Thursday, December 08, 2005

President (or VP) Obama? + Senator Menendez?

He's young, he's smart, he's idealistic, he's pragmatic, he's progressive, he's handsome, he's telegenic. (I've met him in person and he's better looking face-to-face.) He's one of the best communicators in his party, or any party, and people who'd never heard of him before are still talking about his address at the national convention in the summer of 2004. With his election in November of that year, he made history. I'm talking about Barack Obama (at left), the junior US Senator from Illinois, whom Ryan Lizza of the New Republic argues should run for the presidency in 2008 (subscription only). Lizza's argument is that most politicians have about 14 years from their first elected office to achieve the presidency, so Obama should throw his tie in the ring before his luster fades, and also because a long career in the Senate tags you with votes that the opposition can mischaracterize (as happened again and again with John Kerry), leaving the Senate sooner rather than later would be the best option. To quote him:

The main objection to an Obama run is his obvious lack of experience. He needs at least a full Senate term before he is taken seriously, the argument goes. On the one hand, each day spent in the Senate gives Obama more experience and stature for his inevitable presidential campaign. But each day also brings with it an accumulation of tough votes, the temptations of bad compromises, potentially perilous interactions with lobbyists, and all the other behaviors necessary to operate as a successful senator. At some unknowable date in the future, remaining in the Senate will reach a point of diminishing returns for Obama. The experience gained by being a good senator will start to be outweighed by the staleness acquired by staying in Washington.

There's no way for Obama to know when he will reach this point. That uncertainty makes 2008 look like his best opportunity. He can be certain that 2008 will be a year with a wide open primary on both the Republican and Democratic sides in which neither a sitting president nor vice president will be running, a rare event in presidential politics that lowers the bar of entry for all candidates. He can have a high degree of confidence that if he waits until 2012, he will face the historically impossible task of unseating the incumbent president of his own party, or the historically difficult task of unseating the incumbent president of the opposition party. The 2016 race would probably be his final chance. But by waiting until then he would have to bet that the Senate has not destroyed his career, or, if he has moved to the safer confines of the Illinois governor's mansion--his next chance would be in 2010--that he has not already passed his political peak.

So there is the objection of a lack of experience. But as we've seen, experience isn't all it's trumped up to be. John Kerry had more experience--as a legislator in multiple legislative bodies, as well as having served as Lt. Governor (and a distinguished war record)--than George W, but lost; Al Gore had far more experience, as a Congressman, Senator and one of the most active VPs ever, than W, who'd been a weak governor for 6 years, with a record of business failures, a AWOL period in his military record and a DUI in his past, but lost; Bob Dole arguably had more experience than Bill Clinton, but lost; George H.W. Bush certainly had more experience than Clinton, but lost; Jimmy Carter had more experience than Ronald Reagan but lost; and on and on. John F. Kennedy had served only a little more than time than Obama will have in 2008 (and his House and Senatorial records were rather indistinguished), yet he defeated the sitting Vice President (with a little help from Democratic Party hacks) in 1960, and turned out to be one of the most capable and exciting presidents we've had in the last 50 years. Dwight Eisenhower had no governmental experience at all, though he did successfully prosecute one of the toughest wars the US has ever entered into. All of which is to say that Obama's lack of experience shouldn't be held against him.

The bigger question for me is: will White voters in the US elect a Black person, let alone a Black Democrat, to the Presidency? At least one Black Republican probably could have won in 2000: Colin Powell. Had he decided not to honor the Republican Party's wishes and let George H.W. Bush's inexperienced son seize the nomination, it would have been his. (We saw what they did to get John McCain out of the way.) Powell would have gotten Republican and Black Democratic votes (as well as those of swing Democrats who'd be willing to vote for a highly decorated general), but for whatever reasons--a sense of debt to the Bush father, caution, fear, a desire not to be the top leader, etc.--he chose to serve on W's staff, and the rest is history. After being tainted by his role in the phantom WMD and Iraq War scandals, he won't be able, as the Jamaican-Panamanian owner of the shop where I got my locks shaped up last night said, "to run for dogcatcher." I also strongly believe Powell would have been a much more moderate presence in the White House than the right-wing hack in there now. As Secretary of State he repeatedly tried to moderate W's actions, but eventually caved in, and though now he complains about the ignominy of his 2003 presentation to the UN (which I and C. criticized as ridiculous at the time), he has only himself to blame. Had he stood up, we probably wouldn't be in Iraq today.

Then there is Condoleezza Rice. I find this dangerous woman so repellant I can barely stand to look at her, and when she talks, it's always clear to me that she's hovering on the edge of her nerves because she's lying. That quavering treble in her voice telegraphs to me more clearly than her shifty eyes, her rigid posture, or her trembling hands how clearly she realizes that what she's up to is just wrong, yet she just lets that mouth yammer away. I also think that for her, because she's gotten a chance to make history and run with the big dogs, she's willing to go with whatever they come up with. Still, I don't think she'd win a Presidential race. Americans seem unwilling still to vote for a woman for the presidency, let alone a Black woman, and she carries so much baggage from her time as National Security Advisor (when she dithered as reports kept coming in about Al Qaeda's plans) to her current post, where she's defending torture and extraordinary renditions, then admitting the government was wrong, then backtracking (lying), that she'd fall apart in a national election.

Obama would be a striking breath of fresh air in the White House. His social activism in Chicago is well known, but he also has a grander progressive vision which would take the nation into what I'd label a post-Clintonian era of liberalism. While Obama has shown in his brief Senate career that he can be cautious, as President I think he would be a bit more daring (particularly with a Democratic Congress), but he could also show considerable pragmatism (especially if he had a Republican Congress). Without a doubt, he'd reverse many of the worst domestic excesses of this administration, on the deficit and fiscal policy, on the environment, on funding for basic human needs and infrastracture, in the war on terror. He is pro-gay, pro-poor and working class, pro-choice, pro-union, and pro-environment. He has an excellent record on education and women's issues. I imagine a much more transparent government than we have now, and one far more willing to explain itself to the American people. I also envision him reformulating our international priorities immediately upon taking office. Rather than preemption and unilateralism, I imagine Obama would push hard for diplomacy and multilateralism, except in the most extreme cases (such as a direct attack). In this he would probably be close to what we might have gotten with Al Gore as president, had SCOTUS not intervened in late 2000. But Obama's record is actually to the left of Gore's, though given his rhetorical skills and public appeal, he might actually be able to enact more than Gore might have had he taken office.

One of the things Lizza dodges, unsurprisingly, is the issue of race: I just don't know if White voters would elect him. Illinois, which does have very conservative pockets, especially downstate, is still to the left of most of the Midwest and the US outside of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Pacific Coast states. Despite having about a 14% Black population overall, Illinois has been elected two Black people, both Democrats, to the Senate (the first, Ambassador Carole Mosley-Braun, in 1992), while no Southern state or former slave state (almost all of which have larger Black populations) or more liberal states in the east or west, except Massachusetts, have done so. (Massachusetts elected the first Black Senator since Reconstruction, Republican Edward Brooke, in 1967.) People often mention Obama was running against a total ultra-rightwing nutcase, Alan Keyes, in the general election, which led to his 70%-30% blowout election, which is true. They also note that he might have had a tougher time against Jack Ryan, who was the original Republican nominee before word got around that despite his pro-family, anti-gay stance, he'd pushed his wife, actress Jeri Ryan, to go to participate in group sex and hit sex clubs "in Paris" and "New York." Yet this assessment overlooks the telling fact that Obama faced SIX other Democrats in the Illinois Senate primary, and received 640,000 votes, giving him 50% of the total. All of those votes did not come from Chicago (his home base) or Cook County. His primary vote total alone was higher than all of the Republicans running together (Ryan received only 230,000 votes or something like that.) And this was in a year in which George W. Bush's popularity was considerably higher, even in Illinois, than it is today. Certainly without the sex scandal Ryan would have received more votes, but Obama would still have won. He appealed not only to urban voters, but to suburbanites outside Chicago, to exurbanites, and to pockets of downstate, conservative voters, even though his record in the Illinois State House was quite liberal. Illinois voters were willing, it was clear, to take the plunge and put him ahead of the Democratic Party's chosen son (Dan Hynes), its multimillionaire dilettante (Blair Hull), and all of the Republicans combined.

But can Obama win outside Illinois? As the presidential nominee, I believe he would be able to win blowouts in New York, New Jersey, California, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Maryland, Washington, Michigan, Minnesota, Connecticut, and of course Illinois. He would probably win in New Hampshire and Maine at this point, and would eke out a win in Wisconsin, which has a smaller Black and Latino population than Illinois or Michigan. Washington, DC is a given. But all these states combined don't provide enough votes. Al Gore also won Iowa, but Kerry lost it, and both lost West Virginia, both of which have small Black populations and have trended to the right in the last few elections; then there's Oregon, which is a moderate-to-liberal state with a small Black population. Then there are New Mexico and Nevada, which have often voted with the Democrats--would Latino and the large non-urban voters give Obama the nod? I'm not sure, but it's possible. As for the Rocky Mountain states, all have very small Black populations, and I could foresee perhaps only Colorado, in a burst of inspiration, going for Obama, but perhaps he might win in Montana or even one of the Dakotas. The major electoral problem would be the border states (Missouri and Kentucky), Ohio, Oklahoma and Nebraska, and the former Confederate states. Outside of Florida and Ohio, I still believe Obama would have a hard time winning any of these, unless the economy were so bad and the news from Iraq were so awful that people felt they had no choice. And even then, they would probably still vote overwhelmingly for whomever the Republicans put forward, be it John McCain or someone else, despite how awful the 2000-2008 period has been. Powell, I think, could have won a handfull of these states (Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, Oklahoma, Virginia, Florida, maybe North Carolina and South Carolina), but it will be an uphill battle for Obama, simply because he's Black (and the intraracial quibble about his authenticity--is he really Black or African-American, etc.--would be far less of an issue than the basic fact that he has brown skin, and is, well, Black.)

I've also seen arguments that since he doesn't have an accent, since his father was African (from Kenya), since he's not closely associated with controversial mainstream Black political figures (like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, though he hasn't disavowed them), since he's different, he actually would get more votes than a African-American whose ancestry extends back several generations. But this remais to be seen. Perhaps racists do juggle categories; I don't know. But I still believe he'll have an uphill battle, especially given that he describes himself without hesitation as "African-American" (which he is) and "Black." Then there is the issue of his name. Not only do people regularly misspell it, but the Republicans in lllinois also got a load out of mocking it and making fun of it, while also trying to link it to "Osama" Bin Laden. He defused much of this by gently depracating the unusualness of the name himself, but I wouldn't be surprised if this cropped up again.

Hillary Clinton, the operator par excellence who shifts her positions like a weathervane, would win even half as many states as did John Kerry, a horrible candidate in every way. The time for Joe Biden, Evan Bayh, Kerry, and the quasi-Republican Joe Lieberman (if he's still a Democrat in 2008) has come and gone. Other past candidates like Wesley Clark and John Edwards, both of whom I thought had potential, might not be able to excite voters given that they've been out of the limelight for 8 years. Then there's Al Gore, who really would have been a fine president, but he still is tainted by the media's smears of his record and truthfulness. New faces include Mark Warner of Virginia (he strikes me as a dull but effective centrist), Tom Vilsack (who always looks to me like he's on his way to a Bears game), Brian Schweitzer (a progressive, folksy Westerner), and Bill Richardson (who as a Latino would break new ground, though pairing him with Obama, while exciting, would ask millions of voters to overcome deep-seated racial and ethnic fears and animuses). There are several female governors, Katherine Sebelius of Kansas among them, who might also run. Finally, another name that has arisen is Senator Russ Feingold, a leader in the Iraq War-pullout movement and a political maverick; but I unfortunately believe that as a liberal of Jewish faith and ancestry he would face anti-Semitic prejudice, particularly in parts of the West and South. (I've seen very little discussion of how this might have played into Gore-Lieberman ticket's losses, perhaps because the media don't want to touch or confront it.) Given the thinly-veiled hysteria around Christmas whipped up by crackpots by Bill O'Reilly these days, I wouldn't be surprised if the GOP turned to their old tricks.

I do think a Warner-Obama or Schweitzer-Obama ticket could win; I think it would be extraordinary for the country on multiple levels, but the twinned issues of race and racism always loom, not even in the background, but the foreground. Still, I hope Obama seriously considers running. We gravely need his vision, a new vision for the country, centering our public discourse. A run in the next election would ensure this, whether he won, as President or VP, or not--though his winning would be the best outcome of all.

According to various sites I've come across, New Jersey Governor-Elect Jon Corzine has chosen my representative, Congressman Robert M. Menendez (in photo at left) to be New Jersey's new US Senator. If this is the case, Menendez will serve out the final year of Corzine's term, while running for the seat outright next year. Menendez, a New York City native who grew up and later became mayor of Union City, becomes only the second Cuban-American Senator in US history, and highest ranking Cuban-American Democrat in the Congress. (There are currently three Latino Senators, Florida's Republican and Cuban-American Mel Martinez, and Colorado's Mexican-American Ken Salazar.) Although there was speculation that Corzine might select one of New Jersey's other Congresspeople--Rob Andrews of South Jersey, Frank Pallone of Bergen County, Rush Holt of the Princeton area--a state legislator like Nia Gill of Montclair, or even a neutral figure like the Garden State's beloved Bruce Springsteen, in the end he took the most easiest, conventional and to me, troubling route, and selected Menendez.

While I acknowledge his work in terms of intelligence reform and his outspokenness, and celebrate the fact that New Jersey now has a Latino Senator, I've strongly diagreed with his extremist Cuban policies (like pushing to make Elián González a citizen, etc.), to the extent of actually voting for the Green or Democratic Socialist candidates running against him. I also disliked how, as one of the powers in the Hudson County Democratic organization, he allegedly
led a slash-and-burn feud with Jersey City's late, first Black mayor, Glenn Cunningham, who refused to go along with the usual crony politics and faced a constant battle against Menendez and his proxies. Then there is the issue of the sex scandal surrounding his former employee, who gained lucrative contracts after their affair. Personally I don't care what people do in their bedrooms (or really wherever), so long as it's with a consenting adult or adults, and most New Jerseyans probably don't either, but the Republicans will certainly use this against Menendez in the upcoming race as they tried to smear Corzine with his personal sexual business.

The GOPers are probably going to nominate moderate
Tom Kean Jr., the son of the patrician, former liberal Republican governor and head of the 9/11 commission, and advance polling has shown Kean leading Menendez. The new Senator supposedly has a $4 million warchest and is known as a fierce campaigner (though I once saw him on the stump at Jersey City's Journal Square Station and found his oratory snooze-inducing--he's no Obama!), and outside of issues relating to Cuba, he's very liberal, so he will make a decent replacement for Corzine on most issues, and is the favorite for the seat in 2006. I sure in the hell wouldn't want to run against him!


  1. Interestingly enough, today's Baltimore Sun broke the news that (white) Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has picked our own home grown version of Obama, Maryland State Delegate Anthony Brown, to be his choice for as Lt Governor in the upcoming Gubernatorial race. In some ways he's a fairly obvious choice, linking Baltimore and the Washington bedrooms (Brown is from Prince George's County) and of course the black/white thing (I'm not the only one who thinks Kathleen Kennedy Townsend made a serious misstep in not picking an African American running mate in her disasterous campaign against current Governor, Robert "Bobby Smooth" Erlich). Brown is well liked in the legislature, smart (Harvard Law, one year behind Obama), ambitious, telegenic -- and as a member of the Army Reserves he recently got back from serving 10 months as a JAG in Iraq. Even if O'Malley is unsuccessful in either the primary (he's got a serious contender in Montgomery County Exec Doug Duncan) or the election (I put few things past Erlich), this pick is a serious raising of brother Brown's profile as 'one to watch' locally and nationally in years to come. Lord knows we need more Black (and Brown and other colors of the multiculti rainbow) political stars in our future!

  2. Hi Reggie, thanks for the info on Brown. I'm going to Google him. I'm glad O'Malley has taken this route; I've seen that Ehrlich is in political trouble, which isn't surprising given the public disgust with the Republicans and Ehrlich's own local problems. What about O'Malley vs. Duncan? Hasn't Duncan run before and failed? I hope Brown succeeds--I could see Maryland joining New Jersey and a few other states (perhaps Connecticut, Minnesota, etc.) with Black Senators in the 21st century. Speaking of which, wasn't Alan Page considering running in Minnesota? I guess the front-runner on the Democratic side is Amy (?) Klobuchar.

    Has the revelations that Steele exaggerated--or lied--about the Oreo incident damaged his credibility? While a sex scandal usually won't derail someone in New Jersey, it seems like it may hurt Mfume, so is anyone (gently?) encouraging him to withdraw and let Cardin run unapposed? I like Mfume's politics, but Cardin isn't that much more conservative than he, is he? I saw some poll that showed Cardin's lead over Steele opening up.

  3. OK, I just Googled Brown--whoa! He's got quite an impressive resume and is very good looking! He was also three years ahead of me in college, though I don't remember him at all. Great that O'Malley has tapped him--and he's from Prince George's County, which really ought to help O'Malleym shouldn't it?