After 19 debates between eight Democratic presidential candidates, then seven, then six, then four, then two, it is easy enough to think that there is nothing left to be said by the remaining contenders: Illinois Senate Barack Obama and New York Senator Hillary Clinton.
In fact, what is said during tonight's debate at Cleveland State University is likely to matter more than what was said at all the debates that came before it.
No matter what words are used, no matter how messages are delivered, no matter who gives the evil eye or the warm pat on the back to who, it will have meaning.
That's because the 20th debate could be the last in this marathon race for the Democratic nomination.
There is no question that Obama is surging. He has won 11 primary and caucus contests since Super Tuesday, the last voting day on which Clinton or her increasingly dispirited campaign team could claim anything akin to bragging rights. Obama now leads in commitments from pledged delegates – those chosen by the voters – and is rapidly closing the gap among uncommitted "super-delegates." He has a 3-1 fund-raising advantage. He has just secured many of the most coveted union endorsements – from the Service Employees, the Teamsters and their Change-to-Win coalition – and his new backers are already spending freely on his behalf. Newspaper editorial pages in Ohio and Texas – which will hold critical primaries on March 4 – are busily outlining reasons to vote for the Illinoisan. And it is certainly reasonable to suggest that Obama is positioned to secure the majority of delegates chosen on March 4; he's pulling close or ahead in Ohio and Texas and even if he were to lose by narrow margins in those states, he's likely to win very big in at least one other state that will be voting that day, Vermont. Then there are the new national polls that show the Illinois senator opening a wide lead over Clinton among Democrats – 54-38 in the fresh New York Times/CBS News survey, with a tie among women and a better than 2-1 advantage among men – and running stronger than his rival in mock-ups of a fall contest with Republican John McCain.
And what of Clinton?
Husband Bill, who has proven to be about as useful to Hillary Clinton prospects in 2008 as former Florida Congressman Mark Foley was to House Republicans in 2006, has as much as said that he can't see his wife continuing as a serious contestant if she fails the Ohio and Texas tests. If that wasn't bad enough, the Clinton campaign is veering wildly from conciliatory language, like the candidate's "I am honored to be here with Barack Obama" close of last week's debate in Austin, and body blows, like Clinton's Saturday suggestion that the Obama camp is borrowing tactics from arch-Republican Karl Rove.
For Obama, who has been less than enthusiastic about debating of late, tonight's forum is not without its perils. The revered political speaker of the moment is still only an O.K. debater.
Though he has had a few good performances, he has yet to actually "win" a Democratic debate. And he has lost a few. At once long-winded and vague, and frequently sharper in his barbs than the candidate's nice-guy image suggests possible – as when he edgily pronounced Clinton "likeable enough" in a New Hampshire debate -- Obama has yet to master the forensic competition that may matter most in a fall fight with McCain.
Still, Obama does not need to win anything tonight. Moderators, questioners, pundits and viewers remain inclined to cut the senator slack. And they will probably keep doing so until right around the time that he moves from frontrunner status to that of presumptive nominee. If Obama simply holds his own, as he did admirably last week, he'll keep rising in the polls.
The Clinton corollary to all this is, of course, that if Barack only must hold his own, Hillary absolutely must prevail. We're not talking about winning "on points" here. Clinton needs a knock out. And she needs it not on some "change you can Xerox" cheap shot, like the one that failed her so miserably in the Austin debate, but on a substantive point of difference between the campaigns.
The Clinton camp has in recent days been preaching a "Get Real" gospel that continues, in somewhat gentler form, the suggestion of Bill Clinton that there is a fairytale aspect to the Obama run. That's not exactly a winning line. A winning line would clearly connect Obama's failure to support a mortgage-foreclosure freeze to his support from the banking industry, or dramatize the discussion of what Obama's refusal to commit to universal health care reform means for real people are really sick.
The problem for Clinton, of course, is that her campaign is awash in corporate contributions and her health care plan is universally flawed.
So Clinton is in a corner, with few options. She has already teared up. She has already gone gracious. In recent days, she has besmirched Obama and played at being amused by him. None of it has worked very well – while the moist eyes in New Hampshire may have yielded transitory benefits, nothing of the win in that state has proven to be sustainable – and the time clock is running out.
The stakes have never been higher. Clinton will win tonight, or she will almost certainly lose the nomination to Obama. The distractions are gone. The excuses have run out. This debate matters because there will only be another one if Hillary Clinton has figured out how to change the shape of things to come.
The White House will do everything it can to push its reckless, European-based missile defense plan forward. Not only is there growing citizen opposition in the host countries to the proposed ten interceptor missiles in Poland and radar military base in the Czech Republic, but the system fuels a new arms race and militarism that is a far greater threat to our national security than any nuclear missile from Iran it would purportedly defend against.
As Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund and author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons told me last year, "President Bush is rushing to deploy a technology that does not work against a threat that does not exist."
But even worse than this rush to deployment is the destabilizing impact it has on relations with Russia and the prospects for real security and peace. Joanne Landy and Thomas Harrison--co-directors of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy--recently wrote in Foreign Policy In Focus, "When the Soviet Union first built a limited missile defense system in the late 1960s, the United States responded by building up a nuclear strike strategy to overwhelm the new technology. The cycle of nuclear one-upmanship was partially halted by the ABM Treaty, but then the Bush administration withdrew from the treaty in 2002. Now… history repeats itself, but the table has been turned. Today it is the United States building a limited missile defense system… and it is the Russians who say they need to target it to maintain the effectiveness of their deterrent. The Cold War may be over, but military and policy planners in both countries still think in Cold War terms."
Landy and Harrison also point out while opposition to the proposed US installations gathers strength within Poland and the Czech Republic, many in the US peace movement don't know about the European-based system, which costs over $1 billion annually, further erodes our international reputation and fuels a new Cold War. "This issue feeds into the mistrust of America that Europeans feel on a host of Bush Administration policies from global warming to Iraq," Cirincione says.
These are times, reminiscent of another Cold War era, when transnational, across-border-mobilization, activism and solidarity becomes so important. US peace groups should join with the grassroots opposition in Poland and Czech Republic--organizations like the No Bases Initiative (NBI) which has spearheaded Czech popular opposition to the installation of the US base--to take on this plan. As Landy and Harrison point out, "the Bush Administration hopes to override resistance in the Czech Republic and Poland and finalize agreements with both countries within the next few months."
It is essential, they write, "that activists on both sides of the Atlantic work to derail this agreement."
It is also important to call on presidential candidates and Congress to speak out – not only on the system's technological shortcomings which have been demonstrated through testing, but the fundamentally flawed approach of a militaristic, imperial foreign policy. Barack Obama supports the abolition of nuclear weapons (as do Former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn) through a plan that accords with the Non-Proliferation Treaty's mandate that the nuclear powers reduce and abolish nuclear weapons. Obama has also been a leader in the Senateon nuclear non-proliferation issues. Hillary Clinton has not signaled her support for a nuclear-free world. And then, of course, there is John McCain. He's as militarist in orientation toward Russia and gung ho for the arms race as he is about staying in Iraq for 100 years. He said, "The first thing I would do is make sure that we have a missile defense system in place [in Poland and the Czech Republic]."
As the end of the Bush Administration nears – a reign defined by reckless subversion of bipartisan arms control agreements – The Nation, unlike too many in our media, is committed to stopping this escalating arms race and averting the danger of a new cold war between the US and Russia.
Jacob Hacker wades into the great mandate debate this morning in the LA Times. He argues that the sturm und drang over mandates is overblown:
Still, I do not believe that the individual mandate is essential to healthcare reform, as its supporters suggest. That's because Obama and Clinton have rightly rejected reform based on the individual purchase of insurance, choosing instead to allow most people to obtain subsidized coverage through their employers. By emphasizing the individual mandate, Clinton is shifting attention from this fundamental and popular feature of her (and Obama's) approach and actually may be hurting the cause she cares so deeply about.
The cornerstone of both Clinton's and Obama's plans is the same: Employers must provide coverage to their workers or enroll them in a new, publicly overseen insurance pool. People in this pool could choose either a public plan modeled after Medicare or from regulated private plans. Both candidates have promised help for middle- and lower-income Americans, and both have said they will cut costs through administrative streamlining, prevention and quality improvement.
The Obama and Clinton plans, by contrast, get most of their mileage out of requiring that employers provide good coverage or help pay for publicly sponsored insurance. As a result, they can sign up most people -- the 95% or so of nonelderly Americans who have some tie to the workforce -- automatically at their place of work.
If enrollment is automatic for virtually all Americans, the big question is whether premiums can be kept low enough that people will want to keep the coverage (or, in the case of Clinton's plan, won't be forced to pay too much). This in turn depends on the generosity of federal subsidies. The federal price tag for Clinton's plan is usually cited as $110 billion a year; for Obama's plan, $50 billion to $65 billion. But the Clinton campaign estimates that her plan will save the federal government $56 billion, so she proposes almost the same amount of new federal spending as Obama does.
This syncs up with some of what I've been reading and hearing on the issue. On a slightly different note, during a recent episode of Bloggingheads Ezra Klein and I discussed the case against mandates from the left.
Bipartisan support for reforming the two-decade-old federal sentencing structure that treats crack cocaine offenses one hundred times more severely than crimes involving powder cocaine is growing in Congress. (Click here for why this disparity is both absurd and racist.)
The Senate Crime and Drugs Subcommittee held historic hearings on the issue two weeks ago. Today, almost a dozen advocacy groups are co-sponsoring a national lobby day, bringing in voters from Alabama, California, Maryland, Texas, Virginia and others states to pressure key members of Congress to eliminate the disparity. You can help by joining the Drug Policy Alliance's campaign by calling your two US Senators and urging them to eliminate the crack/powder disparity by supporting S. 1711, The Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act. If you can't call today, call as soon as you can this week. Just click here for phone numbers and talking points.
The Drug Policy Alliance is the nation's leading organization working to end the war on drugs. Among many other activities, the group hosts an annual International Drug Policy Reform Conference. Check out an online archive of last year's conference in New Orleans, where you can see photos, watch videos, hear panel audio and read media stories and blog posts about the conference and the ideas expressed for new drug policies based on science, compassion, health and human rights.
While over its tenure, the Bush administration has increased baseline military spending by 30% to fight a global "war on terror," this month with the release of the President's last budget, Bush delivered a final, parting blow to 9/11 victims of terror at home.
According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the cost of treating sick ground zero workers has reached $195 million a year, a cost likely to expand. Nevertheless, Bush's proposed budget cuts 2009 funding for 9/11 healthcare to $25 million--a 77% drop from the previous year's appropriations.
Meanwhile this December, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt eliminated plans for the center that would treat the 10,000-plus First Responders suffering health problems as the result of their service after the attacks.
First Responders are rallying today on the West Lawn for Congressional action.
It seemed an apt coincidence of timing that as legal scholars and industry representatives debated the future of the internet at yesterday's FCC hearing at Harvard Law School, here in Washington, the House was holding somewhat more anachronistic-sounding hearings on railroad antitrust enforcement.
As Tim Wu put it at a Free Press panel on net neutrality earlier this month, at the turn of the century, the railroad was the new technology driving commerce in the United States. Likewise today, high-speed cable internet is the U.S. economy's new highway. So by blocking or discriminating against competitors' content--as both Verizon and Comcast have done--cable giants are not only protecting their own bottom line, they are crippling America's innovation economy, possibly for good. (A particularly odious turnaround when you consider that cable networks were heavily financed by government tax breaks and guaranteed returns.)
Yet net neutrality isn't just a question of whether Comcast allows us to download high-speed online TV, or the size of our monthly cable bills (which, since 1996, have gone up 93 percent). It's also at the heart of what's inspiring about the Internet: its democratic latitude. Yes, it's a political question (it doesn't take more than Verizon blocking subscribers' ability to receive NARAL Pro-Choice text messages to see that); it's also a question of connectivity and communication.
Our modern-day railroad barons would like to turn the Internet into their own private toll roads, the equivalent of cable television, with users reduced to passive content consumers. We can't let them.
5. Make an issue of Obama's acknowledged drug use.6. Allow some supporters to risk being accused of using the race card when criticizing Obama....11. Emphasize Barack Hussein Obama's unusual name and exotic background through a Manchurian Candidate prism.
Aside from this being gratuitous and morally blinkered, I'm wondering what exactly Halperin thought the value-added of this post was. If he wants to be a campaign strategist for the McCain campaign (or any other for that matter), I'm sure he could get a job doing just that. But he's, in name at least, a journalist, with some basic responsibility to provide his readers with insight into the race. There's no insight in this list -- every attack he mentions has been made in the wingnut'osphere and in emails. So, really, what's the point? As far as I can tell it's mostly to burnish a reputation as being a savvy and unsentimental insider. If you were looking for artifacts to collect under the heading Why People Hate The Media, this would be at the top of the list.
Last week, we broke a story about Pentagon general counsel William Haynes, the man charged with impartially overseeing the tribunals at Guantanamo telling a subordinate that "[they]can't have acquittals." Yesterday, came word that Haynes has resigned. We always get our man.
Of course it would have been great if Stanford Law professor Lawrence Lessig had run for an open San Francisco Bay-area congressional seat on the reform platform he proposed.
Lessig, a pioneering battler against digital monopolies in the Internet age, would have been an exceptionally welcome addition to a Congress where senior members still admit that they don't really know how to use computers. And if Lessig had arrived in the manner he imagined -- as a proponent of fundamental reforms in the way the political process operates – it would have been a great moment for those who want the word of the moment, "change," to mean something.
Lessig, brave enough to take on Microsoft and smart enough to challenge federal copyright laws that are as corrupt as they are outdated, might even have figured out how to get the House talking in a serious manner about the campaign finance and ethics initiatives that are the "dreams deferred" of contemporary American politics. And if his "Change Congress" project succeeded, he might even have gotten Congress functioning again, as a check and balance against executive excess, a chain on the dogs of way, a facilitator of the common good and all the other purposes intended by the founders.
Lessig proposed to run in the April 8 open primary to fill a seat vacated by the death of California Congressman Tom Lantos, a Democrat who had represented San Francisco and communities to its south for the better part of three decades. When he began exploring a possible run last week, the popular blogger explained, "My goal is to get Democrats and Republicans to agree on some fundamental principles that need to be reformed so Congress regains the confidence of the people."
Everyone who has known and worked with Lessig on internet freedom issues and for the broader progressive agenda he supported got excited about the prospect of this campaign. A "Draft Lessig" internet campaign raised $35,000 to encourage his candidacy.
But then reality set in.
To make any of the changes he proposed – indeed, even to shake up the system enough to make those changes imaginable -- Lessig would need to be a viable contender for the seat representing California's overwhelmingly Democratic 12th District.
That was unlikely to happen, even in this year of unlikely political developments.
Lessig lacked the name recognition and the broad support that had already gone to the leading contender for the seat, former state Senator Jackie Speier. A veteran local and state official with solid liberal – if perhaps not radical reformer -- credentials, Speier is supported by California U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, as well as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. She even earned an endorsement from Lantos, who had decided not to seek reelection and endorsed her as his replacement before his death.
Even as an author, lecturer and legal champion who is genuinely respected in the Silicon Valley, and as a hero of the "netroots" politicos who got so enthused about his prospective candidacy, Lessig would have had a hard time mounting a serious challenge to Speier, who has a compelling personal story, has won elections in every part of the district and has earned a deserved reputation as a serious consumer advocate.
After a little bit of polling and a lot of consultation with friends and allies, Lessig came to the conclusion that, "Certainly, we would have lost this race in a big way." He also determined that, "My running and losing big would do more harm than good" to the "Change Congress" project he hopes that other candidates will embrace.
"Losing big in the first important battle is not an effective strategy," explained Lessig.
That may be true. And no one who is serious about politics will have much criticism for Lessig's decision.
Still, we should acknowledge that something important has been lost.
The prospect of "Congressman Larry Lessig" was energizing. It inspired hope, as does the potential candidacy of anyone so able and so well intended.
Might it have been the false hope we have heard so much about during the course of the current race for the Democratic presidential nomination? Lessig worried that this could be the case, and he chose to guard against it -- which only made those of us who thought he had the makings of a great congressman think it all the more.
Lessig made a politically realistic decision for which he should be respected.
But it's O.K. to be disappointed.
Visionary realists are rare enough in politics. We can't afford to have too many talk themselves out of running for Congress if there is to be any honest hope of fixing a broken system.
Reagan Democrats played a key role in electing a new present in 1980; now Obama Republicans seem to be emerging as a significant political force - at least in the primaries.
In the Wisconsin primary, almost nine per cent of Obama's vote came from Republicans, according to exit polls. Other states that permitted Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary include Virginia, where almost seven per cent of Obama's support came from Republicans - and the Democrats dream of carrying Republican Virginia in the fall. In Missouri, almost six per cent of Obama's support came from Republicans. Missouri is a key swing state that has voted for the winner in every presidential election since 1904 except one.
The next state where Republicans are permitted to vote in the Democratic primary is Texas.
The Republicans-for-Obama phenomenon is a response in part to the Illinois senator's speech about transcending partisanship - a speech which is not just a naive expression of sentiment, but rather a calculated political tactic aimed at winning independents and Republicans. Many middle-of-the-road Republicans voted for Bush because he claimed to be a "compassionate conservative"; many of them are appalled by the war and concerned about the environment; some of them support gay rights and access to abortion.
A few big-name Republicans have led the move to Obama, including Rhode Island's former senator Lincoln Chafee, a well-known as a moderate; he was defeated in 2004, and Obama campaigned for his opponent. Other Republicans for Obama include Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of the president, and Tom Bernstein, a longtime Bush fund-raiser - he was co-owner of the Texas Rangers with Bush.
"Republicans for Obama" has a website and a string of favorable press clips, including a feature story on Monday on page one of the LA Times . At one Obama phone bank in Ohio, the Times reported, four of the 13 volunteers were lifelong Republicans. One of them, Josh Pedaline, 28, who voted for Bush twice, said "I'm a conservative, but I have gay friends. . . I don't feel like Obama is condemning me for being a Republican."
The Austin American-Statesman ran a story on Monday headlined "Obama campaign attracting disenchanted Republicans; 'Obamacans' could be out in force for the Texas open primary on March 4." The Texas paper quoted Jack Holt, a former marine and lifelong Republican who supported Bush and McCain the past, saying "The Republican Party has become so ugly and so arrogant, I don't want to have any part of it."
However as of Monday the Texas Republicans for Obama online petition had a total of 21 signatures. The Ohio petition had eight.
Those pathetic numbers raise the question: how successful can Obama be at winning Republican votes - first in Texas and Ohio, and then - assuming he wins the nomination -- nation-wide in November? Experts caution that partisanship remains a significant force even in 2008, and that registered Republicans are extremely likely to vote for their party in November, despite their disgust with Bush and Cheney.
Of course even small numbers can be significant, as we learned in Florida in 2000. Obama is far more likely to win Republican votes in November than Clinton. John Zogby, the pollster, told the Austin Statesman, "There really is such a thing as an Obama Republican. This group tends to be politically moderate, tired of bickering and even more tired of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. It is part of the unique appeal that Obama has among centrist voters, independent thinkers and those concerned with America's image overseas."
Obama himself often talks about his Republican supporters in campaign rallies. "They whisper to me. They say, 'Barack, I'm a Republican, but I support you.' And I say, 'Thank you. Why are we whispering?'"