Saturday, August 30, 2008

Is John McCain Mentally Fit To Be President?

The Huffington Post, 8-30-08

In a breathtakingly puzzling move, John McCain on Friday showed terrible judgment by selecting first term Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate. Despite the spin that desperate Republicans immediately parroted, it wasn't a brilliant pick, or a game-changer. It was an amazingly bad choice.

Palin's shortcomings have been documented in an instant feeding frenzy among journalists and bloggers. She is the least known, least experienced VP nominee in modern political history. Those who compare her to George H. W. Bush's choice of Dan Quayle in 1988 forget that Quayle had already been in Congress for 12 years.

By contrast, Palin took office as Governor in December, 2006, less than two years ago. Before that, she served two terms on the city council and then as mayor from 1996-2002 of Wasilla, Alaska, a town with a population under 9,000. That's less than 1/20th the size of the Illinois State Senate district Barack Obama represented for eight years before he was elected to the U.S. Senate.

What a way to undercut McCain's central argument that Obama doesn't have enough experience to serve as president or commander in chief.

Of course, McCain hardly knows her. He first met Palin only in February of this year at a governors' conference, where they spoke for approximately fifteen minutes. The next time he saw her was on Thursday, two days after Hillary Clinton's rousing address to the Democratic Convention. McCain may have been worried about losing diehard Clinton supporters to Hillary's cry of "No way, no how, no McCain!" That morning, he offered her the job.

If he thinks Hillary Democrats will cheer and fall in line behind Sarah Palin, McCain is in for a rude awakening. Palin's gender is the only thing she has in common with Hillary Clinton. She is an extreme right winger who is anti-abortion to the core, doesn't think global warming is man made, and enthusiastically supports oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Sarah Palin at her office in Alaska

Billed by McCain as bearing "a message of reform and public integrity," Palin is currently under investigation herself. A few weeks ago, a bipartisan panel of Alaska state legislators appointed an independent investigator to look into charges that Palin abused her office. In mid-July she fired the Alaska public safety commissioner, allegedly after he refused to dismiss her former brother-in-law, a state trooper who divorced Palin's sister three years ago and was locked in a custody dispute over their child.

Announced on his 72nd birthday, this pick follows a string of McCain gaffes, memory lapses, and episodes of forgetfulness on the campaign trail. As reported by Talking Points Memo:

"McCain frequently forgets key elements of policies, gets countries' names wrong, forgets things he's said only hours or days before and is frequently just confused."
It all raises the uncomfortable question of whether McCain might be exhibiting signs of Alzheimer's disease.

I don't take the subject of Alzheimer's lightly. My grandfather died of complications from the disease, and I watched his mind waste away over a period of several painful years. But it's a question that must be asked in view of John McCain's age. If elected, he would be the nation's oldest president in history.

According to the national Alzheimer's Association, the leading voluntary health organization for Alzheimer care, support and research, one of the top ten warning signs of the disease is poor or decreased judgment. The number one warning sign is memory loss.

The last septuagenarian in the White House, Ronald Reagan, exhibited symptoms of forgetfulness and mental degeneration before leaving office, although his Alzheimer's diagnosis was only made public in 1994. Former White House correspondent Lesley Stahl wrote in her book Reporting Live that she and other reporters suspected Reagan was "sinking into senility" as early as 1986, but aides "covered up his condition" and editors chose not to cover it.

History seems to be repeating itself, because the press is not devoting nearly enough attention to McCain's well-documented memory problems.

There are certainly other explanations for why McCain went with Palin. Earlier this summer McCain suggested he might pick a pro-choice running mate, like former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, and anti-abortion Republicans went ballistic. So he may have caved to the right wing, and delivered up a candidate to their liking.

The National Review gushed over Palin, saying McCain had "wowed the public and enthused the right." Other more clear headed conservatives were a little subdued. Even Republican strategist Ed Rollins, Ronald Reagan's former political director, hedged his bets by calling it a "brilliant, but risky choice" for McCain. Rollins did admit the Republican Party was "in desperate need of young people and women role models."

But this VP pick is the most questionable decision yet from John McCain. He passed over numerous plausible Republican contenders and failed to pick someone remotely qualified for the job.

Going with the white-haired Arizona Senator was once a "safe choice" for voters hesitant to embrace Obama's message of change. Putting Sarah Palin a heartbeat away from the White House has made McCain's candidacy a much bigger risk. It's fair to ask whether John McCain is mentally fit to be president.

(UPDATE 9/1: My Dad, of all people, gave me an interesting scoop about John McCain earlier today that's relevant to this post. Seems he recently met someone who has flown with McCain on multiple occasions. The source says McCain looks much older in person than when made up for TV interviews, it's clear he's "got some serious mileage on him." And although McCain does his best to come across as energetic on the campaign trail, in reality, he can more accurately be described as a "tired old man." These are direct observations from someone who's seen McCain up close and personal more times than most voters ever will, and reinforce concerns about his age. In my Dad's words, this source was "very believable," and that's good enough for me.)

(UPDATE 9/2: Cross-posted to the Huffington Post, this story has drawn a lot of response. It made the top ten list on Digg yesterday, and was Dugg 2,500 times within 24 hours, which tripled its readership on HuffPo to more than 35,000. If you haven't yet watched the video embedded above (a compilation of McCain's memory lapses and confused stumbles on the campaign trail), check it out, and when you’re done, consider forwarding this post to friends.

But I'm hardly the first McCain critic to raise this question. Frank Rich and Josh Marshall have previously written about how the media is ignoring McCain's frequent "senior moments," signs of possible impairment that look awfully familiar to many who have seen a family member or loved one in the early stages of senility. Back in April, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann aired a commentary on "McCain’s Memory" featuring similarly disturbing video. Last Friday, Paul Begala wrote an op-ed for CNN ("Is John McCain Out of His Mind?") that questioned his "shockingly irresponsible" judgment over the Sarah Palin pick.)

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Obama-Biden Trumps McCain-Rove

The Huffington Post, 8-28-08

Illustration by Ethan Wenberg

John Kerry stood up on Wednesday night and showed some of the fire he should have displayed four years ago. He did what many Democrats had been calling for all week, delivering a blistering attack on John McCain's misguided policies and the failures of George W. Bush. Commentators including NBC anchor Brian Williams immediately labeled it the Democratic Convention's hardest hitting speech.

Condemning the Republicans for opening the tired playbook of Karl Rove and daring to question Barack Obama's patriotism, Kerry highlighted McCain's only plan to win this election. With Steve Schmidt at the helm, the same Rove disciple who ran the 2004 Bush war room, the McCain campaign has a simple strategy - to trash Obama by any means necessary.

But by picking Joe Biden as his running mate, Obama has made it much harder for McCain to Swiftboat, Paris Hilton, and Willie Horton his way into the White House. Biden's acceptance speech proved what the citizens of Delaware have known for a long time. Biden is a regular Joe with all-American family values who also happens to be a Senator.

Biden has been on the national stage since he led the fight against Robert Bork's extreme right wing Supreme Court nomination in 1987, and campaigned twice for president. Yet as he stepped into the spotlight Wednesday night, it was his first introduction for many voters. And Biden knocked it out of the park. Like Obama, the man has the gift of the tongue, which makes the fact that he overcame a childhood stutter all the more remarkable.

He stressed the values he learned from his parents growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania. His father "fell on hard economic times," but told him, "Champ, when you get knocked down, get up. Get up." In one of the speech's many emotional moments, he introduced his elderly mother, Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden, who was sitting in the audience. And Biden reminded us that "My mother's creed is the American creed: No one is better than you. You are everyone's equal, and everyone is equal to you."

Unlike McCain, Biden doesn't own a house or condo in Washington, let alone seven of them spread around the country. He takes an Amtrak train most nights on his regular commute back to Wilmington, Delaware. Biden has a middle class bankroll, ranked 99th in net worth out of 100 Senators in 2005. His wife Jill, who briefly took the mike to introduce Barack Obama's surprise appearance following Biden's speech, is a full-time teacher at Delaware Technical and Community College.

And Biden painted a powerful picture of the imagined conversations around kitchen tables in all the houses he passes while riding home on the train:

"Winter's coming. How we gonna pay the heating bills? Another year and no raise? Did you hear the company may be cutting our health care? Now, we owe more on the house than it's worth. How are we going to send the kids to college? How are we gonna be able to retire?"

These are anxieties most Americans share at a moment when our economy is in shambles. Having Joe Biden voice them on the campaign trail from now until November will do more than help the Obama-Biden ticket appeal to working class voters in critical states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. It will keep the focus on how Republicans have screwed things up. George W. Bush spent two terms driving the country into a ditch, and McCain offers more of the same.

It's hard to distract from a historic foreclosure crisis that severely threatens the value of working and middle-class families' homes. Or a broken health care system, falling wages, and inflation that has pushed up the cost of nearly everything. Or sky-high gas prices. And the war in Iraq, pushed off the front pages as U.S. casualty levels drop, is a steady drip in the back of voters' minds, a constant reminder that we are wasting billions of dollars a month while needs at home remain crying out to be met.

Even reporters for Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network are calling the Obama-Biden ticket "authentic and real," saying "Joe Biden is a genuine working class guy." John McCain and his team are in trouble unless they wake up and smell the economic realities confronting the country, then start re-thinking the Rove formula for victory. With the economy in the tank and Obama-Biden not afraid to say it, the GOP slime machine may soon be out of gas.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Debbie Cook and Larry Kissell: Two Progressive Democrats for '08

OpEdNews, 8-30-08

Candidates for Congress who deserve our support

It's Democratic Convention time in Denver, and this week we'll be seeing some of the most promising '08 House and Senate candidates on display. Many have been struggling for a turn in the spotlight all year, as the presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain continues to monopolize attention, volunteer energy and fundraising dollars.

Earlier this year, community activist Donna Edwards beat longtime Congressman and friend to corporate interests Al Wynn in the Democratic primary for Maryland’s 4th Congressional District. Small donations raised online from progressives nationwide were critical to Edwards' anti-war, populist campaign, and allowed her to counter Wynn's desperate, lobbyist-funded, slash and burn attack ad scramble to hang onto his seat.

Here are profiles (and links to their websites and fundraising pages) of two other progressive Democrats running for House seats. These contests will help determine whether the party can hold off Republicans' attempts to seize back control of Congress, or add seats to the Democratic majority they gained in 2006.

Debbie Cook (CA-46)

Barack Obama and Debbie Cook in Newport Beach, CA

Orange County, California's 46th Congressional District has been represented since 1988 by delusionally far-right Republican Dana Rohrabacher. But this year he faces a stiff challenge from Huntington Beach mayor and former city council member Debbie Cook.

Rohrabacher was first elected to Congress with the fundraising help of his pal Ollie North. He's a right wing nut who doesn’t believe in global warming, joking during a 2007 congressional hearing on climate change that previous warming cycles may have been caused by "dinosaur flatulence." He was a close associate and campaign contribution recipient of disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who Rohrabacher described as "a very honest man" when the Abramoff scandal first broke in 2005.

Although from a coastal California district, he supports lifting the offshore oil drilling ban, and recently questioned whether abuses at Guantanamo Bay qualified as torture, or merely "hazing pranks from some fraternity."

By contrast, Debbie Cook entered politics in 1989 fighting for things that matter. She led Save Our Parks and Beaches, a grassroots group that saved part of Huntington Beach Central Park from being turned into an 18-hole golf course. She is a former PTA President, small business owner, and attorney who earned her law degree at age 40. Cook became counsel for the Bolsa Chica Land Trust and helped preserve the Bolsa Chica wetlands when they were threatened with development in the mid-90s. The court victory she won protects coastal wetlands throughout California.

Elected to the city council in 2000, and re-elected in 2004, Cook now serves as mayor of Huntington Beach. She is on the board of directors of the national Post Carbon Institute, and will be a leader on environmental and sustainable energy issues in Congress.

In July, the Cook Political Report (no relation to Debbie) downgraded Rohrabacher’s re-election effort from "solid Republican" to "likely Republican." During the second quarter, Cook actually outraised Rohrabacher, collecting $78,712 to his $92,990. But as of June 30, he still had a substantial financial advantage, with $387,950 on hand to Cook’s $97,392.

Debbie Cook's website is HERE and ActBlue fundraising page is HERE.

Larry Kissell (NC-08)

Larry Kissell is a high school social studies teacher and former textile worker who is fighting a rematch with incumbent Republican Robin Hayes to represent North Carolina's 8th District. In 2006, Hayes clung to his seat against Kissell by only 329 votes in what was almost the closest congressional race in the country.

Hayes is one of the wealthiest members of Congress, an heir to the Cannon Mills textile fortune. His working class district, which stretches between Charlotte and Fayetteville, has suffered severe manufacturing job losses since Hayes was first elected in 1998. Hayes went back on his word to oppose the CAFTA free trade agreement, providing George W. Bush with the 1-vote margin of victory it needed to pass on July 27, 2005. Earlier, Hayes had promised, "I am flat-out, completely, horizontally opposed to CAFTA," and admitted "it's not in the best interests of the core constituency I represent."

In 2006, Hayes also provoked controversy and headaches for the GOP when he suggested that "stability in Iraq ultimately depends on spreading the message of Jesus Christ…everything depends on everyone learning about the birth of the Savior." He received zero ratings in 2005 from the League of Conservation Voters, in 2005-06 from the National Education Association, and in 2007 from the Children's Health Fund.

A study released earlier this month by the Sunlight Foundation ranked Hayes as the #1 member of Congress with personal financial investments in oil industry stocks. Not surprisingly, Hayes recently called the need for increased off-shore oil drilling the number one issue this election year.

Larry Kissell knows first hand about the economic hardships that pro-corporate trade policies have brought to his district. He worked in the textile industry for 27 years until plant closings forced him to switch careers, becoming a high school social studies teacher in 2001. He is a deacon at First Baptist Church and two-time past President of the Biscoe, NC Lions Club.

Kissell is a regular guy who understands the difficulties his neighbors face with the economy in the tank. As he said in an on-line chat with FireDogLake in 2006:

"What folks in my district talk about are the kitchen table issues that impact their daily lives. They want a Congressman willing to stop all the bad trade deals ruining our economy, a strong advocate of education and something finally done about high energy costs with a significant investment in alternative energy."

In July, Kissell told the Fayetteville Observer that he first ran for Congress two years ago because gas prices were high and the economy was shaky, but "things have gotten worse...our days of George Bush are thankfully numbered."

After not getting full financial support from the national Democratic party in 2006, this year the DCCC is firmly behind Kissell’s campaign. Kissell recently released his first TV ad, telling voters Robin Hayes has "had his chance" during 10 years in Congress and done nothing about the loss of 60,000 N.C. jobs or gas prices jumping by $3 a gallon.

Last March, Congressional Quarterly ranked the race "No Clear Favorite," its most competitive ranking. The Cook Political Report upgraded the Hayes-Kissell rematch from "leans Republican" to "toss-up" in early June. But Kissell had only $231,583 in cash on hand at the end of June, versus $1.2 million for Robin Hayes.

Larry Kissell's website is HERE and ActBlue fundraising page is HERE.

Visit these two candidates' websites to learn more about them and their House races. Consider donating to their campaigns. And check out Blue America PAC for snapshots of three dozen progressive House and Senate Democratic candidates running to change America this fall.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Memo to Netroots: Stop Tearing Down Obama's VP List

The Huffington Post, 8-19-08

(UPDATE 8/23: As the world found out via text message shortly after 3:00 AM EST, my wife and I both lost our bet. Kudos to Steve Clemons for having accurate info all week long about Joe Biden being Obama's impending pick.

Biden's been on the national stage since he led the fight against Robert Bork's extreme right wing Supreme Court nomination in 1987, but stepping into the VP nominee spotlight, he'll probably surprise people who think they know him. For someone who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden may be the most average Joe in the Senate, with a middle class bankroll (ranked 99th in net worth out of 100 Senators in 2005), and a daily commute to Washington on Amtrak from his home in Wilmington, Delaware. His wife, Jill, is a full-time educator at Delaware Technical and Community College.)

(UPDATE 8/21: As the veepstakes drag on, my wife's prediction is looking better and better. Yesterday, Team Obama swiftly issued a denial of press reports that he would be at an event in Indianapolis on Saturday following the VP roll-out in Springfield, IL, which sounds suspiciously like an attempt to keep the secret in the bag).

My wife and I have a bet on who Barack Obama will choose as his vice presidential nominee. She says Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN), while my money’s on Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine. But the more I think about Bayh, and the mini-controversy surrounding his name being in contention, the more I’m convinced I may be backing the wrong horse.

Bayh would bring a lot of strengths to an Obama ticket. He’s got experience as a former two-term Governor and has served in the Senate since 1999. He is a politically moderate former chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, and would provide ideological balance to Obama’s progressive credentials. He could carry his home state of Indiana for the Democrats, a reliably Republican bastion that John McCain is counting on to get to 270 electoral votes.

Most importantly, Bayh would help attract votes for Obama in the battleground Midwest, the most hotly contested region in the country. In 2004, John Kerry swept the Northeast and West Coast by large margins, and George W. Bush won by landslides in the South, Rocky Mountain West and Great Plains. However, the popular vote in the Midwest was an exact tie – 49.6% to 49.6%.

Yet a group of netroots activists are trying to scuttle Bayh’s chances of getting the VP nod. Last week the New York Times ran a profile of Bayh that reminded us he co-sponsored the Iraq War Resolution in 2003, and the next day activists set up a Facebook group called "100,000 Strong Against Evan Bayh for VP."

The effort fell short of its call to arms to "grow this group to 100,000 in a day and send a clear message to the Obama campaign," with 3,794 members as of Monday afternoon. Still, noted liberal bloggers like Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon and OpenLeft's Chris Bowers and Matt Stoller signed on, as word of the campaign spread through the blogosphere and immediately attracted press coverage.

Over the weekend, Washington insider Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation posted on his blog that "sources close to Obama report to me that after the 'surge of concern' on the net about Evan Bayh, he has not been selected as Obama's VP running mate." Bloggers fanning the flames of the Bayh "reverse draft" promptly rejoiced. But if any leaks dissing Bayh are coming out of the previously ironclad, no-drama Obama machine, it’s likely he was never going to be the VP pick.

The Obama camp has already shown it couldn’t care less what the netroots think by its handling of the FISA wiretap issue. Which is a smart move, because netroots bloggers are a lot more irrelevant than most of them would like to believe.

This primary season, the darling presidential candidate of the blogosphere was not Obama, but John Edwards, the candidate running for president while hiding a big secret. No one can be blamed for not realizing Edwards was concealing an affair, yet his constant missteps throughout the campaign showed terrible political judgement.

Just as Howard Dean’s support from bloggers in 2004 never materialized into off-line, real world votes, Edwards’ campaign sputtered out in ’08 after a series of mostly third place finishes in the early contests. As Obama caught fire, building an enormous online fundraising machine and winning votes without the endorsement or support of some of the biggest name liberal bloggers, some of them felt sidelined.

Is this why the netroots are wasting time and energy tearing down one of Obama’s potential VP choices? I hope not.

A few of the same bloggers now campaigning against Bayh were lukewarm on Obama from the start. Amanda Marcotte was actually hired by Edwards in early 2007 as a campaign blogger before resigning in controversy over some of her incendiary past blog postings attacking Catholicism. Bowers posted an "Obama Campaign Post-Mortem" in October, 2007 that proclaimed "losing the netroots has been the downfall of Barack Obama's campaign." Following Obama's FISA vote, Stoller accused the presumptive nominee of being "part of that old politics, in this case, that he said he wasn't. It will spur us to challenge him."

The anti-Bayh Facebook group labels him "a career legacy politician who fell hook, line, and sinker for the administration's case for a disastrous war." But like John Edwards eventually renounced his vote for the Iraq War, Bayh also admits he was wrong. "Senator Bayh has shown the judgment that we need to admit that mistakes were made and we need to learn from them," said a Bayh spokesman. Since the netroots took the credibility-challenged Edwards at his word when he apologized for his Iraq vote, why can’t Bayh catch the same break?

Some activists have also voiced problems with Evan Bayh (and Tim Kaine) for their less than total support for the pro-choice agenda. Bayh’s record on abortion rights is mixed. In 2003, he received a 50% rating from NARAL, although in 2006, the anti-choice National Right to Life Committee gave him a 25% rating.

The pro-choice movement has lost a lot of ground over the past few decades. The right has made a concerted effort to pack the federal judiciary with rabidly conservative, anti-choice judges. Their ultimate goal is to overturn Roe v. Wade, and return us to the days of back alley abortions. Now they’re only one Supreme Court seat away from a solid anti-choice majority.

Obama’s pro-choice record is pretty stellar. If he selects a vice presidential nominee who has triangulated on the abortion issue, should pro-choice activists sit out the election? Not voting for Obama means helping elect John McCain and flushing Roe v. Wade right down the toilet. This is not rocket science.

And as McCain made clear last week, he might make a play for disaffected Hillary Democrats by choosing a VP who’s pro-choice, like former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. "We need to accept both points of view," said Ridge about running with McCain. "He’s not judgemental about me or my belief. He just disagrees with me."

If the left is ever going to get serious about winning elections, we need to stop insisting on 100% ideological purity from our candidates. News flash to progressives: politics is about assembling winning coalitions. In 2004, only 23% of Americans described themselves as liberal, versus 26% middle of the road and 32% conservative. Unless you’re running to represent a constituency that’s dependably left of center, it’s almost impossible to get elected without appealing to the middle.

So here's a message for the netroots. If Obama picks Evan Bayh, or Tim Kaine, or someone else who you don’t agree with on every issue, get over it. Look at the realities of the political map. Save your fire for the real enemy, the GOP slime machine that’s trying its best to render Obama unelectable. Encourage readers of your blogs to volunteer for the Obama campaign to register new voters. Conduct opposition research on John McCain’s short list, post the findings, and set up Facebook groups opposing some of them for VP. Otherwise, by screwing around with Obama’s VP selection, you’re doing McCain’s work for him.

Friday, August 15, 2008

America Dodged a Bullet Named John Edwards

In light of the John Edwards affair scandal, the country dodged a bullet in 2004 when Edwards was defeated for the Democratic nomination by John Kerry. Thinking about a candidate with Edwards’ stunningly bad judgement in the Oval Office is enough to make anyone shudder, unless you’re a fan of how George W. Bush has driven America into the ditch for the past eight years.

Still a first term U.S. Senator from North Carolina, Edwards was struggling to stay in the presidential race during late 2003 after his fundraising dried up. He had trouble making his payroll that December, a fact his staff kept secret. His campaign was running on fumes before his surprise second place showing in the Iowa caucuses over better known contenders like Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt gave it new life.

Kerry narrowly edged Edwards in Iowa on Jan. 19, with 37.6% of the vote to Edwards’ 31.8%. Kerry rode the momentum from his Iowa victory and steamrolled his opponents, winning all but four of the primaries and caucuses that followed. He wrapped up the nomination when Edwards dropped out in early March.

With participation in the Iowa caucuses estimated at about 124,000 that year, Edwards would have won if only a few thousand caucusgoers had chosen him over Kerry. And it could easily have happened. By caucus night, Edwards was surging on the strength of his powerful "Two Americas" closing speech, which he rolled out late in the game on Dec. 29, and his last minute endorsement by the Des Moines Register. It’s plausible that then Edwards would have been the one coasting on a wave of subsequent victories to the nomination.

According to NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd, Edwards' chief miscalculation was not devoting more of his energy to Iowa in 2003, instead of spending so much time in New Hampshire. The Edwards campaign only started rounding up Iowa precinct captains in early December, and eventually had them in place in just 75% of all precincts. In longtime USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro's book on the '04 race, One Car Caravan, he described Edwards' statewide caucus organization as "having been assembled out of tin foil and chewing gum."

In early 2004, I volunteered for Edwards’ presidential campaign at his headquarters in Raleigh, N.C. It gave me an up close glimpse at an operation that often seemed as much software start-up as national political campaign. I witnessed a weird hybrid of an organization that was chronically disorganized, struggling to adapt to the big leagues of presidential politics, and flying by the seat of its pants, but with a top-down, corporate feel.

I should have known things were a little nutty after meeting Edwards’ close pal and eventual baby daddy fall guy Andrew Young, then serving as Director of Operations. Young handed me a campaign credit card on my second day through the door as a volunteer (I’d walked in off the street, with no mention of my previous campaign experience), and sent me out to pick up supplies.

My volunteer duties started with stuffing envelopes, about as entry level as it gets, before I graduated to phonebanking, calling to put other local volunteers on the schedule, and helping answer the phones. Which afforded me a window seat to the campaign’s panic on the morning after Edwards won the South Carolina primary on Feb. 3. As luck would have it, the not-ready-for-prime-time Edwards for President website crashed due to traffic overload. Campaign staffers and volunteers spent the day taking hundreds of credit card donations over the phone.

Following South Carolina, Edwards’ only primary win that year, I e-mailed a close friend of Elizabeth Edwards and asked him to pass along some of my observations as a volunteer about how the campaign was functioning. In retrospect, this was a na├»ve move on my part, since things were set in stone by that point. Who knows if my e-mail was ultimately given any more attention than the myriad letters that arrived at the headquarters containing unsolicited campaign advice, and were promptly stored away in filing cabinets, unread and unanswered. Although Elizabeth’s friend did get back to me immediately, and we had a long phone conversation.

I’m not saying his 2004 effort was grossly mismanaged, because every political campaign is chaotic to a degree. But re-reading what I wrote in hindsight of Edwards’ tabloid downfall, I’m struck by how fortunate it is that the Edwards campaign wasn’t a little more organized that winter, at least based on what I saw from my admittedly limited perspective as an ordinary volunteer.

Here’s some excerpts from that e-mail...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Thank You, John Edwards

The Huffington Post, 8-13-08

Silver linings for Democrats in the John Edwards affair scandal

Cheating on his cancer-stricken wife, lying to the public about it while running for president, and lying some more while supposedly coming clean on national TV. There are good reasons for the rush to denounce the suddenly toxic John Edwards. But lest we forget, he accomplished a few positive things during his decade on the political stage. On several counts, the nation owes him a debt of gratitude.

During Edwards' meteoric rise in politics, many people thought he could be another Bill Clinton, minus the sex scandals. Turns out he had that part covered, too.

They looked at Edwards and saw an optimistic, folksy, Southern Democrat talking about bread and butter economic issues. Edwards had rhetorical gifts honed by years of appealing to juries as a highly successful trial lawyer. He seemed disciplined enough to stay on message, whether meeting donors, giving stump speeches, or appearing before the TV cameras.

Yet in 2004, Edwards' unrelenting ambition and self-promotion ensured he would be off message as John Kerry's vice presidential nominee. Perhaps fueled by the "increasingly egocentric" narcissism he copped to last week while admitting his affair, Edwards kept the focus on himself. He refused to go on the attack against George W. Bush, reasoning that playing the traditional VP role of hatchet man would blow his image as a sunny, fresh face in politics. And maybe damage his prospects for another presidential run.

He couldn't even agree with Kerry on a slogan, refusing to adopt Kerry's "Help is on the way." Edwards preferred "Hope is on the way," which was more tuned to the themes of his own primary campaign. But Edwards was unable to entirely charm his way out of reality. He was woefully unprepared for his biggest turn in the spotlight, his sole debate with Dick Cheney, who wiped the floor with him. Edwards didn't carry his home state of North Carolina, even losing his home county and hometown of Robbins, N.C. The Democratic ticket lost every Southern state.

Ironically, by helping to bungle the 2004 elections for the Democrats, Edwards may have done us all a favor. As much continued damage as the Bush Administration has caused in the past four years, Bush's second term set the stage for Republican overreach. If the Kerry/Edwards team had been elected, the burden would have been on them to find a graceful exit from the Iraq war disaster. Hurricane Katrina and the destruction of New Orleans would have happened on their watch, instead of providing the country with the wakeup call we needed to finally see Bush, Cheney & Co. had no clothes.

In 2006, Congress would almost certainly have remained in Republican hands, with Tom DeLay possibly emerging as Speaker. We'd be getting ready to coronate John McCain in '08, or worse. Maybe Jeb Bush would be heading the ticket, about to lead yet another restoration of the Bush family dynasty.

Edwards' tone-deaf political instincts again helped America out when he foolishly decided to push ahead with another presidential bid. Despite carrying on an affair with an unstable, new age nutcase with a shady past like Rielle Hunter in the 24/7 infotainment fishbowl of presidential politics, Edwards honestly thought the public would never find out. He even took her with him on his official announcement tour in the closing days of 2006, allowing her to be photographed sitting next to him on his campaign plane.

Hillary Clinton's former communications director Howard Wolfson was essentially right when he observed that by covering up his affair and staying in the 2008 race, Edwards cleared the field for Barack Obama. That's not a knock on Obama's historic candidacy, it's just the way things happened.

Wolfson's detractors cite a caucus night survey showing Obama was the second choice of 51% of Edwards caucusgoers, versus 32% for Clinton. But if Edwards had decided to quit before Iowa, where he had been practically living for the past few years, Clinton would never have considered writing the state off. It would have been harder for Obama to win the caucuses. As things turned out, Edwards finished second, edging out Clinton by a few tenths of a percentage point in a serious psychological blow to her campaign.

And by staying in the hunt until he limped to third place in South Carolina, the only primary state he won during 2004, Edwards split enough of the white vote with Clinton to give Obama a lopsided 55% victory. Only 2% of African-American voters in South Carolina backed John Edwards, according to exit polls, but he won the white vote, 40% to Clinton's 36%, with 24% for Obama.

Thanks to Edwards, the story that came out of South Carolina was that Obama had scored a bi-racial landslide, which gave him much needed momentum going into the Super Tuesday contests. It was a watershed event in Obama's path to the nomination.

Win or lose in November, Barack Obama's turn at bat is giving the Democratic party a huge boost for the future. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, younger voters' party affiliations basically tracked those of their parents and grandparents. But because of Obama's ascendancy (and the country souring on the GOP brand after eight rotten years of Bush), the generation gap is back.

In late June polls, voters under thirty-five backed Obama over McCain by an astonishing 27-point margin. And 58% now self-identify with the Democratic party versus 33% with the Republicans, as shown by a recent Pew Research Center report.

Finally, by falling short in his bids for the Democratic nomination, let alone the presidency, Edwards ensured Democrats would not be seriously tarnished again by a national sex scandal. He would have truly been the second coming of Bill Clinton if Edwards had advanced further and then gotten caught with his pants down.

He even chose as good a time as any to go public with his ludicrously half-truthful televised mea culpa. If he had waited another two weeks, coverage of the Democratic National Convention would have been drowned out by the media fury. It would have been a replay of when Dick Morris was busted at the '96 convention for consorting and toe-sucking with call girls, only a lot noisier.

The Edwards affair story has been a big distraction from real news, like Wal-Mart coercing its employees to vote Republican in November, oil companies funding a massive propaganda campaign designed to open up our coasts to off-shore drilling, and a GAO report just released that reveals two-thirds of U.S. corporations paid no annual taxes from 1998-2005.

But because Edwards is out of office, not on the ballot, and now out of the running for a convention speech, VP slot or cabinet post, it will have little effect on Democrats' chances this fall.

So thank you, John Edwards. You can go now.

Friday, August 8, 2008

I'm Disappointed in John Edwards

The Huffington Post, 8-8-08

His political career flames out in a tawdry tabloid mess

I’m disappointed in John Edwards. The former presidential hopeful’s admission that he did in fact have an extramarital affair with his one time campaign videographer Rielle Hunter was not surprising to anyone who’s been following the story. Nor was his fessing up to having repeatedly lied to the public in his attempts to cover up the affair, or conceding the National Enquirer was accurate to report he had recently met with Hunter in a Beverly Hills hotel.

I feel badly for his wife Elizabeth and the rest of the Edwards family. The public exposure of what should have remained a private matter is an unfortunate situation all around. But what dismays me the most about this episode is the astoundingly bad judgement it reveals about the man. He was risking his own political career, and potentially the Democratic party’s chances of winning the presidency if he had been nominated, all for some cheap thrills in the sack.

Before entering politics, Edwards didn’t even vote regularly in national elections until the 1990s, so perhaps he missed what happened to Gary Hart in 1987. The then-frontrunner for the Democratic nomination thought he was invincible enough to cheat on his wife without anyone finding out. When it hit the press, Hart’s White House bid was over.

Flash forward twenty years to April of 2007. Several months before questions began swirling about Edwards’ relationship with Hunter, he came under fire for his $400 haircuts. And many progressives, myself included, rushed to his defense. Edwards had a lot of admirers on the left during his second run for the presidency. Many thought he was an effective advocate for working people who have been left behind by the growing income inequality in America.

People wanted to believe that John Edwards was sincere when he talked about his dedication to ending poverty and fighting for average folks. He positioned himself as the most liberal of the major Democratic contenders in 2008, far to the left of the centrist persona he displayed while running for president in 2004.

As a result, Edwards got a pass from the left on a lot of things, from his early cheerleading for the war in Iraq to his weak support of gay rights. And when rumors of his affair with Hunter first surfaced last fall, progressives circled the wagons. When the Enquirer reported on July 22 that Edwards had visited Hunter and their supposed “love child” in the Beverly Hills Hilton, the same thing happened. Last week, a HuffPo blogger who wrote about the Edwards scandal was banned from DailyKos, one of the biggest progressive sites on the internet.

I volunteered for John Edwards’ presidential campaign in early 2004 at his national headquarters in Raleigh, N.C. There I met Andrew Young, the former Edwards campaign aide and married father of three who helped cover up the candidate’s indiscretion. Last December, Young claimed he had the affair with Hunter and was the father of her child.

In 2004, Young was serving as director of operations for the Edwards campaign. To me he seemed like an aging frat boy, a fairly common type on political campaign staffs. What I didn't know at the time was that Young had started out a staffer, but become a close Edwards pal. If anyone was going to take the fall for John Edwards in an embarrassing situation like this, it would be Andrew Young. There was a high turnover among Edwards’ campaign workers and consultants. But Young was part of the inner circle, on board since Edwards was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998.

The moment press reports stated Rielle Hunter had moved down the street from the Youngs into a tony, gated community just outside of Chapel Hill called Governor’s Club, it was obvious something shady was going on. If Edwards thought the best response to rumors of an affair was to whisk his former girlfriend down to North Carolina and hide her away from the national media’s prying eyes, he was clearly delusional. And by engineering a clumsy coverup that implicated Young, his trusted campaign aide, Edwards created even more questions for inquiring minds.

But he got lucky. It was the week before Christmas when the Enquirer broke the news that Rielle Hunter was pregnant, and in its most sensational charge, alleged she was carrying Edwards' baby. The same media blackout on display for the past two weeks held firm then. Mainstream media organizations refused to report on the story, although Edwards was one of the top contenders for the Democratic nomination and had led Iowa caucus polls for much of 2007.

Edwards’ withdrawal from the presidential race in late January after losing the South Carolina primary made it even more likely that the press would forget the whole thing. Yet the National Enquirer stayed on the beat. As interest in Barack Obama’s vice presidential shortlist heated up, they decided revisiting the Edwards “love child” story might help sell some late summer papers and stave off the Enquirer’s impending bankruptcy.

Sadly, I’m disappointed but not surprised by this turn of events for John Edwards. In the statement he issued today about his affair, Edwards said, “I made a serious error in judgement.” But throughout his short political life, he’s shown similarly poor judgement on many occasions. Like voting for the war in Iraq and swallowing the Bush Administration’s fairy tale about WMD’s hook, line and sinker. Or giving up his U.S. Senate seat after only one term to seek the presidency in 2004.

In the months leading up to the 2008 primaries, his defenders consistently slammed the press for covering the gaffes known as Edwards' "three H's" - his newly constructed 28,000 square foot house, $400 haircuts, and large salary earned from a hedge fund for the super rich. Edwards raised the charge himself, accusing the media of playing a game called "Let's distract from people who don't have health care coverage."

There were plenty of right-wing Edwards haters out there who gladly used the media spin machine to magnify any bad news about him. Still, most of Edwards’ problems during the 2008 campaign were self-inflicted.

Like it or not, if you're running for president, your every move is under press scrutiny. Too bad Edwards didn’t realize this in time. Of course, part of Edwards' statement from today helps explain his foolish behavior, regarding the affair as well as his other political missteps. “In the course of several campaigns, I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic.”

In retrospect, Edwards’ entire political career was a flash in the pan, a triumph of hype over substance, and a big let-down for any progressives who were fooled into thinking Edwards was a working class champion capable of leading the Democratic Party to victory in a presidential race. Instead, John Edwards’ turn on the national stage will forever be remembered as ending in a tawdry tabloid mess, a cautionary tale of squandered potential.

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