Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 29, 2008

Obama’s Instincts

One of the things we’re learning about Barack Obama is that while he is brilliantly skilled in many ways, he is not especially adept. He bought himself weeks of trouble he didn’t need by refusing to repudiate Jeremiah Wright before today, and there are reasons to think he repudiated him in the worst possible way. It seems like a crass political move, a desperation play, rather than what it might have seemed like when the Wright problem first surfaced for real, as the principled act by someone deeply pained to be forced into renouncing someone who had meant so much to him.

It may be that Obama came to believe he could talk his way out of anything, and he did not want to disavow Wright — not, it would be my guess, because he loves him so dearly but because he understands that the kind of energy generated by Wright and the Wrights of this country has done him a great deal of good over the past few months and he didn’t want to jeopardize it. Which would be another mark of his political short-sightedness. As the Democratic frontrunner, Obama should have begun to pivot to the center, and the perfect moment for doing that would have been to kick Wright to the curb weeks before the Pennsylvania primary. Instead, he has allowed Hillary Clinton to become the candidate of the Democratic center.

I still suspect it’s just too late for Hillary, and I think the Wright crisis has broken too early for it to play an important role in November. But Obama is demonstrating he has problematic political instincts, and that is a liability that John McCain (whose own political instincts aren’t the greatest either) can exploit.

One of the things we’re learning about Barack Obama is that while he is brilliantly skilled in many ways, he is not especially adept. He bought himself weeks of trouble he didn’t need by refusing to repudiate Jeremiah Wright before today, and there are reasons to think he repudiated him in the worst possible way. It seems like a crass political move, a desperation play, rather than what it might have seemed like when the Wright problem first surfaced for real, as the principled act by someone deeply pained to be forced into renouncing someone who had meant so much to him.

It may be that Obama came to believe he could talk his way out of anything, and he did not want to disavow Wright — not, it would be my guess, because he loves him so dearly but because he understands that the kind of energy generated by Wright and the Wrights of this country has done him a great deal of good over the past few months and he didn’t want to jeopardize it. Which would be another mark of his political short-sightedness. As the Democratic frontrunner, Obama should have begun to pivot to the center, and the perfect moment for doing that would have been to kick Wright to the curb weeks before the Pennsylvania primary. Instead, he has allowed Hillary Clinton to become the candidate of the Democratic center.

I still suspect it’s just too late for Hillary, and I think the Wright crisis has broken too early for it to play an important role in November. But Obama is demonstrating he has problematic political instincts, and that is a liability that John McCain (whose own political instincts aren’t the greatest either) can exploit.

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Obama Got His Dander Up When Wright Came After Him

I am not alone in recognizing that what seems to have gotten Barack Obama particularly peeved is that Reverand Wright made a spectacle of himself and questioned Obama’s sincerity as non-politician. Obama explained: “I’m particularly distressed that this has caused such a distraction from what this campaign should be about, which is the American people.”

In response to a question Obama said:

And what I think particularly angered me was his suggestion somehow that my previous denunciation of his remarks were somehow political posturing. Anybody who knows me and anybody who knows what I’m about knows that — that I am about trying to bridge gaps and that I see the — the commonality in all people.

Again Obama made clear how personal this is, how much he feels slighted:

Well, the — I want to use this press conference to make people absolutely clear that obviously whatever relationship I had with Reverend Wright has changed as a consequence of this. I don’t think that he showed much concern for me. I don’t — more importantly, I don’t think he showed much concern for what we are trying to do in this campaign and what we’re trying to do for the American people and with the American people. . .But at a certain point, if what somebody says contradicts what you believe so fundamentally, and then he questions whether or not you believe it in front of the National Press Club, then that’s enough. That’s — that’s a show of disrespect to me. It’s a — it is also, I think, an insult to what we’ve been trying to do in this campaign.

So what is “particularly” noteworthy is what got Obama angry: Wright’s lack of loyalty and concern for him. Now ,that’s natural, I suppose, but it also shows a strange ranking of priorities. Insulting his country, spouting bizarre conspiracy theories, voicing racism and much more — none of that is what “particularly” triggered a repudiation. That, as much as the intellectual inconsistency (“I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother”), should provoke concern among people looking for a selfless leader for the new era in American politics.

And one final note: Obama denied that Wright was his “spiritual mentor.” I have yet to find an instance in which that exact phrase came from Obama’s lips, but it has been use incessently by the media without a hint of objection by the Obama team. Obama came close to saying the same thing many times including in this interview in March:

You know, I guess — keep in mind that, just to provide more context, this is somebody who I had known for 20 years. Pastor Wright has been a pastor for 30 years. He’s an ex-Marine. He is somebody who is a biblical scholar, has spoken at theological seminaries all across the country, from the University of Chicago to Hampton. And so he is a well- regarded preacher. And somebody who is known for talking about the social gospel. . . . I mean, obviously, understand that — understand that, you know, this is somebody who is like an uncle. If you have — to me. He’s somebody who helped me find Christ. And somebody who always talked to me in very powerful ways about relationship to God and our obligations to the poor. If somebody makes a mistake, then obviously, you recognize — I make mistakes. We all make mistakes. If I thought that that was the repeated tenor of the church, then I wouldn’t feel comfortable there. But, frankly, that has not been my experience at Trinity United Church of Christ.

But that inconsistency seems to be the least of his worries. (Among his bigger concerns: the latest poll numbers. Yikes.)

I am not alone in recognizing that what seems to have gotten Barack Obama particularly peeved is that Reverand Wright made a spectacle of himself and questioned Obama’s sincerity as non-politician. Obama explained: “I’m particularly distressed that this has caused such a distraction from what this campaign should be about, which is the American people.”

In response to a question Obama said:

And what I think particularly angered me was his suggestion somehow that my previous denunciation of his remarks were somehow political posturing. Anybody who knows me and anybody who knows what I’m about knows that — that I am about trying to bridge gaps and that I see the — the commonality in all people.

Again Obama made clear how personal this is, how much he feels slighted:

Well, the — I want to use this press conference to make people absolutely clear that obviously whatever relationship I had with Reverend Wright has changed as a consequence of this. I don’t think that he showed much concern for me. I don’t — more importantly, I don’t think he showed much concern for what we are trying to do in this campaign and what we’re trying to do for the American people and with the American people. . .But at a certain point, if what somebody says contradicts what you believe so fundamentally, and then he questions whether or not you believe it in front of the National Press Club, then that’s enough. That’s — that’s a show of disrespect to me. It’s a — it is also, I think, an insult to what we’ve been trying to do in this campaign.

So what is “particularly” noteworthy is what got Obama angry: Wright’s lack of loyalty and concern for him. Now ,that’s natural, I suppose, but it also shows a strange ranking of priorities. Insulting his country, spouting bizarre conspiracy theories, voicing racism and much more — none of that is what “particularly” triggered a repudiation. That, as much as the intellectual inconsistency (“I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother”), should provoke concern among people looking for a selfless leader for the new era in American politics.

And one final note: Obama denied that Wright was his “spiritual mentor.” I have yet to find an instance in which that exact phrase came from Obama’s lips, but it has been use incessently by the media without a hint of objection by the Obama team. Obama came close to saying the same thing many times including in this interview in March:

You know, I guess — keep in mind that, just to provide more context, this is somebody who I had known for 20 years. Pastor Wright has been a pastor for 30 years. He’s an ex-Marine. He is somebody who is a biblical scholar, has spoken at theological seminaries all across the country, from the University of Chicago to Hampton. And so he is a well- regarded preacher. And somebody who is known for talking about the social gospel. . . . I mean, obviously, understand that — understand that, you know, this is somebody who is like an uncle. If you have — to me. He’s somebody who helped me find Christ. And somebody who always talked to me in very powerful ways about relationship to God and our obligations to the poor. If somebody makes a mistake, then obviously, you recognize — I make mistakes. We all make mistakes. If I thought that that was the repeated tenor of the church, then I wouldn’t feel comfortable there. But, frankly, that has not been my experience at Trinity United Church of Christ.

But that inconsistency seems to be the least of his worries. (Among his bigger concerns: the latest poll numbers. Yikes.)

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McCain Health Care Conference Call

Doug Holtz-Eakin, senior policy advisor, and Carly Fiorina, RNC Victory 2008 Chair and former Hewlett-Packard CEO, held a conference call today as part of John McCain’s healthcare rollout.

There’s good in the McCain plan. Both advisors stressed that McCain’s plan puts “patients in charge,” and they both emphasized that under the McCain plan drug importation would be permitted. McCain has broken with many Republicans and drug industry interests in pushing to allow drug imports from places like Canada.

But there are real problems with the plan as well. Skeptical questioners on the call asked how McCain is going to compete with Democratic plans that guarantee health insurance universally. This is an intractable problem. McCain will need to convince people that the Democratic plan is either unrealistic (see the Massachusetts example), too expensive, or will impair the good things in the American health care system (e.g. doctor choice innovation). And we have yet to see McCain get fired up on a domestic issue to the extent he can sell something like this, which is not at first glance better than what the Democrats are offering.

There is also a fair amount of fudging going on. Where are all the cost savings going to come from? In large part, says the McCain team, from innovation. But, as they revealed in response to a question, these are things that private companies (e.g. insurers or employers) do. So where is government going to get money to cover or subsidize all those hard-to-insure people in the GAP plan? Not clear.

And isn’t GAP really another entitlement? The McCain campaign said in response to my follow-up question after the call that the GAP plan is “an effort to work with states to develop approaches to establishing a market to assure coverage for higher-risk folks who find it hard to get insurance.” That is thin gruel for those advocating universal coverage, and ominous for fiscal conservatives concerned this will be a drain on taxpayers. So the McCain team has its work cut out for it. But it is best to start practicing healthcare salesmanship now, on a day when the media is consumed with Obama-Wright coverage.

Doug Holtz-Eakin, senior policy advisor, and Carly Fiorina, RNC Victory 2008 Chair and former Hewlett-Packard CEO, held a conference call today as part of John McCain’s healthcare rollout.

There’s good in the McCain plan. Both advisors stressed that McCain’s plan puts “patients in charge,” and they both emphasized that under the McCain plan drug importation would be permitted. McCain has broken with many Republicans and drug industry interests in pushing to allow drug imports from places like Canada.

But there are real problems with the plan as well. Skeptical questioners on the call asked how McCain is going to compete with Democratic plans that guarantee health insurance universally. This is an intractable problem. McCain will need to convince people that the Democratic plan is either unrealistic (see the Massachusetts example), too expensive, or will impair the good things in the American health care system (e.g. doctor choice innovation). And we have yet to see McCain get fired up on a domestic issue to the extent he can sell something like this, which is not at first glance better than what the Democrats are offering.

There is also a fair amount of fudging going on. Where are all the cost savings going to come from? In large part, says the McCain team, from innovation. But, as they revealed in response to a question, these are things that private companies (e.g. insurers or employers) do. So where is government going to get money to cover or subsidize all those hard-to-insure people in the GAP plan? Not clear.

And isn’t GAP really another entitlement? The McCain campaign said in response to my follow-up question after the call that the GAP plan is “an effort to work with states to develop approaches to establishing a market to assure coverage for higher-risk folks who find it hard to get insurance.” That is thin gruel for those advocating universal coverage, and ominous for fiscal conservatives concerned this will be a drain on taxpayers. So the McCain team has its work cut out for it. But it is best to start practicing healthcare salesmanship now, on a day when the media is consumed with Obama-Wright coverage.

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Puh-leez!

Barack Obama has finally, finally thrown Reverend Wright under the proverbial bus. How low did the poll numbers go? How many superdelegates had to warn him? What finally changed his mind? Because, as anyone following the story knows, Wright has been remarkably consistent. His sermons, his NAACP speech and his performance at the National Press Club are all of one piece: ranting, anti-white, anti-American. So we now have some questions to ponder.

Is Obama going to stick with the “I am the worst judge of character on the planet” excuse? After all, if millions of non-congregants could figure out Wright, why couldn’t he? And if the issue now is not “Does Obama believe all this loony Wright inspired stuff?” but “Has he been duplicitous?”, then what happens to his Agent of Change, post-racial-uniter routine? Will this be enough to push some Democrats (like the Edwards duo) over the edge and conclude: Enough? (Certainly many Democrats must be wondering what they would be in for in a general election contest with him.)

In the end, the chickens did come home to roost. Just not the ones Wright had in mind.

Barack Obama has finally, finally thrown Reverend Wright under the proverbial bus. How low did the poll numbers go? How many superdelegates had to warn him? What finally changed his mind? Because, as anyone following the story knows, Wright has been remarkably consistent. His sermons, his NAACP speech and his performance at the National Press Club are all of one piece: ranting, anti-white, anti-American. So we now have some questions to ponder.

Is Obama going to stick with the “I am the worst judge of character on the planet” excuse? After all, if millions of non-congregants could figure out Wright, why couldn’t he? And if the issue now is not “Does Obama believe all this loony Wright inspired stuff?” but “Has he been duplicitous?”, then what happens to his Agent of Change, post-racial-uniter routine? Will this be enough to push some Democrats (like the Edwards duo) over the edge and conclude: Enough? (Certainly many Democrats must be wondering what they would be in for in a general election contest with him.)

In the end, the chickens did come home to roost. Just not the ones Wright had in mind.

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Iran in India

Today, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in New Delhi on his first official visit there. On the agenda is the 1,625-mile gas pipeline that will connect supplier Iran to consumers India and Pakistan. Yesterday, the Iranian president was in Islamabad, where he and his Pakistani hosts said they had resolved “all issues” regarding the proposed link.

Iran is making headway in implementing its “Look East” strategy, and in India Tehran has found a willing partner. The Bush administration, to put pressure on Iran, has opposed the pipeline, but New Delhi, famed for its independence, is pushing back. “India and Iran are ancient civilizations whose relations span centuries,” the Indian foreign ministry said last week. “Neither country needs any guidance on the future conduct of bilateral relations.”

Of course. There are many reasons why New Delhi wants to improve ties with Tehran. Among them are New Delhi’s desire to show that it is not dependent on Washington, India’s need for Iran’s energy, and the Indian government’s concern about the country’s Shiites, who look to Tehran.

Fortunately for Washington, Iran and India have yet to settle their differences over the pipeline. Among the outstanding problems is something that Tehran has no power to solve: New Delhi’s concern about relying on energy that has to travel through archrival Pakistan. Nonetheless, some believe construction on the US$7.6 billion project could begin next year. Consequently, the Bush administration does not have much time to figure out how to keep India from joining Iran.

I don’t think the solution for Washington to this particular problem can be found in New Delhi, however. As the Indians see it, they cannot afford to help the Americans in opposing the Iranians as long as the Iranians retain the support of the Chinese. This same dynamic drives India’s unattractive policy of assisting the junta in Burma-it does so to counter China’s influence there.

So if Washington wants to stop Iran with diplomacy, it will have to work magic in Beijing. If it fails to do so soon, the pipeline will reach India and extend crucial support to the mullahs-and their nuclear weapons program.

Today, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in New Delhi on his first official visit there. On the agenda is the 1,625-mile gas pipeline that will connect supplier Iran to consumers India and Pakistan. Yesterday, the Iranian president was in Islamabad, where he and his Pakistani hosts said they had resolved “all issues” regarding the proposed link.

Iran is making headway in implementing its “Look East” strategy, and in India Tehran has found a willing partner. The Bush administration, to put pressure on Iran, has opposed the pipeline, but New Delhi, famed for its independence, is pushing back. “India and Iran are ancient civilizations whose relations span centuries,” the Indian foreign ministry said last week. “Neither country needs any guidance on the future conduct of bilateral relations.”

Of course. There are many reasons why New Delhi wants to improve ties with Tehran. Among them are New Delhi’s desire to show that it is not dependent on Washington, India’s need for Iran’s energy, and the Indian government’s concern about the country’s Shiites, who look to Tehran.

Fortunately for Washington, Iran and India have yet to settle their differences over the pipeline. Among the outstanding problems is something that Tehran has no power to solve: New Delhi’s concern about relying on energy that has to travel through archrival Pakistan. Nonetheless, some believe construction on the US$7.6 billion project could begin next year. Consequently, the Bush administration does not have much time to figure out how to keep India from joining Iran.

I don’t think the solution for Washington to this particular problem can be found in New Delhi, however. As the Indians see it, they cannot afford to help the Americans in opposing the Iranians as long as the Iranians retain the support of the Chinese. This same dynamic drives India’s unattractive policy of assisting the junta in Burma-it does so to counter China’s influence there.

So if Washington wants to stop Iran with diplomacy, it will have to work magic in Beijing. If it fails to do so soon, the pipeline will reach India and extend crucial support to the mullahs-and their nuclear weapons program.

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The Reverend Archie Bunker

We’ve all been overreacting to Jeremiah Wright. He’s not a dangerously influential peddler of paranoia and hate. He’s just a goofy TV character. At least that’s how Alessandra Stanley describes him in today’s New York Times:

. . . Mr. Wright’s monomania over the last three days has helped prove the point Mr. Obama made about his former pastor last month in his speech on race, in which he described Mr. Wright as “imperfect” but having also been “like family to me.” Mr. Wright revealed himself to be the compelling but slightly wacky uncle who unsettles strangers but really just craves attention.

Yeah! He’s just like that slightly wacky uncle of yours! You know:  the one who flew with Louis Farrakhan to meet Moammar Khaddafi? The one who thinks Zionism is a “gutter religion”? That’s the lovable old goof we’re talking about here. Not anyone of consequence. Stanley thinks it’s time to reassess the entertaining old fellow:

Now it turns out that Mr. Wright doesn’t hate America, he loves the sound of his own voice.

Yep, those two qualities sure are mutually exclusive. People who hate America never, ever speak out about it. There’s no tradition of anti-American celebrity culture whatsoever.

Stanley also manages to make the fast-talking Chicagoan sound like a character out of Saul Bellow. Wright is

a voluble, vain and erudite entertainer, a born televangelist who quotes Ralph Ellison as well as the Bible and mixes highfalutin academic trope with salty street talk.

And also a Warholian phenomenon:

He is not out of touch with the American culture, he is the avatar of the American celebrity principle: he grabbed his 30-second spots of infamy and turned them into 15 minutes of fame.

Never mind his decades of influence on his church and on a man who may well be the next President.

We’ve all been overreacting to Jeremiah Wright. He’s not a dangerously influential peddler of paranoia and hate. He’s just a goofy TV character. At least that’s how Alessandra Stanley describes him in today’s New York Times:

. . . Mr. Wright’s monomania over the last three days has helped prove the point Mr. Obama made about his former pastor last month in his speech on race, in which he described Mr. Wright as “imperfect” but having also been “like family to me.” Mr. Wright revealed himself to be the compelling but slightly wacky uncle who unsettles strangers but really just craves attention.

Yeah! He’s just like that slightly wacky uncle of yours! You know:  the one who flew with Louis Farrakhan to meet Moammar Khaddafi? The one who thinks Zionism is a “gutter religion”? That’s the lovable old goof we’re talking about here. Not anyone of consequence. Stanley thinks it’s time to reassess the entertaining old fellow:

Now it turns out that Mr. Wright doesn’t hate America, he loves the sound of his own voice.

Yep, those two qualities sure are mutually exclusive. People who hate America never, ever speak out about it. There’s no tradition of anti-American celebrity culture whatsoever.

Stanley also manages to make the fast-talking Chicagoan sound like a character out of Saul Bellow. Wright is

a voluble, vain and erudite entertainer, a born televangelist who quotes Ralph Ellison as well as the Bible and mixes highfalutin academic trope with salty street talk.

And also a Warholian phenomenon:

He is not out of touch with the American culture, he is the avatar of the American celebrity principle: he grabbed his 30-second spots of infamy and turned them into 15 minutes of fame.

Never mind his decades of influence on his church and on a man who may well be the next President.

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You Want Domestic Policy?

John McCain is trying his best to shift from his single-minded focus on foreign policy to a broader agenda that will appeal to key independent voters. His topic this week is health care, about which he offered a detailed speech and a new ad.

His approach borrows from George W. Bush’s ill-fated healthcare plan (and from Rudy Giuliani’s as well). The basic idea is to shift from employer-based plans (in which the consumer/patient is not responsible for costs) to individually-purchased healthcare plans (where consumers will be in charge). By ending the employer benefit tax exemption and providing a tax credit instead, allowing interstate insurance purchases, and throwing in some tort reform, this proposal aims to decrease cost and increase availability.

But McCain has a ways to go if he’s going to sell it. One troubling aspect of the proposal, his GAP plan, is in bad shape. It’s aimed at a vaguely defined pool of hard-to-insure and needy healthcare consumers, and it sounds like little more than an adjunct to Medicare and Medicaid. McCain says:

I will work with Congress, the governors, and industry to make sure that it is funded adequately and has the right incentives to reduce costs such as disease management, individual case management, and health and wellness programs. These programs reach out to people who are at risk for different diseases and chronic conditions and provide them with nurse care managers to make sure they receive the proper care and avoid unnecessary treatments and emergency room visits. The details of a Guaranteed Access Plan will be worked out with the collaboration and consent of the states.

Although he disclaims any intention to create a new entitlement program, he says that the GAP plan would put “reasonable limits on premiums, and assistance would be available for Americans below a certain income level.” That said, McCain’s plan is as market-based an approach as a politician who doesn’t want to risk running on a platform of “Buy your own darn insurance!” is going to offer

John McCain is trying his best to shift from his single-minded focus on foreign policy to a broader agenda that will appeal to key independent voters. His topic this week is health care, about which he offered a detailed speech and a new ad.

His approach borrows from George W. Bush’s ill-fated healthcare plan (and from Rudy Giuliani’s as well). The basic idea is to shift from employer-based plans (in which the consumer/patient is not responsible for costs) to individually-purchased healthcare plans (where consumers will be in charge). By ending the employer benefit tax exemption and providing a tax credit instead, allowing interstate insurance purchases, and throwing in some tort reform, this proposal aims to decrease cost and increase availability.

But McCain has a ways to go if he’s going to sell it. One troubling aspect of the proposal, his GAP plan, is in bad shape. It’s aimed at a vaguely defined pool of hard-to-insure and needy healthcare consumers, and it sounds like little more than an adjunct to Medicare and Medicaid. McCain says:

I will work with Congress, the governors, and industry to make sure that it is funded adequately and has the right incentives to reduce costs such as disease management, individual case management, and health and wellness programs. These programs reach out to people who are at risk for different diseases and chronic conditions and provide them with nurse care managers to make sure they receive the proper care and avoid unnecessary treatments and emergency room visits. The details of a Guaranteed Access Plan will be worked out with the collaboration and consent of the states.

Although he disclaims any intention to create a new entitlement program, he says that the GAP plan would put “reasonable limits on premiums, and assistance would be available for Americans below a certain income level.” That said, McCain’s plan is as market-based an approach as a politician who doesn’t want to risk running on a platform of “Buy your own darn insurance!” is going to offer

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When Satire Fails

In order for satire to work, it must exaggerate the faults and foibles of its subject. Which is why this satirical piece appearing today at the British comedy site the Spoof is a failure:

The Iranian Foreign Trade Commission has banned the import and sale of Barbie Dolls within the country. Stating that this doll, one of the most popular and best selling toys in the world, was an evil influence on the Iranian people, the government stopped a Mattel delivery shipment at a port.

Official state that the doll has many un-Moslem qualities, such as visible hair, a figure, drives an automobile, owns possessions, and “flaunts her large, big American breasts to the illicit excitement of men and boys.”

Mattel has offered to make an Iranian version of the doll, where the clothing cannot be removed by anyone, only the eyes are visible, no form or figure can be revealed under the robes, and the doll is “unbending.”

That could be funny (sort of). If, that is, Muslim countries had not already shelved and redesigned dolls on these very grounds–and if Mattel hadn’t gone along with them. From a 2005 article in the New York Times:

DAMASCUS, Syria, Sept. 21 – In the last year or so, Barbie dolls have all but disappeared from the shelves of many toy stores in the Middle East. In their place, there is Fulla, a dark-eyed doll with, as her creator puts it, “Muslim values.”

Fulla roughly shares Barbie’s size and proportions, but steps out of her shiny pink box wearing a black abaya and matching head scarf. She is named after a type of jasmine that grows in the Levant, and although she has an extensive and beautiful wardrobe (sold separately, of course), Fulla is usually displayed wearing her modest “outdoor fashion.”

[...]

Fulla is not the first doll to wear the hijab, a traditional Islamic head covering worn outside the house so a woman’s hair cannot be seen by men outside her family. Mattel markets a group of collectors’ dolls that include a Moroccan Barbie and a doll called Leila, intended to represent a Muslim slave girl in an Ottoman court. In Iran, toy shops sell a veiled doll called Sara. A Michigan-based company markets a veiled doll called Razanne, selling primarily to Muslims in the United States and Britain.

And in 2003, Saudi religious police declared “Jewish Barbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful posture” a threat to Muslim morals. Moreover, depending on the particular  doctrine in question, playing with any dolls–Jewish Barbies, Muslim Fullas, or Evangelical G.I. Joes–may be forbidden altogether, as they all violate the prohibition on images of humans.

That the clever writers at the Spoof set out to satirize and ended up reporting years-old news tells you two things. First, Islamic extremism defies exaggeration. And second, sometimes even the most educated Westerners don’t know what they’re dealing with.

In order for satire to work, it must exaggerate the faults and foibles of its subject. Which is why this satirical piece appearing today at the British comedy site the Spoof is a failure:

The Iranian Foreign Trade Commission has banned the import and sale of Barbie Dolls within the country. Stating that this doll, one of the most popular and best selling toys in the world, was an evil influence on the Iranian people, the government stopped a Mattel delivery shipment at a port.

Official state that the doll has many un-Moslem qualities, such as visible hair, a figure, drives an automobile, owns possessions, and “flaunts her large, big American breasts to the illicit excitement of men and boys.”

Mattel has offered to make an Iranian version of the doll, where the clothing cannot be removed by anyone, only the eyes are visible, no form or figure can be revealed under the robes, and the doll is “unbending.”

That could be funny (sort of). If, that is, Muslim countries had not already shelved and redesigned dolls on these very grounds–and if Mattel hadn’t gone along with them. From a 2005 article in the New York Times:

DAMASCUS, Syria, Sept. 21 – In the last year or so, Barbie dolls have all but disappeared from the shelves of many toy stores in the Middle East. In their place, there is Fulla, a dark-eyed doll with, as her creator puts it, “Muslim values.”

Fulla roughly shares Barbie’s size and proportions, but steps out of her shiny pink box wearing a black abaya and matching head scarf. She is named after a type of jasmine that grows in the Levant, and although she has an extensive and beautiful wardrobe (sold separately, of course), Fulla is usually displayed wearing her modest “outdoor fashion.”

[...]

Fulla is not the first doll to wear the hijab, a traditional Islamic head covering worn outside the house so a woman’s hair cannot be seen by men outside her family. Mattel markets a group of collectors’ dolls that include a Moroccan Barbie and a doll called Leila, intended to represent a Muslim slave girl in an Ottoman court. In Iran, toy shops sell a veiled doll called Sara. A Michigan-based company markets a veiled doll called Razanne, selling primarily to Muslims in the United States and Britain.

And in 2003, Saudi religious police declared “Jewish Barbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful posture” a threat to Muslim morals. Moreover, depending on the particular  doctrine in question, playing with any dolls–Jewish Barbies, Muslim Fullas, or Evangelical G.I. Joes–may be forbidden altogether, as they all violate the prohibition on images of humans.

That the clever writers at the Spoof set out to satirize and ended up reporting years-old news tells you two things. First, Islamic extremism defies exaggeration. And second, sometimes even the most educated Westerners don’t know what they’re dealing with.

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Russia Threatens Georgia–Again

Last Friday, Moscow warned Georgia that it would use force to protect its “compatriots” in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions that have essentially broken away from Tbilisi. “If a military conflict develops, then we will have to react, including with military means,” said Valery Kenyaikin, a Russian foreign ministry official. “We are ready to defend our citizens.”

Russian citizens in Georgia? Vladimir Putin has recently taken steps that essentially annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Russia, including issuing Russian passports to their residents. Worse, Moscow’s planes are patrolling the airspace over them. Tensions remain high after Georgia announced that a Russian MiG shot down one of its drones over Abkhazia on the 20th of this month. Moscow denied the charge, saying that separatists were responsible. A video of the incident backs up the Georgian assertion.

And what is the Atlantic Alliance doing while this drama unfolds? Western diplomats say they hope relations between Tbilisi and Moscow will improve, but tensions have tended to increase over time. The situation is bound to deteriorate even further because NATO, at German and French insistence, declined this month to put Georgia and Ukraine on the path to full membership. Putin evidently took this failure as a green light for the shootdown.

No one in Washington seems to be too concerned, however. Any resemblance to Germany’s 1938 absorption of Austria is either ignored or seen as purely coincidental. The West looks weak to Moscow, and Putin’s next moves are bound to be even more aggressive.

In the meantime, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has promised to reassert control over both areas. The residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have a right to self-determination, yet at this moment the issue is not their wishes but Moscow’s interference in the affairs of a sovereign neighbor. Yes, it will be inconvenient to defend Georgia if that is what is required. But the biggest lesson of the last century is obviously applicable to this obscure conflict.

Last Friday, Moscow warned Georgia that it would use force to protect its “compatriots” in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions that have essentially broken away from Tbilisi. “If a military conflict develops, then we will have to react, including with military means,” said Valery Kenyaikin, a Russian foreign ministry official. “We are ready to defend our citizens.”

Russian citizens in Georgia? Vladimir Putin has recently taken steps that essentially annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Russia, including issuing Russian passports to their residents. Worse, Moscow’s planes are patrolling the airspace over them. Tensions remain high after Georgia announced that a Russian MiG shot down one of its drones over Abkhazia on the 20th of this month. Moscow denied the charge, saying that separatists were responsible. A video of the incident backs up the Georgian assertion.

And what is the Atlantic Alliance doing while this drama unfolds? Western diplomats say they hope relations between Tbilisi and Moscow will improve, but tensions have tended to increase over time. The situation is bound to deteriorate even further because NATO, at German and French insistence, declined this month to put Georgia and Ukraine on the path to full membership. Putin evidently took this failure as a green light for the shootdown.

No one in Washington seems to be too concerned, however. Any resemblance to Germany’s 1938 absorption of Austria is either ignored or seen as purely coincidental. The West looks weak to Moscow, and Putin’s next moves are bound to be even more aggressive.

In the meantime, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has promised to reassert control over both areas. The residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have a right to self-determination, yet at this moment the issue is not their wishes but Moscow’s interference in the affairs of a sovereign neighbor. Yes, it will be inconvenient to defend Georgia if that is what is required. But the biggest lesson of the last century is obviously applicable to this obscure conflict.

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Obama’s Interpersonal Diplomacy Crisis

You have to give Barack Obama credit for one thing. He practices what he preaches. He has said he wants America to engage in unqualified talks with her enemies. Can there now be any doubt that Jeremiah Wright, the man Barack Obama has been talking to for twenty years, is his enemy?

At yesterday’s National Press Club event, the spiritual mentor whom Obama refused to renounce unleashed a stream of ugly paranoia that could only do damage to Obama’s bid for the presidency. What we’re seeing play out are the disastrous results of Obama’s group-hug diplomacy when applied to the realm of the interpersonal.

In February, Obama said, “If we think that meeting with the president is a privilege that has to be earned, I think that reinforces the sense that we stand above the rest of the world at this point in time.” But friendship is a privilege and does have to be earned. Obama’s very problem is that, because he’s extended his unqualified friendship to a vitriolic kook like Wright, people are finding it hard to see how he “stands above” his ex-pastor. If Obama is truly such a fan of equivalence, he should be thrilled to learn that he’s increasingly seen as being no better than Jeremiah Wright. Parity achieved!

A modern liberal can renounce no one, because everyone’s grievance deserves equal sympathy and every viewpoint is valid. If this is how it works out when Obama has to deal with the self-serving motives of one unhinged man, consider the implications when this policy is applied globally. Obama sits down with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as he’s already said he hopes to do. He listens to the Iranian president’s “valid” points: Israel has the bomb, Iran just wants nuclear energy, the U.S. is killing Shiites in a neighboring country, etc. Obama flies back to the U.S. and makes a beautiful and exhaustive speech about the long and troubled history of U.S.-Iran relations. He disagrees with many things the Iranian president has said, but he can no sooner sever ties with him than he could refuse to engage with the Israeli government that continues to allow the building of settlements in occupied Palestine.

The speech is an international hit, a landmark moment in geopolitical candor. Emboldened and under the protective umbrella of world sympathy, Ahmadinejad and the mullahs ratchet up the hegemonic machinery and the Armageddon talk. Within a year they brazenly test their first nuke. Obama makes a shorter, slightly less beautiful speech about the hurdles of diplomacy, Iran is off the hook, and the next proto-nuclear state gets to work.

In the Wright affair we see a microcosmic portrayal of America’s president in the role of world dupe. The most worrisome thing about the whole episode is not that Obama may share Wright’s bizarre convictions. It’s that the code of modern liberalism has allowed someone a calendar page away from being the Democratic presidential nominee to be thoroughly manipulated by a third-rate huckster.

You have to give Barack Obama credit for one thing. He practices what he preaches. He has said he wants America to engage in unqualified talks with her enemies. Can there now be any doubt that Jeremiah Wright, the man Barack Obama has been talking to for twenty years, is his enemy?

At yesterday’s National Press Club event, the spiritual mentor whom Obama refused to renounce unleashed a stream of ugly paranoia that could only do damage to Obama’s bid for the presidency. What we’re seeing play out are the disastrous results of Obama’s group-hug diplomacy when applied to the realm of the interpersonal.

In February, Obama said, “If we think that meeting with the president is a privilege that has to be earned, I think that reinforces the sense that we stand above the rest of the world at this point in time.” But friendship is a privilege and does have to be earned. Obama’s very problem is that, because he’s extended his unqualified friendship to a vitriolic kook like Wright, people are finding it hard to see how he “stands above” his ex-pastor. If Obama is truly such a fan of equivalence, he should be thrilled to learn that he’s increasingly seen as being no better than Jeremiah Wright. Parity achieved!

A modern liberal can renounce no one, because everyone’s grievance deserves equal sympathy and every viewpoint is valid. If this is how it works out when Obama has to deal with the self-serving motives of one unhinged man, consider the implications when this policy is applied globally. Obama sits down with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as he’s already said he hopes to do. He listens to the Iranian president’s “valid” points: Israel has the bomb, Iran just wants nuclear energy, the U.S. is killing Shiites in a neighboring country, etc. Obama flies back to the U.S. and makes a beautiful and exhaustive speech about the long and troubled history of U.S.-Iran relations. He disagrees with many things the Iranian president has said, but he can no sooner sever ties with him than he could refuse to engage with the Israeli government that continues to allow the building of settlements in occupied Palestine.

The speech is an international hit, a landmark moment in geopolitical candor. Emboldened and under the protective umbrella of world sympathy, Ahmadinejad and the mullahs ratchet up the hegemonic machinery and the Armageddon talk. Within a year they brazenly test their first nuke. Obama makes a shorter, slightly less beautiful speech about the hurdles of diplomacy, Iran is off the hook, and the next proto-nuclear state gets to work.

In the Wright affair we see a microcosmic portrayal of America’s president in the role of world dupe. The most worrisome thing about the whole episode is not that Obama may share Wright’s bizarre convictions. It’s that the code of modern liberalism has allowed someone a calendar page away from being the Democratic presidential nominee to be thoroughly manipulated by a third-rate huckster.

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It’s Time to Withdraw the Iran NIE

The November National Intelligence Estimate on Iran declared flatly in its opening sentence that ‘We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear-weapons program.”

This was remarkably deceptive. The statement was accompanied by a disclaimer buried in a footnote saying that “For the purposes of this Estimate, by ‘nuclear weapons program’ we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.”

In other words, the NIE reached its conclusion that Iran’s nuclear-weapons program had come to a halt by describing uranium-enrichment efforts as civilian.

Today’s New York Times has a remarkably important story by William Broad containing photographs of Iranian officials touring the uranium-enrichment site at Natanz.

One surprise of the tour was the presence of Iran’s defense minister, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar. His attendance struck some analysts as odd given Iran’s claim that the desert labors are entirely peaceful in nature. In one picture, Mr. Najjar, smiling widely, appears to lead the presidential retinue.

Also participating in the tour was Mossein Mohseni Ejehei, Iran’s minister of intelligence. The caption indicating his presence is mysterious absent from the Times‘s website, but is included in the printed edition of the paper.

The presence of the defense and intelligence ministers on this tour, with the defense minister appearing to lead it, are not definitive indicators of anything. But they do surely cast strong additional doubt on the NIE’s flat contention that the enrichment effort is only “civil work.”

The more we learn about the NIE, the more it appears to be a disgrace. Ranking U.S. officials have already contradicted its findings in their public statements. But it’s clear that it needs to be officially withdrawn, and its authors reprimanded for botching it, undermining U.S. foreign policy, and badly embarrassing U.S. intelligence yet again.  

The November National Intelligence Estimate on Iran declared flatly in its opening sentence that ‘We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear-weapons program.”

This was remarkably deceptive. The statement was accompanied by a disclaimer buried in a footnote saying that “For the purposes of this Estimate, by ‘nuclear weapons program’ we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.”

In other words, the NIE reached its conclusion that Iran’s nuclear-weapons program had come to a halt by describing uranium-enrichment efforts as civilian.

Today’s New York Times has a remarkably important story by William Broad containing photographs of Iranian officials touring the uranium-enrichment site at Natanz.

One surprise of the tour was the presence of Iran’s defense minister, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar. His attendance struck some analysts as odd given Iran’s claim that the desert labors are entirely peaceful in nature. In one picture, Mr. Najjar, smiling widely, appears to lead the presidential retinue.

Also participating in the tour was Mossein Mohseni Ejehei, Iran’s minister of intelligence. The caption indicating his presence is mysterious absent from the Times‘s website, but is included in the printed edition of the paper.

The presence of the defense and intelligence ministers on this tour, with the defense minister appearing to lead it, are not definitive indicators of anything. But they do surely cast strong additional doubt on the NIE’s flat contention that the enrichment effort is only “civil work.”

The more we learn about the NIE, the more it appears to be a disgrace. Ranking U.S. officials have already contradicted its findings in their public statements. But it’s clear that it needs to be officially withdrawn, and its authors reprimanded for botching it, undermining U.S. foreign policy, and badly embarrassing U.S. intelligence yet again.  

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Wrong Again

Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling upholding the Indiana state voting law requiring a photo ID is significant for many reasons.

Some of the most noteworthy are the “I told you so’s.” The news coverage dutifully recites that the laws were challenged because of the alleged adverse impact on minorities and older voters. However, despite the hue and cry from the professional civil rights lobby and liberal legislators (including Barack Obama), no instance–not a single one–in which an actual person could not obtain the required ID was ever found. In fact, in the many cases challenging such laws, plaintiffs have routinely been stumped in their efforts to dig up a single soul who is qualified to vote, yet lacks reasonable access to an approved form of ID.

The next “I told you so” comes from the Bush civil rights division, or at least certain elements of it, which championed a similar law in Georgia over the outraged cries of these same critics. Writing for the majority yesterday, Justice Stevens praised the Georgia statute (which incidentially also had been upheld by a prior court ruling upon finding that no one had ever lacked access to one of the many forms of ID).

Next in the “I told you so” parade should be Hans von Spakovsky. Spakovsky, while in the civil rights division, fought doggedly to enforce existing voting rights provisions, including the Georgia law and measures to fight fraud. Now he, or at least his nomination to the FEC, has been held hostage by Senate Democrats exacting retribution.

Finally, this is one more instance when what liberal activists and their Congressional champions believe the Constitution says diverges sharply what the Supreme Court– sometimes with very healthy majorities–says it does. So the next time an expert on the Constitution spouts off, you might check to see how often they’ve gotten it wrong in the past. In this case, most of the experts were very wrong.

Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling upholding the Indiana state voting law requiring a photo ID is significant for many reasons.

Some of the most noteworthy are the “I told you so’s.” The news coverage dutifully recites that the laws were challenged because of the alleged adverse impact on minorities and older voters. However, despite the hue and cry from the professional civil rights lobby and liberal legislators (including Barack Obama), no instance–not a single one–in which an actual person could not obtain the required ID was ever found. In fact, in the many cases challenging such laws, plaintiffs have routinely been stumped in their efforts to dig up a single soul who is qualified to vote, yet lacks reasonable access to an approved form of ID.

The next “I told you so” comes from the Bush civil rights division, or at least certain elements of it, which championed a similar law in Georgia over the outraged cries of these same critics. Writing for the majority yesterday, Justice Stevens praised the Georgia statute (which incidentially also had been upheld by a prior court ruling upon finding that no one had ever lacked access to one of the many forms of ID).

Next in the “I told you so” parade should be Hans von Spakovsky. Spakovsky, while in the civil rights division, fought doggedly to enforce existing voting rights provisions, including the Georgia law and measures to fight fraud. Now he, or at least his nomination to the FEC, has been held hostage by Senate Democrats exacting retribution.

Finally, this is one more instance when what liberal activists and their Congressional champions believe the Constitution says diverges sharply what the Supreme Court– sometimes with very healthy majorities–says it does. So the next time an expert on the Constitution spouts off, you might check to see how often they’ve gotten it wrong in the past. In this case, most of the experts were very wrong.

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That’s It?

Just before the Monday evening news, Barack Obama issued the meekest possible comment on Reverend Wright, saying the man doesn’t speak for him and that Obama understands how folks might be offended. (He spoke for only six minutes and took three questions, five less than he permitted at his “you had eight questions” Rezko presser earlier in the year.) Weak tea of this kind seems to be the campaign’s chosen approach, not merely a filler to get through the first news cycle.

There is evidently nothing Wright can say that would cause Obama to break, once and for all, with him. And no explanation comes to mind to help us understand how Wright concealed his world view from Obama for so long.

But the dilemma is not one easily resolved. If Obama took advice from an unlikely source and denounced Wright, what would be the explanation for the delay? What did he learn since the Philadelphia speech that changed his mind? And all those folks who demanded that Obama stand up to the trouble-making media and Vast Right Wing Conspiracy would be none too pleased.

Indeed, this is a problem entirely of Obama’s own making. By sticking with Wright and declining the first opportunity, which is always the best opportunity, to reject the hate-mongering preacher, he placed his bet that voters could be wowed and cowed by a high-minded speech on racial unity. That speech garnered some gushing reviews. But it may have turned out to be a fatally flawed strategy.

Even liberal pundits recognize the impact:

For Senator Obama, the re-emergence of Rev. Wright has been devastating. The senator has been trying desperately to bolster his standing with skeptical and even hostile white working-class voters. When the story line of the campaign shifts almost entirely to the race-in-your-face antics of someone like Mr. Wright, Mr. Obama’s chances can only suffer.Beyond that, the apparent helplessness of the Obama campaign in the face of the Wright onslaught contributes to the growing perception of the candidate as weak, as someone who is unwilling or unable to fight aggressively on his own behalf.

Who could have possibly guessed that that in the age of digital media everyone would be able to put all the pieces together and conclude that Obama’s post-racial rhetoric is utterly at odds with his experience in Wright’s church? Looks like the “21st century candidate” (Donna Brazile’s term) is turning out to be hopelessly 20th century.

Just before the Monday evening news, Barack Obama issued the meekest possible comment on Reverend Wright, saying the man doesn’t speak for him and that Obama understands how folks might be offended. (He spoke for only six minutes and took three questions, five less than he permitted at his “you had eight questions” Rezko presser earlier in the year.) Weak tea of this kind seems to be the campaign’s chosen approach, not merely a filler to get through the first news cycle.

There is evidently nothing Wright can say that would cause Obama to break, once and for all, with him. And no explanation comes to mind to help us understand how Wright concealed his world view from Obama for so long.

But the dilemma is not one easily resolved. If Obama took advice from an unlikely source and denounced Wright, what would be the explanation for the delay? What did he learn since the Philadelphia speech that changed his mind? And all those folks who demanded that Obama stand up to the trouble-making media and Vast Right Wing Conspiracy would be none too pleased.

Indeed, this is a problem entirely of Obama’s own making. By sticking with Wright and declining the first opportunity, which is always the best opportunity, to reject the hate-mongering preacher, he placed his bet that voters could be wowed and cowed by a high-minded speech on racial unity. That speech garnered some gushing reviews. But it may have turned out to be a fatally flawed strategy.

Even liberal pundits recognize the impact:

For Senator Obama, the re-emergence of Rev. Wright has been devastating. The senator has been trying desperately to bolster his standing with skeptical and even hostile white working-class voters. When the story line of the campaign shifts almost entirely to the race-in-your-face antics of someone like Mr. Wright, Mr. Obama’s chances can only suffer.Beyond that, the apparent helplessness of the Obama campaign in the face of the Wright onslaught contributes to the growing perception of the candidate as weak, as someone who is unwilling or unable to fight aggressively on his own behalf.

Who could have possibly guessed that that in the age of digital media everyone would be able to put all the pieces together and conclude that Obama’s post-racial rhetoric is utterly at odds with his experience in Wright’s church? Looks like the “21st century candidate” (Donna Brazile’s term) is turning out to be hopelessly 20th century.

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Olmert Loses Three

Ehud Olmert’s threadbare coalition just got threadbarer. Three members of the Pensioners’ party–a bizarre political apparition that managed to get 7 seats in parliament based almost entirely on the Israeli voter’s sense of irony– have split off to form the “Justice for Pensioners” party. (Life of Brian fans, take note.) The trio’s principal gripe is that the government has not actually fulfilled its commitments as part of the coalition agreement, and that their former party head Rafi Eitan is having too much fun as a minister to notice. Anyway, since they are out of the coalition, Olmert is down to 64 seats in a Knesset where a ruling majority needs 61.

There will be elections as soon as one of the parties thinks it’ll be better off trying their luck with voters than in their present state. Could be tomorrow, could be in a year. Don’t hold your breath.

Ehud Olmert’s threadbare coalition just got threadbarer. Three members of the Pensioners’ party–a bizarre political apparition that managed to get 7 seats in parliament based almost entirely on the Israeli voter’s sense of irony– have split off to form the “Justice for Pensioners” party. (Life of Brian fans, take note.) The trio’s principal gripe is that the government has not actually fulfilled its commitments as part of the coalition agreement, and that their former party head Rafi Eitan is having too much fun as a minister to notice. Anyway, since they are out of the coalition, Olmert is down to 64 seats in a Knesset where a ruling majority needs 61.

There will be elections as soon as one of the parties thinks it’ll be better off trying their luck with voters than in their present state. Could be tomorrow, could be in a year. Don’t hold your breath.

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Hillary’s Rise From The Dead?

It is quite possible, as John suggests, that in the end Barack Obama will stumble into the nomination. But there are signs that Hillary Clinton’s hopes are not yet extinguished. She got the endorsement of another key governor, this time in North Carolina. Leftwing bloggers are “surprised” that Clinton now bests Obama among independents. Really? Could it be he’s lost his main selling point, namely his “appeal to independents [which] is central to the argument for his electability”?

Even more telling is that, in addition to the frowns from the pundit class, Obama’s now getting awful coverage from the working press. Does this mean he’s done for? No, but he needs to get the chatter off Wright, pull out a win in Indiana, meet expectations in North Carolina, and get his poll numbers with independents (and in the head-to-head match up against McCain) squared away. All of this is doable. But it sure doesn’t sound as easy as it might have a week or so ago.

It is quite possible, as John suggests, that in the end Barack Obama will stumble into the nomination. But there are signs that Hillary Clinton’s hopes are not yet extinguished. She got the endorsement of another key governor, this time in North Carolina. Leftwing bloggers are “surprised” that Clinton now bests Obama among independents. Really? Could it be he’s lost his main selling point, namely his “appeal to independents [which] is central to the argument for his electability”?

Even more telling is that, in addition to the frowns from the pundit class, Obama’s now getting awful coverage from the working press. Does this mean he’s done for? No, but he needs to get the chatter off Wright, pull out a win in Indiana, meet expectations in North Carolina, and get his poll numbers with independents (and in the head-to-head match up against McCain) squared away. All of this is doable. But it sure doesn’t sound as easy as it might have a week or so ago.

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