My former alt-weekly colleague Todd Spivak has published a sharply critical piece on Barack Obama just in time for the Texas primary. The story appears in the Houston Press, where I worked with Spivak until 2006, as well as in its sister paper, the Dallas Observer. Both are circulated by Village Voice Media in cities that happen to be Obama strongholds. The story follows the admirable Houston Press tradition of pissing people off, but it's also getting ripped up in the blogosphere.
Spivak's piece is based on his years as a cub reporter in Illinois, where he covered Obama when he was still a political unknown. In 2004 Spivak published a favorable profile of Obama in the Illinois Times, but then he felt guilty about giving him a free pass (sound familiar?). He made some calls around the state legislature and found several lawmakers who were angry at Obama for taking credit for bills that they saw as their own. After Spivak ran with the 2004 story, Obama called to berate him. Wonkette sums up the whole thing in more detail here.
The problem with Spivak's piece is that it's somewhat short on context. A slice of the lengthy rebuttal in Daily Kos:
Finally when Spivak gathered all those nasty comments about Obama he was the dark horse in a three way race for the US Senate nomination, and most of the Illinois machine was working for his opponents (namely Dan Hynes son of long time Chicago alderman and self funding millionaire Hull). Nearly all of the folks named are now outspoken advocates and supporters (but they're still hacks).
Though Spivak brings up some woefully underreported dirt on Obama, he would have been better served to shore it up and drop the whole "Obama and Me" narrative. As it stands, the story is most revealing as a cautionary tale for a schizophrenic national media. Being taken in by Obama and then coming to one's senses, so to speak, isn't the best model for coverage. Better to be skeptical from the start, and that includes skepticism of Obama's critics.
Californians, and especially San Franciscans, have a knack for embracing politicians who are larger than life. We've elected Jerry Brown ("Governor Moonbeam"), veteran state Senator John Burton (the flamboyant foul-mouth), and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown ("Slick Willie"), to name a few. Now we've got the Governator in Sacramento and Gavin the Playboy in City Hall. And there are always mayoral also-rans such as Cindy Sheehan, the peace mom, and Josh Wolf, the jailed vlogger. These politicos are as much policy wonks as cultural figures who embody the fears, dreams and excesses of their times--a reflection of the fact that politics and culture are unusually conjoined in the Golden State.
Even in light of this history, voters should brace themselves for the upcoming election to replace the recently deceased Congressman Tom Lantos. It's a race that simultaneously evokes San Francisco's pre-hippie past, touches upon the rise and decay of the counterculture, and speaks to an uncertain future in which technology, political idealism, and ego form a volatile mix. It could be a wild ride. I'll explain after the jump.
Appearing on Hardball last night to support Barack Obama, Texas State Senator Kirk Watson couldn't name a single piece of Obama legislation. In one of the most painful minutes of live television in recent memory, Chris Matthews wouldn't let him off the hook:
Score one for the empty-hope meme.
The segment would have been more revealing, and fair, if Matthews had posed the same question to the Clinton supporter. Perhaps he was too afraid. Matthews, who is normally unfriendly to just about everyone, has nonetheless taken heavy flack for several particularly harsh attacks on Hillary, most notably last month on MSNBC's Morning Joe:
The reason she's a U.S. Senator, the reason she's a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front runner is her husband messed around. That's how she got to be senator from New York. We keep forgetting it. She didn't win on her merit.
On Morning Joe Matthews went on to describe Obama's January 9th New Hampshire concession speech as "the best speech I've ever heard" and confess to tearing up as he listened. So much for equal opportunity invective.
If Matthews singled out Watson last night to make up for being too nice to Obama (a common charge against the press by the Clinton campaign), he certainly succeeded.
This morning the shell-shocked Watson faced the world on his blog, in perhaps the only way he could: with humor.
"So. . .that really happened," he began.
He went on to list the Obama legislative accomplishments he'd forgotten. "Most of all," he concluded, "he has the record to prove that all of this is possible. It's something no one should forget."
The big surprise is not that Clinton won among women (59 percent to 34 percent) and Latinos (2 to 1). Those votes more or less met expectations. What few people had anticipated was the massive turnout among Latinos, who comprised 29 percent of the California Democratic electorate yesterday--nearly double what pollsters predicted.
As Simon Rosenberg and Peter Leyden pointed out in their recent Mother Jones feature, Latino voters embody one of two major demographic waves that will change the nation's politics. That they turned out in such huge numbers to support Clinton might indicate they actually really like her, as opposed only to preferring her over an African American or recognizing her name. Or maybe Latinos were politicized even more than anyone had thought by the immigration debate.
Obama has been riding the second major demographic trend--the rise of the Millennial Generation, or Gen Y, a huge, liberal-leaning echo-boom. Nationally, he captures a larger overall chunk of this vote. But last night in California, age was trumped by race. White voters under 30 broke for Obama 2 to 1 but Hispanic voters under 30 broke for Clinton by an even larger margin. And each group voted in equal numbers. Needless to say, if that trend persists across the West and in places like Texas, Obama is in trouble.
Obama's challenge is embodied by people like Eric Hernandez, who I profiled last week and hung out with again last night. Hernandez is 18-years old, Latino, and a hard-working Obama partisan. On Saturday he spent the day block-walking with a group of 15 young people in the large Hispanic neighborhoods of Northern California's Santa Clara County. But only about half of those volunteers spoke Spanish. That kind of outreach in a county of 500,000 Latinos is a drop in the bucket. Santa Clara ultimately went for Clinton 55/40. In the coming races Obama will need need to enlist many more Spanish-speaking volunteers if he still expects the grassroots to animate his campaign.
SAN JOSE, CA--The Obama war room here is packing up and shutting down. With 31 percent of ballots counted in Santa Clara County, Clinton leads Obama 57 to 35 percent. Assuming the spread holds (and it might not), this is a blow to the Obama campaign. This district was supposed to be competitive--a place where Obama might cut into Clinton's lead among Hispanics. To some extent, he has. A few weeks ago Clinton was winning Hispanic votes by a 3-to-1 margin; exit polls tonight show the gap narrowing to roughly 2 to 1. But they also show Latinos comprising 29 percent of the Democratic electorate--a whopping 50 percent increase since the primaries of 2006. This may well be the story of the night. With the results incomplete and the campaigns heading home, though, it's still hard to say. "If you give me a call tomorrow," Obama volunteer Peter Allen told me as he downed his last beer of the night, "I'll probably be able to give you a better and more sober assessment." And so it goes as well for the press.