Saturday, August 30, 2008

Lessons From President Bartlet: The Only Four Words That Matter About The Choice of Vice President

As I was watching Barack Obama's equally awe-inspiring and uplifting acceptance speech Thursday night, a particular line jumped out at me. It's not that John McCain doesn't care, Obama argued, it's that John McCain doesn't get it. I turned to my buddy Dave with whom I was watching the speech, and I said, he just turned into Andrew Shepherd. Shepherd, of course, was Aaron Sorkin's President in The American President, played perfectly by Michael Douglas. After enduring a movie-full of negative character attacks by his Republican opponent, in the climax of the movie, Shepherd, after trying to take the high road the entire film lashes out in the press briefing room, with an awe-inspiring and uplifting response to the attacks. One of the key lines?

I've known Bob Rumson for years. And I've been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy yelling into the rain is because he simply didn't get it. Well I was wrong. Bob's problem isn't that he doesn't get it. Bob's problem is he can't sell it.

And I laughed afterwards when both Brian Williams and Keith Olbermann on MSNBC noted the very same point about Sorkin's words. Well, there are more lessons to be learned from Aaron Sorkin, this time about John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his Vice President.

During the third season of The West Wing, as Martin Sheen's President Josiah a Bartlet was preparing to run for a second term, the question came up about whether he should replace his Vice President on the ticket. Texas, the state the Vice President carried in the election for Bartlet four years ago was no longer in play, and the two never got along and often clashed. So the whole episode, Bartlet's west wing team held closed door meetings, debating whom could replace the Vice President. But, at the end of the episode, President Bartlet put a stop the speculation and reaffirmed his commitment to his Vice President. Why? Because when it comes to selecting a Vice President, only four words really matter.

And what are those four words?
LEO: I think that issue is probably worth further discussion but we're done talking about the ticket. The President's made it very clear that he wants the Vice President to remain the Vice President and he wrote down his one and only reason.

[He pulls out the paper and hands it to Josh.]

JOSH: "Because I could die." Well, of course he's right, sir.

Because I Could Die. That's why you pick a Vice President, who while he or she may sure up your weaknesses, or help you electorally, at the end of the day, is somebody you are supremely confident could lead the country, and in many ways the world. It's a lesson Barack Obama took to heart. He could have chosen Virginia Governor Tim Kaine as his running mate. The two are very close personally, Obama trusts Kaine (in some ways perhaps more than the man he selected, Joe Biden), he may have helped Obama carry Virginia, and he re-enforced Obama's message of change. But, Kaine had serious questions about his experience (he's only been Governor of Virginia for one term and had little-to-no foreign policy experience) so Obama went in a different direction, and his choice of Biden (no offense to Kaine) was in the better interest of the country. John McCain didn't heed that lesson, and chose a Vice President who in no way would be qualified or ready to be President tomorrow.

Governor Palin may have a lot of positive attributes but she John McCain failed President Bartlet's and Aaron Sorkin's only test for the selection of the Vice President. "Because I Could Die." It's four words John McCain should have thought about before he named a Vice President he met just one time, and spoke with about the Vice Presidency, on the phone, just once. It's about putting the country first, instead of one's political or personal ambitions. And it's another example of why John McCain's judgment and temperament are not suited for the Oval Office.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Country First? Not With McCain'sVP Choice

There's a lot to like about John McCain's Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin. She has challenged her own party on ethics and other issues. She's smart and tough, and getting new blood in Washington is never a bad thing. But, that means she'd make a good Senator. Vice President? At 44, having been Governor of one of the smallest states in the Union (population wise) for less than two years, and having been mayor of a town of just 6,500 people before that, and with no interest in foreign policy (she's been quoted as saying she doesn't know anything about the conditions in Iraq related to our exiting the country) she is nowhere near "ready to lead" (to steal a McCain phrase).

Yet John McCain has put her one heartbeat away from the Presidency. This is despite meeting her just one time, just six months ago (!) and having talked with her about the Vice Presidency exactly one (!) time (on the phone no less). Apparently it's harder to get hired at a fast food restaurant than it is to be named the second most powerful person in the world in John McCain's administration. And while that's not completely fair (I'm sure there was a thorough vetting process which took place) it's not completely unfair either. In many ways, this bothers me more than anything else about the Palin pick, even her inexperience.

The selection of Vice President is often seen as a political gambit, but in many ways, it has to be about putting "County First" to use John McCain's own campaign slogan. Because the Vice President is one heartbeat away from running the free world, ensuring that the Vice President, more than anything else, is qualified to be President, has to be the first quality satisfied. Should something happen to the President, the country has to know that the Vice President is capable of taking over immediately. And how can John McCain know that Sarah Palin is ready? How do you not meet and interview the person, in-person? How do you only speak to the person ONE time about the job? How can you be sure that Sarah Palin is best for the country having hardly spoken to her. If John McCain allows his staff to make this decision for him (and if they didn't, they certainly must have played an extraordinary large role given the lack of personal contact between McCain and Palin) what other critical decisions will McCain similarly have little input on as President? He didn't just pick somebody the country doesn't know very well. He picked someone whom he doesn't know very well. How could he? He's met or spoken to her just twice in his entire life.

As Paul Begala put it so well yesterday night on Larry King, would you entrust your children, if something happened to you, to somebody who you met one time at a luncheon and with whom you've spoken with one time, on the phone, about raising your kids? That would sound absurd. Yet John McCain has entrusted the future of over 300 million Americans (and in many ways, the future of the world) to Sarah Palin, despite not knowing her at all. She may turn out to be a tremendous Vice President, but how can John McCain know that for sure? How can he gamble with the country's future like this?

This shows me a real lack of consideration on John McCain's part which really concerns me about how he'll make decisions if he becomes President. His lack of personal engagement is remarkable in a decision this important.

And what about Palin's stances on the issues? We already know, based on her past statements, that she knows very little about foreign policy. She's fiercely pro-life (going so far as to say she wouldn't allow abortions even in cases of rape and incest), is a life long member of the NRA, and has talked favorably about requiring schools to teach creationism in public schools. And she has a very thin (and questionable) record on Israel. Both her and her husband were fundraisers for Pat Buchanan when he ran for President (he proudly admitted that on MSNBC tonight, giving Palin a stronger Buchanan connection than Politco's Ben Smith earlier believed) and while I enjoy watching Buchanan on MSNBC and think he's very knowledgeable about political issues, he has never been a strong (or any kind) of real friend of Israel. I can't imagine that's going to play well in the very swing state of Florida, where Obama has shown surprising strength.

John McCain needed to follow his own slogan and put "County First" with his Vice Presidential pick. It's what Barack Obama did. There is no question that should something happen where Barack cannot continue as President, Joe Biden is ready and qualified to be President. John McCain, on the other hand, selected a woman with an extraordinarily thin resume whom he hardly knows. And this is after spending months convincing America that Barack Obama is not ready to lead. With the way he made his choice (even more than the choice itself), John McCain certainly did not put his "Country First."

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Barack Obama's Secret Weapon: Tom Ridge?

I was thinking today, could Barack Obama's secret weapon against John McCain be none other than former Pennsylvania Governor and first Homeland Security Secretary, Republican Tom Ridge? May not be as crazy as it first sounds. Here's why.

As Marc Ambinder brilliantly points out today over at the Atlantic, John Mccain is running into a real problem with his choices for Vice President. A week ago, Mitt Romney was the odds on favorite, and I was a firm believer that even if McCain didn't like or trust Romney, he still had to pick him politically. Romney, because of his Michigan connections, would give McCain a coin-flip (or better) chance to win here (and Barack Obama, barring a very strange election, cannot win without Michigan) and Romney also could put both Colorado and Nevada, two traditionally Republican states Obama is showing real strength in, out of reach by maximizing Mormon turnout. But, Romney's chances took a real hit when McCain made his housing gaffe last week. After being painted as out-of-touch with middle-class Americans, can McCain really put Mitt Romney, worth north of $250 million, on the ticket without playing right into Obama's hands? And not only that, look at the ads McCain has run since Joe Biden was named as Vice President. Ads of Biden and Clinton bashing Obama. Mitt Romney said much worse things about John McCain during the Republican primary. And even worse, McCain said horrible things about Romney. Imagine those ads. And McCain opened the door by running his anti-Obama ads starring Joe Biden.

And as Ambinder notes, even the other supposed finalist, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, doesn't look that attractive anymore now that Biden is Obama's VP. Pawlenty, aside from being as inexperienced (if not more so) than Obama, would be eaten alive by Biden in the Vice Presidential debate (just as John Edwards was by Dick Cheney in 2004). And how can McCain continue to attack Obama for not being ready to lead, and then pick Pawlenty as his second in command?

So how does Tom Ridge play into all of this? In his heart of hearts, McCain would almost certainly choose Ridge as his VP. The two are very close, Ridge has both executive experience (Homeland Security Secretary and as Governor of Pennsylvania) and knows Washington well enough to help get things done on the Hill. Plus, electorally, he puts Pennsylvania very much in play, and if McCain wins Pennsylvania, just as does if he wins Michigan, he makes the electoral math very very difficult for Obama. The problem with Ridge? Just one. He's pro-choice. And the so-called "Maverick" of politics has given in to the right-wing of his party and has eliminated Ridge from consideration.

As soon as McCain names his VP, especially if it's Romney, Obama needs to come out with a Tom Ridge ad, very much in the same vein as McCain's ad today about Hillary Clinton and the Vice Presidency. The ad needs to tout Ridge's credentials, his closeness to McCain, and then ask "So why is he not on the ticket? Because he's pro-choice and John McCain gave into the right wing of his party and chose ____ instead. Some Maverick." Or something like that. Maybe "Is he looking out for your values or theirs" while flashing pictures of George Bush and Dick Cheney.

The ad would accomplish multiple goals. First, it would remind women, especially those Hillary supporters, that McCain is staunchly pro-life. Because of his "moderate" imagine, many women wrongly believe McCain is pro-choice, and because of that, they find him easier to support, especially given their feelings about the Hillary Clinton-Obama primary. This would show them how pro-life he really is. Secondly, it would show that McCain is giving in to the far right, and doing so against his own better judgment, and in many ways, against what's best for the country. And it would instantly create credibility questions about McCain's decision making process.

Would it last long in this era of a 24-hour news cycle? Maybe. But it would make a powerful point, and maybe help change the public's perception of John McCain.

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McCain Campaign: Great Idea, Horrible Execution on Hillary Clinton Ad

As I was watching MSNBC's coverage of the Barack Obama-Joe Biden unveiling yesterday (after I got home from the Lions 26-6 victory over Cleveland, thank God for DVRs) I got to thinking. While the McCain campaign's original ad in response to Obama picking Biden was utterly predictable (a clip of Biden attacking Obama at a debate for being inexperienced followed by Biden praising McCain) I thought that if the McCain campaign was really smart, they'd run an ad praising Hillary Clinton, and try to draw a wedge with Hillary voters and get them riled up that she wasn't on the ticket. After all, in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, the reason why Obama is only up on McCain by an insignificant margin is because of the significant number of Hillary voters either supporting McCain or refusing to support Obama. These are liberal-learning voters, mostly Democrats, but they are angry with Obama for winning the nomination and they are currently preventing him from stretching his lead over McCain. And had a Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee won the Republican nomination, they almost certainly wouldn't have supported those candidates, McCain, because of his "maverick" reputation, and the mistaken belief by many that he's a moderate (when he's not), is a palatable choice. Especially when compared with Obama.

So what has the McCain campaign done? Put together a Hillary Clinton ad, questioning Obama for not putting her on the ticket. The problem? The ad makes no sense when viewed next to their first ad about Biden. Take a look at both ads:

So let me get this straight. Barack Obama picked a running mate (Joe Biden) who at a debate said he wasn't ready to lead, but he refused to pick another (Hillary Clinton) because she dared question his policies? Am I missing something here? If Barack Obama eschewed Hillary because she didn't agree with him on every issue, then why pick Biden, who, as McCain's first ad is all about, questioned Obama's ability to lead the country? Doesn't Obama picking Biden show that he's willing, if not eager, to select a VP who isn't a sycophant?

The message of these two ads completely conflict with one another. They are utterly inconsistent, and when viewed together, they make no logical sense. It's almost as if whomever created the Hillary ad never saw the Biden ad. Plus, there were a lot more harsh comments by Hillary they could have used (Shame on you Barack Obama!; When you were representing your slum landlord contributor Rezko; John McCain has a lifetime of experience and Barack Obama has a speech he gave in 2002) which would fit much more neatly into the "not ready to lead" meme the McCain campaign has been pushing and would have fit with the theme of the Biden ad. Throw in a line about "18 million voters and she wasn't even on his short list?" and a McCain clip praising Hillary and there's a very effective 30-second spot which should really get the Clintonite blood boiling.

Instead, we get this ad, which while a good idea in theory, does not fit with McCain's broader message, and is contrary to his earlier attack ad on Biden. Good idea McCain campaign, just horrendous execution.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Why I Like Joe Biden

Barack Obama finally selected his Vice President, text messaging his supporters around 3 AM yesterday announcing that Senator Joe Biden was his choice for Vice President (I, however, have yet to get that text message, though I did get an e-mail from Obama around 4:50 a.m. announcing the pick). As I wrote earlier, Biden was my pick for VP. He has an extremely compelling personal story (he was elected to the United States Senate at age 29, then months later he lost his wife and infant daughter to a horrific car accident, was sworn into the Senate from his sons hospital beds as they recovered from their injuries sustained in the same accident; he ran for the Presidency in 1988 and then almost died of a brain aneurysm;, and he continues, to this day, to ride Amtrak back and forth from Delaware to Washington each day, eschewing living in D.C.), he has an encyclopedic knowledge of foreign policy and will undoubtedly help Obama govern effectively, and he's fiercely independent and won't be afraid to question and challenge Obama when they disagree.

Going into the primaries, I wasn't sold on Biden. But after watching him campaign, and especially his performances in the debates, I changed my tune very quickly. From the Democratic CNN YouTube debate on July 24, 2007 (wow, this election has been going on for a long time, and July was almost eight months into it to boot):

As for who else really impressed me, Joe Biden continues to show that he may be the smartest candidate of the bunch. A bit angry at times, but while everyone else talks about getting out of Iraq, Biden sounds like he actually knows how to get out of Iraq. On foreign policy, there is nobody better right now than Biden, and he sounds intelligent on the domestic issues too. He has no chance to be President, but should a Democrat win in 2008, I couldn't think of a better candidate for Secretary of State.

I had much the same opinion in September after an MSNBC debate:
Edwards, as well as Joe Biden, had good nights. I like Biden more and more every time I see him. Sure, he's not going to win, but he's the only one, especially when compared to Clinton, to actually answer questions, and he's incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to Iraq and foreign policy. Would he make a good President? I don't know. But he needs a prominent role in our government.

And then there was the December 2007 debate:
And one last debate thought, Joe Biden, again, a great performance. More than anyone else, including Obama, Biden has impressed me in these debates. So much so that I'm going to write his name in and vote for him in the Michigan primary. It doesn't mean much since the Democrats have all taken their names off the ballot here in accordance with the wishes of the DNC (except for Hillary of course) so our primary is pretty meaningless, but Biden deserves it. He doesn't want to be VP, and probably wouldn't be a good electoral choice, but I'd make him Secretary of State or Defense or anything he wanted if I were the next President.

So, while I was pushing Biden for Secretary of State, Vice President works too. I think he was the best choice, and he's the right choice. And he's going to be a fiery advocate and campaigner for Obama. I can't wait to see the team in action.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

McCain Camp Misses Big Opportunity

I don't know if the McCain Campaign failed to finish their negative Tony Rezko ad in time for the nightly newscasts to air it tonight, or if the networks, without knowledge or confidence the ad will ever air (McCain in the past this election cycle has created strong attack ads but not actually paid to air them, with the aim of having the networks air the ad for free on news and opinion broadcasts, which they have been more than happy to do) but the ad did not air on either NBC Nightly News or ABC's World News Tonight. Instead, the pieces the networks ran focused on Obama's attacks, and his tying McCain's statement that he doesn't know how many houses he knows to how out of touch McCain is with problems in the economy.

The Rezko ad is a brutal hatchet job on Obama. While Obama's negative ad today at least is tangentially related to policy (asking how McCain can understand or fix the economy if he doesn't know it's broken) McCain's ad is completely unrelated to policy. It's a total negative character attack, essentially saying "Obama is a crook who associates with other crooks. He does them political favors and he swindles real estate on the side." Of course, Rezko is not one of Obama's biggest fundraisers by any calculation (and he never donated a dime to Obama's Presidential campaign, and all of the funds Rezko raised or had any connection have long been donated to charity by Obama) and Obama was never the subject of any suspicion of wrong-doing related to Rezko. But, that's surely not the picture painted by McCain's ad.

I'll be honest, nothing surprises me in politics, but I really thought McCain was more honorable than the campaign he's running. The advantage to having McCain as the Republican nominee, and Obama as the Democratic nominee, was supposed to be a civil campaign. Instead, McCain has run almost entirely negative ads, mostly involving Obama's character (not his policies) and he has repeatedly questioned Obama's patriotism (including saying that Obama would choose to lose a war if it meant he was elected President). Obama, in recent days, has gone more on the attack, but always couched in policy distinctions, not personal ones. John McCain has chosen not to follow that path. And it's working, because the polls have tightened, and McCain seems to have the wind at his back. But, something tells me, McCain would not have accepted this kind of campaign when he ran in 2000. But if you want to win badly enough, and you are willing to do whatever your advisers tell you to do, then this is the kind of campaign you get. One indistinguishable from the campaign George W. Bush ran against McCain in 2000.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

The Veepstakes

As we get to crunch time in the so-called Veepstakes (with Drudge via the New York Times reporting Barack Obama could announce his choice as early as Wednesday morning) it appears that the names for Obama are narrowed to the three which have been at the top of the list for months now: Senators Joe Biden and Evan Bayh and Virginia Governor Tim Kaine.

And, maybe coincidentally, and maybe purposefully, each represents a different kind of Vice President and the reasons for selecting each are very different. Biden doesn't help Obama with any particular state on the electoral map (maybe he solidifies Pennsylvania, but I don't think that states in much jeopardy anyway) but he provides Obama with the veteran, foreign-policy expert many believe he needs, he's highly respected and has a national profile, and he "checks a lot of boxes" as Chuck Todd would say. Bayh seems to be an electoral choice. Indiana, a perpetually red state, is turning blue, in large part because of the economic woes, and in part because Obama's familiarity in neighboring Illinois. Bayh on the ticket could tip the state to Obama. And Bayh's very public support of Hillary Clinton doesn't hurt either as Obama tries, still, to soothe things over with Clinton supporters. And there's Tim Kaine. While Governor of Virginia, Obama will likely win or lose the state whether or not Kaine's on the ticket. So why Kaine? Obama and Kaine are close personally, so they will work well together, and Obama trusts Kaine, which is crucial with a VP pick. And Kaine is not part of the Washington establishment, like Biden (and to a lesser extent) Bayh, so he doubles down on the "change" message.

I think Bayh comes in third place here. He's perpetually on the short list for VP but never picked, and despite the desire to put Indiana in the Democratic column, I just don't think Obama's going to go with him. Which means it comes down to Bayh and Biden.

First, who I think Obama will select: Tim Kaine. While many in the national media have consistently said that Obama needs a foreign-policy guy as his VP (hence the talk of Biden, Wes Clark, and Sam Nunn), Obama has never signaled he was thinking that way. In fact, all of his public comments have been just the opposite. While some have called him cocky, and that may be a bridge too far, there is no doubt Obama is supremely confident in his foreign policy judgment. And with very good reason, as his prescient objections to the Iraq War prove. It doesn't seem like Obama believes that foreign policy is a real weakness which mandates the VP nail down that policy area. And Obama certainly seems like the kind of person that would value the personal relationship with his VP and the ability to trust that VP above all else. And there's no question Obama and Kaine are close, and both are simpatico when it comes to fundimentally changing how business is done in Washington.

The problem? Kaine's almost more inexperienced than Obama (he's been Governor for less than a full term), has zero national profile (and thus wouldn't help the ticket gain any steam or erase any doubts voters may have about Obama, and in fact, may enlarge the doubts people have), and he seems like a third choice from his state alone. With word leaking out last week (courtesy of Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic) that the Obama campaign was pressuring former Virginia Governor Mark Warner to submit his name to be vetted for VP (he declined to concentrate on his blowout of a US Senate Race and was subsequently named Keynote Speaker at the Democratic Convention next week) and with Senator Jim Webb, a perfect VP choice, also declining, Kaine's selection could (and maybe should) be seen as Obama settling. And one should never settle on the VP choice. And most importantly, should something happen to Obama, can you really imagine a President Kaine? Just think about that question for a minute.

Now, my choice would be Joe Biden. I was thoroughly impressed with Biden in the Democratic primaries. So much so that because the Michigan primary meant nothing, I planned on voting for Biden before I learned doing so would make my vote invalid. Nobody running for President (and perhaps nobody else, although, I reserve judgment out of respect for the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Carl Levin) had a better understanding, knowledge, and ability to articulate a vision of the quagmire in Iraq and other foreign policy happenings than Biden. And while John McCain likes to tout his "Straight Talk Express" there is no doubt that Joe Biden will always tell you what he's thinking, and what he's honestly thinking, and to prove it, he's gotten himself into some trouble speaking his mind. He gives Obama the experience and gravitas Obama may lack, he'd be a huge asset to the country as Vice President. And he's instantly believable and credible as President. And , back to those "boxes" again. He's Catholic. He's blue collar. He's popular with the kinds of voters Obama may have a hard time attracting. And while Obama may be confident in his own foreign policy judgments (again, with good reasons), voters still aren't. Voters need to be convinced. Joe Biden will do that. People will feel much better about Obama as President with the knowledge he has somebody as his VP to support him. Maybe people shouldn't think like that, but they do, and Biden would instantly strengthen the ticket in ways Tim Kaine and Evan Bayh would not.

I hope I'm wrong, and I hope Biden is the pick. We should know by the end of the week. But, while Obama's heart may be leaning towards Kaine, he should make this choice with his head, and he should choose the Senator from Delaware.

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