Sunday, June 30, 2019

Time's Up?


The good news for Joe Biden is that Thursday night's Democratic debate won't be the last debate before the Iowa caucuses. The bad news for Joe Biden is that Thursday night's Democratic debate won't be the last debate before the Iowa caucuses.

I wouldn't say it was the worst performance of the night - let's not forget Marianne Williamson did share the stage with him - but for someone with five decades of political experience under his belt, he did not look even remotely prepared. There's a cost for not doing interviews or holding town halls and I think Biden found that out the hard way.

There was one moment during the debate that was particularly problematic for the former vice president. It came during an exchange he had with Kamala Harris in which Harris called him out for his relationships with segregationist senators in the '70s and his opposition to federal-imposed busing. Biden seemed completely taken by surprise by the attack, which is astonishing given that he had to have known that at some point it was going to come up. Not only was his answer defensive and confusing, he wound up with the soundbite of the evening when he said, "Anyway, my time is up. I'm sorry."

Wow, what can I say? On a night that was this close to breaking into a food fight, a night that saw candidates talking over each other and going past their allotted time, Joe Biden - the man who claims he's the best candidate to go toe to toe with Trump and beat him - looked like a schoolboy who got sent to detention for being late for class.

Taking nothing away from Harris, who is a skilled prosecutor, and obviously saw an opportunity to make her move, if Biden can't handle what many thought was a legitimate attack by someone from his own party, how in the hell is he going to be able to handle the mountain of shit Trump is going to throw at him next fall?

We'll know soon enough what this "performance" will do to the overall standings. If I had to guess, I'd say that Harris will probably go up a few points in the polls while Biden will go down a few. Fortunately for him, the voters that Harris is courting just happen to be the same ones that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are going after. With that in mind, don't be surprised if there's a a log-jam for second place while Biden holds onto a modest lead. The one casualty appears to be Pete Buttigieg, who is currently embroiled in a controversy is his home town of South Bend, Indiana over the shooting of an African American by a white police officer. To his credit, at least Mayor Pete took ownership of the situation.

But getting back to Biden, he has to do better in his next debate. The blood is in the water and the sharks will be out. If he has a repeat of Thursday night's debacle, it could spell the end of his campaign. Or, and this is just a hunch, maybe it won't make any difference at all. Barely a week after it was revealed that Virginia governor Ralph Northam appeared in black face and Ku Klux Klan garb in his medical school yearbook, polls showed support among African Americans at 58 percent, the highest of any demographic. Whatever else you may think of Biden's early Senate career, I doubt it rises to the level of what Northam did.

It's quite possible that - just like Northam - most political pundits are attaching too much significance to this episode and that the voters, particularly those in the African American community, are more likely to look the other way when it comes to his past. If that is the case, knowing that his support among white, working-class voters is still strong, Biden may come out of this with barely a scratch on him. Indeed, the most recent national poll by Politico shows Biden at 33 percent, Sanders at 19, and both Warren and Harris at 12. The next few polls should tell us whether Biden has some serious damage control to tend to or whether he dodged a bullet. At this point, it's anybody's guess.

Personally, I'm hoping it's the latter. What I saw in both debates is a Democratic Party that is tripping all over itself in an attempt to appeal to the most extreme elements within the progressive movement. At a time when the Party should be making Trump the focus for voters in 2020, it is putting forth a series of policy proposals, like Medicare for All, that are not popular with the electorate. Biden, for all his faults, is one of the few moderate candidates in the race whose message can resonate in places like the suburbs. And let's not forget it was those very same suburban districts that allowed Democrats to flip the House in 2018. More than half those seats are vulnerable next year, a point that appears to be lost on the DNC.

Look, I'm not Joe Biden's wing man here. I'm just being practical. There's a reason why the Trump campaign is concerned about a head to head matchup with the former VP. Because they know he can win. But Biden needs to get his act together and realize that his past is both relevant and potentially damaging. If he wants the Democratic nomination, he's going to have to fight for it. And that means coming up with better responses than the one he gave to Kamala Harris.

If he can't or won't, the words "My Time Is Up" will end up becoming his political epitaph.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Is Biden Borrowing A Page Out of Trump's Playbook?


Well, it's been a quite a week for Joe Biden. The former vice president and Democratic frontrunner for the nomination ruffled more than just a few feathers when he waxed nostalgically about working with segregationist senators during his freshman years. For the record, this is what Biden actually said,
I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland. He never called me 'boy,' he always called me 'son.' A guy like Herman Talmadge, one of the meanest guys I ever knew, you go down the list of all these guys. Well guess what? At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore. 
I know the new New Left tells me that I’m — this is old-fashioned. Well guess what? If we can’t reach a consensus in our system, what happens? It encourages and demands the abuse of power by a president. That’s what it does. You have to be able to reach consensus under our system — our Constitutional system of separation of powers.

Naturally, it didn't take long for Biden's political opponents to pounce on him.  Kamala Harris said, "To coddle the reputations of segregationist of people who if they had their way I would literally not be standing here as a member of the United States Senate, is I think it's just it's misinformed."

Cory Booker issued a statement that read, "Vice President Biden's relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people, and for everyone. I have to tell Vice President Biden, as someone I respect, that he is wrong for using his relationships with Eastland and Talmadge as examples of how to bring our country together," he added. "And frankly, I'm disappointed that he hasn't issued an immediate apology for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans. He should."

Biden, upon hearing of Booker's demand, replied that Booker should apologize to him, adding, "There's not a racist bone in my body." Biden later did an interview with Reverend Al Sharpton where he appeared to doubled down on his remarks and stressed they were taken out of context. He also explained that his use of the term "boy" was not directed at black men.

For what its' worth, I think this whole episode is a nothing burger. True, Biden could've chosen two better examples from his past to talk about than Eastland and Talmadge, and I'll concede the point that it's inappropriate for any white man to invoke the term "boy," regardless of the context. Indeed, unless you're talking about an actual boy, it's just not something you do, period.

But here's what I can't quite wrap my head around. Nowhere in Biden's comments is there even a scintilla of evidence that he "coddled" these men, as Harris stated, or that he worked with them to "bring the country together," as Booker stated. Just the opposite, in fact. Biden, while not agreeing "on much of anything" nonetheless knew that he had to work with both men, especially Eastland, who was the Chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee.

And therein lies the problem that many modern-day Democrats are either unaware of or simply don't want to come to grips with. From the 1930s into the '70s, almost a quarter of Democratic senators were segregationists who hailed from the South. They were called Dixiecrats, and they held tremendous power in the Party. When Lyndon Johnson was trying to get both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts passed, he called many a Southern Democrat practically begging for their support. When Franklin Roosevelt was touting his New Deal in the throws of the Great Depression, he relied heavily on Southern Democrats to get him the votes he needed to get it over the hump.

Biden grew up in that Senate; an institution that was home to both liberals like Ted Kennedy and conservatives like Robert Byrd, and he was smart enough to know that his success hinged on how he navigated through those choppy waters. What Biden was trying to explain - however clumsily it may have come across - is that politics isn't about personalities or purity. It's possible to despise what someone stands for yet still work with that person in order to accomplish a greater good. As strange as it may seem to some, before the era of tribal politics took over Washington, politicians from divergent backgrounds often reached across the aisle to pass legislation. In fact, it was more common than you think. Today, the majority of politicians from both parties are more concerned with scoring cheap points with their base than actually getting something accomplished. If you can fault Biden on anything, it's that he truly believes that the Washington he knew as a junior senator can somehow be resurrected if only he were elected president. Naive? Probably. Racist? Give me a fucking break.

But what I found truly interesting in all this wasn't the knee-jerk reactions from Biden's opponents, who I suspect trailing as badly as they are, saw an opportunity to chip away at his lead. Rather, it was the manner in which Biden handled the whole affair. To be honest, I was taken aback initially. I truly thought that upon getting pushback over the comments that he would issue an apology and move on. Instead, he did the exact opposite. He defiantly doubled down on the comments and then went after both Booker and the media for twisting his words around. It was, to quote several pundits, a Trumpian move on his part.

And that got me thinking. Could Biden be borrowing a page out of Trump's playbook? If you recall, all throughout the 2016 campaign, whenever Trump was confronted by his opponents, and or the media, about things he said or did, he would immediately get defensive and push back. The words "I'm sorry" never made their way across his lips. Not once. It was as though the man could do no wrong. It drove his opponents up the wall, but, ironically, in the eyes of the voters, it made him appear strong and decisive. Turns out people are attracted to politicians who stick to their guns and aren't wishy-washy.

I think Biden is fully aware that in this era of political correctness - which has overtaken the party - the urge to apologize runs deep. It's something he detests at a gut level, not just because it runs counter to who he is as a man, but because it rubs many voters the wrong way. What they see in Biden isn't some relic from the past, but a guy who tells it like it is and isn't afraid to catch hell for it. A rare commodity in politics.

So if I had to guess, I'd say that good old Joe is putting down his marker. No more apologizing; no more explaining a career that's had more ups than downs; and no more pussyfooting with opponents who can't hold a candle to what he's done in his public life. If I were a betting man, I'd look for a very combative Biden on that debate stage Thursday. If Sanders or Harris or Booker get in his face, they're in for one helluva bitch slap. I think the man has his dander up and he's got his eyes set on one thing and one thing only: Trump.

This much is certain: whoever takes on this president in 2020 better bring their "A" game with them. Anything less and Trump will win reelection. I don't know whether Biden has what it takes to beat him. But I do know this: from what I've seen of the other candidates so far, I'm not terribly optimistic.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Did Joe Biden Just Commit Political Suicide?


Take a good look at the polls today. According to the RCP average, Joe Biden holds a 16.8 point lead over his closest rival Bernie Sanders. By this time next week, that lead could be significantly reduced, if not completely gone. That's because Biden, in a move that can only be described as inexplicable, reversed a long-standing position of his and came out in favor of repealing the Hyde Amendment.

In a speech he gave Thursday in Atlanta, Biden cited the litany of anti-abortion laws that are being passed in Republican-controlled states as the reason for what was clearly a flip flop on his part. "If I believe health care is a right, as I do, I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone’s zip code," the former Vice President said.

For those of you who don't know, the Hyde Amendment restricts abortion providers from using federal funds to perform the procedure. That's all it does. With or without the amendment, states like Missouri, Georgia and Utah would still have passed their draconian laws that are nothing more than an end around the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, a ruling that conservatives have been trying to reverse ever since the Supreme Court handed it down in 1973. The "zip code" of a woman is completely irrelevant when it comes to this amendment. Biden knows that, and so does every constitutional scholar in the country.

There's only one reason why Biden did this: he finally succumbed to the pressure being exerted from his left flank. It was a panic move on his part, one which might well cost him the nomination, and even if doesn't, will weaken him in the general election. The strength of Biden's appeal is that he leads with his chin and follows his gut. Apart from South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, he's the least polished candidate in the field. And unlike most of the other candidates, he doesn't seem all that afraid to take positions that buck his party's base. Until now, that is.

Frankly, I'm aghast. There was no need for this unforced error. He had a huge lead, a lead that was fueled in large part by the centrist coalition of the party; the same coalition, mind you, that got Bill Clinton elected in '92. While Sanders and Elizabeth Warren continue to split the progressive vote, Biden was cruising along without nary a care in the world. All he had to do was not shoot himself in the foot like he did in '88 and '08.

But, alas, the man can't help himself. It's as though he can't stand prosperity. Not only will he not get any credit from the left for his "come to Jesus" moment, he will catch bloody hell from both the center and the right. That's because almost a third of the people who support a woman's right to choose also support a federal ban on funding for abortions. One of the oldest rules in politics - one that a seasoned veteran like Biden should know all too well - is that if there's no upside for taking a position, or in this case reversing one, don't take it. Politics 101: Do no harm. His ignoring of that rule is a giant red flag.

The sad part about all this is that had Biden just held firm to his original stance, he would've continued to get pummeled by the left, but he would've gained considerably more respect from the center. In short, it would've been a wash. Now he ends up looking like all the other politicians vying for the Democratic nomination, all 23 of them.

The good news, if there is any, is that it's still early. The Iowa Caucus isn't for another eight months. Biden might well survive this, but in the event he doesn't, he'll at least have the satisfaction of proving an age-old idiom right.

You can't teach an old dog new tricks.


P.S.

Originally, I wrote that the Hyde Amendment could only be repealed by two-thirds of both Houses of Congress and three-fourths of the states. This is not true. Since the amendment was passed as just a simple piece of legislation, it can be repealed by a simple majority in both Houses.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Why Isn't Kamala Harris Doing Better In the Polls?


The news that Elizabeth Warren has finally hit double digits in a recent poll has apparently been interpreted by many Democratic pollsters as a sign that her "message" is finally starting to resonate with voters. Never mind that if you combine her numbers with those of Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden is still in the lead for the nomination. Never mind that in most of the swing states Democrats need in order to win back the White House, Warren is among the weakest of the potential contenders in a head to head matchup with Trump. But, hey, let's not let a little thing like facts get in the way of a good storyline.

But the real mystery of the 2020 campaign has nothing to do with Warren or Sanders; in fact, it's a mystery that most pundits haven't spent nearly enough time on. And it has to with Kamala Harris. To put it succinctly, her campaign hasn't gotten off the ground. But for one or two polls showing her in the mid teens, she remains marred in the single digits.

It's unfathomable to me that a woman of color who is an accomplished prosecutor from a state whose economy and population would rival most industrialized countries isn't doing better in the polls. Why is this? Granted Harris isn't the most charismatic speaker on the campaign trail; next to her Barack Obama comes off looking like a cross between Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. But four years ago one of the least charismatic Democratic candidates the party ever produced - Hillary Clinton - ran away with the nomination. So the charisma thing, if you ask me, is a bit overrated.

I have seen Harris at her best, on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Did you see the way in which she interrogated Attorney General William Barr? It was something to behold. I can assure you if I were ever a defendant in a case Harris was prosecuting, I'd instruct my attorney to change my plea from innocent to guilty and throw myself on the mercy of the court. I figure I'd get a better outcome from the judge than from the jury once Harris was done. That's how good she is.

Some have suggested that part of Harris's problem is that she hasn't carefully articulated her vision for the country. There's just one problem with that assessment: it isn't true. Harris was a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal and she recently came out in favor of pay parity. If that isn't a clear vision I don't know what is. But here's the thing: even if Harris had failed to come to the table with actual policies, being deliberately vague apparently hasn't kept Biden from jumping out to a huge double digit lead. So I don't think that's the reason.

Nor do I think it has anything to do with brand-name recognition. Even in her home state of California, where she is very popular, she's still in third place, behind Biden and Sanders. Though to be fair, that poll was taken in early April. A lot can change in two months. But even in South Carolina, a state with a large African American population, Harris, in a poll taken just two weeks ago, is in 4th place, trailing Biden, Sanders and even Warren. Wow! If Harris, a high-profile African American woman, can't beat out a two white candidates, who as of yet have failed to make inroads in the black community, that's a real problem.

I've been scratching my head trying to figure out why Harris isn't doing better in the polls, and then I happened upon a piece written by Clare Malone of fivethirtyeight.com, titled oddly enough, "Kamala Harris Is More Interested In Telling You What She Believes Than Who She Is."

Harris is hardly the first political candidate who has struggled letting the voters into the inner sanctum. At the 2016 Democratic Convention, it was left to Bill Clinton to explain to the entire nation just what kind of person Hillary was. That's right, a woman who'd been in politics for over three decades didn't feel it necessary to share her bio, so her husband had to do it for her.

But there's an additional element to Harris's story that complicates things a bit. Malone cites an interview she did with former Obama advisor David Axelrod in which Axelrod, not wanting to discount her accomplishments as a prosecutor, said, "I want to get to that and your career in the law, but I just want to hear a little more about your folks and about the sort of cross-cultural upbringing and how that helped shape you."

For most politicians that invitation would've been like manna from Heaven. Imagine an interviewer saying to an interviewee, can we put off talking about your accomplishments and instead talk about you? My God, Joe Biden would never have shut up. Pete Buttigieg, to his credit, has made it a central part of his campaign. And all of us remember Obama's story and how integral it was to his success in '08. But for Harris, it might as well have been like asking an English major to talk about string theory. Her reply to Axelrod was quite telling.
Well, you know, it’s funny, David. … But in my career, when I was district attorney of San Francisco, attorney general of California and even now as a United States senator, in each position, I was ‘the first.’ And in particular when I was DA and AG, reporters would come up to me and ask me this really original question, put a microphone in front of my face: ‘So what’s it like to be the first woman — fill in the blank, DA, AG. And I’d look at them not knowing how to answer that question, and I would tell them, ‘I really don’t know how to answer that question because, you see, I’ve always been a woman, but I’m sure a man could do the job just as well.’
Did you get that last part? The one about how a man could do the job just as well? I'm sure part of that is from her training as a lawyer. Lawyers, especially prosecutors, are trained to always consider both sides of a legal argument. That's because they are often asked to write briefs in support of a motion they are making, and those briefs must include opposing rulings that the judge might consider. Failing to do so could hinder their chances at winning the case. In fact, as an officer of the court, Harris had a singular responsibility to the law that transcended any agenda she might've had as a prosecutor.

But politics isn't the law. In fact, it's the polar opposite. In politics, as in sales, the primary objective is to sell yourself, who you are as a person, and why that should matter to the customer / voter. Obama understood that; indeed, most successful politicians understand it. The ability to create a personal narrative within the electorate is as important, if not more so, than having an impressive resume, which Harris certainly has. That might explain why the most qualified candidate for the presidency in the nation's history lost to a snake-oil salesman with the attention span of a gnat in 2016.

I submit that what may be holding back Harris isn't her talent or her credentials, or lack thereof, but her unwillingness to let her hair down and have that moment with the people. Perhaps she's concerned that if she talks about her personal experiences, she'll be perceived as someone who's looking to make her gender and race a campaign issue. Funny, being the first "fill in the blank" never stopped a first term, black senator from Illinois from ascending the ladder all the way to the White House. While Obama never made his race an issue, he never ran away from it, either. He had a compelling and unique story to tell and he did just that.

Kamala Harris might do well to read his book, "The Audacity of Hope," and borrow a page or two or three from it before it's too late.