Monday, January 28, 2008

Oswald's Ghost

Coincidentally, at the same time the Obama/Kennedy connection is being played out on the cable channels, "Oswald's Ghost", a new documentary on PBS, explores the growth of the various 'conspiracy theories' that developed shortly after the events of November 22nd. It's hard to have a new take on the events in Dallas, but filmmaker Robert Stone focused on how the theories developed, rather than which one is most realistic.

Or perhaps not.

The Kennedy Legacy and the Gopher State

The last 48 hours have been an interesting time to think about the role of the Kennedy legacy in Democratic politics. Beginning with Caroline Kennedy's endorsement in the New York Times (which captured more press interest than the endorsement of the Times editorial board itself), and followed up by an endorsement by Senator Ted Kennedy, who stands as the symbol of the 'Democratic wing of the Democratic party,' it's been a great weekend for Barack Obama.

And Kennedy will undoubtedly be valuable to Obama in Latino barrios, in union halls, and among old-school liberals. After all, his endorsement of Al Gore in 2000, and his series of stemwinders in union halls in Iowa, was key in that caucus. His help -- in both staff and 'gravitas' -- to John Kerry helped steady that ship during the rough waters in late 2003.

But what Ted Kennedy's endorsement may signal is more subtle: that other superdelegates should 'hold on' in case this race is not clearly settled on February 5th. In such case, the race may go on to Maryland, Virginia, Ohio and other states, and if no single candidate can achieve a majority of delegates, the role of the "supers" may be increased. (The role for John Edwards, to the degree he can continue to accumulate delegates and prevent any other candidate from achieving a majority, is similar.)

Hillary's greatest source of strength (as this is written) is her large leads in the vast majority of Super-Tuesday-states. It is becoming clear that where Obama can set up shop and campaign (Iowa, NH, Nevada, and South Carolina), he can compete with the inherent Clinton advantages. Unfortunately, he has to try do the same across 20 states simultaneously between now and next Tuesday.

The categorical rejection by the voters of South Carolina of the 'old style' politics -- slash-and-burn, distortions, and personal attacks -- does not bode well for the Clinton future. After all, the 1992 campaign was defined by the Clinton "War Room", where these tactics were perfected -- at least on the Democratic side (until Karl Rove expanded micro-targetting to new levels.)

Bill Clinton famously analogized the results in SC to those of 1984, where Jesse Jackson won. Like Walter Mondale in 1984, Hillary seems to be a vestige of an older age, and one the country has passed by; she may be able to hold on to the majority of delegates on Super Tuesday, but she does not seem to embody the future.

But a better analogy is Obama to RFK, who brought a new coalition together for a few short weeks in 1968. And Hillary is certainly no "Happy Warrior."

Sunday, January 27, 2008

He Covered

And then some. The 2-1 margin of victory was well beyond what anyone in either the Obama or Clinton camp could have imagined, or feared.

The victory speech capped off an historic week. One paragraph that has seemingly been missed:
That is the country I see. That is the country you see. But now it is up to us to help the entire nation embrace this vision. Because in the end, we are not just up against the ingrained and destructive habits of Washington, we are also struggling against our own doubts, our own fears, and our own cynicism. The change we seek has always required great struggle and sacrifice. And so this is a battle in our own hearts and minds about what kind of country we want and how hard we’re willing to work for it.

He engages the listener on a much deeper level than a politician normally does; your fears of change are what is preventing us from accomplishing it.

The rhetoric through the rest of the speech is now almost moving behind the Clintons, who are reminders of all the partisan gridlock that Obama is running against. (Whether this proves to be 'too-much-too-early' is basically immaterial; it is clear that that is the way he can win.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Covering the Spread

Halfway through the regular season, the Patriots were 8-0, and even more impressively, were 8-0 against the 'spread' -- the Vegas line indicating the number of points by which a favorite should beat an underdog.

In the second half of the season, as bettors tuned into to how dominant the Patriots had become, the spreads on each game widened, such that the Pats have been just 2-7 in their last nine games (covering only against Buffalo (16 point spread; 46 point margin) and Pittsburgh (-10.5, won by 21)).

And its clear that Vegas has learned. The Pats were installed as 14-point favorites for next week's "Big Game"(*), but the line has slipped to 12, where it sits today. (Quick review: the line dropped because more bettors took the Giants and the points than the Pats (minus the line); Vegas makes money when there is approximately the same amount of money on both sides of the bet.)

But while the Vegas odds-makers have learned their lessons, political odds-makers have not. For the third week in a row, Barack Obama is perceived to be a heavy favorite going into an election.

On January 8th, Hillary Clinton escaped political death by pulling out a close victory in the New Hampshire primary when the pre-election polls had her trailing by double-digits. On January 19th, the endorsement of the Nevada Culinary Workers, together with a judge's decision to allow caucusing at the casinos (over a Clinton-supported, if not -financed, lawsuit) was supposed to insure Obama's victory. Instead, Clinton won the 'popular' vote in the caucuses, although Obama apparently eeked out a narrow 13-12 victory in national delegates awarded; regardless, the press considered Hillary to be the winner.

Now in South Carolina, Obama is again burdened by high -- and perhaps unrealistic -- expectations in the press. Hillary abandoned SC this week to campaign in the Super Tuesday states, leaving 'only' Bill Clinton and Chelsea behind. The presence of a significant African-American vote in SC is also supposed to be a huge advantage to Obama, although the Clintons have long been overwhelmingly supported by the black community.

The reality is that any win in a state where Obama trailed badly less than a month ago should be seen a 'victory'; after all, this was supposed to be an unstoppable coronation of Hillary as the Democratic nominee. But reality may not be what the press -- and the blogosphere -- has 'baked in' to the expected results.

For that matter, if the Patriots win next Sunday to go an unprecedented 19-0, whether they win by 1 point or 13 will make no difference.

At least outside of the sports books.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Debate We REALLY Want to See

Hillary Clinton has taken to defending her husband's (un-Presidential, to some) conduct on the campaign trail with a variation on 'everyone's-doing-it':

[From Monday's South Carolina Debate]

CLINTON: Now, I just -- I just want to be clear about this. In an editorial board with the Reno newspaper, you said two different things, because I have read the transcript. You talked about Ronald Reagan being a transformative political leader. I did not mention his name.

OBAMA: Your husband did.

CLINTON: Well, I'm here. He's not. And...

OBAMA: OK. Well, I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes.


CLINTON: Well, you know, I think we both have very passionate and committed spouses who stand up for us. And I'm proud of that.

It's true that all three spouses are 'passionate' and 'committed', but only one has the megaphone of being a former POTUS.

So, while there's a debate next week at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles among the three remaining candidates (Hillary, Obama, and Edwards), there's still time to schedule a debate among the Democractic spouses:

Now that would be Must-See-TV.

Monday, January 21, 2008

SC Debate with Super Tuesday Looming

A truly wide-open debate, with personal attacks between the two leading contenders -- Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- that opened up new avenues of attack.

Obama seemed to handle the incoming flak well, except for his failure to concisely explain the "Present" votes that are apparently part of normal legislative process in Illinois. He was also the victim -- like Hillary was in the New Hampshire debate -- of some double-team attacks, including the "Present" votes. The question is whether viewers are paying attention to the details of the debate, or rather taking a more general view of whether a candidate (in this case, Obama) is strong enough to handle the pressure of a campaign -- or office.

On the health care debate, the apparent failure of Obama's plan to explicitly start out with 100% coverage, also seems to be a debating point for Hillary (and Edwards, for that matter). Again, however, getting Obama to engage in any of the policy details -- as opposed to a more general discussion of how to achieve his stated goal of a "working majority" in Congress.

Hillary's core argument is that she is up to the attacks that the Republicans will bring, because she has been handling them for the "past 16 years." Obama responded with a strong criticism, from someone "who will say anything to get elected."

Obama took on directly the fundamental question in the debate: what is the legacy of the Clinton (42) presidency? In a Democratic primary, it is extremely difficult to criticize Bill Clinton, the first two-term President since FDR. Yet while the risks are immense to Obama, he may have no choice -- if he allows Hillary to frame the politics of the 1990s as successful, it may be impossible to prevent a third Clinton term, at least in the Democratic primary. Further, Obama may have needed to be sure that SC voters -- and especially the large black contingent -- would understand that he would stand up to both Clintons, and for himself.

The national press corps seems to be coalescing around a narrative that has the Clintons (especially the ex-POTUS) doing a good job of lowering expectations. In both New Hampshire and Nevada, the press was surprised by a positive Clinton showing. But with the accelerated primary schedule -- and with Super Tuesday looming -- we are into uncharted waters here.

If the delegates are awarded pro rata (as all Democratic delegates are now awarded, and not with 'winner-take-all'), it is probably impossible for Hillary to have a knock-out on Super Tuesday. Although about half the delegates will be selected on a single day (February 5th), it is possible that the split will reflect the early results -- very close between Hillary and Obama. And with both Hillary (with 210 delegates (including superdelegates, or 10%) and Obama (123 delegates, or 6%) only a small part of the way towards to the nomination, it is possible that neither will be at more than 35-40% of the way.

One factor that has not been fully explored: the role that Latino voters will play. With Governor Bill Richardson out of the race, there is no 'natural' home for Latinos, and that may have played a role in the results in Nevada. Many February 5th states will have significant Latino populations. Finally, there are the tensions between black and brown communities, which differ in different parts of the country.

Edwards, although often reduced to being a bit player in tonight's debate, seemed to be the one who stood above the fray, although when he did jump in (on the "Present" votes and the health care debate). Whether that helps him substantively, after a poor showing (4%) in Nevada, is a question yet to be answered.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Super Bowl of Politics

With two major American spectator sports -- pro football and Presidential politics -- colliding on television this January, it is worth a closer observation.

In football, the rhythm of the regular season gives way to Wild Card Weekend, followed by the Divisional Playoffs and (this upcoming weekend), the Conference Championships. All of that excitement, with TV bringing us a new game from a new location each weekend, leads up to the preeminent sporting event in professional sports: the Super Bowl.

With locations picked years in advance (get your plane tickets for Supe XLV, to be held in the Dallas Metroplex), the location becomes -- for the week leading up to the game -- the sports and entertainment capital of the world. The telecast itself is the ultimate marketing spot for consumer advertisers. Anyone out there remember Bud Bowl?

Presidential politics, in contrast, begins (at least on TV) with the "Super Bowl": Iowa, and to a greater extent, the New Hampshire Primary. While Iowa is dispersed and the caucus system is archaic, New Hampshire (especially this year) provided everything a political junkie could want: two competitive races, a navigable city (Manchester), and a primary that ended up with a surprise ending.

Fox and CNN come up weeks in advance to build elaborate sets and backdrops. You can't drive for 5 minutes in Manchester on the weekend before the Primary without running into a candidate or a national political journalist -- or both. The campaigns themselves, having been in the states for well over a year before Election Day, secure the best venues for their election night speeches. The whole week becomes an elaborate set-piece that culminated with John McCain reprising his NH win in the very same hotel room where he claimed victory in 2000.

But now that the political Super Bowl is over, its off to the equivalent of Wild Card Weekend. The locations move each night, and the campaigns are put together with tape and baling wire. Instead of elaborately staged victory parties, even Mitt Romney looked spontaneous last night with his sleeves rolled up and his hair (or at least 3 strands) slightly askew:

The wildness will continue for at least three more weeks, to February 5th. At that point, perhaps the writers' strike will have been resolved.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Rajon Rondo for MVP?

The dog days of the NBA schedule have come on the Celtics quickly.

After impressive win over the Pistons in Detroit, the Cs have now lost 3 of the last 4, including back-to-back losses to the Wizards. The loss tonight to Washington was especially demoralizing, with the Ws ending on a 25-6 run.

The missing piece? It may be Rajon Rondo, who injured his back last week, did not play Saturday night, and was tentative in the 21 minutes he did play. Eddie House is clearly not the answer at point guard during crunch time.

The Wizards, meanwhile, have continued to impress even without Agent Zero, Gilbert Arenas. In the last 21 games, since Arenas went out with a knee, the Wizards have re-tooled and won 14 of those 21, and at 20-16, they have the 4th best record in the conference.

At that rate, they would theoretically play the Cs in the second round.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hillary and Heisenberg

Many are struggling with how to explain final polls in New Hampshire that showed Obama with a commanding double-digit lead from the final results, which ended up with a narrow Clinton victory (39%-37%). Pundits have pointed to her last minute 'tearing', her focus on experience, her support among women, and even President Bill Clinton's exasperated 'fairy tale' charges the night before the primary.

But a more relevant answer may be the following: Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.

Heisenberg -- talking about atoms -- said that by trying to measure or observe a phenomenon, you invariably disturb its natural course. Thus, the polling in New Hampshire on Monday showed a race that looked effectively over. Women responded by giving their votes to Hillary, perhaps with the intent of narrowing the margin and reducing what looked to be an embarrassing defeat; independent men, thinking that Obama was safely ahead (with the Iowa boomlet), turned to the Republican side where John McCain had been making clear for weeks that unless he won New Hampshire (again), his campaign was effectively over.

Thus, by measuring rapidly-changing public opinion so effectively, and reporting the results so widely, the polls changed what they were in fact measuring. Whether such a confluence of events could ever happen again is debatable. But it happened Tuesday.

On a side note: New Hampshire's voters helped to support the future of the 'first-in-the-nation' NH Primary. If Hillary is elected, there's no way that New Hampshire won't keep 'first' -- at least on the Democratic side -- through 2016. After all, the Clintons owe the state.

Update (1/13): Thanks to reader BM for correcting the author of the theory: Heisenberg, not Heidenberg. Unfortunately, others have made the same typographical error. More important, Heisenberg did not technically identify the 'observer effect', although it is an implication of his theory, which states that certain qualities of subatomic particles cannot be measured; Schroedinger apparently identified the observer effect, which states that "subatomic objects are both waves and particles until direct observation, though the two are often confused." In any event, the post was about an analogy to physics, not a direct relationship; in the future, we'll try to leave physics to the, um, rocket scientists.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Predictions: New Hampshire

Picking up where we left off in Iowa:

1. McCain - reminiscing
2. Romney - energized
3. Giuliani - hopeful
4. Huckabee - bad track
5. Thompson - wondering

1. Obama - ran away
2. Clinton - losing touch
3. Edwards - angrily
4. Richardson - heading West


Obviously, the combination of independent women moving towards Hillary, and independent men (many of whom surely felt that Obama's apparent growing lead was safe) moving towards McCain -- as they did in 2000 -- was instrumental.

However, it's clear that Hillary's margin was obtained in the urban wards in Manchester, Berlin, and Nashua; a quick analysis would indicate that the race will be a traditional city/suburban split. But New Hampshire's cities -- like the state itself -- are overwhelmingly white. As the race moves south and west, cities will be much more diverse, and therefore more amenable to an Obama appeal.

It is worth noting that while New Hampshire has a huge "Independent" bloc, many are Independent because there are no penalties for being so -- the actual independents are probably in the 10% range, not the reported 40%. In other states, most NH Independents will stay in their respective parties.

Obama and JFK

In response to Hillary's 'false hopes' criticism in Saturday night's debate, Senator Barack Obama responded that others -- including JFK's call to 'put a man on the moon before the decade [of the 1960s] is out" -- were also 'just words' but words that inspired millions.

Hillary responded again yesterday, but telling Obama, in effect, that 'he is no JFK':

You know, today Senator Obama used President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to criticize me. He basically compared himself to our greatest heroes because they gave great speeches.

President Kennedy was in Congress for 14 years. He was a war hero. He was a man of great accomplishments and readiness to be president...

In fact, one of the toughest criticisms that JFK faced in the 1960 election (in the general election against Nixon) was that he was unprepared to lead. His Congressional record was relatively undistinguished, and even after 1956 (when he campaigned for the brokered Vice-Presidential slot at the National Convention) he was not involved in landmark legislation.

JFK's responded in the Convention Speech in Los Angeles:

My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age--to all who respond to the Scriptural call: 'Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed.'

For courage--not complacency--is our need today--leadership--not salesmanship. And the only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead, and lead vigorously.(*)

Almost 50 years later, those words still resonate.

(*-Note that the text of the speech as delivered is slightly different: "My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age; to the young in spirit, regardless of political party --to all who respond to the Scriptural call: 'Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid, neither be dismayed.')

(Go to 6:00 minute mark of clip)

Monday, January 7, 2008

C's bounce back

Give the Celtics credit.

Just a few short weeks after losing their first "big" game of the year -- to Detroit at home -- the C's have reeled off 9 wins in a row, including an impressive road trip to the West Coast (with wins at Sacramento, Seattle, Utah and the LA Lakers) and recent wins over Houston (albeit without T-Mac).

Boston's most impressive win came two nights ago against the Pistons, where they leveled the season series and also gave notice that a playoff series between these two teams would be very entertaining.

To be continued...

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Predictions: Iowa

Yes, yes, it's impossible to predict the Iowa caucuses, and the polls (especially those released in the last few days) are more likely to be wrong than right, but for just-for-the-heck of it, here's one view how the caucusing will go tonight, with one- or two-words of analysis (with kudos to the Daily Racing Form):

1. Romney - Muddy win
2. Huckabee - Bad homestretch
3. McCain - Closing
4. Giuliani - Went wide
5. Thompson - Broke down

1. Obama - Closed
2. Edwards - Holding on
3. Clinton - Faded
4. Biden - Classy, consistent
5. Dodd - Slow start

Post-Iowa Update:

Here's what the analysis should have been, with the apparent results at 12am:

1. Huckabee - resolute
2. Romney - desperate
3. Thompson - uncertain
4. McCain - restarted
5. Giuliani - out-of-touch

1. Obama - impressive kick
2. Edwards - clinging
3. Clinton - shaken
4. Richardson - surprising
5. Biden - distant
6. Dodd - quietly

New Year's Excitement in Boston

A fire at the McCormick Building in Post Office Square (currently undergoing renovation) brought a shivering lunchtime crowd some mid-day interest.