Friday, May 30, 2008

Economics, Post-American Style

Fareed Zakaria has devoted a book to sketching in the portrait of a Post-American World. In today's Financial Times, columnist Philip Stephens --the first non-eponymous winner of a Wolf-Munch-Rock award -- gets across the economic reality of the coming multipolarity in 1200 words. "Globalisation," Stephens begins, "belonged to us; financial crises happened to them." No more:
the boot is now on the other foot. The IMF is forecasting that the advanced economies will just about keep their heads above water. With luck, growth this year and next will come in at a touch above 1 per cent. If they do avoid recession - and most of my American friends think it unlikely as far as the US is concerned - they will have to thank robust growth rates in Asia and Latin America. The forecast for China is growth of about 9 per cent in both years, for India 8 per cent and for emerging and developing economies as a whole something more than 6 per cent.

The old powers have not grasped this new reality. There are nods, of course, to a need to restructure international institutions. The rising nations, you hear western politicians aver, must be given more of a voice. More seats, maybe, at the World Bank, the United Nations and, yes, on the board of the IMF. But the assumption is that the rising powers will simply be accommodated within the existing system - a small adjustment here, a tweak there and everything will be fine again. Missing is a willingness to see that this is a transformational moment that demands we look at the world entirely afresh.

Like Zakaria, Stephens sees the world at the end of a 200 year cycle of Western dominance. Also like Zakaria, he does not regard 'decline' as a foregone conclusion. But coming changes will be wrenching:

The response of governments thus far has lain somewhere between despair and denial: there is nothing to be done in the face of global market forces; or the benefits of globalisation will eventually trickle down. The active education and welfare policies necessary to ease the adjustment have been conspicuous by their absence. How do you tell your electorates that all the old assumptions about welfare capitalism must be rethought?

Difficult. But these two sets of pressures - between nations and within them - cannot indefinitely be ignored. That way lies an inexorable slide into the beggar-thy-neighbour protectionism that would make the recent financial storm seem like a summer squall. However it is handled, the adjustment process to the new world order will be wrenching. The US and Europe, after all, have between them have enjoyed the best part of two centuries of effortless political and economic hegemony.

There is no reason they should not continue to prosper in a world where power is more evenly spread. Globalisation need not be a zero-sum game. But if the west is going to adapt, it must recognise that it can no longer expect to write the rules.

League of Democracies, anyone?

The FT columnists, collectively, are unmatched in their ability to compress broad economic and geopolitical trends into the confines of a column. They wear whatever ideological framework they subscribe to lightly, cram their columns with facts, often explore multiple points of view, and sometimes seem to be thinking their way toward a conclusion as they write. When you get tired of the bloviosphere, try parking your eyeballs at for a space. You're alloted a few articles without a login.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

McCain's errors on Iran: fruitful and multiplying

John McCain continues to oversimplify the threats to U.S. security emerging from the Middle East. In his speech on nuclear security delivered iin Arlington, VA, May 27, he said:
President Ahmadinejad has threatened to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, and represents a threat to every country in the region - one we cannot ignore or minimize.
No one should to minimize the insanity of Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier who cut his teeth psyching up Iranian pre-teens for suicide runs across minefields in the Iran-Iraq War. But when dealing with a madman, you have to listen carefully. And Ahmadinejad, while certainly expressing a death wish for the Israeli state, did not in fact threaten to "wipe Israel off the face of the earth."

The literal meaning and full context of Ahmadinejad's words, uttered at a "World without Zionism" conference and misquoted by McCain, have been credibly detailed by the artist Arash Norouzi, co founder of the Mossadegh Project (devoted to restoring and honoring the memory of the democratically elected Iranian leader deposed by a CIA-orchestrated coup in 1953). In an article posted on the Mossadegh Project website, Norouzi makes the following points:

1. Ahmadinejad was quoting Ayatollah Khomeini when he uttered the infamous words.
2. The literal translation is as follows: "The Imam said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time. This statement is very wise". This is an expressed wish for regime change, not a threat to annihilate a people.
3. Ahmadinejad's 'thesis' was that Khomeini predicted the destruction of four regimes, and three of them have in fact "vanished": the Shah's, the Soviet Union, and Saddam's (two of them without any contribution from Iran). The implication is that the fourth will follow. The means are left unspecified.

That "wiped off the face of the map" was a mistranslation -- albeit one originated by Iranian authorities -- is a verifiable fact spelled out by multiple sources.

McCain's adoption of the mistranslation is of a family with his other errors about Iran. One, in this same speech, pointed out by Hilzoy (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan), is that we've "tried talking" to the Iranian government "repeatedly over the past two decades" (Hilzoy: Does McCain not understand that the stated policy of the U.S. government since April 7, 1980 has been to NOT TALK TO THE IRANIANS. And that we have not negotiated with Iran over their nuclear weapons program). Another is McCain's now-famous assertion that Iran is aiding al Qaeda in Iraq. These gross errors fit neatly together: Iran aids our own worst enemy (in the Land of McCain, there's no difference between Al Qaeda proper and Al Qaeda in Iraq, and al Qaeda's mortal hostility toward Shiites is of no consequence); Iran is a mortal threat to Israel (possibly, but the evidence here is hyped); Iran has proved fruitless to negotiate with.

Where does that leave us? "Bomb, bomb Iran"? Oh, that was just McCain's little joke. God forbid the Iranians should be crazy enough to misinterpret it.

Raising the specter of a world in which many states obtain nuclear weapons, McCain's looks back with nostalgia to a time "when the threat of mutually assured destruction could deter responsible states from thinking the unthinkable."The implicit contrast here is between that old-time paragon of "responsibility," the Soviet Union, and the mad mullahs of Iran. Never mind that the era of MAD between the U.S. and USSR began in the time of Stalin, a one-time ally whose regime was a thousand times more murderous than that of Iran's admittedly brutal mullah's; that we reached the brink of nuclear war with the Soviets two or three times at least; that far from regarding them as a "responsible" adversary, we acted for four decades on the assumption that they were bent on world domination. With them it was "responsible" to negotiate; with the Iranians, negotiation is rank appeasement. At the same time, McCain is of that school that yearns desperately to elevate diverse threats from the Islamic world to the status of a Cold War-level adversary.

This is not to say that Amadinejad's world-view and deeds are not appalling, or that Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology and rooted hostility to Israel should not be regarded as grave threats. Mistranslating Ahmadinejad's words to exaggerate their threat is a matter of, pardon the expression, nuance. (But nuance is making a comeback, even within the Bush Adminstration: today, according to the Financial Times, a spokesman for national security advisor Stephen Hadley justified use of the term "War on Terror" on the grounds that "We recognize that the use of the word 'Islamic' before the word terrorist can be heard by lacking nuance." ) International relations are not a U.S. political campaign--there's nothing to be gained by willfully distorting an adversary's words, however hateful.

Taken at face value, McCain's "Bomb, bomb Iran" clowning is every bit as inflammatory as Ahmadinejad's invocation of Khomeini. Indeed the threat is far more credible. Iran currently lacks the means to erase Israel from the page of time. On the other hand, McCain's self-appointed fellow traveler across the commander-in-chief threshold, Hillary Clinton, has gleefully reminded the world that the U.S. is fully able to "obliterate" Iran. The current U.S. president, with the full support of McCain (and the tepid support of Clinton), invaded Iran's near neighbor on premises that proved to be false. And McCain's own logic seems to suggest that talking to Iran is pointless.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The End of HIstory: Coming to China?

To my astonishment, I found tears streaming down my face this morning as I read the NYT account of Chinese parents whose children were crushed under collapsed school buildings in the earthquake last week unleashing their rage at local government officials. The tears were mainly -- but not, I think, solely -- a matter of empathy for bereft parents. Something else is afoot -- a sense that the rage of those parents, allowed only one child by a state they believe to have countenanced shoddy school construction, may be the first tremor of a political earthquake.

On Tuesday, an informal gathering of parents at Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan to commemorate their children gave way to unbridled fury. One of the fathers in attendance, a quarry worker named Liu Lifu, grabbed the microphone and began calling for justice. His 15-year-old daughter, Liu Li, was killed along with her entire class during a biology lesson.

“We demand that the government severely punish the killers who caused the collapse of the school building,” he shouted. “Please, everyone sign the petition so we can find out the truth.” [snip]

Gauging from the outbursts of recent days, any delay will only embolden infuriated parents. In their confrontation with Communist Party officials on Saturday, the parents encircled the vice secretary of the Mianzhu city government and called her a liar for her report on the destruction of the Fuxin school that failed to mention that 127 students had been killed.

“Why can’t you do the right things for us?” they shouted. “Why do you cheat us?” For the next 20 minutes they screamed at her until she passed out and had to be carried away by an aide.

The next day, the parents directed their ire at Mr. Jiang. When his answers proved unsatisfying, they began their march to Chengdu. Mr. Jiang dropped to the ground several times and begged them to stop. “Please believe the Mianzhu Party committee can resolve the issue,” he said. They kept walking.

Three hours later, the police tried to intervene. During the ensuing struggle, the broken glass from the framed pictures of dead children left several parents bleeding. After a tense standoff, the marchers agreed to board government buses to Deyang, the county seat. There, they met with the vice mayor, who promised he would start an investigation the following day.

While it's impossible to read this account without feeling the parents' unspeakable grief, it's also astonishing to witness (from a great distance) an accelerated political coming of age. These people would seem to be beyond fear of consequences, beyond inbred deference to authority. They also seem to have tasted enough prosperity, and enough hope, and enough progress in the society around them, to make a short leap, under agonizing stimulus, to holding their government accountable.

In the past few years, as authoritarianism has made something of a worldwide comeback fueled in large part by petrodollars, it's become fashionable to scoff at Francis Fukuyama's argument, developed in detail in The End of History and the Last Man (1992), that after the collapse of communism human society is moving inexorably toward liberal democracy. Fukuyama sees sheer competitive pressure driving underdeveloped societies, first toward capitalism, and then, as economic growth creates a middle class, toward democracy As wealth accumulates in an authoritarian free market country, Fukuyama suggests, a critical mass of people acquire both the means and the motivation to ensure that they can't be robbed or stymied by an unaccountable government.

Citing rapid economic growth in China, Russia and parts of the Middle East, many have questioned recently whether societies with no prior democratic tradition can't continue to rapidly accumulate wealth without ceding political power to the people. Not forever. Those parents cut by the glass enclosing their dead children's portraits, negotiating a meeting with the vice mayor and obtaining his promise to start an investigation the next day, know something about government accountability.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Hillary's Panopticon

"Vote for the top tee shirt design" invites the Hillary Clinton website. And one of the five choices really seems to me to capture Ms. Clinton's world view. Hillary, it blazons across a field of dense type listing denizens of the fifty states ("Alabamians, Arizonians..."). We're all a part of her bigger picture.

In its quasi-benevolent -- or should I say omnibenevolent? -- way, this Planet Hillary vision seems as overdetermined as her use of an assassination to illustrate a long campaign season. Hillary's got us all in her sights. She will take care of us all. It's all about her.

At her best, Hillary expresses and doubtless feels what would be called a "paternal" view of government if she were male ("maternal" doesn't really hit it). She has the solutions; we can hand her the ball, and huddle at her feet. As she suggested on February 5, she is Lady Liberty, embodiment of our body politic, speaking for us with a royal 'we':

So today we say with one voice -- give us the child who wants to learn, give us the people in need of work, give us the veterans who need our care. We say give us this economy to rebuild and this war to end. Give us this nation to heal, this world to lead, this moment to seize.

And, as she suggested in a December video, she is Santa, wrapping up our future for us in gifts labeled "universal healthcare," "alternative energy," "bring troops home," "middle class tax breaks" and "universal pre-k" (we're all in her kindergarten class).

We're all a part of her bigger picture feels creepier than those earlier top-down images of governance. Why? Because "all" by this point would seem to refer primarily to "hard working Americans, white Americans"? Because her "picture" of this campaign's metrics and ethics seem so radically at variance with that of the larger reality-based community?

Or is it because the "bigger picture" of anyone so desperately willing to say and do anything to get elected evokes something like Total Information Awareness, the Bush Administration's program to integrate reams of data about each of us and put it at the government's fingertips?

Please, Hillary -- stop staring at us.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Obama serves up Wesleyan Kool-Aid

As a Wesleyan alumnus and strong supporter of Barack Obama, I must confess that I have a problem with Obama's Commencement Address delivered at Wesleyan University yesterday.

Obama explicitly cast himself in the tradition of John F. Kennedy -- and the entire Kennedy family -- in calling on students to serve their country and the world. Well and good. Obama has the standing to issue that call. As a young man, he walked the walk, choosing the hard path of community organizing, making a success of it, shaping a political career that's grounded in his experience of working with ordinary people to influence politicians. That's why I support him.

Still, there's something simplistic, unduly binary, even misleading about advice framed like this:
Now, each of you will have the chance to make your own discovery in the years to come. And I say "chance" because, as President Roth indicated, you won’t have to take it. There's no community service requirement in the outside world; no one's forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and the other things that our money culture says you should buy. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America's.

But I hope you don't.
I prefer the advice of a Brown professor -- I'm afraid I can't recover who it was -- who spoke at a small alternative graduation service in 2005 for students who were missing graduation because of athletic tournaments (the women's rowing team and the Ultimate Frisbee team). To paraphrase loosely, he said, I hope you do the work you were meant to do. And by the way, if that means poring over spreadsheets for fourteen hours a day rather than teaching children in Ghana, do that.

To be fair, Obama did not directly suggest that everyone ought to choose a career directly focused on public service. He did speak at length about volunteer activities. But the implication lingers that graduates who choose the professions that lead to "the big house and the nice suits" are selfishly wasting their talents.

Obama of course knows, and often acknowledges in speech passages addressed to competitiveness, that this country and the world depend on private enterprise to generate jobs and wealth. Notwithstanding some recent Wall Street bashing, he would doubtless also acknowledge that even the "malefactors of great wealth," when they're not too busy malefacting, play their part in allocating capital where it is most productive. And that Democratic Party powers such as Richard Rubin and Jon Corzine did well to spend decades doing what they do best before turning their energies to the public sector, and that if they'd become inner city elementary school teachers or even microfinance program developers the world probably wouldn't be better off. And that even corporate tax attorneys and CFOs and mid-level marketing executives do their parts to help job-generating companies survive and thrive (probably, today, without creating as many domestic jobs as we'd wish).

I'm sure Obama would not suggest otherwise. But the way he framed choices implied otherwise. And at Wesleyan in particular, he tapped directly into prejudices embedded this many a decade in the culture of the place.

When I was at Wesleyan, many of my classmates were getting themselves arrested at nuclear power plant demonstrations - and the more power to them for their commitment. My friends were ashamed of the trappings of wealth and favored reverse status symbols -- and better that way than shamelessly flaunting it, I think. I took history and English classes with avowed Marxists, and the more foolish they.

Those teachers did not make me a Marxist -- I was always kind of proud of being the lone and sometimes vocal holdout in "Speculative Philosophy of History" (okay, there were only six other students in the class -- ah, small liberal arts schools). But I did imbibe a distaste for capitalism not all that distant from the scorn of high-minded young gentlewomen in Victorian novels for neighbors who engaged in trade. It took me a decade to get over that prejudice. And I think that Obama -- in casual swipes if not in the direct import of his advice -- tapped right into that prejudice yesterday.

Memorial Day Special: Donate FF Miles to Wounded Soldiers and their Families

Click here to donate Frequent Flier miles to hospitalized military service members and their families. Participating airlines listed below.

The program is run by Fisher House. The Fisher House Foundation donates "comfort homes," built on the grounds of major military and VA medical centers, and provides other services to wounded vets. The homes enable family members to be close to a loved one at the most stressful times - during the hospitalization for an unexpected illness, disease, or injury.

Participating airlines:

AirTran Airways
Alaska Airlines
American Airlines
Continental Airlines
Delta Air Lines
Frontier Airlines
Midwest Airlines
Northwest Airlines
United Airlines
US Airways

Note that Fisher House agreements with individual airlines only permit airline tickets for military (or DoD civilian employees) hospitalized as a result of their service in Iraq, Afghanistan, or surrounding areas, and their families. These tickets can not be used for R&R travel, ordinary leave, emergency leave, or other travel not related to a medical condition.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Texeira on Obama: Yes he can

Ruy Texeira, co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority (2002) and of America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters (2000) provides essential perspective to those spooked by Hillary Clinton's "Bill, he cannot win" whispers about Barack Obama. From John Harwood in the NYT political blog The Caucus:
Mrs. Clinton’s claim that she is best positioned to win the “hard-working Americans, white Americans” has become the linchpin of her argument that she is more electable than Mr. Obama.

But Mr. Teixeira, who is not backing either candidate, does not buy that argument. He dismisses intraparty contests as “pretty poor evidence” of whether Mr. Obama, as the Democratic nominee, could attract the blue-collar support he would need against Senator John McCain the presumed Republican nominee.

And how much blue-collar support would Mr. Obama need? Not a majority, said Mr. Teixeira. Though blue-collar Democrats once represented a centerpiece of the New Deal coalition, they have shrunk as a proportion of the information age-economy and as a proportion of the Democratic base.

Al Gore lost working-class white voters by 17 percentage points in 2000, even while winning the national popular vote. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts lost them by 23 points in 2004, while running within three points of President Bush over all. Mr. Teixeira suggests that Mr. Obama can win the presidency if he comes within 10 to 12 percentage points of Mr. McCain with these voters, as Democratic candidates for the House did in the 2006 midterm election.

In recent national polls, that is exactly what Mr. Obama is doing. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed Mr. Obama trailing by 12 percentage points with working-class whites; a poll by Quinnipiac University showed him trailing by seven points. In each survey, Mr. Obama led over all by seven points.

Clinton's wins in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia have prompted a long second look at Obama's prospects in the general. News reports have proliferated focusing on voters, from the coal mines of Kentucky to the leisure villages of Florida, who say outright or signal indirectly that they will not vote for a black man. There's no question that we're in uncharted territory. But it helps to have a 'hard target number' for the most recalcitrant group from someone as versed in electoral demographics as Ruy Texeira.

Obama does it...with Integrity

Ten weeks ago, as the Democratic nomination fight teetered on the brink of its really ugly phase (with Wright and bittergate yet ahead), David Brooks mocked 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. " Strange for a conservative to denigrate and sexualize a politician's attempt to restore a measure of integrity to public discourse, but Brooks did rather pungently frame the task Obama has set for himself.

Now we're in the end game, and guess what -- Obama has beaten Clinton, and maintained his integrity. In fact, he's beaten Clinton in large part because he's maintained his integrity while she has publicly sacrificed hers, shred by shred. The contrast in the way each has handled the other's gaffes has been dispositive.

Recall Hillary's gleeful seizure of Obama's "bitter" remarks -- remarks betraying a measure of condescension that she's more than matched on multiple occasions -- as a campaign bludgeon. This was at the height of their endless Pennsylvania slugfest. Here's CNN's account on April 12:
INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana (CNN) - Hillary Clinton sought on Saturday to fan the flames surrounding Barack Obama's controversial assertion that voters in some small towns are "bitter."

Clinton told an audience of automotive workers here that she was "taken aback by the demeaning remarks Sen. Obama made about people in small town America."

"Sen. Obama's remarks are elitist and out of touch," she said. "they are not reflective of the values and beliefs of Americans, certainly not the Americans I know, not the Americans I grew up with, not the Americans I lived with in Arkansas or represent in New York."

Clinton aides said they planned to make Obama's comments central to their message on the campaign trail this weekend. The New York senator will campaign across Indiana Saturday, and will return to Pennsylvania on Sunday.

In a soft-spoken denunciation of her Democratic rival that lasted several minutes, Clinton played up her own faith and Midwestern roots before attacking point by point Obama's claims that people who feel disenfranchised in small town America "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

"Americans who believe in God believe it's a matter of personal faith," she said, to periodic applause. "People of faith I know don't cling to religion because they are bitter. People embrace faith not because they are materially poor but because they are spiritually rich."

On the issue of guns, Clinton said: "People of all walks of life hunt, and they enjoy doing do because its an important part of their life, not because they are bitter."
By that date, the Clinton campaign was already clothing supporters in "I'm not bitter" tee shirts.

Now contrast Obama's response to Hillary's bizarre, disturbing, overdetermined reference to RFK's assassination on Friday. As soon as the news broke, the campaign did stick the shiv in. It was an arthroscopic cut, unimpeachably appropriate, tightly restrained, and not repeated:
Sen. Clinton's statement before the Argus Leader editorial board was unfortunate and has no place in this campaign.
The New York Post that very swiftly poured gasoline on the fire, misleadingly headlining its scoop, "Hillary Raises Assassination Issue." But the understated Obama campaign statement struck the match (a one-match fire, as we liked to shoot for in summer camp). Hillary's comment is impossible to interpret -- yes, she was illustrating that primary fights have often stretched into June, but why illustrate the case with an assassination? -- and the Obama camp did not pretend to. But their statement did validate most readers' and viewers' impression that there was something deeply creepy about the RFK allusion.

Obama himself waited a day to respond directly. When he did, speaking to Radio Isla Puerto Rico, it was with the magnanimity that's become a personal signature. Yet that very magnanimity drew a sharp if unstated contrast to Clinton's response to his own longest-resonating gaffe:
I have learned that when you are campaigning for as many months as Senator Clinton and I have been campaigning, sometimes you get careless in terms of the statements that you make and I think that is what happened here. Senator Clinton says that she did not intend any offense by it and I will take her at her word on that.
The Obama campaign's two-step response to the assassination allusion culminates a pattern established over many months. Repeatedly, Obama's attacks -- occasions on which he has called out the Clinton campaign tactics -- have been precisely calibrated to highlight flaws that Hillary (and Bill) were displaying day-by-day on the campaign trail. But these rebukes have been modulated by statements of praise, validations of the overall Clinton effort, even excuses for their excesses. A few occasions on which he's killed with kindness:

March 30 news conference in a high school gym in Johnstown, PA:
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.
Beaufort, S.C., Jan. 24: Playing the adult in the Clinton sandbox:

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....

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.

Good Morning America, Jan. 21:
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.
Obama's attacks on Clinton have not been any the less effective for their soft edges. From January on, he has used her attacks to argue that her immersion in Rovian politics -- her willingness, as he's said at his sharpest, to "say anything to get elected" and "calculate and poll-test" positions -- has distorted her judgment and limited her power to reform the political process, as he has pledged to do. In a sense, that's a character attack, as Geoff Garin charged in an April 25 op-ed. But it's one that resonates, as Hillary has demonstrated these limitations over and over. Obama has simply added accents to the self-portrait she's drawn.

Surprise, Mr. Brooks: Obama has managed to "attack, but in the right way." And "virginity" is your hangup. Obama does it with integrity.

Related posts:
Pause, refresh: Obama's core case against Clinton
Obama endorses Hillary!
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

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Hillary's double message about Bill

While listening to the first 58 minutes of Hillary's now-infamous interview with the Argus (SD) Leader, it dawned on me that her "ready on day 1" pitch includes an implicit rebuke of Bill Clinton's administration. One subtext seems to be, 'don't pick a candidate as unready to take office as Bill was.'

I can't find a transcript, but to paraphrase, Hillary said that one thing she learned from the ride with Bill is that a new President has a narrow window, about a year, to get a major part of his/her agenda enacted. In a sense, Bill did this. In that first spring, his Administration bobbed and weaved its way to a deficit reduction package that passed the Senate on VP Al Gore's tiebreaking vote. That proved to be the keynote for Clinton's signature achievement: restoring economic confidence and growth by getting the Federal budget on a firm footing.

But that major achievement was a Plan B bi-product of internal struggles to find a focal point. Bill's first year was otherwise a disaster ride, his authority eroded by a string of small-bore screwups: an uproar and ignoble compromise over gays in the military; the Travelgate brouhaha, the serial scotched attorney general nominations. And all the while, Hillary herself was ginning up the trainwreck that was supposed to be the Clintons' signature accomplishment: universal healthcare.

Was the country wrong to take a flier on Bill? Hillary's viability depends on answering 'no' (and I agree). But if there's anything Bill wasn't, it was "ready on day one."

Friday, May 23, 2008

58 minutes later: the good part of Hillary's SD interview

An irony of Hillary's assassination gaffe is that she was at her very best (notwithstanding that on the tape she looks ready to drop) throughout the rest of a substantive, wide-ranging discussion with the Argus Leader. From Native American policy to the varieties of potential ethanol sources to western water policy, she was Clintonian in her mastery of policy detail. You can understand why she thinks she's 'ready' to be President. If it weren't for her long sequence of duplicitous, predatory, Rovian tactics and comments, I would agree.

In fact the interview contained a Clintonian answer to Obama's metapolitics - his pitch that we've got to change the way our political system functions before we can enact good policy. Obama's argument is that the U.S. government can't put the common good first as long as lobbyists control legislation, and that we can't have serious policy debates until we break through the Rovian politics of personal destruction and distorting attacks. In this debate, Hillary said that we can't engage in serious long-range planning and policy-making until we change the mindset bequeathed us by Ronald Reagan -- that government can't solve anything, that the business of government is to shrink and undermine itself.

The two diagnoses are related. The anti-government stance goes with a messianic faith in the marketplace, a belief that business unleashed and unregulated will create the wealth that government only inhibits. Those holding that belief system naturally enough opened the lobbying floodgates. Not that there wasn't plenty of corruption and interest-driven legislation in the long era of Democratic control of Congress -- but it metastasized with the advent of the Gingrich-Delay crowd and their K Street Project, and it took over the executive branch in the Bush era. So Obama and Clinton are both right. The antigov mindset created a system in which legislation is for sale and political 'debate' becomes a cover for positions essentially dictated by lobbyists.

Robert Reich, in Supercapitalism, suggests that it's the hyper-competition of global capitalism that created the pressures that brought this system into being. Reaganite antigovernment ideology, from that point of view, is more result than cause. Reich has few answers as to how citizens and politicians can take the government back. Hillary's answer is reverse engineering: get a mandate for the right policies, and the attitude toward government will change. Obama's approach is a frontal assault: remain personally free from lobbyist money, get a mandate to write legislation to reign in lobbyist influence, change political discourse by personal example. Will either (or any of their successors) get anywhere? It may seem naive to say yes. But there have been periods, as both like to say, in which the U.S. government has risen to enormous challenges and successfully engaged in long-range planning. Democracy's saving grace, as long as there's a critical mass of power remaining with voters to throw one crowd out and bring new people in, is self-correction. We're in the midst of an attempted course correction. We'd better get there.

It was different the first time

Why didn't Clinton's invocation of the Kennedy assassination on March 6 ignite the firestorm it did this time? The two statements were different. The first tightly situated the assassination allusion as a data point showing that nomination battles have historically lasted into June:
I think people have short memories. Primary contests used to last a lot longer.We all remember the great tragedy of Bobby Kennedy being assassinated in June in L.A. My husband didn't wrap up the nomination in 1992 until June. Having a primary contest go through June is nothing particularly unusual.
An ugly choice of illustration if you think about it, but the surrounding 'thesis statements' it was supposed to support made it less likely that listeners would think about it. Contrast the report from today's interview. Asked, "you don't buy the unity argument?" she responded:
"I don’t because I’ve been around long enough," she said. "My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. You know, I don't understand it. And there's lots of speculation about why it is."
Same data points, thinner frame. Or a different frame, one that seems to evoke some opaque point of paranoia: what's behind the pressure for me to get out of the race? From that charged field, the assassination reference spills out all over.

P.S. There are weird resonances in Clinton's apology as well:

“The Kennedys have been much on my mind in the last days because of Senator Kennedy, and I regret that if my referencing that moment of trauma for our entire nation and particularly for the Kennedy family was in any way offensive. I certainly had no intention of that whatsoever.”

“My view is that we have to look to the past and to our leaders who have inspired us and give us a lot to live up to. And I’m honored to hold Senator Kennedy’s seat in the United States Senate from the state of New York, And have the highest regard for the entire Kennedy family. Thanks."

It's inspirational to look back to Bobby Kennedy's assassination as an illustration of the length of campaigns past? And what's up with that statement of regard for the whole family? Does she feel the need to reassure us that her deadly nightshades aren't directed at the Kennedys either?

Okay, what'd she mean this time?

Every week brings a new low for Hillary Clinton. I think that this comment to the Argus (SD) Leader hits the third rail -- and may get her run out of the race on a rail. Asked "you don't buy the party unity argument?" - that is, the argument that she's hurting the party by continuing to run -- she said:

I don’t because I’ve been around long enough, My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. You know, I don't understand it. And there's lots of speculation about why it is.

Once again, as with her "hard working Americans, white Americans" comment, I think you have to distinguish between Hillary's real-time thought process while speaking this and the unconscious bilge that propelled it. Her point was that nomination fights often carry into the summer. (Never mind that the claim that Bill didn't wrap up his race until June is almost entirely bogus; he was nominee presumptive by mid-March. ) Bill was fighting into June; Bobby Kennedy was just getting going in June when he was assassinated; the conscious point is that the nomination was far from settled at that time. But, as Ambinder asks,
why didn't she bring up Ted Kennedy in 1980? Or Gary Hart in 1984? I think she was pointing to primary races where the eventual nominee was unknown at this point in the cycle.... But 1984 would apply more, her husband was the de-facto nominee at this point, and the compressed calender really renders such comparisons null and void.
It's hard to escape the conclusion that what propelled this example was Hillary's background thought that anything can happen.

You can't go home again to the White House

A major-party Presidential nominee who aims to change the trajectory of American politics suddenly becomes enamored of inviting a former White House occupant -- once the candidate's bitter rival for the nomination -- to take the second slot on a dream ticket. The 'dream' is to rapturously unify a divided party -- quelling doubts about a candidate who represents a leap of faith that many of the party faithful may be unwilling to make.

A powerful former high-ranking public servant lurks behind the prospective veep, reportedly demanding almost co-presidential powers on his liege's behalf -- and a strong role for himself. Ultimately the dream evaporates, as the nominee demurs at proposals to cede vast swaths of the President's Constitutional authority to a vice president who will function as "chief operating officer."

This happened in 1980. On the eve of the Republican convention, presumptive nominee Ronald Reagan reached out to offer former President (and former Vice President) Gerald Ford the second spot on the ticket. Three or four top aides on each side met to hash out the details, with Henry Kissinger chief among those in the Ford camp. According to Howell Raine's report in the New York Times (July 18, 1980):
The so-called "dream ticket" fell apart because to have endowed the Vice Presidency with enough power to make the offer attractive to Mr. Ford would have eroded Mr. Reagan's authority as President, one Regan aide said. Mr. Reagan said Mr. Ford also had a persistent and finally insurmountable visceral feeling that it would be wrong for the two to run together.
As reported by the Times, the principals were oddly passive in the negotiating process. The Ford camp, led by Kissinger, "astonished Mr. Reagan's aides in the degree to which they would have watered down Mr. Reagan's powers to run the Government." The proposals included giving Ford veto power over major cabinet appointments and the right to make other appointments. They also seem to have included making Kissinger Secretary of State.

Gerald Ford was no Hillary Clinton. The deal failed as much because of his recognition that what his aides were asking was preposterous as because of Reagan's similar recognition.

Imagine the Obama camp negotiating with the Clintonites. While the Clinton team would be in no position to ask for overt prerogatives of the magnitude demanded by the Ford team for the former President, the principal's will to power would be unchecked.

Obama is no fool. Like Reagan and Ford, he will feel in his gut that a prospective President can't share power with a former White House occupant. This year's 'dream ticket,' like that of 1980, will fade like morning dew.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Karl Rove pimps out the swiftboat

Perhaps Karl Rove is running for Vice President. He's using his freehold on the Wall Street Journal's op-ed page to test attack lines on Barack Obama that are, well, Rovian. Here's how he characterized comments by Obama attempting to place the threats posed by Iran and other 'rogue states' in context:

On Sunday at a stop in Oregon, Sen. Obama was dismissive of the threats posed by Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba and Syria. That's the same Iran whose Quds Force is arming and training insurgents and illegal militias in Iraq to kill American soldiers; that is supporting Hezbollah and Hamas in violent attacks on Lebanon and Israel; and that is racing to develop a nuclear weapon while threatening the "annihilation" of Israel.

By Monday in Montana, Mr. Obama recognized his error. He abruptly changed course, admitting that Iran represents a threat to the region and U.S. interests.

Conveniently, Rove neglects to quote Obama before slipping into a schoolmasterly lecture about the carefully prepared negotiations of Nixon and Reagan. Obama was not in fact 'dismissive' of the threats posed by rogue states; his aim was to defuse the hysteria of the Bush Administration's years-long effort to inflate these threats to the magnitude of those posed by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Here's a CNN digest of what Obama actually said:

"Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, these countries are tiny compared to the Soviet Union," Obama said. "They don't pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us, and yet we were willing to talk to the Soviet Union at the time when they were saying we're going to wipe you off the planet.

"We should use that position of strength that we have to be bold enough to go ahead and listen. We might not compromise on any issue, but at least we should find out are there areas of potential common interest, and we can reduce some of the tensions that have caused us so many problems around the world," Obama said.

Obama said he was aware of the "grave" threat Iran poses to the United States, but that it was "common sense" that Iran is less of a threat today to the U.S. than the Soviet Union was during the Cold War.
Nor did Obama "recognize an error" and walk these statements back the following day; he simply elaborated:

The Soviet Union had the ability to destroy the world several times over, had satellites spanning the globe, had huge masses of conventional military power, all directed at destroying us," he said. "So, I've made it clear for years that the threat from Iran is grave. But what I've said is that we should not just talk to our friends. We should be willing to engage our enemies as well. That's what diplomacy is all about...

Iran is a grave threat. It has an illicit nuclear program. It supports terrorism across the region and militias in Iraq. It threatens Israel's existence. It denies the Holocaust," he said. "The reason Iran is so much more powerful than it was a few years ago is because of the Bush-McCain policy of fighting in Iraq and refusing to pursue direct diplomacy with Iran. They're the ones who have not dealt with Iran wisely.

In his attempt to bring the rogue state threat to scale, Obama seems to be channeling in an argument spun out by Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria last October:

The American discussion about Iran has lost all connection to reality. Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative ideologist whom Bush has consulted on this topic, has written that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is "like Hitler … a revolutionary whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it in the fullness of time with a new order dominated by Iran and ruled by the religio-political culture of Islamofascism." For this staggering proposition Podhoretz provides not a scintilla of evidence.

Here is the reality. Iran has an economy the size of Finland's and an annual defense budget of around $4.8 billion. It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century. The United States has a GDP that is 68 times larger and defense expenditures that are 110 times greater. Israel and every Arab country (except Syria and Iraq) are quietly or actively allied against Iran. And yet we are to believe that Tehran is about to overturn the international system and replace it with an Islamo-fascist order? What planet are we on?

You don't have to think that the threats posed by Islamic extremism and nuclear proliferation are "overblown," as John E. Mueller has argued in a book of that title, to appreciate Obama's attempt to counter Cold War nostalgia that craves a superpower-weight enemy against which the U.S. can define itself.

As Obama fights to break the spell of Rovian fear-mongering, I do wish he hadn't weakened himself in the famous YouTube debate exchange last summer, when he responded "I would" to the question, "Would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea?" Hillary was quite right to call him out on this. I thought at the time and continue to think that Obama 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. This is one major instance of Obama's sometime tendency to dig deeper when he's in a hole.

Still, that error is as nothing compared to McCain's serial expressions of strategic incoherence. McCain's vision of a decades-long but casualty-free occupation along the lines of our presence in Korea and Japan betrays the kind of Cold War imprinting Obama is trying to defuse (our presence in those countries was part of global competition with the Soviets and their allies). His assertion that Iran backs al Qaeda in Iraq reveals a penchant for lumping all "Islamic extremists" together into one monolithic adversary, as strident Cold Warriors did with the Soviet Union, China, and Vietnam. His "bomb bomb Iran" 'joke' is infinitely more "dismissive" of the nature of the threats we actually face than Obama's contextualizing.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Gates repudiates Rumsfeld's "army you have" doctrine

As noted in a prior post, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' May 15 speech to defense contractors situated his immediate tactical and spending priorities within his broader strategic outlook. In brief: in a debate within the military between those who want to focus military spending and planning primarily on counterinsurgency and asymmetric warfare and those who believe that in the long term, we will face more substantial threats from emerging major powers (e.g., China, China, and China), Gates comes down strongly on the counterinsurgents' side. He cast the question as one of risk management: for the foreseeable future, we will likely face multiple challenges from "Smaller, irregular forces - insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists," whereas it's highly unlikely that we'll face a conventional military challenge from powerful nation state."

In the short term, those priorities, as well as a personal commitment to support of U.S. troops, translate into placing top priority on what troops need now - to avoid getting killed, to detect insurgent activity as it happens, and to care for wounded and psychologically damaged solders when they return. And his progress report on these fronts included a devastating if implicit indictment of Rumsfeld's leadership.

Politely, here as elsewhere Gates cast the Pentagon's "leadership shortcomings" as a product of decades of bureaucratic inertia. Nonetheless, the failures he addressed were recent and acute:
My priorities are focused on better supporting our troops in combat and include:
  • Sending more intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets to Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • Providing troops the best possible protection on dangerous roads in Iraq and Afghanistan; and
  • Improving outpatient care and support for our wounded.
These are issues I take seriously – and very personally.

Each goes directly to our profound, even sacred, obligation to do everything we can to support the men and women currently fighting on the front lines – people like the four we recognized tonight - to see that they are successful on the battlefield and properly cared for at home. These needs require the Department to focus on the reality that we are in the midst of two wars and that what we can provide our soldiers and commanders three or four years hence isn’t nearly as important as what we can provide them today or next month. In each case, there was some sort of leadership shortcoming:
  • A lack of vision or sense of urgency;
  • An unwillingness or hesitancy to upend assumptions and practices that have accumulated in a largely peacetime military establishment; and
  • An assumption that the war would soon be over and therefore we shouldn’t impinge on programs that produce the kinds of equipment and capabilities that probably would not be needed in today’s combat.
A common mantra at Defense is that the rest of the government isn't at war. Well, a lesson I learned fairly early on was that important elements of the Defense Department weren't at war. Preoccupied with future capabilities and procurement programs, wedded to lumbering peacetime process and procedures, stuck in bureaucratic low-gear. The needs of those in combat too often were not addressed urgently or creatively.
True, Rumsfeld also cast himself as a scourge of Pentagon's hide-bound thinking and bureaucratic inertia. True, too, that Rumsfeld preceded Gates in advocating increased reliance on UAVs. More broadly, though, Rumsfeld was focused on developing new IT capabilities and concentrating firepower in the hands of ever-fewer troops achieving ever-quicker victories -- as seemed at first to happen in Afghanistan. Once mired in protracted conflict, it was 'you go to war with the army you have' -- a comment that bespoke a lack of commitment to improving the capabilities of those troops mired in conflict. That lack of responsiveness to conditions on the ground is what Gates is trying to redress now.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Bush Buffeted

Okay, the context seems a bit spliced, but it does look as if Warren Buffett, after expressing his support for Obama today, called George Bush an idiot:

Commenting on the US economy, the 77-year-old investor who is known as the "Sage of Omaha," stressed that fiscal, monetary and trade policies were of great importance.

"I think that the US has followed and is following policies which will cause the US dollar to weaken over a long period of time," he said.

After voicing support for Obama, Buffett nonetheless noted the US economy had managed to do "awfully well" despite a depression, two world wars and many financial crises.

"They say in the stock market ... buy stock in a business that's so good that an idiot can run it because sooner or later one will," he added.

"Well, the United States is a little like that. We can take a little mis-management from time to time," Buffett said.

Buffett has been warning for years about the long-term dangers of the U.S. current account deficit. He's also spoken out against tax cuts that excessively favor the wealthy. Looks to me like he just pinned the tale on the donkey.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

GooGoo under Gates

There is a little-noticed goo-goo (good government) success story in the spending priorities that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is ramming through the Pentagon bureaucracy.

In a series of recent speeches, Gates has articulated in detail both an overarching strategy and particular immediate priorities that fit the strategy. Broadly, he has argued that the U.S. military needs to focus more on the kind of struggle it is in now - counterinsurgency, asymmetrical warfare, nation-building -- than in the kind it is oriented toward fighting -- gearing up for an emerging superpower rival or a conventional land war. In a 5/13 speech to the Heritage Foundation, he cast this as a risk management strategy:
in a world of finite knowledge and limited resources, where we have to make choices and set priorities, it makes sense to lean toward the most likely and lethal scenarios for our military. And it is hard to conceive of any country confronting the United States directly in conventional terms – ship to ship, fighter to fighter, tank to tank – for some time to come. The record of the past quarter century is clear: the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Israelis in Lebanon, the United States in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Smaller, irregular forces – insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists – will find ways, as they always have, to frustrate and neutralize the advantages of larger, regular militaries. And even nation-states will try to exploit our perceived vulnerabilities in an asymmetric way, rather than play to our inherent strengths.

Overall, the kinds of capabilities we will most likely need in the years ahead will often resemble the kinds of capabilities we need today.
The strategic priority Gates places on equipping the military to fight the kind of struggle they're currently engaged in meshes with a massive reform effort to give soldiers what they need now -- in life-saving equipment and in medical and mental health care. In short, his efforts are aimed at redressing the most egregious failures exposed over the last few years: inadequately armored vehicles, medical care of the wounded, and the network of services that are supposed to aid soldiers in the transition to civilian life, including mental health care for those suffering from PTSD. Gates has also himself exposed and worked to redress what he sees as another major failing: under-use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -which, he says, "give troops the tremendous advantage of seeing full-motion, real-time, streaming video over a target – such as an insurgent planting an IED on a street corner.

In a 5/15 speech to a group of defense industry executives, Gates, laid out these priorities and recent efforts to address them. Throughout, he stressed the difficulty of getting the Pentagon to break with old ways of doing things and move on his initiatives. Here are the main elements of his progress report:

1. UAVs:
Commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan have understandably clamored for more of this capability – more sorties, more video, more potential to save American and Iraqi lives. There have been improvements, to be sure. Since 2001, the total number of UAVs has increased 25-fold to more than 5,000. Over the past few months, the Air Force doubled the number of Predators supporting combat operations. But that’s still not enough to meet the demand from commanders in the field.
In a speech at Maxwell Air Force Base last month, I made news by saying that ramping up these assets for field commanders was like “pulling teeth.” It was reported in some outlets as scolding the Air Force. It really wasn’t. The problem was a bureaucratic culture within all the Services and within the Pentagon itself that did not encourage out-of-the-box thinking and that did not encourage every employee to come to work in the morning thinking about “what can I do today to help those in combat?”
To get even more of this critical resource into the right hands faster, I launched an effort to scour the world for additional ISR assets that can be sent to theater, and to ensure we are getting maximum utility out of the assets already there. The task force will report back to me 90 days from its inception, and every two weeks between now and then. One thing I’ve learned in the Pentagon is that the best way to get results is to set short deadlines and enforce them.

2. MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles): million-dollar vehicles in which soldiers'
casualty rate is less than one – third that of Humvees and less than half that of an Abrams tank. Gates:
In May 2007, I directed the Department to make MRAPs our top acquisition priority. I issued instructions to identify urgently any constraint – funding, material, program, legal, or otherwise – that might inhibit this effort. In under a year, production has soared from 10 vehicles per month to over 1,200. I was particularly impressed by how quickly industry responded once the Pentagon made MRAPs a priority. In fact, the last time American industry moved from concept to full-rate military production of a major piece of equipment in less than a year was World War II. Today, there are more than 4,500 MRAPs in Iraq and Afghanistan and thousands more on the way.
3. Care of the wounded, including those suffering psychologically:
Perhaps the most important change has been the new way our injured receive medical treatment through “Warrior Transition Units.” These units are responsible for shepherding injured Service members back to their units or helping them transition to veteran status. Thus far, the Army has created 35 new Warrior Transition Units caring for over 10,000 soldiers...

Another change is to streamline the Disability Evaluation System. In the past, Service members received two separate disability ratings from DoD and the VA. We are now converting the disability evaluation system into a single and transparent process in which one disability rating would be legally binding by both organizations. One Service member. One exam. One rating. ...

The Department has also placed great emphasis on caring for those with post-traumatic stress. As we all know, not every soldier returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is getting the treatment he or she needs. We are actively working to eliminate any stigma associated with PTSD. Over 900,000 soldiers have been trained in recent months about symptoms of PTSD and the need to seek assistance. Another important element of removing the stigma and encouraging people to get help has been changing the question about mental-health on the security-clearance application. Too often, troops have avoided seeking help because they were worried it would affect their security clearance, and perhaps their career.
I announced at Fort Bliss two weeks ago that the question about mental health, as a general matter, will now exclude counseling related to service in combat – post-traumatic stress in particular. We hope this will encourage more men and women in uniform to seek help if they need it.
Of course we're listening to the reformer reporting on his own reforms. But Gates is as likely to publicly expose failures in an effort to spur action as he is to boast about successes. Thee is no doubt that Gates is giving everything he's got to improve the conditions under which soldiers in the field operate and the care they receive when they come home.

In a previous post, I noted several strategic congruences between Gates and Obama. These include: an emphasis on success in Afghanistan/Pakistan and acknowledgment that the Iraq War is draining resources from that crucial struggle; a recommendation that the U.S. commit more resources to developing its 'soft power,' including allocating more resources to the State Department to support foreign service personnel; acknowledgment that talk of troop withdrawal in the U.S. puts useful pressure on the Iraqi government; and advocacy for more intense diplomatic efforts, including a recommendation just days ago that the U.S. negotiate with Iran.

There are major differences, too. Gates is arguably closer to McCain in insistence that we cannot afford to fail in Iraq (though his definition of success there might be more minimalist and closer to Obama's). Still, should Obama be elected, he ought to do everything he can to convince Gates to stay on. Gates has indicated quite clearly that he intends to retire when his
"250 days, 14 hours, and 45 minutes" (as of May 15) are up. But then, he's also fond of recounting the multiple times that Brent Scowcroft lured him into difficult new jobs. Perhaps Obama could match Scowcroft's persuasive powers.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dream Vision: Land of McCain, 2013

Left: Peter Breughel, "The Land of Cockaigne," 1567

John McCain has had to run right hard to capture the Republican nomination. Now that he has it, his proverbial run back to the center has been blocked by the ongoing imperative to prove his conservative bona fides to the Republican base, where attitudes toward him run from mistrust to loathing.

Nonetheless, in an unusual and rather creative speech delivered in the Ohio heartland (Columbus) today, McCain began the long walk back, rhetorically, if not substantively, toward addressing all Americans.

A medieval version of the Big Rock Candy Mountain was "The Land of Cocayne," a place of total wish fulfillment. This speech looked forward to 2013 to lay out a Land of McCain fantasy - an America where wars are winding down and troops are mainly out of harm's way, prosperity has popped up round the taxcut corner, healthcare is something like universal, "hyperpartisanship" is under control, and the executive branch is back in balance with the other two.

Leave aside for the moment the sketchiness and incoherence of the policies proposed to get us there: unregulated healthcare plans riddled with coverage limitations and exclusions; enormous taxcuts with no meaningful spending cuts to offset them; a stable democracy in Iraq with no roadmap for political progress. The vision, and the rhetoric, sent all kinds of signals meant to reassure.

The dance back to the center was a three-step. McCain in this speech walked back several earlier errors and extreme statements. He found new ways to distance himself from Bush. And he coopted a keynote of Obama's change message: the promise to remake our politics by draining partisan poison.

Let's look first at the walk-backs. The most noted was a vision of most troops withdrawn from Iraq, because
The Iraq War has been won. Iraq is a functioning democracy, although still suffering from the lingering effects of decades of tyranny and centuries of sectarian tension. Violence still occurs, but it is spasmodic and much reduced. Civil war has been prevented; militias disbanded; the Iraqi Security Force is professional and competent; al Qaeda in Iraq has been defeated; and the Government of Iraq is capable of imposing its authority in every province of Iraq and defending the integrity of its borders. The United States maintains a military presence there, but a much smaller one, and it does not play a direct combat role.
There's been much talk that McCain here has in some way committed to a timetable. He hasn't. He's just stated a fantasy. There is no discussion of how we get to this Iraqi Land of McCain. His endgame is orders of magnitude more ambitious than Obama's, who last month pressed Admiral Mullen whether we could get this far:
If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an Al Qaida base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe.
Nonetheless, if four years from now Iraq is not quite a model member of McCain's League of Democracies, and if we still have 100,000 troops there, he will not have broken any promises -- just failed to fulfill a wish.

On the job loss front, McCain completed a sentence that left him hanging in Michigan early this year, where Romney beat him by playing Santa to his Scrooge. Then, in January, he bravely told the state's blue collar workers their jobs were gone for good. Then as now, he advocated increased and more flexible job training for displaced workers, but he wasn't very specific about the result of such training. Now, he envisions successful execution of a sheaf of retraining programs that are helping millions of workers who have lost a job that won't come back find a new one that won't go away.

On health insurance, Elizabeth Edwards effectively hammered McCain for proposing a system under which neither she nor he would be able to buy insurance, since both have pre-existing conditions. She's pushed him to slap on the band-aid of bare-bones government-sponsored insurance-of-last-resort options, enabling to envision a 2013 in which
The federal government and states have cooperated in establishing backstop insurance pools that provide coverage to people hard pressed to find insurance elsewhere because of pre-existing illness.
Finally, McCain recently took heat for promising to appoint judges so dedicated to "judicial restraint" that they essentially rubber-stamp almost any law passed by elected officials. Excoriating judges who "issue rulings on policy questions that should be decided democratically," he seemed to leave no room for judges to declare laws unconstitutional. In today's 2013 dream vision, however, he restores a measure of balance, at least rhetorically:
Scores of judges have been confirmed to the federal district and appellate courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, who understand that they were not sent there to write our laws but to enforce them and make sure they are consistent with the Constitution.
Step Two in the centrist three-step was to continue a theme McCain has worked periodically: I'm not Bush. This speech distanced McCain in important ways from Bush's attempts on various fronts to make Presidential power absolute:
The powers of the presidency are rightly checked by the other branches of government, and I will not attempt to acquire powers our founders saw fit to grant Congress. I will exercise my veto if I believe legislation passed by Congress is not in the nation's best interests, but I will not subvert the purpose of legislation I have signed by making statements that indicate I will enforce only the parts of it I like.
In softer and more stylistic ways, McCain promised a humbler, more restrained Presidency - more transparent, more deferential to the legislative branch, more bipartisan:
If I am elected President, I will work with anyone who sincerely wants to get this country moving again. I will listen to any idea that is offered in good faith and intended to help solve our problems, not make them worse. I will seek the counsel of members of Congress from both parties in forming government policy before I ask them to support it. I will ask Democrats to serve in my administration. My administration will set a new standard for transparency and accountability. I will hold weekly press conferences. I will regularly brief the American people on the progress our policies have made and the setbacks we have encountered. When we make errors, I will confess them readily, and explain what we intend to do to correct them. I will ask Congress to grant me the privilege of coming before both houses to take questions, and address criticism, much the same as the Prime Minister of Great Britain appears regularly before the House of Commons.
Notably, however, McCain did not make any promises to end torture or restore habeas.

Finally, while indicating that in some ways he will turn the page on Bush, McCain cast himself in another sense as a kind of Obama lite - promising to change the political process and political culture:

For all the problems we face, if you ask Americans what frustrates them most about Washington, they will tell you they don't think we're capable of serving the public interest before our personal and partisan ambitions; that we fight for ourselves and not for them. Americans are sick of it, and they have every right to be. They are sick of the politics of selfishness, stalemate and delay. They despair when every election -- no matter who wins -- always seems to produce four more years of unkept promises and a government that is just a battleground for the next election. Their patience is at an end for politicians who value ambition over principle, and for partisanship that is less a contest of ide as than an uncivil brawl over the spoils of power. They want to change not only the policies and institutions that have failed the American people, but the political culture that produced them. They want to move this country forward and stake our claim on this century as we did in the last. And they want their government to care more about them than preserving the privileges of the powerful.

The Land of McCain dream vision sets a nearly impossible standard of achievement that will doubtless come back to haunt McCain if he is elected. It's a strange strategy, to offer a vision that at once avoids hard promises and sets wistful expectations.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Faludi hearts Hillary as barrom brawler

Susan Faludi, writing in the Times, constructs quite the creative narrative of how the Democratic nomination battle is playing out in the "subbasement of the national imagination"(The Fight Stuff, May 9). She gives us two "archetypes" -- female candidate as prissy moralist umpire (bad) vs. same candidate as bar-brawling, rule-busting pugilist (good). Never mind the demagogic backbeat of Faludi's implicit cheerleading for the latter (under the guise of simply reporting what white working class men respond to). One question: where's her evidence that any voters of any ethnicity or gender are responding, positively or negatively, to these alleged archetypes? Or that those archetypes even exist in voters' minds?

Monday, May 12, 2008

A spaniel attacks

One more bit of campaign dreariness: now we're forced to witness Mitt Romney, ostentatiously angling for the vice presidential nod after attracting McCain's undisguised loathing during the short nomination fight, auditioning as McCain's hatchet man on foreign policy issues. Back on March 11, he showed his jugular to McCain with this fawning comparison on Hannity & Colmes:
Listening to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama talk about experience in a national security crisis is like listening to two chihuahuas argue about which is the biggest dog. When it comes to national security, John McCain is the big dog, and they are the chihuahuas.
Yesterday, popping up on CNN to interject himself into McCain's touting of Hamas' 'endorsement' of Obama, he
sharply criticized Mr. Obama for saying that his administration would be willing to talk to Iran. Asserting that Mr. Obama, if elected, was planning to meet with the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, said on CNN that this was “one more clear example of a person that’s out of his depth when it comes to being the leader of the free world” (NYT)
This from a man who said he'd "double Guantanamo" - a statement so nonsensical as well as brutal that it disqualifies the utterer from any further consideration of his paranoid, fear-mongering posturing on the foreign policy front. And that really is the verdict of the American people.

By the time Romney suspended his campaign in the aftermath of Super Tuesday, Americans had been exposed to full-time campaigning by both men for the better part of a year. There had been 18 Democratic debates and sixteen Republican debates to that point. Romney had won approximately 4.2 million popular votes. Obama by the same point had attracted 9.9 million votes, over 7 million of them on Super Tuesday alone.

This is not to say that votes won always correspond with merit. But Romney started with every advantage - good paper credentials, respect for his governing track record and management expertise, unlimited personal resources to spend campaigning. His positions and policy proposals were so obviously manufactured, so at variance with his own past words and deeds, so incoherent, narrow and cruel that Republican voters resoundingly rejected him. So it's fair to ask: does anyone really care what Romney thinks of Obama's foreign policy bona fides?

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Which voters are not 'hard-working'?

What's toxic in Hillary's comment about Obama's lack of support among working class whites?

USA Today has an audio clip in which Clinton says:
There was just an AP article that found how Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me."

"There's a pattern emerging here," she said.

Oh, there's a pattern emerging all right: race-baiting. The poison here is not so much Clinton's claim that she does better than Obama with working class whites, but the throw-in appositive "hard-working." What's the opposite of "working, hard-working Americans, white Americans," among whom Obama's support is allegedly weak? Mirror image: "not working, not-so-hard-working Americans, black Americans." Welfare queens, anyone?

To be fair, listening to Hillary work her way through the phrasing live, I thought that throwing in "hard-working" may have just been a pander reflex: you can't cite "working Americans" without flattering them. And saying "white" seems to push through some resistance. Still, as Andrew Sullivan wonders, "Does she hear herself"? What kind of thinking pushed up the full gestalt of that phrasing?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Carville endorses Obama!

Very much in spite of himself, James Carville, writing in today's Financial Times, has put his finger on why Barack Obama must be the Democratic nominee. After detailing how the nomination fight has divided the Democrats' constituent groups, he defines the winner's task this way:
As President George W. Bush could tell you, it is one thing to call yourself a uniter, it is another to actually unite people. For the Democratic nominee, it is going to be one demanding, difficult job requiring an inordinate amount of patience and skill. But then again, that is what a president has to do.
Which candidate has that "patience and skill"? Let's turn to David Brooks, also writing on May 6:
Obama still possesses his talent for homeostasis, the ability to return to emotional balance and calm, even amid hysteria. His astounding composure has come across as weakness in the midst of combat with Clinton, but it’s also at the core of his promise to change politics. He vows to calm hatred and heal division.
Then listen to the candidates themselves. Compare this
I have spent my entire adult life trying to bridge the gap between different kinds of people. That’s in my DNA. Trying to promote mutual understanding, to insist that we all share common hopes, and common dreams, as Americans and as human beings. That’s who I am, that’s what I believe, that’s what this campaign has been about.
With this:
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is waving her fists across Indiana, signing autographs on boxing gloves.“We need a president who’s a fighter again,” Mrs. Clinton said at a rally on Thursday, adding that the next president must understand what it is like to “get knocked down and get back up: that’s the story of America, right?”
Could it be that even hyperpartisan James Carville, in up to his...waist in macho one-upsmanship, yearns to be free at last from the Clinton war machine?

Related posts:
Hillary's snarl is like an umbrella
Changing "the rules" on Clinton

Clinton to restore civil liberties?

Addled by fury at Hillary Clinton's pandering (gas tax holiday), saber rattling (obliterate Iran), and Rovian attacks on Obama (too numerous for parentheses), I took a cruise through recent speeches look for some ammo to prove a point (never mind).
On that quick skim I was at least reminded that Clinton is a Democrat. And in her April 15 speech to the Newspaper Association of America, I came across the most sustained and detailed promise I've seen from either Democratic candidate that Bush's assault on the Constitution would be rolled back.
Clinton started out by summarizing Bush Administration abuses. No surprise there.
The presidency is not royalty. Our Constitution is crafted carefully to prevent by election what our founders overthrew by revolution. The president is the one elected representative of the whole American people. Our president is balanced by the Congress, which speaks for regions and states, and by the courts, which defend the individual and other important rights against assaults on our liberties.

The president is the only constitutional office holder with the power to speak for all of us and with the potential to unify us in the service of our national interest.

Unfortunately, our current president does not seem to understand the basic character of the office he holds. Rather than faithfully execute the laws, he has rewritten them through signing statements, ignored them through secret legal opinions, undermined them by elevating ideology over facts. Rather than defending the Constitution, he has defied its principles and traditions. He has abused his power while failing to understand its purpose.

This administration's unbridled ambition to transform the executive into an imperial presidency in an attempt to strengthen the office has weakened our nation. It has corrupted and corroded our moral authority and brought our prestige and reputation to its lowest ebb. The president has failed to use the power of the presidency, the power he sought to inflate, to expand opportunity and make a real difference in people's lives.

She went on to express support for enhanced protection for journalists' sources and to promise "a presumption of openness and Freedom of Information Act requests and urge agencies to release information quickly if disclosure will do no harm." A tad ironic, given the Clinton Administration's long struggle to avoid disclosure and release of key documents. But secrecy is relative, and the Bush Administration has made Bill Clinton's look like an open book.

Most important, though, was a set of explicit promises to accept core Constitutional limits on Presidential power:

...because government abuse is checked by the separation of powers, I will restore respect for our co-equal branches of government. I’ll start by limiting the excessive executive powers this president has accumulated, like the unilateral power to wiretap, or detain try people, even American citizens. I will work with Congress again as a partner to solve problems. I’ll end the use of signing statements to rewrite the laws that Congress has passed. I’ll shut down Guantanamo, disavow torture and restore the right of Habeas Corpus.

I will end the practice of using executive privilege as a shield against the public’s right to know and congress’ duty to oversee the president.

Finally I will make crystal clear that the president and the executive branch will comply with the laws of our nation. My Department of Justice will interpret those laws fairly accurately honestly and publically. We’ll release Justice Department interpretations so that you know exactly what our understanding is and how laws are being executed. The President is not above the law in our system of government and we need to make that absolutely clear starting next year. These changes both represent and drive the transformation I believe is needed in our government starting on day one of my administration. I do not believe that power is an end in itself but a means. A means limited in scope of serving the interest and protecting the safety of our nation, while creating opportunity for our people.
Do I believe that Clinton would de-imperialize the Presidency? Not entirely. After this campaign, I don't take anything she says at face value. Nevertheless, here is a series of explicit promises to which she can be held accountable. I’ll end the use of signing statements to rewrite the laws that Congress has passed. I’ll shut down Guantanamo, disavow torture and restore the right of Habeas Corpus.

There's always wiggle room for the shameless, as we've learned from George "We Do Not Torture" Bush. But credit where credit is due - Clinton said what needed to be said here.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Hillary's Snarl is like an umbrella

Give George Stephanopoulos his due. In his interview of Hillary Clinton yesterday, his questions about her proposal to extend a nuclear umbrella not only to Israel but to Iran's Sunni Arab neighbors exposed the incoherence of the scheme.

Clinton cast the NATO-like alliance as a way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. When Stephanapoulos pressed her on the logistics and the practicalities of a multi-state alliance, she explained: "The theory that I'm putting forth is, we have to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. We have to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the region, because I'm not so concerned about them falling into the hands of states, which is bad enough, as I am about falling into the hands of terrorists." When Stephanopoulos asked, on the Cold War analogy, whether "an attack on Riyadh is the same as an attack on Indianapolis," Clinton refused to say yes. Instead, she switched the focus repeatedly to deterrence:

So, instead of having Saudi Arabia saying, well, you know, Iran and we are, you know, not on the same page here; we've got to have our own weapons, what we want to work toward is some kind of security agreement to prevent that proliferation.

And we're talking about the potential deterrable effect of our being able to say, don't even think about it, Iran; I don't care who's making the decisions; come join the rest of the world community; be part of the world economy; be part of us trying to have a more peaceful and prosperous future.

In other words, the "umbrella" is a bluff -- bluster, really, like the talk of obliteration. The idea seems to be that we simply float the proposal, and presto, Iran backs off nuclear weapons development. If Clinton will not say "an attack on Riyadh is the same as an attack on Indianapolis," she can't be serious about implementing such an agreement.

Looked at another way, it's campaign talk. It's of a piece with using surrogates to literally attack Obama's manhood; it's pushing the ridiculous meme that Hillary is "tough" because she refuses to drop out of a nomination battle that she can only (barely) conceivably win by completing her transformation into a Rove Republican.

Obama's response to Clinton's bluster on Meet the Press today showed the superiority of his grasp of geopolitical strategy. He laid bare the absurdity of threatening to form a multilateral alliance to defend against a threat that doesn't yet exist:
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Clinton also called for an umbrella of deterrence in the Middle East, defending not only Israel, but she said "other countries in the region," suggesting that perhaps Saudi Arabia, Jordan, other places in that region. Should the U.S. have an umbrella of deterrence to protect Arab nations?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, it--look, this is presupposing something that I'm unwilling to presuppose, and that is that Iran's going to get nuclear weapons. My intention is to make sure they don't. And the way we do that is, as I indicated before, to rally the international community, to engage direct talks with Iran, to send a clear signal about the consequences of continuing to develop nuclear weapons, but also to send a signal that if they are willing to stand down, that we can provide them with the kind of assistance that they need in order to help their people. So my central goal is to prevent them from getting nuclear weapons.

I, I'm troubled by the idea that, as a throwaway line in the debate, you start expanding the U.S. nuclear umbrella potentially to a whole host of other countries without any clear idea of what these criteria are, who might be involved and so forth. I think there's no doubt that we need to think about what our strategic posture is with respect to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other ally--other friends in the region. But, you know, right now we don't have a formal alliance with many of these other countries. And if we are to develop that, we should do it prudently, cautiously, in consultation with Congress.

As Johnson, running against Barry "there-can-be-no-extremism-in-the-defense-of-liberty" Goldwater, asked the American people: whose finger would you want on the nuclear trigger?

Related posts:
On the same page: Gates, Mullen, Powell, Obama
Breaking the Commander-in-chief Chokehold