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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
this way:

"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.


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 looking for.

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" during "wartime."

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 politician.

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 enlightened agenda."


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 race.

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 "Loser Take All") and Ernest 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 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 Election Day.

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.

In a 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.


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.


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: crisispapers@comcast.net. I'll incorporate the dialogue into a new analysis closer to the November balloting.

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). To comment: crisispapers@comcast.net .

Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances