This week three below-the-fold scandals threatened three politicians while Sen. Obama stayed "clean," in the good meaning of Sen. Biden's adjective of a year ago. Because Barack Houdini easily escaped the chains of Rev. Wright and because of "the math" after the North Carolina romp, it certainly looks like it's too late for Clinton to stop him- just like when the Phillies couldn't make up seven games with only 14 to play in the National League East race in 2007. Remember?
First came Vito Fossella, as of this writing a five-term congressman from Staten Island-Brooklyn. A good-looking, buff Republican with a reputation, said a colleague, of being "the Paris Hilton of Congressmen," he lived down to his reputation when, driving drunk, he made the mistake of spilling the beans to cops at 3 am where his mistress and previously unknown love-child were sleeping. If you're a public figure urging that the 10 Commandments be posted in public places, it's probably a good idea to live up to #7 about coveting other women. And "if you're going to be in the party of family values," said commentator Doug Muzzio, "you shouldn't have more than one."
Second was Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who appears likely to soon join Fossella in the ex-category. It was widely reported this week that a Long Island businessman, Morris Talansky, personally gave Olmert hundreds of thousands of dollars while he was mayor of Jerusalem and running against Ariel Sharon for leadership of the Likud Party. Olmert, suffering his fifth financial investigation in recent years, denied the money was a bribe but said that he'd quit his position if indicted.
(And if he leaves office, it appears likely that he'd be succeeded by a former Labor PM, Ehud Barak, which would delight tabloid headline writers when the likely leaders of the U.S. and Israel meet in 2009.)
Third, President Bush is refusing to reappoint the Republican chair of the Federal Elections Commission, David Mason, apparently because he previously indicated that Senator McCain may have violated the law by first saying that he'd participate in the public financing system in order to get a loan to salvage his campaign, and then getting out of the system. Bad enough that Bush says that he'll do whatever his generals ask of him in Iraq, while conveniently firing generals who don't agree with him. Here he's corruptly firing judges who don't agree with how his nominee is gaming the campaign money system. Since McCain's hypocrisy is as obvious as Fossella's -- admittedly less sexy but far more consequential -- let's see if the mainstream media lets their favored McCain off the hook when he violates the campaign finance system he brags about.
Which brings us to a politician this week who rose above his predicament - viz., a big loss in Pennsylvania, Rev. Wright's notorious pronouncements and his "bittergate" gaffe lead many observers to question Barack Obama's prospects. And these signs of weakness were occurring at the very moment that most pundits were kvelling at Hillary Clinton's newfound energy, confidence and luster as a candidate on the offensive in Indiana and North Carolina. Yet her balloon popped when he outperformed polls by 7 points in each state, allowing Obama to go from near-toast to toast of the town, as discussed by our 7 Days in America panel of Joe Klein, Arianna Huffington, Ron Reagan and me. (Listen to the show here.)
The near unanimous view was that "we know who the nominee's going to be," according to Tim Russert of NBC Tuesday night. Indeed her fault-lines and his trend-lines were impossible to deny. Clinton needs two-thirds of the remaining 460 or so elected and super delegates to be the nominee, just as the tide among supers is flowing entirely Obama's way - for example, he surpassed her in super-delegates this week, for the first time ever. It sure appears to be over.
Beyond the phenomenon of her base rallying whenever she's counted out and beyond her likely upcoming big wins in West Virginia and Kentucky, she's down to arguing, clumsily and racially, that she can more easily win white Reagan Democrats. There are plenty of answers to that: he can make up for lost white blue-collar votes by enlarging his young and black base (as Huffington argues); losing such Democrats to her doesn't mean that he'll lose them to McCain (as Reagan argues); it should be inconceivable for the party of Jefferson and FDR and Kennedy to snatch the nomination away from the first black man to have won the most pledged delegates (as nearly all talking heads argue).
Yet it's also inconceivable that a party wanting to avoid Bush III at all costs would nominate the weaker candidate by the math of the (alas, undemocratic) Electoral College. Can Clinton at this 11th hour convince remaining delegates that based on a poll of polls, she's winning the presidency, say, 330-230 electorally while Obama is only tying McCain 270-270? In fact, this week on RealClearPolitics, Clinton is running 8-10 points better against McCain in Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
What if that's true after all the primaries are concluded June 3? All pundits tell us that it's too late for such speculation, that he's reached the tipping point, that she can't get 67% of remaining delegates. And so far Obama's IQ, EQ and tone have risen to and surmounted every test. Hence a level of political unanimity that hasn't been seen since, well, since a Newsweek poll in the Fall of 1948 found that national commentators by 50-0 agreed that the math was impossible for Truman.
They call it political science, but it ain't science.
Excerpts for 7 Days in America, May 10th, with Joe Klein, Huffington, Green & Reagan
To listen to the whole show please go here.
KLEIN: Q: Why was the media so wrong before North Carolina and Indiana by writing that Clinton was climbing and connecting while Obama was faltering? "Well, I think that she overreached, in retrospect. I copped to having made a mistake privately in my own mind in the days before those two primaries because she did seem like she was on fire, and the gas tax holiday is the kind of issue that has worked before in general elections. But what I wasn't doing, and what many of us in the media weren't doing, was separating out the fact that this was a Democratic primary and Democrats tend to take policy pretty seriously. In this case it was clear that the gas tax holiday was a scam."
KLEIN: Q: Was it being factually honest or racially clumsy for Hillary Clinton to state that Obama was doing poorly with 'hard-working white voters'? "I think it's a mistake to say it, but I'll give her the right to make mistakes, especially at this point. I think the Clintons need grief counseling at this point more than anything else. When you're in a kind of state of shock and denial, you'll say foolish things although in this case it was a classic Michael Kinsley gaffe, meaning that she was just saying the truth."
KLEIN: Q: Any doubt the two Clintons wouldn't go all out to help Obama this fall, if he's the nominee? "No, I don't think there's any question at all. And in fact I think that the Democratic Party is going to be totally united."
HUFFINGTON: Q: Why does Clinton appear to be on the brink of defeat -- his strategically smart campaign or her campaign miscues? "I think it is a combination of the moment that is really favoring Barack more than Hillary in terms of the absolute extraordinary longing for real change. The outrage over the last, almost eight years has meant that people want to really close this chapter and move on, and Obama embodied that. On the Hillary Clinton side, I think Mark Penn miscalculated. I think the idea of running her as the inevitable candidate was simply faulty and in the end she could not recover from that."
GREEN: "Let me just say, this will probably be the last time a presidential campaign's key strategist will also hold another job. Mark Penn was simultaneously running a major public relations firm: he was on a book tour. Perhaps he wouldn't have made the mistakes attributed to him if the candidate had said, [as Bush did to Rove, 'I want to be your only client'."
REAGAN: Q: Is it legitimate to worry that Obama may not carry 'Reagan Democrats' this fall? "Just because someone doesn't vote for Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in a primary doesn't mean that they're not going to vote for him instead of John McCain. On the other hand, we all know that there are pockets of white voters in this country who simply are not going to vote for the black guy. Now what Obama has to do is convince them not to vote for McCain either."
HUFFINGTON: "There are obviously racists in this country, but Obama's appeal is to go beyond the traditional likely voters in an election. And if you think of it, we normally forget about the 50% of eligible voters who don't vote, and if he can appeal to 5%, 7%, a percentage of them, that's going to make up for any number of racists in America."
REAGAN: Q: Has this long primary contest helped or hurt the Democrats? "I think so far it has been a net gain for them. There have been some down moments, no doubt about that. But by and large it's energized the base of the Democratic party, it's brought new voters into the Democratic party, and there's just an excitement and a buzz around the, let's just say, the Obama candidacy that doesn't exist around McCain's candidacy."