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Friday, October 31, 2008

Coates: of arms and Obama he sings

After a bout of fussing and fret, this post by Ta-Nehisi Coates broke something loose in me:
OK, I'm tired of this. Someone--who shall remain nameless--just asked me if I was "nervous" about Obama. FTDS. I don't believe in black cats. I don't toss salt over my shoulder. I step under ladders whenever the mood strikes me. I break mirrors in my spare time. I've made a hobby out of splitting poles. Thirteen is my favorite number. So fuck it, I'm gonna say it--Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States.
The exorcism works because Coates nails Obama's achievement:
This [presidential politics] is a war, and you don't lose wars because of abstract principles, but because of hard immovable facts. Is your army bigger than theirs? Are you attracting more recruits? Are you deploying in the right places? Who has more resources? Who has the technology edge? These are the reasons I voted Obama in the primary. I didn't think he was "more principled" than Clinton, nor did I really care. I thought she was tough, but I knew he was tougher. I thought her campaign was smart, but I thought his was smarter. I thought one person was talking about being a fighter, and another was out there actually being a fighter. The general is bearing all of this out, because right now, Barack Hussein Obama is beating John McCain like he stole something--from Toot, no less.
Read the whole thing - or rather view it -- the poster art is even better than the post.

My only caveat: I think that Obama was more principled than both Clinton and McCain - and that that's a major source of his firepower.

Firing up the database: a volunteer's story

Crashing the HuffPost's OffTheBus, xpostfactoid channels a local hero: retired social worker Roz Blau, who's turning out Union County, New Jersey for Obama and getting the occasional mind meld on the phone:

My greatest delight is to get to connect with people I talk to. One day last week, I spoke to a woman in her mid-seventies, a black woman, president of the NAACP in this county. She started talking about how excited she is - she said it doesn't even matter if Barack wins, just to see what this means to her children, her grandsons. I get goose bumps just thinking about it. To be able to talk to people about what he means to children, grandchildren.

One other young woman I spoke to who I had called to see if she could help with the GOTV told me that when Barack won the nomination, she and her family booked hotel rooms in Washington for the inaugural. They are all going to meet in Washington, and I thought, how did they think of that? She said, "We just all want to be there together." I'm impressed with how families think together about things like this.--maybe it's the social worker in me. Her whole family had come together to plan this, and now they're going to come together to celebrate this event, gathering from all over the country.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A nation's education: Obama's conversation

James Fallows, cataloging Obama's communication skills, puts foremost his ability to be "serious in trying to present a main idea." To that I would add a rare ability to present a complex idea in understandable terms - to break it down, to present it as a narrative or a lay down a cause-and-effect chain. A few examples, in a stroll down memory lane:

1. How the bailout will help ordinary people - from the final debate:

Well, Oliver, first, let me tell you what's in the rescue package for you. Right now, the credit markets are frozen up and what that means, as a practical matter, is that small businesses and some large businesses just can't get loans.

If they can't get a loan, that means that they can't make payroll. If they can't make payroll, then they may end up having to shut their doors and lay people off.

And if you imagine just one company trying to deal with that, now imagine a million companies all across the country.

So it could end up having an adverse effect on everybody, and that's why we had to take action. But we shouldn't have been there in the first place.

2. The strategic case for drawing down forces in Iraq - from the first Obama-McCain debate:
Look, over the last eight years, this administration, along with Senator McCain, have been solely focused on Iraq. That has been their priority. That has been where all our resources have gone.

In the meantime, bin Laden is still out there. He is not captured. He is not killed. Al Qaeda is resurgent.

In the meantime, we've got challenges, for example, with China, where we are borrowing billions of dollars. They now hold a trillion dollars' worth of our debt. And they are active in countries like -- in regions like Latin America, and Asia, and Africa. They are -- the conspicuousness of their presence is only matched by our absence, because we've been focused on Iraq.

We have weakened our capacity to project power around the world because we have viewed everything through this single lens, not to mention, look at our economy. We are now spending $10 billion or more every month.

And that means we can't provide health care to people who need it. We can't invest in science and technology, which will determine whether or not we are going to be competitive in the long term.

There has never been a country on Earth that saw its economy decline and yet maintained its military superiority. So this is a national security issue.

3. Why Wall Street blew up -- from the March 27 speech at Cooper Union:
...we have deregulated the financial services sector, and we face another crisis. A regulatory structure set up for banks in the 1930s needed to change because the nature of business has changed. But by the time the Glass-Steagall Act was repealed in 1999, the $300 million lobbying effort that drove deregulation was more about facilitating mergers than creating an efficient regulatory framework.

Since then, we have overseen 21st century innovation – including the aggressive introduction of new and complex financial instruments like hedge funds and non-bank financial companies – with outdated 20th century regulatory tools. New conflicts of interest recalled the worst excesses of the past – like the outrageous news that we learned just yesterday of KPMG allowing a lender to report profits instead of losses, so that both parties could make a quick buck. Not surprisingly, the regulatory environment failed to keep pace. When subprime mortgage lending took a reckless and unsustainable turn, a patchwork of regulators were unable or unwilling to protect the American people.

The policies of the Bush Administration threw the economy further out of balance. Tax cuts without end for the wealthiest Americans. A trillion dollar war in Iraq that didn't need to be fought, paid for with deficit spending and borrowing from foreign creditors like China. A complete disdain for pay-as-you-go budgeting – coupled with a generally scornful attitude towards oversight and enforcement – allowed far too many to put short-term gain ahead of long term consequences. The American economy was bound to suffer a painful correction, and policymakers found themselves with fewer resources to deal with the consequences.

Today, those consequences are clear. I see them in every corner of our great country, as families face foreclosure and rising costs. I seem them in towns across America, where a credit crisis threatens the ability of students to get loans, and states can't finance infrastructure projects. I see them here in Manhattan, where one of our biggest investment banks had to be bailed out, and the Fed opened its discount window to a host of new institutions with unprecedented implications we have yet to appreciate. When all is said and done, losses will be in the many hundreds of billions. What was bad for Main Street was bad for Wall Street. Pain trickled up.

4. On the need for soft power - March 19 in Fayetteville, N.C.:

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.

5. On the role of race in politics - Philadelphia, March 18:

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many...
And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
6. And finally, on the role of rhetoric in democracy -- January 5, ABC Democratic debate. Challenged--not for the last time!--about being more talk than action, Obama meditated aloud about how change works:
Look, I think it's easier to be cynical and just say, "You know what, it can't be done because Washington's designed to resist change." But in fact there have been periods of time in our history where a president inspired the American people to do better, and I think we're in one of those moments right now. I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes -- not incremental changes, not small changes.

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

And, you know, so the truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't. I'm running for president because I want to tell them, yes, we can. And that's why I think they're responding in such large numbers.
When challenged on his relatively slight record, Obama has often said, "look at my campaign." He's meant mainly that the campaign is proof of his executive ability. But looking at his campaign speaks also to the role of rhetoric in getting things done. Part of Obama's platform is to change the conduct of our politics, and in large measure he's already done that. For some twenty months, he has educated and elevated the nation. He's made us believe again that we can have a meaningful debate. He's carried on a conversation among adults -- above and below the shouting.

The nation already owes Obama an incalculable debt.

Confederating with Obama

I've read of strange cognitive dissonance in some undecideds and ambivalent Obama supporters (and encountered it, canvassing and phoning for O in Pennsylvania). But this beggars the imagination:















That little Confederate circle evokes the Obama logo. Okay, it's not surprising that both would be red-white-and-blue, but the circle/O is Obama's escutcheon.

Confederates for Obama...now that's change to blow your mind.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Silver bullet in the War on (electoral) Terror?

In this corner we have Nate Silver, data-crunching young technocrat with a dizzying array of charts and an astounding track record, coolly assuring us that John McCain's chances of winning the election stand at 3.8%, that state poll data remains strong for Obama, and that any national poll tightening is as yet insignificant. And in this corner, nailbiting TNR vet Noam Scheiber:
I'm not popping anything just yet, except maybe some sleeping pills to get me through the night... In the last few days, pretty much every tracking poll I trust (WaPo, Gallup, Rasmussen) and several I either don't trust (that would be you, Zogby) or don't have much of an opinion about (Kos, Investor's Business Daily) has shifted toward McCain, in some cases sharply. ...

As of this writing, Obama's lead in the national tracking polls looks to be around five points (I get 5.5 when I average all six of the trackers I mentioned, along with the Hotline and Battleground trackers, which haven't changed much in the last few days). If that drops two-to-three points, as it easily could in a week, I don't think it's crazy to think McCain will have a shot at winning Pennsylvania, Virginia, and/or Colorado. Unlikely, yes, but not crazy.
And then again today, ironically citing the more sanguine John Judis:

Judis makes a great point in his otherwise overly-optimistic post on the polls:

I mention the Bradley effect because I think, too, that McCain and Sarah Palin's attack against Obama for advocating "spreading the wealth" and for "socialism" and for pronouncing the civil rights revolution a "tragedy" because it didn't deal with the distribution of wealth is aimed ultimately at white working class undecided voters who would construe "spreading the wealth" as giving their money to blacks. It's the latest version of Reagan's "welfare queen" argument from 1980. It if it works, it won't be because most white Americans actually oppose a progressive income tax, but because they fear that Obama will inordinately favor blacks over them.

Agreed.

Worse, though I have no evidence for this (nothing new there), I worry that these insinuations are reinforced in the minds of working-class whites by the millions of African-Americans lining up early to vote for Obama. How sad for the country if McCain ends up jujitsuing something (i.e., record turnout) that should be a source of pride.

Silver is brilliant and has all the confidence of a young black box hedge fund manager. Scheiber, however, has been around the block a few times. Silver writes sanguinely about McCain's need to shave a half-point off Obama's cumulative poll lead per day and the historical unlikelihood of doing so. Scheiber speaks to that gut feeling that polls can shift a lot more suddenly than that.

I'm off to barackobama.com to contribute one last c-note.

UPDATE: Make that $120. Those clever devils have moved the defaults to base 6. I consent to be upsold!

P.S. Behind the cool Silver, there's the even cooler (and equally data-based) Obama...


Monday, October 27, 2008

Go Johnny go...Johnny be good

Bulletin from McCain: Obama will raise taxes and spending:

“We both disagree with President Bush on economic policy,” Mr. McCain said. “The difference is that he thinks taxes have been too low, and I think that spending has been too high.”

“This election comes down to how you want your hard-earned money spent,” Mr. McCain said. Only Republicans, he said, favor policies that can “restore confidence and create economic growth.”
To this line of attack I say, hurray! That's the kind of argument a Republican should make. After eight years of Bushonomics, and several rounds of enormous tax cuts for the wealthy that McCain himself opposed, it's a ridiculously outdated argument. And being a late-stage-decay Republican, McCain has to caricature it by branding Obama a socialist. But even that's an ethical giant step from "Obama, friend of terrorists."

Saturday, October 25, 2008

James Fallows, Palin Prophet

A thousand years ago, on August 29, 2008, James Fallows had this to say about Sarah Palin's campaigning prospects:
Let's assume that Sarah Palin is exactly as smart and disciplined as Barack Obama. But instead of the year and a half of nonstop campaigning he has behind him, and Joe Biden's even longer toughening-up process, she comes into the most intense period of the highest stakes campaign with absolutely zero warmup or preparation. If she has ever addressed an international issue, there's no evidence of it in internet-land.

The smartest person in the world could not prepare quickly enough to know the pitfalls, and to sound confident while doing so, on all the issues she will be forced to address. This is long before she gets to a debate with Biden; it's what the press is going to start out looking for.

So the prediction is: unavoidable gaffes. The challenge for the McCain-Palin campaign is to find some way to defuse them ahead of time, since Socrates, Machiavelli, and Clausewitz reincarnated would themselves make errors in her situation. And the challenge for Democrats is to lead people to think, What if she were in charge?, without being bullies about it.
Today, CNN has a chorus of McCain aides venting a litany of frustrations about Palin, including this:

But two sources, one Palin associate and one McCain adviser, defended the decision to keep her press interaction limited after she was picked, both saying flatly that she was not ready and that the missteps could have been a lot worse.

They insisted that she needed time to be briefed on national and international issues and on McCain's record.

"Her lack of fundamental understanding of some key issues was dramatic," another McCain source familiar with prepping Palin told CNN, saying it was probably the "hardest" to get her "up to speed than any candidate in history."

Fallows was dead-on not only about the impossible task facing Palin but with his advice to the Obama campaign, which forecast their handling of Palin to a T.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Palin sinks under Obama's light touch

The polling evidence is overwhelming that Sarah Palin is dragging McCain down. And the reason is simple. While Democratic news junkies may be convinced that she's a Putinesque thug (see the Troopergate report), a quasi-fascist demagogue (whipping up mobs to violent fantasy) and a Christianist kook (accepting a laying on of hands from an avowed anti-semite to protect her from witchcraft), most Americans view her simply as likeable but unqualified. According to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll:
The shift in Palin's ratings come with a pronounced spike in the percentage of voters who see her as lacking the experience it takes to be a good president. Voters were about evenly divided on that question a month and a half ago, but toward the end of September a clear majority said she was not qualified. In the new poll, 58 percent said she is insufficiently experienced.
According to Newsweek's latest:
Nearly a third of voters, 31 percent, say that McCain's choice of Palin makes them less likely to vote for him, while 19 percent say the Palin pick makes them more likely to choose McCain (49 percent say it makes no difference). Perhaps most concerning for the McCain campaign is that 34 percent of independents say the Palin pick makes them less likely to support McCain, compared to 45 percent of Democrats and 9 percent of Republicans.

The Palin problem seems to stem mostly from a concern among voters that she is not yet ready to serve as president should something happen to McCain. A solid majority of voters, 55 percent, now say they think Palin is not qualified to serve as president, while 40 percent say she is qualified. Nonetheless, her personal connection with the American electorate remains strong; 70 percent of voters find her personally likeable, while only 24 percent do not.
If Obama were McCain, he would have hammered Palin's unreadiness home--along with her sinister demagogic rhetoric--in speeches and ads. But the Obama campaign, and Obama himself, pretty much kept hands off. Obama's only criticism of Palin that I can recall was in the third debate, embedded in his quasi-defense of John Lewis' attack on the McCain campaign's incendiary attacks. He didn't speak her name:
I mean, look, if we want to talk about Congressman Lewis, who is an American hero, he, unprompted by my campaign, without my campaign's awareness, made a statement that he was troubled with what he was hearing at some of the rallies that your running mate was holding, in which all the Republican reports indicated were shouting, when my name came up, things like "terrorist" and "kill him," and that you're running mate didn't mention, didn't stop, didn't say "Hold on a second, that's kind of out of line."
Obama & co. let Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric and most of all Tina Fey do the necessary. They let the process work. Anyone who's ever been unprepared for any test who saw the Couric clips knew that Palin was completely out of her depth. The Obama campaign simply left that image unfiltered.

The "freedoms" of a conservative

When CC Goldwater, granddaughter of conservative granddaddy Barry M. Goldwater, endorsed Obama yesterday, she did so in the name of personal freedom, asserting that her grandfather "respected our civil liberties" and "had undying respect for the U.S. Constitution, and an understanding of its true meanings." In CC's view, that translates to supporting a woman's right to choose and implies a respect for gay rights (though she admits, " I'm not sure about how he would feel about marriage rights based on same-sex orientation").

Barry M. Goldwater Jr. has repudiated his niece's intimation that her grandfather's principals mandate support for Obama, citing a litany of proposed Obama tax and spending increases. Of course Barry Sr. would not have approved of those economic proposals. But Junior's rejection of Obamanomics betrays an interesting concept of what "freedom" is all about:
Endorsing one of the most liberal Senators in Congress is certainly not the way to help fix any problem she sees; instead it is a betrayal of everything my father advocated government should be. My father would never endorse a candidate or a party that wanted to grow government, raise taxes or in any way step on our freedoms.
Leave aside an implicit disagreement on either the importants or the merits of reproductive and gay rights. For Barry Jr., stepping on our freedoms apparently does not include exempting the CIA from prohibitions on torture, or opposing habeas rights for alleged "enemy combatants" held for years without trial, or authorizing U.S. intelligence forces to spy on Americans' overseas conversations and emails without warrant, or degrading our political process by suggesting that political opponents don't love America. But raising the top marginal tax rate to a bit south of 40% or reinstituting the estate tax -- those measures will make slaves of us all.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Obambi's bounce

American voters have been trained for gladiatorial combat. But maybe Obama really is changing our politics.

After the first Obama-McCain debate, Maureen Dowd, who's striven in her rough way for a year and more to buck up "Obambi" with Testosterone shots, complained:
Given the past week, the debate should have been a cinch for Obama. But, just as in the primaries, he willfully refuses to accept what debates are about. It’s not a lecture hall; it’s a joust. It’s not how cerebral you are. It’s how visceral you are. You need memorable, sharp, forceful and witty lines...We’re left waiting for a knockout debate.
In the ensuing debates, Obama never did get "visceral." But a new Times/CBS poll suggests that he may have got more electoral lift from the debates than any candidate since Reagan. In polls taken before and after the debates, the Times reports:
As voters have gotten to know Senator Barack Obama, they have warmed up to him, with more than half, 53 percent, now saying they have a favorable impression of him and 33 percent saying they have an unfavorable view. But as voters have gotten to know Senator John McCain, they have not warmed, with only 36 percent of voters saying they view him favorably while 45 percent view him unfavorably....the percentage of those who hold a favorable opinion of Mr. Obama is up 10 points since last month...In contrast, favorable opinion of Mr. McCain remained stable, and unfavorable opinion rose to 45 percent now from 35 percent in September.
Success and failure have many fathers. But there's this:
Among the voters who said their opinion of Mr. Obama had improved, many cited his debate performance, saying they liked his calm demeanor and the way he had handled the attacks on him from the McCain campaign.
A soft answer may not turn away wrath. But combined with impressive policy exposition--and some measured, focused policy attacks--it seems to have won votes.

Monday, October 20, 2008

McCain's truth, with a pound of Salter

Mark Salter unloaded his alternate-universe view of how the media has viewed the rival campaigns today, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. Wounded, angry, aggrieved, Salter makes Hillary Clinton's aides in their post-caucus shellshock sound (retroactively) like jolly good sports. In Salterland, the media invented the McCain's-gone-Rovian narrative out of whole cloth:
The other guy is much more negative, by some almost immeasurable factor. His message on McCain has been consistently negative since the North Carolina primary. Barack Obama has not made a public statement in this country which did not include a full-throated attack on McCain. It's just a fact. They have ads saying McCain opposed stem cell research. McCain voted for stem-cell research as he got ready to run for President. He offered, against the consensus advice of his staff, the immigration bill. Obama runs an ad saying, "He's turned his back on you." For three weeks Obama has walked around this country calling McCain a liar, dishonorable, and erratic. Those are character-based attacks that he has been leveling at us for weeks and weeks and not a single reporter has called him on it. It's just insane. McCain won't even use Rev. Wright, out of an abundance of caution. So he raises the next guy, Bill Ayers, and you know what we get? We get called racist. How is that racist? You got me.
God, where to start?

Not all "negatives" are alike. Of course Obama "has been consistently negative" when talking about McCain: he's running against him. The question is whether you go after policy or character. At the outset, Obama chose the former; McCain, the latter. At the Democratic Convention, the major speakers all killed McCain with kindness. Their personal praise for his heroism and his Senate record was sustained and specific; they then each lit into his current policies as a continuation of Bush's policies. The refrain of Obama's convention speech was the antithesis of a character attack: "It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it."

McCain, in contrast, began his campaign against Obama with character attacks. First, Obama was a vapid celebrity, a political Paris Hilton. Fine: very funny. Next, the truly vicious -- and a McCain signature against past rivals: Obama "would rather lose a war than lose a campaign." In other words, he puts his personal interest above the national interest; in other words, he's no patriot and has no 'honor' - always a McCain monopoly in McCain's narrative. Then, the insinuations that rose almost to the level of incitement to violence: he's not one of us. He pals around with terrorists. Who is Barack Obama? Barack Hussein Obama?

As for Obama's later "character" attacks: he called McCain on his lies after McCain had been verifiably, relentlessly lying for months about Obama's positions and actions. Remember? Obama canceled a visit to wounded soldiers when he learned the press could not accompany him. He favored teaching "comprehensive" sex education kindergartners. He voted against requiring hospitals to keep viable fetuses alive. A press corps generally acknowledged to be very favorably disposed toward McCain was virtually unanimous: McCain's distortions of Obama's positions and record were orders of magnitude more extreme that Obama's slanting of McCain's. Karl Rove acknowledged that "McCain has gone in some of his ads -- similarly gone one step too far." But to Salter, McCain's descent into filth is a storyline invented by the media.

Yes, Obama did call McCain's behavior "erratic." That's only because it was; Obama was one of a very large chorus. The charge was hard to counter:
His first response to this crisis in March was that homeowners shouldn’t get any help at all. Then, a few weeks ago, he put out a plan that basically ignored homeowners. Now, in the course of 12 hours, he’s ended up with a plan that punishes taxpayers, rewards banks, and won’t solve our housing crisis. This is the kind of erratic behavior we’ve been seeing from McCain.
This from Obama after weeks of being impugned as a terrorist pal and alien. Hardly a scurrilous "character" attack. In fact, Obama has been far gentler than no less a Republican stalwart and uber-hawk than Ken Adelman, who astonished even himself with a judgment confessed today to George Packer:
When the economic crisis broke, I found John McCain bouncing all over the place. In those first few crisis days, he was impetuous, inconsistent, and imprudent; ending up just plain weird. Having worked with Ronald Reagan for seven years, and been with him in his critical three summits with Gorbachev, I’ve concluded that that’s no way a president can act under pressure.
For weeks, when confronted about his own lies and smears, McCain and his surrogates have simply blamed Obama. A dirty campaign? Obama drove him to it by declining to play by McCain's rules and debate on McCain's terms. Ads 100% negative? Obama runs more negative ads in absolute terms (never mind that they're 1/2 to 1/3 of Obama's total, or that they're focused on policy as opposed to character assassination.) Salter takes this reversal of reality to the extreme, and apparently believes it:
JG: What do you say to people who say, "The McCain I like I haven't seen in two or three months, and I hope he comes back to us."

MS: That's the McCain who's running in this race. You just don't report what you see. It's the whole thing about our rallies. Ninety-nine percent of our rallies, if there's a disruption, if there's something ugly shouted, they're Obama supporters.
Having built his identity around ghost-writing McCain's, Salter insists that the campaign has not changed McCain. On that one point, we should probably believe him. In the Land of McCain, the hero on center stage is always honorable, the opponent is always corrupt, and those who don't buy into this narrative don't report what they see.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Silent Sarah submits to SNL skewering

Sarah Palin acquiesced to her own humiliation on Saturday Night Live last night. In two skits, the central trope was her refusal to say anything. She played right along and allowed the show's creators to write all over her. Not only did no one on the show have any substantive verbal interaction with the potential-president-in-purdah. No one really even looked at her.

In the opening skit, Tina Fey conducted a Palin press conference with her signature goofiness. The consistent theme is to mimic (and only slightly exaggerate) the you-can-see-Russia logic characteristic of the McCain campaign's Palin scripts. In this case, the line was, the American people are angry, and in the debate McCain was angry, so McCain won the debate, q.e.d.

Of course, Sarah walked in on Tina. You'd expect that the candidate would highlight the absurdity of the caricature with an ostentatious display of brilliance. You'd think that the McCain people would have insisted on something like that skit in which Hillary Clinton (I think on the Daily Show), walked a technician through a fix of an equipment failure. Instead, she simply chased Fey off the stage and announced that she would take no questions.

In the same skit, the real Palin watched Fey on-screen with Lorne Michaels. Alec Baldwin walked up and, mistaking Palin for Fey, told Michaels, You can't let Tina go out there with that woman. She goes against everything we stand for. I mean, good lord, Lorne. They call her...what's that thing they call her?" Palin responded "Caribou Barbie."Baldwin briefly glancing a Palin and realizing his mistake, said, "Forgive me, but I must say this, you are way hotter in person." He stared straight ahead as he said that. There was no real interaction, no contrition, no "I was wrong" recognition of her humanity. It was a sexual dismissal, a reinforcement rather than repudiation of the Caribou Barbie image.

The second skit was more of the same. Joining the anchors on Weekend Update, Palin announced that she would not do the planned routine because "It might be a bad idea for the campaign." Instead, she sat silently bobbing and gesticulating while Amy Phoeler launched a derisive rap highlighting McCain's creepy smile, Russia porch sightings, Todd's snowmobiling, Palin's Ayers and prospective Wright attacks, and Alaska's otherness generally -- loudly punctuated by repeated rifle fire as (and after) Phoeler felled a moose mascot with a rifle finger. It was harmless enough in itself -- except for the peculiar spectacle of the would-be-veep herself, silent again, letting the lampooners speak for her -- rocking in her seat, waving her arms as the rappers sang, "all the mavericks in the house, raise your hands," and saying nothing. Nothing!-- except a farewell "you betcha" and "good night." How could the McCain camp, which has controlled every venue in which Palin speaks since the Katie Couric disaster, have allowed this appearance without at least partly scripting it?

The SNL crew doubled the decibel level of Palin's silence -- and made moosemeat of the McCain-Palin campaign.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The temperament card: Obama played it on Fox in April

Now that everyone's latched onto Obama's temperament as a key element in his success with voters, it's worth revisiting an April interview with Chris Wallace in which Obama himself-- days after his loss in Pennsylvania -- identified his temperament as a key qualification for the presidency. At the time, that claim struck me as the focal point of the interview. The gist of that post is below.

* * * * *

The interview touched on taxes, Iraq, merit pay for teachers and partial birth abortion, but it wasn't really about policy. It was about who Obama was, whether the 'distractions' shed any light on that question, and whether he is electable. Perhaps Obama's central point came in the 'lightning round' at the end:

WALLACE: What mistakes have you made? What have you learned about running for president? What have you learned about yourself?

OBAMA: I’ve learned that I have what I believe is the right temperament for the presidency. Which is, I don’t get too high when I’m high and I don’t get too low when I’m low. And we’ve gone through all kinds of ups and downs.

People forget now that I had been written off last summer. People were writing many of the anguished articles that they’re not writing after our loss in Pennsylvania. On the other hand, after Iowa, when everybody was sure this was over, I think I was more measured and more cautious.

That I think is a temperamental strength.

I say that this point was central, though it came off the cuff at the end, because Obama was demonstrating this 'temperamental strength' throughout. He seemed to be viewing the long slog as if looking back twenty years later. As so often, he seemed like the sole adult on an electoral stage crowded with excitable children. This was true with regard to:

  1. Bob Herbert:

WALLACE: Bob Herbert, columnist for the "New York Times", happens to be a black man, says that Hillary Clinton seems tougher than you do.

OBAMA: Well, look, after you lose then everybody writes these anguished columns about why did you lose? After Iowa, everybody said Obama is transforming folks because he’s bringing in all these voters we never expected would vote for a black guy. This is the nature of politics.

The fact of the matter is that we have done well among every group because people are less interested in dividing the country along racial lines or regional lines. They’re really focused on how we’re going to solve these big problems right now.

  1. Bill Clinton:

WALLACE: Do you agree with him that there’s been a deliberate effort by the former president and some Clinton supporters to make race an issue in this Democratic race?

OBAMA: I don’t think there’s been a deliberate effort. You know, I take the president at his word that he is –

WALLACE: Which one?

OBAMA: Well, oftentimes, you know, I think that he’s been going after me hard. He may not have intended it in a racial way. I think he just sees me as competition against his wife. And that’s what, you know, husbands do, hopefully, or spouses do in political contests.

  1. race:

WALLACE: Senator, for all your efforts to run a post-racial campaign, isn’t there still a racial divide in this country that is going to make it very hard for you to get elected president?

OBAMA: Well, Chris, if you look at the general election polls, we are doing better against John McCain than Senator Clinton is. And we are putting states in play like Colorado and Virginia that have not been in play for a very long time. Here in Indiana, we just — you just saw polling by "The Indianapolis Star" showing me beating John McCain.

And so, look, is race still a factor in our society? Yes. I don’t think anybody would deny that. Is that going to be the determining factor in a general election? No, because I’m absolutely confident that the American people, what they’re looking for is somebody who can solve their problems.

What they’re looking for is somebody who can pull the country together and push back some of the special interests that have come to dominate the agenda, who will tell them the truth about how we’re going to bring down gas prices, how we’re going to bring back jobs. And if I fit the bill, then they will vote for me.

If I lose, it won’t be because of race. It will be because, you know, I made mistakes on the campaign trail, I wasn’t communicating effectively my plans in terms of helping them in their everyday lives. But I don’t think that race is going to be a barrier in the general election.

  1. losing:

WALLACE: If the voting ends in June and you are still leading in superdelegates - I’ll ask again. If the voting ends in June and you’re still leading in the popular votes and delegates and the superdelegates hand the nomination to Hillary Clinton, do you think the young people, the African American people, the young first time voters you brought into this campaign, aren’t they going to be awful angry?

OBAMA: I think there would be some frustration there. It’s not just young people, by the way. This event that we just had here in Marion, Indiana, I had a 48 year old white woman come up to me and say she is voting for the first time. Never voted before. She probably would not vote. It’s possible.

But here is my strong belief. Democrats are going to be unified. I think we should find that person who is going to be best able to not just defeat John McCain but also lead the country. I happen to think I’m that person. I will make that argument forcefully to the superdelegates prior to the convention.

* * * * *

Looking back, after months of listening to Hillary whine about sexism and McCain whine about Obama's refusal to play "fair" on McCain's terms, I'm struck again by the unequivocal way in which Obama takes responsibility for his own campaign. If I lose, it won’t be because of race. It will be because, you know, I made mistakes on the campaign trail, I wasn’t communicating effectively my plans in terms of helping them in their everyday lives. But I don’t think that race is going to be a barrier in the general election. That, along with his "temperament" (really, this stance is an outgrowth of his temperament) is what's made him always come off as the only adult in our campaign sandbox.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Of dead cats and live Tiggers

The Financial Times' John Authers turned to an antidepressant pre-Depression source to explain the stock market bounce (and draw a depressing conclusion) on Monday:
Markets oscillate between bulls and bears but they always keep a place for Tiggers. Like Winnie the Pooh’s friend, bouncing is what markets do best. And what Pooh says of his stuffed friend is also true of the stock market: “He always seems bigger because of his bounces.”
Context, John, context. The full verse is: "But whatever his weight in pounds, shillings and ounces,/he always seems bigger because of his bounces." Leverage illuminated!

Come to think of it, that's not the only financial insight in the Pooh books. They provide a whole glossary for the financial meltdown. To wit:


CEO compensation is a matter of knowing what to ask for and what to leave on the table. Pooh has a good feel for this: "...when Rabbit said, 'Honey or condensed milk with your bread?' he was so excited that he said, 'Both,' and then, so as not to seem greedy, he added, 'But don't bother about the bread, please.'"

Net worth: Pooh, a pioneer of derivatives, invents a game in which he throws two sticks off a bridge and forecasts which will come out the other end first. It meets expectations: "when he went home for tea, he had won thirty six and lost twenty-eight, which meant that he was--that he had--well, you take twenty-eight from thirty-six, and that's what he was. Instead of the other way around." No bailout for Bear!

Moral hazard: Eeyore, found floating upside down in the river, complains that Tigger "bounced" him there. Tigger insists that he merely coughed behind Eeyore. Eeyore's depressive response: "Bouncy or coffy, it's all the same at the bottom of the river."

Dynamic scoring is an accounting method expounded by Rabbit, after he interrupts Pooh counting his honey pots. Pooh asks Rabbit to sign off on his count, explaining, "I just like to know...So as I can say to myself: 'I've got fourteen pots of honey left.' Or fifteen, as the case may be. It's sort of comforting." Rabbit's response: "Well, let's call it sixteen."


Golden parachute: At the end of all things Pooh, in the final chapter of The House at Pooh Corner, Christopher Robin marks out what might serve for some as a post-financial career path:
"...what I like doing best is Nothing."
"How do you do Nothing?" asked Pooh, after he had wondered for a long time.
"Well, it's when people call out at you just as you're going off to do it, What are you going to do, Christopher Robin, and you say, Oh, nothing, and then you go and do it...It means just going along, listening to all the things you can't hear, and not bothering."
Take heart, C.R.: there's going to be plenty of nothing going around for a while.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The return of Bill Richardson at Hofstra

Tonight McCain sounded like Bill Richardson, the worst debater in the Democratic field. You've got two minutes, and talking points on various loosely related issues keep tumbling into your mind, and you pack them all in without transition and without adequate context for each. Syntax is herky-jerky; sentences begin with one structure and switch to another, or trail off.

Obama speaks in paragraphs, the way your English teacher taught you to write: topic sentence, transitional sentences. Here's the problem, here's what our priority needs to be, here the steps to get there, a, b, c. Here's the cause of a problem, here's the effect, here's the solution. He's a teacher who lays it out, breaks it down, gets through his material.

Contrast the two on the question of energy independence:
Schieffer: ....Would each of you give us a number, a specific number of how much you believe we can reduce our foreign oil imports during your first term? And I believe the first question goes to you, Senator McCain.

SEN. MCCAIN: I believe we can, for all intents and purposes, eliminate our dependence on Middle Eastern oil and Venezuelan oil. Canadian oil is fine. By the way, when Senator Obama said he would unilaterally renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Canadians said, yeah, and we'll sell our -- our oil to China. You don't tell countries you're going to unilaterally renegotiate agreements with them.

We can eliminate our dependence on foreign oil by building 45 new nuclear power plants right away. We can store and we can reprocess. Senator Obama will tell you, in the -- as the extreme environmentalists do, it has to be safe.

Look, we've sailed Navy ships around the world for 60 years with nuclear power plants on them. We can store and reprocess spent nuclear fuel, Senator Obama, no problem.

So the point is, with nuclear power, with wind, tides, solar, natural gas, with development of flex fuel, hybrid, clean coal technology. Clean coal technology is a key in the heartland of America that's hurting rather badly.

So I think we can easily, within 7, 8, 10 years, if we put our minds to it, we can eliminate our dependence on the places in the world that harm our national security, if we don't achieve our independence from them.

MR. SCHIEFFER: All right. Can we reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and by how much in the first term, your -- in four years?

SEN. OBAMA: I -- I think that in 10 years we can reduce our dependence so that we no longer have to import oil from the Middle East or Venezuela. I think that's about a realistic time frame.

And -- and this is the most important issue that our future economy is going to face. Obviously, we've got an immediate crisis right now, but nothing's more important than us no longer borrowing $700 billion or more from China and sending it to Saudi Arabia. It's mortgaging our children's future.

Now, from the start of this campaign I've identified this as one of my top priorities, and here's what I think we have to do.

Number one, we do need to expand domestic production. And that means, for example, telling the oil companies the 68 million acres that they currently have leased that they're not drilling, use 'em or lose 'em. And I think that we should look at offshore drilling and implement it in a way that allows us to get some additional oil.

But understand, we only have 3 (percent) to 4 percent of the world's oil reserves and we use 25 percent of the world's oil, which means that we can't drill our way out of the problem. And that's why I focused on putting resources into solar, wind, biodiesel, geothermal. These have been priorities of mine since I got to the Senate, and it is absolutely critical we -- that we develop a high- fuel-efficient car that's built not in Japan and not in South Korea, but built here in the United States of America.
We -- we invented the auto industry, and the fact that we have fallen so far behind is something that we have to work on.

Now, I just want to make one last point because Senator McCain mentioned NAFTA and the issue of trade, and that actually bears on this issue. I believe in free trade, but I also believe that for far too long, certainly during the course of the Bush administration with the support of Senator McCain, the attitude's been that any trade agreement is a good trade agreement. And NAFTA doesn't have -- did not have enforceable labor agreements and environmental agreements, and what I said was we should incluse (sic) those and make them enforceable in the same way that we should enforce rules against China manipulating its currency to make our exports more expensive and their exports to us cheaper. And when it comes to South Korea, we've got a trade agreement up right now -- they are sending hundreds of thousands of South Korean cars into the United States -- that's all good -- we can only get 4(,000 to 5,000 into South Korea. That is not free trade. We've got to have a president who is going to be advocating on behalf of American businesses and American workers, and I make no apology for that.
McCain's thinking is as herky-jerky as his syntax. Revisiting NAFTA will make the Canadians refuse to sell oil to the U.S.? We store nuclear waste from our submarines, so handling the waste from 45 new plants is no problem?

Obama reiterates McCain's laundry list of alternative energy sources, but he explains why drilling is not a priority. He brings in the auto industry because conservation is as important as new energy production (and to hrow a bone to autoworkers). And he tacks around in orderly fashion to deal with McCain's swipe at his trade position.

There's not much substance to this debate. How would each productively and cost-effectively support alternative energy research? How would they fund government investment? How would their cap-and-trade programs work? But the structure of their responses send signals about who would approach the problem analytically, who's data-driven, who would set priorities in accord with the facts. Any listener can sense the difference.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

American voters grow antibodies

The top line in the NYT/CBS poll is stunning enough: 53-39 among probable voters. But the Times very aptly chose a headline highlighting an astonishing internal: "Poll Finds Attacks by McCain Turn Off Voters." Here's the key data:
Voters who said that their opinions of Mr. Obama had changed recently were twice as likely to say that they had gotten better as to say they had gotten worse. And voters who said that their views of Mr. McCain had changed were three times more likely to say that they had gotten worse than to say they had improved.

The top reasons cited by those who said that thought less of Mr. McCain were his recent attacks and his choice of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate.
Prior to this presidential campaign, conventional wisdom had hardened that you could not win a hotly contested U.S. election without going viciously negative. The primaries gave off some encouraging signals that voters were, as the Times says, "turned off" by negative ads -- such ads seem to have backfired on Romney in Iowa, for example. Obama's got the right mantra this year: not this time. Eight years of disastrous leadership enabled by Rovian tactics seem to have schooled the electorate to a degree.

The reaction to Palin is in more than one way of a piece with the reaction to negativity. First, she's the rabid point-dog in the character assassination campaign. Second, her very selection is the ultimate in false advertising - as her two unscripted interviews made clear to anyone who's ever faced a test with inadequate knowledge. (My conversations with undecided voters in Pennsylvania bear out a savvy Huffington Post OfftheBus reporter's field dispatch: Sarah Palin is the magic bullet. Undecides do not like her, and they'll tell you about it.)

Democracy in America: not dead yet.

UPDATE: just picked up a similar thought from Joe Klein, posted today:
It has been striking to me this year that the public seems far more serious about this election--far less tolerant of diversions--than some of my colleagues in the media. In this particular case, with Palin's support evaporating in the polls as people get to know her better, the public (with the exception of the Republican base) has proven that it is taking this election more seriously than the Republican candidate.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Those a-moosing Palin relatives

One of the interesting sidelights in the Troopergate report is the Palins' frequent harping on Wooten's illegal moose-shoot as a key reason he should be fired. Other Palin allegations -- that Wooten drove drunk while on duty, that he took an open beer into a police car and drove away (attested by a third party), that he used his badge (unsuccessfully) to intimidate a bartender into expelling another customer, that he pressured another trooper not to cite his girlfriend for drunk driving, and that he tasered his 10 year-0ld stepson (confessed!) -- would reasonably support a reasonably-advanced contention -- such as the case various Palins did make in writing while Wooten was under investigation -- that Wooten was unfit to be a trooper. Indeed, the letter to Wooten informing him of his ten-day suspension (later reduced to five), which details infractions the Department regarded as proved, makes an outsider wonder why he wasn't fired. But the moose-shoot infraction sounds like the moral equivalent in the lower 48 of using your spouse's monthly pass on a commuter train.

The interview (9/14/2005) by fellow police officers of Michael Wooten, Sarah Palin's estranged brother-in-law, on allegations that he illegally shot a moose is fascinating reading. The infraction boiled down to Wooten shooting the moose when the permit belonged to his wife, Sarah's sister Molly. Apparently the permit holder has to fire the gun, though it's not exactly unheard of for the average Alaskan hubby to take his wife's moose. Indeed, according to Wooten, Sarah Palin's father Chuck Heath routinely did this on his wife's behalf and was agitating to do it for daughter Molly. Doesn't seem like much of a crime to the uninitiated (or to the officers taking the deposition).

What's interesting is Wooten's account of why he shot the moose. He claims that his father-in-law -- Sarah Palin's father Chuck Heath -- was hounding his wife relentlessly to get her moose before the permit expired. According to Wooten, the meat from a moose would last his family two and a half years -- so perhaps leaving a permit unfilled is like leaving an awful lot of groceries at the supermarket.

Of course a bitterly estranged (and allegedly abusive) ex-husband's account of his father-in-law's behavior should be taken with a grain of salt. But here's what Mike had to say about Chuck:
Umm MOLLY drew a cow moose permit for the valley area and umm we because of my work schedule and what not didn't get a chance to go out hunting...Umm and CHUCK was giving MOLLY a hard time about getting the tag filled. And umm made a statement to her that he was going to take her out and go hunting and fill the tag if I didn't and MOLLY came home all upset crying saying, "You need to take me out. We need to get a moose because my dad won't leave me alone. And he's harassed me about it and I do not want to go hunting with him under any circumstances. It's not fun. He makes it miserable and I do not want to go.....So went over to ah, we were at CHUCK and SALLY's house for dinner the night before were were gonna go hunting and CHUCK starting razzin' MOLLY about filling the permit. And basically umm and I told CHUCK, I said, "You know what CHUCK why don't you just, just leave her alone. It's her permit. It's not yours. If we don't go hunting we don't go hunting. It's not that big of an issue."

And he said ah he said, "Well if you don't take her out there and fill that permit I'll fill it for you." And I said, "Well we're gonna go hunting tomorrow." And he said, "Well there's only..." Like, it was like 3 days left in the season or something. And he's like; "Well there's only three days left. Nothing like waiting 'til the end an..." You know riding me on and on and I said, "Well we're gonna go hunting tomorrow. We're gonna go up river. We'll probably, probably see a moose."....

CHUCK told me that if I didn't take MOLLY hunting...he was going to take her tag and go fill her tag...He does it every year. He does it with SALLY's caribou tag.
Does Chuck Heath's alleged persistence bear a family resemblance to that of a certain self-described pit bull in lipstick?

As Kos diarist Kagro X points out today, the ferocity with which the Palins pressed the moose allegation on Walter Monegan and his colleagues underscores the extent to which they were willing to bend the law to their own extralegal purposes:

[MR. MONEGAN:] Pertaining to the moose, I said that in the moose kill, for example, if you wanted criminal charges brought against Wooten for actually pulling the trigger on a technicality, his wife did have a permit, and she was with him. If she was standing with him and he's the only one that just pulled the trigger, did that violate the letter of the law? Probably. Did it violate the spirit of the law? I don't think anybody's going to charge it. But if they did, if there was a criminal act there, there would be more people that would be culpable of being charged than just Wooten.

MR. BRANCHFLOWER: How so?

MR. MONEGAN: Well, the wife, it was her permit. She willingly allowed somebody else to use it. It also -- once the moose had been shot, it had been drug, according to Todd, by Wooten in the back -- from the back of a truck to the location where it was butchered by the governor's father. And so I pointed out that there are people also involved in this incident that theoretically could also be charged. And he said, I didn't want that. I only want Wooten charged. Well, we're not that way. If there's somebody who's guilty, we have to hold everybody accountable for their actions and their decisions.

It's possible to be amazed both by the breadth and brazenness of the Palins' effort to go outside the law to get Wooten fired (his case had been settled with full due process before Sarah was elected) and by the lightness of Wooten's punishment in the face of substantial allegations that the Department of Public Safety regarded as proved. The Palins' frustration at the "slap on the wrist" is understandable. But their insanely multiplied attempts to circumvent due process to get what may have been a bad call illegally reversed suggest a Putinesque view of elected officials' relationship to the law.

McMea Culpa coming? Was Joe Klein right, but early?

On September 10, Joe Klein, denouncing McCain for "one of the sleaziest ads I've ever seen in presidential politics," predicted that McCain would gin up an Act of Contrition some time after November 4. Last Friday, after McCain finally willed himself to check hysterically hostile supporters, I wondered
Which way will McCain swing at last? Will the mea culpa that Joe Klein predicted come before election day rather than after? Will he embrace the press in a warm bear hug, shower Obama with personal praise, and slam him for proposing a trillion dollars in new spending and premature withdrawal from Iraq, as he has every right to do? Or will he pitch himself down the path of all-out character assassination?
Now, William Kristol suggests that the worm is indeed about to turn -- that there will be one last sudden lurch toward reviving Mr. Straight Talk/Mr. Clean:

What McCain needs to do is junk the whole thing and start over. Shut down the rapid responses, end the frantic e-mails, bench the spinning surrogates, stop putting up new TV and Internet ads every minute. In fact, pull all the ads — they’re doing no good anyway. Use that money for televised town halls and half-hour addresses in prime time.

And let McCain go back to what he’s been good at in the past — running as a cheerful, open and accessible candidate. Palin should follow suit. The two of them are attractive and competent politicians. They’re happy warriors and good campaigners. Set them free.

This from the very sage, mind you, who was egging Palin on a week ago to "take the gloves off" and go after the Wright connection -- and who's for all practical purposes claimed credit for elevating that petty thug to the national stage (McCain's epitaph: relied on Kristol balls?). That he can now blithely suggest that Palin can morph into an "open and accessible...happy warrior" slides right past irony into farce.

Why not go all the way -- and dump Palin for Lieberman? If you're going to make a mad dash for the road not taken, you'd better drop your heaviest baggage.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Hillary packs a punch in Scranton

In primary season, Barack Obama proved himself a much better speechmaker than Hillary Clinton. But in Scranton today, Hillary's attack on Bush-McCainonmics packed a stronger populist punch than Obama's usual fare. Her riff below shares a core theme of Obama's: that "prosperity" isn't real or sustainable unless it's shared. But it's got a couple of zingers he could do worse than borrow.

In the runup, she spun a narrative in which Republicans ignored the housing crisis, despite her warnings and proposals (no mention of Obama's), but sprang to action when the crisis hit the banks. Then this:

According to the Republicans in this new global economy, America can’t win unless most Americans lose. It makes absolutely no sense, but that is truly what they believe. That’s why they ignored the home mortgage crisis until it became a financial crisis.

That’s why John McCain and has even proposed more tax cuts for the oil companies and the drug companies. That’s why John McCain has said repeatedly that the fundamentals of our economy are strong. Because to John McCain and George Bush the middle class isn’t fundamental, it’s ornamental. They don’t understand that we are at the core of whether this country goes up or down.

That’s why my friends sending the Republicans to solve this economic crisis is like sending the bull to clean up the china closet. They broke it and we’re not buying it anymore. Barack Obama and Joe Biden will be leaders who will lead us out of this economic crisis. They will once again clean up this economic mess that Republicans have left behind.

In case anybody doubts we can do this – I want you to think back. By the close of the Clinton Administration, America had created 22 million new jobs. Our nation had built an economy with the lowest child poverty rate in 20 years. Wages were rising and prosperity was shared. We produced a balanced budget and a budget surplus.

Now, 8 years later we have to add a digit to the national debt clock. It took a Democratic President to clean up after the last President Bush. It’s going to take a Democratic President to clean up after this President.

Make no mistake about it and we’ve done it before and we’ll do it again. America will once again rise from the ashes of the Bushes.

Back in March, Obama offered a memorable diagnosis of the financial crisis: ""What was bad for Main Street was bad for Wall Street. Pain trickled up." It was vintage Obama: a cerebral cause-and-effect narrative. Hillary transcribes the diagnosis of trickle-down economics into pure populism: According to the Republicans in this new global economy, America can’t win unless most Americans lose. That's gold. The middle class isn’t fundamental, it’s ornamental [to McCain and Bush] is silver. "Sending the Republicans to solve this economic crisis is like sending the bull to clean up the china closet" is copper -- pedestrian but solid fare. "America will once again rise from the ashes of the Bushes" -- pithy, but unfair to the elder Bush.. In any case, going back two decades to attack Poppy serves the Clinton's interests, not Obama's -- it dilutes the overwhelming case against W. and "more of the same" McCain.

For Obama, the middle class is "you"; for Hillary, it's "we." Bogus, but in the later primaries the Appalachian belt seemed to buy it. The speech was larded with references to her grandfather buried in Scranton, his elementary school education, etc. etc.

Bill, btw, delivered a warmup almost straight out of Saturday Night Live. He showered some praise on Biden but had practically nothing good to say about Obama. Bill "endorsed" him essentially as a fill-in-the-blank Democrat.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The year of Obama

Yesterday was xpostfactoid's first birthday (discounting a couple of false starts). It's been an attempt, as the bio at right suggests, to fathom "how democracy works, how it malfunctions and self-corrects." Self-corrects is the operative word: the capacity to "throw the bums out" is what gives governance in functioning democracies the crooked straightness of a good walking stick.

About ten years ago, while reading a Stephen Ambrose's biography of Eisenhower, it occurred to me that the electorate is smarter than I am -- in fact, smarter than any of us. A lifelong Democrat, I realized that the country would not be better off if Democrats always won. Eisenhower, notwithstanding the immoral and destructive coups he authorized in Iran and Guatemala and his abdication on civil rights, was a prudent steward, an able cold warrior, and a constant brake on the military-industrial complex he decried at the end of his tenure. Reagan too has my respect, though I loathe much of what he did to the Federal government's capacity to protect and further social welfare. He did not "win the Cold War," but he did engage Gorbachev with just the right progression from toughness to negotiation to trust. He stepped back and let the Soviet Union unravel itself, providing the right incentives for glasnost and the unwinding of empire.

I had some family evidence of the way democracy works. My paternal grandparents, lifelong Democrats, voted for Reagan in 1980. My father couldn't bring himself to do it, but he voted for John Anderson. Carter's was a failed presidency. Americans recognized it, as they've now recognized Bush's failure. A little late for my taste, but there were reasons for that, beginning with Monica Lewinsky, running through a kink in the Constitution (Nov. 2000), a national trauma (9/11) and a bonding over the year following with a wartime president that was almost but not quite undone by his folly in Iraq.

At the same time, I've wondered through the Bush years whether American democracy retains and will continue to retain the capacity for self-correction. Given the horrendous governance of the Bush team, it's been possible to imagine that a combination of curbs on civil liberties, deregulation, lobbyist empowerment, gerrymandering, media degeneration and advanced political marketing could eventually foreclose the possibility of a peaceful transfer of power -- a truly contested election. 2006 provided major reassurance. Democracy in America is not dead yet. But I still think it's on the endangered list.

The greatest danger to American democracy is the Bush Administration's assault on civil liberties. We've barely noticed, but the Bill of Rights has been gutted. The Administration has successfully asserted the right to deem anyone it wishes an "enemy combatant," hold such people indefinitely, and torture them at will. This has been done to American citizens. Just this week, meanwhile, we learned that peaceful protestors against the death penalty were classified as terrorists by the Maryland State Police. Americans have largely accepted and even embraced this disinheritance. Only a bare majority tells pollsters that torture is wrong--a smaller majority than in any developed democracy, smaller even than in China. This past primary season, the Republican candidates for President were vying do outdo each other in their fervent support of torture and suspension of habeas. McCain, the best of that lot on this crucial front, betrayed his own prior opposition to torture, first by agreeing to loopholes in the Military Commissions Act of 2006, then by voting against a provision that would have ended the CIA's exemption from the prohibition against torture in the armed services.

As of now, the executive branch of the federal government can assert absolute control over the corpus of anyone it wants. Habent corpus - they have the body. If we don't change course, the executive may widen the scope of those over whom it asserts such control at any time -- say, after the next major terrorist attack. McCain will not roll back executive power. It's not even certain that Obama will do it. On this front he's right: it's not about him, it's about us. Lovers of liberty will have to be ready on day 1 to hold his feet to the fire.

Despite these dangers, and all the viciousness of various phases of the presidential campaign, this election season has also been a time of tremendous hope. For me, the (first) year of xpostfactoid will forever be the Year of Obama. I have wrestled with "naivetephobia" -- the fear of looking foolish, and later recognizing the folly, of buying into a presidential candidate's calls for renewal embodied in...himself ("it's not about me, it's about you," is at best a paradox). But Obama is right on this point: we have had great leaders before at times of great peril. We have made great changes -- abolishing slavery, building the core citizen protections of the New Deal, enacting civil rights legislation and making it stick.

For those of us who have dared (sorry!) to hope for great things from Obama, the Lincoln parallel is the great repressed reference point. The New Yorker, in an extraordinary endorsement essay, obliquely invoked this charged analogy:
Obama has returned eloquence to its essential place in American politics. The choice between experience and eloquence is a false one––something that Lincoln, out of office after a single term in Congress, proved in his own campaign of political and national renewal. Obama’s “mere” speeches on everything from the economy and foreign affairs to race have been at the center of his campaign and its success; if he wins, his eloquence will be central to his ability to govern.
Like Lincoln, Obama rose to national prominence by sheer force of intellect as evidenced in speeches. Exactly contrary to what his critics claim, his speeches are effective not because of soaring empty rhetoric but because his calls for renewal are underpinned by a clearly articulated reading of American history and an equally explicit enumeration of the priorities that his policy proposals are designed to advance.

Those priorities are to restore "fairness" in our tax code, roll back rising income inequality, and revive effective regulation; to invest in projects essential to prosperity in the next century (alternative energy, universal healthcare, education); to reduce the power of lobbyists and change the tenor of political discourse; to recenter our antiterror efforts on Afghanistan/Pakistan; and to re-establish diplomatic engagement and nonmilitary aid as pillars of our foreign policy. He spells them out repeatedly, and he has won over what looks to be a majority of Americans with this multi-pronged pitch. That's not to say that Obama's campaign is free of hokum and pandering. But the outlines of what he aims to accomplish are clear.

If this blog has any value, it's mainly in the year-long attempt to listen to Obama, to highlight the internal logic of his metapolitics, his foreign policy, his economics, and his political strategy. If he wins and is immediately whipsawed by events, if he proves as feckless as Carter or as slippery as Clinton, the blog will serve to remind only myself (who else will read back?) of my own folly. If he does indeed prove to be a transformational president, an instrument of democratic self-correction and American renewal, I'll be proud to have tuned in early.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Troopergate report: Palin abused power

This just in: rule of law lives in Alaska. The legislative council - eight Republicans and four Democrats -- voted unanimously to release the special counsel's report, which found that Palin violated the state's executive branch ethics act. That act says that "each public officer holds office as a public trust, and any effort to benefit a personal or financial interest through official action is a violation of trust."

The Palins will surely claim that they know Wooten to be a danger to the public, so their interest was not "personal." But that's what the rule of law is all about. Complaints against Wooten were handled with due process -- years ago. The Palins would not accept the verdict.

UPDATE:
The nearly 300-page report does not recommend sanctions or a criminal investigation. It also finds:

...although Walt Monegan's refusal to fire Trooper Michael Wooten was not the sole reason he was fired by Governor Sarah Palin, it was likely a contributing factor to his termination as Commissioner of Public Safety. In spite of that, Governor Palin's firing of Commissioner Monegan was a proper and lawful exercise of her constitutional and statutory authority to hire and fire executive branch department heads.

* * *

Harbor Adjustment Service of Anchorage, and its owner Ms. Murleen Wilkes, handled Trooper Michael Wooten's workers' compensation claim property and in the normal course of business like any other claim processed by Harbor Adjustment Service and Ms. Wilkes. Further, Trooper Wooten received all the workers' compensation benefits to which he was entitled.

The full report can be downloaded on the Anchorage Daily News website here.

McCain's Jihad

Like the markets, John McCain is tottering on the brink.

Before leaving work, I read that McCain continued to allow his audience to shout "terrorist" and "traitor" and "kill him! -- and that his henchmen were blaming Obama for the crowds baying for his blood. I was thinking that McCain has crossed the line into demagoguery -- and, with the threat of violence, fascism. When you demonize your opponent -- painting him as an outsider, a friend of the country's enemies, an exotic unknown with a hidden agenda -- that's demagoguery. When your supporters call for blood and you don't stop them, that's fascism. When your henchman say that the target of those calls for violence himself incited the rage, that's fascism.

But this afternoon, McCain took several steps back. In Lakeville, MN, Ana Marie Cox reports, he faced down supporters drunk on fear and hatred of Obama -- several times:

And then later, again, someone dangled a great big piece of low-hanging fruit in front of McCain: "I'm scared to bring up my child in a world where Barack Obama is president."

McCain replies, "Well, I don't want him to be president, either. I wouldn't be running if I did. But," and he pauses for emphasis, "you don't have to be scared to have him be President of the United States." A round of boos.....[snip]

...he just snatched the microphone out the hands of a woman who began her question with, "I'm scared of Barack Obama... he's an Arab terrorist..."

"No, no ma'am," he interrupted. "He's a decent family man with whom I happen to have some disagreements."

We've reached the point where McCain's erratic swings are good news -- he won't go straight down Demagogue Road. We're witnessing psychomachia -- or pardon the expression, jihad -- in a man who's selling himself as "a cool hand at the tiller."

Ever since he launched unleashed the whirlwind of personal attack, it's been two steps forward and one step back. The war is within his camp, as well as within himself. Today's WSJ reported on the in-house debate:

The McCain campaign released a new video attacking Sen. Obama for his contacts with Williams Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground, a radical group tied to bombings during the Vietnam War era. Mr. Ayers is now a professor and a figure in mainstream Chicago politics.

But Sen. McCain vetoed proposals to attack the Illinois senator for his 20 years as a member of the church led by Rev. Wright, whose harsh comments about racism in America and other issues created problems for Sen. Obama during the Democratic primary contest. Sen. Obama publicly severed ties with Rev. Wright earlier this year.

Sen. McCain has said Rev. Wright is off limits.

That decision, and the worry that the campaign could open itself to accusations of racism, has kept Rev. Wright out of their strategy.

One McCain senior adviser said the difference between Mr. Ayers and Rev. Wright isn't race, it's religion. "It's not appropriate to attack someone's faith," he said.

So McCain is holding back. Wright is far more toxic than Ayers. I know people from a full range of political persuasions who are troubled by Obama's 20-year bond with Wright. Focusing the campaign on guilt-by-association in the midst of a world financial meltdown remains despicable. But if you're going to go that way, focusing on Ayers rather than Wright is just dumb. Ayers is a relative outlier -- what career politician doesn't have an Ayers-level problem among the hundreds or thousands of people s/he has associated with? Wright, on the other hand, is part of Obama's intellectual history and by Obama's own account integral to his spiritual development.

Which way will McCain swing at last? Will the mea culpa that Joe Klein predicted come before election day rather than after? Will he embrace the press in a warm bear hug, shower Obama with personal praise, and slam him for proposing a trillion dollars in new spending and premature withdrawal from Iraq, as he has every right to do? Or will he pitch himself down the path of all-out character assassination?

Watching the war within would be exciting theater, if it weren't so terrifying.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Attacking "Pahkeestan"

If the McCain camp wants to "turn the page" on the economy, how about running on an issue voters can really sink their teeth into-- like pronunciation? (Yes, right-wing bloggers have been mocking Obama for pronouncing country names correctly.) Here's a speech that's sure to turn the tide:

My fellow real Americans --
Skip! Rocky! Stan! --
My exotic opponent
speaks of "Pahkeestan."

My red-blooded running mate
rants righteously on Eye-Rack--
a malaprop proper
for a pit bull on attack.

The White House is no place
for a culturally sensitive prig
whose precious pronouncements
are lipstick on a pig.

My friends, I know how
to manfully mangle a name...
Sunni or Shiite--
in a bombsite they're all the same.

The plane truth about Palin: budget cuts as political theater

Sarah Palin really is a kindred spirit with John McCain. Like McCain, she makes political theater out of cutting trivial expenses in counterproductive ways.

In written testimony provided to the Troopergate investigation, Todd Palin claims that Sarah's sale of the plane that her predecessor Frank Murkowski bought for the executive branch's use became a source of "bad blood" between the governor and Walt Monegan, the public safety commissioner she fired. According to an account of Todd's testimony in the Anchorage Daily News, Sarah was rankled by "the unavailability of a state trooper airplane for the governor's use when traveling to the Bush":
"It seemed that whenever Sarah needed this plane, it was unavailable," Todd Palin said. "We were concerned that the Department of Public Safety was retaliating against Sarah for selling the Murkowski jet that Department of Public Safety officials enjoyed using." In 2007, the governor sold a jet her predecessor, Frank Murkowski, bought in a controversial defiance of the Legislature.
That sold jet, we've also learned from the ADN, was used mainly to transport prisoners to Arizona, where Alaska outsources much of its incarceration.

Todd's account of "two sources of bad blood" between his wife and Monegan (the other was a warning Monegan sent about a legislator's report that she'd failed to put Trig in an appropriate car seat) constitutes approximately the fifth reason for firing Monegan that the Palins have supplied - though to be fair, Todd cites these petty sources of conflict as just a secondary cause.

But petty's the word here. Palin's pique over a plane recalls Newt Gingrich's over being relegated to the back of Air Force One. If that bad blood really did feed the firing, it may prove as politically costly to her as Newt's government shutdown was to him.

Obama's social spending plans: the Reich stuff?

In the first months of the Clinton Administration, Robert Reich lost the argument over public investment vs. deficit reduction. Today, writing in the The New York Times, he's in with an early bid to convince Obama to go the other way -- that is, not to significantly slow his promised drives for universal healthcare and Federal investments in alternative energy and infrastructure (and, Obama would add, education).

To support further deficit spending at a time when the Federal debt is swelling, Reich argues that a) as a percentage of GDP, the current deficit is not out hand; b) the bank bailout should not materially swell the national debt; and c) while Clinton came into office as a recovery was gaining ground, Obama will take office as a recession is taking hold -- and deficit spending is widely recognized as an appropriate stimulus in recession. Reich adds:
Finally, not all deficits are equal. As every family knows, going into debt in order to send a child to college is fundamentally different from going into debt to take an ocean cruise. Deficits that finance investments in the nation’s future are not the same as deficits that maintain the current standard of living.
Obama has more or less promised to steer Reich's course. Acknowledging "there are a range of things that are probably going to have to be delayed," he insists that all his core proposed investments are essential to reviving the nation's economy and ensuring its future prosperity.

While I was wondering whether Obama would hold this course, a stray association came to mind: an account by Zack Ecksley (flagged by Marc Ambinder) of the Obama campaign's "counterintuitive" approach to field organization. The upshot is that the campaign invested time and energy in building volunteer teams when the pressure was intense to start wooing voters immediately:
It was a huge risk for the national field program to have paid staff take the time to methodically build volunteer teams instead of rushing directly to spend all their time running voter contact activities themselves...

Jeremy Bird, the Ohio general election director and one of the driving forces behind making teams a national strategy, said, "We decided in terms of timeline that [our organizers] would not be measured by the amount of voter contacts they made in the summer--but instead by the number of volunteers that they were recruiting, training and testing. It was much more an infrastructure focus. So there would be no calls from Chicago saying, 'Why haven't you made more calls?!' Instead there would be calls saying, 'Where are your neighborhood team volunteers?' Or, if the numbers seemed high, 'Are they real?' It was a whole shift in mentality that was really, really good."

It is impossible to overstate how counter intuitive this slow-build approach was for Democrats. Even Regional Field Director for Southwest Ohio, Christen Linke Young--who I witnessed in 2004 pushing independently for just this strategy as an Ohio FO in Franklin County--said it was scary to take this patient approach:

"We had a whole month where, on our nightly calls with headquarters, we did not report our voter contact numbers. We only reported our leadership building. I definitely stayed on top of what our voter contact numbers looked like. But headquarters wasn't paying attention to how many voters we registered or how many doors we knocked that day--they were paying attention to how many one-on-one meetings we had, house meetings, neighborhood team leaders recruited, how many people we had convinced to come to this wonderful training in Columbus that we had. Yes, it was definitely scary to see how big our persuasion universe was and know that our first priority was not to just be tearing through that."

This approach is like foregoing present profits for future returns -- or forging ahead with public investment while the deficit is ballooning. Which is not to say that for the government to massively invest on margin, so to speak, is not a large risk.

Unlike McCain, Obama is not a habitual craps shooter. He is, as he told The Wall Street Journal, fact-driven: "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." If that's true, though, such an approach demands taking calculated risks. And so far, Obama seems to have calculated that Reich is right.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

We are all enemy combatants now

The road from Guantanamo to Americans' front doors continues to be built out in stages. The Washington Post reports on a section laid in 2005 and 2006:
The Maryland State Police classified 53 nonviolent activists as terrorists and entered their names and personal information into state and federal databases that track terrorism suspects, the state police chief acknowledged yesterday.

Police Superintendent Terrence B. Sheridan revealed at a legislative hearing that the surveillance operation, which targeted opponents of the death penalty and the Iraq war, was far more extensive than was known when its existence was disclosed in July....

Sheridan said that he did not think the names were circulated to other agencies in the federal system and that they are not on the federal government's terrorist watch list. Hutchins said some names might have been shared with the National Security Agency.
An aggressive or sloppy police force classifies peaceful demonstrators as "terrorists." Terrorists in the U.S. can be deemed, at the Administration's pleasure, enemy combatants. Enemy combatants can be held indefinitely without trial and tortured at will. U.S. citizens are not exempt:
WASHINGTON (AP) _ A U.S. military officer warned Pentagon officials that an American detainee was being driven nearly insane by months of punishing isolation and sensory deprivation in a U.S. military brig, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

While the treatment of prisoners at detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Afghanistan and Iraq have long been the subject of human rights complaints and court scrutiny, the documents shed new light on how two American citizens and a legal U.S. resident were treated in military jails inside the United States.

The Bush administration ordered the men to be held in military jails as "enemy combatants" for years of interrogations without criminal charges, which would not have been allowed in civilian jails.

The men were interrogated by the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency, repeatedly denied access to attorneys and mail from home and contact with anyone other than guards and their interrogators. They were deprived of natural light for months and for years were forbidden even minor distractions such as a soccer ball or a dictionary.
Even scarier than changes in law is the desensitizing of the American citizenry. A recent global survey of global attitudes toward torture found, as Andrew Sullivan put it,
Americans are now among the people on earth most supportive of government's torturing prisoners. The United States is in the same public opinion ballpark as some of the most disgusting regimes on the planet....America's peers in the fight against torture, in terms of public opinion are Azerbaijan, Egypt, Russia, and Iran.
Just 53% of Americans supported a global ban on torture - fewer than in China, Indonesia, or the Palestinian territories. Many Americans have been schooled by the Bush Administrations and the producers of 24 to believe that torturing (suspected) terrorists is essential to our security -- and that it's what "the worst of the worst" deserve in any case.

If the U.S. doesn't change course in this election, those who thought that torture was just for Middle Eastern terrorists may find their sons and daughters Guantanamoed one not-so-distant day -- some time after the next major terror attack. If they dare to protest any government action, that is. President Palin would not blink.