The Nation

Defending Clinton’s Virtual Town Hall

Hillary Clinton is under fire again for planted questions, but this time she did nothing wrong.

Clinton pulled a Perot this week, buying a full hour of national television to directly address voters before Super Tuesday. Her campaign convened a virtual town hall, "Voices Across America," and broadcast it on the Hallmark channel and HillaryClinton.com. On the scale of managed presidential campaign events, it was moderately participatory: more than a one-way stump speech, less than an open coffee klatch in Iowa. Specifically, the campaign screened submitted questions, and then Clinton spoke with selected voters, who were sometimes flanked by endorsers or supportive crowds.

Yet the event was the "opposite of interactive," blogs Zephyr Teachout, former Internet director for the Dean Campaign:

By spreading a video message instead of handling press questions, she used the internet to actually reduce interactivity, instead of increase it--she didn't have to interact with [live] questions...


Teachout is a sharp, passionate analyst of web politics -- I'd recommend her new book about the Dean Campaign to anyone who wants to understand what really went down in 2004. But I think it's a mistake to knock a political event simply because it is not 100% interactive. Sure, one potential benefit of Internet politics is deeper interaction between citizens and their leaders. But another is using the web to route around the filters and elites that separate the candidate from the public. Clinton's town halls and web chats enable voters to hear directly from her, just like Obama's one-way YouTube address. And as I've documented before, the public shows a remarkably high interest in hearing directly from these candidates. We can learn a lot about candidates' plans, policies and character by listening to them, even if it's not in a conversation.

2008-02-09-Picture7.pngVoters in San Francisco watch Clinton's virtual town hall. Photo: Cynthia Anne Kruger

Another key dimension is disclosure, which Teachout also raises. The questions appeared pre-selected, but neither the Hallmark program nor Clinton's website provided much information on that front. The Times' Brian Stelter explains:

Mrs. Clinton participated in what amounted to a one-woman debate. A casual viewer could have mistaken the paid programming, purchased last week by her campaign, for a news broadcast, save for a disclaimer at the beginning ("I'm Hillary Clinton, and I approved this message") and a logo in the corner of the screen that rotated between the words "Hillary" and "Vote Feb. 5."


That approval disclaimer is required by federal law for TV ads. But the FEC has not caught up to virtual campaigning. The rules should require on-screen disclaimers for the entire broadcast, so that all viewers know what they're watching. A banner reading "paid political program" would do the trick.

We can't wait around for campaigns to explain their managed events, either. The FEC should require campaigns to prominently explain the format of these virtual events on their websites. There is nothing wrong with culling questions in advance. (Academic and political panels do it all the time, on the theory that you can only take so many questions about a 9/11 conspiracy.) But obviously, the public has a right to know whether questions are live or pre-selected.

Edwards Primary: A Key Win For Obama

David Obey really did want to vote for John Edwards for president.

In fact, aside from the former candidate himself, there could be few better barometers than the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee for defining where "the Edwards vote" is headed now that his backers must choose between New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

And Obey has made that choice.

"For eight long years, in extreme partisanship, George W. Bush has governed this country by dividing it," the senior Democrat from Wisconsin explained in an email sent to this reporter after we spoke about the race Thursday. "(Bush) has pursued disastrous foreign and domestic policies and has stubbornly refused to listen to anyone's views except those who march in lockstep with him. America desperately needs a new president who can reach across old barriers to form new alliances that can produce a new era of optimism and a healthier respect for the needs of others. I had originally supported John Edwards for President, but with his withdrawal I am voting for Barack Obama."

Obey, who as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee is one of the most powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill, is an economic populist of the old school. No Democrat was angrier about the tax cuts for the rich and the free-trade deals that defined the economic policies of the Bush administration, and few were more frustrated with the compromises of the Clinton administration that came before it.

Obey wants a Democratic president who will work with a Democratic Congress to forge economic policies that favor Main Streets in Wisconsin cities like Wausau, Superior and Ashland rather than Wall Street. For this congressman, the choices are about a lot more more than legislative maneuvers and political positioning. Obey's one of the few really powerful people in Washington who knows the location of every union hall in his home state. And don't get him started talking about trade and economic policies unless you are ready to listen to a lengthy discourse on how successive administrations have let down the factory workers and farmers of his northern Wisconsin district.

Edwards' populist campaign struck a chord with Obey, and with a number of other old-school Democrats who have made economic concerns central to their tenures in Congress. They joined a number of key unions in backing the former senator from North Carolina.

But Edwards is now out of the race. The unions are making their moves: The Transport Workers Union, which represents 140,000 workers nationwide and has long been one of the savviest political players on economic issues, just announced that, "With Senator Edwards out of the race, our officers found it an easy decision to lend our support to the Obama campaign."

And Obey says, "People will, and should, make their own choices, but I believe that, while both remaining candidates would make outstanding presidents, Senator Obama has the best chance of giving this country the new beginning it so desperately needs."

Avoiding a Convention Train Wreck

One thing that's clear after last night, we've got a tough and potentially ugly delegate fight ahead of us for the Democratic nomination. Not only might the unaccountable and undemocratic superdelegates come into play, but the prospect looms of a bitter intra-party battle to seat the Michigan and Florida delegates. The DNC, Governor Dean, and the state parties need to do some serious thinking – starting now – on how to avoid a situation where backroom deals determine the nominee and his or her legitimacy is called into question.

As most people know, the Michigan and Florida delegates aren't supposed to be counted towards determining the nominee, a penalty for unilaterally moving their elections up in the primary season against the party's wishes. The candidates agreed not to campaign in the states, and in fact, only Hillary Clinton appeared on the ballot in Michigan. Once she won both states, her campaign predictably began to argue that these delegates should be counted. This could force the Obama campaign into the unenviable position of looking like they are trying to block voters in two swing states. It's a train wreck waiting to happen – perhaps to be played out before the national media in Denver.

The question is: what can be done to preempt this?

I know that there is a Credentials Committee, and a Rules Committee, and probably even a Committee for the Selection of the Credentials and Rules Committees. I know the delegate process is laid out and explained in the bylaws. But certainly the DNC never anticipated this situation and it calls for a creative and immediate mending of the process.

One proposal is that both Florida and Michigan be permitted to caucus later this spring. It goes without saying that the Clinton forces would reject this. But if the DNC, Governor Dean, state parties, and other prominent Democrats like Jimmy Carter, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, Jesse Jackson, Walter Mondale, Gary Hart, etc. – all called for a fair contest with the candidates competing head-to-head – how long would the Clintons put up a fight? They would move from looking like the defenders of Michigan and Florida voters (the niche they are currently attempting to carve out), to looking like they are once again attempting to "game" the system.

At the very least people need to be reminded that everyone agreed to the earlier decision to strip the states of their delegates – including the Clinton campaign. This fight is not the responsibility of the Obama campaign. It was a party decision, agreed to by all of the candidates, and the party needs to stand by it or come up with a better solution. Seating delegates that Clinton won during a sideshow is unacceptable.

Obama Claims 9-Delegate Win for Super Tuesday

Barack Obama's Campaign wants to make his Super Tuesday victory official.

Campaign Manager David Plouffe says that Obama won 9 more delegates than Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, based on a pledged delegate estimate conducted overnight by analysts in the campaign's Chicago "boiler room." Obama won 845 delegates to Clinton's 836, according to Obama's data team, which includes Democratic targeting buff Ken Strasma and delegate expert Jeff Berman, who caused the AP to reverse its Nevada delegate estimate a few weeks back.

"By winning a majority of delegates and a majority of the states, Barack Obama won an important Super Tuesday victory over Senator Clinton in the closest thing we have to a national primary," Plouffe told reporters on Wednesday. Senior Clinton strategists depicted Clinton as an energized underdog in a media conference call on Wednesday, contending that voters are rejecting Obama's "establishment" campaign.

The Clinton Campaign has not released its own estimate, so Obama's spreadsheet may be all we have to go on for a while. These numbers refer to Super Tuesday only -- not to the total count of delegates from prior states or the party's mercurial, "elite contingent" of superdelegates.


Hillary's Latino Appeal

The 2008 race for the Democratic presidential nomination will produce the first African-American president or the first woman president.

On Super Tuesday, according to exit polls, African-American voters continued to give Obama important wins in states where they were often definitional players -- Alabama, Georgia, Illinois and, most notably, Missouri.

Obama's overall margin among African-American voters who cast ballots in the almost two-dozen Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses was very close to what a general election lead for a Democratic nominee: 82 percent for the Illinois senator to 17 percent for New York Senator Hillary Clinton. Even in states he lost, Obama's strong African-American support kept him competitive in the race for delegates. Look at Hillary Clinton's New York, where African-American Democrats made up 14 percent of the overall electorate and favored Obama 61-37 -- though, significantly, Clinton won 43 percent of African-American women.

Female voters gave Clinton essential victories all across the country on Super Tuesday. She was winning roughly 60 percent of the votes of white women in states where white men -- freed up by the exit of populist John Edwards -- were dividing up about evenly between the candidates. Clinton's surprisingly easy wins in Massachusetts, New Jersey and several other key states were products of those wide margins among women.

In California, men broke 46-45 for Obama, according to exit polls. Women went 59-34 for Clinton.

Says National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy, "The women's vote carried Hillary Clinton to victory in delegate-rich states that will put her ahead in the ultimate delegate count. Her historic race has energized the gender gap, which is key because women make up the majority of voters in the general election. The gender gap, a significant margin among Hispanic voters, and confidence in her strength on the economy will all give Clinton a strong advantage against John McCain in November."

But couldn't the same be said of African-American voters? In most places where it mattered, yes.

So who is deciding a lot of the key race: Hispanics.

And they are voting for Clinton.

As they had in the Nevada caucuses last month, Hispanics gave Clinton essential wins in California and Arizona. They helped her along in New Jersey. Even in states where Obama was winning, Clinton's strength among Hispanic voters kept her in the running for delegates. For instance, in Obama's Illinois, Latino Democrats made up 15 percent of the Democratic primary electorate. They split 51 percent for Clinton, 48 percent for Obama.

Ultimately, Hispanics favored Clinton by a 2-1 margin nationally. In the state where it mattered most, California, Latino Democrats gave Clinton 73 percent of the vote.

If Clinton secures the nomination, it will be the Hispanic vote that will have carried her across the line in the races she had to win.

In the midst of a fight over immigration that has so frequently seen Republicans target them for attack, Hispanics have moved in increasing numbers into the Democratic camp.

And they are now playing a potentially definitional role.

That role is as the essential component of Hillary Clinton's coalition.

If these trends continues, and if she wins the nomination, Clinton will -- in the electoral sense that politicians tend to take most seriously -- be the first Hispanic president.

Super Tuesday Live Video

Watch the Young Turks and Brave New Films coverage of the Super Tuesday voting results with a raft of special guest commentators, including The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel, Senators Sherrod Brown, Edward Kennedy and Barbara Boxer, Dolores Huerta, Howard Dean, Alexandra Acker, and Arianna Huffington. (Media player should pop up. Let me know in comments field if you're having problems.)

Alt Spring Break

I know I'm asking to be ignored with a non-Super Tuesday post on the largest primary day in US history. But there's more to politics than elections and no matter who occupies the White House for the next four years, any progressive legislation will need a major push from below to succeed.

One of the best things about the current election is that the unprecedented involvement by young people in both organizing and voting has put to rest, hopefully for good, the old canard that young people are apathetic.

The emergence of alternative spring breaks are a good example of the engagement of today's students. There's nothing wrong with partying at the beach but Alt Spring Breaks offer something more meaningful to do during a week off from classes than hanging out, jetting off to a resort or catching up on school work.

Taking place in Austin, Texas from March 10 to 14, the 2008 Anti-Death Penalty Spring Break, organized by Texas Students Against the Death Penalty and co-sponsored by Campus Progress, Amnesty International and Texas Moratorium Network, among numerous other good groups, will draw national attention to the continued use of capital punishment in the US. The specific purpose of this Alternative Spring Break is to bring students to Austin for five days of anti-death penalty activism, education and entertainment.

Why Texas? The Lone Star State leads the nation by far in number of executions. Texas performed twenty-six executions in the US in 2007--a full 62 percent of all the executions in the country. Since the US Supreme Court ruling in 1976 that allowed executions to resume after a four-year period during which they were considered unconstitutional, there have been 1099 executions in the United States. Texas has performed 405 of those executions, which amounts to about 37 percent of the national total despite possessing about 7.4 percent of the nation's population.

Participants will gain training and experience in grassroots organizing, lobbying, direct actions and media relations. During the week, students will put what they learn into action for activities such as a Death Penalty Issues Lobby Day and a Direct Action Day. There will be opportunities to write press releases, speak publicly, meet with legislators and aides, and conceive and carry anti-death penalty actions.

Perhaps the most brilliant move of all was planning these protest activities to coincide with Austin's legendary South By Southwest Music Festival. SXSW is one of the many reasons that Austin is known as the Live Music Capital of the World. The Alt Spring Break activities will leave lots of time to see the shows. And don't think this activist version of spring break will forgo the glitz--the events from Austin will be featured on an MTV show featuring alternatives to beer and beaches.

Click here for info on the activities, subsidized housing and transportation and to register for the week. It's entirely free of charge. If you're not a student you can help make it possible for more activists to participate by donating to Texas Students Against the Death Penalty.

Since it is Super Tuesday and virtually all Nation bloggers have weighed in on their primary choice, I thought, for the few who are interested, that I might as well join my colleagues in publicly announcing that I also voted for Obama today. Between him and Hillary I thought it was a no-brainer.

Bush Defense Budget

As the poor and middle-class continue to bear the brunt of these hard economic times, struggling to pay for housing, food, heating and health care, the Pentagon today announced its request of $515.4 billion for its 2009 budget. (The Bush budget later revealed a correction – the request is actually $518.3 billion – the Pentagon "forgot" $2.9 billion of "permanent appropriations.")

According to the New York Times, this seven percent increase would make annual military spending, when adjusted for inflation, its highest level since World War II. Further, the budget request doesn't even include war funding, nuclear weapons programs, taking care of returning veterans, or covering the interest on defense spending's share of the debt. The Bush Administration has already increased "baseline military spending" by 30 percent since taking office, and the $70 billion Iraq supplemental alone was more than China's entire defense budget.

Meanwhile, the Bush Budget fails to address – and even exacerbates – real threats to security that Americans are experiencing every day. More people are going hungry, and the President proposes eliminating food stamp coverage for more than 300,000 people in low-income working families with children. More people can't pay their bills, and he would cut 22 percent from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The Community Services Block Grant, "a $654 million program that provides housing, nutrition, education and job services to low-income people," would be eliminated. The Hope VI housing program would also be killed. Representative Spencer Bachus of Alabama, one of 53 House Republicans who voted to support the program, told the Times, "The program has been a success. It has eliminated some of the most dangerous and distressed public housing in the country and created livable, mixed-income communities."

Also proposed are $170 billion in cuts to Medicare and $14 billion to Medicaid. Of course, tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans who are eating, sleeping, and generally living just fine, thanks, are preserved. As Frances Fox Piven, author of The War at Home: The Domestic Costs of Bush's Militarism, said today, "American wealth is being redirected toward the military and the rich. Meanwhile, the growing needs of Americans, especially the poor and the old, are being ignored. The instabilities in the US economy now becoming evident are more and more worrisome."

Joseph Cirincione, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of Bomb Scare, told me, "The president's plan shows that the military-industrial complex has firm control of a budget now out of control. Given the growing financial crisis gripping this country, no one believes that these numbers are sustainable. But rather than make smart choices and begin a process that restores fiscal discipline, President Bush is spending like – well – like he's not going to be here next year when the bills come due." Cirincione points to Bush's missile defense requests to indicate the absurdity of the proposed budget: "Take just one number that illustrates the unreality of this unaffordable plan – $720 million for a Rube Goldberg anti-missile weapon system in eastern Europe. Intelligence assessments show that Iran does not have now – nor is it likely to have in the next ten years – a missile that could threaten Europe, let alone the United States.

Nevertheless the president is rushing to pour money that we don't have, on technology that doesn't work, to counter a threat that doesn't exist. Not only that, Bush wants to spend $4.5 billion over the next five years on a European anti-missile system that hasn't passed even basic tests, and which many experts believe will never work. The citizens in Poland and the Czech Republic, where Bush would house these weapons, don't want the bases. But Bush is still trying to force it down their throats, even as real domestic needs at home go unfunded. The Alaskan ‘bridge to nowhere' achieved political infamy for being a $1 billion budget item. This ‘weapon for nothing' has four times the cost and even less justification."

For Americans whose lives are threatened daily by how hard it is to make ends meet, the Bush defense budget is indeed just another Bridge to Nowhere.

The Race Trap

Observing Barack Obama run for president has been like watching a home movie blown up into a glorious, IMAX blockbuster spectacle. It's been more than a little unnerving to see the thread of something so familiar writ so large. But there he has been on TV, in the newspapers and in front of stadium-size crowds, winning the lavish praise of white liberals (you don't get more lavish or more white liberal than Caroline Kennedy's endorsement). At the same time, he's patiently borne the skepticism of his fellow minorities, slowly garnering their support. Every day he risks igniting the wrath of either clan. Run too far away from the Sharptons and the Jacksons, and you get tarred a race traitor. Run without the Kennedy-liberal establishment, and you become nothing more than a race man, a mouthpiece for the ghetto. Suspicion abounds on all sides; trust is always hard-won. This is the gauntlet of American racial politics that Barack Obama has skillfully navigated to date, and every model minority knows the wily tricks he has had to use in this game of representation.

I won't go so far as to call Obama "the first Asian American" presidential candidate--though the metaphor might suit him just as well as Bill Clinton's coat of blackness once did--but he is our first "model minority" candidate if you consider model minority-ness a matter of situation. The term might just as well accommodate the pioneering black lawyer or the postcolonial subject on a special visa from the tropics. It is the racial other that both represents and transcends race itself [see Patricia Williams], and whatever the unlikelihood of blood relation, there is something that I (a "high-achieving," Korean American scholarship boy) recognize in him (the Kenyan American Senator with the Harvard JD). It is this recognition that both attracts me to and, frankly, repels me from Barack Obama as a presidential candidate.

At times I have watched him speak and been struck with awe--not at his eloquence or charisma--but at the sheer nerve with which he's executed the model minority role. Indeed, he has flaunted his racial virtuosity throughout his campaign--nowhere more so than in his South Carolina victory speech when, having turned the tables on the Clintons' race-baiting strategy and won with 24 percent of the white vote and 78 percent of the black vote in a state where the Confederate flag flies in front of the Capitol and blacks are far more likely than whites to be in jail, foreclosure or poverty, he had the chutzpah to say that he did not "see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina" but rather "South Carolina" while the mixed crowd below chanted "Race doesn't matter!"

What cunning! What mad skillz! You have to applaud the magician's sleight of hand, even as you wince at how easily, how desperately the audience suspended their disbelief.

But believe they have and in droves as Obama evokes race only to transcend it, indeed to attach its transcendence to his own political victory. Any minority who's tried to leverage their success on behalf of others might find a glimmer of recognition in this trick of racial rhetoric: what's good for me is good for other people of color is good for us all. There is always some lie, some whiff of venality in this equation--some uneasy way in which personal ambition, the politics of racial representation and the fuzzy unity of institution (or country) must be spoken of in one tongue. Obama has proven himself remarkably good at this alchemy. But his Kennedy-meets-King stylistics can only hold so much together for so long; at some point push must come against shove--and what will Obama do then? As much as I don't always trust myself in such situations, I also don't trust him.

Case in point: in yesterday's Slate the ersatz liberal Richard Kahlenberg made an appeal to Obama to win the working-class white vote by selling out blacks and Latinos on affirmative action. As Bill Clinton ended welfare as we know it, could an Obama presidency end affirmative action? Kahlenberg practically salivates at the possibility. It's a move, he argues, that would befit the "tough liberalism" of RFK--who took a "colorblind approach," opposed "racial preferences" and "called for a crackdown on violent crime." By ending race-based affirmative action in favor of class-based affirmative action, Obama could not only demonstrate that he is, once again, "forcefully reject[ing] identity politics" but also win over that key Hillary contingency--the white, working class.

As a matter of strategy, who knows if Kahlenberg is right; he's clearly masking an ideological agenda as merely savvy tactics. But it's not hard to imagine a scenario where President Obama is confronted with such choices. Already on the ballots this year are five state initiatives (in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma), to ban affirmative action. Modeled after Ward Connerly's successful backlash bids in California and Michigan, such measures are perfect wedge issues for Republicans. Indeed, in terms of peeling off voters from the Democratic party, anti-affirmative action initiatives hold much more promise than anti-gay marriage drives--which succeeded in turning out the evangelical base for the GOP, but not in making party converts. Let's say that Connerly is successful this year in getting his initiatives through. Aided by "tough liberals" like Kahlenberg, could 2010 or 2011 see a federal, anti-affirmative action measure? What about posing affirmative action as a kind of "litmus test" for judicial nominees?

Kahlenberg for one believes that Obama would support the end of affirmative action, noting with approval his reply to George Stephanopoulos' own race-trap question. Would Obama want his daughters to get into college on the basis of racial preferences? Obama's response: "I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged...I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed."

It's a worthy duck on Obama's part, taking a page from John Edwards' economic populism while deflecting the matter of structural racism--as Obama has on other issues like criminal justice, the death penalty and sub-prime mortgages. But it does beg the question: what would Obama do when his own rhetoric of "race doesn't matter" comes back in the form of a civil rights backlash? Having built no groundwork for leading on racial justice--how long can he evade the race traps, not from the fringe-right, but from the center?

All this said, I'm going to vote for Obama today anyway. He's a better choice for progressives than Hillary Clinton (as others have laid out in this magazine). And moreover, I vote for him, at least in part, with admiration at the cunning and bravado with which he's played the game. I salute his audacity.

But hope? Hope for a day when the traps of race might not just be evaded, but genuinely, truly dismantled? For me, Obama does not offer that hope--only trepidation.