Thursday, January 31, 2008

McCain gets ugly

John McCain is ugly in attack mode. In last night's debate, he kept insisting that Romney had advocated a timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq, using a Romney statement that signified the opposite. Was he deliberately distorting Romney's words, or is he just stupid?

When Romney denounced McCain's claim that he had advocated timetables as a lie, McCain said:

Well, of course, he said he wanted a timetable...April was a very interesting year (sic) in 2007. That's when Harry Reid said the war is lost and we've got to get out. And the buzzword was "timetables, timetables."Governor, the right answer to that question was "no," not what you said, and that was we don't want to have them lay in the weeds until we leave and Maliki and the president should enter into some kind of agreement for, quote, "timetables."

Anderson Cooper read Romney's actual statement:

COOPER: So, Senator McCain, the quote is from Governor Romney on GMA that you've been quoting. The actual quote is, "Well, there's no question that the president and Prime Minister al-Maliki have to have a series of timetables and milestones"...

MCCAIN: Timetables and milestones.

COOPER: ... "that they speak about, but those shouldn't be for public pronouncement. You don't want the enemy to understand how long they have to wait in the weeds until you're going to be gone."

MCCAIN: You don't have to...

COOPER: He does not say he is supporting a withdrawal.

MCCAIN: ... wait until the enemy lays in the weeds until we leave. That means that we were leaving.

Obviously, Romney said the opposite, that if there were a timetable for troop withdrawal, "the enemy" would understand how long to wait in the weeds before attacking. McCain here sounds like Bush in 2000, dismissing Gore's clear exposure of the false premises behind his proposed tax cuts as "fuzzy math"over and over. (Like Gore confronting Bush, Romney did not quite know how to deal with such mulishness. While Romney did make clear that the "timetables and milestones" he had referred to were not for troop withdrawal, he never managed to spit out that his "wait in the weeds" comment was a rationale for not having a timetable.)

I have admired McCain for taking stands against torture and punitive approaches to illegal immigration. I even sent him money late last year because I regard his Republican opponents as dangers to the future of democracy, given their support of torture, suspension of habeas, and Bush's insanely overreaching assertions of the powers of the commander in chief. But my impression from several debates is that McCain is just not that bright. He is capable of taking a principled stand, and on some fronts his judgment is clear enough to recognize dangers to democracy and indeed to the planet, e.g., destruction of civil liberties, a corrupting campaign finance system, global warming. But that head-down repeat-my-mantra stubbornness in the face of a clear refutation of of what he's saying at the moment suggests a Bush-like lack of mental dexterity. His confession that he doesn't understand economics was real straight talk but not particularly reassuring. Then there's the poor grades he got at West Point that he likes to joke about. It's not uncommon for bright people to get bad grades. But it's more common for not-so-bright people to get them.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Hillary gets motherly

Bidding to lead the so-called Mommy Party, Hillary Clinton delivered a credo in her Florida victory speech that certainly casts her as the Mommy President:

"I believe everyone who works full time in America should bring home an income that lifts that person out of poverty and gives them and their children a better chance.

"I believe that every man, woman and child has a right to quality, affordable health care.

"I believe that every child has a God-given potential that we can help to develop if we have universal prekindergarten and we have a school system that is not so worried about giving tests as in making sure our kids can learn.

"I believe that our tax system should be fair for everyone. It is wrong that people making $50 million a year on Wall Street pay a lower percentage of their taxes than as teacher making $50 thousand dollars in Florida.

"I believe it is time for us to begin to bring our troops home from Iraq as carefully and responsibly as we can.

"I believe it is important we do everything to promote better relations in our hemisphere with all of our neighbors and that we continue to support democracy in Cuba.

"And I believe that we can, working together, feel pride and progress in our country again. You are giving me a tremendous gift, not only with your votes, but with your trust, because I believe that public office is a trust, and I will get up every single day, worrying about you, your families, your future.I think it is time we again have a president who put the American people first and that is what I will try to do.

While the agenda is unexceptionably Democratic, the language and emphases are stronly gender-inflected. Hillary seems to promise 'universal prekindergarten' not only for our children but for all of us. In fact in Hillaryland, everything we need to know we learned in kindergarten: we all play fair, we're all secure and taken care of, we have good neighborly relationships, and we're watched over by a president who will get up every single day worrying about us, our families, our future and who, like every good mother, earns and treasures our trust.

Not that there's anything wrong with any of this. George Will would deride it as a nanny state vision, but most Americans seem to believe again that the state should ensure universal healthcare, fair wages, a fair tax code, and even, in a competitive world, universal pre-k. But I wonder if we're in for another swing of Hillary's persona pendulum, from commander- to worrier-in-chief.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Hillary to abdicate (some prerogatives)

In a Florida post-mortem (1/29/08), Hillary told Wolf Blitzer that on her first day in office she would reverse some of Bush's executive orders that gave too much power to the president at the expense of other branches. Maybe it's just me, but I have not heard any candidate explicitly promise to roll back the imperial powers that Bush has arrogated, and I've heard much speculation that Hillary would be loathe to do so. True, she wasn't too specific, but it was the second priority she named, after asking the chiefs of staffs to begin preparing troop withdrawal from Iraq. We need to hear more about this; the candidates should be pressed on this question in Thursday night's debate.

UPDATE: A news archive check shows that Hillary struck the same note on CBS evening news a few hours prior to the CNN interview, choosing executive power as her theme in response to a classic 'what kind of an animal are you?' question from Katie Couric:

COURIC: If you were elected president, what is the one book -- other than the Bible -- you would think is essential to have along?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: I would certainly bring my copy of the Constitution, because there apparently was not a copy in the Bush White House, as best I can determine. So I would bring The Federalist Papers. I would bring the historic documents about how our country started and the conflicts of opinion and philosophy that helped to form us. Because we`ve been going through a period of time where the president and the vice president have asserted an extensive view of executive power that I think is not in keeping with American history.

Okay, Hillary: exactly how would you roll back executive power? If this is a new campaign theme, I'm all ears.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Return of the Clintonian Repressed

Polls always indicated that Americans were willing to cut Bill Clinton some slack on the question of honesty: people recognized his mendacity but approved of his policies. "No one died when Clinton lied" expressed not only a cost-benefit analysis but also a sense that Bill Clinton did act on a genuine commitment to extend economic opportunity and tighten the social safety net -- in effect that he was honest where it counted most. That commitment to good policymaking shone ever more brightly through the Bush years -- burnished all the more by Bill's emergence as a global Santa Claus, a benevolent ghost of Americas past.

Now, as he did with Monica and with the Marc Rich pardon, Bill has suddenly let the storm winds out of the sack. As he appeared on TV again and again belittling Obama, hectoring the press, misrepresenting his own record, and dredging up distorted historical analogies, Democrats nationwide were swamped with the return of the repressed. No bimbo this time, but an eruption of something unreliable and manipulative and aggressive at the core of all that charisma and caring and intelligence.

Obama has handled this implosion brilliantly by moving trust to the center of his pitch for a new kind of politics. In the South Carolina victory speech, he said, "We are up against the idea that it's acceptable to say anything and do anything to win an election. We know that this is exactly whst's wrong with our politics; this is why people don't believe what their leaders say anymore; this is why they tune out. And this election is our chance to give the American people a reason to believe again.: While asserting that all Democrats "share an abiding desire to end the disastrous policies of the current administration," he managed to roll the Clinton years and the Bush years into one morass of mendacity.

This counterpunch against Clintonism was all the more devastating for being depersonalized. He renamed Hillary the status quo: "and right now, that status quo is fighting back with everything it's got; with the same old tactics that divide and distract us from solving the problems that people face..." But the hammer blows were gloved not just with euphemism but with a kind of deadly magnanimity that cast Hillary (and Bill) as avatars of forces bigger than themselves. His opponents are "fine candidates in the field -- fierce competitors, worthy of respect. " Collectively, "we're up against forces that are not the fault of any one campaign, but feed the habits that prevent us from who we want to be as a nation." (This turns around Hillary's pitch that she's toughened and battle-tested. ) Finally, "we are not just up against the ingrained and destructive habits of Washington, we are also struggling against our own doubts, our own fears, and our own cynicism." Obama might share that struggle with Hillary and the rest of us, but the audacity of the hope he's pitching is clear: he's the one to lead us out of the wilderness.

Those who doubt Obama's toughness should note that in this speech he swaddled Hillary in respect and compassion and fellow-feeling only to rhetorically beat her to a pulp. The blows took the form of defining what "we are up against": "we are up against the belief that it's ok for lobbyists to dominate our government...We are up against the conventional thinking that says your ability to lead as President comes from longevity in Washington or proximity to the White House...We are up against decades of bitter partisanship that cause politicians to demonize their opponents instead of coming together..." His whole pitch to change the playing field rather than level it was leveled against Hillary.

Related posts:
Not Dead Yet: Democracy in America
Obama's "what I meant" moments
Truth and Transformation
The lying Clinton meme
Obama praises (Bill) Clinton, and buries him

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Fox News readers swoon for Obama

If you doubt Obama's crossover appeal, check out the reader comments on the Fox News website following the transcript of his SC victory speech. The first fifteen are below. Two of the first three are what you might expect -- and then, a rapturous outpouring. If you think this is a run of Montagues crashing the Capulet party, read all 55 comments. The proportions hold, and there are lots of self-identified Republicans.

  1. Southern girl Says:

    Another preacher speech and I can guarantee you that he will not fullfill half the promises he is making. He is just saying what we want to hear, until he gets in office and then the people will see him for who he really is!!

  2. 2
    Jeff Says:

    Hands down one of the best live speeches Ive heard in quite some time. I got goosebumps.

  3. 3
    kcfg Says:

    What Democrat milk toast. God bless Obama for pandering… but oh, my gosh… can no one see the pandering… and the fact that his “plans” will kill us in the future??? We cannot afford this “change” as all anyone will be left with (if at all) will be chump change!

  4. 4
    Daniel Adewumi Says:

    This is powerful!. This is a change we can believe and this is a change that we must fight for and this is the change we will have.

  5. 5
    Lori Says:

    Awesome! Thanks for standing up to the pressure. I will be working for you here in my home state of Pennslyvania, and I am a republican!

  6. 6
    Pla10um Says:

    Yes. We. Will.

  7. 7
    skyyking Says:

    I am 62 years old and follow politics very closely. I do not recall a better, more moving, more relvant, more intelligent speech in my life than Obama’s victory speech in SC tonight. Wow! I am off the fence and into the Obama camp with my tent, sleeping bag and money. For the first time since John Kennedy, I am ready to get truly excited about the potential to change our misguided, poorly led country. Go Barry, go!

  8. 8
    Carl Says:

    There is no longer any question who will be the leader who can actually change America. Washington is broken. No one else , either republican , democrat , or independant can bring us together to solve the problems that face us as a Nation.

    The speech Obama delivered just recently in SC was one of the best I’ve ever heard ! Come on America ! We can do better ! Vote for Obama.

  9. 9
    Karl Keene Says:

    Yes we can! We can overcome the tragedy of the Bush administration by electing a visionary and inspirational man - Barack Obama!

    Yes we can! We can finally put to rest the negative, depressing and divisive Bush-Clinton wars by electing Barack Obama!

  10. 10
    Heather Says:

    Fabulous speech! I missed it on CNN (no cable), but WOW! What powerful words. He does give us HOPE. GO Obama!

  11. 11
    Robert Jeskey Says:

    Simply amazing, energetic politician that can cross party lines. Anyone but Hillery.

  12. 12
    Abdullah Says:

    Barak Obama, we need you as a breath of fresh air. This is more than a run for President. It is a run for our future.

Am I missing something? Are Fox News website visitors a different crowd from Fox News viewers? Or are we looking at a landslide if Obama can get past Hillary?

Related posts:
Not Dead Yet: Democracy in America
Obama's "what I meant" moments
Truth and Transformation
The lying Clinton meme
Obama praises (Bill) Clinton, and buries him

Not Dead Yet: Democracy in America

At the risk of stating the obvious, there has never been a Presidential election like this. That's not hyperbole, it's simple fact. Many have pointed out that this year is unusual in that there's no incumbent or sitting veep on either side. Just add that that has never been the case in the era when nominations are decided by popular vote. Add too the surprise that the much-decried front-loaded primary schedule has actually worked quite well (more by accident than by design), with the early states showing the candidates from different angles and winnowing the field by maybe 50% -- but leaving the ultimate decision to a broad swath of the electorate on Super Tuesday and beyond.

Also throw in the mix the huge number of debates in a broad menu of formats that have given anyone interested a chance to assess and re-assess the candidates. Finally, note that money has not been decisive so far, and that candidates who have not been particularly well tied in to existing power structures (Obama, Ron Paul) have been quite successful raising money through grass-roots, online channels.

No doubt that democracy in America needs fixing. The flood of special interest money and lobbying influence; our creaky electoral machinery; the ever more scientifically deranged gerrymandering; the flood of negative, manipulative advertising; the massive media exposure of every personal failing and foible; the bitter partisanship; the current administration's shocking mismanagement of foreign and fiscal policy; and, most important, this administration's assault on civil liberties and the balance of power between branches -- made me, for one, wonder whether the power of the people to effect change through voting was slipping away as fast as our position in the world. And it's still possible that future shocks, like say a major terrorist attack, will generate enough fear to induce Congress and people to acquiesce in another major power grab by the next president, as the Democrats have rolled over before Bush's institutionalization of torture, suspension of habeas, and eviscerating of FISA. But can anyone doubt that we have real choices in this election? Democracy's defining power -- the ability to change course -- is not dead yet.

Obama's message is often derided as gauzy. I think it's substantive - the fruit of twenty years of ripening thought -- on the largest issue of all: how to make democracy function better. The elements include restricting the power of lobbying; a well articulated approach to bipartisanship; and -- most recently, developed in response to the double-barreled Clinton assault -- restoring trust by insisting on a high standard of truth in political discourse. It's the last, with the Clintons as foil, that could be the game-changer in the nominating battle.

Many who have succumbed this season to a modicum of idealism will turn bitterly disillusioned if we end with, say, a Romney-Clinton election. That shouldn't be. When the choice is open, we should trust the electorate. I would still more than half expect Hillary to be an excellent president, angered though I've been by the assault on Obama. Romney has the smarts and managerial skill to be effective, repellent as I find his positions and his position-shifting. The worst danger is another electoral malfunction of the kind that brought us Bush. It's the failures of democracy -- rather than electoral outcomes that we may not like -- that is the true danger.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Obama: Man, those Clinton Kids are Something...

I keep reading that Obama is 'timid' or 'hesitant' or "whiny" in dealing with Hilllary's attacks. I've never thought so -- I've thought that he's blended his message about trust seamlessly into his message about building a working mandate -- but this is just pitch perfect:

He brushed off concerns about a loss of black voters in the general election should Clinton win the nomination after an ugly primary -- a worry that many others in the party have alluded to.

"Black voters shouldn't blame Senator Clinton for running a vigorous campaign against me," he said. "That should be a source of pride. It means I might win this thing. When I was 20 points down, I was a 'person of good character' and my health-care plan was 'universal.' The fact that we've got this fierce contest indicates I'm doing well, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that."

Obama struck a similar tone when asked about Bill Clinton's role in the campaign. "Let me sort of dispose of the whole issue of President Clinton. I have said this repeatedly. He is entirely justified in wanting to promote his wife's candidacy," Obama said. "I have no problem with that whatsoever. He can be as vigorous an advocate on behalf of her as he would like. The only thing I'm concerned about is when he makes misstatements about my record. That's what I'm seeking to correct."

More than once, Obama has played the adult in the Clinton sandbox. The lion tamer, the ringmaster. "Hillary, I look forward to taking advice from you..."

Related posts:
Obama's "what I meant" moments
Truth and Transformation
The lying Clinton meme
Obama praises (Bill) Clinton, and buries him

Contrary Fact of the Day

Today's Wall Street Journal's story about how lobbyists smoothed the way for sovereign wealth funds' massive investments in bulge bracket investment banks has all the earmarks of a classic WSJ expose: front page billing, a load of detail about how the process works and who the players are, lots of case study detail. Instead of uncovering a scandal, though, the story opens the window to a heretical thought: occasionally at least, lobbyists win one on the merits. Consider, for example, this exchange between an Ogilvy lobbyist and James Webb:

Blackstone executives briefed several dozen lawmakers, with the firm's chief executive, Stephen Schwarzman, sitting in on some sessions. Stiff opposition came from Sen. James Webb, a first-term Virginia Democrat. Sen. Webb wrote a novel published in 1991, "Something to Die For," in which Japan uses its financial muscle to gain influence in Washington. The senator worries Beijing could do the same.

Mr. Webb wanted the China investment deal delayed so regulators could examine whether Blackstone's stake in a semiconductor company posed national-security problems. One of Mr. Berman's partners pointed out that the firm produced off-the-shelf chips. Sen. Webb withdrew his objections to the deal, though he remains skeptical of sovereign investors.

Exhibit B: Dubai Aerospace tries transparency as a lobbying strategy:

Wall Street and the U.A.E. thought they had turned the corner by spring 2007 when another Dubai-owned company, Dubai Aerospace Enterprise Ltd., bought two firms that owned small U.S. airports and maintenance facilities that serviced some navy transport-plane engines. The Dubai firm pledged to submit to government security reviews and submit its employees for security screening. It also thoroughly briefed lawmakers on the deal. It ran into no obstacles on Capital Hill.

"I call the strategy, 'wearing your underwear on the outside,'" says one of Dubai Aerospace's Washington lobbyists, Joel Johnson, a former Clinton White House communications adviser. "We have to show everybody everything -- no secrets, no surprises."

Of course, elected officials have to be very careful not to appear to compromise security, so it's likely that lobbying on this front won't succeed unless the logic at least seems bullet-proof enough to protect the responding politician. Still, it's worth keeping in mind that lobbyists can have reason on their side and sometimes even deploy it as an effective lobbying tool.

A message to Obama re Pakistan?

The FT reports Robert Gates saying on Thursday that the U.S. would consider joint military operations with the Pakistanis inside Pakistan if asked - but that we haven't been asked. Odd. Is this how we ask? Also odd: in the midst of a story otherwise devoted to retailing Gates' comments, in slips two cents from a "congressional aide' that might be construed as a rebuke to Obama:
“Joint combat operations would spark serious domestic opposition in Pakistan,” said a US congressional aide. “But unilateral operations by US troops would spark a true conflagration.”

Mr Gates stressed that the US was not considering undertaking large military operations inside the country, saying “we’re talking about a very small number of troops, should that happen.”
Obama asserted last August that as President he would be willing to attack al Qaeda inside Pakistan without approval from the Pakistani government: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will" (Reuters, 8/1/07).

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Obama's 'what I meant' moments

Repelled as I've been by Hillary's "Obama loves Reagan" attack line, it must be admitted that Obama has an unfortunate tendency to dig deeper when he's in a hole. It is really not true that he didn't praise Reagan's policies. He did, implicitly, by acknowledging that Americans felt that government had grown unaccountable after "the excesses of the 60s and 70s." To say that the Republicans have been "the party of ideas" because they "challenged conventional wisdom" also implies that there was a there there - his later qualification suggests that those ideas are stale now, but not that at least some of them weren't good ideas at some point. In fact, his time frame in the 'party of ideas' comment was screwed up. I suspect he meant to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas in the 1980s; these ideas were corrupted, became self parodies, were driven to an extreme in "the last ten or fifteen years." It's the time confusion that's enabled Hillary to suggest that he spoke approvingly of 'bad ideas' like huge tax cuts for the rich, wars of choice, government by lobbyist, budgeting by earmark, etc. etc. since that's basically been the Republican agenda since they won control of Congress in 1994.

Another time Obama 'dug deeper' was in the YouTube debate, when he said he'd meet five rogue leaders in the first year of his presidency. Hillary was absolutely right to call him out; he sounded naive. I suspect he didn't fully absorb the question and didn't mean to say that he'd meet all five personally within a year--just that, on principle, it makes sense to be willing to meet when there's something to be negotiated. But in post-debate dueling he went the other route and tried to suggest that Hillary wouldn't be willing enough to negotiate with rogues.

Wherefore base? Bastardy base?

Andrew Sullivan, plumping as ever for Obama and McCain, submits to his own 'base instincts' while worrying about those of the electorate:

The chart above shows the remarkable polling similarities in John McCain's recent primary successes. After a slow decline, at some point late last year, voters sensed he really was their best bet on character, policies and viability. And so the battle now is really one between the worst base instincts of both parties and their most promising candidates for the general election. It's about the defensive figures of the past defending their turf and power against their own parties redefining themselves for the center. I'm hoping McCain and Obama manage to defeat these forces of entropy.

While he has totally bought in to the promise of Obama as a "uniter," Sir Sullivan, as many have noted, has some polarizing tendencies of his own (ya think?). I support Obama, but I recognize that there are plenty of good reasons to support Hillary. And while I admire McCain and have been disgusted by the campaign Romney has run, a large corner of my brain suspects that Romney would be a better president - I think he's ten times smarter than McCain, and intelligence counts for something if not everything.

Sullivan, like too many commentators, has succumbed to the assumption that if voters don't go his way they've gone to hell in handbasket. In the inscrutable mind-heart-gut calculus, many may conclude that Hillary's toughness and Romney's brains are qualities needed in a President. How can Sullivan, or anyone, be certain that McCain won't drive the U.S. off another pre-emptive cliff, or that Obama could handle a world-threatening crisis like, say, nuclear war between India and Pakistan? All of us should trust that the electorate is smarter than we are. Not infallible, but on the whole an effective decision-making engine.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Truth and Transformation

The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson has put his finger on how Obama is hitting Bill Clinton's hot button. The nub is that the 'hope' Obama holds out is that his presidency will surpass Clinton's - that he will play Alexander to Clinton's Phillip:

Bill Clinton's brilliance was in the way he surveyed the post-Reagan landscape and figured out how to redefine and reposition the Democratic Party so that it became viable again. All the Democratic candidates who are running this year, including Obama, owe him their gratitude.

But Obama has set his sights higher, and implicit in his campaign is a promise, or a threat, to eclipse Clinton's accomplishments. Obama doesn't just want to piece together a 50-plus-1 coalition; he wants to forge a new post-partisan consensus that includes "Obama Republicans" -- the equivalent of the Gipper's "Reagan Democrats." You can call that overly ambitious or even naive, but you can't call it timid. Or deferential.

In fact, Obama's pitch for voters to join a coalition that could make him a 'transformational' President has grown more focused and explicit as the Clintons have ratcheted up the ferocity of their attacks. On Jan. 5, in the ABC debate, he said that while Bill Clinton deserved "enormous credit" for "balancing budgets," "we never built the majority and coalesced the American people around being able to get the other stuff done." On Jan. 14, he said that Reagan did build that majority ; he "changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it." Finally, last night in the CNN debate, he said in effect that the Bill Clinton could not do this because the Clintons are not in the habit of telling the truth:

Now, this, I think, is one of the things that's happened during the course of this campaign, that there's a set of assertions made by Senator Clinton, as well as her husband, that are not factually accurate. And I think that part of what the people are looking for right now is somebody who's going to solve problems and not resort to the same typical politics that we've seen in Washington...the larger reason that I think this debate is important is because we do have to trust our leaders and what they say. That is important, because if we can't, then we're not going to be able to mobilize the American people behind bringing about changes in health care reform, bringing about changes in how we're going to put people back to work, changing our trade laws. And consistency matters. Truthfulness during campaigns makes a difference.

And then there's the explicit pitch, that Obama can do the transformational:
What I do want to focus on, though, is how important it is, when you talked about taking on the Republicans, how important it is I think to redraw the political map in this country. And the reason I say that is that we have gone through the 2000 election, the 2004 election, both of which were disappointing elections.

But the truth is that we as Democrats have not had a working majority in a very long time. And what I mean by that is a working majority that could push through the kinds of bold initiatives that all of us have proposed. And one of the reasons that I am running for president is because I believe that I can inspire new people to get involved in the process, that I can reach out to independents and, yes, some Republicans who have also lost trust in their government and want to see something new.

So the pitch boils down to: because I don't lie like a Clinton, or polarize like a Clinton, I can be the transformational leader that Bill was not and that Hillary can't be. Yes, that would bring the blood to Bill's cheeks and the bile to his tongue.

Obama is a complex thinker. As the Clintons have ratcheted up their attacks, he has integrated his response into his critique of Clintonism: according to Obama, their distortions of his record demonstrate why Hillary is likely, as Bill did, to fail to win the trust and therefore the support of a working majority.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Hillary: Don't Tread on Me

I wonder if Hillary is not playing in some sense on people's widespread love to hate her. Watching her tear into Obama, I found myself very disturbed but also thinking that not too many people on earth would want to mess with her. Not to get into tailoring gender-based epithets, I wonder if some won't feel toward Hillary something like what FDR said about the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza: he's a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch....

Perhaps, too, in weighing the pros and cons of attacking Obama without any too-tender regard for scrupulous accuracy, the Clinton team decided to send a message to Republicans: don't tread on me. The old egg fry: this is your candidate on Hillary.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Lying Clinton Meme

Barack Obama seemed hesitant as he went after Bill Clinton on Good Morning America today - lots of blinking, lots of pauses. Still, this carefully measured stop-lying-about-my-record counterattack may well be effective, because without using the word "lie," Obama chimed several times in several minutes on the Clintons-can't-quite-tell-the-truth meme that is lodged, with good reason, in our collective psyche:

You know the former president, who I think all of us have a lot of regard for, has taken his advocacy on behalf of his wife to a level that I think is pretty troubling...He continues to make statements that are not supported by the facts -- whether it's about my record of opposition to the war in Iraq or our approach to organizing in Las Vegas.

I completely understand his wanting to promote his wife's candidacy, and Michelle is out there doing the same thing on my behalf. But I do think think that there should be standards of honesty in any political discourse. That's part of the change I want to bring about. If you have something that just directly contradicts the facts coming from a former president I think that's a problem because people presume that a former president if going to have more credibility. I think there are certain responsibilities that come with that.

I understand him wanting to promote his wife's candidacy. She's got a record that she can run on. But I think it's important that we try to maintain some -- you know, level of honesty and candor during the course of the campaign. If we don't, then we feed the cynicism that has led so many Americans to be turned off to politics."

What I don't want is a situation in which we are so driven to just win that we are willing to say anything, and over time, you know the American people just get turned off because they don't believe what politicians say (my emphasis).
As is usually the case with Obama, his choice of words displays simultaneously his mode of "fighting" - that is, criticizing his opponents - and his mode of "uniting" - acknowledging the element of legitimacy in his opponent's efforts. (As Mark Kleiman points out today, Obama is "perfectly sincere about wanting to make major progressive change without using demonization as a primary political tactic." That goes for Bill Clinton as well as Ronald Reagan.) His tone was more in sorrow than in anger, his stance that of an adult calling timeout when a child's game overheats. Almost every allegation was couched in either praise of (Bill) Clinton or acknowledgment that his support for Hillary is itself legitimate. The rhetoric was masterful; again, I'm not so sure about the delivery. It's that hesitancy that I think made me lean toward Hillary after watching several debates this past fall.

The moment of Clintonian dishonesty that ABC focused on in the aftermath was not that egregious. According to Bill, Obama “said that since 1992, the Republicans have had all the good ideas." Obama actually said, ``I think it's fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10 to 15 years in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom.''

Okay, Obama didn't say the ideas were 'good,' but generally, challenging conventional wisdom is thought to be a good thing. Perhaps Obama got his time frame wrong; earlier in the interview, he had acknowledged that the American people were ready for Reagan's call to shrink government, strongly implying that doing so was a "good idea": "I think they [the American people] felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating." (He might have added, but didn't, that "peace through strength" was a good idea, in that our military buildup pressured the Soviets into attempting the reforms that unraveled their economy.)

Obama made his comment more inflammatory by shifting the time frame from the Clinton years to the present--a frame in which the only "ideas" Republicans have acted on are huge tax cuts for the wealthy, government by lobbyists and budgeting by earmarks, and war of choice to preempt imaginary threats.

Obama is on firmer ground calling Bill Clinton out for dismissing his claim to have consistently opposed the war in Iraq as a "fairy tale." There Clinton was engaging in a classic smear-the-Senator maneuver, mis-characterizing up-or-down votes as complete representations of a policy position. Like most Democrats in favor of withdrawing active combat troops from Iraq, Obama did not vote to cut off funding for them while they're there. End of story.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Rolling over for Rove?

Watching a Jan. 16 speech by Karl Rove to a Republican group on C-Span tonight, I got a sense of why the Dems keep rolling over for Bush on the FISA bill. Rove said that the leading Democratic candidates, Hillary and Obama, were in favor of preventing US intelligence from listening in on the conversations of terrorists if their phone calls passed through the US. That is of course a gross distortion of the position of those who are trying to maintain a modicum of FISA oversight over unchecked monitoring of Americans' phone and Internet communication. But the way it was framed - they want to keep those who are trying to keep us safe from tuning in on those who are trying to kill us -- seems to make the Democrats quake in their boots. Here's one more 'nod to Dodd,' who's vowing again to filibuster any bill that guts FISA and grants telecom immunity.

On the whole, Rove's criticisms of Hillary and Obama were so limp and familiar that I began to wonder if the Republican attack machine might be as tired as the party's policy precepts. But I wouldn't count on it.

Wolf Munch Rock Awards III

cont. from Wolf Munch Rock Awards Part I and Part II

Wolfgang Munchau, eponymous co-recipient of the inaugural Wolf Munch Rock Award for analytical potency in op-ed writing, has devoted sustained attention in recent weeks to the likely fallout from the subprime crisis. Like his colleagues Rachman and Wolf, Munchau wears no ideology on his sleeve: his focus has been on teasing out how one credit market segment is likely to affect others, and how central bankers and fiscal policymakers might best alleviate the crisis. Several themes have emerged so far from his analysis:
  • The crisis is likely to be neither short nor mild; credit sqeezes and default waves are likely to wash over several other market segments, including credit cards, credit default swaps, and loans financing leveraged buyouts.

  • Central banks are a bit clueless and a bit powerless. Interest rate manipulation will not suffice to restore credit markets to health; the right kind of fiscal stimulus will also be needed.

  • Global 'decoupling' from U.S. economic conditions is nascent -- too weak at present for, say, Asian economies not to suffer from a U.S. downtown, but real enough that that recession here need not mean recession there. Munchau's forecast: "this year marks the start of an asymmetric global economic downturn that is likely to persist for some time and will probably be quite unpleasant, but which will be well short of catastrophic."

Methodically, without any sturm und drang, Munchau has provided lay readers with a serial tutorial on the way credit markets affect each other and the businesses and households that depend on credit in various ways. You cannot read him and maintain much hope that the subprime crisis will blow over any time soon.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Reagan-Clinton in '08

Naturally, Obama is getting slammed, by Edwards and others, for praising Reagan in an interview with the editorial board of the The Reno Gazette-Journal early this week:
I don't want to present myself as some sort of singular figure. I think part of what's different are the times. I do think that for example the 1980 was different. I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.
This is absolut Obama. As with most of his flashpoints, this is the fruit of long meditation, the development of a philosophy of power that's really been a lifelong project, and a continuation of his critique of Clintonian incrementalism delivered in the pre-New Hampshire debate (and discussed here). At the same time, Obama here is telling a simple empirical truth that most Democrats don't want to hear. Reagan did catch the country's mood and did change the country's direction - directly, by articulating and sticking to a few simple principles, in contrast to Clinton, who skillfully effected incremental change under the radar. Part of the difference is that the Republicans were a harder-assed opposition than the Democrats, part of it that Clinton squandered tons of political capital early -- and then again, once he'd won reelection, through Monica Lewinsky.

Much of the difference was character - and that's not all to Clinton's detriment. He is multiples smarter than Reagan was, and in a thousand details of spending and tax policy, he made government more effective and more responsive to the needs of less privileged people. After Reagan put liberalism on a diet, Clinton figured out ways to do more with less. Obama is really breathtakingly ambitious. What he's really trying to tell us, without breaking the modesty barrier, is that he combines Reaganite clarity of vision and Clintonian intellect.

Admittedly, Obama's paean to Reagan doesn't get into the really hard part for Democrats: that Reagan's stewardship through the disintegration of the Soviet Union was remarkable, and that a large part of "what people were already feeling" when he took office was that the United States needed to confront the Soviets more aggressively. Acccording to Robert Gates, Reagan was probably the only person in his government who believed his own "peace through strength" rhetoric -- that is, believed that if we convinced the Soviets they could not outspend and outarm us, we would be able to negotiate reductions in nuclear weapons - indeed, he believed we could negotiate an end to nuclear weapons. When Gorbachev began to change Soviet behavior abroad, Reagan was ready to deal. He didn't 'cause' the Soviet breakdown but he midwifed it very skillfully, as did Bush Sr. after him.

Many brands of bipartisanship are pious blather. The deepest bipartisanship, though, is recognition that a one-party state is not a good thing, that if your side won all the time they would screw things up, and that the electorate tacks back and forth between ideological poles, much as competent presidents themselves tend to tack between rival camps within their own administrations. Obama is bidding to tap into this deep bipartisanship. That means hurting Democratic feelings.

When economists preach

Heaven protect us from the moral clarity of economists. In a New York Times op-ed (Jan. 16), the University of Rochester's Steven E. Landsburg tells us that since we're all beneficiaries of free trade, we owe nothing to its victims. Claiming that "all economists know that when American jobs are outsourced, Americans as a group are net winners," Landsburg asks, "Does it [our collective benefit] create a moral mandate for the taxpayer-subsidized retraining programs proposed by Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney?"

Landsburg's answer" "Um, no." We don't feel that we need to compensate our pharmacist when we decide to buy shampoo more cheaply online, and so we shouldn't feel that need when our car buying decisions lead to auto industry layoffs. In the world economy it's every man for himself, and that's exactly as it should be.

This argument is ridiculous. Granted that no one has an intrinsic right to any given job or type of job; granted too that I do not personally 'owe' a Detroit auto worker if I buy a Hyundai. Still, we have a collective interest in creating conditions that foster prosperity for large groups of our fellow citizens -- and a collective responsibility, when old established ways of doing things (e.g., heavily unionized large industries) have trapped large numbers in in low-opportunity skill sets. Elected officials are literally hired to create conditions that maximize opportunity for individuals and so help the economy adapt to the "creative destruction" of which Landsburg is obviously enamored.

As citizens, too, we may collectively choose tradeoffs that limit the undoubted benefits of free trade, i.e. low prices There's some truth to Landsburg's claim that "protectionism" is a form of bullying, since one group generally pays more for another's benefit, as manufacturers using steel did when Bush imposed tariffs on steel imports. But not all forms of "protectionism" are morally equivalent. If a town wants to zone to keep big box stores out, that is its prerogative. We may not 'owe' our local pharmacist anything. But we may decide, collectively, that we'll all pay more to keep him or her on the block. As consumers, we all vote with our wallets. As citizens, we occasionally muster the will to vote with something else.

You run in poetry....

Since Andrew Sullivan has opened season on electoral op-verse, here goes: three once- and one future- (?) presidents basking in the endless summer of lyric immortality...

Bye, George (1993)

"Read my lips - no new taxes"
worked better in theory than in praxis.

Relic (1997)

Don't call it a mess
on Monica's dress,
that site of encounters ethereal.
Transformed at a touch
(with a gasp and a clutch)
into true Presidential material.

Responsible Partyboy (2002)

As a deeply moral man
of inherent nobility,
I'm calling for corporate
It works for me.
Each day I bless
corporate responsibility
for my success.

Let's Hope it Doesn't Come to This (2009)

There once was a President, Clinton,
who won her election by hintin'
her Rival Obama
had rich psychodrama
in his heart of darkness a glintin'.

c. Asp of Xpostfactoid

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Hillary bankrupt on bankruptcy?

Live-blogging Nevada Dem debate, 1/15:

After each oozes sympathy for families at risk of foreclosure, Russert challenges Hillary and Edwards on their support for the harsh 2001 bankruptcy bill. Wide opening for Obama -- the only one to oppose 01 and 05 bills. But he keeps the gloves on. He doesn't hit Hillary on judgment for being for 01 bill before she was against it (voted for it, happy that it didn't pass). I'll say it for him: judgment again, consistency again.

Broadly, this has been a lovefest - subtext of penance for the dirt of the last two weeks. Broad agreement on Iraq. Hillary points out that Republican candidates are all on Bush's wavelength, warming up to decades-long occupation.

Hillary panders on sovereign funds' bailouts of U.S. banks: she's going to make World Bank and IMF set rules for them? By what authority? It's their money, isn't it?

Revenge of the Communists

At the height of U.S.-Soviet collaboration during World War II, Franklin Roosevelt imagined a fusion of economic systems: 60% ours, 40% theirs. The collapse of the Berlin Wall and breakup of the Soviet Union would seem to have consigned this vision to the dustbin of history. But Yale's Jeffrey Garten, marking The unsettling zeitgeist of state capitalism in today's FT, suggests that "the era of free markets unleashed by Margaret Thatcher and reinforced by Ronald Reagan is fading away." Garten brings the surging growth of China, Russia and India into focus as a retooled statism that retains a strong tincture of communist aims and impulses.

While Garten acknowledges that "governments are reacting against the excesses of free markets" - citing "soaring income inequality," unsupervised product quality and poor financial risk management - he sees this turn of the wheel mainly as a negative:
The implications are worrying. While prudent regulation in selected areas can be justified, the new zeitgeist is likely to produce too much government intervention, too fast. We can expect less productivity, less innovation and less growth, since governments have many goals that the private sector does not. These include employment generation, income redistribution and the aggrandisement of political power. The expansion of regulation will also open up new possibilities for trade disruption. For example, countries may block the importation of goods that do not meet their precise national environmental standards.
Since Garten acknowledges "soaring income inequality" as an "excess," one might think he would acknowledge the need for a degree of income redistribution. And many would consider strict enforcement of national environmental standards a good thing. Most Americans, on the other hand, would regard the post-Communist mix of one-party dictatorship and state-controlled capitalism "worrying." But wherever one stands on the free market/state regulation spectrum, Garten has brought a really arresting global trend into sharp focus. He sees state intervention on the rise not only in the post-communist east, but in the US, the EU, China and the WTO.

Even during the Cold War, there was wide variation within the free world in the degree of state control over the economy; France, Japan and Korea achieved high growth rates in economies in which priorities and investment were heavily shaped by the government. It's true that for a long season, chronic economic woes in Japan and Europe seemed to auger a continuing shrinking of the welfare state, state ownership of economic resources, and state regulation. But now, Garten shows, the pendulum is swinging back toward governmental assertiveness. The EU is showing renewed competitive vigor vis-a-vis the U.S., and in the U.S. itself, a still-tentative but emerging confidence in the Democrats seems to point toward universal health coverage, stronger environmental regulation, and rollback of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Plainly, the end of economic history has been greatly exaggerated.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Romney's Creationism

Romney's "Faith in America" speech on Dec. 6 was appalling on so many fronts, I believe that one noteworthy prescription got short shrift:
We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history (my emphasis)
Whoa. How does this play out in history class? "The nation was at risk of being divided forever, but then God turned back Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg..." This is creationism, as surely as teaching that God created all species is creationism. History, taught with any intellectual honesty, entails a respect for provable fact and supportable hypotheses. To "teach" that God's hand guides human activity is to indoctrinate, pure and simple.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Niall Ferguson's Fog of War

The War of the World, Niall Ferguson’s attempt to identify the macrotrends of the twentieth century and divine where humanity is headed next, has all the characteristics of the typical Ferguson tome: sweeping scope, counterintuitive hypotheses to explain world-shaking events, great narrative drive, and detail drawn from a huge and eclectic mix of sources that render how events were experienced and interpreted by individuals. Compared to Ferguson’s prior oeuvre, however, the book is oddly formless – its theses weakly supported and at times almost forgotten in the welter of narrative detail.

Through hundreds of pages detailing mass slaughter by the Nazis, Soviets, Japanese and allied powers, the central thesis – the steady decline of the West throughout the century – seems almost a non sequitur. Of course the Western powers had less absolute governmental control and economic dominance in 2000 than in 1900 - but that would have been true even if the 20th century had unfolded in Utopian harmony and unchecked economic growth. Indeed, those Westerners who scared up the specter of the “yellow peril” in the early 1900s would probably have been surprised by the extent of American and European economic dominance, not to mention American military dominance, a century later.

Ferguson’s second main thesis – that ethnic conflict, particularly in heterogeneous regions of multi-ethnic empires, was the main trigger of twentieth century bloodletting – is not really supported. The Baltics may have lit the fuse to World War I, but the ensuing death struggle of the great powers was not primarily about ethnicity. The Soviet Union exercised brutal imperial control over a “graveyard of nations” and peoples, but “the race meme” was not the prime driver of Soviet brutality. The Germans, who made a depraved religion of race, were a relatively homogeneous people; the Japanese, committed mass murder in China and much of the rest of Asia, were probably the most homogeneous large nation on earth. “The race meme” was certainly a major contributor to twentieth century violence, and the breakup of decaying empires fueled ethnic conflict. But the worst ethnic conflict was not driven by powers emerging from decayed empires.

A third thesis – that the ethnic powder keg was generally touched off in periods of economic volatility – is interesting, but Ferguson doesn’t invest much effort in proving it. What seems sloppiest is Ferguson’s overall framing of 20th century violence. His delimiting of a “50 Years War” from 1903-1953 amounts to little more than a list of conflicts within that period. His claim that there was scarcely any diminution in violence in the century’s second half seems preposterous – he simply rattles off a long series of dreadful conflicts without any effort to compare casualty totals. Indeed, his evidence support the claim that the twentieth century was the most violent ever is relegated to an appendix. This lack of statistical analysis is surprising for a scholar whose roots are in economic history and who generally amasses a mountain of data in support of often startling, revisionist claims.

The War of the World exhausts and troubles the reader by the sheer weight and depth of its chronicle of ‘what man has done to man.’ By reminding us of the sudden descent into violence following the long period of relative peace and globalization leading up to World War I, it leaves one haunted by the sense that the next cataclysm may be just around the corner. Ferguson takes a passing swipe at Fukuyama’s The End of History, which posits that humanity as a while is trending toward democratic capitalism. But Ferguson does not really demonstrate that the West has ‘declined’ in any meaningful or undesirable sense, or that nations and international institutions have learned nothing about avoiding and containing outbreaks of violence, or that democracy is not spreading and worldwide violence diminishing.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Dissing the Electorate II

A postscript to the prior post about Christopher Caldwell's complaint that HIllary Clinton successfully yanked the chain of New Hampshire voters: it always irks me when people disparage the electorate, which I believe is smarter than all of us. That's not to say that we're collectively always right, but that Lincoln's can't-fool-all-the-people-all-of-the-time formulation is still the deepest wisdom. It's patronizing for Caldwell to spank voters for allegedly "identifying" with Hillary. He just does not know why people voted for her or why the polls were wrong. No one really does. Caldwell also implies that because women in NH favored Clinton by margins roughly comparable to those by which men favored Obama, women's votes are more based on emotion, or 'servile' identification, than men's. If the gender gap were reversed, would he accuse women of hormonal voting?

In my 80% Democratic home town, I heard many friends and neighbors complain bitterly after the 2004 election agony about the alleged stupidity of American voters. I see Bush's '04 win as the end of a long unfortunate causal chain stretching from Monica through Gore's awful campaign through our Constitutional electoral college flaw through 9/11 and Bush's wartime bonding and finally through Kerry's dithering. It wasn't till after Katrina that the worm turned on Bush. Later than many of us would have liked - but when it turned, it turned decisively.

To be fair, Caldwell may be on to something in suggesting that politicians' histrionics -- and, I would add, sophisticated media manipulation -- may corrode voters' decision-making powers -- and even, for a long season, "fool all of the people some of the time." Saturation negative advertising, for example, apparently has worked in many cases. So does fear, as exploited by Bush after 9/11. But I suspect that the electorate adapts over time to manipulative techniques. One of the more refreshing things about this election so far is that neither negative advertising nor a huge campaign chest have gotten Romney any traction so far.

Dissing the Electorate

In today's Financial Times, Christopher Caldwell bemoans Hillary Clinton's New Hampshire turnaround as an ominous descent into the Politics of the Personal.

Leave it to a Weekly Standard stalwart to speak with certainty when everyone else -- all the titanic media egos across the political spectrum -- is tentative.

Hillary Clinton's New Hampshire victory in the wake of polls showing her an average of eight points down is one of the great mysteries in recent political history -- a delightful reminder that the future remains opaque to polls, pundits and betting markets. Clinton's internal life is equally a riddle wrapped in an enigma. But Caldwell is blithely certain that Hillary planned her tear-up and won because of it, and that this electoral melting, triggered by mass identification with the soul-baring would-be monarch, is a sign of mass "servility."

Never mind that exit polls show that Clinton's margin among people who made up their minds in the final days was nearly identical to her overall margin. Never mind that speaking in "elegant parallelisms" after a year of nonstop campaigning is more likely a reflex as a sign of premeditation. Never mind that Clinton remains almost terminally unhistrionic as she opens herself up to voter q-and-a (after Iowa) and buries her interlocutors in a mass of wonkish policy detail.

I'll take a 'servile' electorate over a certain pundit any day.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

McCain and Lieberman's Bridge to Nowhere

John McCain and Joe Lieberman's paean to the surge (subscription required) in today's Wall Street Journal is not quite a victory jig. It does not crow. It does not deny the dilemma of having to draw down troops over the next half year without any signs of political progress in Iraq. The tone is only mutedly triumphal

But McCain and Lieberman don't answer any important questions either. How can the reduction in violence be maintained with fewer U.S. troops? What can we do to foster a functioning government on the ground after a year of failure on this front as marked as the success in reducing violence? Finally, most crucially, what is the "victory" which we're told in the closer "must remain our objective in this long, hard and absolutely necessary war"?

McCain provided a key part of his own answer in a different context, telling a questioner that our troops may be in Iraq for decades. "We've been in Japan for 60 years. We've been in South Korea 50 years or so...that would be fine with me." Problem is, our history in those countries provides no obvious model for Iraq. In both cases, our military presence was a function of the Cold War -- justified not by continuing internal instability but by our geopolitical struggle with the Soviet Union. Is McCain suggesting that it may take decades for Iraq to achieve stability, or that we need a permanent military presence in the Arab world, perhaps as a counterweight to Iran? If the former, maintaining stability in a non-functioning state is far different from maintaining a military deterrent to outside invasion (Korea) or boosting our own global military capability (Japan); in both cases, our troops were lodged in stable, prosperous countries. On the other hand, to suggest that the U.S. might need troops in Iraq as a counterweight to Iran is a sign of "Cold War Withdrawal Syndrome" -- the neoconservative craving for a Soviet-scale enemy against which to project American power and America's role of global bulwark against an Evil Empire.

And indeed, the McCain-Lieberman manifesto indulges the ideological shadow puppetry that gathers up disparate forces of different kinds of Islamic militancy and projects them as an Empire-sized monolith:
had we heeded [opponents of the surge's] calls for retreat, Iraq today would be a country in chaos: a failed state in the heart of the Middle East, overrun by al Qaeda and Iran....

Whereas, a year ago, al Qaeda in Iraq was entrenched in Anbar province and Baghdad, now the forces of Islamist extremism are facing their single greatest and most humiliating defeat since the loss of Afghanistan in 2001
al Qaeda. Iran. al Qaeda in Iran. Forces of Islamist extremism. All one? It is true that our botched occupation created a toxic brew in which Saddam loyalists, external al Qaeda agents, and Shiite militias accepting varying degrees of support (though probably rarely control) from Iran could all contribute to violent anarchy in one place. But it was the very failure to distinguish between utterly different and often warring 'forces of Islamist extremism" that got us into McCain's projected 100 year occupation to begin with. And the most dangerous of those forces -- al Qaeda Central -- has enjoyed a resurgence in Afghanistan/Pakistan that's more germane to our security than the "humiliating defeat" of their proxies in Iraq. That remarkable comeback would not have happened had we maintained focus on Afghanistan

To recognize that sad fact does not point a way out. But neither do McCain and Lieberman.

It won't be possible to judge whether the surge has 'worked' until we see whether the progress of the last year can be maintained as our forces are reduced, as all acknowledge they must be. But neither will we ever know whether the concerted diplomatic effort recommended by the Iraq Study Group - accompanied by the first stages of a phased withdrawal - would have moved Iraq more quickly toward developing a functioning government of its own.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Fairy Tale about the 'Fairy Tale'

For the record, Bill Clinton did not say that Obama or his campaign or his message of hope were a fairy tale. What he said was that Obama's claim to have consistently opposed the war in Iraq was a fairy tale. Here's the transcript:
"Second, it is wrong that Senator Obama got to go through 15 debates trumpeting his superior judgment and how he had been against the war in every year, numerating the years, and never got asked one time, not once, 'Well, how could you say, that when you said in 2004 you didn't know how you would have voted on the resolution? You said in 2004 there was no difference between you and George Bush on the war and you took that speech you're now running on off your website in 2004 and there's no difference in your voting record and Hillary's ever since?' Give me a break.

"This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen.
"This whole thing" is plainly Obama "trumpeting his superior judgement and how he had been against the war in every year."

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Lipitor Election

For a moment this morning, I stepped back from thinking about the individual candidates and let a surge of hope for the country as a whole wash over me. Like most Americans, I've felt that the country has gone off the rails in recent years -- in preemptive aggression, massive tax cuts and deficits, a tenfold increase in lobbying, and, most importantly, in the Bush Administration's shredding of the Bill of Rights and assault on the separation of powers. I thought, 'the great virtue of a democracy is that it can self-correct -- as long as it's still a democracy. But are we?'

Doors were slamming on multiple avenues of choice and change. Start with the K Street Project, an enterprise corrupt to its core and breathtaking in its arrogance. Think about the premise - to coerce lobbying firms into hiring agents of one party only and to contribute to one party only. That's not only pay-to-play, pure and simple, but a move toward a one-party state. Couple that with ever more radical gerrymandering techniques, a national Rove-led attempt to disenfranchise as many poor voters as possible in the name of stopping imaginary 'election fraud', the selective prosecution of Democratic elected officials, the stacking of the judiciary with right wing ideologues who would support the power of the state at every turn. Then pile on the Bush Administration's assertions of unchecked executive power - in signing statements that negate key parts of laws passed by Congress, in twisted legal documents that assert the President's right to abrogate any law in the name of national security, and in the assumed power to deem anyone the executive branch chooses an "illegal combatant" who can be detained indefinitely and tortured at will.

You had to wonder: could restrictions on media freedom and assertions that Administration critics were security risks and ultimately "illegal combatants" be far behind? (Bill Kristol, who called for the NYT to be prosecuted for breaking the warrantless wiretapping story, was fired up, ready to go.) The path to step-by-step demolition of democracy was nicely marked out by Vladimir Putin, embraced as a soulmate by Bush.

Those dangers are still real. Elect a Giuliani or a Romney, and who knows what new executive powers they would seize in the wake of a major terrorist attack? But in the interim, democracy has struck back. A self-correction is in mid-course. Political choice remained real enough, and the media free and robust enough, to make it clear to two-thirds of the country that we were led to war on false premises; that the war was disastrous to our national interests; that the nation was being bankrupted to fund tax cuts for the wealthy; and that the environment was being terminally neglected. And so, in 2006, despite all the gerrymandering, the imbalance (over many years prior at least) in campaign funds, the 95% incumbency return rates, we had enough of a turnover to change the balance of power. On a state level, changeovers in legislatures and governorships reduced the overall power of Republican assaults on voter eligibility and equal access to polls.

Now, say what you like about this primary season, the choices are real and manifold; the debates have their moments of lucidity amid all the idiocy; money has been proved already not be decisive, and there is no way anyone claim that the results are not in the hands of voters. In the general election, there's still a danger that the electoral college or faulty voting equipment will skew the results. But those dangers (substituting old-style ballot box fraud for dicey electronic equipment) are as old as the Republic.

The electorate is smarter than all of us. That dawned on me about a dozen years ago, while I was reading a biography of Eisenhower; it occurred to me that I probably would have voted for Stevenson as my parents did, and I would have been wrong. Later I came to feel the same way about Reagan - who did not 'cause' the Soviet Union's breakup but certainly midwifed it, smoothed the glide path, gave Gorbachev the running room to do the job. So the electorate is at least smarter than I am, and I'm no dumber than the average voter.

That's not to say that the electorate doesn't make mistakes (sometimes pushed over the edge by our creaky Constitutional machinery) , just that it always eventually corrects them -- as long as the arteries of choice remain unclogged enough for information to flow.

Plaque builds slowly; our hearts can function with up to 95% blockage (as Bill Clinton's did just prior to his quintuple bypass). Democracy is resilient (if ultimately killable) like that. Sweeping statements that we're not a democracy because of lobbying, or incumbency, or widening income gaps are false as long as there's enough 'democratic function' to change course. I can see a descent past that line. But we're not there yet.

Short of a terror-induced executive power grab, the greatest threat to democratic functioning is the proliferation of lobbying. The most important chord in Obama's aria melody might be his promise to change the rules of the game so that lobbying is held in check. Edwards of course also promises to "take on" "lobbyists", but the weakness there is personalizing the battle, as if the problem will go away if an evil coterie of individuals is smitten. On this question Robert Reich's Supercapitalism is helpful. According to Reich, the escalation in lobbying is a function of supercapitalism, i.e. the hypercompetition in which each company and industry strives for competitive advantage on the legislative front (as in every other arena). Companies lobby not because they're conspiring to squeeze out the public interest, but to fend off rivals' attempts to gain advantageous legislation. The result is near-complete corruption of the legislative process as companies compete to buy legislation. The good news is that corporations are not reveling in this relentless arms race. Changing the rules of the game may be in everyone's interest.

Obama and McCain may both have the will and the skills to do this. Both have had more than one success on this front. Another day, another post for that one.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Will-fully Misleading?

UPDATE 4/6/10: David Brooks joins Will in misrepresenting Stephen J. Rose's household income figures as individual income

George Will, slamming the populism of Edwards and Huckabee, uses some pretty dicey-looking numbers to paint a picture of a wealthy electorate:

Economist Stephen Rose, defining the middle class as households with annual incomes between $30,000 and $100,000, says a smaller percentage of Americans are in that category than in 1979 — because the percentage of Americans earning more than $100,000 has doubled, from 12 to 24, while the percentage earning less than $30,000 is unchanged. "So," Rose says, "the entire 'decline' of the middle class came from people moving up the income ladder." Even as housing values declined in 2007, the net worth of households increased.
According to U.S. Census figures, in 2006, 19% of U.S. households earned over $100,000. Households in the top two income quintiles , those with an annual household income exceeding $60,000, had a median of two income earners while those in the lower quintiles (2nd and middle quintile) had median of only one earner. These numbers suggest that a small percentage of "Americans" earn over $100,000. The median household income is $48,201.00 (a handy summary is at Wikipedia*).

This is not to say that Edwards doesn't overstate the economic distress of Americans generally. It's fine to emphasize the continued prevalence of poverty in the U.S., which Edwards rightly calls shameful. It's also fair to stress that middle class income has stagnated, that income inequality is rising, and that there's been a massive risk transfer to households over the past 2-3 decades (e.g. in pensions, healthcare costs, and homeowners' insurance). But when Democrats start speaking as if the majority of Americans are in acute economic distress, it puts them out of tune with much of the electorate.

UPDATE, 5/6/09: What Rose actually said, in a Dec. 23, 2007 Washington Post op-ed, is that between 1979 and 2007,"the number of people in households that bring in more than $100,000... rose from 12 percent to 24 percent." Rose doesn't say whether the 1979 percentage is inflation adjusted. But he's a reputable economist, so let's assume that it is.  His broad point that per capita income has risen in this period holds -- though it's largely offset by the rise of one-income households, the fraying of the safety net, and the disproportionate rises in the cost of housing, higher education and health care.

* While the Wikipedia article places the 19% of U.S. households earning over $100k in 2005, the 2006 Census figures show the same percentage.

Race and IQ: Breastfeeding Shows no Link

Contra Will Saletan at Slate, recent studies of the IQ boost that breastfeeding seems to give most babies provide no evidence of a link between race and IQ.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Obama Praises Bill Clinton, and Buries Him

Barack Obama may have hit the gamer in the nomination battle in last night's ABC debate. Hillary was working all night to make the case that she was the real "change" agent because she has gotten change done in the past. By contrast, she suggested that Obama's promise of change is mainly talk. When she cited Bill Clinton's balancing the budget as a major accomplishment of 'change', Obama delivered this multi-tiered response:
Look, I think it's easier to be cynical and just say, "You know what, it can't be done because Washington's designed to resist change." But in fact there have been periods of time in our history where a president inspired the American people to do better, and I think we're in one of those moments right now. I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes -- not incremental changes, not small changes.

I actually give Bill Clinton enormous credit for having balanced those budgets during those years. It did take political courage for him to do that. But we never built the majority and coalesced the American people around being able to get the other stuff done.

And, you know, so the truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't. I'm running for president because I want to tell them, yes, we can. And that's why I think they're responding in such large numbers.
As with many of Obama's best formulations, this seemed simultaneously to rise to the moment and be the fruit of long reflection. He exactly captured the strength and the weakness of the Clinton presidency in an assessment that is generous, fair, but dead-on accurate as a critique. Bill Clinton outmaneuvered the Republicans year after year on budget essentials but he never built the coalition (generous of Obama to say "we never built...) to reform health care, or revamp energy policy, or build any other major policy bridge to the 21st century. Hillary would say that's because the vast right-wing conspiracy sabotaged them at every turn. But Bill kept handing them swords to gore him, so he never built the trust that underlies a mandate. So Obama manages to bury Clinton and to praise him. "I give him enormous credit" but....

On top of this, Obama has here the perfect response to the "he's just talk" line of attack. Politics is almost literally all talk. You've got to be good in the cloak room, at the negotiating table, on the debate floor. What gives a politician the ultimate strength to push through change, though, is to convince the mass of voters to support his or her effort for something major like health care reform. "Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens." That says it all. That's a real political philosophy at its deepest.

Also, note the organic riff on "the fierce urgency of now": But in fact there have been periods of time in our history where a president inspired the American people to do better, and I think we're in one of those moments right now. Obama's slogans are the fruit of long reflection. They don't become fixed like a smile for the camera; they weave themselves into his language and ripen over time. He manages to shake off that broken record effect that encrusts almost every campaign.

Friday, January 04, 2008


Is there an element of atonement in Americans' response to Obama? Not atonement for centuries of slavery and racial discrimination, but for the Bush Administration's preemptive aggression, flouting of international law, disdain for allies, and widespread use of torture? Perhaps on some level a lot of Americans want to send the world a message that we're turning the page, we've sickened on the attempt to unilaterally impose our will on the world--we're changing our 'cheere,' to borrow an expressive medieval term that means the face, facial expression, the attitude, the point of view.

Nod to Dodd

Those of us who consider the rollback of unchecked executive power essential to the survival of democracy in America owe a nod to Dodd, the only candidate to put 'restoring the Constitution' at the center of his campaign. Last night, his farewell email to supporters included this pledge:
The fight to restore the Constitution and stop retroactive immunity does not end with my Presidential campaign. FISA will come back in a few weeks and my pledge to filibuster ANY bill that includes retroactive immunity remains operative.
Neither Obama nor Clinton nor Edwards has devoted enough attention to ending torture, indefinite detention, warrantless spying, and the Bush Administration's insanely expansive 'interpretation' of the 'unitary executive' theory, which boils down to a free pass to the President to violate any law at his discretion.

I watched Obama's "closer" speech before the Iowa caucuses, and it included a couple of brief gestures toward the importance of restoring "American values" and our place in the world, i.e. ending torture and unlawful imprisonment. Those were the largest applause lines in the speech. He needs to do more on this front.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

It Takes a Leader: the Creativity of Evil

In Questioning the Banality of Evil, The Psychologist Jan. 2008, S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher bring into sharp relief the danger posed by current American leaders and would-be leaders whose chief appeal lies in fear-mongering and demonizing of real and perceived enemies. Those who execute tyrants' orders (and enemies) are not affectless functionaries but enthusiastic believers:
A spate of books...suggest that very few Nazis could be seen as ‘simply following orders’ – not least because the orders issued by the Nazi hierarchy were typically very vague. As a result, individuals needed to display imagination and initiative in order to interpret the commands they were given and to act upon them. As Ian Kershaw notes, Nazis didn’t obey Hitler, they worked towards him, seeking to surpass each other in their efforts. But by the same token, they also had a large degree of discretion. Indeed, as Laurence Rees (2005) notes in his recent book on Auschwitz and the ‘final solution’, it was this that made the Nazi system so dynamic. Even in the most brutal of circumstances, people did not have to kill and only some chose to do so. So, far from simply ‘finding themselves’ in inhumane situations or inhumane groups, the murderers actively committed themselves to such groups.
How do conditions arise in which such self-selected executors - and executioners - are free to fulfill their potential? When enough people feel threatened enough, demagogues pick up the charge:
we do not interpret the world on our own, as many social psychological models tend to imply. Rather, people are surrounded by would-be leaders who tell them what to make of the world around them...Indeed, tyrannical leaders only thrive by convincing us that we are in crisis, that we face threat and that we need their strong decisive action to surmount it. In the BBC study, participants as a whole may have become relatively more authoritarian, but it still needed active leadership to exploit this and to make the case for a new tough regime. The role of leaders becomes particularly pernicious when they suggest that ‘our’ problems come about because of the threats posed by a pernicious outgroup. In this way they can begin to take the groups with which we already identify and develop norms of hostility against outsiders. Their role becomes even more dangerous when they tell us that ‘we’ are the sum of all virtues so that the defence of virtue requires the destruction of the outgroup that threatens us. These are the conditions which allow groups to make genocide normative and to represent mass murder as something honourable (Reicher et al., 2006).
While Andrew Sullivan finds insight here into jihadist ideological commitment, I'm more concerned about the implications for the U.S. Can you hear the crowds chanting Rudy, Rudy, Rudy? Americans have been badly frightened in the past six years, and the Rovian message machine has kept the fire stoked. Worse, the Bush Adminstration has laid bare the fact that the tissue of statutory and common law in which our vaunted civil liberties are embodied is kept intact not so much by "the consent of the governed" as by the consent of the governing. Our leaders before 43 have for the most part adhered to norms and taboos that have restrained their power. Now, for six years, the executive has imprisoned whom it wishes indefinitely without trial, tortured at will, spied on Americans in violation of the law, and asserted the president's right to disregard laws passed by Congress when he deems doing so essential to national security.

Americans are resilient and seem to be rejecting Bushian fear-mongering at last. If nothing else, we're used to the media skewering our leaders to the point where few of us take their pronouncements at full face value, and Bush at least has not meddled much with freedom of the press. But we've been subject to six years of of intermittent code orange. My fear is that some electoral accident - e.g., a Bloomberg 3rd party run - will throw the election to a dictator-in-waiting like Giuliani or possibly Romney. Romney doesn't seem a thug by nature, just a chameleon. But in his vocal support of torture and absolute executive power we would do well to take him at his word. We need a President who will roll back the executive power grab. Otherwise, dictatorial power is there for the taking.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Wolf Munch Rock Awards II

cont. from Wolf Much Rock Awards I, here

Martin Wolf, the FT’s chief economics columnist, also wrote an end-of-year retrospective, in this case focused on the likely fallout from the subprime crisis. Like Rachman, he introduces his list of observations casually– in this case, of reasons Why the credit squeeze is a turning point for the world: “Why do I believe this? Let me count the ways.”

Wolf, like Rachman, doesn’t use lists as ideological bludgeons to suggest he’s cornered the market in causality in a neat ideological package wrapped around a simple solution. This is not “The Eight Steps Central Banks Must Take to Avoid a Depression.” In fact Wolf offers up more questions than answers:

Third, the crisis has opened up big questions about the roles of both central banks and regulators. How far, for example, do the responsibilities of central banks as “lender-of-last-resort” during crises stretch? Should they, as some argue, be market-makers-of-last resort in credit markets? What, more precisely, should a central bank do when liquidity dries up in important markets? Equally, the crisis suggests that liquidity has been significantly underpriced. Does this mean that the regulatory framework for banks is fundamentally flawed? What is left of the idea that we can rely on financial institutions to manage risk through their own models? What, moreover, can reasonably be expected of the rating agencies? A market in US mortgages is hardly terra incognita. If banks and rating agencies got this wrong, what else must be brought into question?

Those questions would seem to point toward a need for a firmer government hand on the economic tiller. But the next point tacks the other way:, toward less intervention:

Fourth, do you remember the lecturing by US officials, not least to the Japanese, about the importance of letting asset prices reach equilibrium and transparency enter markets as soon as possible? That, however, was in a far-off country. Now we see Hank Paulson, US Treasury secretary, trying to organise a cartel of holders of toxic securitised assets in the “superSIV”. More importantly, we see the US Treasury intervene directly in the rate-setting process on mortgages, in an attempt to shore up the housing market. Either, or both, of these ideas might be good ones (though I strongly doubt it). But they are at odds with what the US has historically recommended to other countries in a similar plight. Not for a long time will people listen to US officials lecture on the virtues of free financial markets with a straight face.

In fact, each of Wolf’s eight points reads like a discrete essay. Each highlights either lessons learned or questions raised, and in each case, Wolf goes where the evidence takes him. Not all of his essays are so free-form; some point toward a policy prescription. But generally, these pieces are inquiries, not briefs – essays in the original sense of “trials,” thought processes laid out on the page.