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Vote for the B-

Robert Scheer   |   November 5, 2012    5:30 AM ET

It's crunch time, and I want to be on record, just in case some still undecided independent voter cares what I think. And one might, since I did write a decidedly non-partisan book on the origins of the economic crisis entitled The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street while mugging Main Street. I have been a harsh critic of Barack Obama for continuing that bipartisan capitulation to Wall Street, but on this and every other matter of serious contention in this election, Romney is decidedly worse.

A vote for Obama in a swing state is a no-brainer because, on a host of issues, including immigration, women's rights, gay rights, health care, campaign finance, income inequality, tax breaks for the rich and the legitimacy of trade unions, there is a vast partisan difference that should not be ignored. It matters greatly who appoints an anticipated two justices to the Supreme Court, which is already dominated by right-wing ideologues.

In a state where a protest vote will not elect Romney, a vote for the Green Party's admirable Jill Stein, the consistent Libertarian Gary Johnson or the populist Rocky Anderson sends an appropriate but measured signal of contempt for the sorry state of our two-party system.

That disgust is warranted by the fact that this president has followed the broad ideological outlines of his predecessor on national security. Witness the continuing assault on due process that is the island prison of Guantanamo and the killing of innocent civilians through drone attacks, as well as the unwarranted Nixonian persecution of alleged whistleblowers Bradley Manning and Julian Assange.

But on all of that, Obama is the lesser evil compared to Romney, who has promised to increase military spending to fight a new Cold War that might, under his stewardship, turn hot against China, Russia, the forlorn Palestinians and anyone else with whom he can pick a fight. Romney is as dangerous as he is inexperienced in such matters. To compensate for his ignorance, he has turned to the same pack of neoconservative ideologues that lied us into Bush's invasion of Iraq.

On economic policy, Romney has attempted to smear Obama as some kind of big government socialist, although the former vulture capitalist would surely have wasted just as much money as Obama rescuing his friends on Wall Street. Neither candidate would stop the Federal Reserve from continuing to purchase toxic assets to save the banks from their own folly. The candidates split on a bailout of the auto industry, with Obama helping save some decent American jobs, and they disagree about how much the obscenely wealthy should pay in taxes, although sometimes Romney disagrees with himself on that score.

Obama sold out to Wall Street when he appointed Lawrence Summers, who had pocketed more than $8 million in bank and hedge fund fees while serving as a top Obama campaign adviser, to be his key White House expert on the economy. This was an egregious error vastly compounded when he appointed as his Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner, former head of the New York Fed and faithful ally of the Bush Administration in filling the lifeboats to capacity with bankers. However, Romney blasts Obama for not being solicitous enough in catering to Wall Street greed and defines the extremely minor reforms of Dodd-Frank as an attack on capitalism, when it is anything but.

As Gretchen Morgenson, the sharpest business journalist of our day, noted in a recent column in the New York Times:

Many Americans probably think the Dodd-Frank financial reform law will protect taxpayers from future bailouts. Wrong. In fact, Dodd-Frank actually widened the federal safety net for big institutions. Under that law, eight more giants were granted the right to tap the Federal Reserve for funding when the crisis hits.

But Romney finds objectionable even the slightest improvement in transparency and accountability in Dodd-Frank, including a much needed consumer protection agency championed by Elizabeth Warren. He absolves Wall Street and the Bush Administration that let greed run wild of any responsibility for the economic mess and, indeed, seeks to cut funding for programs that aid its victims.

Romney's talk of the deficit is specious. He would spend multiples of Obama's stimulus on the military, alone, while castigating the unemployed, disabled and impoverished to the hope of charity and warm weather. Consider the millions of Americans kept fed by Obama's hard-won extensions of unemployment benefits and food stamps during the worst lows of the recession. How would President Romney have handled such a crisis?

To employ the vernacular used in my day job teaching college students, I give Obama a generous B- grade for initiating a national health care plan that, while flawed, is a start, ending discrimination against gays in the military, easing the student loan crisis, signing equal pay legislation and appointing reasonable Supreme Court justices, among other achievements. Meanwhile, the rapacious capitalist-turned-candidate Romney -- poster boy of the 1 percent -- denigrates the less economically fortunate among us while growing filthy rich by slicing and dicing good American jobs out of existence and exploiting every tax loophole to aggrandize his own fortune. He earns a solid F and makes Obama look quite good in comparison.

Obama: 'I'm Sort Of A Prop In The Campaign'

Elyse Siegel   |   November 4, 2012   12:14 AM ET

In a speech to supporters in Virginia on Saturday night, President Barack Obama told the crowd, "I'm sort of a prop in the campaign."

"You know, I was backstage with David Plouffe, some of you guys know he's sort of a mastermind of campaign organization and we were talking about how as the campaign goes on, we become less relevant," the president said. "I'm sort of a prop in the campaign. He's just bothering a bunch of folks, calling, asking what's going on."

He continued, "You know, but the power is not with us anymore. The planning, everything we do, it doesn't matter because now it's all up to you. It's up to the volunteers. It's up to somebody knocking on a door. It's up to somebody making a phone call. It's up to somebody talking to their mom, or their dad, or their wife or their husband, or their grandma or grandpa, and that's how democracy is supposed to be. It's up to you. You've got the power."

Obama delivered his remarks after former president Bill Clinton delivered a fiery speech to introduce the president in the critical battleground. The AP reports:

Clinton, his voice hoarse from a flurry of campaign events, said he had given "my voice in the service of my president." The former president vouched for Obama's economic agenda, saying he had done a good job with a bad hand.

Obama, in his fourth rally of the day, sought to draw a connection between the flush economy Clinton presided over and his own policies for a second term, including increasing taxes on upper income earners.

The joint rally drew more than 24,000 people to an outdoor arena on a chilly November night. Obama and Clinton will campaign together again Sunday morning in New Hampshire.

The latest polls out on the presidential race show Obama holding a slim advantage over Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in key swing states, including Virginia.

JULIE PACE   |   November 3, 2012   11:23 PM ET

BRISTOW, Va. — With the White House race in its final days, President Barack Obama and Bill Clinton hit the campaign trail together Saturday night.

Clinton, his voice hoarse from a flurry of campaign events, said he had given "my voice in the service of my president." The former president vouched for Obama's economic agenda, saying he had done a good job with a bad hand.

Clinton Could Remain Secretary Of State Longer Than Expected

Elyse Siegel   |   October 25, 2012   10:20 AM ET

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Hillary Clinton indicated that she could remain President Barack Obama's secretary of state longer than expected.

"A lot of people have talked to me about staying," Clinton explained.

When asked if current events will force her departure date to slip, she said it was "unlikely," but for the first time left open that possibility for the short term.

Clinton has previously said that she plans to step down from her position in the Obama administration after the president's first term should he win reelection.

What the future holds for Clinton, however, remains to be seen.

Clinton reiterated in the interview that she does not plan to mount a bid for the White House in 2016. Despite previously having made the statement on her political future, it hasn't stopped speculation from swirling that she could run in the next election cycle.

Earlier this year, Clinton herself responded to the 2016 buzz during an appearance on MSNBC.

"It's very flattering, but, you know, I'm not at all planning to do that," she said. "I have no, you know, desire or intention."

Veep Debate: Ready to Rumble?

Chris Weigant   |   October 10, 2012    8:49 PM ET

With just four short weeks to go until the election, the 2012 race for the White House has tightened up considerably. Romney's performance in the first presidential debate has given him a solid boost, for now, and Obama is slipping in a number of very key states. Romney has still not "sealed the deal" by any stretch of the imagination, but then again, neither has Obama -- even though a week ago, that's where it looked like he was heading.

Barring an unforeseen "October Surprise" of some sort, we've got three big political events remaining. The vice-presidential debate happens tomorrow night, and there are still two presidential debates on the calendar. Days before the election, one more monthly unemployment number will be released, but the impact this will have may be minor, since history shows that the closer any political event is to voting day, the less impact it tends to have (for better or for worse).

Before tomorrow night, we'll be hearing a whole lot of "vice-presidential debates haven't ever mattered," mostly uttered by the same people who told us, a week ago, that "presidential debates rarely change anything." Since these nattering nabobs of negativism (to use a famous vice-presidential phrase) were wrong before, one has to at least consider that they may be wrong again. Tomorrow's debate may matter a great deal to the voters. The first presidential debate was watched by a jaw-dropping record number of viewers (upwards of 70 million), and it's all anyone's been talking about since in the political world (even the Big Bird stories were tied in to the debate). So perhaps quite a few folks will tune in tomorrow night as well, and perhaps Joe Biden and Paul Ryan may prove to move public opinion this time around.

Handicapping Biden and Ryan is almost impossible. Both men have solid records in one sense, and are on shaky ground in another. Starting with Ryan, he is a very good speaker in contentious question-and-answer settings. The proof of this is his many, many appearances on cable news shows before being named Mitt Romney's running mate. Ryan is always sure of himself, and always has a bevy of numbers to toss in the air. He's a fast-talker, too. Not in the pejorative sense (make your own mind up about that), but in the literal sense -- he speaks so quickly he can uncork a whole lot of ideas in a very short space of time. The quickness of his verbiage actually reaches the extremely high bar set by the fictional characters on the West Wing television show (who were always rushing through hallways, talking a mile a minute, it seemed). Crucially for Ryan, he has the ability of taking very complex concepts, seeing them through his own ideological lens, and presenting the result as the most eminently reasonable way of looking at things. Bill Clinton had the same magic touch.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, has had actual debating experience. He's good in debates in an entirely different way. He not only presents his facts, but does so with emotion -- a key ingredient missing from Obama's last debate. Joe also has plenty of real-world political experience both in foreign policy and in the ways of Washington. He's been around the block quite a few times, to put it another way. Also in his favor in debate settings, Biden has a wonderful way of pointing out when the other side is just flat-out being ridiculous. He even had to tone this down in the last debate he took part in, so as not to appear to be "beating up" on Sarah Palin too much. This time, he'll have no such restraint. Finally, Biden relates to his audience well, especially those further down the economic scale. Again, like Clinton, he has the shining ability to feel people's pain.

Both participants have negatives, too. Ryan has never been on a national debate stage, for instance. I would bet this isn't going to be much of an impediment, though, because of all that time he's spent on cable television practicing the modern debating style rather than the formal, traditional style. Look for Ryan to attempt to talk all over the moderator and over Biden, because that's what plays well on cable. It'll appear aggressive, and the only question is whether it'll appear too aggressive to viewers at home. Since almost nobody said Romney appeared too aggressive last week, Ryan will probably feel pretty unconstrained here. Ryan's other big drawback -- one that seems to be coming to light more often -- is that he is pretty short-tempered with people who disagree with him and question his pronouncements. Look for Biden to really try to get under Ryan's skin, in the hopes that Ryan will fly off the handle in some unguarded moment. The last big drawback Ryan's got is the handcuffs the Romney team has placed upon him. Paul Ryan has a few budget bills to his name, but he's only the number two guy on the ticket, and has had to squelch a lot of his own bright ideas because Romney won't fully back them. He's had to say things like "but that's my budget plan you're talking about, not Mitt Romney's," and this could be a big handicap tomorrow night. If Biden hammers Ryan on Ryan's own budget, Ryan will be reduced to using this line over and over again, which may come off as rather weak.

Joe Biden's negatives are... well, tune in to just about any late night comedy show to see. Sigh. Joe Biden has (like it or not) been cast as the comic relief in the Obama administration. Joe occasionally says things inelegantly, to put it nicely. To put it not-so-nicely, the entire punditary world will be on high "gaffe alert" tomorrow night, just salivating over the possibility that Biden will say something they can cut down to a five-second laugh line. Biden's other problem is that at times he can seem almost too emotional. He gets so caught up in being indignant that what he is actually talking about tends to get lost. Paul Ryan will doubtlessly be looking to exploit both of these perceived weaknesses tomorrow night. Biden can also slip into a slightly-annoying speaking trait, where he gets rather repetitive of certain words and phrases (notably, starting his answers with "Look..."). Now, I realize that me saying this of Biden is entering pot/kettle territory ( to speak... to put it another way... one might say... in other words... etc., etc.), but the real question is whether the voters tune such things out or not.

Tomorrow night's debate should prove to be a fascinating one. It may get downright brutal at times. Both Ryan and Biden are fully capable of going for the jugular, and the Obama team knows it is in a slump. Joe Biden has relished the traditional campaign role of "attack dog" so far this year, and Paul Ryan is equally capable of baring his teeth and getting in the fray as well. Both men will be trying mightily to provoke the other to the point of saying something they really shouldn't, which should certainly make for some interesting television. Biden is more experienced at this sort of thing, and he's got a lot of real world experience to draw upon, although there likely will be no opening for a "You're no Jack Kennedy" type of line for Biden to showcase Ryan's inexperience. Ryan's a lot better than Dan Quayle ever was, in other words.

Tomorrow will be an important night. In normal times, of course, "veep" debates aren't that big a deal. After last week's presidential debate -- and Romney's subsequent surge in the polls -- this time around the stakes are a lot higher than normal. Viewership may set a record (although likely not as high as the record set last Wednesday). Of course, this is how the media loves to frame these events, but this time it may actually be true. The media also loves underdogs, and at this point, the Obama/Biden team occupies this role.

The only thing I'd bet on in both the lead-up and aftermath of tomorrow night's debate is that the media focus will be on feistiness and snarkiness. Look for endless boxing ring metaphors to be deployed. The veep debate coverage will be downright pugilistic in nature this year:

"Who will be the creep and who will put us to sleep? Will Republicans sweep or will Democrats reap? Will one campaign be thrown on the trash heap? Tune in Thursday... Thursday... Thursday! It's the 2012 Battle For Veep! Let's get ready to RU-UMM-MMM-BLE!!!"


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Vive le Bill (Clinton)

Layla Demay   |   October 2, 2012    1:53 PM ET

Oh Mon Dieu. Bill, mon président!

While Bill Clinton was the uncontested winner of the Democratic National Convention and its aftermath, many thought, if only he could be president again.

Think no more: Bill Clinton, being the genius that he is, has found the solution.

And I support this message.

Bill Clinton can, and should be president of France!

Earlier this week, he explained to Piers Morgan on CNN that he could become president of France, because Arkansas where he was born, was once part of French Louisiana, and as such, Bill is eligible to receive French citizenship, the (almost) only requirement to run for higher office in France.

It is so thrilling to know that Bill wants to lead my country. Vive le Bill. Vive la France.

Unfortunately, while it used to be true, this whole Arkansas-Louisiana-France connection no longer works. But there are many other simple ways to gain French citizenship. So let me volunteer to marry Bill.

As spouse of a French citizen, he could immediately apply for citizenship. You might argue that the process would take a long time. No problem. The next French election is five years away anyway. By then, I can guarantee that under my training, Bill would be fluent in the French language (another requirement) and mores. French political lingo is full of English words anyway and impeachment and term limit are not among them.

Bill would have to own a home in France, which sounds only a sensible thing to own whether you are planning your retirement or launching your next political gig. He would not even have to renounce his U.S. citizenship.

As French president, he would know how to charm Angela Merkel into embracing a European stimulus package. He would (finally) pass healthcare reform. Who better than him to bring France onto the path of a three-trillion surplus? And trust me, the Socialist party is so much further to the left than he is, that no one would even think of calling him a Socialist! Sign me on!

The French have always liked Bill Clinton's personality, lifestyle and values. When he came under fire during his presidency, France felt outraged at this invasion of privacy.

But since he left the presidency, Bill Clinton has changed. Bill has cleaned up his act. No more excess. No more ravenous appetite. And the French don't like that.

We have traditions in France. We expect our politicians to be bon vivants. And Bill no longer is.

He used to eat burgers and steak and chicken enchiladas. According to CNN, "At one campaign stop in New Hampshire, he reportedly bought a dozen doughnuts and was working his way through the box until an aide stopped him."

Today, Bill is a vegan and France simply can't relate. As my friend Guillemette Faure, a French correspondent who covers French and American politics, noted, "You can't rule France if you don't eat dairy."

President Charles de Gaulle once said: "How can you be expected to govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?"

So Bill, let me tell you: If you want to be president of France, you'd have to eat them all!

"Is He One of Us?" The Only Real Issue in the Debates

Blake Fleetwood   |   October 1, 2012    4:48 PM ET

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful... They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are...
- "The Rich Boy" (1926), F. Scott Fitzgerald

Not all rich politicians fail the "Is He One of Us?" test. Nelson Rockefeller, John Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Teddy Roosevelt all convinced us that they had our interests at heart. But in the end, they had to become traitors to their class to prove it.

Mitt Romney is not made this way. He is a Republican. He thinks that we should all get rich, and as nice a notion as that is, it's magical thinking.

In the good old days, when political bosses picked candidates who had the best chance of winning, the central question they thought the voters would ask was:

Is He One of Us?

More and more, the 2012 presidential campaign has turned from a referendum on economic issues -- have Obama's policies worked? -- to a question of comparative trust.

It's not that we want candidates who are just like us, but we ask: Do they really know us? Will they take care of us? Will they fight for us?

Voters don't really care about other issues. Most issues are boring.

Voters have a "what's in it for me?" mindset.

Am I going to get a job? Am I going to keep my job? Will the stock market go up? Will my pensions hold up in the future? Can I afford medical care? Will my kids be able to get job? Who will protect my country best?

And the candidate who can convince voters that he cares, that he is one of them, is the one who will get their votes. The candidate who can tell voters a clear story of what they are going to get and how it's going to help them, is the one who will win.

Presidential candidates -- and all politicians -- are salesman. The number one rule of any car salesman? The customer is always right.

Does he really care about us? Will he take care of us?

Voters believe they can tell this by how candidates look and act under pressure. It all counts -- personal associations, beliefs, character, and statements at private fundraisers. Personal baggage tells a lot, even if it's trivial. Will Romney be able to seize the moment? Fifty million viewers will be watching and 200 million will hear about it from Jon Stewart and the rest of the media and social networks.

As Romney has stumbled from gaffe to gaffe, he seems to have, again and again, lost sight of the critical answers that he has to deliver to win.

One example is the choice of Paul Ryan, which has backfired with loyal senior citizens -- who were once the Republican's most reliable supporters -- and who are now deserting the party over fears of Medicare cutbacks and Social Security.

Another instance of Romney's tone deafness are his "inartful" comments about not caring about the 47 percent of Americans who get money from the government. Lots of people, it turns out.

Neither candidate is really a good debater. Despite Obama's vaunted oratory skill, in debates the president rambles and becomes professorial. Romney seems uncomfortable in his own skin and, when pressed, tends to rely on statistics to make his points. He needs to be more visceral. Think: "I feel your pain."

His staff has been prepping him with a series of zingers and one liners. But can he deliver them without being stiff and stilted?

Neither candidate is a good storyteller, as Bill Clinton was in his speech at the 2012 Democratic convention, when he enthusiastically articulated a better path forward.

In fact, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are elitists.

Obama surely cringes when he is reminded that in front of wealthy donors in 2008, he commented on the folks in Pennsylvania, who cling to guns and Bibles as "crutches" because they cannot cope with the global economy.

But Obama transcended that difficult question -- "Is he one of us?" -- with middle-class white voters. He brought back the auto industry and saved millions of jobs for middle-class workers. You don't bite the hand that feeds you.

Obama needs more fluency with the kind of sound bites that will resonate with ordinary voters. Overall, he has a good hand going into the first debate. Political pundits say he will try to run out the clock and take no risks, which was his strategy in the 2008 McCain debates. But the race may be too close for such complacent tactics. It's Obama's debate to lose, but he has to keep reminding himself to connect to people.

If the debates -- and the election -- turn into a referendum on Obama's handling of the economy, he will lose. If the question becomes which of the two candidates has the best answers for the future, Obama will win. Obama will tie our economic woes to the Republicans, and ask, "Why in the world should we give back control of the country to the very people who got us into this mess in the first place?"

Unless Romney makes a credible, detailed case as to why his policies would be different from those of President Bush, he is going to have an uphill struggle. It is not going to be enough to just attack Obama.

Romney has to play offense. His past debate performances against Ted Kennedy (1994), John McCain (2008), and at the Republican primaries (2012) have not been very sure-footed. He should try to goad Obama into such mean-spirited gaffes as "You're likable enough, Hillary," which Obama uttered in the 2008 primary debates.

In the past, Republicans have managed to win presidential elections by sticking an elitist, far-left image on Democratic candidates: Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, Al Gore and John Kerry all went down this way.

For the next six weeks, the Republicans are going to cram this elitist perception of Obama down the throats of the voters. They will try to "define" the Democratic nominee, just as they defined Kerry as an elitist windsurfing snob, instead of the war hero he was.

Of course, most Americans already know who they are going to vote for by start of the debates (and many will have already voted), but there still remains the possibility to reset the dynamic for the 6 percent who haven't really made up their minds.

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The Obama and Romney Debates Do Matter

Earl Ofari Hutchinson   |   September 28, 2012   10:16 AM ET

The conventional wisdom is that debates are virtually meaningless. Countless studies, surveys and polls have tracked presidential debates and their impact on voters over more than five decades. They looked at the gaffes, the routine ducks and dodges, the gestures, and the physical appearance of the candidates. The Nixon and Kennedy debate in 1960 showed a disheveled and nervous Nixon. In the 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford uttered the colossal gaffe, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." In the 1980 debate, Reagan zinged Carter with the classic question to the audience," "Ask yourself, 'Are you better off now than you were four years ago'?" In the 1988 debate with Bush Sr., Michael Dukakis horribly fumbled a question about the death penalty. In the 1992 debate against Clinton and Ross Perot, Bush Sr. repeatedly glanced at his watch. In the 2000 debate with George W. Bush, Al Gore sighed and rolled his eyes impatiently and exasperatedly.

Their fumbling performances barely nudged their poll numbers down. Though, in a close race the bump up for the debate winner can be huge. But it usually doesn't last. The proof of that is Democratic presidential contender John Kerry. He beat the pants off Bush II on the issue of foreign policy in their 2004 debate. Kerry got an instant poll bump-up. Yet Kerry still lost. The reason for the problematic importance of presidential debates is not hard to find. No matter how ineffectual, or just plain bad, a Republican presidential contender, the overwhelming majority of Republicans will still dutifully pull the lever for him. Likewise, no matter how ineffectual or just plain bad, a Democratic presidential contender is, the majority of Democrats will dutifully pull the lever for him. The hard balkanization of American voters along party lines was glaring apparent in 2008. Despite the endless warning that Obama might be done in by racism, namely that hordes of white Democrats would not vote for a black candidate, it never happened. Obama got more white votes than Gore or Kerry, and a crushing majority of the vote of white Democrats.

By the time of presidential debates most voters have already heard enough and seen enough of both candidates. They have long since made up their minds who they'll pick. They don't generally flip to the other side on a whim or based on something that they heard from the other candidate that suddenly touched a nerve.

It will be the same this time around. Obama and Romney are well prepped, rehearsed, and skilled, and won't stray from their talking points. Republicans will claim victory for Romney. Democrats will claim victory for Obama. It will be tantamount to an NFL game with a tie score after one overtime period. It goes down in the books as a tie. The Romney versus Obama debate will be the same.

Still, the debates do matter. More Americans will be watching the candidates at one time than at any other time during the campaign. They can't totally slip and slide for an hour or so around every thorny issue and talk in vague and sound bite generalities on the issues. They'll have to be at least marginally specific on how they'll deal with policy issues and problems. This will give some glimpse of what they're likely to say and do if they wind up in the Oval Office on these issues. Americans will also get a rare chance to see the candidates show a flash or two of emotion in answering the scripted questions. This in itself is the rarest or rarities in the age of the dumbing-down gossip, mayhem, sports, and celebrity chitchat that passes for news and information and is spoon-fed daily to American audiences.

The jousts that Obama and Romney will engage in and the barbs they will toss at with each other will tell much about which candidate is the niftiest and nimblest on their feet with a pointed response or rebuttal to an attack. Americans want presidents to be able to think on their feet and respond thoughtfully and swiftly to a crisis. They regard this as firm leadership. This instantly tags an administration as a resounding success or a dismal failure. Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton had the gift to respond or at least were perceived to respond effectively and quickly to demanding situations. Their administrations are given high marks by historians. Nixon, Carter, and Bush Sr. were seen as sorely lacking in that area and their administrations are downgraded accordingly.

Then there are the events and issues that define the candidate and that give them an edge with the public before the debates. Dukakis's death penalty answer and Ford's Soviet Union gaffe didn't sink either of them in their poll numbers after their debate. But it did reinforce the notion among Democrats and Republicans that their man was the best choice for the job. This gave them even more incentive to get to the polls to punch the ticket that they had already decided to punch for them.

Romney needs a big and impressive win in the debates to claw back into the race. But as the history of presidential debates show the chance is that whatever bump up he gets from that won't last. When the dust settles, the Obama and Romney debates will do little to change the minds of most voters. They will simply further convince Obama's backers that their guy is the right choice for the White House. They will do the same for Romney's backer. Their debate will still be great political theater, though.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.

JULIE PACE   |   September 28, 2012    8:14 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton will be back on the campaign trail on behalf of President Barack Obama.

Obama's campaign says the former president will hold an event in New Hampshire on Wednesday, the day of the first presidential debate. Obama and Republican Mitt Romney debate two more times in October.

  |   September 26, 2012    3:43 PM ET

UNITED NATIONS -- Former President Bill Clinton and other world leaders are announcing that prices for long-acting contraception will be halved for 27 million women in the developing world through a new partnership.

"This is a very big deal, and it will play itself out over and over again in the lives of citizens who will be safe, who will have healthier families and who will live longer lives," Clinton said at the U.N. Wednesday, flanked by the leaders of Norway and Nigeria.

Mr. President, You Are Abetting Murder in Honduras

Andy Thayer   |   September 25, 2012   10:39 AM ET

An Open Letter to Barack Obama

Dear President Obama:

Put simply, your support of the coup regime in Honduras is killing people. During a recent fact-finding tour of Honduras organized by the Chicago-based La Voz de los de Abajo, I was part of a delegation that spoke to dozens of people in several areas of the country who had lost friends, colleagues and loved ones due to the violence of Honduran government forces whom you support, and the private death squads associated with them.

The murder rate in Honduras now leads the world. Depending on how you count it, it is the second or third poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Over and over again, the stories we heard were very similar. The government doesn't respect its own laws, the judges are bought and sold by the few who can afford them, and all this is done to increase the power and wealth of that country's one percent. And your administration makes it worse by supporting this with guns and more guns.

Besides the many witnesses we interviewed, last Thursday afternoon we personally witnessed a small taste of what the Honduran people routinely endure.

While speaking with witnesses to a combined police/military/private security assault in the city of Tocoa on September 9th that killed an elderly man, Mr. Hector Navarro, we were threatened by five gunmen guarding property claimed by one Miguel Facusse, the country's wealthiest person and largest landowner. Nine of us on the La Voz delegation, plus Mr. Heriberto Aleman of The Permanent Human Rights Observatory of the Aguan, witnessed what followed.

Even though we were clearly not on the land claimed by Mr. Facusse, the masked gunmen threatened our lives. One guard said, "This is your last warning," and then fired a rifle at the ground in our direction from about 25 yards away. From that distance, most of us are visibly not Honduran citizens. I videotaped the incident and others took still photographs. The video and some of the still pictures of the incident are available at here and here.

Shortly after the incident, we visited the Tocoa police headquarters and made a report. There, one of the police officials who took the complaint was a Mr. Wilfredo Bautista, who is in charge of investigating murders in the Aguan Valley. He told three of our delegation, "even we [the police] can't go into that plantation; there [sic] are very bad people. We can't investigate because we can't go there; we might get killed."

There are three important take-aways from this incident:

1) Were not most of us visibly Anglo North Americans, chances are good that some of us would now be severely injured, if not dead. That most people in the country aren't privileged by our skin color goes a long way to explain why so many Hondurans are dying. The thugs we encountered may fear the repercussions of injuring or killing Americans, but clearly feel no threat of justice from their own government, and Mr. Bautista's statement simply confirms that.

2) It is absolutely unconscionable that your administration continues to spend a single dime on arms for the Honduran police and military. As Honduran military spending increased two and a half fold between 2005 and 2010, the murder rate in the country skyrocketed. During our visit there with local human rights experts, social justice activists and campesinos -- many who had lost loved ones to assassinations by the government and the wealthy -- they uniformly implored us to stop U.S. aid to the Honduran military and police.

When I asked an Afro-Honduran activist if she holds the United States partially responsible for the violence and other lawlessness by the Honduran government and its allies, she said "Yes, because the guns come from the United States. Honduras don't manufacture guns, we have machetes. Guns - they come from the United States." You must cut off all funding to the brutal government and its allies here immediately.


3) If you care about the violence against the Honduran people, then you also must take immediate action against Mr. Miguel Facusse and his hired thugs. Our delegation spoke with several people who have lost family members due to his associates' violence over the past three years.

He is by any definition a terrorist, and should be treated as such. Indeed, one of the cables exposed by Wikileaks indicates that former U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens has evidence that Facusse is a major narco trafficker. All U.S. bank accounts and properties of Mr. Facusse and his businesses should be frozen immediately. He should be banned from traveling to the United States.

I write this message as an open letter to you for a very simple reason. I am not so naïve as to think that you are ignorant as to what your policies do. As a former constitutional law scholar at the University of Chicago, your studied contempt for civil rights, as demonstrated by your full-court press to defend indefinite imprisonment with trial, is only exceeded by your contempt for the many lives lost as a result of your alliances with thugs like Mr. Facusse and the Honduran government.

Yours sincerely,

Andy Thayer
Chicago, IL


Andy Thayer is a Chicago-based anti-war activist and co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network, and is producing a short film about Honduran LGBT activists. An earlier article he wrote about the Honduran delegation can be found here. He can be reached at

Constructing Central America's Newest 'Death Squad Democracy'

Andy Thayer   |   September 20, 2012   12:44 PM ET

My first day in Honduras last week was also my first in a truly "Third World" country, though from what I've seen, portions of Russia and the Appalachians could give it a run for the money. Of the nine people on our delegation, I'm easily the least traveled in this part of the world, having never gone farther south than New Orleans. Plus I'm monolingual.

That said, I've done my best to read up before getting here, have had ready access to good translations, plus a surprising number of the campesinos are bilingual. Last night I spoke with a man who was part of a land occupation near Progresso. He looked to be in his seventies and had been deported a few years ago. A few days earlier we spoke with a man who was part of a land occupation, who had badly burned his foot while working in Florida. He told us that his boss told him he couldn't work anymore and then he was deported. One can't escape the impression that migrant workers are disposable people to the U.S., to be employed when young and healthy, then dumped back on impoverished countries when they're no longer useful.

Honduras is the third poorest country in the Western hemisphere. After Mexico, it is the largest source of migrants from Central America to the United States. Due to the frequent attacks on migrants, a road from Tegucigalpa to the Olancho in the north has been dubbed the "Highway of death." And then they have to traverse Guatemala and Mexico, where Central American migrants are particular marks for thieves, kidnappers and drug lords hoping to use them as mules, followed by the deadly desert crossing at the U.S. border. One of our delegation, Lois Martin, reported that thus far this year there have been close to 200 bodies found in the Tucson border patrol sector alone.

With all the death and violence facing them if they migrate north, one might wonder why people might choose to leave Honduras. The frequency that you see people here wearing clothing in the patriotic colors, blue and white, with little Honduran flags adorning them, rivals the displays at U.S. party conventions. In practically every conversation where the issue came up, people insisted that they don't want to leave, but often had no choice.

The violence at home has truly gone off the charts since the 2009 U.S.-supported coup. As many have noted, Honduras is now the murder capital of the world -- 86 per 100,000 people, a rate nearly five times Mexico's.

Some of the Honduran government's attempts to reign in the violence are laughable in their stupidity, and in this are reminiscent of Chicago's -- last summer, some aldermen proposed removing nets from basketball hoops as a remedy for the city's gang violence. In Honduras, to address a spate of murders by pairs of men riding motorcycles to bump off their targets, a few months ago the government passed a law banning pairs of men riding motorcycles. The response? The murders went co-ed, with male/female pairs doing the dirty work.

Of course, the "solution" treats a symptom and not any of the causes. Many of these are purely political murders, bumping off those who don't take kindly to their elected president being deported at gunpoint. Many more combine the social and the political, people who are struggling for land or workers' rights, victims of the rich who feel emboldened by the coup regime to use state power and the myriad of private armed guards to bump off people whom they find to be inconvenient.

And then there's the violence of passion and of dire poverty, encouraged by the extreme violence of the state. As contributor Laura Carlsen put it, "The impunity with which common criminals, powerful transnational interests, and elements of the state violate the most basic principles of society with government complicity or indifference derives from the fact that the government itself is erected on the violation of those principles. The crisis in human rights and violence -- as deep as it is -- is but a symptom of a greater evil. When the 2009 coup was allowed to conserve power and seal itself off from prosecution, it immediately undermined governance, rule of law, and the social compact. Honduras' constitutional crisis has now become a prolonged social and political crisis."

And we'd be remiss if we left the Honduran government's mentor out of this. As Mariam Herrera, an Afro-Honduran woman told me yesterday, "The politics of this country are shitty. The laws are shitty, and everybody violates them. Half the Congress violates the laws." Do you hold the United States responsible for part of that? "Yes, because the guns come from the United States. Honduras don't manufacture guns, we have machetes. Guns - they come from the United States."

Today we will attempt to visit the scene of a shooting of two campesinos by the employees of Miguel Facusse, the largest landowner and one of the wealthiest men in the Honduras. Herman Alejandro Maldonado was killed and Ivis Ortega was gravely wounded. They were working on the plantation (finca) of Panama, in the Aguan valley of northern Honduras. This brings the number of murdered compesinos in the Aguan Valley to 79 since the U.S.-supported coup in June 2009.

With the government and the rich deeply unpopular in most quarters and yet apparently committed to holding power regardless of human cost, all activists here fear that the violence will escalate in the run up to primary elections this November, and national elections in November 2013. If we are not going to complicit in this, it is essential that North American activists loudly demand that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton cease their "human rights" blather, and stop arming Honduras's death squad government.

NB An hour ago we learned that Ivis Ortega died of his wounds.


Andy Thayer is part of a Sept 6-16 solidarity delegation organized by La Voz de los de Abajo. He is producing a short film about Honduran LGBT activists. He can be reached at

To Walk It Back or Double Down, That is the Question.

Bill Santiago   |   September 20, 2012    9:48 AM ET

When politicians or other public figures get in hot water over something they said, they have a choice. Either they can walk it back or they can double down. I used to get confused about which was which. But I think I have a handle on it now.

Walking it back is a form of back pedaling in response to push back that behooves you to back down, although you really don't want to entirely take it back. Doubling down is a refusal to back down, whatever the backlash, even unto a smack down, in hopes that your critics will back off on the double.

Those are your only two options, apparently, when there's a surge of people getting their panties in a wad over your latest sound bite. At least that's the impression I get from the chatter blowing up today's punditsphere.

Presently, it's Mitt Romney's turn. After a trouncing in headlines such as the New York Daily News' "Mitt Hits the Fan," over his tacit dismissal of 47 percent of the electorate as freeloaders, he's making the damage control rounds. As we listen to what he has to say about what he said, let's remember that the visible squirming is typical when walking back or doubling down on secretly videotaped remarks.

If a comment backfires, generating public outcry, protest or ridicule, whoever made it may feel chastised enough to cede a little ground, but prefer to save as much face as possible. In which case, they can try taking the offending remark for a leisurely stroll, escorting it as discreetly as possible, sometimes on tippy toe, back in the direction from whence it came.

"Ryan Walks Back Exaggerated Marathon Time." "Obama Walks Back Claim That Economy is 'Doing Fine.'" "Mitt Romney Walks Back London Olympics Comment." "Bloomberg Walks Back Comment That Police Should Threaten Strike After Aurora." "Why Didn't Team Obama Walk Back Joe Biden's 'Back in Chains' Remark?" "Carney Starts Walking Back Claim That Anti-Islam Video Inspired Riots."

On the other hand, if the comment sparks outrage, but whoever made it isn't feeling particularly conciliatory (either out of conviction or stupidity), they can defiantly up the ante on the original statement, by issuing a full-throated: Yeah, I said it.

"Obama Doubles Down on 'You Didn't Build It.'" "Mitt Romney Doubles Down on His Decision to Politicize Diplomat Deaths." "White House Doubles Down: Obamacare Not a Tax." "Allen West Doubles Down on Obama's 'Crap Sandwhich.'" "Rush Limbaugh Doubles Down on 'Slut' Claim." "Trump Doubles Down on Birther Nonsense." "Clint Eastwood Doubles Down on Empty Chair."

Of course, no one ever actually announces, "Hey, on second thought, I am going to walk that back." Or, "You know what? I am going to double down, baby!" The media, abounding in able referees, decides whether you've walked or doubled, depending on how you deal with the commotion.

If you stand by what you said, or declare it even more emphatically, it's considered a double down. But if you downplay your remark, without making a retraction, admitting a mistake or God forbid apologizing, that's a textbook walk back. A full mea culpa, or unequivocal "my bad," could be considered an extreme walk back, but the whole idea of walking it back is to avoid walking back that far.

Yes, some will try to walk it back and double down simultaneously, admitting fault with the rhetoric but not the gist, or the details but not the plan, or the policy but not the spelling. And it's not unheard of for someone to only pretend to walk it back, when actually just doubling back to walk it forward on the down low.

Here's the really fun part. You don't only walk back comments when you get caught lying, or when private remarks about what you actually think get leaked. Nor do you only double down because you meant what you said, and or know the facts back you up.

It's perfectly common to walk back something that's absolutely true, or that you openly stated you believe and still do, if you nevertheless change your mind about having said it. "Cheney Walks Back Remark About Palin Pick Being 'A Mistake.'" And certainly you can double down on something that you know is totally bogus, if you're the type of person that doesn't let facts get in the way. "Palin Doubles Down on Paul Revere History Lesson."

Whether to double down or walk it back can be a tricky question. Obviously, you don't double down after saying that "legitimate rape" rarely causes pregnancy. But if you only walk it back to "forcible rape," you better keep on walking. In fact, if you're up for re-election, you might want to double down on walking it back.

Which, by the way, is much easier than walking it back after you've doubled down. Bill Clinton had an awful time walking it back after he doubled down on the claim that he "never had sex with that woman." So much so that he practically got walked back out of the White House.

Yet in his resurrection speech at the Democratic National Convention, he deftly exploited the current "walk it back," "double down" mania, doubling down on Obama by warning voters not to "double down on trickle down." The speech effectively walked back years of Clinton's previous Obama digs, if only to double down on Hillary's prospects in 2016.

Probably no one was more jealous of that masterful walk back than Rev. Jesse Jackson. Things have been a little testy between Jackson and Obama, ever since the reverend, not realizing his mic was live during a Fox News appearance, said that he would like to cut then Senator Obama's "nuts off."

Castration threats are nearly impossible to walk back. And for all the good his apology did, Jackson might as well have doubled down on his gonadular gaffe. That would take real balls (I know you saw that coming). But if you want to make history, sometimes you have to man up when circumstances double dog dare you to double down.

To be sure, history is rife with examples of its principle characters defending, downplaying or disavowing what they said. While my two new favorite buzz phrases are currently trending in our 24-7, news-spin-repeat cycles, they could have easily applied throughout the ages.

"Moses Doubles Down on 'Let My People Go.'" "Galileo Walks Back Claim That Earth Orbits Sun." "Marie Antoinette Doubles Down on 'Let Them Eat Cake.'" "Columbus Walks Back on Discovering 'India.'" "P.T. Barnum Doubles Down on 'Sucker Born Every Minute.'"

I like to keep that kind of historical perspective in mind. It helps me remember that it makes no difference what anybody says today. What really matters is whether they will walk it back or double down tomorrow.

Bill Santiago, resident comedian on CNN Saturday Mornings with Randi Kaye, has also appeared on Comedy Central and Showtime. He's written for The New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, and his latest one man show, "My Fellow Republicans," premieres Oct, 25, and 26 at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, CA. Checkout his new website here.

What Is Bill Clinton Like in Person?

Quora   |   September 18, 2012    8:37 PM ET

This question originally appeared on Quora.
By Mark Hughes, screenwriter and Forbes blogger

I met Clinton several times (about four, I think), first as a civilian before he was president and later while working on his first presidential campaign.

The best way I can describe him to you is this: When you are talking to him, you feel like he doesn't care about anything or anybody else around but you. He makes you feel like the most important person in the room, an assessment I've heard many people make about him and it's absolutely true. He seems utterly genuinely friendly and will remember you if he's ever met you before. I am critical of many things Clinton has done and said, but I have to admit that if I'm watching him speak I will find myself nodding and often even smiling and admiring him -- however much it frustrates me when it happens, haha!

Clinton will look you in the eye and make you feel like he's confiding in you without any bulls**t; he seems so confident in what he's saying without seeming smug or seeming to KNOW he's the smartest guy you've probably ever talked to. It's as if he's telling you something you already knew or felt somehow, but that you just didn't realize you knew it or felt it. You will feel like he really does understand you, and that you really understand him.

Clinton makes you believe him, and believe in him. Even his enemies in politics, like Newt Gingrich for example, would regularly find themselves taken in by him and persuaded. Because he made them feel special, he made them feel that he understood them and cared deeply about what they felt and wanted, and he made them feel that what he wanted and what they wanted were the same thing. This last aspect of his personality is the most amazing -- he can convince you to go along with what he wants, while making you feel it was really what you wanted all along.

I was twenty two years old during the first Clinton presidential campaign. I'd never thought a politician would ever seem to truly so strongly represent what I hoped for and believed in for this country. When he won on election night and came out to give his victory speech, I was there in real life in a huge crowd. Even with my pass, I couldn't get close to the area at the front of the stage, so huge was the crowd of supporters. When he ended his speech and that damn song started to play for the millionth time, I felt more alive and hopeful than I'd ever felt about this country before or probably since, I had tears in my eyes, and a man in front of me turned and high-fived me, which turned into us grasping hands together and pumping them in joy and victory (this moment is in fact caught on camera at the end of the documentary film The War Room, which I find extremely cool). And those feelings were just from seeing him on TV or reading his speeches -- my feelings came from having met the man, previously when he wasn't running for president, and I just like him and felt he was amazingly friendly and charismatic, and later when he was a candidate who looked me and many others in the eye and told us he was running for all of us, and that his victory would be all of us winning.

What Bill Clinton is like is, when he says that to you, you believe it in your heart. It took years for me to become jaded and disappointed by many things about him, and to eventually quit the Democratic Party. But the power of his personality, of his intellect, and of his strong desire to be liked and to relate to other people is undeniable. Whatever policy concerns and anger I had about him regarding certain issues, to this day if he's speaking about issues or at an event etc, he has that same ability to make me smile and nod as he's talking, and I still feel that desire to believe in him, however frustrating it might be.

I should probably be very honest here and admit that however much I talk about complaints regarding Clinton and disappointment etc, I've also come to realize as I've gotten older and seen more in politics, that he was probably the best and most qualified president we've had in the second half of the twentieth Century, and whatever misgivings I have -- and I do have many -- I'd likely vote for him if he could run for office again, because of his ability to manage a nation better than any of the other options out there who have any remote chance of taking office. He is the most capable person to be president, particularly as conditions in this country continue to decline for so many people.

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