September 13, 2012

Benghazi dispatch

This is probably the best analysis I've seen so far of the Benghazi bloodshed.

What's missing from a lot of the on-air commentary -- and Mitt Romney's bellicose attack on President Obama for sending "mixed messages" that he believes spurred the attack -- is the fact that the world, and the Middle East, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, is a "complicated and, at times, confounding."

In-depth reporting by, among others, Rachel Maddow makes it plain that there may be a lot of factors behind the devastating attack besides an obscure, really bad, blasphemous film: Islamic extremists, frustrated, angry youth idled by the slack post-revolutionary economy, and general instability in a nation that's trying to figure out its own future.

For my money, this paragraph gets to the heart of it:

No specific group claimed responsibility for the attack, which was well orchestrated and involved heavy weapons. It is thought to be the work of the same Salafi, ultra-religious groups who have perpetrated similar assaults in Benghazi. They are religious, authoritarian groups who justify their actions through very selective, corrupt, and ultimately self-serving interpretations of Islam. Under Qaddafi, they kept quiet. In the early days of the revolution some of them claimed that fighting Qaddafi was un-Islamic and conveniently issued a fatwa demanding full obedience to the ruler. This is Libya’s extreme right. And, while much is still uncertain, Tuesday’s attack appears to have been their attempt to escalate a strategy they have employed ever since the Libyan revolution overthrew Colonel Qaddafi’s dictatorship. They see in these days, in which the new Libya and its young institutions are still fragile, an opportunity to grab power. They want to exploit the impatient resentments of young people in particular in order to disrupt progress and the development of democratic institutions

After a day of leaving Mitt Rimney twisting in the wind over his hamfisted, callus and bellicose statements on the deaths of the US ambassador to Libya, it seems as though the GOP is taking reluctant, belated steps in bucking up their nominee.

As unrest in Tripoli and Cairo, Egypt, continues today -- and reporters sifted through evidence the attack was planned and had little to do with an offensive, provocative anti-Islam film -- Sen. John McCain blames the attacks on Obama and the perception of American military weakness.  Ditto Donald Rumsfeld, although why anyone would listen to Rummy on matters of foreigh policy is a mystery to me.

Yet the assault on Romney's assault on the administration continues to be picked apart for fallacies, errors in timing and outright lies.  And the defense of Romney, in addition to being a day late, looks to be more than a dollar short, hewing to Republican talking points issued in the wake of yesterday's debacle.

Gail Collins, the floor is yours.

September 12, 2012

That was my initial reaction to Mitt Romney's wooden, tin-eared, desperate statement to the slayings of Chris Stevens, US ambassador to Libya.  It was unbelieveable, and typical of a candidate that carries the whiff of desperation with each passing day. 

It's unfortunate that Romney's blunder has overshadowed the death of a man who by all accounts was a skilled diplomat, one that even Condoleezza "Bin Laden Determined To Attack the U.S." Rice praised as a man worthy of the most difficult diplomatic assignments in the Mideast.  Given his resume and the accolades, I can imagine he was out on the street trying to quell the violence that ultimately took his life, and those of four others at the embassy that night. 

But the knee-jerk reaction by Romney probably did the electorate a favor, an actual, real, 3 a.m. phone call that showed the nation waht he's made of and how he would react in a crisis. 

Which is, in a word, badly

September 11, 2012

Ham-fisted Mitt

Hard to beat a lede like this: 

I’ve been following politics for many years; I’ve written a book on presidential campaigns and I’ve delved quite a bit into the minutiae of the 2012 campaign. And I’m increasingly convinced that Mitt Romney is the worst national politician I’ve ever seen.

The New York Daily News' Michael Cohen articulates here something I've long thought: that Romney is not a natural pol, is not likeable, and doesn't have the skills -- or diversity of experience, or experience with diversity -- it takes to be an effective presidential candidate, let alone president.  To my view, the biggest reason he's contending for the title boils down to two numbers: 14.7 and 8.3. 

The former refers to the amount of money he spent in Florida to put away Newt Gingrich in the Florida primary, eliminating his last effective challenger. The latter, of course, is the current unemployment rate, the political millstone around President Obama's neck. 

During the primary season, I kept wondering if it was just me, or f the GOP presidential nomination field was the weakest I'd seen since I started paying attention to this stuff. And it seemed that Romney thought the same, governing himself as if he could just walk on stage and seize the nomination in a hostile takeover, then bashing Obama with a hard eight until he succumbed.   

And given the fact that omney was the best choice for the party, he struggled mightily to put away the last two men standing, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich - a pair of has-beens whom voters had run off the national stage years ago. Romney brought them to heel only after dropping a few well-placed money bombs and reminding people he looked more like a president than that black guy does. 

Cohen puts his finger on the heart of the problem - that the fault lies not in the political stars, but in the awkward, gaffe-prone, distant, sometimes arrogant Romney himself, particularly after he criticized the Republican-dominated congress for sequester-deal defense cuts his own running mate, Paul Ryan, supported: 

So what we have is a presidential candidate attacking their own party and their own running mate on an issue that is as much as a political liability as it is a political benefit. That’s our Mitt!

Read Cohen's entire story here

Speaking of Joes...

This is just ... wrong.  

Above-Average Joe

For all his gaffes, for all his goofiness, for all his Joe Biden-ness, I can't for the life of me imagine why any pundit or consultant worth his or her salt would propagate the rumor that Hillary Clinton should or would replace a guy who can give a speech like this

Biden may have his faults, but I think he tends to be underrated by those of us in the chattering class. Certainly President Obama talks about seeking his counsel, praising him in Charlotte as a better vice president than he could have hoped for.  And certainly Biden has enough legislative experience, connections, and common touch, to be a top White House asset rather than a liability. 

And he's got something on display in this speech, something for which there's no substitute: heart. 

Sure as Shirt

Three days on, I still haven't completely unpacked my bags (or my noggin) from my chaotic trip to Charlotte and the Democratic National Committee Convention.  Due to technical difficulties, I wasn't quite able to blog or tweet as much as I wanted.

But a piece of bootleg swag - a large graphic-print Obama 2012 T-shirt - has kept the conversation about Charlotte going in ways that I didn't expect.

Strangers walk up and ask me where I got the shirt (some street vendor outside the Time-Warner Cable Arena), while others want to know what's going to happen in 56 days.  As if I know: I'm just some guy who happens to be wearing an unofficial Obama T-shirt some other guy sold me on a streetcorner for $10 (three for $25).

 In the supermarket deli line, some old coot with a cane, pants hiked up to his navel and a flat-brimmed baseball cap, challenged me: "What has he [Obama] ever done for the black man??"

Excellent question.

Nonetheless, it was striking that a cheap item of clothing probably made in China and sold illegally has become an identifier of authoritative, thoughtful political analysis.  Or at least a conversation starter with people who think I may keep up on politics and isn't wearing the gear to be fashionable.

Must be the glasses.

Still, I gave some guy at my gym a snootful of political analysis once he saw my shirt and asked me what I thought would happen on Nov. 4.  I told him things are looking good, though conventional wisdom still indicates it's going to be a nail-biter.  President Obama leads in a few key swing states, I told him, and is within striking distance of Romney in the ones where he's trailing.

At the same time, I noted, the president had a monthly fundraising edge for the first time this year, while GOP challengers Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are stumbling from one lie to the next, getting called out by the media, where -- after months of letting the falsehoods slide -- slapping them around has apparently become fashionable.

"Keep an eye on things," I said.  "Odds are 60-40 for Obama."

I was speaking after a workout, and was all hot and sweaty and high on endorphins, so I'm surprised anyone would take me seriously.

Then I came home, and saw this.  And this morning, this showed up on my Twitter feed.

I love it when I'm right and don't even know it.  Kind of like finding a $20 bill in a pair of pants you hardly wear.

If I were a more skillful blogger, I'd be able to separate out the graphics on the right side of Nate's blog, which is what I'm referring to.  It shows statistical models that put Obama's chances of re-election at 80 percent or so, and all but one of the nine swing states trending his way -- with, oddly, North Carolina the lone execption.

It also indicates what could be an historical first: Romney and Ryan could be the first presidential ticket in danger of not even winning their home states.  Obama leads in Wisconsin AND Massachusetts.

I'll have more on this later.  But if the trend holds, Michael Tomsky thinks we should all get ready for a GOP sleaze-fest with race as the main attraction.

September 10, 2012

Convention leftovers, Vol. I

WASHINGTON - Unpacking the bags after a few days at the DNC2012 Convention in Charlotte:

* What enthusiasm gap?

In the streets, in the pubs, and inside the strangely claustrophobic Time-Warner Cable Arena, Democrats were amped and juiced, ready for the upcoming election in about six weeks.  The signs were everywhere, literally: from delegates waiting in long lines to snap up Obama gear -- official as well as bootleg stuff from street vendors, including a painting of the president on horseback, riding into battle with Tupac and Martin Luther King -- to the 45-minute wait to get into a watch party for President Barack Obama's acceptance speech.

I myself was sure I couldn't get in to see the speech, and had packed my bags and headed out of town for DC, closing up shop early on a long, frustrating day (more on that later). But when a friend of a friend came through with passes, I changed course and got to the arena just in time to sit in the nosebleeds, with a fine view of the back of the podium and light rigging.

But just the fact that I had a magic set of credentials gave me huge status walking to TWC Arena, so much so that people were willing to do (almost) anything to trade places with me -- something I hadn't experienced since 2008, and back then there were 75,000 seats to fill so the odds were a lot better.

After a week of Romney-Ryan bashing - including two gold-plated speeches by First Lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton - the delegates and partisan crowd were ready for the main event, Obama's acceptance speech.  But first, a little red meat from John Kerry, a video getting them further fired up and ready to go, and a pep talk from talk show host, former Michigan governor and beauty queen Jennifer Granholm -- a fist-pumping, crowd-pleaser that would have been at home in the Wolverines' locker room.

By the time the president hit the stage, the arena was buzzing with energy and the delegates had already broken into several spontaneous chants of "Fired up! Ready to go!" Obama's unofficial 2008 campaign slogan.  The hour was late, but they would have stayed there as long as necessary to see their man officially take up the cudgel and beat Mitt Romney with it.

In short, Obama could have read the phone book and gotten standing ovations and chants of "four more years" after he finished.

* Music has charms

In modern politics, both liberals and conservatives use music to warm up audiences, but the Democrats' diversity puts the GOP's country-music fest to shame.  The lineup over three days of the convention wouldn't have been out of place at a summer music festival: Mary J. Blige, the Foo Fighters, the Roots, John Legend.  Branford Marsalis even got into the act, wailing a soulful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner to open the proceedings.

Indeed, a mini-concert by the Fighters ahead of Joe Biden's speech was a winner, as middle-aged delegates -- white and black -- gave Dave Grohl and crew a standing O after a three-song set.  Yet it was the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin -- in absentia, pumped over the sound system -- who got the Charlotte delegates dancing.

What was notable was the diversity - rock, soul, jazz, country, gospel.  The Republicans, meanwhile, relied heavily on country music, whose artists pretty much line up with the GOP point of view.  And the musical selections pretty much line up with how the parties see one another, and how others see them. Which is jsut about all you need to know about where they stand on the issues.

Not that the Republicans haven't tried.

September 5, 2012

A dream repossessed

This is profoundly troubling. Unfortunately, I can't say it's inaccurate, speaking from first-hand experience.

Yet despite the provocative headline, on the eve of the potential re-election of the first black president, there's more to the statistics than meets the eye, and not all that much can be laid at President Obama's feet.

Bloomberg's story, in fact, points out that that black wealth began to nose-dive during the second half of President Bush's term, when the financial chickens -- two wars waged on credit, huge tax cuts, the Medicare prescription drug debacle -- came home to roost.  Then they pooped all over the African American community: 

Black America began losing ground before the 2008 financial crisis. From 2004 to 2010, black families’ median net worth fell by more than a third compared with a drop of 20 percent for white families, according to the Federal Reserve’s latest analysis.
A Pew Research Center study that analyzed data from 2005 and 2009 found an even wider disparity. The typical white household had a net worth in 2009 of $113,149 compared with $5,677 for blacks -- a 20-to-1 ratio that was twice the pre- crisis gap.

As if that weren't enough, black communities were crushed by the debris of a collapsing housing market.

In the simple, brutal logic of economics, African Americans were more likely to hold subprime mortgages -- whether or not they deserved to.  President Bush strongly encouraged a "homeowner society," and pushed it by gearing the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to basically hand out federally-backed loans like Halloween candy.

But when the market went down it took a disporportionate number of black families with them, and swallowed some cities whole. Given that much of America's middle-class wealth is built on the family home -- and that African Americans were more likely to be employed in public-sector jobs, which were slashed during fiscal hard times (and GOP union-busting) -- it's not surprising that the devastation that followed the collapse will take a generation or more to rebuild - if ever.

But don't expect the first black president to roll out an agenda to stanch the bleeding.

For openers, for Obama to give aid and comfort to the black community -- an economic airlift, perhaps -- would give a dump-truck-wide opening to his critics, and loud, arogant, tinfoil-hat conspiracists, that his presidency is ready to hand out reparations to black people for the evils of slavery, is about to foment race warfare and any other nonsense that passes for racial discourse on the right these days. 

Then, there's the whole matter of the incomplete recovery and stalled progress on housing -- easily the highest-profile of Obama's first-term shortcoming. The single biggest problem that could put the nation on the road to full economic health is mired in a deadlock between obstinant Republicans, a housing administrator who's refusing to budge on loan writedowns and a White House that (theorhetcially) recognizes the tenuous situation of banks holding lots of bad paper with "subprime mortgage" stamped all over it.

All of which is to say the situation for African Americans is pretty much like it's been for their -- our -- entire history as a nation.  The old physics equation describes it best:  for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction.

For every Abraham Lincoln, there's a Nathan Bedford Forrest, cofounder of the Ku Klux Klan.  For every Martin Luther King, Jr., there's a James Earl Ray. For every Shirley Chisholm there's a George Wallace.  And for Obama, there's a collapse of wealth among black Americans, a situation that may never be reversed.


The Stiletto

CHARLOTTE - The reviews are in: First Lady Michelle Obama killed last night, in more than one respect. 

Her speech was an effective re-introduction of President Barack Obama, outlining their courtships, his human qualities (the rusted-out car, "a man whose proudest possession was a coffee table he found in a dumpster") and the challenges he faced in saving the American economy from the brink.  The crowd laughed, cried, stood on its feet and chanted "Four more years!"

But the speech was a devastating velvet-cloaked takedown of what one Twitter wit called "the Republican clown show" that was on bilious display in Tampa last week.  FLOTUS gently sliced GOP nominee and alleged human Mitt Romney to ribbons seizing on all his character flaws -- both real and percieved -- without even mentioning him by name. 

Even the marriage of Michelle and Barack, arguably the most powerful couple on the planet, had a dual purpose. FLOTUS skillfully invited listeners to compare their story - the biracial son of a single mom reared in Kansas who once had to resort to accepting food stamps meets the Southside Chicago daughter of a man who had a song on his lips each day he put on his coveralls to go work at the city water plant -- with the white-bread courtship of Mitt and Ann, a private-school trust-fund kid and his upper-middle-class girlfriend, kids of privilege whose salad days as a couple included a trust fund to fall back on if times ever got too hard.

FLOTUS' skill with the rhetorical knife was on full display with lines like, "[being president] "doesn't change who you are, it reveals who you are," and "when it comes time to make [tough] decisions, as president all you have to guide you are your values and your vision, and the life experiences that make you who you are."

Translation: what do you REALLY know about Mitt Romney?  Character DOES matter: can you trust a guy who's so malleable? Also, bullying.

The frame that the Obama campaign set during the summer, about Romney being an out-of-touch white guy, is now firmly in place, set in concrete by the first lady.  Hard to imagine how Romney and company will wriggle out of this one, especially since Mrs. Obama did it with seeming ease, and more than a little restraint, if reports are to be believed.

In the Times the other day, there was an article about how President Obama is a dude who plays to win in every area of his life, from card games to politics.  Last night, looking poised, polished and relaxed, with those famous guns on display, Michelle showed she plays for keeps, too. 

September 4, 2012

Charlotte dispatch

CHARLOTTE - So many issues, so little time.

I touched down in Charlotte -- the epicenter of the political world this week -- to a driving rain, a heavy police presence and dense crowds, hoping to parse out a few truths. But my first impression after landing here is how overwhelming it all is. 

People. Hats. Security. Journalists, speeches, merchandise, the wildly inflated price of a hotdog.

And issues.  Let's not forget issues.

I initially thought the DNC Convention would be dullsville compared to the spectacle we witnessed in Tampa last week. The lies! The hypocrasy! The old man yelling at an empty chair!

So far, no Eastwooding at the DNC. But it's hard to walk through the overcrowded concourse of the Time-Warner Cable Arena without bumping into someone or something that reminds me what will be at stake when election day rolls around in six weeks.

Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers union: the declining role of labor in the American economy and the political arena. Van Jones: green energy and the struggles of the working poor.  Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank: the banking system has some safeguards, but are they enough?

I managed to snag Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, a grassroots advocacy organization that calls out racism and works for economic and political justice.  Robinson's group led a successful push to expose ALEC, a right-wing bill factory responsible for Stand Your Ground laws in Florida and elsewhere, along with pro-NRA gun laws and other issues on the legislative agenda.

Rashad Robinson, a grassroots activist, and I had a lengthy conversation about voter suppresson and race baiting on the right in the 2012 campaign. His organization is setting up a web site to monitor both.  I asked him whether the "welfare handouts" and "I don't have to show my birth certificate" language has now become acceptible -- and effective -- in the era of the first black president.

"I think the American public will give [racially tinged attacks] an ear," he said. "But I think [Republicans] are losing the argument."

I'll post more of our conversation later.  It's day one, and we're just getting started. 
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