The Greatest Obama Story Never Told: How The Mainstream Press Blew Nevada Too
by Philip Baruth
You had to follow the news very, very closely over this past weekend to understand what happened in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses. If you read the headlines, or even just the first ten paragraphs of the major news stories, you can be excused for coming away with the impression that Hillary Clinton recorded an impressive win in the desert.
And in some undeniable ways, she did. But in one undeniable way she didn’t, and the media’s reaction has been instructive.
Once the dust had settled, and the “Hillary Wins With Help of Women and Latinos” meme had reached every major outlet, the Obama campaign pointed out something seemingly worth noting:
Given that primaries exist to elect delegates to a national convention, during which those same delegates will elect a nominee, this seemed a salient fact.
But after denying the truth of it, the Clinton campaign — and then the national media — dismissed the earned delegate count as meaningless in the grand scheme of things.
Which was odd, given that Clinton had herself been portraying the primaries as primarily an accumulation of delegates after her loss in Iowa.
But beyond that, it was odd because the media based its argument almost entirely on how expectations had been rendered before the vote (by themselves), rather than the bottom-line reality: that delegates are the most basic reason for the season.
The logic of denial swept quickly in and out of the major dailies, but the Post’s Chris Cillizza made the argument in explicit terms:
Although Sen. Barack Obama’s (Ill.) campaign did a wonderful job spinning the results of the Nevada caucuses (”She won the popular vote, we won the delegate fight”) the truth of the matter is — for the moment — the race stands two states for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, to one for Obama. As the race gets closer to Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, the delegate counts are certain to matter more. But none of the first four states (including South Carolina next Saturday) were EVER cast as a battle for delegates in the campaign. They were momentum builders and early organizational tests. In that regard, Clinton won yesterday.
Worth noting that it’s simply untrue that the first four states were never cast as delegate battles; again, Hillary’s camp had done so following Iowa.
But beyond that, Cillizza’s emphatic tone here seems telling. He means to settle this argument once and for all, and he wants the Obama campaign to know that he considers talk of delegates the worst sort of spin.
But again, why exactly? Also, notice Cillizza’s emphasis on how the contest was “cast” in the media, rather than in its mathematical outcome, its actual contribution to picking a nominee, and perhaps a President. In his mind, the media frame is paramount, regardless of what happens in the nuts-and-bolts of convention politics.
It is factually true that Clinton won the popular vote, and Obama won the delegate count. And of course in a race for President, that distinction has meta-implications, as Al Gore will be happy to attest (not).
It’s not that the Obama campaign wanted the media to jettison the “Hillary Won” idea, but was it so tough to see that besting her in delegates meant that her campaign had failed at least one of the “early organizational tests” that Cillizza stresses, and a major one at that?
So why, then, did the experts like Cillizza dismiss the story? A few reasons, and in ascending order of importance:
3) The media felt that they had given Obama a big bounce out of Iowa, and had downplayed the Clinton delegate argument at that point — so in order to be fair, they would now downplay Obama’s use of the same tactic.
Which would make sense except for one thing: Clinton’s campaign had attempted to make the delegate argument in spite of earning less delegates in Iowa. In other words, they were saying in effect: we nearly won, because Obama won only one more delegate, so his win was marginal at best.
In Nevada, Obama’s people are pushing a different truth altogether: he didn’t just come close to Hillary in delegates earned, he surpassed her.
2) The delegates have not been officially awarded yet, and the Clinton campaign fell back on this position once their math had been proven inaccurate.
But as the Nevada Democratic Party noted, “if the delegate preferences remain unchanged between now and April 2008, the calculations of national convention delegates being circulated by the Associated Press are correct,” that is, Obama will have earned more delegates by a narrow margin.
In other words, under certain unlikely conditions, that delegate count might change. But arguably that is the case in other primaries and caucuses as well, and the delegate counts in those states have not been treated as provisional. They’ve been reported and treated as hard news.
1) And now we come to what may well be the truth of truths: the media didn’t know how to poll Nevada, they didn’t know how exactly to calculate the results, and they were terrified of looking like stumble-bums following New Hampshire.
In the run-up to Nevada, many polling outfits took a public pass on gauging voter sentiment — too many unknowns in a state that had never caucused before.
In other words, the odds of looking stupid twice in a row were great. And pollsters, after all, are math majors. So they stayed away in large part.
But that fear on the part of pollsters was reflective of a general uneasiness in the chattering class. It’s a good rule of thumb that the news media is always more than willing to examine in detail a high-profile reporting failure — such anatomies actually bolster their reputations for objectivity, all the while feeding a certain industry narcissism.
But what they are loath to do is admit that having committed a celebrated, all-points fuck-up (read: NH), and after having allowed themselves the luxury of a good sound talking-to (by themselves), they then turned around and got it demonstrably wrong a second time.
No pundit worth his/her salt will cop to that, if there’s any way to argue the point. And reasons #1 and #2 above provided more than enough in the way of a fig leaf of “fairness.”
In short, by the time Obama’s people presented their state-wide math, and proved that math over the violent objections of the Clinton campaign and skeptical reporters, the media had locked themselves into the “Big Win Out of Nevada” meme.
Generally speaking, the media failed to understand the intricacies of Nevada’s new caucus system, yet they went ahead and reported winners and losers, simply assuming that Clinton’s 5-6 point lead in the popular vote would translate into more delegates.
It did not.
And of course, given that Obama is the favorite in South Carolina, again they could tell themselves that portraying Clinton as the sole winner the week before would ultimately balance out.
Theoretically, at the end of next week, each campaign will have two wins to its credit and the media will be able to congratulate itself on its clearly even-handed treatment of two candidates they seem to like a good deal.
Many high-priced butts will be covered.
And this past weekend’s dirty little secret will stay in Vegas: Obama’s delegate win in the desert made amply clear that the media hasn’t learned its lesson, not really, and almost certainly never will.
Photo: Bill Stetson
Late Update, Tuesday, 6:30 am:
Must say it’s tough to keep track of these folks. With Nevada over and Clinton facing a potential loss in South Carolina, Howard Wolfson now says it’s been about delegates from the get-go:
“’All along we have said this is a battle for delegates,’ said Howard Wolfson, a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton, ‘and we are going to campaign for delegates in South Carolina and across the country.’”
Somebody get Chris Cillizza on the horn — stat.
January 18th, 2008
Leahy, Welch Endorse Obama, Setting Up Insoluble Problem in Vermont Activist Logic
by Philip Baruth
As we all know, fighting the good fight can be a surprisingly confusing business, so let’s take a minute to run down some current political facts, and get our various stories straight. Because something really, really doesn’t add up.
First, Presidential candidate John McCain not only supported the invasion of Iraq, but now says that he’d have invaded even knowing there were no WMDs in-country.
Last September, McCain managed to brand himself as the GOP’s strongest and least flexible supporter of the Surge. On top of that, McCain is now on record saying it’s fine with him if we occupy the country for “ten thousand” or even “a million years.”
And of course McCain is still flirting openly with the possibility of a Lieberman Vice Presidential nod, Lieberman being the only man alive equally enamored of both the Surge and Baghdad market strolling.
For his part, Jim Douglas has been a stalwart Bush supporter for the last seven years, through even the most bone-headed foreign policy blunders. Now, given the chance to trade up to a candidate even more bullish on Iraqi adventurism, Douglas has fallen like a ton of bricks for John McCain.
Yesterday the Governor “personally dropped off signatures of more than 1,000 Vermonters and a check for $2,000 to the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office,” putting McCain’s name on the Vermont ballot.
(McCain hearts both the Surge and Big Joe, then, and Douglas hearts McCain, if you want to do some sub-totaling before we hit the bottom line.)
Now, the final facts: today Senator Pat Leahy and Congressman Peter Welch announced their support for Barack Obama, in part because of his early and vocal opposition to the invasion of Iraq.
Each cited other factors in the endorsement —a Kennedy-esque ability to inspire voters, the sort of energy required to effect major legislative change — but each was also clearly motivated by their own pronounced contempt for the Bush policy on Iraq.
Given the opportunity, Leahy and Welch wanted to support the candidate who had, in his own now signature phrase, “opposed this war from the beginning.”
It is a phrase and a history that Bill Clinton has attempted to borrow at least once, before being forced to back away; it is a clear point of difference that Hillary Clinton has made a policy of muddying, time and time again.
So here’s where VDB needs your help.
Given all of this, name the only two political figures of the five mentioned above (McCain, Lieberman, Douglas, Leahy, Welch) who have been targeted by Vermont anti-war activists. Not just once but time and again.
We can’t figure it out either.
January 17th, 2008
Dateline Saudi Arabia: George W. Bush Discusses Fetal Position, Raising Diplomatic Hopes Across War-Torn Middle East
by Philip Baruth
During a sit-down at one of the myriad royal palaces of Saudi Arabia, George W. Bush was asked about his current poll numbers, which have now sagged beyond historic lows and into uncharted, sub-Nixonian negative waters.
The President responded with the gravity we have come to expect during diplomatic missions abroad: “What am I supposed to do, go into a fetal position because of your polls?”
Actually, the reverse: we thought the polls might finally nudge you into coming out of the fetal position. But that’s just us.
Never mind, everybody. Carry on as before.
January 16th, 2008
Bill Clinton: World-Class Mixed Blessing
by Philip Baruth
Whenever you haul out the heavy guns, you vastly increase your firepower. At the same time, though, you vastly increase the unintended consequences of a shot gone awry. Which is to say, when former President Bill Clinton misses, he misses in a way that really makes you wince.
On the counter-intuitive reasons why change-oriented Democrats should choose his wife over Obama, who won the endorsement of the powerful Culinary Workers Union in Nevada, an endorsement Hillary had courted herself: “In this case the establishment organization is with him and the insurgents are with her.”
Note to Bill: “The Insurgents Are With Her” might not be the best re-brand, given current events, even if “Thirty-Five Years Experience” isn’t quite making the nut either.
You thought you’d have to wait five years or more for the Hollywood version of The Story of Howard Dean. But it’s here, now. On the silver-screen. Larger than life. The date movie for Vermont political junkies with a heart — but junkies who also have a weak spot for a Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid sort of massacre at the end.
No, not that movie, not the long-rumored George Clooney production. It’s better: this is “Dean and Me: Roadshow of an American Primary,” directed by one Heath Eiden.
Why better? Because Clooney and his partner Leonardo DiCaprio clearly plan to tart the Dean story up, and infuse it with all sorts of semi-fictional after-the-fact storylines. Romance, meaningful voice-over, and casual walk-ons by Hollywood activist types.
Like Ben Affleck. You heard us: Ben Affleck.
Eiden, on the other hand, was on the ground during the campaign, camera running. Under the tongue-in-cheek logo of DeanTV, Eiden followed the buses and the planes and the national media celebrities who would eventually put a match to the Movement.
In short, his story looks to be far closer to the realities of Dean as he was, rather than Dean as we might now wish him to have been.
That means all the uplift, the heady days of the Sleepless Summer Tour that made Howard Dean a household word nationwide. And that means the less flattering moments as well.
Case in point: Eiden went to Dean campaign guru Joe Trippi at a certain point, to pitch DeanTV as a means for the candidate to bypass some of the unflattering coverage already surfacing. He would be filming in any event, Eiden argued, so why shouldn’t the campaign take formal advantage of the resource?
Long story short: Trippi was non-committal, and then refused to answer calls. And just weeks later Trippi introduced his own version of Eiden’s cheeky idea, calling it HowardDean.TV.
In that way, Eiden’s quest to be accepted by the Dean Campaign (he now says he was a member of the Movement, if not the Campaign) becomes a real-life narrative line structuring the unvarnished footage from the campaign trail.
Although the film is now feature-length (90 minutes) and in “rough cut form,” Eiden has one last grassroots-style play in mind: allowing Vermont audiences to influence the final version.
In other words, you still have the power.
In an uncharacteristically quiet moment in 2004, Chris Matthews ponders ways to personally botch the New Hampshire Primary four years in the future.
When can you see it? Two sneak previews: one at Montpelier’s Savoy on Jan. 26, and one at Burlington’s Roxy on Jan. 27, at 11 a.m. Eiden’s asking for contributions following the show: $10 or “whatever you think it’s worth.”
Chance to watch the scrappy ex-Governor of Vermont rise again to confront the Forces of Darkness: Priceless.
Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin may be tough to follow down the legislative playing field with the naked eye. His abrupt reversals may occasionally defy protocol, or logic, even physics. But on one issue he has remained a consistent and surprisingly aggressive force: oversight of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant.
And now Shumlin’s got his teeth in Entergy’s ankle again.
Shumlin and fellow Windham Senator Jeanette White, capitalizing on momentum following last summer’s cooling tower collapse, have begun drafting legislation detailing and requiring an Independent Safety Assessment of the sort that led to the shuttering of Maine Yankee a decade ago.
And they want it signed into law by the end of this session. Douglas has indicated that he’ll do so.
But not so fast: the Senators and the Governor will need to get by indefatigable Entergy spokesman Rob Williams first.
Williams, of course, is a nuclear corporate spokesman, and as such he will tear the actual fabric of time-space before admitting that any action or inaction on the part of Entergy requires even a particle of additional oversight.
Not weighed down by a conscience or a constricting set of ethics, Williams remains a linguistic will o’ the wisp.
His take on the need for an independent assessment is a shining example for all budding spokes-children everywhere.
“The lessons learned [in the Maine Yankee assessment] have been incorporated into the present federal oversight. To impose a Maine Yankee style inspection here would be a step back in terms of safety benefits compared to resources expended.”
Read that last sentence again, and watch the word-ninja work. Would an independent assessment be a “step back” in terms of safety benefits? Clearly not. Rather, it would be a step back only in terms of safety versus “resources expended.”
In other words, safety benefits would go up, but corporate profits would go down.
A step back for Entergy executives looking to buy that third home out in Baja California, indeed.
We have our fun with Shumlin, and the signature broken-field running he uses to lead the Democratic Caucus. But make no mistake: he is serious about Yankee, and bringing Entergy to heel.
He is serious too about putting the plant on the radar screen of Northern Vermonters, who now have the luxury of ignoring the issue even as they benefit from Yankee’s energy output.
When we interviewed Shumlin a year ago, he floated a Modest Proposal: trucking dry-casks of Yankee waste up to the northern end of the state for a while, in the interest of fairness.
Tongue in cheek, of course.
Or maybe not. The Windham Senators are now also drafting a bill to “consider alternate locations” for the plant’s waste, and White wasn’t shy about where she might stop the trucks: “We have some nice open fields in Chittenden County that aren’t on the waterfront.”
Late Update, 8:37 am:
Oops, seems like Yankee’s got more troubles: apparently the control-room operators have gotten into the pot-laced brownies. And that’s no Simpsons-style humor. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was tipped to Brownie-Gate through random drug testing.
No word yet on whether there are compromising MySpace photos. (”Dude! We were so baked we tried to tap the dry-casks! We thought there was beer in there! LOL!”)
But if you’re worried about stoners in the Boom-Boom Room over at Yankee, rest easy. Asked about the cock-up, Rob Williams said “the random test that caught Picard’s drug use was proof the program worked.”
Imagine VDB’s relief.
January 14th, 2008
This Is VDB: In Which Vermont Daily Briefing Readers Are Revealed To Be Themselves (The Guyon Edition)
by Philip Baruth
In our continuing quest to introduce you to yourselves, we bring you a very small profile of a very large talent: one Annie Guyon. Annie writes a column for the Rutland Herald called Sover Scene, and has a hand in most of the arts — when she’s not saving her local school from draconian budget cuts. Just your typical Southern Vermont VDB type: sharp, deep, and pleasantly surprising.
This Is VDB: The Guyon Edition Name: Annie Lawrence Guyon
Location: A tiny village in the southeast corner of Vermont, close enough to thriving art/music/literature havens that I’ve never once felt culturally deprived since moving here from San Francisco in 2001. I feel extremely fortunate to be living in such a vibrant, stunning place and try to give back to the community — as much as single-mom, business-owner life allows — in order to earn my keep.
Interests: Words; art (conceptualism, abstraction, expressionism, minimalism, Northern Dutch Renaissance and plain old plein air); music (alt to ambient, bluegrass to blues, Celtic to classical, powerpop to punk); literature (Dickens to Du Maupassant, Horace to Hemingway, Boswell to Bryson, Wodehouse to Woolf, Calvin & Hobbes, &tc.); politics; British suffragette history; running, tap dancing, hiking, kayaking; most importantly, watching my children discover, embrace, describe and question the world as it unfolds before them.
What Brought You Home to VDB: I write a weekly arts and culture column for the Rutland Herald and when they began archiving my columns on a blog, I thought I should explore the global blogscape more fully. Discovering VDB was like stumbling upon a gleaming copy of the latest OED lying on the ground in the middle of Times Square.
Anything that manages to be at once sagacious and silly — wherein I’m being earnestly edified one minute and snorting with laughter the next — has my devoted attention.
Current Political Talking Points: The country: Both its morale within and integrity without are bankrupt and, as a nation, we need to heal our collective soul by repairing the wounds and bridging the chasms that our current leader has managed to engender.
The war: It needs to end in a humane, culturally-respectful and fiscally pragmatic manner. The poor: We have no collective moral compass if we do not begin to acknowledge and uplift the 36 million Americans currently living in poverty—which includes a staggering 37 percent of our children.
Healthcare: Our government needs to swallow its corpulent pride on this issue, accept that the principles of socialized/universal medicine are fundamentally sound and study the merits and mistakes of other countries’ healthcare systems so we can craft a smarter, inclusive, high-caliber version.
Reproductive rights: The protections afforded by Roe v. Wade have eroded over the last decade, mainly at the state level, in subtle ways that have been greatly suppressed by a government-manipulated media, so we must educate girls and women about what agency they still have over their own bodies and work to reclaim control on every legislative front.
HIV/AIDS: In certain populations, the rate of infection is increasing and, across the board, prevention-education has waned and needs to resume so that future generations stay informed and safe.
The environment: The United States must finally join the 21st century—and the rest of the world—in addressing the grave global crisis that’s underway by enacting drastic, effective alternative energy and emission-control legislation.
Last Word On The Presidential Race: While I can find merit in each of the Democratic candidate’s platforms, only one person’s values, ethics and hopes for this country have been unfailingly congruous with my own.
Anyone who believes we need to make non-violence an organizing principle in our society, including a Department of Peace, is seeking to shift the paradigm and the process in visionary ways that are long overdue.
The sorry truth of it, however, is that even though Kucinich makes complete sense on every issue — particularly regarding the inexorably ever-blurring separation of church and state — our über-mediated culture has cultivated a voting public that demands a candidate with the prototypical robust visage, the evangecowboy/girl presence, the airbrushed reputation and a patent absence of off-the-grid beliefs.
No matter how much clarity, courage, integrity and expansive thinking Kucinich could offer this country, I don’t believe there is any way in Hades he will ever be elected to the highest office in the land. So my last word on the presidential race has to be . . . Obama.
January 12th, 2008
Never Mind: Obama “Imaginary” All Along
by Philip Baruth
An anonymous Hillary advisor explains the difference between Obama folk and Clinton folk to the Guardian: “If you have a social need, you’re with Hillary. If you want Obama to be your imaginary hip black friend and you’re young and you have no social needs, then he’s cool.”
Photo: Senator Patrick Leahy
Not sure which pisses me off more: the arrogant, dismissive nature of the comments, or the fact that apparently I was standing and jabbering to myself in a field down in Norwich, moving my hand up and down in empty air like a freaking idiot, while onlookers mocked me behind my back.
And Pat Leahy knew all along, and never said a word.
January 11th, 2008
Best of Breed: Eve of the NH Primary
by Philip Baruth
Announcer: In a two-day stretch, Commentator Philip Baruth took in a Burlington Cat Show, and a hotel crowded with national media in New Hampshire. Only eventually could he make out any difference at all between the two.
Notes from the New Vermont Commentary #210:NH Primary: Best of Breed
If you ever have an opportunity to go to a cat show, let me warn you about one thing: cats are notorious for marking their territory, and when you get 450 of them in a single hotel ballroom, there’s a whole lotta marking going on.
I know because I took my daughters to the Cat Fanciers Event at the Sheraton in Burlington last weekend, and from the minute you hit the door that scent rang out like an alarm that only your nose could hear.
Row after row of cat after cat after cat, Persian, Siamese, hairless Egyptian Sphynx, each in its own cage or colorful little nylon tent, all of them being meticulously groomed and fluffed and pampered with tidbits to make them pliable and coquettish in the judge’s hands.
Because it turns out that cat shows are nothing like dog shows, where all the dogs prance around in the ring together: no, the cats are put in numbered cages and the judge pulls them out one by one, then places them on what looks like a vet’s examining table.
In one hand the judge constantly flicks a little cat wand, with shiny plastic dangling from the end, to mollify the cat and make it stretch up for inspection. Between each examination the judge sprays down the table with disinfectant.
In other words, at cat shows, everyone knows the precise boundaries of their place, and they know that you do whatever it takes to keep the talent happy, if you value your fingers.
Excellent preparation for the spectacle I attended the next day: Primary Eve at the Radisson Hotel in Manchester, New Hampshire.
By 5 pm, Elm Street in Manchester was bumper to bumper, and the Radisson wasn’t much better.
But the amazing thing is that no matter how thick the crowd, the national media had no trouble creating space for itself. Out on the street they’d just pull out neon yellow police tape, and tape off random sections of the public sidewalk, within which they’d work their man on the street interviews.
Inside the hotel, the bigger operations — your CNNs, your ABCs — were inside transparent rooms with lucite walls and stocky guards.
But the biggest operation of all was MSNBC, which had simply roped off and taken over most of the first-floor lobby, and turned it into a revolving set for Chris Matthews and Tucker Carlson.
From the second floor, you could look down on the whole MSNBC set and see it purring effortlessly along: sound technicians clipping and unclipping things from Matthews, as makeup people stabbed fingers at his silver hair, then sprayed the elevated follicles into place.
Matthews himself seemed almost drowsy under the attention, until the lights came up, and he began shouting at the camera.
When he was done shouting, all of the various attentions to his person were accomplished in reverse, and he walked down the hall to the hotel restaurant, people reaching out to touch him all along the way.
It was a wonderfully odd place to be — Tim Russert lumbering silently by, Pat Buchanan and his sister Bay karate-chopping the air for emphasis outside the Men’s room — but finally not quite as satisfying as the cat show.
For one thing, when we got home from the cat show with a new catnip ball in hand, our own cat Rich-Boy was loving and grateful, and we were reminded exactly why we like these strange animals in the first place.
But when I got home from the eve of the New Hampshire Primary, there was no tiny Tim Russert or Chris Matthews to greet me, just their flickering images on the television, selling poll results that would turn out to be absolutely, historically 100% wrong.
And I had to ask myself: Why exactly do I let these people have the run of my house again?
[This commentary aired first on Vermont Public Radio. Audio of the piece is available here.]
January 11th, 2008
THE STATE OF THE STATE ADDRESS: Douglas Decides More Flies Caught With Honey; Just Call VDB “Winnie the Pooh”
by Philip Baruth
Let’s face it, Governor Jim Douglas has never been known for drunken-sailor spending. Fair to say he’ll squeeze a nickel until Monticello crumbles. And that’s been the key to his success in a heavily Democratic state. Which made it all the more intense when he hinted earlier today in the State of the State that he’ll soon be crossing the blogosphere’s palm with some serious cash money. We rush to quote:
To further inspire investments in technology, I’m proposing we invest a quarter-million dollars in two pilot projects-a partnership with Champlain College and the University of Vermont’s Center for Emerging Technologies to provide grants to start-up businesses that are developing cutting edge software; and an e-communities grant program to enable more local internet content, discussion forums, wikis and blogs.
Let VDB be the first to applaud the Governor’s efforts to direct funding to the creators of “local internet content,” and let us step forward in a spirit of comity to accept our own stack of greenbacks while the stepping is good.
We’re pleased that the Governor understands that mistakes were made, in a spirit of youthful excess, and that from this point forward the Vermont blogosphere will devote itself to a more sober and substantive discussion of issues and public policy and . . . substance and sober points of discussion.
Rest assured, friends, the now-classic photo of Douglas and Dubie baked on a boat will be a thing of the past, an amusing relic of the blogosphere’s beta period.
Once the money’s in VDB’s hot little hand, of course.
And who knew Jim Douglas knew from wikis? Wait a second — you don’t think he thinks — nah, couldn’t be.