On Excerpts of The Battle for America 2008

1 08 2009

I have never been much of consumer of campaign books. I tend to think they more or less rehash everything that has already been dissected in contemporaneous reporting even if they do offer juicy tidbits about campaign infighting, portraits of a frustrated candidate, and a loads of humorous anecdotes. Couldn’t I get much of that on YouTube spoofs anytime I want? Aside from a peculiar variety of political junkies, I often wonder to myself who actually purchases such books.

But after reading the an excerpt of “The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election” by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson in the Washington Post today, I think I’m beginning to understand the appeal of that genre of books. Of course, the 2008 presidential contest from primary to the end of the general election is an unusual serious of events featuring an unlikely stew of characters giving life to grand themes. Somehow the white guy from the South, former Senator John Edwards, became the underdog and a white woman from a northern blue state and black guy with a Muslim name became the main competitors on the Democratic side. And even in that struggle contained hues of David versus Goliath storyline that the media found easy to sell to a eager public.

Meanwhile, the Republican corp had a number of cartoon characters from the adamantly anti-immigrant then-Congressman Tom Tancredo to the jolly aw shucks evangelism of former Arkansas Mike Huckabee. A more disciplined Senator John McCain had to emerge from the ashes before taking the lead. And that only happened after his big win in New Hampshire.

The media’s appetite for sideshow personalities like Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Joe the Plumber, and Bill Ayers made the long campaign easy fodder for water cooler talk for those who wanted a little gossip go with wonky debates on the minutiae of preconditions, the importance of a employer mandates in a health care plan, and the intricacies of the delegate and Superdelegate count.

Historians will have fun with that moment in American politics for generations to decades to come – maybe even longer than that.

But everything revolved around the eventual victor Barack Obama. Compared to his competitors, his campaign was heralded a marvel of near pitch perfect management with few dips in morale matching the posture of its intrepid leader. And the public, particularly his supporters, were very impressed with his cool demeanor, keen intellect and soaring rhetoric.

Balz and Johnson, however, seized on the moments in which those notions did not hold up.

Aides worried that Obama’s low morale might infect others in the campaign and spoke to him about it. They tried to buck him up, but at points in the spring and early summer of 2007, he was deeply frustrated — with his own performance and with that of much of his campaign. On July 15, he met with his senior staff at the home of Valerie Jarrett, a close friend and confidante to both Obama and his wife, Michelle. One adviser recalled it as the moment Obama began to take a more direct role in the operations of his campaign. He was blunt in his critique, and the exchanges among some of his advisers became testy. Beyond fundraising and the operation overseeing the Internet and new media, the campaign was not performing well, Obama said. The message still wasn’t where it should be. The political operation wasn’t up to speed. The campaign lacked crispness and good execution. He believed it was becoming too insular and wanted new people added to the inner circle. He told his team members they were all doing B work. If they continued on that course, they would come in a respectable second.

“Second is not good enough,” he said.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the excerpt so far, however, was then-chief campaign strategist and now White House senior adviser David Axelrod’s candid and prescient assessment of the big O’s potential weaknesses in a 2006 memo.

“It goes to your willingness and ability to put up with something you have never experienced on a sustained basis: criticism. At the risk of triggering the very reaction that concerns me, I don’t know if you are Muhammad Ali or Floyd Patterson when it comes to taking a punch. You care far too much what is written and said about you. You don’t relish combat when it becomes personal and nasty. When the largely irrelevant Alan Keyes attacked you, you flinched,” he said of Obama’s 2004 Senate opponent.

Many in the blogosphere and beyond often wondered if Obama was in fact the happy warrior beneath all that cool even if he could seduced legions of voters with great speechifying. The sheer force of the machinery of the campaign helped quell, thought not silence, many of those lingering doubts. And Obama knew it telling Balz and Haynes:

As he reviewed the campaign from his transition headquarters in mid-December, Obama offered a frank assessment of his two main competitors: Clinton and John McCain. “I was sure that my toughest race was Hillary,” he said. “Hillary was just a terrific candidate, and she really found her voice in the last part of the campaign. After Texas and Ohio she just became less cautious and was out there and was working hard and I think connecting with voters really well. She was just a terrific candidate. And [the Clinton campaign] operation was not as good as ours and not as tight as ours, but they were still plenty tough. Their rapid response, how they messaged in the media was really good. So we just always thought they were our most formidable challenge. That isn’t to say that we underestimated John McCain; it’s just that we didn’t think that their campaign operation was as good.

I cannot help but note the irony here that the campaign that was often dubbed as personality driven and almost free of doubt was in fact the very same tightly organized campaign that achieved success in no small part due to a healthy fear of losing. Its not news, but still a tidbit worth chewing. And maybe with enough of these kinds of insights it might even form a book worth reading.


Lindsey Graham’s Majoritarianism

15 07 2009

On day 2 of the Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination, Senator Lindsey Graham asked a fairly peculiar question. “What’s the best way for society to change, generally speaking? What’s the most legitimate way for a society to change?” At first, Judge Sotomayor was stumped by that question because it seemed academic at best.

He then asks “Do you think judges — do you think judges have changed society by some of the landmark decisions in the last 40 years?” Now it is plainly true that the high court’s decisions on everything from campaign finance reform to the death penalty to gay rights to bilingual education to voting rights to employment discrimination and much more has undoubtedly changed society.  But Judge Sotomayor wisely demured from responding until he revealed his real reason for engaging in that line of questioning.

And in a very patronizing Senator Graham noted “… a lot of us feel that the best way to change society is to go to the ballot box, elect someone, and if they are not doing it right, get rid of them through the electoral process. And a lot of us are concerned from the left and the right that unelected judges are very quick to change society in a way that’s disturbing. Can you understand how people may feel that way?”

Of course, this seems sensible on its face, but it Sen. Graham is ignoring how the courts as an institution differ from legislative bodies. Part of the reason judges to federal courts are unelected and have lifetime tenure is to make sure that political pressures do not override larger concerns about constitutional rights, including making unpopular rulings if necessary, to protect the rights of women and people of color.

Of course, the ballot box is important and is obviously a tranformative vehicle for change in its own right, but the courts can provide a check against the other two branches of government when both are two preocuppied with the popular will. Democracy is more than simple majority rule. It also has to consider the rights of minorities and the individual.

But Sen. Graham also noted:

I think, for a long time, a lot of talented women were asked, can you type? And were trying to get beyond that and improve as a nation. So when it comes to the idea that we should consciously try to include more people in the legal process and the judicial process, from different backgrounds, count me in.

But your speeches don’t really say that to me.

They — along the lines of what Senator Kyl was saying — they kind of represent the idea, there’s a day coming when there’ll be more of us — women and minorities — and we’re going to change the law.

And what I hope we’ll take away from this hearing is there need to be more women and minorities in the law to make a better America. And the law needs to be there for all of us, if and when we need it.
And the one thing that I’ve tried to impress upon you through jokes and being serious, is the consequences of these words in the world in which we live in. You know, we’re talking about putting you on the Supreme Court and judging your fellow citizens.

And one of the things that I need to be assured of is that you understand the world as it pretty much really is. And we’ve got a long way to go in this country…

This statement is the clearest expression of the anxiety white males feel about living in a society with more Judge Sonia Sotomayors and fewer Joe the Plumbers.

Watch the exchange here:

Not Quite Post-Racial

30 05 2009

From the New York Times:

Few groups conducted public polls on the issue as it faded in recent years, and the results from those that did reveal a consistent ambivalence, said Michael Dimock, a pollster with the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

When asked a question about “affirmative action or preferential treatment for minorities,” the public has consistently opposed the idea by a margin of two to one. But when asked about “affirmative action programs designed to help women and minorities,” an even bigger majority has supported them.

….. the election of Mr. Obama does not appear to have changed either result.

So I guess we are not quite the post racial society that so many people thought we were after the November election.

I bet once conservatives find their voice in opposing Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court its likely that they will attempt to portray her as a quotas obsessed affirmative action baby not worthy of seat on the high court even as they admit that “at least on paper, she has professional qualifications” to serve.

The Strident Opposition

19 05 2009

Just as liberal activist groups tried to exert pressure on Democratic Senators in 2005 and 2006 to aggressively block President Bush’s Supreme Court nominees, conservative groups this time around are applying the same kind of pressure on Republican Senators to touch up President Obama’s nominee to replace Justice David Souter. Charlie Savage reported the NYT this weekend that the paper has obtained ten memorandums revealing how conservatives are eager to exploit typical culture war issues “abortion, same-sex marriage, the separation of church” in addition to the propriety of citing foreign law in interpreting the Constitution.

Right wing activists are well aware that the deck is stacked against them, but that has not prevented them from attracting donors to support a media campaign for television, radio, and internet ad buys.  Senate Republicans, on the other hand, are trying to manage expectations for mounting stiff opposition to the nominee while still refusing to give up the filibuster option. According to the NYT, one conservative opposition memo on 9th Circuit Judge Kim Wardlaw also noted her rulings on the death penalty, and separation between church and state and free speech issues.

The Judicial Confirmation Network is leading the effort to try to define  such contenders as  newly confirmed U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Second Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor, and Seventh Circuit Court Judge Diane Wood, as “way left and outside the American mainstream.” For Sonia Sotomayor, the Judicial Confirmation Network asserts falsely that she has been reversed 100 percent of the time and refers to her ruling in the New Haven firefighter affirmative action case as evidence that she’s for racial quotas. Bloggers at the National Review picked up on a set of controversial remarks by Sotomayor where in a 2002 speech she said, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

JCN is currently running web ads against Kagan by attacking her for “attempting to keep the military off campus” as Dean of Harvard Law School to support a ban against military recruiters on the because of its enforcement of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Policy.”  Other JCN web ads portray Diane Wood as a foe of religious freedom and a looney prochoice advocate with federal judgeship.

Read the rest of this entry »

No Indictment of Her Intelligence

6 05 2009

One of Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s former clerks, Robin Kar, who is now a Professor of Law and Philosophy, penned a vigorous and eloquent defense of his mentor’s record, work ethic and intelligence at PrawfsBlawg. Sotomayor has come under harsh or better yet hatch job like criticism since media reports began suggesting she is on President Obama’s short list to replace Justice David H. Souter on the Supreme Court.

Money quote:

I suspect that some people on the left may be concerned about Judge Sotomayor because she may not be the “liberal antidote to Justice Scalia” that some have desired. But this is no indictment of her intelligence, but rather of their imagination.

Read the post in its entirety here.

In Search of an Empathetic Nominee

6 05 2009

So it seems as if President Obama will not name a replacement for Justice David Souter this week says the WaPo. But the announcement of a nominee with “real world experience ” does seem to be eminent.  In addition to Second Circuit Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the other front-runners named in this morning’s Washington Post article include:

Judge Diane P. Wood of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit; Elena Kagan, Obama’s solicitor general and the former dean of Harvard Law School; and Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D), a Harvard Law graduate whose background running a large state dealing with severe hardship may qualify as the experience Obama is seeking.

None of these names are new. But most of the reports I have seen usually included the Canadian born Granholm in the extended list of potential nominees, not on the short list.

It also seems as if the attacks on Sotomayor are starting to worry some in the White House.  According to the WaPo, one official involved in the White House  seems to be concerned that the native Bronxite is being portrayed as someone who “doesn’t play well with others.”


There needs to be an organized effort to aggressively push back against the noise machine, though some of that has already begun.

Meanwhile, in her piece today Ruth Marcus of the WaPo attempts to put some meant on the bones regarding Obama’s seemingly vague empathy standard. To Marcus, Obama invoked the empathy standard not to be  the new age sensitive guy, but to broaden the discussion on the role of judges beyond the trite umpire analogy that Chief Justice Roberts easily popularized during his confirmation process in 2005.

If that were all judges did Marcus contends, then “we could program powerful computers to fulfill the judicial function.” Marcus also noted that empathy and the lackthereof has already revealed itself in some of the courts more recent rulings.

When Bowers was overruled in 2003, the majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy was infused with a greater understanding that anti-sodomy laws “seek to control a personal relationship.” You got the sense that Kennedy actually knew people in such relationships.

And empathy runs both ways. In 2007, when the court rejected Lilly Ledbetter’s pay discrimination lawsuit because she had waited too long to complain about her lower salary, the five-justice majority seemed moved by concern for employers unable to defend themselves against allegations of discrimination that allegedly occurred years earlier.

That’s real talk.

Some time ago, Jefferey Toobin of the New Yorker recalled his favorite Souter opinion where he dissented in a case that involved a man named Kieth Bowles, who was sentenced to 15 years to life for murder in Ohio. Bowles wanted to file an appeal in federal court, but the judge mistakenly provided the wrong date for the filing deadline.

In a callous  5 to 4 ruling with Justice Clarence Thomas writing for the majority, the court said,  “Tough luck, pal. The law’s the law. Bowles missed the deadline, which he might consider as he potentially spends the rest of his life in prison.”

For his part, Justice Souter called attention to the lack of compassion shown by his fellow justices in his dissent. “It is intolerable for the judicial system to treat people this way, and there is not even a technical justification for condoning this bait and switch.”

I wonder if that is empathy or just plain common sense at work.

Update: Media Matters has put together a solid document countering conservative talking points on all things judicial nominations, including Sotomayor.

False Choices in Picking a New Court Nominee

4 05 2009

Each time a key administrative appointment is in the news suddenly the conversation operates on two polarities – diversity and qualifications, as if someone could not be eminently qualified for a job if he or she were not a white male. People need to be constantly reminded that there are talented people of color and women out there for many of the country’s top jobs, just look at the president’s cabinent or even the man who occupies the Oval Office himself.

Thats why its frustrating to read opinion pieces in the Washington Post like Benjamin Wittes entitled, “On the Supreme Court, What Price Diversity?” particularly when he says that a diverse court automatically comes at the price of nominating a quality Justice. That’s just a false dichtomy.

Syndicated columnist Ruben Navarette breaks down why on the Chris Matthews show.