Month: October 2012

Obama vs Romney II – The Presidential Debate Recap

By: James Di Fiore

In the run-up to the second presidential debate there was an interesting caveat being discussed by the self congratulatory cable news network, CNN. Eager to guarantee themselves as large an audience as possible, CNN talking heads focused much of their pre-debate coverage on moderator Candy Crowley. Crowley was the first woman in 20 years to moderate a presidential debate, and her performance may have set back female moderators another 20 years.

Crowley could not keep either candidate under control, with Mitt Romney talking over her for nearly a full minute at one point. Barack Obama was also uncooperative, extending his answers long after Crowley had attempted to move to new questions or follow up discussions. Romney went as far as flatly rejecting Crowley with a stern “No!” as she tried to wrestle back her role, an awkward moment making Romney look like a bully and Crowley a meek intermediate.

The debate featured two candidates with starkly different approaches and delivery styles. Obama began the debate with an almost whiny cadence, a bi-product of both the town hall format and his tactical strategy of not repeating the staleness of his first debate. Whenever Obama tried to hammer Romney with effective responses he delivered them with all the zeal and excitement of a laundry list. While he did run down all the most glaring inconsistencies in Romney’s platform, he seemed annoyed at Romney instead of being energetic and substantive with his delivery.

Romney’s problems were more on the surface. He fumbled his words and came up with bizarre ad libs when under the gun. When trying to convey his record as governor of hiring more women to his cabinet than any other state, he spoke of receiving “binders full of women” from women’s groups, setting off the Twitterverse and cementing the debate’s most talked about quote. He also borrowed a page from Obama’s first debate strategy by not addressing the most aggressive accusations from the president, including the across-the-board 20% tax cut and which tax loopholes Romney would close. The one seemingly easy issue to hammer Obama with was Libya, but Romney fumbled that topic by challenging what Obama said a day after the attack. Obama correctly told the audience that he referred to the attack as an “act of terror”. Romney awkwardly suggested the president did not call it an act of terror until 2 weeks after the tragedy took place, prompting Crowley to weigh in and inform Romney that Obama had indeed made the statement. If Romney was more savvy he would have focused on the Obama administration’s inconsistent statements and called out the White House for being either incompetent or dishonest.

Obama appeared to win the debate, although it wasn’t the obvious landslide Romney had in their initial head-to-head. The president’s delivery was once again a tad lackluster, but he did not avoid laying out some of the most obvious arguments this time. Romney had far too many errors in judgment and silly improvisational phrases to be considered the winner by most serious pundits, and he will have to shed that unsettling laugh if he wants to win over the audience for the last debate on October 22nd. Obama should not get cocky either and needs to understand that while he won this debate, it was not as good a performance as Romney had in the first debate, despite the half truths and outright distortions.

As an aside, America’s undecided voters might be some of the most attention starved individuals on the planet. If you are unsure who you should vote for between these two candidates this late in the game, not only are you not paying attention, you are also not a very serious person. But that, as they say, is an entirely different kind of debate.

Harper, Trudeau and Canadian Political Theater

If Trudeau wins leadership the next election will be the first of its kind

By: James Di Fiore

Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau all of a sudden have a lot in common: they are both starring in new roles in an old theater, Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Harper is currently king, but his new role will be a majority government incumbent.Trudeau plays the role of the prince looking for the same crown his father once wore. It’s all very theatrical, don’t you know.

The scripts for both sides are being written, ancillary issues are being considered and then discarded or approved. Real-time scandals and audience polling carve out the plot. Remembering your lines is crucial. In Canadian politics, this is going to be about as entertaining as it gets.

Harper and Trudeau both have clear strengths in opposite disciplines. You won’t see the prime minister waxing poetic to a throng of youthful supporters, just as you won’t see Trudeau giving a speech about how interest rates and subsidies help foster growth in energy sector commodities. These differences are stark and may prove to be a generational difference pitting the young against baby boomers and seniors. At least, that’s what Harper is hoping for. Conservatives at all levels of government in Canada have something other than faux fiscal conservatism in common; they all believe in the tried and true theory that young people will always be apathetic. It never fails. Until recently, that is.

In 2010, Calgary mayoral candidate Naheed Nenshi was looking like a 2nd or even 3rd place finisher. All pundits and pollsters saw conservative Ric McIvor as the front runner. About two weeks before the election I had a meet and greet with McIvor and his chief campaign adviser. I asked the adviser how they plan on mobilizing the youth vote. He replied emphatically “We aren’t. They never show up.” Two weeks later Nenshi won the election, and all the pundits, including Nenshi himself, credited his victory to mobilizing young people with grass roots tactics and inspirational dialogue. The campaign should be in text books and considered required reading for every political science student in the country.

And while federal and municipal politics are worlds apart, the overriding lesson is still the same: if you speak to them, they will vote. We can already see Canadian conservatives preemptively brand Trudeau as an unproven messiah being propped up by bleeding hearts and hippies. This shows both the cynicism and desperation of staunch conservatives who genuinely despise Trudeau but understand he still may win an election for the Liberals. It’s a schizophrenic existence to believe your political rival is both unqualified and a serious contender.

Meanwhile, Harper is still in the honeymoon stage of his first majority government. More omnibus bills are being drafted, more environmental regulations are being scrapped and more scrutiny is being lofted towards the government in the form of tainted meat and abortion debates. Forever the pragmatist, Harper knows his reign cannot sustain itself through polarizing social issues or defensive posturing. He has a tangible problem right now: how do I feed red meat to my base, maintain crucial support and continue to be perceived as governing from the center? The answer is the same now as it was in 2006 when Harper won his first minority government: rely on voter apathy while incrementally indoctrinating Canadians to the conservative fold. It is not only an uphill climb, it’s also very unrealistic. When you lead a country to a majority government with just 39% of the popular vote, you have a shaky majority. And while electoral reformers see this as evidence to support ideas like proportional representation, the reality is this kind of majority government is difficult to maintain.

All of this posturing and media driven showdown may look like it leaves Thomas Mulcair out in the cold. The conventional wisdom is as follows: Mulcair needs to block the Liberals from eating up seats in Quebec while growing party support in Ontario. Trudeau could be problematic for Mulcair if he can charm Quebeckers into coming back to the Liberal fold, and Harper is quietly relying on the vote being split in a province where he is enormously unpopular. Naturally, this potential reality makes merger talk behind the scenes more prevalent, an annoyance to party faithfuls who still have hope in ideology or their party’s historical importance for the country.

There is one dormant caveat Trudeau is thinking about constantly. If the youth can become inspired enough to shed their apathy and become engaged in politics, he will change the political landscape in Canada, at least for one election. Like Nenshi in Calgary, Trudeau needs to inspire young people, give them a seat at the political table and tap into the moderate wings of student unions and the Occupy movements. A measured approach to both these demographics is a tight-wire act and a tough task for any politician, especially a relative rookie on the national scene. However, perhaps Trudeau is the first Canadian politician we have seen who has the ability to throw roses to all sides without coming off as pandering. Or, perhaps his efforts will be seen as opportunistic and without substance, echoing Trudeau’s current critics who already believe the heir apparent is in way over his head.

But it all makes for great theater.

Is Russell Simmons the black Perez Hilton?

Uncle Rush ain’t the man he used to be

By: James Di Fiore

Imagine we are back in 1985. Russell Simmons and Def Jam founder Rick Rubin are quietly lighting the match that would set hip hop ablaze. Imagine during that time someone came up to you and said “In 25 years, Simmons will be the majority shareholder of a sleazy tabloid magazine.”

Anyone in their right mind would have dismissed that thought immediately. Hell, you may have even got a smack in the face for saying such a thing. This was the guy who started the careers of Run D.M.C., LL Cool J, Beastie Boys and other legendary acts. Back then, hip hop was not just an emerging musical genre, it was a rallying cry against corporate America. Sure, Run D.M.C. inked a deal with Adidas, but overall hip hop was the closest thing to protest music since the 1960s. The lyrics were not just the often cited biographies of kids living the ghetto experience; there was also the political statements surrounding the idea that black youth were being used by corporate America. The universal idea of predatory marketing and influence over the purchasing choices among the youth by lifestyle brands was not up for debate. Everyone knew it was happening. You either became apathetic towards it, railed against it or fought to become an entrepreneur.

Simmons had always been a good businessman. He first signed a deal with CBS worth $600, 000 when he and Rubin started Def Jam. In 1998, after nurturing the careers of his stable of artists, he sold his stake to MCA for an estimated $100 million, his first windfall made from the scene he helped pioneer.

You can probably pinpoint Simmons’ departure from being a grass roots pioneer and role model at the time he sold his Def Jam stake. While it might be presumptuous to claim he was ever an activist for underprivileged youth, Simmons was at the very least a figurehead in their collective struggle. But slowly his corporatist persona began to shine through. In several interviews he has defended the embedding of products inside song lyrics by artists, a practice that befuddles the hip hop purist. Simmons explains this by saying you should only sell products you believe in, ignoring the basic idea that art and commercialism are two separate monsters. Indeed, an artist certainly has the right to do what they want with their music, but there are many who feel this practice has cheapened hip hop. Not to mention Simmons has often acted as a facilitator between corporations and rappers who are looking to get paid by plugging a fast food chain or fashion line in songs that are easily forgettable and designed solely for the plug.

Simmons is an expert at justifying this kind of predatory marketing. His attitude is shielded by a public image drenched in yoga and activism, a paradoxical partnership where selling products inside music is justified through his apparent admiration for Deepak Chopra and the 99%. Perhaps he is merely the first of his kind; a hip hop mogul with one eye on his bank account and the other on social justice. Reconciling those two seemingly opposite mind sets is one thing, but his latest venture leaves little room for spirituality or the realness of the ghetto.

Enter Global Grind.

Global Grind, for all intents and purposes, is an online tabloid magazine. Taking a page out of US Weekly or Perez Hilton’s site, GG features gossipy stories and provocative headlines, usually centering around Kim Kardashian’s ass or what Beyonce might be wearing. The watered down editorials are designed to reach the largest yet least informed audience possible, making his often repeated claims of being in touch with spirituality either a lie or something he no longer mixes with business. It really is the black National Enquirer.

Supporters will say he is simply continuing his success as an entrepreneur, but eventually one has to ask: how does a man who relentlessly preaches about naturalism, spirituality, yoga and ‘The Secret’-type philosophy reconcile being the propagator of a silly tabloid? How does a man who used to be a beacon in the black community balance that reputation with his several appearances alongside a birther like Donald Trump? Does he define his principles differently than most? Can Simmons throw roses to all sides and expect his fans to continue crediting him as being the guy he was a quarter century ago?

There is a backlash happening since GG first launched. His Facebook page contains daily criticisms from presumably former fans who have had enough of his transformation from pioneer to smut peddler. And while it is likely a staffer who posts his social networking content, his profile has taken a beating among those who once respected him the most.

A gifted orator, Simmons is great at explaining away his evolution, but editorials, headlines and critics are also becoming effective at pointing out his now schizophrenic public image. You can almost picture him doing a downward dog onto a pile of MacDonald’s french fries as cameras record him explaining it all away. That’s all fine and good, but some of us remember the words of Public Enemy, the group he helped put on the map: nowadays, when it comes to Uncle Rush, don’t believe the hype.

He ain’t the man he used to be.