Friday, February 29, 2008

What John the Plumber Thinks

I had a toilet that wouldn't stop running and needed a new garabage disposal installed. It was time to call John the plumber. When we first moved here nine years ago I asked a co-worker to recommend somebody for plumbing work. She told me to call John. It seems just about everybody around town knows John. He doesn't have a fancy ad in the yellow pages or a shiny new truck with a logo on the door. His business comes from word of mouth and he keeps his customers because he does good work, doesn't charge an arm and a leg and likes people. He'll carry on a nice conversation with you and even show you how to fix the problem so you can do it yourself next time without having to call him. He's a good guy.

I was pulling a couple of pipes out of the way under the sink to give John some room to put in the garbage disposal. He turned the conversation to politics, bringing up the presidential race. John told me he was a Republican, but he seemed more interested in talking about the Democratic race. As it turns out, I came away thinking that if he is in any way a typical example of the American voter in 2008 we are in for a pretty amazing election this year.

His view is that if John McCain is elected we'll basically get more of the same, and more of the same would be pretty awful. If Hillary Clinton wins we'll get constant political fighting and nothing will get done. But if Barack Obama is our next president he feels we'll have a great opportunity to move forward and start solving our real problems. "I'm so sick of the bickering," he said. "Obama reminds me of John Kennedy. He's so inspiring, doesn't care about all the political wars, and just wants to bring us together and do what's best for the country. I know I'll be voting for him."

I have to admit I was startled to hear this coming from a 60-year old white Republican small businessman. The Obama phenomenon may be tapping into something almost primal in people these days. We face so many major problems, so many of which have been apparent for years. People want decision, they want action, they want a third way. It seems a lot of people are ready to dare to hope and let Obama give it a try. Even people you would never have expected. Obama is putting out the call, asking a cynical country to dare to believe again. But can we? He says, "Yes we can. We are the ones we have been waiting for. Now is our time. Now is our moment." When guys like John begin answering that call it is hard to believe otherwise.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Assembly Candidate Connie Conway

Let's take time for a little local politics today. I stopped in at Connie Conway's headquarters Tuesday evening on Main Street in Visalia, where she was holding an open house to kick off her campaign for California's 34th Assembly District. Visalia is the largest city and county seat of Tulare County, which forms the heart of the district. Located in Central California's San Joaquin Valley and extending east into Sequoia National Park, Tulare County is the number two agricultural county in the United States.

Connie is bright and personable and took a good deal of her time to chat despite being in demand by her many supporters. Connie has a number of advantages in the race to replace Bill Maze, who must leave office after six years due to term limits. She is a Republican in a strongly Republican part of the Golden State. Up until 1996 the area was evenly split between the two major parties, but the registration tide has swung sharply in the GOP's favor since. In 2006 it was nearly 50% Republican, less than 36% Democratic and a bit under 15% decline to state. If she can gain the Republican nomination she will have a clear shot at the seat, which Maze won 2-1 over his Democratic opponent in '06.

Based on her endorsements it looks like she has the support to do that. A county supervisor since 2001 and this year's chair, she has the support of local Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, all four of her colleagues on the Board of Supervisors, who all attended to show that support, and numerous local officials throughout the area. She has also been president of the California Association of Counties and has developed a strong network of backers among county supervisors in the region.

When I asked Connie what her main issues were she mentioned water, education, public safety and regional development, pointing to her Chairmanship of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley. Her campaign brochure lists her priorities under five headings: No new taxes, secure communities with strong families, free enterprise and private property, water and limited and effective government. She has a long history of active involvement and her themes are the kind that she feels should resonate with her largely conservative electorate. Indeed, the masthead of her brochure says, "Conservative. Committed. Connected."

In taking some time to go to this event I was reminded of how accessible our elected officials are at the local level. Though national issues often capture the big headlines, it's often possible for citizens to actually meet and have a word with their public servants closer to home. I was glad I went.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Last Democratic Debate?

A remarkable series of debates between the Democratic candidates began ten months ago with eight hopefuls on a South Carolina stage. The marathon came down to the final two contenders seated this evening at a table in the theater of snow-covered Cleveland State University. Was this the last act of a long-running drama? Yes, I think it was. The next such exchange of views will have to wait until six months from now, when John McCain and Barack Obama will meet with the presidency itself on the line.

Tonight's debate opened with health care and moved to the NAFTA trade pact. It then got into foreign policy and campaign tactics. It ended with an interesting question about each candidate's greatest regret. There was ample scope for Hillary Clinton and Obama to tout the strengths of their respective philosophies and policy points and to poke holes in each other's. As always, they both came across as extremely formidable debaters and candidates. But it was Clinton who needed to score a major coup to puncture the momentum Obama has been riding since mid-December, and this she was unable to do.

Hillary's plan was to stand as a resolute and tenacious fighter for average Americans. She would open by pinning Obama down on the differences between their health plans, a contrast she was certain would rebound to her benefit. From there she would make the experience argument once more, dazzle with her grasp of the intricacies of foreign and domestic policy, and close with an appeal to women. She had to stay on the offensive as much as possible without going over the line and seeming too mean. She did a good job on all counts, only once coming across as peevish by complaining about having to go first in the questioning too often.

Barack's plan was to demonstrate a credible mastery of policy details while referencing his "post-partisan" approach. Just as important would be his tone. He would appear unflappable and presidential, defending his positions, counterattacking softly and being as gracious as the exchanges allowed. He agreed with Clinton many times, complimenting her positions and minimizing their differences on health care. He would draw sharp contrasts only on her vote to authorize war with Iraq and on her NAFTA views, an issue of great import to their Ohio audience. It almost seemed as though his primary purpose was to heal rifts among Democrats in preparation for the general election.

When asked their greatest regret it was refreshing to see the candidates actually answer the question. Most politicians tend to dodge questions like that or mention a strength instead of a regret, such as saying they "work too hard" or some such tripe. Instead, Clinton foursquarely pointed to her Iraq authorization vote and Obama castigated himself for not standing stronger against congressional intervention in the Teri Schiavo right-to-die case. Good for them. It speaks well of self-honesty in both cases.

In the end, Clinton complimented Obama, summed up about her willingness to fight for those forgotten during the last seven years and touched on the historic implications of having a woman's perspective in the leadership role. Obama lauded Clinton even more highly but returned to his main theme that perhaps we have seen too much fighting and that he was the candidate best suited to bring the country together.

Clinton may have helped herself a little but Obama probably helped himself more. Every successive time he shows himself qualified to serve he removes more doubts about his being simply a gifted speaker without presidential gravitas. Some polls already show Obama having caught up in Texas and within five points in Ohio, and nothing that happened tonight is likely to alter his rising trajectory. Barring a stunning change of fortunes Hillary Clinton's realistic hopes of being the first woman to gain the presidential nomination of a major political party in the United States have exactly one week to live.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Charges Against McCain

Barack Obama previewed an attack on John McCain today, accusing him of being beholden to lobbyists. If a charge like that can be made to stick, it could really hurt McCain, who has cultivated a reputation for fierce independence of thought.

So what's the truth? Like many things about McCain, that's not always so easy to tell. For starters, his campaign manager Rick Davis and his chief political adviser Charlie Black are well-known and successful Washington lobbyists. Then too, the recent New York Times article, beyond its poorly documented insinuation of a romantic indiscretion, alleged undue response to lobbying pressure. A Washington Post article followed the same lead on McCain's letters in favor of a communications company without the sex angle. The stink hangs because McCain's campaign denied meetings between the Senator and the people in question, only to have evidence surface of McCain's earlier testimony admitting to meeting with them, though denying succumbing to their influence.

On the other hand, McCain has a long history of taking on some of Capitol Hill's most powerful lobbies. He has stood against ethanol subsidies and tobacco interests. He took on the coal, oil and auto industries in the failed McCain-Lieberman Climate Bill. He angered many conservative advocacy groups by fighting for and passing McCain-Feingold on campaign finance. He's refused to ask for earmarks and supported open disclosure of them, to the consternation of many of his Senate colleagues. He strongly pursued the Jack Abramoff investigation, to the embarrassment of his party and the ruin of some Republican careers. He's saved several billions in cost overruns with strong oversight on military procurement contracts. He also famously took on some of the more vociferous of the religious right by calling them "agents of intolerance" in his 2000 run. And he stood up to a President of his own party and the anti-tax lobby by voting against Bush's 2001 tax cuts (though he now supports them.)

All in all, it's a record that matches up well in comparison to most who have been in Washington for any length of time. McCain does appear to be a politician with an independent streak who tends to vote his own judgment regardless of the institutional struggle it may cause him. That's one reason he's always been popular with independent voters and highly suspected by Republican loyalists. It would be surprising to me to find he'd been in the middle of an influence peddling racket. But then one comes back to the question: why are two lobbyists running his campaign? One thing is for sure, John McCain does not fit easily into a mold.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

More Middle Class Squeeze

Thanks to some good comments on yesterday's post I decided to do some additional research. As Webfoot put it, "Is the middle class being squeezed because of the economics of the times or are they being squeezed by their own injudicious use of their own resources?" Mr. H. added, "I completely agree with Webfoot's comments about the middle class propensity toward instant gratification and consumerism. Most of the debt incurred is not necessary." On the other hand Don wrote, "I agree fully with your comments about the attack on our middle class, (see the book Nickeled and Dimed in America) but do you think the average citizen understands what is happening?" This discussion is important and deserves some investigation.

I looked into four cost components I feel are significant factors in the middle class standard of living and are rather essential for maintaining it: housing, health care, gasoline and college tuition. Here's what I found.

Home prices were an average of three times per capita income in the 1970s. This had risen to 5 times PCI in the 1980s and stands at 9 times today. In California and Florida these had risen as high as 13 times PCI, though the recent falloff has reduced that to 11. These figures come from the Wall Street Journal and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. It is clear that housing costs have tripled as a share of income over the period in question.

Health care has risen from 5% of American gross domestic product in 1960 to 13% in 2000 and 16% in 2006. The cost per capita stood at $7026 in 2006. These data come from the Agency for Health Research and Quality and the American Medical Association. As in the previous example, U.S. resources devoted to this cost have tripled as a percentage of available resources. That is a direct cost to those middle class Americans who are self-employed or must otherwise buy their own coverage and an indirect cost to the salary compensation of those who are employed by others.

Gasoline prices in constant 2007 dollars stood at $1.50 per gallon before the first Arab oil embargo of 1973. They rose to $1.80 in 1974. They stand today at a national average of $3.31. These figures come from Z-facts and the American Automobile Association. The price rise in real terms in this case is 2.21 times the earlier cost, not as high as for the previous two categories but still a substantial drain on a family's discretionary funds.

College tuition and fees at public four-year universities cost, on average, 8% of annual per capita family income in 1975. By 2005 it had risen to 21%. For private universities the respective figures are 31% and 80%. Note that these figures considerably understate the full costs since they do not include books and living expenses or the effect of reduced scholarship availability for the middle class. Even so, what we see here has increased 2.63 times over its previous bite from the family income.

In sum, it looks to me as though the middle class squeeze is quite real. I grant that these are subjectively chosen markers but I would contend they are all expensive yet essential components of maintaining a middle class lifestyle. I, too look with amazement at people who are not wealthy yet buy non essentials like absurdly expensive sneakers, televisions, video game systems and motor vehicles. It would indeed be welcome to hear more voices advising the American consumer to exercise considerably more restraint and responsibility as a counterweight to the constant drumbeat to buy, buy, buy. One recalls President Bush's response when asked what Americans could do to help in the wake of 9/11, "Go shopping."

But with that all said, it is inescapably evident from these enormous increases in real terms that the economic facts of life make it far more difficult for people today to enter and stay in the middle class than it was for their parents and grandparents a generation ago. And I am quite convinced that if these trends are not reversed the societal effects will be profoundly destructive in a number of ways.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Middle Class Squeeze

Many observers have reported on a growing sense of economic anxiety among middle class Americans. Surveys tell us they feel the nation is "on the wrong track" by margins of three to one. Consumer confidence indicators show pessimism at the highest levels in nearly thirty years. For the first time since the Great Depression there is a negative savings rate in the U.S., which is to say that average Americans are spending more than they earn and simply piling up debt.

These conditions go beyond the current slowdown or possible recession, whichever the final statistics officially determine it to be. Instead they appear to be part of an overall squeeze that has been building since the mid 1970s. It is not just a perception. The American middle class is in trouble-deep trouble.

In an important analysis in the Financial Times of London, "America's Middle Classes Are No Longer Coping," of January 29, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich writes, "The fact is, middle-class families have exhausted the coping mechanisms they have used for more than three decades to get by on median wages that are barely higher than they were in 1970, adjusted for inflation. Male wages today are in fact lower than they were then: the income of a young man in his 30s is now 12 per cent below that of a man his age three decades ago. Yet for years now, America's middle class has lived beyond its pay cheque. Middle-class lifestyles have flourished even though median wages have barely budged. That is ending and Americans are beginning to feel the consequences."

I find my community college students stunned to learn that from the 1950s-1970s it was customary for even blue collar American families to afford a home based on the earnings of one income. Judging from the conditions that have prevailed their entire lives this is inconceivable to them. Even with two incomes, home foreclosures are at record highs, millions are being priced out of health coverage, income and asset inequity are the greatest since the 1920s and the affordability of a four-year college education-the surest ticket into the middle class-continues to grow beyond the reach of more millions every year.

Americans have tried three successive strategies to stave off inexorable decline in their standard of living. Reich explains, "The first coping mechanism was moving more women into paid work. The percentage of American working mothers with school-age children has almost doubled since 1970 - from 38 per cent to close to 70 per cent. But we reached the limit to how many mothers could maintain paying jobs."

Yet things continued to tighten. "We turned to a second coping mechanism. When families could not paddle any harder, they started paddling longer. The typical American now works two weeks more each year than 30 years ago. Compared with any other advanced nation we are veritable workaholics, putting in 350 more hours a year than the average European, more even than the notoriously industrious Japanese."

Not even that was enough. "As the tide of economic necessity continued to rise, we turned to the third coping mechanism. We began to borrow, big time. With housing prices rising briskly through the 1990s and even faster between 2002 and 2006, we turned our homes into piggy banks through home equity loans. Americans got nearly $250 billion worth of home equity every quarter in second mortgages and refinancings. That is nearly 10 per cent of disposable income. With credit cards raining down like manna, we bought plasma television sets, new appliances, vacations. With dollars artificially high because foreigners continued to hold them even as the nation sank deeper into debt, we summoned inexpensive goods and services from the rest of the world. But this final coping mechanism can no longer keep us going, either. The era of easy money is over. With the bursting of the housing bubble, home equity is drying up."

With housing prices rising much faster than incomes, there came the inevitable point at which most people could no longer afford to buy homes at these inflated prices. "As Moody's reported recently, defaults on home equity loans have surged to the highest level this decade. Car and credit card debt is next. Personal bankruptcies rose 48 per cent in first half of 2007, probably even more in the second half, which means a wave of defaults on consumer loans. Meanwhile, as foreigners begin shifting out of dollars, we will no longer have access to cheap foreign goods and services."

Reich summarizes: "In short, the anxiety gripping the middle class is not simply a product of the current economic slowdown. The underlying problem began around 1970. Any presidential candidate seeking to address it will have to think bigger than bailing out lenders and borrowers, or stimulating the economy with tax cuts and spending increases. Most Americans are still not prospering in the high-technology, global economy that emerged three decades ago. Almost all the benefits of economic growth since then have gone to a small number of people at the very top." (emphasis added).

With an eye toward the 2008 election, Reich advises, "The candidate who acknowledges this and comes up with ways not just to stimulate the economy but also to boost wages - through, say, a more progressive tax, stronger unions and, over the longer term, better schools for children from lower-income families and better access to higher education - will have a good chance of winning over America's increasingly anxious voters."

To this I would add the effects of soaring energy costs. This long period of pain began with the first energy shocks: the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the Iranian Revolution of 1979, two events that led to the effective consolidation of the OPEC oil cartel. Much of the earlier prosperity was fueled by dirt cheap energy. It is imperative that we pursue energy independence, particularly with renewable sources, as though our economic future depended on it. It does.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Democratic Debate #19

Tonight's CNN/Univision debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was the nineteenth for the Democratic contenders and the second in which they were the only two participants. The race's dynamics have drastically changed since the series began. Sen. Clinton took the stage in Austin tonight at a point where she had to force a major turn in the campaign's momentum to hang on to her remaining hopes.

This she was unable to do. While she may have won the debate narrowly on points, the overall outcome was a wash. In an interplay that was largely civil, Obama effectively parried Clinton's points on health care, negotiations with hostile leaders, the economy and his fitness as commander in chief.

As always, Clinton displayed her command of policy. For his part, Obama continued to improve in that arena. He comes across as more confident and believably presidential as the campaign goes on. He has grown during this process.

A striking facet of the evening was how little the two disagree on most of the issues. On such matters as Iraq, the economy, tax policy, immigration and foreign affairs in general there is but little daylight between them. It portends well for Party unity in the general election; there appears to be a solid consensus among Democrats about what they believe and will run on.

That leaves the intangibles as the deciding factor in this race, and that is why Obama has seized the lead. He exudes vision and the appeal of a people power movement to energize the citizenry against the interests opposing the changes Democrats and many independents want. Clinton does best when she lets her emotional commitment to her causes shine through. For some reason, those moments have been few in this campaign. I got the impression she ought to have been portraying herself as a fighter all along. It's probably too late for that now.

Both impressed me as outstanding candidates who could make excellent presidents. In probably her finest moment, Clinton closed at debate's end by saying, "No matter what happens I am proud to be here with Barack Obama." As they reached over to smilingly shake hands she mentioned a soldier she had met who had lost most of his face to a roadside bomb. She continued, "But you know, we (she and Obama) are going to be fine. We have the support of many family and friends. I hope we we will be able to say the same thing about the American people. That's what this election should be about." The friendly gesture and salute to the opponent who appears poised to wrest away a nomination most had conceded was hers, her refocusing away from self and to the needs of the American people, and the almost wistful acceptance of the likely fate of her life's mission all combined to bring down the house. It struck me as by far the classiest thing she has ever done.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Clinton on the Ropes

Richard Adams, writing in the Manchester (U.K.) Guardian, made a persuasive case today in explaining the Clinton campaign's descent into desperate straits. He attributed it to strategic miscalculation and lack of organizational foresight.

The big Super Tuesday primary elections were held on February 5. The titanic clash in 22 states produced a delegate draw, a virtual dead heat between the two democratic frontrunners. The next day Hillary Clinton loaned her campaign $5 million-a tacit admission that her team had shot the wad on Super Tuesday, expected a knockout victory, and had neither thought about nor prepared for what might come next.

The Barack Obama campaign had meanwhile been busy opening field offices and running ads in the upcoming battlegrounds: Washington, Louisiana, Nebraska, Maine, and the Potomac primaries. Caught flatfooted, the Clinton team was beaten to the punch in state after state. Contests that should have been close, such as Maine, Virginia, and most recently Wisconsin, weren't. The Obama ground teams were there first in every case; the Clinton effort gave every indication of not having expected a contest in any of these places. The result has been a 10-0 winning streak for Obama that has left Clinton facing daunting odds of catching up in the delegate count.

Even today, Obama's organization concedes nothing. Both sides are making maximum efforts in delegate-rich Texas and Ohio, which vote March 4. The difference is that Vermont and Rhode Island also vote that day. Obama has four field offices up and running in Vermont; Hillary Clinton's campaign has none. True, Vermont is a small prize compared to Texas and Ohio. But a small professional organization in a small state can make a big difference. As an electoral strategy Obama has made the most of winning big in a lot of small states and losing close in the few big ones. Like an inexperienced boxer, the Clinton campaign walks into that same punch in every round.

The organizational facts on the ground, the smooth, well-thought-out nuts and bolts operations directed by David Axelrod, and the repeated inability of the Clinton forces to learn from their mistakes and plan ahead do much to obviate Clinton's central campaign pitch: that she is the experienced, savvy, competent leader who can get things done. What we have seen since the race hung in the balance two weeks ago points instead to Barack Obama as that candidate.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Obama on the Threshold

Barack Obama moved closer to the Democratic nomination for president today with a substantial victory in the Wisconsin primary. He should further extend his delegate lead when results from the Hawaii caucuses come in. It isn't over yet, but the fat lady is running through her warmup exercises.

It seems more and more as though Hillary Clinton's coalition is starting to come apart. She barely won among women. She lost among whites. Her deficit among men continues to widen. Obama split the vote among working class whites. It's getting past demographics and looks a lot more like an incoming tide; all groups are moving toward Obama.

The math says Clinton must win 58% of the remaining pledged delegates, and that's a tall order. Given that some upcoming states give Obama a clear advantage (Wyoming, Mississippi, North Carolina for instance) that means Clinton will need to take 60-40 splits at least in her projected big three of Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. This kind of scenario grows more remote by the day.
Obama now leads by about 140 pledged delegates. Clinton leads by about 70 among superdelegates who have declared a preference. If Obama winds up ahead in pledged delegates after all states have voted, as seems extremely likely, it will be nearly impossible for the superdelegates to overturn that verdict. Remember that most of them are elected officials who would have to face the anger of the voters for doing so. And about 400 of them are still sitting on the fence. They'll go for whomever is ahead come convention time.

The only other wild cards in the mix are Florida and Michigan. Both would have to come up with a new selection process for seating their delegations. The case could be made to seat Florida's delegation as is, since Obama was on the ballot. The Obama side would oppose that, since no one was allowed to campaign (and since he lost by 50-30.) Michigan would be even more problematical, since Obama was not even on the ballot there. I have heard that holding new elections in the two states would cost $10 million. That is money the state parties do not have. It would be cheaper to hold caucuses, but given Obama's strong past results in caucuses you could expect the Clinton side to oppose that vigorously. This is a drama that will play out as Clinton's position becomes ever more precarious, but the results on March 4 will do much to decide the issue.

Even the Clinton campaign has said they will need to carry Texas and Ohio handily. If they do not it will be the final evidence that her star is falling and Obama's rising. The superdelegates, under the public encouragement of party elders such as Al Gore, will move to embrace the primary leader, and Barack Obama will proceed to the nomination. Hillary Clinton's once seemingly inevitable nomination will have been upset by Obama's message of change.

This is all rather ironic. After all, Hillary Clinton has been an agent of change her entire public life. But Obama's campaign has been too good and too attuned to this year's message. Her emphasis on experience allowed Obama to take the change mantle. He stuck to that message through thick and thin and now he is reaping the rewards. It is really not that Clinton has lost the confidence of Democratic voters. She remains popular with them. She draws crowds of 5,000 to 6,000 people, high by primary standards, and four to five times what John McCain draws. She got more votes in Wisconsin by herself than the entire Republican field. But Obama pulls in 10,000 to 20,000 at his events and outpolled her 58-41.

Her last chance may be an Obama blunder of epic proportions in Thursday's debate. Don't count on it. McCain has already begun previewing his general election strategy, referring to his great experience and chiding the opposing party for being "eloquent but empty." We see what the experience and skepticism of idealism strategy has done for Hillary Clinton. It's hard to believe Sen. McCain is going to try to run on that against Barack Obama, too. This just gets more interesting all the time.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Solving Immigration

There are an approximately 12 million immigrants in the United States who have not been admitted through the normal immigration and naturalization procedures. An estimated 400,000 to 700,000 more arrive every year, compared with about 800,000 who enter legally. Most Americans see this as a problem. Many are even hysterical about it. It should be pointed out that these 12 million represent 4% of the U.S. population. By way of comparison, the 1920 census found that 58% of the residents of all American cities of 100,000 or more were foreign-born. So today's figures are in fact very mild by historical standards. Even so, it is an issue of concern and should be dealt with.

The debate over what to do about it has been dominated by extremists on the one hand who would like to see the lot of them rounded up and deported and extremists on the other hand who feel all who wish to come to America should be welcomed with open arms. Currently the deportation group has by far the upper hand politically, but the welcome group has the upper hand de facto.

Both positions are complete nonsense, of course. A reasonable approach based on the national interest and humanitarian morality must take a set of reality-based facts and principles into account. Here are a few of them.

The United States has the right to control its borders and determine who gets in and who does not. The American economy requires the services of these immigrants. It is in the national interest that immigrant labor does not displace citizen labor, that all residents have access to health care and education, that they are identifiable persons, and that they not become a permanent underclass in American society. All these objectives can be met by establishing a set of practical and reasonable processes.

The first goal requires firm security at the borders. This is indeed essential, and it is as far as many of the anti-immigrant extremists go. While this is necessary it must be recognized that no such system will ever be effective by itself. The borders and seacoasts are too long, and they are not the only ways people enter the country. Many enter legally at ports of entry by land, air and sea as tourists, students or on business and simply overstay their visas and never leave. The 9-11 hijackers were all here legally, for instance.

If we are serious about getting a handle on the issue there must be tamper-proof identification cards. These must include those for citizens, legal resident non-citizens and temporary visitors. It must be made impossible for people to function for long in the United States without them. There must be deterrent penalties for those who hire, sell property, extend credit, provide rental cars, book transportation, rent hotel rooms and so on to those who cannot establish a legal right to be in the U.S. Some will cry "police state" at this practice, but the issue cannot be dealt with otherwise. Almost all residents have a government-issued ID already, whether it be a driver's license or a social security card and number.

The labor department should compile periodic assessments of how many and what types of workers are needed and must communicate the specifics to immigration authorities. Immigration should then issue that many and type of temporary worker cards with tamper-proof IDs that are valid for a stated time period to that many workers. Here in California's San Joaquin Valley the harvest cannot be brought in without guest workers. It is a fool's game to do as we do now by trying to stop them at the border while leaving agriculture no choice but to hire them if they can make it in. The current system is grossly inefficient, not to mention degrading and sometimes life-threatening to the immigrants. Transportation ought to be furnished to the guest workers to and from their places of employment.

Those non-citizens who are currently in the United States, are self-supporting or dependents of those who are, and have no serious criminal record must be allowed to stay. This, I know, infuriates the anti-immigrant set, but there is no practical alternative. It is simply not possible to locate and deport 12 million people. It's not happening. The antis must come to grips with reality, and politicians have to stand up to them. 75% of the American people agree that a mass deportation of all illegals is impractical. Only 16% think otherwise. Government leaders must find the courage to stand with rationality and not with the 16% who scream the loudest. Why can't it be done?

For one thing, it is beyond our logistical capacity. For another, to attempt to do so would cripple the American economy which depends on their labor. The oft-repeated myth that they are all here to get welfare is malarkey. Hispanic males have the highest workforce participation of any subgroup in American society. Finally, it would precipitate a human rights calamity. 12 million people would go underground like hunted animals or like the Jews of World War II Europe. Families would be torn apart or children who are American citizens would be sent to foreign lands they have never lived in. Many of the deported would not be able to find a job in impoverished third-world countries and would likely starve. It's not happening and will never happen. Anti-immigrant extremists are going to have to get over it.

So if they are staying, and they are, they must become eligible for services such as health care, education, driver's licenses, and so on. Public health, preventing the establishment of a caste of helots in an egalitarian society and law enforcement imperatives necessitate it. To do otherwise would also be an egregious moral injustice. Those who are here, self-supporting and law-abiding and want to stay must be issued ID cards with a path to permanent residency and citizenship if they learn English and remain productive members of society. Period.
It's high time to end the ugly and emotion-fueled immigration conundrum. With firm border enforcement, a tamper-proof ID, serious penalties for hiring the undocumented and a rational procedure for anticipating and admitting the proper number of immigrants legally, the issue can be resolved.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

How McCain Won

Last summer John McCain's campaign was left for dead. Today, after taking the winner-take-all Virginia Primary, along with Maryland and the District of Columbia, he stands on the verge of gaining the Republican nomination for president. The venerable candidate, so short of funds he had to mothball his spacious motor home for a van, and whose senior brain trust had begun fleeing his sinking campaign in droves, will soon eliminate his last remaining serious challenger and lead his party into the general election. It's one of the great political comeback stories in recent memory. How it happened can be summed up in four words: Thompson, Huckabee, Giuliani and time. The great might-have-been is Mitt Romney.

Romney was a formidable candidate. He had good looks and an unbroken record of effectiveness in private business, the Olympic Games and as Governor of Massachusetts. There has never been the slightest hint of personal scandal about him. On top of that he had nearly limitless funds to commit to the race. Romney crafted a winning strategy against the projected field. He would run to the right of McCain and Rudy Giuliani and slightly to the left of Bible Belt social conservatives Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee. McCain and Giuliani would split the moderate vote to his left. Thompson and Huckabee would split the conservative vote to his right. Romney would have the 35% of moderate conservatives in the middle all to himself while the other four came in at 15% each. Ron Paul and arch-conservatives Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo would siphon up the rest. It was a good strategy. Then everything fell apart for him and into the waiting arms of John McCain.

McCain's first break came with the entry of Fred Thompson into the contest, if it can be characterized as such. After waiting so long to get in that much of the early enthusiasm for drafting him had dissipated, Thompson proved an absolute flop on the campaign trail. With his lackluster performances and paucity of message he could have been dubbed the Sominex candidate.

This opened the door for Huckabee. With no competition for the social conservative vote, Huckabee quickly gobbled up the lion's share of it and won the opening round at the Iowa caucuses. Speaking like the affable Baptist preacher he once was, Huckabee could relate to born-agains in the images and terminologies they knew and loved. He not only absorbed the predicted Thompson vote but ate into Romney's right flank. Romney began repositioning himself as a true dyed-in-the-wool conservative to fend off this encroachment.

McCain's next break was the implosion of Rudy Giuliani. Leading in national polls into early December, Giuliani's support proved to be of the "mile wide and inch deep" variety. Though hurt by allegations of spending city funds for the security of his then-mistress, Giuliani's difficulty was more basic than that. His real problem was that the more voters saw him the less they liked him. The abrasive New Yorker seemed to rub everybody the wrong way. His numbers dropped faster than a Buffalo thermometer in January. With no competition for the moderate vote, McCain grabbed Rudy's will o' the wisp adherents. With Romney's fire directed now at Huckabee, McCain began making unopposed inroads into Romney's left flank as well. McCain won the New Hampshire Primary. Romney was now trapped between the unified left and right wings of the party. Faced with a Faustian choice, he decided to take out the upstart preacher first and go after McCain once that was done. He never got the chance. Huckabee's bloc had solidified and could not be budged. Once Romney's moderate support began defecting to McCain he went after the Arizonan, but by then it was too late. On Super Tuesday Huckabee ran wild in the South and McCain swept California and the big states of the Northeast. Romney's success in Massachusetts and the Mountain West wasn't enough. He was done.

McCain's last ally was time. Enough of it had elapsed to take the sting out of some of the pre-campaign positions he had taken that rankled conservatives. Conservative anger based on his voting against the Bush tax cuts, supporting McCain-Kennedy-Bush immigration reform and McCain-Feingold campaign reform had receded just enough that Huckabee couldn't stop him far from the South. Enough of it had elapsed to make his support for the Iraq surge seem providential to most Republicans. And too little of it remained for the cash-strapped Huckabee to overcome the delegate lead McCain had amassed in his big winner-take all victories.

Thus reads the remarkable story of John McCain's improbable march to the nomination in 2008. He may go on to make history as the oldest president elected to a first term. But whether or not he does he has already made history in a primary season the like of which may not be seen again.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Iraq: The Elephant in the Living Room

An interesting answer came up when the American people were recently asked in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll what should be done to get the country out of recession. The number one response, named by nearly half the people, was to get the country out of Iraq. Though Iraq is in the news less these days, the American people seem not to have forgotten about it. It's still the largest of elephants in the national living room.

The survey found that 48% offered ending the war as the most important thing we could do to revive an economy that most feel is already in recession. Another 20% said it would help at least somewhat. That adds up to 68% who are worried about the war's economic impact on the country and themsleves. It is instructive that even without a great deal of recent media or political prodding, it is clear the war remains strongly in the people's minds. Other polls show nearly 60% feel the invasion and occupation was a mistake and nearly 70% say the U.S. should leave Iraq within a year. But the economic connection shows people are thinking this through and drawing important conclusions about what the entire Iraqi fiasco means for the country.

The other day I published a list of the direct economic costs of the wars this country has fought, in constant 2007 dollars. Iraq recently moved into second place behind only World War II. The bill is now over $700 billion, and that includes just the appropriations for the war itself. It does not count the costs of caring for wounded veterans here at home, income lost by reservists called up, productivity lost by their businesses or employers due to their absences, mental health costs for the returning soldiers and their families, the increased incidence of suicide, violent crime and alcohol and drug abuse that has begun to be documented among the war's veterans, the opportunity cost of funds spent in Iraq that would otherwise have gone into commercial and consumer activity building the economy here at home and a host of other such indirect costs that together have drained the national coffers more than the war itself.

One study estimated the overall price tag at over $3 trillion. Impossibly high, some say. Perhaps. But just consider one item. The entire $700 billion is borrowed money. At 8% that's $56 billion in interest per year. And it keeps going up. If we spend another $200 billion this year that will not only bring the direct total to $900 billion but will add another $16 billion to next year's interest payment, which will rise to $72 billion per annum. Just the current direct-only figure of $700 billion works out to $2333 per person in the United States. People are thinking, 'If our family of four had our share back that would amount to $9300. How would that affect our financial situation?'

This fall the voters will get a clear choice on what to do next in Iraq. John McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate, enthusiastically backs continuing the war. He says we may be there a hundred years. His appeals are directed to pride and fear. The Democratic candidates want to, "wave the white flag of surrender," he says, as though there is dishonor in turning from self-destructive folly to sensible thinking. "If we leave Iraq, al-Qaeda will follow us home and attack us here," he says, as though the presence of 200,000 American troops and mercenaries in Iraq makes America more secure when the al-Qaeda leadership is in Pakistan and they have operations in 70 other countries. Rational people realize they will try to attack us here whether we have foolishly tied the bulk of our ground forces down in Iraq or not. Discerning people understand that putting our forces in the wrong place actually makes us less able to defend ourselves, not more. And in financial terms, having come to these conclusions the people do not feel we are getting good value for the price this is exacting on our individual and national purses.

Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton say they would begin withdrawing forces from Iraq rapidly following their inauguration. Based on what the people are telling the pollsters this looks like a winning position for the general election. We'll see whether the electorate's disillusionment with the war and rational objections to the premises for its continuation can be overcome by McCain's coming campaign of flag-waving and baseless fearmongering. It will be most instructive to learn whether those old reliable staples of Karl Rove and George Bush still have legs or whether the people, who began to see through the charade before the 2006 congressional elections, have truly broken free of their spell.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

February 9 Primaries

Barack Obama continued his dominance of caucus and heavily African-American states and Mike Huckabee continued to demonstrate the vitality of his appeal in today's primary contests. As a result, the Democratic race becomes ever tighter and the Republican contest will last a little longer.

On the Democratic side, Obama won three states he needed to win. He ran up better than two to one margins in caucuses in Nebraska and Washington and took the Louisiana primary 57-36% over Hillary Clinton. Estimates give Obama 69 pledged delegates from today's voting and Clinton 40. Obama's campaign predicts he will increase his total to over 100 once final allotments are made. According to CNN's count which includes Superdelegates, Clinton currently leads the delegate race 1100 to 1039. Obama stands a good chance to pull ahead on Tuesday the 12th when Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia will decide nearly 200 delegates. Obama is favored in all three contests. Sunday's Maine caucus, where Clinton is thought to have a chance, has only 34 delegates at stake.

Among the Republicans, Huckabee surged to a 60-24% pasting of John McCain in caucuses in Kansas. Ron Paul garnered 11%. Huckabee will get all 36 delegates from Kansas. Huckabee also outpolled McCain in Louisiana primary voting 43-42%, but a complicated procedure will now come into play to award the state's delegates since no one got 50% of the votes. Returns from Nebraska are very slow in coming in and show Huckabee and McCain running neck and neck, with Paul getting a surprising 21%. It's clear social conservatives are less than happy with the prospect of McCain as the Republican nominee. Even so, number crunchers have demonstrated that were Huckabee to win every state that is yet to vote by an average of 10% McCain would still get to the magic number of 1191 delegates needed to secure the nomination due to the proportional awarding of delegates in most states.

And now a word about the Democratic race's format. With today's victories in Nebraska and Washington Obama is 10-1 in caucus states. He is also 4-0 in states in which African-Americans make up one-third or more of the Democratic electorate. He is 4-12 in all other states, and one of those four wins came in his home state of Illinois. What explains this disparity?

First, most people don't realize how many fewer voters go to caucuses than traditional voting polls. Today, for example, over 350,000 votes were cast in Louisiana while only some 32,000 caucused in Washington, this despite the populations of the two states being roughly equal. The Kansas Republican caucus decided that state's convention delegation based on the votes of barely 18,000 people. Because a caucus requires a voter to be at the caucus at a particular time of day and commit to spending perhaps three hours going through the process, it gives an advantage to the candidate whose supporters are the most enthusiastic. Obama's certainly appear to be so.

Second, it also gives an advantage to those of greater means and independence. This includes those who can arrange child care or don't have children, or don't have to work, for instance. Since Obama's backers include higher proportions of those who are better off (can get out of work or afford to arrange for child care) and who are younger (often who don't have children or are students who do not work) this gives more of his backers an opportunity to attend. Surveys indicate Clinton appeals more to working class voters who are more likely to have child care issues and who are generally less able to get out of work to go to a caucus. Clinton also has more support among senior citizens, and the prospect of securing transportation and sitting through such a long meeting is likely daunting to many of them.

Third, it puts a great premium on a campaign's ground organization, and in this the Obama campaign has by all accounts excelled.

In my view caucuses should be abandoned. A system that defines a single time of day when voters must vote unduly restricts the electorate. A system that subjects the voters to a process that takes hours also restricts the electorate. A process that requires voters to publicly declare their vote instead of using the secret ballot not only resticts the electorate but subjects those who attend to social pressure. Finally, the turnout totals show just how far caucuses depress voting. It is far better to make voting as easy as possible for the greatest number of people, and to open the voting up to the 50% who will go to the reasonable trouble to cast a ballot rather than just the 5% of committed activists and people of means and leisure who will go to a caucus.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Romney Out; What's With Huckabee?

As predicted here on January 30, Mitt Romney failed to sufficiently slow the McCain train and bowed out two days after Super Tuesday. Romney is to be commended for bowing to the inevitable; he would have needed 88% of the remaining Republican delegates to win the nomination, an impossibility in practical terms against two opponents.

The larger question now becomes why Mike Huckabee is staying in. Huckabee's odds are even longer. He would need to claim 93% of all yet to be determined Republican delegates to be crowned the party's standard bearer at the convention in St. Paul. While it's true he faces only one major opponent (apologies to Ron Paul), that's a practical impossibility too. So what is he up to?

Well, for one thing he's certainly campaigning in earnest. Today he began an extensive trek through Kansas and he's expected to go next to Virginia and do the same thing. Huckabee is also basking in today's endorsement by Focus on the Family founder and Christian conservative icon Dr. James Dobson. Does Huck really think he can still win the nomination?

No, he's far too smart for that. You don't win six statewide elections in a swing state without being able to read the electoral math. He knows very well he has no chance. Instead, two things are most likely on his mind: pushing McCain to the right and just maybe setting himself up as running mate.

By challenging McCain in socially conservative states Huckabee is trying to impress the Arizonan with the need to tack to the right instead of back to the center as usually happens in a general election campaign. If Huckabee can win in such states or lose closely enough to embarass the presumptive nominee, he hopes to force McCain to adhere to the positions the political and social right holds dear. "Don't take the base for granted" is the message. Many prominent right wing print and radio pundits are incensed at McCain's success and predict doom. "John McCain as the nominee would be the destruction of the Republican Party!" bloviates Rush Limbaugh. At the Conservative Political Action Conference today McCain was met with boos and jeers when he brought up the subject of immigration. So part of Huckabee's staying in is to try to force McCain to take conservative positions he won't be able to abandon if he wins the White House.

The other message in Huckabee's decision to continue is revealingly set forth by his own statement, "I've proven I can win in the South. A Republican who can't win in the South won't be president." Implicit in Huckabee's quote is that if he continues to prove McCain is weak with the base then that shows McCain needs help there-and Huckabee is the one who can deliver that help. Mike Huckabee knows full well he won't be the nominee. But he's left his calling card on John McCain's doorstep.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Democrats: The Next Contests

Super Tuesday is over, and with a near-tie in the delegate count (estimates including the leanings of super delegates suggest Clinton may be up by about 50 right now) the Democratic race will go on. So, what's up next on the schedule? And who gets the edge?

Louisiana votes on Saturday with 66 delegates at stake. There are factors favoring both candidates here. It's a closed primary (Democrats only), which favors Clinton. But the state has a fairly large black population, and that favors Obama. Even so, as many as 200,000 mainly black residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 have never returned, and that helps Clinton. There has been some recent polling, for what they're worth this year, and they give Clinton an average lead of 3.8%. So figure the bayou state as a tossup leaning Clinton. She could really use a win there because the rest of the upcoming schedule looks pretty good for Obama.

Washington and Nebraka hold caucuses on Saturday. Washington chooses 97 delegates and Nebraska selects 31. This format has strongly favored Obama this year. Only in Nevada has Clinton carried a caucus state; all the rest from Iowa in the beginning to Minnesota, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, North Dakota and Alaska among the February 5 contests have gone for Obama. The enthusiasm of Obama's backers get them out to what may be long sessions during caucuses where they appeal to the undecideds to join them. There's no recent polling data on these states but there isn't much reason to think that the caucus pattern will change much on Saturday. Expect Obama to carry both handily.

Maine holds caucuses on Sunday with 34 delegates up for grabs. Clinton is popular among Democrats in the Northeast and it's a closed caucus, both of which help her. If you've been paying attention this far you know the caucus format itself, of course, helps Obama. Maine is probably Clinton's best chance to win a caucus anytime soon, so she has a shot here. Call it a tossup.

Then next Tuesday the 12th comes the "Chesapeake Primaries" of Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. Virginia picks 101 delegates and Maryland 99. D. C. will vote overwhelmingly for Obama based on an electorate that's over 80% black. The most recent poll in Virginia was in October, so it's of little value now. For what it's worth it had Clinton at 49, Obama 25, Edwards 10 and Richardson 5. Extrapolating from other states on how the numbers have changed since then I'd expect a narrow win for either side, most likely Obama because it's an open primary where independents can vote. A mid-January poll in Maryland had Obama already up by 13 so he should win there easily, even though the primary is for Democrats only.

The upshot? I see Obama outperforming Clinton by about 66 delegates in the next week's contests, moving him ahead in the national delegate count. Clinton has to make it through this gauntlet and Wisconsin and Hawaii on the 19th with her campaign still intact. She needs to get to the March 4 votes in Texas and Ohio without demoralization setting in. If she can, she can look to recover there. For both sides, managing expectations will be crucial in the weeks ahead.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Super Tuesday

America had the biggest primary election in its history today. On the Republican side John McCain solidified the inside track to his party's nomination. On the Democratic side an even split between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ensured that the contest will continue.

Republicans: Mike Huckabee proved he can win in the South. Mitt Romney proved he can win his home states (Massachusetts and Utah, to go along with his previous victory in Michigan) and caucuses in the mountain West. But it was John McCain alone who demonstrated the reach to compete and win across much of the country. He won the big coastal states of California, New York, and New Jersey, the big midwest state of Illinois and narrowly took such border states as Missouri and Oklahoma. He won primaries in states where Republicans have great difficulty prevailing in general elections, but is clearly not the first choice among the party faithful in its Southern electoral bastion.

There is little to preclude McCain's wrapping up the delegates he needs to clinch if his rivals stay in the race in the upcoming weeks. Some polls showed Romney actually ahead in California going into today's voting, yet McCain leads here by 16 points at the time of this post. It's clear that the Huckabee candidacy has worked to McCain's advantage, splitting the social conservative anti-McCain vote.

McCain's biggest challenge looking ahead to the general election campaign will be to inspire these southerners and other social conservatives to overcome their mistrust of him
and go to the trouble of voting in November. A Southern conservative running mate, perhaps Huckabee himself, could help him with that. Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee could help even more.

Democrats: In tennis terms, Clinton held serve. NBC projects today's delegate haul as perhaps 840 for Obama and 838 for Clinton, and you can't cut it much closer than that. There was an enormous amount of positive publicity for Obama in the past week, including high-profile endorsements and polling data that seemed to indicate New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California were in play. Instead, Clinton won all these large states rather easily. She also won big in Arkansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma. Obama piled up a gigantic victory in Illinois and swept a number of midsize and smaller caucus states. The caucus format is what's keeping Obama so competitive so far. Clinton has won most of the big states; Obama has won more states but smaller ones. All in all Clinton won 9 states and Obama 13. This is by design of both camps, and is producing the remarkable closeness of the race.

The lessons to be drawn are that, first, it's just not possible to overestimate the formidable nature of Clinton's candidacy. Even with much apparently going against her, she manages to give as good as she gets. Second, Obama seems to keep threatening to break through and gain the upper hand. With a surge of contributions coming his way and time to concentrate on a few states at a time, he will again be hard to stop. But don't forget the first point.

Next week will come the "Chesapeake Primaries," Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. The best estimates from delegates already won, today's results and the leanings of Democratic "Super Delegates" (such as Members of Congress who get automatic seats at the convention) have Clinton ahead by about 50 overall delegates at the moment. This horse race is still way too close to call and could go on for quite awhile longer, potentially even to the convention to be decided by Super Delegates and/or floor fights over the seatings of the sanctioned Michigan and Florida delegations. Messy developments along those lines would not be good publicity for the party's November campaign drive.

Monday, February 4, 2008

War Costs

Here are some recently computed costs for America's wars in 2007 dollars. Iraq-Afghanistan has just passed Vietnam on the list. These are direct costs.

World War II $3.2 trillion
Iraq-Afghanistan $695.7 billion
Vietnam $670 billion
World War I $364 billion
Korea $295 billion
Persian Gulf $94 billion
Civil $81 billion
Spanish-American $7 billion
Revolutionary $4 billion
Mexican $2 billion
1812 $1 billion

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Straight Talk Express?

Sen. John McCain has a reputation as an exponent of telling it like it is. For months he toured Iowa and New Hampshire in a big motor coach emblazoned with the monicker "Straight Talk Express." McCain effectively derailed the campaign of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney by painting him as a waffler and panderer, a politician whose convictions blew with the wind and changed to fit the mood of the constituency he was addressing on any particular day. Given Romney's record, it wasn't so hard to make that case. But in what is certainly a far more skillfull application of the art, McCain has managed to avoid the tag himself. For, strange as it may seem, McCain has proved quite the master at political shape-shifting and has up to now emerged nearly unscathed from the process. That is likely to change.

That the Democrats are keenly aware of McCain's vulnerability on this matter was revealed in the recent Clinton-Obama debate in California. Sen. Barack Obama provided a preview of something we are going to hear a lot more in the general election when he made the observation that it looked like a few wheels had come off the Straight Talk Express. The needle drew hearty laughter from the Democratic crowd. There is no doubt that same needle will be sharpened to surgical dimensions and used with abandon by Obama or Sen. Hillary Clinton once their own battle is concluded.

Some of the Arizona Senator's flip-flops include the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law (he now advocates revising it), his vote against the Bush tax cuts and their extension (which he now proposes to make permanent), his description of Moral Majority evangelicals as "agents of intolerance" (he now joins hands with them at every opportunity), his membership in the bipartisan "gang of 14" group on judicial appointments (he now pledges to appoint only judges acceptable to social conservatives), and his support for the recently defeated comprehensive immigration bill (he now talks of nothing but border security.) He even sometimes says he would today vote against his own bills if he had it to do over again. In every case, he began with a moderate position and then moved to the right to solidify his standing among Republican primary voters.

The far right media, led by Rush Limbaugh, continue to rail against his former apostasy and do not trust his recent return to conservative orthodoxy. More moderate Republicans are not necessarily pleased with some of his earlier positions but have correctly concluded he is the most electable and have resolved to follow McCain's mother's advice to "hold their noses" and vote for him anyway. Democrats are pleased that the likely Republican nominee has, in the past, shown occasional openness to some of their views and may be willing to deal if he's elected. Even so, they won't be reluctant at all to inspire the laughter of independents by pointing to the self-described straight talker's predeliction for political acrobatics.

Any way you slice it, there ought to be some fun in the offing once Clinton and Obama get through with each other and the winner starts going after the man from Arizona in earnest.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Crunch Time for Clinton and Obama

February 5 fast approaches, with great stakes riding for the two remaining Democratic contenders. Last night's debate, bathed primarily (sorry, couldn't resist that one) in good fellowship between Senators Obama and Clinton, had to come as a relief for party loyalists. The respective campaigns avoided the scorched earth tactics of South Carolina which threatened to drag down the general election prospects of whichever candidate gains the nomination. Both directed their main salvoes at the Republicans. It's clear both senators concluded they like where they are in the race and had a lot to lose by going negative. Clinton figured she can hang on to what remains of her lead and Obama determined he can rely on his momentum to carry him over the top. It was no time to upset the apple cart. So where do things stand on the verge of Super Tuesday?

Obama currently has 63 delegates committed to him. Clinton has 48. John Edwards has 26. There will be 4049 delegates at the convention, with 2025 needed for the nomination. Clinton appears to have reasonable leads in seven February 5 states with a total of 1149 delegates. Obama looks to have the upper hand in eight states with 539 delegates. Another seven states with 376 delegates could go either way. The Democrats have no "winner take all" states; everything will be allotted proportionally or by formulas determined by the vote in each congressional district. So it's unlikely anyone will be able to deliver a knockout blow in the delegate count. That may be a different story in terms of expectations, especially if Obama loses closely in Clinton states and wins the majority of the smaller tossup states. She needs to come away with a delegate majority on Tuesday or her campaign will be perceived to be in free fall.

Clinton Strongholds: Fortunately for her, Hillary Clinton leads in most of the larger states. New York (281), Massachusetts (121) and New Jersey (127) will report early. Clinton should roll in all three. If not she is in deep trouble. Tennessee (85) should come in next. It's one of the few places where she appears to be widening her lead, probably because of the absence of John Edwards. Arkansas (47) and Oklahoma (47) look solid next. Finally comes the big prize of California (441). Hillary is devoting 2 1/2 days here, a signal of how important it is to her electoral math. It may also be evidence of what I see on the ground: Obama is gaining. It may just be possible for him to pull an upset in the Golden State. Don't be surprised if it happens. And if it does it will be a body blow to her prospects for the later contests. California has been a Clinton bastion since 1992, and cracks in support here may portend imminent implosion the longer the campaign goes on.

Obama Strongholds: Obama is surging in Georgia (103) and Alabama (60). They should be declared early for him, providing some good news to offset the expected Clinton triumphs in the Northeast. His next solid win should be in Illinois (185), and it will come by an annihilating majority. Minnesota (88) will soon follow, and North Dakota (23), Kansas (41) and Idaho will go into his column as the polls close farther west. Alaska (18) will chime in after most folks in the East have gone to bed. Clinton will win more big states, but Obama ought to take more of his wins by larger margins.

Tossups: Look for Connecticut (60) as an early bellweather. Obama has closed quickly here and may already have the edge. If he loses it may indicate things are going according to the Clinton game plan. I think he'll win it. Delaware (23) is anybody's guess. Next watch Missouri (88). That's unpredictable due to uncertainty over what Edwards' numerous former supporters will do. Colorado (71) appears trending for Barack. Finally will come the Mountain West states of Utah (29), New Mexico (38) and Arizona (67). Obama is making a concerted effort to court Native Americans in Arizona and New Mexico to offset Clinton's expected strength among Hispanics there.

All in all, Clinton's strategy is more concentrated, trying to run up delegates in the large population states where her support is strongest. And make no mistake, she will have to win the majority of delegates or the air will go out of her campaign. Obama's strategy is more spread out. He will try to win a larger number of states, especially "purple" states, which will help him in the electability argument for the next round. With 2064 delegates in play, over 40% of the entire convention, the result will be enormous. But given the Democratic Party's proportionality rules it's not likely either will win more than 1250 of these. The mathematical race for delegates will not be decided February 5, though a strong showing by either could place him or her in the presumptive victor role now enjoyed by John McCain on the Republican side.