Ari Berman | The Nation

Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

The 'Obamican' Phenomenon

In early April I visited the political battleground of suburban Philadelphia to interview a bunch of former Republicans who'd registered as Democrats to vote for Barack Obama in the April 22 primary. These interviews formed the basis of my latest Nation article, "Pennsylvania's 'Obamicans.'"

The story is largely set in Doylestown, one of Philly's oldest and most picturesque exurbs. It's a swing town in a swing area in a crucial swing state. As such, the political trends in Doylestown and the rest of Bucks County are pretty indicative of what's going on throughout Pennsylvania and the rest of the country.

The article is subscription-only on our website (so become a subscriber!), but I'm posting an edited excerpt below for the loyal readers of this blog.


Doylestown, like much of Bucks County, used to be deeply, proudly, Republican. "In my youth, in central Bucks County, I grew up without knowing any Democrats," James Michener wrote in Report of the County Chairman, his account of volunteering for John F. Kennedy in 1960. "My mother thought there might be some on the edge of town, but she preferred not to speak of them." Things began to change in 1992, when the recession that year pushed Bucks County toward Bill Clinton. In the following years, as the GOP increasingly became identified with the religious right, the county voted for Democrats for President. Yet until recently, Republicans controlled all the levers of local government.



A surge of Democratic activism in the past few years has turned Doylestown, and much of the county, from red to purple--and quite possibly to blue. In 2003 Republicans dominated the borough council 9-0; now it's 6-3 Democratic. After sending Republicans to Congress in every election since 1993, in 2006 Bucks County's 8th Congressional District elected Democrat Patrick Murphy, a 34-year-old Iraq War vet. In January there were 21,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in Bucks. By early April, thanks to a massive voter-registration drive, Democrats outnumbered Republicans for the first time since 1978, when Democrats briefly held sway after Watergate.



What's happening in Bucks mirrors trends throughout Pennsylvania, where the state Democratic Party has added a remarkable 300,000 voters since January. Nearly half of these Democrats, according to the state board of elections, are new or previously unregistered voters lured by the excitement of the Clinton-Obama race. The other half are former Republicans and independents who switched to vote in the Democratic primary, mostly for Obama. Before the March 24 registration deadline (only registered Democrats may vote in the April 22 primary), the Obama campaign made an all-out effort to convert disaffected Republicans, otherwise known as "Obamicans."



In Bucks County there are "regular Obamicans"--former Republicans who volunteer only occasionally for Obama, if at all--and "super-volunteer Obamicans," Yeager tells me, half-jokingly. Christine Harrison, a peppy former travel agent who dates her ancestry back to President Benjamin Harrison, is a super-volunteer Obamican. Raised in a family of lifelong Republicans, Harrison has never in her life voted for a Democrat. But after watching the Democratic debates and Obama's victory speech in Iowa, she caught the Obama bug. Harrison attended the opening of his office in Doylestown, the Friday before Super Tuesday, and met Peachy Myers, an energetic veteran of Obama's South Carolina field team, who asked her to volunteer. "I told her I'm a Republican and she said, That's OK," Harrison recalls. "So I said, Well, let me be your very first Obamican! And I changed my registration right there." Harrison's now a volunteer coordinator for Obama, spending all her waking hours helping to get a Democrat elected President. Ten members of Harrison's all-Republican family have since changed their affiliation--all for Obama.



Victor Unger, an 80-year-old retired research director for a chemical company, is more of a regular Obamican. Unger has been a Republican since he moved to Bucks County in 1968. Almost two years ago Unger and his wife, a Democrat, heard Obama speak about his book The Audacity of Hope. Unger read both of Obama's books and "was really impressed by his intellect." "He's running at the right time in our history," he says. Unger changed his registration in March and began occasionally stopping by the Obama office to help out where needed.



It seems like every prominent Democrat in Bucks used to be a Republican--or is married to one. Congressman Patrick Murphy's wife, Jennifer, a 33-year-old lawyer, is another lifelong Republican. "Every time I went to the polls I saw a Clinton or a Bush on the ballot, and I voted for a Bush or against Clinton every time," Murphy says. Her husband was the first Democrat Murphy ever voted for, and Obama will be the second.



Like many Republicans in Bucks County, Murphy describes herself as fiscally conservative and socially moderate. "I still, for the most part, consider myself a Republican," she says, and inverts Ronald Reagan's famous maxim: "I didn't leave the Republican Party, the Republican Party and this President left me." Disaffected Republicans in Bucks, furious at how George W. Bush and the religious right hijacked their grand old party, are voting Democratic in the primary out of frustration, not because Rush Limbaugh told them to. The quagmire in Iraq and the downturn in the economy matter to these voters, but so do issues of personal freedom, like reproductive rights, technological advances like stem-cell research and protecting the environment--all neglected or opposed by the current GOP.



Many of these Obamicans are voting as much against the Clintons as for Obama. "I hate the Clintons," Harrison told me point-blank. "I find Bill fairly reprehensible," Unger said, "and have overwhelmingly negative feelings toward Hillary." Many Obamicans, these included, said they'd vote for John McCain in the general election if Clinton was the Democratic nominee, or wouldn't vote at all. Harrison said all ten members of her family would switch back to the GOP.



Obama's Republican supporters see in him what Bush promised to be in 2000: a great uniter. "He doesn't see me as a sworn mortal enemy because I'm a Republican," Jennifer Murphy says. Clinton and Obama may be virtually indistinguishable liberals on most policy positions, but Obamicans see their man as a kindred spirit, someone who will--as his campaign often reminds us--bring people together and bridge the partisan divide.



What's striking--and a little disturbing--about the Obamican phenomenon in '08 is how much it rests not so much on specific issues but on the candidate's personal characteristics and calls to transcend race and achieve political unity. Will these same voters still support him when Obama tries to withdraw from Iraq, or pass universal healthcare, or raise taxes on the rich, or push for any number of policy programs that are likely to anger many core Republicans? The Obamicans could turn out to be just another passing political fad. After all, conservative columnists like David Brooks and George Will heaped praise on Obama early in the campaign season, only to turn against him later. In a general election, McCain--with his maverick reputation, however dated or inaccurate--could stop the bleeding in places like Bucks County, keeping the remaining moderate Republicans in the GOP fold.



Obama is expected to do well in Philadelphia and its suburbs, but he faces an uphill climb in the rest of the state. Yet if he can go on to win the nomination and keep his Republican converts in the Democratic column come November, and beyond, he may achieve what no President since Reagan has--an enduring realignment of crossover voters.



Clinton's Anti-Union Allies

Robert Johnson's nasty comments about Barack Obama earlier this week caused a huge stir in the media. Johnson issued a less-than-convincing clarification and then apologized to Obama on Thursday.

Yet few of the stories on Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television and a top surrogate for Clinton in South Carolina, noted his controversial standing in the African-American political community. Johnson has been one of President Bush's top black allies, lobbying for the repeal of the estate tax and the privatization of Social Security, as Jonathan Chait of The New Republic reported in a 2001 profile of Johnson.

Johnson also has a history of opposing unions that makes Clinton's allies in labor quite uncomfortable. Back in 1993, workers at BET voted to join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Writer's Guild. According to an article in the Washington Afro-American, a historically black newspaper, AFL-CIO organizer Ed Feigen alleged that "during and after the election, BET violated the workers rights by offering them raises and promising benefits if they didn't join the union in."

"Employees were also threatened with job loss if they did vote the union in. A total of 13 employees were laid off after the election, hours were cut back, and two lead organizers with the Writer's Guild were fired, according to reports issued by the AFL-CIO. Mr Feigen told the AFRO that Mr. Johnson had stated to his workers that their actions were an act of disloyalty and that BET would never have a union."

One BET employee, Kimberlyn Dickens, said management had a "plantation attitude." Another BET employee, Samone Lemieux, said Johnson "promised us increased benefits and improved working conditions if we stopped our union organizing activity. However, after the election Mr. Johnson threatened us with discharge because of our union activity. He told us he had taken a $15,000 investment and turned it into a $400 million company, and that he was not about to start giving his money away."

There's little evidence that Johnson's opinion of unions has changed since then. Keith Boykin, host of the BET show My Two Cents, writes on his blog:


In May 2000, BET made the AFL-CIO's list of notorious anti-union companies, and the year before, 120 comedians, including Richard Pryor, bought full-page newspaper advertisements to complain that Johnson refused to offer union wages to performers on its "Comic View" show. Three years before that, Johnson was reprimanded by the National Labor Relations Board for BET's interference with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' organizing efforts, a case that BET later appealed and won. But in February 2000, Johnson told USA Today, "We don't need a union. They're only money-making machines."


Johnson is not the only controversial figure within labor circles to play a high-profile role in Clinton's campaign. I reported last May that the PR firm of Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, maintains an active union-busting division.

The actions of Johnson and business of Penn tell a different story than Clinton's advocacy for labor. Clinton may not share these views, but as she courts union workers in Nevada and elsewhere, it's fair to ask why she deploys anti-labor individuals on behalf of her ostensibly pro-labor campaign.

Clinton Needs A New Narrative

Labor Rebels Against Clinton

For weeks the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the largest union in the AFL-CIO, has been relentlessly criticizing Barack Obama's healthcare plan on behalf of their favored candidate, Hillary Clinton. AFSCME President Gerald McEntee has long been a controversial figure in the union movement because of his exceptionally close ties to the Clintons. But conventional wisdom said the union would boost Clinton, especially in Iowa.

Following the Iowa caucus, members of AFSCME's executive board had seen enough, taking the unprecedented step of rebuking McEntee's anti-Obama strategy in a letter to the union chief. "We are writing to protest in the strongest terms the negative campaign that AFSCME is conducting against Barack Obama," the letter states. "We do not believe that such a wholesale assault on one of the great friends of our union was ever contemplated when the International Executive Board (IEB) made its decision to endorse Hillary Clinton."

The letter continues:


We were therefore shocked and appalled to learn that our union-through "independent expenditures" is squandering precious resources to wage a costly and deceptive campaign to oppose Barack Obama. As Barack's standing in the polls has soared, according to numerous press reports AFSCME has spent untold dollars in Iowa and New Hampshire to send out mailings and run radio ads whose sole purpose is to undercut his candidacy. And now AFSCME has even registered a website with the explicit purpose of "opposing Barack Obama."



While we would not approve of attacks on any of the Democratic candidates in this race, all of whom have good relationships with our union, it is worth noting that AFSCME has chosen to attack only one of those candidates, Barack Obama.



It is also worth noting that the campaign that AFSCME is waging against Sen. Obama is fundamentally dishonest and inconsistent with past positions of our union, i.e. attacking him for not forcing individuals to purchase health care even when they can't afford it. The ads are misleading in attempting to give the impression that they are associated with John Edwards rather than Hillary Clinton and in their claims that Sen. Obama's health care plan will exclude 15 million people when infact every person will have the opportunity to participate. This dishonesty is giving our union a "black eye" among many in the media and the progressive community.


Funnily enough, when I interviewed McEntee back in the spring, he had nothing but nice things to say about Obama. He called the Illinois senator "lightning in a jar" and described how popular he was among the union's Illinois delegation. At AFSCME's national convention in Washington in June, it was Obama, rather than Hillary, who stole the show.

Thus far, Obama has gotten by with scant union support. Another victory in New Hampshire and that could change.

Hillary's Chinatown Express

The Los Angeles Times ran an eyebrow-raising story this morning about how Hillary Clinton is raising money from a highly unlikely source: New York's Chinatown.

"Dishwashers, waiters and others whose jobs and dilapidated home addresses seem to make them unpromising targets for political fundraisers are pouring $1,000 and $2,000 contributions into Clinton's campaign treasury," the paper reports. "In April, a single fundraiser in an area long known for its gritty urban poverty yielded a whopping $380,000."

According to the article, powerful Chinese neighborhood associations pushed residents to donate to the Clinton camp. The source of many of these donations remains a mystery.


The Times examined the cases of more than 150 donors who provided checks to Clinton after fundraising events geared to the Chinese community. One-third of those donors could not be found using property, telephone or business records. Most have not registered to vote, according to public records.



Several dozen were described in financial reports as holding jobs -- including dishwasher, server or chef--that would normally make it difficult to donate amounts ranging from $500 to the legal maximum of $2,300 per election.


The Clinton campaign's response hardly puts the matter to rest. "In this instance, our own compliance process flagged a number of questionable donations and took the appropriate steps to be sure they were legally given," said Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson. "In cases where we couldn't confirm that, the money was returned."

The Edwards campaign was swift to react. "Clinton campaign contributions are raising eyebrows again," said Edward campaign manager David Bonior. "Many of their donors are not even registered to vote, and at least one denied even making any contribution at all."

The article--and the Clinton reaction--raises more questions than answers. Did officials in Chinatown invent the names and identities of campaign donors? If so, why? How involved was Chung Seto, Clinton's liaison to the Asian community and a former executive director of the New York State Democratic Party? How did the Clinton campaign verify the source of these donations? How many potentially illegal donations were eventually returned?

Senate Neocons Provoke Iran

Listen up. Can you hear the drums beating for a third war?

The neocons are in a bubbling rage over Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia University. The pro-surge propagandists at Freedom Watch labeled the Iranian leader a "terrorist" in--of all places--a New York Times ad. Neocon godfather, Giuliani advisor and "World War IV" author Norman Podharetz went to the White House recently to urge President Bush to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities.

And now Senators Jon Kyl and Joe Lieberman, who's already advocated attacking the country, are introducing a sense of the Senate resolution, possibly up for a vote today, that accuses Iran of fighting "a proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq." [SEE UPDATE AT END]

The resolution states that "it is a vital national interest of the United States" to prevent Iran from turning Iraq's Shiite militias into a "Hezbollah-like force" and says that US policy should "combat, contain and roll back the violent activities and destabilizing influence inside Iraq of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, its foreign facilitators such as Lebanese Hezbollah, and its indigenous Iraqi proxies." To accomplish this task, Kyl and Lieberman advocate "the prudent and calibrated use of all instruments of United States national power in Iraq." Finally, the resolution dubs Iran's largest military branch, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, "a foreign terrorist organization."

It's clear where this resolution is going. The Council for a Livable World, one of the more astute peace groups in Washington, says it "could wind up being another in a long line of blank checks provided to the Executive Branch in the mold of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the authorization to use force in Iraq." The line advocating the "prudent and calibrated" use of US power is "a loophole is big enough to drive an aircraft carrier or a fleet of planes through."

Moreover, the case for the next war is as shaky as the last one. "The Kyl-Lieberman amendment is a resolution based almost entirely on falsepremises," the Council states. "The resolution only quotes questionable and unsubstantiated assertions provided by the US military about Iranian involvement in Iraq."

The Council warns that actions like these from the US Senate, while still only symbolic, could lead to serious blowback of the worst kind. "Provocative measures such as the Kyl-Lieberman amendment can lead to a tit-for-tat escalation resulting in military confrontation between the US and Iran. There are no good military options for solving our disagreements with Iran. Military action would only result in disastrous and unintended consequences for U.S. and Israeli interests. If we have learned nothing else from Iraq, it is that there are limitations to the use of military force."

The only thing that neocons have learned from Iraq is that Joe Lieberman should be secretary of state.

UPDATE: A revised resolution, which deleted the sections referenced above about combating, containing and rolling back Iran's influence inside Iraq and using all instruments of US power to do so, passed the Senate this afternoon by a vote of 72-22. Harry Reid, Dick Durbin and Chuck Schumer voted aye. Of the '08 Dems, so did Hillary Clinton. Chris Dodd and Joe Biden voted no. Barack Obama missed the vote.

A Homegrown Doomsday Scenario

Late last month, the US Air Force transported a dozen cruise missiles from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. The cargo, unbeknownst to the crew, included six nuclear warheads, with the power to destory 60 Hiroshimas. As they were moved across the country, the nukes went undetected for 36 hours. In an explosive front page story today, the Washington Post asks the question: "How Could It Have Happened?"

"It was the first known flight by a nuclear-armed bomber over US airspace, without special high-level authorization, in nearly 40 years," Post reporters Walter Pincus and Joby Warrick write. A high-ranking former Air Force official called it "one of the biggest mistakes in [Air Force] history."

The B-52 plane carrying the nukes sat on the tarmac in North Dakota for 15 hours with only minimal security protection. It was not authorized to transport such weapons. The episode, the Post writes, "may not have been a fluke but a symptom of deeper problems in the handling of nuclear weapons now that Cold War anxieties have abated." The military's post-Cold War nuclear safeguard system is described as "utterly debased."

The Bush Administration was repeatedly warned about the potential for security breaches at Air Force instillations housing nuclear weapons. A 2003 Air Force inspector general report, according to the article, "found that half of the 'nuclear security' inspections conducted that year resulted in failing grades." Among those flunking the test was the Minot base in North Dakota. The report attributed the problems to "the demands of supporting combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Democrats Stab MoveOn in the Back

Memo to Democrats: you control the Congress. That means you can decide what bills come to the floor for votes--and what don't. So why, in a week where Republicans blocked the restoration of habeas corpus, voting rights for DC and adequate rest time for our troops between deployments, did you allow Republicans the opportunity to score a cheap PR stunt by approving a resolution condemning a week-old newspaper ad by Moveon.org--on the same day Republicans once again voted to keep indefinitely continuing the Iraq war?!

It boggles the mind. I have no idea what Harry Reid was thinking. Does he think that by repudiating Moveon.org suddenly Fox News will like him? That Ann Coulter will take back all those nasty things she said? That Republicans will stop trying to blame the Democrats for losing this war?

MoveOn has been one of the most effective and persistent voices pushing for progressive change inside the Democratic Party. They helped elect politicians like Jon Tester in Montana and Jim Webb in Virginia, who today stabbed the group in the back. MoveOn didn't start this war. George Bush did. And General Petraeus is keeping it going. They've only been in the majority for nine months, but you'd think by now Democratic leaders in Congress would be able to comprehend the obvious.

A War We Just Might Lose

Written by Matthew Blake:

Back in July, support for the war in Iraq was at an all-time low, with prominent Republican Senators like Richard Lugar of Indiana and Pete Domenici of New Mexico advocating the need for an exit strategy. But then, as the New York Times notes Thursday, the White House unveiled a new campaign to sell the surge.

Key enlistees in this PR effort were Brookings Institution Senior Fellows Michael O'Hanlon and Ken Pollack. Their July 30 New York Times op-ed ("A War We Just Might Win") and endless parade of subsequent public appearances supposedly lent credibility to the idea that US military commander David Petraeus (who invited his old Princeton buddy O'Hanlon over for a visit) was winning over Iraqis, leading to region-by-region improvements and an overall decrease in violence.

On Thursday, O'Hanlon and Pollack assembled at the National Press Club, along with four other Brookings colleagues, to evaluate the surge in the wake of Petraeus' and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker's testimony on Capitol Hill.

The panel reached a consensus that a real change in Iraq policy will only come with a new president. They also agreed--O'Hanlon and Pollack included--that the stated goal of the surge--to create space for political reconciliation--had not been achieved. Yet O'Hanlon and Pollack continued to put a positive spin on the war while their colleagues offered damning indictments.

O'Hanlon and Pollack both spoke of a "Sunni awakening" and credited the US military with gains in specific provinces such as Anbar and Mosul. "Petraeus and Crocker are pragmatic," O'Hanlon said. "They adopted beyond the counterinsurgency manual."

But their Brookings colleagues pointed out that the official name of the surge is the Baghdad Security Plan and Baghdad is neither secured as a city or a site for the national government. "The surge is not meeting its stated goals of buying time for Iraqi leaders to reach political reconciliation," said Brookings Senior Fellow Philip Gordon.

And Gordon and his colleagues directly differed with O'Hanlon and Pollack on the question of whether the surge should be given more time to work.

"The bar for success in Iraq is falling so quickly that we better duck before it hits us on the head," Gordon said. "Whatever happened to a model democracy?"

Brookings Middle East policy expert Bruce Reidel said the opportunity costs in Iraq are too great to stay. "You cannot judge this policy alone," he said. "You put forces in some place and you can't put them somewhere else."

Brookings Senior Fellow Susan Rice, a foreign policy advisor to Senator Barack Obama, spoke of a "fundamental disconnect between our military strategy and the realities on the ground."

"There is an insurgency and a raging civil war," she said. "The surge is a counterinsurgency tactic not relevant to dealing with the civil war."

And moderator Carlos Pascual ended the session noting, "Getting a country in the middle of a war to politically fix themselves is a departure from any historical precedent."

Before the war, Brookings played a major role in drumming up support for the invasion among Democrats. Since then, most of its foreign policy, as evidenced by Thursday's event, have become war opponents. We'll see if these dissenting colleagues get to join O'Hanlon and Pollack on the talk show circuit.

Picking a New AG

This email from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell just hit my inbox: "This Nation Needs A New Attorney General, And It Can't Afford To Wait."

The subhead below read: "Democrats Who Asked For New Leadership Will Soon Have The Opportunity To Expeditiously Confirm A New Attorney General."

In other words, get ready for an announcement--soon--of a new Attorney General.

The rumor mill in Washington says the frontrunner is Ted Olson, the former Bush Administration solicitor general who argued Bush v. Gore.

Back in the 1990s, he helped the American Spectator magazine run its notorious "Arkansas Project," which heaped mounds of dirt, much of it later proven untrue, at the Clintons. Democrats tried to raise the issue at Olson's solicitor general confirmation hearing, but the investigation was stymied by then-Chairman Orrin Hatch, another rumored Attorney General candidate.

"I have become concerned that Mr. Olson has not shown a willingness or ability to be sufficiently candid and forthcoming with the Senate," current Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said in 2001. The Judiciary Committee deadlocked on whether to confirm Olson, by a vote to 9-9, and eventually he was narrowly confirmed by the full Senate, 51-47. Democrats Ben Nelson and Zell Miller (who later left the party) were the only ones to vote aye.

If Olson is selected as AG, will his background as a conservative operative and Bush partisan remain an issue? At least some Democrats think so.

Said Senator Chuck Schmer this week: "Clearly if you made a list of consensus nominees, Olson wouldn't appear on that list."

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