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We Report... You Deride

Monday, January 19, 2004  
In Memoriam

To honor a good guy-- one who would have been Speaker, if he'd just understood his strengths better and been a little patient-- here are some passages from pages 965 and 966 of Richard Ben Cramer's memoir of the 1988 campaign, What it Takes:

"Dick went around the room shaking hands with each. He knew every name. Then he stood with his back to a wall and held up a hand. He started to tell them they had to go on... this was more than about him... more than what they'd done for him.

"Dick's voice was steady and brave. He wanted them to see this as a start-- the only way this made sense--as a cause... this loss, his loss, did not matter.

"Then a noise... Dick stopped. The door opened... and it was filled with Jesse Jackson...

"'Jesseee!" Dick came across the room, South St. Louis polite... he held his hand out in front of him.

"But Jackson spread his arms. And he gathered Dick in a bear hug that disappeared him. All they could see was the reddish top of Gephardt's head.

"Jesse Jackson knew loss. He knew what was going on in that room. And there was, in his embrace, not just his triumph of that night, but his understanding of Dick's effort, the years ... the hopes, the exhaustion, the loss.

"He would not let go. Gephardt's head wiggled briefly. Then it settled against Jackson's suit...

"And just for a short while, half a minute, perhaps... the only time that night... on the breast of the only man in that room who could really understand, Dick Gephardt wept."

11:41 PM

Labor's Debt to Dean

An interesting sidebar ro tonight's results is the body blow that organized labor just absorbed. When Howard Dean picked up the endorsements of the two most powerful unions in the AFL-CIO, he made it impossible for labor to give their endorsement (as most of the people in the movement wanted) to Dick Gephardt.

A lot of people were furious at Dean for that. But that decision actually saved their butts. Had labor committed itself to Gephardt, they would be in the embarassing position of endorsing a candidate who's already out of the race. Now they can at least try to regroup and pick the guy who seems to be stronger-- either Edwards or Kerry.

They're still damaged. But the humiliation isn't complete.

11:27 PM

It's Deja Vu All Over Again

Well, we're back to square one-- more precisely, the conventional wisdom as it was propounded in October. Thanks to either a revitalized field operation or two solid months of negative campaigning, John Kerry is once again the consensus frontrunner and Howard Dean is the straggler.

The biggest beneficiary of tonight's caucuses, however, will be John Edwards. There are still scads of people who insist that you can't win the presidency without the south and only a southerner can control the bleeding down there.

The people who like to compare Edwards to Bill Clinton will be able to talk up the "comeback kid" parallels to 1992, pointing out that Edwards shouldn't have been able to do anything in Iowa, and that his 'amazing show of strength in a region that he should not have been expected to do well in' (or something to that effect) means that he might be the only candidate able to appeal to a national audience.

Since Dean and Kerry are both from new England, Edwards can finish as low as a weak third in New Hampshire and still carry that aura around with him until the South Carolina primary. Unless Kerry can make it very close in the South, Edwards has the leg up on him.

Wesley Clark has to be dying a thousand deaths. The motivating factor in Iowa turned out to electability-- "Can this guy beat W?" If Clark hadn't pulled out, a lot of the votes that went to Kerry and Edwards would have fallen to him.

Dean, meanwhile, is now in the same position Dick Gephardt was a week ago. If he doesn't win his neighboring state, he'll be perceived as having no base. Even if he does, he's in danger of being seen as a 'regional candidate'. I doubt he's going to make it past the Granite State as a viable candidate.

11:16 PM

Sunday, January 18, 2004  
Why Politics Sucks

I'm posting this at 5 AM body clock time-- 4 AM local-- because I can't sleep. I'm too sick to sleep, is more like it.

There are days when I really hate what I do. For the last two weeks, I've hated it. I haven't posted much in the last two weeks, because the people who pay me expect me to do work. And the work I've been doing is negative campaigning-- thinking of ways to tear other people in the race down.

When people ask me "What's wrong with politics?" some days I answer "money." It costs so much money to get a message out that it's impossible for someone new to step into a race and make a difference. If you can't get people to give you money, you can't win.

Other days I think it's the media. It's not enough to be a good person or to have good ideas. They're more interested in what you wear or what you said ten years ago. Or, most often, what someone else in the media thinks. If one person writes something, everyone else scrambles to write it too. Whether the original story was true or not doesn't matter in the slightest.

Some days, I blame the strategists. With each passing election, turnout continues to drop. In other words, fewer and fewer people want the products we try to sell.

In any other industry, people would look at those numbers and ask themselves "How can we broaden our audience? How can we appeal to people who don't want the stuff we're selling now?" That's why the soft drink manufacturers started selling bottled water, why McDonalds is seling white meat chicken products and why Subway and Burger King are offering low-carb sandwiches.

In politics, we write off the people who don't buy and ask how we can shift market share in the continually-dwindling pool. 50 years from now, at this pace, the primary electorate might consist of three farmers, eight guys who chew maple bark and say "Ay-yah" and seven life members of the Jeff Foxworthy fan club. And we'll all still be trying to target them.

But, more and more, I think the problem is "the voters". People say they're tired of business as usual. But, time and again, what wins votes is the same old crap that people say they're tired of. And that's why nothing changes.

Three weeks ago, if you'd wanted to bet that Howard Dean or Dick Gephardt would win Iowa, you'd have had trouble finding anyone to take your money. But thanks to weeks of sliming other candidates-- with a lot of help from slimebags like Joe Lieberman and Al Sharpton-- John Kerry is back in the race.

Kerry hasn't actually persuaded anyone to vote for him-- he's just managed to convince people that Dean is a psychotic nut who can't possibly beat Bush. They're going to Kerry not because they like him, but because he seems less creepy than Dean has sounded.

That's not much of an achievement. And it's not likely to last. If Kerry cripples Dean and Gephradt by winning, then the question in new Hampshire becomes "Who's better-- Kerry, Clark or Edwards?" And that's not a comparsion that John Kerry is likely to win.

If Dick Gephardt were able to connect with voters and draw them to him, he'd be at 45% right now. But he's the politcal equivalent of the supporting actor in those old John Hughes teen movies. He's a nice enough guy and he really wants you to like him. But there's nothing about him that makes you think "I've got to be with him."

There's a rule of thumb in my business. If you've been in the public eye for more than a decade-- that is, a Senator, Governor or senior member of the House-- and people still haven't flocked to you, you're just not going to get over the hump.

Gephardt's campaign knows Iowa better than anyone else and it has spent almost all his money and time in Iowa-- to the point where he doesn't have anything left for any other state. But he still doesn't have a firm lead-- and whatever he wins here won't carry over.

Dean's decision not to respond-- to try to run the ball and kill the clock-- has been a dreadful mistake. He assembled a huge lead by shooting off his mouth and hoping that people would like what they heard-- or at least get turned on by the energy.

Yeah, his delivery and message turned off a lot of people, but he connected often enough to pick up chunks of support. The "smile while people knife you in the gut and make peevish, snippy remarks when they really draw blood" has ruined him. He'll escape the midwest with a top three finish-- maybe even win-- but when he gets to New Hampshire, he'll find Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman waiting with WMD and he'll bleed even more.

If John Edwards were leading, I might be able to say something positive about this whole mess. Edwards has, by and large, declined to go negative on anyone. And it's working to some degree-- people who are truly appalled by the sliming are looking for the candidate who's trying to build his own base-- not tear everyone else's down.

But his message is so bland that he can't pick up the converts. For every committed voter who shifts to Edwards, two more (I think) are throwing up their hands and deciding not to bother with these jokers.

Everyone seems to think turnout in Iowa will be really high. I'll be surprised if that happens. I think you'll be seeing a lot of stories about how bad weather kept people away from the caucuses.

For my money, the reason will be the candidates and their message.

5:09 AM

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