Monday, June 30, 2008

What Clark's performance wasn't

After all the hyperventilating over Wesley Clark's brief against John McCain's "qualifications"to be president, I'm struck mainly by what Clark's performance was not.

First, it was not a gaffe in the Michael Kinsley sense of "when a politician tells the truth" because, IMHO, the controversial assertion was not entirely true. Here's it is, with runup:
CLARK: He has been a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee. And he has traveled all over the world. But he hasn't held executive responsibility. That large squadron in the Navy that he commanded — that wasn't a wartime squadron. He hasn't been there and ordered the bombs to fall. He hasn't seen what it's like when diplomats come in and say, "I don't know whether we're going to be able to get this point through or not, do you want to take the risk, what about your reputation, how do we handle this publicly? He hasn't made those calls, Bob.

SCHIEFFER: Can I just interrupt you? I have to say, Barack Obama hasn't had any of these experiences either, nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down.

CLARK: I don’t think getting in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to become president.

Let's infer Clark's broader meaning from his immediate reaction to Schieffer's words: fiercesome combat experience (or any combat experience) is not "a qualification" to be President. Plainly it's not a necessary qualification. Neither Reagan, FDR, Lincoln nor Jefferson had it. But it's certainly a qualification. Combat experience informed John Kennedy's and George Bush Sr's feel for the capabilities and constraints of the military. More generally, being forced to make decisions in the extreme stress of combat, or even simply endure, surely puts all subsequent experience in perspective. As one young Captain, veteran of two tours in Iraq, told the New York Times' Michael Kamber, "“We’re leaders proven under fire...put me in the most stressful corporate board meeting and I’ll laugh.” That's not to say that the pressures outlined by Clark in the passage above would make the captain laugh. But his experience -- if it hadn't traumatized or destroyed him -- would equip him to handle those pressures.

But Clarke's statement was also not a swiftboating. He went out of his way to say that he honored McCain's service -- he did not denigrate or minimize it. To the extent that it sounded as if he did it was in the near-exact echo of Schieffer's statement, "nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down." Clark was simply asserting that Schieffer's implication -- that such experience qualified McCain to be President - was false.

Finally, Clark's whole argument was not particularly logical, and certainly not politically acute. Clark detailed the executive experience McCain lacks, but of course Obama's executive experience deficit is larger than McCain's. McCain may have only run a squadron that was not in combat, but Obama has run nothing but his campaign (extraordinarily well, of course).

What the performance was was typical Wesley Clark - focused, articluate, and oddly tone-deaf.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

New York Times seconds Obama's "central front in the war on terror"

What's the chief reason Obama wants to extricate U.S. troops from Iraq? He wants to concentrate more troops and money and energy on the fight against al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Compare the New York Times' front page June 30 account of the renewed danger we face from a reinvigorated al Qaeda, grown strong in the tribal badlands of Pakistan, with Obama's diagnosis of our chief strategic priority on March 19. Laid side by side, the two documents offer a powerful case in support of Obama's claim that judgment and analytical power -- the ability to gather and process facts -- are more important than experience in a given field.

According to the Times exposé, U.S. efforts against al Qaeda's revival in Pakistan have failed because of failure to put meaningful pressure on Musharref, diversion of trained CIA operatives to Iraq, and continuous infighting within U.S. intelligence agencies. The upshot:
The story of how Al Qaeda, Arabic for “the base,” has gained a new haven is in part a story of American accommodation to President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, whose advisers played down the terrorist threat. It is also a story of how the White House shifted its sights, beginning in 2002, from counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan to preparations for the war in Iraq.

Just as it had on the day before 9/11, Al Qaeda now has a band of terror camps from which to plan and train for attacks against Western targets, including the United States. Officials say the new camps are smaller than the ones the group used prior to 2001. However, despite dozens of American missile strikes in Pakistan since 2002, one retired C.I.A. officer estimated that the makeshift training compounds now have as many as 2,000 local and foreign militants, up from several hundred three years ago....

Current and former military and intelligence officials said that the war in Iraq consistently diverted resources and high-level attention from the tribal areas. When American military and intelligence officials requested additional Predator drones to survey the tribal areas, they were told no drones were available because they had been sent to Iraq....

“The United States faces a threat from Al Qaeda today that is comparable to what it faced on Sept. 11, 2001,” said Seth Jones, a Pentagon consultant and a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation.

“The base of operations has moved only a short distance, roughly the difference from New York to Philadelphia.”

Here's Obama in Fayetteville, NC on March 19:
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.

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 may not dominate the evening news, but in Afghanistan, last year was the most deadly since 2001. Suicide attacks are up. Casualties are up. Corruption and drug trafficking are rampant. Neither the government nor the legal economy can meet the needs of the Afghan people.

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. This increased commitment in turn can be used to leverage greater assistance – with fewer restrictions – from our NATO allies. It will also allow us to invest more in training Afghan security forces, including more joint NATO operations with the Afghan Army, and a national police training plan that is effectively coordinated and resourced.

A stepped up military commitment must be backed by a long-term investment in the Afghan people. We will start with an additional $1 billion in non military assistance each year – aid that is focused on reaching ordinary Afghans. We need to improve daily life by supporting education, basic infrastructure and human services. We have to counter the opium trade by supporting alternative livelihoods for Afghan farmers. And we must call on more support from friends and allies, and better coordination under a strong international coordinator.

To succeed in Afghanistan, we also need to fundamentally rethink our Pakistan policy. For years, we have supported stability over democracy in Pakistan, and gotten neither. The core leadership of al Qaeda has a safe-haven in Pakistan. The Taliban are able to strike inside Afghanistan and then return to the mountains of the Pakistani border. Throughout Pakistan, domestic unrest has been rising. The full democratic aspirations of the Pakistani people have been too long denied. A child growing up in Pakistan, more often than not, is taught to see America as a source of hate – not hope.

This is why I stood up last summer and said we cannot base our entire Pakistan policy on President Musharraf. Pakistan is our ally, but we do our own security and our ally no favors by supporting its President while we are seen to be ignoring the interests of the people. Our counter-terrorism assistance must be conditioned on Pakistani action to root out the al Qaeda sanctuary. And any U.S. aid not directly needed for the fight against al Qaeda or to invest in the Pakistani people should be conditioned on the full restoration of Pakistan's democracy and rule of law.

The choice is not between Musharraf and Islamic extremists. As the recent legislative elections showed, there is a moderate majority of Pakistanis, and they are the people we need on our side to win the war against al Qaeda. That is why we should dramatically increase our support for the Pakistani people – for education, economic development, and democratic institutions. That child in Pakistan must know that we want a better life for him, that America is on his side, and that his interest in opportunity is our interest as well. That's the promise that America must stand for.

And for his sake and ours, we cannot tolerate a sanctuary for terrorists who threaten America's homeland and Pakistan's stability. If we have actionable intelligence about high-level al Qaeda targets in Pakistan's border region, we must act if Pakistan will not or cannot. Senator Clinton, Senator McCain, and President Bush have all distorted and derided this position, suggesting that I would invade or bomb Pakistan. This is politics, pure and simple. My position, in fact, is the same pragmatic policy that all three of them have belatedly – if tacitly – acknowledged is one we should pursue. Indeed, it was months after I called for this policy that a top al Qaeda leader was taken out in Pakistan by an American aircraft. And remember that the same three individuals who now criticize me for supporting a targeted strike on the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks, are the same three individuals that supported an invasion of Iraq – a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.

Can Obama execute the multi-level campaign in two countries described above? That remains to be seen. Has he accurately identified the central danger facing the U.S. and its allies in the struggle with Islamic extremism -- and the military, political and social tasks we need to undertake? As well as can be done in a political campaign.

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

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Obama and "the vision thing"

As the U.S. political pendulum swings left, one residual effect of thirty years of right-wing dominance is the persistent meme that policies designed to arrest growing income inequality and invest in the common welfare are tired, stock, unimaginative, predictable.

Many journalists seem to think that skepticism about Obama's "liberal" policies is a badge of sophistication. In this week's Fortune, for example, Nina Easton casts Obama's economic plans this way:

His critics say that, unlike Reagan or Clinton, there's not much that is daring or innovative in his economic policies. The core of Obama's economic plan is

(a) more government spending: $65 billion a year for universal health insurance, $15 billion a year on alternative energy, $20 billion to help homeowners avoid default, $60 billion to bolster the nation's infrastructure, $10 billion annually to give students college tuition in exchange for public service, and on and on;

and (b) shifting the tax burden upward: ending the Bush tax cuts on families making more than $250,000 and raising payroll taxes on those same higher-income earners...
So we're given to believe that Reagan's tax cuts and cutbacks on social welfare programs were "innovative." Fair enough -- Obama, for one, has acknowledged that the Federal govenment Reagan attacked had become in some ways bloated and unaccountable. But now, with Americans' healthcare coverage in meltdown, inequality growing, infrastructure crumbling, and dependence on foreign oil more acute than ever, Obama's bid to 'restore balance' to our tax code and invest federal money in health insurance, alternative energy and infrastructure is neither "daring" nor "innovative"? That's a nonquestion. What's relevant is whether those policies are likely to be effective and whether he can get them implemented.

Obama's "innovation" lies less in specific policies than in broad goals and the ability to articulate those goals -- restoring fairness, sharing prosperity, sharing risk, devloping sustainable energy sources. His rhetorical gifts are crucial, but secondary. It's not that his policies sound good because his rhetoric soars. Rather, his rhetoric has power because his individual policies fit into a coherent strategic and philosophical framework.

That, I think, was the dispositive difference between Obama and Hillary -- a forest vs. trees difference. Whatever one's judgment about their characters, their intellectual gifts are complementary -- but Obama's have the greater scope. In debates and long interviews, Hillary really did display a more comprehensive grasp of policy detail -- listen to her, in the hourlong interview with the Argus (SD) Leader that became infamous for her last-minute assassination reference, riff about everything from Native American policy to the varieties of potential ethanol sources t Western water policy. Obama, on the other hand, has the vision thing in spades, and it's not fluff. All his policy proposals, including some dubious outliers like eliminating social security taxes for those earning under $50k, fit under broad, precisely articulated policy goals, as well-defined as his strategy for winning the nomination.

Obama's speeches move people because he always sets his policy proposals in a multi-layered context that spells out:
  • a broad goal
  • why that goal is consistent with American values and history (generally history preceding the past forty years)
  • how the policies addressed to the goal will correct missteps of the past eight (or thirty, or forty) years
  • what the effect of those policies will be
In past posts, I've tried to map out this kind of architecture, looking at Obama's use of history at and at the interlocking ideas underpinning his most ambitious speeches on the economy and foreign policy. The latter, an under-examined masterpiece delivered in Fayetteville, NC on March 19, is perhaps the best example of Obama's subordination of very specific policies to precisely articulated strategic imperatives. A close look at the four-part structure of the whole is here. For now, just consider the final part, which pivots from Obama's prescriptions for coping with al Qaeada and the Taliban to consider our broadest strategic challenges:

In addition to freeing up resources to take the fight to al Qaeda, ending the war in Iraq will allow us to more effectively confront other threats in the world - threats that cannot be conquered with an occupying army or dispatched with a single decision in the middle of the night. 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.

Without American leadership, these threats will fester. With strong American leadership, we can shape them into opportunities to protect our common security and advance our common humanity – for it has always been the genius of American leadership to find opportunity embedded in adversity; to focus on a source of fear, and confront it with hope.

Here are just five ways in which a shift in strategy away from Iraq will help us address the critical challenges of the 21st century...

The five policies that follow are good ones - scroll down toward speech's end here. But look again at the first paragraph above. Obama defines the need, the scope, and the battlegrounds of soft power -- lyrically, imaginatively, substantive, comprehensively. As a 'scope of work' statement, this is just incomparable.

I'm sure Obama's flaws are manifold and the disappointments will be, too (though I hope and more than half believe that over time, major accomplishments will outweigh them). But the man has paid our electorate the compliment of appealing in a sustained way to the better angels of our nature. He's done it by making every speech a history lesson, a diagnosis of where we've gone wrong, a brief for a coherent sheaf of policies, a call to address tough challenges with vigorous action, and an expression of hope and faith that we will rediscover our ability to meet those challenges. That's why "yes we can" has resonance.

P.S. To indulge in a personal note: I started this blog in October as an examination of "how democracy works, how it malfunctions and self-corrects." Since January, it's been largely an "Obama blog," because I've come to believe (after leaning toward Hillary through '07) that he embodies a great experiment in "how democracy..self-corrects." I continue it in a kind of perpetual fear that I'm creating a record of credulity, self-delusion, naivete. As antidote, I've looked for opportunities to flag what I see as Obama missteps, e.g. here here and here. But I've continued in this vein because I believe, more than not, that the deeper naivete is to reject the possibility that a leader can be "transformational," can effect major turns in policy. As Obama points out, it has happened repeatedly in our history. It will continue to happen unless or until schlerosis in our Democratic machinery removes our ability to put a genuine choice before the electorate. This election strikes me as pretty good proof that that hasn't happened yet.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Obama on energy: moonshot vs. 'gimmicks'

Obama is deadly selective when hammering McCain's policy proposals. In a speech laying out his energy policy delivered in Las Vegas on June 24, Obama skewered McCain's energy proposals as a series of gimmicks and tired nostrums. The broader frame was that gimmicks and nostrums are all that "Washington" has offered on the energy front for decades -- a way of making McCain seem very old indeed ("For decades, John McCain has been a part of this failure in Washington"). A couple of samplings:

On McCain's proposal to put up the biggest prize money in human history:
I commend him for his desire to accelerate the search for a battery that can power the cars of the future. I've been talking about this myself for the last few years. But I don't think a $300 million prize is enough. When John F. Kennedy decided that we were going to put a man on the moon, he didn't put a bounty out for some rocket scientist to win – he put the full resources of the United States government behind the project and called on the ingenuity and innovation of the American people. That's the kind of effort we need to achieve energy independence in this country, and nothing less will do. But in this campaign, John McCain offering the same old gimmicks....
On McCain's support for offshore drilling:
Just yesterday, Senator McCain actually admitted this [that offshore drilling will provide neither short-term relief nor a significant impact on our long-term oil supply]. In a town hall he said, and I quote, "I don't see an immediate relief" but "the fact that we are exploiting those reserves would have psychological impact that I think is beneficial." Psychological impact. In case you were wondering, that's Washington-speak for, "It polls well." It's an example of how Washington politicians try to convince you that they did something to make your life better when they really didn't. Well the American people don't need psychological relief or meaningless gimmicks to get politicians through the next election, they need real relief that will help them fill up their tanks and put food on their table. They need a long-term energy strategy that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil by investing in the renewable sources of energy that represent the future. That's what they need.
In this context, ridiculing McCain's proposed gas tax holiday was shooting fish in a barrel. Obama contrasted the 30 cents per day it would save "you" with his own proposals for short-term relief via stimulus and middle class tax cut - 30 cents per day vs. $1000 per household. McCain's proposal for 45 new nuclear power plants gave Obama the chance for a local blow -- McCain wants to build them "without a plan to store the waste some place other than right here at Yucca Mountain." Again the theme: "Folks, these are not serious energy policies." Gimmicks.

The broadest contrast, however, was between Obama's commitment to invest Federal money and provide sweeping tax incentives for energy innovation versus McCain's resistance to major investment. To draw this contrast, he turned McCain's attack on him for voting for the pork-laden 2005 energy bill on its head:
He's voted against biofuels. Against solar power. Against wind power. Against a 2005 energy bill that represented the largest ever investment in renewable sources of energy – a bill that Senator McCain's own campaign co-chair, called "the biggest legislative breakthrough we've had" since he's been in the Senate. That bill certainly wasn't perfect – it contained irresponsible tax breaks for oil companies that I consistently opposed, and that I will repeal as President. But the tax credits in that bill contributed to wind power growing 45% last year, the sharpest rise in decades. If John McCain had his way, those tax credits wouldn't exist. And if we don't renew key tax incentives for alternative energy production – tax incentives that John McCain opposed continuing – we could lose up to 116,000 green jobs and $19 billion in investment just next year. And now he's talking about a tax credit for more efficient cars even though he helped George Bush block these credits twice in the last year.
Inadvertently, perhaps, this attack highlights the Hobson's choices senators face in such omnibus bills: McCain voted against the oil industry subsidies, Obama says he voted for the tax incentives for alternatives. On the merits, the advantage may be McCain's: this paragraph lambastes him for voting against two huge pork giveaways, the oil industry subsidies in the energy bill, and the counterproductive ethanol subsidies in the monser farm bill that Obama also voted for. But Obama is a master against stitching together a theme: McCain has consistently voted against alternative energy subsidies.

Incidentally, Obama's defense here of his energy bill vote may signal a new theme, echoed in the qualified support he offered the FISA compromise this week. In both cases, he asserted that the bill he supported wasn't perfect, but that it contained important benefits, and that as President he'll fix its flaws. That's all a senator can do. Instead of "I was before it before I was against it," I'm for part of it, against another part, and when I'm President I'll fix the part I'm against."

Related posts:
We've been here before: How Obama frames U.S. history
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

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Assessing salvage

Today David Brooks made the case that George Bush & co. "got one right" with the surge, and that "if the U.S. had withdrawn in the depths of the chaos, the world would be in worse shape today." Andrew Sullivan, acknowledging that Brooks is right "up to a point," offers up a litany of caveats:
We do not know what the long-term implications of the last year will be. History is unpredictable like that. It may be that historians in the future will look back at the surge and argue that it was the chimera that kept America in a no-win imperial province for decades, precipitating a wider and unnecessary war for oil when we should have been using our own unique skills to forge a post-oil future. It may be that a withdrawal by now would have forced more quickly a resolution of the power-struggles within Iraq, with more short-term cost and horror but less long-term agony and drain on the West.
While Sullivan insists that he doesn't "fall into the camp of those denying the surge's progress" - also true "up to a point" -- I think there's still a degree of denial in stressing that we don't know how history will judge the surge. Whatever happens in years ahead, the surge has been a catalyst of real improvement and has created real opportunities. With violence way down, the Mahdi army pulling back, Sunni cooperation increasing and the Sunnis visibly impressed by the government going after Shiite militias -- what more could have been asked of U.S. policy 18 months ago?

There's always indeterminacy in judging the effect of given policies. Rudolph Giuliani's support for new policing methods was one of many reasons for the crime drop in NYC in the 1990s, but Giuliani did deserve credit for taking action that capitalized on positive demographic and cultural changes. The surge benefited from the Sunni awakening and from the Mahdi rope-a-dope, but it also created conditions that made those decisions by Sunni leaders and Sadr possible.

More specifically, I don't think it's fair (or will have been fair, if Iraq deteriorates), to imagine the surge responsible for keeping us in Iraq for decades or for diverting us from solving our energy problems. Those decisions depend on future leaders. The next President is in a better position to extricate the U.S. from Iraq than he would have been minus the surge. McCain was right in December '06 when he said that the Iraqi government would not have the capacity to make political progress unless violence was reduced and a measure of stability achieved first.

The U.S. fought on in Vietnam on Nixon's watch for years after Nixon stated positively that we couldn't win. That's a crime. But that's not what's happened in Iraq. Brooks is right. The same character traits that led Bush to start a war under false pretenses and drastically mishandle it for four years also led him to choose an unpopular policy that has a reasonable chance of salvaging something from the wreckage.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Two Times-ers: Andrew Sullivan and Frank Rich channel each other

In two different Sunday Times (Timeses?) today, two political commentators with very different perspectives addressed the same phenomenon: the apparent fact that John McCain, despite championing the surge when almost no one else did, is getting little credit from voters for the dramatic reduction in violence in Iraq.

The London Sunday Times' Andrew Sullivan, a self-proclaimed conservative attempting to redefine the movement who's simultaneously one of Obama's most passionate admirers, retains far more respect and sympathy for McCain than Frank Rich, the New York Times scourge of CW in general (as he likes to frame it, anyway) and Republican mythography and governance in particular. But Sullivan no more than Rich finds in McCain's support for the surge a reason to support McCain. Noting that in supporting the surge "McCain was’s unarguable that the prospects for a noncatastrophe in Iraq have vastly improved over the past 12 months," Sullivan sees irony in the electorate's response:

So McCain is basking in success, right? Vindicated by events, he can present himself as the man who rescued the Iraq occupation and is best positioned to take it forward. Easy as pie, no? Alas for McCain, not at all.

The overwhelming response among Americans to good news from Iraq is a simple question: can we come home now? With a hefty majority still believing the war was a mistake in the first place, the “success” of the surge is less a vindication of the entire enterprise than an opportunity to get the hell out with less blowback than previously feared. Moreover, the less chaotic the situation in Iraq, the easier it is for the Democrats to persuade Americans that the relatively inexperienced Barack Obama is not that big a risk as commander-in-chief.

Rich sees no irony but notes the same political reality:
In America, the war has been a settled issue since early 2007. No matter what has happened in Iraq since then, no matter what anyone on any side of the Iraq debate has had to say about it, polls have consistently found that a majority of Americans judge the war a mistake and want out. For that majority, the war is over except for finalizing the withdrawal details....

But reminding voters of his identification with Iraq, no matter how he spins it, pays no political dividends to Mr. McCain. People just don’t want to hear about it.
Both suggest that notwithstanding the fact that McCain forcefully advocated a policy (rejected by Obama) that has made "noncatastrophe" far more likely, Obama looks better equipped to build on this fragile success.

Withdrawal the right way, moreover, plays to Obama’s strengths, not McCain’s. McCain is a superb fighter and underdog, a man who likes his conflicts clear and his wars epic. He takes strong moral stands and sticks with them. But what is now required is a deft and subtle assessment of future military needs, a hefty dose of canny diplomacy with Iran and Syria and an ability to retain the trust of Americans that an exit is both feasible and imminent. On all these, Obama is obviously a more pragmatic choice.
The fact is that Mr. Obama frequently recognizes “the reduction of violence in Iraq” (his words) and has said he is “encouraged” by it. He has never said that he would refuse to consult with commanders on the ground, and he has never called for a precipitous withdrawal. His mantra on Iraq, to the point of tedium, has always been that “we must be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in.” His roughly 16-month timetable isn’t hasty and isn’t “retreat.” As The Economist, a supporter of the war, recently put it, a safer Iraq does not necessarily validate Mr. McCain’s “insistence on America staying indefinitely” and might make Mr. Obama’s 16-month framework “more feasible.”
Both, moreover, attribute Obama's greater likelihood of bringing U.S. involvement to an acceptable conclusion to the contrast in the two men's strategic goals: for McCain, a very gradual wind-down toward a peaceful long-termU.S. protectorate, and for Obama, a relatively rapid withdrawal that allows the U.S. to concentrate more effort on Afghanistan. (To achieve the goal of withdrawing most forces from Iraq, Obama on April 11, while questioning U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, laid out a minimalist goal for Iraq: "If...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." Crocker essentially accepted Obama's formulation; McCain demands much more.)

Here's Sullivan on why McCain's prescription for Iraq is likely to be rejected:

You can see this in McCain’s biggest gaffe of the primary campaign. He was asked how long American troops would be in Iraq. He said he didn’t care if it were a hundred years or even a thousand years. He meant in a noncombat role, not in active warfare, but his answer revealed a core assumption: that the US will have permanent military bases in Iraq for the indefinite future, and that this is the equivalent of the long-term presence in Germany and South Korea. A pliant Arab state, fortified with US bases for the next century, and a staging post to contain Iran: these are McCain’s obvious best-case scenarios. And as the Bush administration’s plans for up to 60 permanent bases in Iraq are rejected by many Iraqi politicians, McCain’s stance begins, once again, to morph into Bush’s.

For most Americans, this is not a good thing. They have no desire to keep young Americans policing the Sunni-Shi’ite fault line halfway across the globe indefinitely; most want the massive resources now being drained by Iraq to be directed homeward. And there’s enough distrust of politicians who backed this war in the first place to be suspicious of anyone who did so and who is still eager to keep troops there indefinitely.

Here's Rich:
Should voters tune in, they'll also discover that the McCain policy is nonsensical on its face. If "we are winning" and the surge is a "success," then what is the rationale for keeping American forces bogged down there while the Taliban regroups ominously in Afghanistan? Why, if this is victory, does Mr. McCain keep threatening that "chaos and genocide" will follow our departure? And why should we take the word of a prophet who failed to anticipate the chaos and ethnic cleansing that would greet our occupation?

And exactly how, as Mr. McCain keeps claiming, is an indefinite American occupation akin to our long-term military role in South Korea? The diminution of violence notwithstanding, Iraq is an active war zone. And unlike South Korea, it isn't asking America to remain to protect it from a threatening neighbor. Iraq's most malevolent neighbor, Iran, is arguably Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's closest ally. In the most recent survey, in February, only 27 percent of Iraqis said the American presence is improving their country's security. Far from begging us to stay, some Iraqi politicians, including Mr. Maliki, have been pandering to their own election-year voters by threatening to throw the Yankees out.
Perhaps there's not much surprising in two Obama supporters finding Obama's strategic vision more compelling than McCain's, whatever the long- or short-term success of the surge. But there's something striking in the similar arc these two see in McCain's sandwiching of at least a partial strategic success (supporting the surge, which even Rich acknowledges might facilitate U.S. withdrawal) between two failures: supporting the war in the first place, and failing now to define an endgame acceptable to most Americans.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Proper care and feeding

Oh, I do enjoy Gail Collins on a sunny Saturday morning. Her latest gift to political discourse is this memorable analogy:
picking a running mate is — no disrespect intended — like picking a pet. How much time are you planning to spend with the little fellow? How much exercise will he be getting on an average day? On one extreme, you have the William Wheeler model (“There’s the living room. Go find a corner and sleep in it.”) On the other end, there’s the Cheney version in which the pet takes over the checkbook, diversifies the family investment portfolio and starts strafing at the neighbor’s cat.
Of course, flip is not always fair:
And then there was Charles Dawes, Calvin Coolidge’s veep, who wrote the melody to the song “It’s All in the Game” and got a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on stabilizing the German economy after World War I.

Yes, I know. That last one didn’t work out too well. The song is nice, though.

Stabilizing the German economy after the post-WW1 hyperinflation was a tremendous achievement, whoever deserves the credit. It was the Depression that kicked the continent back into crisis.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

John McCain was right

Say what you like about McCain's policy incoherence -- his major on-the-record flip-flops (Bush tax cuts, warrantless wiretapping, exempting the CIA from torture prohibitions, immigration reform, offshore drilling, etc. etc.), his open disavowals of supposedly current policy positions (not privatizing the existing social security program, eliminating the alternative minimum tax, refusing to bail out homeowners), his ventures into fantasyland (League of Democracies, offsetting hundreds of billions in tax cuts by eliminating earmarks).

The fact remains: he was right about the surge. Not necessarily about what to do next, or what our long-term goals in Iraq should be, but about the need to reduce violence and reach a minimum level of stability before we could expect any political progress. He was not just lucky-right; he was right because he understood the military requirements, and how a measure of military success might give the Iraqi government room to maneuver.

In hindsight, this good judgment was on full display in McCain's Socratic steering of Robert Gates during Gates' confirmation hearing on December 5, 2006 (my emphasis below):

I'd like to follow on just what Senator Levin said. We are not winning the war in Iraq; is that correct?

GATES: That is my view -- yes, sir.

MCCAIN: And, therefore, status quo is not acceptable?

GATES: That is correct, sir.

MCCAIN: I know you did a great deal of work with the Iraq Study Group, and there is a general consensus of opinion now, in hindsight, that we didn't have sufficient number of troops at the time of the invasion to control Iraq -- either Anbar Province, the looting, most importantly the weapons and ammunition depots that were looted at the time.

When anarchy prevails, it's very difficult to gain control of a country.

Do you agree that, at the time of the invasion, we didn't have sufficient troops to control the country, in hindsight?

GATES: Well, I had to deal with hindsight in some of the decisions that I've made, Senator McCain, and sometimes it's not very comfortable.

I suspect, in hindsight, some of the folks in the administration probably would not make the same decisions that they made.

GATES: And I think one of those is that there clearly were insufficient troops in Iraq after the initial invasion to establish control over the country.

MCCAIN: And yet, at this particular point in time, when the suggestion is made, as the situation deteriorates and the status quo is not acceptable, that we reduce troops or, as General Abizaid said, that he had sufficient number of troops, in your study, when did we reach the point where we went from not having enough troops to having sufficient number of troops as the situation -- boots on the ground -- as the situation deteriorated?

That's a non sequitur that I have yet found to -- I'm unable to intellectually embrace.

GATES: Senator, I was a part of the Iraq Study Group during their education phase, I would say, and I resigned before they began their deliberations.

I would tell you that when we were in Iraq that we inquired of the commanders whether they had enough troops and whether a significant increase might be necessary. And I would say that the answer we received was that they thought they had adequate troops.

It seems to me that, as one considers all of the different options, in terms of a change of approach in Iraq and a change in tactics, that inquiring about this again is clearly something -- and it may be that a secretary of defense might get a more candid answer than an outside study group that was visiting them.

GATES: But we certainly -- the response that we received in Baghdad was that they had enough troops.

MCCAIN: Then the second and third questions should have been asked, and that is: Why is the conditions and situation continuing to deteriorate and not improve, if you have sufficient assets and people in order to get the job done -- which we now agree is not satisfactory?

One of the reasons given is it would be too great a strain on the military today; that we don't have sufficient active duty and Guard forces.

There were some of us, three and a half years ago, that said we needed to increase the size of the Army and the Marine Corps. And the answer was: Well, that would take a couple of years.

Well, years have passed, and we still haven't got -- and we're still putting an enormous strain on the active duty and Guard forces.

Do you believe that we need to increase the size of the Marine Corps and the Army?

GATES: Senator, if I'm confirmed, I'm very open to the possibility and the necessity of an increase in the end-strength of the Army.

However, first, because we have 150,000 troops in the field, and we have a regular Army of about a half a million, and a Guard and Reserve of about another half a million, I would like to, if I'm confirmed, to first of all ensure for myself that the other 350,000 troops in the regular Army are doing what we want them to be doing and that they are all needed in the roles that they are in as a way of making sure that before we increase the end strength that we're using the strength we have in the way we ought to be.

GATES: But if the answer to that question is that's about the way it ought to be, that those troops are deployed in the way we want them deployed, then I'm very open to the possibility of an increase in the end strength.

MCCAIN: Well, again, I think when you look at -- we are living in a very dangerous world, whether you look at Iran, North Korea, the crisis in Lebanon as we speak -- the list goes on and on -- it'd be very difficult for us to envision us being capable of handling another contingency, given the fact that our military leaders are saying it would be too great a strain on the military and the Guard even to put additional troops into Iraq.

I hope you'll look at it very seriously.

Mr. Secretary, finally, General Zinni, who is highly respected by this committee, who was former head of the CENTCOM, who was speaking of Prime Minister Maliki, said, quote: "You can't put pressure on a wounded guy. There's a premise that the Iraqis are not doing enough now, that there's a capability that they've not employed or used. I'm not so sure they are capable of stopping sectarian violence."

Dr. Gates, I don't think they're capable either. And I think political solutions are breed (sic) by stability. And if you have military instability, it's very hard to come up with a political solution.

And just about everybody I know who looks at these plans for partition, for withdrawal to bases outside of Iraq or bases inside of Iraq believe that a chaotic situation would ensue.

I think this is -- I agree with most expert that this is our last chance to save this situation. And unless we stabilize conditions on the ground, I think it's going to be very difficult to get the kind of political solution that all of us seek.

Recently, I saw this proposal to move the Marines out of Anbar Province into Baghdad.

MCCAIN: What do we say to the families of those young people who died in the first and second battle of Fallujah when we abandon it to terrorist organizations again?

I wish you every success. I know that all of us on this committee and in this country have nothing but the interests of our nation's security and the men and women who serve it as our highest priority.

And I hope you will help us gain consensus so that, as a nation, we can move forward and make sure that the American people are not subjected to more sacrifice as a result of the failures that we've experienced in the past in this conflict.

And again, I thank you for serving, Doctor.

On three points at least McCain's logic is impressive: 1) if we didn't have enough troops to stabilize the country at invasion's end, how could we be said to have enough on the ground as the situation was deteriorating (in fall 2006)? 2) if we do have enough, why aren't we winning? and 3) stability will breed political progress, not vice versa.

In December 2006, other answers to 1) and 2) seemed logical to many (including a very nonexpert me): there were not enough troops to win with, but a modest increase was unlikely to improve the situation, and our occupying forces might be doing more harm than good. Those answers were wrong. McCain's was right. It wasn't luck. In this case, he knew what was needed, and he staked his political career on it.

P.S. I don't think it should be necessary at this point to argue that the situation in Iraq has improved markedly on every front. The Economist summarizes well:
Yet it is now plain that over the past several months, while Americans have been distracted by their presidential primaries, many things in Iraq have at long last started to go right.

This improvement goes beyond the fall in killing that followed General David Petraeus's “surge”. Iraq's government has gained in stature and confidence. Thanks to soaring oil prices it is flush with money. It is standing up to Iraq's assorted militias and asserting its independence from both America and Iran. The overlapping wars—Sunni against American, Sunni against Shia and Shia against Shia—that harrowed Iraq after the invasion of 2003 have abated. The country no longer looks in imminent danger of flying apart or falling into everlasting anarchy. In September 2007 this newspaper supported the surge not because we had faith in Iraq but only in the desperate hope that the surge might stop what was already a bloodbath from becoming even worse (see article). The situation now is different: Iraq is still a mess, but something approaching a normal future for its people is beginning to look achievable.

Related post:
Can Obama cope with success in Iraq?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Obamanomics II: a corporate tax cut?

The Wall Street Journal Online has a terrific interview with Obama on economics up today - wide-ranging, confrontational, moving freely between theory and policy specifics.

Unfortunately, the front-page print writeup by Bob Davis and Amy Chozicki fails to do the discussion justice. Curiously, it's only two-thirds as long as the print writeup of a March 3 economics interview with McCain -- early fruits, perhaps, of Murdoch's stated desire to make WSJ features shorter. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, McCain's chief economic advisor, gets almost half again as much ink as Obama, and much of the article is devoted to dubious parallels between Obama's plan for Federal venture capital-style investment in alternative energy and past failed Federal attempts at alternative energy investment.

The print article does not convey the subtlety, pragmatism, balance and strategic reach of the economic vision Obama expressed in the interview.*

The full discussion is a prime example of how Obama casts liberal spending and tax proposals as a restoration of balance, a return to the historical center after years of rising inequality, and a set of investments essential to competing in a global economy. Obama's bid to build a working majority for these policies consists in part of acknowledging the validity of certain conservative principles and (for a Democrat) inconvenient truths:
  • "the combination of globalization and technology and automation all weaken the position of workers" (listening, David Brooks?).
  • "You might undoubtedly get to a point where the capital gain and dividend taxes are so high that they distort investment decisions and you're weaker economically."
  • "if somebody shows me we can do something better through a market mechanism, I'm happy to do it. I have no vested interest in expanding government or setting up a program just for the sake of setting one up."
Acknowledging these points enables Obama to present his redistributionist tax proposals and proposed investments in education, health care, infrastructure and alternative energy as pragmatic and essentially centrist. He uses history -- references to previous periods of successful public investment, and to the last thirty years' rise in income inequality -- to move the center to the left. Particularly revealing is his response to a question about taxes. Challenged as a redistributionist, Obama talks first about fairness, but then about efficiency:
Here's what I would say: I do believe the tax policies over the last eight years have been badly skewed towards the winners of the global economy. And I do think there is a function for tax policy in making sure that everybody benefits from globalization or at least the benefits and burdens are shared a little more easily. If, as some talk about, we've got a winner-take-all economy where the highly skilled, highly educated are reaping huge rewards and the unskilled or even semi-skilled are getting a much smaller share of the economy, then our tax policies can help cushion some of the blow through providing health care. So if people lose their jobs they're not losing their health care as well. That actually makes a more flexible work force that makes workers more mobile and less resistant to change.

If we've got investments in education, that will make us more competitive in the long run. We've got to pay for that like anything else. But it would be a mistake to say I view our tax code only as a distribution question. I also think that our tax code has come to distort a lot of economic decision making so I'd like to see simplification as part of an overall tax agenda. On the corporate side, for example, one of the things I've asked my folks to look at is: Are there ways we can close existing loopholes in tax havens at the same time as we're lowering overall rates? We've got this new problem: The biggest problem with our tax code when it comes to the business side is that we have one of the highest tax rates -- corporate tax rates -- on paper but our effective tax rate is one of the lowest … You know, how much you pay in taxes as a corporation a lot of times is going to depend on how good your lobbyist is, as opposed to any sound economic theories. So those distorting effects I'd like to actually remove and eliminate from our tax system, but obviously that's a complicated and difficult task. The last time we did it was in 1986. We're going to have to, I think, revisit that.

A less skilled politician, and a less subtle thinker, would use McCain's proposed cut in the corporate tax rate as a populist bludgeon -- a powerful one, at a time of heavy economic stress. Obama, instead, acknowledges that a high corporate tax rate can hurt U.S. competitiveness -- or would if it were not offset by a thousand loopholes. Obama argues fairness and efficiency and good economic outcomes are interdependent. And fairer, more rational and efficient policies depend on lobbying reform.

The discussion is shadowed by a different kind of centrism: Clinton's. Obama is asked explicitly whether budget pressures would not force him, as they did Clinton, to put deficit reduction ahead of investment - specifically in infrastructure, but implicitly in a range of social programs. The reporters also cast this question as a choice between Clinton's Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin (deficit reduction) and Clinton's Labor Secretary Robert Reich (investment in infrastructure). Obama says explicitly that he would draw on both. But he also makes it quite clear that he expects to reverse Clinton's emphasis, and put investment first -- and that the historical moment would allow him to do so:
Well, look, the difference I would suggest is that there is a strong recognition in the public mind that we can't continue on our current energy path. It's not sustainable. Which means there's a bigger opening to bring about change....

Finally, you've got a war in Iraq that is deeply unpopular, where we've been spending billions of dollars. We're going to have to catch up on deficit reduction but I think people also recognize that if we can spend that much money rebuilding Iraq, surely we can find some money to rebuild America.
It's interesting that Obama "leans Reich" on this question, because on a different plane he's deeply influenced by Reich's thinking. That is, he's absorbed Reich's argument in Supercapitalism that widening income inequality, a large risk shift from the community to the individual, and the corruption of our political process by lobbying are all due more to the rise of global hyper-competition among businesses than to the policies of either party. Obama's position is that Republican policies -- anti-unionism, radical deregulation, tax breaks for the wealthy --have exacerbated and failed to address these problems -- but not caused them. His response to a question about the historical underpinnings of "the question of redistribution" is almost pure Reich:
...the combination of globalization and technology and automation all weaken the position of workers. I would add an anti-union climate to that list. But all weakens the position of workers, particularly blue-collar workers, in the economy, and some of it is just historical. You know after World War II, we were in this unique position where Europe was decimated, Japan was decimated. China was off the grid because of Mao. And so we didn't have a lot of competition out there, and now other countries are rising and automation has supplanted a lot of work that used to be done by middle-class workers.

We have drastically increased productivity since 1995, and there was the theory that if you increase productivity enough some of these problems of living standards would solve themselves. But what we've seen is rising productivity, rising corporate profits but flat-lining or even declining wages and incomes for the average family.

What that says is that it's going to be important for us to pay attention to not only growing the pie, which is always critical, but also some attention to how it is sliced. I do not believe that those two things -- fair distribution and robust economic growth -- are mutually exclusive.

Having argued at length that re-emphasizing shared prosperity is the deepest pragmatism, Obama is able at the end of the interview to effectively cast himself as the anti-Bush (and implictly, an anti-McCain)-- a card-carrying member of the reality-based community:
I tend to be eclectic. I do think we're in a different time in 2008 than we were in 1992. The thing I think people should feel confident in is that I'm going to make these judgments not based on some fierce ideological pre-disposition but based on what makes sense. I'm a big believer in evidence. I'm a big believer in fact. You know, if somebody shows me we can do something better through a market mechanism, I'm happy to do it. I have no vested interest in expanding government or setting up a program just for the sake of setting one up. It's too much work.

On the health-care front, for example, if I actually believed that just providing a tax cut to everybody would solve the problem of lack of health insurance and cure health-care inflation, I'd say great, that's a nice way to do it. It prevents a lot of headaches. But I've seen no evidence that the kinds of policies John McCain puts forward would actually work.

If I saw strong evidence that an additional $300 billion in tax cuts that John has proposed -- without a clear way of paying for it -- would actually boost economic growth and productivity, I'd be happy to take a look at that evidence. But I haven't seen that. It's all conjecture.

Obama is telling the country that Colbert was right. Reality has a liberal bias. Not everywhere, not at every time. But here in the U.S., after eight years of Bush.

*In fairness, it should be noted that while Davis and Chozicki seem deeply skeptical about Obama's spending and tax plans, Davis at least is an equal-opportunity skeptic. Reporting the McCain interview, he pretty much let McCain hang himself - making it clear without editorializing that McCain's proposed tax cuts would cost about $400 billion per year, to be offset only by trivial savings gained by clamping down on earmarks. Davis also reported deadpan as McCain disowned, as it were in real time, the social security plan posted on his own website.

Related posts:
Obamanomics: rebalancing the national portfolio
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia

Sunday, June 15, 2008

"We Tortured" -- and have not yet renounced

As part of an Atlantic retrospective of the biggest ideas of the year, Andrew Sullivan's contribution, "We Tortured," presents an ultimately heartening review of our dawning awareness of what our government has wrought, concluding:

But something else happened as well. The chief defenders of these methods among the presidential candidates—Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani—failed to gain traction in the primaries, and the one Republican who has consistently opposed these techniques (and who had had some of them used against him in Vietnam) won the nomination. The two leading Democratic candidates have vowed to end abusive interrogation upon coming to office. And the pseudo-legal arguments of former Bush officials such as John Yoo were both repudiated by the administration itself and subjected to withering critiques in the legal community.

We learned, in other words, that America had crossed the Geneva boundaries in the years after 9/11. We also learned that America has the resources to correct itself in the end.

Yes, "we have the resources," and our system has shown some encouraging antibodies -- disclosure, judicial repudiation, at least a partial change in policy. But the outcome remains in doubt. A few caveats:

1) McCain has effectively repudiated his repudiation of torture, voting against a law that would have subjected the CIA to military regulations banning torture.

2) McCain will likely pick a running mate who supports torture. And he's 71 years old.

3) The Supreme Court has thrice struck down a practice enabling torture and the government's absolute power over individuals: denial of habeas. But it's done so on a 5-4 vote. We're one Supreme Court appointment away from a Court that accedes to the Bush Administration's insanely expansive view of the powers of a "unitary executive" -- that is, an executive ultimately subject to no law as long as it deems the nation to be in a state of war.

4) McCain has held up as models for future Supreme Court appointments two justices, Roberts and Alito, who have so far shown no sign that they would ever impose any check on powers asserted by a sitting President.

5) Many of those high officials who systematically and deliberately designed and implemented a regime of torture remain in office, and there's no sign that any of them will ever be prosecuted for abrogating U.S. and international law.

It looks like U.S. voters will repudiate the party of torture. But not because of torture. And election outcomes are always uncertain. We're frighteningly close to voting our Bill of Rights out of existence.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Gregg Easterbrook: Here's why we feel so bad

Gregg Easterbrook, writing in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, would have us believe that stressing the negative in national and world affairs has become the new political correctness. He points out that McCain has been hammered for "saying the country is 'better off' than in 2000, and Obama for pointing to reduced world tensions, but both are right. "We've been conditioned to believe...that America is in much worse circumstances than it really is."

There's an element of truth to this claim, but Easterbrook's presentation and conclusions are misleading on several counts. First, he sets up an equivalence between Republican fear-mongering and Democratic gloom-mongering. But the electorate has stopped responding to Republicans' hyping their 'War on Terror' -- and Democrats, in stressing the problems in our economy, are responding to voter perceptions, not driving them. Second, he pits current conditions, which he argues are pretty good, against collective perceptions that the country's been heading in the wrong direction -- without examining the grounds for such perceptions. Third, his portrait of current reality is skewed toward the positive. Finally, while allowing that "a long, bloody and costly war being fought for no clear purpose depresses the national mood," Easterbrook in effect suggests that in assessing national health we should discount this little cancer and focus on other vital signs -- without any examination of how the war has affected America's place in the world, its self-perception or its political culture.

First, the presentation of facts. Easterbrook would have us believe that Hillary Clinton was hoodwinking Pennsylvanians a few weeks ago:
Campaigning in Pennsylvania in April, Hillary Clinton said "We need to go back to the prosperity of the 1990s," a comment that drew loud, enthusiastic applause. Converted to today's dollars, per-capita income in the Keystone State is 23% higher than in 1990. People may think Pennsylvania was more prosperous in the past, but the state is better off today. The same can be said for most (needless to say, not all) parts of the country and most demographics. Most are, right now, the best-off they have ever been.
Bulletin: the 1990s happened after 1990. Are Pennsylvanians better off than in 1999? Where's the evidence for that? Real income by most reports has fallen for most Americans since the last recessions. There are probably various ways to slice overall assessments of wealth, but Easterbrook doesn't delve into those arguments. Use of the 'straw year' here is telling.

Asserting that "living standards are the highest they've ever been," Easterbrook is remarkably dismissive of current economic woes --
Sure, gas prices are up, the dollar is weak and credit is tight – but these are complaints at the margin of a mainly healthy society.
He then conflates public discourse and public opinion while complaining that "the mood of public discourse is four-alarm panic" -- his evidence being opinion polls in which 81% say the nation is on the "wrong track" and 78% saying the U.S. is worse off than five years ago.

But those poll numbers are not a product of "public discourse." The national mood they reflect is the wisdom of crowds. It doesn't respond to news coverage any more than President Clinton's approval ratings did at the height of the Lewinsky scandal. It reflects a collective perception that the middle class is losing ground and will lose more in the coming economic crunch -- and probably that America has lost standing and power in the world and that its economic clout is shrinking.

On the economic front, Easterbrook doesn't address the largest factors eroding Americans' confidence: a healthcare system in meltdown, that not only leaves one sixth of Americans uninsured but increasingly leaves the rest of us with severely limited or even illusory coverage (see: college students' health 'insurance' with a $30,000 cap); annual college tuition costs that at many schools practically match median household income; a steep across-the-board drop in home equity that will probably last ten years, coupled with a prevalence of adjustable mortgages and ever-rising property taxes; constant downward pressure on wages; and the rapid disappearance of defined-benefit pensions outside of the public sector. Factor in a rapid slowdown that may already be recession, and a widespread perception that tight credit, a weak dollar, rising inflation, and a once-in-two-generations housing bust may have permanently altered our economic position, and Americans have more than enough bad news to digest.

On the international front, it may well be true that proportionately fewer people are dying in wars than at any prior time in human history. It's also true that wealth is rising rapidly in much of the developing world, and that bodes well for humanity. On balance I'm an 'end of history' believer myself - that is, I think that sheer competitive pressure will eventually lead most or all countries to liberal democracy -- if nuclear war or environmental disaster don't derail us first. Long-term, I don't think that capitalist police states will be able to compete.

But Americans' gloom and fear with regard to foreign policy is a product of the U.S.'s relative position in the world and our ability to shape events. And the broad national perception is that our reputation has been stained, our leverage eroded, our military overstretched, the limits of our power laid bare, and our own values and civil liberties severely compromised. The failure to stamp out al Qaeda doubtless looms large in people's minds, as does the surge in anti-American sentiment worldwide and in the Muslim world in particular.

No one (as far as I know) has polled Americans' level of faith in the country's long-term ability to address its current woes. But the overwhelming vote that the country is currently headed in the wrong direction is anything but irrational.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Magna Carta survives by one vote

Like anyone with a modicum of regard for the civil liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, I'm elated and relieved by the Supreme Court's affirmation in Boumediene v. Bush of the right of habeas for Guantanamo detainees. Our system is working insofar as the Court has three times repudiated the Bush Administration's abrogation of this most basic and ancient of Anglo American civil liberties.

But I am terrified by the 5-4 vote. This country is truly on a knife's edge. One more Supreme Court justice in the mold of Roberts and Alito, and the Court will hand essentially unlimited power to the executive branch, endorsing Dick Cheney's insanely expansive view of the power of a so-called "unitary executive" to do whatever it wants to whomever it pleases.

McCain, of course, has promised that Roberts and Alito will be his models in selecting Supreme Court justices. He has also reversed his past opposition to warrantless wiretapping, suspension of habeas, and exemption for the CIA from military regulations banning torture. Once I thought McCain a bulwark against a Republican field vying to outdo one another in asserting unchecked executive power. No more.

The current election has been a heartening affirmation of democracy. In both parties, the field was wide open and the choices were real. That's doubly true now, because we have one candidate who has promised to roll back the Bush Administration's assaults on civil liberties and one candidate who now promises to continue them. To the present moment, our political system retains democracy's core power -- the power to self correct.

The irony is, we could vote that power away. We could democratically choose to give up the restraints on executive power that guarantee our right to chose. We can choose a president who will appoint judges who in turn allow the President to gut our Constitutional protections. We are one Supreme Court seat away from enabling autocracy.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

"We've been here before": How Obama frames our history

Obama is blessed with a deep resonant voice and fluent delivery. Luck of the draw, and part -- but only part -- of his incantatory appeal. Why do his speeches stir so many so deeply -- even people who resist, who ask themselves where's the beef or remind themselves that they're opposed to his policies?

When Obama speaks off the cuff, he pauses and stammers and audibly thinks his way through. In his speeches, there's tremendous fluency, but the intonation still follows that think-it-through rhythm. Long pauses spring rolling clauses; short "on the one hand" setups march slowly uphill toward long "on the other hand" torrents.

Many have complained that Obama's speeches are short on substance. If "substance" means concrete policy proposals, this is sometimes true and sometimes not. Often his laundry lists are as long as Hillary's. But the speeches are always conceptually complex; they cast the present in a three-phase historical perspective (four, if you count the future). In reverse order, these phases are: the disastrous course of the Bush years; the (brief, barely suggested) era in which Republicans were 'the party of ideas,' several of which he acknowledges to have a legitimate foundation (deregulation, free trade); and the longer American tradition of promoting fairness, commonwealth, equality and opportunity. The call for change always harks back to this longer tradition; the call to reverse course (turned left hard) is softened by acknowledgment of a few conservative precepts. It's this historical and ethical frame that makes Obama's 'change' feel conservative -- a return to what Obama called, in his March 18 speech on race, the Constitution's promise of "a union that could be and should be perfected over time."

This post was supposed to be about speech rhythms, not content. But the two can't be separated. Obama's speeches are symphonic; their most forceful passages are freighted with this historical orchestration. Many of his speeches or long speech segments follow a common trajectory. The sequence may vary a bit, but here are some recurring parts:
  • Pre-emptive qualifier of the coming thesis -- "the other side has a point" or large historical forces are at least partly responsible for our problems.
  • But -- various policy errors have put us in a hole.
  • We've been here before -- in the past, America has faced similar problems or corrected similar errors.
  • Let's get back -- our history dictates that we have to renew a commitment to fairness, shared prosperity, opportunity, innovation. We have to follow this (liberal) course in order to restore these core American values
  • That's why -- when I'm President, I'll/we'll do x,y,z.
A few examples:

Pre-emptive qualifier:
  • I understand that the challenges facing our economy didn't start the day Geroge Bush took office and they won't end the day he leaves (Raleigh, NC, June 9).
  • The truth is, trade is here to stay. We live in a global economy. For America's future to be as bright as our past, we have to compete. We have to win (Pittsburgh, PA, April 14).
  • Let me be clear: the American economy does not stand still, and neither should the rules that govern it (New York, March 27)
  • We did not arrive at the doorstep of our current economic criss by some accident of history...It was the logical conclusion of a tired and misguided philosphy that has dominated Washington for far too long (Raleigh, June 9).
  • For America to win, American workers have to win, too. If CEO pay keeps rising, while the standard of living for their workers continues to decline, that's not a win for America (Pittsburgh, April 14).
  • 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 (New York March 27).
We've been here before/Let's get back:
  • But I also know that this nation has faced such fundamental change before, and each time we've kept our economy strong and competitive by making the decision to expand opportunity outward; to grow our middle class; to invest in innovation, and most importantly, to invest in the education and well-being of our workers (Raleigh).
  • Back in the 1950s, Americans were put to work building the Interstate Highway system and that helped expand the middle class in this country. We need to show the same kind of leadership today. That's why I've called for a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that will invest $60 billion over ten years and generate millions of new jobs (Pittsburgh).
  • But if we unite this country around a common purpose, if we act on the responsibilities that we have to each other and to our country, then we can launch a new era of opportunity and prosperity. I know we can do this because Americans have done this before. Time and again, we've recognized that common stake that we have in each other's success. That's how people as different as Hamilton and Jefferson came together to launch the world's greatest experiment in democracy. That's why our economy hasn't just been the world's greatest wealth creator – it's bound America together, it's created jobs, and it's made the dream of opportunity a reality for generations of Americans (New York).
That's why:
  • But since then hundreds of thousands more people have lost their jobs, and so we must do more. That's why I've called for another round of fiscal stimulus, an immediate $50 billion to help those who've been hit hardest by this economic downturn – Americans who have lost their jobs, their homes, and are facing rising costs and cutbacks in state and local services like education and healthcare. We need to expand unemployment benefits and extend them for those who can't find another job right away – especially since the long-term unemployment rate is nearly twice as high as it was during the last recession. And we must help the millions of homeowners who are facing foreclosure through no fault of their own (Raleigh).
  • That's why I opposed NAFTA, it's why I opposed CAFTA, and it's why I said any trade agreement I would support had to contain real, enforceable standards for workers. That's why I believe the Permanent Normalized Trade agreement with China didn't do enough to ensure fairness and compliance (Pittsburgh).
  • 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. That's why the last time I spoke on the economy here in New York, I talked about the need to put the policies of George W. Bush behind us – policies that have essentially said to the American people: "you are on your own"; because we need to pursue policies that once again recognize that we are in this together (New York).
Since presidencies are about action, the whole sequence in one sense serves the "that's why I'll" passages devoted to policy precepts. But there's a bit of a paradox here: Obama stands out less in what he promises to do than in his account of why specific policies are necessary -- how they serve strategic, ethical, national goals. Nonetheless, the passages promising action, whatever the policies' individual merits (and some of those outlined above are hokum) often project terrific force. And for that, the explanation may be partly grammatical.

Verb phrases can be in passive or active voice. Presidential aspirants naturally tend toward the active. "I will" is the operative phrase for those crazy enough to run. But Obama, when he gets rolling on what "I will," what "we will," what we must, what we can do, slips into hyperactive voice. His long sentences, stacked with series of parallel phrases and clauses, are crammed like a power bar with verbs. This tendency tipped toward the messianic on the night Obama clinched the nomination:
If we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment – this was the time – when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals. Thank you, God Bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.
That may be over the top. But it doesn't come out of nowhere. "Yes we can" is the core of every Obama speech. Believe what you will about the ultra-optimistic view of American history in which that phrase is embedded. But embedded it is.

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

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Known quantity, unknown result

A savvy reader on Andrew Sullivan's blog points out that outside the beltway, it's Obama, not McCain, who's the 'known quantity':
America is literally obsessed with him. He's a celebrity candidate who became a celebrity by running for president; he's been discussed, debated, and argued over on television, in newspapers, in political magazines, in gossip magazines, on the internet, among every age group, every demographic, every race, and in every subset of American life....

On top of all this, Obama has the lopsided money advantage, the lopsided enthusiasm advantage, the lopsided technology advantage, the lopsided earned media advantage, the lopsided paid media advantage, the lopsided volunteer and voter registration advantage, the lopsided issue advantage, the lopsided party advantage, and the lopsided ground army advantage.
All true. And that star quality, along with a once-in-a-generation national political realignment toward the Democrats, may be just enough to elect a black man President of the United States -- just enough to overcome conscious and unconscious prejudice plus the genuine cultural dissonance between many Americans and an African American who came to political awareness among black campus activists and South side Chicago church organizers. Even after a post-nomination-battle bounce, Obama polls only slightly ahead of McCain, barely outside the margin of error.

What a risk the Democratic Party is taking. It's a brave risk, and I think it's an intelligent one -- a doubling down on "the fierce urgency of now"-- but it's a huge risk. In a year when Gore, Kerry, Edwards, Clinton -- even, say, Gephardt -- could have won the presidency easily, we've electrified the world as well as ourselves (per the reader's observations above) by trying to get done something no one would have dreamed possible two or three years ago. The lack of experience, the unique perspective, the unique quality of mind and the almost surreal electoral savvy of this political sport of nature-- even leaving aside race, Obama's a terrific gamble.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Hillary Channels Lou Gehrig

As a grace note at the end of her concession speech today, Hillary Clinton offered up a Lou Gehrig moment. Gehrig, the Yankee star whose career was cut short by the dread disease, infantile paralysis, that now bears his name, reportedly discarded his prepared speech when faced with the cheering throngs that turned out on Gehrig Appreciation Day, shortly following his retirement. To paraphrase fairly closely, he said, "Some may think I've gotten a bad break, but today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I feel now, more than ever, that I have much to live for."

Here's Hillary, one paragraph from the close today:
And looking out at you today, I have never felt so blessed. The challenges that I have faced in this campaign are nothing compared to those that millions of Americans face every day in their own lives. So today, I’m going to count my blessings and keep on going.
Maybe she really is a Yankee fan by now.

It was a gracious speech, an effective passing of the torch. Her central metaphor for leading her supporters to Obama was, "We may have started on separate journeys - but today, our paths have merged. " The common ground she laid out between herself and Obama were their shared optimism, their shared pathbreaking as woman and African American, and a four-paragraph hymn to their shared policy goals (universal healthcare, a middle class 'thriving and growing again,' an American fueled by renewable energy, and bringing the troops home and caring for them). It was not pro forma. She paid tribute to the stages of his career, the campaign he ran, and -- most importantly -- these shared goals, which made it credible that her next mission would be to get him elected.

Let's hope she builds on this new start.

Friday, June 06, 2008

"So what is Obamaism?"

In his recent Obama and the Death of Clintonism, Slate's John Dickerson notes that a major part of the Clintons' pain is that Obama ran against Clintonism, equating the Clintons' "triangulation and poll-driven" politics with a broken system that needs to be reformed. Having sketched out the critique, Dickerson asks, fairly enough:

So what will Obamaism (or is it Obamology?) look like now that the Democratic Party is his to shape? There are a few specific, if not overarching, data points. As an antidote to the secrecy of Clinton's 1994 health care plan, Obama has promised his health care negotiations will be on C-SPAN for all to behold. When Hillary Clinton offered a gas-tax holiday, Obama argued against it, framing the plan as vintage Clintonism—a small meaningless sop confected only for political advantage. He said that if elected, it was just this kind of nonsense he'd avoid.

These are only hints, though. The larger promise of Obama's truth-telling has still not arrived.
So what is Obamaism? Today, Obama gave a big piece of the answer. Assuming effective control over the Democratic National Committee, he announced that the DNC, like his own campaign, will not accept contributions from lobbyists. He's thus reasserted the core premise of his campaign: "we need to do more than turn the page on the failed Bush-Cheney policies; we have to turn the page on the politics that helped make those policies possible."

In a nomination fight marked by broad agreement over policy, Obama ran what was to a large extent a meta-campaign, focused less on what policies to pursue than on how to get them enacted -- in fact, on how to create a political process in which legislation would not be destroyed in the making. The single most important step is to weaken the grip of lobbyists on legislation. His March 27 Cooper Union speech on the housing crisis contributed what amounted to an extended case study to this pitch for process reform. Acknowledging, pace his famous assertion that Republicans were the party of ideas for a period, that there was a real need for bank deregulation in the 1990s, he asserted that 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.
That's a fully rounded argument: a corrupt legislative process helped to widen the wealth gap and created an unsustainable bubble economy. The metapolitics here creates a framework that moves the political center to the left: redistributing wealth and risk becomes a matter of restoring simple fairness, without which economic growth is unsustainable. In one of his most memorable formulations of the campaign, Obama asserted in this speech, "What was bad for Main Street was bad for Wall Street. Pain trickled up (my emphasis).

So, lobbying reform is really the centerpiece of the "Obamaism" Dickerson seeks. A key corollary is the fund-raising revolution that Obama has already executed. Without it, unilateral disarmament on the lobbying front would be political suicide. Raising $40 million in a month from small donations holds tremendous promise to change the foundations of power in the U.S.

Another element of Obama's metapolitics on which he's already in large part delivered is his promise to elevate political discourse -- that is, to tell the truth and avoid the politics of personal destruction. Obama's handling of the Clintons' withering attacks showcased this 'new kind of politics.' Repeatedly, when Hillary was hellacious, Obama was gracious -- praising her as a formidable opponent, affirming her right to stay in the race, dismissing the import of her RFK comment (after his campaign lit a one-match fire with their terse and more than justified "no place in this campaign" statement) -- all the while maintaining his attack on Clintonian triangulation and distortion.

In themselves, these procedural reforms do not tell us whether Obama can find a wy to pass landmark legislation. Here's how Dickerson describes Obama's proposed alternative to Clintonism:
The Clinton people call building a majority tailoring your convictions to appeal to particular blocs you need to win—independent voters, or the soccer moms of yore, or blue-collar white men. Obama critics decry this as a triangulation-ready watering down of principle. The alternative approach is to boldly state your convictions and convince people to move to your point of view.
It's true, Obama has basically proposed to build what he's called a "working majority" by sheer communicative force -- and by seizing a moment when the country seems ready for a democratic agenda (Obamaism?), as he's said the country was once ready for Reaganism. That's a tall order, and in some ways success seems less likely now than in January and February, when much of the country fell under Obama's rhetorical spell. But Obama was also right when he said back in January, in what now feels like electoral prehistory:
And, you know, so the truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't. I'm running for president because I want to tell them, yes, we can. And that's why I think they're responding in such large numbers.
Lincoln had that power. Roosevelt had it. Maybe Kennedy had it, though he died before its promise could be enacted. In some measure, Reagan had it. Obama is asking us to believe that he has it, and that the country has the power to respond. As he never tires of reminding us, it's not as if the country has never embarked deliberately on constructive, transformative change before.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Henninger fingers fatal Clinton flaw

Daniel Henninger, writing in today's Wall Street Journal, implicitly (and perhaps inadvertently) pins Hillary's loss on Bill. He may be onto something.

Claiming that the Democratic nomination fight boiled down to "identity politics," Henninger poses this question:
Some in the Clinton tong profess not to understand what happened to her. "We are filled with disappointment and amazement," said Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who helped deliver unto her the Keystone State. "Why haven't these results caused the superdelegates to come around?"

Did Ed Rendell ever believe that the 794 superdelegates, weeded from the party's topsoil, would decide that of the two candidates' constituencies - Hillary's "women" and "white" voters and Barack's black voters - they would stiff Sen. Obama's nearly 90% black base? So long as he led her by one delegate, this was never going to happen.
Perhaps. But why would the superdelegates collectively conclude that the black vote would be alienated if Clinton won the nomination? It's not simply because blacks "broke" for Obama. Clinton could have lost the black vote without losing the respect and affection of black voters. Obama had long ago forecast that African Americans would come to him en masse if they ever had hard evidence that he could win. Iowa provided that evidence.

It was Bill Clinton's denigration of Obama -- from the "fairy tale" comment belittling his opposition to the war to his equation of Obama's win in South Carolina with Jesse Jackson's -- that drew the racial battle lines. Without the sense of betrayal those remarks engendered -- later called and raised by Hillary's claiming "hard-working Amercians, white Americans" as her own -- the superdelegates might ultimately have bought Hillary's electoral logic.

Or perhaps not. Clinton's command of the working class white vote was at least in part a function of the campaign she chose to run. That campaign evoked her character, and it wasn't pretty. After Obama's long string of February victories, Hillary did turn the tide, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. From "John McCain has crossed the commander in chief threshold" to "I'm not bitter" buttons to "hard-working Americans, white Americans" to "JFK was assassinated in June," Clinton drove a meat cleaver through the Democratic coalition. By the time she emerged with nearly half the vote, waving her bloody side of electoral beef, the superdelegates were doubtless repelled as well as boxed in by the demographic dynamic Henninger describes.

Henninger's insight here is a mere byproduct of an ideologically blinkered assessment of Obama's true beliefs. The column's main thrust is a preposterous attempt to pin the most rigid "identity politics" on Obama himself. Never mind Obama's steadfast refusal to play the victim or any other kind of race card.

Henninger is sure that Obama views people as group members, rather than as individuals, because a) he went to Harvard Law, and b) he made this statement about factors that ought to inform judges' decisions:
Speaking last July about picking Supreme Court nominees, he said: "We need someone who's got the heart . . . the empathy to understand what it's like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old – and that's the criteria by which I'll be selecting my judges." This is the language of identity politics.
Henninger implies that this statement is a paean to affirmative action. It's not. It's a response to the Court's recent hard-line rulings against individuals alleging active discrimination. To argue that the Supreme Court ought to be sensitive to the injustice done to a woman unquestionably paid less than her male co-workers for many years is very different from asserting that the Court ought to accord her preferential treatment. But such is the desperation of the hard right to pin all their own coded "identity" tags on Obama.