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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 4.0° F  Fair
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Be the Decider
As Wisconsin prepares to weigh in on the presidential sweepstakes, two experts size up the choices
Rick Berg & Ruth Conniff
Rick Berg & Ruth Conniff

To hear some pundits tell it, the races to pick the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees will be over next week, after the ballot bonanza known as Super (Duper) Tuesday. But these are the same folks who wanted the process to be over before the first vote was cast, and then after each state's outcome.

The truth is, anything could happen, and every state counts. So does every vote. In fact, Wisconsin's primary could prove pivotal for both parties, especially since the state's delegates are awarded proportional to vote totals.

By the time Wisconsin holds its primary on Feb. 19, you'll have heard way too much about where the candidates stand in the polls and way too little about where they stand on the issues. You'll be told again and again to cast your vote based not on who should win but who can.

Already the process has spoken, performing a role once reserved for the people. Candidates who failed to do well in early states or amass a bundle of cash have politely withdrawn. The pressure exerted by factors that have nothing to do with merit remains oppressive, and it will only get worse.

Our advice: Pick who you want now, before the post-Super Tuesday punditry onslaught convinces you it doesn't matter. Choose based on who you'd most like to see become president. Then stick to it, come hell or low numbers.

To this end, Isthmus has asked two prominent local commentators to size up the contenders.

Rick Berg is a former Madison school board member, former appointee in the Thompson administration, freelance writer, and member of the governing board of Common Cause in Wisconsin.

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.

Ruth Conniff
The Democrats
Field narrows, choices remain

The White House is the Democrats' to lose this year. After eight years of Republican control, do I have to spell out why? The war, the economy, torture, spying, U.S. standing in the world, a president who can't pronounce the word "nuclear," etc.

As I write this, there is still a race on, of sorts, but the field has shrunk to two main contenders, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, just as the media and many commentators seemed to desire. Most of the perceived second-tier candidates - Christopher Dodd, Joe Biden and Bill Richardson - dropped out early on.

Dennis Kucinich, the race's truest progressive - he stood for immediately withdrawing troops from Iraq and backed a single-payer, Canadian-style health-care system - quit after NBC went to court to disinvite him from the Las Vegas debate. Mike Gravel, similarly marginalized (MSNBC erroneously reported he'd dropped out in New Hampshire), remains in the race, and on the ballot in Wisconsin.

This week saw the exodus of former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004 and a favorite among many progressives this time around.

Among the party's presidential wannabes, Edwards was the most outspoken about how money influences politics and defines the limits of almost every policy discussion. He was by far the most assertive about ending poverty and improving the lot of the middle class, backing a minimum wage of at least $9.50 an hour, and getting rid of the big banks that serve as highly compensated intermediaries for student loans.

Of the top three, Edwards took the clearest position on ending the Iraq war, promising, within a year of taking office, to get all combat troops out of Iraq and leave no military bases, thus ending the occupation.

It was cringe-inducing to hear Edwards apologize for one wrong vote as senator after another: on the war, the credit-card-company-designed bankruptcy bill, and Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China. But he served the important purpose of reminding voters who was financing the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and asking the other candidates point-blank: Do you think the special interests might expect something in return for all that money?

And so it's come down to this: two main contenders and one also-running. But even here, the choice is significant, and Wisconsin voters could yet play a key role. Super Tuesday may further refine the issue of who's on top, but it will not likely settle the contest.

Barack Obama

The fast-rising U.S. senator from Illinois has inspired his supporters, many of them young people, by embodying optimism, nobility and a sense of mission to restore the best qualities in our country.

What a different face the United States would project to the world under President Obama!

Symbolism counts. And people like what Obama's campaign says about our culture: We are a multi-ethnic nation that can unite around the ideals of democracy, equal opportunity and justice. Although having a woman president would be historic, too, you don't get the same feeling from Hillary Clinton.

Obama's big win in Iowa proved that the first viable African American candidate can appeal to white voters. "They said this day would never come," he told the cheering crowd. "You've done what the cynics said you couldn't do."

Obama speaks to people about voting for a more unified country, under a president who can overcome the ugliness of the last eight years. He appeals to our better nature. But on the issues, the details are not so sharp. For instance, he says he'll expand health care "the same way I expanded it in Illinois." It's a striking claim, one that reminds listeners that, until recently, Obama was a mere state legislator.

On the Illinois health-care initiative Obama refers to, the Health Care Justice Act, he actually worked to make the law more palatable to industry lobbyists. Obama is, along with Hillary, a big recipient of money from drug and health-care companies, as well as large financial institutions. (Unlike Edwards, however, he opposed the bankruptcy bill he says was "pushed by the credit-card companies and the big banks.")

Obama opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, speaking out against it before he was in the Senate. Now he vows to end the war by 2009, but says we may need to keep troops in Iraq to "defend our national interests."

Strengths: He's motivating a new generation of voters with his optimistic message, and he was right about Iraq.
Weaknesses: He has strong ties to special interests and wants to give drug company lobbyists a "place at the table" in health-care reform.

Hillary Clinton

The former first lady and current senator from New York is the biggest centrist in the race. She's tough on national security, a major recipient of money from the defense industry, and still not willing to renounce her vote to authorize George W. Bush's debacle in Iraq. And despite adopting the "change" mantra, she's the biggest corporate cash collector of them all.

No one will ever say that Hillary, as a woman, is not tough enough to take us to war, like they did about Geraldine Ferraro when she ran for vice president. Yet Hillary has been a lightning rod for sexism ever since Bill first ran for president. The Republicans are dying to run against her so they can tap into all that irrational hate she and her husband inspire.

Just look at how the GOP describes Clinton's rather modest health-care plan as "Hillary Care." Socialism it ain't.

Still, after eight years in the Senate, Clinton has a legitimate claim to being the more experienced choice. She has worked hard for her constituents in New York, kept her head down, done her homework, and earned the respect of colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

Some of that work, like backing an anti-flag-burning initiative and supporting Bush's move to proclaim the Iranian national guard a terrorist organization, involved political tacking to the right. Whether you dismiss those votes as necessary compromises or ominous signs of lack of principle depends on whether or not you are drinking the Clinton Kool-Aid.

Hillary began her career working for the Children's Defense Fund and has, indeed, championed liberal and feminist causes. She likes to say that she has fought all her life to end child poverty. But her husband's signing of the welfare reform law that did away with Aid to Families with Dependent Children enraged Hillary's former mentor, Marian Wright Edelman, and "made a mockery," in Edelman's words at the time, of Bill Clinton's claim to want to help poor children.

Since a key part of Hillary's vaunted "35 years of experience" is the eight years she spent as first lady, it seems only fair to hold her responsible for what came of the enormous "peace dividend" the country amassed during the first Clinton era. Hillary talks about how much better off middle-income families were in the 1990s, during the Wall Street boom, but the great divide between rich and poor began to grow wider during that era, and there was no great progress on the fundamental problems of economic disparity, inadequate health care, education, and other markers of the growing class divide in America.

Hillary is, by all accounts, extremely smart and hardworking, and she understands how government works. But hard-headed pragmatism, not idealism, is her calling card. If she's elected, look for more of the incrementalism that defined the first Clinton era.

Strengths: She's tough, she's experienced, and she'll run a tight ship.
Weaknesses: A back-to-the-future return of the likes of Madeleine Albright and Richard Holbrooke isn't inspiring. Many young voters have never experienced an America that wasn't led by a Clinton or a Bush. They really should.

Mike Gravel

Like Kucinich, this former Alaska senator is for ending the Iraq war immediately. He wants to bring home all U.S. troops within 120 days.

Gravel opposed the invasion from the beginning, arguing that there were no weapons of mass destruction, that Iraq posed no threat to the United States, and that invading would be a disaster. Unfortunately, he also embraces Mike Huckabee's pet "Fair Tax," a fun-sounding but regressive plan to abolish the IRS and replace the income tax with a national sales tax.

Strengths: Stood up against the Vietnam war as a senator, and opposed the Iraq war from the get-go.
Weaknesses: A bit of a loose cannon, and currently polling 0%.

Rick Berg
The Republicans
State could help sort things out

There's nothing more delicious than watching the Democratic presidential frontrunners trigger a 9.0 political earthquake in their party - along racial and gender fault lines. Democrats are just so darn accommodating when it comes to blowing whatever temporary political advantage they may hold.

While the Dems are busy wiring themselves to self-destruct in November, Republicans seem determined to wire the conservative movement for demolition. Question is: Which party will do more damage to itself before November?

What started out as a contest over which candidate best measures up to Ronald Reagan's conservative legacy is about to turn into a knock-down, bare-knuckled fight for the soul of the Republican Party between the three serious contenders left standing.

Races to the White House are often strewn with dead bodies, and this one has been uncommonly bloody on both sides, in part because there were so many contenders. Two Republicans once seen as having credible claims on the presidency - Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani - have taken their balls and bats and gone home.

Thompson, a former Watergate attorney turned actor turned politician turned actor turned politician again, was hailed as a reliable Reagan conservative. But he played the Hamlet role for months before announcing his presidential ambition on The Tonight Show in September, then fell promptly into a black hole.

Giuliani had much in common with a fair share of Wisconsin's adult male population: twice-divorced, thrice-married and disliked by his own children. The former mayor of New York City, who took control of a bad situation both before and after 9/11, is a street-smart and savvy politician, with appeal to independents and Democrats.

And Giuliani's moderate stances on social issues like gay marriage, abortion and gun control, while out of step with most Republicans, would have been a strength in the general election. But his strategy of passing on the early primaries to focus on bigger states like Florida proved disastrous.

With John McCain assuming "front-runner status" after wins in South Carolina and Florida, the fight moves on to Super Tuesday, when 22 states will hold GOP contests. If Mitt Romney wins some of these, or if Huckabee can broaden his appeal beyond evangelicals, Wisconsin's Feb. 19 primary will likely be meaningful, perhaps decisive.

Mike Huckabee

The former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher is yet another son of Hope, Arkansas. Haven't we seen this movie before? His immediate gubernatorial predecessors in Arkansas were Bill Clinton (impeached former president and philandering husband of Hillary Clinton) and Jim Guy Tucker (convicted felon). Do we really want to trust the judgment of Arkansas voters again?

One young voter interviewed prior to New Hampshire's primary confessed he decided to vote for Huckabee after seeing him play guitar on TV. But can he sing? Wisconsin voters breathlessly await guidance from Simon, Paula and Randy.

Huckabee, 52, opposes school choice, except when it's providing tuition breaks so illegal immigrants can attend post-secondary schools in Arkansas. For such proposals, Huckabee won the endorsement of the National Education Association, guardians of the status quo monopoly in public education. Apparently, the NEA ("Agrarian-style Education for the 21st Century!") didn't get the memo on 2008 being a "change election."

Oh yeah, Huckabee also offered Mexico a "consulate office" in Arkansas for $1 a year, so we know he has foreign policy experience.

Huckabee is witty, self-deprecating, likable, lost over 100 pounds (he even wrote a diet book, Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork), plays bass guitar and is arguably the best Republican speaker on the campaign trail. Of course, Bill Clinton was also good with a microphone, a cigar and a sax. Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us.

Strengths: Former governor, effective speaker, fitness advocate.
Weaknesses: President Huckabee?, President Huckabee?, political cross-dresser.

John McCain

Republicans have long had a love/hate relationship with Arizona Sen. John Sidney McCain III.

McCain, 71, was shot down in Vietnam on a bombing mission in 1967 and spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton." When it comes to support for the U.S. military and winning in Iraq, McCain is rock solid. McCain was elected to the House in 1982 and the Senate in 1986.

McCain earned the enmity of many Republicans for compromising on campaign finance reform (McCain/Feingold) and conspiring with the likes of Ted Kennedy to offer "amnesty" to 12 to 20 million illegal immigrants. Public outrage sank the McCain/Kennedy bill in Congress last year, along with McCain's presidential ambitions. Or so it seemed before McCain did the Lazarus thing and raced back to the front of the pack.

Problem is, Rip Van McCain still looks like the guy who fell asleep at the switch for 20 years in Washington while millions of illegal immigrants streamed across the southern border (including McCain's home state of Arizona) following passage of the 1986 illegal immigration bill backers promised would "solve" the problem.

Didn't anyone back home tell McCain the news about the door being blown off the hinges from San Luis to Agua Prieta? Call, note, email? Guess not. McCain woke up in 2006, cobbled up amnesty with Kennedy, got his ass kicked and retreated.

Now he's embraced the "global warming crisis" and wants to tell Americans what light bulbs to use in their homes. Hey John, if we wanted Big Nanny government, we'd be voting Democratic.

Strengths: American war hero, backed the surge before its success was apparent, appeals to confused "Independents."
Weaknesses: Pander politician, missteps on illegal immigration, "older than dirt."

Ron Paul

At 72, Ron Paul is the only bona fide curmudgeon and bigot in the GOP race. While other Republicans try to channel Ronald Reagan, Paul channels Sen. Robert Taft (R-Ohio) who died in 1953. Taft's America-first policies had currency in the first half of the 20th century, but are quaintly out of place in the 21st century, much like issue-driven campaigns.

But these aren't the only discredited views that dominate the thinking of this self-described Libertarian and current congressman from Texas. The New Republic recently published a devastating article, "Angry White Man: The Bigoted Past of Ron Paul" (available online), that is required reading for anyone flirting with voting for Paul.

Writer James Kirchick uncovered hundreds of monthly newsletters published under Paul's name going back to 1978, many from the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society. The newsletters contain attacks on Martin Luther King, praise for the KKK's David Duke, support for quarantining people with AIDS, and a rip on former UW-Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala as a "short lesbian."

And, in a recent appearance on Meet the Press, Paul criticized President Lincoln for conducting an "unnecessary civil war."

'Nuff said.

Strengths: Constitutional literalist, favors limited government.
Weaknesses: Trail of bigotry and hate, isolationist in globalized world, thinks Confederacy got a raw deal.

Mitt Romney

Willard Mitt Romney, 60, served from 2003 to 2007 as governor of Massachusetts - the only state lost by Richard Nixon in 1972, home to Michael Dukakis and Ted Kennedy. Romney made a fortune in the private sector and rescued the 2002 Olympic games in Salt Lake City.

Romney is bright, talented, a solid family man and has proven CEO experience in the private and public sector. He initially ran what appeared to many to be an overstarched campaign, but, in recent weeks, he's loosened up, become a more effective speaker, is showing passion and, dare we say it, seems to have found his voice; albeit without crying about it like Hillary did in New Hampshire.

Mike Huckabee refers to Romney as someone who "looks like the guy who laid you off." Funny line, but as a very successful businessman, Romney also knows how to create jobs. Besides, if Republicans are the ones who really want smaller government, let the pink slips fly in Washington. With the economy emerging as the dominant campaign issue, voters may gravitate to Romney's tested CEO skills - as opposed to John McCain, who said he doesn't know much economics, but did buy Alan Greenspan's book. We don't know if he read it.

While other Republican candidates worry about winning to keep contributions rolling in, Romney can bankroll his own campaign regardless of where he finishes in any particular primary. But that's not the only reason he'll likely be a frontrunner when Wisconsin votes; he also deserves to be. Watch for the cream to rise to the top in America's Dairyland!

Strengths: Former governor in occupied territory, private-sector CEO experience, strong on illegal immigration.
Weaknesses: Comes across as stiff, flip-flop allegations, needs to overcome anti-Mormon bigotry.

Conniff on the Republicans

Mitt Romney: Unfortunately for Mitt, anyone can go to YouTube and watch old video of the now ardently pro-life Romney declaring his then ardently pro-choice views as a matter of "core principle." Why would anyone believe anything he says?
Mike Huckabee: He's got folksy charm and stands up to the rapacious child-labor-loving, immigrant-bashing, screw-the-poor right-wing orthodoxy. Evolution? Finding Pakistan on the map? Rewriting the Constitution to embrace Christian theocracy? So what? He's nice!
John McCain: His principled stands on campaign-finance reform and immigration and his willingness to say what he actually believes makes him very un-Washington. But then there's his crazy foreign-policy views: Things are going great in Iraq! Really! And "bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran" just don't seem fun anymore.
Ron Paul: He's the biggest party-pooper of them all, thus the most fun to watch. During the GOP debates, he's the only one who points out that the war in Iraq is not going all that well. And he reminds everyone of the disastrous George W. Bush administration, when they all want to pretend that the last Republican president was Ronald Reagan.

Berg on the Democrats

Hillary Clinton: "Monica Lewinsky's ex-boyfriend's wife for President!" The country is tired of the Clinton and Bush families; turn the damn page!
Barack Obama: Eloquent, first black candidate who could win it all, electrifying, personality-driven candidacy that remains short on experience. Likely to one day be president, but perhaps not in 2009.
Mike Gravel: Sign outside Grandpa Mike's house: "Please don't discuss the outside world."

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