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).