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Kingston, NY, Friday, Feb. 8, 2008

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Handicapped at the Track
By Judith Gayle | Political Waves

CHANGE. THAT'S what Americans have asked for and, judging from the campaign signs being waved frantically at each presidential candidate's headquarters on Tuesday night, its a buzzword that's been adopted by every one of them. But change is, of course, a matter of degree -- you can change your shoes, change your mate, change your sex. One is not equal to the other.

We're going to talk politics, today -- and don't tell me you haven't noticed. The whole world is watching; a good enough reason for us to pay attention.

Those unfamiliar with the US presidential nominating process might be very confused by all the flap taking up the airwaves this last week, but probably no less confused than Americans themselves. Indeed, the process is so convoluted, each state taking and dividing (or not) its votes within its own particular system, that it was stunning to watch news anchors try to keep up with it on Super Tuesday, when 22 states selected their choice for president. This is essentially a horse race, although not a simple one.

I'll make a brief attempt to explain this -- a thumbnail that discounts the many wrinkles. Some states take a popular vote for each party's nominee; the winners of those contests then receive either all, or in some states a percentage (based on district votes reflecting population) of the delegates that will represent those votes at the nominating convention. Some states instead hold a caucus, which is more a collection of town meetings, with open voting and elimination of candidates until a clear winner is announced.
To complicate this process, the Democrats instituted a "safety valve" after the McGovern and Carter nominations, called super delegates, to "act as a check on ideologically extreme or inexperienced candidates. It also gives power to people who have a vested interest in party policies: elected leaders." Super delegates are supercharged politicos from the National Democratic Party that swing close races and throw power to various camps. The Democrats haven't had a cliffhanger going into the Convention for thirty years and on the likelihood of that happening now, the super delegates will be the most powerful vote, it would seem, to decide the nominee. There are 850 super delegates.

Super delegates are the modern equivalent of the age old "backroom deal." One achieves super delegate status by being a party leader, a governor, a congressional member or the like.  They are picked by the Democratic party itself. Many of these super delegates promise to support the voter's choice, but others have already endorsed a candidate and are not legally bound to be other than free agents. When Hillary Clinton announces she has more super delegates than Obama, she has counted up her endorsements -- on the other hand, if the super delegate's sense a shift in her political fortunes, they can push their vote elsewhere. Howard Dean had the majority of super delegates until his "scream" incident colored him as distasteful to the party and the votes were quickly pulled. The only actual rule as to where these wildcard votes go is apparently that they remain within the party.  Formerly a Democrat, Independent Senator Joe Lieberman has had his super delegate status cancelled due to his endorsement of Republican candidate, John McCain.
We should also note that super delegates number more than 40% of all delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination. And while this is still an exercise in "one person, one vote," super delegates have the ability to wait until they see where the political winds are blowing and negotiate the terms of their endorsement. Interestingly, Republicans do not have super delegates -- but they also seldom find themselves, as they do this year, with a fractured nominating process. They may wish they had them before it's over, since the Conservative base does not embrace their frontrunner, McCain.

The race is for numbers of delegates to swing a nomination -- it's conceivable to win the popular vote but lack the delegates.  At the moment, Hillary Clinton leads the delegate vote for the Democrats as she won California with its mighty treasure trove of representatives, but lost the total popular vote to Barack Obama by the slimmest of margins, a single percentage point. Considering that this was a vote for nominee, and not a national election, a remarkable amount of people turned out to support their candidate -- some 11 million Democrats and 7.5 million Republicans. This was done in the dead of winter, with weather making the process difficult and, with tornados touching down in three states and killing over 50 people while hospitalizing hundreds, even dangerous.

The two races are as interesting as the two parties are different -- on the Republican side, the man who was declared dead in the water just a few months ago, war-hawk and maverick, John McCain, walked off with the majority of votes and delegates; it will be difficult to catch up with him now. Mitt Romney, the Mormon candidate who ran on his CEO bona fides and business experience, and who was financing his bid for the presidency by writing checks to himself, has given up as McCain's most serious challenger. The surprise of the evening, Mike Huckabee, evangelist, guitar-player and ex-Governor of Arkansas, swept through the southern states and took home delegates no one had foreseen, especially Mr. Romney. Huckabee has the Religious Right in his pocket, and adopted the John Edwards/Dennis Kucinich populism rhetoric early in his campaign. Running with very little money, Huck's message reached the values voters and the Independents -- he proposes, for instance, writing Christianity into the Constitution as well as scrapping the IRS for the flat tax.

On the Democratic side, Clinton took eight states, including delegate-heavy California; Obama took thirteen, as diverse as Idaho, Alaska, Alabama and Missouri. Missouri is a bellwether state, having correctly predicted the presidential nominee for the last century (with the exception of favoring Adlai Stevenson over Eisenhower in 1956). If Missouri is right once again, then it will be John McCain v. Barack Obama in '08 -- but this has been a precedent setting race.  The first black candidate, the first woman candidate, the first race since the 50's when the administration did not propose an incumbent VP as candidate, the first race in decades in which the Republican machine did not offer a groomed and favored son.  So, all bets are off. This is also the first time the American public has found itself hated abroad, broken within and battered by policies and economics that range from bewildering assaults on its Constitution to a corporate stranglehold on its debt load and mortgages. All can agree, however, that Obama's rise has been a genuine and surprising phenomenon.

The "change" conversation revolves around "old" and "new" -- fitting for the paradigm shift, I think. Clinton is perceived as "old" -- she has the machine, although her financial backing is shakier now than it was previously, and she has the political alliances. There is no doubt in my mind that she could, as she insists, hit the ground running with a Democratic agenda. I'm just not sure it's a truly progressive one, despite her promises. Primaries are beauty contests -- national elections are completely different, attempting to move to center and snare some of the other guy's votes. And Mrs. Clinton has plenty of practice moving to center.  She is a moderate establishment Democrat, comfortable with bi-partisan negotiations and compromise.

Obama, on the other hand, seeks that bi-partisan mantle for himself, coming from a background as a community organizer.  He has run as the man who will unify us, bring us all to the table, and it's a very effective message, given his personal charisma and speaking talent. Barack is the stuff of "new," representing a disconnect with the old way of doing things, declaring the old process of discord and divisiveness no longer a path forward. Where John Edwards (who dropped out a week ago, unable to get his share of media coverage) proposed that there are two America's -- one struggling and systemically disadvantaged, the other elite and powerful -- Obama tells us there is only one America and he'll show us how to join hands and heal our divides. 

I'd like to believe him -- really, I would. Yet he, too, is a moderate establishment Democrat, and the very race he's running gives us a picture of where we are on this project.  Even as I write, on the day after the Super Duper, New Mexico is STILL too close to call for either Clinton or Obama and that is symbolic of the split in the party. It's a split in tone, a split in confidence, a difference that has yet to move one way or the other. It just won't come to the table, at this point, and that has to do with the slight, very slight, differences between the candidates on policy and promise.
The race between these two candidates is entirely emotional.  Women support Hil, as well as lower income citizens, perhaps nostalgic for those flush Clinton years.  They may have forgotten that Big Bill crushed the welfare system with nary a reluctant glance behind him. She has the Hispanic vote at this point, long curried and cared for by the Clintonian machine, and competitive for the attention given to African-Americans in years past. She's the "experience" candidate.

Obama has won the support of the African-American community and a surprising number of white males, and has captured the imagination of the youngsters, who by and large don't suffer the same kind of divides that plague their elders.  He has, in fact, developed a 'movement' rather than a candidacy, and that may ultimately be what carries him to nomination, given time, and proves Missouri correct. Obama is the "vision" candidate, and it's very difficult to fight a movement, even when you're as sharp and competitive as Hillary Clinton. The dynamics of this race have put the very things that Democrats would rather not deal with -- race and gender -- squarely in the heart of the nomination. This longing for something new will be built on the bones of our oldest conscious and subconscious biases.

The Republicans, I should mention, represent "old" on every front. They may diverge from their president, whom they rarely mention unless they have to, on matters of spending but they will further the wars, enable the military-industrial complex, reward the corporations and continue what has been established in the last seven years. True Conservatives disdain John McCain because of his ability to occasionally lean into bi-partisan negotiations, calling him a traitor to their stranglehold on governance and dream of thirty-year dominance. But they will back him when the chips are down, especially if Hillary gets the nod -- their hatred of all things Clinton is irrational and unifying. They are capable of turning the coming months into an attack on either candidate that will leave us dizzy and discouraged.

It's clear why we want change so desperately -- and it's clear how emotional that desire has become, how it sways us one way or another. I'm just not sure we've asked ourselves enough questions about what those changes should be. With Neptune continuing to shoot la-la bubbles at us, and the fallout from Pluto in Sagittarius not yet clearly behind us, I see illusion everywhere I look. Both of the nominees on the Left are moderates, willing to tilt toward progressivism but not commit to change the system, itself. The challengers on the Right have no intention of changing anything but the faces at the table. It's still...it's always...a money game. If we can agree that the system is broken, then we are looking at a nominating process for the kind of band-aid we want to slap on a gaping wound. It won't hold -- but we don't want to look at how badly damaged we actually are. We want it to look "nice." In fact, we're insisting on it.

And while we put our energy into the process of nomination, complex and tilted and subject to override by super delegates, the beat goes on. In Washington, Bush continues to button down his disdain of rule of law by issuing signed statements that ignore legislation -- he has virtually gutted over a thousand bits of law passed by Congress in his seven year reign. He proceeds to make promises he cannot keep in Iraq, to propose funding to the Pentagon that rivals that of World War II while cutting the legs out from under Medicare and welfare programs already hanging by a thread. We don't know what the next eight months will bring us, but the astrology is particularly dangerous later in the year, indicating international flare-ups that will effect us, which the Republicans will capitalize on to keep us fearful and threatened, and to promote their candidate.

The economy is, in itself, enough of a wild card to drag us back to reality -- all campaign promises are off if the economy creates further recession, or worse. Whoever wins the next presidency won't just get an open can of worms.  S/He'll be standing in the middle of the worm bed, wondering which step toward the exit will cause the least amount of damage. If I had to project, given the astrological possibilities of world violence, I'd think that Obama's 'movement' could eventually win the day on his original vote against the war. Hillary will not give on that point, and it may be her undoing. Still, as fluid as this is, she might just be the one perceived tough enough to go toe to toe with McCain. What we decide in February or March, if we actually DO decide on a winner and don't take this down to the wire in summer, may struggle to align with the circumstances that present themselves in the fall.

So, it appears, now that we've whittled down our selections for this horse race, that the step toward change will be a baby step. Either of the Democratic candidates will turn the conversation to the Left while working in the middle and we'll make a bit of progress, perhaps enough to satisfy some and allow others to sink back into a comfortable doze. Or not. And what might have been a real step forward into changes with a bite to them will fall back to a change in tone, an eye toward compromise and a dream of unity that, frankly, I don't think we've earned with enough 'reality therapy,' just yet. If it's true that "we teach best what we need to learn" then I guess we're all exactly where we need to be, prepared to both teach and learn the consequences of our actions. That's always the default to life in 3D. I was hoping we could gain a little more ground in recognizing our compliance with the system, make the landing into reality a little easier by our recognition of our many flaws, a little softer as a process well begun, a little less wrenching when it comes. What's old is new and vice versa -- and perhaps real change will only come when the risks are no longer perceived as elective. Perhaps, with all the extraordinary new energy flooding the planet, that will happen sooner rather than later and the changes in heart each of us are making will tip the scale for politicians as well.

Here's the brightest possibility, in my estimation -- the Democratic turnout presupposes an electrified base that will sweep in November. If that continues, and a Democrat is elected, we can halt the salting of radical Right nominations for the Supreme Court. If there is one thing that will define us in the coming decades, it will be the intent of our law.  Thirty years of Republican maneuvering has created the Court dangerously conservative and corporately aligned. Nothing is more important than protecting the Constitution with an interpretation of fair and balanced law. And THAT'S a baby step with some kick to it, worthy of our attention in election year 2008.

You can find continually updated information on the polls and the election at CNN.

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