lessons from America

Believing in Obama’s ground game

I spent the last week at Labour Party Conference, in Manchester.  I proudly wore my Obama buttons – brought enought for a different badge each day – and consequently had lots of conversations about the US elections.  I was surprised how many people were asking me “can Obama really do it?” and were pessimistic about his chances.  They were simply looking at the polls from the past few weeks, Palin’s bounce for McCain and adding in a dose of British natural cynicism for good measure. And hey suddenly they were downbeat about Obama.  Our media was also doing down Obama’s chances too. 

So there I was, almost single-handedly I felt, having to reassure and convince Labour people that Obama was still ahead and going to win, albeit in a close election.   I guess most people just read a couple of blogs or newsites, see the realclearpolitics tracking figures and take the state of the race at face value.  But that is a complete misreading of what is actually going on. 

As Bill Clinton didn’t quite say: “it’s the ground game, stupid.”  What we don’t see in the polls and focus groups is what’s actually happening on the ground; the mobilising, voter registration, get-out-the-vote efforts; and the changing demographics.  All of these favour the Democrats this time, and have been doing all year.

Joe Trippi (Howard Dean’s campaign manager from ’04) describes the electoral significance of this:

“[Obama’s] campaign organization should deliver a 1 to 3 points in additional voters to the polls in get-out-the-vote operations in key states the campaign is targeting. So if these states are close in the closing days of the campaign Obama is likely to win most of them.”

Disappointingly many at Labour Conference just didn’t get it, or didn’t believe it, or thought it the wrong tactics.  But if we are not into believing in the power of humanity and collective effort; that by talking to and persuading our peers, building a movement “brick by brick, block by block, calloused hand by calloused hand” (as Obama said in one of his speeches), that is the right thing to do, as well as what can win us the election, then what is the point in being Labour / progressive at all? It’s certainly what helps drive me and makes me optimistic that Obama will win in the end.

September 28, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, the world wants obama, Uncategorized | , , , | 1 Comment

Liveblogging the first presidential debate

So I am trying something new. Liveblogging a big speech on my own site rather than or elsewhere.

Another new thing is following proceedings and people’s reactions via twitter. for the live feed.  Twitter s something I first started seeing in good use at the Big Tent and enjoying things so far, even if some very silly comments and dross amidst the good stuff.

I like this twist on the debate drinking game: donating money to Democrat candidates or Obama on mention of key words rather than downing a drink.  Maybe it appeals more as its almost 2am and I had my fill of alcohol earlier in the week at Labour Conference.

I’m watching / listening to the debate via CNN, but as well as the twitter feed (which is scrolling too fast for comfort there’s so much traffic on it) am keeping an eye on 538′s fab blog for analysis.  They’ve just got a shout out from CNN so they’re chuffed about that.

We’re underway … with the rules. Now I am excited and nervous.  Jim Lehrer sounds strict and no nonsense kind of guy as the moderator.

Obama kicks off. Forget how thin he looks on TV. A bit “programmed” is how one person on twitter sees his opening 2min speech and have to agree. Not quite engaging with me.

McCain sounding old and sombre and croaky. And not uptodate, as Senator Kennedy out of hospital  a short while ago yet McCain said he was still there.

McCain mentions the Normandy invasion. It makes me think he might have actually been there.  And reminds me of his age.  But he does a good bit on accountability and corporate greed.  Obama’s tack is try to connect today’s problems with failings over last 8 years – ie Bush and Republican mistakes.

Some back and forth on earmarks.  McCain trying to stick it to Obama. Its a fine balancing act, and I’m surprised there’s been no mention of Palin and bridges to nowhere. Perhaps the water is so muddy there in terms of who is telling the truth and what is spin that Obama doesn’t want to go into it.

This tax and earmarks and regulation thing has got a bit boring. Obama seems to be over-complicating things. McCain better at soundbites and buzz words in this section and going on offensive.  O is hitting back a bit on oil company tax breaks though.

Plenty of comments on twitter and 538 about eye contact and McCain not looking very much at Obama, even when speaking directly to him.

McCain just painted Obama as “that far to the left” and the most liberal current Senator. That’s patently ridiculous to sentient people, but is a line that they believe must work.

This for Nate on 538: “McCain, calling out ethanol subsidies as a bad thing, would seem (correctly) to have recognized that he’s lost Iowa.”  My watching of West Wing lead to my the same conclusion when I heard McCain’s comments.  I happen to agree with McCain on this issue, especialy given the effect of grain prices in the developing world partly thanks to so much land being given over to bio-fuel production.

“If we are going to be strong at home as well as abroad” – I like that Obama line and it allows a good narrative on shifting priorities and spending to domestic, progressive matters whilst reminding listeners of the follies of Bush’s foreign policy.

This is so much better already than the last of the Obama-Clinton primary debates.  The format of 2 min intros answering a specific question followed by 5mins of freer to-and-fro is generally working and the moderator has to be given a lot of that credit.

McCain did a good spiel about his maverick status, rolling out a list of where he has disagreed with his party and with Bush.  And referred to Palin as a fellow maverick too.

Finally after 40mins we are on to foreign policy: the original theme of this debate.  Lessons from Iraq is the question.  McCain pushing the successes of Petraues and the surge.  Obama’s answer – on why the war was wrong in the first place and the “we took our eye off the ball” and ignored Afghanistan argument – is almost word for word what he said during the primaries. Full marks for consistency. And it resonates strongly now because of waste of money in Iraq versus cash-strapped US economy.

Both candidates speaking quite flatly. Though McCain now getting more animated and tone modulating in talking about Iraq. You can tell he really believes in the surge success.   He’s trying to really hit Obama, but coming across to me a bit petty or snarky in his attacks. But it has got Obama more animated and strong in tone now too.

Someone on twitter just asked “are they running for president of Iraq?” Fair point, in that the last few mins have focused on the running of Iraq more than the running of US.  Does go to show how America is still the imperial power in Iraq  – not exactly a people running themselves on their own there.

Gordon Brown would be proud of the seriousness of this debate: its tone and in-depth policy discussions and general lack of histrionics or pyrotechnics.  Doesn’t make for quite as gripping viewing though.  It can do though. Or it did in the West Wing live presidential debate in series 7.  I can’t work out what the missing ingredient is here. Or rather why this isn’t quite what we were expecting. Maybe it is McCain’s overall flat, slow delivery.  Maybe it is Obama playing safe and not counter-punching enough.

The temperature’s just gone up. We are onto Iran. And McCain is raising the prospect of a second holocaust and generally trying to scare people by talking up Iran’s threat.  Obama a little more circumspect and uses the d word – diplomacy.

McCain is really going for the Bush tactics of fear. And trying for the Jewish / Zionist vote in his repeat references to the threats to Israel.  McCain brings out another axis of evil, this time with the right’s favourite bogeyman Chavez on the list.  Obama gives a very good, straight response explaining his diplomatic strategy and that he is prepared to try these things and will do what he thinks right and necessary, rather than an ideological and irrational zero-contact policy that McCain proposes.

Let’s lighten the mood a bit with a little diversion. Just seen this on Twitter feed: Sarah Palin nicknames: “Bible Spice” and “Caribou Barbie”.   I have mixed feelings. Funny and clever yes. But a bit condensending of women in politics too.

McCain trys to curry favour by saying “my friend, Kissinger.”  Can I try that same trick and say “my relative, Kissinger”?  Am I automatically a better voice on foreign policy because of that association?

We’re on to Russia now. This wasn’t on the radar in the primaries so an interesting test for both candidates, and also a chance to win over some people who will hear their perspective on Russia for the first time.  McCain lists lots of Russian names and places, to emphasise his experience and knowledge in this area. Or just to try redeeming himself after struggling with pronouncing the Iranian President’s name earlier.  Obama on the other hand neatly turns the question into one on energy and looking to the future and alternative sources of energy, where is is stronger.

Just had a quick look at the headlines on DailyKos. Georgia10 has some excellent anaysis: “we’ve seen that the debate styles, not surprisingly, reflect the campaign styles of these two candidates.  Barack Obama is occasionally delivering elegant, understated smackdowns (his response to the McCain’s corporate tax rate claim was brilliant).  McCain, on the other hand, is jabbing erratically, trying to squeeze in a hit here or there, but is largely missing his mark.”  That’s very well observed and succintly put. Will anyone come up with a better account of tonight? 

Final question on “are we safer now, or could there be another 9/11?”  McCain takes it back to Iraq and tries to have a go at his opponent; where as Obama opens it up to Alqaida globally and then takes it back to domestic concerns.  That very much has been a common theme tonight.

 “There are some advantages in experience” – McCain seems to be deliberately referencing Reagan’s famous quote. And goes on about not needing any “on the job training”.  He plays up his flexibility and judgement versus – as he sees it – Obama’s stubborness (like Bush) and inexperience and wrong judgement.
They both end trying to focus on connecting with the heart rather than the head: Obama talking about his father and linking foreign with domestic / financial concerns; McCain with some moving references to veterans and PoW. 

And that’s all for the contributions of the two candidates.  Now it is over to their surrogates and supporters to make the all-important interventions that will determine exactly how the media reports on tonight’s debate.  You don’t get anything on this scale or organisation after the leader’s speech at party conference.

The main talking point seems to be “presidential” versus “political”.  McCain campaign’s official statement says McCain was the former, Obama the latter. Very few of the bloggers, tweets or commentators I’ve read so far seem to agree with that.  The opposite was much more evident.  Especially as Obama made far fewer partisan comments (except maybe on Bush’s role in economic and foreign policy failings) and jibes; instead often given the more statesmanlike and considered answers.

Kos makes a good point about the quality of the moderation of this debate.  I’ve referred to that already, but agree with him its worth congratulating Jim Lehrer on his efforts tonight.  Let’s hope for more of the same in terms of the quality of the moderation.

According to pro-Obama bloggers, here is his best moment of the night:

“So John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the “surge,” the war started in 2003. At the time, when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said you knew where the weapons of mass destruction were — and you were wrong. You said we were going to be greeted as liberators — you were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shi’a and Sunni, and you were wrong. …if the question is, who is best equipped as the next president to make good decisions about how we use our military, how we make sure we are prepared and ready for the next conflict, then I think we can take a look at our judgment.”

Before I end this political fest and go to sleep, it is worth acknowledging a point made in various other places.  This was quite a heavy-going, wonky debate. How many people actually really paid attention to it and stayed with it? How much will it change the race; or were people bored and switched off?  McCain needed to make a bit of headway, so it matters most to him if this is seen by undecideds and the non-politically obsessed as a bore-draw.  Again the post-debate spin / coverage and who did best in the expectations games will be important.  So worth following things the next few days.

Next up debate-wise (on Thursday) are the two Vice Presidential candidates.  Palin is still doing her invisbility act, where as Biden is revelling in his ‘surrogate’ role tonight.  Wll be fascinating to see what happens at that debate.

Thanks Nate and Sean for your insights. And all those twittering. That’s all folks until the next time.

September 27, 2008 Posted by | debates | , , , | Leave a comment

The retreat from 50 officially starts here

I’m starting early my post party conference season plan of blogging near daily.  Just back from Manchester and the Labour Conference and will put up a post at a more sensible hour about comparing Denver with Manchester; being in the hall for Brown versus being in the stadium for Obama.  I know, an unfair comparison, but thought it’d be fun to run with it anyway. 

For now though the disappointing – though inevitable given the way the electoral system/college works –  news that Obama’s 50 State Strategy is that bit diminished. 

“The Obama campaign has pulled paid workers out of Alaska and North Dakota and is pretty soon going to be concentrating on a dozen states. Goodbye Utah, hello Colorado. The battlegrounds will be a couple of Kerry states, most probably Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, as well as Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, and maybe Georgia in the South, Ohio in the rust belt, and Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada in the West, plus maybe a couple of others. There was never any way all 50 states were in play. Which is not to say Democrats can’t win in strange places–the governors of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, and North Carolina are all Democrats–but Obama is not a home-grown Southern or Western Democrat.”

September 25, 2008 Posted by | 50 State strategy | , | Leave a comment

One week on

As I stay up waiting for McCain to give his big speech, I’ve been thinking back to that wonderful evening exactly one week ago in Denver.  It was an incredible experience and am still on a high from it.  But my one disappointment had been that – due to the acoustics of the stadium and the crowd noise – I struggled to catch every word of Obama’s speech.  Sure, I got the jist and the big lines, but not the nuances of his message, the cadences of his voices and the full extent of the content. 

So earlier I went on youtube and listened to Obama’s speech again. The full transcript a also be read here. I can really appreciate now the plaudits he got for it in the media.  I would have loved it if on the night he had soared to the rhetoric heights of his New Hampshire ‘yes we can’ or breakthrough ’04 convention speeches, but that wasn’t the case and rightly so.  There were some real policy meat – mapping out the “change” that the campaign is based upon.  There were many more of the kitchen-table anecdotes of ordinary lives and hurdles that he was criticised for not including during the primaries.  There was a real focus on the financial struggles and challenges many Americans are (and feel they are) experiencing; something noticeably absent from the Republican Convention.

The night was a historic one for all the well known reasons.  And call me a softy, but when listening again tonight I was almost in tears with the emotion of the Martin Luther King reference and remembering (and seeing again) the moving reaction in the crowd to Obama’s words:

“And it is that promise that 45 years ago today, brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a Mall in Washington, before Lincoln’s Memorial, and hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream. The men and women who gathered there could’ve heard many things. They could’ve heard words of anger and discord. They could’ve been told to succumb to the fear and frustration of so many dreams deferred. But what the people heard instead — people of every creed and color, from every walk of life — is that in America, our destiny is inextricably linked. That together, our dreams can be one. “We cannot walk alone,” the preacher cried. “And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.” “

Having been at the Emily’s List reception, it was noticeable that one of the big issues delegates (especially but not exclusively women) were fired up about was the inequalities in pay between the genders. Obama was always going to say something about it, but you get the feeling he truly believes in the cause, given the feeling he gives to the line:

“Now is the time to keep the promise of equal pay for an equal day’s work, because I want my daughters to have the exact same opportunities as your sons.”

One aspect I hadn’t fully appreciated at the time was the repeated echoing of Obama’s famous refrain from his 2004 speech “there are no red states or blue states, only the united states of America”. Here perhaps is the most obvious one:

“The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America – they have served the United States of America.”

But also this passage, where he goes beyond platitudes and takes on some of those wedge issues that have split the nation:

“We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country. The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang-violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination. You know, passions may fly on immigration, but I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers. But this, too, is part of America’s promise — the promise of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort.”

One of Obama’s phrases that has most captured my imagination is “the audacity of hope” – the title of his 2nd book.  I’ll go into that in more detail later, especially in terms of the resonance with my experiences in Africa.  But it was fitting that one of his closing passages – consciously I’m sure – echoed this theme:

“This country of ours has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military on Earth, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our universities and our culture are the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores. Instead, it is that American spirit — that American promise — that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend. That promise is our greatest inheritance. It’s a promise I make to my daughters when I tuck them in at night, and a promise that you make to yours — a promise that has led immigrants to cross oceans and pioneers to travel west; a promise that led workers to picket lines, and women to reach for the ballot.”

Words cannot really capture the atmosphere, especially the finale: the curtain calls, cheers, applause,  flagwaving, confetti and fireworks.  So instead of more words from me, here are photos from the night from Denver resident Diane Dubois:

September 5, 2008 Posted by | Denver Diary, global perspective | 1 Comment

An ode to burritos

My staple food whilst in Denver was burritos: chicken, beef, vegetable, any variety.  Had them for breakfast, lunch and dinner – not everyday, not every meal, but many times.  And I loved them. 


I wouldn’t have survived a night of drinking post Obama’s speech if it hadn’t been for their ubiquity as roadside snacks.  Much tastier than a kebab.  But my favourite was ‘the breakfast burrito’ – stuffed full of good things and an energy-packed way to start the day.  They were about the first thing I missed when from my trip when I returned home. Breakfast burritos are hard to come by east of the Mississippi! But as Hunter has just emailed me, “green chilli is the secret, but eggs, bacon, cheese, and some salsa wrapped in a flour tortilla might get you through!”  So I may just have to try that one morning.

September 3, 2008 Posted by | lessons from America, Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment