PERSONALLY ATTACKED?

A telling and all too common moment from this week’s debate:

EDWARDS:…And the most important issue is she says she will bring change to Washington, while she continues to defend a system that does not work, that is broken, that is rigged and is corrupt; corrupted against the interest of most Americans and corrupted…(APPLAUSE)

BLITZER: All right…

EDWARDS: … and corrupted for a very small, very powerful, very well-financed group.

BLITZER: We’re going to…

EDWARDS: So we have fundamental differences.

BLITZER: We’re going to get to all of these issues, including energy and Iran and everything else.

CLINTON: Well, Wolf, I’ve just been personally attacked again, and I…

Can anybody explain to me what’s personal about that attack? Brings me back to a certain incumbent’s decision four years ago that every criticism of his record was “political hate speech.”

And does she disagree with the idea that the system in Washington is broken, or that she’s been defending it?

RANDOM THOUGHTS ON DEMOCRATIC DEBATE NUMBER THREE

Is it just me, or was the difference between the questions asked and the questions answered more pronounced in this debate than the previous ones? Maybe because the questions asked the candidates to speak about the extent of racism in America or its role in exacerbating social ills. Maybe the most marked contrast was when the candidates were asked why Blacks with high school degrees are less likely to find jobs than Whites without them; most of the answers were about how to get more Blacks high school degrees.

The order of the candidates led to the delightful spectacle of Chris Dodd making funny faces every round about having to follow Mike Gravel saying something about how craven and nasty everyone else on stage was. And it gave Barack Obama repeated chances to echo John Edwards, one time even saying he was finishing his sentence – does that mean he doesn’t take Edwards seriously as a threat at this point?

The biggest revelation of the night though was that Joe Biden organizes rallies for Black men to tell them they can be manly while wearing condoms. When I say progressive masculinity, you say Joe Biden! Where’s YouTube when you need it? Someone should name a line of condoms after the guy.

THEY DON’T DO THAT, DO THEY?

Can anyone offer me an example of a staffer for a right-wing presidential candidate resigning in response to a campaign waged by a relatively low profile left-wing organization whose claims of offense on behalf of a large chunk of the population were repeated loudly and uncritically by the mainstream media without any substantive investigation into the nature of the organization?

For that matter, can anyone think up a scenario in which such a thing credibly could take place?

Can you see a Mitt Romney staffer leaving as a casualty of a campaign to off him by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund? What are the chances such a campaign would even make it into the New York Times? And if it did, wouldn’t it be in an article full of right-wing Mexicans bashing MALDEF as a Democratic Party organ?

THE GREAT ESCAPE

This Times piece features a silly and all-too common turn of phrase (emphasis mine):

Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, who joined the Senate in 2005 and thus escaped the Iraq vote that has come to haunt Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Kerry, used the platform of Senate hearings to lacerate the Bush Iraq policy and affirm his own opposition to the war.

Sure, one of the annoying things about being an elected legislator is that along with your deliciously nuanced views on the issues of the day, you need to vote for or against bills you didn’t write yourself to say just what you wanted them to. But is there anyone who knew who Barack Obama was in 2002 who didn’t know his position on invading Iraq?

The man spoke at an anti-war rally and called the proposed invasion “dumb” and an “attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us.” Do Adam Nagourney and Patrick Healy really believe that he was hedging on whether or not the bill for the war should pass?

RUSS WON’T RUN

Not a shocker, given that the past year and a half has seen the rise of John Edwards as Un-Hillary lightning rod and intensifying inklings of a run by Barack Obama, who like Feingold vocally opposed the war – and worst of all for Feingold’s chances, his second divorce and lack of a third marriage by the midterms (despite the efforts of the erstwhile Committee to Find Russ Feingold a Date).

That said, Feingold’s popularity in the country’s most representative state, which drew him votes from a quarter of Bush voters two years ago and has stayed strong as he talked about running for president and came out for phased withdrawl from Iraq, equal marriage rights, and censuring Bush, should be a lesson for the field of Democratic presidential contenders, and for the primary voters who’ll choose among them. You remember them: the ones who cleverly voted for John Kerry because he was the most electable.

WARNER WON’T

So what does Mark Warner bowing out of the ’08 race mean for the prospects of a left Un-Hillary versus a right Un-Hillary come primary season?

On the one hand, having Warner out of the running allows for a consolidation of the right-of-Hillary forces in the party behind one of the remaining right-of-Hillary candidates – the strongest of whom looks to be Evan Bayh (sorry, Joe). If he isn’t gunning to be on Clinton’s ticket, Warner can take harsher shots at her now that he’s not a candidate himself, and he’s developed something of a base to throw behind Bayh.

On the other hand, Warner was probably the stronger of the right-of-Hillary contenders. Unlike most of the Democrats in contention, his experience is executive rather than legislative, which both builds credibility with a certain crowd and makes it easier to straddle certain ideological razors that Senator Bayh is more likely to slip on. And his business experience helps pry certain networks and wallets open that a right-of-Hillary candidate in particular will depend on. Warner in particular was probably best situated to compete in terms of star power and red state outside the beltway cred with John Edwards, who is gathering more and more of the left-of-Hillary energy behind himself.

So Warner’s exit seems likely to leave the right-of-Hillary crowd more unified but behind a weaker contender. Which in the end I suspect is good news for the left-of-Hillary crowd. And therefore bad news for her. Which in turn is bad news for the other side of the aisle.

MIKE’S MATH

Michael Tomasky chooses a very strange approach to claim some quantitative heft for his otherwise well-stated case that the Democratic Senate Caucus will continue to represent a range of views whether it includes Joe Lieberman or not:

You start with their National Journal numbers — specifically, their liberal support score for 2005. This score is defined in this way: If Senator X has a liberal support score of 90, it means she is more liberal than 90 percent of her Senate colleagues..So, off the top of your head: How many of the 44 Democratic senators have a 90 or better? Nine? Ten? Try four…

If this sounds like a meaningful measure of how liberal Senate Democrats are, or how broad the range of ideologies among Senate Dems are, then go back and read that second sentence again. According to Tomasky’s description, the National Journal rating (yes, that’s the same one that gave us that silly talking point about Kerry and Edwards being the 1st and 4th most liberal senators) is a stanine (remember standardized tests?). It measures how liberal a given senator is as compared to the other 99 senators (the system must be more complicated than Tomasky’s describing it, because it’s physically impossible for Ted Kennedy to be more liberal than exactly 96.7 other Senators). Which (lest our friends at the National Journal take offense) may be useful to know in evaluating a particular Senator, or even a few of them. But in terms of looking at a 44-member caucus, it’s less useful. It could tell us (assuming we accept the rubric for the calculations, which Tomasky goes on to say he doesn’t) whether there’s any overlap along the scale between the two caucuses – that is, whether Lincoln Chafee is more or less liberal than Ben Nelson. It could even tell us something about how the senators are spaced along the ideological spectrum they represent.

But knowing that the Democrats have four Senators in the 90s and “a passel of B’s”, while the Republicans have

have just three 90’s: Jeff Sessions, Wayne Allard, and Tom Coburn. But they do have more in the 80’s

sheds precious little light on the question Tomasky is trying to answer: How ideologically diverse is the Democratic caucus (rather than how the Democratic Senators are spaced along the ideological territory of the caucus). Maybe there’s an argument to be made about how the ideological breadth of one caucus skews the distribution of the other caucus along the spectrum of all 100 senators, but I don’t think Tomasky is making it.

His argument seems to be that if the Senate Democratic Caucus were really full of Ted Kennedys, you’d see more of its members scoring in the 90s. But if the Caucus were full of Ted Kennedys, it would become that much harder for Ted Kennedy to eke out a 90. Because, as they say, it’s all relative.

If you took a snapshot of the current distribution of Senators along the National Journal scale, on the other hand, you would have a tough time (unless you were, say, Jacob Hacker) telling from looking at it whether you were looking at the Senate circa 2006, 1936, or 1846 – because changes in the ideological breadth of the Senate would only translate indirectly into changes in the spacing of the Senators along that breadth. And you’d be no closer to figuring out how the ideologies represented by the folks in the Senate compare to the breakdown of America, or even Connecticut.

That is, if I understand the National Journal ratings correctly. If I’m confused, then forget it. If not, then Tomasky’s parallel universe of Democrats who all score in the 90’s bares a strong resemblance to Garrison Keillor’s apocryphal town in which “all of the children are above average.”

EIDELSON AND THE UNNECESSARY EXEGESIS

That’s what Alek and I recently decided my band would be called, given my penchant for, well, unnecessary exegesis (take these seven paragraphs analyzing one from Barack Obama). If that didn’t satiate you, here’s some more:

Last month, I argued that there was only room in media discourse for one “Un-Hillary,” and that the lack of consensus about Hillary Clinton’s political profile creates the potential for that “Un-Hillary” to emerge from the left or from the right. Over at TNR, Ryan Lizza suggests, I think rightly, that John Edwards’ star as a candidate for the Un-Hillary mantle is rising at the moment. There’s plenty to agree with in his analysis. And then his piece ends with a peculiar turn of phrase:

A southern, moderate, antiwar, pro-labor candidate with low negatives and high positives who has already run for president is not a bad combination.

Why “moderate”?

Now, opposing our invasion of Iraq and the President’s plan to “stay the course” there is a majority position in this country, as is support for the right to organize a union free of intimidation and the negotiation of trade deals that don’t accelerate the race to the bottom. These are both areas where, at least for now, a majority of Americans are on the left. As Paul Waldman argues, there are more of them than one would think from listening to talking heads. And as David Sirota argued in a series of pieces after the 2004 election, “centrism” in the dominant media discourse has been warped to describe a set of policies with much greater support among the elite than the electorate. That said, the fact that most people in this country take a progressive position doesn’t in and of itself make that position moderate, at least in the short term.

Sure, in the long term social change depends on pulling the center towards your end, as the right has done much better than the left over the past few decades. And the most effective political leaders we have are the ones who can communicate progressive positions in ways which resonate with fundamental shared values even amongst people who don’t see themselves as on the left. But I still think it’s worth questioning what, especially in the pages of the New Republic, qualifies Edwards as a representative of moderation – other than the fact that he’s popular, and if you believe moderation to be popular with the American people, you’re inclined to look at someone as popular as him to be moderate as well (remember the DLC essay right when it looked like Kerry was going to beat Bush that celebrated how Trumanesque he was?)

Otherwise, what is it that makes Edwards moderate in Lizza’s eyes? His voting record when he last held office (by which standard the likes of Howard Dean and Ned Lamont – neither likely to win any popularity awards from TNR – are at least as moderate)? His support for the death penalty? His equivocation on civil unions? Or is it just the fact that he’s from the South, and liberalism in some pundit’s minds is a cultural affectation and not an ideological vision, and thus not something a southerner could or would want to take part in?

Look, Edwards is no uber-leftist by any means, and there are certainly issues on which he could be more progressive and deserves criticism for not being. But it’s hard to escape the sense that he wins the moderate label here and elsewhere because he comes off as likable and electable, and it’s assumed that any likable electable politician must be a moderate.

THE SILENT PRE-PRIMARY

The past few weeks, with Hillary Clinton’s formal acceptance of the Democratic party endorsement for Senate and an ensuing wave of articles about her politics and personal life, have brought speculation about the Democrats 2008 primary and the role that she will play in it. The emerging conventional wisdom consensus of today seems to be that she’s much less popular with party activists than was assumed in the conventional wisdom of yesterday, but that denying her the nomination would require an “Un-Hillary” capable of clearing the field of other viable aspirants and gathering together the disparate constituencies that don’t want to see her as the party’s standard-bearer in the next Presidential election. What the pundits seem to disagree about or, in many cases, ignore entirely, is whether that alternative candidate will come from the left or from the right of the Democratic party.

Since pundits and party hacks are likely to force the narrative of the coming primary into either a “Hillary versus the Un-Hillary” mold or a “Hillary versus a slew of guys” one – the latter of which pretty much secures her the nomination – who emerges from the primary will turn in some significant part on how the part of “Un-Hillary” is scripted. What kind of candidate the “Un-Hillary” is supposed to be will help determine who gets to seize the mantle and get the attention and the activists that make it possible to win. And what kind of candidate the “Un-Hillary” is supposed to be will depend in good part on who Hillary herself is perceived to be: the ostensible feminist firebrand committed to subversion of culture and nationalization of industries, or the hawk who’s proud to have voted for the war and wants government to regulate video game content more and credit card interest rates less. Evan Bayh and Mark Warner are running against the former; Russ Feingold and John Edwards are running against the latter.

So while the ostensibly-right-of-Hillary majority of Democratic presidential aspirants are each other’s immediate competitors for the right-of-Hillary niche, they are also allies in working to ensure that Hillary is seen as a left-winger who could be stopped by a right-of-Hillary “Un-Hillary” and not a right-winger who could be stopped by a left-of-Hillary “Un-Hillary.” The opposite is true of the minority of Democratic presidential aspirants who are gunning to run to her left.

Which camp will get the Hillary they want? The right-of-Hillary folks still have the media largely on their side, in that even the increasingly publicity around her moves to ban flag-burning and such still frames these acts as feints to the right by a unreconstructed liberal with the political savvy to disguise herself (this coverage often pivots around the myth that “Hillarycare” was a solidly left-wing proposal). The left-of-Hillary folks have Clinton herself on their side – both the conservatism of her record on the issues that divide the party and the intensity of her campaign to highlight her centrism. Judging by the approach she’s taken (with exceptions on some votes on seemingly forgone conclusions, like Bush’s nominations), as well as the comments of her advisors, she seems much more concerned with protecting herself from the right-of-Hillary competitors than from the left-of-Hillary ones.

Last month, Jonathan Chait noted the bind Clinton is in: “instead of moderates focusing on her positions while liberals focus on her persona, the opposite seems to be happening.” The logic of her circle seems to be that her gender, her rhetoric, and the relentless multi-decade assault on her from the right will be enough to secure the support of the left even as she offers policies to woo the center and beyond. If she succeeds, then progressives will be confronted not just with the comparatively conservative Clinton as frontrunner but with the comparatively conservative Clinton as the leftie of the crop of frontrunners. But given the increasing anxiety about her amongst the Democratic base, there’s reason to hope she won’t.

More debate errata:

No surprise that Cheney’s relationship with the truth is about as close as his relationship with, say, Nelson Mandela. But while there’ve been plenty of more significant lies from him and his campaign, one is particularly easy to shoot down with one pic:

Speaking of which, it takes a special kind of chutzpah for someone on a ticket with George Bush to use the term AWOL to describe his opponent’s attendance Senate record rather than, say, his running mate’s attendance at one of those institutions which contextualize the expression AWOL (no, not Yale).

And speaking of strange imagery, who thought it would be a good idea to trot out Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) to announce that Cheney took Edwards behind a wood shed. Bizarre sexual imagery aside, is that really the Republican message to America? Now back to the bizarre sexual imagery…

Very good: “They value wealth. We value work.” I’ve always wished the Democrats would make more of the moral sinkhole behind having the government take a larger chunk of the money you make working than the money you make investing. That, and that they’d come up with better catch phrases. That one’s a keeper.

Short take on tonight’s debate:

The Democratic ticket won this one too, though not as decisively as the last one. Edwards had to prove he was a heavyweight, and he succeeded admirably. Cheney had to prove he was a human being, and he managed to come off as warmer than I’ve seen him (not saying much) and more gracious than the President’s performance (not saying much there either). That said, Edwards was not only more charismatic and more convincing, he did a better job of directly answering Gwen Ifil’s questions and, more importantly, those of the audience. His best line of attack, on foreign and domestic policy both, came in acknowledging that not only the challengers but the American people know better than to believe the Bush crew’s spin, and deserve better than to be shielded from the truth.

The Bush-Cheney Campaign continues to leave itself wide open to blistering criticism – more blistering than they’re actually getting – by stubbornly refusing to admit any mistakes, as if any contrition would make the house of cards collapse. How Cheney can tell the American people that he would conduct the Iraq war “exactly the same” way with a straight face is beyond me. So is why Edwards didn’t slam him even harder for it – or hit home harder on the shameful defunding of Homeland Security or the difference between the new jobs and the old ones we lost or the outrage of touting America’s record in El Salvador as a future model. And his answers on Israel and gay rights were expectedly frustrating.

But altogether, Edwards spoke clearly and resonantly, fought hard, and thought on his feet. Whereas Cheney projected strength and enthusiasm sometimes and at others seemed tired, disinterested, or just at a loss for words. And since when was it the Republicans who saw a career in government as the more patriotic choice? Whatever happened to Gingrich’s crew of “citizen-legislators” who supposedly hated Washington life so much they promised they’d sleep in their offices rather than get apartments? Lastly, we definitely won the closing statement this time (unlike Thursday) – Cheney’s “Vote for us or get blown up” just didn’t match Edwards’ exhortation to national greatness.