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I read the news today, oh boy:

CHICAGO (AP) — Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama says he didn’t know that one of his relatives was living in the United States illegally and believes the appropriate laws should be followed.

The Associated Press found that Obama’s aunt had been instructed to leave the country four years ago by an immigration judge who rejected her request for asylum from her native Kenya. The woman, Zeituni Onyango (zay-TUHN on-YANG-oh), is living in public housing in Boston and is the half-sister of Obama’s late father.

So this is our October November surprise.  The Obama campaign has released a statement denying knowledge of Onyango’s legal status and stating that “any and all appropriate laws [should] be followed.” Senator Obama has met Onyango literally a handful of times in his life, once in Kenya and once in Chicago, and she attended his Senate swearing-in in 2004 without visa assistance from Obama’s staff.  She’s mentioned in passing in Dreams of my Father, but has played no role whatsoever in the campaign or the public discourse.

We have a sick, sick media.  Ms. Onyango is the half-sister of a father that Barack Obama barely knew, a father who left when his son was two years old, and who subsequently saw his son a grand total of one time after returning to Kenya.  The Senator’s childhood, teenage years, adulthood, all of it was spent with his mother’s family, with no connection to Onyango or any of the rest of his father’s family.

This is personal.  My biological father was an alcoholic who was functionally out of my life from the moment it began, and physically out of my life by the time I was three.  For close to 20 years I had no contact with him, no child support, nothing, until I exchanged literally two letters with the man something like three years ago.  My entire life has been a product of my mother’s family (and my stepfather,) and when Senator Obama writes that he “was probably shaped more by [his father’s] absence than his presence,” this speaks directly to the experiences of both myself and others who’ve been through such situations.  He speaks directly to everyone who’s had to hear some so-called friend proclaim: “well if I was in your position, I’d be curious to know what my father was like.”

So let’s do a hypothetical.  Let’s pretend I was electable for a moment, (somewhere other than Kerala,) and running for some public office.  Obviously biography matters.  Both candidates have made this about their personal stories.  Family stories are relevent to the extent that they shape the person’s values.  (I recently received the 91-page FBI file on my great-aunt, so you can file my political chances…)  The problem is, Barack Obama’s father’s side of the family is exactly zero part of his life, and has been such for decades.  He’s no more answerable for his father’s half-sister than I am for my biological father’s sister, whose name I can’t even come up with offhand, but who, I was once told, lives in an Orthodox community in Monsey, New YorkMazel tov for her, but for all I know she could be Chairwoman of the Aryan Brotherhood Jewish Women’s Auxiliary.  What that has to do with the price of hash in Herat, let alone my hypothetical Senate campaign, is unclear; and any journalist who decided that this woman’s personal life was a front-page story three days before the election could consider himself expelled from the press room the day after I won.

It is fair game to profile a relative who the campaign has cited to help their candidate’s chances.  Scarborough might be a douchebag, but Senator Obama did turn his white grandmother into a public figure when he mentioned her in his speech on race.  Just the same, Joe McCarthyCain matters because he had been working on his brother’s campaign in between the red-baiting and abuse of emergency services.  Onyango’s composite contribution to Senator Obama’s campaign, let alone his life, amounts to something like $200 worth of campaign cash.

The context makes this story even nastier.  Going on two years, the press and the political right have debated everything from Senator Obama’s birth certificate to his childhood education to his alleged Arab heritage.  The Very Serious Media has alternated between giving equal time to and debunking smears on his patriotism including the flag pin flap and the national anthem story, while the Know-Nothing McCain-Palin ticket slices America into real and fake segments.*  The press frequently presents both sides of every story with equal weight, even while partisans of the right bring outright white nationalist perspectives.  (Sorry Kathy, but “blood equity” is a bit too Ein Volk, Ein Reich for my taste…)

And so, into this foreigner-smearing, patriotism-questioning, race-baiting, not-like-us discourse, the entirety of our big media chooses to excrete a story about the illegal immigration status of Obama’s distant aunt some three days before the election.  The Washington Post, MSNBC, and Fox News are all running this as the second story on their websites as of 3 PM Saturday.  Jerome Corsi would be proud.

*(New York and northern Virginia become “Real America” on occasions upon which they are attacked by terrorists.  Offer not valid after 30 days.)

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Gagner épique!

A comfortable four years removed from my last French class, I’m not even sure that translates right.  But consider it your cheap setup for election year zydeco:

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As we recently discussed, the Obama team has perfected the zeitgeist campaign.  Some of it is intentional, (the text messages, the basketball,) while the rest (the internet memes) just sorta happens.  Music is another important element of this.  Everyone knows Republicans make poor DJs, and Senator Obama has collected an impressive variety of musical endorsements.

Democrats always pwn music.  Even sad-sack John Kerry had future Senator Bruce Springsteen.  But, as the BBC’s Gavin Hewitt noted today, Springsteen, the Foo Fighters, and Bon Jovi were always the headliners; fans would literally come for the band and leave from the candidate.  Obama is the star, and his campaign has picked perfect music to augment his aura:

“Two songs, however, are used to define the campaign. One is the arrival anthem, that plays Barack Obama onto the stage. It is U2’s “City of Blinding Lights” – with its line “oh you look so beautiful tonight.”

It’s a stunning song, combining a real Phil Spector sound with a crowd-pleasing hook.  They also nailed it on Biden, bringing him out to Springsteen’s “The Rising.”  It may be a little too 9/11, but Springsteen acolyte (and legitimate Reverend) Jeffrey Symykywicz makes the case for why it works, and most importantly it just feels right.

Choosing campaign songs is not as easy as it looks.  Hillary’s people flubbed it with Celine freakin’ Dion, John Edwards’ schtick was Mellencampy, and poor McCain-Palin keeps getting sued.  So back to the other song Hewitt identified as central to the campaign:

“…after his speech, when he lifts the bottle of water to his lips, in comes the heavy beat and then Stevie Wonder’s scream in “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”

It’s an awesome song from an all-time great American musician – it’s easy to forget that the man’s been on the charts since 1963.

In the key of Stevie, an African-American friend of mine said something worth closing with.  I had been talking about the cultural relevence of Bob Dylan to my family, the kind of people who raise their kids on Phil Ochs and Joan Baez, edited up a “liberation haggadah” for Passover, and distribute “Rise Up Singing” as a graduation gift.  We were driving somewhere discussing this when Stevie comes on his CD player.  My friend turns to me and goes: “What Bob Dylan means to your mother, that’s what Stevie Wonder means to black people.”

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Slate’s technology writer Farhad Manjoo assembled some evidence supporting Senator Obama’s text message campaign.  According to Green and Gerber, (shameless book pitch,) text messages deliver the effectiveness of canvassing at low low prices!  Text messages, tailored to the recipient’s neighborhood and delivered in a casual “hello from Barack” style, give supporters friendly, personalized information about events, voting, and campaign volunteer opportunities.

But the text messages are just an example of an overall strategy to run a high-tech, well-messaged, forward-looking campaign.  Here’s the contrast:

CHESTER, Pa., Oct 28 (Reuters) – Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama launches an unprecedented television blitz on Wednesday to push his economic message on U.S. networks ranging from CBS and NBC to Comedy Central.

The response?

“His Republican rival John McCain plans to appear on CNN’s “Larry King Live.”

Larry freakin’ King is two years younger than McCain.  So while Obama is texting his supporters for house parties, the GOP is recruiting 40-year-old “Young Eagles.”  The Obama campaign has nailed the font and logo, delivering slickly-packaged style and substance through youth-friendly mediums.  A glance at the Obama buttons page reveals small variations on the ubiquitous logo tailored to independents, sportsmen, veterans, and Asian-Americans among others, as well as state-name logos.

Campaigns have been “selling candidates like soap flakes” forever, but it isn’t as easy at it looks.  The website typography.com described the McCain-Palin font as “down-market luxe,” comparing it to low-end aftershave:

DesignBay.com has a fascinating analysis of campaign logos, which is worth reading before you sign up to volunteer through MyBarackObama.com.  Because Barack Obama is your new bicycle.

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Republican Congressman Scott Garrett is not used to close races.  The north Jersey conservative has been elected 3 times by double-digit margins.  Even in the coming Democratic onslaught, Garrett was generally considered a safe seat.  Until early October, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had left its quixotic candidate Dennis Shulman off the target list for national-level funding.

Very few public polls have been run in NJ-5, with one from the end of September giving Garrett a comfortable but not overwhelming 49%-34% lead.  (“Safe” incumbents generally break 50%.)  For reference, the same poll gave McCain a 52%-37% lead in the district.  In the aftermath of the financial crisis, Garrett’s position as a GOP leader on the banking committee may have softened his support, and this poll also pre-dated all three of Shulman and Garrett’s debates.  Combined with the district’s style of Republicanism, (we’re talking rich folks, not snake-handlers,) NJ-5 began to look like a long-shot worth fighting for, and the DCCC officially added Shulman to their “Red to Blue” program on October 14.

The New York Times has an excellent article on Shulman from September.  He’s a blind Rabbi, PhD in clinical psych from Harvard.  (His mother must be so proud!)  Shulman has proven an outstanding fundraiser for someone in a district that hasn’t been competative in years, and between his compelling life story and Obama’s coattails could make a real race of this sleeper district.  So how does Garrett respond?

Stay classy, asshole.  For real, that’s a blind Rabbi they’re pairing with Iranian President Ahmadinejad.  But wait, there’s more!  New Jersey political reporter Matt Friedman writes:

Today, the Dennis Shulman campaign decried a mailer from incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett (R-Wantage) that put a small picture of Shulman, a rabbi, in front of a much larger picture of a Hamas member carrying an AK-47.

“Should we be talking with terrorists,” it reads in large, blood red letters. “Dennis Shulman thinks so.”

Oy. Fuck. Vey.

Shulman is a great candidate running against a real nasty dude, so show him some love even if it isn’t your district.  Because something good has to come from Bergen County besides a world-class drum corps that decamped to Pennsylvania anyway.

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White racists for Obama

The New York Times recently ran a piece on Nevada canvassers for the Obama campaign. In lily-white rural Nevada, volunteers often find themselves facing voters more comfortable with the Senator’s policy positions than his skin tone. Canvassers have a number of ways to respond to situations like this:

“Among the people [the volunteer] found that night was Veronica Mendive, who seemed cautiously warming to Mr. Obama’s candidacy. But she had a thought.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m prejudiced,” Ms. Mendive said. “I’ve never been around a lot of black people before. I just worry that they’re nice to your face but then when they get around their own people you just have to worry about what they’re going to do to you.”

Mendive is a persuadable voter on issues, but has a racial hangup. The easiest thing to do would’ve been to ignore that and change the subject — as canvassers are normally trained to do:

“Darry A. Sragow, a political consultant based in Los Angeles who has worked on various Democratic campaigns, said volunteers were generally trained to “shift the discussion from anything that sounds like it may be race-based to arguments that are working best for the Obama campaign, like the economy.”

This response, however, ignores the voter’s central concern. Because of this, some volunteers prefer to address the racial issue head-on. For white canvassers speaking to white voters, there’s an easy way and a hard way: the easy way is to assuage the person’s worries:

Ms. Vance responded: “One thing you have to remember is that Obama, he’s half white and he was raised by his white mother. So his views are more white than black really.” She went on to assure Ms. Mendive that she was so impressed with Mr. Obama the person, that she failed to notice the color of his skin anymore.

Another example:

“I’m canvassing for Obama. If this issue comes up, even if obliquely, I emphasize that Obama is from a multiracial background and that his father was an African intellectual, not an American from the inner city. I explain that Obama has never aligned himself solely with African-American interests — not on any issue — but rather has always sought to find a middle ground.”

To summarize: White canvassers are using racist arguments to persuade white racists to vote for a black man. (In other news, dogs and cats are living together.)

There is an alternative tack: Challenge racist voters directly.  One blogger over at Racialicious tells a personal story about converting a suspicious voter by literally asking “Do you think you are a racist?”  After initially denying, the person turned introspective and went on to accept a policy pitch.  Problem is, this is an uncomfortable lead.  As delicately as you may ask the question, there’s a strong likelihood of having a door or three slammed on you.

Remember that the job of the canvasser is to win votes for a candidate, not to make racists think.  From a cold-blooded campaign perspective, a sales pitch of “he’s not really black” is a lot more time-efficient than opening a dialogue; and asking voters to consider their own racism might turn fence-sitters explicitly away from Obama despite a receptiveness to his policy message.  So while there is no quantitative data on this, bear with this hypothetical question:

Is it better to win over 2 in 10 racists to vote for Obama by assuring them that he isn’t “really” black; or to win only 1 in 10, but convince that individual to reconsider his entire worldview?

The morally upright person argues that coopting racist language to win votes sullies the outcome.  On the other hand, a good deal of these racists live in swing states (Ohio, Virginia, and Indiana come first to mind.)  One could counter that the American racial discourse would benefit more from witnessing an Obama landslide than from some young white liberal volunteers questioning the backwards dogmas of a handful of people who are willing to listen.

This is obviously a treacherous ethical question.  The comments thread at Racialicious has more or less reached a concensus of “don’t pander.”  (As inspiring as this is, remember that it’s a self-selected group…who are all reading Racialicious in the first place.)  Obviously there are canvassers out there right now employing any and all of the three approaches: ignore, pander, or challenge.  Which voters deliver on November 4, we’ll only know on an anecdotal basis buried beneath an avalanche of polling data; let alone knowing how many people seriously reconsidered their views of race so much as an hour or a week after their well-meaning canvassers moved on.

And yet, a note of optimism:  no matter what the result, Senator Obama’s candidacy has forced people to consider this dialectic between personal biases and structural racism.  Senator Obama’s candidacy has forced white liberals to ask this of themselves, while simultaneously asking it of other whites.  And that, in and of itself, is some approximation of progress.

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Quacks like a racist

Today’s contestant: Bobby Lee May.

In addition to sharing his name with a famous juggler, Monsieur May served as treasurer of the Buchanan County Republican Party as well as county representative to Senator McCain’s Virginia leadership team. The 97% white county, named for this racist fool, gave Senator Obama only 9% in the Democratic primary; in a state he dominated with 64%. (Though, to be fair to the locals, Douglas Wilder did carry the county in his 1989 run for Governor.)

So here’s May, chillin’, counting out the Buchanan County GOP cash box and generally minding his own shit. But then, he decides to write a column in a local newspaper. I hope you’re sitting down as I present some excerpts from “The (clarified) platform of Barack Hussein Obama:”

“DRUG CRISIS: Raise taxes to pay for free drugs for Obama’s inner-city political base….”

“FOREIGN RELATIONS: Appoint Rev. Al Sharpton as Secretary of State, Jesse Jackson as UN Representative, and let Bill Clinton handle all other “foreign relations” … As long as Hillary doesn’t find out…!”

“THE WHITE HOUSE: Hire rapper Ludacris to “paint it black.” Taxes to be increased to buy enough paint for the job plus spray-paint for graffiti….”

“US CURRENCY: Update photos to reflect US diversity; include pictures of “great Americans” such as Oprah Winfrey, Ludacris, Sheila Jackson-Lee, Paris Hilton, and Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson (Obama’s new Secretary of the Treasury – 50 Cent refused position after learning that he would lose his crazy check if he accepted the nomination)….”

“US FLAG: Replace 50 stars with a star and crescent logo; red stripes changed to green to represent Obama’s tree-hugging radical environmentalism and his lack of experience. Flag lapel pins, having become a substitute for “real patriotism,” will henceforth be banned….”

“STATEHOOD: Extend statehood to the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Kenya, Cuba, Palestine, Freedonia, Bugtussle and the ‘Free state of McDowell’ and raise taxes…”

“THIRD WORLD COUNTRIES: Raise taxes to send $845 billion, send most to Africa so that the Obama family there can skim off enough to allow them to free their goats and live the American Dream…”

Sadly for Monsieur May, this story escaped the confines of small-town print journalism. No less than the Los Angeles Times provides a pdf of the entire article today. May initially denied that this was racist, before reality coerced him into one of those I’m sorry if anyone was offended non-apologies. The McCain people promptly removed May from his campaign position

But here’s the thing: On the one hand, the mid-Atlantic spokeswoman for the McCain campaign called the remarks “offensive” and “insulting,” adding that they “have no place in our political discourse.” On the other, VP harpie Sarah Palin has spit out the following dreck over the past 48 hours:

“…This is not a man who sees America as you and I do…”

“…This is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists…”

True, the campaign tries to stop short of formally endorsing teh racisms. However, they’re awfully loaded up with the He’s not like us stuff. The McCain campaign has literally pulled its only positive ad, settling on a home-stretch strategy of character attacks. (In contrast, over half of Obama’s TV money is going to the “Real Change” ad in which the Senator speaks policy directly to the camera.) Expect a steady diet of Ayers, Rezko, and possibly Wright for the next four weeks. And when it gets too uncomfortable, there’s always the porcine surrogates willing to spread the feces.

Interestingly enough, the McCain camp is also preparing to run on crime. They’re digging in Obama’s Illinois record for signs of weakness. This is an odd topic to attack on considering nobody gives a shit, with crime parked somewhere below the economy, Iraq, national security, gas prices, health care, immigration, and social issues on the to-do list. But then, if you’re listening for racist dog-whistles, crime is top-shelf. And if there were any doubt, they’ve dredged up the designer of the Willie Horton ad.

Even McCain’s attacks on housing have been racially-tinted. The campaign has tried to link Obama with the black former CEO of Fannie Mae Franklin Raines; an association the Washington Post called “a stretch” and “clearly exaggerating wildly.” They interspersed Raines and Obama’s faces with an elderly white woman in a negative television ad citing “financial fraud,” even while the fastest expansion of subprime lending occurred under Raines’ (white) successor Daniel Mudd. I guess we shouldn’t act all surprised, considering that the house organ of conservatism blamed the failure of Washington Mutual on affirmative action, while the Reich Women’s Auxiliary blamed the subprime crisis on lending to minorities. (Dismissed here by a liberal and there by a conservative.)

There’s patterns here. For people who swear they aren’t racist, Republicans sure do a lot of racist shit. And so, as previously cited, the wisdom of Bond villain Auric Goldfinger:

“Once is happenstance; twice is coincidence; three times is enemy action.”

In a roundabout way, the good news is that Americans might be too poor to buy it this time. Firebrand AFL-CIO official Richard Trumka recalled a conversation with a voter in Pennsylvania. The voter, a “die-hard Democrat,” openly told Trumka that she would not vote for Senator Obama because of his race:

“Trumka said he told the woman: “Look around this town. Nemacolin is a dying town. There’s no jobs here. Our kids are moving away because there’s no future here. And here’s a man, Barack Obama, who’s gonna fight for people like us. And you wanna tell me that you won’t vote for him because of the color of his skin? Are you out of your ever-lovin’ mind, lady?'”

Hopefully, the current state of the economy, two wars, gas prices, and health care will diminish the salience of race-baiting attacks. The financial crisis, unlike crime or welfare, is difficult to fit into racial frames.

The outcome of the 2008 election isn’t just critical for policy but for future narratives as well. Imagine if McCain storms back from being down anywhere from 6 to 12 points to win going away on slander, xenophobia, and dirty tricks. Why, after this and the Swift Boats, would anyone try anything else for the next three election cycles? On the other hand, a decisive win for Obama (300+ electoral votes) would force all those campaign strategists to rethink the playbook they’ve been using since Nixon. It’s worth considering this story from Larry Bartels:

“I was very struck when I learned — many of you probably have seen, after each recent election, immediately after the election, Newsweek comes out with a big cover package on why, fill in the blank, won the election. And in 2004, they actually came out with a book that included a lot of analysis of why it was that Bush won the election.

But before the election, they actually sent out an advertisement that had two books side by side; one was why Bush won the election and the other was why Kerry won the election. And given the times of producing these things, they actually had to produce most of the package, explaining to the readers of Newsweek the following week why it was that Kerry won the election.”

The morning after an election, pundits begin to sell either (Explanatory Narrative A) or (Explanatory Narrative B) depending on the outcome. It doesn’t matter if a thousand Jews for Buchanan were the only reason we didn’t inaugurate President Gore in 2000; once the election ends, the story is about how Bush got out enough evangelicals and Gore dressed wrong and looked elitist. Subtract either voter fraud or the Workers’ World Party, and the entire political discourse between 2000 and 2004 is about how Bush was too inexperienced and poorly spoken and how the Democrats will never lose hold of the White House again. (It also might’ve spared us the twin indignities of John Kerry duck hunting and Karl Rove as rock star.) Campaigns are not just about winning this one; they’re about building frames to win the next two. With this in mind, it’s double important that the good guys win this one.

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