent of the whites who voted in the Democratic primary.

Obama will say—has said—this is not a campaign of black versus white, but of “the past versus the future.”

By winning the Iowa caucuses, Obama demonstrated that he belongs in the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.  The pundits were impressed because Iowa’s minority population is negligible.  Still, Iowa could have been a fluke.  The next contests—New Hampshire and Nevada—went to Clinton.

South Carolina, we pundits said, would be a better test. It is the first foray into the South and has a significant African-American population that votes in strength in Democratic primaries.

The vote-for-one-get-two Clintons double teamed Obama. Senator Clinton challenged Obama’s record as a legislator at the Democrats’ debate.  Former President Clinton went on the attack, demeaning Obama’s campaign stance on Iraq as a “fairy tale.”

“Politics ain’t beanbag,” the writer Finley Peter Dunne observed about 100 years ago.

The Clintons play hard.  Obama got in his licks, too.  But the wounds were beginning to show, so much so that black leaders such as Rep. Jim Clyburn urged President Clinton to “tone it down.”

Bill Clinton is in an unprecedented situation. We are used to candidates hammering each other.  We are accustomed, alas, to exaggerations and half-truths.  We expect spouses to be loyal and are no longer surprised when one is outspoken.  But we prefer to think of former presidents as statesmen more interested in unity than partisanship.

“There’s blood on the floor,” says Donna Brazile, the Democratic strategist and television commentator who ran Al Gore’s presidential campaign.  Brazile is close enough to the Clintons to have endured what she describes as a 30-minute telephone tirade from the former president.  Brazile thinks the party has been seriously wounded by the Clintons’ actions.

Political parties routinely mop up the blood between their primaries and the general election.  But this campaign still has the knives out, not the mops.

The Clintons–can we even think of them singularly any more?—have also wounded themselves with the African-American community in which Bill, at least, was held in great esteem.  Hillary’s hopes of holding the majority of African-American votes, especially black women, is gone.

For Clinton, that may be the price to pay in the hope of winning the majority white vote in the 22 states going to the polls on February 5.  California, New York, New Jersey and others don’t look like South Carolina.

For Obama, this new twist on race in the 2008 campaign makes Saturday’s victory as challenging as it is remarkable.  His 28-point margin of victory doubled the margin of any poll going into the primary.  That victory should not be diminished.

Yet as much as we anticipated the South Carolina primary because of the substantial African-American vote, the question that follows Obama now is how well can he do in states where African-Americans are not such a powerful constituency. Edwards staying in a race in which he looks to be eternally third probably takes more votes from Obama than Clinton.

Fair or unfair, presidential candidates must run a brutal gantlet where they are hit from both sides. The blood on the floor wasn’t caused by a beanbag.

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Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns for CNN from 1984 through 2000. He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university.  Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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CHARACTER, NOT COLOR

January 23, 2008

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by Charles Bierbauer

CNN got its priorities right. The Democratic candidates’ last debate before the South Carolina primary focused first on the economy. It’s presumptuous, but I’d like to think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have agreed. Even though the debate took place on Martin Luther King Day.

Dr. King’s March on Washington “was for jobs as well as justice,” Barack Obama reminded. The economy is “the #1 issue,” Hillary Clinton declared.

The first hour of Monday’s debate in Myrtle Beach provided some detail as to how the Democrats would deal with the current sub-prime mortgage crisis, the high cost of energy and the prospect of rebates, universal health care. If I heard Senator Clinton correctly, she said, “my health care covers everyone.”

There was, at times, more heat than light as Clinton and Obama aggressively challenged each other’s past voting records and current promises. “This kind of squabbling,” John Edwards chastised his competitors, “how many children is this going to get health care? How many people are going to get an education from this? How many kids are going to be able to go to college because of this?”

Earlier in the day, the three candidates had spoken at the King Day at the Dome rally at the South Carolina State House in Columbia. If the candidates could see past the waving Obama, Clinton and Edwards signs—there were some of each—they might have spotted signs that read “Ed in ‘08” (that’s Ed as in education) and buttons that warned “I’m a health care voter.”

At some point in the day, each candidate made a point of decrying the state of education in South Carolina’s now infamous “Corridor of Shame.” These are rundown schools in the old cotton belt in the eastern part of the state running from Dillon to Florence to Orangeburg. Those school districts, heavily African-American, unsuccessfully sued the state, contending the state had not even met the legislatively mandated “minimally adequate education.”

Clinton said she had seen the “mold and the holes where the rodents come in.” Obama called for turning it into a “corridor of opportunity.” Edwards suggested a “corridor of hope.” Having our state in the political spotlight also means having the spotlight shine in our dark corners.

Monday’s debate, co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, turned to the legacy of Dr. King in its second hour. It provided moments of passion, Edwards repeatedly trying to demonstrate that his mission of “ending poverty” is in lockstep with King’s mission. Moments of differentiation: Obama, the first African-American candidate with a serious chance of being nominated and elected; Clinton, the first female candidate similarly having the potential of winning the presidency; Edwards, for all his passion and southern roots still looking like all past candidates—“it’s amazing now that being the white male….”

And there were moments of blithe amusement created by this year’s unique circumstances. Asked about author Toni Morrison’s assertion that Bill Clinton was the “first black president,” Obama acknowledged the former president’s “affinity with the African-American community.” But Obama added he would have to “investigate more of Bill’s dancing abilities…before I accurately judge whether he was in fact a brother.”

Is the quest for South Carolina’s primary votes about race? Or is it about appealing to voters of all races? On the surface, it’s about appealing to voters regardless of race. Undeniably, the candidates want to capitalize on voters identifying with an African-American, a woman or a fellow southerner.

But none of the Democrats is campaigning with the notion that is enough.
To paraphrase Dr. King, the voters’ decision rests on the character of the candidates’ campaign, not the color of their skin, their gender, their place of birth…or their dancing ability.

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Charles Bierbauer covered five presidential elections from 1984 to 2000 for CNN. He is now Dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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