Politics & Media
Aug 27, 2008, 05:23AM

Far Corner, Right Side

With back-to-back conventions effectively cancelling out any potential bounce in the polls, the candidate’s VP choices will be even more important in breaking the current tie.

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As the nation finally enters the homestretch of the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama should probably have a 5-to-10-point lead in the polls, but instead finds himself effectively tied with John McCain. In generic poll after generic poll, Democrats are decisively favored over Republicans, yet for some reason, Obama lags. The Obama campaign knows this, and its anxiety has started to show. In choosing Sen. Joe Biden as his running mate, Obama made a tacit admission that a bolstering of his experience and qualifications—particularly with regard to foreign policy—was necessary. Biden is not likely to do any harm for Obama’s chances, particularly given that I would expect the Obama team to have him speak only on a scripted basis to avoid his propensity to put his foot in his mouth. On the other hand, it’s difficult to make the argument that choosing Biden will help much either. Will a president and vice president who are both sitting senators—one for 35 years—really represent a departure from the “same old Washington politics”?

McCain made a colossal mistake last week. In his defense, if one took the time to try and understand the reason he couldn’t answer the  “housing question”—that there are properties owned by his wife’s family trust of which he may not be aware and probably cannot actually be considered an owner—it becomes easier to understand his hesitation or inability to respond. Unfortunately for McCain, no one is going to take that time. The national media certainly won’t, though were Obama to commit a similar mistake I feel confident his fourth estate admirers would quickly come to his rescue. Regardless of the nuances or complexities that led to his non-answer, it’s been established that John McCain is so “rich” and so “out of touch” that he cannot even keep track of how many houses he and his wife have.

Meanwhile, back at the Democratic Convention, Monday night was initially billed as Michelle Obama’s time to shine. This changed slightly when Ted Kennedy opted to make the trip to Denver and address the throng. It is truly sad that Kennedy is gravely ill with cancer, but can the Democratic Party and the media spare me some of the sycophantic coverage of the “heroic” Kennedy making the “courageous” journey “against the doctors’ advice” to “summon the strength” to speak in order to symbolically “pass the torch” to Obama? I couldn’t help but wonder if Chris Matthews was aware of the irony when he said on MSNBC Monday night: “He’s a sentimental guy, whatever you think of Ted Kennedy, and he looks out for other people.” Really? What about Mary Jo Kopechne?

On the subject of Democratic political giants prone to moral failings, when Bill Clinton addresses the convention on Wednesday night, many in the Obama camp will be watching nervously to see just how warm or sincere he seems in his support of Obama. Already controversy has surfaced over the former president’s reported displeasure at being scheduled to speak on a night the DNC has themed “Securing America’s Future.” Apparently “The Man from Hope” would much rather speak on economic issues and is bitter about a missed opportunity to do what he loves most: talk about himself. Obviously Clinton believes the economic strength of the 1990s is his best chance for a lasting legacy not involving the name Monica, and it’s a safe bet that the narcissist-in-chief will say as little about Obama as he thinks he can get away with. I remain puzzled that Obama did not dispatch with both Clintons on the convention’s first night, much as McCain is smartly doing with President Bush and Vice President Cheney on Day One of the GOP Convention. The Clintons pose a real threat to distract from one of the Obama campaign’s best opportunities to introduce their candidate to the nation on their terms.

Looking ahead to Thursday night, Obama is slated for his own star turn. I predict that, like his “premature victory lap” in Europe, the Obama campaign may come to regret sensationalizing and over-hyping the most important speech any candidate ever gives in the course of a presidential campaign by using Invesco Field so that “the One” can make his acceptance speech in front of 75,000 adoring disciples. American voters get it by now. We understand that people literally faint at his rallies, that it’s “cool” to support Obama, and even a Republican like me can’t help but find the Illinois Senator very likeable at times on the surface. What American voters may not get, however, is precisely what is in store for us if Obama becomes president. It seems unlikely we’ll learn much more on Thursday: a speech in an outdoor stadium to such an enormous crowd is not a setting that lends itself to a serious and sober discussion of what specifically Obama plans to do as president.

McCain needs a game-changer VP pick to break the tie and build a legitimate lead over Obama, and he has a remarkable opportunity for just that after Obama’s bland, status quo choice of Biden. Multi-millionaire Mitt Romney was effectively eliminated after the “how many houses” gaffe, but McCain’s misstep boosts Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s chances given his bona fide blue collar background. Pawlenty, however, represents the GOP equivalent of Biden; he’ll do no harm, but it’s not clear he’ll help much either. McCain can fundamentally alter this race and gain back his lost momentum with a bold and surprising veep choice, particularly in going with a woman after Obama disappointed the Hillary supporters by not choosing her. Unfortunately for McCain, there is no Republican female who perfectly fits the bill, but there are a few names to keep in mind: Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin; Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell; Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison; Tennessee Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina; and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. Each has pros and cons, but unlike Obama, McCain’s vast experience affords him more leeway to swing for the fences in selecting his running mate. If he wants to win in November, he may have to do just that.

  • As far as the record goes, Kennedy tried to save Kopechne several times from drowning. Eventual moral failyre or no, I think trying to mount a rescue in dangerous water qualifies as caring about a person. Way to use a gross oversimplification to make a point, Bragg. On another topic, John McCain is more than a little out of touch, and he certainly is rich. Stop writing like a Zagat review.

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  • Actually, Kennedy didn't even report the accident to authorities for almost 12 hours, after he'd consulted with family and friends. A horrible accident, obviously, but I don't think anyone believes that Kennedy acquitted himself well in that situation. So I don't think it's a gross oversimplification on Bragg's part.

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  • Put yourself in the shoes of a prominent someone who just nearly drowned after driving himself and a friend off a bridge on a remote road. What would you do? I'm not trying to say that Kennedy did things right, but who is Bragg to claim that his actions that night prove has no capacity for caring. Hindsight is 20-20, especially when you're a conservative columnist with a misleading point to make.

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  • That would be more valid, Dan, if Kennedy didn't have a reputation of wild behavior. Sure, hindsight is 20-20, but Bragg isn't alone in his opinion of Kennedy. Even the most blatant hagiographers of the Kennedy family, in book after book, have nothing much good to say about Teddy Kennedy when he was a younger man. And Democrats, outside of Massachusetts, seemed to agree when he ran his unsuccessful primary campaign against a vulnerable President Carter in 1980.

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  • The Kopechne incident is an extraordinary circumstance, and one that shouldn't be used to judge the man's humanity. Beyond that, having known someone who died of the very disease that is killing Kennedy, his appearance is certainly a struggle for him, and does not deserve the mocking and scorn that Bragg has chosen to use. These are what Bragg chooses to use as an illustration of Kennedy's character? Mocking someone dying of cancer is cheap shot worthy of Rush himself. I will concede that it is comforting to know that there was a time when someone who made notoriously bad personal decisions in the past couldn't be elected president.

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  • If only the rest of the country understood McCain's housing gaffe in as fine terms as you, Bragg. Poor McCain is so horribly misunderstood for getting through the navy on his legacy and for marrying into ridiculous wealth. Poor, poor McCain. Also, the Kopechne reference was cheap and completely out of context. It had nothing to do with your point (or lack thereof) and it misses the very real reference to Kennedy's long fight for universal health care. I think wanting to get everyone under a health plan can be billed as "caring about people." You certainly didn't mention (and probably never will) McCain's cheating on the wife who stood by him while he was (guess what, everyone?!) a POW, which is certainly an example of, well, not caring about people.

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  • The Kennedy thread here is basically irrelevant; he's yesterday's news, revered by some Democrats, demonized by some Republicans, not noticed by most Americans. Klein's point about McCain's housing gaffe is real, though, and Bragg's spin doesn't work. If McCain truly doesn't know the extent of his wife's holdings, someone on his staff might've, uh, briefed him on what would be an obvious issue. As for the catting around, I don't know how big a deal that is in regard to being qualified to be president. McCain was a cad, Edwards was, JFK was, LBJ was, Eisenhower was, Clinton was, maybe even Bush was/is. And maybe Obama was in the past, so what? I don't think McCain's lack of knowledge about his own finances is going to go away; this is a story that will make for great Democratic ads, and not just for Obama, but in Senate races as well. It was probably McCain's worst misstep in a really bad campaign. Race tightening up? Nah. It's Obama's year, and high time for someone who really does want to go for the fences, rather than just hit a double.

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  • Thanks for the comments. Dan: I think that Timothy probably did my job for me in terms of elaborating on Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. I would encourage you to dig a little deeper into the incident, and if you do so, I think you will be appalled by Kennedy's behavior and actions (or lack thereof). The only person Ted Kennedy cared about that night was Ted Kennedy. The broader point I was making in that particular paragraph is that the media coverage was over-the-top. Their lionization of someone who, quite bluntly, has not shown himself to be a particularly good person was indeed sycophantic. Also note that I was 100% sincere in writing that it is truly sad that Kennedy is ill. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone -- and I do not do so in Kennedy's case either. Sympathy for a terrible illness, though, should not cloud anyone's ability or willingness to evaluate the totality of Kennedy's life and actions, and I believe a combination of sympathy and a general pro-Kennedy, pro-Democratic bias in the media did just that on Monday night. Finally, Dan, I completely disagree with your assertion that the Kopechne incident was "an extraordinary circumstance, and one that shouldn't be used to judge the man's humanity". Couldn't an argument be made that it is in just such extraordinary circumstances when one is most tested and when one's true colors are exposed? Don't the things one does when no one is watching almost matter more in terms of determining someone's true character? If you believe the answer to either question is yes, what does that say about Kennedy? Dedicated public servant? Absolutely. Accomplished legislator? No doubt. But a person worthy of the borderline worship bestowed on him by the media and the Democratic faithful on Monday night? Not in my book. Moving along now... ---------- ASKlein: we meet again! Let me clarify to some extent my take on the McCain gaffe. I did not argue that McCain is not rich. He is -- regardless of how or why. The point that I was trying (perhaps unsuccessfully!) to make is that I think McCain knows how many houses he owns. Do I think he knows the details or extent of what investments, etc. his wife's family trust owns? Probably not. When asked the question, I think McCain realized he was in something of a Catch-22. If he said "4 houses" and the reporters later found out that, including his wife's family trust, they actually "own" 7 houses, he knew it would be very bad for him politically. Unfortunately for him, the choice he made not to answer the question (or perhaps just the way he chose not to answer it) caused even more political damage than the alternative. As for not mentioning McCain's first marriage, I didn't feel it necessary to do so for two reasons: 1) He is not being exalted in the way Kennedy was; and 2) I don't need to mention it when he has openly mentioned it himself one multiple occasions -- actually as recently as last weekend at the Saddleback Forum with Pastor Rick Warren. Warren asked both McCain and Obama what their greatest moral failures were. McCain’s answer: "The failure of my first marriage. It's my greatest moral failure". ---------- Christian: you are correct in that he definitely should have been prepared to answer the question. Someone on his staff should have anticipated something like that might come up. But the ball was dropped and the damage is done. Again, is McCain rich? Yes. But is he so rich that he genuinely does not know how many houses he and his wife have? I don't think so, and I think the characterization is somewhat misleading, but that's politics -- particularly in today's political world of the internet-driven, instantaneous, 24 hour news cycle. I agree with you that the story isn't going away, that it will make for great Democratic ads (particularly if McCain adds Romney to the ticket), and that it was very damaging. In fact, the draft I originally submitted to the Splice editors included the following sentence about the gaffe that was subsequently removed: "In a time of economic weakness – especially when the housing market is bearing much of the brunt – this is the type of answer that loses elections." I will, however, take issue with your statement: "Race tightening up? Nah." That's a difficult argument for you to make. Polls, while certainly imperfect, do give us a good sense of general trends, and if you took five different polling organizations' numbers from last month and compared those to the same organizations' numbers this month, there is a definite tightening trend. Of course whether McCain can keep it tight through November is an entirely different question. ---------- Thanks for reading, and thanks for your intelligent and thought-provoking comments.

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