Mourning In America

A New York Democrat on politics, journalism, and the Mets

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Thursday, September 30, 2004
We Have a Credible Alternative As I expected, Kerry did well in the debate tonight. He was aggressive -- consistently the first to bring up major issues, from Israel to North Korea, and firing off several good sound bites. Bush overall sounded defensive, and occasionally whiny. How many times did he say "it's hard work?" (including the memorable reference to a soldier's widow: "It's hard work to love her as hard as I could.").

Bush's closing statement was good -- as good as any of his well-received Oval Office speeches leading up to the war. It's just remarkable he wasn't more prepared for the rest of the interplay. Is it possible that because he doesn't read the papers, he really wasn't aware of the attack lines Kerry would launch?

Is Bush as isolated from the American people as his father was in 1992? George H.W. Bush clearly resented the fact that he had to prove himself in a re-election -- he was a righteous man who did his best. How dare he be challenged? I think Bush's performance, and his clear exasperation at Kerry, betrayed a similar attitude.

Kerry's best lines:

You can be certain and be wrong.

The test isn't are you spending more, it's are you getting the job done. We didn't need that tax cut, America needed to be safe.

And my personal favorite, on General Shinseki's statement that we'd need 700,000 troops to do the job in Iraq:
Instead of listening to him, they retired him.

Bush's continual retreat to the charge of Kerry's inconsistency made it sound like he had no agenda for the next term (Mort Kondracke said on Fox after the debate that "it was like Bush ran out of material 2/3 of the way through), and set another good Kerry line up perfectly: "The president's plan is four words: More of the same."

Hanging Curves Kerry scored several points, but there were plenty more unchallenged Bush lines he could have hit harder.

On the idea that the "6-party talks will fall apart:" Well, what have they gotten us so far?

"We've got a plan in place ... elections will be held in January" Well, yes, but what will that achieve? You had a plan in place to transfer sovereignty back in June. You did it, but the violence keeps getting worse. Why should we trust that your plan will work this time?

"Of course I know that Osama Bin Laden attacked us. I knew that." Good. Glad to hear it. Why didn't you do something about it?

There was also a classic Bushism: "That's why they're fighting us so vociferously."

Finally, what can you say about this Kerry line: "It's not what the American people thought they were voting for." Well, no -- a majority of them voted for Al Gore!

Equal Time! Because I can't help but be fair and balanced, let me offer a counter-view: The only interpretation I can come up with to say that Bush achieved his goals: If you believe the Bush campaign's contention that this election will be won in "the base" -- that is, that there are very few undecideds to be won, and the key is to mobilize those already committed to you, then Bush may have been effective.

He was relentless in hammering home the "you can't lead the war on terror if you're inconsistent" theme, although he didn't catch Kerry red-handed tonight. He also capitalized on the one major Kerry slip -- the "global test" line. If you, like many Republican voters I've met in recent weeks, already believe that Kerry can't be trusted to win the war, then Bush's performance may have filled you with righteousness and inspired you to turn out on Nov. 2.

But personally, I don't buy the idea that that audience will decide this election. I think Bush's strength to this point is more about people not being convinced that Kerry could be presidential. The debate was the first opportunity for him to appear with Bush, and he proved he could go toe-to-toe. He became credible tonight, and I think he's going to get a nice reaction in the polls.

Style Points After all of the NY Post's talk about Kerry's tan, Bush seemed darker! But the real style issue was in the split-screen. Because Kerry is taller, he filled the screen better, and by comparison, Bush seemed even smaller. As Brit Hume said on Fox News a few moments ago, "we got more podium, and less Bush."

Thank You Sir, May I Have Another Spin? In a column entitled "Beware the Spin Doctors," Newsweek's Howard Fineman proceeds to parrot one -- lo and behold, it ain't a Democrat!

The subject of Fineman's piece is former Reagan administration official Ken Duberstein. Fineman starts by explaining the root of Duberstein's spinning success:

I flew down here with one of the most successful ever: a Republican Washingtonian named Ken Duberstein. Why is he so good? For one, he's not a hack. He had a classy job: White House Chief of Staff in the last Reagan years. Second, he's a nice guy, slow to anger, eager to praise, and deeply, truly knowledgeable. He returns phone calls promptly. When he does, he doesn't make you feel stupid. He treats reporters like colleagues.

Note to Self: When trying to spin Fineman don't make him feel stupid. (That's why I refrained from calling him a Hack in the title of this post).

Fineman repays Duberstein by quoting his defense of the Bush administration for two paragraphs. He seeks no Democratic rebuttal, and applies little in the way of journalistic skepticism to the arguments (Note: The first paragraph isn't too objectionable, but the second represents unchallenged fantasy):

"They" — the Bush-Cheney campaign — asked him to come down and do some media room spinning. So he was trying out his pre-debate talking points on me as we flew to Miami. He gains credibility by conceding a few points. This is a "leadership election," which favors Strongbow Bush even if all his policies aren't popular. Kerry should actually be way ahead, but is not because he has run a nothingburger of a campaign that has no message. The Kerry campaign has been so inept that Bush and Karl Rove haven't even had to dwell on Kerry's Senate record. And, by the way, no one liked Kerry in the Senate. So "Duperdog," as Powell called him a year ago, was essentially saying that Bush could have been had — but certainly not by Kerry.

My response was: Yeah, but despite the pounding and the crappy campaign, Kerry still isn't out of it because Iraq gets worse by the minute and voters may still want to fire Bush for having taken us there in the first place. Duberstein smoothly kicked into a higher gear in response. The worse things get in Iraq, he said, the better it is for Bush, because it means that his "strong" leadership is all that much more important in a crisis — which Iraq certainly is. Now that's a super surrogate.

Jeez, a reporter praising the skills of the person who just spun him is only slightly more pitiful to watch than Pedro calling the Yankees his "daddy."

Wednesday, September 29, 2004
Will This Blog's Name Survive? Part II In contrast to what appears to be the prevailing feeling among most Democrats, I remain quite confident that John Kerry will be elected President this Fall. Obviously, he has to do well in the debates, starting tonight, but I think he will. Lord knows that the Bush record of failure gives him plenty to talk about.

There are two comparisons I'm keeping in mind -- the first is John Judis' evocation of the 1980 Carter-Reagan campaign, when Carter spent his time attacking Reagan as too irresponsible to be President. It wasn't until their first and only debate (on Oct. 27th) that Reagan took a lead. I think Kerry could reap a similar upside after tonight.

The second is Paul Begala's evocation of the 1993 Florio-Whitman race for NJ Governor. Begala, who worked for Florio, told Imus this Spring that they faced a similar situation: A well-known incumbent whose approval ratings hovered at 49%, rarely if ever crossing into majority territory. So Begala and James Carville responded by attacking Whitman. Florio held a lead in most polls right up to Election Day, but never topped 50% support. In the end, any undecided voters opted for change, rather than more of the same, and he lost, 51-49%. I think most undecided Americans will make the same choice in the end.

What I Want to Hear From Kerry Tonight The debate will be an unmitigated success for Kerry if he can use it to launch a new characterization of Bush into the public consciousness -- a concise, pithy way of evoking his weaknesses (the way the Bush administration has, inaccurately but effectively, focused on the idea of Kerry as a flip-flopper).

Mark Kleiman thinks the term should be something like: "wishful thinker." Personally, I like the idea of establishing Bush as someone who "just doesn't listen."

Tactically, the "he's not listening" idea (which, incidentally, I've been nursing for months) can be launched subtly -- and appear spontaneous. At some point during the debate, we should expect Bush to mischaracterize a Kerry position. He's been doing it on the stump frequently, especially on health care and the $87 billion appropriation for Iraq. When he does, Kerry should stop him and say something like:

"No, that's not my position. You're not listening, and that's becoming a real problem for you and the nation, Mr. President. You didn't listen when Larry Lindsey told you it would cost $200 billion to fight the Iraq War. He was right, but you fired him. You didn't listen when Gen. Shinseki told you it would take 300,000 troops to fight the Iraq War. He was right, but you fired him. When I'm in the Oval Office, the President is going to listen to the experts, and we're going to do the right thing -- we're going to level with the American people about the cost of defending this nation from terror, and we're not going to put our troops in harm's way unless we can give them the support they need to win."

Combine this theme with the press's increasing desire to call Bush out for his misstatements (an AP article last week carried the headline "Bush Twists Kerry's Words on Iraq), and I think we'll be able to paint a powerful image in the minds of the electorate for this Fall. By and large, people don't hate Bush personally, and won't. Kerry's challenge is to be sympathetic while slamming the door -- I know he means well, but he's just not getting it right. The head-shaking, slightly disappointed "there he goes again" has been done, but that's the spirit I'll be looking for.

Will This Blog's Name Survive? Part I Fantastic, fantastic news this morning that the Mets have reached a deal to install Omar Minaya as their head of baseball operations. Finally, some sign that the Mourning could come to an end someday soon.

Minaya was the assistant general manager and very well-regarded talent scout (he signed Sammy Sosa!) who helped build the Mets into the National League champions in 2000 (I know -- it seems much longer). Minaya had held the position once before -- on a temporary basis in 1998, when then-General Manager Steve Phillips was suspended amidst sexual-harassment allegations -- and should have been the team's pick last winter.

The fact that Minaya was not installed as the GM when Phillips was first suspended has long been a bone of contention between me and the Wilpon family, which owns the Mets (admittedly, this will probably come as news to the Wilpons, who are probably blissfully unaware of my existence).

At the time, the book on Minaya was that he lacked the "administrative skills" necessary for the job. Regrettably, Mets history is littered with GMs who possessed fantastic administrative skills (think Al Harazin. Who, you say? I rest my case). An eye for talent is far more valuable.

Minaya proved himself by going to the Expos immediately after they were purchased by Major League Baseball (and immediately after their entire staff, from the coaches and manager to the trainers and scouts, quit to follow the 'Spos' former owner to Florida, where he bought the Marlins). Minaya built a new organization from scratch, and kept it competitive last year, and entertaining for much of this year. I guess his administrative skills were OK after all.

In truth, I've long feared that the "administrative skills" line was a code word for anti-Hispanic bias -- a less-blatant slur than when former Dodgers executive Al Campanis said blacks lack "the necessities" to be managers or executives -- but powerful and demeaning nonetheless.

At the end of the day, it's Minaya's call to make, and he clearly felt comfortable returning to the Mets, an organization he knows well, so maybe I'm reading too much into it.

Steady, Lad Before you all make plans to join me to watch the Mets in the 2005 World Series, I do need to offer the caveat that Minaya is wading into a tough situation. Jim Duquette, who served as GM for the Mets this year, isn't going anywhere (at least as of now -- there's some talk he could end up replacing Minaya with the Expos). And the team's power structure seems diluted at best, and at worst fixed to give the owner's son, Jeff Wilpon, the ability to play executives off one another and make decisions himself, despite his apparent lack of aptitude.

Read The New York Times' description of the team's management structure and try to figure out how it works:

Jim Duquette, who took over as the Mets' full-time general manager last October, is expected to remain with the organization, but will work under Minaya. Minaya and Duquette will report to the Mets' principal owner, Fred Wilpon, and to the team's senior executive vice present, Jeff Wilpon.
So, Duquette will "work under" Minaya, but they'll both report to the owner and the owner's kid?!?! Jeez -- there are more inconsistencies there than in ... the President's justification for the Iraq War (you thought I was going to go for the easy John Kerry joke, didn't you?).

In addition to the structural nightmare, there's the little issue that the current Mets roster isn't that good, and three key pillars -- pitchers Al Leiter and Tom Glavine and Mike Piazza -- are aging fast. Meanwhile, in the moves that sealed his fate, Duquette in July traded away the organization's future -- including pitching prospect Scott Kazmir, who has played well for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays since being called up to the Major Leagues earlier this year, and who was described in Newsday yesterday as looking like the second coming of Dwight Gooden -- for two middle-aged pitchers, one of whom (Kris Benson) is about to become a free agent and could walk away. The other (Victor Zambrano) is injured (and may have been damaged goods at the time of the trade), and said this week that he thinks his elbow trouble could be a chronic problem.

But enough with the caveats. Minaya was a good hire, and if the Mets follow Dave Anderson's advice and let him do his job, improvements will follow. We may all be singing "Happy Days Are Here Again" out at Shea someday soon.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004
A Commuter's Haiku, Part II
Track 40? Oh, man!
I thought Track 38 was
the end of the world.