James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Posts Tagged ‘foreign policy’

Vice presidential debate strategies for Biden and Palin

Posted by James McPherson on September 27, 2008

During the past week, Joe Biden managed to demonstrate that, whatever foreign policy credentials he may have, his apparent knowledge about radio, television and the Great Depression would cause him serious problems if he were in the mass media history class that I teach. 

On the other hand, Sarah Palin’s inability to answer even straightforward (and, one would presume, expected) questions, coupled with her apparent and unexpected insecurity, has even conservative columnist Kathleen Parker calling on her to step aside for the good of the Republican Party. The Democratic line from today that she is “a terrific debater” seems to me a clear attempt to counter the ankle-level expectations created by Palin herself.

So here’s my recommended debate strategy for both candidates: Try to let your opponent do most of the talking. On Thursday night the best defense may prove to be a look of stunned amazement while your opponent rambles on. Of course my strategy might be much tougher to follow for the loquacious Biden than for the not-ready-for-prime-time Palin (whom the GOP apparently wouldn’t even trust to speak after the presidential debate, while Biden has appeared seemingly everywhere):

Oh, and parents–You may want to keep your kids away from the TV during Thursday’s debate. Chances are they already lack much knowledge about either history or the electoral process; you don’t want them sliding further.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

Out-on-a-limb prediction: Obama will win handily

Posted by James McPherson on August 20, 2008

Is Barack Obama on the ropes? Tonight CNN is running back-to-back programs to “reveal” the candidates, and though I obviously don’t know the entire content of either portrayal, last night’s promos by the network focused heavily on the positive aspects of John McCain (war hero cheating death) and the more negative aspects of Barack Obama (hard-knuckled Chicago pol). The online materials also offer more  (and more positive) portrayals of McCain–perhaps no surprise, since, despite right-wing claims, coverage of Obama has been consistently more negative than that of Obama.

Another minor distraction for the Democrats comes from PUMAs who continue to gain some media attention by attacking Obama and saying they’ll vote for McCain, even though their supposed favored candidate will endorse Obama–again. (One perhaps-interesting side note: PUMA Web sites seem to be far more likely than even hardcore conservative or liberal sites to delete the comments of those who disagree with them, regardless of how polite the disagreement. I suppose that lets them keep things warm and fuzzy inside their bubble as they continue to persuade a few others to fund their merry adventures. My suggested name for the PUMA motorhome: Rocinante).

Now, to the glee of Obama opponents, Zogby reports that for the first time McCain is leading Obama in its national tracking poll. That comes on the heels of some other national tracking polls that indicated the race was getting closer. In short, the Democratic candidate seems to be in a downward slide.

So, which all those factors considered, this seems like a perfect time for me to predict that in November Obama will win the general election by the widest margin seen since at least Bill Clinton’s 379-159 victory over Bob Dole in 1996, and maybe since Ronald Reagan slaughtered Walter “I-won-my-home-state-of-Minnesota-and-the District-of Columbia” Mondale 525-13 in 1984.

At least no one can accuse me of jumping on a bandwagon. And lest you think my prediction is mere wishful thinking, let me explain.

Aside from the fact that Zogby disagrees with virtually every other poll (though others have tightened), and despite what Fox News would have you believe, national polls are meaningless in an environment in which key states, through the Electoral College, will determine the outcome. And even Zogby’s electoral map has Obama leading by a significant margin in electoral votes (273-146, with 119 “too close to call), though John Zogby puts it this way: “For the time being, Obama maintains the edge and has the strength of a majority of electoral votes. … But too many of these states are close and a sizable number are undecided or choosing a third party candidate. So there is a lot of fluidity.”

Ah, fluidity–so perhaps things really are falling apart for Obama? “For the first time since mid-May, Obama is now below the 270 electoral votes needed to win,” VoteFromAbroad.org reports today, while offering its own electoral map. “He is behind in almost all the swing states (Florida, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, and Nevada) and tied in Virginia. He is ahead in Iowa and New Mexico, but these are seem to be fairly solid for him and may not be seen as swing states any more.”

Well, yeah, but… If you look at the map, you’ll see that while Obama is short of the 270 electoral votes needed to win, he still leads 264-261, with a tie in the 13-vote state of Virginia. That’s razor-thin on its face, but look a bit closer and things look even better for Obama. The map breaks states down between strong, weak and “barely” Democratic or Republican states. If we go with just the strong states for each, Obama still only has a three-vote lead, 134-131.

Listed among the VoteFromAbroad “weak” states for Obama are New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Oregon, New Mexico and Iowa, all of which Zogby has more firmly in Obama’s camp. I would be surprised if McCain rebounds enough to win more than one of those. On the other hand, VoteFromAbroad lists only four states as weakly for McCain, and Zogby puts only two of those (West Virginia and Georgia) in McCain’s camp with Missouri and Indiana “too close to call.”

Even if McCain somehow manages to win all four of those and Michigan, Iowa and New Mexico (which I consider extremely unlikely), he gains a total of 66 more electoral votes, compared to 84 more for Obama. The generous-to-McCain running tally: Obama 218, McCain 197.

Turn now to the “barely” Democratic or Republican. VoteFromAbroad lists only New Hampshire and Minnesota (both of which Zogby now has Democratic) as barely for Obama, a total of 14 of “his” votes to lose. On the other hand, McCain’s “barely” numbers total 85, including Colorado (which Zogby has Obama leading) and the big states of Florida and Ohio. In short, of the very close states, with a total of 112 electoral votes, McCain has a lot more to lose–and even with the extremely generous running total above, would have to win 73 more, or almost two-thirds of what’s left.

Incidentally, the polls may have a misleading built-in advantage for McCain. Many surveys rely heavily on phone interviews, which tend to underrepresent college students and techno-savvy people who rely on cell phones and/or computer phone services instead of traditional landlines. Yet those people are the ones who seem to be among Obama’s most enthusiastic supporters. I would not be surprised in this election to see Obama’s numbers underrepresented by 5 percent or more in many polls.

Aside from the polls, which despite my lengthy discussion are fairly meaningless this early in the race, there are other reasons I believe Obama will win by a significant electoral margin. One is the news media. Having been called on their bias, perhaps they’ll start to look more critically at McCain. They’ll also lose interest in PUMAs within days of the Democratic Convention, though who knows what distractions the networks might find next.

Keep in mind that news organizations benefit from a tight battle, and you probably won’t hear any on-air pundits predict anything other than a close election. People watching television up until election day in 1996 probably thought Dole had a chance of winning, even though no close observers would have thought so.

McCain has benefitted in recent days from a flurry of negative campaigning, Russia’s invasion of Georgia, and the fact that Obama has been on vacation. But eventually McCain will have to say something about the economy–supposedly the top priority for voters this year. McCain has been spending more money than Obama during the past couple of weeks, but that will change about a week from now when Obama’s spending will increase dramatically just as McCain is forced to rely on far more limited federal funding. Obama also has been building operations in more states than McCain, putting more states in play. Ask Hillary Clinton if that organization matters.

McCain will keep hitting his supposed strong suit, international affairs, though at some point folks may begin to realize that foreign policy experience matters less when you’ve been wrong about most things and don’t seem to have learned from that experience. In fact, the Iraq War may help Obama. After all, Democrats swept into office two years ago largely because people were tired of the war. Though they may feel betrayed by Congress, they’re no less tired of the war today, and Obama has been a consistent opponent. Voters also are tired of Congressional corruption, and most of that (in recent months) has come from Republicans.

Wedge issues that have brought out large numbers of conservatives in recent presidential elections–especially abortion and gay marriage–will be on far fewer state ballots this year. Besides, it remains to be seen if McCain’s Saddleback Church appearance or his recent coziness with evangelicals has inspired conservatives. Many Republican voters may just stay home, especially since it seems clear that Democrats will gain even more seats in Congress. Someone who knows his or her favorite Congressional candidate is destined to lose may not bother to turn out for McCain.

The conventions and vice presidential choices to come in the next couple of weeks may make some difference, though probably not much (though if McCain chooses Joe Lieberman, that will signify some desperation). If VP choices matter, McCain might have more potential pitfalls, trying to choose someone who won’t offend abortion opponents or the women who make up much of the moderate middle.

So there you have it, my prediction that Obama will win fairly easily. Of course some unforseen October surprise could conceivable swing the election, or perhaps Obama’s masses will fail to show, but I doubt it. And if I’m wrong, you’ll be able to rub it in less than three months from now.

Posted in History, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments »

Barack-y road

Posted by James McPherson on July 19, 2008

Barack Obama visited Afghanistan today as part of a trip to the Middle East and Europe. His advisors and supporters hope the trip will boost his foreign policy credentials, while making him appear presidential.

The main benefit, as far as I can see, is that the trip will attract media attention throughout, continuing to make it difficult for McCain to draw significant airtime except through occasional gaffes. Obama’s trip might even tone down some of John McCain’s rhetoric about how Obama isn’t qualified to be a foreign leader because he hasn’t visited Iraq recently enough, or been to Afghanistan at all.

As Gail Collins points out, however, the trip is a rather silly political exercise, even if no more silly than some of George W. Bush’s recent travels and less bizarre than a heavily guarded and flak-jacketed John McCain strolling through a Baghdad marketplace and declaring that conditions in Iraq were improving (they have some since, but they weren’t then).

“Given the constraints under which he has to operate, the chance that he’ll see something enlightening seem to be lower than the chance of being shown something misleading,” Collins notes. “Really, anybody he needs to talk to would be happy to pick up a phone.”

In fact a phone call–or a couple of days watching taped editions of “Frontline World“–likely would be as useful as this trip in terms of gathering meaningful information. There’s a reason that universities encourage students to study abroad for a semester or year.

So what about GOP complaints that Obama hasn’t traveled enough? In fact Obama’s people might point out that his Middle East experience is somewhat broader than than that of … you guessed it … George W. Bush, “whose overseas experience was pretty much limited to trying to date Chinese women (unsuccessfully) during a visit to Beijing in 1975.” (New York Times)

Maybe they want to avoid such comparisons, since Bush’s foreign policy as president has turned out to be much worse than his attempts to attract Asian women. There doesn’t seem to be anyplace in the world that either Obama or McCain won’t likely do a much better job than Bush, whom much of the world now considers to be a war criminal. But neither of the candidates has particularly impressive foreign policy credentials, either. The key probably will be who they choose to help guide their foreign policy decisions (Joe Biden vs. Joe Lieberman?).

Having said that, the Iraqi leadership already agrees with at least part of Obama’s Iraq position over that of McCain or the president–as the White House itself accidentally told the media yesterday. No wonder no-timetable-ever-and-I-mean-it-even-if-Iraq wants-it-‘cuz-we-don’t-cut-and-run-or-look-weak-except-when-Clinton-was-president Bush said (also yesterday) that he had agreed to a “general time horizon” for troop withdrawals from Iraq.

Note that the announcement came on a Friday in an attempt to attract less attention. Expect McCain to agree soon, probably about the same time Obama is drawing rock-star crowds in Europe.

Posted in Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »