Political Junkie: Obama's Former Pastor Speaks Out

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

In this week's edition of the Political Junkie, NPR's political editor Ken Rudin talks about the upcoming primaries in North Carolina and Indiana. Also, superdelegates discuss the impact of racially-charged remarks made by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's former pastor.

Guests:

Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor, writes the weekly "Political Junkie" column

Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC), Represents North Carolina's 12th district; superdelegate committed to Barack Obama

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Represents Texas' 18th district; superdelegate committed to Hillary Clinton

Ron Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute and Scholar Practitioner Program; professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland

The Democrats' Fight to the Finish

Barack Obama 'It's Time to Turn the Page' button

Their battle is not ending anytime soon. Nor should it. hide caption

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Hillary Clinton 'I'm in to Win' button
Joshua Eilberg button

In 1974, Rep. Joshua Eilberg turned back a challenge from 28-year-old Chris Matthews. hide caption

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'Tcitizens for Tsongas' button

Seventeen years ago today, the former Massachusetts senator declares his candidacy for president. hide caption

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It has become a campaign like no other. Continuing to throw conventional wisdom out the window, it defies description or logic. Every time you think you have a handle on it, something comes along to put you back at square one.

The most mind-numbing thing of all: People are still citing poll numbers as to what will happen in November, for gosh sakes. We can't even predict what's going to happen tomorrow, let alone six months from now. Heck, we couldn't even predict the New Hampshire primary on the day of the New Hampshire primary.

Where to begin? Here are some questions that might not be answered anytime soon.

Is it mathematically impossible for Clinton to win the nomination? The numbers don't look promising. When you look at the way the Democrats apportion their delegates in the primaries (unlike the Republicans' "winner-take-all" system in many states), it is very hard to see how, when all is said and done on June 3, she will find herself in the delegate count lead.

Clinton won a sizable, nine-plus point victory in Pennsylvania's primary, but impressive as it was, she netted only 10 delegates out of it. As of this writing, Obama has 1,730 delegates, compared with 1,597 for Clinton — 2,025 are needed for the nomination.

Where is she going to get the delegates she needs to not only take the lead, but also win at the party convention in Denver? Obviously, one answer would be the 290 or so superdelegates who haven't yet publicly committed to a candidate. But even in the wake of his Pennsylvania defeat, Obama has continued to pick up more supers than Clinton. Since that primary, Obama gained nine, compared with five for her.

Clinton picked up North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley, Reps. Ike Skelton of Missouri and John Tanner of Tennessee, Pennsylvania state AFL-CIO President Bill George and New Hampshire party bigwig Kathy Sullivan. Obama, on the other hand, got Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry; Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico; Reps. Baron Hill of Indiana, Bruce Braley of Iowa, Ben Chandler of Kentucky and David Wu of Oregon; and party notables Richard Machacek (Iowa), Audra Ostergard (Nebraska) and Charlene Fernandez (Arizona).

What's coming up? All eyes are on May 6 and the primaries in Indiana and North Carolina. They are the most important contests in the history of the republic simply because they are next. It's been that kind of a campaign. The sense is that Obama wins in the Tar Heel State, but it's even money in Indiana. Clinton is favored in West Virginia on May 13 and Kentucky a week later. But let's get past May 6 first.

When does it end? Sometimes, you need to decide for yourself when it's time to pull up stakes and fold your cards. There were two vastly different approaches in 1980. George H.W. Bush, in his bid for the Republican nomination that year, went into the May 20 primary badly trailing front-runner Ronald Reagan. Bush's victory in Michigan was substantial — 57 percent to 32 percent. But Michigan still wasn't enough. Less than a week later, he figured there was no way he could surpass Reagan in the delegate count and ended his campaign.

On the Democratic side that year, it wasn't as tidy. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) took his fight to President Carter behind the last round of primaries in early June — when Carter won a majority of the delegates needed to assure him renomination — all the way to the convention, where the Kennedy forces fought the Carter forces over the rules and platform, all unsuccessfully.

It has been said that when a battle for the nomination goes all the way to the convention — as with Kennedy vs. Carter in 1980, and Republicans Reagan vs. Ford in '76 — the party's task of uniting in time for November is that much more difficult. This may be true, though the defeats of Presidents Ford and then Carter are more complicated than that.

Still, Democrats are increasingly concerned that the bad blood between Clinton and Obama may spill out onto the general election. A sizable number — perhaps as much as one-third — of Clinton voters in Pennsylvania have indicated they wouldn't vote for Obama in the fall; the number of Obama voters who would bypass a Clinton vote was smaller, though still significant. I suspect there is no way to know in the heat of a battle that has become so personal what kind of party fallout we'll see in November. Factors such as the war, rising gasoline prices, the unpopularity of President Bush and the general unease of the economy all point to a Democratic year. But if there are sizable defections to Republican John McCain, then the Dems' cakewalk will instead become a pie in the face.

What to make of Bill Clinton's role? Probably the most popular Democratic president since JFK, he has lost much of the goodwill he had among African Americans, long his most steadfast of supporters. This began with his comments in the racially polarizing conversations surrounding the South Carolina primary and continues to the present — just the other day, Clinton attacked Obama and the media for playing the racial card against him.

For much of the campaign, it has been about Bill Clinton, and while no one can connect with voters like he can, nobody seems to be squandering a legacy as fast as he has. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), the leading black member of the House who has not endorsed a candidate, has said African Americans are "incensed" over Bill Clinton's statements, and Clyburn indicated that attacks on Obama by the Clintons could make it impossible for Obama to win the general election.

Who has the most votes? If you're Hillary Clinton, you do, because you count what happened in Michigan and Florida, two states she won. But no delegates were awarded because the states moved up their primaries to a date deemed unacceptable to the Democratic National Committee. It's a bit disingenuous to include vote totals from the two, and no one outside the Clinton camp counts them. This "new math" is no doubt a strategy to help her make a case to the superdelegates.

Of course, it's delegate totals, not popular votes, that will determine the nomination, just as it's electoral votes, not popular votes — as Al Gore learned — that get you to the White House. Besides, Hubert Humphrey had more popular votes than George McGovern in their battle for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination. Was McGovern not the rightful nominee?

Can Obama win the white vote? Pennsylvania exit polls showed that white voters, especially blue-collar Dems, went overwhelmingly for Clinton. Everything from his skin color to his "bitter" comment in San Francisco to charges of elitism to his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright has been blamed for that. All may be true. And it may portend big trouble for Obama in November. But for the record, no Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of white voters since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Is the Rev. Jeremiah Wright the gift that keeps on giving? Some Republicans think so. Whereas we once talked about Obama as having "transcended" race, race seems to be all we're talking about now. And much of the blame lies with Obama's former pastor, who pulled off a trifecta in the past few days with his Bill Moyers interview, an NAACP speech and his appearance at the National Press Club in Washington.

If nothing else, Wright's visibility this week is a stark reminder to the Obama campaign that this guy is not going away. When Obama gave his widely praised speech on race in Philadelphia in March, it was to explain his complicated relationship with the fiery preacher, who among other things blamed the U.S. government for spreading the AIDS virus in the black community and said America "reaped what it sowed" on Sept. 11. But Wright's antics at the press club forced Obama to take action once again. Obama's remarks to reporters in North Carolina on Tuesday were evidence that the speech in Philly was little more than a Band-Aid.

Has Obama rescued his candidacy? Hard to tell. More and more Democrats are now wondering if Wright will be Obama's albatross for the fall. Obama, himself, is no doubt wondering why Wright decided to put on his show now, at the critical juncture of the presidential race. For all the attention Bill Clinton craves for himself, there is no question he wants his wife to become president. The same, as we've learned this week, cannot be said about Wright and Obama.

Finally, did I really say on CNN that Hillary Clinton reminded me of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction? I did. I wish I hadn't. It was a facile and dumb comparison. And for all the people who took their marching orders from the Clinton campaign's e-mail blast instructing them to express their displeasure to me, rest assured, I have read every note. Some have been quite thoughtful, enough to establish some sort of dialogue. Others, regrettably, have contained an astonishing amount of vitriol and hate. It's distressing that many of those who complain the most about bigotry and ignorance exhibit it themselves.

The point that I was inartfully trying to make, as I wrote in one e-mail, is that I was mocking the "when-will-Hillary-drop-out?" conversations that have been going on since New Hampshire — as in, well, if she loses N.H., she's finished. If she loses Ohio or Texas, she's gone. I wanted to make the point that she's not leaving the race any time soon, nor should she. She wins in Pennsylvania by nearly 10 points and people still want to know when she's getting out? Nonsense. I concede that I damaged my case by making the Glenn Close comparison, but I was trying to say sorry, you're not going to get rid of her. This is only the seventh inning. The race hasn't been going on "too long." In fact, these states — Indiana, North Carolina, Oregon, etc. — haven't been part of the conversation for decades. Let the people have their say and then we'll see who should drop out.

And now, your questions:

Q: The Republican-dominated Florida government moved up the elections that affected the Democratic Party's primary. The DNC then punished the Democratic voters of Florida, who had no say in the day they were said to vote. All the candidates were on the ballot. I do not see how this election in which voters had plenty of time to go out and vote and plenty of time to learn about the candidates is in any way not valid. Did the Republican Party sabotage the Democratic elections on purpose, and in turn did the DNC help them by not seeing the ploy? Why are the Florida voters left paying the price? - Maria Fernandez, Miami

A: It wasn't only the Republicans in Florida who voted to move up the primary. If memory serves, the vote in the state House was 118-0, so I assume that would include every Democrat who voted. But you raise a larger point, and a correct one, in that Democratic voters in Florida (at least as of this writing) have no say in deciding their nominee.

Not to beat this tale to death, but the DNC told Florida (and Michigan) from the start that if they violated their primary window and moved up their contests to January, they would lose their delegates. (The Republican National Committee did the same thing, though penalizing the states for only half their delegates.) Nonetheless, both states shifted their primaries. Yes, Florida has a Republican governor and a GOP state Legislature, but Michigan has a Democratic governor and a Democratic House (the Senate is Republican). I suspect it was less a case of Republicans trying to sabotage the Democrats and more that the two states were feeling left out of the process. The irony is that with the battle between Clinton and Obama going on longer than anyone could have imagined, the two states — had they kept their original spots on the calendar — could have wound up as king- (or queen-) makers.

This week, several Democratic leaders in Michigan came up with a proposal that would split its delegates 69-59 between Clinton and Obama. Clinton says that because she "won" the Jan. 15 primary, she should get 73 delegates out of the state. Obama wants the delegates split evenly. The 69-59 suggestion is a compromise that may or may not fly.

The DNC is holding a meeting May 31, hoping to arrive at a solution that both campaigns will embrace. That may be hard to pull off.

Q: When the Democrats decided not to count the delegates from Michigan and Florida, did they lower the number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination? - Tahir Naim, Sunnyvale, Calif.

A: Yes. The 2,025 needed to win the Democratic nomination does not include delegates from the two states.

Q: How did Hillary's name get on the Michigan and Florida ballots but not Obama's? - Gretchen White, Oakland, Calif.

A: Clinton's name, along with those of Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich, were on the Michigan ballot. The other Democratic candidates asked that their names be taken off. All the candidates appeared on the Florida ballot.

Some other comments about the Florida/Michigan mess:

Jen Panhorst of Ann Arbor, Mich.: "It seems that while the Michigan state [Democratic] Party screwed everything up, the people of Michigan are the ones who have to face the consequences. I simply don't trust anything the Michigan Democratic Party bosses or legislators say after the way they turned our primary into a train wreck."

Judy Rurak of Rochester, Mich.: "Shame on our state 'leaders' who disenfranchised us. Levin, Stabenow, Dingell, Brewer, et al. The Michigan Democratic state committee shot itself in the foot by trying to make our primary 'relevant,' thinking it had to be moved ahead of the scheduled date. Michigan voters should place their anger where it belongs — right here at home."

Q: I just read a fascinating article about MSNBC host Chris Matthews [in the New York Times Sunday magazine]. Is he going to run against Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) in 2010? What can you tell me about his failed campaign for Congress in the 1970s? - Joanne Cruz, Philadelphia

A: The article, which was not flattering to Matthews (shall we say), points out that he remains under contract with MSNBC thru June of 2009. There has been speculation that were he to leave the network he could throw his name into the ring as a potential Democratic Senate candidate, but I'm guessing he doesn't run. Specter has recently disclosed that there has been a recurrence of his cancer, but he is expected to seek re-election.

In 1974, in the midst of Watergate, Matthews — who was then 28 years old — challenged Rep. Joshua Eilberg in the Democratic primary in a district centered in northeast Philadelphia. While Eilberg's later ethics problems cost him his 1978 re-election contest — he eventually pleaded guilty to conflict of interest charges and was sentenced to five years in prison — he showed none of those vulnerabilities in 1974 that would warrant a challenge in the primary. For his part, Matthews ran an idealistic race, refusing to accept campaign donations, and received nearly 24 percent of the vote. That was his only bid for public office. He later worked as a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter and became a key aide to House Speaker Tip O'Neill before turning to TV journalism/punditry.

Q: The three remaining presidential candidates are senators. One of them, obviously, will need to resign in order to assume the presidency. What are the procedures for filling Senate vacancies in Arizona, Illinois and New York? - Sally Smith, Ashburn, Va.

A: In Arizona, as we (meaning me) learned in the April 16 column, a Senate replacement named by the governor must be of the same party of the departing incumbent. Thus, should Sen. John McCain (R) be elected president, Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) would name a Republican successor. In New York and Illinois, the governors there (both Democrats) are allowed to name whomever they choose, and there is no shortage of Democrats in each state who would love the appointment.

The last Senate vacancy in Illinois came in September 1969 following the death of Republican Everett Dirksen. Gov. Richard Ogilvie (R) named an ally, state House Speaker Ralph Tyler Smith (R), to the seat, but Smith lost the 1970 special election to Adlai Stevenson III (D). The last such vacancy in New York also came following a death: that of Robert Kennedy (D) in 1968. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R) named upstate congressman Charles Goodell (R) to succeed RFK. Goodell lost his bid for a full term in 1970 in a three-way contest to Conservative James Buckley.

Q: Was Teddy Roosevelt the first president to run for a third term? - Mark Allender, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio

A: Well, it depends on how we define his tenure. Roosevelt became president in 1901 following the assassination of William McKinley and ran for a full term in 1904, where he was handily elected. Roosevelt gave up the presidency after 1908, but ran again unsuccessfully in 1912, first as a Republican and then, failing to win the GOP nomination, as a third-party candidate. There was also a movement to draft TR in 1916 as a Progressive, but it didn't go far. Although Roosevelt served nearly eight years as president, he was elected only once.

The first president to run for a third term was actually Ulysses Grant. Elected in 1868 and 1872, Grant sought a comeback in 1880 but lost out at the Republican convention to Rep. James Garfield of Ohio on the 36th ballot.

ON THE CALENDAR:

May 3 - Democratic presidential caucuses in Guam. Special congressional elections in two vacant Louisiana districts: the 1st, where Bobby Jindal (R) was elected governor, and the 6th, where Richard Baker (R) resigned.

May 6 - Presidential primaries in Indiana and North Carolina. Also in Indiana, there is a Democratic gubernatorial primary to find a challenger to Gov. Mitch Daniels (R). In North Carolina, Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) is also up for re-election, but there is a contest to succeed term-limited Gov. Mike Easley (D).

May 13 - Democratic presidential primary in West Virginia. State/congressional primaries in Nebraska (where GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel is retiring) and West Virginia (where Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Gov. Joe Manchin, both Dems, are up for re-election). Special runoff election in Mississippi's 1st District to fill the seat vacated by now-Sen. Roger Wicker (R).

May 20 - Primaries in Kentucky and Oregon (presidential as well as state/congressional). Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Gordon Smith (R-OR) are seeking re-election. State/congressional primary only in Arkansas, where Sen. Mark Pryor (D) is running without opposition.

May 22-26 - Libertarian Party national convention, Denver.

May 27 - State/congressional primary in Idaho. Sen. Larry Craig (R) is retiring.

May 30 - Virginia Republican state convention, Richmond.

May 31 - Democratic National Committee meeting on Florida delegate situation.

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******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state. *********

This day in campaign history: Former Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-MA) announces his bid for the 1992 presidential race, the first candidate to do so (April 30, 1991).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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