Saturday, March 15, 2008

Some thoughts on Barack and his church

I was just reading this op-ed written by Cass Sunstein, and I think I had an insight into why Obama might have stuck through some 20 years of services at Trinity UCC in Chicago with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, even when he didn't agree with everything that might have been said at any given moment. I think this whole thing strikes us as so politically foolish, and we think it's hard to understand how Obama could have let this happen at all. The problem with this perspective, however, may be the difference between the kind of politics we're used to seeing from our politicians, and the new kind of politics that Obama claims to (and very well may) represent. I don't think any of us believe that Obama holds political views that are similar to that of his pastor, although the political problem for him now is that people may start to think that he does. The root of the problem, speaking for myself (and perhaps for others), though, is why he didn't foresee this as an issue? Is he really not as politically smart as he's been cranked up to be?

The context that Obama's tried to put forth is one in which Wright is a hugely popular preacher (his is the largest congregation in the entire UCC denomination) and is someone who clearly speaks to the heart of the African-American community in Chicago -- the same community where Obama got his start as a community organizer, and which he represented in the Illinois State Senate. Wright married Obama and Michelle, he baptised their daughters, and he "brought Obama to Jesus." Yet, Obama must have heard Wright say some controversial things from time to time. But if that was the case, would it not have been so much easier for Obama to conveniently move on to a less controversial church -- to one that might not end up becoming a thorn in his political side should he ever seek higher office, say, that of U.S. Senator, or beyond? If Obama is such a smart a politician (which I think he is), or if his ambition is so great (something which I think any presidential candidate must have), why then did he not long ago take what was clearly the more politically expedient path, and move on to another church at the slightest hint of potential future controversy?

I don't want to reduce his spiritual motivations to that of pure political calculation, but think about the current situation as you read the op-ed from Sunstein that I link to above. Think about the Obama that Sunstein describes here -- fiercely independent, not afraid to listen to the deep beliefs of those who think differently -- and you'll see that he's not someone who's always going to take the politically correct or "safe" path to success. (Of course, one could also explain his remaining in Wright's church as a sign of pure loyalty -- but his public distancing of himself from Wright over a year ago, just as he announced his candidacy for the presidency, as well as his recent statements, surely underscores the limits to that hypothesis.)

So what strikes me about Obama's sticking with his church is that, given where Obama came from, I can imagine that he felt it was important not to lose touch with this Afro-centric perspective -- he wanted to be challenged, not just uplifted, when he went to church. And given his general inclination to think for himself, perhaps he got caught up in his own self-confidence, not thinking that he was going to have to "denounce and reject" the political views of someone from whom he had received a great deal of spiritual insight and comfort. Is this really all that inconsistent for a guy who's made a point of saying that he would sit down with dictators as a means of resolving political tensions!

So let's call him wildly naive, politically stupid, or unreasonably loyal, but we might also entertain the notion that he's actually practicing what he preaches -- namely, that the idea of accepting "the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point" is not something that you toss aside on your way to political power, rather it's what you embrace as the only possible way to get there.

WOLA and the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center in Mexico

I'm glad to see that my old outfit, the Washington Office on Latin America, is starting to use youtube and videos.

Here we have Ana Paula Hernandez, fundraising consultant for the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center, based in Guerrero, Mexico, talks to the Washington Office on Latin America about the relationship between the two organizations and WOLA's role in helping the Center achieve its mission.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Hillary's Math Problem

I haven't played around with the Slate delegate calculator, but Jonathan Alter at Newsweek has, and finds that Hillary could win the next sixteen contests handily and still not catch up in terms of pledged delegates.

So why, assuming wins Ohio today, will be forced to continue underwriting the Democratic mudslinging contest that is sure to unfold over the coming weeks, all to the benefit of John McCain?

GOTC (get out to caucus)

Things have slowed down quite a bit, but there's a steady trickle. It's actually nice for us, because then we have time to talk to (usually self-identified) Obama supporters, to explain the inexplicable -- i.e., why they MUST vote twice today. As Bill Clinton says, Texas is the only place in the country where you can vote twice without getting arrested.

Turnout in this very Republican area is running 2-to-1 for the Democrats (oh, forgot to mention there is a GOP primary going on as well!) That's a total turnaround from the traditional numbers. Hard to know, but I will not be surprised if this precinct goes 2-to-1 for Obama, many of whom say they will come back at 7 pm tonight to caucus.

Why the heck does Texas have both a primary and a caucus?

I've been asking that question for days, and had not yet gotten to the bottom of it. But I think the New Republic primer on the Texas primary explains it well:

Why The (Ridiculously Confusing) Hybrid System Exists
Up until about 30 years ago, Texas was a strong Democratic state, and presidential caucuses--the preferred system prior to 1976--were little more than local turf wars between the liberal and the conservative wings of the party establishment. According to Dr. Patrick Cox, Associate Director for Congressional and Political History at the University of Texas, prior to the 1970s, the Texas Democrats used the "unit rule," meaning that all delegates--often under the guidance of the governor--supported one candidate at the national convention. From about 1950 until the mid-'70s, the conservative wing dominated, most notably in the persons of governors R. Allan Shivers and John Connally, Jr.

But in the lead-up to the 1976 presidential nominations, conservative Democrats were concerned that the liberal faction was better organized--and that this would hurt the presidential aspirations of one of their own, then-senator Lloyd Bentsen. They made a forceful push for a primary, which they believed would give an edge to the more popular candidate, instead of the one with the best organization. Unable to roll the liberal wing of the party, the conservatives eventually settled on a compromise, where two-thirds of the pledged delegates (126 total) are decided by primary, and the remaining one-third (67) are decided in caucus. (Bentsen lost to Jimmy Carter anyway.)

Read the whole post for a good summary of further aspects of the primary/caucus system.

The joys of phone-banking

I got this email from a friend on Sunday:

Omg-a lady just cried to me & told me that she knew God made me call because she was undecided & she is now going to vote for Obama!

From NBC's First Read today

*** Other things to watch: Here are a few very plausible scenarios: Obama could net more delegates out of Vermont than Clinton does out of Ohio. Clinton can win both Ohio and Texas, 52%-48%, and lose the overall delegate battle tonight, thanks to how both Texas and Ohio award more delegates in African-American heavy areas as well as those crazy Texas caucuses. Speaking of Texas, Obama likely has a five-point cushion on the delegate front, meaning he could lose the state by five points and still net delegates. How will the media handle Clinton winning two states but Obama winning the most delegates tonight? Who wins the night? Bonus question: Who do we reward the state of Texas to if Clinton wins the popular vote in the primary but Obama nets the most delegates? And finally, for all the talk of bias against Clinton's campaign in the media, does anyone believe any other candidate could have lost 11-straight contests, be this far behind in delegates, and be simply two victories away from being back in the game? One thing the media has done is they've given Clinton every chance she wants to write her own comeback story. She gets another shot today.

Tuesday morning, 8:30 am

So, we've got 4 people hanging out right now in front of the school
for Obama. Hillary: zero presence, not even a yard sign. So that's

I'm pleasantly surprised at the number of people interested in
caucusing tonight for Obama. And it's great when some short-haired,
redneck-looking guy in a pickup truck waves at you in support. To a
person, every African-American I've met is for Obama, and most are
planning to caucus tonight. I have a feeling the energy tonight is
going to be electric.

Organizing by email

This is an example of the kind of go-get'm emails I've been receiving from our stellar organizer:

Fort Worth Warriors –

Time to shine…it’s Election Day! Before my official send off, I want to answer 3 quick questions:

  1. Question: Should we switch the names on the sign-in sheets if someone from a non-viable group (ie. a few Edwards supporters) decides to switch their vote to Barack? Answer: We are working on it…for right now I wouldn’t mess with the sign-in sheets. I’ll try to get more info, though.
  2. Question: What do we do if someone comes to the wrong location? Answer: Get them to the right location!!! They can’t caucus at your location – they’ve got to get in their car and drive as fast as they can to the new one!
  3. Question: Where’s the party? Answer: 8:00p (or when your caucus gets out) at BoomerJack's Grill & Bar, 2600 West 7th St., Fort Worth 76107 Come join!

Remember – enjoy today, breathe (frequently), and don’t forget that you’re part of an incredible team that supports you. And in the midst of all the craziness, take 5 seconds to remind yourself that you part of one of the most incredible campaigns in American history. That’s pretty remarkable.

Good luck, go get ‘em, and know that…


All right, now off to the polls!

Election news slow tonight

The Politex blog at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram is one place to look for news, but it reports that results may be slowing in coming tonight:

Local election officials have told Politex that many polling places may not report their results until hours after the polls close at 7 p.m.

There are two reasons:

1) Polls officially close at 7 p.m. but those still in line will be allowed to vote. Local officials are bracing for the possibility that some polling locations may have more than 100 people still waiting to vote at 7 p.m.

2) Many election clerks and judges plan on participating in the precinct conventions once everyone has voted and polls close. That means some won't deliver the poll results to the county until AFTER the precinct convention, which could be hours later.

The Texas Democratic Party sent me a memo from the Secretary of State's office that said, "The responsible election judge or clerk must complete the paperwork, finish making out returns, and deliver the records and ballots to the custodian before he or she may attend the precinct convention."

In practice, at least in Tarrant County, this isn't going to happen. Tarrant County Elections Administrator Steve Raborn said he wouldn't be surprised if some polling places don't report their results to him until after midnight because the election workers were at the precinct conventions. By 11 p.m. tomorrow, he wasn't sure if he would have results from 50 percent of the county's precincts.

The Texas Two-Step

It's 6:15 am, and I'm at Starbucks in Fort Worth. I've been calling and walking and talking these past three days, and today's the big vote. I'll show up to my precinct in suburban southwest Fort Worth in about half an hour where, along with several other local volunteers, we'll maintain a "visibility" presence throughout the day, encouraging Obama voters (and, alas, surely a few others) to return to the precinct polling place (a local elementary school) later that night to caucus. Four of us met last night at the local Barnes and Nobles, and then participated in a conference call with our Obama Field Organizer, a very talented, articulate and detail-oriented 23-year-old (I'm guessing) Lily West, originally from the DC area. She's been in Iowa and Nevada, and lord knows where else for the past year, and she's a real pro. I'd hire her in a minute to organize just about anything.

I'd hoped to write some of my thoughts here earlier, but the "urgency of now" usually meant that I should make phone calls instead. Nevertheless, I'll try to do some mobile blogging today, in little snippets, whenever I have a moment's reprieve. We've got good weather for today, up to the 50s, after snowing briefly (and oddly last night) -- Saturday it was in the 80s!

I've been alternately depressed and inspired, and have absolutely NO idea what the day will be like. I did just hear that Texas's Secretary of State predicts a 3 million-plus turnout, breaking a record of some 20 years ago for a primary. What's for sure is that (1) many people are voting in their first primary ever, (2) probably 98% of those caucusing tonight will be doing so for the first time ever -- most people have never even heard of such a contraption!, and (3) I have no idea what kind of turnout the Clinton folks will deliver. Regarding the latter, they seem clearly less organized, in every conceivable way, but there is a bedrock of support for Hillary and Bill, and we'll see how that works out.

So stay tuned for the occasional, and hopefully not too mundane, observation throughout the day. Yes We Can!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Texas Diaries

So, I'm headed to Fort Worth, Texas this morning (waiting for that 4:30 am cab to National Airport), land of my youth, to vote -- and to organize. Well, if I'm luckly I'll get to organize a precinct caucus, or convention (as they call it in Texas. Caucus rhymes with "raucus", which sounds more appropriate for Cowtown, but convention better describes the conventionally conservative politics of Fort Worth.) Anyway, I think I'll have some tales to tell. I'm glad I'm leaving early, because as it turns out I've got a precinct captain training at Obama headquarters on the North Side by the Stockyards at 10 am. Hillary was kind enough to schedule a rally at 11 am just outside our door as well, so perhaps I'll get a glimpse of her.

I'll be blogging once a day (starting tomorrow morning) at Burnt Orange Report, and may or may not cross-post here. Internet connections are not so prevalent down Texas way -- gotta make a run for the Panera Bread up on University Blvd, or the Panther Coffee Shop over by TCU, or -- if I'm lucky -- I'll be able to hijack a signal from a neighbor of my brother or mother. Okay, I guess it's obvious now that I've only gotten three hours sleep.

Anyway, I'm glad to go and knock on doors for the Obama campaign. I've been telling people ever since Feb. 4th that he has a chance of winning Texas, mainly because I've been reading the very political science-y analysis of such a possibility at the Burnt Orange Report, but now it seems like it's going to happen. Maybe it'll be something to tell the grandkids about, er...., well, make that something to tell other people's grandkids about -- how I helped wrap up the Obama nomination in Texas.

Friday, February 29, 2008

'1,000 years in Iraq'

This is good:

Clinton campaign gets desperate in Texas

From today's startlegram (i.e., Fort Worth Star-Telegram), this scoop:
AUSTIN -- The Texas Democratic Party is warning that its primary night caucuses could be delayed or disrupted after aides to White House hopeful Hillary Clinton raised the specter of an "imminent" lawsuit over its complicated delegate selection process, officials said Thursday night....

"Both campaigns have made it clear that they would go there if they had to, but I think the imminent threat is coming from one campaign," said one top Democratic official, referring to the Clinton campaign. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

Another Democratic source who was privy to the often intense discussions confirmed that representatives of the New York senator's campaign had issued veiled threats in a telephone call this week.

"Officials from Sen. Clinton's campaign at several times throughout the call raised the specter of 'challenging the process,'" the official said. "The call consisted of representatives from both campaigns and the Democratic Party."

The source, who was not authorized to speak about the matter on the record, said Clinton's political director, Guy Cecil, had pointedly raised the possibility of a courtroom battle.

"Best run campaign in American history" -- thanks to volunteers and the internet

Not sure if Mark White is referring to the campaign in Texas, or nationally. What is certain is that the spontaneous, grassroots support for Obama in Texas enabled his professional campaign staff to come in with an advantage, just as it did in Ohio.

Former Gov. Mark White of Texas:

"I'll tell you what. This is probably the best-run campaign in American history, and I've been involved in them since 1976 when I was (Texas) secretary of state," he added. "If this guy runs the country like he's run his campaign, we're all in for a happy surprise."

The Wall Street Journal today:

Sen. Barack Obama's pivotal victories last month in Iowa and South Carolina over Sen. Hillary Clinton were engineered by professional staffers who worked those states for nearly a year. In Texas, the story has been a lot different. 1

His organization in the Lone Star State, which holds its potentially decisive presidential primary on Tuesday, has been "more like a baling wire and duct tape thing," says Mitch Stewart, who is running the campaign here. Mr. Stewart and the first dozen paid Obama staffers touched down in this capital city less than three weeks ago.

The uncharacteristic late start has left the Illinois senator relying to an unusual degree on the groundwork of volunteers such as Ian Davis. The 29-year-old Austin community organizer has been laboring for months with no guidance at all from Obama headquarters. When Sen. Obama's team finally arrived, Mr. Davis handed over laundry baskets stuffed with 20,000 handwritten names of potential volunteers, which Mr. Davis had gathered on his own.

"At the end of the day," Mr. Stewart says, it will be people like Ian Davis "who win this thing."
Of course, internet tools for organizing also played a fundamental role:
As the voting in Iowa and New Hampshire approached, Mr. Davis and thousands of other Texans took advantage of a powerful tool available on the Obama campaign's national Web site, The system, developed in-house and modeled after an effort created in 2004 by the liberal political action group, gives campaign volunteers unsupervised access to names and phones numbers of potential supporters nationwide, which campaigns usually treat as proprietary information.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Taking Stock of Barack on foreign policy

An editor at The National Interest reviews Obama's foreign policy views critically, but ends up with a good measure of respect:
Perhaps the best compliment to Senator Barack Obama and the relative integrity of his record is the distortion of his statements by his political opponents. From President Bush to former President Bill Clinton, Obama’s detractors have either mischaracterized or put considerable spin on his positions on key areas, such as Iraq, Pakistan and Iran. This could well be because Obama is at a substantive advantage vis-à-vis his Democratic and Republican challengers, given his publicly stated foresight on the Iraq War. And while Obama’s positions on important foreign-policy issues have not always been static (even to some degree on the Iraq War), Obama has demonstrated a willingness to acknowledge his prior position. Obama has therefore not resorted to that dark art of politics, alchemizing one’s prior positions in order to avoid acknowledging misjudgments or contradictions.

...Obama’s record is not free of vacillation or disconnect, but in broad strokes it seems to reflect logical cohesiveness and a tendency to stake politically risky positions in forthright terms—such as his stated willingness to meet with the Iranian leader. It is perhaps for this reason that his opponents prefer to recast his past positions, rather than reckon fairly with his record and proposals.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Stayin' Alive in Venezuela

The January 5th edition of the Wall Street Journal pays attention to some of Chavez's more pragmatic, post-referendum moves. I love the fact that, in addition to lifting some price controls, they're also busy importing food from the U.S. to make up for shortages (last para below):

"We have decided to open ourselves up to attend to street-level problems, like garbage and shortages, because we believe that you can't theorize about socialism if the people don't see government in action," said Jesse Chacon, the new government spokesman, during a press conference Friday to announce the cabinet changes.

Most observers believe Mr. Chávez's new strategy doesn't mean an end to his grand ambitions to remake Venezuela into a utopian society as well as stay in power for good to make that vision a reality. Instead, the moves signal that his own political survival may be more important to Mr. Chávez than any ideological blueprint.

"Chavez is not rigid ideologically," says Gilbert Merkx, a Latin American specialist and director at Duke University's Center for International Studies. "He is very improvisational and has a floating ideology that allows him to reinvent himself."

Not that anyone believes Mr. Chávez is about to become a believer in free markets. In a research note, the investment bank Goldman Sachs said it had "yet to detect signs that going forward the heterodox policy orientation will be reverted or moderated."

[Hugo Chavez]

It is also far from clear that Mr. Chávez's new team is up to the task of rectifying Venezuela's growing list of economic problems. For one, many of the new cabinet members are recycled from previous posts or other spots in the government and don't bring fresh ideas. The new finance minister, Rafael Isea, was previously vice finance minister for endogenous development. The newly named planning minister wrote a book called "Capitalism is Bad Business: Principles for Socialists."

In attacking the problem of food shortages, Mr. Chávez eased a price control on one kind of milk, but most of his solutions involve greater government intervention. Houston-based logistics managers for state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA were diverted from their usual jobs in recent months and charged with buying up tons of food from the U.S. for delivery to Caracas, where they are offered to the poor at one-day outdoor markets run by the government. "We're learning on the fly," a PDVSA worker reached by telephone said of his new mission.

Latell on Cuba

In an opinion piece in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, former national intelligence officer for Latin America Brian Latell predicts a gradual economic opening in Cuba -- along the lines of a Vietnamese or Chinese model -- with Raul's ascendancy. But on governance he says it's a matter of different styles more than anything else:

Raúl's style guarantees that Cuba will be governed differently. He'll rule more collegially than his brother, consulting trusted subordinates and delegating more. During the interregnum he has worked with officials of different generations and pedigrees, even promoting one long-time archrival to create a united front after his brother's initial withdrawal.

On his watch, Raúl has broken some previously sacred crockery as well. He has admitted that Cuba's many problems are systemic. In his disarmingly accurate view, it is not the American embargo or "imperialism" that are the cause of problems on the island, as his brother always insisted, but rather the regime's own mistakes and mindsets. He has called on Cubans, especially the youth, to "debate fearlessly" and help devise solutions for the failures. Candid discussions at the grassroots level have proliferated.

Yet like his brother, Raúl has no intention of opening Cuba to free political speech or participation. While the number of Cubans willing to voice their discontent publicly is on the increase, so too is the brutality of government reprisals against would-be leaders of the dissident movement. By acknowledging state failures, Raúl is playing with fire, and if the lid is going to be kept on, those challenging the regime have to pay a price.

He also wonders about how he will navigate the relationship with Chavez, the dependency on whom has nearly reached levels similar to that of the Soviet Union:

And there is Hugo Chávez. Unlike Fidel, Raúl has no personal rapport with the mercurial Venezuelan president, and surely no desire to be subordinated to another narcissistic potentate just as he is finally close to escaping his brother's grip. But Cuba has become highly dependent economically on Venezuela. The value of the Chávez dole, mostly oil, reached between $3 billion and $4 billion last year, approaching the amounts once provided by the Soviet Union. Raúl would be loath to provoke the Venezuelan. Without his support, the Cuban economy would soon plunge into deep recession.

There is no way to know how skillfully Raúl Castro will lead and deal with inevitable crises once his brother is gone. He clearly wants to begin rectifying economic problems but knows that, for some time at least, he cannot broadly repudiate his brother's legacy. A powerful backlash could come from fidelista hard-liners in the leadership -- and perhaps from Mr. Chávez. In the end, however, it is the gamble Raúl will have to take.

Monday, January 07, 2008

El Salvador's Obama?

The popular reception of the presidential candidacy of Mauricio Funes in El Salvador is quite unique in recent history, and might be considered analogous to the rock-star status of Barack Obama. Not to mention that the potential pro-government ARENA candidates seem to be dropping out right and left.