Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Guaranteed Sacrifice-Free

The lack of movement in getting more visas for Iraqis to relocate to the United States is disturbing. While millions have fled both internally and into neighboring countries, visas for Iraqis to the US number in the scant five figures and even lower. It seems intuitive to me that if we destabilized the security situation in their country through our own unilateral action, whatever else might be said about that, we incur some obligation to offer a haven to people whose protection we removed. This is particularly compelling to me when I consider that many of these people are in danger in Iraq because they worked with the Americans, showing faith in our competence and integrity to protect them and help them to improve their lives. Vietnamese political refugees in the United States have developed into an important and prosperous part of the community; Iraqis would be coming into a country that already has one of the largest and most prosperous Arab communities in the world. Why doesn't the administration do the right thing and expedite visas in numbers commensurate with the needs of Iraqi political refugees?
There are several reasons, all bad. The administration is sensitive to conservative sentiment about immigration, an issue with which the administration has to its credit dealt more or less responsibly. The administration has campaigned by waving the bloody shirt of 9/11 so long that they can't now propose to let in some hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, as they should. To start a relatively large relocation program would be seen as acknowledgement of failure in Iraq. But most disturbingly of all, this is an administration that tries to tell the American people that wars can be fought with no sacrifice to Americans in general. The ideology seems to be that the Americans should never be called upon to make some collective sacrifices for a greater good. And that is the real measure of the administration.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

How to Help Cuba's Transition

On the occasion of President Bush's bellicose remarks about Cuba today, let me add my voice to the chorus: the United States economic blockade of Cuba is today the single most significant factor in keeping the Cuban Communist Party in power. The Argentines, Canadians, Spanish, Japanese etc. are funding and profiting from development projects in Cuba that would be business for the US if not for the self-defeating blockade. The restrictions have been in place for over forty years and have accomplished nothing except to keep 11 million Cubans in worse economic shape than they have to be, while shielding the miserably ineffective Communist economic regime from becoming discredited, as it would have been years ago if not for the short-sighted US policy. Cuba poses no threat to the United States, militarily, politically, economically, or by any other index. If the United States normalized relations with Cuba, which it could do unilaterally without so much as a meeting with Cuban officials, the Cuban government would very likely be gone within twelve months, maybe sooner. The Cubans know this and deliberately sabotage thaws in the relationship by executing dissidents, cracking down on political organizing and so forth whenever it looks like the US might soften its line. As soon as one of the political parties in this country succeeds in getting Florida's electoral votes without pandering to the aging revanchistes in Miami, the American agriculture and business community will have our Cuban policy dismantled in weeks, not months, because we're bleeding business. I can respect political differences, but if you believe that the economic blockade of Cuba is good American policy at this late date, you cannot be thinking straight. It is an absolute no-brainer.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

What Can Romney Buy?

This week's poll summaries on Pollster.com show a striking state of affairs in the Republican primaries: whereas nationally Mitt Romney is an anemic-looking fourth (behind John McCain), he's solidly ahead in Iowa, and in the number one spot, ahead of Giuliani by a couple of points, in New Hampshire. After that, he barely manages to rise to the top three in any other primary state. In fact the only state where he manages to place second in the polls is in Michigan, where his father was governor and a favorite son candidate for president in 1968. So the question is, what happens when a nationally unpopular candidate wins in Iowa and New Hampshire? The strategy is to convince enough voters to jump on the bandwagon that Romney goes from zero to hero both nationally and in important primary states like California, Florida, and South Carolina. This week's polls suggest that this time around that strategy is not a sure thing. But say the strategy works. Will that be a good thing for Republicans? There are problems on two levels: for the Party, the rank and file will have been sold a candidate who wouldn't have been their first choice without the artificiality of the "bounce" out of Iowa and New Hampshire; more reason to adopt a rotating first-primary schedule, in the name of small "d" democracy. This is acute in this situation because a larger than usual percentage of the candidate's money comes from his own fortune. We should all be wary of the plutocratization of politics, already too far along for the country's good. But second, what happens in the general election when the Party nominates someone who wasn't even popular with the faithful in the first place?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Obama Helping Hillary, Again

It has long been my contention on this blog that the candidacy of Barack Obama actually has helped Hillary Clinton. Through the long months of the summer, Obama fever kept everyone from seeing Hillary as the front-runner, and thus as the target, as well as providing her campaign with a useful sparring partner in preparation for the next twelve months. Now Obama is helping Clinton again, this time on the question of Iraq War policy. Clinton's early votes in support of the invasion are widely seen as her biggest liability with liberal and left voters who are overwhelmingly and passionately against the war. Obama, responding to criticism that he wasn't taking the fight to the Clintons, naturally chose war policy as the issue on which to attack her. His formulation is clear: Hillary differs from Bush on the conduct of the operation, Obama says, while he opposes the war altogether. This makes a good soundbite, but I predict that it will turn out to be another mistake ("another" because Clinton has already goaded Obama into making mistakes with foreign policy pronouncements, such as his suggestion that he might send troops into Pakistan, or that he would consider using nuclear weapons, or that he would be willing to talk to any dictator). What Clinton is doing now is demonstrating that she will be a responsible executive. Given the tragic fact that we are in Iraq, the endgame will be complicated and difficult to maneuver. Iraqi leaders and American generals will be briefing the next President on the possible outcomes of various scenarios: might a too precipitous withdrawal lead to genocidal ethnic cleansing? Might a complete withdrawal open the way for an Iranian, or Turkish, or Saudi invasion? And so on. So when Obama says that, unlike Clinton, he's just plain anti-war, what's the next question? Does that mean, Senator, that your proposal is to simply withdraw immediately, come what may? And if not, how are you different from Clinton? He's painted into a corner: basic mistake. And who comes out looking good? I won't say, but she's one of the other candidates.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Voting for a Woman

Voting for a woman is what I hope to be doing next year. Yesterday I heard this question raised: isn't it arbitrary to vote for someone just because she's a woman? This question arises when we see poll numbers, like we did this week, that suggest (well, the one said) that over 90 percent of women under 35 say that they are more likely to vote if one of the presidential candidates is a woman. The gender gap, thus far, has been a partisan phenomenon, and it has worked both ways: the Republican Party can rely on receiving a greater share of male votes just as the Democrats get a greater share of female votes. With a woman candidate, the thinking goes, the gender gap will suddenly widen, with the advantage to Hillary (although it remains to be seen how many men will turn out to vote against a woman). It may be that we will have the first presidential election where the outcome is unambiguously a result of women voters voting for one of their own.
Which brings us back to the question: is this a superficial reason to vote? The answer is no, it's not. The reason it's not superficial is that women diverge from men, statistically, on a whole range of issues. Women's views on gun control, abortion rights, even the conduct of foreign policy are measurably distinct from men's. That's why women are more likely to support Democratic candidates, after all. It's true that many women would turn out to vote for a woman who was a Republican, just as many (not all) black voters would enthusiastically vote for a black Republican presidential candidate, even if they had never voted Republican before. But that still would not be a superficial vote. A woman President can be expected to have a different style, tone, and substantial differences on a wide range of issues. And don't let conservatives get away with claiming that they're "gender-blind" now at long last, when it finally suits their purposes. At this point the conservatives have become a very right-wing bunch. Does anyone doubt that our contemporary right wing (unlike that of, say, thirty years ago) would have voted against women's suffrage?
This discussion itself is a taste of things to come over the next year. Now that Hillary is closing in on the nomination, the historical significance of the moment is starting to dawn on everyone and make itself felt in the popular discussion. That will snowball into enthusiasm about the prospect of a woman President. The question is, how big of a snowball?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Some Notes on Gore

Al Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this morning. I remember the Democratic primaries of 1988, when Gore was test-piloting the Southern, centrist, Democratic Leadership Council strategy that Bill Clinton rode to victory four years later. I was a Dukakis supporter in '88, backing the Democratic front-runner as usual, although in hindsight I feel I ought to have supported Jesse Jackson and helped shake things up for once. I didn't care much for Gore that time around: he was pro-death penalty, anti-gun control, centrist enough to not be much of an alternative to the Republicans, I thought. How much has changed since then!
Today, though, so far as Presidential politics is concerned, Gore is Cincinnatus. In the early primary season of 2004 the Democrats turned their collective back on Al Gore. He was wooden, they said, unattractive, too scripted, and it was true by then that he had become palpably self-conscious. It was a political fate akin to John McCain's this time around, a well-credentialed candidate definitively rejected by the voters (although McCain's story has not yet been fully written). But since that time, Al Gore cannot run for president. As soon as he starts doing that, he immediately will be transformed into the same old Al Gore of yesteryear. That doesn't mean he can't be president. It means that in order to be nominated, he has to be equally definitively drafted by his party. Not a staged "drafting," it has to be that the rank and file is unquestionably begging him to do it. If that came to pass, he'd do it. He'd still like to be President. The problem for this scenario is named Hillary Clinton. She increasingly looks like the choice of the party (and there is talent on the bench behind her). Only an unexpected and catastrophic collapse of Hillary's campaign could create the conditions for a Gore nomination. He's still in the top two choices of this Clinton supporter. I'm unable to decide whether I'd prefer Clinton or Gore given the choice, maybe the Clintons are more president material (not exactly a compliment, but reason for voting). But it's not going to happen.
Meanwhile one argument came up on TV tonight that needs addressing. The idea was that since very little can actually be done about global warming, it doesn't make sense to invest lots of treasure in trying to do something about it. The first level of argument here is about the empirical accuracy of this, but I'll leave that to everybody else. Logical point: risk assessment involves calculating both probabilities and utilities. There is a difference between a one in a hundred chance of losing ten dollars and a one in a hundred chance of losing your life. If anything near the negative utilities of, say, sea-level rise due to global warming, or shortages of fresh water, is even possibly true, we have every reason to do everything we can. Parting shot: a certain glib conservative on MSNBC chided Democrats for "not being honest about the sacrifices involved." At least Democrats don't tell the people that they should never have to sacrifice anything, like the Bush Republicans. It's the vision thing.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Turkey is preparing for "military incursions" (otherwise known as an invasion) of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Bush administration apparently has no plans to oppose this, probably because there is very little that they could do about it in any event (I don't know if they feel any obligation to protect the Kurds, I'd guess not). The spin is that the Turks will be doing "hot pursuit" incursions in battling domestic Kurdish insurgents from the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), but this is also transparent spin: there are a number of Kurdish nationalist groups and widespread Kurdish nationalist sentiment in southeastern Turkey. Turkey wants to quash a nationalist movement that is resurgent because of the new autonomy (and surprising success) of Iraqi Kurdistan. Today the NYT reports that the administration is opposing a UN resolution condemning the Armenian genocide of 90 years ago so as not to antagonize Turkey, a rather less muscular approach than warning the Turks to stay out of Iraq would be. Part of the administration's thinking is driven by Turkey's historic role in NATO, which the United States would like to preserve and strengthen as a response to the rise of the European Union. That's a bad motivation for two reasons: first, NATO is on the way out: the Europeans don't want it anymore and in fact it would be a good thing for the US to get out of the European security business (I'm surprised that the Pentagon is so unsophisticated on this one, usually they're out ahead of the Bushies with this stuff). The second is that Turkey, in case you haven't noticed, is arguably a contender for most anti-American place on Earth. The reason for this, I think, is Turkey's identity as a borderland between Europe and Asia. The Turks have both the Middle Eastern and the European versions of anti-Americanism. Turkey is today a lot like Pakistan: not necessarily our enemies, not necessarily our friends. We shouldn't be dealing with them by just buying them off, and we shouldn't let the Kurds ever again suffer like they suffered at the end of the first Gulf War.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Thompson's Schtick

Fred Thompson is developing a schtick. The idea is that being a monomaniac who can only think of his/her obsessive ambition to be President is a bad thing. What you want, Thompson's theory goes, is someone who cuts the whole thing down to size, a real person who can do it, right enough, but who isn't so intense that we'll be constantly distracted from our own lives by the ongoing catastrophe that the government is always stirring up. The genius of it is the subtle criticism of President Bush and the not-so-subtle criticism of the Clintons that this pose implies. It's an outsider's pose that works under the radar (the pundocracy is acluck about his "lack of interest," just the quality he's selling). Southern voters who don't like Romney's slickness or Giuliani's ego will find this persona appealing, and that might play in the Midwest too. But maybe not. Maybe you just can't act laconic and get elected President. Meanwhile Giuliani has high national polls but much tighter numbers in Iowa. One argument then goes that it would be better to skip Iowa on the grounds that there is too much to lose. But skipping Iowa is probably too risky itself for Giuliani to do that. No one knows the consequences of coming in fourth, losing to, say, Huckabee in Iowa, but that's obviously too much risk. These are the problems of the front runner.

Friday, October 5, 2007

OK, more on Larry Craig, if everybody insists

I didn't really know about these guys before. A sociology professor on TV ran through the (apparently well-documented) scenario. There's this elaborate sort of bowerbird bathroom dance involving sustained eye contact through the crack of the door, the notorious foot-tapping movement (that I have experienced first hand), the vague hand-swiping thing and apparently several more behaviors to insure that the agreement to consensual sex is clear. And interestingly this behavior is characteristic of straight-identified men, not "gays." Is there a name for this sexual identity? I thought Larry Craig's saddest moment was when he stood at the microphones and said, "I'm not gay," as if his being gay or not established his guilt, and not whether he had solicited a vice cop in the men's room. Talk about out of it!
I can think of two fairly clear implications of all this, if the facts of the subculture are more or less as described. One is that if the vice cop says, "Yeah, he's one of those guys all right," he's most likely one of those guys. The other is that he was definitely entrapped by the vice cop. The cop had to sustain the eye contact and maintain the posture and so forth, by his own account, for some minutes, and if that's not entrapment I don't know what is. I appreciate that airports and municipalities and so on have to maintain order in the public restrooms, and basically all one can do is prohibit the behavior with penalties. But should the vice cops be sort of trolling around in your sex life, like they do in Iran? How about an attractive young woman vice cop, sent to lure the old goat to his demise? Don't answer that, dear!
As to the political matter of the senator,what, as Comrade Lenin once asked, is to be done? The way the system works is this: the sovereign citizen voter elects their executive and legislature. Those electees then serve terms fixed by the Constitution. At the end of those terms the electors have to decide anew. It's more rigid than a parliamentary system where enough votes can force a new round of elections for prime minister, who is thus always exposed. The President, for example, will serve until January 2009, regardless of shifting political opinion. So will Larry Craig, if he so chooses. And there are good reasons for resisting the idea that party bosses in Washington can oust a "sitting Senator." The clearest message the public was sending during President Clinton's impeachment trial, when the polls were giving him 90 percent approval ratings, was that the national consensus was that only the voters should decide who is President. The Senators invoking impeachment seemed like members of the high school student council, for whom rewriting constitutions and forming new governments is the very thing. Senator Craig has an election next year. Let his constituents decide. There have been Congressmen who have served from their jail cells, for that matter.
Not to imply by any of this that I think Larry Craig should stay on for another year in the Senate. Obviously the Idaho Republican Party will nominate someone else for the Senate race next year. So he could stay on as a faithful Republican, voting as he always has. That's most likely, that way people will deal with him sooner or later. But if he a) truly believes that his constituents don't want him and b) is being asked by his party to resign in the name of the party's political prospects, those are pretty hard arguments to resist. Alternatively he could go indy, come out about his true sexuality (whatever that is), and start really speaking his mind at last. Even if that were to happen, this will be my last word on the topic.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Rudderless Republicans?

I have never seen the GOP so adrift. Over the years, there have been battles between conservatives and centrists: Goldwater vs. Nixon, Ford vs. Reagan; and George W. Bush was a bit of a smoke-filled-room candidate in the first place, as the party establishment looked for someone to forestall a too right-wing candidate (a strategy that proves ironic). But unlike the Democrats, the Republicans always seemed to be a well-defined group. Certainly a great part of Republican political strength over the past 30 years has been a sense that there was at least a well-defined philosophy of government, something the Democrats have lacked since the final collapse of the old FDR coalition and the rise of conservativism in the late 1970s. Today Fred Thompson is getting bad reviews for his performance on the stump. He has George Allen's problem: he was touted as Reaganesque. When they compare you to Ronald Reagan, run for the door. You've nowhere to go but down. The enthusiasm for Thompson in the party is itself a reflection of the absence of any clear hero for the party to take to the people. Giuliani is today the front runner, with this great carom shot: he thrived in the earliest part of the season on the basis of Bush 2004 national security demagoguery: some of the hardest right-wingers bouyed him up then. Now, the national polls are showing evidence that the centrist rank and file think he is the best hope for confronting Hillary Clinton, on the basis of his relatively liberal views on domestic policy. But I doubt the voters will go for imitation Hillary when they can get the real thing. There are still some vitals signs coming from John McCain (story of his life), about whom nothing is unacceptable except that he's unacceptable. Mitt Romney is barely more noticable than McCain in the national media, the last news story I saw the commentary was that everyone would be shocked if they knew how much of the campaign money was actually his own money. Meanwhile Ron Paul is showing up at the bottom of the graphs, a presence with, maybe, 5 points. Welcome to Babylon.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Will a right-wing court abolish the death penalty?

Perhaps it was easier to run conservative Catholic Supreme Court nominees than Protestants. Certainly it was a nomination process driven for many years, as Justice Thomas somewhat surprisingly pointed out on 60 Minutes Sunday night, by the issue of abortion above all (Justice Thomas openly wondered why that should be so). And so Justice Roberts is a staunch Catholic, as is Justice Alito, as is Justice Scalia. Justice Thomas is ambiguous, at least since he dropped out of the seminary. And today we learn that the Court has been warning Texas off of eminent executions, and the practice there may be in legal limbo. Hey, what can a liberal like me say? Go get 'em, conservative Catholic guys! Abolish the death penalty!