Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Dictating in His Sleep

A friend e-mailed me this morning wondering what I thought about the announcement of Fidel Castro's resignation. Many people assume that the future of Cuba is a zero-sum affair: either the Cuban Communist Party continues in power, or a dramatic and rapid (and hopefully "velvet") revolution sweeps it aside. The East German model, I think, influences this perception, as well as messianic rhetoric from the Miami crowd. When we take a closer look at political history in formally communist states what we find is a more nuanced picture. The descendants of the old Soviet parties elsewhere in Europe (Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland) have varying degrees of power, in Romania they are a major player. They are today small-c conservative forces in their societies. In the Far East communist parties in Vietnam and most notably China have been, I think, surprisingly successful at holding on to centralized political power while cultivating market-driven economies (a true Marxist would have to regard this as the worst of both worlds). However I still suspect that economic development in China leads to class formation leads to political pluralism in the long run. Nicaragua is a closer model of course and there we see a Sandinista Party that continues to be one of the biggest parties after any number of electoral ups and downs. Like the Sandinistas, the Cuban communists will still be a force in the bureaucracy, the labor unions and the military for years to come after a change in regime. This is the reality that is clouded by radical rhetoric from Florida.
What does this all mean for Cuba? The exile fantasy of a Berlin Wall-style overnight transformation is possible but I think unlikely. A partial liberalization from within is to be expected for financial reasons more than political ones. But the biggest question for Cuba is not what happens when the Castro brothers are gone. The biggest question is what happens when the United States normalizes relations and lifts the embargo, as I think it should. If there is anything that might spark a rapid velvet revolution and bring down Cuban communism, that would be it. The failure of centralized planning to produce wealth or provide opportunity would then be completely exposed. How ironic that the exile community, and their influence on US policy, is today the main pillar holding up the Cuban Communist Party!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Florida, Michigan, Superdelegates

I'm someone following the election pretty closely, and still not all the intricacies of the nominating process are clear to me. I'll discuss "superdelegates" first, and then Florida and Michigan.
Superdelegates were introduced by the Democratic Party starting in 1984. The Party had been shaken first by the resounding defeat of the anti-war candidate George McGovern in 1972 and then by the self-nomination of the outsider Carter in 1976. Superdelegates are elected officials, government employees, Party officials, and other Democratic bigwigs, appointed delegates by the Party. They make up 20% of the delegates at the convention, unpledged to any candidate. Thus they can throw their weight behind whoever they choose, thus an insurgent can be stopped. This same thinking on the Republican side was responsible for the virtual appointment of George W. Bush in 2000, to forestall the emergence of more radical candidates such as Huckabee. On the GOP side one wonders what the real lesson is, considering that the only radical outsider to gain the Republican nomination since WWII was Ronald Reagan. On the Democratic side, even though I am still supporting Senator Clinton for the nomination, I'm on the side of the Obama campaign on this issue. I don't like superdelegates, I am a believer in grassroots democracy and I think the nominee ought to be the one who carried majorities in most precincts.
The situation with Florida and Michigan is a huge mess and I wonder who is really responsible for this. The DNC decided to punish Florida and Michigan for moving up their primaries by refusing to seat their delegations at the convention. (The problems with the primary process I have discussed in other posts.) But this decision is disastrous on the face of it. Florida and Michigan are, both of them, absolute must-win states for the Democrats. 1.3 million+ voters participated in the Democratic primary in Florida. It is out of the question that Florida and Michigan would not participate in the nomination. Obama's best option: move to hold the Florida and Michigan primaries again. Advantage in money and momentum.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Black Politics as National Politics

There is a fascinating article in this morning's NYT by Ginger Thompson about Barack Obama's steep learning curve on the issue of black politics during his at this point amazing presidential campaign. Going in to the race, Obama made it clear that he didn't want to be a "black candidate," that he wanted to go beyond that phase and campaign without resort to racial politics. Now he could not have entirely believed that that would be possible (his professional advisers have been lasered in on these issues from the beginning, like they are in every election). However, at the logical extreme of the strategy is the ideal of electing the first black president only because whites are ready to vote for a black candidate and only because the candidate is acceptable to them, and that ideal is naive and none too progressive either. In fact what may be happening now and will happen sooner or later is that a black candidate wins the nomination with the indispensable help of overwhelming support among African-American voters, and the whites have evolved enough etc. So the messy reality is that a black national candidate must be a politician for the black community (notice that's a function of the whites being not yet ready for the Platonic ideal of "color-blind" politics). Obama, unlike most African-American political leaders, did not grow up in a community where the leaders came out of the civil rights movement. That doesn't mean that he's not sympathetic to them, only that he's not one of them. But he certainly has had a crash course in the topic now.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Race for Vice-President

Mike Huckabee is running for vice-president. His argument is good: he draws voters who McCain cannot reach, he can run for the right while McCain campaigns for the center, he has a different kind of charisma than McCain and campaigns well. So he is in a position to offer himself for the post, something neither Romney nor Giuliani nor Thompson can credibly do. But he's not yet at the point where he can shoot his way on to the ticket, the way George H. W. Bush and James Baker did in 1980, by winning enough delegates to go to the convention with an offer too good to refuse. To do that, Huckabee would have to go in to the convention with at least 25-30 percent of the delegates. I don't know if he can do that, but I think he's very well-positioned to be the veep nominee. McCain could of course choose someone else and survive, but that would be a costly gesture all other things being equal.
Meanwhile it looks like this same basic argument from general election expediancy pushes strongly for a woman as veep on the Democrats' side. I would have said some months ago that either Hillary or Barack would have to go with some senior white male Democrat to assuage voters wary of a black/woman, but it doesn't turn out that way: for practical political purposes, if he wins the nomination Obama will have to have a woman for veep (even though it won't be Clinton).

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Who Will She Be?

I think Barack Obama can be expected to regard women voters as a well-defined constituency, like African-American voters, and like those voters expecting their needs to be met and demanding of respect. Certainly that is the political reality at the polls, as the gender gap between the two parties has become large. The women's vote is very real and the Democrat needs it to win, simple as that. I'm sure I'm not the only person on whom it is dawning, although I haven't seen much discussion of it: Obama's running mate is going to have to be a woman. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend? Or perhaps a senator from California would prove useful in the election. May I suggest people look at Kathleen Sebelius, governor of Kansas. Who else goes on the list?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Dean is a Player

The current fight for the nomination is being fought out along lines of age, sex and race between two candidates who don't have much space between them in terms of ideology and policy. If Hillary really wanted to balance the ticket between factions in the Democratic Party I would suggest Clinton-Dean.
Dean has been hard at it as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee since winning a hardfought election to that post in 2005, and frequently clashes with Clintonistas such as Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Dean has backed proportional allocation of delegates in 100% of Democratic primaries and caucuses, a policy that is doing exactly what it was intended to do: support consensus-building through democratization, and resist dominance by party bigwigs. This is part of a larger vision that famously developed grass-roots internet fund raising with Joe Trippi during Dean's 2004 campaign, a practice that has since become a basic part of the contemporary campaign. Another facet has been investing money and time in areas that are usually ignored in the big-media circus that the election has become. Dean has taken a lot of criticism for that but I think it will pay off.
And so today we get Dean suggesting that Clinton and Obama ought to reach some sort of entente in the interest of the party and the people. And this suggestion is, of course, yet another expression of Dean's left-populist commitment to consensus politics, and of course it's also exactly right. Count me a fan of the left-wing Yankee.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Story of a Voter

I'm feeling conflicted about Clinton or Obama, although it might be that at this point the fact is that I'm going to follow the bandwagon either way and no sense agonizing. I'd be thrilled to elect either of them. If the vote was today I'd go with Clinton. It occurred to me that my long-term perspective on US elections is something that I have to share.
The first election I remember on an emotional level is 1968. My father went with Humphrey as a loyal Democrat, but my mother was so alienated by the Vietnam War that she couldn't bring herself to vote for HHH, and went with Eugene McCarthy instead, and my oldest sister, off to the University of California at Santa Cruz in the fall of 1968 as an 18-year-old freshman from Kansas (imagine that!) went "clean for Gene" as well. Richard Nixon won the election by the very narrowest of margins. For me, going to high school during Nixon's so-called "Vietnamization" (eg withdrawal of US ground forces) the bombing of Cambodia, the Christmas Bombing, etc., when so many students didn't even process that the war was still going on, was my formative political experience of the early 1970s. In 1972 the Democrats lost on the war and security again with the anti-war candidate McGovern. Then as now the Republican administration succeeded in making the ongoing war "palatable" to the public.
In 1971 the 26th Amendment, giving 18-year-olds the right to vote, was adopted, and in 1976 I turned 18 and cast my first vote, for Jimmy Carter. It would be another 16 years before I would cast another winning vote.
In 1980 Reagan defeated Carter largely on national security, and specifically Reagan ran a hard line on Iran, which was holding the American hostages from the revolution of 1979. Does everyone forget these things? Iran was driving our election 28 years ago. Carter was weakened by a challenge from Ted Kennedy and by the independent candidacy of John Anderson, and I spent that one trying to talk people into supporting the Democratic front runner.
A really important election for me was 1988. That was of course the year of Jesse Jackson's spectacular primary candidacy, when he took 25 percent of the delegates to the Democratic convention and assembled his family onstage. I drove down to Denver from Boulder with a friend to see him. Unfortunately I had agreed to be a precinct captain for Mike Dukakis, and so I organized us five Dukakisites in a back bedroom of the caucus house while the overflow crowd of Jackson supporters spilled out of the living room onto the lawn. But political commitments are real commitments after all. In 1992 I was still smarting from that one (feeling I should have gone for Jackson, and 1984 and 1988 were the dismal nadir of Democratic defeats during the Reagan era), and so I voted for Jerry Brown in the caucus, and Colorado was one of Gov. Moonbeam's major victories that season in fact, although I became disenchanted with Brown soon.
Meanwhile I have loved voting for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, two administrations worth of progressive taxation, middle class interests, civil rights in the judiciary, debt-hawkishness. Yes, thank you, I wouldn't mind some more of that. (1992 was yet another election that I spent trying to talk well-intentioned people out of chasing the butterfly of a third-party campaign, Ross Perot's.)
Nostalgia for the 90s, you say? I'm nostalgic for winning the election. (I'm also nostalgic for voting. How's that again? I moved to Puerto Rico in 1996. As a US citizen resident in Puerto Rico, I do not have the right to vote for the president. Nor do I have a senator or congressional representative. Did you know that the USA has second-class citizens? I'm one). I supported Gore and I was disappointed that he didn't run Clinton into areas that he might have helped, one of a dozen ways that Gore lost that election that he won. I supported John Kerry forever in 2004, but I wobbled when Dean surged in December 2003. I sent in a check to MoveOn, you know. But the people didn't lead the leaders, although they were starting to, and I continue to be a fan of Dean and the things he's doing to make the party more grassroots and populist. Meanwhile Kerry was strike two, the second failure in elections that the Democrats easily could have won, and not only that but it was a classic national security election for the Republicans, "The Democrats are peaceniks and they won't protect you." So I really don't want us to swing strike three.
So here I sit. Part of my heart wants to go with Obama, but I'm still thinking that Clinton is the better bet. But you have to understand that for an old party loyalist like me, it's all about winning the election. So the important thing is that we all end up behind whoever the Democratic nominee is and push. That's why I'm so against Nader now, and why I'm glad Edwards had the grace to get out of it after South Carolina: I hate spoilers.