Column: Obama in Omaha; 2010 in 2010

Published on October 7, 2008

Note: A day after the US elections, the lone electoral vote of Omaha, Nebraska remains un-apportioned.

I share the Kapatiran Party’s central conviction that it is the Filipino Catholic’s moral obligation to get involved in politics. I do not agree with everything the party stands for; I happen to think, to give one example, that slowing down population growth, until we are better able to balance our population and our resources, is the radical Christian thing to do. But on the core belief that political engagement is a religious duty, or more precisely the duty of those who live by religious principles, there is no argument.

That is why I could barely contain my enthusiasm when I heard from Nandy Pacheco and Eric Manalang, party founder and president, respectively, about Program MMX. The program, which they presented to the bishops during Laity Week, is both an earnest of the party’s long-term ambition and proof of the party’s pragmatism.

What does the program set out to do? To field enough Kapatiran candidates for city and municipal council positions to win 2,010 seats in 2010.

For those of us already computing Sen. Chiz Escudero’s chances of winning the vice presidency in two years’ time, or the likely inability of the administration coalition to field a winning slate of senatorial candidates by 2010, Kapatiran’s goal will come across as something of a letdown.

There is no glamour in retail politics. Councils do not hold nationally televised hearings. And councilors hardly land on the front pages.

Perhaps the most important reason for feeling some vague disappointment at Kapatiran’s new political objective is pop-culturally determined: If politicians do not appear on the mass media’s radar screen, how can we measure the success or failure of their politics? The brutal fact is that if they do not show up on TV, we may not know they’re there.

But, as I understand it, Kapatiran’s goal is to field thousands of candidates in some 200 towns and cities — after they have gone through a rigorous orientation course, and without spending a single centavo of their savings. Many of them, assuredly, will fly under the radar. But if enough of them succeed, the political consequences will be game-changing.

* * *

Morality is deeply, maddeningly, pragmatic. To borrow that famous phrase from the last line of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”

Applied to politics, this means it isn’t enough to stand and offer one’s self as a moral beacon; one must get involved: run as a candidate, sign up as a volunteer, work as a donor, set the example as a voter. It isn’t enough to be idealistic; one must be also be effective.

* * *

Years from now, and regardless of who will end up winning the Nov. 4 vote, Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency will be studied in depth for its political lessons.

His campaign may well be the most disciplined in history.

Consider Omaha, Nebraska. The state is one of only two (Maine is the other one) that splits its electoral vote. All the others are winner-take-all propositions.

In pursuit of a single electoral vote, the Obama campaign has poured its resources into Omaha.

Sean Quinn, one-half of the incomparable team behind FiveThirtyEight (naturally enough, at http://www.fivethirtyeight.com), explains why: “For those who remember the proportional allocation of the Democratic delegate race during the nomination battle, Nebraska is significant because a wider statewide loss can be mitigated by strength in a particular area. Rather than lose 5-0, Obama could lose 4-1 and gain a 2 EV [electoral vote] swing. Omaha is a compact congressional district, one of three in Nebraska, and clearly the most Democratic district.”

(Incidentally, 538 is the total number of votes in the Electoral College; a candidate who wins 270 wins the White House.)

That vote swing is exactly like the kind we are used to, the point swing in basketball. Thus, a miss followed by a field goal on the other side is not a two-point affair, but actually a four-point swing.

I am not aware of any Republican strategist thinking in these terms. But Obama’s campaign, having successfully outfought Hillary Clinton using the Democratic Party’s complicated primary rules, seems to be able to do the math.

* * *

In 1996, a New Yorker profile of Hillary Clinton, then the first lady, described a piece of office décor in her offices. It was a personal ad, enlarged and then mounted on the wall. It read:

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON TYPE SOUGHT by single Jewish attorney, 31, who is bright, witty, sincere, and cute. There’s nothing sexier than an intelligent, powerful, and successful female who knows what she wants.

I was reminded of this detail (I could not remember the story’s date of issue, but Google very quickly solved that problem for me), after I realized that there is a growing backlash (at least as I can gather online) against Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s flirtatious conduct during the debate with Joe Biden. (He was masterful, by the way.)

Would Hillary even think of winking at her audience and ostentatiously dropping her g’s? That the attractive Alaska governor thinks this behavior is necessary tells us all we need to know about the state of John McCain’s campaign, and the recklessness of McCain’s judgment.

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