OPTIMISTIC OBAMA STUMPS FOR MENENDEZ

by David P. Rebovich Combine the following ingredients. One of the most competitive U.S. Senate races in the nation and one that may well decide which party controls the upper chamber in the next congress. Campaigns conducted in the first and fourth biggest media markets in the nation. And, a state that plans to move its presidential primary to early February in 2008. What you get are visits from the politically notable and ambitious and from some other celebrities, too. On the Democratic side, that means the Clintons, Senator Teddy Kennedy, and singer Carole King. For the Republicans, Senator John McCain, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and novelist Mary Higgins Clark. These luminaries are coming to New Jersey to help Democrat Bob Menendez and Republican Tom Kean, Jr. raise money for, and draw attention to, their U.S. Senate campaigns. The visiting politicians, all distinguished national figures, are also trying to improve the reputations and elevate the campaigns of the two New Jersey candidates, neither of whom has inspired or fired up the electorate here. Yes, the race remains close, with Menendez enjoying a small lead in several recent polls. And, the number of undecided voters is decreasing with Election Day only three weeks away. However, both camps are concerned about turnout on November 7th. On the Republican side, the Foley scandal and subsequent stories about a possible cover-up may discourage some partisans from showing up at the polls. So too may continued bad news from Iraq, record-setting deficit spending by self-stated fiscal conservatives in the White House and Congress, reminders of that slow, botched response to Hurricane Katrina, and inaction on illegal immigration. Among Democrats there are concerns about their own ethically impaired state party and, frankly, about whether their U.S. Senate candidate will escape the fate of some other leaders. In addition, moderate and low income folks, an important part of the Democratic Party’s base, may feel overlooked by candidates in a midterm race given that Menendez is talking mostly about the war in Iraq and Kean is focusing on ethics. In the middle are, of course, New Jersey’s all-important unaffiliated voters. In statewide races, more of these folks typically end up voting for the Democratic candidate. This year the low approval ratings of both President Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress would certainly seem to suggest that unaffiliated voters here will again break for the Democratic candidate. But it is also important to remember that non-partisans are easily turned off by negative campaigns and prefer that candidates talk more about the issues than the presumed foibles of their opponents. Seeking help to rally the party’s base and to highlight issues, Menendez invited Barack Obama to the Garden State last Thursday. Obama, a first-term Senator from Illinois, is considered a “rock star” by Democrats and is already being touted as a possible presidential contender in the 2008 primary. The reasons for the accolades? Well, he’s young, multi-racial, handsome, hip, Harvard-educated and fluent on domestic and foreign policy issues and adept at engaging young people, evoking pride among people of color, and capturing the attention of anyone interested in having a serious discussion about public policy. While politicians often look better to out-of-staters, Senator Obama has earned a reputation for making people who are understandably cynical about politics feel optimistic and believe that change is possible. These are important attributes for a politician, especially in this campaign season. The approval ratings of the President and Congress may be way down. But there is skepticism about the Democrats, too. Are they simply a bunch of critics and complainers or do they have meaningful alternatives to the policies of the GOP? These are not academic questions but practical ones. People who are disgusted with the President and his policies are likely to vote for Democratic Senate and House candidates. But voters who are disgusted and disillusioned may not bother to show up at the polls. Did Obama do anything in New Jersey to help combat disillusion? In Trenton’s Masonic Temple, the second of three stops he made with Menendez, Obama lived up to his reputation and helped refocus the campaign here on issues that work in the Democrats’ favor and to reinforce Menendez’s image as an important national figure and a policy wonk. This effort was undermined a bit in Camden, where controversial state Senator Wayne Bryant warmed up the crowd and in the process reminded attendees and the media of the legal and ethical problems besetting New Jersey Democrats. In Trenton, Obama had the advantage of speaking to a friendly crowd of union workers, Democratic Party functionaries from the capital region, and college students. And, Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer, Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, senior U.S. Frank Lautenberg, and Governor Jon Corzine all did good jobs warming up the crowd with calls for change in Washington, for helping the needy, and for providing opportunity for all Americans. A common theme of these speakers was that the policies of the Bush Administration have benefited the wealthiest Americans while most other folks must face higher housing and health insurance costs, the consequences of corporate downsizing and outsourcing, and higher tuition. Governor Corzine called Senators Obama and Menendez articulate spokesmen for a change of direction of policy in Washington, D.C.. He credited both with supporting debate and discussion based on facts, not ideology, on such issues as stem cell research, energy independence, and foreign policy. Senator Obama told the crowd that he has traveled to several states to energize the base and pull more voters to the polls. After reminding the union members present of the importance of organized labor to improving the quality of life for all working people, Obama reiterated the importance of labor’s participation in the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote effort. Then he turned his attention to those Americans who feel “discouraged” and who may stay home on Election Day. While criticizing the Republicans for suppressing turn-out with their attack ads and generally negative campaigns, Senator Obama asserted that “the people are sick and tired of being sick and tired. They want an affirmative vision for the country.” That vision, according to Obama, includes making health care affordable and available for everyone, closing the so-called donut hole in the Medicare prescription drug program, granting big tax credits for developing and using alternative energy sources, providing full funding for the No Child Left Behind program, and pledging not to exploit national security as a political issue. Claiming that Republicans are passionate about tax breaks for the rich, about protecting corporate polluters, and about promoting intolerant views, Obama said, “We Democrats have to be passionate about our views” and “close the deal” with voters. How can Democrats close the deal? Well, Bob Menendez has his own ideas about that and delivered a spirited stump speech that lots of New Jerseyans will find appealing if they ever hear it. Menendez said that when Governor Corzine named him to complete his term in the Senate, Corzine asked him to do two things. One was to stand up for New Jersey. The other was to stand up to President Bush when he is wrong and then work to move the country in a new direction. As examples of how he heeded the Governor’s requests, Menendez cited successfully leading the fight against the President’s plan to sell America’s ports to a foreign government; getting critical transportation aid put back into the federal budget; obtaining federal reimbursement for prescription drug costs incurred by the state; voting against the war in Iraq; and, bucking the Administration’s economic policy that rewards the wealthiest and its excessive spending that prevents the nation from investing in health care and education. What would a Democratic majority in the Senate try to do? Well, Menendez believes his party will battle for balanced budgets, middle class tax cuts, educational opportunity, affordable health care, energy independence and security, and freedom from “…dependence on countries with a much different view of the world.” He couldn’t resist taking some parting shots a Kean, whose values are suspect, the Senators claims, because the young Republican is against an increase in the minimum wage, is for the privatization of social security, voted against stem cell research, and hasn’t changed his mind about the war in Iraq despite evidence of its failure. Menendez said, “When you are wrong about all of that you can’t talk about anything else.” Voters will have to decide if that conclusion has merit. But Menendez himself needs to realize that he can help his own candidacy in the last few weeks of the campaign by focusing on his and his party’s positive messages. New Jerseyans have heard enough of the negatives already. As Senator Obama’s visit demonstrated, people here will respond to someone who talks about vision and about a purposeful platform. To bad he didn’t visit the Garden State earlier. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine. He also is a member of CQPolitics.com’s Board of Advisors that offers commentary on national political developments.

OPTIMISTIC OBAMA STUMPS FOR MENENDEZ