Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bush's Last Day Party

So it's official we're going to have a Bush's Last Day Party at our house on Jan. 20th. I just signed up to make it a host party for MoveOn.org. We already have our life-sized Barack standup for pictures, and I'm devising a "Pin the Donkey on the Ass" game with prizes. Plus beer 'cause Barack is Irish.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Don't Hurt the Shoe Guy

If you threw a shoe at Saddam Hussein your whole family would have been tortured to death. It's really important that everybody gets it that you can throw a shoe at the president of the United States and live to tell the tale. That's why I signed up as a fan of the shoe-throwing guy on Facebook. Today we're hearing reporting that people overheard his being beaten, that he has broken ribs, and so forth. Big mistake. President Bush needs to make sure that the shoe-throwing guy isn't harmed. Unfortunately Bush has spent the last eight years trying to turn the US into Paraguay, so I'm not optimistic.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Caroline, Be a Kennedy, Not a Bush

I always thought it was fitting that George W. Bush was appointed President by the Supreme Court in 2000. It's just so declasse to be elected by popular vote don't you know, so much germ exposure, and do you know some of those people have never even traveled abroad (er...never mind). All the good stuff - RNC chairman, CIA director, baseball commissioner - these are appointive posts.

The case of the Bushies comes to mind this week with the news that Caroline Kennedy has announced that she is actively seeking New York Governor Paterson's appointment to the Senate seat being vacated by Hillary Clinton. It's one thing to announce that one is running for election. That is the first appeal in a campaign of appeals to the voters, who are many. But to announce that one is running for appointment is not an appeal to the appointer, who is one. You appeal to one person, preferably, in person. A public announcement puts pressure on the appointer, enough so that this may have been a miscalculation. Maybe Paterson will feel obliged to decline to appoint her so as not to appear to have caved in. (And Paterson himself has not ever been elected governor: curiouser and curiouser.)

Another curious thing is the kind of boutique nature of this Senate seat since the patently carpet-bagging Hillary Clinton moved to New York to campaign for it in 2001 (granting she did an exemplary job by all reports). Caroline Kennedy is someone who, like Hillary Clinton, might easily be elected to this Senate seat by the voters of New York on the basis of associations, popularity and name-recognition. But as a potential appointee she conspicuously lacks any formal qualifications, and the governor, presumably, is supposed to appoint a professional caretaker (a politically adventitious one of course) to fill the seat until the next election. I think it would be great to have Caroline Kennedy in the Senate, but there are fundamental procedural problems here that she may not overcome.

(Three days later: sure enough, now some are in favor of Kennedy and some opposed: Cuomo had more support in a poll reported on MSNBC last night. So now Paterson will take a political hit whether he appoints her or not, through no fault of his own. If I were him I'd be mad. And I wouldn't appoint her.)

Friday, December 12, 2008

GOP's Last Stand?

The Senate Republicans, in their theological zeal to avoid developing a national automobile industry policy of any kind, have voted to scatter our automobile industry to the winds, and the workers be damned. Make no mistake that under bankruptcy it will be the salaried workers who get the shaft. Pensions, health insurance, stock options and everything else they have will be on the judge's block. It is Republican opinion that bankruptcy is the best way to get at the union, which is obviously the source of all the problems, representing as unions do today some five percent of American workers, and espousing such radical notions as that workers worldwide should not be forced to accept wages reflecting the labor market in, say, Bangladesh.

What is striking is that the Senate GOP makes this stand in the teeth of dire warnings from all quarters: Bush, Obama, Wall Street, Senate Democrats and everyone else within shouting distance have warned of the consequences of abandoning hundreds of thousands of workers and an industrial plant stretching across the Great Lakes. It's almost a ritual flaming out of the Republicans, a kind of noble hari-kari on the ruins of Reaganismo. Because it is now the old guard of the "movement" conservative Republicans in the Senate who will now possibly be remembered as, if not the party that shot down the American auto industry, at least the party responsible for the distribution of suffering when the bills came due: the politically culpable party.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Myths of Chicago

I'm not buying the "corrupt Chicago" line about Rod Blagojevich's outlandish flameout. East Coast elites would not hesitate to point out that Albany is the problem in New York state politics, not NYC. Chicago municipal politics is a stepping stone to national politics in its own right and its elite is a national elite (the Daley family, Jacksons Rev. and Jr.,Harold Washington etc). Blagojevich is a reflection of an old political-machine culture, to be sure, but look to Springfield for the problem and count your blessings that you've got Chicago.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Game of Chance

The recount in the senate race in Minnesota gives me another opportunity to make a point that I thought was important during the Florida electoral debacle of 2000. In 2000 the lawyers for the two parties were quick to step in and define the process as a legal one between the parties: may the best lawyer win. In the end the Supreme Court essentially appointed Bush, acting out of a well-intentioned but misguided sense of duty to resolve the crisis. The issue here as I see it is about who the interested party is, and I would argue that that party is the electorate, not the political parties.

The fact is that in a state-wide vote involving hundreds of thousands and even millions of votes, any margin in the three digits is a statistical tie. In that circumstance there literally is no truth about who won the election. The phrase "margin of error" refers to the logical impossibility of establishing, within such a narrow margin, which candidate actually received the majority of votes. While Minnesota has a good reputation for clean and fair processes, I don't think that a recount process that ignores the problem of the margin of error is in the best interests of the voters, considered generically. The political point is that the interests of the voters considered as a group is not the same as the interests of either of the parties.

Say I voted for Franken (or Gore) and my neighbor voted for Coleman (or Bush). The outcome is a statistical tie within the margin of error. At that point my neighbor and I have an equal right to satisfaction. That is, every voter, granting that the electoral process has not determined the winner (it is a tie), deserves an equal chance of satisfaction as that of every other voter: we are not the political parties, we are sovereign individual voters. The fair thing to do is to flip a coin (or any other equivalently random process). That way my neighbor and I enjoy equal chances of satisfaction, uncorrupted by the vagaries of a highly politicized legal process. It doesn't matter what the parties want: the parties are not sovereign. The voters are sovereign, not at all the same thing. That is why a game of chance is actually the most rational way to decide an election when the vote has fallen within the margin of error.

As of this evening my guy, Al Franken, is up by about 600 votes. Doesn't matter. Flip a coin.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bring Back the State Department

A perspicuous column by David Brooks in today's NYT inspires me to weigh in at this moment when the incoming administration will have an opportunity to make some basic reforms not only of US foreign policy, but of the foreign policy apparatus itself.
One of the most institutionally destructive episodes in United States history was the evisceration of the State Department in the period from the onset of the Cold War during the Truman Administration through the "loss" of China in 1948 and the subsequent McCarthyist witch hunts for "communists" in government in the early 1950s. The State Department, long a preserve of professional, career diplomats, linguists and scholars, became a favorite whipping-boy of politicians of the time who painted Foggy Bottom as elitist, intellectual, internationalist and not to be trusted. The by-the-numbers worldview of the Cold War painted every regional conflict as a chess piece in a strategic struggle between East and West, and every regime around the world as a proxy of one side or the other. Under those circumstances professional diplomats, always unpopular in an anti-intellectual, populist country, became unacceptably inconvenient as any nuance of understanding was a rough spot to be smoothed and covered over with Cold War rhetoric.
This minimalist worldview led to the partition of Vietnam after democratic processes in that country produced results inconvenient to Washington's Cold Warriors, and to American support for dictators of the worst sort around the world. It also led to the eclipse of the professional State Department in favor of the unbridled Imperial Presidency, with its own in-house foreign policy apparatus under the new, Orwellian language of "national security." Today we are left with a State Department with little or no power compared to the National Security Council and the Defense Department, one that is woefully incompetent in the areas of language and intelligence (broadly construed, as it should be, to include historical and cultural expertise).
Bottom line: US foreign policy has long been politicized, with no independent, professional voices allowed to be heard in the White House.
In an earlier post I recommended that NATO be disbanded as we evolve a new set of trans-Atlantic security arrangements, ones that do not assume a forward role for the US particularly in matters pertaining to European security. I also think that the National Security Council and the post of National Security Adviser are relics of the Cold War era. Let's streamline and professionalize our government and get back to the days when a professional State Department gave advice that was independent and professional (admittedly State like all parts of government has always had a degree of politicization; maybe we can do better).
While we're on the topic, I think that the choice of Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State is a good one. Now the Clinton's fortunes are tied to Obama's, but more than that Obama has put the interests of the country first: far from mixing the message, the presence of the Clintons (plural) as US foreign policy players sends the message to foreign leaders that the US government is unified. That the vice-president-elect is the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee amplifies this effect even more.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Obama cabinetry that is. Obama has invoked Lincoln as an executive role model for forming a cabinet for a long time. Lincoln famously put his chief political rivals in his cabinet - William Seward to Secretary of State, Salmon Chase to Secretary of the Treasury and Edwin Stanton to Secretary of War - as immortalized by a brilliant series of novels by Gore Vidal, a superbly-timed book by underrated public intellectual Doris Kearns Goodwin and books innumerable. There are a number of things to be said for this kind of approach. One's enemies are kept close, their fortunes yolked to yours. Ideally they altogether cease to be enemies as the national project moves forward, but idealizations are idealizations. I wouldn't take either the cynical view or the lotus-eating view. It looks to me that our man is stocking up on political power, both within the Democratic Party and beyond, and in this respect is indeed closer to the Lincoln model than the other model currently on offer, the Kennedy "best and the brightest" model. His cabinet decisions so far have been lining up political heavyweights for the battling ahead.
I think that this a good thing. What I liked about John Edwards 2.0 was his understanding that reform of government policies involving the automotive, banking, financial, insurance, medical, pharmaceutical and oil and gas industries would necessarily involve fights that some would win and others lose, and that some of these antagonists are very powerful and will not concede anything easily. We do need to revalue and reemphasize intelligence and analysis, as the Kennedy brothers consciously tried to do after the sleepy 50s, but the situation calls for some tough political battling, and in turning to Clinton, Daschle, Emanuel and such Obama is clearly shopping for political firepower.
An example of the battle that is unfolding right now is the fight over how to protect the automotive industry. Although many advocates of bankruptcy are sincere in their good intentions for the industry, it is true that taking that course would be hugely advantageous to the stockholders at the expense of the workers. I say, money comes with strings attached. The US does indeed have an interest in a population of several hundred thousands of workers, many of them highly skilled and experienced as machinists, electricians and for many other trades, not to mention a huge physical plant for manufacturing and transportation that extends from western Pennsylvania to Minnesota. Not only that, but auto markets worldwide are expected to greatly expand as demand rises from developing countries in Asia and elsewhere, where most consumers want cheap, efficient, reliable cars. The US ought to do what is in the best interests of the country, and that is to take this opportunity to rebuild the auto industry from the ground up. An American auto industry that had a cultish devotion to energy conservation, minimizing the carbon footprint, capitalizing on waste flows, fuel efficiency and economy would be a very formidable industry internationally. I suspect that it would not be the younger generation of workers who would resist such a cultural shift, but the older managers and owners. Just a hunch. Meanwhile it is an ideal opportunity to design such a retooling and reform with a new labor dispensation in terms of pensions and above all health insurance.
Neither management types nor union types much like this kind of liberal ranting from the blogosphere, I know, but calm down: all of these things can be achieved well short of any sort of nationalizing or union-busting or choose your poison. It is not unreasonable to point out the obvious outlines of a national manufacturing policy, and liquidity should not simply be pumped out into the monetary ocean. Companies that have the will to adapt should be helped. In fact, the US automobile industry has demonstrated great adaptability in the past. At the same time, Obama's need to amass some political authority could not be more clear.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

George W. Bush is a True Conservative

"He ran as a conservative," goes the line from the Republican Party apologists, "but he didn't govern as one." All those people who supported him for reelection in 2004 can't wait to throw him over the side now. The claim is that the massive spending and resulting cosmological debt-hole are, by definition, non-conservative. Conservatives stand for fiscal responsibility, right? And if this administration ends in fiscal disaster that means, by definition, that this is a non-conservative administration, right?
Not so fast. Here are three ways in which Bush Administration spending, and the resultant problems, are straightforward products of conservative thinking:
1) The biggest elephant in the room is military spending. All empires, from the Athenians and Caesarean Romans of antiquity to the Spanish and British Empires, have declined when their international commitments, and therefore their military burdens, broke their banks. It's like any other burst of energy in nature, the bubble expands until the energy is spent. There is no sane reason for the United States to sustain the current level of military spending. It doesn't make us safer. We must stand down as gendarme of global security. Conservatives (who have morphed over the decades since WWII into messianic imperialists) simply refuse to face the fact that the foreign entanglements that Jefferson warned about, and the economic and social militarization that Eisenhower warned us about, are not sustainable under contemporary economic reality. Today's conservatives either think that the US can maintain global military supremacy for all time (in denial about the plain fact that all things come to be and pass away), or worse, think that the US is destined to fulfill Biblical "end times" prophecy. George W. Bush isn't their problem, they are our country's problem.
2) Conservatives espouse "fiscal responsibility" in only the narrowest, most selective sense. They mean, for the most part, that the government ought not to fund programs that help the poor, that protect the environment, that support public and higher education, and so on. Pro-business conservatives have an economic model that is predicated on consumer spending. That nice check for $1,200 or so that you got last year? You were supposed to go down to the mall and spend it. That was the idea. That people ought not to consume more than they need, that saving is a virtue, that usury is a moral wrong: none of that is any part of contemporary conservative philosophy. "Fiscal responsibility" is not a real philosophy for conservatives: it's a code for limiting the size and role of government. Thus the question as to whether helping the poor, protecting the environment, supporting education might actually be fiscally responsible policies in the long run has no interest for them. Deregulation of the financial industry is itself a deeply perverse expression of "responsibility," as conservatives seek to lessen, not maintain, financial protection for ordinary citizens. Their resistance to progressive taxation is also not an instance of "fiscal responsibility," rather it is an expression of faith in supply-side economics.
3) The current administration has very self-consciously spent the federal government into the ground, as a way of weakening and diminishing it. Whether or not that is a good goal, consider the hypocrisy of conservatives who now run away from this project, that they supported in the most full-throated way while they were supporting Bush and Cheney through two elections, much as all the macho talk about how the federal government ought not be in the business of paying for regional disasters was forgotten in the face of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Now they want to tell us that these are not conservative policies after all. Nonsense.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Amazing Lieberman

I can't say I much care for Joe Lieberman's foreign policy views. He would, by all appearances, gladly court global war and human catastrophe on an historic scale in the pursuit of his support for Israel. He is hostile to any attempt to reach out diplomatically or economically to the Palestinians, whose very existence he questions. He thinks, for reasons that elude me, that escalation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would further Israel's interests, and he advocates attacking Iran for the same reason, although what would happen next if the US attacked Iran is anybody's nightmare: it would be a classic instance of the dog catching the car. He is an Israeli defense hawk more belligerent than majority public opinion in Israel itself, sitting in the United States Senate. And he pursues this apocalyptic agenda at the expense of any other political interests he may have: amazingly enough, this is someone who votes with the Democrats 90 percent of the time. You read that right.
Which brings me to my reason for discussing him today: you've got to love the audacious political career that this man has charted for himself. He was Al Gore's vice-presidential candidate in 2000, the first Jew on a national ticket (and a practicing Orthodox Jew at that). In that election, Lieberman's credentials as a foreign policy hawk and (remember?) an avatar of "values" were considered to be an asset to the ticket. And of course he was very nearly elected. Then, by 2006, anti-war sentiment in the Democratic Party had built up such a head of steam that Lieberman lost the Connecticut Democratic primary for nomination to the Senate to the anti-war candidate Ned Lamont. At that point, politics being what it is, his old cronies (ie Chris Dodd) went over to campaigning against him. But wait: the Republican candidate was a disaster, and the meltdown of that campaign freed up enough conservative voters that Lieberman was elected as an independent. That was, I thought, tip-your-hat sort of stuff: now Lieberman could do anything he wanted, and that included continuing to caucus with the Democrats. If that were the end of the story it would be a great story.
But it goes on! Lieberman, caucusing with the Democrats and continuing to vote with the Democratics on most Senate votes, went out on the stump for McCain in the 2008 election. He didn't just say "I support McCain." He traveled around at McCain's elbow for months, whispering handler's instructions in his ear, and the final audacity was to go to the GOP convention in Minneapolis and address the delegates. At which point many Democrats said OK, you've pushed us too far, you're out. But wait: the Dems didn't get the 60-seat majority they needed to have a veto-proof Senate (and there will be battling over filibusters as well). So Lieberman goes on. Harry Reid talked tough about throwing him out as Homeland Security chairman, but when their post-election meeting finally came it was Lieberman who was calling the shots, walking away from the meeting saying that the Majority Leader's propositions were "unacceptable." And there we sit. After all, Lieberman is an independent, and not only that but it was the Party, not him, that declined to put him forward as the Democrat senator from Connecticut. He asked for the nomination.
No, I don't like a messianic Middle East hawk. Don't like that one bit. But the career? Brilliant. At some point you've just got to hand it to the guy.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Inventory of the Goodies

Friday night Sophia went trick-or-treating for the first time, it was great to see her carefully sorting through her bag of goodies like I remember doing as a kid. Last night lifelong liberal Democrats like me got a treat, not a trick, for once and I've done a little sorting today myself.
State by state, the news is better than I thought it was last night. All three contested Rocky Mountain states, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, went for Obama. New Mexico was expected, Colorado was in play the whole campaign, Nevada is striking and reflects demographic changes in the region. One of the McCain campaign's scenarios was to flip the Rocky Mountain states, didn't happen. That's a new map, I voted for Jerry Brown in 1992 in the Colorado caucus when Gov. Moonbeam won it, 16 years later we've got a growing, politically fascinating region that the Democrats should fight for. Indiana is maybe the single biggest win for the Democrats, a true upset and Obama did it with increased turnout by urban African-American voters combined with white working class support: it wasn't suburban liberals, it was a brilliant campaign by Obama and the 50-state strategy of the grossly underestimated Howard Dean. Obama won in Florida and Virginia, and appears to have won North Carolina by a slim, 5-digit margin. As recently as August the pundits were out there saying that the Democrats had no chance in Florida. Three big southern states for the black Democrat and his Yankee running mate.
Which brings me to the big picture. This time around, the Democrats won California, New York, Illinois, as usual. They also took Florida. If they can build on the win in Florida, the Republicans are left with: Texas. One big state. And that's not enough. Not only that, but Latino voters went big for Obama. That was a real unknown (like so many things that we could only know by actually having a black candidate for President). There were real indications that Latino voters wouldn't go for a black candidate, that the two ethnic identities could be played against each other (by the Republican Party: who else?). Well no: Latinos went for Obama by 73 percent in Colorado, 76 percent in Nevada, 69 percent in New Mexico, 57 percent in Florida. And have you heard? There are lots of Latinos living in Texas! I've heard it on good authority!

Don't Forget Jesse Jackson, Don't Forget 1988

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Watchin' TV and Cookin' Food on Election Night

6:55 PM: Collateral Damage: Pat Buchanan (of course I'm watching MSNBC, I'll flip around later) says that people have invested high expectations in Obama, but do they really know what they're getting in terms of policy agenda? Buchanan's purpose is to question a liberal mandate, but I think also that the fact that the great mass of these people about to vote for Obama aren't political animals means that the McCain-Palin campaign managed to insult a lot more people than they were aiming at with all these attacks on socialism, anti-Americanism and so forth. We were all asked to accept the suggestion that the sitting Speaker of the House, the sitting Senate Majority Leader, and the Presidential and Vice-Presidential nominees of the Democratic Party, as well as large geographic swathes of the country, were anti-American, socialist, etc. Sarah Palin, by the way, advertised herself as the "first Christian" mayor of Wasilla, unlike, say, the Lutheran man she displaced for that position. Bullies insult people, but they need to know when to stop. To put it in terms that the GOP nominee might understand: you were dropping too much ordnance. Too much collateral damage. Sound familiar?
7:39 PM Watch Where You Aim That Thing: Howard Fineman reports on MSNBC that African-American voter turnout is up everywhere that the Pennsylvania state GOP ran Reverend Wright ads this week. (The McCain campaign wasn't running them.)
Indiana (admittedly it's a tiny number of precincts reporting) is going for Obama. Another Pat Buchanan moment earlier today was when he started explaining one possible McCain scenario: "Say McCain wins Indiana and..." Say he wins Indiana? If McCain loses Indiana it's the end of civilization as we know it. Meanwhile I just flipped, as promised, over to Fox and glory be: they're reporting from the same planet as everybody else. Much better graphics, even.
8:24 PM (7:24 Eastern, remember): Both Maine and New Hampshire showing 67% for Obama. Iowa isn't the only place where a whole lot of white people are voting for Obama. New Hampshire is significant as a place that's been very kind to John McCain over the years. Meanwhile Indiana and Virginia are showing for McCain. Maybe deciding to do this running post thing will turn out to be more dramatic than I thought. I hope not.
10:39/9:39 Eastern: Fox has called Pennsylvania and Ohio for Obama. By my calculations McCain can't win without Pennsylvania. Anna K. just called all excited, but also reminding that it's not over. I don't think that any unexpected states are going to flip either way, but Obama is well ahead in Florida, Virginia isn't called yet and interestingly North Carolina is actually looking stronger for Obama than Virginia. Meanwhile Louis Fortuno has won the governer's race here, and that means that the whole university administration will be replaced, which under the circumstances is good news for us professors. I'll stay up a little later but this does look like a wrap - because no surprises either way. Hundreds of thousands of people gathering along the river in Chicago, I wish we were there.
Chris Matthews reports that there are as of tonight no Republican congressmen (or women) in New England. Not a one. Not that Christopher Shays was a bad guy.

Noon in Puerto Rico on Election Day

It's 11:47 AM Atlantic Time here in Puerto Rico, an hour ahead of Eastern (they "fall back," we stay the same, no DST). From everything that I can see (OK, obsessively stare at), we're on course for victory for Obama tonight. But it's not in the bag or at least if it is in the bag we can't yet tell. Like everyone else, I just want it to be over so we can move on, an apparently universal emotion today aggravated for G. and me by the closure of the university here since last Wednesday because of political and labor problems. Sophia has got her wading pool set up outside. When cars go by we can hear the party flags flapping in the wind.
Speaking of that, Puerto Rico is going through some political changes itself. Anibal Acevedo Villa, the Popular Party governer who initially got good marks when he took over from the patently oligarchic Sila Calderon (PR's first woman governor), has seen the public sour on him as he was unable to tame the endemic corruption that undid the last Nuevoprogressista governor Pedro Rosello as well (stateside readers: the Populares/PPD are the party of the status quo, the Nuevoprogresistas/PNP are the pro-statehood party). These are structural problems with a deep cultural dimension and it's going to take a lot to change things; people are more just angry than they are resolute to do anything in particular. They are, however, likely to turn the government back over to the Nuevoprogresistas today. This was helped by the effective ousting of Rosello who very typically tried to claim the nomination for himself once again (he had one of his loyalists step down to free a senate seat for him after losing both the last election and extensive legal challenges). Fortuno, the PNP candidate this time, thus represents a fresh face in contrast to both Acevedo and Rosello.
An interesting development here is the visible evolution of Puerto Rican party politics past its traditional focus which has always been the status issue. The younger faction that has taken over the PNP may develop the party along Democratic Party lines (something Rosello also tried to do), and if that succeeded, and the PPD came to represent an essentially conservative posture (they are the party of the Catholic Church as well as other populist/conservative elements), politics in PR would indeed be transformed. Meanwhile the same evolution of a more rational political discourse is evident regarding the PIP, the independence party. They are under intense pressure this election from yet a fourth party, the new Puerto Ricans for Puerto Rico (PPR? I'm not sure), which is polling around 6 percent vs. the PIP's truly dismal 2 percent (it's true that a likely PNP victory tends to bring out the "melones," so called because they talk a PIP (green) line while voting a PPD (red) line in the voting booth. I cannot yet make out what the new party stands for: for the moment they are the Cinderella ticket and are catching basically a free ride. The problem for the PIP considered as a nationalist party is that, for various historical and social reasons, it is also the self-styled vanguard party of the left. This turns out to be disastrous over the long term. Without the people the PIP is a party but not a movement. There is no reason that the nationalist movement needs to be the socialist movement, and some very practical political reasons why it shouldn't be. That might sound like an opinion hostile to independence, but the opposite it true: my view is that the single biggest political problem for Puerto Rican nationalism is the identification of the movement with the left, and with (inevitably) anti-US sentiment. What an irony that the left-wing intelligensia that dominates the PIP is itself the single biggest obstacle to the nationalist movement's success! But as I say, we can see things changing and today is a big day for local politics here.
Meanwhile the US election is more important and will make more of a difference here as well as in the States. The Republicans can try to hold the line and not suffer too big of a defeat, and I'd say that's more likely than a blowout. But a blowout would be much better for the country, that is several notches too far over to the right. Progressive taxation, regulatory enforcement, health insurance for all Americans: that's the way to put the middle class back in power, and it's not going to be easy to do.
I'm getting slightly more traffic today than usual, at least for a Tuesday. Anybody who does happen to read this: everybody's got to vote. More is better. If we could flip a couple of red states and break 300-325 on electoral votes Obama's first hundred days will be much more successful.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Obama Wins Iowa Caucuses January 2008

Sarah Sinks It

I haven't been of the mind that John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate was one of the definitive issues of this election. We've got catastrophic war for empire, the Great Depression II, the first black president...plenty of more important stuff to think about. Although like all liberal bloggers I've expressed dismay about her candidacy, I've also been thinking that she was a bit too easy to gang up on, that that courted a kind of populist backlash and besides, the real issue here is John McCain and his fitness to be making this kind of decision. This morning, though, an hour before Meet the Press and two days before Election Day, we wake up to this amazing prank interview with Palin by two notorious shock jocks out of Quebec. The issue is not that her staff is so inexperienced that a phony phone call got through (that sounds like how they're going to try to spin it). The issue is, once again, how she handled herself in an unmanaged encounter. She was so excited, I think, that she failed to listen to any of the substance of what was being said, and so the fault is more a lack of seriousness of purpose that can perhaps be chalked up to a lack of experience. That's the charitable take. But I can't see even the most loyal GOP operatives gritting their teeth and defending her over this one. I won't mention any of the details other than the cartoonish fake-French accent. The rest I leave for you to explore and digest on your own. And I think that this incident is a sort of tipping point, if we haven't passed it already, where it can definitively be said that the selection of Palin has been a disaster, just all by itself, for this campaign. And I say that in full knowledge that we will very likely be living with this person for years to come.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

McCain in 2000!

OK, I still think it would have been better if Gore had won in 2000. Still (and whether or not McCain loses on Tuesday as everyone expects), it's hard not to think that things would have gone a lot better if McCain had won in 2000 instead of Bush. It would have been much less likely that the US would have invaded Iraq, and the shame of torture scandals almost certainly would not have happened. We would have missed out on Sarah Palin. McCain was 64. 2000 was really his year, I think, but the GOP heavies outsmarted themselves. Ironically enough they were worried about the party getting saddled with a right-wing Christian candidate so they looked around for a safe, conventional candidate and settled on George W. Bush, in the process passing over the loner McCain. Just another clusterfuck for the old Navy airman (if you've wondered why the old military men tend to be full of rage).
But I can think of some things that would probably not have been different. For one thing (thinking of McCain), whatever happened to the conservative idea that the United States should avoid foreign entanglements and the corruption of empire? The Republican isolationists who fought against America's entry into World War II were pillars of the Senate, senior Republican senators like Robert Taft. Whatever the wisdom of their policies, look at how far the parties have transformed between then and now, when conservative Republicans are the self-conscious champions of empire, considering inviolate a military budget that is larger than all others combined, and assuming the American garrisoning of the world as a natural fact, to be sustained indefinitely.
Meanwhile we can also safely assume that there wouldn't have been any health care reform during a McCain administration, and not much would have been different in regulatory oversight of the financial industry either. McCain might have done better than Bush has with privatizing Social Security, and we all might have done a lot worse if he had.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Run Up the Score

With two weeks and two days to Election Day, Barack Obama could still lose this election, but it is increasingly difficult to see how. But there is more to elections than just whose nose got over the finish line first. Elections are symbolic. Ask George W. Bush if all elections are the same; he can tell you about the difference between being appointed President by the Supreme Court in 2000 and winning by four million votes in 2004. Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama this morning on Meet the Press was not a game-changer, but it was rich with symbolism (as well as substance: if there was any doubt that the McCain campaign's fixation on William Ayers and McCain's selection of Sarah Palin were blunders, Powell's measured criticism today ought to clear that up). And Powell will move some votes, among undecideds and among a new, exotic species, Republicans who are jumping ship and voting for Obama. That's good: today I want to make the argument for running up the score.
When the Republicans and their unfortunately kind of brilliant field marshall Newt Gingrich took over the Congress in 1994 the conservative movement, thirty years after Ronald Reagan's speech endorsing Barry Goldwater at the 1964 GOP convention, finally won the definitive victory it had pursued all those years (Reagan's own impressive numbers in 1980 were interpreted as to some degree representing Jimmy Carter's failure of confidence). 1994 was the symbolic defeat of the old, legislation-based Democratic Party model of government that dated back to Franklin Roosevelt and that reached its apogee during the JFK-LBJ era of the early and mid-sixties. It was Bill Clinton, that most protean of pols, who then announced that "the era of big government is over." That's the kind of symbolic victory that moves us from one era to another. Such elections are rare: the apostate conservative Andrew Sullivan pointed out on the Chris Matthews Show this morning that the last time the Republicans were handed such a symbolic defeat was the landslide reelection of Roosevelt in 1936 (1932 was about "change" after the crash of '29, 1976 was about Watergate, Nixon's resignation in 1974 and the ignominious end of the US war in Vietnam in 1975. Clinton won by plurality in 1992 with Ross Perot pulling down about 20 percent of the popular vote).
The pendulum needs to swing again. A big part of the reason I was a Hillary Clinton supporter throughout this primary season was that a victory for Hillary, incarnate devil of liberalism, would have constituted an unambiguous defeat of conservatism, a statement by the body politic that Reagan's movement had run its course. We can still have such a moment, and the signs are everywhere that we need it. Joe Scarborough, getting back to his conservative roots in time of crisis, laid out the revanchist line this morning: if not for the economic collapse, Republican conservatism would have won the election. And conservative apologists are already pointing fingers at Obama's tremendous cash advantage, never mind that it was they who resisted campaign finance reform on the grounds that political donations ought to be considered constitutionally protected "free speech." This time, the people have spoken (Fairness footnote: John McCain has indeed been a "maverick" on campaign finance, although that and opposing torture are pretty much it). We need a blowout. Go get 'em, Sarah!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

McCain's Trash Talk

The day before the last presidential debate, we read that John McCain is telling reporters that he will "whip Obama's ass," and has taken to self-consciously repeating the word "fight" in his stump speeches this week. I've never understood the function of trash talk before a confrontation, a smart jock could maybe explain it, obviously it's meant to be a kind of psychological warfare (boxers take the art to its highest level), but mostly it's a way to psyche up oneself and one's supporters I think. But at this point the Republican ticket is at risk of degenerating into snarling, sullen reactionaries. Correction: into appearing to be the snarling, sullen reactionaries that I kind of suspect that they are. The problem is issues: ain't got none.
So far rightward did the Bush-Cheney administration push things that there is barely a substantial issue remaining on the table that allows a true conservative to simultaneously state his or her honest opinion and appeal to undecided voters. For example, when McCain touted an out-of-the-blue plan to buy up bad mortgage debt during the second debate the biggest effect was to rile up conservative critics, a bad hit for a campaign that has the base, the anti-Obamas, and little else. And McCain's attempt to get out front on global warming has now been eclipsed by his running mate's inability to admit that humans are having negative impacts on the environment at all. Two perceptions are building this week: 1) McCain is flopping around trying to get some traction and not finding any, an indication he has no core other than his character, and 2) this ticket is two obstreperous, combative personalities at a time when that is exactly the wrong temperament to lead the country into the emerging multi-polar world. At Obama rallies, Obama says nice things about McCain, and the crowd cheers. At McCain rallies, McCain slanders Obama, and the crowd calls for Obama's head. And Obama's lead keeps widening. Go get 'em, Sarah!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Why Is McCain Running Right?

It's not a rhetorical question, today I'm really wondering why John McCain is running a "base" campaign. The choice of Sarah Palin, for example, was a base pick, aimed at appealing to the Christian Right and other hard-line domestic-issues conservatives, and she is out there running the line that Obama is "different" (black, liberal) and generally riling up the most xenophobic elements in the party, which makes for exciting rallies in a scary, fascist sort of way, but which is almost guaranteed to turn off independents and centrists. But it's not just Palin. No tax increases for corporations and the very wealthy, "victory" in Iraq, opposition to health care insurance reform: what gives? The issue at the moment isn't whether these conservative positions are wise or otherwise. My question today is, why is McCain seemingly driving his campaign over a cliff?
There are several possible explanations. 1) Maybe the campaign is simply so obtuse that they honestly think that rallying conservatives is the same thing as rallying the country. But that seems unlikely (at least for those of them who are not xenophobes from small-town Alaska). 2) More likely, the reasoning is "last man standing": the Republican cannot win without the conservative base, so make sure the base is OK just in case the Obama campaign hits a rock somehow and McCain gets a chance after all. That is, stay prepared to get lucky. That position makes some sense, but only granting that one has already decided that, barring some political catastrophe for Obama, there's now no use in going after the center. Not "prudent but hopeless," rather "hopeless but prudent." 3) But I have a suspicion that something more personal is going on here. This is John McCain's last hurrah. The cap to his political career is the Republican nomination in 2008. That's in the bag. All that is left is coming in with a respectable showing among conservative voters. So get out there and try to make your performance with conservative voters decent enough so you don't spend your twilight years a political laughing stock. Even that isn't terribly urgent: history will blame the Republican defeat on George W. Bush, not McCain. Go get 'em, Sarah!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Watch Where the Battle is Fought

Which is worse, thirty more days to Election Day and your ticket is trailing, or thirty more days and your ticket is ahead in the polls? As a partisan it always feels good to be winning, but this pleasure appears superficial when you want to also maintain some insight into what's going on. Thirty days is plenty of time for the other side to stage a comeback, or for your side to blow it all. Maybe. But sometime right around now there will be a tipping point when the pros in politics and the media will know what's going to happen to a certainty. They won't say it, for various reasons. Both campaigns have an interest in campaigning to the very last day, even when everybody inside knows that the game was over, say, two weeks ago. I remember in 1992 that we ("we" who were not clueless) knew that Clinton-Gore were going to win, I remember telling one of my classes that I believed that Clinton was in, maybe a week out. As I recall, the point was reached when one could simply do the math. But if you're just a member of the lumpen professoriat like me that late date is the earliest that I would dare call it. The Mike Murphys and Bob Strausses of the world often know these things quite a bit earlier on.
This time around, nobody is going to give me any points for predicting an Obama-Biden win this week while they're up in the polls, but what I've got is this:
Consider the 2004 election result. The Democrats lost that election when they lost Ohio and Iowa, and it was a close thing for them in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania besides. In 2000 they carried Iowa and of course that election is unusually ambiguous, but in both of those elections the battleground was in the Upper Midwest, and in both many argued that Ohio was the state that swung it. I knew, in the last months of the 2004 race, that the fact that Michigan, Wisconsin and even Minnesota were in play was very bad news for Kerry-Edwards. Sad, too: Minnesota and Wisconsin are old "Progressive," anti-gold standard states, left-leaning through much of the twentieth century, and Michigan and Ohio are Rust Belt states that were longtime bastions of Democratic Party and labor union power. When the election is being fought in states like that you know the Democrats are in trouble.
Now look where the battleground is today. Missouri, Colorado, Nevada, bedrock Republican Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina and, most impressive of all, Florida are in the "too close to call" category as of today. Two months ago (maybe even one month ago) the suggestion that the Democrats had a shot at Florida would have drawn hoots from the punditocracy. One thing they were right about is that the state is an absolute must-win for the Republicans. Even if Obama-Biden don't take Florida, forcing McCain-Palin to fight there draws money and time from other areas: this week McCain actually dropped, altogether, his Michigan campaign. He simply can't pay for it and scramble in expensive media markets like Florida and Virginia. Speaking of Virginia, if Obama wins any Southern states at all he will be the first non-Southern Democrat to carry a Southern state since JFK did it in 1960 (and with this Sunday morning's political talk we learn that there is now movement in Louisiana, of all places). He's competitive in four. Oh, did I mention he's black?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Some of the People All of the Time

I'm going to watch the vice-presidential debate tonight, although G. wonders if it's a good idea since I tend to literally writhe around in physical pain listening to these things. Tonight will be heavy on defense, since Biden has much to lose and will prefer to let Palin hang herself, while Palin would doubtless like Biden to run on and burn up as much of the clock as possible. Palin will try to shake something out of Biden, he's the elitist liberal baddy in the mythical scenario she's surfing. Biden will try to leave Palin alone and go after Bush, McCain, and the republicans in general. But what makes this debate (five hours from now) interesting is the jaw-dropping performance of Palin in her interviews with Katie Couric this week, emphasized by the almost equally incredible performance by Tina Fey where she did an SNL skit using words that were very close to the actual transcript.
The trouble for Palin is this: she hasn't just measured up as a weak debater. She failed to come up with any discussion at all of the judiciary, for example, when asked. She did say things: she said that Roe v. Wade ought to be handled by the states, and she assured Couric that if elected she would enforce the law. But that was it. She also, even more astonishingly, failed to mention a single specific news or opinion source that she had read: not an Anchorage paper, not Fox, not a recent book, ningun. Joe Scarborough, who has been cracking a bit under the strain over at MSNBC, laid the blame on the "Bush handlers" and laid out what might have been fighting answers to many of the questions Palin simply failed to swing at. But Joe: you are already able to speak in an unguarded and informed manner about the judiciary, the media, Russia, a book you've read recently, and so forth. So is everybody at your table, and a good percentage of your viewers. Is it true that she is literally unable to discuss political questions?
It's remotely possible that she is a seasoned enough "stealth" candidate that she is simply on message which is to say nothing, like a Republican nominee for the Supreme Court, and hope that the general public doesn't ever really grasp the full extent of her radicalism. Or maybe she's just trying to lower expectations so that she has a shot at slaying Goliath. There was an old SNL skit where Reagan was a kindly old charmer in person, but an evil genius when everyone was gone. I want to see them do the scene where the Bush "fixers" realize that they've got a candidate who's never heard of Time Magazine (a good old liberal rag, by the way).

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Hey Wall Street: Who's Your Daddy?

The professor in me has to start out with the point that our basic structure of popular economic theory, that there is a spectrum from "right" free-market ideologies to "left" socialist ideologies, is badly outdated and has been for some time. All of the large Far Eastern economies, for example, long ago ceased to be fixed on this spectrum. Nonetheless ironies abound as everyone reacts to the meltdown of some of the largest private investment firms and banks in North America. The central irony is that our thoroughly modern generation of positively feral free-marketeers, whose like had not been seen since the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, are now to be bailed out with taxpayer's dollars (700 billion dollars, raising the national debt from $10.6 trillion to $11.3 trillion).
This circumstance outrages leftists and rightists alike, from members of various socialist parties in Italy and Spain to John McCain, who argues that weathering the storm would result in a stronger dollar over the long term, a not-totally-unreasonable argument with the added benefit of lots of populist red meat.
The problem for the ultras of all stripes is not that anybody is willing to sacrifice themselves out of some misguided sense of fairness to Lehman Brothers, but almost everybody (McCain and not all Italian Communists excepted) thinks that letting Freddie Mac go down might do serious enough damage to the economic system itself that it's worth the money to prop it up. I'm not into drama; reading along as far as I can see there's a good chance that this financial evaporation ("evaporation" is more accurate than "meltdown," no?) won't in fact result in major institutional changes.
Here's the irony that I like best, though: It was the Bushies who wanted to effect radical institutional transformation. They wanted to get rid of Social Security altogether. One of the President's major initiatives (a failed one) was to urge Americans to privatize their retirement funds. Driving the federal government farther and farther into debt was seen as a way to weaken it. The ideological project was to reduce the federal government to a more minor player, with more power in private hands. The entry of many more middle-class, individual investors into the stock market, although over-stated by corporate boosters, was a significant movement that was a real victory for free-marketeers. However, years of Republican dominance in Washington chopped away at regulation and oversight - not an ad hominem charge on my part but simply what conservatives proudly proclaim to be their agenda - resulting in the present train-wreck (more fun word than either evaporation or meltdown), and the final upshot looks to be that the hated "State" will end up as major shareholder, no doubt cooperating with the non-rich shareholders that have been treated like fodder by the Bushies and their corporatist supporters. That, in other words, is the apparent accomplishment of George W. Bush: the exact opposite of what he set out to achieve.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Biden Takes the High Road

Joe Biden was exactly right to raise the issue of stem-cell research in response to Republican attempts to portray Sarah Palin, the 44-year-old mother of a Down's Syndrome child, Christian pro-life advocate and opponent of sex education in schools and stem-cell research, as someone who will look out for the interests of working mothers and women in general. Policy, policy, policy: who will deliver a larger share of the wealth to working women, through progressive taxation, safeguarding Social Security and extending health coverage to uninsured people (most of whom are women and children)? The Democrats, and the Republicans actually propose moving in the opposite direction on all of these things. Who would keep abortion, terrible thing as it may be, safe and legal and out of back alleys? The Democrats, Republicans the reverse. Both George H. W. Bush and W. were likely believers in the science of stem-cell research, but both vetoed it because they had to throw sops to the Christian Right for political reasons. Now the GOP VP nominee is part of the Christian Right herself. The good news is that if the campaign is decided on the issues, the Democrats win. The bad news is that, with the exceptions of the Iraq war and oil (not even energy) policy, the campaign has yet to be about the issues after all these months. So, as I said, Biden is exactly right to hammer the Republicans on stem-cell research, and he should not be scared off by phony McCain campaign posturing.
This is important because McCain appears for the moment to have achieved his twofer from the Palin nomination: he has solidified his right-wing base and has also caused some movement of independent and undecided women voters to the Republican column. When the election is as close as this one appears to be even a point or two of movement can swing the election. I didn't think that McCain would gain many women voters with the Palin choice, but I turn out to be wrong about that. I thought that since women voters in general tend to be slightly less conservative and slightly more liberal than male voters, Palin's extremism would turn them off. I think that part of my reasoning was right: if we are talking about undecided voters at this point after the conventions and VP picks, we are talking about voters who may have as strong opinions on issues as anybody else, but who are more likely to be unclear on what the actual policy positions of the candidates are. If they are presented with kabuki theater posturing about who is the more noble Roman, as the Republicans favor, they will vote accordingly. If they are educated about the positions of the parties, as Joe Biden started working on with his remarks on stem-cell policy, we may get a very different outcome. Press the attack, keep talking about real policies. Education, environment, health care.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

More Clarity is Good

One theme I've noticed on my politics blog lately is the need for clear electoral choices, which is a concomitant condition for the possibility of the Democrats defining themselves. I mentioned that Obama ought to state a clear, unambiguous and comprehensive pro-choice position, for example. So I think it might be a good thing if the religious right succeeds in getting out the message that we're hearing from Gary Bauer, Rev. Dobson and the like on why Sarah Palin makes them happy with the ticket. As a GOP congressman explained to a CNN, I think it was, reporter on the floor of the convention: "We teach these virtues (abstinence), but then life goes on." So there you have it: ban education about sex and birth control from the schools and teach abstinence, and let the teenage women have babies as a consequence. The position does not deny that abstinence-based policy may contribute to teenage pregnancies. The conservative position is that these pregnancies are a normal part of life, and to let them happen - oh, well yes, to coerce these events, in fact, by banning not only abortion but sex education. So if that is how you feel about the matter, you maybe should vote Republican, all other things being equal. If not, not.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Sarah Harriet Palin Myers

It's a really consistent effect that Democrats tend to think that the Democrats will win and the Republicans are blowing things, Republicans the reverse. Even the most seasoned pundits fall prey to this. Having said that, no matter how I tote up the pros and cons, I just can't see Sarah Palin as anything but a net negative for McCain. There will be a lot of discussion about her inexperience and lack of qualifications (indisputable), and the fact that McCain skipped over so many more qualified Republicans will bring the discussion back to the pandering issue (which will turn out to be a delicate matter, ultimately decided by women voters). The idea seems to be that you get the undecided and independent women voters while simultaneously shoring up the conservative base. The glitch there is that undecided and independent women voters do not appear to be conservative this time around. They want abortion rights, and they are pro-environment, while Palin's signature issues are radically pro-life and anti-environment. As to that, McCain has (inexplicably, to my liberal mind) problems with "movement" conservatives, but if there are two issues where he has been firmly on the Right forever, they are abortion and the environment: thus she adds little to the ticket's conservative profile to anyone paying attention. Meanwhile on the age issue this looks like a backfire to me: most importantly her inexperience forces us to consider the future of an incoming 72-year-old president who has had skin cancer three times, but more viscerally the sight of the two of them looks like an old man with his daughter (girlfriend?), and the undress-me glasses don't help (OK maybe that's just me. My 58-year-old sister wondered what older women would make of a mother of five with a Down's Syndrome infant out running for president).
But on top of all that, this morning I'm thinking this: when George W. Bush appointed old cronies like Alberto Gonzalez and Harriet Myers to high office, he very clearly was expressing contempt for the institutions: to hell with those eggheads and careerists who labor for decades developing the backgrounds to run the government. Lawyers and scientists and all that: all you need is the Bible! McCain has to, at a minimum, run as not-Bush to have even a chance of winning. This is a Bush judgment all the way.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Bill Clinton, Mick Jagger, George W. Bush, Keith Richards, Al Gore, Ron Wood, John Kerry, Charlie Watts, Joe Biden, Brian Jones and Dick Cheney were all born within a seven-year period: from 1941 to 1948 (Do you know which three were all born in 1943? Can you guess which two were both born in 1942? Charlie Watts and Dick Cheney are the oldest, Al Gore is the youngest). They represent the senior phalanx of the generation known as the baby boomers, born in post-WWII prosperity, roughly from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. And they are, or at least until recently have been, in charge of everything.
But this election, a generational change is occurring, and the torch will be passed to a different generation, with a different outlook, to move in another direction... Obama, you say? Well true enough (1961), but actually I was thinking of McCain. He was born in the middle of the Great Depression, 1936, before the war. Passing the presidency off to him would be moving the country back to before the boomers.
(Answers to quiz: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and John Kerry were all born in 1943. Joe Biden and Brian Jones were both born in 1942. Clinton and Bush were both born in 1946: remember that Sartre play, No Exit?)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Let Obama Be Dean

After all the ballyhoo about Obama being mugged by the Civic Forum people last Saturday, people are saying let Obama be Obama. The problem is that Obama is being Obama, a communicator and conciliator by inclination and talent. These qualities could well make him an able executive, but as a campaigner the Democrats need someone who can put the Republicans on the defensive and keep them there. That can't be done by charming people but it can be done by presenting a real alternative. Obama needs to get a little less Clinton, a little more Dean. For example even at a Christian venue such as Civic Forum, when asked about abortion the Democrat should say, "Safe, legal and rare," which is still a sugared-up version of what ought to be "Safe, legal and available to all." "Safe and legal, that's my position, vote accordingly." Having such a clear position helps in argument, and helps to avoid arguments. On taxes the Democrat has a harder job of communicating just how lavish the Republican tax breaks have been for large businesses and the rich. But that's the place to stick, even if it means squaring off against some big shots and making enemies. The debt, the deficit, the budget. That was the theme doing a lot of work for the Democrats in 1992 when Clinton won. Where is the national debt clock? It's possible that even anti-militarism vs. militarism might work for the Democrats. We'll never know until we try. But don't put Howard on the ticket. Put Hillary on the ticket.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Late Veepstakes

Time grows short for Senators McCain and Obama to announce their respective running mates. As of this writing we still really don't know in either case. For both, it is a choice that could (not necessarily will) make or break the campaign. One would think that they are both close to a final decision, but my sofa kremlinology does not see traction anywhere. McCain's present trajectory is taking him in the direction of Huckabee, not that McCain will choose him (he won't), but the Republican campaign is turning out to be much more traditional than we might have expected. More war and oil rigs are required. Vice-President Romney will attend to the oil rigs. Meanwhile there is an opportunity to burnish the national reputations of some younger conservatives through the medium of the Veep list and all its attendant theatrics.
By the way, what is with the ritualistic "Would you comment about your being on the veep list?" question that every TV journalist must ask it of every politician rumored to be so? It's like the very traditional, very ritualistic sports interviews before and after games: "Well we're hoping to do well and we feel good, but they're a tough team, so let's hope for the best." "Well the nominee has to be free to make a decision in the best interests of the campaign, so I wouldn't interfere by promoting myself." And that's it. So the behavior is wholly ritualistic. Can some anthropologist explain this to me?
Meanwhile as to the Democrats, I like it that Obama has this kind of cagey streak to him where we don't know what he's going to do. I started out not liking Jim Webb, but I was won over finally by his interest in prison reform, a major issue that is too much off the radar screen. As to Joe Biden, I've liked him as a senator for a long time, but how could Obama justify the choice of Biden (or Dodd) if he weren't going to choose Clinton (or even Richardson for that matter)? I think I was wrong that Obama could nominate a woman-not-Hillary, in any event we're not seeing much of the other prospective nominees (ie Kathleen Sebelius). Rachel Maddow has made the point a few times that there's no particular reason why Hillary Clinton has to be the only woman whom the party could nominate, which is true enough except that Hillary Clinton happens to be an actual politician who is a woman candidate for national office, and not an abstract woman candidate for national office like we're used to thinking about. If Obama had a bigger lead in the polls he might want to play it safe with Evan Bayh or some other white-bread young midwesterner, but something more daring is called for I think. The continuing uncertainty of the role of the Clintons at the convention kind of jumps out at me. Obama had to make it clear to the world that he could and would decide on his running mate based entirely on his own considerations: he had to prove that he was in control of the process. He couldn't have it appear that the Clintons had shot their way on to the ticket. And I think now he has accomplished that, so now's the time to...nominate Clinton. Which is the obvious choice from the most basic of political considerations. Maybe Obama's known that he was going to pick Clinton in the end all along.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

GOP Playing Cards

I want to post today about a persistent bit of doublespeak from Republican rhetoricians. When Democrats point out that Republican policies favor the rich over the poor (which they do: check out the regressive tax code, attitudes towards enforcing regulations, resistance to campaign finance reform, and on and on), Republicans accuse the Democrats of "class warfare." This phrase not-so-subtly impugns Democrats as "pink," that is, as not truly supportive of economic and political freedom. That's a sleight-of-hand. In a secular democracy anyone can organize for whatever reason they want. Get enough people to vote for free chocolate milkshakes for all and that's what you'll get. The real erosion of our traditions in recent years has been the diminution of the middle class, both in terms of size and power, as Republicans have used the coercive power of the central government to artificially redistribute the wealth upwards, towards a tiny economic elite that now holds a dangerously large share of our commonwealth. "Supply-side economics" is a cover for graft, an excuse for politicians to divert lavish gifts to corporate allies (it was George H. W. Bush, it's useful to remember, who coined the term "voodoo economics" while running against Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Republican primaries). But according to contemporary Republican rhetoric, anyone who tries to rally the middle class, to organize workers, or to appeal to the interests of the poor is practicing "class warfare." A malevolent bit of political judo.
This week we've seen an equally offensive variation on this tactic from the McCain campaign. They have accused Obama of "playing the race card." Let's consider this suggestion. First of all, there is no contest over black voters. Forget about Obama: the Democrats have won 95+ percent of the African-American vote in the past two elections and will do so this election as well, regardless of who the candidate may be, the Full Employment Act for Black Conservative Commentators notwithstanding. Second, there is a history to the phrase "playing the race card," that is undoubtedly why the Republicans decided to obfuscate it. Traditionally it has referred to race-baiting tactics by the Republicans. Accusing Obama of "playing the race card" manages to throw up some dust for when the Republicans really do start race-baiting, which happens when: they accuse Obama of playing the race card! Positively diabolical. Third, as is borne out by the polls which consistently show the Democratic Party with a huge advantage, but Obama continuing in a tenuous position as he cannot open up a lead among white voters, the cost of a candidate being black continues to outweigh the benefit. The evidence suggests that Obama's race is currently costing him somewhere between five and ten points in the national polls, enough to potentially cost him the election. Fourth, as in the case of class interests, race interests (think of Irish and Italian Catholic urban politicians in the early 20th century) are a perfectly legitimate platform for political organizing, but Fifth, Obama isn't even doing that: he has no reason to work on rallying his African-American base and every reason to try to make himself acceptable to whites. The only even coherent version of "playing the race card" as applied to Obama's campaigning against McCain would be if Obama were accusing McCain of being a racist by sheer virtue of the fact that McCain is running against a black man, and it's true that the Clintons suffered that fate (quite unfairly) in the primaries, which is maybe what scared the McCain campaign into making this preemptive strike. But that backfires (at least I hope it does): there can be no doubt this week that it is the McCain campaign that has injected race into the rhetoric, something Obama has all this time scrupulously avoided doing, which is not surprising since it can only hurt him, something the McCain campaign understands only too well.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Listening to Iran

Before discussing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's interview with Brian Williams yesterday, I have to make clear that although I think that Israel has serious problems that are to a good degree their own making, and although I think that both the US and Israel itself would both actually be better off if they were not so closely identified with each other, I think that the anti-Israeli statements by President Ahmadinejad over the past several years are perhaps the most irresponsible and disturbing language coming from any quarter of the contemporary Middle East, and one can only assume that he understands perfectly well that everyone will make the connection between these frankly apocalyptic remarks ("Israel will cease to exist," etc.) and Iran's Uranium-enrichment program, to what end I simply cannot comprehend. I hope for a change to a more liberal, more secular set of political institutions in Iran, as an advocate of religious freedom and human rights.
The Iranian president (OK, Ahmadinejad)is of course playing domestic politics, in both bomb-thrower and conciliator poses. Playing the Great Satan routine has always been a meal ticket for fundamentalist Shia politicians. Now in the March 14th parliamentary elections there were real gains for the "pragmatic conservatives" and the "reformers," and Mahammed Qalibaf, a likely challenger in next year's presidential elections, argues that a "Third Wave" of pragmatic secularism is asserting itself. Ahmadinejad may be back-pedaling to create a less confrontational atmosphere to forestall the rise of more liberal political forces. The Iranians are also no doubt fascinated by their own history of influencing the outcome of US elections. I doubt, though, that they have as good a fix on what sort of outcome they might prefer, and how exactly they might go about influencing American voters, than we might imagine they do.
The reason I'm posting about this today is one really important segment of the interview to which every American really ought to listen. Williams asked Ahmadinejad if Iran might not enjoy more access to "the wider world" if it cooperated with international pressure to suspend or otherwise modify its uranium-enrichment activities. (The link at the top of the post is to the NBC transcript.) Iran, Ahmadinejad said, was "A great country, a great nation with a great economy, a rich culture, thousands of years of history and civilization. And we have very good economic and cultural relations with countries around the world. It would be very good for you to walk our streets and gain a better appreciation of life in this part of the world." Iran, he suggested, did not necessarily need "the services" of any countries in particular.
President Ahmadinejad may or may not survive next year's election and he may or may not be a skilled statesman (points off for blandly asserting that there are no gays in Iran). But his statement is a good example of the way that the ground is shifting under our feet. Eras, like empires, come and go, and they do so in political time, not geologic time. And like fashions, you can tell that something is in decline the moment most people know about it. An American Era, such as it is, was at a high point during the first half of the 1950s, with millions of American forces garrisoned around the world, an American military governor in Japan, American troops dying by the tens of thousands in Korea, and the US the preeminent economic engine and financier of the world, not to mention the biggest petroleum exporter. And the mindset of many Americans, both in government and in ordinary life, is that that era continues to this day and will continue indefinitely into the future (as John McCain, who cannot imagine that we may someday not be stationing military forces in Iraq, let alone Germany and Japan).
Two unexpected things to wake up to someday, and that someday is today: a) we're not the unipolar "hyperpower." We're not even necessarily the most impressive, or even the scariest, hegemonic pole on a stage that includes several (more than two). When did that happen? And 2) the age of American hegemony was a construction of the FDR Democrats. They were the ones who took the US into an international role and integrated the US and world economies. But today it's the Republicans who are still intent on tending the locomotive of empire. The Bush/McCain crowd just isn't getting it. Mahmoud Amadinejad, a political machine back-bencher who doesn't know what planet he's on, looks like Werner Von Braun compared to them. And maybe the biggest domestic story is this: however much the conservative/Republican alliance may be holding up in other areas, on the foreign policy front the split looks to be complete: Republican imperialists like Bush and McCain are literally the opposites of Libertarians and traditional Republican isolationists. On the spectrum of attitudes, the Democrats are located between them.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Split Authoritarian Personality

Reading an NYT story about police departments' complaints about being forced to spend too much time and money on "anti-terror" activities by Homeland Security, I was struck by some inconsistencies in the Administration's frankly authoritarian style. "Frankly" because it is an article of faith in the Bush-Cheney crowd that the executive lost too much power in the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam mid-70s. There is a political agenda behind this mythology as it serves to justify the actions of the Nixon/Ford Republican administrations as well as the current one.
Anyway, here's the inconsistency: we are constantly hearing that the administration believes that military policy ought to be set by "officers on the ground," that is by the professional military. (Another problem with this line is that it shields to some extent the civilian politicians in the White House from being accountable for what is after all their war policy.) But this hands-off approach to administering security apparently doesn't extend to the police. That's too bad, since the approach of countries such as Germany, that have approached anti-terror measures more from a police perspective than a military one, has had significant success in rolling up terror networks. But we have a split-authoritarian personality here.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Clintonesque Obama

It's hard to miss how closely Barack Obama has studied the electoral strategy and tactics of Bill Clinton in the 90s. He has moved rapidly in the last two weeks to reposition himself in the center, signaling that he is not an abolitionist on the death penalty, that he will not immediately withdraw from Iraq, and that he supports government support for "faith-based initiatives," among other things. Long-time Clinton supporter that I am, I should be heartened by this. The argument at this point is about winning the election, after all, and what we learned from the centrist Southerners of the Democratic Leadership Conference is that a Democratic politician can't be shy about running to the right when it is expedient, especially at the national level. Win first, then you can govern. Today quickly becomes another yesterday that can be conveniently forgotten.
So I'm sure I'll cause a lot of hair-pulling frustration on the team of young Ivy-leaguers assigned to closely monitor my statements on this blog and summarize them daily for the chief's breakfast when I say this morning that I'm not totally sold on this rebranding of Obama. In the 90s, the goal was just to win one for the Democrats. This election is different. Clinton just wanted to steer the battleship, but there exists now an opportunity to turn the battleship around. What is needed is for the liberal Democrats to beat the conservative Republicans. It is not enough just that there is a Democratic president (a significant achievement in the 90s). The ideological pendulum can swing, inaugurating a period of progressive America. But in order for this election to have that symbolic resonance, the candidate must present himself as clearly liberal. This will take courage. For example, it may be that the math indicates that being a death penalty abolitionist is a loser, but that doesn't mean that the Democrat has to affirm the death penalty to get elected. Obama needs to approach this with a subtle touch.
I wouldn't necessarily include the "faith" stuff in this criticism, though. I can think of at least five reasons why it might pay off for Obama to try to carve out an identity as a Christian candidate, roughly from less important to more so:
1) He needs a productive way of repeating the fact that he is a Christian, as double-digit numbers of poll respondents still identify him as a Muslim.
2) It does indeed help with the Clintonian strategy of portraying Obama as more moderate, and more recognizably American, which he does after all need to do (to be precise, he needs to raise the comfort level with white voters).
3) He might be able to make some lemonade out of the lemon of Jeremiah Wright, since that gentleman's intemperate statements at least made clear that Obama has indeed been in a long-term relationship with a Christian church.
4) John McCain has a weak spot on his right flank, and the Christian right is part of that. Obama has shown a heartening ability to wade in and go on the offensive wherever possible, something we missed in our last two national candidates.
5) Long-term, it's never been obvious that Republican policies were the most in tune with a genuine Christian spiritual practice. There has always been an impressive Christian left in this country, but the smaller size of the left in general as left them for a century in the wilderness (admittedly a place the Christian left obviously feels comfortable being). If we move into a more liberal American era, a renaissance of progessive Christian politics could be a part of that. Don't leave religion to the troglodytes!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

What Sort of President?

Today two points about how we should pick a president, and who we should pick:
1) I was surprised over the past couple of days of a revival of speculation in the media that Hillary Clinton would after all be chosen as Barack Obama's running mate. Even Chris Matthews seemed to be into the idea (remember the guy who snubbed you all senior year and then decided to be friends at the graduation party?). I was surprised by the level of enthusiasm, of course it requires too much kremlinology to figure out (what are their conversations like?), but it is an unexpected occasion for me to reiterate my own thinking on why Obama should choose Clinton as his running mate.
She got half of the primary vote. Not only that, but the Democratic rules of proportional allocation and a mix of primaries and caucuses, the product of the populist Dean faction at the DNC, did exactly what it was designed to do: it forced the party into more of a consensus-based process. To me, small-"d" democracy requires more than just asserting opinions: we also need to understand compromise. When Bush I got 25 percent in the Republican primaries in 1980, Reagan didn't hesitate. He was old-school: Bush came in a strong second, Bush was on the ticket. And the math is still there: Clinton took the big electoral-count states, Obama has an uphill struggle cracking 25 percent of the white vote. So yes, my position continues to be, as always, put Clinton on the ticket.
2) There is discussion of Obama's resolve to pull US forces out of Iraq. Reality check: no president is going to just pull everything out if that would result in some sort of humanitarian catastrophe. Maybe that will be difficult, maybe not; nobody really knows that. So the question is not, what will Obama or what will McCain do in Iraq in the first three months, say, of taking office. The question for voters is, who do you think should be in charge of this: McCain, who is not only comfortable with the idea of garrisoning US soldiers all around the world for the indefinite future, but appears to assume that some such scenario will go on, or would you prefer Obama, who understands that the "lone superpower" routine is bad for the US and unhelpful to out relations with the world? My view is that this is precisely the wrong time to have a military man. We badly need to step back and try to have a more subdued international profile, like Canada or Australia. We need to make real cuts in military spending, not just cuts in the rate of increase in military spending.

Friday, June 27, 2008

"Constructionism" and Gun Control

I agree that the Second Amendment is ambiguous enough to sustain differing interpretations. Is the right to bear arms something the citizenry has in the context of a well-regulated militia, or is that right a necessary precondition for same that thus needs to be protected? This is the crux of the 5-4 disagreement on yesterday's historic decision that the Second Amendment does in fact constitute an inalienable right of the individual citizen to own a gun, something never before found by a court in our history, believe it or not.
Today I'm not so much engaged in this Talmudic argument as I am by the question of what a "conservative" Supreme Court really amounts to. What we've been told for many a long year is that "conservative" jurisprudence is not really "political" in the secular sense of pushing an agenda (unlike liberal jurisprudence, supposedly). Rather "constructionists" (famously Robert Bork) claimed that it was legislators who determined the law, and that when liberal jurors found "rights" that were not explicitly contained in the constitution they were legislating from the bench: liberals were "activist judges" who had gone beyond their constitutional function. The interesting thing about a strict constructionist like Bork was that his view definitely worked both ways: just as he repudiated Griswold vs. Connecticut, which struck down a Connecticut law prohibiting birth control, on the grounds that no right to birth control could be found in the Constitution, so his position committed him to the view that if, say, California mandated birth control use, the courts would be beyond their purvue to intervene. Similarly, in arguing for a state's prerogative to prohibit political demonstrations, he admitted that his view also precluded judicial intervention if a state were to mandate, Cuban-style, participation in demonstrations. Of course this testimony belied Bork's legitimacy: he was nominated because he was correctly thought by the Reagan administration to intend to apply his reasoning to defending right-wing zealotry, not zealotry of the left-wing variety. Nothing in strict constructionism tends in either direction. The whole thrust of constructionism, in fact, is to affirm the authority of the legislature and to limit the power of the judiciary. It's a judicial philosophy that a doctrinaire socialist could easily love, and the Senate was right to reject Bork's nomination.
But it doesn't look like we have to worry about the perils of constructionism, because the newly right-leaning Roberts Court has flown in the face of that philosophy with yesterday's decision: they have codified a new right, like the right to privacy or the right to an abortion, not explicitly stated in the Constitution. This signals that the Roberts Court will pursue a conservative political agenda. They will invoke juisprudential notions when it suits them, but these will be ignored, as they were yesterday, when they are politically inconvenient. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss: activist judges!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Money, Judges, Terror: Isn't Politics Great?

A few items between working with my plants in Puerto Rico in the spring:
1) On Obama's decision to forego public financing:
The McCain campaign is trying this week to make an issue out of Obama's recent policy reversal. McCain is working the vein of his high poll numbers on "personal character." The idea is that Obama, in signing a pledge to participate in public financing last year and then going back on that pledge this week, is showing that he is not as good as his word.
First, a little reality check: all national-level politicians, certainly including McCain, reverse themselves regularly on all manner of things in the process of navigating the political rapids. This is not even a particularly stand-out example of expedient duplicity, and here's why: because Obama turns out to be able to raise literally hundreds of millions of dollars over the internet and from small, individual donors, vs. the $85 million limit he would have accepted under public financing. More money=more likelihood of winning the election. If you follow politics, that moves you, and if you don't you don't care about this issue de jour anyway.
Which brings me to what I was thinking about this morning. The McCain line is that our wonderful crush Obama, up there on his pedestal, turns out to be playing down and dirty like all the rest of them. Don't trust Prince Charming! (Which puts McCain in the position of the disapproving father-in-law like Dole in '96.) But I think that this line of attack backfires. Conventional wisdom since the 70s has been that the Republicans are tough campaigners, and the Democrats are wimps. Republican tough guys like Lee Atwater and Tom Delay didn't mind playing some dirty pool; just look away if you don't like it, until we get the job done for you. And finally, in the 90s, with Clinton-Gore, we finally had our own SOBs. Halleluya! The Clintons have always understood that you have to win first, and that that means poisoned winecups and knives in the back and throwings of innocents over the side. And winning elections. McCain has been comparing Obama to Jimmy Carter. This kind of thing only illustrates that Obama is more Clintonian than Carteresque. Republicans beware.
Speaking of the Republicans, remember that business about how "true conservatives" loathed McCain, cast McCain out, would vote for McCain over their dead bodies (with apologies to Yogi Berra)? Part of the reason for that was that McCain was a maverick champion of campaign finance reform, something that the Republican Party (you will recall) was against. Part of why that was so treasonous, apart from the fact that "movement conservatives" surprisingly turn out to be people who think that Daddy Warbucks ought to be allowed to buy elections any way he can, was that campaign finance reform was generally thought to tend to help Democrats win elections.
So is McCain likely to draw blood on this one? No. What should Obama do? Carry on!
2) An even mini-er flap that blipped across the screen this morning was a report that job applicants to the Justice Department were turned away partially on the basis of their political attitudes and activities. I think that Joe Scarborough is right that this is just business as usual since the 1700s (although the lead paragraph of the NYT story reports that the discriminatory actions were illegal). The question is, why does the big bad Bush administration get clobbered with a news story about it? The specific answer is that the Bush Justice Department was called out on much more serious political machinations over appointments to United States Attorneys' offices, so they now draw critical attention. But consider what a train wreck for conservatism this is. Conservatives long cherished the idea that they were the pure ones, who had a "strict constructionist" view of the role of the judiciary and thus a) weren't playing politics with judicial appointments in the same sense that liberals were, and b) didn't appoint jurors who would do the same. Twenty-eight years after Reagan's election, how does it look to most voters? Like the Republicans are the supreme political gamers of the judiciary, thoroughly politicized and positively theological. Of course worldlier Republicans will explain to you that judicial appointments are essentially political combat from the earliest days of the republic; see item 1.
3) A more serious topic this week is that of terror attacks and voter behavior. Charlie Black, one of McCain's top campaign officials, commented this week that a terror attack between now and Election Day would help McCain. McCain immediately repudiated those remarks and as of this writing it is not clear if there will be further consequences.
First to the rhetoric: McCain makes a big show of repudiating the remark because the implication is that the campaign is secretly hoping for an attack, an "October surprise" that will swing the public back around to the hawk. Besides the idea of hoping for bad news (as in casualties), this also leads in the paranoid direction (although our educational system seems to be more effective in immunizing people from vast conspiracy theories than does, say, the French). Well sure: I for one don't believe for a second that John McCain is secretly hoping for somebody to blow up a building. The problem here is that we seem to get stuck in an unhelpful "no talk rule" where nobody is allowed to speculate on the political impact of possible terror attacks. Nobody except everybody (that's how no talk rules work).
On to the substance: People certainly do attempt to influence US elections with both talk and action. Dick Cheney just went on the air and said it in the election of 2004: "A terror attack would be more likely if the Democrats won." Lots of people howled in protest, but the Vice-President is an unflinching sort of fellow. More important to remember is that the Iranians very consciously tried to bring Jimmy Carter down during the Hostage Crisis of 1980. Conventional wisdom (such as Charlie Black expressed) on this issue can largely be traced back to Carter's loss of that election and the subsequent release of the hostages on the day of Reagan's inauguration.
That doesn't mean that the conventional wisdom is right. On the one hand, it's true that there has not been another large-scale successful attack since 9/11, and the Administration can claim credit for that, but on the other hand a successful attack now would play to a Democratic argument, that the Bush Administration's militancy has not actually made the world safer. (I would note that another problem at this point is that the Americans are systematically overestimating the degree of control that they have over events, one way or another.) We all labor within our own set of biases. To me it looks like common sense that militant anti-Americans want right-wing, militarist administrations in the US. A war, after all, is precisely what they want. Just obvious-seeming to me, but lots of people disagree. Politics is hard, that's why we tend to get formulaic.