Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Ned Barnett © 2008

After his stellar performance this morning, as he tried to explain away his pastor, the Reverend Doctor Jeremiah Wright, it is clear to me, as a former campaign speechwriter myself, that Barack Obama is perhaps the most effective speech-reader in American politics today. His speech was a masterwork of misdirection – a tour de force of the triumph of emotion over logic. It was nothing short of a remarkable “bait-and-switch” – an advertising gambit that “promises one thing and delivers something very much different, without the customer noticing” – that may have saved Obama’s campaign. If so, it succeeded by avoiding the real issue – the candidate’s judgment – that had mushroomed in the past week.

Senator Obama’s campaign is built on two elements – his “post-racial” refusal to let race be an issue, and the Senator’s sound judgment, which more than compensates for his lack of real experience in national government.

Senator Obama’s challenge was daunting. Americans have been inundated by video clips featuring the Senator’s pastor spewing race-based hatred of America, demonstrating this willingness to believe every wack-job conspiracy theory this side of black helicopters. To counter this, the Senator had to explain away his own lack of judgment in putting up with such vile blather for twenty years. That’s what this speech promised – the bait. What he delivered was something very different – the switch.

Senator Obama carefully – and effectively – addressed some (but by no means all of) the specific hate-filled and conspiratorial positions that his pastor has consistently advocated from the pulpit, drawing each narrowly to minimize their impact. However, while giving America a fascinating lecture on the history of the “black experience” in America, Senator Obama very effectively changed the subject. He promised answers and delivered fascinating distraction – executing a classic “bait-and-switch,” one which would have made any Madison Avenue Ad-Man green with envy.

Much of the media is focusing on this remarkable and seemingly candid exploration of race – one of the thorniest issues America has faced since the first African chattel slaves were brought to America. However, this same media – and, presumably, at least some of the Senator’s large national audience – missed the larger point. Instead of addressing the issue – his judgment – as promised, Barack Obama gracefully and effectively changed the subject. Bait-and-Switch.

No longer is the media focusing on “why did Obama stay in the congregation of a man who clearly hates America and despises whites?”

No longer are pundits asking “what does this relationship say about Senator Obama’s judgment?”

Instead, Americans – and the American media – are again marveling at the man’s podium dexterity, a real skill that the Senator cultivated at Harvard and Columbia, then refined in the rough-and-tumble politics of inner-city Chicago.

As a former speechwriter and ranked intercollegiate debater, I have nothing but raw admiration for Senator Obama’s dual abilities to write and deliver truly remarkable speeches. He does so with a power and style not seen since President Reagan reminded America of the power of the spoken word. Senator Obama’s skills bring to mind another remarkable orator, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose words and presentation did much to hold together a shaky coalition through both the Great Depression and the world’s greatest war.

Senator Obama has that gift.

However, he’s used this gift to “bait-and-switch” us away from questioning his judgment and core beliefs, away from thinking about what it means that he sat through 20 years of hate-filled Sunday sermons without hearing anything offensive. With this bait-and-switch speech, Senator Obama has moved us away from the real issue and toward the open sore of race that has troubled America for centuries – an issue he’d carefully avoided until this speech.

The irony is clear. Senator Obama has portrayed himself as the man who transcended race, effectively appealing to Americans regardless of their race. This “post-racial” positioning played nicely into the Senator’s “hope and change” pitch, since nearly all Americans hope to change our historic racial intolerance and move toward a color-blind “all men are created equal” standard.

But now, thanks to this speech, race is front-and-center in the campaign. In order to save his campaign from his own remarkably poor judgment – remaining affiliated to a church whose minister damns America and blames our country for 9-11, AIDs and crack cocaine – Senator Obama has injected this “post-racial” campaign with a massive dose of race.

The ultimate irony is clear – though Reverend Wright is black, the reason he’d become a liability to Senator Obama isn’t his race, but his blatant hatred for America. Senator Obama has excused that hate by reason of race and “generation,” and undone in one day a year’s worth of “post-racial” positioning.

That’s a great debating strategy – don’t let your opponents focus on your weaknesses – but when it comes to healing America, or even to running a Presidential campaign, Senator Obama has done himself, and his country, a profound disservice. Instead of addressing his pastor’s hatred for America – and what that means about the Senator’s own judgment – he instead tried to shame white America into letting go of the issues created by Reverend Wright. Instead of understanding Senator Obama’s choice of affiliating with such a notorious hater, we now know where he stands on the issue of race – an issue that, until today, Senator Obama himself had said was off-limits and out-of-bounds.

Politically, this may be the ultimate “bait-and-switch.”

Friday, March 14, 2008

Yo Mama! What Now, Obama?

Ned Barnett © 2008

Would you sit still for and break bread with a man who insulted your mother? Would you support that man – let alone congregate with that man for more than 20 years – if he repeatedly insulted your mother and her people in front of your wife and your children? Would you expose your children to a man who repeatedly – and in the strongest language – told them that their grandmother was evil, and that her people were the root of all evil?

I wouldn’t. You wouldn’t. But apparently, Senator Barack Obama sees things differently. And that choice – to attend for 20 years the church of a virulent racist, a man who seems to believe in, and preach about, every race-tinged conspiracy theory of the 20th century – has landed Senator Obama in the communications crisis of his life.

I realize that I’m on shaky ground here. We learned this week that even a lifetime of leadership in racial healing isn’t enough of a shield for what I have to say. Former Congresswoman – and the first woman to run as a major party candidate for the Vice Presidency – Geraldine Ferraro found that out this week. According to the “new rules of public discourse,” when it comes to criticizing – or even to commenting on – Senator Barack Obama, even life-long and very public opposition to racism is no defense against vicious charges of racism. From day-one, Senator Obama has been the ultimate Teflon candidate, with surrogates eager to dash forward and brand as racist anybody who dares to criticize the Senator or even mention his race.

So it is with more than a little trepidation that I venture forth into the danger zone – I know that my efforts to integrate the Methodist Church in Georgia (and to assure that black ministers in Georgia earned a living wage, with benefits) will not shield me from criticism, nor will an award from the Urban League that I won for my (then) South Carolina employer protect me.

Yet an issue of racism has erupted around Senator Barack Obama, and as of this writing, he’s yet to explain how a man – widely known for being “post-racial,” a candidate widely known for bringing the races together and defusing the entire issue of race in politics – could have stayed in the congregation of a virulent racist for 20 years, let alone contributing more than $22,000 in 2006 alone to that man and his ministry.

While the Senator has not only distanced himself from Reverend Wright’s words, he’s said that he was never in the room when Reverend Wright spoke the incendiary phrases – “God Damn America” – or accused America of creating HIV AIDS as a tool of genocide or, on the Sunday after the 9/11 attacks, Reverend Wright’s accusation that America had brought on the attack because of everything from Hiroshima to Palestine to AIDS. Perhaps he didn’t hear those particular comments. Perhaps. However, there is no way that Senator Obama could have been ignorant of Reverend Wright’s beliefs about race and racism in America. The Senator had to know that Reverend Wright blamed “rich white people” for all the ills of the earth, if only because he’s been dodging and half-answering questions about this since at least last October – two months before Reverend Wright gave virulent racist and anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan a lifetime achievement award last December.

Which brings me to a question I’ve not seen asked before today. In the cultural melting-pot immigrant-filled neighborhood in which I grew up, there was no quicker way to start a fight than to diss somebody’s mother. That act is a deadly sin that seems to cross all cultural lines, and – as a way of insulting others, it seems to be alive and well in the black community. That is just one more reason why I am amazed that Barack Obama stayed with his Trinity United Church of Christ for 20 years. That congregation’s pastor, Reverend Wright, seems never to pass up a chance to stick it to whitey … which means that Senator Obama’s own minister was dissing Obama’s mother, and doing so “in front of God and everybody,” including the Senators two impressionable daughters.

Clearly, when starting a political career in inner-city Chicago, it was useful for a young Barack Obama to attend such a church. If nothing else, having a membership in Reverend Wright’s church served to validated Senator Obama’s credentials as a real black man – in spite of his white mother – in a community where your degree of “blackness” apparently mattered. However, once he decided to extend his reach beyond Urban Chicago for state-wide and national politics, what had once been a validater had become a liability – a liability that the media’s unwillingness to raise the race card with a man whose career was built on “post-racial” unity – had held in abeyance until now.

Now, Senator Obama has started to fight back, but his comments to date have created more PR problems than they solved. First, he equated Reverend Wright to the “crazy uncle” that every family has, and tolerates, while not accepting his rants as reality. Then he said he hadn’t been present when those hate-tinged words (and many more – as the torrent of video clips seems to show) – as if not being present protected him from culpability in financially and personally supporting a man with so many race-filled, hate-filled things to say about whites and America. Then he said he didn’t support “any of those” statements – without quite saying which statements he was disavowing. Most recently, he’s said that since Reverend Wright was about to retire, he saw no reason to leave the church – something that might be true today, but something that doesn’t explain the last 20 years.

However, actions speak louder than words. Senator Obama and his wife chose Reverend Wright’s church after carefully “shopping around,” looking for a “spiritual home” for their family. Then they stayed in that congregation for 20 years – providing significant financial support (nearly $2,000 per month - $500 per week – in 2006 alone) – and raising their daughters in the bosom of this church’s family. They sat through 20 years of sermons – some of which even mentioned the Senator himself – while their “crazy uncle” ranted about white American conspiracies from Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki to AIDS and crack cocaine and 9/11/2001. Not only that, but Senator Obama dedicated his political biography – The Audacity of Hope – to the man whose sermon inspired the title. Last straw, when he decided to run for President, the Senator appointed his spiritual leader, minister and friend to his campaign’s religion steering committee – a position that, at this writing, Reverend Wright still holds.

Senator Clinton has, almost from day-one, dropped supporters and campaign officials for even hinting at some of Senator Obama’s potential personal vulnerabilities, ranging from youthful drug abuse to his potentially narrow appeal to the black community. Yet Reverend Wright, who’s made a career of blaming white America – including, apparently, the Senator’s mother and grandparents – for all our social ills, remains a respected campaign official.

Which means that Senator Obama has a lot of explaining to do to America and America’s voters. He needs to explain – as a candidate who bases his credibility on his sound judgment – why he has shown such remarkable “judgment” about this man. He needs to explain why the Senator has, over more than 20 years, supported personally and financially, a man who damns America and blames whites for all the world’s ills, and does that in the name of God. He needs to explain why – as a “post-racial” candidate intent on healing – he chooses to associate himself with a virulent racist intent on re-segregating America. It will take more than a denial, a denunciation or a repudiation of Reverend Wright right now to explain away 20 years of questionable decisions and politically-dangerous associations.

I’m glad I’m not Senator Obama’s spokesman today – it will take more spinning than an Illinois twister to make this set of decisions and choices and lame excuses go away. What can explain any man associating with someone who regularly disses his mama? Would you do that?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

In the Eliot Spitzer Melt-Down, Who Was the Real Loser?

Ned Barnett © 2008

Note: I've been invited to discuss this blog - about Eliot Spitzer's meltdown - on Fox Business at 6 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, March 12th ...

Conventional wisdom has already identified either New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s career ambitions – or, if the commentator is more of a humanist than a political commentator, Mrs. Spitzer and their three girls – as the real loser in Spitzer’s melt-down.

However, politically at least, they’re wrong. Politically, the real loser isn’t Eliot, his political career – or his family. The real loser is … Senator Hillary Clinton.

That loss is not because Governor Spitzer is one of Senator Clinton’s increasingly desperately-needed super-delegates. And it’s not because someone in the media (if not in Senator Obama’s campaign) will almost certainly call on her to repudiate Governor Spitzer as a supporter, just as she recently demanded that Senator Obama repudiate the endorsement made by “Minister” Louis Farrakhan, but that’s not why she’s the real loser here, either.

The real reason why Senator Hillary Clinton is the real loser is simple: here, in tenth anniversary year of the Monica Lewinsky melt-down, the last thing Senator Clinton needs is for America to be reminded of the facts and details surrounding her husband Bill’s exploitative tryst with intern Monica Lewinsky. Yet today’s fallen political unfaithful husband, Eliot Spitzer, will do nothing so much as he will remind America of that other unfaithful political husband … Bill Clinton.

Senator Clinton will be seen by some as a precursor “victim” to today’s spouse-victim, Eliot’s wife – Silda Wall Spitzer. However, the real memory-jog will be more along the lines of then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s misguided belief in a “Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy” as the architect of her downfall, rather than a philandering husband who couldn’t keep it zipped. That one blame-comment, made on the Today Show on January 27, 1998 showed her political blindness in the face of a fact she’d known for decades – that Bill Clinton was a serial philanderer. She knew about Gennifer Flowers. She knew about Paula Jones. No matter how much she would have liked to believe otherwise, her attempt to blame the Lewinsky story on political opponents instead of her husband of more than 20 years shows a serious gap in judgment – the kind of judgment she is offering as her justification for being named the Democratic Party’s candidate.

As an aside, I was frankly amazed that Clinton-for-President campaign spokesman Mark Penn made reference to Ken Starr, even in an effort to put down Senator Obama – it brought up what may be the most shameful and painful part of Senator Clinton’s life – and the last thing she needs is for people to start remembering what her tenure in the White House was really like.

For more than a year now, Senator Clinton has painted herself as “co-President,” using cleverly-crafted PR-driven strategies to credit herself with all the stellar accomplishments of the Bill Clinton Presidency. These range from those that President Clinton really had a hand in, such as NAFTA, Welfare Reform and a Balanced Budget – to those the President and his First Lady had little to do with, such as the peace in Northern Ireland. Strategically, the last thing Senator Clinton wants, however, is a careful refresher course in the Clinton Presidency – not the one marked by major political accomplishments, but the one marked by scandal: Whitewater, Travelgate, Vince Foster, Casa Grande, Ron Brown, Susan McDougall … and, Monica Lewinsky.

Yet that is exactly what Governor Eliot Spitzer’s now-public assignation with a high-priced prostitute will do. Spitzer’s downfall will remind Americans of that last high-level Democrat who misused his executive position to further his own “unconventional” sexual needs and desires. And, if Spitzer tries to make this out as a “personal problem” – which is what he called it in his initial press conference – the way that President Clinton tried to make Lewinsky and lying before a Grand Jury a “personal problem,” one that was “just about sex,” this will only sharpen the comparison and further damage Senator Clinton’s push to the presidency.

If nothing else, it will cause the press to raise questions that, by their very nature, will diminish ex-President Bill Clinton’s utility as Senator Clinton’s campaigner-in-Chief; instead of lauding his wife’s accomplishments and potential, he’ll be peppered with “ten-years-after” questions about his own scandal, and how that relates to Governor Spitzer’s scandal.

So, at least politically, the big loser from the Eliot Spitzer sex-tryst melt-down is … Senator Hillary Clinton and her presidential aspirations. She may yet survive this, as she’s survived so many other things in her tumultuous 30-plus year marriage-cum-political career – those who count her out have lost more bets than they’ve won – but clearly the last thing she needed in the run-up to the final, and critical, primaries in Mississippi, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and a dozen or so other states, was a reminder of the problems she faced as First Lady, and what that might portend for her own Presidency.

Remember, you heard it here first!

Candidates, Media Confuse “Telling the Truth” with “Going Negative”

Ned Barnett ©2008

In the 1948 Presidential campaign, President Harry Truman famously said:

“I never give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think its hell.”

Republicans can be excused, perhaps, for forgetting this subtle-but-important difference between telling the truth and going negative, but Democrats who cite Truman as their strongest post-war President and something of a cultural icon ought to know better – or remember better.

This failure to discern the difference between “telling the truth” and “going negative” is coming into sharp focus in this campaign, since both Senator Obama and Senator McCain have publicly and repeatedly eschewed “negative” campaigning – an approach which is high-minded, but often impractical. This is especially a problem right now for Senator Obama, who is up against – in Senator Clinton – a real Chicago street-fighter. The Clintons have always been reputed to “take no prisoners,” and so far in this campaign is concerned, she has lived up (or lived down) to that reputation, as has her husband and chief surrogate, former President Bill Clinton.

It used to be that “truth” was a defense in political campaigns – “negative” campaigning (also called “dirty” campaigning) was limited to spreading lies and unfounded innuendo about your opponents. This dichotomy changed in 1988, when Vice President George H.W. Bush’s campaign picked up on “an attack” made against former Governor Michael Dukakis by Tennessee Senator (and fellow Presidential Candidate) Al Gore during the primary season. This “attack,” of course, while mishandled by Senator Gore, led to the Republicans’ perhaps decisively effective “Willie Horton” ads. Willie Horton was a convicted Massachusetts murder who – after being let out on a “weekend furlough” by then-Governor Dukakis – went on a murder-and-rape rampage in Maryland.

The ad was indisputably true; however, because Horton was black and his victims were white, the politically correct media jumped all over the Bush campaign for “negative attack ads” that “played the race card,” totally ignoring the fact that the charge was first made in a debate by Senator Al Gore. Facts didn’t matter – this ad “proved” that Republicans were closet racists, and this view – not the facts of Dukakis’s perhaps faulty judgment in furloughing dangerous murderers – became a major media issue. Bush was damned for his racism, and his campaign advisor, Lee Atwater was particularly tarred as a virulent racist of the first order.

As a sidebar (and in the spirit of full disclosure), I knew Lee Atwater and worked with him – while he was South Carolina state Republican Party chairman – on the 1976 Ford campaign. While he was not afraid to play hardball, I am absolutely certain that he was no racist. I know false these charges hurt him personally and deeply.

However, since “Willie Horton,” truth has no longer been a defense. An ad or speech or statement that calls an opponent to account is called an “attack ad” or characterized as “going negative” – when in fact, it’s often just reporting the truth. For instance, comparison ads (we’ve seen many of these in this election cycle) are deemed attack ads, even if they honestly compare two candidates’ relative positions. Romney was justly famous for his comparison ads, and he was seen as going negative EVEN when the ads were objectively true. Candidates have been pressured by an underlying “political correctness” movement – primarily based around scrutiny from a media that’s constantly looking for yet one more controversy – and it’s gotten to the point that some candidates recoil from any comparative ads or even comparative statements by their supporters.

For instance, John McCain has spent a great deal of time distancing himself from his own supporters. Some of this, such as his repudiation of a warm-up-act talk show host who introduced him in Cincinnati by railing against Senator Obama (and daring to use his middle name, which has in this election cycle become “off-limits”), may be justified. However, when Senator McCain publicly scolded a supporter who cracked a joke at Hillary Clinton’s expense at a recent pro-McCain town hall meeting (“if the phone rang at 3 a.m. and Cindy McCain answered it, at least she’d know where her husband was”) is probably taking this “kid-gloves” treatment too far. Senator McCain – the only real warrior in the campaign – is actually coming across as too civilized to fight, which may hurt him as he tries to project himself as the best-qualified candidate to fight a war against terrorists.

All the candidates ought to remember what Harry Truman said, and what American politicians used to believe – “I never give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think its hell.” Truly negative campaigning is beneath the office of the President, and unworthy of real candidates for that office – but telling the truth about opponents and letting the voters make up their mind has always been as American as apple pie. If it was good enough for “Honest Abe” and “Give ‘em Hell Harry,” it ought to be good enough for today’s Democratic and Republican Presidential candidates.

Remember, you heard it here first!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Strategy Less Traveled (Updated) - What Senator McCain MUST DO To Engage "Teflon" Senator Obama

Ned Barnett (c) 2008
Updated 3/4/2008


The primary purpose of this blog is to analyze candidates' public tactics (their PR efforts) and derive from them their behind-the-scenes strategies ... then, when appropriate, to critique those strategies based on more than three decades of PR and political campaign experience.

However, this post is a bit different, and with a reason. It appears that, in spite of her "big win" on Super Tuesday II, Senator Hillary Clinton has still not evolved an effective strategy for taking on (or taking down) Senator Barack Obama - when Obama's team pulled a fast one in Cleveland, Hillary's hands were tied - as Brit Hume said, "if she objects, she's likely to raise objections in the black community" - shorthand for "she'll look racist" ... or "Senator Obama is "Teflon" - if it touches on race, you can't touch him.

Beyond that, based on Senator McCain's recent disavowal of a conservative talk show host's introduction in Cincinnati (and his rather lackluster campaign performance since he first became the presumptive nominee), it seems that Senator McCain hasn't evolved a decent (i.e., a "winning") strategy for dealing with Senator Obama, either. He's so intent on being "above" politics-as-usual that it seems he may be giving Senator Obama - or even Senator Clinton - a free pass.

While Senator Clinton had a re-creation of her campaign tonight - after her three-out-of-four wins on Super Tuesday she's "alive," probably all the way to the convention - Senator Obama is still in the lead, and at this moment he's the odds-on favorite to go head-to-head with Senator McCain in November. And, as we've seen in the last two weeks (as I write this on March 4th), Senator McCain has already begun challenging Senator Obama ... but with kid gloves.

If nothing else, as Cincinnati demonstrated, Senator McCain is once again apparently turning members of his Conservative base back off by seeming to coddle Senator Obama's delicate sensibilities about his name and heritage, as well as his political voting record. Senator Obama, the most liberal Senator in Congress, doesn't like being called a "Liberal" any more than Senator Barack Hussain Obama likes to be reminded that he's the son of a Muslim. So, instead of taking Obama on by addressing the real issues, he skates around the edge citing credentials and issues that have not - to date - ignited the interest of the American electorate.

However, Senator McCain has got eight months to change that.

So - instead of outlining Hillary's current strategy (even though she won on Super Tuesday II, she still doesn't know how to engage Senator Obama, and frankly, panic isn't much of a strategy), I'm going to suggest what she should have done (and could still conceivably do,, though I doubt she'll dare to be even this bold) - and more important, what Senator McCain SHOULD do if he wants to win while still running a civil campaign against his Teflon-coated opponent-to-be, Senator Obama.

Full Disclosure - I first presented this strategy option in an interview earlier this week - before the debate - with a political reporter from Gannett News Service.

The Problem

Senator Obama is black, and that makes criticizing him particularly dangerous, especially among likely voters in the "politically correct" Democratic Party primary. Democrats and their liberal media allies are, by nature and choice, more concerned with political correctness than are Republicans and their conservative media allies - yet all but a few of the most self-confident conservatives still recoil in stark terror from any charge of racism. To an extent, this makes Obama "untouchable" to both Senator Clinton and Senator McCain.

To date, Hillary hasn't been able to evolve a strategy that:

a. Matters to voters - and is also strong enough to move the Democratic Party majority away from Senator Obama; and,

b. Is politically correct enough to pass the rigid Democrat/Media PC-Sniff Test without inviting a charge of racism

Bill Clinton tried - in a remarkably clumsy fashion, considering his own adroitly-Teflon-coated reputation - to raise the race issue without raising the race issue - comparing Obama's success in South Carolina, for instance, with that of Jesse Jackson in '84. That approach blew up in his face, and Hillary's, and some say it might cost her the nomination. However, it's not his inept effort, but Hillary's lack of an acceptable and effective "take down" strategy that is really stalling her campaign.

The Strategy:

Instead of taking Senator Obama on, head-t0-head, with criticisms that might be taken as racist, petty or mean-spirited, Hillary should have (are you listening, Senator McCain?) been painting word pictures - then raising troubling issue-oriented questions - questions that either Senator Obama can try to answer, or questions that voters will answer for themselves.

By "painting a picture," I'm talking about laying out a series of seemingly disconnected facts and conjectures on an issue. For instance, Hillary might have said:

"The Democratic Party has always been seen as a friend of Israel - from the time when Harry Truman boldly recognized the fledgling state of Israel in 1948 all the way to Bill Clinton's bold attempts to broker a lasting peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. As a lifelong Democrat, I am proud of my own lifelong support for Israel - and while I recognize that Israel must co-exist with - and cooperate with - the Palestinians, this cooperation cannot come at the cost of Israel's security or long-term future as a bastion of democracy in the Middle East.

"With that in mind, I want you to consider the following mosaic - put together these pieces of seemingly disconnected facts, then decide for yourself what this picture says. Senator Obama is the member of a church led by a black-separatist minister who has published a twelve-point program of separatism - the "Black Values System" - that many commentators suggest includes a strong anti-Israeli bias. Senator Obama, though he didn't ask for it and has publicly repudiated it, has been strongly endorsed by notorious anti-Semite black separatist and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Senator Obama has a Muslim father and for a time attended a Muslim school - and while not all Muslims oppose Israel, some do, and some of that doctrinal anti-Semitism may have rubbed off on the young Barack Obama, long before he was old enough to form his own conclusions.

"Looking further, reports have also recently surfaced in the press that, while an Illinois State Senator, Senator Obama took a strong pro-Palestinian position. Beyond that, Senator Obama has repeatedly pledged to meet - without precondition - with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a notorious anti-Semite who is building nuclear weapons technology and who has pledged to destroy Israel.

"Each of these items, taken by themselves, appear to be trivial - but put together, this paints a potentially troubling picture that, especially if you support Israel as I do, suggests that a President Obama might well be no friend of Israel. But don't take my word for it - consider these facts carefully and dispassionately, then draw your own conclusions."

This same approach can be taken on many of Senator Obama's less voter-friendly positions, especially those that seem at odds with his public statements. For instance, taxes. In a debate - or in a speech, Senator Clinton could have said:

"Senator Obama, some call me a "tax-and-spend liberal," and while that's a right-wing knee-jerk reaction to progressive change, it is true that I intend to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans in order to fund essential new social programs. However, it appears - if you look at the programs you advocate and the tax increases you've publicly supported - that you have taken this virtue and stood it on its ear. For instance, you have called for (list half-a-dozen expensive new social programs Senator Obama has advocated). To pay for this you - and other, independent experts - suggest that America will have to shell out $4 Trillion Dollars in new spending. From where I sit, Senator Obama, the only way to raise that kind of new revenue is to tax not only the wealthiest Americans - as I propose - but to also heavily tax the middle class.

"Toward that end, you have suggested removing the cap on Social Security taxes, and you have proposed (list three or four other new tax initiatives that Senator Obama has endorsed). Now I ask you: while each of these tax initiatives, taken by themselves, appears trivial, especially to the hard-working middle class whom you claim to represent. However, put together, the image of these across-the-board tax increases paint a picture - especially if you support tax relief for the middle class as I do - that suggests that Senator Obama intends to implement a major tax increase for America's hard-working middle class to fund his grab-bag of social programs. But don't take my word for it - instead, I invite you to paint for yourself, and draw your own conclusions."

This "Socratic"-like approach, especially if handled in a low-key, friendly manner - instead of in a confrontational and argumentative manner - does not come across as harsh, disrespectful or inherently racist. Who can argue against a friendly invitation to consider all the facts on issues that will really matter to broad segments of the electorate?

This approach does not directly attack Senator Obama. What it does do is pull together, jigsaw-puzzle-like, facts about Senator Obama's positions and his public statements - then invites either the audience to draw their own conclusions or Senator Obama to explain away these troubling facts and inconsistencies between his public face and his private actions.

Senator Clinton failed to do this - she's instead sniped at petty issues of little importance to Ohio voters - and to date, she has failed to dent the rising tide of Obama-mania. Shortly, Senator McCain will face this same challenge. He's made it clear that he won't "go negative" - but if he wants to win, he's got to convince independent voters to look at Senator Obama in a more inclusive light than is visible by the light of the halo the media's surrounded him with - and in doing so, to help independents make their own decisions, based on facts carefully linked together to show the man and his positions.

Remember, you heard it here first.

A Cautionary Tale for Senator McCain - Super Tuesday II's Results in Texas, Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island

Ned Barnett (c) 2008

Earlier this evening, Senator McCain comfortably locked up the Republican nomination with decisive wins in four state primaries on "Super Tuesday II." Governor Huckabee was remarkably generous and gracious in his concession speech - he's been a class act from beginning to end, and a refreshing change from the low-ball game played by some other candidates - and it should be said that Senator McCain has also opted for the "high road" in most of his efforts.

However, even as he is busy accepting his well-earned congratulations from friends and former competitors, Senator McCain should see tonight's vote as a cautionary tale - one that he needs to address before the Republican Convention ... one he should address right away.

There was no question before Super Tuesday II that Senator McCain was going to be the Republican nominee. He was shy a few delegates, but with only the zero-funded Governor Huckabee continuing to offer a challenge, no rational observer expected anything other than Candidate McCain. Certainly, Governor Huckabee knew this. More important, Governor Huckabee's supporters knew this, too.

However, with most of the votes counted (as I write this), it's clear that more than one million Republican voters took the time - and, in Ohio and the Northeast, braved the elements - to come out and vote AGAINST McCain. This wasn't the Rush Limbaugh-inspired cross-over vote for Hillary (to keep the blood-soaked internecine civil war alive in the Democratic Party), but rather a spontaneous, grass-roots uprising against Senator McCain's positions on tax cuts, border security, illegal immigration and a double-handful of other issues in which Senator McCain differs from the Conservative base of the Republican Party.

While McCain has won handily, he initially rose to the top because the Conservative vote was split in several ways, while McCain's resurrection of the "Rockefeller Wing" of the Republican Party went unchallenged for the moderate Republican votes - and in addition, Senator McCain did best, early on (when it really mattered) when Democrats and Independents could vote in the Republican Party - and exit polling showed that many did. In effect, between those cross-over votes and their own split between four (then three, then two) Conservative candidates, the Republican Party base's own fragmentation allowed Senator McCain to become the Party candidate, without ever earning a majority in those critical early primaries.

In effect, he won by attracting the largest plurality in elections where no candidate attracted a majority - but he did so in elections where all the Conservative candidates, when taken together, DID win a majority of the votes. Like President Clinton in 1992, he became the "plurality" winner, rather than the "majority" winner. Still, he won. That's history.

But in the face of that ultimately decisive victory, Senator McCain saw - tonight - well over a million Republicans come out and vote against him, casting ballots based on principle rather than on any hope that their votes would carry the day. That remarkable outpouring of Conservative discontent MUST be a warning signal to Senator McCain ... and if he's as smart a candidate as his track record seems to demonstrate, he'd better listen long and hard to that warning signal.

Senator McCain - "the natives are restless" - the base that you MUST have in order to win in November has just given you a bold and committed vote of no-confidence. That's the bad news. The good news - you've got eight full months to change your tune and decisively prove to your base that you're worthy of their support, their passionate support - as well as their votes. You need their money. You need their volunteer door-to-door commitment. You need their passion - you need them to believe in you every bit as much as you believe in yourself.

You've got eight months to close that deal - but you'll be struggling to overcome 25 years of aisle-crossing baggage. You may find that you'll need every minute of those eight months, and if you're smarter than your campaign advisors, you'll start today.

Remember, you heard it here first.

Israel or Palestine - Where do Senator Obama's Loyalties Lie (updated 3/4/08)

Israel or Palestine – Where do Obama’s Loyalties Lie?

Ned Barnett © 2008

Updated 3/4/2008

Introduction: This is not (quite) a typical blog in the ongoing series, Barnett on PR and Politics – however, I was asked to write this by a friend who shares my political views and passions regarding Israel. Following Senator Obama’s triple-defeat earlier tonight, and following publication of the item covered in #7 below, issues of his support for issues dear to the hearts of Democratic voters will move to center stage, and none is more potentially volatile than that of his position on Israel. Here is what I come up with:


Ralph Nader – notoriously no friend of Israel – made some intriguing comments while talking to Tim Russert on Meet the Press on February 24th. His comments have raised the question of Obama’s stand on Israel, a stand he’s been careful to obscure since he began his run for the Presidency.

Nader said: “… on the Palestinian-Israeli issue, which is a real off the table issue for the candidates – so don't touch that, even though it's central to our security and to, to the situation in the Middle East. He (Obama) was pro-Palestinian when he was in Illinois before he ran for the state Senate, during he ran – during the state Senate.”

Going beyond Nader’s comments, there are some questions that every Democrat who supports Israel should be asking themselves about Senator Obama. Once they’ve satisfied themselves on the truth behind the facts of his life story, they should ask the Senator, in light of his life-experience and his public stances, where he stands on Israel. In doing so, they should expect detailed answers instead of being brushed off – accused of being racist or Islamophobic – and therefore not worthy of real answers. This fear-of-racism-charges shielded protected Senator Obama from his opponents during the primaries, but that same fear shouldn’t protect him from answering the questions of very real potential supporters, friends of Israel who have a legitimate “need-to-know” before they vote on the next President of the United States.

A fact that often gets obscured in the push-and-pull of American politics is this: The Democratic Party has always been seen as a friend of Israel, dating from the time when Harry Truman boldly recognized the fledgling state of Israel in 1948 all the way to Bill Clinton's nearly as bold attempts to broker a lasting peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. In addition, Democrats – as individuals – generally support Israel. Most recognize that Israel must co-exist with – and cooperate with – the Palestinians, but they know that this cooperation cannot come at the cost of Israel's security or long-term future as a bastion of democracy in the Middle East.

With that in mind, consider for yourself the following mosaic – put together these pieces of seemingly disconnected facts, then decide for yourself what this picture says about Senator Obama.

1. Senator Obama is the member of a church led by a black-separatist minister who has published a twelve-point program of separatism – the "Black Values System" – one that many commentators suggest includes a strong anti-Israeli bias. Does that – at least potentially – color Senator Obama’s personal and political views on Israel?

2. Senator Obama, though he didn't ask for it and has publicly repudiated it, has been strongly endorsed by notorious anti-Semite black separatist and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Something must have attracted Farrakhan to Obama, even if the attraction isn’t mutual. Does that “something” – at least potentially – color Senator Obama’s personal and political views on Israel?

3. Senator Obama has a Muslim father and, though he was registered as a Christian, for a time attended a Muslim madrassa school in Indonesia. And while it is true that not all Muslims oppose Israel and not all madrassas train anti-Israel extremists, at least some do, and it is possible that some of that doctrinal anti-Semitism may have rubbed off on the young Barack Obama, long before he was old enough to form his own conclusions. Does that early experience – at least potentially – color Senator Obama’s personal and political views on Israel?

4. Reports have also recently surfaced in the press – some based on Ralph Nader’s comments, but others based on original research – that, earlier in his career and while he was serving as an Illinois State Senator, Senator Obama took a strong pro-Palestinian position. How do these reports “square with” his more recent pro-forma statements made in support of Israel – and which of these views more accurately reflect the Senator’s personal and political views on Israel?

5. Senator Obama has repeatedly pledged to meet – without precondition – with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a notorious anti-Semite who is building nuclear weapons technology and who has pledged to destroy Israel. How does this “square with” Senator Obama’s more recent statements – made after he’d decided to run for President – in support of Israel? Is there an essential conflict here, or are the two views compatible?

6. Senator Obama has repeatedly pledged to very quickly pull all American troops out of Iraq, and reduce our “footprint” and “commitment” to peace in the middle east. How does this position “square with” Senator Obama’s stated support for Israel? In a region turned upside-down – in part because of American intervention in Iraq, along with its ongoing war against al Qaeda – how can America support Israel from 6,000 miles away? Perhaps there is a way – and if so, can Senator Obama articulate how that will work?

7. Senator Obama has received campaign contributions from a Chicago area college professor, who also served as the leader of the pro-PLO organization AAAN; he also served as head of the media wing of the PLO in Lebanon, at a time when the US government still designated the PLO a terrorist organization. The professor also had Senator Obama speak at several events. Related to this, the World Net Daily online news organization reported: The board of a nonprofit organization on which Senator Barack Obama served as a paid director serving alongside a confessed domestic terrorist, this organization granted funding to a controversial Arab group that mourns the establishment of Israel as a "catastrophe" and the group also supports intense immigration reform, including providing drivers licenses and education to illegal aliens.”

Each of these items, taken by themselves, may appear to be trivial – although the final news report, if validated, could prove to be a bombshell in the general election – but taken as individual items, perhaps they are trivial. However, when put together, these items seem to paint a potentially troubling picture that – especially if you support Israel – suggests that a President Obama might well be no friend of Israel. But consider these facts carefully and dispassionately, and look at his more recent positions taken after he knew he’d be running for President, then draw your own conclusions.

Remember, you heard it here first!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Same Strategy – Different Results?

Ned Barnett © 2008

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over …

And expecting different results."

– Benjamin Franklin

By Benjamin Franklin’s provocative definition, at the eleventh hour, Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategy has gone from merely not working to one that fits his definition of insane. This is not to say that Hillary Clinton is insane – focused, to be sure, but not insane. However, her strategy of doing the same thing and expecting different results is – if not actually insane – at least counterproductive.

She’s got a new ad on TV this weekend, a new ad with a very old message. I’m referring to her “3 a.m. phone-ringing” ad. If you think about the strategy behind that ad, then clearly, Hillary is once again claiming that she has the greater foreign policy experience and, therefore – if something, somewhere in the world, goes all to hell at 3 in the morning – she is clearly the most qualified person to lead the country. Specifically, this ad says:

To the sound of a ringing phone, the Clinton ad shows children sleeping at night and a mother checking on a child as an announcer says a phone is ringing in the White House and something has happened in the world.

"Your vote will decide who answers that call," the voice says. "Whether it's someone who already knows the world's leaders, knows the military – someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world."

It ends with an image of Clinton on the telephone as the announcer reprises the line, "It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep," and adds: “Who do you want answering the phone?"

Beyond the fact that Senator Obama was easily able to counter this ad, by focusing on judgment rather than experience, there are (at least) two things wrong with this ad.

First, and most obvious, under the criteria Senator Clinton has laid out, Republican Senator John McCain is far and away the most experienced candidate. After all, McCain has served in Congress uninterrupted since the Reagan administration, easily trumping Clinton’s 1.3 term tenure in the Senate. More important, perhaps, prior to his Congressional service, McCain had put in a long and successful (and character-validating) stint in the U.S. Navy. If foreign policy experience is indeed the primary criteria for Presidential leadership, then John McCain is clearly the most experienced, and therefore the most qualified, person to lead the country. Is that really what Hillary wanted to imply? Probably not – but this gaffe isn’t the worst strategic error to be found in this ad.

More directly important, ever since the primary campaign in Iowa, Hillary has been pounding the platform proclaiming her superior experience – and, therefore, her superior qualifications – to be the Democratic candidate for President. And ever since that primary campaign in Iowa, Democratic Party voters have repeatedly stated that they prefer a fresh face over an experienced candidate. And that choice hasn’t even been close. Overall, the relatively inexperienced Senator Barack Obama has attracted more than 1,000,000 MORE Democratic Party voters than has Senator Hillary Clinton – and, while she has effectively hammered him on experience, he’s nonetheless gone on to win (as I write this) 11 straight state primary elections.

Republicans clearly value foreign-policy experience. John McCain, who has arguably the most foreign policy experience of any Republican candidate this year, easily blew away Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, knocking them both of them out of contention early in the election cycle. However, the Democrats have chosen a different path. While Hillary has several more years in the Senate than Barack Obama, and while she lays claim to “experience” because of her ceremonial foreign policy role as First Lady, the Democrats have nonetheless gone for the fresh face and the appealing dual promises of hope and change. Foreign policy experience just doesn’t seem to matter – or, perhaps, it doesn’t seem to matter enough to change Obama supporters’ minds.

Sticking with that failed strategy when she’s right down to the make-or-break wire smacks of the kind of strategic insanity Ben Franklin was talking about. Instead of putting questions to Senator Obama that might give primary voters pause – instead of demonstrating his lack of experience, or his extremely Liberal stance on issues facing America … or even his no-show record of non-voting in the Senate, she has gone back to hammering him on experience.

Remember, you heard it here first!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

War … Good God, Y'all … What is it Good For?

Ned Barnett © 2008


This column - rather than looking at a particular political PR tactic and examining the strategy behind it - looks at the so-called "war" in Iraq, and examine what may be the real strategy behind America's continued presence in the Middle East.

Is it a "War" We're In, In Iraq?

First, before we answer that perennial rock-and-roll question, we have to ask, are we at war? We call it a war on terrorism, but we also refer to efforts to stop the massive import of illicit drugs into the US “the war on drugs” – and that’s clearly not a war (and not particularly effective, either).

Frankly, as a life-long military historian, I don't consider what we've got in Iraq or Afghanistan a "war" - or even much of a skirmish. More Americans in the same age cohorts as our uniformed and deployed soldiers die in domestic auto accidents each year than die in the Middle East. This suggests (oddly, but factually) that it's safer to be in uniform in the so-called “war zone” than it is to be out of uniform here in the US (and since I lost a military-aged son to a traffic accident you can be assured that I've checked those stats carefully).

What we have is an occupation, not a war – a damned expensive occupation, to be sure, but an occupation. It has more in common with our presence in Korea since 1953 than it does with any active combat America has seen since the period from 1781 (when we defeated the British at Yorktown) and 1783 (when the peace treaty was finally signed, sealed and delivered). Our Middle East presence today has a fair amount in common with the low-level of military activity that characterized the Pax Brittanica during the latter half of Queen Victoria’s reign - except we don’t have an empire and aren’t trying to create one. It’s an armed peace, rather than a real war.

Why Are We Still There?

However, we generally perceive it as a war, if only because such a high percentage of our uniformed military is on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. But there's one glaring fact that most Americans – and apparently most of the American media – don't seem to realize. Clearly, if they do appreciate it, they fail to embrace the implications of this glaring fact. In recent discussion with uniformed reserve unit commanders, I have confirmed that a numerical majority of our deployed forces are serving in this “war zone” in non-combat roles. They are fulfilling, primarily, "hearts-and-minds" kinds of activities, rather than tackling the combat roles most Americans assume they’re involved with.

As a personal note, I think this kind of civil affairs activities – rebuilding schools and bridges, digging wells, providing medical services, even training local police and militia forces – could all be accomplished more easily by hired civilians than by our uniformed soldiers. However, I don’t think this will happen. To be sure, such a transition would free our soldiers for military activities and dramatically reduce our military “footprint” in this part of the world. However, these civil affairs activities are carried out – and will continued to be carried out – by the military, in part because these civil affairs “hearts-and-minds” kinds of activities get budgeted out as "war" expenses. Which is nonsense, but it is nonetheless politically-expedient nonsense, embraced by both sides, so the charade will continue.

War opponents want to keeps soldiers performing civil affairs activities because the larger military presence this requires creates a larger target – they can cite the hundreds of thousands of soldiers and other uniformed personnel “in-country,” as well as the hundreds of billions of dollars required to keep them there, as reasons for opposing our continued presence. A small, economical military force made up solely of war-fighters would be a much smaller, much less significant target.

Why are We Really There?

On the other side, the pro-war leadership wants to keep the largest American footprint possible in Iraq and Afghanistan, even if the uniformed troopers are performing non-combat and even non-military functions. Why? Because their presence there provides for regional stability by keeping Syria’s President Bashar Al-Asad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from exercising their stated desire to destroy Israel. In the process, our armed forces in the Middle East prevent a nuclear exchange the world can ill-afford.

Sound far-fetched? Well, listen more closely. With Ahmadinejad busily crafting nukes – or at least developing the capability for quickly creating and deploying nukes – and with his frequent and public threats against Israel, our forces in the Middle East are the best single means of defense against a nuclear exchange. Ahmadinejad knows that if he uses nuclear weapons in an area where the US has deployed forces, he’s inviting a massive nuclear retaliation. That has always been the US policy when facing WMDs, and it’s not likely to change, regardless of who’s President.

If America dismantles our “buffer” presence and leaves the Middle East, and if Ahmadinejad gets strong enough, Israel – if it wants to continue to exist – will feel compelled to pull a 1967-like preemptive war or a 1981-style preemptive strike. Remember, it was on June 7, 1981 that Israeli warplanes struck at Saddam Hussain’s Osirak nuclear facility – preventing that dictator from creating nuclear weapons and sparing the world from a regional nuclear war in the 20th century.

At that time, Iraq had but a single nuclear facility and Israel had attack aircraft and conventional weapons with enough range and striking power to take that facility out. Today, Iran has more than 50 nuclear program-related sites, some buried below the level that any non-nuclear weapon can reach. If America abandons this region, all that Israel will have with which to take out Ahmadinejad’s nuclear capability are their own unacknowledged – but nonetheless real - nuclear weapons.

President Bush knows this, though of course – after his failure to turn up WMDs in Iraq – he’s not going to trumpet it publicly. Hillary Clinton knows this – when Bill was President they faced the same issue, though with Saddam Hussain instead of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and reacted by instituting periodic air attacks that kept Saddam destabilized and relatively impotent. Retired warrior John McCain has surely figured this out – it’s a latter-day example of nuclear brinksmanship that constituted our military strategy when he was in the service.

Barack Obama could be forgiven for not having made the connection – as a very junior Senator, he wouldn’t have access to the inside strategy, and as someone primarily focused on domestic politics, he may not have looked behind the curtain to see what the Wizard was really up to. However, as America gears up for its next election – with Iraq as a potentially decisive issue – all the candidates need to consider the regional and strategic “real reason” why are troops are there, nation-building in the Middle East and maintaining a “force in being” deterrent to a devastating regional nuclear war.

These candidates – as well as the media and the voting public – should keep in mind that, as expensive as is our current presence is in the Middle East, whatever the stated PR reasons for our presence, we are really there (or at least also there) to prevent the world’s first nuclear exchange since 1945. Considering Middle Eastern oil and its role in the world economy, this is one nuclear exchange that the world really can't afford – but (absent our presence) it is also one nuclear exchange that the world can't stop. We, alone, have the strength of arms and – at least for the present – the strength of will to remain in a buffer position in Iraq and Afghanistan, just as we have served for 55 years along the DMZ in Korea.

Here’s the bottom line: Whatever our stated intent, we prevent a real nuclear war between Iran and Israel just by being there.

Remember, you heard it here first.