Letter to Democrats Abroad:
The Weird Presidential Race at Midsummer
By Bernard Weiner
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers
August 5, 2008
[Author's Note: About six million Americans live and work outside the
U.S. The Democratic Party has organized Democrats Abroad chapters across
the globe so that many can remain active in political affairs back home,
including absentee-voting in their home districts. DA also sends
delegates to the National Democratic Convention. For the past several
years, the largest DA chapter in Germany, in Munich, has invited me to
address them about the ongoing electoral campaigns. Since I won't be
traveling to Germany before the November balloting, I'm sending my
mid-Summer thoughts about the campaign now, to start the dialogue.]
Dear Kim and other Democrats Abroad friends:
Your email, Kim, about the presidential race as seen from Europe
reminded me of our discussion last October when I spoke to DA-Munich. As
you may remember, there were ten Democratic candidates at that time and
it looked like an easy walk for Hillary Clinton. She was well-organized
on the ground, had generated great momentum, and wasn't making any
mistakes. It certainly seemed as if the nomination was hers to lose. And
lose it she did. I too easily sized up the guy who defeated her
"The general take on Barack Obama is that he's an
exciting candidate, bright, energetic, charismatic -- filled with
good ideas and, on occasion, not afraid to express them -- but not
quite mature enough as a national politician, with not much of an
experiential record to run on. He's certainly a positive, fresh new
face, and will be a force to be reckoned with in 2112 and beyond,
but probably not this time out, unless as the vice presidential
nominee on someone else's ticket..."
Clinton and her campaign brain trust felt the same way.
They thought after seven years of CheneyBush recklessness and
incompetency, America was ready for an effective, well-known Democratic
centrist-liberal -- and a woman at just the right moment in history --
with experience, effective work-habits and global contacts. Sen. Clinton
didn't see, and neither did I, that America was more interested,
passionately interested, in sweeping the old, corrupt forces out of
power in favor of new positive dynamism, especially one untainted by
enabling votes for launching Bush's war in Iraq.
SENSING THE SPIRIT OF THE TIMES
Obama, with virtually no national resume to speak of, sensed the
zeitgeist and ran with it. Americans didn't want "experience." After
all, it was "experienced" politicians who got us into this unholy mess.
They desperately wanted major change, hope in the midst of economic and
social despair, a new start. This bright, energetic, positive,
charismatic African-American Senator was just what many voters were
Hillary Clinton was dragged down by the anchor she had attached to
herself with her vote to give Bush a blank check to go to war in Iraq.
Many base Democrats felt she enabled that war and thus virtually all of
Bush's unconstitutional violations of the law as "commander-in-chief"
Even with that baggage, and her generally hawkish approach in foreign
policy, Clinton nearly was able to pull off a victory. But by the time
she had figured out the surging "change" mood of the public, Obama had
built up a huge tsunami-of-hope that swamped her "inevitability"
campaign. She never really got back her chops, and now she'll be giving
the keynote, pro-Obama address at the upcoming Dem convention in Denver.
Meanwhile, as could have been predicted after his primary victories,
Obama is moving toward the center with capitulations and compromises on
major policy issues ranging from domestic-spying to offshore drilling.
The progressive left is outraged, of course, as the clear distinctions
between Obama and the Republicans on major issues are now being blurred.
Instead of a new, pure, dynamic voice, the Democratic candidate is
starting to be seen by many as a traditional, pragmatic, triangulating
The soto voce explanation from the Obama camp is that the
candidate is making these changes in policy just to get elected. "Trust
us," the Obama people say, the Illinois senator "knows what he's doing.
First he has to get into the White House, then he can move on his more
McCAIN COULD STILL WIN
One would anticipate that, whether holding their noses or not, most
Democrats will stick with Obama on voting day (even many die-hard
Clinton supporters), and will be joined by a great many independents and
moderate Republicans. A few disgruntled progressives may choose to stay
home, or protest-vote for Nader or McKinney.
But even this wide base of support for Obama may not be enough, for a
wide variety of reasons:
1. The Democrats, already smelling victory, might relax, thinking it's
in the bag, and ease up just enough to permit the GOP back into the
2. The voting and vote-tabulating systems are just as corrupt and
corruptible as they were in 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2006. Not much has
changed. Most vote-counting, for example, is still outsourced to
Republican-supporting companies who manufacture the voting machines,
control the secret software inside the machines, and do the tabulating
away from prying eyes. It's been publicly demonstrated that software
manipulations of vote totals can be performed in less than a minute,
leaving no sign of any tampering. And there is plenty of evidence that
such manipulations have been done in a number of races in recent years.
(See Mark Crispin Miller's new book
Partridge's election-fraud essays.
3. In key states, just as they were in 2000 and 2004, hundreds of
thousands of likely Democratic voters are being
purged from the voting
rolls, similar to what transpired in 2000 and 2004.
4. The Democratic Party, and its candidate Obama, have done and continue
to do next to nothing about the lack of electoral integrity built into
the corruptible voting system. Even though apparently both Gore and
Kerry were robbed by electoral chicanery, neither of them nor the
Democratic Party leadership made much of a stink about an election
system that is so flawed and easily manipulated.
5. Karl Rove is back. He's a consultant to the McCain campaign, and many
of his acolytes were recently hired by McCain for staff positions. It's
no coincidence that the negative campaigning began in earnest once the
Roveites came on board.
THE SURPRISINGLY TIGHT RACE
The scary thing is that the race shouldn't be this close. The
Republicans are going to get blown out of the water in the Congressional
contests, Bush's popularity is down in the 20s and has been for quite
some time, 80% of the population thinks the U.S. is "on the wrong
track," the citizenry for the past few years has been calling for an end
to the five-year-old Iraq War & Occupation, and McCain is a terrible
candidate with nothing positive the majority of the electorate is
willing to buy. But unless something major and unexpected happens, it
seems likely that the race will remain relatively tight up until
How to explain this surprisingly close race, with McCain showing up in
the recent polls at between 41-44% of the vote?
1. For unknown reasons, the American public seems in recent years to
vote for presidential candidates not in terms of their policies and
party affiliation, or even on which candidate will best affect their
economic well-being, but "with whom they feel most comfortable." The GOP
spinners and their mass-media helpmates did a number on "phony, elitist,
boring" John Kerry in 2004, making the issue who you would rather have a
beer with. The Republican campaign leaders are ready to re-brand Obama
in much the same way.
McCain is hyped as an American war-hero, immune from criticism and,
because of his POW experience, is supposed to be automatically accepted
as an "expert" on national security. Obama is being painted as a
lightweight rookie, who may be dangerous to America.
2. There is a large strain of hidden and at times overt racism in
America. A segment of American white society is just not ready to accept
that an African-American can be, or should be, president. This is
especially true in the states of the Old South, but elsewhere as well,
and in other communities also.
report about my recent trip to Florida, I quoted a leader active in
the Jewish community there who told me how many older Jews were not
going to vote for Obama because he is black and because they believe he
either is a Muslim or is sympathetic to militant Islamists; that he
either is an anti-Semite or hangs around with those who are; and that he
is pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel. These assertions continue to be
circulated within scurrilous emails to Jews in Florida and elsewhere;
none of them is true, of course, but many older Jews choose to believe
those internet rumors out of their own fears. Obama's recent forays into
the Jewish community in many states, where he's spent hours telling his
life-story and getting the facts out there -- he's Christian and
staunchly pro-Israel -- seems to have changed a few minds but doesn't
appear to have greatly altered the prevailing voting chemistry in favor
of the Illinois senator in this demographic.
There's no way to quantify how many votes are represented in the larger
anti-Obama racist category, but, for the sake of argument, let's say
somewhere between 5 and 10 per cent of the electorate. That's millions
of votes that could decide tight races in various large states like
Florida and Pennsylvania and Ohio and elsewhere.
SLIME, SLEAZE AND ROVE
3. Some weeks back, Rove and his minions looked at the going-nowhere
McCain campaign and, in effect, told the candidate, "Look, this guy
Obama is going to eat you for lunch. There's no way you're going to beat
him by taking the high road and arguing ideas and policies. The public
wants him and his ideas, not you and yours. The only way you can beat
him is if they don't want him anymore, if they're disenchanted, if
enough questions are raised about him to make them think twice. We're
going to spend many millions to rebrand Mr. Obama. Our aim is to draw
these undecided voters into the McCain voting column, of course, but
even if they don't come on over, we'll be satisfied if they don't vote
or work for Obama."
Rove is notorious for always going to the strength of the opponent and
attempting to destroy him there. If Kerry's a decorated war hero, set up
a PAC to Swift-Boat him and make the public wonder if maybe he lied
about his wartime exploits, smear him, drown him in lies and rumors and
wild accusations. If Obama is revered as the hope for the American
electorate, make his popularity a negative: an empty suit, a celebrity
with nothing to back it up, a false "messiah" ("the one") who's full of
himself and can't really lead, a smooth-talking elitist who's "not one
of us," etc.
Get it? You don't have to say anything that's specifically racial -- the
message will get through. "He's not one of us," "he's presumptuous" --
see, no need to use the term "uppity" or "a Negro who doesn't know his
place." As David Gergen and others have pointed out, many voters are
quite familiar with the old White Citizens Council's
coded language, and others will gravitate to it. McCain has received
much criticism from many of his former top aides and even from his
mother for running some of these ads, but those commercials are aimed at
a particularly susceptible demographic: white, working-class males.
To continue this imagined conversation with the Rove-ists talking to
McCain: "The point is that you're not trying necessarily to get voters
to accept everything you say about Obama as the truth. That would be
lovely, of course, but we'll be happy if enough of them start to wonder
about him, have doubts about him. And, oh boy, he's stepping right into
our trap by appearing as a flip-flopper all his own and, in his joke
about not looking like other presidents on dollar bills, which alludes
to the fact that he's African-American. It was like Christmas for us in
July -- and we weren't going to send that gift back but run with it all
the way to November." (As it turns out, McCain's campaign was the first
to play with the image of a President Obama on the face of U.S currency,
but nobody paid it much mind two months ago.
Here's the video.)
Of course, McCain's emphasis on this type of sleazy, negative politics
does call attention to the fact that he hasn't got much else to rely on,
certainly not his own unpopular policies and visions of the future. It's
a bit obvious that all he's doing is trying to tear the other guy down,
and in a crude, almost juvenile way. It's a highly unsubtle example of
playing the "politics of destruction" and that low-road tactic can come
back and bite a candidate in the ass.
One suspects that, after a tick up in the poll numbers as a result of
this high-powered negativity aimed at Obama, the American electorate
will realize how they're being played and will take it out on McCain by
moving away from him in large numbers, feeling he's demeaned and sullied
his reputation as an upright, straight-shooter who promised to conduct a
civil campaign. Already many strong conservatives have deserted him --
not convinced by his flippity-flopping on conservative core issues just
for this election -- and are supporting Libertarian candidate Bob Barr.
That could be as much as 5 or 10% of the Republican vote, which, were it
to happen, would make it a wash when measured against those who may not
vote for Obama because he's black.
THE BATTLE FOR THE UNDECIDEDS
So, Kim, those are my preliminary summing-up thoughts about where this
strange presidential race is in mid-summer 2008. Right now, McCain can
count on roughly 40% of the electorate, Obama can count on roughly 45%
of the electorate, and the remaining 15% is still up for grabs.
That's what the McCain campaign's lying and sliming and sleazing is all
about, to somehow lower Obama's numbers, to get McCain's numbers closer
to his opponent. If only a percentage point or two separates the two
candidates going into the election in November, there are lots of ways
small deficits can be made up in the popular and Electoral College
battleground states, some legal, some illegal, some in the ethical swamp
that is political morality.
How Obama and McCain go about trying to convince the undecided voters
will tell us a lot about the likely outcome in November. I'd love to
hear the views of DA members from the other side of the pond, as well as
from regular readers. Write to me here:
I'll incorporate the dialogue into a new analysis closer to the November
Say hello to all my old DA friends. I'll certainly look forward to
lifting a victory beer with you all in Munich sometime after the
election. -- All best, Bernie
Copyright 2008, by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught
government & international relations at universities in California and
Washington, worked as a writer/editor at the San Francisco Chronicle for two
decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org).