Despite being known for policy politics on one hand and urban transportation on the other, I consider myself a journalist. Therefore, I try to look at things to discern what the average American sees when watching political events. I do not pretend to be wholly objective. But I also do not permit my political philosophy to drive my impressions while observing.
So it was that I watched the 40th State of the Union Address. In years past I was the guest of some prominent journalists and sat in the House of Representatives Gallery to watch the event. More recently, the Bush White House has had an auditorium filled with folks to watch the speech on the big screen. This year I had to be content to watch the State of the Union on the large flat screen in my bedroom.
What I saw was interesting. First, I must say that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) created a much better atmosphere than I had expected. Except while talking about the Iraq War, Speaker Pelosi was quick to jump and applaud at every line she felt she could do so. Republicans have made her out to be an evil, vicious person. Perhaps she is but she did not come across that way when millions of Americans were observing her. One of the greatest problems we have in America is that most people are too busy to pay attention to issues. That is not at all true in Europe, where people will talk into the early morning discussing issues. I know. I have had the experience. If Americans paid attention to issues they would judge Speaker Pelosi by what she stands for. It may change but this time the new Speaker came across as utterly charming and not at all the nasty leftist her opponents have contended she is. The point is that if this does not change Republicans had better find a better target because I think the average American will think she is just fine. I am not saying she isn't a hard, hard leftist. I am saying that I don't believe the public will perceive her as such.
Then there is Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY). Polls already demonstrate that Americans view her as divisive and a very cold character. That image was re-enforced by her facial expression from time to time during the State of the Union Address. She looked like an old eighth-grade school principal who had failed to discipline some of her charges. She was sour. She looked nasty and I think she is going to have a hard time with that image as she seeks votes in Iowa, New Hampshire and a host of other states which are holding early primaries. Hillary was seated directly behind Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), who looked, by contrast, very pleasant. True, both of them sat in silence as Iraq was discussed. But that is the Democratic position now. Indeed a solid majority of Democrats supports cutting off funds for the troops. I'm not sure which way Hillary would vote. I am certain that Obama would vote to cut off funding. He is able to say he has been against the War from the beginning. Even though he has had only a bit more than two years in the Senate, he can demonstrate he has voted against the Iraqi War at every opportunity. If Hillary now would vote to cut off funds for the troops she would need to explain why she changed her mind. That is difficult to do in politics. And outside the Senate she has former Senator John Edwards (D-NC) saying he was wrong to have ever supported the War. That makes Hillary's task the more difficult.
In politics it often does not pay to be the front runner. Front runners have only one place to go - down. Whereas Obama or Edwards, reasonably close to Hillary in the latest Fox Poll, can look forward to going up if they gain traction.
The Democratic Party operatives love Hillary. She brings in loads of cash. She has her ever popular husband to rely upon for political advice. She has 100% name ID. In the end the rank and file who vote will be expressing whether they think she can win in November. In Iowa and New Hampshire retail politics prevail. Folks there think they are entitled to visit with all of the candidates, perhaps more than once. If voters in those Iowa Caucuses (from whence Jimmy Carter got his start) were to support their former Governor, Tom Vilsak, while it could be written off as a favorite son's prevailing, in reality it would be a major sign that voters there think she cannot prevail in November. Does anyone recall Howard P. Dean, III? He absolutely had momentum until Iowa stopped him dead in his tracks. If Hillary does not come out in first place in New Hampshire her campaign would be at an end.
That is unlikely to happen. First, because the media loves Hillary. While they are intrigued with Obama they think he is too inexperienced to win. Besides, Hillary if nominated would not campaign for the Black vote. She would get it anyway. The Hispanic vote is a different matter. George W. Bush got a higher percentage of Hispanics than any previous GOP candidate. Look to Hillary to pick New Mexico's Governor Bill Richardson. He would be the first Hispanic to have a real chance at the Vice Presidency. This man is tough, has run his state well, was Ambassador to the United Nations, has been in the Clinton Cabinet and served in Congress. In short, he has the experience Hillary lacks. Of course, if Hillary doesn't make it, I think of all of the Democratic candidates Richardson would have the best chance to be elected. And he would be the hardest for Republicans to make a case against. Again in his case image is more important than reality.
On the other hand, I was watching the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the non-binding resolution telling President Bush he should not go ahead with the "surge." All Senator Joseph P. Biden, Jr. (D-DE) did was talk and talk and talk. He interrupted his colleagues, including his fellow Democrats, every time they said anything worth hearing. Dana Milbank, THE WASHINGTON POST in-house columnist, chided Biden for his 3,000-word opening statement, in which he used "I" 88 times. Says Milbank, "For Biden, verbosity frequently tramples what otherwise might be profound points. Friends have urged him to put a sock in it, and he knows that his wordiness prevents him from being, as he has put it, 'the best Biden I can be.'"
Biden will go nowhere for the same reason that Senator John F. Kerry (D-MA) tearfully withdrew from the 2008 contest this past week. The Senate is a very difficult place from which to run for the Presidency. If you don't believe me ask Robert J. (Bob) Dole. You must take positions on hundreds of issues. In a debate an opponent can ask why you voted for a particular amendment (which was twelve years earlier) and you look stupid because you don't off-hand recall that amendment. That is why neither Biden nor Christopher J. Dodd (D-CT) nor any House Member is getting anywhere. For the past 48 years (since JFK was elected) we mostly have elected Governors. Reagan, George W. Bush, Carter, and Clinton were all governors. True we had two former Vice Presidents in the mix but they are really not a part of the Senate unless there is a tie vote and they break the tie. I think that has happened once since 2001.
All of this suggests that we are in for an interesting year. And we have yet to talk about the Republicans.