31 March 2008

An Olympic Opportunity

Even last week, I thought about urging President Bush not to attend the Beijing Olympics. My logic was simple: Did FDR show up in Berlin as Der Fuhrer's guest of honor? Was Jimmy Carter ever going to grace Moscow with his presence even if he hadn't ordered its boycott? Why would Bush want to have anything to do with a regime that has so much blood of innocents on its hands?

But after viewing the events in Tibet the last couple of weeks, I changed my mind. At the crossroads of history, the best thing for America to do, vis-a-vis China, is to engage her, instead of further enraging her.

I'm hardly the appeasement type. Usually, I advocate fighting to the death. But here is a strategic opportunity for real reform to take place in China. This kind of opportunity doesn't come often, and it must not be missed.

To be sure, the Beijing regime is treating the Summer Games as China's coming out party. Totalitarian outfits love using the Olympics as a showcase. Berlin 1936, with Leni Riefenstahl working the cameras, will never be topped as the finest hour for the art of propaganda. Though Moscow 1980 and Sarajevo 1984 tried in vain.

The leadership in Zhongnanhai has dusted off Hitler and Goebbels' playbook and choreographed accordingly. Beijing was to be transformed from the massively polluted and congested grime into the beacon for Chinese-style socialism. And the rest of China, as far as anywhere the visitors can see, was to be made into a 21st century workers' paradise, with a capitalist twist.

There's just one problem on borrowing the Nazi script -- this ain't 1936. News get out, fast, and therefore you just can't control everything, especially information.

Try as it might, the Beijing government is hardly omnipotent even within its own borders, thanks to rapid global communication. The skirmishes in Lhasa, no matter whose side you believe, proves this point. And trust me, that's only the beginning. Between now and the opening ceremonies in August, there will be more bloodshed.

The communists are in a pickle here. Every group with a grievance will use this opportunity to be seen or heard. And there are plenty of them in China. If the regime employs a high-handed crackdown, it risks a possible international boycott and a massive loss of face. If it goes for a half-hearted slapdown, as it apparently did in Tibet, then it will only encourage more dissonance.

For this reason, it actually makes sense to fully engage China. President Bush no doubt will be keeping constant communication with China's Hu Jintao during the period leading up to the event. There's plenty to talk about: Human rights, Tibet, North Korea and of course, Taiwan. Luckily for Hu, thanks to Taiwan's voters, his most thorny problem is at the moment the least of his concerns.

Bush needs to constantly remind Hu the commitments that China has made in order to win the bid for the Olympics. Sure, those commies are not really into keeping their word, but under a harsh international spotlight, they'd at least make a show of it. Liberty must always be topic No. 1, even if it annoys the hell out of Hu.

As good faith, Bush should fulfill his pledged appearance at the Games -- even if Sarkozy and other European leaders bail at the last minute. The presence of a sitting American president will be an enormous boost to the Chinese leadership. But instead of allowing Hu and Co. to use this as a propaganda tool, Bush instead should be there as part enforcer, part shrink, counseling temperance over reprisal when and if more stuff hits the fan during the Games.

Will his mere presence help usher in an era of political reform in China? That's doubtful. But by being there, Bush will do more good than harm. China's government has invested so much in staging the Olympics, it's not willing to let it fall to pieces by being trigger happy, especially with the leader of the world's only uber-power on site as a distinguished guest.

That's why this is one heck of an opportunity. By being in Beijing, Bush isn't sticking up for the communist leadership, he will be serving the cause of liberty -- for the billions of Chinese, for whom it's long overdue.

25 March 2008

A New Day in Taiwan

Ma Ying-Jeou's resounding victory in Saturday's presidential election will usher in a new age in East Asia. Stability, the spirit of cooperation and perhaps, a sustainable peace, may finally find their place in the long troubled waters of the Taiwan Strait.

For that, we should thank Taiwan's incredibly astute voters. Despite much speculation and media hand-wringing, the Taiwanese electorate never lost sight of what's fundamentally important to them -- economic recovery and political opportunity.

Taiwan has lost much during Chen Shui-Bian's reign of terror over the past eight years. While the steaming Chinese market train chugged along, Taiwan missed out on the great opportunity despite all its advantages. And politically Taiwan continued to be marginalized because of Chen's insistence on provocative yet unproductive rhetoric that incensed China and heaped untold annoyance on the United States -- Taiwan's security patron.

Chen's failures as president has disastrous consequences for his party and its future. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was the majority party in parliament when Chen won the presidency in 2000. It was dominant in the south and competitive in the east and north. He won a disputed re-election in 2004, but mistook his narrow victory as a mandate, as he invested all his time plundering the government while sowing seeds of division between the islanders and mainlanders.

Taiwan's electorate, who had its first taste of democracy only in the mid 1990s, at first was easily manipulated by Chen's politicking. But remarkably, over the past four years, that electorate has grown considerably wiser. It delivered a devastating rebuke to the DPP in January's parliamentary election, reducing it to a fringe minority party with fewer than one quarter of the seats. And last Saturday, DPP's free fall from ruling party to political wilderness was complete.

Ma's Kuomintang (KMT) was clearly the beneficiary of voters' resentment of DPP's -- and Chen's -- abject failures. But Ma and his party had better not squander this goodwill. Taiwan's voters have given Ma and the KMT the next four years a carte blanche to get things done, and they'd better hit the ground running.

First and foremost, Taiwan needs to reach a long-term and meaningful detente with China. Essentially, without Chen's idiotic saber-rattling, China will have no rational reason for military action against Taiwan. A political accommodation will improve Taiwan's diplomatic standing in the world and a NAFTA-like pan-China trade agreement will be mutually beneficial.

Secondly, Ma's election gives him an opportunity to rid of the divisive identity politics that Chen so treasured. A mainlander himself born in Hong Kong, Ma was nevertheless trusted by the voters who are overwhelmingly islanders. He won points with a clean campaign that's focused on issues and also gentlemanly manners in great contrast to Chen's (and his DPP successor Frank Hsieh's) unrefined junkyard dog behavior.

Finally, and most importantly, a free, stable and peaceful Taiwan will have the greatest influence on China's continued liberalization. As traffic between the island and mainland increases, Taiwan will become a shining example for many Chinese what future may hold for them. Most mainland Chinese are fascinated with Taiwan -- for its democracy, prosperity and vibrancy. Taiwan has transformed itself from authoritarian rule to a full-fledged democracy in a quarter century -- it can easily become the model for a country and people who know political reform is long overdue for an oppressive and corrupt regime.

Taiwan's voters have chosen wisely. Now it's up to their chosen politicians to carry out their agenda. For Ma, much is given and much is expected.

11 March 2008

Eye on the Prize, Foot on the Gas

As the curtain draws on the Mississippi primary, this topsy-turvy election season hits the snooze button. The next contest is six weeks away, and the Democratic combatants will dig in for the April 22 showdown in Pennsylvania.

Whether they're digging trenches or the party's own grave in the general election is uncertain. But this much we know: Barack Obama has the math on his side. The question is: Will he put it to good use?

After Pennsylvania, there are only seven states -- plus Puerto Rico and Guam -- left to vote. Leaving out Guam and its puny lot of 4 delegates aside, it will probably be played to a draw. Obama should be favored to win North Carolina, Oregon, Montana and South Dakota and pick up around 200 delegates. Hillary Clinton will win Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia and Puerto Rico and around 200 delegates.

With that in mind, here are the crucial strategic choices that Obama must make to keep math on his side, and Clinton's thinly veiled attempt to steal the nomination at bay.

1. Minimize his losses in Pennsylvania -- This election has proved that momentum means nothing and demographics mean everything. The Keystone State is not going to be Obama's friend. It has a fairly polarized electorate and lots of downscale white voters. Gov. Ed Rendell will stop at nothing -- cheating if necessary -- to help the Clintons. Michael Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia, the only Pennsylvania city with a significant black population, also endorses Clinton.

Obama needs to borrow a page out of the Clinton playbook, which sustained her during an 11-game losing streak. He must keep expectations way down, to the media and publicly. Send out surrogates to paint a bleak picture of a lost cause and act shocked when he loses by only 10 points and somehow spin it as a "victory." Go ahead, it's not that hard to do. Hillary has made a whole campaign season out of it.

2. Keep presence and pressure in North Carolina -- On the other hand, Obama must win North Carolina, and maybe win big. The Tar Heel State comes two weeks after Pennsylvania and really is the last significant race in the nominating contest. It is delegate-rich; and a convincing win here will firmly entrench him as the frontrunner with mostly friendly terrain left on the campaign trail.

He should act like Pennsylvania and North Carolina are a combo deal and work on an appearance of a split. Invest most of his resources in North Carolina and find ways to dissuade Republicans from flooding the polling places to vote for Hillary.

3. Make a decision on Michigan and Florida -- This is a toughie, but the reality is, no matter what happens in these two states, no vote, re-vote, mail-in vote, it will make surprisingly little difference in the delegate math.

Assuming the delegates will be seated and that Hillary carries both states by 55-45 margins, she will still lose the race for pledged delegates by about 100. If the delegates from Michigan and Florida are banned, then Obama needs about 150 additional super delegates (beyond the current 200 already committed to him) to make the magic number. If those rogue states are seated, he still only needs about 170, not a big jump.

It actually makes a lot more sense for Obama to allow the previous votes to stand and the delegates to be seated -- as long as he can lay claim to all the "uncommitted" votes in Michigan -- and here's why: a) It denies Hillary two much-needed victories late in the campaign; b) Obama will appear to be magnanimous and fighting for the voters even though it's to his disadvantage; c) It keeps the cost to him contained because he could easily lose by bigger margins in the event of a re-vote.

4. Stay away from the popular vote myth -- Obama brought this debate into the game and now he needs to mute it. There is no benefit to him to make this argument. The argument should be all about delegates and the popular vote is meaningless.

This is the reasons why Obama should steer clear of this bogus talking point: It's not a true popular vote contest anyway. He gets punished severely in caucus states (where he's dominated) because the popular vote counts are severely skewed. For example, he won the Colorado caucuses by 35 points, yet picked up only a 40,000 popular vote lead. In Louisiana, with similar number of delegates at stake, he won by 20 points in the primary, and gained an 80,000 popular vote edge.

At the moment, he has a lead of 700,000 in popular vote. But that will be wiped out if Michigan and Florida are put in the mix and Pennsylvania goes to Clinton as expected. He does not want Hillary to use the popular vote as a smoke-screen to steal the nomination. Giving in on Michigan and Florida actually will help his cause because that just makes the popular vote argument even more illegitimate since he wasn't even on the ballot in Michigan.

5. Push hard toward the magic number (whichever) -- Slowly but surely, he's eating into Hillary's lead in the super delegates. What once was a lead of about 100 for Hillary has shrunk to about 30. If he can pick up another 100 or so supers in the coming three months, that will create enormous pressure on others to bring him across the finish line.

If the magic number stays at 2,025, and he's at about 1,990 when Montana and South Dakota are done on June 3, then it shouldn't be all that difficult to shake down another 35 or so supers to fall in line for the good of the party. Even if Michigan and Florida are added back in the mix and the magic number moves up to 2,182, he'll have to convince about 50 of the over 300 yet-to-commit supers at that point.

The reality is that Obama has an insurmountable lead in pledged delegates. By winning Mississippi, he also guaranteed that he'll have won more states no matter what happens the rest of the way. His job is now helping the voters (and the media) to filter out all the noise that should be inconsequential to winning the nomination.

Whether he's equal to this simple task will determine whether he's fit for the highest office in the land.

05 March 2008

Obama's Lost Tuesday

There is no question that Barack Obama was the big loser Tuesday night. While John McCain and Hillary Clinton celebrated, Obama must be wondering if he'd just blown his chance at the presidency of the United States.

Tuesday was his opportunity to finish off Clinton, for good. All he needed was an undisputed victory in Texas -- that would've brought forth enormous pressure to get Hillary to fold up shop, or at least completely marginalized her campaign. But he lost, and with it, Clinton regained the initiative in the Democratic contest.

Yes, it's true. Don't be fooled by the numbers. They lie.

Obama can spin it all he wants that this is all about delegates. That he still has a mathematically insurmountable lead among pledged delegates. That he prevented Hillary from denting his lead by keeping it close in Texas. That all Hillary managed on Tuesday was gaining 10 more delegates than he did out of nearly 400 in play.

All true, but all meaningless now.

Hillary has the upperhand because she's winning the spin war. It's rather amazing how her campaign has managed the game of low expectations to such scintillating perfection. Three weeks ago, she had double-digit leads in both Ohio and Texas. Tuesday, she takes Ohio by 10 points and ekes out a close win in Texas; and suddenly, she's achieved this amazing "comeback" victory.

Not to mention until Tuesday, she'd lost 11 straight contests.

The fact that she's still in the race after such a losing streak was less a tribute to her tenacity but more of an indictment against Obama's lack of political instincts. A candidate on that sort of losing streak should've been kicked to the curb remorselessly like a piece of trash. A better frontrunner would've destroyed his opponent with a resounding coup de grace.

If you weren't paying attention, McCain did just that to Rudy Giuliani in Florida -- and Rudy had only lost three in a row up to that point.

Obama's inability to finish off Clinton will come back to haunt him, because he's now allowed the game to go on and armed Clinton with real ammunition. The only question is whether Obama will have the wherewithal to still win the nomination.

It comes down to spin. Obama has the numbers on his side. But Hillary has a more compelling storyline.

She now has won six of the eight states with the biggest electoral haul -- California, New York, Texas, Florida*, Ohio and Michigan*. She'll fight hard to remove the asterisks from Florida and Michigan. And as the prohibitive favorite to win Pennsylvania on April 22, she should make it seven of eight, with Obama claiming only his home state of Illinois.

Clinton also has fared better in those battleground states that will become crucial in November. Of the seven states decided by 3 percentage points or less during the 2004 election, she's won four -- New Mexico, New Hampshire, Ohio and Nevada -- with Pennsylvania still to come. She can rightfully argue that she has a better chance to capture these "purple" states.

If Obama has a counter argument, he'd better hone it and bring it out now. And "I'm leading the race for delegates" won't do.

Obama has to roll up his sleeves and get ready to fight a dirty war. His days as a political prince are over. He's had the "kitchen sink" thrown at him and he's been wounded. His task now is to throw stuff back at the Clintons like he means it.

And he should also forget about McCain, at least for the moment. Just like playing sports, you don't talk about the next opponent when you haven't beaten the one you have on hand.

In any event, he's up against it now. A grueling battle, sure to culminate in a cauldron of acrimony and recrimination, will go on until August at the Democratic Convention. That's a price Obama will be paying, dearly, for not vanquishing Clinton on Tuesday.

03 March 2008

The Coronation? Not Just Yet

Funny how most media pundits are lemmings. There is one narrative and nobody ever seems to stray from that.

First, it was the inevitable Hillary Clinton. When that proved wrong, everyone rushed to dissect the how and the why. Then it was the fight to the finish. And when Barack Obama won 11 straight contests, another "correction" set in. Finally, on the eve of the "showdown" contests in Ohio and Texas, everybody is busy writing the obits of the Hillary campaign.

As Lee Corso is prone to say: "Not so fast, my friend."

There is a chance, a good chance, that Clinton will win both Ohio and Texas primaries. And if that were to happen, the obits will be suddenly written for the Obama campaign, and for good reason. If with all the momentum and adulation of the press on his side, he's still unable to deliver the knockout blow to the dysfunctional Clinton campaign, then his viability as the Democrats' nominee must be questioned, severely.

Simply put, Tuesday may represent the Battle of the Marne, or Stalingrad, for Obama, depending on which World War is closer to your heart.

There is a good reason to worry about Obama's prospects. First and foremost, the polls are telling. For the last two weeks, he's had a lead in Texas, but never statistically meaningful. So at best he's in a dead heat in the Lone Star State. As for Ohio, after surging to close down a double-digit deficit, Obama has seen his support collapse. While he came within 4 points of Clinton about a week ago, the new polls show that the gap has again reached double digits.

He will lose Ohio, maybe big, thus delivering Clinton a reprieve she needed, no matter what happens in Texas.

And let's not forget Rhode Island and Vermont, either, even if both candidates apparently did. Clinton might win both, adding to victories in Ohio, perhaps even Texas, she'd be the one riding on a four-state sweep and that magic carpet -- momentum.

So how did this gloomy picture emerge for Obama, completely unnoticed?

Besides the media's propensity of being a herd, their inability to peel away a seemingly reliable trend is to blame. The narrative goes like this: Clinton has the name recognition, but when people get to know Obama, they gravitate toward him and abandon Clinton.

The narrative is on target, with a heretofore undiscovered caveat: It only works when the exposure is rapid and short. When the voters see too much of Obama, they go back to the default choice Clinton.

After winning the opening contest in Iowa, Obama has won a string of victories where he either had only about a week to sell himself to the voters, or, in the case of Tsunami Tuesday, he had to spread himself around to a number of states. When the voters saw him in short appearances and got the "hopeful" soundbites, they fell for him en masse.

But when the voters head to the polls on Tuesday, it will have been three weeks since Obama's resounding victories in Wisconsin and Hawaii. Three weeks, in politics, is an eternity. Ohio and Texas voters will have had ample opportunities to examine the candidates. And upon further review, it's likely that their initial excitement about Obama would've worn off by election day.

Obama has been winning with this formula: Have a terrific ground operation that's well organized to get him into the voters' consciousness; then he swoops in to close the deal. Aside from New Hampshire, when he was not yet battle-hardened, he's been a great closer. And as anyone in sales will tell you: When you close the deal, pick up the check and leave, before anybody changes their mind.

In this case, Obama made his sale but he had to hang around the house for far too long. By the time he's finally allowed to leave, he might end up empty-handed.

If he is unable to close the deal in Ohio or Texas, big problems lie ahead for Obama. Clinton might not catch him in the delegate count, but she would've seized the high ground once again by dominating in two more big states, adding to her haul of California, New York, New Jersey and disingenuously, also Florida and Michigan. And with six weeks to campaign in Pennsylvania, with no one else holding a contest between March 11 and May 3, Clinton will be the heavy favorite to gobble up another big state on April 22.

The trouble with being the frontrunner is you're forced to play defense. Protecting is more important than invading. Obama has done well in the two debates with Clinton, fighting her to a draw. But there is this nagging sense that Obama-fatigue has set in for the voters: They're now once again vacillating and wondering if he is the real deal.

Tuesday is a big day. Not just for Hillary Clinton. But it might be a do-or-die, for both candidates.