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.


Chris Johnson said...

I will be commenting on your first point which caught my eye because of my latest few blog entries. Obama opting out of public financing is certainly a move that I did not like to see. It is crucial that we push for continued public financing of public elections in order to try and take the corporate influence out of the electoral process.

Obama did reverse himself on this pledge and while certainly McCain has had his share of complete reversals (most notably since 2000), Obama has painted himself as a complete change from the status quo of traditional Washington politics. Perhaps the issue of public funding isn't a stand-out example, but lately we have seen a trend of Obama shifting his stance on various issues. As discussed in my blog we only need to look as far as his stance on the FISA legislation and his staunch support of Israel. There has also been talk that Obama is not as critical of NAFTA as he made out to be while running against Clinton in the primaries.

These items are of concern just like McCain's shifting of positions is of concern. We need to carefully look at the words that are being spoken and the stances that are taken on these issues. A lot of people are believing in a very real change from the policies that we have seen over the last eight years and shifts like the kind we have seen from Obama lately, may leave these supporters greatly disppointed and expecting things that will not come to fruition.

Anderson Brown said...

If we're actually going to live with Obama for a few years, as it looks like we might, then he's going to have to fall off of his pedestal, probably the sooner the better. As to campaign finance, I think that as long as the money is transparent in its sources, and mostly from small donors, then it will be politically acceptable. And after all, if he can actually raise 200-300 million this way, then that's the way of the future: you can't argue with that.