Mardi Gras – literally Fat Tuesday, and sometimes called “Shrove Tuesday” or “Pancake Day” (don’t ask) – is the day before Lent begins and you have to give up all sorts of stuff for forty days. It’s party time, a blow-out before you have to be sacrificially good. In New Orleans it’s always been called Mardi Gras, now much reduced in scope given Katrina, and, in the rest of the world, simply carnival – unpack that word’s etymology and you see farewell to the flesh.
The following day is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the forty days of Lent. That day the faithful go to Mass and get the ash on the forehead – the priest or whoever marks the forehead of each participant in the Mass with black ashes in the shape of a cross, and you don’t wash that off until after sundown. It’s an echo of the old tradition of throwing ash over one’s head to signify repentance before God. In this symbolic version of that you hear the words from Genesis 3:19 – “Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” If you’re down with Mel Gibson and his father and just hate the modern Catholic Church you hear the Latin – Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.
In short, what you think is important is nonsense, and you’d better do some serious penitence for being such a dork. See this typical Ash Wednesday meditation from Thomas Merton:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
So you admit it. The partying was fine, but you don’t know a damned thing about what anything means. You need help.
And the joke in this political year in the United States is that Super Tuesday, the primaries and caucuses in twenty or more states and American Samoa, occurred on Shrove Tuesday – Pancake Day – and no one much knew what to make of it all on Ash Wednesday. You had your wild party followed by humble befuddlement. You have to love the symbolism. Even those of us who are indifferent to religion found that amusing.
On the Democratic side Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama each could claim Super Tuesday victories – Clinton won closely contested New Jersey and delegate-rich California, for any number of reasons. But Obama took thirteen states to Clinton’s eight, Georgia to Connecticut. The popular vote was not decisive – Clinton four tenths of one percent over Obama. No one can figure out who got the most delegates. Here was a projection from Chuck Todd at MSNBC:
It looks like Obama, by the narrowest of margins, won last night’s delegate hunt. By our estimates, he picked up 840 to 849 delegates versus 829-838 for Clinton.
But no one really knows. On Ash Wednesday it seems Arizona was still counting votes and how precincts would do their distribution was unclear. Everyone was waiting.
But there were portents and omens. On Ash Wednesday, Hilary Clinton revealed that she had tossed five million of her own money into her campaign in the run-up to the big night, and it seems that a number of her key staffers will now forgo their salaries for a bit – and that may not have anything to do with Lent. In January her campaign raised a bit over thirteen million to Obama’s more than thirty-two million, and the Obama folks gathered in another four or more million on Ash Wednesday alone. That doesn’t bode well. And her chucking five million she had lying about produced more than a bit of scorn, like this from Andrew Sullivan:
It’s four times Obama’s net worth. But she’s the alleged tribune of the poor. Like her husband was black.
She’s getting hammered, in spite of her victory, if that’s what it was. And Ash Wednesday brought a bit of humble penitence – her campaign people kept talking about how Obama was the establishment candidate while poor Hillary was the outsider, abandoned by important folks but fighting on alone for the little people. That’s noble and self-sacrificing, isn’t it?
That was, of course, one way to see the endorsements from all the Kennedy folk and the celebrities, but everyone saw this as nonsense – she and most particularly her husband are the current party establishment, and no one could figure out who she expected to actually buy that line of crap. It used to be you ought to hop on her bandwagon as she was the inevitable, so get with the woman who had won already. So much for that – Obama blandly noted she was the front-runner and needed to add no more.
What to make of all this? You look for new metaphors, as Noam Cohen does here, saying she’s the PC and Obama is the Mac:
While Apple’s ad campaign maligns the PC by using an annoying man in a plain suit as its personification, it is not clear that aligning with the trendy Mac aesthetic is good politics. The iPod may be a dominant music player, but the Mac is still a niche computer. PC, no doubt, would win the Electoral College by historic proportions (with Mac perhaps carrying Vermont).
That may be more clever than enlightening, so Sullivan offers this assessment:
The bottom line is that this is now a dead heat. Given Clinton’s massive lead only a couple of weeks ago, that’s a huge Obama gain. Clinton has the edge among super-delegates (as of now). Obama has the edge in money – a real edge, and it’s building. It’s still all to play for.
But there is that other matter – Tom Bevan here reminds us all that it could come down to two states that were stripped of their delegates for staging early primaries – “If neither Clinton nor Obama are able to reach the magic number of delegates, then we’re going to circle back for a really nasty fight over Michigan and Florida.” Yeah, see the previous discussion of that business in Jesse James and Calvinball.
There’s that, and Hanna Rosin is puzzled by Clinton’s success in Southern states:
Here’s what’s confusing me about last night’s results. I have been operating under the assumption that vast swaths of red America hate Hillary. But she won in Tennessee and Oklahoma. She won among less-educated white men. She cleaned up with women. That, combined with that Barna study saying born-agains prefer Hillary to all other candidates. Is Hillary hatred no more?
Who knows? Ask an evangelical African-American blogger named Anthony Bradley. He writes this – “Hillary’s huge loss in Georgia, where the Democratic base is largely black, sends the Clintons a strong message: Many black Democrats don’t like you after all.”
And at the Nation Ari Berman says Obama won – “If this contest really hinges on that elusive prognostication of ‘electability,’ score Super Tuesday for Obama. He won in blue areas, red areas and purple areas. He competed in places where Democrats dare not normally roam, like Idaho, notched impressive victories in swing territories such as Colorado and Missouri, and exceeded even his own expectations in the South.”
Paul Mirengoff at the conservative site Power Line offers a scenario for where this is all leading:
This outcome strongly reinforces the conventional wisdom that “super-delegates” will determine whether the Dems nominate Clinton or Obama. … But the empowerment of the super-delegates may also present the Democrats with an opportunity. To the extent that the super-delegates wish (or feel constrained) to confer the nomination on Clinton, they could perhaps extract a promise that she will put Obama on the ticket. If Obama accepts, the Dems would have a powerful ticket and, presumably, no alienated elements within their base.
And pigs might fly. Many of us see the dream ticket as Obama choosing Jim Webb as his running mate.
But that’s not likely. Only trouble is likely. See Ezra Klein:
I really, really hope the Democratic primary doesn’t come down to superdelegates – the privileged class of delegate that gets to vote however they want, and were created to ensure that party elites didn’t lose too much control over the process.
Kevin Drum doesn’t agree:
Maybe I’m just being contrarian here, but why would this be so bad? After all, the only way it could happen is if the voters themselves split nearly 50-50. And in that case, the nomination would end up being decided by a massive effort to sway uncommitted delegates anyway. So who cares if that massive effort is directed at superdelegates (senators, governors, etc.) or the more plebeian regular delegates (typically county chairs, local activists, etc.). And in any case, why shouldn’t the party elders, many of whom have to run on the same ticket as the presidential nominee, get a little extra say in the process?
If, say, Obama wins 1,800 delegates to Clinton’s 1,400, and superdelegates end up reversing a convincing Obama win, that would be a problem. That’s pretty unlikely, though. On the other hand, if primary season ends up basically tied at 1,600 apiece, I don’t see why superdelegates aren’t as good a way as any to break the deadlock.
See Dan Balz at the Washington Post predicting that the primaries won’t decide the Democratic nominee:
Unless one of the two candidates starts winning consistently and by substantial margins, it seems unlikely that either can accumulate the 2,025 delegates needed for the nomination by the time Puerto Rico casts the last votes of the primary-caucus season on June 7.
See Tim Noah here:
Balz doesn’t go so far as to predict a brokered convention – we haven’t had one of those since 1952 – but he does suggest that the decision about whom to nominate would be left to the Democrats’ 796 superdelegates – political officeholders and party officials who are free to choose whatever candidate they please. This is what happened in 1984, when the primaries left Walter Mondale roughly 40 delegates short of the necessary total going into the convention. Mondale and his closest rival, Gart Hart, hit the phones to rally superdelegates. Mondale quickly sewed up the nomination. Hart, who’d won 16 primaries and caucuses to Mondale’s 10, was shut out. While Mondale certainly had deeper party ties than Hart, the decisive factor was probably that Mondale had won more delegates in the state contests. Mondale’s delegates trumped Hart’s momentum.
This could be a bumpy ride.
The Republican race was a lot clearer – McCain took most of the victories and almost all of the delegates. But the results show McCain still has problems with the most conservative voters – he won mostly without them – and Mike Huckabee, not Mitt Romney, won the socially conservative Southern states.
That led to a bit of Ash Wednesday email, with two JUST ABOVE SUNSET sometime contributors.
Our Man on Wall Street – “So is anyone else scared that Huckabee actually won any primaries yesterday?”
Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta – “Oh. Huckabee: I can’t imagine him winning the general election. But then again, I never really saw Reagan coming either.”
Huckabee is performing the useful function of reminding the Republicans of what they bought into when they went for the post-LBJ “Southern Strategy” – you want the praise-the-lord-and-damn-Darwin Old South on your side, because you know they hated the whole civil rights thing then and hate gays now, you eventually get a Huckabee. Now they have to deal with him, and with his bloc of dump-the-constitution-and-use-the-Bible evangelicals. And he’s pleasant and self-effacing and popular, so he’s hard to mock – and he has Chuck Norris at his side at all times. Chuck Norris hits people, you know.
It serves them right – all of them from Lee Atwater to Karl Rove. Huckabee now controls the vote from the Republican south and makes it impossible for the party to turn to the pretty-boy technocrat to save them from that pesky and uncontrollable old fart, McCain. They really hate that guy.
They may have to make Huckabee the vice presidential candidate. They still need his bloc. Romney has no bloc – just the AM-radio talk folks and Fox News, and the beltway Bush folks now hoping Romney, just oozing managerial competence, can clean up the mess the kid left. But that group has no voting bloc – Huckabee does. So now what?
It’s all very odd.
And they, the self-identified real conservatives, do hate McCain – see this CNN item on the conservative backlash. On Ash Wednesday both Ann Coulkter and Rush Limbaugh announced if McCain were the Republican nominee, they would boycott him, whatever that meant. But the numbers don’t lie. See the Missouri results – “Romney loses everything south of Jefferson City, MO. Except for one county – Cape Girardeau County. Rush’s hometown.”
And they don’t much care for that clown, as they see him, Huckabee. These folks are becoming unhinged. See Peter Nuhn:
The Washington Post reports that 44 persons died yesterday in storms that swept throughout the South, mostly in the states of Tennessee and Arkansas just hours after those states finished voting for Mike Huckabee to be the Republican candidate for President… If I was a Christian, I’d think twice before pressing that little button for Mike in the future primaries.
One favorite columnist on that side of this, Mark Steyn, just gives up:
The real story of the night, when you look at their rallies and their turn-out numbers, is that the Dems have two strong candidates either of whom could lead a united party to victory. Forget the gaseous platitudes: in Dem terms, their choice on Super Duper Tuesday was deciding which candidate was Super Duper and which was merely Super. Over on the GOP side, it was a choice between Weak and Divisive or Weaker and Unacceptable. Doesn’t bode well for November.
Nope, it doesn’t. And Jed Babbin, at conservative Human Events, looks at the damage, to Romney – “Now that McCain has momentum, Romney needs a probable path to the nomination to remain credible in the next round of primaries. His wins – in Utah and Massachusetts primaries, and Alaska and North Dakota caucuses – are too scattered and small to provide a realistic foundation for a nomination.” He’s got no support, and at the Washington Post, Jonathan Weisman provides the odd cold fact – “The former Massachusetts governor has spent $1.16 million per delegate, a rate that would cost him $1.33 billion to win the nomination.” Romney is rich, but not THAT rich.
Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost explains that Huckabee was the real second man in the race here – “Pundit-based reality: Huckabee is stealing votes from Romney. Voter-based reality: Huckabee is competing for votes with McCain.”
So he runs for Vice president. Ramesh Ponnuru at National Review’s Corner sees no problem with that:
The upsides are obvious. They’re the first- and third- best vote-getters in the Republican field. Huckabee helps to make up for McCain’s weakness with evangelical Protestants and, to a lesser extent, his weakness on domestic policy. The most frequently mentioned downside – the further alienation of some of the same conservatives who have misgivings about McCain – may be overblown.
But Michael Goldfarb, editor of the Weekly Standard’s Worldwide Standard, thinks there are bigger concerns:
Republicans will have to acknowledge that McCain’s health is not an inconsequential concern, and I don’t think McCain’s supporters, or McCain himself, would be terribly comfortable with the idea of Huckabee as commander in chief. So McCain can’t make a purely political calculation in choosing his V.P. (assuming Huckabee would be a net positive politically, which, again, is an open question).
It’s a mess.
Timothy Noah in Triumph of the Arithmecrats argues that this all comes down to what he calls the arithmecrats versus the momentucrats. In short, do you look at the numbers, the hard data, or the ineffable, trying to decide who has the momentum, or whatever you want to call what the talking heads on television are doing.
Momentucrats interpret primaries and caucuses not by carefully counting accumulated delegates but by reaching consensus with other momentucrats about momentum, a somewhat imprecise concept measured through polls, funds raised, expectations met or unmet, and other ephemera. For the past two decades, momentum was the dominant paradigm for political analysis, and primary candidates routinely were declared putative nominees well before they’d acquired the necessary number of delegates.
And he quotes Ron Brownstein, political director of Atlantic Media and a former political columnist for the Los Angeles Times:
We don’t nominate presidents anymore by getting to the point where somebody has a majority of the delegates. We nominate someone when we get to the point that there is a communal sense that one of the candidates has effectively won the nomination and the race is over.
That keeps Chris Matthews and the like well-paid.
Arithmecrats interpret primaries and caucuses the old-fashioned way, i.e., by counting the number of delegates each candidate accumulates during the primary season. For arithmecrats, it ain’t over till the fat lady sings – though, being a literal-minded bunch, arithmecrats might bristle even at that familiar metaphor. Arithmecrats were all but extinct until late January, when a disquieting lack of clear direction in primary voting put them back in the game. The arithmecratic paradigm was truer for the Democratic contests than for the Republican, largely because the former tend to distribute delegates proportionally while the latter tend to distribute them on a winner-take-all basis. But on Super Tuesday, neither party produced a decisive trend. Super Tuesday was the momentucrats’ Waterloo. They got whupped.
The numbers do matter. And the distinction matters. The numbers are, however, just too close. Ambiguity rules.
Perhaps a fresh perspective would help – see things from a distance. Susan Daniels, writing from Amsterdam, provides that in American Idols, International Edition, a survey of what’s being said in the foreign press. And she finds an editorial in Britain’s Independent that she thinks sums things up nicely:
One early conclusion from the primaries is that whoever wins the White House – Republican or Democrat – will not be a proxy third-term George Bush. American voters are clearly impatient to see the back of him. That probably bodes well for the future direction of US foreign policy and may help to explain the excitement with which this campaign is being followed abroad.
The other reason, of course, is the vivid, all-American cast of characters. The promise of the first woman or first black American to head a US presidential ticket is epoch-making in itself. But the frenetic pace and switchback nature of the Democratic contest has shown off the US election process at its thrilling best.
On the other hand the British tabloid the Sun knows the Yanks are notoriously shallow, as they run a banner that reads, “The Real American Idol.”
Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian is more serious:
In 2000 it was fashionable to say that Al Gore and George W Bush were ideological twins, “the Tweedledum and Tweedledee” of bland centrism. Now we know, to our cost, how wrong that was.
And he offers an in-depth assessment of Obama, Clinton and McCain. At Germany’s Spiegel, Gabor Steingart prefers shorthand:
Barack Obama is the man of hope. Hillary Clinton is the woman of secret fears. He inspires. She reassures. He is inventive. She is reliable. He seems soft. She’s hard as nails. He’ll win if the sun’s shining. She’ll win if there’s a storm brewing.
There’s much more, but what stands out is, in the Australian, Geoff Garrett pointing out what we won’t admit:
Whoever is inaugurated next January will try to convince the US and the world that he or she is not another George W. Bush, but rather the heir to more esteemed presidents: Bill Clinton for Hillary Clinton, John F. Kennedy for Barack Obama, and Ronald Reagan for John McCain.
Joseph Brean at Canada’s National Post sees that too – “The US presidential race is turning into a battle of dead presidents, with the most popular Republican president of living memory, Ronald Reagan, facing down his Democratic counterpart, John F. Kennedy.”
Maybe that’s what this is all about – penitence, dust and ashes, and the dead. But even after Lent it goes on and on.