In 2004, California organic farm inspector Chris Van Hook submitted an unusual request to the US Department of Agriculture: He wanted permission to certify a medical marijuana farm as organic. He’d already inspected three pot farms, he says, before word came back that weed couldn't be organic because it wasn’t a federally recognized crop.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently declared that Democrats would take up immigration reform "this year," defying the conventional wisdom that the issue is too perilous for the party to push during an election year. But maybe it's Republicans who should be nervous—because a high-octane immigration fight could drive a wedge between the Republican Party and the Tea Party right.
Like most people whose quality of life depends upon the fluctuations of an IRA, 401(k), 403(b), or other acronym-soup retirement account, I was born long before such things existed. It's easy to forget, now that more than half of us have been made shareholders, that until well past the middle of the 20th century, most people had nothing to do with the stock market: Wall Street was for the wealthy and the reckless. It was a world most Americans didn't understand and, after 1929, didn't trust. Some lucky people had pensions, but few had the privilege of even thinking about retirement. They were too busy trying to survive the present -- which in my childhood meant the Great Depression and then World War II.
Now that the Obama administration is a shareholder in Bank of America, will it protect the interests of the bailed-out bank or those of customers targeted by its predatory practices? It's a difficult calculation, and one the administration soon has to make as a class action suit against BoA lands in a state supreme court.
How hard is it to change the ways of Washington?
With his decisive triumph over Senator John McCain, Senate Barack Obama made obvious history: he is the first black (or biracial) man to win the presidency. But the meaning of his victory -- in which Obama splashed blue across previously red states -- extends far beyond its racial significance. Obama, a former community organizer and law professor, won the White House as one of the most progressive (or liberal) nominees in the Democratic Party's recent history. Mounting one of the best run presidential bids in decades, Obama tied his support for progressive positions (taxing the wealthy to pay for tax cuts for working Americans, addressing global warming, expanding affordable health insurance, withdrawing troops from Iraq) to calls for cleaning up Washington and for crafting a new type of politics. Charismatic, steady, and confident, he melded substance and style into a winning mix that could be summed up in simple and basic terms: hope and change.
After nearly eight years of George W. Bush's presidency, Obama was the non-Bush: intelligent, curious, thoughtful, deliberate, and competent. His personal narrative -- he was the product of an unconventional family and worked his way into the nation's governing class -- fueled his campaign narrative. His story was the American Dream v2.0. He was change, at least at skin level. But he also championed the end of Bushism. He had opposed the Iraq war. He had opposed Bush's tax cuts for the rich. He was no advocate of let-'er-rip, free market capitalism or American unilateralism. In policy terms, Obama represents a serious course correction.
And more. In the general election campaign, McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, turned the fight for the presidency into a culture clash. They accused Obama of being a socialist. They assailed him for having associated with William Ayers, a former, bomb-throwing Weather Underground radical,who has since become an education expert. Palin indirectly referred to Obama's relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who once preached fiery sermons denouncing the United States government for certain policies. On the campaign trail, Palin suggested there were "real" parts of America and fake parts. At campaign events, she promoted a combative, black-helicopter version of conservatism: if you're for government expansion, you're against freedom. During her one debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden, she hinted that if her opponents won the White House there might come a day when kids would ask their grandparents what it had been like to live in a free country. At McCain-Palin rallies, supporters shouted out, "Communist!" and "terrorist!" and "Muslim!" when the Republican candidates referred to Obama. And McCain and Palin hurled the standard charges at Obama: he will raise your taxes and he is weak on national security.
Put it all together and the message was clear: there are two types of Americans. Those who are true Americans -- who love their nation and cherish freedom -- and those who are not. The other Americans do not put their country first; they blame it first. The other Americans do not believe in opportunity; they want to take what you have and give it to someone else. The other Americans do not care about Joe the Plumber; they are out-of-touch elitists who look down on (and laugh at) hard-working, church-going folks. The other Americans do not get the idea of America. They are not patriots. And it just so happens that the other America is full of blacks, Latinos, gays, lesbians, and non-Christians.
McCain, Palin and their compatriots did what they could to depict Obama as the rebel chief of this other un-American America. (Hillary Clinton helped set up their effort during the primaries by beating the Ayers drum.) Remember the stories of Obama's supposed refusal to wear a flag pin or place his hand over his heart for the Pledge of Allegiance? The emails about Obama being a secret Muslim? The goal was to delegitimize Obama, as well as the Americans who were moved by his biography, his rhetoric, and his ideas. It was back to the 1960s -- drawing a harsh line between the squares (the real Americans) and the freaks (those redistribution-loving, terrorist-coddling faux Americans).
It didn't work.
With the nation mired in two wars and beset by a financial crisis, Obama mobilized a diverse coalition that included committed Democratic liberals turned on by his policy stands (unabashed redistributionists, no doubt) and less ideologically-minded voters jazzed by his temperament, meta-themes, and come-together message. He showed that the old Republican attack tactics do not always draw blood. A candidate could advocate raising taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations and withstand being called a socialist. A candidate could advocate talking to the nation's enemies and withstand being tagged weak and dangerous. A candidate could be non-white, have an odd name, boast a less-than-usual ancestry, be an unrepentant Ivy Leaguer, profess a quiet and thoughtful patriotism (that encompasses both love and criticism of country), and still be a real American. And become president.
How He Did It -- The Primaries
From the start of the campaign, Obama and his advisers -- notably campaign manager David Plouffe and chief strategist David Axelrod -- shared a vision of how a freshman senator with relatively little national experience could reach the White House. Obama presented himself as an agent of change leading a movement for change. Given that a large majority of the voters believed the nation was heading in the wrong direction after two terms of George W. Bush, this was not the most brilliant of strategic strokes. But Obama had the chops to pull it off. He spoke well, he conveyed intelligence and energy, and he advocated policies that seemed like an antidote to the Bush years. And he effectively matched his own personal story (a best-selling book!) to this message of renewal.
Throughout the primaries, Obama addressed the sense of disenfranchisement Democrats and independents (and even some Republicans) had experienced during the W years. As these citizens watched Bush and Dick Cheney dole out tax cuts to the wealthy, do nothing about global warming, launch an optional war in Iraq, and expand secrecy and executive power, many felt locked out. It didn't help that Bush and his crowd appeared dismissive of those who disagreed with them, decrying elitism and playing to conservative know-nothingism. Obama came along and invited primary voters to join a crusade for change -- which meant a crusade against them. It was a chance to strike back against the empire. Obama understood the need of many to reclaim their country. The right has often exploited such a sentiment. Think of the rise of the Moral Majority. But Obama was not playing the resentment card.
Crucial to his success was Obama's decision to keep anger (at least his own) out of the equation. For him and his supporters, there was cause to be damn mad. From their perspective, the country had been hijacked by Bush, Cheney and a small band of neocons. (A view they could hold with much justification.) But Obama appeared to have made a calculation: an angry black man could not win over a majority of the voters. He offered voters not fury, but hope. And considering his "improbable" -- as he put it -- rise, he was a natural pitchman for hope. Fixating on hope allowed him to talk about the problems of the United States (past and present) while remaining an optimist. Americans tend not to elect purveyors of doom and gloom to the presidency. Usually the candidate with the sunnier disposition wins. It's not hard to fathom why. When Americans select a president, many are voting for the person who they believe best reflects their own idea of America. Voting for president has a strong psychological component. It's how Americans define their nation. So personal attributes -- character, strength, biography, personality -- are important.
Obama described his presidential bid not as a campaign of outrage but as a cause of hope -- a continuation of the grand and successful progressive movements of the past. For Democratic voters, he had the appropriate liberal policy stances. He had a record as a reformer in the Illinois state senate and the US Senate. But he provided more than resumÃƒÂ©; he served up inspiration. Obama could advocate these policies -- policies that often stir sharp partisan fights in Washington and beyond -- and at the same time convincingly call for a new politics of productivity (not partisanship) in Washington. This took some talent. Mark Schmitt credits what he calls Obama's "communitarian populism" -- a quiet, inclusive populism. Leave your pitchforks at the door. This message and his manner of delivering it led many Democratic voters to conclude that he was the right man for the post-Bush cleanup.
Obama had one big obstacle in the primaries: Hillary Clinton. She had a brand name that attracted and repulsed voters. She ran a conventional campaign. She uttered no talk of any movement. She relied on her resumÃƒÂ©, and said she was ready to roll up her sleeves and work for you. Will you hire me as your advocate-in-chief? she asked. Obama was offering music; she was offering math. It was virtually a toss-up for the Democratic electorate. What made the difference was that Obama, the heady candidate, managed his campaign more effectively than Clinton, the down-to-earth candidate, managed hers. Clinton and her crew, after losing in Iowa and then fighting back in New Hampshire, botched the middle stretch and allowed Obama to rack up a series of wins that did give him -- oh, that dreadful word -- momentum. More important, her campaign seemed to bounce from one strategy to the next, as infighting roiled Clintonland. Not until the end of the primaries did Clinton get her groove back, winning over blue-collar voters in once-industrial states as the scrappy working-class hero. But it was too late. The delegate math became undeniable.
In beating Clinton, Obama showed that he had assembled a disciplined and skilled campaign staff. Not once was his campaign rocked by internal dissension. It never went through a staff shakeup. There were no media stories, relying on unnamed sources, revealing major disputes or fundamental disagreements at Obama HQ. ("We had our disagreements," says one top Obama aide. "But they were always within the confines of getting to the best decision. I was stunned by how well it all worked.") Consensus, smooth operations, no signs of turf fights or ego battles -- this is virtually unheard of in a major modern presidential campaigns. Obama even handled his flip-flops -- voting for the telecom immunity bill after vowing not to and opting out of public financing system after indicating he would remain within it -- relatively well. The operation of his campaign sent a signal: Obama was a serious person who could ably handle pressure. Obama preached hope and at the same time he was the CEO of a well-managed enterprise that would raise and spend (in record amounts) hundreds of millions of dollars.
How He Did It -- The General Election
Once it became clear that Obama and McCain would each be the presidential nominee of their respective parties, they faced two big tests -- selecting a running mate and addressing the financial meltdown. Obama passed both; McCain failed both.
Obama's choice of Biden was not inspiring. It was, in a way, a conventional pick, a safe bet (relatively safe, given Biden's penchant for verbal slip-ups). Obama's campaign was predicated on the promise he would shake up Washington. Biden, a three-decade veteran of the Senate, was not known as a rebel. But he had deep foreign policy experience and had spent years courting the working-class voters of Delaware. He could reassure voters worried that Obama had not spent enough years toiling on national security matters. And Biden certainly would not compete with Obama for headlines and screen time. Obama was the inspiration on the ticket. Biden was the insurance policy.
By going with Biden, Obama dared to be boring and indicated he was willing to play it straight when necessary. He abided by the first rule of veep selection: do no harm. McCain took another route. He gambled. He picked a governor little-known on the national stage -- a woman whom even McCain barely knew. It gave his campaign a shot of excitement and surprise. Her performance at the Republican convention was dazzling. But this high did not last, as Palin did miserably in media interviews. Several conservative columnists had to admit she was not ready for prime time. Within weeks, McCain's act of daring was widely perceived as an act of recklessness. Her approval ratings plummeted. Polls indicated she was a drag on a ticket and a prominent reason why some voters were not favoring McCain.
Palin was strike one. Strike two was McCain's erratic response to the financial crisis -- saying different things, deciding to suspend his campaign but then suspending the suspension. His actions reinforced the impression created by the Palin misstep: he likes to shoot from the hip. But with the economy and Wall Street in a free fall, many voters were probably not eager for another cowboy president. Meanwhile, Obama, who met with establishment advisers and calmly backed the $700 billion bailout (which McCain also endorsed), looked like the adult in the room that crucial week, which culminated in the first debate. That face-off, according to the insta-polls, was a win for Obama, as were the next two confrontations.
Weeks into the general election, Obama had made a pivot -- but so smoothly that most of the politerati did not even see it. He had gone from the inspiring movement leader calling for wholesale change in Washington to a reassuring figure who demonstrated that he could play well with the establishment. The younger and less experienced of the two nominees seemed better suited to handle a crisis. Iraq and national security were no longer the issues; the economy was. And Obama showed he possessed the steadier hand. At the final debate, as McCain jabbed with punches that packed not much punch, Obama came across as confident if not so dynamic. But when the world is cracking up, who wants pizzazz?
Losing on the economy front -- and in the temperament contest -- McCain, with Palin acting like his gun moll, stepped up his use of the standard GOP attack lines. He went back to basics. Obama, he contended, yearned to raise taxes not just on the rich but on everybody. Even though independent experts had concluded that middle-class voters would receive a bigger tax cut under Obama's proposal than McCain's, the McCain camp kept issuing charges about Obama's tax aims that were not true. They found a mascot in Joe the Plumber (who was not really named Joe and not really a plumber). And they whipped up the old tax-and-spend fear about Democrats.
"Now is no the time to experiment with socialism," Palin exclaimed at rallies, ignoring the fact that she presides over the socialistic state of Alaska (which redistributes tax revenues collected from oil companies to the state's citizens). She dubbed Obama "Barack the Wealth Spreader." At a McCain rally near St. Louis, Representative Todd Akin (R-MO) said, "This campaign in the next couple of weeks is about one thing. It's a referendum on socialism.Ã¢â‚¬Â Senator George Voinovich (R-OH) weighed in on Obama: "With all due respect, the man is a socialist.Ã¢â‚¬Â McCain repeatedly referred to Obama as the "redistributionist-in-chief," often stumbling over the phrase. He must have forgotten that during a 2000 campaign event, he was asked, "Are we getting closer and closer to, like, socialism," and McCain replied, "Here's what I really believe: That when you reach a certain level of comfort, thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s nothing wrong with paying somewhat more."
It was an anti-intellectual attack -- taxes equals socialism -- ignoring basic facts and the personal history of McCain (who was roundly accused by conservatives of engaging in "class warfare" in 2000 when he opposed George W. Bush's tax cuts for the rich). The point was to strike fear into the hearts of voters who make far less money than Obama's proposed threshold for tax hikes. McCain was not appealing to the better nature of voters.
Putting up a fierce fight, Obama did not make it personal. He paid tribute to McCain's military service. But he slammed McCain for standing with Bush on economic issues. "If you want to know where Senator McCain will drive this economy, just look in the rearview mirror," Obama told campaign audiences. And he challenged the Big Idea of the Republican Party:
The last thing we can afford is four more years of the tired, old theory that says we should give more to billionaires and big corporations and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. The last thing we can afford is four more years where no one in Washington is watching anyone on Wall Street because politicians and lobbyists killed common-sense regulations. Those are the theories that got us into this mess. They haven't worked, and it's time for change.
Obama wasn't just taking on Bushism. He was taking on Reaganism.
McCain, Palin, and their supporters did make it personal. They claimed that Obama was misleading the voters, that he was not what he seemed. They argued that he was not up to the job. The McCain-Palin campaign ran a series of ads -- one falsely asserted that Obama had supported teaching kindergartners "comprehensive sex education" -- that various MSM outlets pronounced untruthful and unfair. The Straight Talk Express was derided as a cavalcade of misrepresentation. The McCain-Palin campaign revived the Bill Ayers attack. It tried to brand Obama an associate of anti-Semites, pointing to his relationship with a Palestinian scholar -- without producing evidence that this Palestinian was anti-Semitic. (The International Republican Institute, a group chaired by McCain, had given over $400,000 to a group co-founded by this scholar.)
It was an ugly assault. Speaking in support of McCain and Palin, Representative Robin Hayes (R-NC) declared, "Liberals hate real Americans that work, and accomplish, and achieve, and believe in God." McCain supporters referred to Obama as "Barack Hussein Obama." At a Palin rally, Representative Steve King (R-IA) said that an Obama victory would cause the United States to turn into a Ã¢â‚¬Å“totalitarian dictatorship.Ã¢â‚¬Â Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) declared that Obama was "anti-American." While she was at it, she urged the media to investigate and root out anti-Americanism within the US Congress.
This mud did not stick. Perhaps worse for McCain, his camp never presented a coherent strategic argument for its candidate. Obama had change and hope. McCain had no real case for McCain -- other than he was a POW who put his country first. What did he want to do as president? Serve his country again. He essentially asked to be rewarded for his past service and sacrifice. He didn't feel the voters' pain; he wanted them to feel his. And his campaign ended up being defined mostly by its retro attack on Obama: he's an untested and untrustworthy liberal.
Most of the voters disagreed.
With his victory, Obama has ended the Bush II era with an exclamation point. (The Democratic gains in Congress seconded the point.) Now Obama faces a restoration project of unprecedented proportions. It may take years for him and the rest of Washington to remedy the ills neglected, exacerbated or caused by the Bush presidency. And he will have a tough time matching progress to promise. At his victory celebration in Chicago before tens of thousands, he lowered expectations: "the road ahead will be long. The climb ahead will be steep." And he noted that his electoral victory merely provided "only the chance for us to make that change."
But his barrier-breaking victory was indeed change in itself. Consider this: Obama ended his campaign at a rally on Monday night in Manassas, Virginia, the site of Battle of Bull Run, the opening land battle of the Civil War, in which Union troops were routed and forced to retreat back to Washington, DC There before a crowd of 90,000 -- young, old, black, white, affluent, working-class -- Obama summed up his case:
Tomorrow, you can turn the page on policies that have put greed and irresponsibility before hard work and sacrifice. Tomorrow, you can choose policies that invest in our middle class and create new jobs, grow this economy so everybody has a chance to succeed, not just the CEO but the secretary and the janitor, not just the factory owner but the men and women who work the factory floors. And tomorrow, you can end to the politics that would divide a nation just to win an election, that pits region against region, city against town, Republican against Democrat, that asks us to fear at a time when we need to hope.
A black man on the verge of being elected president said that.
But race is just one part of the tale. Obama has done more than become a first. He has redrawn the electoral map (take that, Karl Rove) and reshaped the political culture of the United States. He has transformed the image of the United States -- abroad and at home. (He vowed in Chicago that "a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.") Above all, after eight troubling years and after decades of ideological civil war, Obama has redefined what is real America. "Who knew that we were the Silent Majority?" his press secretary Linda Douglass said moments after Obama left the stage in Grant Park.
The voters who see President-elect Obama as the embodiment of their America can trade the Yes We Can motto for a new one: Yes We Are.
Number of sentences in John McCain's acceptance speech about his experience as a POW in Vietnam: 43.
Number of sentences about his 25 years in the House and Senate: 8.
The convention ended as it began: a commemoration of McCain's hellish years in a Hanoi prison cell four decades ago. The political equation was a simple one: POW equals patriotic hero equals a fighting president. Before McCain walked down the long runway at St. Paul's Xcel Center, a baritone voice declared over the P.A., "When you've lived in a box .... you put your people first." Case closed.
But there was a speech to get through. And before McCain arrived at the climactic I-was-a-POW finale, he delivered, in wooden style, a no-better-than-par speech that was mostly a series of traditional GOP buzz phrases: lower taxes, cut spending, open markets. He noted, "We believe in a strong defense, work, faith, service, a culture of life, personal responsibility, the rule of law, and judges who dispense justice impartially and don't legislate from the bench. We believe in the values of families, neighborhoods and communities." (Just not community organizers.) Was the speechwriter who penned Sarah Palin's acceptance speech too busy to work on McCain's?
Unlike most speakers at the convention, McCain acknowledged that some Americans are facing tough times. "I fight for Bill and Sue Nebe from Farmington Hills, Michigan, who lost their real estate investments in the bad housing market," he said. "Bill got a temporary job after he was out of work for seven months. Sue works three jobs to help pay the bills." And he said he would fight for Jake and Toni Wimmer of Franklin County, Pennsylvania. "Jake," he explained, "works on a loading dock; coaches Little League, and raises money for the mentally and physically disabled. Toni is a schoolteacher, working toward her Master's Degree. They have two sons, the youngest, Luke, has been diagnosed with autism." But how would McCain help these folks? Moments later, he offered a dumbed-down version of his economic plan: " I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them. I will open new markets to our goods and services. My opponent will close them. I will cut government spending. He will increase it." (By the way, many analysts and journalists have repeatedly noted that Obama's economic plan would cut income taxes far more than McCain for Americans below the top 1 percent.)
Over and over, McCain cited his love of country and his dedication to the nation that "saved" him. He tried to present himself as the candidate of change, who wants to transform "almost everything: from the way we protect our security to the way we compete in the world economy; from the way we respond to disasters to the way we fuel our transportation network; from the way we train our workers to the way we educate our children." (He did not explain why after eight years of a Republican administration the country needs so much change.) McCain reminded the GOP delegates that he has on occasion challenged his own party. His domestic policy ideas, the few he offered, did not rouse the crowd -- except when he called for more oil and gas drilling. In response, the delegates once again enthusiastically chanted, "Drill, baby, drill!" It was one of the biggest shout-outs of the night. The audience was notably silent when McCain called for boosting alternative energy sources.
Maverick, fighter, fixer -- McCain said he was all of that. But, above all, he was McCain the warrior who had returned home. He had fought for the country once before -- and he had suffered. He will fight for it again. "I have the record and the scars to prove it," he declared. "Senator Obama does not." Wave the bloody shirt.
McCain denounced the "constant partisan rancor that stops us from solving" the nation's problems. But this week McCain had commanded a convention that had reprised the standard GOP playbook of spin and fear. Speaker after speaker accused Barack Obama of plotting to raise taxes on middle-income voters. They portrayed Obama as weak, indecisive, inexperienced -- particularly concerning national security. On the final night, retired Lieutenant General Carol Mutter, denouncing Obama's stance on Iraq, told the delegates that the United States' "enemies don't talk about timelines for retreat." Yet the United States' ally in Iraq -- the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- has called for a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops. (Whoops: reality.) Repeatedly, GOP speakers claimed that Obama is not a man who can handle evil. "We cannot afford a president who thinks you can negotiate with evil," proclaimed Representative Mary Fallin, an Oklahoma Republican. But didn't Ronald Reagan negotiate with the Evil Empire? On the first night of the convention, the delegates watched a tribute film to the late President Gerald Ford that celebrated his negotiation of an arms control treaty with the Soviets. (A onetime negotiator-with-evil, Henry Kissinger, was sitting in the V.I.P. section as Fallin spoke.)
Branding Democrats as national security weaklings and tax-and-spend drunkards was predictable. After all, the convention planners didn't dare defend the current administration. In fact, there was hardly a mention of the Bush presidency -- except when George W. Bush addressed the convention by video on its first night. And there was no talk of what the Republicans did between 1994 and 2006 when they controlled both houses of Congress for most of that time. The convention was a very Soviet-like affair; the Bush administration and the Republican Congress of recent years were airbrushed out of the picture.
And there was a heavy dose of us-versus-them -- with "them" being the usual targets of conservative agitators: the media, liberal elites, Hollywood celebrities, "cosmopolitan" Americans (as Rudy Giuliani, of all people, put it), and the government. McCain was exploiting the culture wars. Sarah Palin praised small-town America and mocked Obama for having been an urban community organizer. Onetime football coach Joe Gibbs called for a government of people who "follow [God's] game plan, his Bible, his word," adding that John McCain would be such a leader.
There were more words spoken at the convention about the evils of elites than the subprime meltdown, more words devoted to depicting Obama as an ambitious egomaniac than to addressing the health care crisis. Former Senator Fred Thompson dismissed the Democratic convention for focusing too much on the economic challenges of the day. (He nearly called the Democrats whiners.) When Cindy McCain, the candidate's wife and a multimillionaire heiress, recalled traveling on the campaign trail and seeing Americans facing "difficult situations," she noted that these Americans could "make things right" if the federal government would get "out of our way." A string of speakers accused Obama of failing to recognize the true threat of Islamic terrorism, but none of the major speakers said much -- or anything -- about Afghanistan. McCain himself uttered not a single word about Afghanistan. And nothing about climate change. More words at the convention were spilled about McCain the POW than job loss in America. And the Vietnam War was mythologized over and over as a fight waged for America's freedom and survival.
On the last night of the convention, Senator Sam Brownback told the delegates, "It's not about him; it's about us." Not really. It was about what happened to John McCain forty years ago and what that means to Americans today. His acceptance speech broke no new ground, and it was not meant to. It was just another reminder to cap a convention of reminding. The balloons then dropped, video fireworks fell, the crowd cheered. And for McCain, it was on to the final battle, the old soldier, faith-tested and faith-proved, accompanied by a stylish hockey mom representing small-town goodness -- against those whose mettle have not been tested, whose love of country has not been tested, whose America is rather different from the America of the Republican convention.
Political observers have made much of John McCain's admission that he cannot use a computer without assistance. In a campaign where McCain's opponent is 25 years younger than him, the factoid is potent ammunition for those who argue McCain is out of touch and too old for the presidency. But not knowing your way around a MacBook doesn't mean you can't be president. And McCain's personal Ludditism isn't a deal breaker for tech leaders. "I don't give a damn if McCain ever turns on a computer or not," Michael Arrington, coeditor of the blog TechCrunch wrote in January. "I just want a president who has the right top-down polices to support the information economy."
And where is McCain on tech policy? Not so shockingly, the computer-free senator's campaign is not as plugged in as his rival's. In fact, his campaign website fails to address America's lagging performance on broadband access or affordability, the technological capabilities of the federal bureaucracy, or the Internet's ability to increase government transparency. "There are red flags," says Brian Reich, author of the book Media Rules!: Mastering Today's Technology to Connect With and Keep Your Audience and the former editor of Campaign Web Review, a blog that tracked the use of the Internet by candidates, campaigns, and activists.
Barack Obama has embraced the Internet, with his thunderous online fundraising and sophisticated MyBO website. (Plus, he's comfortable talking about what's on his iPod.) Unsurprisingly, high-tech leaders hail his comprehensive tech policies.
Last fall, Obama went to Google headquarters to unveil his proposals related to information technology. He covered the waterfront: broadband access, federal funding for the sciences, using the Internet as a tool to increase government accountability, and more. He promised to appoint the nation's first Chief Technology Officer, a high-level staffer who will make sure that every federal agency has "best-in-class technologies" and uses best practices.
On his campaign website, Obama provides plenty of data on his information-technology stances:
- He supports net neutrality, a pet issue of the netroots. Net neutrality would prohibit network providers from making websites load faster if their owners pay higher fees. In Obama's America, accessing www.nbc.com will take no more or less time than logging on to www.stuffwhitepeoplelike.com.
- An Obama administration would seek to provide all Americans access to broadband Internet, the same way they have access to phones.
- Obama says he would make technology literacy a priority for public schools.
- His administration would aim to use technology--specifically, a nationwide switch to electronic medical records--to make health care more affordable.
- Obama has proposed a "Clean Technologies Deployment Venture Capital Fund," funded by $10 billion annually, that would make sure new renewable energy ideas make it to market.
- He supports increasing federal funding for research in the sciences, and would emphasize math and science at K-12, undergraduate, and graduate levels.
Obama also calls for using technology to increase the transparency and effectiveness of the federal government. He has called for creating a single government website to track grants, contracts, earmarks, and lobbyist contracts. He'd like to see the business of federal agencies conducted over live feeds that can be watched by anyone with an Internet connection. He calls for the federal government to "employ all the technological tools available to allow citizens not just to observe, but also to participate" in these meetings. And there's more: Cabinet officials hosting national town halls on the Internet; permitting members of the public to post comments on pending bills on the White House website; federal agencies employing blogs, wikis, and social networking tools. He'd like to see the US government as connected--and interconnected--with itself and the citizenry as technologically feasible.
The plan has won over techies. Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, a demigod of the tech community, endorsed the Democrat, saying, "Obama has committed himself to a technology policy for government that could radically change how government works." Eric Schmidt, the chairman and CEO of Google, has said, "Senator Obama's plan would help make sure that the Internet remains a free and open platform, and that America maintains an atmosphere of high-tech growth and innovation."
John McCain, as of yet, has few such fans in the tech sector. His campaign website does not have a section about technology. Sprinkled throughout the site are a handful of references to tech issues. He promises to keep the Internet free of taxes, so "this engine of economic growth and prosperity" will not be threatened. He advocates the "rapid deployment of 21st century information systems and technology" that would allow "doctors to practice across state lines." He would set up a $300 million prize for the developer of a "battery package that has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars."
Several passages mentioning technology (and using plenty of capitalization) are obtuse:
- "John McCain Will Streamline The Process For Deploying New Technologies And Requiring More Accountability From Government Programs To Meet Commercialization Goals And Deadlines."
- "John McCain Will Ensure Rapid Technology Introduction, Quickly Shifting Research From The Laboratory To The Marketplace."
But McCain's site is most elaborate when it refers to the danger the Internet poses to America's children, noting that McCain "has been a leader in pushing legislation through Congress that requires all schools and libraries receiving federal subsidies for Internet connectivity to utilize technology to restrict access to sexually explicit material by children using such computers." It also reports that "John McCain has taken a hard line against pedophiles that would use the Internet to prey upon children by proposing the first-of-its-kind national online registry for persons who have been convicted of sex crimes against children."
Though McCain echoes Obama's call for greater government transparency, his website says little about how technology and the Internet can further that cause. There is no mention of increasing access to broadband. When asked about this in a ZDNet News questionnaire, McCain adopted a classically conservative approach, saying government policies should "promote competition and reduce regulation in order to secure lower prices and higher-quality services for consumers."
His website also lacks a statement on net neutrality. When prompted, though, he has seemed to come out against it, saying, "When you control the pipe you should be able to get profit from your investment," suggesting a philosophical opposition to neutrality. He has also made a dismissive reference to net neutrality as an attempt to "micromanage American business and innovation."
The McCain campaign did not return an emailed request for comment.
Reich, the former editor of Campaign Web Review, isn't willing to dismiss McCain's thin tech stance out of hand. "Most policy development is done by advisers and staff, so just because he doesn't have a technology policy that is clearly articulated doesn't mean I'm going to give up on the prospect of John McCain being a supporter of future innovation," he says. "But he does have various gaps to fill in."
McCain's problem is that Obama has raised the bar. "All the people I know in the technology space are backing Barack Obama and not John McCain," says Reich. That provides McCain with little incentive to do better. "John McCain probably has thoughts and feelings on technology," Reich adds. "But he doesn't see it as an electoral priority to talk about the role technology is going to play in our society going forward, because he's not going to raise any money from Silicon Valley liberals. I think it's both a policy deficiency in his platform and a political deficiency in his strategy."
Michael Cornfield, author of Politics Moves Online: Campaigning and the Internet and a founder of George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet, describes McCain's approach to technology as "tangential." In a charitable interpretation of McCain's lack of an information technology platform, Cornfield points out that it mirrors the "classic Republican approach to the economy: laissez-faire, except where family values come into play. McCain doesn't post any plans for technological development because the best plan from this perspective is, 'Stay out of R&D's way.'"
There is, of course, a less kind alternative. Andrew Rasiej, the founder of the blog techPresident and the Personal Democracy Forum, says, "McCain's interest in tech policy is about as robust as the Horse Traders Association's interest was in steam engines."
Last week, Hillary Clinton released a statement celebrating the tenth anniversary of the historic Good Friday Agreement that led to peace in Northern Ireland. She noted,
Ultimately, the real credit for peace can only go to the brave people of Northern Ireland, as well as the leaders of Ireland and the U.K. But I also know that helping to advance the peace process and to achieve the Good Friday Agreement is one of my husband's proudest accomplishments as President. And I too am proud to have played a role in that effort.
The statement -- and Clinton's assertion that she had been part of the peace process -- did not draw much media notice, a sign that her Irish troubles might have eased. Last month, the Barack Obama campaign had challenged her claim to have "helped to bring peace to Northern Island." And that triggered a transatlantic tempest. David Trimble, the former First Minister of the Northern Ireland, called Clinton "a wee bit silly" for claiming to have been a figure of an importance in the peace process:
She visited when things were happening, saw what was going on, she can certainly say it was part of her experience. I don't want to rain on the thing for her but being a cheerleader for something is slightly different from being a principal player.
But then Clinton's campaign posted on its website a statement from John Hume, who shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize with Trimble, in which Hume declared: "I can state from firsthand experience that she played a positive role for over a decade in helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland." And Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams told the Irish Times that Clinton played an important role in the peace process. I met the senator on many occasions ... .I always found her to be extremely well-informed on the issues."
These endorsements from Hume and Adams did not fully support the claims from Clinton and her camp that she had been a significant participant in the Irish peace process. On NPR, she had said, "I wasn't sitting at the negotiating table, but the role I played was instrumental." And appearing on CNN on March 4, Terry McAuliffe, her campaign chairman, had said, "We would not have peace today had it not [been] for Hillary's hard work in Northern Ireland." Still, Hume's and Adams' statements did somewhat counter Trimble's dismissive remarks. And the campaign flare-up flared down.
But what was the truth? Had Clinton been instrumental? Was McAuliffe correct to say Northern Ireland would today be a bloody landscape had it not been for Clinton? Looking for an expert on the Irish peace process, I contacted Paul Bew. He is a prominent -- perhaps the most prominent -- historian of Northern Ireland. A professor at Queen's University Belfast, Bew last year published Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006, a much-acclaimed work, which is part of the Oxford University Press's Modern Europe series. He once was an adviser to Trimble, and he was appointed to the House of Lords in 2007, in recognition of his own contributions to the Good Friday Agreement.
When I asked Bew about Clinton's claim, he chuckled and replied: "There is a simple point to be made." He referred me to a new book by Jonathan Powell, Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland. Powell was chief of staff to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and his book, which has been a sensation in England, is an insider's account of the peace talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement. Look at the index of this book for "Hillary Clinton," Bew told me. There is, he said, "only one reference to Hillary Clinton." Bew was right about that. That one citation refers the read to a tangential anecdote in which Powell mistakes a female Secret Service agent assigned to First Lady Clinton for a friend (Nancy Soderberg, a national security aide in the Clinton White House) and cheekily asks for a kiss. "That's it," Bew said. "The only reference to Hillary Clinton in this detailed blow-by-blow account. This is more telling than any other particular point .... It is very revealing."
Powell's book aside, I asked Bew, whose own book covers the Irish peace accords (and who also published a collection of his real-time journalistic accounts of the Good Friday Agreement), how he assessed Clinton's claim to have been "instrumental" in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. "She just was not there," he said. "Calling her instrumental is silly....I can't think of anything to be said for the case that she had a major role."
For the moment, this campaign controversy appears to be done. But if Clinton's Irish troubles return, perhaps the definitive -- and last -- word can go to the guys who wrote the books.
The conciliatory moment at the end of the Democrats' debate last week in Texas wasn't a sign of things to come. In fact, it was more of a head fake by Hillary Clinton, who has launched several attacks on Barack Obama in recent days, some of which are downright nasty. The remaining week before the primaries in Texas and Ohio may be a slimy one for the Democrats.
It started last week when the Clinton campaign attempted to connect Obama to two Hyde Park radicals that were part of the domestic terror group known as the Weather Underground. The pair, who are unrepentant about setting bombs in government buildings in the 1960s (possibly because they took care to avoid harming any bystanders), hosted an event at their house in the mid-1990s that Obama attended. One of them donated $200 to his state senatorial campaign. The connection is a weak one; there is no evidence Obama has a relationship with these people. What's more, Bill Clinton pardoned a different member of the Weather Underground, also unrepentant, who had served 16 years in prison on federal charges. The attack didn't get much traction in the press, but will undoubtedly be raised again by the McCain campaign should Obama win the Democratic nomination.
The Clinton assault on Obama then moved to Ohio.
On Saturday, Clinton went nuclear on Obama for distributing two mailers in the Buckeye State that she feels unfairly represent her positions on health care and NAFTA. Video of the tirade (and I don't use that word in a pejorative sense; objectively speaking, Clinton went on a tirade) can be seen at right. The sniping back and forth on these two issues has gotten so vicious that neither campaign has clean hands, though in my judgment Obama is mostly right about Clinton's record on NAFTA (she pushed it, along with other Clinton administration officials, when her husband was president) while Clinton is mostly right about health care (Obama's claim that folks who are unable to afford health care will have their arms twisted by an H. Clinton Administration until they pony up is fear-mongering about a core progressive objective). Factcheck.org has already done the heavy lifting on this subject, so I'll point you to it: go here for an analysis of the campaigns' disagreement over trade, and here for the same on health care.
After the diatribe in Ohio, Clinton moved to Rhode Island on Sunday, where she mocked Obama's message of unity and hope. With the video at left, you can judge for yourself if she crossed the line. It's safe to say that Clinton oversimplifies Obama's approach to government and theory of change. It also belittles inspiration and unity's power to push an agenda. The best that can be said of it is that it contains no factual errors and is probably par for the course in a presidential campaign.
And then, finally, we've got the Drudge photo (below). Just before 7:00 am this morning, Drudge posted a photo of Obama in Somali garb with the headline "CLINTON STAFFERS CIRCULATE 'DRESSED' OBAMA." Circulating the photo is dirty politics at its worst: It provides fodder for the wing-nuts who are making the case, in emails and fliers, that Obama is a secret Muslim who doesn't say the pledge of allegiance and was educated in madrassas. If you don't think that photo will be passed around every day until the general election, you're crazy.
We don't know for a fact that Clinton campaign is in fact distributing the photo. Drudge doesn't substantiate his claim that "stressed Clinton staffers circulated [the] photo over the weekend." Obama's top folks are attacking the Clinton campaign for passing it around, but in a conference call this morning Obama surrogates couldn't definitively state that the Clinton campaign is behind it. The Clinton campaign released a statement about the photo, saying:
If Barack Obama's campaign wants to suggest that a photo of him wearing traditional Somali clothing is divisive, they should be ashamed. Hillary Clinton has worn the traditional clothing of countries she has visited and had those photos published widely.
This is nothing more than an obvious and transparent attempt to distract from the serious issues confronting our country today and to attempt to create the very divisions they claim to decry.
This, of course, is nonsense. The Clinton campaign knows that Obama dressed in stereotypically African or Muslim gear plays different than Clinton dressed in the same. Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson shuffled when he was asked about the statement's lack of a clear denial in a conference call with reporters this afternoon. "No," said Wolfson when asked if someone in the campaign had sent the photo to Drudge. "Not to my knowledge." Later, he was asked if he would press the staff to reveal if they had sent it. He responded by citing the size of the campaign. "I'm not in a position to ask 700 people to come and answer questions," he said. "We are not aware of [a staffer sending the photo]. We don't condone it." In other words, it's not that they didn't send the photo; it's that they don't know if they did.
It's possible the Clinton campaign isn't behind this. But the campaign has a history of trying to use racism against Obama. It's not a stretch to think in these desperate days it would use xenophobia as well. Moreover, the timing of the photo's release fits into a pattern of attacks that the Clinton campaign has orchestrated over the past half-week. With Clinton's chances of winning the nomination diminishing, the campaign may have decided it is going to go nasty before it goes away.