Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Super Tuesday (Reloaded)

I just walked in the door a few minutes ago and turned on CNN to hear Wolf Blitzer announcing that the network was calling the Texas primary for Hillary. The announcement capped a remarkable comeback for Hillary's campaign after a string of primary losses, and I'm sure the spin machines in both camps are in overdrive mode right now.

Here are some quick thoughts on how tonight came about, and what will happen next (while I make a meager attempt at maintaining an objective position):

What Happened?
Instead of being the vehicle for news items about the primary race, the mainstream press has officially become "the story" of this campaign. Six weeks ago, I wrote about the media's newfound conviction in its own ability to persuade public opinion. Much to the media's dismay, it appears I was right. The New York Times was the first newspaper to fall victim to the media's particular brand of hubris when it published an article about John McCain's ties to a lobbyist that came across as a poorly-timed, ill-conceived and unsubstantiated partisan attack on the Republican nominee. A week later, Saturday Night Live aired its skit of a faux Hillary-Obama debate that featured the reporters swooning over Obama while they grilled Hillary to a charred piece of toast. The sketch led to some serious (and perhaps self-indulgent) soul searching on the media's part and put them in a lose-lose situation: Either they make a public show of vetting Obama and concede that they presented a one-sided outlook on the Democratic primary race, or they ignore the SNL sketch and risk the same fate that befell the New York Times.

In the last four days, the mainstream press decided to go with the former option (consciously or unconsciously, I don't know). This change in direction has been evidenced by numerous articles exploring in greater detail Obama's ties to Tony Rezko, a former political supporter and fundraiser whose trial on corruption charges in Chicago began on Monday, and by articles trumpeting details of a meeting between an advisor to Obama and the Canadian embassy, in which Obama's advisor allegedly stated words to the effect that his candidate's public position on NAFTA in Ohio was merely political posturing.

While I personally feel that the media's decision to increase its scrutiny of Obama was overdue and that Hillary has in fact taken the brunt of the negative press, I understand that there's little scientific evidence in support or opposition to my opinion. Regardless, the media's decision to publish more negative articles about Obama makes it vulnerable now to suggestions that reporters are easily manipulated when they feel their image is being tarnished, and that there are no satisfactory measures in place to ensure impartial and detached reporting while on the campaign trail. Of course, all of this could have potentially been avoided had the media conducted a more thorough self-examination before SNL aired its public shaming. Since it failed to do so, Hillary captured crucial momentum in the days leading up to the Texas and Ohio primaries that helped carry her to victories in those states.

What Happens Next?
The short answer to what happens next is that both candidates keep campaigning. Mississippi's primary is coming up on March 11th, which Obama will be sure to win. That victory will help him to stem some of the loss of momentum that he'll wake up to after losing Ohio & Texas. Beyond Mississippi however, Obama and Hillary will continue to battle over super delegates (while I continue to want to be one) and they'll also continue to throw themselves at Bill Richardson and John Edwards to try and secure their endorsements. Pennsylvania, which holds its election on April 22nd, will become the next "must-win primary" and "major-cliffhanger-that-CNN-will-discuss-with-all-of-its-talking-heads-for-hours-and-hours" in what has become a season full of them. While Hillary will need a win in that state in order to keep her candidacy viable, Pennsylvania's demographic composition favors such an outcome.

Perhaps most importantly, in between now and April 22nd, the Democratic Party will need to work out a compromise to ensure that Florida and Michigan's delegates are seated at the party convention in August. The party's decision to punish the two states for holding early primaries by banning them from the convention was never supposed to matter, and everyone assumed that the nominee would have enough of a delegate margin that Florida and Michigan could be invited back to the convention without affecting its outcome. Now that their 300+ delegates will make a difference, however, the Democratic party needs to have some kind of re-vote in Florida and Michigan since neither Obama nor Hillary campaigned in them. (Without a re-vote, the Democrats would be effectively ceding those states to John McCain in the general election because their residents will never go Democratic if the party choses to disenfranchise them from electing the party's nominee). Ironically enough, all of this means that Florida and Michigan will get their wish of having major input on selecting the nominee, which is why they moved their primaries earlier to begin with!

To work out the terms of the re-vote, Howard Dean, the head of the Democratic party who has remained behind the scenes for much of the primary season, must adopt a more visible role to keep both the Obama and Hillary camps satisfied. Dean also needs to dedicate himself to ensuring that the two camps maintain their pledge of party unity even as the primary remains undecided. On March 3rd, Howard Dean warned against an extended primary because he feared it would become divisive. Well, it looks like his wish isn't going to come true. Contrary to Dean's warning, a long Democratic primary has some upsides. For example, it means that John McCain will have to delay in honing down his attack machine until he knows who exactly he'll be facing in the general election. So long as the Democratic candidates adhere to their message of unity and to their seemingly genuine displays of respect for one another's candidacies, a long primary process also reflects extraordinary well on the Democratic Party. It demonstrates to the public that the party can present two highly qualified candidates and choose one of them through a grueling, but fair and democratic election process, which focuses on substantive issues without resorting to party in-fighting. For these reasons, instead of warning against a long primary season, Howard Dean should be touting the successes that both candidates have enjoyed, as well as the extraordinary position in which the Democratic Party now finds itself.