Friday, January 23, 2009
The Pods Have Arrived
As Walt Whitman put it:
Other states indicate themselves in their deputies . . . . but the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors . . . but always most in the common people.
. . .the terrible significance of their elections -- the President's taking off his hat to them not they to him -- these too are unrhymed poetry.
This video (via Patrick Appel at the Daily Dish), by contrast, is not unrhymed poetry. (As if the presence of a gesticulating Ashton Kutcher might have left room for doubt).
"I pledge to be the servant of the president" is, of course, an affront to the very principles of republican -- as opposed to monarchical -- government, where the president is in no uncertain terms the servant of the people. So while the message of service is a worthy one, it's delivered in a very intellectually lazy way. Worse still, anyone who's ever worked in drug and alcohol treatment -- or who's ever made a New Year's resolution, for that matter -- knows what happens to the vast majority of these kinds of heat-of-the-moment pledges. And if that weren't enough, making service fashionable is the surest way to keep it from becoming durable.
I mentioned before that President Obama's plans to create a sort of direct constituency of grassroots supporters made me uneasy. It's the classic populist technique of the demagogue, whose appeals to direct democracy (constitutional referenda, for instance) are often ways of sidestepping the institutional checks and balances of government.
What I realized since is that I'm not so much worried about Obama, who has at every turn used his ability to mobilize mass audiences to bring out their best, and not their worst, nature. What I'm worried about is the creation of an institution in American political culture that might subsequently be manipulated by someone with less noble aims.
And the kind of body-snatcher, cult-like following on display in that video doesn't offer much reassurance about the ability of the American political psyche to resist the demagogue's appeal when it does come. Melting into a mass movement dedicated to serving the president is about as antithetical to American governmental ideals as I can imagine.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Obama's Permanent Campaign
Obviously there's nothing unconstitutional about President-elect Obama's efforts, flagged by Kevin Drum here, to transform his electoral campaign into a political organization. But it seems to me that the representatives of the people are the Representatives. A President who, through direct appeal to a grassroots constituency, pressures Congress is not that far removed from a President who, through direct appeal to a grassroots constituency, bypasses Congress.
I wasn't that comfortable with this idea when President Bush tried to apply it to the press.I don't like it any more when it's applied to Congress. There are already two grassroots political organizations through which voters can pressure their representatives. They're called the Democratic and Republican parties. This is one of those ideas that sounds great in principle, but deserves a healthy dose of curmudgeonly skepticism in practice. Consider this that dose.
Monday, December 15, 2008
As much as anything, what struck me about the video of President Bush getting a shoe tossed at him was how old he suddenly seems. Not that he didn't demonstrate great reflexes. He did, and that guy was an Olympic-calibre shoe tosser.
But watching his remarks afterwards, at about the :55 mark, I had to shake off the feeling that it was his father speaking. Part of it must be the jetlag and fatigue of travel, and part of it is the whitening job the presidency does on people's hair. But there's also a sag in the corners of his mouth and a pouch of loose flesh around his adam's apple that I've never noticed before.
Presidents are kind of like fighters in that when they get old, it seems to happen overnight, from one press conference to the next. And Bush just got old.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
A waking thought, not yet verified through Wackipedia or Goggle, but presented for your consideration: When Barack Obama is sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009, he will have the most closely cut hair of any American president in history.
I think there's a real danger in the context of the sobriety of the moment to give in to the temptation of somberness, something reflected in Obama's tendency to adopt a minimalist, almost Spartan esthetic. Now that he's impressed with his pragmatic and competent cabinet appointments, Obama should reassure Americans that even if we have to tighten our belts and bend our shoulders to the grindstone, we can still have a good time every now and then. Which means there's only one thing to do.
Yo, O! Grow the 'fro, bro'!
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Sec. of State Clinton?
I'm not going to get into the habit of discussing transition rumors for the Obama administration. But one of the major criticisms directed at both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during their primary campaign duel was the fact that neither of them had much foreign policy experience. So this doesn't strike me as a particularly inspired choice from the perspective of "hands on" foreign policy chops. That it's driven primarily by domestic political maneuvering is a point that won't be lost on the world, and seems like a clumsy initial gesture reinforcing the common wisdom that in the U.S., foreign policy is something of an afterthought. Another concern I'd have is over who would be responsible for selecting the various undersecretaries and other political appointees. If it's Hillary, that means that to a certain extent we'd be looking at a hybrid Obama-Clinton foreign policy, with a very healthy dose of Bill represented in both the former and the latter.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Obama, Liberalism and Personal Responsibility
Two quick thoughts between posts over at WPR. First of all, I've read that Obama is the most liberal Democrat to be elected president since. . . LBJ? FDR? Sure. But there's something very intriguing about the emphasis he puts on personal responsibility and the way in which he includes the American people's contribution to the hard work to come. I read an analysis of American strategic culture recently that argued that in order for Americans to support a war, the cause has to be a crusade, and the mobilization demanded of them total. LBJ failed to maintain public opinion for the Vietnam War because neither criterion applied. And President Bush has failed to maintain support for the Iraq War because while he has sold the war as a crusade, the only mobilization he demanded of Americans was a shopping spree at the local mall. Obama, by contrast, seems to be putting America on wartime footing, across the board, domestically and abroad. That's usually when America comes through. But it's also a different sort of liberalism than conservatives are used to decrying, which will make Obama's job easier -- and conservatives' tougher -- than some have suggested.
On the other hand, by handing the GOP its ass on a platter, Obama has effectively disarmed the national security bogeyman (the myth that the Democrats can't be trusted with the nation's security), whether or not national security was the deciding factor of the election. That, in turn, will liberate the GOP from its post-9/11 impulse to run as the lovechild of a Rambo-Terminator ménage à trois with Sigourney Weaver circa Alien 3, and free its candidates from situating themselves somewhere to the right of Augusto Pinochet. That, by the way, could easily apply globally, since an Obama presidency that fails to live up to the GOP's caricatures of it (Socialism? Are you f**king kidding me?) could in turn free the GOP from the need to live up to the caricature of itself that it's become in the past eight years. So while many are predicting a more radicalized GOP, it's possible that four years from now, the reverse will be true. Sure, they will have no real standard bearer, and most of their elected representatives that remain have slanted towards the lunatic fringe of the party. But a party free of incumbents is a party freed of obligations, promises to keep and doctrinal discipline to uphold. The Democratic party came out of left field in 2006 with a new crop of conservative red state representatives, very much due to Bush's failures of the previous six years, but also its own. There's no reason the GOP can't do the same.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
WPR on Barack Obama's Victory
From WPR's editorial on President-elect Barack Obama:
The world has an ongoing love-hate relationship with America, born often of the higher expectations and disappointed hopes that it holds for the world's most enduring democracy. The United States also has sworn enemies and dangerous rivals. Much has been made of the symbolic impact Mr. Obama's presidency will have on global opinion. But more than his image, it will be his leadership that will define the United States' foreign relations for years to come. Just as America still needs the world, the world still needs America. Its national genius for innovation and historic willingness to advance fearlessly into the unknown, combined with its still unrivaled might, uniquely qualify it to lead the way and serve as a backstop in an age of uncertainty.
Mr. Obama's lack of experience on the national and international stage represents to a certain degree an unknown variable. But anyone watching the campaign he has waged over the past two years has reason to be optimistic about the kind of leadership he will deliver. With a steady and calm temperament, a keen and dynamic intellect, an easy smile and a wisdom and authority that defy his years, Mr. Obama has made his case by appealing to the best and loftiest of what America represents, without stoking the divisions and resentments that threaten the cohesion of our national fabric. It's a fabric that must hold, because only an America united of purpose can mobilize the effort, both at home and abroad, needed to face today's challenges.
More at the link.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Who Isn't Ready Yet?
Another odd detail about McCain's "Yet" ad: the flashbulb pops that double as rifle shots, the ominous bell tolling in the background, and the sepia tone funeral images of Barack Obama. The copy might be referring to Obama, but the subliminal message here is that America isn't ready yet. Creepy.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
The Emotional Payoff
Funny, I was just thinking about that video. Throughout this campaign, I've resisted the emotional appeal of Obama's message, even while appreciating its power. But when I think of what Obama's candidacy and victory represents in terms of the generations of struggle for freedom and justice that went into making it possible, not just in America but around the world, I find that emotion welling up in spite of myself. I almost booked a flight to bring my son to NY, to accompany my 80-year-old father to the polls, so he could participate in this moment of history. In the end, we won't be there, but in some ways being able to walk out in Paris -- in the world outside America -- on Nov. 5, glowing with pride in this country, my country, will be just as satisfying.
But it's important to remember that Obama's victory is not just a historic victory. It's also a personal and individual victory. He ran a classy, gutsy campaign that, despite the inevitable disappointments that will certainly arise when it comes time to govern, never once ceased to reach for and bring out the best of what our country stands for. That's what that video expresses. To insist on a political method consistent with the political message was a personal act of courage that shows the mark of the man, and all that went into making him. No matter how history remembers him as president, he has already given us much to reflect on as a candidate.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Draft Sarah Palin
With the rift in the Republican ticket growing more evident every day, I think there's only one thing that could save the GOP's electoral chances: a Sarah Palin write-in campaign. Why wait til 2012? She's ready now! It's time to urge all Republicans, or at least a sizable splinter faction of delusional, fundamentalist theocrats that this is the last, best hope to elect one of their own to the oval office. McCain was never really their guy, after all.
Rogue, baby, rogue!!
Sunday, October 19, 2008
Come to the Source
Headline Junky, Mar. 5, 2008:
I'd add that there's even an advantage to the primary campaign lasting into April: it has forced both candidates to develop ground games in states that they would otherwise have ignored had the nomination been wrapped up a month ago. That means networks of volunteers, media saturation and personal appearances that can only come in handy for the general election.
NY Times, 0ct. 19, 2008:
Perhaps most important, though, Obama’s campaign has also been able to take advantage of a drawn-out Democratic primary campaign that came through all 50 states before it was over -- a draining experience that nonetheless established networks of volunteers and newly registered Democratic voters in states that in any other year would have been overlooked.
Can I get a witness?
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Sarah Palin's Anti-Americanism
Chris Matthews raises a good point in his interview with MN Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (video here at TPM) when he challenges the conservative talkingpoint that equates being liberal with being anti-American. Now contrast Bachmann's portrayal of Bill Ayers/Jeremiah Wright-style anti-Americanism with Sarah Palin's remarks in this Huffington Post piece (via Andrew Sullivan):
We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, . . .pro-America areas of this great nation. This is where we find the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans.
The anti-intellectual, anti-urban current that Sarah Palin represents is actually the mirror image of Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright, and by Bachmann's logic one that is just as virulently "anti-American." Ayers and Wright, each in their own way, perverted the liberal belief that America must be perfected by bringing it more in line with its guiding principles of liberty and justice, taking it to misguided extremes that were either criminal (in Ayers' case) or vitriolic (in Wright's).
Palin's extremism is a rural, folksy populism that identifies an authentic America, as well as an "other" -- arrived at by conflating the progressive movement with its most extreme elements -- which it portrays as an internal enemy undermining America's basic goodness. But once you weed out the extremists such as Ayers and Wright, the part of America that Palin portrays as "other" is in fact just as authentically American as what she calls "the real America." Palin might accompany it with a coy smile, but what's she articulating is a hateful anti-Americanism that echoes the kind of urban-rural divide that was at the heart of this country's pre-Civil War schism, with all the implications for violence that her recent campaign events have made evident.
It's a geographic/demographic divide that, as Palin's demagoguery illustrates, has in many ways only partially been healed, and that serves as a coded evocation of America's racial and ethnic history. While both Ayers and Wright represent thoroughly American, homegrown currents of radical thought, they both fill in for foreign "others": Ayers as the European-flavored, socialist/anarchist, "Sacco and Vanzetti" firebomber; Wright as the post-colonial, dashiki-wearing, Afrocentric "angry black man."
Palin and the GOP need them both as charged imagery to mobilize the partisan base, but they are as relevant to the liberal movement as Timothy McVeigh or the Aryan Nation are to the "authenic America" that Sarah Palin celebrates. Barack Obama jeopardized himself politically by associating with either man, but it's important to point out that Ayers, repentant or not, has reintegrated society, and Wright's lifelong ecumenical and conciliatory actions provide a more nuanced context for the political views he expressed in his sermons.
More importantly, Obama has publicly repudiated both men's transgressions. Palin, by contrast, has become a standard bearer for those of her party.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
McCain & Gambler's Superstition
Adam Blickstein of Democracy Arsenal flags this from a Sam Stein piece on the differences between Barack Obama's and John McCain's transition teams. The short version is that Obama has one and McCain doesn't:
The Arizona Senator has instructed his team to not spend time on the transition effort, according to the source, both out of a desire to have complete focus on winning the election as well as a superstitious belief that the campaign shouldn't put the cart before the horse. (Emphasis added.)
That's another way of saying, Don't count your winnings before your final roll of the dice, and is a classic example of a gambler's magical thinking.
Josh Marshall makes the good point that losing campaigns often look bad, partly because they're losing, and partly because they're forced to cast about for some way to reverse the trend. It reminds me of Allen Barra's observation about football coverage: Saying a team lost despite its quarterback throwing for huge yardage overlooks the fact that most teams wind up with that many passing yards because they've got to make up a ton of points in a hurry.
Still, something tells me that in the aftermath of this election, we're not only going to hear insider accounts about the behind the scenes chaos within campaign McCain, but also insider accounts of the behind the scenes chaos within candidate McCain. (Think he's placed a wager on the outcome of the election?) The question is whether the people who are enabling his increasingly obvious character flaws will be held accountable, or whether it will just be written off as typical electioneering.
Friday, October 10, 2008
Folks, this is clearly well past the realm of, You can't make this up. Here's the headline:
Palin pre-empts state report, clears self in probe
And here's the lede:
Trying to head off a potentially embarrassing state ethics report on GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, campaign officials released their own report Thursday that clears her of any wrongdoing.
Apparently the McCain campaign has decided that their real competition in this election is Tina Fey and the SNL writers team. Either that or sometime after falling asleep last night in my apartment in Paris, France, I was transported by a space-time vortex to a location in 1930's Soviet Russia.
Seriously, if this is what the McCain gang calls oversight, a whole bunch of execs in the banking sector are popping the bubbly right about now. And in the way they frame the story, the AP (which I assume now stands for American Pravda) is very much part of the problem.
On second thought, you can make this up. I recall reading a novel along these lines, written by a guy named... Ah, skip it.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
The Archetype of Palin
About a month ago, I cited a passage from Walt Whitman to argue that it's unseemly to challenge someone's qualifications for running for office in America, because our nation is founded on the principle of citizen government. The post was in direct reference to Sarah Palin, but it implicitly applied to the same challenges levelled at Barack Obama.
Yesterday a colleague said something that made me rethink my argument. To paraphrase, he said that in America, anyone can grow up to be president, but that doesn't mean that anyone who has grown up in America should be president. Where you start from, in principle, should not be an impediment to reaching the highest office of the land. But you have to reach it. To say that anyone can grow up to be president, in essence, equates "growing up" with preparing oneself for the job.
In that sense, it's fair to question whether someone has prepared themselves for the job. And I think that while every president is something of a wild card on the day they are first sworn in, Barack Obama has cleared the "burden of proof" bar through the past 18 months of campaigning, whereas Sarah Palin hasn't.
I think she one day might. I found her winks at the Vice-Presidential debate inappropriate and her manner strangely out of place. Her rapport with the camera and the viewers on the other end of it made me think that that she's never quite forgotten her sportscaster days. But her appeal, while I'm not susceptible to it, is apparent. Tom Barnett has a real sensible take on it here, where he manages to acknowledge her talent, charm and intelligence, without becoming a Lowry laughingstock.
During the Democratic primaries, a French psychoanalyst told me that Hillary Clinton was facing the challenge all women politicians face, namely how to make herself desired without losing her credibility. Because making oneself desired is the essence of democratic politics, just like making oneself feared is the essence of autocratic politics. Policy is an afterthought. Since male virility is the default model in politics, the ways in which a male candidate makes himself desired are invisible. A woman who adopts them becomes either strangely asexual or butch. But no one has yet found the political use for the ways in which women have traditionally made themselves desired.
Palin just might find a way to do that. Right now she's just reading off the script she's been handed, which gives her a variation of the folksy image George W. Bush used to such advantage. Bush's version evolved from the virile rancher suspicious of government intrusion (pre-9/11) to the avenging sheriff reluctantly imposing law and order (post-9/11). Palin's, for the time being, is the frontier moralist with the mannerisms of the bawdyhouse. But they're both cynical manipulations of American folk archetypes, stripped of all their traditional, Whitmanesque folk wisdom, with nothing in the way of actual substance and authority to replace it.
I'm as convinced as ever that it's a losing script this year. I've said for months that when Obama and John McCain stand onstage side by side, the reality will sink in to American voters. After the first debate, I had a moment of doubt. But that's been one of the subtexts of Tuesday night's debate.
So Palin will have some time to prepare herself. She's already got the political skills. If she backs that up with some substance, it will be a compelling combination.
Friday, October 3, 2008
The Real Thing
Take a closer look at what Sarah Palin had to say last night when asked what, if anything, might justify the use of nuclear weapons:
Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the "be all, end all" of just too many people, and too many parts of our planet, so those dangerous regimes, again, can not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. Period.
Let's set aside the fact that she answers a question that was not, in fact, asked, because earlier she had already acknowledged that this was an intentional debating strategy.
I'm more taken aback by the awkward misuse of the colloquialism "be all, end all," which of course is used to refer to a best possible outcome. That Palin instead uses it to refer to nuclear apocalypse reveals more, I fear, than mere confusion or concrete thinking preventing her from getting past the words' literal meaning. The Pentecostalist tradition from which Palin emerges places an enormous emphasis on eschatology, with the apocalypse, Armageddon and the rapture all central components of its world view. And in this world view, for those who are saved, the apocalypse is both literally and figuratively the "be all, end all," in that it marks both the end of the world (as per Palin's literal usage) and the coming of the kingdom (ie. the best possible outcome, as per colloquial usage, but also as per Palin's unconscious usage).
Earlier in the debate, when discussing education, Palin referenced Joe Biden's wife, a teacher of 30 years:
God bless her. Her reward is in heaven, right?
That's not just a bit of folksy banter, or the kind of dog whistle George W. Bush uses to great effect. Palin's the real thing.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
McCain's Pakistan Flip Flop
This isn't the first time I've flagged these comments made by John McCain in an interview with the editors of Defense News last October. I'm posting them again in light of last night's debate, where McCain once again attacked Barack Obama for his stance on American strikes against al-Qaida leadership in Pakistan's tribal frontier:
Q: Does the U.S. have any options with regard to al-Qaida and reputed al-Qaida strongholds in the federally unregulated areas in Pakistan? Other than what seems to be sort of a status quo of waiting for them to come over the border, the Pakistani Army occasionally launching a strike to -- well, it's hard to say for what end because they don't seem to be sustained efforts. What are the U.S. options there?
McCain: I think they're very difficult options. I think that if we knew of al-Qaida -- more specifically Taliban, it's mainly Taliban that are operating in these places -- that we have to do what's necessary. We don't have to advertise it. We don't have to embarrass or humiliate the Pakistani government. . .
. . .These are all very tough calls, and in summary I think that what happens in Waziristan will be dictated by events in Islamabad, but I also think that we, where necessary, without in any way embarrassing our friends, can have a lot of options.
Q: So if you were president and you knew that bin Laden were over there, you had a target spotting, you could nail him, you'd go get him?
McCain: Sure. Sure. We have to, and I'm sure that after the initial flurry, that whoever our friends are, wherever he is, would be relieved because, as I mentioned to you before, he's still very effective in the world, very, very effective.
That's a pretty clear case of political bad faith, but oddly enough it hasn't gotten a whole lot of traction.
Friday, September 26, 2008
It's an extraordinary and disturbing spectacle that's going on now, with this White House unable to convince even and especially its own party to rescue what they argue is essentially the country's financial liquidity. All these years of gratuitous demagoguery, ideological rigidity, ultra-partisanship, secrecy, cronyism, lying, attacks on dissent and the media and immigrants and calling concerns about torture and domestic spying treasonous, it all just comes down to total bankruptcy and weakness and pleas to any and all in the end to please help. Extend them the reasonableness, the decency, the good will that in the almost fascistic overreach of their high power days they never considered extending, they sneered at. They presided over the destruction of so much they touched, sometimes on a cataclysmic scale; and now they are weak and have made this country weaker and more vulnerable before its adversaries to a degree unimaginable a decade ago. Such deeply, deeply irresponsible men.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Missing the Obvious Followup
This entire post is covered by the caveat that I didn't see the entire Katie Couric interview with Sarah Palin, just the brutal clip of Palin's Russia answer. So it could be that Couric went on to ask the question I formulate below. But it seems to me that getting into a debate about whether or not proximity to two foreign countries qualifies as "foreign policy credentials" actually lets Palin off the hook. Couric should have taken Palin at her word and moved on to the obvious followup: "In that case, what should our policy towards Russia be in the aftermath of the Georgian invasion?" Granted, it's a question that no one can really answer right now, but by forcing Palin to actually discuss a foreign policy question of substance it would have put her claims of being qualified to the test.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
McCain to the Rescue?
Given how hysterical his response to this financial crisis has been, about the last place John McCain should be is anywhere near the discussions aimed at resolving it.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Pull the Plug
Given that his campaign is the biggest obstacle standing between him and the presidency, it shouldn't come as a big surprise that John McCain is so eager to suspend it.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
More of the Same?
I was just thinking this morning how the problem with the Obama campaign's strategy of equating John McCain to President Bush is that it ignores the ways in which the last two years of Bush's presidency bear very little resemblance to the first six. Between the Democratic Congress, the ascendancy of the Condoleezza Rice-Bob Gates (ie. the sane) axis in foreign policy, and his lameduck status, Bush has managed if not to undo, at least to address and in some cases to mitigate a lot of the damage he did prior to the 2006 mid-term elections. It's a thought that's borne out by this Jonathan Rauch article (via Andrew Sullivan) in the National Journal:
Had Bush left office at the beginning of last year, his tenure might indeed have gone down as calamitous. Winding up in the middling ranks, then, would be no mean accomplishment. Far from being happenstance, such a finish would reflect an unusual period of course correction that might be thought of as Bush's third term.
What's more, I think the country, and even the most die-hard Democrats, are over Bush in a way that seemed unimaginable two years ago. So going after him neither motivates the base nor grabs the fence-sitters, many of whom might have voted for him in 2004 and won't appreciate being reminded of the fact. Obama should go after McCain, who makes a pretty easy target all by himself.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
All Bark, No Bite
The NY Observer ran an important piece earlier this week that didn't seem to get much of an echo on the political sites I follow. Not surprising, since the piece discusses the way in which political print journalism and political journalism in general has lost its ability to resonate:
In-boxes crammed with New York Times articles and Huffington Post hyperlinks do not advertise their relative value or importance. Everything is equal, everything is a tie and nothing, it seems, is important anymore.
Nobody has felt this more acutely than the Newspapers and Magazines of Record in the United States. The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time: all over the world of “quality” journalism, there is a feeling of decline.
The internet is an echo chamber and, of course, one of the effects of an echo chamber is that all you hear is the echo and not the original message. Add to that the "noise machine" that drowns out news with spin and deflection and it's easy to see how the power of the press has been diluted.
But the impact of technology overlaps with a concerted effort by the Bush administration over at least the past four years to endrun the national press of record. This went beyond repeating the longstanding conservative mantra of "liberal media bias" to become an official communication strategy of "taking the message to the American people" that consisted of using "town hall meetings" and local press outlets to broadcast the administration's talking points. This strategy has reached its apogee in the McCain campaign's handling of Sarah Palin, whose inability to credibly address policy on a national level is being camouflaged by an attempt to challenge the very role of the press in scrutinizing candidates.
Now, there's nothing unconstitutional about this, because contrary to the Congressional oversight that the Bush administration has treated with contempt, the Constitution only guarantees the press its liberty, not its access. But the result, when combined with the evolution in communication technology, has been a fundamental shift in the extra-Constitutional system of checks and balances as it had been established over the course of the previous thirty to forty years. We're witnessing the end of the press as "watchdog of democracy," not because the press isn't barking, but because no one's listening.
One of the consequences is the ease with which McCain can get away with a campaign based on lies; the old saw that everyone's entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts seems to no longer apply. Anyone familiar with human nature knows how stubbornly people can hold onto their beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence. That has become even more acute now that the authority of the press, formerly the arbiter of what qualified as evidence, has been so thoroughly undermined.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Teflon, Talent and Story Arc
Meanwhile, speaking of gaffes, am I forgetting something or has Barack Obama basically not made any? I'm not talking about policy positions that made waves before the conventional wisdom caught up with them, or "scandals" like his pastor. I can't remember a single time where he just muffed one and had to ask for a "do over." They called Reagan the Teflon President because he could get away with so many whoppers. But Obama just doesn't seem to stumble. Regardless of whether you support him or not, he's pretty good at what he does.
Meanwhile, too, so is John McCain. By which I mean he's a pretty good Senator, especially when it comes to stuff he cares about, like getting up in some Defense Department official's face about wasteful procurement contracts. I really don't see how he serves his nation better as President than as Senator, and the proof is that he's been a Senator for forever. It's been almost fifty years since a Senator made it to the White House, but has anyone who ever languished in the Senate for most of their career ever done it?
What's more, for all the talk of "Obama the Celebrity" and charges of inexperience, the Presidency has more often been the culmination of a meteoric rise than the epilogue to a stagnant career. Think Bob Dole, or even Joe Biden for that matter. The Presidency isn't an afterthought, what you get for having stuck around long enough to be closest to the ring. Ronald Reagan had been around forever by the time he won the Presidency, but he was a crusader who led a movement from the wilderness to the Promised Land. There was a story arc to the narrative. McCain's story arc flattened out when he lost to George W. Bush in 2000.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
You Say Zapatero, I Say Zapatista
There's a very simple explanation to John McCain's refusal to commit to meeting with the Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero (video via TPM here) were he elected president, and it has nothing to do with whether he knows who Zapatero is or where Spain is. The tell is in McCain's reference to Mexico immediately after the question. I'd be willing to bet that McCain missed the first part of the question that referred to Spain, and after a string of questions dealing with leftist Latin American leaders thought the interviewer was referring to the Zapatista Army and its leader, Subcomandante Marcos. Whether he thought Marcos was running a drug cartel as opposed to the first "post-modern revolution" is another story, since he immediately talks about Mexican President Calderon's success in the war against drugs. But I'm pretty sure this one's being blown out of proportion.
Later, at 4:39 of the clip when the interviewer tries to make it clear she's talking about "Europe", McCain heard "you", to which he replies, "What about me?" Why the campaign wouldn't just fess up is beyond me, although maybe it has to do with the fact that the Zapatista Army hasn't been in the news for about a decade or so, lending weight to the claim that McCain is responding to the last century's strategic threats.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Great for Alaska
Laura Rozen flags a passage from Gail Collins that I think sums up nicely the problem with Sarah Palin. Everything I've seen of her makes it clear that she's not only a gifted communicator (not sure how she'll wear with time, though), but that she's also no policy lightweight. She's got an obvious command of Alaskan politics, from party infighting to the issues that drive voters' concerns. But that's all. The problem isn't that she couldn't eventually achieve the same kind of command of national politics, but that she hasn't yet done so.
During the Democratic primaries, I pointed out that whereas Hillary Clinton was campaigning in an America she already knew intimately, Barack Obama was in many ways discovering America through the campaign. But after a long and hard fought 18 months, he has discovered it, and the four years he's spent in Washington served the same purpose. I think that given the same kind of learning period, Palin could probably hold up, even if she isn't Obama's intellectual equal. (I'm not sure how many people are.) But she hasn't been given a learning period. She's been given a trial by fire.
The question isn't one of qualifications or experience, but of scale. The Obama campaign's line of attack ought to be, Palin's great for Alaska, that's why she should stay there.
Friday, September 12, 2008
The Power Behind the Throne
Laura Rozen weighs the pros and cons of Sarah Palin's folksy appeal. From what I've seen so far, Palin seems like a pretty effective communicator who is very obviously communicating talking points and policies that aren't her own. Think Mitt Romney with a more deftly programmed robotic module. The obstinate repetition of talking points in the face of substantive questions is for me the worst aspect of American politics. But that's not Palin's doing, even if it's a bit scary how talented she is at it.
Of course, every candidate relies on a team of policy advisors to formulate and articulate policy, but it's apparent that Palin is particularly dependent on the cue cards. So far those are being written for her by the McCain campaign, which is to be expected, since the Veep nominee by necessity tailors policy to the top of the ticket. The question no one has asked yet is, Who would ultimately write the cue cards for President Palin if she ever wound up in the Oval Office?
Friday, September 5, 2008
Whitman on Palin
Back on July 4th, I posted this passage from the introduction to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition. It expresses, perhaps as much as anything I've ever read, the essence of America:
Other states indicate themselves in their deputies . . . . but the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors . . . but always most in the common people. Their manners speech dress friendships -- the freshness and candor of their physiognomy -- the picturesque looseness of their carriage . . . their deathless attachment to freedom -- their aversion to anything indecorous or soft or mean -- the practical acknowledgment of the citizens of one state by the citizens of all other states -- the fierceness of their roused resentment -- their curiosity and welcome of novelty -- their self-esteem and wonderful sympathy -- their susceptibility to a slight -- the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors -- the fluency of their speech -- their delight in music, the sure symptom of manly tenderness and native elegance of soul . . . their good temper and openhandedness -- the terrible significance of their elections -- the President's taking off his hat to them not they to him -- these too are unrhymed poetry. It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it.
I thought about this passage today, and wondered whether there isn't something unseemly about questioning someone's qualifications for the office of president in a country where the people are supposed to be sovereign:
"...the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors..."
What a terrible nobility in that simple sentence fragment that Whitman used to describe all of us! Because what else binds Americans together more than the idea, certainly more abstract at times than real, that we are all common people?
And yet, it's a tricky question:
"...the terrible significance of their elections -- the President's taking off his hat to them not they to him..."
Even more so when it comes to the office of vice-president, which has the peculiar feature (not always historically the case) of being voted on only obliquely.
But the beauty of the American system of government, its genius, is not just that it taps its greatest strengths -- as well as its greatest weaknesses -- directly from the strengths and weaknesses of the American people, but that it hedges them with the institutional checks and balances that prevent passion from overtaking reason, and reason from losing its bearings.
All of which is to say, there's no point trying to disqualify someone from running for office, when the Founders devised a very simple method for doing so called the ballot. In a democracy, a people gets the government it deserves. And as Abe Lincoln put it, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time." Either you believe that or you don't. But the beauty of America is that just as no one is entitled to office, neither is anyone excluded from seeking it.
Friday, September 5, 2008
I couldn't really bring myself to get all the way through McCain's speech. For whatever it's worth, I didn't watch Obama's either. But this caught my eye.
I wonder where he spent the evening.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
Palin as Bitch Slap
I just got through watching Sarah Palin's speech to the Republican convention, and frankly, I don't think anyone has really gotten the nature of the threat she represents to the Obama-Biden ticket. In the context of Josh Marshall's "bitch slap" theory of politics (which I find repugnant if regrettably relevant), Sarah Palin is the ultimate bitch slap. For anyone who didn't catch the operative line of the speech the first time around, here it is:
There is only one man in this election who has ever really fought for you in places where winning means survival and defeat means death.
The short version is what the McCain campaign will be running on: There's only one man in this election. They've already done the groundwork for painting Obama as an effete, Paris Hilton-esque celebrity. Now, for the next two months, the McCain campaign is going to be running not McCain, but Palin against Obama. They've already started with this ad, via Andrew Sullivan. The subtext of the ad is simple: Obama isn't even man enough to warrant sending out McCain. We'll send the hockey mom to take care of him.
While it's obvious Palin wasn't vetted, it's still unclear just how calculated her nomination was. But if there was a calculation, it was pretty brilliant and pretty cynical. I imagine the McCain campaign figured that whatever damaging stuff trickles out between now and November can be spun. In the meantime, Palin is going to be hitting Obama hard and, what's even more damaging if last night's speech is any indication, with loads of scorn and derision. The impact of that coming from a woman is enormous. And if you think that because Obama weathered Hillary Clinton's attacks, he's somehow immune from Palin, think again. Palin is not Clinton. She's tough enough to hunt moose (how long before she condescendingly invites Obama on a hunting trip?), but fundamentally she's a mother (ie. a real woman).
Those are the optics, and Obama and Biden will have trouble responding. Hit back too hard and they're bullies, too soft and they're wimps. Even Hillary showed what a difference a display of "feminine vulnerability" (the tears in New Hampshire) can make, and her brand is far more Margaret Thatcher than Sara Lee. The McCain camp is simultaneously using Palin's gender in the most progressive and regressive ways imaginable. Cynical? Yes. Effective? We'll see.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Dead Man Walking
[This is a guest post by Eva Ostrum, my sister and an Obama donor/volunteer.]
It's official: John McCain's shark meat. Why?
Fact: Sarah Palin turned on both John Stein and Faye Palin, two signators of the original petition for her very first political race (Wasilla City Council in 1992). Sarah unseated Stein as mayor in a “contentious” election and then later refused to endorse Faye Palin (her mother-in-law) to succeed her as mayor.
Fact: Sarah Palin unseated former Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski in the Republican primary – the same man who had given Palin a “plum” political appointment as Chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission at a salary of more than $120,000 a year.
I'm sure more examples are out there waiting to come to light. In the meantime, McCain should be watching his back. If he does manage to beat Obama, count on Palin to use her new leverage as the star of the right-wing base to force him out in 2012. They don’t call her Sarah Barracuda for nothing.
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
Friend of the blog GS emailed me asking for my thoughts on the presidential election, reinforcing the fact that it's been a while since I felt like I had something vital to say about it. In fact, although I'm still following the race closely, I often find myself surprised by how much so many other people do still find to say about it.
Watching the videos from the Democratic convention, I was struck by how prominent the almost maudlin use of family and personal narrative is in American politics. Then it occurred to me that American politics really is family politics, and not just because of the Kennedy's, Clintons and Bushes. How many times did a speaker in Denver refer to the "Democratic family"? Party affiliation is so often the product of a person's family culture and it, more than anything else, determines voting. Which means that in a normal election, the majority of American voters have already decided who they'll vote for before the candidates for either party have even been selected. There's a reason why the term "Reagan Democrats" entered the political lexicon, and it's because it represented a phenomenon that happens so rarely.
Those who haven't yet made up their minds will base their decision more on character and personality than policy. There, too, I find little to say, because the choice seems so self-evident. Barack Obama, like all first-term presidents, will have some proving to do. Given his relative lack of national and executive experience, he will probably have more to prove than others. But so far in his handling of his campaign, he's demonstrated that he's a gifted politician and an effective manager. More importantly, he hasn't given any indication that he's categorically unfit for the job.
John McCain, on the other hand, seems to combine all the worst elements of American politics (pandering, fear-mongering, sleazeball tactics) with a reckless lack of judgment that makes the thought of him in the Oval Office downright frightening. I've heard the Palin nomination explained as an example of McCain's penchant for gambling, and insomuch as gambling involves accepting the certainty of longterm losses in return for the possibility of a shortterm gain, it was. But even a gambler studies the odds and bases his bet on some sort of calculation. The Palin pick, by contrast, was a shot in the dark.
As for the horse race angle, I've been saying for months that there's no way that John McCain will defeat Barack Obama. And the reason is that there's something called reality, and it's what happens in a little corner of people's minds -- sometimes without them even realizing it -- when they see a tired, outdated, old man next to an energetic, contemporary, youthful man and are forced to decide who they really trust to be in charge. To go back to the family image that I used above, this just isn't a time to turn the car keys over to Grandpa, and when the time comes to choose, most people (including, I imagine, a larger than expected number of Republicans) will grasp that intuitively. So no matter what the polls say between here and November, Obama is going to win in a landslide.
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
In a lot of ways, Barack Obama has his hands tied in responding to John McCain's attack ads for reasons that have to do with each candidate's intended audience. And the suggested responses to McCain's attacks being pushed by Democrats and progressives illustrate why. Take the question of "Obama the elitist." Pointing out that John McCain comes from a privileged background and wears expensive Italian loafers ignores the lesson learned from the 2000 election, namely that no matter how big his trust fund, how many Ivy League schools he's attended, or how many free passes he's gotten because of his name, a tough-talking Republican can still pass himself off as "regular guy" more easily than a Democrat committed to policies that actually benefit "regular guys."
An effective counterattack, on the other hand, would be to point out that McCain's loafers are more than likely paid for by his wife's money. Same goes for the GOP ridicule of tire inflation as an energy conservation measure. Obama is right to point out that the measure is effective and recognized by efficiency experts, but that's a message directed at his own audience. To effectively counter McCain's message among McCain's audience (and the echo chamber), Obama would point out that any man who's ever taken his family on a road trip knows the importance of inflating the tires properly, not only for fuel efficiency but also for safety. He would then add that in the McCain household, not only is Cindy in charge of paying the bills, she's apparently in charge of car maintenance, too.
This kind of response rings true to anyone who has ever played the dozens, played pickup basketball, or hung out in a schoolyard, and one imagines that Barack Obama is no stranger to the three. In Josh Marshall's lexicography, it would be a "bitch slap" targeted at McCain's audience, effectively emasculating McCain in the tradition of the dozens: "I called your boy a punk and he couldn't do anything about it."
Trouble is, this kind of blatant misogyny is unpalatable to Obama's progressive audience. And to be clear, I'm not advocating it. I've actually sent a couple unanswered emails to Josh Marshall over the years, taking him to task for his "bitch slap" label. But so long as Democrats and progressives do not have a clear majority coalition whereby they can maintain message discipline and still win elections, they will be at a disadvantage on this playing field, and whining about it only reinforces the image problem.
Obama might end up being the candidate who establishes that majority coalition by sticking to the high road. But part of me wishes Democrats would offer him a "no holds barred waiver," just long enough to get McCain to stick to the issues. You can take the kid out of Brooklyn, I guess, but you can't take the Brooklyn out of the kid.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Obama's Pre-Victory Lap
What's remarkable about Barack Obama's Middle East tour is how unprecedented it is to see a presidency begin before the actual election. But that's obviously what's happening here. For both Obama, who has overnight assumed the presidential air he was by some accounts lacking, and for the leaders he's meeting, who are very clearly eager to get a head start on getting to know the next American president, this is a pre-victory lap. And he hasn't even touched down in Europe, where the buzz around him has already taken on the dimensions of a cultural phenomenon that's being compared to the Beatles' first tour. Obviously, no one here gets to vote, but I can't imagine the American electorate being unmoved by the sight of a candidate for president having this kind of effect everywhere he goes. It would be silly not to put that to good use.
Friday, June 6, 2008
If you haven't read today's WPR cover piece by Shawn Brimley and Vikram Singh, you should. I've been convinced for a while that more than any individual issues, or even collection of issues, this election is going to boil down to a generational choice. I don't know the demographics of U.S. voters well enough to know who that really favors. That said, the logic of the piece seems to argue for Obama without mentioning his name, although that might not be the authors' intention, and it might be my reading of it. I'm curious to hear from anyone who disagrees.
I remember some discussion about the Bush administration's tendency, in the days before 9/11, to emphasize state-based threats in a way that seemed destined to miss those posed by non-state actors. Obviously state-based threats still exist. But even the Bush administration's response to them, e.g. the idea of "containing" Iran, smacks of a certain strategic anachronism.
Brimley and Singh mention the way young voters experience the world via connectivity, which reminded me of a book I recently started (but have yet to finish) by Harold Innis titled, Empire & Communications. It discusses how the physical form of communication, from stone to clay tablets to papyrus to paper, impacted the organizational structure of the empires that used them. It triggered an undeveloped thought that, in some way, states will need to adapt the way in which they wield strategic power to the communication structure of the internet: rapid, fleeting nodes of hyperlinks, quickly dispersing only to reform elsewhere. This election seems like as good a place to start as any.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
America's Obama Moment
I'm pretty deep in the weeds of a series of articles for WPR, and time has been in short supply the past few weeks, so I've let a few stories slip by without much comment. I'm thinking particularly of Barack Obama sealing the Democratic nomination, but there's also the gay marriage ruling in California, and some others that I'm probably overlooking. I'll try to get some of my thoughts organized and posted over the weekend, and even that might be unrealistic.
But with regards to Obama, I just wanted to acknowledge a moment, one that is the result of generations of hard work, enormous sacrifice, and deep commitment to what is essentially the greatest single American contribution to humankind's collective heritage of ideals. The past few weeks have seen a lot of talk of service to our country, and a lot of it has focused on military service. But just as many have paid for liberty with their lives on foreign shores, so too have many lost their lives in the effort to bring America in line with her highest ideals of justice and equality here at home. Not all of them wore uniforms.
Even though that struggle continues, it's important to appreciate today's victories. Barack Obama is a very special individual who has accomplished something that not many of us imagined was possible even six months ago. Regardless of the outcome this November, that's already a victory for all of us, and for everyone who dreamed, struggled and believed before us.
Sunday, June 1, 2008
An Eleventh Reason
Anyone feeling a bit uneasy about Barack Obama's chances come November against John McCain would do well to read Gerry Scorse's guest post over at Voices of Reason, 10 Reasons Obama Breezes in November. I'm already on record as saying that Obama is going to win easily, so I'm glad to see I'm in such good company. I'd just emphasize one thing that Gerry mentions obliquely. I think that the generational turning point presented by this election is really going to take on a much greater significance than people realize yet. And that's not just a way of saying that John McCain is old, and will appear even more so when appearing side by side with Barack Obama. Among other things, Obama represents a changing of the guard that corresponds to a general societal trend, both in America and abroad. Take a look at the G8 group and you'll see what I mean. Even if you allow for the addition of Silvio Berlusconi, John McCain just doesn't fit in. I think that once voters in the 30-55 year old range hear Obama explain his vision of national security, in particular, in a contemporary language that is at once both familiar and convincing, McCain is finished.
Monday, May 19, 2008
This is why I'm so confident that John McCain stands no chance of winning the presidency:
Everybody needs to relax. There's no way John McCain will beat Barack Obama. Period.
Update: As an afterthought, it occured to me that videos like this are useful up to a certain point, but Barack Obama himself should avoid using frontal assaults on McCain's "straight talk" reputation. Instead, he and his campaign should very simply and knowingly begin referring to McCain's "credibility problem." If pressed for comment, he should reply, "People who have actually been listening to John McCain over the years know what I'm talking about."
Confronting someone with the obvious falsehood of one of their bedrock assumptions is a surefire way to trigger their defense mechanisms. As an example, imagine you wanted to inform a friend that his "devoted" wife is actually having an affair (leaving aside, for simplicity's sake, the question of whether or not you should, in fact, do such a thing). Tell him the missus is cheating on him and you're as likely as not going to end up with a black eye and one less friend. Mention in passing how a mutual acquaintance got wise to what those "extended business lunches" were all about and he's liable to start asking himself some questions. The key is not to give people answers they don't want to hear, but to get them to ask themselves the questions that will lead them to those answers.
The advantage of taking McCain's "credibility problem" for granted is that it confronts McCain on one of his core strengths, while forcing
his most loyal constituency the press to do the legwork on examining the claim. And it does so without raising the natural defenses of voters who have integrated years' worth of puff pieces into their construction of reality.
Thursday, May 1, 2008
Wright's Politics, and Obama's
I think Ezra Klein's right here, in that the essential problem posed by Jeremiah Wright is the political content of his remarks, and not the racial content. In fact, outside of the AIDS conspiracy theory, there isn't really that much racial content. But as I argued here when the sermon clips were first circulated, the political content of Wright's remarks grows out of the black American experience, one that has nurtured a dual identity, equal parts affirmation and ambivalence towards a country that is at once home and bitter exile. Ezra correctly traces the moral outrage over Wright's remarks to their Chomsky-ite quality, but it's no coincidence that, outside of the anti-globalization movement and far-left academia, black America is probably the most sympathetic echo chamber for Chomsky's analysis.
Ezra's thought experiment of a white candidate's white preacher espousing the same political views does support his argument that this is not a political issue simply because Obama and Wright are black. But it overlooks the ways in which Wright's views mean something essentially different in the context of the black narrative of the American experience, where they are inseparable from the struggle to move from object to subject in the larger national narrative, and from which they form a bridge between that national narrative and the global narrative beyond. The result is not a rejection of American history, so much as a correction to it, one that resonates all the more powerfully for coming from the ranks of the oppressed and not of the oppressor.
But the underlying ambivalence that comes from condemning America on the one hand, and fighting for one's rightful place in it on the other, means that a black politician like Obama can immerse himself in Wright's Chomsky-ite worldview without necessarily rejecting the broader socio-economic structure of American society. Within the black narrative, it is a radical perspective, but not a leftist perspective, anti-colonial, but not anti-capitalist. (Although Trinity UCC's philosophy does disavow "middle classness.")
The equivalent scenario for a white politician would have much broader implications, since they would suggest no ambivalence, but only a political orientation largely incompatible with mainstream American politics. Not only would this still be a story were Obama and Wright white, as Ezra argues, it would probably be a more politically damaging one. It would also be a very different story, as Ezra also argues, and that's very much due to the fact that Obama and Wright are black.
Friday, April 25, 2008
Playing the Petraeus Card
It looks like I'm the only one who's underwhelmed by the Petraeus appointment to CENTCOM commander, but what the heck. In for a penny, in for pound. So here's another thorny question that I've yet to see directly addressed. (Hampton, make sure you've had your morning cup of Joe before reading any further.)
I mentioned that by using his direct lines of communication with the Oval Office to leapfrog Adm. Fallon, Petraeus had already been serving as de facto CENTCOM commander. But in thinking about it, the leapfrog actually went much further than that, because President Bush made it clear that he would follow Petraeus' lead in Iraq, and not the other way around.
Now, if you're a cynic like me, you might think that was a political ploy to use the persuasive authority of the Iraq theater commander to implement military tactics in Baghdad that serve Bush's political purposes in Washington. (All the better if they've been responsible for the improved security situation, but the causal connection remains disputable, and subject to developments on the ground.) But if you're not, it means that Petraeus was exercising a command that far exceeded the bailiwick of MNF-I or CENTCOM, for that matter. Petraeus was calling the shots for the Commander-in-Chief, and not the other way around.
Of course, so long as Petraeus' strategic vision is consistent with President Bush's political agenda, there's little reason to believe the relationship will suffer from his assumption of CENTCOM duties. But what happens when Petreaus decides that Bush's political line jeopardizes our regional strategic position? Well, it turns out we have a recent example of what happens to a CENTCOM commander who isn't in lockstep with the Bush administration's Middle East policy. It's called early retirement.
Now call me cynical, call me cranky, call me contrarian (just, please, don't call me punctilious). But to my eyes this looks like the latest installment of the Bush administration's politicization of the officer corps, and I suspect that anyone who expects Petraeus to suddenly start thinking differently about the big regional picture than he did about the Iraq theater is in for a disappointment. Petraeus will ask Bush for what Bush wants to give him, and Bush will then give it to him under the pretense that it's what his military commander asked for. And if Petraeus upsets the apple cart between now and January 20, 2009, he'll be joining Fox Fallon on the motivational speaking tour.
The problem isn't that the President calls the shots in time of war. That's how it should be. The problem is that the Petraeus-Bush relationship is a closed feedback loop, hermetically impervious to disproof and driven by a political agenda whose ideological foundation Bush has pragmatically sidelined but never explicitly renounced. And it's about to go regional.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
The Petraeus Principle
What's clear so far about the Petraeus CENTCOM announcement is that all anyone can do right now is speculate on what impact this will all have. But while answers will only come with time, the fundamental questions are shaping up pretty quickly. According to Abu Muqawama they boil down to how Gen. Petraeus' experiences in Iraq are going to influence his regional vision in general, his approach to Iran in particular, and his ability to make detached decisions about how to distribute scarce resources between the two theaters of war now under his command. Tom Barnett, on the other hand, flips the formulation a bit and wonders how the added regional perspective will impact Gen. Petraeus' approach to Iraq and Iran, although he worries about the fact that the DoD is now pretty much all "bad cop," up and down the line, when it comes to Iran.
One thing that's implied in AM's remarks about Petraeus' regional vision being shaped by the prism of Iraq, but that I'd draw out even more explicitly, is that his vision of the Iranians has been shaped by the prism of what amounts to a proxy war there. So whatever broader regional approach to Tehran he adopts can't help but be conditioned by the fact that he has already been engaged in low-intensity warfare with them for the past year and a half. To use the language of Petraeus' own COIN manual, his Iran narrative has begun as a war story. So either he's capable of making a very significant pivot, or else the plotline is about to be expanded to a regional level (which, as Tom Barnett points out, does not necessarily mean a decisive attack on Iran but logically suggests one).
Meanwhile, some questions are being raised (Phil Carter here and Charlie from AM here) about Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno's fit as commander of MNF-I. But I'm surprised that, so far, no one's had the temerity to point out that compared to his CENTCOM predecessors, Gen. Petraeus' credentials are underwhelming for such a strategically vital regional command. Admiral Fallon's prior regional command experience was too deep to count. Gen. Abizaid did prior staff tours in the Office of the Army Chief of Staff, the Southern European Task Force, and the U.S. Army Europe HQ. Gen. Franks commanded the 3rd Army for three years prior to taking over CENTCOM, and Gen. Zinni was CENTCOM Deputy C-i-C for nine months before assuming the top spot.
The bulk of Petraeus' experience, meanwhile, has been in operations and training (which is what you'd expect for someone who has demonstrated such tactical brilliance). Challenging as it is, Commander MNF-I is his broadest command to date. Now it could be that Petraeus is, in addition to being a tactical genius, a strategic genius as well. But a case could be made for the argument that, in leapfrogging Adm. Fallon through his personal relationship with President Bush, Petraeus has essentially served as de facto Commander of CENTCOM for the past year and a half. And in that time he has put the Iraq theater ahead of our broader regional interests, and according to many, ahead of the health of the Army.
Again, only time will tell. But so far, the only real qualification Petraeus seems to have for the job is to have offered President Bush a fortuitous tactical approach that coincided perfectly with Bush's political needs.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
The Real McCain
So is the problem that McCain wasn't paying attention at last week's Petraeus hearings? Or is it that he doesn't understand the difference between a theater commander, a regional commander, and the commander-in-chief? Matthew Yglesias and Kevin Drum are correct in saying that it will be tough to convince the public that the perception of McCain as a national security icon is a mistaken one. But he certainly is generous about providing the proof necessary to make the case.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Obama's Speech: The Explainer in Chief
I just got a chance to watch Barack Obama's speech, after having read the transcript earlier today. Most of the commentary has focused, for obvious reasons, on his treatment of race and its legacy in American history and politics. And rightly so, because it's about the most succinct, balanced, inclusive and unflinching synthesis that I've seen, and I'm no stranger to the subject.
But not enough has been made, I think, about this portion of his remarks that deals with the capacity for change that exemplifies the American experience:
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country - a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen - is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation.
Change has obviously been a theme of Obama's campaign, and the election in general, but it has often been reduced to a boilerplate message about changing the way in which we practice politics. This, on the other hand, strikes to the heart of what has historically led people, and continues to lead them, to our country in the hopes of starting anew against all odds: our capacity to change our conception of what America is and what it can be.
It's what gives us such an advantage over countries that are still struggling to reconcile the tensions caused by differences of origin and custom, and what makes us a model for what can be accomplished. American exceptionalism is often a manipulative device hauled out for jingoistic effect, but if there is a reason that America might be considered an exception, truly this is it.
I've also been convinced for some time that the most compelling case for Obama is a generational one. It's time not to turn the page, but to pass the torch. What the previous generation accomplished should not be rejected but refined, improved and built upon. That's what I heard here:
. . .This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation - the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.
And that's really all I need. Whether Obama survives this controversy is to my mind no longer relevant. He has moved the torch along, and if in the end that proves to be insufficient, he will have lost the election with his dignity and character intact.
Ronald Reagan was known as the Great Communicator. With any luck, Obama will become known as the Great Explainer. Hopefully America can spare the half hour it takes for him to lay out his case, not just on this but on other issues of the day as well, because it's a half-hour well spent. If not, if the soundbites carry the day, it will be America's loss. Not Obama's.
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Obama, Wright, and Black Ambivalence
It just so happens that the first post of mine that got widespread attention on the web was one I wrote back in February on Barack Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, titled "Obama As Rorschach Test." Periodically since then, someone clicking through from a "Obama afrocentric" Google search will show up in the HJ traffic logs to remind me of it. Which is all by way of saying that the post has stuck with me more than the thousand-odd other ones I've written in the past year.
So each time the question of Wright's association with Obama has come up, I've been tempted to re-visit the post, but have held off. Now that the issue is front and center, though, I figured I'd mention two things. The first is that if you click through to this 2005 radio interview with Wright that I linked to in it, at about the 3:30 mark, Wright mentions that he'd had the honor of being invited to two clergy breakfasts during Bill Clinton's presidency. So if he's as radioactive as people are saying, what was he doing on the presidential mailing list ten years ago?
The second point is that, with respect to Wright's 9/11comments, I can't help but feel that the outrage over them illustrates the extent to which the far-left is non-existent in American political discourse. In fact, the only places you can still find remnants of radical leftist analysis are in the Chomsky-ite anti-globalisation movement, and in Wright's brand of afro-centric Black liberation theology.
Provocative declaration alert: It's impossible to put a number on it, but I'd wager that the only place on Earth where Wright's analysis of 9/11 could be dismissed out of hand is in the United States. Not that the rest of the world agrees with it. But I think you'd find a substantial amount of people willing to accept that a valid case could be made for it, even if they subsequently disagree with that case. I suspect that more people consider it defensible (not correct, but defensible) than consider it outside the realm of acceptable debate.
Now it could very well be that I'm totally wrong on this. But I don't think I am. I'd offer two reasons for why this is. First, the far-left still exists across Europe and most of the world (by which I mean the real far-left, not the Clinton administration), which means that analyses such as Wright's are heard more often and have a certain legitimacy. And second, the great cleansing narrative of globalization has all but erased America's memory of historical resentments (torture and disappearances in South America, agent orange in Southeast Asia, the plight of the Palestinians) that feed anti-Americanism worldwide. But that doesn't mean the rest of the world has forgotten.
It also doesn't mean that there isn't great love felt for our country around the world as well. But it's important to remember that the ambivalence is always there, ready to tilt one way or the other depending on the latest American foray on the global stage. The dramatic shift in sympathy for America between 9/11 and the Iraq War is all the illustration necessary to see how fluid and volatile the world's feelings towards us really are.
The significance of Wright's analysis is that it illustrates the similarities between the world's ambivalence towards the United States, and many black Americans' ambivalence towards the United States. It's no coincidence that his particular brand of Afro-centrism traces its historical roots to the moment when black Civil Rights leaders like Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X placed the struggle in the context of the Third World's post-colonial struggle for independence. That's why it functions as America's conscience, not only for its treatment of blacks in this country, but also for its spotty post-colonial record abroad.
Now, obviously someone with Wright's views could not be elected president of the United States, so Obama is forced to denounce and reject them. The question is whether Obama's spiritual relationship, not just to Wright or a few sentences Wright has uttered over the years, but to Wright's core ideology, will now cost him the election. Back in February, I concluded that:
Assuming that his membership in the church signifies his acceptance of its agenda, Obama would do well to articulate his vision of Afrocentrism, and how it fits into his vision of a united America. Not only would it keep his opponents from doing it for him. It would bring a meaningful discussion of race in general, and his race in particular, to the forefont of the campaign. Until then, everyone will just see what they want to see.
I don't think Obama ever did that. Instead his campaign chose to present him as a post-racial candidate, in the hopes that we'd finally arrived at a post-racial America. The result is that his opponents have done it for him. And now everyone will just see what they want to see.
Monday, March 10, 2008
But the capacity of the system to stand against those who would reform it, and who come into office with a broad mandate to do so, is really quite sobering.
As it happens, he's talking about Eliot Spitzer. But the comparison to Barack Obama is... really quite sobering?
Monday, March 10, 2008
Yoko vs. The Graduate
Like everything else in the Democratic primary, how you answer the question of experience probably says more about you than about either of the candidates. Take the Hillary Clinton-Yoko Ono "analogy as insult", for instance, which is revealing for what it leaves out. Namely, that Yoko Ono was an accomplished and internationally recognized artist before she met John Lennon (ie. a person in her own right), and that while she might not have been a Beatle, she certainly understood what being one was like as well as anyone besides than the Fab Four themselves.
As for the commander-in-chief brouhaha, take this McClatchy article about Barack Obama's foreign policy team. Basically it says that Obama's surrounded by a pretty pragmatic team whose input he seeks out due to his voracious interest in foreign affairs, an interest that the article implies (but never says explicitly) springs from his lack of experience. What it doesn't do is offer anything other than the team members' word for it that Obama has what it takes to run American foreign policy.
The quality that comes across most strongly to me is a certain kind of vision of the world, free of pre-conceptions, a sort of lived experience that can only result from a lack of policy experience. Unlike Clinton, who already seems to have the world grouped into good guys and bad guys according to a pro forma prism, or McCain, who already has his bombing targets circled in red on his bedside atlas, Obama doesn't seem to have things sorted out yet. Whether or not that bothers you probably depends on how you see the world yourself.
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
The Advantages Of Going Long
Kevin Drum offers '68 as proof that Democrats are over-reacting to the potential divisiveness of the ongoing primary campaign, which yesterday did nothing to settle:
In other words,  was the mother of all ugly, party-destroying campaigns. No other primary campaign in recent memory from either party has come within a million light years of being as fratricidal and ruinous. But what happened? In the end, Humphrey lost the popular vote to Nixon by less than 1%.
I'd add that there's even an advantage to the primary campaign lasting into April: it has forced both candidates to develop ground games in states that they would otherwise have ignored had the nomination been wrapped up a month ago. That means networks of volunteers, media saturation and personal appearances that can only come in handy for the general election.
It also occurred to me that all the hand-wringing is an illustration of how deep the traumas of 2000 and 2004 really go. In many ways, it will probably take a Democratic president for the party to finally and fully recover from hanging chads and Swift Boating.
Sunday, March 2, 2008
Here's Barack Obama, off the cuff and without the script:
Obama restated his opposition to gay marriage, but asserted that he supported civil unions because "people who are gay and lesbian should be treated with diginity and respect and the state should not discriminate against them." He added, "If people find that controversial, than I would just refer them to the "Sermon on the Mount."
Now I understand this is a campaign, and there are some swing votes to appeal to. Heck, I'm a big fan of the Sermon on the Mount; Prabhavananda's Vedic reading of it, The Sermon on the Mount According to Vedanta, is among the most moving spiritual texts I've ever read. But is it asking for too much to expect a presidential candidate to refer people to the Constitution of the United States?
Meanwhile, as a practical matter, it occurs to me that supporters of gay marriage might get more mileage out of framing the debate in terms of contract law, rather than civil rights. Because in essence what's being denied, as much as legal recognition of the state of matrimony, is the right to enter into a legal contract. Which to the best of my knowledge, outside of a consensual slavery agreement, the government doesn't have the constitutional authority to do.
Friday, February 29, 2008
It's 3 A.M...
...and you're children are safe and asleep. But there's a phone in the White House and it's ringing... and ringing... and ringing...
Since it seems to be the topic of the day, I'll simply observe that that phone rings a long time (six, to be exact) before someone finally answers. That conveys something other than "ready" to me.
More broadly, I'd note that Hillary Clinton seems to have entered that phase of a campaign where she just can't catch a break. Which is a very unhappy phase for her to be in, seeing as how there's still a couple crucial primaries on the line.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
The Softer Side Of McCain
There's been a lot of speculation about what a John McCain presidency would mean in terms of America's military adventurism. But anyone worried about McCain's hawkish declarations regarding a 100-year occupation of Iraq should find this video, courtesy of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry, reassuring. McCain, it seems, has accepted the limits of American military influence, and once President would focus more on "culture-building" and "velvet revolution" operations funded by his friend and co-conspirator, "Jewish tycoon" George Soros.
I should note that the idea that America is trying to gather intelligence through recruiting a sympathetic network of influential and well-placed Iranian elites is not at all farfetched. But when the motivations behind that campaign get boiled down to a basement cabal funded by "Jewish tycoons", it gets pretty pathetic. This stuff reminds me of the kind of rumors being circulated about Barack Obama, with the difference being that the Obama slime is being funded by private interest whackjobs, and this is the product of an Iranian government ministry.
Big hat tip to Small Wars Journal for catching this priceless reminder of just what kind of government we're dealing with in Tehran.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Monday, February 25, 2008
The Political Value Of Wit
In case it doesn't make the American news, Nicolas Sarkozy caused a new uproar yesterday at the Agriculture Salon when he responded vulgarly to an insult from a passerby. As Sarkozy was making his way through the Salon, reaching out and shaking hands with those headed in the opposite direction, a man in his late-fifties or so objected, saying "Don't touch me," in a very hostile tone of voice. He added an expression that translates poorly into English but which roughly means "You'll contaminate me." (Literally it translates as "You'll dirty me".) To which Sarkozy without hesitation responded, "Then beat it, you pathetic bastard." The actual French, pauvre con (which more literally translates to "poor cunt"), is a vulgar expression of absolute contempt. The entire incident (neither man stopped walking, so it can't properly be described as a confrontation) was of course captured on video.
The episode is revealing for yet again demonstrating Sarkozy's "man of the people" bona fides, for better or worse. But it also serves to set up this great passage that Art Goldhammer over at French Politics flagged from Marianne's online edition:
Older folks will remember that, confronted with equally difficult situations, presidents in the past adopted a more regal bearing. Take Jacques Chirac, for instance, to whom an onlooker called out "Bastard!" while he was leaving mass at Bormes-les-Mimosas. "Nice to meet you," replied the former Head of State. "Jacques Chirac, here." Compare that Cyrano de Bergerac-like riposte with General de Gaulle's inspired response when confronted with a vibrant cry of "Death to the morons!": "A vast undertaking." (Translated from the French.)
The passage made me realize to what extent Barack Obama represents a return of wit to the American political arena. Every time he is attacked, he manages to respond in a way that impresses with its cleverness, and that is perfectly lethal not despite, but because of the absolute lack of venom in the parry. I'm thinking in particular of his, "I'm looking forward to having you as one of my advisors, too, Hillary." But there are other examples.
As a reflection of character, it contrasts favorably with the brittle reactivity of the Bush administration, as well as the rapid response tactics of the Clinton era. In fact, I hate to say it but I think you'd have to go as far back as Reagan to find its equivalent.
Friday, February 22, 2008
Is Bill Keller the Dan Rather of 2008? That's the distinct impression I got when I noticed, as Kevin Drum put it, "the fast congealing conservative consensus that this will help McCain." Maybe the Times has got the goods. Or maybe they got set up. Either way, it's odd seeing McCain bash their impartiality seeing as how they endorsed him.
On the other hand, is Kevin right when he claims that no one really cares about the corruption angle? Is the story really about McCain's affair? The story about the story certainly is. But let's assume for argument's sake that McCain really did have an affair with this woman. Why is that a story? I couldn't care less who's screwing who in Washington, as long as nobody's screwing us.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Presidential Cage Match
Look for the NYT's McCain story to have an insidious effect on the Democratic contest. A lot of people have already questioned Hillary Clinton's bareknuckled tactics against Barack Obama with the prospect of a tough general election looming on the horizon. If McCain's campaign comes out of this media cycled mortally wounded, the logic of Democratic restraint becomes less operative. To say nothing of the fact that a crippled McCain gives the Democratic nominee a lock on the White House. Which means Clinton's so close she can almost taste it.
Where do you go when you're already down to bare knuckles? Any street fighter knows the answer to that: the gutter.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
I've been a bit burned out on the Democratic primary campaign. Truth be told, I think the turning point for me was once I'd actually voted. I made a decision, felt good about it, had some buyer's remorse the next day, realized that I would have had the same feeling had I voted the other way, talked with my Dad and found out that -- separated by an ocean and a six-hour time difference -- we did the exact same thing on Super Tuesday (ie. we both went to the polls intending to vote for the same candidate only to change our minds and vote for the other one at the last minute) and that was enough for me to put the whole thing aside.
So I've watched the campaign unfold over the past few weeks with a somewhat dispassionate eye (although as someone who genuinely liked both candidates, my passions were less than enflamed to begin with). Which makes me feel comfortable making the following observation:
The Clinton campaign's performance since February 5th makes me wish that there were some sort of procedure in place whereby a candidate can be penalized by having delegates that they've previously won taken away from them. Something along the lines of a 15-yard penalty and loss of down in football. Because I've never seen anything as pathetic as what the Clinton camp has trotted out, not just once or twice, but consistently, almost daily, for the past two weeks.
As classless as Bill Clinton was in NH and South Carolina, I was willing to put that on him, not her. But there's really no one to hang the blame on for what's gone down the past few weeks. This is Hillary's campaign; in some ways it's her government-in-waiting, and she's the Commander-in-Chief. And if this is "ready from day one", well, then, Obama could probably get away with claiming that he really can walk on water.
I've said before that whenever I actually see Clinton in action, as opposed to just reading her press coverage, my opinion of her improves. Not surprisingly, I haven't actually seen much of her of late. It could be that the two upcoming debates could prove decisive in turning things around for her. But seriously, these past few weeks have reminded me of an elementary school class president election.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
The Symptoms Of Election Fatigue
Somewhere over the past week something turned for me, so whereas before I'd honestly felt that an extended campaign for the Democratic nomination was a good thing that would bring out the best in the candidates and the party, now I've got a serious case of election fatigue. It's not just that I'm mildly sick of both Clinton and Obama. It's that the longer this thing drags on without a resolution, the more full of crap both of them seem to be.
So, for instance, when Clinton says she's going to fight for the unpledged superdelegates even if she's behind in pledged delegates when the voting's done, that seems perfectly legit. It's an election, after all, one that she wants to win, and the unpledged superdelegates are, oddly enough, not actually pledged. But when she talks about trying to seat the Michigan and Florida delegates, that's very obviously the type of win-at-all-costs approach that might have served Al Gore well in Florida seven years ago, but is entirely uncalled for in an up to now riveting and fairly above board Democratic primary election.
Then there's the debate question. Clinton has every right to press for more debates with Obama, since it's a format in which, by consensus, she seems to have an advantage. But to suggest that Obama has some obligation to debate her is ludicrous, especially if by ducking her he suffers less among voters than he would by taking part. It's not the most honorable move, perhaps, and Clinton can call him out on it all she wants. But if you try to win at all costs, you can't fault your opponent for doing so too.
Meanwhile, when Obama resorts to hackneyed political phrases, like calling Clinton's debate ad the "same old politics", it becomes all too clear that his above-the-fray posture is simply a well-worn routine from the "same old politics" repertoire, albeit one that he's enjoyed more success with than anyone else who has used it before. As for his dazzling speeches before legions of transfixed supporters, they perfectly illustrate the defining conceit of Obama's campaign -- the artifice of authenticity -- whereby he does the same thing night after night while managing to give each successive audience the impression that they're privvy to a unique and special experience.
Moreover, when he talks about uniting the Red states and the Blue states, I for one get the distinct impression that he's still something of a stranger to many of those states he's referring to. As if he's actually getting aquainted with the country he aspires to preside over through the very campaign he's waging to convince voters to elect him. Say what you will about Clinton's experience or lack thereof, but she did register voters in Texas thirty years ago, and she did work for a children's legal fund in Connecticut twenty-five years ago, and something tells me that she's checked back in regularly with just about everyone she ever met in both places ever since. Which is why she doesn't give the same speech in El Paso as she does in New Haven.
It's bad enough when general elections are decided by 800 votes in Dade County. But there really seems to be a crisis in the decision-making process when we can't even select the candidates anymore. I know democracy is the worst system except for all the others. But I'm thinking that with the advent of Web 3.0 they're bound to come up with some widget that works better than this.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Blogs Eat Their Young
In many ways, the Clintons' brand of politics, if it didn't actually spawn the blog, served as a precursor to it in that the Clintons popularized techniques at the dawn of the internet era -- rapid response war rooms, spin, talking points, polarized partisan broadsides -- that blogs would later appropriate, greatly contributing to the proliferation of the new form. The polarization of blog discourse came to a peak during the first term of the Bush administration, where in many ways blogs were the only platform available to resist a media narrative that was at best complacent and at worst complicit. What's more, as recently as the 2006 Congressiona mid-term elections, blogs seem to wholeheartedly embrace the idea of partisanship.
So it's kind of ironic that so much of the Hillary Clinton backlash, especially among the blog set, has focused on the polarizing effect of the Clinton brand. It's also worth considering what blog discourse will look like under an Obama administration where bi-partisan cooperation and respectful dialogue have become the norm.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
My experience over the past few months is that I respond much more favorably to seeing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton debate than I do to print media coverage of either them. With Obama, seeing him discuss the issues reminds me that there's more to him than just the euphoric adulation that his campaign has been reduced to by the media. With Clinton, it's just the opposite. Seeing her reminds me that she's a lot more likable and impressive in person than the media allows for.
Now, it's been observed that the debate format is not one that favors Obama. And it's also obvious that euphoric adulation is not in and of itself a major disadvantage for a presidential candidate. So it doesn't surprise me that Hillary Clinton's meltdown-in-progress coincides with the end of the debate season. What does surprise me is that she hasn't been more insistent about getting some more debates scheduled.
Meanwhile, I'm not so sure her strategy to pin her hopes on Texas and Ohio is such a bad move. By conceding the past week's worth of primaries, she's put herself in the position of authentic underdog going into next month. Now she can legitimately make the case to her supporters in those two states that if they don't mobilize for her, and in a massive way, she's finished. Conversely, if she loses either one, or if her victory is not on a corresponding scale of magnitude, she's got to be willing to bow out.
Update: Apparently Clinton is calling Obama out for not debating In Wisconsin (YouTube at link). Andrew Sullivan calls it a negative ad. If so, it's pretty tepid as far as negative goes.
Monday, February 11, 2008
The Audacity Of Nope
About halfway through reading this Congressional testimony by Col. Douglas Macgregor (Ret.) explaining why the Joint Declaration of Principles between the US and Iraq more closely resembles the Warsaw Pact-era Brezhnev Doctrine than a US Status of Forces Agreement, it occurred to me that for all the outrage over the executive power grab of the past seven years, the Bush-Cheney administration has done nothing that the Founders did not foresee and anticipate. They understood and accepted as a matter of course that the executive would have a tendency to encroach on the powers of Congress.
But while the Founders also understood the corrosive effect of political parties on a democracy, I think what might very well have surprised them about today's political climate would be the degree to which Congress, faced with the Bush-Cheney putsch, has simply rolled over. From torture to habeas corpus to domestic wiretapping to signing statements, President Bush might have run roughshod over the Constitution, but Congress did nothing to stop him.
It's worth thinking about that for a moment, now that interest in the presidential campaign has reached a frenzied peak. A lot of thought and discussion has been devoted to which of the two Democratic candidates would be most likely to pull back from the expansive precedent of the Bush imperial presidency. Less has gone into identifying and promoting the kind of Congressional leadership in the Democratic Party that will actually push back against executive overreach.
With the superdelegates (of whom Congressional Democrats make up roughly a third) poised to decide the party's nominee, now would be a good time to consider just what Congress will be getting in return for its tie-breaking Convention votes. Obviously these sorts of deals are made between individuals. But hopefully there will be some institutional dealmaking going on as well.
Saturday, February 9, 2008
Five Easy Pieces vs. Easy Rider
In the comments to this previous post, regular reader, frequent commenter and all-around "friend of HJ" Gerald Scorse wondered if I would venture some suggestions for a "signature enemy" for Obama to wage his "smart war" against. Guilty as charged: it's easier to formulate the idea in the abstract than to articulate an instance of how to put it into practice.
But in thinking it over, it occurred to me that this is in essence why so many of the historical examples Obama uses in his stirring rhetoric (the American Revolution, Abolition, Women's Suffrage, WWII, the Civil Rights movement) just don't pass muster as comparisons to what America faces today. The fact is, the most urgent moral issues on the agenda (ending the practice of torture, restoring habeas corpus to terrorist detainees, ending warrantless domestic spying) can all be resolved with a stroke of the pen through executive order.
The meme bouncing around the spherical world of online opinion today is that the Clinton brand of politics is either commodity-based (ie. Brooks) or else packaged into issue-ettes (ie. Sullivan). Both of which strike me as alternate ways of saying that it's the product of Mark Penn's micro-political mind. Obama offers the exact opposite with his call to a transcendent cause that rallies all the micro-political niches into a mass movement. But for that to happen, the transcendent cause has got to be up to the task as defined by the historical moment.
So far, Obama has relied on an ecclesiastic formulation of the American dream to serve as the glue which holds his grand majority together, which is why the choice between Clinton and him has become the choice between a Chinese menu (ie. a patchwork quilt of custom-fitted solutions to address the discrete fears of the electorate) and an epicurian cookbook (ie. a sense of purpose to satisfy the collective hunger for an organizing logic for action). The question is whether or not the historical moment bears out the former or the latter.
To be clear, I'm talking about rhetoric and imagery here. I think there are other, more convincing arguments for supporting Obama's candidacy than his appeals for unity, and I think he's capable of creating and carrying a broad majority based solely on his personal charisma even in the absence of the collective yearning for unity that he evokes. But if he does manage to identify some concrete popular crusade to rally America to a cause that is not, as he has currently formulated it, simply the cause of America, I think he could actually manage to live up to his rhetoric.
I'll try to identify what one might be, but in the meantime, if anyone has any ideas, feel free to pop them into the comments.
Saturday, February 9, 2008
A friend was making the case the other day for Barack Obama, to the effect that he'd be able to rehabilitate liberalism in the political worldview of an entire generation. He argued that with the comfortable Congressional majority the Democrats will in all likelihood have, he'd be able to govern effectively and demonstrate that liberal policies work, while seducing some centrists with compromise. My counter-argument was that with a comfortable Congressional majority, Clinton would be able to pass a more liberal agenda, so compromise wasn't necessary.
Thinking it over, though, I think my friend has a point. I'm an advocate, after all, for the idea of Israel offering the Palestinians in particular, and the Arab world in general, a generous peace. So the logic of that sort of approach in domestic political terms does appeal to me.
But here's the thing. The problem with Obama's rhetoric of unity and bi-partisanship is that it ignores two fundamental aspects of the formation of group identity. First, that there has to be a distinct and easily recognizable boundary separating inside from outside. (Like a cell wall, this boundary can be permeable, but it needs to be identifiable.) And second, in order to form that boundary, fighting for something works, but fighting against something works better. Whether or not you subscribe to Rene Girard's theory of the origins of human religion, the scapegoat mechanism is a historically proven component of human collective behavior.
Take Ronald Reagan, who Obama has repeatedly cited as an example of the kind of game-changing political mandate he hopes to generate. Reagan had two made-to-order scapegoats: the enemy without (the "evil empire") and the enemy within ("welfare queens"). The former allowed him to cherrypick blue collar Democrats who were alienated by the defeatist image that had, fairly or unfairly, stuck to the party of Carter like a wad of chewing gum on the sole of a shoe. The latter combined racial/racist dogwhistle appeals with a call for fiscal responsibility that got him the support of white collar Democrats who understood the value of a balanced checkbook. But while Reagan's new majority grew in part out of a national zeitgeist (whereby a return to American triumphalism compared favorably to the prevailing sentiment of fatigue, self-doubt and defeat), it certainly didn't represent a collective yearning for unity.
A few months ago, when Obama was still intriguing the electorate but not quite sealing the deal, Josh Marshall suggested that he needed a signature policy for his campaign to shift gears. I'd go a step further. He needs a signature enemy. In the logic of his oft-repeated formula for opposing the Iraq War (ie. he's not opposed to wars, he's opposed to dumb wars), Obama needs a smart war.
Now at first glance that might seem to be diametrically opposed to the inclusive logic of his campaign, as well as his refusal to use fear as a political tool, but it needn't be so depending on the enemy he identifies. Before Bush's War on Terror (to say nothing of the Constitution) or Reagan's War on Drugs, after all, there was LBJ's War on Poverty.
It might be too late for it to have much of an impact on the Democratic primaries. But in the event that Obama does win the nomination, it would set him up effectively for the general election.
Thursday, February 7, 2008
My dad made a few points about the Democratic race this afternoon that I thought bore repeating. For better or worse, Obama has now effectively appropriated the legacy of John F. Kennedy. Now to my dad, who is relatively immune to glitter and the whole blang blang thang, JFK does not represent a stellar example of presidential accomplishment. And on the merits it's not a tough case to make that his myth has far exceeded his record.
But on the symbolic level, and especially abroad, the JFK aura can't be underestimated. By way of illustrating, when I still lived down in Provence, I once went to pick up my son at a friend's house. The mother of the parents was visiting, a woman in her sixties who had emigrated to France as a young woman from her native Italy. When she heard I was American, she immediately grimaced and made a remark in a heavily accented French to the effect that it was a shame we had such a moron for president. Then her gaze wondered off to some interior horizon, and she added, "Not like Kennedy. Or Clinton. Now they were good."
My dad, too, had mentioned the irony that the last politician to consistently be invoked in the same breath as JFK was, of course, Bill Clinton. In other words, in a very real way, Obama's political persona threatens Clinton's historic legacy. (It's unrelated but worth noting here that however he was regarded in the States, Bill Clinton was pretty universally adored around the world.)
The other thing I found thought provoking were the presidents my dad invoked to measure Obama. In the untested category, he offered up Truman. And in the character category, he mentioned Eisenhower. I don't often talk politics with my dad, which is a shame, because he's a real mensch and the blog would probably benefit from his insight.
Thursday, February 7, 2008
Obama, Clinton & The American Imagination
Dug took me to task in the comments to the previous post about Obama and Clinton representing two halves to a whole:
Two different, evenly matched candidates who triggered different identity factors would carve things in half, but different halves. In short, you need to say something substantive about the constituencies, something to the effect that only this kind of pair would generate an even split. Otherwise, the speculative question about a larger collective dynamic at work isn't very interesting.
I was going to add something more substantive about the qualities I had in mind last night, but it was already pretty late and I was already up past my bedtime. What I was going to add, though, wasn't quite so much about the "identity factors" that Dug mentions. I was thinking more along the lines of American archetypes and our national genius. It's the sort of thing that isn't as easily measured as who carried which race, class, or gender among voters, and it's also much less useful in terms of the nuts and bolts of winning an election. So it's not likely to show up in any exit polling data.
The Rorschach of Obama and Clinton is the story of American archetypal opposites. See them at their best and Obama represents the tent revival movement leader, Clinton the party machine fixer working for the little guy. Obama the vertiginous and meteoric rise, Clinton the plodding and tedious ascent. Obama the promise of American renewal, Clinton the reassurance of American decency.
Take them at their worst and Obama takes on all the trappings of the charlatan snake oil salesman, while Clinton becomes the bought and sold politician in the special interests' pocket. Obama is the American idealist with his head in the clouds, Clinton the vulgar striver with her ankles in the muck. Obama is the teacher's pet, Clinton the crooked school board boss. On and on it goes, off to the horizon of the American imagination.
I'm not arguing that Obama and Clinton are the only two politicians who could ever inhabit such diametrically polar corners of the American archetypal landscape. But neither do I think it's just a question of finding images to stick onto two politicians who happen to split the electorate. A few dozen votes separated Bush and Gore, and the same exercise does not seem to apply.
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
Desperately Seeking Storyline
So now that Super Tuesday has come and gone, leaving neither Obama nor Clinton with a more legitimate claim to victory than the other, what's the narrative? Did Clinton stop Obama's momentum? Or did Obama, against all odds, make up a stunning amount of ground? Did Obama show the value of his appeal in the Red States? Or did Clinton prove her Democratic bona fides in NY and Cali? It seems as easy to support any of those arguments as to dismantle them.
With regards to Obama's momentum, so much of it seems to run off the fumes of whatever it is he inspires in his most ardent supporters, and even more so in the frenzied rush that has preceded each primary, that by nature it's almost bound to not live up to the expectations it generates. That said, the fact that he's not only still around, but gaining ground really is pretty remarkable. A lot of that has to do with the new voters he's brought into the electoral process, but I wonder if there wasn't a significant pool of voters who were naturally inclined to support him but reluctant to commit until they were certain he was the real deal. And whatever else is still in doubt, I think he's effectively made the case that he's the real deal.
With regards to Clinton, it's hard not to imagine her wondering what the hell she's got to do to shake this guy. After all, she went up against against Joe Biden and managed to convince people that she was the candidate of experience. She went up against the party's VP nominee from four years back and managed to convince them that she was the inevitable candidate. Compared to that, handling Obama ought to have been short work. But here we are on Super Wednesday, and you get the sense that no matter how many primaries Clinton wins, it just won't be enough to put Obama away, and that she's finally beginning to realize that. And you know it had to hurt to hear the news that while she was lending her own campaign $5 million, the rest of America was poneying up $32 mil for Obama.
Still, who would have believed even two weeks ago that the Democratic candidate that won NY, Cali, Massachusetts, and arguably Florida would have anything but a clear path to the nomination? In fact, with all the attention that's been paid to Obama's Red State appeal, I'm not sure I've seen it mentioned that his path to the Democratic nomination, should he end up winning it, will have curiously resembled the strategy that the GOP used to win the last two general elections. There's no doubt that California and NY will fall behind Obama should he win the nomination. But will he be really able to put those Red States in play come November? The answer, of course, to that and all the other questions being asked today is that despite the hopes, convictions and certainty that abound, no one really knows.
Which leads me to suggest that the real narrative of this election has less to do with the candidates than with the voters. It's somewhat tangential to the idea that Kevin Drum's been developing about the candidates functioning as a sort of Rorschach test, whereby everyone who looks at them sees something different. Because whereas Kevin has posited that "something different" as being very personal, I'm beginning to think there's part of a collective reflection involved as well. As if these two candidates somehow manage to incarnate two very distinct poles of our national genius. Notice that I don't say duelling, even though they are each trying to defeat the other, or irreconciliable, even though the spectre of bitter division has been raised.
The reason we're having such difficulty deciding between them is that they are two halves that form a whole. Put them together and you wind up with America.
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
The Last Word
My experience with California bureaucracy has always been relatively painless over the years. The DMV's are clean, the state and municipal employees are in general pretty helpful, and there's an overall ethic of competence that seems to pervade the culture. So I was surprised and disappointed that, despite having contacted them a month ago, the LA County Registrar's Office didn't manage to get me my absentee ballot until this morning. Since the ballot had to be in the Registrar's office by 8pm tonight, and I didn't know anyone who happened to be flying out to the Golden State today, I walked over to the American Church where Democrats Abroad was holding the expatriate's [Note: correct spelling courtesy of reader GS.] primary. And that's how I wound up in this video clip that's now on the front page of Le Figaro:
My comment, which comes at the very end, roughly translates to, "Even if I'm wary of the Obama euphoria, I think he's an exceptional politician, the kind that doesn't come along very often, who manages to mobilize a lot of people."
It was a curious experience finally voting, after having followed the campaign so closely for so long. As I set out for the church, the realization dawned on me that I would finally have to actually decide between Obama and Clinton, and with each step I took the sense of uncertainty grew stronger. Because although I've been increasingly leaning towards one of them recently, it hasn't been without moments of doubt and wavering. So I really didn't know who I would vote for until I sat down at the table, filled out the form, and considered the names with the empty squares next to them. And although I was staring at the paper, my gaze was directed inward.
It was only after I left the voting area that I realized that for the first time in my adult life, I had just voted for someone who I wholeheartedly, without reservation would like to see elected president of the United States.
Friday, February 1, 2008
Too Close To Call
Wow. I just got finished watching the entire Obama-Clinton debate, and what I said yesterday about either one of them destroying McCain come November counts for double now. They're both really great candidates. As always, whenever I see Obama I'm reminded of why I agree with so much of what's written about his strengths. And also as always, whenever I see Clinton I'm reminded of why I disagree with so much of what's written about her weaknesses.
I read a bit of commentary and analysis before watching the debate, and the consensus seemed to be that they both put on strong performances, with Obama having the slight edge due to his advantage during the Iraq portion of the debate. And I have to take issue with the latter half of that assessment. It was clear that Clinton was eager to re-direct the Iraq discussion to the way forward. But I found her very persuasive on the merits of her position on the authorization vote. And I say that as someone who opposed the war from the start, and who has never been sympathetic to the position she was defending.
What's more, while I continue to be impressed by Obama's strategic assessment of the past and strategic vision for the future, I found myself irritated by two of his assertions regarding Clinton's Iraq position. First, that she supported the war and the mindset that led to the war, which is a blatant distortion that I'm surprised he's not called out on. And second, that Clinton will be compromised by her authorization vote when facing off against McCain. There's tons of daylight between Clinton's Iraq stance and McCain's, and if anything, she'll be in the position of using her vote as proof that she's tough enough to wield the threat of force, but sane enough to determine when it actually makes sense to follow through.
I think both candidates did extremely well. Obama because he showed he belongs up there in every sense of the word. It's tautological, but the questions about his toughness and staying power become less and less valid the longer he sticks around. Meanwhile, Clinton's performance demonstrated her savvy in terms of how to modulate the tone of her campaign to suit the tactical needs of the moment.
While I've already made the editorial decision not to endorse either candidate, I thought as recently as last night that I'd finally decided who I was voting for. After watching the debate, I'm not so sure anymore. I've often found that when we have a hard time making a decision for ourselves, the universe sometimes makes it for us. Oddly enough, my absentee ballot still hasn't arrived from the LA County registrar's office, so maybe I'm destined to remain undecided in this one. One thing's certain. Come November, I'll have no problem voting for the candidate with the big "D" after their name.
Thursday, January 31, 2008
Heads We Win, Tails They Lose
It looks like I was a bit premature in my previous comments about the state of the Democratic campaign. Obama really does look like he's changing the political landscape in the way he needs to do in order to pull this out. No telling if the trend holds, but if he does end up winning the nomination, it would be pretty tough not to admire the story arc.
Meanwhile, for no real reason I found myself spontaneously and very forcefully declaring earlier this evening in a conversation with a friend that John McCain doesn't stand a chance in the general election, against either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. And surprised as I was to find myself saying it, I realized as the words left my mouth that I really believe that's true.
Clinton's mastery of policy detail would simply outclass McCain in a debate, and she's smart enough to adopt her disarming, charming persona (the one she used so well to deflect the question about why she's unlikable) to do it. As for Obama, even granting that McCain might edge him out for the independents and centrists (which I really don't see happening), there's a possibility Obama could actually win over some of the disenchanted evangelicals who would never support McCain. But beyond the polling and demographics, both Obama and Clinton are just so much more visibly dynamic and alert than McCain that the difference would be too apparent over the course of the campaign.
Just as importantly, if McCain wins the GOP nomination, it will be a default victory. His poll numbers since last year show that. Republican voters have at one time or another virtually begged every other candidate -- with the exception of Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter and Alan Keyes -- to take the nomination from him. The fact that they've wound up coming back to McCain says more about the rest of the field than it does about their enthusiasm for him.
What it all means is that the idea floating around out there that Democrats should be wringing their hands and biting their nails, worried that no matter who they vote for they'll wind up sending the wrong candidate out to the general election, thereby snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, is a total bunch of crap. Both Obama and Clinton are strong candidates, and regardless of how tough the battle for the nomination is, the party's going to rally around the winner come the convention. And then whichever one of them is the Democratic nominee, they'll promptly go out and turn John McCain into a pile of chopped liver in a crewneck sweater.
There. You read it here first (unless you read it somewhere else before).
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
A lot has been made of the fact that by winning Florida, McCain just won his first Republican-only Republican primary. I haven't seen mentioned anywhere the possibility that independent voters might have prepared for the fact that the Democratic primary was invalidated by re-registering as Republicans.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
After South Carolina
I optimistically promised some thoughts on the state of the Democratic campaign yesterday, before the flu bug I'm fighting off sent me to bed early. In the meantime, it occurred to me that we've entered the phase of the campaign where the horserace coverage kind of takes a backseat and the organization kicks in. So to a large degree (and barring any major gaffes on either side), I think that what will happen on February 5th is already decided, whether or not the pundits or the polls manage to accurately predict the outcome.
That said, what strikes me as significant about the very tumultuous month of campaigning we've just seen is that it has prevented both Obama and Clinton from fully imposing their narratives on the campaign. After a moment where Obama looked poised to ride a post-Iowa wave of euphoria straight to the nomination, it has become clear that hope, while a major part of any successful formula, won't be enough. Neither will bi-partisanship, which despite being warmly received by Obama's Republican admirers (no surprise there given the GOP's 2008 chances) is regarded with either suspicion or derision by most self-identified Democrats. So while Obama continues to surprise and impress with his ability to attract new voters and thereby change the political landscape to his advantage, and while he does so largely with these themes, he'll have to find some way to graft some other element onto his core message if he's going to attract the rest of the Democratic base.
For Clinton, the story is similar. In the aftermath of Iowa, the air of inevitability that she hoped to ride to the nomination took on a close resemblance to the political equivalent of the Titanic. But despite the iceberg that Iowa tossed into its path, the Clinton campaign has managed to not only survive its disastrous maiden voyage and right itself, it has somehow managed to recloak itself with an air of... inevitability. It's a neat trick, but one that is betrayed by the fury with which she, her husband and various and sundry proxies have been campaigning.
Meanwhile, if neither candidate was able to fully impose their narrative on the campaign, neither, too, were they able to distance themselves from their perceived weakness. What's most significant here, though, is that neither has actually suffered for it. What do I mean by that?
Again, let's start with Obama. Despite his ability to take the Clinton campaign's post-Iowa barrage of bare-knuckled, hard-nosed, tag-team politicking and remain standing, he's left many observers (Josh Marshall here, for example), unimpressed with his ability to fight back against Clinton's attacks. In other words, the questions about his toughness linger, even if the impact of his opponents' attacks has been put in doubt. (With all the comparisons that have been made between Obama and Reagan, it won't be long, I'm sure, before we start hearing talk about the Teflon Candidate.)
The same thing, though, holds true for Clinton. Her Achilles' heel was supposed to be the polarizing effect of her take-no-prisoners brand of politics. But while Bill Clinton's role in the campaign has drawn quite a bit of criticism, it has also (up until South Carolina) seemed to work. It's also far from universally accepted that Clinton has in some way crossed the lines of a hard-nosed political campaign, and some have even been reassured by her combatancy.
What this all means to me is that the campaign has served its function very well. No one got a free pass, the major candidates' strengths and weakness were brought out, and both Clinton and Obama had to fight from a position of frontrunner and comeback kid. What it also means, though, is that from here on out, it favors the status quo. And unless there's some seismic shift in the political landscape, the status quo favors Clinton.
It could be I'm speaking on the eve of just such a seismic shift, given all the endorsement moves being made this week. If so, we could see a major surprise come February 5th. But truth be told, I have a hard time seeing Obama do better than nibble away at the edges and draw the race out.
Monday, January 28, 2008
Lying In His Sleep
I know it's a bit stale, but I just saw the video of Bill Clinton dozing off during an MLK memorial service. The footage is damning enough given the racially charged atmosphere that preceded it the week before on the campaign trail. And the unfavorable comparison with Barack Obama's inspiring performance at Ebenezer Baptist is obvious. But it also struck me as revealing that the first thing Clinton does when he catches himself dozing off is to immediately nod his head and pretend as if he'd been listening. Take a look at 0:47 and again at 1:18 of the clip. It's as if his first instinct upon waking is to lie.
It's unfortunate that the damage he's done to Hillary's credibility is inescapable, although I don't think it will necessarily prove fatal to her chances for the Democratic nomination, or irreversible come the fall should she wind up the nominee. The same can't be said, as far as I'm concerned, to the damage he's done to his own credibility. At the risk of repeating myself, I was never very susceptible to the much-vaunted Clinton charisma while he was president. It was largely in his role of ex-president that he won me over. And if that role represents an office of some sort, Clinton has for all intents and purposes abdicated it.
Friday, January 25, 2008
Lately it's seemed like anyone with a blindfold and a dartboard can pick a primary winner. What separates the men from the boys when it comes to political prognostication these days is marital predictions. So, now that Dennis Kucinich is out of the presidential race, we'll see just how prescient my pre-Iowa handicapping really was:
Same goes for Kucinich who, like most ugly men, can't seem to turn down an opportunity to show off his wife's good looks. The fact that she's almost certain to leave him before his withdrawal announcement hits the wires (asking herself as she does whether he was even in yet) makes a long hard slog all the more likely. Kucinich will stick around, if only to keep Dem debates from turning into the political version of Celebrity Death Match, until late spring. Count on a tell-all book from the former-Mrs. Kucinich detailing UFO sightings, vegan potlucks and other unseemly practices just in time to exploit the marketing opportunity of the nominating convention this summer.
Granted, I was a little bit off about the timing of his withdrawal, but I'd forgotten how quickly Kucinich would be eighty-sixed from the debates. I'm banking on a divorce announcement by this time next week. And I'll go out on a limb and wager that the title of her book will be "Don't Hate Me Cuz He's Ugly: How To Win When Your Husband Loses".
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
The Promissory Notes Of Hope
I just watched Barack Obama's speech/sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and was not at all surprised, given his enormous oratorical skills, to find that it lives up to its billing. It's an inspirational and impressive speech, and the way he articulates and contextualizes his vision of hope as an active force for change is effective.
I found his arguments for unity less compelling, since I think what he's talking about is more solidarity than unity. Progress has always been a polarizing proposition, as most of the examples he cites to illustrate it (the American Revolution, abolitionism, the Civil Rights movement) demonstrate. The key is not to get unanimity or consensus but a solid majority. Ronald Reagan, for instance was a very polarizing figure. That didn't keep him from winning 60% of the popular vote in 1984, which is what makes it hard to call him divisive.
Three things occurred to me, having watched the video. First, the white-haired gentleman with the kente-cloth stole sitting behind the pulpit above Obama's right shoulder is Dr. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of Obama's church, Trinity UCC. Wright, you'll recall, was asked by the Obama campaign not to attend Obama's speech announcing his candidacy last year. So the fact that he was in attendance at Ebenezer so soon after the recent publicity over Obama's ties to him strikes me as significant.
Second, there were a couple of moments in Obama's speech that I found symbolically awkward. The first came when he began his litany of "hope moments" from American history with the American Revolution. It seemed like you could almost feel the enthusiasm in the pews dip for the second or two it took him to hurry on to the abolitionists (not surprising given how many of the patriots that took on the British Empire were slaveholders).
The second was at the very end, when a story used to illustrate the unity driving his campaign culminated in a young white campaign worker inspiring an elderly black man to rediscover the fight he had left in him. Something about the "single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man", as Obama put it, struck me as tone deaf to the patronizing hint of paternalism in the story, to say nothing of our country's particularly charged sexual-racial history.
I wonder if the two moments reflect the difficulties that Obama is bound to encounter in tailoring his message to the various audiences of what seems like a decidedly less post-racial America with every week of this campaign (although I leave open the possibility that I'm paying too close attention and reading too much into both).
Finally, there was a noteworthy moment when, in telling his own story, Obama says, "I got in trouble when I was a teenager, did some things folks don't like to talk about..." Compare that to the language BET founder Bob Johnson used ten days ago, for which he was later forced to apologize: "...Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood -- and I won't say what he was doing, but he said it in the book..."
Now, granted, Johnson's remarks were objectionable, but this strikes me as similar to a dynamic that Matthew Yglesias already identified with regard to Obama's middle name. Namely, that his supporters don't hesitate to use his background and the impression it will make abroad as an appeal, while getting outraged by every mention made of it by his opponents. Yes, the attacks are cheap and unseemly, but as Matthew put it:
If he's going to get praised in these terms, he's going to get knocked in them, too. That's just how it is.
Obama seems to do a lot of talking (and writing) about the things he's done that "folks don't like to talk about". So he ought to have some responses ready when other people mention them.
Monday, January 21, 2008
Iraq War Republicans
It's worth clarifying, because I don't think Barack Obama has really formulated it this way yet: He might have made mention of Ronald Reagan the other day, but he was actually talking about America. But while he's right when he says that the mood of America allowed Ronald Reagan to capture the famous Reagan Democrat votes, he keeps leaving two things out.
First, Ronald Reagan did not change the political landscape of America by working across party lines. He did it by getting voters who traditionaly identified as Democrats to not only vote Republican, but to identify as Republican, as least temporarily. Specifically, he appealed to blue collar Democrats' social conservatism, to middle class Democrats' fiscal conservatism, and to both groups' susceptibility to a reinvigorated American triumphalism. If Obama really wants to change the political landscape of America in the way that Reagan did, he needs to claim the political space on the other side of the center line. But first he needs to identify exactly who he means to win over and how.
Which brings me to the second point Obama keeps leaving out. The Reagan Democrats were driven to change party allegiances not just by an intangible national mood. They were driven by a Democratic Party in which they had lost faith and by which they felt abandoned. I wrote about this three times back in Novemeber, (here, here, and here), because it seemed at the time like the GOP was headed for a meltdown. And if Mike Huckabee ends up winning the nomination, I think the logic of an "Obama Republicans" groundswell still holds.
But the overwhelming factor in the GOP's self-examination, at least as I saw it at the time, was the Iraq War. It's what led Republicans like Wesley Clark and Jim Webb to run as Democrats in 2004 and 2006, and I think they were early adapters for a much broader movement that might have followed in 2008. But Iraq, for the time being, has quieted down. Which suddenly makes the GOP -- especially one led by John McCain or Mitt Romney -- a less threatening proposition, especially to Republicans most susceptible to an Obama appeal (ie. the sane ones).
So while I understand why Obama is using the Reagan analogy, I'm no longer sure it will be borne out by the electoral dynamics come November.
Monday, January 21, 2008
The Former Ex-President
I took the weekend off to rest my eyes and spend some quality time with my son. Which means I just spent quite a bit of time catching up on my regular blog reading. (Apparently one of the consequences of paid bloggers is that there's no such thing as a weekend anymore.)
And the first thing that occurred to me upon seeing that Bill Clinton is running for president again is that I'd experienced a Newhart ending. But while starting over in 1996 would be the equivalent of hitting the trifecta (no Monica, no W., and no 9/11), the fact is that it's still 2008. And in 2008, Bill Clinton's campaigning looks like a triple loser: bad for Hillary, bad for Obama, and bad for the Democratic Party.
I say looks like, because it really isn't. The only person Bill Clinton's campaigning is bad for is Bill Clinton. Unlike a lot of people criticizing him these days, I was never a very big fan of his while he was president. But I, like most people, make an enormous allowance for former presidents. (Hell, I had to fight off a round of revisionist emotion that welled up when Richard Nixon died.) But Clinton's attack dog campaigning for Hillary, while perfectly understandable in political terms, are incompatible with his stature as a statesman. Which means that he has, in effect, forfeited his former president status.
But this is about Bill, not Hillary. Whatever impact his negative campaigning has on her candidacy (the advantages will be short term, the disadvantages long term), it doesn't diminish her strengths as a candidate. People who are criticizing her because she's allowing him to do it are forgetting that a large part of her sales pitch is that she gets the job done. If it wins, it stays in the game. That's how she's promised to beat the Republicans. And that's how she's promised to govern.
Obama, on the other hand, has promised that his emphasis on unity can successfully defeat this kind of campaigning. That's how he's promised to beat the Republicans. And that's how he's promised to govern. The rest of the primary campaign will be a proving ground for each candidate's promise. And the winner will have been borne out by the result.
Meanwhile, the rest of us need to keep our cool, because the Deomcratic Party isn't going to fracture. There will be some bandages to be applied and some very sore ribs come the summer, but nothing a few promised cabinet positions won't heal.
Friday, January 18, 2008
It took a while of reading about Mike Huckabee's 30% sales tax, which he dubs the Fair Tax, before it occurred to me that here in France, we pay 20% sales tax on goods and services (basic foodstuffs are taxed at a 5.5% rate). The main difference between the French system and Huckabee's is that here, that's in addition to a pretty stiffly progressive income tax that tops off at 40%. And that's in addition to a pretty stiff Social Security tax. Socialized medicine does have its costs.
Friday, January 18, 2008
It's reassuring to see that Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is as serious about instances of partisan pulpit endorsements when it comes to Democratic candidates as it is for Republicans. Two days ago, it asked the IRS to investigate a Las Vegas church whose pastor introduced a surprise appearance by Barack Obama by announcing his intention to vote for him.
What will be worth keeping an eye on, especially if Obama eventually wins the nomination, is whether the IRS is as evenhanded in its enforcement as AU is in its watchdog efforts.
Update: Melissa Rogers has a very informative discussion of partisan pulpits with regard to a Wisconsin pastor who took out a full page ad in the WSJ basically challenging the IRS to come and get him. Definitely worth a read if you're interested in the freedom of speech and religious practice issues at stake in the IRS' enforcement of tax-exempt status.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Question: Is the headline "Giuliani Tries for a Hail Mary in Florida" an innocent reference to football, or a subtle attempt to call attention to his Catholic faith?
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
The Will To Power
Something to remember regarding the unseemly innuendo about Barack Obama that's been spread by Clinton surrogates and Richard Cohen this past week, as well as some of the coded language that's been used to accentuate his race. These are tactics that we knew would be used. We thought it would be a Republican 527 slime outfit using them, but we all knew they would come up. And from the start, Obama's candidacy was based upon, among other things, the assurance that he could handle them.
There's no justice to the fact that he has to. It's actually a pretty depressing hangover following the "post-racial America" euphoria of his victory in Iowa. But it's the reality of electoral politics as things stand today. If this can derail his campaign for the Democratic nomination, then no matter how inspiring he is, no matter how legitimate a candidate he is, he simply stood no chance of winning the general election.
So far the endorsements have continued to come in, and by all appearances he should do well enough in South Carolina and Nevada to legitimize his campaign for the longrun, which suggests that he can, in fact, deliver on his promise. If he does do well in those two states, it will be a major boost to his electability argument. And if he goes on to win the nomination, this will prove to be the Nietzschean stretch of the campaign that, in not destroying him, made him stronger.
In the meantime, I'll be pretty happy when my posts on Obama in particular and the Democratic campaign in general can be archived solely under "Politics", without the "Race in America" tag behind it.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
When Farrakhan Is Short For Malcolm
Last night I said that Barack Obama would definitely be asked about his opinion on Malcolm X, and that his answer would be potentially risky for his candidacy. The reason I was so sure, which I didn't mention in the post, is Obama's church, Trinity UCC, which self-identifies as Afro-centric. (Here's what I wrote about it last February after a hatchet job first appeared in Investor's Business Daily.)
This morning, Roger Cohen gets us halfway there. Louis Farrakhan is admittedly a much less ambiguous figure than Malcolm X, who after all has appeared on a US postage stamp. But this storm is less about historical accuracy and more about codewords like Afro-centrism and black nationalism, and it's a storm that's already brewing (scroll down on the link). Hopefully Obama's got his answers ready.
Monday, January 14, 2008
The X Factor
I think Ezra Klein's onto something when he talks about the impact, rather than the intentions behind, the recent flurry of racial innuendo coming from Clinton surrogates:
If Obama has to spend a lot of time talking about race, it's hard for him to be the post-racial candidate. If he has to spend a lot of time on divisive topics, it's hard for him to make an appeal for unity. And if he gets thrown off message at this point in the campaign, it will be exceedingly hard for him to blunt Clinton's momentum. And, whether it's a coordinated strategy on the part of the Clintons or not, it's definitely what's happening.
As I noted here, though, I think this conversation was bound to come up right about now anyway, given that we're moving out of the lily-white phase of the primary season. But the Clinton camp does seem to be adding their fuel to the fire, and it's not farfetched to imagine that the basis of their calculation is that these kinds of media flurries cause tactical damage to her campaign (there's a lot of Clinton folks explaining away their comments lately), while they cause strategic damage to Obama's.
Ezra also beat me to the punch in mentioning Malcolm X for the first time in the context of this controversy, but he did so as a tongue in cheek reference to John Edwards. But if I were in the Obama campaign, I would be very seriously considering just how he responds when a reporter or debate moderator asks him his opinion of Malcolm X. It's a potential hand grenade because of the very different perception of Malcolm among black and white voters, and among older and younger voters. If he embraces or doesn't agressively distance himself, he risks alienating some white voters (see: angry black man). If he holds him at arm's length, he could very well alienate some black voters (see: not black enough).
No, I don't think any of the other candidates faces the same risk if asked this question, for obvious reasons. Yes, I think he's going to be asked it, and soon.
Monday, January 14, 2008
Going Way Back
Something to remember about the escalating tensions over race and gender in the Democratic primary campaign is that all of these disputes go way back. In the early days of the Civil Rights movement, there was already disagreement between proponents of legislative reform and legal challenges on the one hand, and proponents of civil disobedience on the other, prompting Dr. Martin Luther King to write his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail". Later, there was no small amount of tension between largely white, middle class anti-war militants and the increasingly radicalized civil rights and black nationalist movement. The modern women's liberation movement was in part born out of the deep-rooted misogyny of the anti-war and Civil Rights movement, best illustrated by Stokely Carmichael's response to a presentation on the position of women in SNCC to the effect that "The only position for women in SNCC is prone". And finally, identity politics sprang in part from the experience of black, hispanic, working class and lesbian women who didn't identify with the goals set by the white, middle class leadership of second wave feminism.
As you can see, we've had all of these on display the past few days: Paglia vs. Steinem, MLK vs. LBJ, the historical primacy of a woman presidential candidacy vs. a black presidential candidacy. But contrary to how it's been portrayed, Hillary Clinton's statement that direct activists drive the discourse but need allies in government to actually effect change strikes me as an attempt to synthesize that tension into a practical formula, even if it amounts to an admittedly self-serving one.
Paradoxically, Obama was supposed to be the candidate to get us past the bitterness of the culture wars. Instead, the dynamics of the race (the electoral race, that is) seem to be pulling him inexorably back into the fray. But instead of the expected right-left dichotomy, this battle is an internecine feud. And it's one, as I said, that goes even further back than the faultlines emerging this year in the GOP coalition.
But it's also one that's less of an existential threat to the Party. There will be bitterness and disappointment like there is every four years. But I think the brief moment of Obama-inspired intoxication has worn off and everyone is realizing that what we've got is not a revival that will culminate in transcendence but a campaign that will culminate in a nominating convention. And come this summer, I'm confident that the rough spots of the campaign will be put aside, and the Party will rally behind its nominee.
Monday, January 14, 2008
Baseless Base Claims
The more the Democratic primary campaign begins to take on the shape of the 1984 Mondale-Hart-Jackson contest, the more I've been thinking that in many ways Hillary Clinton is the political offspring of Geraldine Ferraro. That is, a woman whose historic candidacy is mitigated by the fact that she's a dynasty politician heavily wrapped up in Democratic machine politics.
By coincidence, it turns out that Ferraro just waded into the escalating dispute over the role of race in the campaign with perhaps the most asinine claim I've come across so far:
"As soon anybody from the Clinton campaign opens their mouth in a way that could make it seem as if they were talking about race, it will be distorted," Mrs. Ferraro said. "The spin will be put on it that they are talking about race. The Obama campaign is appealing to their base and their base is the African-American community. What they are trying to do is move voters from Clinton by distorting things. What have they got to lose?" (Emphasis added.)
Now I don't follow the war room point-counterpoint press releases, so I don't know for sure if the Obama campaign is trying to spin Clinton's statements. But given how much pains the Obama campaign has taken to avoid racial identity politics, given the difficulty he experienced early on gathering black endorsements, and given how well he's just done in two lily white states, to claim that his "base is the African-American community" is pretty offensive. It's also a not-so-veiled attempt to reduce him to the level of a "black politician" (ie. an interest group novelty candidate) as opposed to a statesman, in a way that no one tried to do with Bill Richardson, for instance.
That it comes on the same day that Obama picked up two endorsements from LA latino politicians makes it all the more ridiculous. Those endorsements are significant, by the way, for the way in which they overcome traditional Black-Latino animosity, which has been a hinted at but largely unspoken subtext to Obama's possibilities out west.
Sunday, January 13, 2008
The Semiotics Of Hope
Via Jesus Politics comes an absolutely must read article by Jonathan Raban titled "The Church of Obama". It's a brilliant exposition of the semiotics of Obama's message of hope, from its roots in black liberation theology to its broader application to the national political narrative. Regular readers of the site know that I don't use these words lightly. If you think you've read everything there is to read about Barack Obama, or if you think you can't bear to read another thing about Barack Obama, click through anyway. You won't regret it.
Saturday, January 12, 2008
Good Times, Bad Times
I almost wrote about this last night, but it's obvious that the economy is beginning to take a more prominent role in the national zeitgeist. In the context of the presidential campaign, it's interesting for two reasons. First, the lengthened format of the primary campaign runs the risk of emphasizing positions at the outset that have less impact when it comes time to cast ballots. In January 2006, when everyone was announcing their candidacies, the war in Iraq was clearly the main issue on people's minds. With the recent decrease in violence, that's likely to give way to growing anxiety over the economy.
Second, and at the risk of stating the obvious, this can only benefit Hillary Clinton's candidacy. To begin with, of the three candidates, she's the one with the most vulnerable position among Democratic voters adamantly opposed to the war. But more than that, whether it's warranted or not, economic prosperity is a fundamental component of the Clinton brand identity. This is one issue where people would find a repeat of the 90's not at all unwelcome.
Friday, January 11, 2008
What Hillary Clinton alludes to but never comes out and says when she mentions her experience with Team Clinton is that she has experience not so much in governing, but in campaigning. That's why she thinks she's more prepared to take on the GOP candidate come November, and why she so often brings the argument back to dealing with the rigors of the campaign. (It's also one of the striking internal contradictions in her 'emotional moment', since that was in effect a reaction to what she's been presenting as one of her strengths.) Of course, part of the Clinton method of governing is the permanent campaign, so for her it follows that she's got more governing experience than Obama also.
At the same time, the clear subtext of Clinton's "ready on day one" theme is the Commander-in-Chief function. But she really doesn't have any professional qualifications in that area that make her any more ready than Obama. What gives her the gravitas she's talking about is the foreign policy company she's been keeping for fifteen years now (and yes, that can rub off on someone as bright and ambitious as Hillary Clinton is), and the fact that if push comes to shove, a guy who has already exercised the Commander-in-Chief function will presumably be sitting across from her at the dinner table each night.
Oddly enough, though, while Bill Clinton was adored the world over and his foreign policy was probably better than average, his relationship with the military was rocky at best. So far Hillary's gotten a pass on that one.
Friday, January 11, 2008
How It Looks From Here
While much of the media is busily engaged in a round of soul-searching in the aftermath of the New Hampshire primary, the editorial staff here at Headline Junky (consisting of Messrs. Meehe, Mycelfe, and Aiye) is feeling pretty comforted. All of my major predictions regarding the Dems were, as a Brit mason I worked for down in Provence used to say, spot on. (As for the GOP, can anyone really figure that train wreck out?) I resisted the tide of euphoria surrounding Obama's Iowa victory, and maintained that the race was still on when to do so amounted to little more than a stubborn refusal to accept reality. I also called Hillary's winning strategy while most people were busy writing her epitaph.
All of which means that although I went to bed the night of the primary feeling like a rube, I woke up the next morning wondering if I might not actually know what I'm talking about after all. (Dumb luck and bad polling can give you those kinds of ideas.) So while it's admittedly difficult to write and pat myself on the shoulder at the same time, I thought I'd take a shot at spoiling my track record by offering some thoughts about how things look from here.
To begin with, I mentioned the other day that I'd love to see a Democratic unity rally, with the three major candidates appearing together for a moment of non-partisan self-congratulations. I'd even gone so far as to formulate it as, The first candidate to tend the olive branch wins. To which a friend replied that he was glad to see I'd found a satisfactory source of crack rock here in Paris.
In thinking about it some more, I realized that he's right, but I'm righter. With the changed dynamics coming out of New Hampshire, Barack Obama has got to add some edge to his image. Sharpen the elbows a bit, bring his depth and expertise more into focus, and try to move beyond his charismatic and inspirational presence without necessarily abandoning it. He's got to get it back to being a vessel for his message, not a straitjacket for his candidacy. So paradoxically, for an Obama campaign that's made unity and bi-partisanship a catchword, now would be a bad time to actually engage in it.
For Clinton, on the other hand, the olive branch is a winning proposition, especially if it's tended over the walls of an impregnable fortress of competency. The five days of desperation in New Hampshire brought out the best of Clinton, the candidate, and the worst of Clinton, the campaign. She needs to consolidate the first and rid herself of the second, and if she manages to do so, she's got a pretty strong chance of winning the nomination comfortably. To accomplish the first, she needs to at all costs avoid the trap of believing that she can repeat the miracle of her 'emotional moment'. She made her point: the Terminator has feelings.
But in the same way that the Clinton campaign shouldn't "...start thinking up dozens of ways to 'humanize' Hillary over the next couple of weeks..." as Kevin Drum put it, it shouldn't forget the lesson entirely and go back to bare knuckle tactics either. The NH firewall held, but as a result the fire's been extinguished. Which is why an olive branch now reinforces the image of a Clinton campaign operating from a position of strength and confidence.
Which isn't to say Clinton should stop being aggressive. But her aggressiveness should be about promoting her strengths and consolidating an organizing theme for her candidacy, rather than targetting Obama. She can count on Edwards to do that for her.
Friday, January 11, 2008
Sorry, that's all I could think of when I watched this clip of John Edwards on Morning Joe the other day. The content itself (his comments on Hillary's 'emotional moment') is already past the expiration date, but keep your eyes on Edwards as he comes into the frame:
Notice how the smile starts at his right eyebrow and spreads to one corner of his mouth before finally pulling the rest of his face with it? You can almost see the conditioned response: red light (ding!); time to smile, John!
Superficial, I know, but I've got a visceral aversion to this guy, which is probably why I mention him about zero percent of the time. The impression he made in NH only sealed the deal. The only question left about his candidacy is whether he'll bow out gracefully, or decide to take Obama with him. Judging by last week, Obama had better get ready to cover both flanks.
Friday, January 11, 2008
I think Matthew Yglesias is close here, but he and others who point to Hillary Clinton's refusal to apologize for her Iraq War authorization vote are missing the real vulnerability of her position. Clinton's explanation, both for her vote and her refusal to apologize for it, boils down to the claim that in voting for the authorization, she believed she was only giving President Bush negotiating leverage for a diplomatic resolution of the UN WMD inspection stand-off. And it's a solid defense in that it allows her to deny the accusation that she supported the war, as opposed to the threat of war.
The line of attack it really opens up, though, is actually far more damaging, because it goes to the heart of her current campaign message: competency and experience. Because if Clinton really believed that the Bush administration -- and even worse the Bush administration as it was then constituted -- was simply going to use the authorization as a negotiating ploy, then she hasn't actually benefitted much from all her experience in Washington. I've spoken to French diplomats who were convinced as early as spring 2001 (ie. before 9/11) that given the pretext, the Bush administration would invade Iraq. So if Clinton claims to have been unaware of the real significance of her vote, she's either lying or not as savvy as she claims.
It's a potentially devastating attack, because it really calls Hillary Clinton's major claim to the nomination -- that she understands how to fight the partisan battles in Washington -- into question. But so far, people have gotten caught up on the politics of apologies.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
The Race Begins?
This Stan Simpson op-ed strikes me as close to the mark:
The litmus test for me on Obama and his potential to persuade us to look past race will happen when his African American support emerges on the national stage.
When those camera backdrops are no longer the faces of mostly white Iowans and New Hampshirites but African Americans giddy with racial pride about Obama's prospects -- if Obama can sustain his white support then -- well, OK, he's got something...
South Carolina will be significant for a few reasons. First to see whether black voters break for Obama or not (polls suggest they will). And second, to see what impact that has on his national appeal. As Simpson points out, Jesse Jackson won five primaries in 1984 and thirteen in 1988, while never once being considered anything other than a black (as opposed to a serious) candidate. It's easy to say that Obama and America have transcended race, but it's more accurate to say that Obama has largely ignored it and America has not yet associated it with him.
This strikes me as one area where, in the debate between whether misogyny or racism is more decisive in American politics, Hillary Clinton actually has the advantage. As her 'emotional moment' showed, when she demonstrates behavior that in traditional gender stereotypes is considered feminine, it can wind up benefitting her (among voters if not with the press). And what I said here notwithstanding, if Obama ever engages in (pronounced) behavior that in traditional racial stereotypes is considered black, chances are he's history.
So it will be very instructive to watch Obama's language, both spoken language and body language, while publicly campaigning for black votes, in regards to how comfortable both Obama and America really are with a candidate who is both black and serious.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
I was wondering how long it would take for claims of vote fraud in New Hampshire to surface. I admit it was among the first things that occurred to me after the initial surprise of Cinton's victory faded. Of course, the essential conspiracy theory question here is, if Diebold really did throw the primary to Clinton, who were they taking their marching orders from? Are the Clintons now on the Diebold board? Or was it Karl Rove, who'd rather see Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate come November? Or is it a grand unified field theory whereby they all really work out of the same back office?
Thursday, January 10, 2008
One On One
From Taegan Goddard comes this Hillary Clinton quote:
"Well, at the debate on Saturday night I was laughing because in that debate, obviously Senator Edwards and Senator Obama were in the 'buddy system' on the stage, and I was thinking, 'Well, whoever's up there against the Republican nominee in the election debates, come the fall, is not going to have a buddy to fall back on.' You know, you're out there all by yourself."
To paraphrase, 'These guys are so sorry that even ganging up on me, they can't take me out. So, really, who do you want going one on one against the GOP come November?'
It's a great meme for two reasons. First, it resonates with what everyone saw go down last Saturday. And second, it makes it hard for Edwards and Obama to lay off each other and maintain their credibility. Remember, Edwards was the first one to go after Clinton leading up to Iowa, and eventually he's going to have to go after Obama. The sooner that happens, the better Clinton's chances look.
Update: I should clarify that I don't think that Edwards and Obama, in order to remain credible, need to quit playing doubles, but more that it's what Hillary is trying to suggest. Let's you and him fight, so to speak.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Who Gets The Center?
In trying to explain his loss, a lot of people -- and especially Obama supporters -- have grabbed hold of the theory that NH independents, believing that Obama had the primary in the bag, felt free to vote for McCain. And according to this MyDD post, it seems to be supported by John Zogby's post-primary wrap-up.
My first reaction was to think of something Segolene Royal said with regard to centrist Francois Bayrou's candidacy here last spring: when push come to shove, the center always falls to the right. And I think that's worth considering by people who take an Obama victory in the general election for granted, especially in a potential match-up against McCain.
Granted, the dynamics in New Hampshire were different than a head-to-head contest, and the logic was that Obama didn't need their votes. But McCain looked pretty strong going into primary night as well. And given the choice, the independents broke for McCain. Something to think about.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Moving The Lines
So it looks like the Bi-partisanship Forum out in Oklahoma didn't generate much buzz for a Mike Bloomberg independent presidential run. Apparently not even the attendees had much difficulty containing their enthusiasm. Scheduling it on the same day as the New Hampshire primary might not have helped much, either.
There's been a fair amount of disdain poured out on this meeting, especially from the left, and perhaps justifiably so. To the extent that forming tactical coalitions across party lines doesn't really offer any longterm stable mandate to govern, I agree.
What I question is why the line separating the parties is so indelibly fixed smack dab in the middle. The idea of a political left and right is the legacy of an arbitrary seating plan in the French Revolution-era National Assembly. And while American politics has historically been a two-party system, the faultlines within the two parties at times appear more pronounced than the historical center-line that supposedly divides them.
Admittedly, this is more so on the Republican side than on the Democratic, which probably explains the left's disdain for the idea of bi-partisanship. But it seems to me that centrist Democrats like Obama and Clinton have more in common with the moderate Republicans who would be left out in the cold by a potential Huckabee presidency than they do with the Daily Kos faction of the Democratic Party. Which would be the logical underpinning to the argument that instead of holding hands across the center line, it would be better to define a centrist party by its right- and left-most limits.
Maybe this is just a result of my expat lense and my distance from the actual political culture Stateside. But it's what I think Obama is talking about when he evokes a "new majority". Not just ending the bickering, but moving the lines.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Matthew Yglesias makes the point that housing foreclosures haven't really hit Iowa or New Hampshire, keeping this huge issue out of the campaign for the time being. Based on a Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies brief I flagged last month, I'd wager that has something to do with the fact that subprime mortgages, both by targeted marketing and self-selection, disproportionately effected blacks and minorities, and Iowa and NH are both lily-white. Yglesias is correct in noting that we're likely to hear the candidates weigh in on this given the impact the housing slump has had on California, Nevada and Florida.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
A Victory Lap
This exit polling data, from Ezra Klein's New Hampshire wrap-up, jumped out at me:
Voters bought Obama’s argument that he was the most electable. They even bought Obama’s argument that he was the best able to bring about change. But a plurality named Hillary Clinton “the best Commander-in-Chief,” and Clinton overwhelmingly won their votes.
Think about that for a second. In 2007, Democratic voters feel that the most electable candidate is a black man, and the most convincing Commander-in-Chief is a woman. What a testament to this country, and what a testament to this Party.
In my reflex to resist the Obama euphoria coming out of Iowa, I probably didn't give enough credit to the historic aspect of his victory. But these two results back to back, combined with that exit polling data, really made me stop and realize how much this Party has led and is leading America in the march towards social justice.
Now that the frenetic pace between Iowa and NH has eased off a bit, I'd love to see a Democratic unity rally, a victory lap for what we've accomplished as a Party. To see the three candidates together on a stage celebrating not their candidacies, but the Party that shelters them, would be huge.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
I was undecided as I woke up this morning whether the title of this post would be 'Whoa-bama' or 'Mo-bama'. Then it occurred to me to go with a Truman/Dewey-inspired 'Clinton Wins! (Just Kidding)'. Just kidding, indeed. That makes twice in a week that this campaign has given us a major surprise. In an age of voter cynicism, blanket media coverage, and scientific polling, that already strikes me as a very good thing.
I agree also with Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan that ultimately this is good for the process, good for the party and good for the candidates. I'm tempted to say especially for Obama, who will now get a chance to respond to a reversal of fortune. I think he also benefits from not winning the nomination based on a momentary wave of euphoria. After all, as a friend reminded me last night, there was a brief moment four years ago when John Kerry seemed like a sure thing, and while I think Obama is a much better candidate than Kerry was, the test of a true campaign can only put to rest questions about his toughness, while also providing him with invaluable experience.
But for more obvious reasons this is really a dramatic boost for Clinton. The shock of Iowa brought out the worst aspects of the Clinton machine, which in turn brought out the worst in the press. But the panic and desperation also seemed to bring out the best in Clinton herself. Hopefully the lesson won't be lost on her. The victory should also put to rest the rumors of a Swiftboat campaign against Obama, which any way you look at it would have been disastrous both for Clinton and the Party.
On the other hand, if there's a potential downside for Hillary, it's if she draws the wrong conclusions about just why she managed to eke out the victory (which is admittedly not very clear). If she decides that it was due to the stream of baseless attacks on Obama's record and Bill Clinton's bareknuckled campaigning, she's headed for trouble, because those tactics play directly into the fears and expectations of the haters.
Now admittedly there are some Clinton haters that she'll never convince. But I'm not so sure they're as unreachable a crowd as the media makes them out to be. If the campaign were a super-hero movie and Clinton were the super-villain, she wouldn't be the one who's so evil through and through that the audience never sympathizes with. She'd be the super-villain who has a brief moral dilemma, just at the end of act two, a moment of emotional candor that gives the audience a reason to root for her. Or more accurately, to root for the good that's in her to win out over her evil instincts. Sound familiar?
Of course, in the movie, the super-villain quickly shakes off the moment of weakness, tosses off a memorable one-liner and lets rip with the hurting. To win the nomination, Clinton needs to show us what act three looks like if, just once, the good wins out.
A reliable indication of whether that happens is if she goes ahead with the rumored post-NH campaign shakeup. The move would have amounted to hitting the panic button in the event of a loss. Coming out with the victory as she did, she could frame it as a change in tone in the context of having heard the voters. If she does that, I think she's got a good chance of locking up the nomination. If she goes ahead with business as usual, all bets are off.
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
The Slang Thang
Ezra Klein makes a good point:
...One element of Obama's appeal to young people that has not garnered much attention is his speech patterns. Not the oratorical brilliance he demonstrates on the stump, but the slang. There was something undeniably powerful about watching him lean into the microphone the night he won the Iowa Caucus and saying, "Give it up for my wife Michelle!" Politicians don't say "give it up." My generation does. They also don't say, by way of greeting, "what's going on?" And they shake hands, they don't, as Obama often does, slap into a clasp linked around the thumbs.
I noticed the "Give it up for my wife, Michelle!" last week myself. There's also a point in the interview I linked to here when he refers to his security detail as a bunch of secret service guys "who are packing". When I heard it, my first thought was 'Does everyone who hears that know he's referring to their guns?' My second was, 'Can he really afford to talk street like that?' I was reminded of a recent Matthew Yglesias post in which he wondered if America was ready for a President who watches The Wire.
There's something more complicated going on here than just a generational thing, though. Because Obama isn't of the same generation as the young people in the audience, or as Ezra Klein, for that matter. And while they've grown up in a generation where everyone speaks hip hop, Obama didn't. This is language that has become the way young people speak, but has its origins in the way black people spoke.
The fact that Obama can so seamlessly and authentically insinuate it into the political discourse says something about the gray area of American identity that he inhabits, between black and white, street and campus, authentic and constructed. But in "transcending" race, Obama in fact represents a composite of several American racial archetypes. He's the black man who alleviates white guilt by making white people feel comfortable about race. He's the hip black man who makes square white people feel like they're "down" by unself-consciously talking to them as if they were. He's also the black man who managed to "play the white man's game" without losing his street cred, an uncommon but archetypal black persona that combines aspects of the House and Field Negroes while being wholly neither. (Specifically, neither servile as the former nor angry as the latter.)
By all appearances, Obama's just one of those guys, and in particular one of those black guys, who gets props wherever he goes and whoever he's with. That it's in a style that's more recognizable to younger people is understandable. But it's not an age thang. It's a black thang.
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
It's buried beneath turnout projections for New Hampshire, but via Ezra Klein comes an interesting detail that I hadn't quite registered yet. This is the first presidential election since 1928 in which there's been neither a sitting president or vice-president seeking the nomination.
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Get Out The Raingear
Whenever people raise questions about Barack Obama's toughness as a campaigner, it's always in the context of the Swiftboating the eventual Democratic candidate is sure to endure during the general election. For his part, Obama has consistently responded by saying he's tough enough to handle it. So I guess the one good thing about this rumor that the Clinton campaign is lining up some proxies to unload on him is that we'll actually get to see if that's true. Seriously, though, if this is how Clinton intends to hunker down and stick it out, she's already lost.
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
This Slate video that Josh Marshall puts front and center makes twice in two days that I've seen Hillary ridiculed for basically taking hours of questions from the audience at a campaign event. (Here's one from Dana Milbank that Andrew Sullivan featured.) All the operative tags are tossed into the clips about Obama drawing rock star crowds and Hillary boring her folks to tears. But if she's taking questions, that means there are folks asking them, which suggests they're interested in the answers.
It might be true, as E.J. Dionne put it, that Clinton is "...campaigning in prose and has left the poetry to Barack Obama." But while this may be a fatal campaign tactic, does it really warrant the kind of caustic sarcasm she's taking for it? We already know that given the choice between covering policy and covering a rock star, the press will choose the rock star. But since when did it become something to be proud of?
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Is Obama The Antidote To Obama Mania?
I woke up this morning thinking of the Obama bandwagon effect as yet another expression of the speculative bubble mentality that has increasingly characterized America recently. In the absence of inherent value, create exagerrated claims and ride the wave.
As is my nature, though, I immediately identified the counter-argument to that metaphor. Obama does have inherent value: his intellect and his intelligence (two distinct qualities), his articulateness (which I define more broadly as a clarity of thought that allows him to identify, parse and synthesize complex subjects into coherent arguments), and his judgment. I think all of that is on display in this interview that a friend sent me. What I found especially resonant and convincing was a point he makes towards the end about listening to people who are more intelligent and better informed than he is, but trusting himself to synthesize the arguments into a final decision.
But that raises an issue I've been mulling over for the past few days about the question of trust. It's an Obama campaign buzzword that's been used to respond to everything from doubts about how the campaign was being run to questions about his experience. The thing is, after seven years of the Bush presidency, I'm not really in the mood to trust anyone. And I think it's remarkable that people across the political spectrum, but especially self-described conservatives who have advocated for Obama, would be so willing to do so.
The wisdom of the American system of checks and balances is that it's based on a healthy distrust of government and elected officials, and for good reason. Which is why although I'm considering -- even leaning towards -- voting for Obama, I'm resisting the faith-based argument. (I use that term intentionally, because there is a quasi-religious aspect to his campaign which is no less unsettling for being typically American.)
That said, I find Obama's reaction to some anti-abortion hecklers at a campaign rally yesterday instructive:
Once the audience calmed down again, Obama said, "Let me just say this, though... Some people got organized to do that. That's part of the American tradition we are proud of."
"That's hard, too, standing in the midst of people who don't agree with you," he added.
His instincts really do seem to be the polar opposite of a demagogue's, which is reassuring. The irony might turn out to be that while America might be yearning for a demagogue, Obama is unwilling to become one.
Monday, January 7, 2008
Two And Out
Over the last couple days I suggested that Hillary Clinton would do well to consider how Walter Mondale beat back a stiff challenge from moderate reform candidate Gary Hart in the 1984 Democratic primaries, and that she often plays better with voters when she lets her guard down and shows her human side. This morning she cited Mondale's famous debate zinger ("Where's the beef?") on Good Morning America, and then went on to get teary-eyed in front of a group of voters in a New Hampshire coffeehouse. I guess we'll see what kind of a political consultant I am tomorrow.
I'm not so sure about the tone and magnitude of the attacks on Obama, though, especially since so many of them are turning out to be baseless. It's a tactic that plays right into the hands of the Clinton-haters, and contrasts negatively with how Obama has handled his campaign to date. As I said earlier, I'd be interested in seeing another reversal of fortunes just to see how Obama deals with being on the ropes, and whether or not he's effective fighting out of the corner. Because grabbing the frontrunner status for the first time is not the same thing as regaining it.
Unfortunately, we might not get a chance to find out. According to rumors seeping out from the Clinton camp, some of her close advisors are urging her to drop out of the race if she loses New Hampshire in order to salvage her Senate career. That strikes me as a reflection of the fundamental disconnect between political insiders and the electorate that Michael Cohen of Democracy Arsenal describes well here. It also makes no sense to cite Walter Mondale but disregard his strategy, which was to wear Hart out in a war of attrition.
Maybe things have just accelerated exponentially, or maybe the power of blanket media coverage makes it too difficult to reverse momentum once the press has determined its narrative. But I'd be really surprised if it was basically two-and-out for the nomination in a year when there really are three viable and convincing candidates. Surprised and disappointed, because I'd still like to have a choice when California votes, given that the primary is really the only meaningful vote a California Democrat casts.
Monday, January 7, 2008
The Privilege Of Going First
It occured to me, as I find myself torn between Obama and Clinton, that for all the arguments against Iowa and New Hampshire having a disproportionate influence on the selection of the Presidential nominees, there's something to be said for the catalytic function they serve.
There's also a price Iowa and NH voters pay for the privilege of going first. They've got to take a leap of faith or have the courage of conviction while the rest of us still have the luxury of time. I know I'm not quite ready to make a choice, and I'm glad I can wait to see how things pan out, in a reduced field for that matter.
Monday, January 7, 2008
The View From Second Place
This seems like a pretty effective approach for Hillary Clinton to adopt, although it's hard for me to get a sense of how it plays Stateside. The sudden turnaround in the race really can turn out to be a golden opportunity for Clinton, if she can avoid being perceived as too strident or desperate. Of course that's not easy given how outrageously the media tagged her forceful contrast of action and rhetoric at the debate Saturday as enraged and unhinged.
It's important to see how a candidate responds to reversals of fortune and setbacks, because those will certainly arrive once in office. She would probably do well to draw attention to that fact and make it a "meta-message" of the next few primaries.
During the long pre-primary campaign, I often read that Obama's "above the fray" campaign would work better as a frontrunner strategy, but that it made no sense given his longshot status. While he has managed to leapfrog Clinton for the time being, there's no guarantee things won't reverse again. At which point it will be very revealing to see how he reacts. I'll go so far as to say that I hope he doesn't ride a bandwagon wave straight to the nomination just to see exactly what he's made of when things don't look so rosy.
Sunday, January 6, 2008
The Audacity Of Skepticism
A friend took me to task yesterday for being, and I quote, "...the only one this side of the milky way who didn't like Obama's speech," referring to my reaction to his Iowa victory oration. To clarify, I thought it was a great speech, and what's more, there's no doubt that Obama is an uncommonly skilled orator. I just found its triumphant tone out of proportion, almost comically so given the context. And while I think that dispassionate analysis bears out my reservations about his historic references, I grant that the more accurate comparison (ie. a situation resembling 1976-80 that demands patient resolve and strategic pragmatism to restore our faith in the executive and our standing in the world) makes for far less inspiring rhetoric. So much for the speech.
My reaction to the speech, though, is based on a broader resistance to the euphoria surrounding his caucus victory and the quasi-religious appeal of his campaign in general, which perhaps demands more of an explanation. It's based simply on an instinctive distrust of charismatic leaders who base their appeal on emotional manipulation of the masses. That Obama's message is based on hope rather than fear distinguishes him from the demagogues and despots, the Rudy Giuliani's and Hugo Chavez's of the world, or what Andrew Sullivan calls "the man on the balcony". But the mechanism is the same, and it makes me nervous. Anytime I see a massive assembly of human beings pumped up on emotion, my first reflex is to make a mental note of the quickest path to the exit. My second reflex is to see how the arguments that got everyone worked up stand up to the cold hard light of reason.
Which is what makes Obama such a complex candidate for me. Because while his oratory is emotionally convincing but historically inaccurate, his talent for parsing the issues and his broader judgment do stand up to a more dispassionate analysis. What's more, by temperament he appeals to both my liberal hopes for a more just society as well as my more moderate expectations of what government can and should accomplish. But I'm vacillating between voting for him or Hillary Clinton, and Matthew Yglesias, discussing last night's debate, best distills the essence of my dilemma:
Clinton doesn't wow you, but she takes care of business. Barack Obama is clearly not at his best in this format -- he delivers great setpiece speeches and is very appealing in a small group, but doesn't quite seem sure of his tone when seated around the table.
Of course, "around the table" is where most of the day to day, nuts and bolts of governing takes place. Now Yglesias was referring to the debate format, not the act of governing, and in any event, Obama is by all accounts skilled at getting legislation, even potentially unpopular legislation, passed. But if I end up voting for him, it will be because of his insight and his effectiveness, not his oratory skills, even if I do admire them as a performance art.
Saturday, January 5, 2008
Why Hillary Should Really Hart Obama
Well, it looks like the bandwagon is taking off without me. The polls coming out of New Hampshire show a strong bump for Obama coming out of Iowa, and by all accounts the Clinton campaign is in panic mode. Part of this has to do with the fact that only five days separate the two primaries, so there's little time to let the afterglow of Iowa wear off and re-calibrate the tone and message. But it could very well be that without the sheen of inevitability, Hillary Clinton just doesn't make that attractive a candidate.
Still, thinking it over, my reference to Walter Mondale in 1984 was more prescient than I'd at first realized. This seems like a scenario that Hillary Clinton would do well to consider before engaging in any desperation attacks that will probably incur longterm costs well beyond any dubious shorterm gains:
Colorado Senator Gary Hart was a more serious threat to Mondale, and after winning several early primaries it looked as if he might take the nomination away from Mondale. Hart criticized Mondale as an "old-fashioned" New Deal Democrat who symbolized "failed policies" of the past. Hart positioned himself as a younger, fresher, and more moderate Democrat who could appeal to younger voters. He emerged as a formidable candidate, winning the key New Hampshire, Ohio, and California primaries as well as several others, especially in the West. However, Hart couldn't overcome Mondale's financial and organizational advantages, especially among labor union leaders in the Midwest and industrial Northeast. Hart was also badly hurt when Mondale, in a televised debate with Hart during the primaries, used a popular television commercial slogan to ridicule Hart's vague "New Ideas" platform. Turning to Hart on camera, Mondale told Hart that whenever he heard Hart talk about his "New Ideas", he was reminded of the Wendy's fast-food slogan "Where's the beef?".
This was the same campaign where Jesse Jackson won several primaries as well, meaning that it resembles the triangular dynamic of this year's contest, with the irony, of course, being that Edwards is reprising Jackson's populist role in this year's remake.
To move from the realm of analysis and prediction to that of political consulting, it seems to me that Hillary's best move here is to do what seems to come least naturally to her, but which always seems to play well for her among voters. Namely, to let her defenses down. There's something disarming about her when she shows up without the armor, and she could really turn the loss of inevitability to her advantage if she embraced it as a chance to earn the nomination on the merits, and to make her case, simply and directly, of why she thinks she deserves it. That plus the institutional support she still has could go a long way towards fighting back the momentum Obama will generate coming out of the early primaries.
Most importantly, she should stay away from attacks, because it's only a matter of time before Edwards is going to get desperate and do the dirty work for her. I'd go so far as to say that she should come straight out and acknowledge what Obama has accomplished, both for his own campaign but also for the Party in general. Something along the lines of, Thanks for bringing them all to the dance, Barack, but this is why I'm more qualified to take it from here.
Unfortunately I won't be able to see the debates from over here, as I'm sure they'll be determinant for the polls leading into Tuesday's voting. But from the distant and dispassionate reaches of Paris, this still seems like it's a long way from over.
Saturday, January 5, 2008
Butter & Toast
So is Hillary Clinton toast? On the one hand, it's a wildly premature conclusion. She's still got money, infrastructure, loyalists, and plenty of campaign left to pull out the nomination. But on the other hand, it's not that far off the mark. Because to win the nomination, she'll have to resort to the very kind of machine politics that Obama is successfully building momentum against. Which means not all of Obama's supporters are necessarily in the Democratic column should Hillary be at the top of the ticket come November.
There's another scenario that no one's mentioned so far. It's very clear how strongly Obama is convinced that this is his moment, on a quasi-religious level. Which means he's not likely to fall into line at the end of the day and wait his turn like Bush 41 in 1980 or Al Gore in 1992. Which suggests two possibilities in the event he fails to win the Democratic nomination. Either he's been doing a lot of groundwork for Mike Bloomberg. Or else he runs as a third (or fourth?) party candidate in the general election.
One thing is almost certain. Should he not be rubbing elbows with John Roberts come January 21, 2009, Obama will launch a third party across the political landscape that we've come to think of as the center. Only he'll re-brand it as more active than just a refutation of the status quo, something along the lines of effective, realistic and responsible.
Saturday, January 5, 2008
How Deep Is The Bench
It occured to me, in thinking about the respective parties' primary campaigns, that what goes for the top of the ticket goes for the Veep slot as well. On the Democratic side, the list of not only viable but exciting potential VP's is three feet high and rising. Any of the frontrunners would do just fine, if they haven't taken out contracts on each other's lives come the convention. Biden would be a respectable choice. Then there's Jim Webb, Wesley Clark, Mark Warner. Russ Feingold could even make sense depending on the top of the ticket and the GOP candidate.
But when you look at the Republican side, the same thing applies to the Veep slot as to the Presidential nominee: there doesn't seem to be any viable possibilities. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Christine Todd Whitman and George Pataki. But the former is not too popular among the base, and the latter about as exciting as an ice cube melting. There's Arnold, of course, but he's a Constiutional amendment away from being eligible. So help me out. Is there anyone I'm missing?
Friday, January 4, 2008
Advise & Consent vs. Deceit
Okay. So it's Friday afternoon, the day after the Iowa caucuses, and the entire media's focused on the Presidential campaign. Which can mean only one thing: time to scan the White House website. And after running a few Google searches on Richard Stickler, who the White House just designated Acting Asst Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health, I'm glad I did.
Stickler, it seems, was named to replace John Pallasch, the previous Acting Asst Sec of Labor for MSH. Pallasch, it turns out, hadn't been on the job long himself, though, as he was designated the Acting Asst Sec of Labor for MSH on Tuesday. The man Pallasch was named to replace? You got it. Richard Stickler.
Now if you're asking yourself why President Bush replaced Stickler in the first place, it's very simple. Stickler was a recess appointment, first named to the job in October 2006. His nomination had been frozen in the Senate by Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy, in part because of his long management background in the mining industry, but also because of his poor record as a state regulator of mine safety. His recess appointment expired on Dec. 31, 2007. But because his poor record as a Federal regulator had done nothing to improve his chances of winning a new nomination hearing, President Bush just decided to play a game of musical chairs to keep him on the job.
After all the callous indifference President Bush and his administration have shown towards the Constitution, this seems almost comical by comparison. But when you think about it, the cynical, legalistic sleight of hand -- down to scrubbing the Dept. of Labor website of Stickler's bio this past week -- is really emblematic of the Bush imperial Presidency. He's got his Acting Asst Secretary, I suppose. His dignity, well, that's another story.
Friday, January 4, 2008
Handicapping Iowa: The Results
Meanwhile, the results coming out of Iowa, at least on the Democratic side, are making me look like a pretty sharp bookmaker. Biden and Dodd are both already out, Richardson and Kucinich are both staying in, and Gravel is not only staying in, he's demanding a retraction and an apology from Keith Olbermann, who reported otherwise. Keep your eyes peeled for the Al Gore articles. They should be showing up over the weekend.
All in all, it's enough to make you wonder whether I shouldn't be in Vegas doing this for a living. Until you consider my picks for the GOP casualties, that is, which didn't pan out so well. Contrary to pre-caucus rumors, Fred Thompson has stayed in the race, as I predicted. Duncan Hunter, on the other hand, has announced he's going to keep plugging, and so far there's no word from Rudy, who looks unlikely to throw in the towel just yet. So I rimmed out on both of those prognostications.
As for my 19-1 longshot that Huckabee ends up speaking in tongues in front of a press conference and is forced to drop out, I've still got until this evening. Here's hoping.
Friday, January 4, 2008
The Accidental Coronation
After a week of flirting with the idea that Iowa wouldn't decide anything, the consensus in the press and among bloggers is that Obama's and Huckabee's victory have somehow decided something. I chalk that off to euphoria in Obama's case and surprise (pleasant or unpleasant depending on if you're a Dem or GOP) in Huckabee's. In about twenty-four hours, the emotion will wear off and it will become clear that the only thing that was decided in Iowa was Iowa. Both men's victories, in different ways, were the necessary opening acts if the scenario of a confused and lengthy primary campaign in both parties is to play out.
Meanwhile, while the almost universal reaction to Obama's speech last night was that he nailed it, my first impression on watching it was that the tone was off. I felt like I was watching a coronation instead of a primary victory speech. There's a whole lot of campaign left to start talking about history being made.
It also occured to me for the first time that when Obama talks about Republicans (you could almost hear the shudder run through the room), Democrats and Independents coming together, he's not really talking about bi-partisanship. He's talking about a one-party system, which is very different altogether.
Finally, as I wrote after the first time I saw a video of one of his speeches, there's a fundamental disconnect between the historic moments Obama references and the challenges we face today. I'm also not sure of how well he characterizes where we are today. Is America really disillusioned with government? Or with President Bush's government? In any case, not only do I take issue with comparing the contemporary political landscape with the American Revolution or the Civil Rights movement, I would argue that they aren't the sort of comparisons that reflect well on Obama's candidacy. Those were historic moments of stark and bitterly divisive choices, where unity and consensus were invoked to defend the forces of the status quo or even worse, reaction.
To be clear, by the way, I write all of this as someone leaning towards voting for Obama. Maybe that's why I'm fighting so hard against the sentimental and euphoric and, yes, manipulative appeals that both his campaign and his supporters tend to base a large part of their argument for his candidacy on. But after watching the video of his speech, I couldn't help but think back to the old Wendy's commercial that Walter Mondale so masterfully appropriated in 1984: Where's the beef?
Thursday, January 3, 2008
The Communist Party of China has published a list of "10 Taboos" that politicians should refrain from during provincial elections and bureaucratic reshufflings this January. A quick glance demonstrates how incompatible Chinese practice of democracy is with the American model:
- using various ways to win support during the reshuffle, including making phone calls, conducting visits, holding banquets and giving gifts;
- lobbying officials of higher rank to achieve promotion;
- handing out pamphlets or giving souvenirs without authorization;
- holding social activities in the name of reunions of classmates, townsmen or fellow soldiers to form cliques;
- offering bribes in cash, gifts and stocks to buy government jobs;
- taking bribes or attending banquets staged to drum up support during the reshuffle;
- covering up or shielding illicit activities during the reshuffle;
- spreading hearsay or using letters, leaflets, text messages or the Internet to vilify others;
- using intimidation or deception to hamper and infringe upon the democratic rights of delegates or committee members;
- arranging jobs for people or making a rush for somebody's promotion.
If you rule out lobbying, meet and greets, smear campaigns and petty corruption, how in the heck is someone supposed to get elected?
Thursday, January 3, 2008
Mitt Goes Negative In Iowa
Which really shouldn't come as any surprise. After all, long before he targeted Huckabee and McCain, Candidate Romney had already gone negative on Governor Romney, whose record he was forced to dismantle in order to viably compete for the GOP nomination. The guy's the only candidate in history who goes negative even when he goes positive.
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
Handicapping Iowa: The GOP
Following up on the previous post, it's time to turn to the GOP field. Who among the Republican bottom-feeders is likely to wind up a casualty come Friday morning, and who will hang on to clean the floor of the pond until the bitter end?
First up among likely casualties is Duncan Hunter. This one's pretty academic. Tom Tancredo's likely to get more votes than Hunter in Iowa, and Tancredo dropped out of the race a few weeks ago. Given that Hunter's polling just as bad in NH, he may try to stick it out for five days, but it's unlikely. With a flip-flopping panderer like Romney in the race, Hunter can bow out knowing that his outlandish, distasteful platform will be used for however many votes can be squeezed out of it, making him basically unnecessary. (Odds: 7-6 he's out.)
Next up is Fred Thompson. Sure he's polling respectably in Iowa, better than a number of second-tier candidates who will most certainly stay in the race. So what makes it the Common Wisdom that he's history come Friday? Five words: the New Hampshire weather forecast. It's cold up in the Granite State this time of year, and based on the polling data, Fred Thompson is within the margin of error of having to give back some votes come next Tuesday. Seeing as he's made no secret of the fact that he's not a natural born campaigner, most people are counting on him to bail out. They're forgetting one thing: the Hollywood writers strike. No scripts means no acting gigs, which makes the Presidential campaign Thompson's only gravy train for the moment. Barring a quick settlement to the strike, look for him to stick it out through NH, even if it means angling for a Leno appearance to thaw out the long johns. (Odds: 8-5 he stays in.)
Rudy Giuliani's entire campaign strategy is based on the logic of contesting neither Iowa nor New Hampshire, so that he can essentially survive his certain defeats in those two states and stage a comeback in Florida and the Super Tuesday states. Don't bet on it. If there's even the shadow of a clarification among the GOP frontrunners coming out of Iowa, Giuliani is going to bail. The biggest question is what he'll use as an excuse. Precedent would suggest a health issue, but I think he'll try to re-brand himself as a Wise Man and emphasize his concern for party unity. The reality, though, is that every day Giuliani stays in this thing, he smells more like a loser, which is bad for business. Add to that the fact that his business amounts to sealing plum deals for unsavory clients, the kind that don't stand up well to scrutiny, and the argument for getting out before any more skeletons clatter out of the NY City Hall closet becomes even stronger. (Odds: 9-5 he's out.)
Which leads me to my most longshot prediction on either side of the aisle. Late Friday afternoon, after spending most of the day in meditative seclusion, Mike Huckabee is going to call a news conference, ostensibly to explain away his disappointing finish in Iowa. There in front of the gathered national and international press, though, he will succomb to his enduring bitterness and engage in a foaming-at-the-mouth tirade against Mitt Romney until, realizing that the only way out of his monumental gaffe is a dose of the Holy Spirit, he'll begin speaking in tongues. Exit Huckabee. (Odds: 19-1 he's out.)
So there you have it, folks. If you make a bundle based on anything I've said, send some of it my way. And if you lose your shirt, make sure you don't catch a cold.
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
Handicapping Iowa: The Dems
Since the consensus seems to have converged towards the idea (which I first proposed last week) that we're never really ever going to find out just who the nominees for either party will be, I'm going to limit my predictions for tomorrow's Iowa caucuses to who is most likely to wake up Friday morning a casualty, starting with the Democrats.
Despite the fact that the only votes he's likely to get are a couple of hanging chads, I'm betting that Mike Gravel sticks it out. His campaign expenses amount to his bus ticket and hotel room, plus some chump change for the college techie he pays to do his YouTube mashups. Given that he's charging it all to a credit card company he's sure to burn for the bill, he's in this at least til the weather warms up. (Odds: 7-6 he stays.)
Same goes for Kucinich who, like most ugly men, can't seem to turn down an opportunity to show off his wife's good looks. The fact that she's almost certain to leave him before his withdrawal announcement hits the wires (asking herself as she does whether he was even in yet) makes a long hard slog all the more likely. Kucinich will stick around, if only to keep Dem debates from turning into the political version of Celebrity Death Match, until late spring. Count on a tell-all book from the former-Mrs. Kucinich detailing UFO sightings, vegan potlucks and other unseemly practices just in time to exploit the marketing opportunity of the nominating convention this summer. (Odds: 7-6 he stays.)
Chris Dodd, on the other hand, is back to the Senate come Friday morning. Given his dismal polling numbers in New Hampshire and the fact that he's playing Tweedle-dum to Biden's Tweedle-dee, he'd be hard-pressed to justify his reputation for fiscal responsibility were he to continue to spend the money he's collected for his so-called campaign. (Odds: 7-6 he's out.)
Which leads to the two toughest calls, Biden and Richardson. Biden looks like he could possibly pull enough votes in Iowa to justify a little more time in front of the microphones, and Lord knows, Joe Biden's never met a microphone he didn't like. But with the viability factor, it's possible Biden comes out of the caucuses looking like a redheaded stepchild, and given his anemic numbers in New Hampshire, the writing's more than on the wall. It is the wall. So I'm going to go out on a limb here and say Biden bogarts the spotlight come Friday with news of his withdrawal. (Odds: 7-4 he's out.)
Richardson's another tough call. He's ostensibly running for Secretary of State, and one of the requirements for the job of running American diplomacy is to be, what's the word I'm looking for? Oh, yeah. Diplomatic. And Bill Richardson's insistence on presenting himself as a candidate for President of the United States of America has the effect of making everyone who knows how outlandish such a proposition is uncomfortable. In an undiplomatic sort of way. So by all rights he should drop out, but he's polling as well in NH as he is in Iowa, and he's made it clear that he's not real good at taking a hint, so I'm going to cop out and say this one's too close to call. With a gun to my head I'd say he stays in at least through NH, and then I'd duck. (Odds: Pick 'em.)
So come Friday, Dodd and Biden are both out, with Richardson a definite maybe. Surprisingly, there's one Inconvenient Candidate that no one seems to be mentioning this week. So I'm going to put my bookmaking skills on the line and add an extra special prediction: at least two major newspapers run a feature before the NH primary on what the outcome in Iowa means for the odds of an Inconvenient Announcement.
Update: The GOP "Iowa Death Watch" betting line starts here.
Tuesday, January 1, 2008
Tie Goes To The Runner
Adam Nagourney raises the possibility that I mentioned a few days ago, namely what happens if after Iowa, New Hampshire and Super Tuesday, neither Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama nor John Edwards can claim a decisive mandate for the Democratic nomination? Iowa's looking like a three-way tie, making New Hampshire impossible to call. Nagourney doesn't attempt an answer, but the implicit suggestion is that the Democrats' unusually strong field of top-tier candidates might come back to haunt them, by creating more confusion than clarity, at least in the short run.
If so, would it be a political confusion or a policy confusion, or both? In other words, is there something about the three candidates themselves that define faultlines in the Democratic Party, the way, for instance, McCain and Huckabee do for the GOP? Judging by the three candidates' images -- Clinton the centrist hawk, Obama the centrist idealist and Edwards the throwback workingman's hero -- there's certainly some suggestion of a broader identity crisis at play.
But everything I've read about their platforms (which I haven't dived into becase I'm a lazy, wonk-averse voter who tends to downplay the significance of campaign white papers) suggests that just the opposite is true. That is, to varying degrees, the three represent a real convergence of Democratic progressivism, due in part to the Party's confidence about its electoral chances this year.
Obviously, ideological convergence can create just as many problems as ideological tension, as the election eventually boils down to a question of style over substance. All of which makes me feel ready for another prediction. Should Obama feel at any time like he can't win the Democratic nomination but that he hasn't really lost it, he'll go ahead and run in the general election as an independent. The question then becoming whether Bloomberg dives in as well, or joins him as his Veep.
Monday, December 31, 2007
Methinks They Doth Protesteth Too Much
Wow. This little conference out in Oklahoma has sure brought out the heavy artillery. Steve Benen calls it "a solution in search of a problem", David Kurtz writes it off as "another round of holding hands and singing the praises of bipartisan unity", Steve Clemons says that it's (probably) "a waste of time and a fuzzy distraction", and Matthew Yglesias goes for the jugular with the ole "(X+Y)/2 percent of GDP".
They all point out that for now, the meeting (and Bloomberg's testing of the presidential waters) amount to empty platitudes about bi-partisanship with no substantial policy prescriptions. And in that, none of them are wrong, even if criticizing politicians for empty platitudes doesn't seem like the most challenging of pursuits. But it says a lot that, of them all, Steve Clemons comes closest to being right when he calls for more rebels and dissidents in one paragraph, and is willing to settle for pragmatism and realism in another.
The problem is the rhetoric that the meeting's organizers have chosen, which recycles the very same errors I saw made by Francois Bayrou, the French centrist candidate for president who came from out of nowhere last spring to almost pull off what would have been a stunning first round upset. What kept him from actually succeeding was that at the height of his surge in the polls, he suddenly shifted from effective attacks on both the left and right to the language of bi-partisanship. Even worse, he began insisting that he was neither left nor right, without ever formulating just what he was. Unfortunately, claiming you're neither left nor right means you're neutered, as a psychoanalyst aquaintance pointed out in a conversation at the time, and you need a pair (or at least the temperamental equivalent if you're a woman) to win elections.
There's a difference between bi-partisanship and independent on the one hand, and redefining what we now think of as the middle into an autonomous political force on the other. The calculus for such a force being viable as a party depends on two things: 1) whether moderate Republicans decide that they have more policy priorities in common with moderate Dems than they do with the rabid base of the fraying GOP coalition; and, 2) whether moderate Dems decide that it's a more promising longterm political proposition than the status quo.
Of course, a lot depends on circumstances. Should Obama win the Democratic nomination, the question is moot and this meeting isn't even remembered as a blip on the radar. Should he lose, however, and should Bloomberg be motivated by more than just presidential ambitions, the two of them, with Hagel, represent the kinds of personalities that could redefine the American political landscape in the same way that Ronald Reagan did.
Sunday, December 30, 2007
The Fourth Way
Taegan Goddard calls this a gathering to discuss an Independent presidential candidacy. And indeed, among the attendees are Mike Bloomberg and Chuck Hagel, two guys Steve Clemons has been mentioning as a possible Independent ticket for a while now. But as I said with regards to Barack Obama not so long ago, the time is ripe for more than just a bi-partisan approach to politics or an isolated independent presidential campaign. A viable third party based on a preponderence of restraint seasoned with a dose of intelligent intervention in both domestic and foreign policy could permanently house a broad coalition across the center of American politics, leaving the one-trick ponies on both sides of the political spectrum braying in the wind.
In many ways, Bill Clinton laid the groundwork for just such a party on the left side of the center by rehabilitating fiscal responsibility and the responsible use of military intervention in Democratic politics. Counterintuitively, George W. Bush laid the groundwork on the right side of the center by utterly bankrupting the GOP's credibility among voters who aren't insane. Obama, Bloomberg and Hagel are the kinds of guys that could now build that party, assuming none of them is sitting in the White House come January 2009.
Friday, December 28, 2007
The Smokefilled Room
So you think you're confused about the impact Thursday's Iowa caucuses will have on the outcome of the presidential campaign, try explaining what they mean to a French listener. Once you've pointed out that Iowa is representative of the country in neither demographics nor economy, and that it plays no role to speak of in the nation's cultural life, and that the only other time it's mentioned in the course of national politics is never again for another four years, you're left with the obvious question of just how it's become the traditional arbiter of who will be the next president of the United States. Adding as an afterthought that the foregoing is also true for the New Hampshire primaries only renders the moment -- wherein both of you ponder the inescapable conclusion that the entire world really does suffer the consequences of the American electoral process -- even more awkward and self-conscious.
That said, Iowa really doesn't decide everything. In fact, if you look at the list of past winners, not only does it not decide everything, it decides close to nothing. The historical case for an Iowa surprise is of course Jimmy Carter's stunning 1976 loss to first-place finisher "Uncommitted". But if you take a look at that particular list of nominees, any one of them finishing runner-up to "None of the above" would have qualified as a surprise. After that, in two elections that could be qualified as wide open, 1988 and 2004, the Democratic Party's ultimate nominee finished third (Dukakis) and first (Kerry) respectively. The Republican outcomes reveal no clear pattern either.
Iowa is more of a political Rorshcach test than a deciding contest. It means what we want it to mean. Expectations going in, organization and financing coming out, the media's preferred storylines all play as much a role as the vote count. So now I'm ready for a prediction. Barring some stunning landslide blowout that seems unlikely, Iowa will decide nothing. A handful of candidates competing for cabinet level appointments will drop out. Besides that, the campaign will look remarkably similar the day after the caucuses as it did the day before. We'll be asking the same questions (electability) about the same candidates (Hillary, Obama, the entire GOP field) with just as little certainty about the answers.
And no, I don't think New Hampshire is likely to change that either. For different reasons, the two parties will have a hard time deciding on a nominee this year, the GOP because of a lack of solid candidates, the Democrats because of a wealth of them. So while some have called this the "change" election, I think it will be more of a "throwback" election: In a binary primary campaign with an early break, the convention becomes an imprimatur; in a triangulated primary with no early break, which looks at least possible for both parties, the convention becomes a negotiation.
It makes for better theater, but the implications for American democracy are obviously troubling. So I sure hope I'm wrong. But I've got a sneaking suspicion that I'm not.
Saturday, December 22, 2007
Back To The Figurative Drawing Board
Via Frank Lockwood at Bible Belt Blogger comes this article in the Boston Phoenix which definitively debunks the claim that Mitt Romney's father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Detroit in 1963:
On Sunday, June 23, 1963, 125,000 people marched down Detroit's Woodward Avenue to the Civic Center, in what was described at the time as the largest civil-rights demonstration in the nation's history. According to the next day's account in the Holland Evening Sentinel , the crowd at the Center "lustily booed," when representatives of Governor George W. Romney read a proclamation declaring "Freedom March Day in Michigan."
But Martin Luther King Jr. didn't fault Romney for his absence, which the governor ascribed to his policy against public appearances on the Sabbath. "At a news conference following the march... [King] refused to criticize Romney for not attending the demonstration," the Sentinel reported.
The most unfortunate consequence of Mitt Romney's lying about his father's historical record is that it ends up diminishing its significance. Here's Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University, also quoted in the Phoenix article:
"Issuing the proclamation, and sending his personal representatives, was probably more than 49 other governors would have been willing to do at that time...It took considerable courage."
There was a brief moment where it appeared that Mitt Romney had tried to explain away his "figurative" use of the expression "I saw my father march with MLK" too early. It's now clear that he did so because he knew he'd been caught telling a whopper.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
NATO In Afghanistan And Beyond
This Middle East Times editorial on NATO's faltering efforts in Afghanistan is throught-provoking for the questions it raises (and largely leaves unanswered) about the broader impact the alliance's first out-of-theater deployment might have on its future. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Afghanistan seemed like an ideal test-case to define the post-Cold War NATO's role as a multi-lateral global security organization.
Six years later, with the mission having evolved from nation-building to a counter-insurgency campaign that is fraying the alliance's cohesion and commitment, that initial optimism seems near-sighted. And while most attention has focused on how the lack of resource commitment on the part of member nations has limited the campaign's effectiveness, less has been paid to the structural problems that plague the NATO/ISAF effort, in particular the incompatible rules of engagement among the various country's contingents.
Meanwhile back in Europe, dramatically different perceptions of how to deal with Russia have divided the alliance along the lines of the former Iron Curtain, with attitudes reversed from those of the Cold War-era. Now it's Eastern European capitals, with memories of Soviet domination, that advocate a more aggressive containment strategy in the face of Russia's resurgence, while Western Europe struggles to find ways to smooth relations with Moscow. America's clumsy handling of its Eastern European-based anti-missile defense system, as well as its aggressive base-procurement policy among former Eurasian Soviet republics, has only exacerbated the tension.
But in many ways, NATO's identity crisis reflects the degree to which the current global geopolitical situation is beginning to take on the aspects of another major paradigm shift for which the post-War 20th century multi-lateral institutions -- from the UN Security Council to the IMF/World Bank to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to NATO to the EU -- are no longer adapted. As recently as a month ago I was arguing here that America's standing in the world could be re-established with a modest, determined course correction by the next administration, as opposed to a dramatic about-face.
But re-establishing our standing, ie. our image, is a modest goal in and of itself. The fact is, as someone I interviewed for an upcoming article put it recently, there's simply no inherent reason why the Arab world should be anti-American, and I think the point can be generalized to the world writ large. We have an enormous amount of goodwill capital that it takes quite an effort to override.
On the other hand, to strategically situate ourselves in order to effectively advance our interests will now demand a fundamental strategic re-evaluation of how best to adjust our own orientation towards the various emerging poles of power around the globe, how best to reform the multi-lateral institutions to better reflect that emerging geopolitical reality, and how best to harmonize the two. There's absolutely no guarantee that having articulated a theoretically sound strategy that we'll be able to put it into practice. The world is too unpredictable for that. But without one, we'll be reduced to putting band aids on wounds that will soon outgrow our ability to cover them.
Of all the presidential candidates, I think Hillary Clinton would probably be the most effective at the band-aid solution, which is not meant to be as much of a back-handed insult as it sounds like. She's almost certain to steer America very ably, protecting our interests while at the same time accomodating our friends and allies to the extent possible. As such she'll also undoubtedly manage to improve America's image in the world. Depending on which John McCain shows up for duty, he'd probably do just as good a job, at least on the former count, if less so on the latter. But I think Barack Obama's combination of analytical insight and intellectual synthesis make him the most qualified to oversee the kind of fundamental strategic overhaul that I'm talking about.
Monday, December 17, 2007
Mao's Virtual Sea
Here's how Kevin Drum defends former Sen. Bob Kerrey's suggestion that Barack Hussein Obama's name and background will help in the fight against Islamic terrorism:
Kerrey wasn't suggesting that electing Obama would have any direct effect on hardcore al-Qaeda jihadists. It wouldn't. But terrorists can't function unless they have a critical mass of support or, at a minimum, tolerance from a surrounding population. This is Mao's sea in which the jihadists swim. Without it, terrorists simply don't have enough freedom of movement to be effective, and their careers are short. It's why the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany lasted only a few years, while the IRA in Ireland has lasted decades.
What Kerrey was getting at was simple: in the long run, the only way to defeat the hardcore jihadists is to dry up their support in the surrounding Muslim world. And on that score, a president with black skin, a Muslim father, and a middle name of Hussein, might very well be pretty helpful.
Kevin's point about drying up surrounding support is classic counterinsurgency/counterterrorism stuff. But there are significant differences between a classic terrorist insurgency group like the IRA and Al Qaeda. The former was a relatively poor organization that operated in largely urban areas, necessitating the kind of active support from the surrounding populace that Kevin is talking about. They were also on their home turf, fighting against a foreign occupying force, which facilitated it.
Whereas Al Qaeda collects donations from wealthy patrons swimming in petro-dollars. It's based in inaccessible hinterlands, and operates on a globalized battlefield against an enemy whose presence is largely symbolic. (Or at least they did until we provided them with convenient targets close to home.) And its recruiting pool is multi-national, de-centralized and mobile.
In other words, I wonder to what extent globalization has rendered "Mao's sea" an obsolete concept, or if not, whether it has supplied terrorist groups with a virtual replacement. The most effective operation Al Qaeda has mounted to date remains the work of twenty individuals operating within the United States, aided by a network of agents based in Western Europe, financed through legitimate banking and credit card networks.
I agree that Barack Obama will be a more convincing spokesman for an American appeal to the Arab street. I also think that he's more likely to engage in a foreign policy that will make us more sympathetic in the Arab world. That's already alot.
But I question whether that will have a real effect on Islamic terrorism, which with a firm but non-hysterical response from the West will in all likelihood fade away of its own accord. The prize we should be aiming for is to make sure it's not replaced by something worse.
Monday, December 10, 2007
Not Your Father's Oldsmobile
It's hard to imagine someone even surviving the kind of hits that the Giuliani and Huckabee campaigns have taken this past week, but incredibly Giuliani is still considered a credible candidate and Huckabee is surging in the polls. The political equivalent for Democrats would be if people had greeted the Gary Hart/"Monkey Business" scandal by grinning slyly and giving him a "You da' man" shout out.
The psychological subtext for why both men will be able to walk around with shit on their heels without the smell bothering the GOP base demonstrates just how dangerously insane the Republican Party has become. It also shows the particular form of the insanity, which is a schizophrenic lack of coherence between its two major wings: the proponents of a national security state on one end and the Christian right on the other.
Giuliani's misuse of the police force and subsequent creative bookkeeping to keep his marital infidelity under wraps demonstrates something quite different to his supporters than if does to people who aren't on medication. To the latter it shows that he's a megalomaniac who considers the public till as if it were his own personal kitty. It also suggests that somewhere along the way a line blurred, and Giuliani's obsessive prosecution of Mob bosses as US Attorney for NY became something more complicated than just a commitment to grabbing reputation-making headlines.
To the former, on the other hand, the whole episode reinforces his principle appeal: that he's willing to do what needs to be done to keep folks safe. Whether they excercise the function of Mayor or Godfather, powerful tough guys always have less powerful tough guys protect their mistresses. The fact that Giuliani used public funds to pay them is less important than the fact that he got it done.
As for Huckabee, the clemency he showed for Wayne Dumond will undoubtedly be written off, sotto voce, as yet one more instance where cleaning up after Bill Clinton got more messy than people expected. The fact that it was an individual case and not policy, like Mike Dukakis' furlough program that eventually served up Willie Horton on a Lee Atwater platter, will work in his favor. And anyone expecting outrage over his 1992 remarks calling for the "isolation" of AIDS patients are missing the crucial dog-whistle code word from those remarks: plague.
Because as Huckabee's followers know (and as he knows they know), while scientific causes might account for epidemics, pandemics, and diseases, plagues have their source in God Himself, who sends them down periodically to let us know it's time to straighten up our act. His refusal to disavow the remarks, similarly, is simply proof that he, unlike Mitt Romney or Giuliani, has no need to reinvent himself to appeal to this crowd. After all, his political positions are based on something more enduring than public opinion polls.
That's Rudy and Huck's GOP: law & order has become a willingness to break the rules to keep people safe; traditional values have become a test of Biblical literalism. And somewhere Richard Nixon is turning over in his grave, wondering whatever happened to good old-fashioned crooks.
Saturday, December 8, 2007
Mitt's Mormon Moment
As usual, I tend to have something of a delayed reaction to a lot of the presidential campaign developments. From the safe distance of Paris, I'm only as surrounded by the wall-to-wall media coverage as I choose to be. And my exposure to what other people are actually talking about is limited to what I gather from political blogs.
So it's taken me a couple of days to gather my thoughts about Mitt Romney's speech on the place of religion in politics. In the meantime, I've done some (admittedly cursory) reading on Mormonism. And I have to say that in all the attention being paid to whether or not Romney can convince the Christian right that he's on the same side as they are in the fight against evil liberal secularists, there's another element to this story that people seem to be tiptoeing around, and understandably so.
Namely, that Mormonism is a pretty strange religion. Not only that, it's a pretty strange religion that was "revealed" (read: invented) relatively recently by concrete historical figures (as opposed to mythic historical figures) on whom contemporaneous records don't reflect too well, which makes it even stranger. (People have mentioned Scientology, but for me the theological comparison that comes to mind is Elijah Mohammed and the Nation of Islam.)
Now I understand that on a certain level, all religions are strange and that by some unspoken rule of common courtesy, the word "religion" functions as a sort of catch-all barrier behind which we all agree not to poke around too closely or too indelicately. (All of us except for Christopher Hitchens, that is, who gets a pass because he's so damn good at eviscerating the logical inconsistencies upon which religion is based.) But be all that as it may, Mormonism is really pretty weird.
Which raises the question that Romney tried to dodge by couching his argument in Constitutional terms and tossing his faith in Jesus in the same grand "faith basket" he thinks will get him off the Christian right's shit list. And that question is, Do voters have a right to judge candidates by the farfetched ideas they hold to be true, even if those ideas are part and parcel of their religious faith?
As a point of comparison, consider that in the context of a Democratic debate, Dennis Kucinich was asked about an account that implied he'd seen what he considered to be at least a UFO, and perhaps a vessel carrying intelligent extra-terrestrial life forms that were trying to communicate with him. He responded by citing the percentage of Americans who claim to have seen UFO's. But what if he'd responded that he's a New Ager, and that the belief in ET-carrying UFO's is part of his religion? The fact is, it's hard to imagine that kind of belief system not being a disqualifying criterion for the vast majority of voters.
Romney was successful in business and was a pretty popular governor of Massachusetts from what I understand. There's no reasonable basis to claim that his belief in some of the imagination-stretching aspects of the Mormon faith have interfered with his ability to make decisions in the real world. But my hunch is that that really won't matter.
I feel strange saying this, and even stranger being somewhat ambivalent about it, because it borders on the "Is America ready for a [Fill in the blank] President?" discussion that I personally find absurd when directed towards Hillary or Obama. By addressing his religion, though, Romney's introduced it as a legitimate campaign issue. Which means that if it's fair game to ask Huckabee whether he believes in evolution, it's fair game to ask Romney whether he believes he'll inherit a planet and ascend to godhood once he dies, or whether his underwear will protect him better than the Secret Service. The problem for Romney is that unlike Huckabee, whose rejection of modern science will cost him quite dearly among those whose view of the world is based on the fossil record but will endear him to the Christian right, Romney's belief in the bedrock tenets of his faith will most likely cost him dearly with both.
While that might be a measure of prejudice towards Mormons in general, I can't say I'll shed any tears for Mitt about it. His campaign's approach to religion has been cynical from the very start. His fifty-member Faith & Values Steering Committee doesn't even have a single representative from his own Faith & Values. No Mormons, no Muslims, and one Jew. So if it's finally his own religion that trips him up, I won't have much sympathy for him. I also won't be very surprised.
Thursday, November 29, 2007
Some Of His Best Friends...
[I "broke" this story last June, but it didn't gain much traction. In light of Mitt Romney's remarks this week about not appointing a Muslim to his cabinet, it seemed like it might be worth re-posting.]
After a couple e-mails to the Romney campaign asking whether I was correct in concluding that of the 50 members of his Faith & Values Steering Committee, not a single one was Jewish, Muslim or Mormon, and if so, what the reasoning behind that was, I got this four-word response:
Paul Driessen is Jewish.
So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Mitt Romney's Faith & Values Steering Committee doesn't even include his own faith & values. Or Muslims'. Jews, on the other hand, are disproportionately over-represented compared to relative population (2% of the committee vs. 1.6% of the population).
I've contacted the World Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Council on American-Islam Relations, and the Islamic Society of North America to see if they have any thoughts on the matter. I'll keep you posted.
[No one ever got back to me with their thoughts on the matter.]
Thursday, November 29, 2007
Mitt Romney's squabble with Rudy Giuliani over illegal immigrants working in his mansion got quite a bit of blog attention. But this little line seemed to pass under the radar:
Romney: ...If you hear someone that's working out there -- not that you've employed, but that the company has -- if you hear someone with a funny accent, you as a homeowner are supposed to go out there and say, I want to see your papers? (Emphasis added.)
Now I think it would be difficult for anyone to define exactly what makes an accent funny, as opposed to being just, well, an accent. But I also think we all know who Romney was referring to.
As an example, when I was a young college drop-out working in a restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I noticed how often diners stopped to ask where the lovely hostesses were from (Sweden), where the charming waiter was from (Brazil), and even where the gregarious owner was from (Brooklyn). But not once did I ever notice anyone ask where my fellow food runners were from (India and Bangladesh), where the hardworking busboys were from (Ecuador), or where the no-nonsense handyman was from (Guatemala, where he'd been a practicing physician). Most of us have a coded understanding, whether conscious or not, of what makes one accent "exotic" and "interesting", and another "funny" and "threatening". Some of us work hard to recognize and compensate for that reflex. In today's GOP, it's celebrated.
In fairness to Romney, he followed up soon thereafter with this question, again directed at Giuliani:
...You now are responsible for going out and checking the employees of that company, particularly those that -- that might look different or don't -- doesn't have an accent like yours, and ask for their papers? I don't think that's America...
But I think the dog whistle was very clearly sounded for those who were intended to hear it.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Just Not Another Texan
Recently I had a long argument with a friend about why this isn't true. I don't know the ins and outs of Bill and Hillary Clinton's power-sharing arrangement, but it's clear that she wasn't just Mrs. Clinton the way Laura is Mrs. Bush. America has a long tradition of First Ladies who stood out from the "Good Housekeeping/Better Homes and Gardens" archetype. Eleanor Roosevelt, of course, sets the standard. Roslyn Carter was another. Whether you admire her or despise her, Hillary Clinton definitely falls into this category. What's more, her work as First Lady was more closely intertwined with the President's function than the first two, who blazed their own trails.
As for today's "Re: foreign policy experience" campaign press release battle, the one criteria that everyone's ignored -- oddly enough, given that foreign policy is all about dealing with foreigners -- is how the candidates are perceived abroad. And on that score, Hillary Clinton is a known and recognized commodity among foreign policy makers, widely respected and by no means considered unqualified for the job of representing the United States to the world by the people who represent the world to the United States.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, is certainly less of a known quantity, but there's every reason to believe that people abroad would take him just as seriously and be just as impressed by him as everyone who has ever crossed the guy's path his entire life. It's possible that some of our strategic rivals might see fit to test him out early on in his term more than they would Hillary (think China and the Hainan airmen), but it's not certain.
Finally, a quick glance at post-War presidencies is enough to demonstrate that foreign policy experience or the lack thereof is far from a predictive factor with regards to performance. George W. Bush had none and the results have been disastrous. Bill Clinton had just as little with the results being a relatively successful mixed bag. Reagan, Carter, Kennedy and Truman had no meaningful foreign policy experience to speak of. Neither did FDR, for that matter, unless you count his appointment as Asst Secretary of the Navy during WWI. Ike, Nixon and Bush I, meanwhile, were all pretty fluent in the ins and outs of international diplomacy when they entered office. And on the whole, history treats all of them pretty well.
In fact, if you examine American post-War presidencies, it becomes clear that when the foreign policy hand you're dealt includes dominant military power, hegemonic economic influence, infectious cultural inventiveness and a tightly-knit network of alliances, it's pretty difficult to seriously screw things up. All of them stumbled, some of them fell. But all of them, save two (Bush II and LBJ), had their major successes that strengthened the country's standing as well.
So there's really no way of predicting, based on experience, whether someone will be a successful foreign policy president. There does seem to be a predictive factor for foreign policy failure, though, and it's not lack of experience. It's being from Texas.
Friday, November 16, 2007
Rudy The Not So Potent
There are a lot of easy ways to target Rudy Giuliani. Starting with the fact that the guy's certifiably crazy. (In fact, the changes in his body morphology over time suggest to me that the single question that would most likely derail his campaign is, Are you now or have you ever been prescribed psychotropic medication?) So Josh Marshall's insistence [spelling error, ahem, hereby corrected] that as Mayor of New York, Giuliani wasn't responsible for the security of the city's eight million residents is difficult to understand, since it strikes me as, 1) wrong; and 2) generous.
Wrong because the City of New York has so many security functions -- ranging from the direct (police and fire departments, hospital and emergency response systems, a city environmental protection agency) to the indirect (health inspection, infrastructure oversight) -- that to deny the Mayor's role in protecting New Yorkers takes an act of will. Now there might be some lawyerly distinctions to be made between "security" and "safety", but I don't think anyone understands Giuliani's claim to mean that he would serve in a command and control capacity in the event of an armed invasion of New York.
But besides the fact that it comes off as obstinate to deny Giuliani this point, it's politically generous as well. Sure, crime in New York went down on Giuliani's watch (although there's some doubt over how much of that was due to his "zero tolerance" policy and how much simply the result of broader national crime trends). As important is the fact that both the cops and the firefighters, the two "security services" so central to the symbolism of a Giuliani campaign, despise him.
The firefighters resentment of Giuliani's Twin Towers cleanup policy resulted in him being excluded from their Presidential Forum this past spring. As for the cops, here's a recent press release from Patrick Lynch, the head of the NY PBA, on Giuliani:
Giuliani has wrapped himself firmly in the cloak of 9/11 for his own political purposes. But the real heroes of 9/11, those who helped to evacuate those towers and lived to tell the tale and all those who participated in the recovery and cleanup, know the truth. Rudy Giuliani has no real credentials as a terrorism fighter. His only credentials lie in managing the cleanup after a terror attack. The New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association could never support Rudy Giuliani for any elected office.
But what about his managerial performance, upon which his claims are based? His decision to override his advisors' misgivings and locate the City's emergency "war room" in the Twin Towers suggests he graduated from the Homer Simpson School of National Security. (A building already targeted by terrorists = D'ohhh!!) What's more, he did nothing to resolve the police and fire departments' historic and notorious "first-responder" rivalry (brawls between cops and firefighters were not unheard of at emergency scenes).
I say, Give Giuliani his security bona fides. Then hold him accountable for them.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Via Andrew Sullivan comes more anecdotal evidence of a phenomenon: Republicans giving Barack Obama not only serious consideration, but support. I called this constituency Iraq War Republicans. If the Obama campaign had any sense, they'd start calling them Obama Republicans. And above all, stop talking about playing bi-partisan pattycakes with them, and instead invite them into a party-redefining coalition. Bringing Republicans and Democrats together is not the same thing as bringing Republicans into the Democratic party. Reagan did it in the opposite direction. Obama can do it this year. He needs to make them a concrete offer they can't refuse, one that doesn't jeopardize his need to appeal to Democrats. It's a tough balancing act, but I think it's possible. If he does manage it, this post goes out out the window.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Zeno's Electoral Paradox
I see Matthew Yglesias' epistemological anguish and raise him one. Not only is it pretty much impossible to predict who will actually win the primary campaigns and general election. When you look at each individual candidate, it becomes obvious that there's not a single one on either side who actually can win their party's nomination. Every single one of them has a solid, incontrovertible disqualifying strike against them ranging from electability issues (real or imagined) in Hillary Clinton's case to mental health issues for pretty much the entire GOP field. (Okay, okay, insanity is actually a qualification for the GOP nomination these days. But notwithstanding the foam around the mouth, Romney and Giuliani have electoral records that correspond more closely to the Gerry Ford-era GOP than to the party of Bush.)
Barack Obama is probably the only candidate who makes it past the raised eyebrow test. But as much as I am seriously considering voting for him, it would take a very unlikely sequence of events to keep him from ending up as this year's model of the Democrats' perennial idealist: Doomed to lose, but keeping the party honest in the process.
The only thing is, someone's got to win. So, will it be brokered conventions all around? Or an Inconvenient Candidate? Dunno. But I have a hard time seeing anyone from the current field up on the podium accepting the nomination.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
The Big M.O.
Michelle Obama just sent me a personal message which for some reason Thunderbird thinks might be an e-mail scam. Anyway, as you know, it's not the first time Michelle's written me, so I'm sure she won't mind if I share some excerpts with you:
I was there.
I watched my husband electrify a crowd of more than 9,000 Iowa Democrats...
I've known Barack a long time, and it's clear to me when he's in his element.
Years ago, after we first met, he took me to an organizing meeting in a small church basement in Chicago. He was so comfortable and genuine speaking to folks in the community about the issues they faced that it moved me.
He moved me again last Saturday in Iowa...
She went on to hit me up for some dough, but Michelle does that with me. It's kind of like an inside joke between us. She asks me for money, and I call her a gold digger, and then we both laugh and head off to a church basement and watch Barack get comfortable and genuine with folks in the community and she gets moved and I get the feeling that presidential politics in the age of mass media and the internet has gotten weird and creepy.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
A New Majority
I just watched Obama's speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner which everyone seems to be raving about. (Andrew Sullivan has the video and a rundown of links here.) I liked what I heard, even if it struck me as a "two steps forward, one step back" affair.
First the two steps forward. To begin with, he finally quit talking about bi-partisanship, and only mentioned bringing Democrats and Republicans together once (how on Earth that formulation makes it past whoever's vetting his speeches is beyond me). Instead he framed his ability to appeal across the center as creating "a new majority", and spoke of Republicans and independents "listening intently" to the Democratic campaign. To my mind, the difference is substantial and I'd like to see him be even more aggressive in how he formulates and deploys it.
Secondly, he really took the gloves off with regard to Hillary Clinton, or at least it seemed that way to me. Matthew Yglesias has written about how Obama's attacks on Clinton need to be spelled out for the 99.9% of voters who haven't begun to pay attention to the campaign yet, which render them essentially ineffective as attacks. His litany of national security bona fides (no Iraq vote, no Kyl-Lieberman vote, and a willingness to speak with leaders we don't like) seemed pretty direct, but then again, I've been paying attention.
He also responded to the meme that he won't be tough enough to stand up to the inevitable GOP swiftboating by pretty much calling out the swiftboaters. This criticism has more to do with the Obama campaign than with Obama himself, though, so I might be exagerrating the importance of this brief passage.
The step back for me was his refusal to scrap the trope of "summoning America to a higher purpose". Blech, blech, and ugh. Most of the catastrophic failures we're busy extricating ourselves from these days are largely the result of having confused geopolitics with messianic evangelism these past seven years. I'm willing to indulge a certain amount of expansive, inspirational imagery as a rhetorical device, but not if it borders on charismatic preaching. By contrast, for instance, when he vamped on the refrain "Our moment is now", I instinctively jotted down "Reagan" (thinking, of course, of "Morning in America"), which is high praise when it comes to rhetoric, regardless of how you might feel about the man's politics. America could probably use some inspiring reminders about all the good things we can still accomplish right about now, but I think the purpose should remain relatively low, somewhere on the nuts and bolts, grease under the fingernails level.
One thing that Obama might learn from Reagan's example is that there's a difference between being polarizing and divisive. Reagan polarized America in the sense that people who disagreed with him disagreed with him pretty strenuously. But it's hard to call a guy who won 60% of the popular vote divisive. (The obvious comparisons are with George W. Bush, who's both extremely polarizing and divisive, and Jimmy Carter, who was divisive without being very polarizing.)
I think that's the weakness of Obama's campaign, at least in the way it's perceived, rightly or wrongly. While attacking Hillary Clinton for being too careful about staking out her positions, he strikes me as being too careful about staking out his constituency. Reagan saw an opportunity to win over blue collar, rank and file Democrats based on social issues and by seizing it he re-wrote the balance of power between the two parties for a decade. I think Obama has the same opportunity but he needs to dial in on exactly who he's aiming for and how to win them over. Granted, he's still running in the Democratic primary, not the general election, so I might be ahead of myself on this. But I don't think I am.
One final observation. If Garance Franke-Ruta finds it noteworthy that Hillary Clinton rises into "...crescendos that, regretably, can only be described as shrill...", I think it's only fair to point out that Obama's crescendos sounded hoarse and strident.
Friday, November 9, 2007
For A Real Centrist Party
A friend sent me an e-mail touting Obama-Webb as a winning 2008 ticket. I joked back that it would be the first majority-Republican Democratic ticket in history. (One's bi-partisan, the other's straight out GOP, which makes for 75%.)
All joking aside, in the same way that Reagan Democrats changed the political landscape of the 80's, it seems clear that Iraq War Republicans are going to have a lasting impact on the political territory staked out by the Democratic Party for the next few elections to come. Specifically, I think they'll facilitate the re-branding of the Democratic Party as a centrist party that actually straddles the center, not just in practice but in name as well. The GOP field is so far out on the lunatic fringe that I'm sure there's a lot of room for sane Republicans who'd like to come in from out of the cold.
Six years spent here in France has made it clear that not even a shadow of the left exists in mainstream American politics. So it makes no sense for the Democrats to suffer a stigma that's out of date. I'm not familiar enough with the polling, but I imagine some sort of strategic alliance with moderate Republicans would create a pretty solid majority.
That would mean completing the transformation begun by Clinton, bringing the Democrats full circle, back to the party of Truman and Kennedy. Guys like Wesley Clark and Jim Webb strike me as Democrats in that mold already. And others would probably be willing to make the jump if room was made for them.
Intuitively it feels like it's time for that sort of shift. Many of the battles that cleaved American politics across the center have already been decided on the merits, even if there's still a lot of work to be done on the ground. (I'm thinking of civil rights and women's equality for the left, fiscal responsibility and national security for the right.) And the ones that haven't should probably be re-imagined in more contemporary terms.
I guess in many ways, this resembles Obama's bi-partisanship. And I wouldn't be surprised if Obama does pick a Republican as his running mate should he win the nomination, whether it be Webb, Wes Clark (unlikely given the Hillary connection) or Chuck Hagel. I just wish the guy would be more assertive and actually claim the space on the other side of the center for the Democrats, instead of talking about holding hands with Republicans and playing nice.
Monday, November 5, 2007
Shit Or Get Off The Pot
In another must read out of the Small Wars Journal blog, Adam Cobb spells out the options for America in Iraq:
Bottom-line: we have to accept the current situation and be realistic about fixing it or we cut our losses and get out.
By that he means that anything short of a ten-to-twenty year guaranteed commitment, as in "We're not going anywhere 'til this thing's settled", will amount to incrementalism and allow everyone who doesn't feel like fighting against us now to wait us out. On the other hand, he argues that the consequences of our leaving immediately, while potentially bloody, will in all likelihood be self-correcting.
The worst possible option, though, is to keep ante-ing up for one year intervals and postponing a final reckoning, something the current administration has been all too willing to do, and something that plans for gradual withdrawal might become should we get drawn back in while we're busy getting out.
Saturday, November 3, 2007
Dog Whistle Politics
I like Garance Franke-Ruta's take on the recent accusations that Hillary Clinton tried to play the "gender card" in the aftermath of the last Democratic debate (via Kevin Drum). She frames her discussion in the context of "the secondary conversation" that women have amongst themselves due to the fact that, a) so much of the discourse in the "primary" political arena is controlled by, conducted by or catered to white men; and b) women in positions of mainstream power suffer consequences if they call too much attention to their status as women. Hillary has been a master of what Franke-Ruta calls "dog whistle politics", basically shout-outs that are only heard by their intended audience. If she got called on it this time, it's mainly due to the intense scrutiny her opponents are placing on her every word these days.
On the other hand, I'm not so sure about this:
For example, Barack Obama took on Clinton on television this morning for slipping into secondary conversation talk, something he himself almost never does, even though he's been offered plenty of opportunities to do so. And, to the extent that he avoids embedding himself within or evoking the common tropes of an African-American secondary conversation, it's actually part of his cross-racial appeal. (Emphasis and links in original.)
I'm thinking about his appearance on 60 Minutes when, in answer to the question "Are you black enough?", he responded, "When it comes time to catch a cab, I am." Or more recently, when he danced his way onto the set of Ellen De Generes' show and, in answer to her comment that he was the best dancer of the candidates she'd seen, joked that "It's a low bar." Then there's his South Carolina Gospel Tour, which wasn't very subtle to begin with, but ended up more closely resembling a foghorn than a dog whistle, due to the flap over Donnie McClurkin.
Granted, these are tropes that have perhaps "crossed over", but they definitely resonate differently for a black audience than for a white one. Same goes for his "Rocky/Apollo Creed" quip at the last debate. It's true that given the historical stereotypes of black men, Obama probably has to be more careful of what he lets slip, as demonstrated by the extreme restraint he showed (hardly) getting his groove on with De Generes. But I'd argue he's been doing the same thing as Hillary.
Friday, November 2, 2007
From My Blog To Obama's Ears?
Either great minds think alike, or Headline Junky has got readers in high places. A few days ago, I posted a piece on Iran, suggesting the following:
With that in mind, I'd love to see one of the Democratic candidates formulate a list of concrete steps Iran could take, independent of the nuclear dossier, in order to establish diplomatic relations with the US, as well as areas of co-operation that we might develop. There's been so much discussion of what sort of stick to wield against Tehran, and too little about what sort of carrots we can offer.
Via Kevin Drum, comes this passage from an interview Barack Obama gave yesterday to the NY Times:
Making clear that he planned to talk to Iran without preconditions, Mr. Obama emphasized further that "changes in behavior" by Iran could possibly be rewarded with membership in the World Trade Organization, other economic benefits and security guarantees.
"We are willing to talk about certain assurances in the context of them showing some good faith," he said in the interview at his campaign headquarters here. "I think it is important for us to send a signal that we are not hellbent on regime change, just for the sake of regime change, but expect changes in behavior. And there are both carrots and there are sticks available to them for those changes in behavior."
As long as you're listening, Senator, you can run a solid, issues-based campaign without searching America's soul. Drop the charismatic healer routine. You'd get my vote in a second.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
In watching the clips of the Democratic debate last night, I've figured out just what it is about John Edwards that makes me recoil. When he speaks, he tilts his head off to one side and talks out of one side of his mouth. And when he smiles, one side of his mouth goes up while the other goes down. Now, I don't know if the psycho-physiological data backs me up on this, but those to me are signs of insincerity. Something along the lines of the right hand not really buying what the left hand is peddling.
And while I'm on the subject of superficial trivialities, someone's got to figure out how to do Obama's makeup. Maybe it was because he was standing in front of a red riser, but between his pancake (which looked like it was a light shade of pink), his tooth-whitener (which was blinding), the eyebrows (which looked like they'd been painted with the eyeblack used by ballplayers to avoid sunglare) and the lip rouge, he looked more like a digitized composite image than a person. Given how a lot of his appeal is based on his authenticity, that's something he wants to avoid.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Choosing Without Enthusiasm
Hillary Clinton hedges on a question about whether she supports Elliot Spitzer's plan to issue drivers licenses to illegal immigrants because "...this is where everyone plays gotcha." And guess what? Everyone plays gotcha.
But if you watch the clip, her answer makes sense. She basically says that in the absence of a comprehensive Federal reform of immigration policy, states are being forced to patch together stopgap measures like Spitzer's. And while she understands the logic behind the measure, she would rather solve the problem as President on the Federal level than live or die by taking a position on what Spitzer can cobble together with his measly gubernatorial powers. And rightly so.
Is it a hedge? Yeah. But she's running for President, not governor. I've got to agree with Kevin on this one. If this qualifies as a killer moment, we've forgotten how to choose a Democratic candidate for president.
Which brings me to a post I've been meaning to write about how, in trying to figure out who I'll vote for in the California primary (which apparently might still matter this year), I realized that I've... forgotten how to choose a Democratic candidate for president. Because if you think about it, the last time we really had a choice was back in 1992. Gore was a shoo-in in 2000, and four years ago Democratic thinking was too skewed by the almost pathological need to beat Bush to call it a real choice.
This year, the candidates would really seem to offer a chance to define the direction the party is going to take into the next decade: Traditional Democratic populism, represented by Edwards; centrist pragmatism represented by Hillary; or a hard-to-define transformative politics represented by Obama. It would seem to offer that chance, if it weren't for one thing: The perception of inevitability that Hillary Clinton has managed to achieve this early on in the race, which is already transforming the logic of the primary from an ideological referendum into an electoral calculus.
Of course that's the genius of the Clinton machine, which is to politics what Billy Beane and Roger Elias are to baseball: Reducing elections into stat sheets of zip codes and donor lists. But it comes with a cost, to the party and to the candidate.
By all rights, I should be an Obama man. He is, for all intents and purposes, a third party candidate with a first-party platform. And with the exception of Ross Perot, I'm a sucker for third party candidates, starting with John Anderson in the first election I followed as a twelve-year old in 1980, through to Ralph Nader in 2000. (Yes, I would have voted Nader in 2000 had I voted. Relax, it was in California.)
In the meantime, though, I've moved considerably to the political center. Call it age, maturity, fatherhood, six years of living in France... Well, maybe not maturity. But at any rate, I've come to feel that politics should really just be about governing. Transformation is best left to individuals in the private sphere, not charismatic leaders in the public arena. And if you take that away from Obama, what's left? An opportunistic, not-very-experienced politician with an ordinary platform.
As for Edwards, like I said, I've moved considerably to the political center. And I've spent six years living in France. I probably should get more excited about his platform, but I can't bring myself to do the necessary work. My problem, I know, not his. But I doubt I'm alone in that.
Which brings me to Hillary, who I must say has surprised me with her ability to charm and impress. I've never had a strong negative impression of her, but like everyone, I'd assumed that too many other people did to give her any hope of winning. I'm not so convinced of that anymore. Her positions (the ones she's willing to articulate, that is) are responsible, well-considered and don't cross any red lines for me. She's one of two candidates on either side (John McCain being the other) who wouldn't face a very steep national security learning curve upon taking office.
Most importantly, she represents change, but not drastic change. And I think that in our desperation over eight years of Bush, Democrats (and reasonable people in general) have exagerrated, not the damage he's done (which is considerable), but the extent to which we need to yank the wheel back to the other side of the lane divider. Just enough and you avoid oncoming traffic. Too much and you wind up in the ditch on the side of the road.
So for the time being, I'm leaning towards Hillary. Without any passionate enthusiasm, to be sure. But I'm not so sure that's a bad thing.
Monday, October 29, 2007
The Gospel Truth
What's ironic about the flap over Barack Obama's refusal to distance himself from Donnie "Pray the Gay Away" McClurkin is that while the evangelical "ex-gay" movement is both particularly offensive and absurd, it pales in comparison to the vastly more widespread evangelical "ex-Jew" movement. Ann Coulter's recent remarks to the effect that Christians are perfected Jews might have been roundly denounced. But they nevertheless reflect the default theological position of Christian evangelicalicism. The same holds true for its position vis a vis every other religion, including Catholicism.
Seriously, though, Democrats are correct to target Christian evangelicals as a potential constituency. But they should base their appeal on political discourse, not theology. In other words, the problem with Obama's gospel tour isn't Donnie McClurkin. It's Obama's gospel tour. If this is the future of the Democratic Party, then it might be time for an ex-Democrat movement.
Monday, October 29, 2007
Slow Motion Suffocation
Malcolm Nance is a SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) master instructor who has worked in counter-terrorism for 20 years. Here's his bio over at Small Wars Journal, which gives you an idea of his commitment to national security. And here's his long and forceful denunciation of "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques". His conclusion is in the title: Waterboarding is torture... Period.
Nance is no softie. Unlike the guys talking tough from the comfort of Washington offices, television studios and campaign podiums, he's personally experienced every technique under discussion, interviewed survivors of torture, and studied all the taped and written debriefings available. And here's what he has to say about what he's witnessed:
Most people can not stand to watch a high intensity kinetic interrogation. One has to overcome basic human decency to endure watching or causing the effects. The brutality would force you into a personal moral dilemma between humanity and hatred. It would leave you to question the meaning of what it is to be an American.
If you can, read the whole thing. If not, keep this in mind the next time someone dismisses waterboarding as a little bit of water in the detainee's face:
Waterboarding is not a simulation. Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.
Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim’s face) and the obstinacy of the subject. A team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to the final death spiral.
Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration –usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right it is controlled death. Its lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threaten with its use again and again. (Emphasis in original.)
And here's a question for the GOP 'roid ragers. Would any one of them agree to be waterboarded? Not as part of a hypothetical scenario to prevent a terrorist attack. Just to know what they're talking about? If it's as benign as they say it is, their hands should go up as quickly as when they're asked if they'd authorize it.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
I'm sorry, but if this is the best the opposition to the Iraq War can manage, this war is a long way from being over. I'm increasingly convinced that protest marches are outdated as a means of achieving any sort of meaningful change. Be that as it may, any protest that can't simultaneous immobilize several major cities across the country does more harm than good to a cause of this magnitude. In an age of flash mobs and viral videos, certainly some creative mind out there can come up with something more potent than "What do we want? Peace. When do we want it? Now."
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Recent reporting on the North Korean and Iranian nuclear standoffs has revealed a recurring split within the Bush administration, one that basically boils down to Condi Rice and Bob Gates on one side arguing for restraint and diplomacy, Dick Cheney on the other arguing for a more, shall we say, pugnacious approach to the problems. To the extent that the Bush administration has shown more restraint on each of these dossiers than it did in dealing with the Iraq "threat", it's because the Rice-Gates faction has proven more able to push back against the Cheney gang than Rice and Colin Powell were able to do when Don Rumsfeld was backing Cheney up.
Of course, this shift is a direct result -- perhaps the most significant one -- of the November 2006 elections. The Democratic base expected the election to realign the balance of power between the Executive and Legislative branches of the Federal government. But given the actual numbers, those expectations were probably exagerrated.
On the other hand, the election did manage to realign power within the Executive. It's not quite what folks were hoping for, but given the circumstances, it's probably the only thing standing between us and a headlong rush over a neocon cliff.
Friday, October 26, 2007
Down On The Farm
In case you haven't seen it yet, here's the new John McCain ad playing in Nevada:
Ezra Klein, in an appearance on Hardball, responded by saying:
I don't want to see us have another fight over who's a hippy and who's a soldier. I find it dull.
Unfortunately, that's the fight the other side does want to have, because it's one that polarizes important electoral demographics (presumably in their favor), as the other members of the Hardball panel made forcefully clear. As I've mentioned before, it's the kind of polarization that has not yet occurred in the Iraq War debate, where opposition cuts across cultural lines. But knowing this would be a subtext, if not the subtext, of the 2008 campaign, it's hard to understand how Hillary Clinton could have set herself up for such an easy attack.
The intellectual response to McCain's ad is that Woodstock represents America as much as the US Army does. Is there anything more patriotic than Jimi Hendrix's version of the Star Spangled Banner? Anything un-American about gathering on the farm to celebrate the bounty of the American soil, which is symbolically what the event amounts to?
Obviously, that won't play very well in Nebraska, but what might is pointing out a simple historical fact. The imprint America has left on the world in the post-War era begins with it's rebels. Starting with James Dean, Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe and continuing on through the Sixties rock 'n roll generation, the hip hop & graffiti revolution, and the internet upstarts, America's cultural legacy is one of freedom, reinvention, and the embrace of a certain type of experience that can best be described as carnal. That this rebellious streak has always wrestled with the Puritan code was obvious ever since Nathaniel Hawthorne sent Hester Prynne out into the world with a scarlet "A" sown on the breast of her shirt.
Woodstock and Vietnam were inseparable, even if they were by nature hostile to one another. But America has evolved since then, and Ezra Klein is a good example of how. The opposition to the war, young and old, is well-groomed, articulate and respectful. No one's trying to tear down the foundations of Western civilzation. Museums are cemetaries, built to preserve artifacts from a dead past. The fact that we're now building one for Woodstock shows how much things have changed since then, not how much they've stayed the same.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Rudy & Mario
Maybe it's been floated out there and I just missed it, but I haven't seen anyone really mention Rudy Giuliani's endorsement of Mario Cuomo in the 1994 NY Gubernatorial election as something that might come back to haunt him among the GOP base. Not only is Cuomo anathema to the right, the man who beat him in that election, George Pataki, seems to be pretty well-regarded among Republicans. Granted, with all the skeletons in Rudy's closet, it's only natural that this one might fly under the radar. But sooner or later, you'd think that someone would make some hay with it.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
In 2004, Howard Dean famously declared that he represented the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party before he ultimately crashed and burned. This year, at least two Democratic candidates (Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama) are visibly if subtly courting the Democratic wing of the Republican Party. Now, to be fair, the meat of their policy proposals are soundly Democratic. But between Hillary's robust national security stance and Obama's emphasis on bi-lateral consensus, two of the three Democratic heavyweights are making serious overtures to moderate Republicans.
So what gives? Democratic anger over the Bush years and the Iraq War doesn't seem to have subsided in the three years since then. And all the forecasts for the 2008 Congressional and Senatorial elections seem to be pretty encouraging for a workable Democratic majority.
My guess is that it reflects a generalized trend among most of the major democracies at the moment (England appears to be an exception) whereby the margin between right and left is so narrow that elections now turn on a candidate's ability to cement together a center-straddling coalition. In a parliamentary system, that often also gives an inordinate amount of power to parties on the extremes of the political spectrum. In the case of the American two-party system, on the other hand, a closely divided electorate exclusively inflates the importance of the center.
I'm a little surprised that Clinton and Obama's strategy doesn't seem to be hurting them at all in the Democratic primary, and that John Edwards' more genuine vintage of traditional Democratic values hasn't played better. But it seems to corroborate the soundness of the strategy.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Hillary's Sally Field Moment
A thought ran through my mind about Hillary Clinton today that I haven't seen mentioned yet. It would seem (based mainly on some of the feedback that Andrew Sullivan's been collecting from his readers) that Clinton has been surprisingly successful at getting folks who were pre-disposed to oppose (read: despise) her to not only giver her a second chance, but to actually find her charming, appealing, even convincing. Whether by design or luck, she's in effect reversing the traditional logic of the primary season by "stealing" soft votes on the other side of the aisle, instead of chasing after the Democratic base.
If it's a strategy, it's probably based on two things. First, her sense that barring some sort of unforeseeable meltdown, her political organization will be enough to carry her through to the convention without leaning too far left. And second, the weakness of the Republican field which has resulted in what amounts to a listening period for moderate Republicans. Which makes me wonder how a Chuck Hagel candidacy might have effected Hillary's primary campaign.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
What's He Doing Here?
Andrew Sullivan nailed it:
President Bush has a weak person's idea of what strength is; and a dumb person's idea of what intelligence is.
It's similar to the point Jon Stewart made about Bush's tendency to use words to describe action, instead of actually taking action. As Stewart put it, "When he's giving his speeches, it's like he's reading the stage directions... He's our first meta-President. He comes out and spends all day describing the things he should be doing."
It's all of a piece. The man is transfixed by "the reason he's here", without having any real sense of what he's doing here.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
The Little Whisper
In case you're looking for the science behind that South Carolina e-mail campaign perpetuating the debunked rumor that Barack Obama attended a muslim madrassa, here it is. According to German researchers, gossip about someone's reputation determines other people's opinions of that person, even in the face of contradictory factual evidence. Think of it as the 21st century's response to The Big Lie.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
In case you haven't seen it yet, this WaPo op-ed by twelve former Army captains who served "in Baghdad and beyond" goes a little bit against the grain of the Petraeus party line:
Against this backdrop, the U.S. military has been trying in vain to hold the country together. Even with "the surge," we simply do not have enough soldiers and marines to meet the professed goals of clearing areas from insurgent control, holding them securely and building sustainable institutions. Though temporary reinforcing operations in places like Fallujah, An Najaf, Tal Afar, and now Baghdad may brief well on PowerPoint presentations, in practice they just push insurgents to another spot on the map and often strengthen the insurgents' cause by harassing locals to a point of swayed allegiances. Millions of Iraqis correctly recognize these actions for what they are and vote with their feet -- moving within Iraq or leaving the country entirely. Still, our colonels and generals keep holding on to flawed concepts.
America's choice, as they see it? Institute a military draft to draw up the troops needed to actually accomplish the mission, or get out now. Of course, instituting a draft would be political suicide, which is far less palatable (to politicians) than sending soldiers off to die in an ill-conceived war. But by bringing it to a vote, it would force those who argue the importance of continuing the Iraq War to put their money where their mouth is. Charlie Rangel tried this as a stunt a few years back, but the timing was a little early. It would pack a lot more punch now. Support the troops: they need some backup.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Putin & The Mullahs
Next time you hear about Iran belonging to a global movement intent on "collapsing" western powers and installing a worldwide Islamic caliphate, keep this in mind. Putin's Russia, remember, is not only a secular regional power. It has also brutally suppressed an Islamic insurgency in Chechnya for the past decade. Yet that hasn't stopped him from establishing a pretty solid working relationship with the "irresponsible" and "unreliable" mullahs in Tehran.
America's conflict with Iran has everything to do with regional strategic interests, and very little to do with Islamic fanaticism. It's just easier (for both sides) to use the latter to mobilize the base.
Update: Click "Publish", find related article. From The Economist:
What did Iran’s leaders see when they looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes? Apparently somebody to do business with. As outsiders watched carefully for signs of Russia’s intentions regarding Iran’s nuclear programme, Mr Putin arrived in Tehran, Iran’s capital, and appeared to show support for the country’s nuclear efforts. “The Iranians are co-operating with Russian nuclear agencies and the main objectives are peaceful objectives”, he said.
The article goes on to identify Russia's reasons for not wanting to see a nuclear-armed Iran. But the takeaway is that twenty years after the revolution, the Iranians are businessmen at heart. The only thing that sustains the firebrands is a bellicose rival threatening their sovereignty.
Negotiating is only a sign of weakness if you are indeed weak (ie. Chamberlain in Munich). Not only does it do no harm to talk things over when you've got the strength to stand by your bargaining position. It also undermines the position of diehards on the other side of the table, whose power depends on demonizing you to their base.
Monday, October 15, 2007
With all the discussion about John Mearsheimer's and Stephen Walt's "The Israel Lobby", it's interesting to note, as does this Haaretz video feature, that while political clout and representation among American Jews is rising, the percentage of American Jews who feel a strong connection to Israel is in decline. 70% of Jewish senior citizens feel a close bond to the Jewish state, compared to only 56% of Jews in their thirties. The video identifies the secular nature of American Jews, combined with Israel's attitude towards reform Jews as contributing factors. I'm not sure if there's any polling data to back this up, but I'd speculate that Israel's military approach to the Occupied Territories probably doesn't appeal much to the younger generation either.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
The Little Death
In answer to what Matthew Yglesias calls "the necessary questions" (Why the second wetsuit?), it's because human sexuality is such a complex intersection of biological urges, physical stimuli and psychosocial imprints that for some folks (read: most all of us to varying degrees) the only way to feel marginally in control of it is to keep it pretty tightly under wraps. Reverend Aldridge's death is just a remarkably vivid illustration of a universal phenomenon. So the need to ridicule him (and Larry Craig and John Vitter et al.) is understandable, and transcends (or more accurately is submerged beneath) the fact that they're all hypocrites. (I say that assuming that Rev. Aldridge espoused the typical "values agenda" of the Christian right.)
Don't mistake this observation for sanctimony, because truth be told, I don't really care one way or the other. But this does strike me as one way in which the left engages in its own form of moral hypocrisy. Liberating politics from sexuality means more than just supporting gay marriage. It means eschewing macho posturing, avoiding the trap of the "bitch slap theory", and not stigmatizing people based on infantile conceptions of sexual gender roles. And the fact that "they (ie. the right) did it first" doesn't absolve us of not having the courage of our convictions.
I'm under no illusions that we'll see the disappearance of this blind spot any time in the near future. Transformation is driven by transgression, which always puts it at a disadvantage when confronting the dominant ideology. Not very likely in an age where strength is increasingly fetishized as brutal dominance.
But so long as we internally reproduce the dominant paradigm of sex, gender and power in our own political discourse, it makes no difference how superficially liberated we appear to be. We're still stuffing human sexuality, in all its messy complexity, into the comforting confines of a wetsuit.
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
Weapons Of Mass Detection
Via Laura Rozen comes this Jeff Stein piece which describes how former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Sen. Richard Shelby once requested NSA intercepts and raw FBI files in order to target one of his political enemies. It's not a particularly earth-shattering revelation, but it goes to the heart of why unwarranted domestic wire-tapping poses such a threat to our notion of civil liberties.
The common argument in support of expanded surveillance powers is that if you're not doing anything wrong, you've got nothing to worry about. It's an argument that's based on an idealized vision of government whereby the State has only the interests of its citizens, and none of its own, at heart. By and large, the American government has proven comparatively deserving of such an indulgent view.
But there are two problems with the argument. First, the State does have particular interests, ranging from the banal tendency of bureaucracies to satisfy their appetite for expansion to the more threatening tendency of government to satisfy its appetite for power. Second, while the State in its abstract might indeed be a benign or even benevolent actor, the government in practice is comprised of people. Honest-to-goodness human beings, with moral weaknesses and character flaws like the rest of us.
Recent Congressional shenanigans have revealed a bevvy of them. Duke Cunningham had a weakness for money; for Larry Craig and John Vitter it was illegal or indiscrete sex. The first corrupts government; the second demeans it.
Richard Shelby, on the other hand, was willing to abuse the access his position afforded to stick it to one his political enemies, and that represents an existential threat to a free society. Because it doesn't take a lot of imagination to come up with scenarios where the target might not be a Washington insider, and the motive no longer political in the insitutional sense but political in the ideological sense. Shelby's not the first, and he surely won't be the last, which is why the NSA surveillance program is so ill-advised.
The logic of warfare is that when a weapon exists, it will be used. Data banks full of NSA intercepts on American citizens are the information equivalent of weapons stockpiles, just as the executive's claims to the right to detain and torture represent operational ones. Throughout America's relatively short history, men and women of character have filled the breach in each of its moments of constitutional peril. It would be a dangerous mistake, though, to confuse that good fortune with destiny or entitlement.
As the brokerage firms like to say, Past performance is no guarantee of future success. You don't need any broad conspiracy theories or a particularly pessimistic vision of government to recognize that once intelligence is gathered, there's no telling who might eventually get their hands on it nor what their motives might be.
Those who argue that the NSA program is justified by national security concerns have placed their bets on American exceptionalism. Me, I'll take human nature every time.
Monday, October 1, 2007
A quick thought. If it's true, as some folks speculate, that Dick Cheney's transformation into an evil warmonger can be traced to the stressful events of 9/11, maybe it's a good thing he ducked serving in Vietnam, after all.
Monday, October 1, 2007
Re: Re: Hey
I'm not sure I understand the logic of Michelle Obama sending out fundraising e-mails with "Re: Hey" as the subject field. (Lest there be any uncertainty, I don't know Michelle Obama, I've never sent her an e-mail in my life, and if one day I were to contact her with a message that boiled to down to, "Hey", I seriously doubt she'd reply.)
Everyone knows that these campaign mailings amount to spam, but calling attention to that fact by using one of the most repugnant spamming techniques known to humankind seems to reflect not only bad judgment but bad taste. Especially for a candidate promising to change the way we practice politics.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
All Sound, No Bite
Kevin Drum makes a good point about the Democrats' lack of a compelling, sound-biteable argument that can crystallize waffle-y opposition to the Iraq War into the urgent, unequivocal demand to withdraw our troops necessary to actually end the war. Given the doomsday scenarios tossed around by the war's advocates should we leave (Iraq bathed in blood, the Middle East in flames, and planeloads of al-Qaeda kamikazes headed Stateside), "...the surge isn't working and there's been no political progress..." does sound a bit feeble:
...Instead of merely claiming that we're not doing any good in Iraq, we need to make persuasive arguments that we're actively doing harm. There are plenty to choose from:
- A significant chunk of the insurgency is motivated by opposition to the American occupation. Our presence is actively inflaming the violence, not reducing it.
- The Maliki government will never make any political compromises as long as they know we're around to prop them up. Leaving is the only way to force them into action.
- We're arming both sides in a civil war. The longer we stay, the worse the eventual bloodbath will be.
- Our presence in Iraq is al-Qaeda's greatest recruiting tool. They're going to keep getting stronger until we leave.
- The real disaster is in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We desperately need to more troops into that theater.
All of these are valid, but I'm afraid they're not enough. I'd wager that a significant percentage of Americans couldn't even identify Nouri al-Maliki, would be hard-pressed to identify two sides to the civil war (to say nothing of the four or five that are actually fighting), and believe that Osama Bin Laden is operating out of one of Saddam Hussein's old palaces. (Okay, maybe not that last one, but you get the point.)
There are a lot of reasons to oppose the war -- its cost in blood and money, the fact that it's accomplishing nothing positive and many things negative, and the sad fact that whether we stay ten more months or ten more years, the country will in all likelihood implode the moment we do leave.
But the most compelling reason to oppose the war is that it is weakening America:
- by squandering our military capacity;
- by strengthening our enemies;
- by distracting us from other, more serious threats;
- by diminishing our standing in the world.
It's an argument that has the advantage of being not only compelling and simple, but also of being true. And if Democrats can convince the waffling middle that Kevin refers to of its truth, they can become the national security party by ending the War.
George Bush wants to weaken America. John McCain thinks securing Baghdad is more important than securing Washington. Mitt Romney thinks the US military is disposable.
Say it often enough and people will realize it's true.
Thursday, September 20, 2007
That's A Start
The YouTube debate might have been flashier, but it really just amounted to the old debate format with a new gimmick. The Democrats' Online Debate, on the other hand, better exploited the strengths of the new medium. Charlie Rose asked the questions; each individual candidate answered fully. The viewer lines up the answers he or she wants to hear and clicks play.They call it a mashup, but it's more like a video archive of the candidates' substantive policy positions.
If there's a drawback it's that the viewer selects the clips, so while the lesser known candidates get equal opportunity, they don't necessarily get equal exposure. But that's democracy, I guess. The customer is king.
Now what I'd like to see is a series of round-robin, one-on-one debates between all the candidates, whether online or live. Whatever happened to the country of Lincoln-Douglas?
Thanks to Jason over at Voices of Reason for the tip.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Fourth And Long
Funny how closely the Petraeus Reports seem to follow the President's schedule for requesting supplemental funding for the Iraq War. According to an article two weeks ago in the WaPo, President Bush is confident he'll be able to get the $50 billion he needs this time around:
The request is being prepared now in the belief that Congress will be unlikely to balk so soon after hearing the two officials argue that there are promising developments in Iraq but that they need more time to solidify the progress they have made, a congressional aide said.
And the reassessment Petraeus referred to for March 2008? That's just about when the administration will be rolling out its spring supplemental request.
That's really the only way to understand the Petraeus testimony, which is nothing short of masterful. A little drawdown to satisfy the Democrats. A little progress to satisfy the GOP. And a strategically scheduled reassessment to forestall any firm decision.
Of course, the drawdown is a false drawdown, mandated by logistical strains on the American military. And the progress is false progress, belied by the numbers as well as the political impasse in Iraq. And the reassessment is a false reassessment, determined by the political calendar in Washington.
Punting might move the ball further into the opponent's end. But it shouldn't be confused with offense.
Friday, September 7, 2007
The Pendulum Of Power
For anyone with an interest in politics, the developments of the past six months here in France could serve as a primer in the dynamics of power. Particularly the peculiar alchemy of how power contested becomes power consolidated, only to become contested once again.
The most striking aspect of Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency so far has been the way in which he transformed a 53% electoral victory into an effective dominance of the political landscape, even in the face of a lower-than-expected parliamentary majority. A lot has to do with the actual state of the opposition: The 47% who voted against him did not necessarily vote for his opponent. A lot also has to do with his skillful dismantling of the fractured Socialist Party by offering plum ministerial and advisory posts to the PS stars who were too impatient to wait another 5-10 years for the party to regroup and retake power. Finally, a good deal has to do with his skillful management of the media. More than any previous French president, Sarkozy seems to have understood how media has been transformed in the information age, and his active governing style is tailor-made for dominating the political dialogue and determining the lines of debate.
But power consolidated inevitably leads, once again, to power contested, even if that alchemy is more difficult to trace. In the face of a conquering hero, most opposition seems feeble, petty, and ineffective. So where does opposition arise, and under what circumstances does it gain legitimacy? When the consolidated power over-reaches, raising fears of absolutism and tyranny. And when it fails, leaving doubts about its omnipotence.
Once again, the French political landscape offers a demonstration, in the person of Dominique de Villepin. As a former UMP prime minister, Villepin is ostensibly within Sarkozy's majority, even if they belong to rival clans. In fact, at one time it looked like Villepin was the only person who might stand a reasonable chance of disappointing Sarkozy's presidential ambitions. But Sarkozy skillfully outmaneuvered him in the party in-fighting that determined the UMP nominee, where Villepin's tenure as prime minister presiding over the last days of Chirac's failed presidency handicapped him.
But not content with defeating Villepin, Sarkozy has made it clear that he intends to destroy him. And the instrument he has chosen is the Clearstream affair. Sarkozy believes Villepin was behind a smear campaign designed to de-rail his presidential aspirations, and has promised to "hang him from a butcher's hook". But Villepin, after silently suffering a series of humiliating searches and perquisitions over the summer, has now decided to fight back. In part, his calculation is based on political survival. But it is also, I suspect, based on his astute understanding of the dynamics of power (his new book describes Napolean's fall from grace).
Villepin is calling attention to the danger posed to an impartial judiciary by a President (who under French jurisprudence oversees the magistrature) who is also a civil party to the Clearstream investigation. Which takes care of the first condition for legitimating opposition, namely overreach. And by offering a critique of Sarkozy's policies from the right, he has filled the political vacuum left by the decline of the left. In so doing, he has clearly defied the imperium and raised the stakes considerably. For should he survive, he will have demonstrated the limits of Sarkozy's power, which is the first step in pushing it back.
All of this in many ways resembles the problems faced by Democrats in the aftermath of 9/11, where President Bush enjoyed such an overwhelming level of popular support that it became almost impossible to rein in his power. Even in the face of Bush's repeated overreaching and legislative failure, the Democrats have not been able to frontally contain him, which I attribute to the impact of 9/11 on the country's political judgment, as well as their relatively fragile Congressional majority.
The tipping point will undoubtedly come from Bush's flank (ie. from someone like Chuck Hagel). Of course, we've known it all along. We just didn't think it would take this long.
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
Gonzo's Greatest Hits
[I just noticed this old post from back in March due to a Google image search that turned up in the traffic logs. It's a little dated, I know, but I thought I'd re-post it in its entirety.]
Here's a guilty pleasure I can't resist. The Presidential Prayer Team has just come out with a handy deck of cards to help folks remember America's leaders in their prayers:
The National Leaders Prayer Deck contains 52 cards featuring the most influential men and women in our national government. Included are President Bush, the First Lady, the President’s Cabinet, the majority and minorty leaders of the House and Senate, the Supreme Court Chief Justice, all the Military Joint Chiefs, Congressional Chaplains and more. Use this resource to pray for one powerful American leader each week of the year. (Emphasis in original.)
Better get your order in quick though, because judging from the sample cards it's going to be a collector's item any day now:
[I guess that day has come. Better late than never.]
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
The Ever-Changing Enemy
This is really a piece of work. According to the Bush administration, our enemy -- now known as Violent Islamic Radicalism -- is engaged in a pincer-like tactic, with Sunni extremists ("embodied by al Qaeda and its terrorist allies") on one side and Shiite extremists ("supported and embodied by Iran's Government") on the other. Their goal? To bring down Iraq's "young democracy". Of course, since the only thing keeping Iraq's "young democracy" (or Iraq's young anything, for that matter) viable is American armed forces, they're both doing everything they can to "drive us out". The danger is that, if they succeed in driving us out of Iraq, they'll be emboldened by our retreat and enriched by Iraq's billions of dollars in oil revenues, and thus more likely to carry out attacks here on the homeland. And if they succeed in driving us out of the Middle East entirely, well, why, then, all hell would really break loose.
Now, part of me wants to react to this the way I do when my six year-old son begins arguing with me about something that's just too farfetched to spend a whole lot of time on. Which is to tell him he can argue all he wants, he'll be as wrong when he's done as he was when he started.
But just for the heck of it, here goes. To begin with, as even the White House acknowledges, these two branches of radical Islamic extremism are "vying for control of the Middle East". (Think "Left Behind", only the semi-finals.) Which means they are adversaries (or rivals, or enemies, take your pick). A well-conceived plan would take advantage of that, by perhaps pitting one side against the other, instead of presenting them with a common enemy, thereby allowing them to advance their respective agendas without infringing on each other's turf in the slightest.
Second, given that the admittedly spotty UN embargo was able to essentially cripple Saddam Hussein's army, which benefitted from a state apparatus, does anyone really believe that non-state actors in a post-American Iraq are going to be awash in petro-dollars?
And finally, when has anyone (aside from Osama Bin Laden) talked about the US leaving the Middle East altogether? Oh, that's right. I remember when. Never.
All that aside, though, the White House's talking points on post-Surge progress (ie. "It Makes No Sense To Respond To Military Progress By Claiming That We Have Failed Because Iraq's Parliament Has Yet To Pass Every Law It Said It Would.") are a clear signal that short of Congressional intervention, President Bush is not going to pull the plug on the war. It's Bush's Folly. And the show must go on.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
The Fall Guy
Now that's what I call timing. The other day I explained why opposition to the Iraq War marks the end of the post-Vietnam era. Today, Josh Marshall discusses advance reports of a speech in which President Bush plans to invoke the Vietnam War to justify his Iraq War policy.
As I said in my previous post, it's a shame Democrats haven't already gotten a head start on this angle. Opposition to the Iraq War hasn't been nearly as divisive as that of the Vietnam War. The broad middle ground of public opinion has largely reached a consensus that transcends generational and cultural boundaries. Even more significantly, with the exception of the Surge (which came out of left field), President Bush's Iraq War policy has consistently been a matter of catching up to public opinion and facts on the ground, usually 6-9 months after those have coalesced.
So, to repeat a bit of what I wrote the other day, this debate has for all intents and purposes been decided. It's only a matter of time before the Iraq War is drawn down. What's at stake in President Bush's speech isn't so much what will happen as how what happens will be framed. The more extreme elements of rightwing opinion have already trotted out a "stabbed in the back by domestic opposition" meme to explain our failure in Iraq. By re-opening the debates of the Vietnam era, President Bush is taking that argument mainstream.
It's absolutely essential that Democrats push back against this attack aggressively. The good news is that the facts are on their side. There are no acid-dropping, tie dye-wearing, pinko Commie-loving, longhaired, unwashed bogeymen to blame this time around. The folks who oppose our continued presence in Iraq work in the same offices, go to the same schools, listen to the same music, and wear the same clothing as the dwindling few who support it.
Democrats need to look straight into the camera and spell it out clearly for the American people: "The person who is ultimately responsible for the failure in Iraq is the President. Not the troops, not the Democrats, and not the people who oppose the war. But instead of taking responsibility for his failure, President Bush is blaming you. The President is blaming you for his failure in Iraq."
Monday, August 20, 2007
The End Of An Era
One point I haven't seen made yet regarding opinion on the Iraq War is that despite GOP attempts to turn it into a partisan wedge issue, America is simply not experiencing the same kind of generational and cultural divisiveness that accompanied the Vietnam War. Now, part of this has to do with the fact that, domestically speaking, the historical context today is nowhere near as tumultuous as it was forty years ago. And what tumult there is has more to do with popular culture adapting to technological advances than with violent political/cultural clashes.
To be sure, America remains divided politically. But simply put, you can no longer tell what side of the debate someone's likely to come down on based on the length of their hair, the color of their skin, the music they listen to, or the syle of clothing they wear. What's more, opposition to the war is not driven by a vibrant pacifist movement, or even a pacifist impulse. War has been rehabilitated as an arm of foreign policy, and has since been waged and endorsed by both Democratic and Republican administrations alike.
There's been no widespread demonization of the military this time around, either. To the contrary, without having seen any polling on the question, I'd be willing to wager that most people who feel like we've failed in Iraq blame the civilian leaders and the brass, not the soldiers. In other words, the debate on the Iraq War signals not a return to the post-Vietnam era, but the end of it.
So far, Democrats haven't taken as much advantage of this as they could have, not in order to win the debate, which for all intents and purposes is over. (The Iraq War will be wound down over the course of the next 18-24 months, depending on how far in that direction President Bush is willing to move before leaving office.) But in order to shape public opinion on how we came to lose Iraq. Instead of discussing their plans for leaving, they need to start framing the withdrawal as a tactical retreat to better contain the mess we've made by going in in the first place.
And above all, they need to point out that there are no hippies to blame this time around. Anyone claiming that opposition to the war caused its failure is blaming a clear majority of ordinary Americans for our defeat.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Petraeus Tips His Hand
This seems like a pretty big deal, if you ask me. Apparently, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus has announced that he'll be recommending minor troop reductions in his report to Congress next month:
We know that the surge has to come to an end, there's no question about that. I think everyone understands that by about a year or so from now we've got to be a good bit smaller than we are right now.
He stipulates that the reductions should be gradual so as not to jeopardize the "gains" we've made. But it looks like Petraeus is every bit as sharp as people made him out to be when he took the assignment in January. There's no telling what kind of fairy tale the White House political hacks would have cooked up if the report was left to them as planned. By tipping his hand directly to the press, he makes sure their punch isn't spiked with the hard stuff.
So where does this leave Rudy, Mitt and McCain? Seems like they're busy rabblerousing the GOP dead-enders for a policy that's already on ice.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like this video montage of Alberto Gonzales' Senate testimony yesterday. In the event you haven't already watched it over at TPM, click through and do so.
There's a reason so many people are outraged over this administration's behavior. It's not due to an irrational, hysterical disorder. It's based on administration officials running ramshackle over the institutions of government and paying absolutely no price for it.
Why Congress doesn't introduce a motion to impeach Gonzales is beyond me. Even if it goes down in smoke, let the GOP votes be on record for 2008.
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
The Bush Legacy
The WaPo offers more evidence that the Bush administration, and in particular boy genius Karl Rove, has politicized everything. This time it's ambassadors (read: wealthy political donors) who were kept up to date on key Democratic electoral targets and battleground media markets.
I think that America is very likely to survive the Bush presidency. But my hunch is that Bush has introduced certain precedents that may very well lead to a slow demise of the American experiment. The problem with the Bush/Rove political approach is that, in the absence of catastrophic policy failures and Congressional corruption scandals, it works. Which means, as the logic of any arms race demonstrates, that it will eventually be adopted by both sides.
Similarly, the GOP tactic of stalling legislation through parliamentary procedures will soon spell the end of the minority party's ability to block legislation. The so-called "nuclear option", averted in 2005, will be adopted as soon as either party regains a sufficient majority to pass it.
Barring a popular groundswell in support of "government of the people, by the people, for the people," history will remember this administration not for actually disabling the institutions of American democracy, but for figuring out how to do so.
Sunday, July 22, 2007
The Well's Run Dry
When you weed out the minutae of Parliamentary procedure and the exacerbating factors of political animosity, there are really only four arguments presented by opponents to a phased withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. First, the surge is either working or a step in the right direction that if maintained will eventually lead to a successful outcome. Second, an American withdrawal will severely damage our reputation and lead our allies and enemies to question our resolve. Third, if we leave Iraq now, it will allow elements of the global jihadi movement that have infiltrated the country to "follow us back home". And fourth, Iraq will become a killing field of sectarian violence if we leave without having stabilized the country.
The trouble with the first argument is that we've been hearing variations of it for four years now. And despite repeated right-wing attempts to undermine the press's credibility and call into question the American public's intestinal fortitude, most Americans just aren't buying it anymore. While it's certainly true that there are areas where progress is being made, taken as a whole, the picture is one of increasing violence and chaos. Even if we could turn the tide through continued military engagement -- and that's a big if -- the question now becomes at what price? This is where opponents of withdrawal have been less than forthcoming. How long is a long, hard slog? How many casualties can we expect during that time? How much of our financial resources will be ciphoned out of the Federal budget? To ask these questions is neither a sign of cowardice nor a lack of patriotism. To refuse to answer them, on the other hand, is.
The second argument is even flimsier. If our international reputation has been tarnished by the Iraq War, it isn't because we're now considering putting an end to the fiasco. It's because of how we conceived and prosecuted it to begin with. In fighting the Cold War, we understood that military preparedness wasn't enough to defeat a competing ideology. Putting a man on the moon and sending Peace Corps volunteers into the heart of global poverty were just as, if not more, important. The Global War On Terror has focused solely on repressive military responses. What's even worse, those responses have been poorly targeted (Iraq had nothing to do with the War on Terror) and incompetently carried out. Across the board, America's enemies are now taking pleasure in the difficulties we're encountering in Iraq and the losses we've suffered. And our allies, far fom questioning our resolve, have taken to questioning our judgment.
The third argument would be laughable if it weren't so tragic. To begin with, because Iraq has become a refuge for global jihadists because of the chaos caused by the War (which allows them to train new recruits in live-fire, battlefield conditions), not in spite of it. But even more significantly, global jihadists are already returning from Iraq to set up recruiting stations and operational cells in Western Europe. From there they will have easier access to not only European targets, but also American ones, through the use of European-born, second-generation recruits.
If there is an argument that causes advocates of withdrawal to pause, it is the prospect of Iraq descending into an even-bloodier hell of internecine and sectarian violence once we've left. No one can take this possibility lightly. And yet, if the questions of cost, likelihood of success, and the impact on American interests are valid reasons not to intiate direct military interventions in civil wars and sectarian violence (Darfur, Somalia, and Congo to name a few), then they're also valid reasons for bringing a failed military intervention to an end. Preventing an Iraqi bloodletting is in the interests of all the major players in the region, which means that there's a possibility of avoiding one even after we've withdrawn from the middle of the battlefield.
What's obvious is that, opponents' baseless arguments to the contrary, we're heading inexorably towards a phased withdrawal of troops. What's at play is how many needless causalties we'll incur before Congressional Republicans gather the courage to reject the President's failed policies, and what we leave in place afterwards. I still advocate a contingency force stationed out of the line of fire for a 3-5 year period, ideally under an international mandate. That will become less likely, however, should the political endgame become a question of rats jumping off a sinking ship.
Friday, July 20, 2007
Well at least for two hours tomorrow, anyway, it will be official. After that, they'll go back to the regular puppet show.
Friday, July 20, 2007
Ummm, maybe I'm missing something, but I don't understand why I keep seeing this referred to as showing cleavage.
Monday, July 9, 2007
If you've got a second (more like an hour), check out this documentary about the 1992 Presidential campaign. The director, Brian Singer, spent a year monitoring raw satellite news feeds. The result, titled "Spin", is a surprisingly coherent edit of some of the more fascinating off-camera exchanges, most notably between Larry King and the three candidates.
At the very least, zap through to the last five minutes where, as Tipper Gore prepares for an interview, a campaign aide explains how the Clinton campaign headquarters monitors all the raw feeds also. Which is how they were able to respond to news coverage, and Bush campaign commercials, before they aired. And know that Tipper needed her makeup adjusted.
(Via The New York Nerd)
Monday, July 2, 2007
Two things strike me about President Bush's decision to commute Scooter Libby's jail sentence. First, in his statement accompanying the order, here's how Bush explains his decision to act now:
I have said throughout this process that it would not be appropriate to comment or intervene in this case until Mr. Libby’s appeals have been exhausted. But with the denial of bail being upheld and incarceration imminent, I believe it is now important to react to that decision.
The problem is that Libby's appeals were not exhausted. It's just that his basis for appealing was so weak that the court saw no reason to release him on bail pending the outcome. Which means this is exclusively about making sure Libby never sees the inside of a jail cell.
Second, and more significant, is Bush's well-known record of denying death sentence reviews based on only cursory briefings while Governor of Texas. The message this sends is startlingly clear: Keeping one of Cheney's protégés out of Club Fed is worth considerably more attention than making sure a potentially innocent person isn't executed.
The President made a point of listing the many lasting humiliations Libby's sentence will impose on him. To which I'd add one: Paris Hilton cried for her mommy. But at least she did the time.
Monday, July 2, 2007
Straight No Chaser
In an effort to keep campaign coverage to a bare minimum, here's my Election 2008 Report for the week: George W. Bush is no longer President of the United States, Hillary Clinton is not yet President of the United States, and John McCain will never be President of the United States.
That's all for now.
Friday, June 29, 2007
The Vanishing Presidency
When the dust ultimately settles on George W. Bush's presidency, will there be anything left, other than his bullhorn moment on the rubble of the Twin Towers, that we'll be able to point to as an accomplishment? Jimmy Carter largely failed through inaction -- that is harmlessly -- and he did manage to secure a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Even Nixon, for all his abuses of power both at home and abroad, made historic diplomatic advances with both the Soviet Union and China.
President Bush has managed to combine the worst aspects of both: Carter's lack of any positive accomplishments coupled with Nixon's assault on the rule of law. Throw in the dissipation of America's moral standing in the world and the erosion of our military capacity, and consider that -- unlike Carter, who never managed to rally his Congressional majority around his presidency -- Bush has managed this spotless record while enjoying sustained support from his party for his first six years in office, and it's truly a feat of Herculean proportions.
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Kiss Of Death?
I'm not sure whether this is good news or bad news for Fred Thompson's presidential hopes, but George "Macaca" Allen thinks he'd make a good candidate.
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Kevin Drum thinks Hillary Clinton's spot introducing her campaign theme song is pretty cute. Maybe. Seems a bit odd to me. The set-up plays off the Sopranos finale, with Hillary and Bill as the Sopranos. There's a menacing guy glancing over at them, Chelsea screeching her wheels against the curb outside, and Bill eating carrots instead of onion rings.
Of course, it isn't the first time the Clintons have been compared to a crime family. Normally it's a tinfoil hat-wearing Arkansan making the comparison, though. Also, the consensus analysis of the Sopranos finale seems to be that Tony got whacked at the end. Which means the spot essentially portrays a former president and an aspiring one being targeted for a hit. Even worse, it plays it for laughs.
Like I said, seems a bit odd to me.
Saturday, June 16, 2007
Some Of His Best Friends...
After a couple e-mails to the Romney campaign asking whether I was correct in concluding that of the 50 members of his Faith & Values Steering Committee, not a single one was Jewish, Muslim or Mormon, and if so, what the reasoning behind that was, I got this four-word response:
Paul Driessen is Jewish.
So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Mitt Romney's Faith & Values Steering Committee doesn't even include his own faith & values. Or Muslims'. Jews, on the other hand, are disproportionately over-represented compared to relative population (2% of the committee vs. 1.6% of the population).
I've contacted the World Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Council on American-Islam Relations, and the Islamic Society of North America to see if they have any thoughts on the matter. I'll keep you posted.
Friday, June 15, 2007
President Bush, thanking Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey on his service in Iraq:
It's an extraordinary country where people volunteer to go into combat zones, to protect the security of the United States of America.
That makes me see red, and I've never even been in the military. I can only imagine how it makes a three-star general feel.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
What's revealing about Mitt Romney's new "Faith and Values" Steering Committee is that there isn't a single Jew on the list. The only two who might have passed the initial "Jewdar" test were John Pudner and Camille Solberg, but he's the chair of the RNC's Catholic Task Force, and she's a Hispanic activist who writes for the Wisconsin Christian News.
No Muslims, either, for that matter. Or Mormons. Or Buddhists. Obviously, a more accurate name for this group would be the "Pandering to Evangelical Christians (and Token Catholics)" Steering Committee.
I keep waiting for the announcement that Romney's campaign is just a hoax, like that Dutch reality tv program about the kidney donor. Or even better, a conceptual art piece. It would work so much better for me that way.
Update: John Daley wonders whether it's possible to know people's religions from a list of names. Fair enough. I did some googling, and it turns out that Jay Sekulow actually was Jewish, until he joined Jews for Jesus in college. I'll update if I turn up anything else.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Bride Of Franken's Time
It occured to me after dashing off this post (about Al Franken's comic persona serving as cover for his unconvincing political persona) that I never found Al Franken's comic persona very funny. That is, I was always left with the sense that what he'd done could have been funny, even that it should have been funny, but that in the end it was not, in fact, funny. The potential was there, though, so I kept waiting for him to do something funny.
The TPM video interview is a small sample to go on, but as far as first impressions go, that's exactly how I'd characterize his political persona. It could be convincing, it maybe even should be convincing, but in the end, it's not really that convincing.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Josh Marshall and Al Franken, separated at birth? Maybe it's just the glasses. The other thing that occured to me watching the video interview is that Franken's comic persona offers him constant cover in the event that he says something kind of lame or unsophisticated. There were a couple of times where I couldn't tell if he was deadpanning or choking, and I just chalked it off to him being Al Franken. Whereas if it had been someone else, I probably would have thought he had just said something kind of lame or unsophisticated.
Monday, June 11, 2007
Pastor In Chief
David Kuo says Dems need to stop trying to out-Jesus the GOP. Instead, they should get specific on faith-based issues and be honest about where they disagree with so-called "values" voters if they want to stand a chance of picking off the ones who can be won over. I suppose he's right from a political standpoint. Still, I wonder... Maybe politicians should just stick to politics?
Monday, June 11, 2007
Most of the disadvantages of starting the presidential election campaign two years ahead of the presidential election have already been identified. But there's one I haven't seen mentioned. In theory, an election is decided at least in part by the positions a candidate takes on the issues. But the issues this country will be facing in November 2008, as well as the political landscape within which they'll be addressed, will undoubtedly have evolved between now and then. Which means that as things stand, the candidates are really campaigning on hypotheticals.
The consequence is not only to reinforce the importance of personality as opposed to policy as a criterion of selection. It also changes the sorts of policies that get debated, with the emphasis placed on exactly the sorts of longstanding, major-baggage issues -- ie. healthcare, foreign policy magic bullets, and the like -- that have the least chance of getting through the legislative process intact (see Comprehensive Immigration Reform).
Saturday, June 9, 2007
Quick. What do Oliver North, John Hinckley, William Bennett, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all have in common? If you're thinking, They all did stupid shit in Washington D.C., you'd be right. But add Tim Duncan to the mix and what do you come up with?
The answer, it turns out, is buried in the President's recent Personnel announcement naming nine attorneys to the White House Counsel staff. Because two of the nine were recently partners at Williams & Connolly, a D.C. law firm that Legal Times once called "the Green Berets of high-stakes litigation."
In addition to the folks listed above, Williams & Connolly have also represented major corporations such as Halliburton, General Electric, Lockheed Martin and Arthur Andersen. Here's how the firm describes its approach on its website:
At Williams & Connolly, no case is too tough and no case is treated as routine. Every new challenge is examined with a fresh eye. As one of the firm's partners puts it: "There are nuances in every case. New problems. So you can't handle every case in the exact same way. We do not fight by the numbers. We do not fight the last war. We fight this war."
This fighting spirit, and the success it breeds, are what attract clients to Williams & Connolly.
Which should give you an idea of what to expect when the Congressional subpoenas start to fly.
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
Over Here, As Seen From Over There
There are a few observations I'd like to make as an ex-patriate whose been closely following both the recent French presidential election and the nascent American one. First, there really is something weird about the "values" litmus tests that have coagulated American politics these days. Compared to that, following the French campaign -- where religious faith, abortion and evolution were never once mentioned -- is like the feeling you get for the first few seconds after taking off a pair of ankle weights.
Second, the criteria for selecting the President of the United States just seem to have become -- there's no other word for it -- insubstantial. When you consider the potential impact the outcome has on the lives of American voters, it's curious. But when you consider the potential impact the outcome has on the lives of the all the people around the world who can't cast ballots, it's an abdication of responsibility that borders on criminal negligence.
From a global perspective, the idea that Mitt Romney might ever be invested with the power of the American presidency strikes me as fundamentally unjust.
Friday, June 1, 2007
No New Friends
There's a great article in the NY Times about Obama, the pickup basketball player. No surprises for anyone whose spent any time on the court: Unable to dominate with his size, he relies on competitive drive and know-how to do what it takes to win.
What jumped out at me, though, was this passage buried on page 2:
But the easy friendships Mr. Obama once struck up on the court are a thing of the past. Lately, the rule in the family is “No more new friends,” Mr. Robinson said. “You don’t know what people’s real agendas are.”
What a lonely image.
I've spent some time around people who would be considered minor celebrities, and a few who might be considered major stars. (ie. "I know your friend. What's his name?" True story.) And it's commonplace that they become very careful about who they open up to. Generally this means frequenting either people they knew before they were famous, or else other people who are also famous.
There's always a downside to this phenomenon, what I think of as the Michael Jackson Neverland effect. Celebrities who withdraw behind a wall of familiar faces risk losing touch with what made them famous in the first place.
The same goes for politicians, who tend to stick with the people who got them to the big show. And if they have to change in mid-stream, they turn to old hats, since they can't afford to make any "new friends". Which might explain why folks like Bob Shrum continue to get work directing campaigns, even though they've never actually won any.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
Back In Austin
Wow. Texas really does do everything bigger. Including mad parliamentary power struggles. It seems that both Republicans and Democrats alike want to oust Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, a Republican, before his term expires in January. Apparently, Craddick rules the joint with an iron fist, often forcing members to line up on votes that hurt their chances back home.
To toss Craddick, all they've got to do is pass a motion to vacate. Only trouble is, a motion to vacate is considered a "privileged" motion under Texas parliamentary rules. And to present a privileged motion, a member's got to be recognized by the House Speaker. Which Craddick refuses to do:
By the time the House adjourned shortly before 1:30 a.m., Craddick had beaten back his opponents, lawmakers who tried to overtake the speaker's podium were physically restrained and the House parliamentarian resigned.
That's democracy in the Lone Star State. Obviously a product ready for export.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Dick Cheney might be something of a laughingstock to most reasonable people. But while his ability to determine policy might have waned along with his credibility, his ability to veto or sabotage it hasn't. Gareth Porter explains how Cheney's efforts to undermine the Bush administration's foreign policy "realists" (specifically Condi Rice and Bob Gates) might very well box us into a militarist corner with regards to Iran. It's a good article, well worth a look.
Monday, May 21, 2007
Cause And Effect
You'll remember last week's Whopper of the Day, wherein Tony Snow vaunted the Bush administration's "unparalleled" commitment to global warming. Here's Robert Sullivan, former associate director in charge of exhibitions at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, describing how that widely recognized commitment somehow managed to tone down the emphasis on human responsibility for global warming in an exhibit on climate-change:
"It just became tooth-pulling to get solid science out without toning it down," said Sullivan, who resigned last fall after 16 years at the museum. He said he left after higher-ups tried to reassign him...
Sullivan said that to his knowledge, no one in the Bush administration pressured the Smithsonian, whose $1.1 billion budget is mostly taxpayer-funded.
Rather, he said, Smithsonian leaders acted on their own. "The obsession with getting the next allocation and appropriation was so intense that anything that might upset the Congress or the White House was being looked at very carefully," he said.
It's funny how counterintuitive the effects of an unparalleled commitment can be.
Sunday, May 13, 2007
Chuck Hagel apparently talked up the merits of a third party presidential bid, saying he'd make a final decision about running by the end of the summer. If he does run, perhaps on a ticket with NY Mayor Mike Bloomberg, that could only be a good thing for the Democratic nominee. I don't see Hagel taking too many votes from any of the Democratic candidates. He would, on the other hand, probably peel off some of the sane Republican voters who believe that the Theory of Evolution might just hold some water.
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
Congressional Cage Match
I suppose it would be irresponsible of me to say that sometimes I wish the US Congress operated more along the lines of the Taiwanese Parliament model. So instead I'll just say that this would make a great South Park episode.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
I've been mulling over my last post about Wolf Blitzer's interview with Dennis Kucinich, trying to come up with a more precise formulation of what I find so troubling about it. Unlike Blitzer, the Constitution never suggests that the powers of impeachment should be suspended during times of war. Not because of some glaring omission on the parts of the Founders. But because the idea that a declaration of war confers some sort of absolute power to the executive branch would have been anathema to the guiding principle behind the document.
But while the logic behind the question is hostile to the very notion of separation of powers, it does raise another more valid question. Under what circumstances are the people justified in removing the power to wage war from the hands of the President? And I think the answer is pretty clear: When a sufficient majority of them are convinced that the war does more harm to the national interest than good.
No general would go into battle without the option of strategic retreat in the event the attack fails, and none would confuse such a retreat with surrender. President Bush and the last supporters of the War in Iraq would have us choose a counterfeit version of honor over self-preservation. But they'll find no support for their masquerade in the Constitution.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
Friend Of The Devil
How's this for irony? The official reference number for the Articles of Impeachment that Dennis Kucinich just filed against Dick Cheney is H. Res. 333. Which means that once we get rid of the Veep, we'll have another 333 to go before the exorcism is complete.
On a more serious note, during the course of his interview with Kucinich, Wolf Blitzer asks him whether it's appropriate to impeach a sitting Veep during time of War. Kucinich rightfully reminds Blitzer that Nixon's impeachment took place while American forces were still in Vietnam.
But aside from the historical precedent, think about the guiding logic of the question for a second. Blitzer, and presumably many more soon to follow, is suggesting that by accepting to follow the President into war, the American people relinquish their Constitutional power to remove him from office. Or as the Bush administration formulates it, war exempts the executive branch from the legal constraints of the Constitution.
And if that's not a surefire invitation to despotism, I don't know what is.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
A Regime Of Secrecy
Anyone feeling a little subpoena fatigue from the Democrats' relentless attempt to get straight answers, or in some cases just answers, from the Bush administration on the US Attorney firings, Iraq War intelligence, RNC e-mail accounts, or any of the other investigations going on now should click through to Scott Horton's long post/short article on the threat the abuse of state secrets poses to democracy. For those who are too busy to read through the entire article, here's the closing paragraph:
There is no more urgent agenda before Congress today than reasserting its oversight function, and using all the tools at its disposal—including subpoenas, hearings and the power of the purse—to regain a check on a regime of secrecy which is reeling dangerously in the direction of a police state. It could yet make a difference.
What's going on right now on Capitol Hill is more than just political posturing. It really matters.
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
With Friends Like This...
I've been arguing the merits of impeaching Dick Cheney for a while now. So while it's comforting to see the idea gain traction, I'd have liked to have seen it picked up by someone other than... Dennis Kucinich. He's put it on ice while the Veep gets some follow-up medical treatment, but as soon as Cheney's fit again, Kucinich plans to welcome him back to work with articles of impeachment. Too bad, because it's a move that's worth serious consideration, something I doubt it will get now. Oh, well. I suppose there's always Gonzalez.
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Barack & Bayrou
A few months ago I was struck by the parallels between the political arc of Barack Obama and Ségolène Royal, the French Socialist candidate for President. Both were relative unknowns a short while ago. Both capitalized on personal charisma and dissatisfaction with familiar faces to rise quickly in public opinion polls. And both emphasized governing philosophy while remaining vague about policy details.
But I'm struck now by the parallels between Obama and François Bayrou, the French centrist candidate. Like Bayrou, Obama emphasizes consensus and bi-partisanship. Like Bayrou, Obama is both a "fresh face" and a party insider. And like Bayrou, he's been accused of being out of step with voters' polarized, militant mood.
There's no doubting that Obama is a true Democrat, yet he insists on running on a platform of conciliation and consensus. The question he, like Bayrou, seems to be posing comes down to, "Can't we all just get along?" In France, the answer was, "Not yet." I wonder what America will respond.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
A word about the Pentagon's decision to extend Iraq tours from 12 to 15 months, which comes on the heels of some units being rotated back to Iraq before completing a year of Stateside duty. You don't need to be a four-star general to know that when you place low-morale troops in high-stress theaters for extended tours of duty, you dramatically increase the risk of misdirected violence. A massacre along the lines of My Lai would be the final nail in our Iraq coffin, yet the Bush administration is putting all the pieces in place that make such a horrible event almost inevitable. Which won't prevent them from blaming a few "bad apples" if one does end up occuring.
It's worth noting that one dramatic difference between this war and the Vietnam War is that back then, there was a draft. So even though plenty of people like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney managed to avoid serving, the impact of that war domestically was felt more broadly than the current war.
The Pentagon is going through all these contortions to maintain troop levels that don't really exist, in order to avoid placing any burden on the civilian population (other than the massive activation of reserve units). None of this is a military necessity. It's a political necessity.
The Vietnam War became unpopular as quickly as it did because after the Tet offensive, people realized:
- That the war was not going as well as the government had claimed;
- That the stakes were not as high as the government had made them out to be;
- Because they no longer wanted to personally pay the price of a failed policy.
I think we've already seen number one with the Iraq War, although the Surge was designed to forestall it a bit. Number two shouldn't be long in coming.
The only way Bush can run out the clock until someone else takes office (and responsibility for the entire mess) is if he can keep number three from happening. And he's willing to break the military to do it.
Monday, April 9, 2007
Two Wrongs Make Me Right
Every now and then, for reasons I can't well explain, I find myself trying to formulate an argument in defense of some aspect of George W. Bush's presidency. Which is to say, I consider the possibility that I (along with most of the people whose opinion I respect) am wrong, which I think is an important exercise for even the most firmly held beliefs. Especially for the most firmly held beliefs.
Take, for instance, the President's well-known track record of appointing to regulatory boards the lobbyists and executives from the very industries to be regulated. I wondered whether his critics (that is, me and most of the people whose opinion I respect) weren't ignoring the fact that when it comes to regulatory oversight, there's really no such thing as neutrality.
In other words, there are people who want to log national forests, drill for gas and oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and manufacture and buy products that pollute the environment. They think they should be allowed to do those things because they don't think there's anything wrong with it. For these people, an appointee who emphasizes preservation over use isn't neutral, he or she is partisan.
So, I end up thinking, maybe what we're feeling now is what these people have been feeling for all the years when the regulatory agencies were stacked against them.
Then I go and read Robert Kennedy, Jr.'s piece in Vanity Fair about environmental appointees in the Bush administration, and I realize that I was wrong for ever having considered that I might be wrong about George W. Bush.
There is one silver lining. When corporate lobbyists become the government, they no longer have to bribe anyone to get regulations to go their way.
Monday, April 9, 2007
Something about Political Wire's Quote of the Day from yesterday wouldn't quit buzzing around in my head:
"Seeing this kind of intensity so early, it's unbelievable. I shudder to think how people are physically going to be able to maintain this pace, this personal focus, for two years."
-- Democratic media strategist Tad Devine, quoted by the Chicago Tribune, on the early start to the 2008 presidential campaign.
Of course, he's talking about the candidates who, instead of working behind the scenes to shore up their logistical infrastructure, are busy trying to stay in front of the cameras as much as possible.
I wonder about the voters who, at almost a year from the first primaries, are being subjected to a level of campaign intensity that even the most avid political junky can barely sustain.
Then there's the system itself, too. The early rollout of the 2008 presidential campaign means that candidates will spend two years of campaigning for a four year term of office. Four years that are spent greasing the wheels for a second term that, if won, is effectively over after two.
So is there a better alternative? I think so. Extend the presidential term of office to six years, with a one term limit. Then hold a Vice-Presidential election in the third year, whereby voters could elect an opposition Veep in the event of a wildly unpopular president.
That way the President can focus on governing, instead of campaigning. And so can we.
Sunday, April 8, 2007
I admit to being mystified by Phyllis Schlafly. As a kid growing up in a progressive household, a woman arguing against the ERA made about as much sense to me as a black guy arguing against the Thirteenth Amendment. But in this LA Times op-ed, almost overshadowed by her riveting account of the previous demise of the ERA, she actually lays out her case against an amendment prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender. And it comes down to... alimony payments:
The amendment would require women to be drafted into military combat any time men were conscripted, abolish the presumption that the husband should support his wife and take away Social Security benefits for wives and widows.
Hmmm. Well, there's still the riveting account, which includes this jewel about a conference organized in Houston in 1977 to give a final push for ratification:
The conference featured virtually every known feminist leader and received massive media coverage. But it backfired. When conference delegates voted for taxpayer funding of abortions and the entire gay rights agenda, Americans discovered the ERA's hidden agenda.
A couple of months later, a reporter asked the governor of Missouri if he was for the ERA. "Do you mean the old ERA or the new ERA?" he replied. "I was for equal pay for equal work, but after those women went down to Houston and got tangled up with the abortionists and the lesbians, I can tell you ERA will never pass in the Show-Me State."
Abortionists and lesbians. They'll kill a constitutional amendment every time.
Saturday, April 7, 2007
Death Be Not Proud
Two stories I ran across really bring home the true cost of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the first one quite literally. According to this AP story, a law quietly took effect this past January that changed the way in which our dead soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan are being returned home to their families. The military is now required to fly the flag-draped caskets on military or military-contracted aircraft, to regional airports as close as possible to the family. Once there, the caskets must be removed from the plane by a military honor guard.
Before the law took effect, the caskets were flown by standard commercial jet, often unloaded from the plane by baggage handlers using forklifts, and delivered to the family in cargo area warehouses. The military claimed they were simply trying to expedite the delivery as much as possible. But when you compare the costs -- $1.2 million for all of last year by commercial flights versus $11 million for a six month contract with a charter company -- it's easy to be skeptical.
Meanwhile, in Reno, Nevada, the National Guard Bureau held its first ever Army Guard honor guard competition. I'll quote the article's description of the competition's "events", because a summary doesn't quite do it justice:
Each day began with an exhaustive in-ranks inspection during which Old Guard NCOs "hard-eyed" each Soldier from head to toe. They used rulers to check the uniforms; they wrote down the "gigs," or discrepancies.
Then the best of the Army Guard's best had themselves rated on all aspects of performing a funeral for a fallen veteran - from lifting caskets and urns out of hearses to firing the customary salute with M-14 rifles and presenting the folded flag to a deceased's family member.
The participants ran a grueling, timed obstacle course which had to be done twice - once for time and then repeated in full dress blues while performing honors; both times while carrying a casket weighted down by 200 pounds of sandbags. They also took a 60-question written exam on the history of memorial affairs.
Now the whole thing seems a bit over the top to me, especially the last bit about running an obstacle course in dress blues while carrying a 200 lb. casket. Almost like a Monty Python skit. But I'm not going for a cheap laugh here. Because this is what comes at the end of article:
Oregon's Turner praised the competition and also summed up what it meant to win and to a veteran of the Iraq War: "Pretty much all of us are combat veterans and we all lost friends over there. Every day we do services we'll be marching past our friends' headstones. ... Going out there and being pallbearers together, it's something you can't describe."
Now I'm not judging the way the military honors its dead. In fact, I think there's something moving and important about it. But this seems to me to be representative of the triumph in certain circles of form over function. Or worse yet, of formulas over reality. Because the truth is, it's cynical to talk about supporting our troops and at the same time treat the fallen like cargo. Or worse yet, to talk about honoring the dead and at the same time factor even one unnecessary military funeral into the political calculus of the war's endgame.
And that's what this administration is doing.
Sunday, April 1, 2007
This LA Times article gives a good status report on all the political benchmarks that the Iraqi government was supposed to meet in order to justify the ongoing surge of American troops. Upshot? Don't hold your breath.
In fact, all of the much-touted political progress in Iraq turns out to be a hodge-podge of deferred decisions (the Kirkuk referendum), promised revisions (Sunni misgivings over the constitution), and pigeon-holed legislation (oil-sharing, amnesty, disbanding the militias), all cobbled together and promptly swept under the rug.
The good news is that the Iraqi battalions reporting to Baghdad for the surge are no longer arriving at 60-65% troop levels.
Sunday, April 1, 2007
What A Difference A Year Makes
Did you catch these three headlines?
Kind of hard not to notice them, given that the standoff between Congress and the White House over the Iraq War funding bill has been all over the news. The only thing is, these headlines are all about the Iraq War funding bill... from 2006. Here's a good quote from an April 25 WaPo article that described the bill hitting the Senate floor:
The measure is expected to eventually pass with ease, but not before the Senate takes ample time to discuss Iraq policy, gasoline prices and lawmakers' appetites for homestate projects.
And in fact, that's just what it did, so much so that the President threatened a veto, and a June 7 WaPo article titled "Deal Elusive On Iraq, Hurricane Aid Bill" included the following paragraph:
A Pentagon money crunch is worsening almost daily, but there won't be a crisis if Congress fails to clear the legislation by the end of the week.
An agreement was eventually reached the following day, almost four months after the President's initial appropriations request. So why didn't the President claim that Congress was playing politics with the safety of the troops, as he's done this year? And why didn't the Pentagon brass roll out a media campaign about the impact on troop readiness, as they've done this year? And why hasn't anyone referred to this in the coverage of the current showdown?
Update: UPI is reporting that according to the Congressional Research Service, there is absolutely no funding shortage for the war effort:
In a careful review of U.S. Army data and the Defense Department's existing legal authorities, non-partisan budget experts at CRS informed Congress the Army could maintain its wartime operations well into July 2007 with funds already provided.
Remember, the President's first response to the House's bill was to call it "political theater."
Thursday, March 29, 2007
The Wrong Wall
Melissa Rogers has this to say about the bi-partisan Congressional group that held a press conference yesterday at the Capitol to "call America back to prayer":
Frankly, members of Congress have no business issuing an "official call" for Americans to turn "back to prayer." Members of Congress certainly may pray, and they may play active roles within their respective religious communities. They also may form unofficial groups that meet for worship, prayer, and Bible study on government property just as other unofficial groups do. But their stations as government officials do not entitle them to attempt to lead us in spiritual pursuits.
I'd only add that they were doing more than leading a spiritual pursuit. They were advocating religious practice, even if they made a point to use ecumenical language. And not only are they not entitled, in their capacity as government officials, to do that. They are expressly forbidden by the constitution.
Randy Forbes, the Congressman who organized the event, claimed that it took place during their lunch hour, so no tax money was spent on religion. But the question isn't about money. It's about keeping political institutions free of religious affiliation. Mr. Forbes has every right to build a "spiritual prayer wall" around the country if he so desires. He just can't tear down the wall of separation between church and state to do so.
Monday, March 26, 2007
Not All Politics Are The Same
I've been reluctant to do much posting on the US Attorneys scandal, mainly because there's already so much quality coverage elsewhere (TPM and McClatchy in particular stand out.) But in her New Yorker article about the firings, Dorothy Wickendon offers a simple, one-sentence summary of just what the big deal is:
Assembling a compatible legal team is one thing; expecting its members to tailor individual investigations to partisan demands is another.
Republicans are trying to confuse the issue by blurring the various meanings of "politics". It is normal for Presidential appointees, including US Attorneys, to toe a political line when "political" refers to policy (ie. prosecutorial priorities). That's why this was the DoJ's first line of defense for the firings.
This isn't what happened, GOP claims to the contrary. Most of the eight US Attorneys were fired for not bowing to pressure that was political in the partisan sense of the word, intended to influence elections: by smearing local Democrats in certain cases, and to deflect negative publicity from the GOP in others. That's the distinction that needs to be made.
Saturday, March 24, 2007
Power Of The Purse
With a group of veterans and the families of fallen soldiers gathered behind him at the White House, President Bush accused House Democrats yesterday of engaging in political theater by passing a war funding bill requiring staged withdrawal from Iraq (video here, text here):
Democrats want to make clear that they oppose the war in Iraq. They have made their point. For some, that is not enough.
Imagine that. The elected House of Representatives might actually believe they have the right to govern. The audacity of it.
He ended by saying, "The Democrats have sent their message, now it's time to send their money." This is obviously a guy who's not used to having his allowance cut off.
Update: Good catch. The New York Nerd points out that a woman standing behind the President during his address was in uniform, which is a violation of Dept. of Defense regulations for both active duty soldiers and veterans.
Saturday, March 24, 2007
It's still too early in the process to tell whether Congress' gambit to link war funding to a withdrawal timetable will be successful. To begin with, the Senate could still kill the deal. But assuming the bill eventually does wind up on President Bush's desk, he's already promised a veto, one that Pelosi doesn't have the votes to overturn.
At that point, scrapping the withdrawal timetable reinforces the false image of Democrats as being weak and quick to cave in. But sending the same bill back to the Oval Office for another veto turns war funding into a political game of chicken. And that's where the President has the advantage, because he's only got one person to convince to get the veto issued, whereas Pelosi's got to twist 218 arms to get the bill passed. She got the votes this time, but only just barely.
Where the rubber hits the road on this tactic is once the clock starts winding down on getting the money where it's needed to protect the American soldiers' lives that are at stake.
Friday, March 23, 2007
Time For A New Cover Story
This would appear to be the final nail in the coffin. The AP is reporting that according to documents released today, Alberto Gonzales approved the plan to fire eight US Attorneys in a meeting with his Chief of Staff and other Dept. of Justice officials, and signed off on the procedure for carrying out the dismissals. Gonzales had previously told reporters that he had not been involved in the process.
Hard to imagine, even under the present administration, how the country's top law enforcement official could brazenly lie to the press, the public and Congress, and still hold onto his job. I wager he doesn't last the weekend.
Friday, March 23, 2007
Power Of The Purse
Another quick thought on the House bill tying supplemental appropriations for the Iraq War to a withdrawal schedule. If ever there was a case study for why the line item veto is a bad idea, this is it. There's an enormous difference, politically speaking, between Congress de-funding the war and attaching conditions on its funding. A difference that would be moot if the President had the power to take the funding and veto the conditions.
Friday, March 23, 2007
In response to Congress linking supplemental appropriations for the Iraq war to a withdrawal timetable, President Bush promised a veto. So my question is, Does that mean he doesn't support the troops?
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Politicians at the local level can be entertainingly mistake-prone. Whether it was bad grammar or bad temper, bad judgment or bad attitude, we've all known (and loved) mayors, governors and even Congresspeople who managed to get elected in spite of, and in some cases because of, the idiosyncrasies that made them human like the rest of us. Which is to say flawed.
Once someone takes the leap and decides to run for the Senate, the stakes go up a notch. The suits are crisper, the ties more tightly knotted, and the makeup a little more thickly applied. Still, although there's less room for error, a few memorable cranks and crackpots manage to slip in. (Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, and Rick Santorum all spring to mind.)
But something happens to politicians once they make the cut and become serious Presidential candidates. The closest analogy I can think of is that of a sixty year-old Hollywood actress who, in order to land one of the few roles scripted for a woman her age, must actually resemble, not a woman her age or even a woman thirty years younger, but a woman who doesn't exist. That is, a woman who didn't exist until Hollywood's imagination brought her into being.
This new being is not an older woman who has somehow been magically perfected. In fact, there's something mildly disturbing about her appearance, especially upon closer scrutiny. Because in going to such great lengths to hide the flaws that come with age, she inevitably calls more attention to them.
And so it is too with Presidential candidates, at least the ones with the misfortune of having a shot at winning. Somewhere it was decided that the best way for someone running for the Oval Office to appeal to actual people was to cease to be one him or herself. Any ideosyncrasies are carefully vetted and either tossed out for good or else replaced with the carefully scripted version. What we're left with are candidates bearing so little resemblance to actual people that when they do actually slip up, we greet their misfortune with fascination, if not relish.
A lot of it has to do with the political consultants that manage campaigns for the major candidates. A lot of it has to do with the lack of courage or imagination on the part of the candidates themselves. But a lot of it has to do with us, as well. We've come to expect that a sixty year-old actress be without any wrinkles, after all. Even if we know what she's done to get rid of them.
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
When Comedy Gets Serious
Jon Stewart's 2004 appearance on Crossfire, where he wryly observed that "...the news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity", is by now legendary. But take a look at this clip of former UN Ambassador John Bolton's recent appearance on The Daily Show, and you'll see that it wouldn't be such a bad thing if they did.
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Never Complain, Never Explain
Amid all the accusations of ethically questionable and politically backhanded motives for the firing of the eight US Attorneys, here's President Bush's assessment of the basic underlying issue (video here):
The announcement of this decision and the subsequent explanation of these changes has been confusing and, in some cases, incomplete. Neither the Attorney General, nor I approve of how these explanations were handled. We're determined to correct the problem.
My hunch is that, if the President disapproves of anything, it's the fact that an explanation was even offered in the first place. Why else would he hold a press conference about why the US Attorneys got fired and not bother to... explain why the US Attorneys got fired?
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Say Your Prayers, Gonzo
Here's a guilty pleasure I can't resist. The Presidential Prayer Team has just come out with a handy deck of cards to help folks remember America's leaders in their prayers:
The National Leaders Prayer Deck contains 52 cards featuring the most influential men and women in our national government. Included are President Bush, the First Lady, the President’s Cabinet, the majority and minorty leaders of the House and Senate, the Supreme Court Chief Justice, all the Military Joint Chiefs, Congressional Chaplains and more. Use this resource to pray for one powerful American leader each week of the year. (Emphasis in original.)
Better get your order in quick though, because judging from the sample cards it's going to be a collector's item any day now:
Monday, March 19, 2007
Off Their Meds
There's been something of an online firestorm lately regarding whether it's possible to support the State of Israel without supporting the position of the American pro-Israel lobby, which is, in case you've just tuned in, a shade more hawkish than Dr. Strangelove. Nevertheless, the risks of not toeing the line are significant, since running afoul of these guys seems to be the kiss of death for American politicians.
That's why Barack Obama is taking such great pains to convince them that despite appearances to the contrary, he's a friend of Israel:
Obama’s substantively hard line on Israel has cost him friends among Chicago’s Palestinian activists. But his rhetoric has given the pro-Israel side pause...
Some among Obama’s supporters suggest he simply isn’t totally familiar with the code-like vocabulary that has grown up around the Israel-Palestine debate. Phrases like “cycle of violence” and – worse still – pledges to be “even-handed” are freighted with meaning in that context, and a second-hand report in January from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in January that Obama had once pledged to be “even-handed” suggested to some Jewish critics that he was taking the Palestinian side.
The Iraq war also hovers on the fringes of the debate over candidates’ positions on Israel... Obama’s pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq... raised concern that the U.S. would be less able to confront Iran. (Obama argues that the Iraq invasion made Israel’s plight worse.)
“If you’re serious of confronting the regime of Iran and Ahmadinejad and his plans for mass murder then you have to look at the map and say how do we do this – what is the only way that we do this, what is the most practical way to do this,” Chouake said. “That is something [Obama] needs to rethink.” (Emphasis added.)
These guys are lunatics, but they're influential lunatics. Which makes them dangerous, for Israel and the US.
Thursday, March 15, 2007
So, Is That A Yes?
A little gem from today's White House press briefing, regarding the rapidly spreading US Attorney scandal:
Q: On the attorneys, you mentioned that these firings were not done as political retaliation or retribution. If we're going to talk about, kind of, the President's powers, though, if any of the firings were for political retribution, is that within his purview, as well?
MR. SNOW: Let me put it this way: Again, the President has the authority to remove people who serve at his pleasure. And these are folks who had four-year terms, all of which had expired.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Iran And The Israel Lobby
Scott McConnell's got an interesting article in The American Conservative on how the Iran question is driving a wedge between mainstream American Jewish opinion and the American Jewish "Israel lobby" (AIPAC, ADL, AJC), with the latter significantly more hawkish, and outspokenly so, regarding a potential American military intervention in Iran than the former. He then describes the dangers involved in, a) criticizing the lobby groups, and b) disagreeing with them, both for journalists and politicians. But he concludes by suggesting that bloggers, and Jewish bloggers in particular, have recently managed to puncture the lobby groups aura of invincibility, citing Matthew Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and yours truly (I'm quoted as a "regrettably anonymous" commenter on Ezra Klein's blog) as examples.
I think there's no disputing the fact that American Jews wield a disproportionate influence over America's Israel policy, in the same way that American Cubans wield a disproportionate influence over America's Cuba policy. And both have a sort of veto power over who gets elected based on their respective single issue litmus tests.
The difference lies in how generalized the veto power is. Someone running for Congress in Miami doesn't stand much chance of getting elected on a pro-Castro platform. I'm not sure it poses a problem for someone running in South Dakota, on the other hand.
Not so with the Israel lobby. Apparently, no one makes it to Washington, or the NY Times editorial board, unless they toe the AIPAC line. So goes a certain line of thought, anyway. One that, while often condemned (by the Israel lobby) for echoing the anti-Semitic trope of the Jewish "cabal", is not necessarily untrue.
Besides the paragraph quoted from my comment, though, I find this to be the most intriguing passage in McConnell's article:
It may be beyond the American people’s power to stop George W. Bush from launching another preventive war. But even though the president and his top advisers can isolate themselves from currents of public opinion, that is less the case for top military officers. And it is far more likely that they will find ways to raise meaningful speedbumps and roadblocks on the route to an expanded war if there is a large enough public outcry against it. Right now there is not.
I've often seen civilian command of the Armed Forces cited as a check on the potential bellicosity of the military. This is the first time I've seen the military cited as a check on the potential bellicosity of the civilian command.
Tuesday, March 6, 2007
US Attorney Hearings
Anyone following the US Attorneys story should definitely head over to TPM and TPMmuckraker for some great team coverage of today's hearings, including video highlights and updates. In case this story's flown under your radar, it's basically a methodology of how the GOP, through the Bush Department of Justice, fired eight US Attorneys for either not filing corruption indictments of local Democrats in advance of last November's election, or for pursuing corruption cases against Republicans.
Gitmo, Jose Padilla, the torture memos, the Iraq War, warrantless surveillance, the Libby conviction, the US Attorneys. The common thread that connects them all is an assault on the rule of law. Not surprising for an administration that was essentially installed by a rigged Supreme Court decision.
Sunday, March 4, 2007
Ann Coulter's Comic Genius
The fascinating thing about Ann Coulter is that when you take her out of the context of political debate and put her into the context of political satire where she belongs, she's actually kind of funny. In the same way, albeit with less intelligence, that Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are funny. (Or Dennis Miller, if he actually were funny.) Which is to say, crudely, offensively and often childishly.
What makes her uniquely brilliant, though, is that unlike Maher, Stewart, and Colbert, her schtick actually does as much damage to the right as it does to the left. How? Because she develops her caricature of "liberals" (by which she means anyone to the left of Chuck Hagel) as weak, gay, traitors. But she does it by adopting a persona that is itself a caricature of the rightwing nutjobs that make up the bulk of her cheering section. Which is why she's at the same time so effective and so radioactive.
Think about it. Ann Coulter is the only controversial or provocative figure in the three ring circus that passes for contemporary American politics who could conceivably switch sides of the aisle on a moment's notice without changing one word of her act. (Okay, Joe Lieberman probably could, too, but that's another story.) All it would take would be a subtle gesture (and it could remain very subtle) to tip off the audience, and the joke would suddenly be on the other guys. She'd remain just as crude, offensive and childish. But the humor would be just as effective.
Just like with Sasha Baron Cohen's Borat character, the salient aspect of Ann Coulter's routine isn't any given remark she herself makes. It's the response that she's able to elicit, both from her conservative supporters and her liberal targets, that matters. That's why Democrats calling for apologies and denunciations play right into her game and let the GOP off the hook. Hold them to their immediate reaction, there in the room, which revealed them for the caricatures they've become. And give Ann Coulter's comic genius its due.
Saturday, March 3, 2007
Sorry? More Like, Thanks Guys
How's this for a scenario? Ann Coulter calls John Edwards a "faggot" at the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference). The audience gasps, then breaks into a round of applause. The following day, DNC boss Howard Dean drops a press release stating:
"The conservative base of the GOP has once again revealed their devotion to gay-baiting, hateful rhetoric, to go along with their gay-baiting, hateful policies. We're very grateful, because it puts into stark contrast the real difference between the Democratic and Republican Parties. On the one hand, a tradition of social progressivism that's resulted in all of the significant Civil Rights gains and social welfare advances of the past century. And on the other, a tradition of racism, homophobia, and social regression. We'd like to thank Ms. Coulter, and all of the GOP candidates who shared the stage with her, for making this choice crystal clear for the American people. You just saved us tons of dough in campaign advertising."
Unfortunately, we live in the real world, and Howard Dean instead called on the GOP candidates to denounce her remarks. Oh, well. Maybe next time.
Thursday, March 1, 2007
The Office That Wasn't
I was a little busy last week to really get to Seymour Hersh's New York Magazine article on the shift allegedly taking place in American Middle East policy. But it's worth taking a second look at, and for more than just the sensational excerpts that have made the rounds. In case you haven't read it, it makes the following claims:
- That elements of the Bush administration have identified the containment of Iran, whose influence has grown significantly as a result of the Iraq War, as America's highest regional priority.
- That according to these elements, the most effective way to do this is to enlist Sunni proxies throughout the broader region, and in particular in Lebanon and Syria, to combat Iranian proxies and their interests.
- That many of these Sunni proxies are cut from the same radical, extremist mold as al-Qaeda.
- That the Saudis are largely underwriting the initiative, both from a financial and diplomatic standpoint, with assurances that they'll be able to keep the radical Sunni groups under control.
- That a great deal of the American side of the initiative is being run covertly, in the manner of the Iran-Contras scheme, with no Congressional oversight.
Here's the operative paragraph from Hersh's article for the last claim:
Iran-Contra was the subject of an informal “lessons learned” discussion two years ago among veterans of the scandal... One conclusion was that even though the program was eventually exposed, it had been possible to execute it without telling Congress. As to what the experience taught them, in terms of future covert operations, the participants found: “One, you can’t trust our friends. Two, the C.I.A. has got to be totally out of it. Three, you can’t trust the uniformed military, and four, it’s got to be run out of the Vice-President’s office”... (Emphasis added.)
Why the Office of the VP? Well, as Tom Engelhardt points out in the Nation, because it's become something of a bureaucratic black hole in Washington. David Kurtz made the same observation over at TPM. And later followed it up with this pseudo-explanation offered by the OVP to justify their refusal to even provide a list of the personnel assigned to its staff to a Federal registry:
The Vice Presidency is a unique office that is neither a part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch, but is attached by the Constitution to the latter. The Vice Presidency performs functions in both the legislative branch (see article I, section 3 of the Constitution) and in the executive branch (see article II, and amendments XII and XXV, of the Constitution, and section 106 of title 3 of the United States Code).
Notice that it is neither a part of the executive nor the legislative branch, rather than a part of both. The implication being that as a result of this Constitutional ambiguity, the Vice President is free to operate as a free electron within the Federal government, subject to absolutely no oversight.
These guys have taken what's historically been considered the most impotent office in the Federal government and transformed it into the most powerful, beyond even the limits of the separation of powers. It's time to do something about that.
Monday, February 26, 2007
Props To... No, I Can't Say It
There are a lot of means available to state governments to break through the inertia that can sometimes develop in Washington. One of them is simply to take action. That's what California, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico and Arizona have done to fight greenhouse gas emissions. The Western Regional Climate Action Initiative requires the five states to define an emissions target within the next six months. They will then develop a market-based approach, to be announced over the next 18 months, to meet the target.
I'm not enough of an expert on this kind of stuff to know whether they've chosen an effective strategy. (Any readers with expertise, feel free to weigh in in the comments.) But it's nice to see some policy initiatives being driven from the state level. It's one of the advantages of a Federal system like our own. All it takes is a governor willing to flex some muscle.
Sunday, February 25, 2007
The Hillary Show
If you haven't seen this already, take a look: An anti-Hillary website called Stop Her Now dot Com, complete with flash videos of "The Hillary Show", where Hillary's the host and Howard Dean's the Ed McMahon sidekick. There's an episode with John Kerry as the guest, and another with Nancy Pelosi, that are actually kind of funny, in the way that something that's not very funny can sometimes be.
Saturday, February 24, 2007
Even More War Powers
A few more thoughts about the Bush administration's reasoning for why the 2002 Iraq War Authorization Act still applies, which now hangs on the clause that calls for the enforcement of "...all relevant UN Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq."
Let's assume, for argument's sake, that it's reasonable to interpret that clause as referring to resolutions passed after the invasion, as the White House is suggesting. We're now talking about the series of resolutions passed to legitimize the war ex post facto, since the pre-War resolutions had, by most accounts, not done so. A series of resolutions, you'll recall, that was demanded by the UN and opponents of the war before they'd participate in Iraqi reconstruction.
The administration's argument, then, is that the War Authorization Act still applies because we're enforcing UN resolutions that were passed after the actual war, to make up for the absence of the UN resolutions initially demanded by the War Authorization Act as a condition for the war.
But even setting aside the logical incoherence of that argument, a quick glance at the post-War resolutions shows that only the first two, Resolution 1483 and Resolution 1511, identify the Multi-National Force as an occupying power with the resulting legal obligations to guarantee Iraq's security and territorial integrity.
Beginning with Resolution 1546, which recognized the sovereignty of the Iraqi Interim Government, and continuing through Resolution 1723, which recognized the formation of the Iraqi Unity Government, the Multi-National Force's mandate is a function of the attached formal requests by the Iraqi government for its presence. The resolutions themselves simply serve to recognize the legitimacy of those requests.
The Bush administration has got nothing but smoke and mirrors here. Which won't necessarily stop them, seeing as they've gone to war on less. But I'm guessing they'll have to fall back on procedural tactics again to shoot down a repeal. After that, wherever public opinion comes down should go a long way to clarifying how soon it will be before we withdraw from Iraq.
Saturday, February 24, 2007
What Kind Of Crossroads?
Something else that jumped out at me about Obama's Austin speech, which I'm assuming is a variation of what's becoming his standard stump speech. He starts off by saying that America is at a crossroads. Then towards the end, to illustrate what he means by the audacity of hope, he runs off a litany of turning points in American history, where small movements defied the common wisdom of the day to transform both the country and its destiny:
- The defeat of the British Empire in the Revolutionary War;
- The experiment in democracy;
- The abolition of slavery;
- The women's suffrage movement;
- The organization of labor;
- The Civil Rights movement.
A litany that he wraps up with, "And that's the moment that we're in today."
Which is a pretty striking claim to make. Especially considering that the meat of the speech that precedes it is largely a gloss on health care and education, with a lingering emphasis on the War in Iraq. About the most radical proposal he tosses out is a new way of doing politics, which ends up being... unity and consensus. In other words, the very qualities critics so often used to argue against the movements he cites.
If you ask me, there's a significant disconnect here, and as it stands, something's got to give: Either he tones the speech down, or tones the policy up. Count me as one of the cynics, but I've got a nagging suspicion it'll be a couple notches down on the rhetoric.
Saturday, February 24, 2007
More War Powers
Reading through the 2002 Iraq War Authorization Act again, there's also this: A requirement for a Presidential determination that,
...acting pursuant to this resolution is consistent with the United States and other countries continuing to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations or persons who planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorists attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.
I'm not a constitutional scholar, or a legislative specialist, so I don't know whether this is further grounds to repeal the act. But it seems like a pretty strong argument could be made that this has not been the case.
Saturday, February 24, 2007
Nothing To Apologize For
I'm listening to the speech Barack Obama gave in Austin. And while it's true that he got in a few zingers at Dick Cheney's expense, he also dropped this in:
And most of all, people around the country are asking themselves why we are still in a war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged. Austin, I am proud of the fact that way back in 2002, I said that this war was a mistake...
Lumping in authorizing the war with waging it. Wonder who he's trying to distinguish himself from there?
Saturday, February 24, 2007
Read It And Weep
In yesterday's White House press briefing, spokesman Tony Fratto staked out the Bush administration's position regarding any Democratic attempt to replace the 2002 Iraq War Authorization Act with a more strictly defined, updated mission. And needless to say, it's a doozy.
According to Fratto, even though the ongoing American military presence is no longer necessary to meet the Act's first goal, ie. to "...defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq...", it is still necessary to meet the second, ie. to "...enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions regarding Iraq..."
Not the pre-War Security Council Resolutions calling for disarming Iraq and allowing weapons inspections, mind you. The post-War resolutions defining the Multi-National Force's mandate to secure and stabilize Iraq.
Either way, it's strikes me as the height of irony, or else the height of cynicism, or both, to see the Bush administration finally find a use for the United Nations.
Friday, February 23, 2007
Clinton's Speech No Impediment
Let's say someone asked you how much Bill Clinton made last year on the speech circuit? How much would you guess? Leave it in the comments, and then click through to this article and see if you're right.
Friday, February 23, 2007
Working On The Cheney Gang
Three weeks ago I outlined why impeaching Dick Cheney would be a better way for Congressional Democrats to pull in the reins on the Bush administration than impeaching Bush himself. To begin with, Cheney is more politically vulnerable than the President. Removing him would eliminate the most bellicose and ruthless member of the administration, leaving Bush politically isolated. And it would dramatically raise the stakes of an eventual Presidential impeachment by putting Speaker Pelosi next in line for the Presidency. Of course, that still leaves the trifling question of a legal pretext.
Luckily, the March issue of GQ Magazine has now gone to the trouble of actually drafting the Articles of Impeachment against him. They nail him for everything from ginning up the pre-War intelligence, to promoting Halliburton's interests over those of the country, to obstructing justice by defying court orders and Congessional subpoenas to divulge the members of his Energy Task Force.
But most importantly, they point out the fact that, as Gerald Ford once said while still a Congressman:
...the only real definition of an “impeachable offense” is “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
These guys have been running roughshod over the Constitution from the minute they started contesting the Florida recount in November 2000. Since then, it's been one game of political brinksmanship after another. So if it takes trumped up charges to take them down, I say, Trump up the charges and impeach the bastards. Just start with Cheney.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
I'm With Stoopid
Yes, I'm on record as agreeing that it's stupid for the Presidential candidates to declare two years before the election. But I never said anything about fantastic conjectures about how things may play out two years ahead of the election. So here's a thought that just occured to me.
With the Democratic candidates as a whole looking as strong as any field I can remember, it's conceivable that they reach the Convention without any of them having won enough delegates to clinch the nomination. In other words, an old-school, smoke-filled room kind of convention that actually decides who the nominee is. Or else, one that doesn't decide a thing, leaving two Democrats in the general election to split the vote and deliver the most winnable White House in decades to the GOP.
Anyone else got any predictions? For the 2008 election, or the 2008 NBA Finals, take your pick.
Sunday, February 18, 2007
Obama's Young Idealists
There's been alot of coverage lately of Barack Obama's appeal among young voters, who have used Facebook and other online social networking tools to organize themselves in unprecedented numbers and with surprising speed. (Almost 280,000 members of one online group within a month of its formation.) And it occured to me that this might pose some problems for him down the line.
Why? Well, he's building his campaign on a rhetoric of hope and a new way of doing politics. Both of which usually refer to progressive/radical policies, and both of which tend to attract either older idealists who have been disillusioned with the political process (I'd throw myself in that category), or younger ones not yet familiar with it. And I think what we're seeing here is obviously an example of the latter.
Only trouble is, Obama's new way of doing politics, ie. consensus-building, tends to result in relatively risk-averse policy. Which, so far, is what I've seen from him. (I don't think his Iraq plan, given the current political climate, qualifies as anything earth-shattering.) So what's going to happen to the kids when they realize that Obama is not the crusading progressive his preacher cadences make him out to be?
My hunch is he's positioning himself in relation to Clinton and Edwards. But it's Kucinich who stands to steal his thunder.
Saturday, February 17, 2007
The Permanent Campaign
It's not often I find myself in agreement with Newt Gingrich. But here's one time that I do:
“I think the current process of spending an entire year running in order to spend an entire year running in order to get sworn in in January 2009 is stupid,” Gingrich said...
“We live in an age of iPods, cell phones with cameras, blackberries, laptop computers, blogs, television, 24-hour radio. You should be able to have a national campaign make a serious decision for president in nine weeks.”
I don't know about nine weeks. But eighty-nine weeks and $500 million (that's the estimate of what each of the two eventual candidates will have spent between the primaries and general election) seem like a big waste of time, money and energy. Campaigning is a full-time job, and most of the candidates are already on the government payroll, ostensibly to govern. Unfortunately, this trend is probably only going to get worse.
Saturday, February 17, 2007
Hillary's Dark Prince
One day when I was managing apartments in Euless, TX, just outside of Dallas, this kind-of-hot sales rep came by the office with an offer for some new phone plan. And since she was kind-of-hot, and on a sales call, I said something along the lines of, "Aren't you supposed to wine and dine me to get the account?" Before you knew it, we had a date for after work, and I was feeling pretty smooth.
Until we got to the bar where we were going to have drinks and the first thing she asked me after ordering an iced tea was, "So, are you a Messianic Jew?" Now, in general, there are only two types of people who use the term "Messianic Jew": Messianic Jews, and evangelical Christians. And given that my nickname for Euless was Jewless, it was a pretty sure bet she was the latter. Which made it pretty clear that, wherever else the evening might be headed, there were certain outcomes that could be ruled out.
Well, I managed to contain my urge to find an excuse to leave immediately, and we went on to have a conversation about evangelical Christianity, which I've found is what most evangelical Christians have conversations about. Which was fine, because I can get passionate about evangelical Christianity, in an academic sort of way, especially with a couple of beers in me. So the evening turned out to be pretty enjoyable. Or at least less unenjoyable than I had any right to expect.
Now, this lady was a real, dyed in the wool fundamentalist. The kind who, when I asked her what she would say to the Muslim tenants from the apartment complex I managed, who were just as convinced that Allah was the true name of God as she was that it was Jesus, replied, "That they're wrong."
So when the conversation came around to politics, it came as no surprise that she was a die-hard Dubya fan. Bill Clinton, according to her, was evil. To which I replied that I preferred a Bill Clinton, who you got the sense fell down on his knees every Sunday to beg forgiveness for his failings, to a George Bush, who I picture looking up at the altar with a smirk on his face as he gives thanks for his triumphs. (This was back in 2003, when it still appeared like he'd had some.)
Her response, I think, shows why Hillary Clinton is going to have a tough time come 2008 if she ends up winning the Democratic nomination. "Yes, you might be right," she said. "Bill Clinton was a good Christian. But not Hillary."
And here, in a perfectly unself-conscious gesture, she leaned a bit closer and lowered her voice, before dropping the clincher. "Hillary works for the Prince of Darkness."
Not the Devil. Not Satan. The Prince of Darkness.
Now for all I know, she might be right. After all, her phone plan ended up saving us some dough. But one thing's certain. You can forget about convincing her, and the thousands like her, that they're wrong. And that's a problem.
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Obama As Rorschach Test
In a previous post on Barack Obama, I was tempted to say that his blackness was like a national Rorshach test, meaning something different to everyone who looked at it. But that seemed to be too broad a claim to defend at 3 o'clock in the morning, so I opted instead for the simple observation that his blackness is already playing out in some very counterintuitive ways.
Now the beginnings of a Barack backlash have begun to show up on the national radar. And it should come as no surprise that one of the early arrivals focuses on his racial identity. Specifically the racial politics of his church, the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and its pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, who has been described as Obama's spiritual mentor. Here's how Investors Business Daily puts it in this hatchet job:
Those spreading rumors that Barack Hussein Obama is a "closet Muslim" are off the mark. His religion has little to do with Islam and everything to do with a militantly Afrocentric movement that's no less troubling.
Wow. Seems like pretty strong stuff for a guy who was asked on national TV as recently as two days ago whether he was black enough. (His response, that when it comes time to find a cab he is, might have been lost on many white Americans, but I'm sure scored some points with the Black community.)
Is it true? The easy response would be, Of course not. This sort of claim is not meant to stand up to scrutiny. Its purpose, similar to the madrassah story, is to plant an image in the minds of people who don't know much about Obama yet, the image of the Black bogeyman.
But to dismiss the story out of hand would be to miss an opportunity to advance the dialogue of racial understanding that Obama's candidacy presents. Because the real answer is a bit more complicated...
Read the full post>>
Monday, February 12, 2007
That Should Do The Trick
What if all the laws Congress passed were this concise?
Monday, February 12, 2007
Chris Dodd Gets Props
I recently proposed a Seven-point Plan I'd like to see the Democratic presidential candidates collectively endorse to demonstrate their commitment to returning the executive branch to the limits of constitutional authority. Well, tomorrow, Chris Dodd is going to introduce legislation into the Senate that seems to get the ball rolling. According to his website, the Effective Terrorist Prosecution Act:
- Restores Habeas Corpus protections to detainees
- Narrows the definition of unlawful enemy combatant to individuals who directly participate in hostilities against the United States who are not lawful combatants
- Bars information gained through coercion from being introduced as evidence in trials
- Empowers military judges to exclude hearsay evidence they deem to be unreliable
- Authorizes the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces to review decisions by the Military commissions
- Limits the authority of the President to interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions and makes that authority subject to congressional and judicial oversight
- Provides for expedited judicial review of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 to determine the constitutionally of its provisions
The Act will basically undo the most egregious measures of the Military Commissions Act passed last year. As TPM Muckraker pointed out, that law passed the Senate with 65 votes, so this is far from a done deal, either to make it out of the Senate or to clear a veto. But it's a good first step in the right direction.
Sunday, February 11, 2007
Well, one thing's for sure. If media coverage were votes, Barack Obama would be President already. Of course, part of it has to do with the fact that he's such an unknown quantity. Yes, there was the high-profile convention moment in 2004, and people who follow politics have had their eye on him for a while. But to the general public he's a newbie, which means hot ink.
So far the coverage has been focusing around:
- His insistance on vague and inspirational rhetoric, at the expense of policy proposals.
- His talent, charisma, and authenticity.
- His relatively short political career.
- His blackness.
I think there are as many political strengths as weaknesses to be found in all four. I've argued the merits of detailed policy proposals before, and it's something I'd like to develop further. But the short version is that telephone book-sized legislation is a big cause of the disconnect that exists between voters and government today. (Corruption being the other.) The politician who finds a way to re-invent not just politics, but government itself, as a goal-oriented, policy-adaptive institution stands to bring a lot of people into the process who would otherwise stand on the sidelines.
It might seem difficult to argue that talent, charisma and authenticity might have downsides, but mark my words: There's going to be a backlash, and when it comes, it will try to make talent look like ambition and charisma like self-importance. As for authenticity, it's a difficult quality to maintain on the campaign trail, especially with more than a year to go before the first primary votes are cast. It looks like Obama's wisely decided to play down people's fascination with his personal excellence and steer press coverage back from "me" to "us".
Short political careers set up the classic pro/con debate of inexperience vs. fresh ideas. With his emphasis on audacity and hope, or in other words bold action and results, Obama's already playing this one up as the latter. But he's got very little room for error. Any major gaffes or slips, while unlikely given his academic brilliance, will immediately put his credibility in doubt.
That leaves Obama's blackness, which is already playing out in some very counterintuitive ways. Consider that in the same week that Joe Biden's clumsy -- and mis-transcribed -- remarks set off a firestorm of controversy about language and race, some black leaders were grumbling that Obama, to put it bluntly, isn't "one of us". (The reasoning being that Obama's father is African, his mother is white, and he grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii.) Consider also that Hillary Clinton is outpolling him among black Democrats. The danger, of course, of not being embraced by what the rest of America will always consider "his own" is the impression it leaves of being somehow in-authentic. The opportunity lies in the chance it gives Obama to frame his narrative in the broader American tradition, and to define himself as a candidate for president who's black, instead of as a black candidate for president.
There's still a long way to go before the primaries, to say nothing of the general election. Plenty of time to fill in the outlines with substance, or let loose with a Dean Scream. So far, though, I'd say Obama's making all the right moves.
Sunday, February 11, 2007
Politics Ends At The Water's Edge?
Thanks to TPM for the link to this article about Aussie Prime Minister John Howard's broadside against the Dems in general, and Barack Obama in particular. Howard warned that Obama's deadline for withdrawing US troops from Iraq by March, 2008, would "...encourage those who wanted completely to destabilise and destroy Iraq...", adding:
If I was running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008, and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats.
This is obviously a violation of diplomatic protocol, which looks askance at endorsing candidates in a sovereign state's elections, especially an ally's. It'll be interesting to see the White House's reaction, all the more so in light of Dems' very strong response to Hugo Chavez's UN remarks last year.
Saturday, February 10, 2007
Levin On The Case
I mentioned yesterday, with regard to the Senate investigation into Douglas Feith's pre-War intel shenanigans, that who was told what and under whose instuction looked like it might be the lead to follow. Well, it looks like Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee, is going to go after Stephen Hadley and Scooter Libby, two of the guys briefed by Feith's team, next. The White House usually resists having its aides questioned by Congress, so this could get interesting.
Friday, February 9, 2007
Feith Changed His Briefs
The Senate Armed Services Committee sparred today over what to make of the Pentagon Inspector General's report on the Office of Special Plans, Douglas Feith's pre-War intelligence-cooking unit at the Defense Dept. The report's key finding? The operation was authorized, because it was directed by Dep. Sec. of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz.
...however, we believe the actions were inappropriate because a policy office was producing intelligence products and was not clearly conveying to senior decision-makers the variance with the consensus of the Intelligence Community.
Thomas F. Gimble, the Pentagon’s acting inspector general, refused to be pinned down by either side, but he did offer up this intriguing morsel:
However, Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, drew from Mr. Gimble a statement that Mr. Feith had not been entirely consistent in his intelligence briefings, in ways Mr. Gimble said he could not go into for security reasons.
“He changed the briefing for his audience?” Mr. Reed asked
“There were adjustments made depending on the audience,” Mr. Gimble replied.
Both Carl Levin, the Armed Services committee chair, and Jay Rockefeller, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, have indicated they're going to follow up aggressively on the report's findings. Who was told what, and by whose instructions, seems like a pretty good place to start.
Friday, February 9, 2007
Where Are They Now?
We read alot at the time about the Coalition Provisional Authority's hiring practices: High-level appointees vetted for partisan loyalty, and young staffers, often fresh out of college or grad school, recruited by the Heritage Foundation. Well, with Paul Bremer back in the news, testifying before Congress about the disappearance of Benjamins by the plane-load, I thought it might be interesting to find out what's become of the freshfaced graduates of the CPA. Call it a Facebook for the unsung heroes of the Iraq Occupation.
Only trouble is, there doesn't seem to be a single document online listing the CPA personnel. No staff directory on the CPA homepage, no news references. I'll keep digging on this one. In the meantime, if anyone's got a link or a lead, drop it in the comments or e-mail me.
Thursday, February 8, 2007
Edwards' Blogging Headache
The spherical world of blogs has been abuzz the last few days with a story that might not translate so well for folks who don't follow blogs as obsessively as most bloggers do. Last week, the Edwards campaign hired two women to handle the campaign's online opinion-shaping efforts. Both are accomplished bloggers in the activist "netroot" style, with wide readerships and long, easily vetted public policy positions.
But apparently no one at the Edwards campaign bothered to do so, since both have since come under fire, albeit from dubious right-wing critics, for their provocative stances on various issues, as well as their use of colorful language to express them. Among the offending passages? A number of offensive and inflammatory remarks towards Catholics and evangelical Christians. Now everyone (that either publishes a blog or reads one, that is) is waiting to see whether the Edwards campaign caves in and fires the two, or stands by the hires.
The whole episode raises lots of interesting questions, including how mainstream campaigns, by nature discrete and cautious (in Freudian terms, retentive), can hope to harness the power and influence of bloggers, often flamboyant and provocative (in Freudian terms, explosive). The arrangement seems inherently unstable, given the campaign's need for presenting a unified front, and the blogger's instinct for airing dirty laundry in public.
But assuming it is possible, the question arises of whether it's advisable. Can outspoken bloggers who become paid employees, ie. spokespeople, of a campaign retain their credibility as independent critics? How will they respond to the accusations that arise each time they start toe-ing a line that contradicts their previously published opinion? Or worse, if they remain silent?
To illustrate the point, let's substitute rappers for bloggers. While I don't think it would surprise anyone to see a politically engaged, socially conscious rapper endorse a presidential candidate, the idea of one being hired as a liaison to the hip hop community would probably raise eyebrows. As well as questions about their credibility each time they recorded a "sponsored" rap.
To bring it back to the case of the Edwards bloggers, imagine now that in addition to a sterling progressive record, our rapper has in the past recorded a lyric or two bashing gays, to pick a sadly common example. Do you think progressive bloggers would still be calling for the campaign to stand behind him?
It seems like at the very least, a strong disavowal of any offensive (hence divisive) positions is in order. As well as a re-consideration of whether it's in either party's interest to bring the online opinionators in from the cold.
Update: Looks like they've taken the disavowal route after all. TPM Cafe has the statements just released by Edwards and the two bloggers.
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
Is A Wonk-Free Politics Possible?
The other day, in my reaction to John Edwards' healthcare proposal, I explained why I have a hard time getting excited about detailed policy proposals. Only to find quite a bit of discussion on a handful of other blogs I follow about whether detailed policy proposals help or hinder a Presidential candidate.
Now my argument runs somewhat parallel to these other discussions, which were tactical in nature, but never questioned the usefulness of wonkish policy proposals at some stage of the political process. What I'm proposing is an entirely wonk-free politics.
The reasoning being, no matter how well thought-out a policy proposal is, there's always going to be:
- Alternative approaches to parsing the numbers that will contest the predicted results;
- Some legislative compromise that will dilute the intended effect;
- Variations in regulatory oversight that will impact the enforcement;
- Unintended and unforeseen consequences, both beneficial and not;
- And adaptations to the legislation that will dampen or exagerrate the policy's effectiveness.
I said in that first post that government is better suited to setting broad national priorities than it is to micro-regulating policy. Especially in an age when only a small minority of our elected officials even read, much less understand the implications of, the laws they're passing. To say nothing of the electorate.
So what would a wonk-free politics look like? Two things spring to mind, right off the bat. It would emphasize the goals that we, as a nation, want to achieve, while maintaining flexibility with regard to the means we use to achieve them. And it would place a premium on government's responsiveness, in order to capitalize on successes and remedy failures.
I admit, it sounds utopian, and maybe it is. But I can't help but think that there's a problem with the way we conduct the business of government when so many people, perfectly capable of understanding policy discussions, don't even bother to pay attention. Why? Because they know that nine times out of ten, the fine print of a piece of legislation is either unfathomable, unverifiable, or undisclosed.
So, am I just hopelessly naive, or out of touch? Could be, but if so, I'm not the only one:
It is time for us to free ourselves from the constraints of politics. It's time for us to stop settling for the world as it is and start reimagining the world as it might be... That's what we offer the American people: hope. There are those who don't believe in talking about hope. They say, "Well, we want specifics; we want details; and we want white papers; we want plans." We've had a lot of plans, Democrats. What we've had is a shortage of hope. And over the next year, over the next two years, that will be my call to you.
That's Barack Obama at last week's DNC Winter Meeting.
Tuesday, February 6, 2007
Cut & Stay
Not too long ago, in the comments section of the highly recommended site Voices of Reason, I suggested a tactical solution to the Iraq War quagmire. As I put it there:
There is an option no one's mentioned, which is probably the best strategic option, even if it is unpalatable and unlikely:
The U.S. withdraws its reduced troop presence to an outpost in the Iraqi desert somewhere, from which it guarantees the "autonomy" of the Iraqi government, and the "stability" of the region in general, leaving day-to-day patrolling to the Iraqis.
In other words, remove ourselves from the line of fire, without relinquishing a necessary presence to save a semblance of geo-political face.
So it's gratifying to see Edward Luttwak propose the exact same thing, using the eminently more dignified term "Disengagement", in an op-ed in today's Times. Now to go treat my shoulder for "Patting myself on the back" syndrome.
Tuesday, February 6, 2007
To Bind Or Not To Bind?
I admit I've been a bit dismissive of the Battle of the Non-Binding Resolutions going on in the Senate. It seems to me like a waste of time and political energy that could be spent either putting the brakes on a war with Iran, going after Cheney to cut the legs out from under Bush, defining a strategic plan for a way to eventually extricate us from Iraq, or all of the above.
E.J. Dionne seems to think otherwise, and Kevin Drum agrees with him. Their argument is that shifting public opinion on something of this magnitude happens in baby steps, and the vote of no-confidence, if passed, will have a major impact on swinging opinion towards not just opposing the surge, but to ending the war.
I'm not so sure that we should be rushing in that direction, though. After all, we already started this war without a plan. The least we could do is come up with one to end it. But maybe I'm a bit tone deaf on this one since I'm not stateside. Anyone?
Tuesday, February 6, 2007
Healthcare In Broad Strokes
John Edward's just announced a thumbnail sketch of his health coverage plan. In the coming days, the rest of the candidates will offer their own variations, and eventually a consensus will form about what's electable and what isn't. And if it sounds like I have a hard time getting excited about it all, it's because I do.
Both by temperament and deep-seated skepticism about government's ability to do anything more than establish broad national priorities, I tend to have little interest in policy in the narrow, wonk-ish sense of the term. Luckily, there are folks like Ezra Klein for informative discussions of the nuts and bolts of Edwards' plan.
My own thoughts tend to turn to the context that frames the debate but is rarely mentioned. How, for instance, as a society we've medicalized what are in reality the consequences of poverty, especially in the mental health field. How Western medicine is organized around a model of costly technological and/or pharmaceutical responses instead of less expensive and less invasive preventive measures.
How both of these trends reinforce a power dynamic that leaves ordinary people seeking healthcare increasingly at the mercy of either private insurers or the government's attempts to intercede on their behalf.
Hard to put into quantifiable numbers, I admit. But there are policy wonks for that part, right?
Update: Kevin Drum just posted a nice overview of the plan, including policy and political up- and downsides.
Monday, February 5, 2007
The Surge Protectors
Today's Washington Post has an interesting article about the group of junior officers that makes up Gen. David Petraeus' war council. They've all got PhD's and Iraq tours under their belts, and a couple of them were field commanders responsible for some of the few universally acclaimed operations of the post-Mission Accomplished phase of the war.
What jumped out at me, however, was the presence of Australian army officer and degreed anthropologist, Lt. Col. David Kilcullen. Kilcullen, you might recall, got some attention last fall with the counter-insurgency field manual he wrote for the US Army entitled, "Twenty-eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency." It's a highly readable, informative document that's worth a look.
These guys are all sharp, experienced, creative and educated, presumably the guys who should have been running the show from day one. So why are they willing to take a handoff now, when consensus has it that it's too little, too late? One of Kilcullen's major contributions to modern counterinsurgency doctrine is his appreciation of the role played by global communications. So:
- Look for a more skillful use of the media, including a campaign highlighting the dynamic changes sweeping Baghdad, leading to
- A second-phase escalation once the Baghdad Surge has borne some fruit.
Call it a hunch, but you don't send your all-stars in to run out the clock. This is just a warm-up for Surge Two.
Sunday, February 4, 2007
Nothing like trying to explain what's going on in American politics to folks who aren't following it in obsessive detail to put into context exactly what's at stake. Last night I spent the evening with a couple friends, one English, one Dutch. And when I got to the part about the American people being strongly opposed to the troop buildup in Iraq, and the American Congress being strongly opposed to the troop buildup in Iraq, and then finished with the part about the President following through on the troop buildup in Iraq, the response was quizzical, to say the least.
Of course, both English and Dutch public opinion was largely opposed to those countries' involvement in the Iraq War, which did not prevent both parliaments from eventually giving their approval. But a head of state acting in the face of both the people's and Congress' opposition to a measure is generally what's construed by most democratic traditions as tyranny.
I went on to explain that there was some confusion over who has the Constitutional authority to end a war, which is admittedly a simplification. Nevertheless, the Englishman's response was right on the money, something along the lines of, "Well, I suppose this is necessary to straighten it all out, then, isn't it?"
Isn't it, indeed.
Sunday, February 4, 2007
Getting Back To The Constitution
Hillary Clinton made headlines yesterday by declaring at the DNC Winter Meeting, "If we in Congress don't end this war before January 2009, as President, I will." Forceful, categoric, and obviously aimed to pre-empt criticism of her vote for the Iraq War resolution back in 2002.
All fine and good. What I'd like to see, though, is a Statement of Common Principles committing all the Democratic candidates, if elected, to return the executive branch to the limits of Consitutional authority. What would it look like? Well, for starters, I'd include the following:
- An immediate closing of GITMO.
- The right to trial in open court for all GWOT detainees.
- The categorical repudiation of torture, including inhumane treatment, for interrogation practices.
- The repudiation of extraordinary rendition for all GWOT detainees.
- The repudiation of all forms of domestic warrantless surveillance.
- The repudiation of elective war as an arm of US foreign policy.
- The return to executive transparency by limiting national security classification to a strict minimum.
As terrible a humanitarian and policy disaster as it's been, the Iraq War is in many ways only a symptom of the Bush administration's assault on the separation of powers as laid out in the Constitution. And as much as anything else, the Democratic candidates need to make it clear that they're committed to remedying that.
Friday, February 2, 2007
Meanwhile, instead of unanimously confirming Petraeus and then passing a resolution repudiating his strategy, why didn't the Armed Services committee make Bush parade a series of generals before them, getting every last one of them on record as to what chance they gave Surge-lite to succeed? That way they could have forced Bush to implement his excercise in futility with a commander on the ground who doesn't support it, making it clear where the blame lies when it bites the dust.
When are Congressional Dems going to realize that business as usual means losing? Trying to stop Bush's last move is a waste of time. Go on the offensive. The country needs it.
Thursday, February 1, 2007
Taking Down The Veep
Here's a thought: It's clear that impeaching Bush is a non-starter. But remember that Senate investigation on pre-War intelligence? The one where in exchange for greenlighting a preliminary report scapegoating the various spook agencies for bad intelligence, Senate Dems wrangled a follow-up investigation (yet to happen) on how the administration manipulated the intelligence to make their case for war?
Well, it's always been pretty clear to people who followed it closely that the Iraq misinformation campaign was run out of the Office of the Vice President. So what if instead of going after the follow-up investigation in committee, Congressional Dems use an impeachment proceeding against Dick Cheney to shine some light on the matter? Given his polling numbers, Congressional Republicans don't have much to gain by sticking their necks out for him, and he can't be wrapped in the commander-in-chief blanket like Bush can. So I imagine he'd make a vulnerable target. It would be an extremely aggressive way for the legislative branch to make it clear that there are consequences for executive overreach. And it would have the added advantage of depriving Bush of his hit man, which usually reveals bullies for the cowards they are.
Finally, the timing couldn't be better, since it might keep the administration from pulling pages out of that particular playbook to start a war with Iran. What do you say? Can it fly?
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Biden Blows It?
Lost in the controversy over Joe Biden's assessment of Barack Obama in today's New York Observer is the central claim he makes in the interview, namely that none of the other Democratic candidates have got a clue, much less a strategic plan, for dealing with Iraq.
Biden is on record for partitioning Iraq into three autonomous regions, with a central government responsible for policing borders and distributing oil revenue. Regional players like Iran and the Saudis would be involved to help control the chaos of the resulting ethnic displacement. The Kurds would be on their own in the event they tried to break off, ie. at the mercy of the Turks and Iranians.
The plan has got its supporters (Chuck Shumer and the Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon) as well as its detractors (notably Wesley Clark and Richard Perle). It sounds like managed ethnic cleansing to me. Unfortunately, that might be the best we and the Iraqis can hope for at this point.
Friday, January 26, 2007
The Audacity Of Dopes
Did anyone else find it surreal that as of the year 2007, the role of arbiter for the Civil Rights agenda goes to... Al Sharpton? The NY Times says here that Reverend Al is sizing up the Democratic field's commitment to the black community's interests, starting with Barack Obama, to decide whether his candidacy will be necessary in 2008.
Now don't get me wrong. I like Al Sharpton. Back at the height of his divisive incarnation as Tawana Brawley's consigliari, I almost got fired for heatedly defending him to my boss. My argument at the time? He's a pit bull for his people, and if I were a black man, victimized on account of my race and belonging to the social class whose grievances tend to be brushed aside, there's not a whole lot of people I'd think of calling ahead of Al Sharpton.
I also admire the way he came in from the cold and went respectable, successfully trading in his street thuggishness without losing a shred of his street credibility. How? By keeping it real, whether barking through a megaphone at a protest march, or talking into a microphone at a presidential debate. I'll actually miss his wit and candor if he ends up sitting the campaign out.
But from there to being the guarantor of the black community on the national scene seems like a stretch. After all, most people who are familiar with Sharpton's m.o. know that while he undoubtedly has the black community's interests (somewhere) at heart, first and foremost, Rev. Al looks out for Rev. Al.
Of course, the meetings in Washington yesterday had little to do with civil rights, and everything to do with delivering votes in New York. And from the looks of things, Obama would do well to have a little chat with Jesse Jackson about how Sharpton deals with rival black leaders. My hope? That Sharpton ends up running, while simultaneously broadcasting his campaign as a reality television program. Can't you just see it? The Rev. Al and Paris Hilton discussing tax policy over cocktails at the Four Seasons? On second thought, maybe not.
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Sweet Dreams, Maverick
Inevitably, a moment comes along for every politician when the man converges with his destiny, providing the public with an indelible image that confirms what it had come to suspect about him. For Gary Hart, that moment was the Monkey Business photo. For John Kerry, it was the Botched Joke. For John McCain, it might very well turn out to be yesterday's State of the Union address.
I can't count the number of times in the past 6-8 weeks that I've heard or read that John McCain is washed up. According to this gathering meme, whatever dynamism he might have presented eight years ago as a maverick, straight-talking man of action has gone sluggish and tired. And of course it's true. But did he have to go and fall asleep on national television to prove it?
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Sam & Hillary
I don't know about you, but I'm getting the heebie jeebies just thinking about that as a possibility. Talk about re-living the battles of the Sixties, not to mention the sixty's (no offense to any retirees). Hillary's got the money and the brand recognition. So barring a popular wave like the one that Segolene Royal rode to the Socialist Party nomination here in France, based largely on her charisma and resolute refusal to define a clear program (are you listening Barack?), I think Hillary's obviously the Democrat to beat.
As for Brownback, I can't see how this doesn't help out Rudy and McCain tremendously, seeing as how they no longer have to pander to the evangelical lunatic fringe of the GOP (who know Sam's their man) in the primaries. Too bad, in a way, considering all the circus tricks the two of them had already boned up on.