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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Obama endorses Hillary!

More verbal judo from Obama yesterday. At a news conference in a high school gym in Johnstown, PA, he was invited to pile on to the rising calls for Hillary to drop out because intraparty warfare is undermining his chances to beat McCain.

Obama's response:
My attitude is that Senator Clinton can run as long as she wants.Her name is on the ballot. She is a fierce and formidable opponent, and she obviously believes she would make the best nominee and the best president.
As to a Gallup poll showing that 28% of Clinton supporters and 19% of Obama supports say they'll vote for McCain if the their candidate does not get the nomination:
You know, there’s no doubt that among some of my supporters or some of her supporters, there’s probably been some irritation created,” he said. “You can’t tell me that some of my supporters are going to say, well, we’d rather have the guy who may want to stay in Iraq for a hundred years because we’re mad that Senator Clinton ran a negative ad against Senator Obama. And I think the converse is true as well.
Once again, Obama's graciousness in the heat of combat makes the Clintons look small. As Bill Clinton continues to mouth fulsome praise of John McCain (the same McCain who repeatedly lambasted Bill as unfit to be commander-in-chief), Obama expresses incredulity that his own supporters would choose McCain over Hillary. By crediting Hillary's belief that she is the best candidate, he throws her belittling of him into sharp relief while coolly projecting his own confidence that her 'belief' is mistaken. Instead of piling on, he displays again the character and leadership style that's making voters and superdelegates choose him.

Try to imagine Hillary saying, in effect, that a Democrat would have to be crazy to choose McCain over Obama. Or imagine her in his situation, with a near-insurmountable delegate lead and supporters calling publicly for Obama to withdraw. Remember her mind's tailkick when asked to affirm that Obama was not a Muslim: "...as far as I know." And ask yourself: which candidate projects strength, detachment, ability to see the contest and the players as they are, to digest the brouhaha du jour and deliver a measured response?

Prevailing in day-to-day combat with Hillary Clinton is an admittedly poor proxy for dealing with international crises. But no one crosses "the commander-in-chief threshold" until they're commander in chief. And Obama has shown over the course of many months that he's better able to keep his head in a fight than Hillary is.

Related posts:
Changing 'the rules' on Clinton
Debunked! Obama spanks the Clinton Kids again
Truth and Transformation
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him
Obama: Man, those Clinton Kids are Something

Friday, March 28, 2008

The first black president, 1990

Thanks to the The New York Times' wayback machine! Here's Obama at 28, not quite post-racial, but quite recognizable:

First Black Elected to Head Harvard's Law Review

Published: February 6, 1990

The Harvard Law Review, generally considered the most prestigious in the country, elected the first black president in its 104-year history today. The job is considered the highest student position at Harvard Law School.

The new president of the Review is Barack Obama, a 28-year-old graduate of Columbia University who spent four years heading a community development program for poor blacks on Chicago's South Side before enrolling in law school. His late father, Barack Obama, was a finance minister in Kenya and his mother, Ann Dunham, is an American anthropologist now doing fieldwork in Indonesia. Mr. Obama was born in Hawaii.

''The fact that I've been elected shows a lot of progress,'' Mr. Obama said today in an interview. ''It's encouraging.

''But it's important that stories like mine aren't used to say that everything is O.K. for blacks. You have to remember that for every one of me, there are hundreds or thousands of black students with at least equal talent who don't get a chance,'' he said, alluding to poverty or growing up in a drug environment....[snip]

On his goals in his new post, Mr. Obama said: ''I personally am interested in pushing a strong minority perspective. I'm fairly opinionated about this. But as president of the law review, I have a limited role as only first among equals.''

Therefore, Mr. Obama said, he would concentrate on making the review a ''forum for debate,'' bringing in new writers and pushing for livelier, more accessible writing.
The voice is the same, the themes familiar. We've made a lot of progress, but we have a long way to go. It's not about me. Leadership is listening. Ready for change.

I was struck, too, by the almost surreal strangeness of Obama's bio--coming to it cold, in three laconic sentences. Father a Kenyan finance minister? Mother an anthropologist in Indonesia? Born in Hawaii? Who is this that comes out of the wilderness?

His plans at that point were as off-the-beaten-path as his past:
A President's Future (sic!)

The president of the law review usually goes on to serve as a clerk for a judge on the Federal Court of Appeals for a year, and then as a clerk for an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Mr. Obama said he planned to spend two or three years in private law practice and then return to Chicago to re-enter community work, either in politics or in local organizing.

He knew where he was headed. Here's hoping that this was our first look at "A President's Past."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Tablewary

Andrew Sullivan admonishes, "no dessert until you eat your plate, so I took him at his word:

A Solid Meal

I ate my whole bowl of soup,

but I found the bowl rather hard.

I savored the seafood platter,

but had trouble digesting each shard.

The deep-dish dessert

punched a hole in my shirt,

and that pot of herbal tea

is afloat inside of me.

Yes, all of your dishes

are truly delicious,

but I think, for today,

I’ve had quite enough clay.

Obamanomics: rebalancing the national portfolio

One of Obama's favorite words is 'balance.' It's been a central premise of his campaign that moving economic policy to the left is a matter of restoring balance after a generation of deregulation, tax cuts, widening income inequality, and risk shift from institutions to individuals.

Given this recurring theme, it's amusing to look at how Obama, in his speech devoted to the housing crisis delivered at Cooper Union in New York City today, tacks back and forth between Hamilton and Jefferson to establish a framework for his proposed policies.

First, Obama enlists Hamilton in support of government providing 'prudent aids and encouragement' to economic growth, extrapolating from Hamilton's activism "weaving together the economies of the states and creating an American system of credit and capital markets" an implied support for government as rulemaker, i.e. regulator. He implicitly acknowledges that Hamilton's vision of an economy based on manufacturing enterprise better describes the path of American development than Jefferson's agrarian vision.

But then he tacks over to Jefferson's fear that Hamiltonian capitalism "would favor the interests of the few over the many." Finally, with a bit of sleight of hand, he implies that Hamilton shared this concern, by segueing from the rivals' different attitudes about concentration of power to their alleged agreement that "opportunity had to remain open to all." In effect he coopts Hamilton's authority for a strong Federal role in the economy, and Jefferson's mandate to work against the concentration of power and wealth.

Having yoked the rivals to support his own advocacy for free markets, strong government regulation, and reduced concentration of wealth, Obama goes on to frame strong if measured doses of re-regulation and government aid to distressed homeowners as a matter of redressing imbalances created in the Clinton era.

But the frame is not finished at this point. Before moving on to specific policies, Obama introduces these paired principles:

Prosperity is only sustainable if it's shared: "there is no dividing line between Main Street and Wall Street. The decisions made in New York's high-rises have consequences for Americans across the country. And whether those Americans can make their house payments; whether they keep their jobs; or spend confidently without falling into debt – that has consequences for the entire market." In the current crisis, "What was bad for Main Street was bad for Wall Street. Pain trickled up (my emphasis).

Concentration of power distorts policymaking and undermines shared prosperity: specifically, bank deregulation was botched in the 1990s because of unchecked lobbying. Characteristically, Obama begins here by acknowledging that "the other side may have a point": "The evolution of industries often warrants regulatory reform...There were good arguments for changing the rules of the road in the 1990s." But a broken political system distorted reform: "Unfortunately, instead of establishing a 21st century regulatory framework, we simply dismantled the old one – aided by a legal but corrupt bargain in which campaign money all too often shaped policy and watered down oversight. In doing so, we encouraged a winner take all, anything goes environment that helped foster devastating dislocations in our economy."

Within this context, Obama positions individual policy prescriptions -- as he always does -- as means of restoring balance and fairness. Let's look at one proposal aimed at distressed homeowners, and one at regulation of lenders. First, Obama's defense of the Dodd-Frank FHA Housing Security Program:
Senator McCain argues that government should do nothing to protect borrowers and lenders who've made bad decisions, or taken on excessive risk. On this point, I agree. But the Dodd-Frank package is not a bailout for lenders or investors who gambled recklessly, as they will take losses. It is not a windfall for borrowers, as they will have to share any capital gain. Instead, it offers a responsible and fair way to help bring an end to the foreclosure crisis. It asks both sides to sacrifice, while preventing a long-term collapse that could have enormous ramifications for the most responsible lenders and borrowers, as well as the American people as a whole. That is what Senator McCain ignores.
Asking both sides to sacrifice is a classic Obama trope. This 'balance' is matched by his acknowledgement of McCain's moral concern. But in Obama's moral universe, McCain's got just one hand clapping.

The proposal to subject mortgage brokers to the same lending guidelines to which commercial banks are subject is presented as a a restoration of government's historic oversight function:
we need to regulate institutions for what they do, not what they are. Over the last few years, commercial banks and thrift institutions were subject to guidelines on subprime mortgages that did not apply to mortgage brokers and companies. It makes no sense for the Fed to tighten mortgage guidelines for banks when two-thirds of subprime mortgages don't originate from banks. This regulatory framework has failed to protect homeowners, and it is now clear that it made no sense for our financial system. When it comes to protecting the American people, it should make no difference what kind of institution they are dealing with.
Having placed his measures to deal with the current crisis in this framework, Obama broadens it, articulating principles that he has emphasized throughout his campaign:

Good policy reform requires systemic political reform:
the American people must be able to trust that their government is looking out for all of us – not just those who donate to political campaigns. I fought in the Senate for the most extensive ethics reform since Watergate. I have refused contributions from federal lobbyists and PACs. And I have laid out far-reaching plans that I intend to sign into law as President to bring transparency to government, and to end the revolving door between industries and the federal agencies that oversee them.
To move left today is to restore the center:
today, for far too many Americans, [the American] dream is slipping away. Wall Street has been gripped by increasing gloom over the last nine months. But for many American families, the economy has effectively been in recession for the past seven years. We have just come through the first sustained period of economic growth since World War II that was not accompanied by a growth in incomes for typical families. Americans are working harder for less. Costs are rising, and it's not clear that we'll leave a legacy of opportunity to our children and grandchildren. That's why, throughout this campaign, I've put forward a series of proposals that will foster economic growth from the bottom up, and not just from the top down....we need to pursue policies that once again recognize that we are in this together.
Those who dismiss Obama's calls for unity as empty rhetoric miss his relentless efforts to create unity by force of argument -- to convince Americans that our true national center is well left of where we are now. His rhetoric is powerful because his thinking is powerful. He is unmatched by any living American politician in his ability to develop and articulate policy proposals in a clear historical and theoretical context.

Hillary's policy proposals are a laundry list. McCain's are a morality play. Obama's are new chapters in an historical narrative.

Related Posts:
Breaking the Commander-in-Chief Chokehold
Audacity of Obama: Embracing Wright and Grandma
Audacity of Respect: What Obama Owes to Reagan II
Obama's Metapolitics
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Truth and Transformation
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him
Obama: Man, those Clinton Kids are Something

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

McCain to Homewners: Drop Dead

In a speech on the housing crisis delivered today to the Orange County Hispanic Small Business Roundtable, John McCain has proven once again that he knows little and cares less about "economics"-- particularly the impact of market forces on ordinary people. It is a horrendous speech -- ignorant, patronizing, devoid of serious solutions.

McCain's proposed measures boil down to meetings of bankers and accountants, unenforced pledges by bankers to be nice -- and, unbelievably, more tax cuts and less regulation for banks. His tone projects belated awareness and begrudged concern. And his grammar betrays reflexive sympathy with the most powerful actors in the farce.

First, the speech approaches the current crisis from a "while I was sleeping" stance. "While I was traveling overseas," McCain informs his audience, "our financial markets experienced another round of upheaval." True enough, but where's he been in the eight months of upheaval prior to his recent trip? Throughout, he speaks about solutions in the future tense, as if he's already President, someone has just brought him news of a new-breaking crisis, and he's prepared to take suggestions. "I will evaluate everything in terms of whether it might be harmful or helpful to our effort to deal with the crisis we face now....I will consider any and all proposals based on their cost and benefits....I am prepared to examine new proposals and evaluate them on these principals." Fired up, ready to go! Ready on Day 1...

Second, grammar betrays McCain's sympathies. By their verb constructs shall ye know them. In his grade-school exposition of how the crisis brewed, active verb constructions damn the follies of mortgage lenders (as they should) and borrowers (as they should in many cases):
A sustained period of rising home prices made many home lenders complacent, giving them a false sense of security and causing them to lower their lending standards. They stopped asking basic questions of their borrowers like "can you afford this home? Can you put a reasonable amount of money down?" Lenders ended up violating the basic rule of banking: don't lend people money who can't pay it back. Some Americans bought homes they couldn't afford, betting that rising prices would make it easier to refinance later at more affordable rates. There are 80 million family homes in America and those homeowners are now facing the reality that the bubble has burst and prices go down as well as up.
But when it comes to explaining why lenders went crazy -- that is, why they had no financial incentive to worry about whether loans they originated could be repaid-- suddenly we're in the passive construction, anonymous agent, forces-larger-than-all-of-us zone. When the verbs aren't passive, the subjects are inanimate objects - bets, instruments -- or unspecified 'people':

The other part of what happened was an explosion of complex financial instruments that weren't particularly well understood by even the most sophisticated banks, lenders and hedge funds. To make matters worse, these instruments -- which basically bundled together mortgages and sold them to others to spread risk throughout our capital markets -- were mostly off-balance sheets, and hidden from scrutiny. In other words, the housing bubble was made worse by a series of complex, inter-connected financial bets that were not transparent or fully understood. That means they weren't always managed wisely because people couldn't properly quantify the risk or the value of these bets. And because these instruments were bundled and sold and resold, it became harder and harder to find and connect up a real lender with a real borrower. Capital markets work best when there is both accountability and transparency. In the case of our current crisis, both were lacking (my emphasis).

Then there's breathtaking direct contempt for homeowners who have got into trouble:
Of those 80 million homeowners, only 55 million have a mortgage at all, and 51 million are doing what is necessary -- working a second job, skipping a vacation, and managing their budgets -- to make their payments on time. That leaves us with a puzzling situation: how could 4 million mortgages cause this much trouble for us all?

Five percent of homeowners, causing all that trouble for the virtuous 95% If only they could have been left to default without riling Wall Street...

Finally, there are the policy prescriptions. Less regulation for financial institutions:
In financial institutions, there is no substitute for adequate capital to serve as a buffer against losses. Our financial market approach should include encouraging increased capital in financial institutions by removing regulatory, accounting and tax impediments to raising capital.
More tax cuts:

Even as financial troubles weigh upon it other parts of the economy hold up or even continue to grow. I have spoken at length in other settings about the need to keep taxes low on our families, entrepreneurs, and small businesses; to make the tax code simpler and fair by eliminating the Alternative Minimum Tax that the middle class was never intended to pay; to improve the ability of our companies to compete by reducing our corporate tax rate, which today are the second highest rates in the world; to provide investment incentives...

The kitchen sink:
...to control rising health care costs that threaten the budgets of our businesses and families; to improve education and training programs; and to ensure our ability to sell to the 95 percent of the world's customers that lie outside U.S. borders.
Meetings, meetings, meetings:

But I think we need to do two things right away. First, it is time to convene a meeting of the nation's accounting professionals to discuss the current mark to market accounting systems... We should also convene a meeting of the nation's top mortgage lenders.

And voluntary, unenforced pledges.

Working together, they [The mortgage lenders, called to said meeting] should pledge to provide maximum support and help to their cash-strapped, but credit worthy customers. They should pledge to do everything possible to keep families in their homes and businesses growing. Recall that immediately after September 11, 2001 General Motors stepped in to provide 0 percent financing as part of keeping the economy growing. We need a similar response by the mortgage lenders. They've been asking the government to help them out. I'm now calling upon them to help their customers, and their nation out. It's time to help American families.

Well thanks for calling on them, John. That'll show them! That'll take care of this mess.

Clinton and Obama ought to be able to make mincemeat of these inadequate, irrelevant, unconsidered proposals. That is, if they can spare a few moments from eviscerating each other.

Related posts:
McCain's economic bridge to nowhere
McCain to Europe: I'm not Bush
Which candidate would be the most bellicose President?
McCain: (Bill) Clinton fails the commander-in-chief test

Monday, March 24, 2008

House on fire: Hillary opens a new front

After weeks of 'kitchen sink' attacks (and some defense) on matters of identity and character, Hillary Clinton made a strong bid today to shift the nomination battle to ground that plays to her strengths.

She delivered an economics speech that focuses almost entirely on the housing crisis -- from the homeowners' point of view. The speech isn't elegant, and may leave Hillary vulnerable on several policy points. But it may nonetheless give increased traction to her claims that she's ready with solutions to our most pressing problems.

The speech's rhetorical frame: Hillary casts the prospect of mass foreclosure as the the crisis threatening the middle class today. The Bush Administration is fiddling while home is burning, but Hillary will act as vigorously to protect Main Street as Bush has to protect Wall Street:
Last week when it became clear Wall Street was on the brink of a financial melt down, the Fed and the administration sprang into action. The Fed extended a $30 billion lifeline to prevent Bear Stearns from imploding and took unprecedented action to provide tens of billions of dollars in credit for other struggling investment banks as well. Homeowners, on the other hand, have received next to no assistance. Well, let's be clear. When families are losing their homes, that's also a financial crisis. When people’s greatest source of wealth is losing its worth, as college costs and health care costs and food and gas prices shoot up, that’s a financial crisis too. When "for sale" signs line streets across our country, when cities and towns are struggling with the costs of foreclosed properties, that is also a financial crisis.
The policy thrust is to move on multiple fronts to forestall foreclosures, guarantee loans, and create incentives and conditions under which lenders will renegotiate loans to keep people in their houses. In effect, bail out everyone: homeowners, with guaranteed renegotiated loans and/or with interest freezes; states, with money to buy foreclosed properties; mortgage companies, with protection against lawsuits by securities holders if they renegotiate loans. And of course, create another commission: an Emergency Working Group on Foreclosures, calling on Greenspan, Rubin, Volcker and presumably other ghosts of Christmas Past.

The political thrust: I've been out early and often on this issue. I've called for urgent action for a year, and I've got a comprehensive plan. I'm the one to get it done:
Now, a year ago in March 2007 I called for immediate action to address abuses in the subprime market, and I laid out detailed concrete proposals for how to do so. I warned this administration that the problems in subprime mortgages would soon spill over into regular mortgages.....I called for immediate action and laid out concrete proposals to prevent foreclosures and help states hard hit by this crisis.I also called for tighter regulation of the housing market....I also called for greater regulation of mortgage lenders...I’ve also proposed that we amend the bankruptcy code to give judges the discretion to write down the value of struggling families' homes.
Obama has not been slow on this issue, or short on proposals for easing the pressure on homeowners. But Hillary is upping the ante, putting the crisis and a web of proposed legislation to cope with it front and center. This marks a shift in the center of gravity on bread-and-butter Democratic economic issues. Obama will have to engage her in a sustained way if she keeps this up.

Mind you, there's plenty to engage. Hillary's plan can be hit from more than one direction. First, a blanket rate freeze on adjustable mortgages is a radical retroactive price control that would give a free lunch to lots of people who went into ARMS with eyes open. Second, another blue-ribbon commission will sound to some like another can kicked down the road. And to put forward Greenspan as Wise Man No. 1 is an eye-popper -- there's something like consensus, even among Greenspan admirers, that he bears considerable responsibility for blowing up the housing bubble -- by leaving interest rates too low too long, and by refusing to regulate mortgage lenders more vigorously when warned of excesses. To pair him with Rubin recalls what many Democrats regard as the Clinton Administration's excessive friendliness to business and acquiescence to Republican-driven bank deregulation.

Hillary may get caught between two stools -- advocating almost socialist price control on mortgages on one hand, and showing deference to yesterday's deregulators on the other. But Obama will have to pivot.

Related posts
McCain's economic bridge to nowhere
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it down to earth in Virginia

Sunday, March 23, 2008

If China gets wealthy....

Layman gets a glimmer: A special report in The Economist on "China's Thirst for Resources" includes a piece on "The perils of abundance" that highlights the environmental dangers of China's rapid industrialization. That environmental risk, however, is flip side of the tremendous economic reward to humanity in China's rise. It was the latter that struck me here:
Last year, in a report funded by Rio Tinto, Ross Garnaut and Ligang Song of the Australian National University argued that in countries where income per person has passed $2,000, as it did in China in 2006, demand for natural resources begins to grow at a much faster pace than previously, and continues to do so until income per person reaches roughly $20,000. That pattern has been particularly pronounced in Japan and South Korea, they argue, because of high levels of investment, exports and urbanisation. China also has high and rising levels of all three, so the authors expect its consumption of natural resources to follow a similar path. “The increase in China's demand for metals during the next two decades may be comparable to the total demand from the industrialised world today,” they conclude.

Let's say there are a billion people living today in countries with per capita income over $20,000 -- a baseline, apparently, for first-world prosperity. China reaching that threshold will double the world's 'upper middle class.' That may be obvious to economists, but it was a bit of a lightbulb for me. And by the time China gets there, Russia, Brazil, India should have moved well along that path.

I realize that this is only a surface scratch of the enormously complex task of viewing the path of world development. The catastrophes that could sidetrack or distort pervert the swift increase in human prosperity are manifold. Still, the snapshot of the possible seemed worth registering.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Swiftboating Faith: WSJ's Riley smears Obama

A hit job on Obama by a Wall Street Journal opinion editor -- who cares? Well, this one, by WSJ deputy Taste editor and Fox News panelist Naomi Schaefer Riley, tests some lines of religious attack we're sure to hear a lot more of.

In her rush to belittle Barack Obama's integration of faith in his political persona, Rileydisplays a breathtaking --probably willful -- ignorance of Obama's religious practice, his stated beliefs about how faith should and should not inform politics, and of the multi-staged process of conversion he details -- without self-aggrandizement -- in his autobiography, Dreams from My Father.

Riley's premise is that Democrats can't do religion because they don't mean it. Her core charge is that Obama's membership in Wright's church was a matter of expedience:
As Mr. Obama recounts in his memoir, he went to meet Pastor Wright because he was advised that it would "help your [community organizing] if you had a church home. . . . It doesn't matter where really." So he became a member of the largest black church in the neighborhood, thereby furthering his activism and eventually getting the votes of Trinity's 8,000 congregants. Which is fine, but such an attachment is more utilitarian than religious, and sooner or later its true character will show.
"So he became a member..." What a wealth of Rovian distortion in that little conjunction of causation. Never mind that Obama chronicles the pressures, chronicles his doubts, chronicles much of Wright's doctrine and his and others' reaction, chronicles even how his own wariness of yielding to expedience delayed his commitment. Then, finally, chronicles a fully credible conversion experience that conjoins the content of the sermon that prompted it (in fact a beautiful, nonpolitical sermon of Wright's (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan) about the power of hope in people who had suffered greatly), the experience of the parishioners and the community in which Obama had immersed himself, and the associations aroused in his own mind. Obama quoted the conversion passage from Dreams in his speech on race, to extraordinary effect:
People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend's voice up into the rafters....And in that single note - hope! - I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones. Those stories - of survival, and freedom, and hope - became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn't need to feel shame about...memories that all people might study and cherish - and with which we could start to rebuild.
This from a young man who had chosen a line of work that engaged him day-by-day in the experience of the people of the South Side of Chicago. I do think that that Obama's desire to belong, and to be effective in his organizing work, played a part in this conversion, which was spurred by a willing imagination. Obama acknowledges as much in Dreams, which is pervaded by awareness of the complexity of motivation generally. What person who takes religious experience seriously would cast a motivational stone at Obama?

Second, Riley offers a ridiculous comparison with that man of the spirit, George W. Bush:
If you want to speak the language of religious people, substance matters more than style. Some religious leaders hoped early on that Sen. Obama's speeches would be peppered with the biblical language he had picked up in church, as President Bush's speeches have been. But there is no sign of that so far. Sen. Obama may have the smooth cadences of a black preacher, and his public appearances include a certain kind of call and response, but his biblical references are so commonplace that it's hard to call them biblical anymore. They tend to include the Golden Rule and regular admonitions to "be our brother's keeper."
This style-substance bifurcation omits an inconvenient truth: Obama, unlike Bush, has actually belonged to and attended a church for more than 20 years. In itself, I don't regard that as anything to boast about But when you're talking about "substance" of religious experience, it's germane.

Finally, there's the question of why Obama incorporates only the most "commonplace" Biblical references. It's deliberate-- a matter of the ground rules that Obama has set out for invoking 'religious' values in a political arena. According to Obama, it's fine to be inspired by the scriptures and tenets of a particular religion. But in politics, the values absorbed in this way must be translated into universal terms and argued on their intrinsic merits. Here's how Obama puts it in The Audacity of Hope (p. 219):
What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason. If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God's will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.
The 'universal' vocabulary of faith that Obama regards as valid in politics also describes the content of his beliefs. In Audacity, after chronicling his doubts, he has this to say about the content of his faith:
This is not to say that I'm unanchored in my faith. There are some things that I'm absolutely sure about -- the Golden Rule, the need to battle cruelty in all its forms, the value of love and charity, humility and grace.
Or, as Riley calls them, the 'commonplace' doctrines of the Golden Rule and being our brother's keeper. Dull stuff, that. Wouldn't want our politicians pushing such tired platitudes.

Leave it to Bush to inject the unctuous and intrusive preacher's vocabulary into his speeches. Obama aims to connect with Americans of all faiths and no faiths. Looks like he is succeeding.

Related Post:
Audacity of Obama: Embracing Wright and Grandma

Thursday, March 20, 2008

McCain to Europe: I'm not Bush

With Democrats branding a McCain presidency as Bush's third term, McCain used the Financial Times yesterday to send a message to Europe and the world: not so.

McCain's pitch was for renewed transatlantic partnership. Its subtext was 'I'm not Bush':

At the heart of this new compact must be mutual respect and trust. We Americans recall the words of our founders in the Declaration of Independence, that we must pay “decent respect to the opinions of mankind”. Our great power does not mean we can do whatever we want whenever we want, nor should we assume we have all the wisdom and knowledge necessary to succeed.

We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies. When we believe that international action is necessary, whether military, economic or diplomatic, we will try to persuade our friends that we are right. But we, in return, must also be willing to be persuaded by them.

"A decent respect for the opinions of mankind"..radical! Recall Bush's ferocious vows that the U.S. would never ask any entity's permission to act as it saw fit. Never mind that this bow to multilateralism is folded inside a proposal to bypass the unmentioned United Nations (and to a lesser extent, China and Russia) in all matters of substance:

We need to renew and revitalise our democratic solidarity. We need to strengthen our transatlantic alliance as the core of a new global compact – a League of Democracies – that can harness the great power of the more than 100 democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interests.

The superannuation of the U.N. might make McCain's outreach to the multilateralist Europeans a bit of a stretch. Still, he does set out several marked departures from the substance and style of the Bush Administration policies, including:

Stopping torture: "We all have to live up to our own high standards of morality and international responsibility. We will fight the terrorists and at the same time defend the rights that are the foundations of our societies. We cannot torture or treat inhumanely the suspected terrorists that we have captured. We must close the detention facility at Guantá­namo and come to a common international understanding on the disposition of dangerous detainees under our control."

This does leave unexplained McCain's recent vote against subjecting the CIA to the U.S. Military code of conduct in treatment of detainees. The 'common international understanding' he calls for remains a black box. Nonetheless, the impression persists that McCain would roll back at least some of Bush's outrages against civil liberties and international law.

Going first on climate change: "We need to reinvigorate the US-European partnership on climate change where we have so many common interests at stake. The US and Europe must lead together to encourage the participation of the rest of the world, including most importantly, the developing economic powerhouses of China and India" (my emphasis)...."We need a successor to Kyoto, a cap-and-trade system that delivers the necessary environmental impact in an economically responsible manner." Gone, it would seem, is the Bush insistence that China and India must move with us before we take a step.

Eur-autonomy on defense: "We welcome European leadership to make the world a better and safer place. We look forward to France’s full reintegration into Nato. And we strongly support the EU’s efforts to build an effective European Security and Defence Policy [ESDP]. A strong EU, a strong Nato and a true strategic partnership between them is profoundly in our interest."

While support for ESDP may not be a departure from Bush Administration policy, it is a departure from the McCain of yore. In a speech at Kansas State University in March 1999, he warned:

Second, Europe's growing determination to develop a defense identity separate from NATO. Once only the product of French resentments, the idea of a separate defense identity is now even entertained in London. We must be emphatic with our allies. We encourage their efforts to assume more of the burden of their defense, but only within the institutions of NATO. Defense structures accountable to the WEU or any other organization other than the alliance will ultimately kill the alliance.
McCain is doubtless aware that upwards of 85% of polled world population supported Kerry over Bush in 2004. With much of the world intoxicated by the prospect of Obama as atonement, McCain seems to be moving fast here to prevent the global encirclement of his campaign. True, Bush prevailed in the only vote that mattered to him. But four years later, Americans are plainly more attuned to the downside of alienating the world. Good for McCain that he recognizes this changed reality.

Recall, though, Patrick Buchanan's pronouncement that McCain as President will "make Cheney look like Gandhi." Somehow, I had the feeling that Buchanan knew what he was talking about. The responsible tone McCain strikes in the FT steers clear of several past and present signature positions. Mostly hidden here is the McCain who
  • Advocated risking war with North Korea in 1999, 2002 and 2006 (potentially nuclear war, the last two times) rather than conciliating Kim Jong-il's regime in any way.
  • Relentlessly frames al Qaeda in Iraq (conveniently conflated with al Qaeada proper) as the antagonist that "will win" in Iraq if we don't stay indefinitely. His recent confusion of AQI with groups supported by Iran (the very day this op-ed appeared) underscores McCain's longstanding penchant for lumping disparate militant and radical Islamic antagonists together.
  • Voted against a Senate bill that would have held CIA interrogators to the code of conduct adopted by the U.S. military--repudiating his longstanding argument that the U.S. undermines its own security when it engages in torture.
Which McCain would we see as President? An unrollable but not immovable multilateralist, or Cheney on steroids?

Related Posts:
Which candidate would be the most bellicose candidate?
McCain: (Bill) Clinton fails the commander-in-chief test?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Breaking the Commander-in-Chief Chokehold: Obama maps a strategy

Obama has pitched two perfect games in a row. His speech on foreign policy, delivered today in Fayetteville, NC, had all the conceptual clarity and layered complexity of his speech on race, delivered yesterday.

The speech accomplishes several interlocking goals. It yokes McCain and Clinton together (with Bush) as blinkered tacticians who lacked the judgment and the strategic breadth to recognize our main enemy. It delivers a series of hammer blows that lay bare the blind alley of our current course. It explains how the debate about the past frames our decisions about what we do next. It lays out a coherent strategic vision that shifts our emphasis from Iraq to Afghanistan. Finally, it delves into the mindsets of masses throughout the world who regard the U.S. as an enemy and outlines how to turn those minds around.

In his critique of McCain and Clinton, Obama differentiates as well as equating the two. In Obama's telling, McCain was Bush's fellow ideologue, and Clinton was the fellow traveler who went along for political expediency:
History will catalog the reasons why we waged a war that didn't need to be fought, but two stand out. In 2002, when the fateful decisions about Iraq were made, there was a President for whom ideology overrode pragmatism, and there were too many politicians in Washington who spent too little time reading the intelligence reports, and too much time reading public opinion. The lesson of Iraq is that when we are making decisions about matters as grave as war, we need a policy rooted in reason and facts, not ideology and politics.
Make no mistake, for Obama it's McCain who's rooted in 'ideology' and Clinton in 'politics.' And it's because Hillaray went along, Obama argues, that politics as well as policy dictates that he will be the stronger candidate:
It is time to have a debate with John McCain about the future of our national security. And the way to win that debate is not to compete with John McCain over who has more experience in Washington, because that's a contest that he'll win. The way to win a debate with John McCain is not to talk, and act, and vote like him on national security, because then we all lose. The way to win that debate and to keep America safe is to offer a clear contrast, and that's what I will do when I am the nominee of the Democratic Party – because since before this war in Iraq began, I have made different judgments, I have a different vision, and I will offer a clean break from the failed policies and politics of the past
The promised "clear contrast" structures the speech. It starts with the initial decision to go to war, the point onPublish Post which Obama has largely based his claim to good judgment. But before dissecting that error, Obama pauses to rebut McCain's complaint that Obama just wants to talk about the past. How we view the decision to invade Iraq, he argues, determines how we conceive our strategy going forward:
...the judgment that matters most on Iraq – and on any decision to deploy military force – is the judgment made first. If you believe we are fighting the right war, then the problems we face are purely tactical in nature. That is what Senator McCain wants to discuss – tactics. What he and the Administration have failed to present is an overarching strategy: how the war in Iraq enhances our long-term security, or will in the future. That's why this Administration cannot answer the simple question posed by Senator John Warner in hearings last year: Are we safer because of this war? And that is why Senator McCain can argue – as he did last year – that we couldn't leave Iraq because violence was up, and then argue this year that we can't leave Iraq because violence is down.
That last bit of mockery recalls the oft-repeated point that Bush justified his tax cuts first by surplus, then by recession, then by recovery (and now McCain is justifying them by impending recession). This drives home his point that for Bush and McCain "ideology overrode pragmatism" and our policy was not (and will not be with McCain) "rooted in reason and facts."

The past is prologue for Obama because he wants to turn our foreign policy inside out. His core argument is that Afghanistan, not Iraq, is "the central front in the war on terror," and we can't win in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) unless we divert resources for Iraq. Hence the heart of his critique drives home with anaphoric hammer blows the ill effects of our inverted strategy, in ascending order of priority:

The war in Iraq has emboldened Iran, which poses the greatest challenge to American interests in the Middle East in a generation, continuing its nuclear program and threatening our ally, Israel. Instead of the new Middle East we were promised, Hamas runs Gaza, Hizbollah flags fly from the rooftops in Sadr City, and Iran is handing out money left and right in southern Lebanon.

The war in Iraq has emboldened North Korea, which built new nuclear weapons and even tested one before the Administration finally went against its own rhetoric, and pursued diplomacy.

The war in Iraq has emboldened the Taliban, which has rebuilt its strength since we took our eye off of Afghanistan.

Above all, the war in Iraq has emboldened al Qaeda, whose recruitment has jumped and whose leadership enjoys a safe-haven in Pakistan – a thousand miles from Iraq.

Having laid out the damage and brought us to the present, Obama reminds us of a reality that Kerry, to be fair, stated forcefully almost four years ago. Since then there's been a seismic shift in perception, so perhaps we're ready to hear this:

The central front in the war against terror is not Iraq, and it never was. What more could America's enemies ask for than an endless war where they recruit new followers and try out new tactics on a battlefield so far from their base of operations? That is why my presidency will shift our focus. Rather than fight a war that does not need to be fought, we need to start fighting the battles that need to be won on the central front of the war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This is the area where the 9/11 attacks were planned. This is where Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants still hide. This is where extremism poses its greatest threat. Yet in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have pursued flawed strategies that are too distant from the needs of the people, and too timid in pursuit of our common enemies....

It is not too late to prevail in Afghanistan. But we cannot prevail until we reduce our commitment in Iraq, which will allow us to do what I called for last August – providing at least two additional combat brigades to support our efforts in Afghanistan.
The speech is packed with detailed argument over about policy specifics -- about why Iraq is likely to do better if we withdraw troops steadily (I confess to serious doubts about that), about how to regain credibility in Pakistan, how to go after al Qaeda. But there's one more piece to the large strategic sweep, and that's a vision for winning, to lapse into a tired phrase Obama avoids, the battle for hearts and minds. Just as in the speech on race Obama sketched in a couple of paragraphs the mindset of blacks embittered by discrimination and whites embittered by affirmative action, here Obama takes a swift flyover the world's interior landscape:
What lies in the heart of a child in Pakistan matters as much as the airplanes we sell her government. What's in the head of a scientist from Russia can be as lethal as a plutonium reactor in Yongbyon. What's whispered in refugee camps in Chad can be as dangerous as a dictator's bluster. These are the neglected landscapes of the 21st century, where technology and extremism empower individuals just as they give governments the ability to repress them; where the ancient divides of region and religion wash into the swift currents of globalization.
It is hard to imagine a more, er, nuanced depiction of the challenges of asymmetrical warfare. The common theme in Obama's prescriptions for the broader contest is leading by example -- by focusing aid to countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan in large part on education and welfare; by strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and returning to Reagan's goal of "a world without nuclear weapons"; by restoring habeas and other civil liberties and banning torture; by doubling foreign assistance aimed at poverty and disease; by leading world efforts on global warming; and by investing in education at home to maintain our competitiveness.

There's broad consensus on some of these goals, but the strategic framework in which Obama places them raises the hope once again that the force of his words can build a working majority that will enable meaningful action on all or most of these fronts.

Related Posts:
Audacity of Obama: Embracing Wright and Grandma
Audacity of Respect: What Obama Owes to Reagan II
Obama's Metapolitics
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Truth and Transformation
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him
Obama: Man, those Clinton Kids are Something

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Audacity of Obama: Embracing Wright and Grandma

Obama's speech on race and Wright will go down in history, beside Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech, as a defining moment in America's conception of itself. Its organizing trope is the oxymoron in the preamble of the Constitution -- the aim to create a "more perfect" union. Obama's overarching vision is of an America that's a work in progress. He embraces the commitment to "perfecting" while portraying the instruments -- Wright, his own grandmother-- as flawed but but fundamentally to be embraced as instruments of progress.

With regard to Wright, he repudiated the words but not the man. He set Wright's anger in full historical and cultural context and explained precisely how his own thought differs:
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 true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
Talk about audacity -- in affirming what he gained from Wright, even as he repudiated his bitter and paranoid view of America, he paired Wright's role in his development and affections with those of his own grandmother. Without self-aggrandizement, he effectively identified himself as the locus of the unity he wants the nation to strive for:
I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.
That is absolut Obama. He demonstrates the strength of his commitment through criticism. He pairs Wright and has grandmother as parts of his, and our, identity to be embraced.

The speech was anything but narrowly personal; it addressed the predicaments and attitudes of the entire nation. It included compressed and accurate capsule portraits of the disabling force of racism on blacks and the anger against race-based privilege in whites being whipsawed by the eroding power of workers in the U.S. Obama acknowledged the legitimacy of anger on both sides and challenged both to move beyond. He identified forces -- larger than individuals but products of human agency too -- that he invited all of us to recognize as the true adversaries:

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.
Obama's signature mental and rhetorical move is to double back. One of his favorite grammatical structures is "just as." He consistently recognizes at least a core of legitimacy in points of view he seeks to rebut or transcend. And so, while 'black anger' and 'white resentment' are presented as forces to transcend, there's this acknowledgment:
And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
In The Audacity of Hope, Obama issues a challenge to all who would make their religious belief a basis of teaching to make it universal - to appeal to those outside the faith not on the basis of the authority of the scriptures but on the evident rightness of the values you take away. So, here, his call for national unity boils down to the simplest scriptural precepts, which Obama is at pains to convince us are universal:
In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.
Obama has put the ball in our court. No one in his right mind could listen to this speech and come away believing that Obama secretly harbors racial resentments or anti-American sentiments. He has delved into his own identity, and our national identity, and called on us to acknowledge that we are all wounded, we are all flawed, and all part of an unending project to form 'a more perfect union.'

Related posts:
Audacity of Respect: What Obama Owes to Reagan II
Obama's Metapolitics
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Truth and Transformation
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him
Obama: Man, those Clinton Kids are Something

Monday, March 17, 2008

The New Yorker laughs off torture

In February 2007, Jane Mayer, writing in The New Yorker, did us all a service by documenting the extent to which Fox's 24 had inured Americans to torture -- making it seem necessary and thrilling and heroic. How sad, then, that the same publication this week should publish an obscene little attempt at humor by Geroge Saunders that replays the old RosannaDanna op-ed in favor of "violins on TV" by coming out in favor of "washboarding" terrorists. That is, playing a washboard as a percussion instrument. Catch the hilarity:
I honestly don’t understand the mind-set here. Are these people terrorists or not? Or, I should say, is it possible that these people might be terrorists? Or, rather, has someone (possibly us, possibly someone other than us, such as, for example, someone they knew back in their home country, with whom they have possibly been having, say, a blood feud) alleged that they were possible terrorists? Keep in mind that we’ve never washboarded anyone who has not been, by someone or other, accused, more or less, of being a suspected, pending, or eventual possible terrorist. So why do we want to coddle these people? I say washboard the bastards 24/7, then supplement the washboarding with a circle of Peruvian wood flautists, then reinforce the flautists with a circle of acne-faced, oblivious fifteen-year-old boys with Fender guitars and distortion boxes, and let the war on terror begin.
Gilda Radner waxing enthusiastic about "violins on TV" was funny. Pretending to enthusiasm about "washboarding" terrorists is disgusting. What's the difference? First of all, RosannaDanna had no inkling what violence on TV was. Second, the evils of violence on TV, such as they are, are a matter of degree, part of the furniture of everyday life, fair game for humor. On the other hand, to mix the rhetoric of enthusiasm for torturing terrorists with depictions of ridiculous un-pleasantries is to trivialize the intense evil that we have collectively consented to. An extended joke about waterboarding in The New Yorker is perhaps stronger evidence of the coarsening of our culture than the popularity of 24.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Which candidate would be the most bellicose President?

Gideon Rachman cites an argument by Robert Kagan "that the common notion that McCain will necessarily be a more bellicose and trigger-happy president than either of the Democrats is not necessarily right." According to Kagan, leaders with established military cred (Eisenhower) are less likely than the relatively untested (Kennedy) to feel that they need to prove their toughness when a crisis arises.

That may be a reasonable generalization. But in this election, consider the individuals involved.

McCain at several points advocated cutting off all aid and trade with North Korea, admitting that such a policy would risk war, in later years with a nuclear power. It’s no accident that in a recent ad he casts himself as Churchill; for fifteen years he has cast the dictators Milosevic, Saddam and Kim Jong-il as Hitlers (and Bill Clinton as Neville Chamberlain). In the Clinton years, he also pushed for a much more aggressive stance against China, advocating that we provide Taiwan with missile defense. Speaking of missile defense, he spoke in favor of abrogating the ABM treaty in 1999. As a self-identified “Churchill,” McCain may not rest until he finds a suitable “Hitler” to oppose.

Hillary Clinton may indeed fit the profile of an unproven leader anxious to prove her “toughness.” Fear of appearing weak appears to have motivated her vote in favor of the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, and probably also her vote in favor of the recent resolution deeming the Iran Guard a terrorist group.

Obama may indeed make serious mistakes borne of inexperience if elected. He is not the kind of personality, however, that acts out of a need to be perceived as tough. He recognizes the political necessity of showing that he can’t be pushed around, but his demeanor and approach to decision-making are the opposite of bluster. Just look at his wry, weary, measured reprimands of both Clintons when their tactics turn Rovian.

Friday, March 14, 2008

James Carville's diversion

James Carville's call in today's FT for us all to lighten up and accept hardball politics is a tad disingenuous. Claiming oversensitivity in the press and by the campaigns to "mildly offensive" comments, he provides cover for Clinton to let 'er rip:
Politics is a messy business, but campaigning prepares you for governing. It prepares you to get hit, stand strong and, if necessary, hit back. So our candidates need to buck up, toughen up and recognise that time spent whining and sniping is time not spent addressing the real concerns of the people.
By carping about oversensitivity to a few over-the-top remarks (and cleverly opening with a defense of the rival camp's eminently defensible Samantha Powers), Carville diverts attention from what's truly objectionable about Hillary Clinton's campaign: she is deliberately undercutting the viability of her own party's frontrunner in the general election. By absurdly claiming that she and John McCain "cross the commander-in-chief threshold" while Obama does not; by qualifying her denial that Obama is a Muslim; by deploying surrogates to state baldly that Obama can't win the general election and to insinuate that he appeals narrowly to black voters, she is well on the way to tearing the Democratic party apart.

Carville's cheerful (and tired) memories of his wife insulting the other party's candidate, and of more distant egregious insults in the political arena, are irrelevant. Clinton is violating Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment: thou shalt not speak ill of fellow [party members]. For that
she deserves to be driven into the political wilderness.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The post-racial president?

If I can give over a moment to dumbstruck admiration, here's Obama on race as a campaign issue:

Obama said some voters might favor or disfavor him because he is black, just as some might favor or disfavor Clinton because she is female.

However, he said, "the overwhelming majority of Americans are going to make these decisions based on who they think will be the best president. I have absolute confidence that if I'm doing my job, if I'm delivering my message, then there are very few voters out there that I can't win."

"If I'm not winning them over," he said, "then it's my fault."

If I'm not winning them over then it's my fault. Is there a more pitch-perfect way to diffuse the question of whether his appeal is too narrow? He has put the ball back in the voter's court and challenged us to be as mature, as post-racial, as detached from the passions of identity politics as he is proving to be. He is challenging us to be better than we are. And he is demonstrating a trust in the electorate on which he has staked his campaign.


Related posts:
Obama spanks the Clinton Kids again
Changing "The Rules" on Clinton
Audacity of Respect: What Obama Owes to Reagan II
Truth and Transformation
Obama: Man, those Clinton Kids are Something

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

No way to pick a candidate

I am learning more than I ever wanted to know about the delegate selection process. States that go through four rounds of caucuses before naming delegates to the national convention, with delegates not legally bound to a candidate at any stage. Delegates awarded by Congressional district, with districts that have an even number of delegates almost guaranteed to split evenly. Districts awarded disproportionate numbers of delegates according to how they voted last election (or is that states? or both?). States getting bonus delegates for holding their primaries late. Superdelegates designed as a check to too much democracy.

This whole process is insane. In a hundred years, it will look as absurd as the 'rotten boroughs' of 19th century England, or tax farming in prerevolutionary France. Not to mention our own Electoral College....

What if we started from scratch? Suppose, gasp, nominations were one-citizen-one-vote affairs, with the nomination determined by an absolute popular vote total. Every voter could choose one party's primary in which to vote. If we wanted to drag out the nomination process, primaries could be held in four waves at equal intervals, with each bloc's position rotating on a four-election cycle.

I gather that the current system is designed to incent state and local party organizations to spur activism, get out their vote, etc. Maybe if I were more involved in politics I would recognize the rationale, the utility, even the necessity of this kind of motivation. But it seems to me that the downside - chaos, nonrepresentative democracy, fights over delegates rather than the votes that are supposed to determine the delegates -- outweighs the benefits.

When it comes to Constitutional matters, change should be slow, according to the principle expressed in the Declaration of Independence: "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." But party rules are a different matter. The system is so dysfunctional that bold experimentation would seem to be in order.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Debunked! Obama spanks the Clinton Kids again

That magnificent clip circulating in which Obama punctures the Clintons doublespeak that he is "unready to be commander in chief/a dream candidate for vice president" left off the best part, the finale:
I am not running for Vice President. I do not believe Senator Clinton is about change because in fact this kind of gamesmanship, talking about me as Vice President, but he maybe he’s not ready for Commander in Chief. That is exactly the kind of double speak, double talk that Washington is very good at. That people who spend a lot of time in Washington have a lot of experience at, but is not gonna solve the problems of the country.
Here Obama builds on the retaliatory strategy he used to shut the Clintons up the last time they got down-and-dirty, in the run-up to the South Carolina primary. Back then, he argued that when the Clintons distort the truth with Rovian attacks, they undercut voter trust and so cannot build the "working majority" that Bill failed to build during his presidency. Here's how he framed the Clintons' truthiness problems in the January 22 CNN debate:
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.
That approach won Obama 5-6 weeks attack-free weeks, during which he became the frontrunner.

Obama's back to saying that the Clintons are part of the problem, and their attacks are Exhibit A. But now the diagnosis has a new layer of depth and authority. He's not just saying that the Clintons distort. He's saying (with weary there-they-go-again humor) that they play mind games:
See I was trying to explain to somebody a while back, the okidoke. You all know the okidoke. When somebody is trying to bamboozle you, when they are trying to hoodwink you.
And most damningly of all, he ties the Clinton mode of political attack to Hillary's policymaking:
And I believe that I have shown better judgment than Senator Clinton. I believe I offer a clean break from the policies of George Bush. Because Senator Clinton went along with George Bush on the war in Iraq. Senator Clinton went along with George Bush on her willingness to try to saber rattle when it came to Iran. She has gone along with many of the conventional ways of thinking about foreign policy that have gotten us into trouble. That is what I intend to change when I am President of the United States.
"Conventional ways of thinking" are of a piece with conventional ways of campaigning. Broken politics, which relies on distortion and deception, leads to broken policy. Political style shapes judgment. When you'll "say anything to get elected," as Obama in his fiercest attack mode so far has accused Clinton, you will also take positions calculated to benefit you politically.

Obama has stopped short of saying about Hillary what John McCain never tired of saying about Bill, that " the President, in his poll driven approach to his every responsibility, fails to distinguish the office he holds from himself" (Floor Statement on Kosovo Resolution, May 1999). But that's the subtext here. The Clintons are using "the kind of double speak, double talk that Washington is very good at." And Hillary has "gone along with many of the conventional ways of thinking about foreign policy that have gotten us into trouble."

A few days ago (March 7), at Obama's darkest moment in the campaign so far, David Brooks spoke for many when he set up what I regard as a false choice for Obama: get down in the dirt with Clinton, or fold up like Kerry before the swiftboat attacks. He characterized the Obama campaign as thinking they could square a circle: "they can go on the attack, but in the right way. They can be tough and keep their virginity, too."

I wrote in response: "'Virginity' is a snidely charged way of casting what he stands to lose. I believe that he will highlight Clinton's weaknesses without losing his integrity. " Three days later, he's already done it.

Related posts:
Changing "The Rules" on Clinton
Audacity of Respect: What Obama Owes to Reagan II
Truth and Transformation
Obama: Man, those Klinton Kids are Something
The Lying Clinton Meme

Sunday, March 09, 2008

McCain: (Bill) Clinton fails commander-in-chief test

Memo to Obama: Since Hillary has grown so fond of repeating that John McCain "crosses the commander-in-chief threshold," why not ask her whether she agrees with McCain's repeated portrayals of her husband as unfit to be commander-in-chief? What does McCain's judgment of Bill Clinton suggest about the quality of her 'experience' by her husband's side?

If there's one consistent element in McCain's foreign policy pronouncements from the mid-nineties to the present (besides a reflex to respond to perceived threats with force or the threat of force), it's contempt for Bill Clinton's conduct of foreign policy. In McCain's telling, every crisis has the same cast of characters: tin-pot dictator as Hitler, and Bill Clinton as Neville Chamberlain with a drawl.

Throughout Clinton's presidency and well into Bush's, McCain went out of his way not just to criticize Clinton's policies but to accuse him of the most humiliating traits that could be ascribed to a commander in chief: self-doubt, vacillation, and valuing political expediency above the national interest.

The broad theme of McCain's assessments of Bill Clinton's conduct of foreign policy is nicely captured in an 6/3/96 op-ed he published in support of Bob Dole's candidacy in the LA Times:
But in this campaign's foreign policy debates, I hope the media recognize the gross disservice they will do if they fail to critically examine the Clinton foreign policy, which is broadly dismissed overseas for its incoherence, contradictions and perpetual if directionless motion. Those flaws are a direct consequence of the president's style of foreign policy leadership, which less often locates the national interest in the security imperatives of a superpower than it does in Clinton's reelection prospects.
In a foreign policy lecture at Kansas State University on March 15, 1999, McCain accused the Clinton Administration of "two pronounced flaws: strategic incoherence and self-doubt" - the former a "primary cause" of the more rhetorically satisfying latter:

The second fault I find with the administration, it's [sic] self-doubt, is obviously related and a primary cause of its strategic incoherence. Often evident in administration policies is a mystifying uncertainty about how to act in a world where we are the only superpower. When the administration stands mute and undecided about where and how they want to lead the world, they exhibit, to friend and foe alike, an identity crisis, an image of America an existential crisis, who are we and why are we here?
[snip]
The most prevalent symptoms of the administration's self-doubt have been its spasmodic, vacillating and reactive approaches to world problems, and a tendency to put off resolution of the most difficult problems, often substituting photo op diplomacy for meaningful action....In Iraq, of course, these symptoms have been on full display.

McCain in this speech saved his most damaging personal allegation for a now-forgotten 'crisis,' U.S. transfer of technology to China:

In addition to their strangely relaxed attitude toward what looks to be an extraordinarily damaging espionage incident, they have tolerated, indeed, insisted upon extremely liberal licensing practices for transferring dual use technology to China. It is a sad sign of the times, that the best face that can be put on these lapses in judgment is that they were mistakenly committed for the sake of a stable bilateral relationship,

Far more distressing is the charge that they are, at least in part, a consequence of the President placing his own re-election before the supreme national interest. Sadly, that charge grows more credible every day. And if it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, it will bring more of history's shame upon the President than his personal failings will, indeed, greater shame than any President has ever suffered.

"Greater shame than any President has ever suffered"? Have fun in the general, Hillary.

A couple of months later, while U.S. forces were bombing Serbia to drive the Serbs out of Kosovo, McCain spoke in favor his own resolution authorizing the President to use any means necessary to end the Serbian occupation. The resolution was a finger in Clinton's eye, because the President had preemptively ruled out the use of ground forces and had not asked for the authority McCain sought to give him. McCain cast his "support' as a means to uphold the powers of the Presidency notwithstanding the unworthiness of the current occupant - and once again charged Clinton with placing political expediency before the national interest:
Although I can speak only for myself, I believe the sponsors of this resolution offered it to encourage the President to do what almost every experienced statesmen has said he should do - prepare for the use of ground troops in Kosovo if they are necessary to achieve victory. Regrettably, the President would rather not be encouraged. But his irresponsibility does not excuse Congress'. I believe it is now imperative that we pass this resolution to distinguish the powers of the Presidency from the muddled claim made upon them by the House of Representatives. .....

I regret to say that I have on more than one occasion suspected, as I suspect today, that the President and some of us among the loyal opposition suffer from the same failing. It seems to me that the President, in his poll driven approach to his every responsibility, fails to distinguish the office he holds from himself. And some of us in Congress are so distrustful of the President that we feel obliged to damage the office in order to restrain the current occupant. Both sides have lost the ability to tell the office from the man.

Publicly and repeatedly ruling out ground troops may be smart politics according to the President's pollster, but it is inexcusably irresponsible leadership. In his determination to put politics over national security, the President even acquiesced to the other body's attempt to deprive him of his office's authority. He sent a letter promising that he would seek Congress' permission to introduce ground troops in the unlikely event he ever discovers the will to use them.
In October 2002, McCain used his contempt for Bill Clinton not only to spur George Bush on to invade Iraq, but to go to the brink of war with North Korea after U.S. intelligence reported evidence that the North Koreans had been seeking the means to enrich uranium in apparent violation of the "Agreed Framework" negotiated by Clinton in 1994 to halt the North Koreans' pursuit of nuclear weapons. McCain began a Washington Post op ed with best-worn bludgeon in any hawk's rhetorical arsenal, casting Clinton as you-know-who and implicitly warning Bush not to follow in his spineless predecessor's slippered footsteps:
I believe it is peace for our time . . .
Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.
-- British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Sept. 30, 1938

As we contemplate preemptive action to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring the world's worst weapons, it's worth understanding how the temptation to go home and get a nice quiet sleep led directly to the inevitable crisis we now face on the Korean peninsula -- where North Korea's acknowledgment of a secret nuclear weapons program demonstrates the perils of entrusting American security to dangerously flawed agreements with rogue regimes.

This crisis first came to a head in 1994 with North Korea's threat to weaponize plutonium from its Yongbyon nuclear facility. After months of American concessions, the Clinton administration agreed to build North Korea two civilian nuclear reactors and provide it with a half-million tons of oil annually until the reactors were built. Totalitarian North Korea became the largest recipient of American assistance in Asia as we propped up a regime that might otherwise have collapsed.

Serious people can differ honorably over the morality of feeding and funding a regime that starves, oppresses, tortures and kills its own people while threatening to destroy its southern neighbor, in order to prevent that regime from developing nuclear weapons. But there is scant moral refuge for those accommodationists who believe even today that we can concede our way out of this crisis. A decade of appeasement and assistance to one of the world's worst regimes provided it the time and the means to develop weapons that now threaten America and our friends....

The Clinton administration's lack of credibility in dealing with North Korea emboldened the regime to defy America. The Bush administration's credible threat of force against Iraq is rallying American and international opinion in our favor, and has put Baghdad on notice. Pyongyang is watching.
Arguably, most of the Clinton actions that McCain made a career of lambasting had relatively good outcomes. The Agreed Framework did mostly freeze North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons until the Bush Administration, overreacting to evidence that Pyongyang had taken some steps toward preparing to enrich uranium, cut off fuel oil shipments and broke off negotiations. The bombing of Iraqi military installations in 1998 effectively destroyed what was left of Iraq's military capability. The air war against Serbia forced Milosevic to withdraw from Kosovo and ultimately led to his being voted out of office and tried as a war criminal before the World Court. All the stranger, then, that Hillary would laud Bill's most relentless foreign policy critic as having "crossed the commander-in-chief threshold."

Plainly, Hillary wants at McCain. Against him, she could parry like it's 1999 -- and perhaps actually win a debate about the conduct of policy -- domestic and foreign -- in the 1990s. But still her flattery of McCain amounts to an implicit repudiation of her husband's international legacy.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Changing "The Rules" on Clinton

David Brooks, with his inimitable instinct for oversimplification, has posed a false choice for Barack Obama: get into a "knife fight" with Clinton or refuse to counterattack now that it seems that "Clinton attacked him, and the attacks worked." Brooks mocks the Obama campaign's purported belief that "they can go on the attack, but in the right way. They can be tough and keep their virginity, too."

The last time things got nasty, before South Carolina, Obama shut down the Clinton attack machine for two months by very coolly pointing out that the Clinton's well-known truthiness problems undercut their credibility and hence Hillary's chance to build the "working majority" that Bill Clinton failed to build. In other words, he offered an essentially accurate critique of her Rovian attacks and integrated that critique into his pitch to reform our political process. I think he'll find a way to do that again -- by challenging the Clintons to the kind of disclosure (tax records, donations to the Clinton Library and Foundation, etc.) that they cannot withstand, and by continuing to debunk Hillary's ridiculous claims to substantive foreign policy experience.

It is not true, as Brooks asserts, that Obama"has never explained how this new politics would actually produce bread-and-butter benefits to people in places like Youngstown and Altoona." Obama has been explicit and precise on this point. He will get those "bread-and-butter-benefits" enacted by appealing to independents and Republicans as well as to Democrats; he will take the poison out of the political process by building a "working majority" that will ease partisanship and thus empower him to move to the substantive process reform of curbing lobbyist power. The appeal beyond the party base is grounded in part on the 'demonstration effect' of his clean campaign; in part on his eloquent appeal to broad American values; and in part on his channeling of Reagan, which is built on a genuine respect for the last "transformative" president -- a respect that conservatives can sense. At the same time, the promise of a new politics is wrapped around a frankly liberal, untriangulated policy platform that, if passed, will counter the tides of income inequality and risk transfer from the community to the individual.

Back in January, Obama found a way to shut down the Clinton attack machine without getting into the gutter. He bought himself two months, during which time he became the frontrunner. Now that desperation has led Hillary to a more deeply malicious and misleading set of attacks, I believe he'll find a way to stymie her once again. "Virginity" is a snidely charged way of casting what he stands to lose. I believe that he will highlight Clinton's weaknesses without losing his integrity.

Related posts:
Audacity of Respect: What Obama Owes to Reagan II
Truth and Transformation
Obama: Man, those Klinton Kids are Something
The Lying Clinton Meme

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Audacity of Respect: What Obama Owes to Reagan II

The idea is circulating that conservatives, largely at Rush Limbaugh's instigation, voted in significant numbers for Hillary and helped put her over the top in Texas.

Ironically -- or maybe not -- Obama has been cast many times as the liberal Reagan. Conservatives thinking this way might well try to block his nomination -- who wants to be cast into the wilderness for forty years? On the other hand, if conservatives think about liberalism the way Obama thinks about Reagan's conservatism, they might conclude that he'd be good for the country and even for their party.

How exactly has Obama channeled Reagan? Christopher Caldwell's excellent analysis of What Obama Owes to Reagan sent me back to The Audacity of Hope, in which Caldwell sees "an interest in Reagan that borders on fascination." He's right. Obama not only admires Reagan's political skills, his ability to "change the trajectory" of American politics as he put it in his notorious interview with The Reno Gazette-Journal in January. He also acknowledges the legitimacy of the course-change that Reagan drove and pays tribute to substantial accomplishments.

Obama's homage to some of Reagan's core principles bespeaks his faith in the American electorate. Implicitly, he acknowledges that Americans were right to give Reagan his mandate:
Reagan spoke to America's longing for order, our need to believe that we are not simply subject to blind, impersonal forces, but that we can shape our individual and collective destinies, so long as we rediscover the traditional virtues of hard work, patriotism, person responsibility, optimism, and faith.

That Reagan's message found such a receptive audience spoke not only to his skills as a communicator; it also spoke to the failures of liberal government, during a period of economic stagnation, to give middle-class voters any sense that it was fighting for them. For the fact was that government at every level had become too cavalier about spending taxpayer money. Too often, bureaucracies were oblivious to the cost of their mandates. A lot of liberal rhetoric did seem to value rights and entitlements over duties and responsibilities. Reagan may have exaggerated the sins of the welfare state, and certainly liberals were right to complain that his domestic policies tilted heavily toward economic elites, with corporate raiders making tidy profits throughout the eighties while unions were busted and the income for the average working stiff flatlined.

Nevertheless, by promising to side with those who worked hard, obeyed the law, cared for their families, and loved their country, Reagan offered Americans a sense of a common purpose that liberals seemed no longer able to muster. And the more his critics carped, the more those critics played into the role he'd written for them--a band of out-of-touch, tax-and-spend, blame-America-first, politically correct elites (Audacity of Hope, 31-32).
Obama treads a delicate line in these tributes. Always, he acknowledges a degree of legitimacy in Reagan's critique and course correction; usually, too, he paints the rhetoric and the policies as exaggerated, deceptively oversimplified, damaging on many fronts. "Fascination" is a good way to describe these ambivalent assessments. But whatever his feelings about Reagan, his portrayal of the liberalism to which Reagan was reacting is unsparing:
In his rhetoric, Reagan tended to exaggerate the degree to which the welfare state had grown over the previous twenty five years. At its peak, the federal budget as a total share of the U.S. economy remained far below the comparable figures in Western Europe, even when you factored in the enormous U.S. defense budget. Still, the conservative revolution that Reagan helped usher in gained traction because Reagan's central insight--that the liberal welfare state had grown complacent and overly bureaucratic, with Democratic policy makers more obsessed with slicing the economic pie than with growing the pie--contained a good deal of truth. Just as too many corporate managers, shielded from competition, had stopped delivering value, too many government bureaucracies had stopped asking whether their shareholders (the American taxpayer) and their consumers (the users of government services) were getting their money's worth (Audacity, 156-157).
Arguably, Obama himself is proof that Reagan's chastening of liberal orthodoxy was a net positive for American governance. Obama is running on an unabashedly liberal platform, seeking a "working majority" to accomplish universal healthcare, strong wealth redistribution through the tax code, and ambitious public investment in infrastructure and energy technology. But he filters these goals through a consciousness, reflected in his rhetoric, that liberalism must hold itself to a diet; government must hold itself accountable -- and hold the beneficiaries of its various programs accountable as well.

This awareness, I think, underpins conservatives' warm response to Obama. He is no triangulator. He makes no bones about wanting to move the American center to the left, rather than move the left to the center. His goals are liberal -- to redistribute wealth back toward the center and bottom, and to redistribute risk back toward the community. But he recognizes the need to move in these directions without killing the golden goose. This awareness makes Obama credible when he presents his set of tax cuts and subsidies for the working poor as a matter of restoring "balance" and "fairness" after thirty years of widening income inequality.

Obama's liberalism is neo-, not in the sense of being cramped or defensive, but in its respect for the limits of government action, for the need to maintain incentives for generating wealth, and in its willingness to place responsibility on the individual. When he talks about working with the opposition, refraining from demonizing, acknowledging that they may have a point or two, it's plain that he means it. He has internalized such respect as a habit of mind.

Related Posts:
Reagan-Clinton in '08
Obama's Metapolitics
Truth and Transformation
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him
More on Rhetoric:
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Obama: Man, those Klinton Kids are Something