Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The least expedient church to join....

One of the common right-wing smears attached to the Wright scandal is the assertion or insinuation that Obama joined Trinity United Church out of political expedience. A year ago, that possibility was debunked by Wright himself -- though its very preposterousness suggests other problems for Obama. Here, from a March 2007 interview (hat tip Andrew Sullivan), is Wright's take on that question:
I am not your typical garden-variety African-American clergy person, and because I'm not -- he was talking about organizing the churches in those early days. I said, man, you don't know who you're talking to. They don't like me. I'm not well liked in the city of Chicago, so you tell them you're a member of Trinity, you're going to turn off preachers before they ever get to know you, 'cause they're going to associate you with me, and just that association could be a negative in terms of how you are perceived in their eyes before you open your mouth -- "Oh, you go to Jeremiah's church." That kind of negative imaging I said might be harmful to him in terms of what he was trying to do in building coalitions and getting other churches to do things, again, for the benefit of the people. That would never happen just because they're going to associate your name with mine. That could be detrimental, I told him back then. It holds just as true, even more so, now. In fact, I just shared with, I was trying to remember who it is, somebody in public life was asking me about Barack, and I said listen, Barack might be forced by the media and/or by supporters to be very absent from this church and to put distance between our church and himself. As a politician, he might be forced into that. I have not talked to him about that at all. It's just that my read just of the blogs and what the right-Christian-wing leaders have said about him being a part of our church over past three months says this is -- you think it's ugly now, it's going to get worse, it's going to get much worse. For survival's sake, as a politician he just might have to not -- not that I love you less, I love me more. I'll never get elected as long as they keep harping on this. And that's -- again, I haven't talked to him about that at all.
To me, this passage does raise some questions about judgment, even as it puts to rest the question of expediency (other than the kind of 'expediency' that lets desire to believe and belong have its sway) . It also implicitly belies Wright's current claim that the attack on him is an attack on the black church as a whole. According to David Mendel's Obama biography, recently cited by Noam Scheiber, Obama was attracted to Wright and Trinity by the same qualities that reprelled many others: Wright's non-literal approach to Biblical interpretation, his opposition to school prayer and advocacy for gay rights, his "intellectualism and black militancy." Well, maybe - but what about that so called 'militancy'? -- were many in the black church community in Chicago repelled by the same crackpot and quasi-Nation-of-Islam ideology that has stunned the country as a whole twenty years later? Were many people -- with far less intellectual firepower than Obama (that's almost all of us) aware that Trinity's social activism was embedded in Wright's paranoid theoretical framework? Could Obama really not have been aware of the full crazy sweep of Wright's world view? Did he willfully blind himself because of the strength he drew from the man and the church community?

These questions do not shake my own support for Obama. I find him fully credible when he says that Wright's offensive beliefs "contradic[t] everything that I'm about and who I am." I can forgive him for turning a blind eye to someone whom he found compelling and attractive in powerful ways. But I do believe he did a number on himself by failing to see destructive elements of Wright's world view.

The ambiguous voice in the latter part of Wright's riff above could cause further problems for Obama:
For survival's sake, as a politician he just might have to not -- not that I love you less, I love me more. I'll never get elected as long as they keep harping on this. And that's -- again, I haven't talked to him about that at all.
This is spoken in the "first person speculative" -- Wright here imaginatively mimics Obama's internal voice. He seems to recognize this ventriloquism as a dangerous move, because he protests both before and after, "I haven't talked to him about that at all." But he seems to have settled Obama's thought process in his own mind. Alas, with what bitterness this preemptive interpretation spilled out fourteen months later!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Gates at West Point: 3 principles we've violated?

In his speeches to young officers and cadets, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates generally not only challenges them to come up with nuanced solutions to complex issues but to resist powerful forces pushing back against creative problem solving--such as bureaucratic inertia, groupthink, and the constant temptation to tell superiors and elected officials what they want to hear. It's not surprising, then, that he focused the latter half of his April 21 speech at West Point on officers' responsibility

· To provide blunt and candid advice always;

· To keep disagreements private;

· And to implement faithfully decisions that go against you.

That means, he said, no end runs around civilian leadership when a decision goes against you -
"no overtures to friendly congressional committee chairmen, no leaks to sympathetic reporters, no ghostwritten editorials in newspapers, no coalition-building with advocacy groups."

The context in which Gates delivered this admonition was a bit peculiar. He had structured the first half of the speech as a meditation upon three principles of a mentor of Generals Eisenhower and Marshall named Fox Conner. Conner's principles of war for a democracy were these:

· Never fight unless you have to;

· Never fight alone;

· And never fight for long.

Dangerous territory for a loyal lieutenant of George W. Bush.

It's true that Gates' discussion of each of these principles was in part a defense of current policy. On the first - never fight unless you have to - his central point was that we 'have to'
sustain the fight in Iraq now to avoid a worse struggle later. What he did not argue was that we 'had to' invade Iraq in the first place - though he briefly asserted, without elaboration or support, that the Iraq campaign was "justified in my view.' He saved substantive argument for our current course there, comparing leaving a mess in Iraq now to our having left a mess in Afghanistan after the Soviets were defeated. He then moved to the question of preemptive war: "how high must the threshold of confidence in our intelligence have to be to justify at home and abroad a preemptive or preventive war?" He did not answer this question -- but posing it shed a pretty harsh light on our most recent war of choice.

On the second principle - never fight alone - Gates focused his discussion on the difficulties of working with NATO in Afghanistan, pointing out that NATO has two million soldiers under arms, "and yet we struggle to sustain a deployment of less than 30,000 non-U.S. troops in Afghanistan." He went on to quote Churchill: "the only thing worse than having allies is not having them," and to assert that "just about every threat to our security in the years ahead will require working with or through other nations." What he did not say is something he has said explicitly elsewhere: that the Europeans are unwilling to commit more effort to Afghanistan because the effort in their eyes is tainted by association with our adventure in Iraq. Speaking directly to the people of Europe rather than their leaders, Gates has appealed to them to differentiate between the two conflicts, and to recognize the war in Afghanistan is for them a war of necessity -- implicitly acknowledging that Iraq is not. Also left unsaid in the West Point speech: our failure to build an effective coalition in Iraq, and our almost complete lack of allies there now.

As for the third principle, "never fight for long," Gates all but wrote it off as obsolete:

A drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq is inevitable over time – the debate you hear in Washington is largely about pacing. But the kind of enemy we face today – violent jihadist networks – will not allow us to remain at peace. What has been called the “Long War” is likely to be many years of persistent, engaged combat all around the world in differing degrees of size and intensity. This generational campaign cannot be wished away or put on a timetable. There are no exit strategies.
To paraphrase the Bolshevik Leon Trotsky, we may not be interested in the long war, but the long war is interested in us.
There are no exit strategies. Harsh words. Gates went on to implicitly support the Petraeus doctrine: that the armed forces need to focus primarily on developing asymmetrical, unconventional warfare capability. But having implicitly acknowledged that we did not 'have to' fight in Iraq ('justified' though 'the campaign' may be), and the ways in which our involvement with Iraq has sapped our support from allies, this bleak vision also highlights the extent to which entangling ourselves in Iraq has raised the costs and weakened our position in the so-called "Long War" -- leaving aside the question of whether a unitary 'long war' is the right frame to view our counterterrorism efforts.

Plainly Gates himself has had plenty of experience "getting with the program" in some half dozen administrations. I have no doubt that he is sincere in his admonition to the cadets not to work to undermine decisions they disagree with. As Secretary of Defense, he himself has done an extraordinary job supporting Administration policy while making it more rational and prudent. But the strains of maintaining loyalty while working to extricate the U.S. from a colossal strategic blunder show through this speech.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Obama on Fox: "The right temperament"

Obama was on point, focused, calm and direct in his interview with Chris Wallace on Fox today (transcript here). He placed Hillary's four-for-six streak in the broad perspective of his steady march to the nomination. He took responsibility for any failure to win over any bloc of voters. He refused to suggest (or insinuate, as Hillary in a similar position might have done) that Bill Clinton was playing any race card.

While the interview began, like the infamous ABC debate, with a string of non-policy questions (electability, race and electability, connecting with working class voters, Wright, Ayers, ability to work with Republicans), the tone was different. Wallace pressed Obama, hard at times, but he pressed for more information - there were no 'gotcha' questions, or absurd phrasings like "Do you think that Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?"

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.

These impressions are based on transcript only, so voice tone, body language, etc. are a blank slate. But on paper it looks like a highly effective revisiting of the toxic points of the ABC debate.

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

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Pause, refresh: Obama's core case against Clinton

After several weeks' full immersion in what Obama calls the "silly season" of our politics, it's clarifying to look afresh at the core of Obama's case for himself rather than Clinton. Here's how he put it on April 22 in Evansville, Indiana, after congratulating Clinton on her win in the PA primary:

We can be a party that says there's no problem with taking money from Washington lobbyists - from oil lobbyists and drug lobbyists and insurance lobbyists. We can pretend that they represent real Americans and look the other way when they use their money and influence to stop us from reforming health care or investing in renewable energy for yet another four years.

Or this time, we can recognize that you can't be the champion of working Americans if you're funded by the lobbyists who drown out their voices. We can do what we've done in this campaign, and say that we won't take a dime of their money. We can do what I did in Illinois, and in Washington, and bring both parties together to rein in their power so we can take our government back. It's our choice.

We can be a party that thinks the only way to look tough on national security is to talk, and act, and vote like George Bush and John McCain. We can use fear as a tactic, and the threat of terrorism to scare up votes.

Or we can decide that real strength is asking the tough questions before we send our troops to fight. We can see the threats we face for what they are - a call to rally all Americans and all the world against the common challenges of the 21st century - terrorism and nuclear weapons; climate change and poverty; genocide and disease. That's what it takes to keep us safe in the world. That's the real legacy of Roosevelt and Kennedy and Truman.

We can be a party that says and does whatever it takes to win the next election. We can calculate and poll-test our positions and tell everyone exactly what they want to hear.

Or we can be the party that doesn't just focus on how to win but why we should. We can tell everyone what they need to hear about the challenges we face. We can seek to regain not just an office, but the trust of the American people that their leaders in Washington will tell them the truth. That's the choice in this election.

Three interlocking points here. First, metapolitics: we can't change our policies until we change our political process. On one level, "Washington is broken, we need an outsider" is the oldest schtick in our politics. But Obama has done something about it, almost singlehandedly. He's refused lobbyist money, and pac money, and opened the floodgates of small donations. He's changed political funding forever. We tend to forget what a tremendous accomplishment this is. His argument is simple: change the money flow, and you'll change our politics. Why should we believe he can do this? Because he's accomplished part one already.

The second point is also simple, but true: I opposed this war from the start. I offer a clean contrast with McCain. Clinton can reduce this difference to "a speech he gave in 2002," but the fact is that Obama spoke out repeatedly against the war from October 2002 through to the day of invasion, March 20, 2003, and beyond. And the contrast has bite because there's resonance to the charge that Hillary supported the war primarily to preserve her own political viability. Why else would she neglect to read the NIE before voting to authorize force? Why else would she rally round in early 2003 when Bush "rushed to war" precisely as she warned him against doing in her Oct 10, 2002 speech supporting the resolution authorizing force?

Finally, there's the "truthiness"argument, which Obama grafted onto his "change our politics" argument back in January, when he first started calling the Clintons out for distorting his record -- and suggesting that these Rovian tactics undermine voter trust. Here's how he put it in the Jan. 22 CNN debate:
there's a set of assertions made by Senator Clinton, as well as her husband, that are not factually accurate. And I think that part of what the people are looking for right now is somebody who's going to solve problems and not resort to the same typical politics that we've seen in Washington...the larger reason that I think this debate is important is because we do have to trust our leaders and what they say. That is important, because if we can't, then we're not going to be able to mobilize the American people behind bringing about changes in health care reform, bringing about changes in how we're going to put people back to work, changing our trade laws. And consistency matters. Truthfulness during campaigns makes a difference.
In yesterday's Washington Post, Clinton's new chief strategist Geoff Garin tried to cast this three-pronged critique, which Obama has stuck to and sharpened for months, as a character attack. What it is in truth is a penetrating critique of Clinton's campaign and of her decisions and actions while in office. The attack is on "character" only insofar as Clinton's campaign and tenure in office express her character. Obama never suggests that Clinton is a bad person. He does argue explicitly that she is enmeshed in those elements of the political process he's trying to change. The attack also remains in bounds -- not violating Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment -- because Obama states repeatedly that Clinton will make a far better President than McCain (or Bush).

There may be 80% overlap in Obama and Clinton's written policy proposals. But the differences outlined above are real, and they're fundamental. The Obama campaign remains on focus.

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

Friday, April 25, 2008

Clinton campaign seeks response to Garin op-ed

The Clinton campaign is inviting feedback to an op-ed published by chief strategist Geoff Garin in today's Washington Post, arguing that it's the Obama campaign, not Clinton's, that has set a negative tone. The core of Garin's claim is that the Clinton campaign has stuck to issues when attacking Obama, while Obama has attacked Clinton's character.

My own response is below.
Geoff Garin:

Your argument is disingenuous. Obama's "character" attacks, as you deem them, are a direct critique of the kind of Rovian campaign Clinton has run. Your Bin Ladin ad, on the other hand, continues your campaign's "3 a.m. theme" that Obama is unfit to be commander-in-chief. That's the kind of unfounded but resonant assertion that undermines a same-party rival -- in this case, the party's likely nominee.

Obama has repeatedly asserted unequivocally that Clinton would be far preferable to McCain as President. Clinton has reciprocated only under duress -- and continues to strongly imply otherwise on the most visceral issue of all, national security.

Moreover, Clinton's claim to have 'crossed the commander-in-chief threshhold' -- presumably hand-in-hand with John McCain while Obama lingers on the 'untested' shore -- is based in large part on exaggerations of her record epitomized by the Bosnia sniper fiction. Obama's rebuttal -- of this and other Clinton untruths -- does necessarily imply a character issue. I

When the Clintons have distorted Obama's record, he's called them out on it (as in the Jan. 21 debate, when he said that both Hillary and Bill have said things about his record "that are not factually accurate"). He's then made the point that such distortions undermine voter trust and so make it impossible to build the kind of working majority that can effect real change. To call that critique a 'character attack' is to persist with the kind of distortion that characterizes the Clinton campaign.

Your campaign is in fact a self-inflicted character attack. Sixty percent of Americans believe that Hillary cannot be trusted to tell the truth. That is why she will never be President.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The dicey logic of defeat and victory

When my older son was about 10, we devised a simple dice baseball game (snake eyes a home run, 3 a single, 4 a strikeout, etc.) and kept tinkering with it until game results closely mirrored those of regular major league games - scores in a range of 1-0 to say 12-11.

One thing I learned from playing dozens or hundreds of such games is that the most thrilling dramas can come about as a result of pure chance. In one game, you might hold a 2-1 lead from the first inning on; in another, you might 'blow' a four run lead in the ninth. It struck me then that sports narratives always moralize a contest. A four-run lead disappears? Who choked? A one-run lead holds up through six rallies? What a gutsy battler the pitcher is! And to varying degrees, there's some validity in those judgments. But the equally variable and probably equally strong role of chance is simply discounted in our human drive to make sense of the event.

What's true of chance is also true of enduring, structural causes. One of the ironies of Obama's "bitter" commentary, as Paul Krugman pointed out, is that one simple fact almost completely explains Republican dominance over the past generation: Democrats' loss of the South in the wake of Johnson's successful championing of civil rights. The rest is noise. But just as we discount chance when explaining events, we also discount causes stronger than the individuals in their grip. Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry -- all are writ down emblems of Democratic weakness rather than victims of a stacked electoral deck. Every mistake looms large when you lose. Follies are forgotten when you win.

So with Obama in Pennsylvania. Al Giordiano, delegate doctor extraordinaire, wrote six weeks ago that Obama could not win the state -- that his task was to keep it close enough not to shake the delegate math or the phenomenology of [delegate] mind. The structural impediments, from Rendell-Nutter to demographics to the exclusion of independents -- were, Giordano insisted, insurmountable:
The press will try to make a race of it. There will surely be polls showing the race tightening, perhaps even suggesting that Obama could win it. But that’s just part of the predictable song-and-dance to sell newspapers and up ratings (and hit counts, for the political blogs and news sites that sell ads). The way the odd-numbered delegate districts break down, the demographics, the fact that it’s a closed primary (no Independent voters allowed), and its long border with the senator’s New York state make it a lead-pipe cinch for Clinton; to the extent that Obama supporters enter the “no, but yes, we can win it” narrative they’ll be walking into a trap.
But of course, the postgame show will now make a retroactive race of it - focusing on Bitter-ness, 37, the ABCeizure. And perhaps without a string of errors Obama could have done marginally better. But a string of errors (or losses) is also part of every long season. And the internal dynamic hasn't changed. Obama has not changed, nor has his campaign - they are a disciplined team that knows how to keep eyes on the prize. Obama once again remains, as Sullivan notes, calm in the face of all this Clinton drama.It's the rest of us who are panicking.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Gates: "Conflict will be fundamentally political"

In a speech at the Air War College in Maxwell, Alabama today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates' main theme was the immense difficulty in a large organization of overcoming bureaucratic inertia to effect change that adapts the organization's capabilities to a changing world. And he explained why the hard task of effecting major change is needed - now and always. Unlike Bush, Gates does nuance -- his strategic vision is both detailed and sweeping, embracing a complex and interlocking set of mandates. Here is the core of that vision:

An unconventional era of warfare requires unconventional thinkers. That is because this era's range of security challenges, from global terrorism to ethnic conflicts, from rogue nations to rising powers, cannot be overcome by traditional military means alone. Conflict will be fundamentally political in nature and will require the integration of all elements of national power. Success, to a large extent, will depend less on imposing one's will on the enemy or putting bombs on targets, though we must never lose our ability or our will to unsheathe the sword when necessary. Instead, ultimate success or failure will increasingly depend more on shaping the behavior of others, friends and adversaries, and most importantly, the people in between.

This new set of realities and requirements have meant a wrenching set of changes for our military establishment that until recently was almost completely oriented toward winning the big battles and the big wars. Based on my experience at CIA, at Texas A&M and now the Department of Defense, it is clear to me that the culture of any large organization takes a long time to change, and the really tough part is preserving those elements of the culture that strengthen the institution and motivate the people in it, while shedding those elements of the culture that are barriers to progress and achieving the mission.
Gates keeps a pretty low profile. In his short tenure, though, we have seen him working all the levers at his disposal to "shape the behavior of others" -- from the Europeans to the Iraqis to the Cheney cabal to the Democrats. He tacks back and forth to move forces even more intractable than large bureaucracies: elected officials. His tactics have included appealing directly to the European people to 'decouple' the mission in Afghanistan from that in Iraq -- and throw their support behind the former; stating publicly that Democratic talk of withdrawal timetables put useful pressure on the Iraqi government; inducing Democrats to acknowledge the need to leave some troops in Iraq by himself acknowledging the need to draw down troops; and first pushing to have the NIE on Iran released, then more recently stating matter-of-factly that Iran is "hell-bent" on getting nuclear weapon while warning that going to war with Iran would be disastrous . His public statements are often deliberately provocative to a target audience, but always in the most calculated and measured way. The man is a national treasure, plain and simple.

Related posts:
On the same page: Gates, Mullen, Powell, Obama
Can Gates Steer the Surge?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Danny Evans of Dormont, PA nails the debate

A contributor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's reader forum on the Disgraceful Debate captures my own sentiments perfectly:
That was no debate--it was a rerun of Access Hollywood. If we Pennsylvanians should be bitter about anything, it's that our state debate was turned into a sort of media carnival, rather than dealing with the real issues facing our region, and the American people.

Still, if I had to find a silver lining? I admired the restraint Obama showed in NOT diving headlong into the fray. Though it did seem to frustrate him that over half the debate had nothing to do with substance, he held his tongue in check, defended his opponent on one occasion, and even said "she could win" without so much as batting an eye.

Hillary seemed to enjoy wallowing in ABC's mud just a little too much for my tastes. Especially since she still hasn't given a straight answer on her Bosnia lie, or how she can reconcile taking 800 thousand dollars from the Columbian government while campaigning AGAINST the Columbian Free Trade Agreement. All in all, I saw in Barack Obama a frustrated (yet honest) commitment to trying to stay away from the political pie-slicing that has paralyzed our country and silenced OUR voices for far too long, now.

As bad as it was to watch, what we did see (pay attention PA) is that we, as voters, need to seek out as much information as we can, not just what the networks and cable shows think we want to hear. Barack Obama didn't have his best night, yet carried himself with grace and dignity in the face of farce. That's my kind of President. Because NOT wallowing, NOT changing, means he really does stand for HOPE in ways we've not seen in a long, long time.

Danny Evans, Dormont

Danny Evans, across the Internet I shake your hand. This morning, I read with amazement various accounts claiming that in the choreographed mud-wrestle of the first 40 minutes, Obama was "on the defensive" and "tentative." I thought that while Hillary took her cues for attack like one of Pavlov's dogs, Obama, as he has again and again in this campaign, exuded magnanimity and...what Danny said. When the debate moved on to policy matters after a mere 40 minutes of pseudoscandal, Obama was not sharp. But who would be after scraping off all that shit?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What David Brooks didn't hear

David Brooks seems not to have heard the same Obama speech "on the economic stresses facing American workers" that I did.

In Brooks' telling, Obama in Pittsburgh on Monday delivered a demagogic protectionist "speech about nothing" that failed to describe how "pervasive forces are shaping the lives of voters and how government should respond." Brooks complains that there was "one clause" devoted to technological change (the #1 factor in manufacturing job loss, according to Brooks) and 45 sentences devoted to trade deals (a marginal factor).

Here's the 'one clause,' in its full frame, that for Brooks did not concede enough to the impersonal economic he holds entirely responsible for job loss:
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.

Not every job that has left is coming back. And not every job lost is due to trade -automation has made plants more efficient so they can make the same amount of steel with few workers. These are the realities.

I also don't oppose all trade deals. I voted for two of them because they have the worker and environmental agreements I believe in. Some of you disagreed with me on this but I did what I thought was right.
And then this:
When it comes to trade, there's no one-size-fits-all approach. If countries are committed to reciprocity, if they are abiding by basic rules of the road, then we should welcome trade. Many poor countries need access to our markets and pose no threat to our workers.

But what all trade agreements I negotiate as President will have in common is that they'll all put American workers first. We won't ignore violence against union organizers in Colombia, or the non-tariff barriers that keep U.S. cars out of South Korea.
Brooks claims that Obama's emphasis on 'fair trade' provisions in free trade agreements will have a negligible effect on job loss. Perhaps. But fair trade is part of an integrated program that also includes support for workers seeking to unionize, investment in infrastructure and green technology (funded by cap-and-trade) to create millions of new jobs; universal healthcare that will increase job portability; and more aid to put college within reach of lower income students.

More broadly, Obama fully acknowledges the large economic forces that have squeezed the working and middle classes for decades. But unlike Brooks, he sees human agency aiding and accelerating rising income equality:
For decades, our economic policies have been written to pump up a corporate bottom line, rather than promote what's right, without any consideration for the burden we all bear when workers are abused or the environment is destroyed.

It's an outrage, but it's not an accident - because corporate lobbyists in Washington are writing our laws and putting their clients' interests ahead of what's fair for the American people. The men and women you represent haven't been getting a seat at the table when trade agreements are being negotiated, or tax policies are being written, or health care and pension laws are being designed because the special interests have bought every chair.
For Obama, economic issues always come down to metapolitics -- fixing a corrupt political process -- and to restoring "balance" after decades of rising income inequality and risk shift from the community to the individual (abetted by lobbyist-written legislation). Supporting the right to organize, enforcing fair trade provisions, enacting universal healthcare, creating jobs through productive infrastructure projects, shifting tax incentives to reward keeping jobs in the U.S., and making college affordable are all of a piece.

Brooks seems to have heard the speech he wanted to hear, not the one Obama delivered.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Clinton campaign seeking feedback

Geoff Garin, Hillary Clinton's new chief strategist, is asking those on Clinton's email list to 'send your thoughts about our campaign.' Anyone can respond here. This is a golden opportunity for those who believe that Hillary is undermining the best Democratic opportunity in decades to build a working majority to tell the campaign what we think.

Nothing short of a resounding primary defeat in a major state in which she's strongly positioned is going to make Clinton drop out. But a few hundred thousand emails from committed Democrats letting the campaign know the extent to which her tactics are disaffecting large swaths of the party base and destroying her own standing might might inhibit the earth-scorching a bit.

A sample response:

To: Geoff Garin
From: A former Hillary supporter:

Since late March, Hillary Clinton's role in advancing the Democratic agenda has been entirely negative. She has been relentlessly undermining the likely nominee, violating Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment and shredding her own credibility in the process. Her relentless flattery of McCain, her baseless claims to have crossed some mythical commander-in-chief threshold and her desperate willingness to seize on any minor gaffe of Obama's disqualify her to be the party's nominee.

If Ms. Clinton continues working to undermine Obama's core credibility as a candidate, she will permanently destroy her own standing and leadership stature within the party.

Clinging to a clunker

In marked contrast to his handling of the Wright controversy, Obama is firing round the target as he parries attacks on his "bitter" comment. First, he mocked the suggestion that it's elitist to characterize a swath of white working class voters as 'bitter.' But that's not where the offense lay -- the problem was not saying that some voters are bitter but characterizing certain political passions as products of bitterness and disillusion with government. Then, last night at the 'Compassion Forum' at Messiah College, he claimed in effect that when he said "they cling to guns, the cling to religion" etc., he didn't mean 'cling' in a bad way (it's good to 'cling' to religion and tradition in times of stress). That's ridiculous. That's not what he meant. Now, he's ridiculing Hillary's joyously combative overreaction -- which is justifiable, but does not address the core of his offense. It looks like he's changing the subject. And the mockery sounds hollow and arrogant.

In fact, his false explanation last night -- that saying "they cling to religion' was in effect praising such clinging as a strong response to adversity -- makes matters worse, because it takes that remark at face value instead of acknowledging that "religion" was in this case shorthand for religious-right hot buttons such as gay marriage, abortion, and school prayer. It would be hard to say, "I don't think religion is a crutch, but theocratic political planks are.' But his alternative explanation, because it concedes (wrongly) that he meant "they cling to religion" literally, lends credence to the right-wing attack machine meme that Obama has simply faked his own faith for political expedience. The explain-away focuses on the word "cling," which in fact meant what people assumed it to mean, rather than on the word "religion," which meant "politicized theocratic nostrums."

The comment is difficult and damaging because it's the flip side of Obama's "one nation" message. His appeal to evangelicals is based on a belief that their faith can be channeled into poverty alleviation and seeking economic justice rather than curtailing gay rights and restricting abortion. What slipped was his belief that people turn to such issues out of frustration and cynicism. It's one thing to say, I disagree with you on X, but let's agree on Y. But that message is undercut somewhat when you purport to dissect my (unflattering) motives for believing X.

This is latest instance of Obama's sometime tendency to dig deeper when he's in a hole.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

"Bitter," Bosnia, Bomb Iran...

Obama really hasn't really explained his "bitter" comment - - can't, because what he meant was people turn to hot-button religious issues and gun rights and immigration bashing when they feel that government won't help solve their real problems. He didn't mean that 'religion' is a crutch, but that voting on the basis of abortion and gay marriage (and gun rights and keeping illegal immigrants out) is. And that is genuinely insulting to people who base their votes primarily on those issues.

Tonight, at the 'Compassion Forum' (read: test of religion) at Messiah College in PA, he said in effect that he didn't mean 'cling' in a bad way (it's good to 'cling' to religion and tradition in times of stress), and that's ridiculous. That's not what he meant.

I do think he can wriggle out of the 'elitist' frame by stressing that he spent years working intimately and not from on high with poor people. Everyone from his past whom reporters have dug up says that he listens to people, works with them rather than trying to dictate solutions, engages as a human being. Maybe it's more important to say "I'm not an elitist" than to try to explain what he said.

It should also be remembered that no one can go through two years of campaigning without making gaffes, and I can't think of any prior ones that Obama has made. Because he's the front-runner Hillary's in overdrive to blow this sky-high, but her oft-repeated Bosnia fantasies were far worse, and McCain's errors, reversals and mask slips are breathtaking - a complete 180 on helping distressed homeowners after giving a ridiculous speech telling them to eat cake; repeatedly mixing up Sunni and Shia; breaking into 'bomb bomb Iran' song. If Obama can't survive a gaffe, the country doesn't want to vote for him.

Friday, April 11, 2008

On the same page: Gates, Mullen, Powell, Obama

One thread that can be teased out of the runup and reaction to the Petraeus-Crocker Senate briefing on Iraq is the strategic congruence between Obama and the country's best military minds - e.g., Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen, and former Secretary of State/Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell. Beyond the implicit consensus that current troop levels in Iraq are unsustainable, all three have also joined Obama in stressing the need to concentrate more force on the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Gates, moreover, notwithstanding his recent protestations to be on the same page as Bush and Petraeus with regard to troop levels, seems basically on the same page as Obama when it comes to defining realistic goals for 'success' in Iraq -- goals that will enable the inevitable drawdown.

Obama is far from unique in arguing that Iraq is a 'huge strategic blunder' that has diverted the U.S. from neutralizing al Qaeda and securing peace in Afghanistan. But he has been more clear and comprehensive than other national figures in detailing the consequences of our enmeshment in Iraq and the need to refocus on Afghanistan, In his landmark speech laying out his foreign policy vision in Fayetteville, NC on March 19, after a series of hammer blows detailing the malign consequences of the Iraq War, he made the core point:
The central front in the war against terror is not Iraq, and it never was. What more could America's enemies ask for than an endless war where they recruit new followers and try out new tactics on a battlefield so far from their base of operations? That is why my presidency will shift our focus. Rather than fight a war that does not need to be fought, we need to start fighting the battles that need to be won on the central front of the war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This is the area where the 9/11 attacks were planned. This is where Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants still hide. This is where extremism poses its greatest threat. Yet in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have pursued flawed strategies that are too distant from the needs of the people, and too timid in pursuit of our common enemies....
It is not too late to prevail in Afghanistan. But we cannot prevail until we reduce our commitment in Iraq, which will allow us to do what I called for last August – providing at least two additional combat brigades to support our efforts in Afghanistan.
Now compare Gates, Mullen and Powell on the need to concentrate more force in Afghanistan and at the same time relieve overall strain on the military.

All three, it must be said first, are wary of precipitous troop withdrawals in Iraq and probably concerned that both Democratic candidates have committed themselves too rigidly to a swift drawdown. But they support the goal; they recognize the greater core strategic importance of success in Afghanistan; and they are more cognizant than anyone of the unsustainable strain on the military caused by the continued huge troop presence in Iraq.

Gates has for the most part, with a few carefully calibrated exceptions, stayed on the same page with the Administration with regard to troop levels in Iraq. But he has also highlighted in public comments the long-term damage to the military of maintaining 100,000+ troops there year after year. At the same time, he has been jawboning NATO allies for months to get them to pony up more troops in Afghanistan. In that effort, he's been at pains to differentiate the Europeans' clear and present interest in success in Afghanistan from their lack of support for the U.S. adventure in Iraq. In the process, he implicitly acknowledged that their rejection of U.S. leadership in Iraq was justified.

Following Petraeus' testimony this week, Gates, at a Defense Dept. news briefing on Friday (April 11), was asked whether his earlier statements projecting troop withdrawals had committed the next President to drawing down troops in Iraq in 2009. His response:

Well, that was clearly an issue that came up before Bucharest, when we were talking about this. And it seems to me -- the two things led to my recommendation along those lines, to make that kind of commitment in principle -- the president was very careful not to say how many troops or when in 2009 they would be forthcoming -- but I made it on two grounds: First, I am confident that we will have a lower number of troops in 2009. Again, I'm not saying when in 2009, but I believe we will have a lower number of troops in Iraq in 2009.
That is: the armed forces simply can't sustain current troop levels any longer. Then this - echoing his earlier comments addressed to the Europeans:
Second, unlike Iraq, there truly is, I think, very broad bipartisan support for being successful in Afghanistan. We were attacked out of Afghanistan. People recognize the consequences of not being successful. And I believe very strongly that whoever is elected president is going to want to be successful in Afghanistan. And just as the French made an additional commitment, it seemed to me, in principle, that it would be important for the president to signal that the United States was going to stay in the fight in Afghanistan as well and do more, assuming we could.
Mullen also suggested the need for a shift in military asset allocation:
Well, I think the available forces that we have in Iraq are the ones that offer -- should reductions continue -- potential to put forces in Afghanistan and also to build dwell time back here for our ground forces. And so there's risk associated very specifically with that. And that's probably in the three pieces that we try to pay a lot of attention to -- our force levels in Iraq, our requirements in Afghanistan which are unmet, as well as balancing the health of the force -- that if we stay at these levels for a significant period of time, which we can do -- I mean, we have the forces to do that, but we continue to press our forces at the levels we have and we would be unable to fill the requirements that we've got in Afghanistan.
Colin Powell, talking to ABC News, April 9, similarly stressed the unsustainable strain on the military and the need for more troops in Afghanistan:
Powell, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the administration of President George H.W. Bush and the first Gulf War, expressed concern over the burden an extended stay in Iraq would put on the troops and the country's military forces.
"It's going to be far more than the 100,000 that Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates was hoping for. It's going to be like 130,000 or 140,000. That is an extremely difficult burden for the United States Army, the United States Marine Corps, to keep up," Powell told "Good Morning America."
Powell also expressed reservations about the two-front combat in which the United States finds itself: surging in Iraq while trying to maintain control in Afghanistan.
"We have responsibilities in Afghanistan. And in some ways, Afghanistan is more difficult than Iraq. You have the tribal problems. You had drug lords running around ... and al Qaeda and the Taliban are making a resurgence," Powell said.
I'll tell you what they're all going to face -- whichever one of them becomes president on Jan. 21 of 2009 -- they will face a military force, a United States military force, that cannot sustain, continue to sustain, 140,000 people deployed in Iraq, and the 20 (to) 25,000 people we have deployed in Afghanistan, and our other deployments," Powell said.
Something's got to give. And what's got to give are troop levels in Iraq. That, as Obama said at the April 8 Petraeus-Crocker hearing, is a matter of consensus. But how to phase a withdrawal that does not trigger a descent to civil war and anarchy? The first step is to define an acceptable outcome that will not require decades of occupation. Here's where Obama added something new, pushing Crocker toward his own definition of an endgame:

OBAMA: And so my final -- and I'll even pose this as a question and I won't -- you don't necessarily have to answer it -- maybe it's a rhetorical question -- if we were able to have the status quo in Iraq right now without U.S. troops, would that be a sufficient definition of success?
It's obviously not perfect. There's still violence, there's still some traces of Al Qaida, Iran has influence more than we would like. But if we had the current status quo, and yet our troops had been drawn down to 30,000, would we consider that a success? Would that meet our criteria, or would that not be good enough and we'd have to devote even more resources to it?
CROCKER: Senator, I can't imagine the current status quo being sustainable with that kind of precipitous drawdown.
BIDEN: That wasn't the question.
OBAMA: No, no, that wasn't the question. I'm not suggesting that we yank all our troops out all the way. I'm trying to get to an endpoint. That's what all of us have been trying to get to.
And, see, the problem I have is if the definition of success is so high, no traces of Al Qaida and no possibility of reconstitution, a highly-effective Iraqi government, a Democratic multiethnic, multi- sectarian functioning democracy, no Iranian influence, at least not of the kind that we don't like, then that portends the possibility of us staying for 20 or 30 years.
If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an Al Qaida base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe, and that, I think, is what everybody here on this committee has been trying to drive at, and we haven't been able to get as clear of an answer as we would like.
CROCKER: And that's because, Senator, is a -- I mean, I don't like to sound like a broken record, but this is hard and this is complicated.
I think that when Iraq gets to the point that it can carry forward its further development without a major commitment of U.S. forces, with still a lot of problems out there but where they and we would have a fair certitude that, again, they can drive it forward themselves without significant danger of having the whole thing slip away from them again, then, clearly, our profile, our presence diminishes markedly.
But that's not where we are now.

OBAMA: Thank you for your indulgence, Mr. Chairman.
Compare Gates in the April 11 news conference:
It was my hope 16 months ago that I could help forge a bipartisan path forward in our Iraq policy that would sustain a steadily lower, but still adequate and necessary, level of commitment for the years needed to yield an Iraq that is an ally against extremists and can govern and defend itself,” Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
I continue to harbor this hope for a bipartisan path and will continue to work for it.
Speaking of bipartisan paths, Andrew Sullivan has voiced the hope that if Obama is elected, Gates would stay on. That seems highly unlikely, based on what Gates has said in published interviews. But it would be great for the country if Obama asked him and persuaded him.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Sleepers, Wake: McCain notes the 'deserving' distressed homeowners

McCain's astonishing reversal of the position he staked out two weeks ago in response to the mortgage crisis has at least the virtue of being an honest flip-flop. McCain has taken a new look at the facts, and in his wisdom concluded that rather than telling distressed homeowners en masse to drop dead, it might behoove government to help some of them restructure their loans.

The problem here is not, I think, dishonesty -- this is not Mitt Romney faking a moral conversion on abortion, or for that matter McCain embracing the Bush tax cuts he once lambasted in order to cater to a core constituency. He really has noticed that the housing crisis threatens major economic and social disruption (and of course, doubtless recognized that he'll lose the election if he advocates doing nothing more than jawboning mortgage lenders). But it is fresh evidence that McCain simply does not think through major policy issues. His March 25 speech rejecting any substantive loan restructuring help to homeowners addressed the current crisis, as I've noted before, from a 'while I was sleeping' stance; he kept suggesting in the future tense that he would entertain proposals for dealing with the crisis, as if it had just been brought to his attention. Clinton and Obama, in marked contrast, were both able to back up claims in speeches delivered that same week that they had called a year ago for the kinds of aid they're calling for now.

For a septuagenarian with twenty one years' tenure in the Senate, McCain's policy positions are curiously unformed. He may talk straight, but he doesn't think straight. His 'maverick' impulses war chiefly with his own other impulses. That's probably why he can flip-flop without appearing unprincipled.

Today's New York Times has an article in which rival aides describe McCain's oscillation between neocon and realist foreign policy schools. The article detailed his past noninterventionist positions -- against U.S. troops in Lebanon, Somalia and Haiti, and against using ground troops in the first Gulf War. It neglected to mention his consistent calling (in 1999, 2002, 2006) for aggressive confrontation with North Korea, even if that meant risking war, including nuclear war; his bitter criticism of Bill Clinton for ruling out ground troops in Kosovo; and his long advocacy for taking out Saddam. On economic policy, he was of course against the Bush tax cuts before he was for them -- a reversal over the course of three or four years. Now he has outdone himself , executing a 180 over the course of two weeks.

One element did hold steady across the two housing crisis speeches: the moralizing. McCain can't talk about those in need without setting up Goofus and Gallant contrasts. Two weeks ago, distressed homeowners were a ragtag 5% spoiling the party for those moral paragons slaving away in pursuit of a downsized American Dream:
Of those 80 million homeowners, only 55 million have a mortgage at all, and 51 million are doing what is necessary -- working a second job, skipping a vacation, and managing their budgets -- to make their payments on time. That leaves us with a puzzling situation: how could 4 million mortgages cause this much trouble for us all?
In the ensuing two weeks, someone apparently whispered in his ear that some of those four million might also be part of the moral majority. So he's determined to sort them out:
Let's start with the housing challenges. There is nothing more important than keeping alive the American dream to own your home, and priority number one is to keep well meaning, deserving home owners who are facing foreclosure in their homes....[my plan] offers every deserving American family or homeowner the opportunity to trade a burdensome mortgage for a manageable loan that reflects the market value of their home. This plan is focused on people. People decide if they need help, they apply for assistance and if approved the government under my HOME Program supports them in getting a new mortgage that they can afford. There will be qualifications which require the home to be a primary residence and the borrower able to afford a new mortgage.
I'm not suggesting that McCain's conditions for providing mortgage aid are not sensible ones. But the key questions there are whether the home is a primary residence and whether the homeowner has the resources to pay off a loan with an interest rate in single digits. It's true that good policy will aim to avoid 'moral hazard' -- bailing out speculators or those who bought a home they had no means to pay for. But economic policy can't parse the moral fiber of each program participant. Is it your primary home, and can you pay off a restructured mortgage? Do you need it, and can you benefit from it? Not 'are you deserving'? Yet this persistent moralizing pervades McCain's speeches. He's as Manichean as Bush -- on the world stage, and at home.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Newsflash: Obama tickets are gone

Prescript: try a Google search on "Clinton tickets gone"

Tickets gone for Obama event (Gary, Indiana, April 9)

GARY | In less than three hours, all the tickets for U.S. Sen. Barack
Obama's visit to Gary tomorrow were snapped up by waiting crowds.

Barack Obama tickets are gone
(Lafayette, IN, April 9)

Tickets for Senator Obama visit are gone (South Bend, IN, April 8)

If you don't have a ticket yet, you're out of luck. All the tickets for
Wednesday night's Barack Obama rally at Washington High School were handed
out on Tuesday. Thousands of people are expected to attend the 10:00 p.m. speech

Obama visits Fort Wayne - Sold out! (Fort Wayne, IN, April 4)

Tickets all gone for Obama's Missoula Speech (Missoula, MT, April 3)

MISSOULA – The Barack Obama campaign said Thursday that all available tickets for Obama's rally Saturday in Missoula have been given out....

At 9:30 a.m. Thursday the campaign web site reported: "Tickets for the Rally with Barack Obama in Missoula, MT are no longer available".

Pittsburgh Obama events sold out (March 28)

Word of Sen. Barack Obama's statewide bus-tour stop in Pittsburgh scheduled
for Friday spread through the community like wildfire Wednesday.

The events -- a rally in Oakland at 11 a.m. and a town hall meeting in
Greensburg at 5:30 p.m. -- are both sold out.

Tickets for Barack Obama rally in Medford sold out (Medford, OR March 21)

Tickets to see Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama at a town hall
event Saturday ran out within the first hour.

"It's been absolutely insane, and we love it," said Denise Cyr, who is
helping the Obama campaign in Southern Oregon.

She said she has received 2,000 e-mails, dozens of calls and emotional
moments as she told people there were no more tickets.

Obama ticket frenzy on Craigslist (Portland, March 21)

A teenager who just came of voting age, pleading for the chance to hear a
presidential hopeful.

A desperate parent asking for an extra ticket for her child.

A lucky ticket-holder offering to give up his seats in exchange for an X-Box 360.

These are just a few of the posts placed on the Portland Craigslist website in the hours after all tickets to Senator Barack Obama's Portland visit were given away.

Tickets all gone for Obama's Portland rally (March 19)

PORTLAND, Ore. - It didn't take long for tickets for a Portland rally
involving Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama to run out.

Officials for the Illinois senator's campaign gave away more than 10,000
tickets online for the Friday morning event at Memorial Coliseum and handed
out thousands more at his Portland campaign headquarters, where the line
stretched four to five blocks long at times Wednesday.

A lucky ticket-holder offering to give up his seats in exchange for an X-Box

These are just a few of the posts placed on the Portland Craigslist website
in the hours after all tickets to Senator Barack Obama's Portland visit were

given away.

Tickets to Obama town hall gone (Charlotte, NC, March 17)

CHARLOTTE -- It took just two hours for tickets to Sen. Barack Obama's
campaign stop in Charlotte to sell out.

Tickets all gone for Obama's Missoula speech (Missoula, Montana, April 3)

MISSOULA - The Barack Obama campaign said Thursday that all available
tickets for Obama's rally Saturday in Missoula have been given out.

The free tickets were distributed through Obama's campaign Web site and
through his campaign office in Missoula.

At 9:30 a.m. Thursday the campaign web site reported: "Tickets for the Rally
with Barack Obama in Missoula, MT are no longer available".

Related post:
Fox News Readers Swoon for Obama

Friday, April 04, 2008

WSJ OK - a vintage expose

When liberal blogs reference information from the Wall Street Journal - such as Bob Davis' recent exposure of the incoherence of McCain's economic thinking - it's often prefaced with phrases like "even the WSJ acknowledges" or "reported in the WSJ of all places."

Many people, it would seem, know the WSJ primarily by its radical-right op-ed section, famous for equally rabid support of imperial adventure, torture, tax cuts and deregulation to the point of zero. But that's only half the story. The WSJ is a completely schizophrenic paper. Its reporters do much of the world's best investigative business journalism, regularly delving deep into the way individual companies and whole industries game the systems in which they operate.

Today's front-page expose, Nonprofit Hospitals, Once for the Poor, Strike it Rich, by John Carreyrou and Barbara Martinez, is vintage Journal reporting. The article details how many well-heeled hospitals have gamed their non-profit status, receiving far more in tax breaks than they give back in charity care. Carreyrou and Martinez look at several hospitals that offer luxury care primarily to the wealthy and well-insured, pay their execs like in a manner comparable to that of publicly-owned for-profit companies, and build up enormous assets.

Abuse of nonprofit status stems largely from loose definitions of the "community benefits" that hospitals must provide to justify their tax exemptions. For example:

St. Louis-based BJC HealthCare, counts the salaries of its employees as a community benefit. BJC, which runs 14 hospitals in Missouri and Illinois, says on its Web site that it provided more than $1.8 billion in benefits to various communities in 2004. Its payroll, including its CEO's $1.8 million compensation, accounted for $937 million of that figure, while charity care represented $35 million, according to BJC.

Some, of course, serve mainly Medicaid and uninsured patients - and generally have trouble making ends meet. Then there's Exhibit A, Norwestern Memorial in Chicago:

At some nonprofits, the good times are reflected in new facilities and rich executive pay. Flush with cash, Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago has rebuilt its entire campus since 1999 at a cost of more than $1 billion. In October, it opened a new women's hospital that features marble in the lobby, birthing rooms with flat-screen televisions, 1,000 works of art and a roof topped with 10,000 square feet of gardens. In 2006, Northwestern Memorial's former chief executive officer, Gary Mecklenburg, received a $16.4 million payout.

But Northwestern Memorial has been frugal in its spending on charity care, the free treatment for poor patients that nonprofit hospitals are expected to provide in return for the federal and state tax breaks they receive. In 2006, Northwestern Memorial spent $20.8 million on charity care -- less than 2% of its revenues and a fraction of what it received in tax breaks. By comparison, the hospitals run by Cook County, where Northwestern Memorial is located, spent 14% of revenues on charity care....

Around Chicago, Northwestern Memorial is known as a hospital that attracts the well-heeled. It's a short walk from the Magnificent Mile, the famous thoroughfare lined with expensive shops and restaurants. At Northwestern Memorial's new Prentice Women's Hospital, expectant mothers can watch TV or browse the Internet on 42-inch flat-screen televisions, order room service 24 hours a day and page nurses and doctors via a wireless system. Some birthing rooms have views of Lake Michigan. Only 6% of Northwestern Memorial's patient revenues come from Medicaid.

The article is not a hatchet job. Many of the well-heeled, thriving hospitals featured doubtless provide substantial community benefit. But it does highlight the way elite hospitals exploit the loose definitions of 'community benefits' to operate at margins that for-profit companies -- not to mention inner city hospitals that serve primarily Medicaid and uninsured populations -- can only envy.

The article also has implications for the candidates' healthcare plans. Like insurance companies and doctors, hospitals exploit perverse incentives to jack up costs - profiting handsomely as they do their bit to make per capita American healthcare spending almost double that of other industrialized countries:

...much of the industry's profit growth comes from strategies it honed to increase profits. Among them: demanding upfront payments from patients; hiking list prices for procedures and services to several times their actual cost; selling patients' debts to collection companies; focusing on expensive procedures; and issuing tax-exempt bonds and investing the proceeds in higher-yielding securities.

Untaxed investment gains have greatly increased some hospitals' cash piles. Ascension Health, a Catholic nonprofit system that runs 65 hospitals, mostly in the Midwest and Northeast, reported net income of $1.2 billion in its fiscal year ended June 30, 2007, and cash and investments of $7.4 billion. That's more cash than Walt Disney Co. ha

Rupert Murdoch took over Dow Jones in December 2007. So far, he has not touched the kind of in-depth investigative reporting exemplified here - though he did grumble, while the acquisition was pending -- that Journal features are often "too long." We'll see whether News Corp ownership -- not to mention the grim economics of the newspaper industry -- erode this indispensable watchdog over time.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Come to the candidates cold! Three economic visions

Suppose you came to the candidates cold and had to judge them solely on the basis of their speeches in response to the housing crisis?

You'd be judging Clinton and Obama at their best. Both gave great speeches last week. Both set detailed policy prescriptions in broad -- though markedly different - conceptual frameworks. Both were able to document that they'd seen the problem early and had called a year ago for actions they're still calling for now. Both argued forcibly that distressed homeowners are as worthy of targeted aid as the Wall Street banks that have already been the beneficiaries of -- admittedly necessary -- Fed largesse. (Here's Obama's speech; here's Clinton's.)

McCain in contrast was at his worst. He gave the impression that the crisis had just been brought to his attention. He treated Wall Street with kid gloves and distressed homeowners with contempt. Schooled doubtless by Phil "Dereg" Gramm, he proposed less regulation for banks and no aid for homeowners. He managed to make Bush look like a compassionate conservative. He bid fair to concede the election on the issue likely to be foremost in voters' minds, barring true catastrophe.

While Obama and Clinton proposed similar measures to prevent and deal with foreclosures, their speeches differed considerably in emphasis and concept. The differences dovetail with those of their core overall pitches to voters. Obama, characteristically, sought historical context, arguing that the current crisis was caused not only by bad policies but by a corrupt policymaking process - executed during the Clinton Administration. His proposals therefore focused as much on regulatory reform as on aid to homeowners - with the whole package implicitly pinned on breaking the grip of lobbyists. More broadly still, he set the struggle to shore up homeowners and rein in financial institutions in the context of a 200-year struggle to keep the concentration of wealth in check without choking off opportunity.

Hillary provided more detailed description and justification for her proposals to aid homeowners than Obama did. She had room to do so, because she barely touched on regulating the financial industry or on how we got into this mess (a blind spot that perhaps explains her tone-deaf eagerness to put Alan Greenspan on a blue ribbon commission to rescue homeowners). Her speech was no mere laundry list, but her conceptual frame was how Wall Street's troubles trickle down to Main Street (in marked contrast to Obama's arresting formulation: pain trickled up). She laid down a causal chain from tanking securities to dried up credit to falling home values to falling tax revenues. Describing the family home rather movingly as the foundation not only of wealth but of security. and she identified the core problem as a crisis in confidence. That's Rooseveltian - nothing to fear but fear itself. And the crisis in confidence was laid at the doorstep of "brain-dead" Bush Administration policies. Of course, it takes a Clinton to roll back those policies and get the government working for working people.

The speeches reflect how Obama and Clinton's differing political interests mesh with differences in character and outlook and personal history. Since his days as an organizer, Obama has been about systemic change. He aims to be a transformational President. He wants to be more like Reagan than Bill Clinton, to "change the trajectory of American politics" -- which in his view entails changing the political process by reducing the influence of monied interests. He takes a long view of American history, viewing it, as in this speech, as an endless struggle for balance between opportunity and fairness. He views the current moment as one in which the pendulum has swung to a dangerous degree toward concentration of wealth, which is both reflected and furthered by the power of lobbyists and campaign finance. He bids openly to move the country's political center to the left by asking for a broad mandate, the 'working majority' that, as he first said openly in January, Bill Clinton failed to get.

In Obama's narrative, Bill Clinton fought a good rearguard fight against Republican redistribution toward the wealthy. But he did so in large part by playing ball with vested interests -- as in his signing of the Gramm-Leach-Blilely bill dismantling Depression-era restrictions on financial industry activity. In this speech, Obama identified that "fundamentally flawed" deregulation as the root cause of our current financial crisis. And his pain trickled up argument to a Wall Street audience was that those with wealth and power saw off the branch they're sitting on when they "put their thumbs on the economic scales" by undermining effective regulation and enabling exploitive practices. "The result," Obama said, "has been a distorted market that creates bubbles instead of steady, sustainable growth; a market that favors Wall Street over Main Street, but ends up hurting both."

Hillary's shorter historical purview is shaped not only by political necessity but by the experience that shaped that necessity. Her fundamental economic message is 'back to the nineties.' That means some income redistribution downward and some risk shift back to the community. It means fighting vested industry interests head-on at times, but not attempting to change the way they influence policy. She aims to get the financial industry on board to help homeowners -- in their own interest -- but not to change the rules by which they operate.

It's no accident that Hillary continues to put Alan Greenspan forward as candidate number 1 for her Emergency Working Group on Foreclosures. In his autobiography, Greenspan identifies Bill Clinton as the smartest President he worked with. He portrays Clinton as an excellent student who worked closely with him to balance the budget and build confidence in the bond market (hence, perhaps, Hillary's emphasis on confidence as "the true currency" of the American economy). When she looks at Greenspan, Hillary apparently sees primarily her husband's partner in producing prosperity. And that certainly is a major part of Greenspan's legacy. But what about the Fed Chairman who ignored urgings to use the Fed's power to rein in abusive lending practices? Nary a word from Hillary on that front.

Hillary might indeed do well getting into the trenches with the wise men of Feds past to craft the most efficient workout possible for the nation's distressed housing portfolio. But what about restructuring the financial industry itself? Henry Paulson has laid down the gauntlet, introducing a regulatory reform plan that embodies the industry's fondest wishes for a lighter regulatory touch. But Paulson has also made clear the magnitude of the task facing the next President, emphasizing that meaningful financial regulatory reform is generally a 2-8 year process. Obama has mapped out the lines tying political reform to regulatory reform to the larger national enterprise of reversing the tiding of rising income inequality and restoring momentum toward increasing opportunity for all Americans: "the core of our economic success is the fundamental truth that each American does better when all Americans do better; that the well being of American business, its capital markets, and the American people are aligned."

Is it prudent to believe that Obama might make meaningful progress on this 'transformational' agenda? If it strikes you as a pipe dream, vote for Hillary.

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

Who let the dogs out?

If Obama were a really good Machiavellian -- and maybe he is, it's no insult -- I might think he released the Wright video into the wild himself. It had to out sometime - Obama had warned Wright a year ago that he might have to distance himself at some point. When it hit, Hillary had been taking a beating for going negative on other fronts, so her response was late and muted. It also came after McCain had taken a bit of heat for seeking/embracing the Magee endorsement--and any case, with the Dem nomination still up for grabs, it would seem to make sense for McCain to let others do the dirty work. More broadly, as Huckabee pointed out, the storm broke in March not October -- too late to derail the nomination, too early to do maximum damage in the general. (Okay, maybe not too late to derail the nomination. But if it proved potent enough for that, it would be fatal in the general. So the timing was optimal.)

If the release was planned, we might further assume that Obama had his great speech on race already in his pocket. I personally doubt this. I'm sure Obama wasn't lying about two days of sequestration getting the speech in shape. But given Obama's documented awareness that he wasn't done dealing with Wright, I'd also be surprised if the outlines and much of the guts of that speech hadn't been brewing in him for some time.