Sunday, December 28, 2008

Auld Lang Syne

Observers of politics, myself included, tend to be preoccupied with the present and the future, and rather less concerned with the past. We neglect the past perhaps because we think that the past is settled, and hindsight is boring.

The past is anything but settled. Or more precisely, history - our accounts and interpretations of what happened in the past - is not settled. History is as much about the past as it determined by the future. Ask President Bush - he is counting on the charitable hand of the future to rehabilitate his place in history. He of all people would not like the past and history to be the same thing.

History is an interrogation and a reinterrogation of the past. When we sing our Auld Lang Synes in two days, we should remember this. We shouldn't pay lip service to "Old Long Since" as merely the prelude to the main event, as if we're already on top of events that have transpired and fully cognizant of their meaning. Our Auld Lang Syne should be more than a perfunctorily nostalgic song ushering in the new year.

After all, 2008 was a year in which previously inconceivable events occurred. Who could have imagined that Lehman Brothers would go bankrupt and the category "investment bank" would cease to exist? We need to take stock of what happened. The history of investment banking and of the federal government's regulatory stance (or lack thereof) toward them will now have to be written. Here are some other surprises along the way this year: the relative success of the "surge" in Iraq and the phenomenon called Barack Obama. We should not be stampeding towards 2009 if we still haven't come to terms with what happened in 2008. The calendrical invention of a "New Year" should not blind us to the seamless arc of history.

The future will have its way with us; we need not rush towards it. So when we sing Auld Lang Syne come Wednesday, perhaps we should linger a little on the words.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Referee and the Great Equivocator

Kathryn Kolbert, President of People for the American Way (PFAW) has strongly denounced President-elect Obama’s invitation to Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at the upcoming Inauguration ceremony. She wrote, “We strongly agree with President-elect Obama that everyone should have a seat at the table, but only those who treat others with respect should get a seat of honor.”

Liberals are annoyed that even though the Republican brand was so soundly rejected this year, Obama is not permitting them any schadenfreude. He wants it known that everyone deserves a place at his table and Kathryn Kolbert and others will not have any of it. Kolbert and her allies are putting Obama in a difficult and unenviable position. He can run from the problem they have presented to him, but he cannot hide.

There are two ways a president can try to unite a country to avoid conflict between opposing camps – but on issues on which people fundamentally differ, both are merely delay tactics. A president can either choose to take no position, or he can actively embrace the opinions of those that disagree with him. In performing the former, he becomes a Referee, holding back his views, or perhaps even disciplining himself to have none. The president becomes an impartial interest broker with no explicit stake in the outcome of politics. In performing the latter, the president becomes the Great Equivocator. Though he has an opinion and it may be public, he embraces the legitimacy of other views and attempts to make them consistent with his own. Abraham Lincoln tried, unsuccessfully, to be the former, and Barack Obama is attempting to be the latter.

Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address played the first role of Referee, saying, "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." The Abraham Lincoln of 1861 did not take a stand, and he did not take sides. He has been criticized for this, perhaps unfairly, because the Referee is really no different from the Great Equivocator.

No president can get by today by playing Referee. We demand that our leaders take a stand. Ironically, in forcing our presidents to take a stand, they have become our Great Equivocators. Great Equivocators do take a stand, but the content of what they stand for has become so diluted and neutered that they might as well have taken no stand at all. Exactly what Barack Obama’s stand is as regards gays and lesbians remains unclear despite his deceptively assertive tone. When asked to defend his invitation to Warren, he seemed upfront, saying, "let me start by talking about my own views. I think that it is no secret that I am a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans. It is something that I have been consistent on, and something that I contend -- intend to continue to be consistent on during my presidency.”

The president-elect doth protest too much in his declaration that he is “consistent” and “intend(s) to continue to be consistent.” Why repeat the obvious unless it is not? Rick Warren has similarly commented on Obama’s invitation with a platitude of equally confounding proportions, telling reporters that "you don't have to see eye to eye to walk hand in hand." He “loves gays and straights” alike, he continued. In a synergistic moment of mutual love, Warren and Obama have swept their differences under the rug with meaningless words.

While these empty statements communicate nothing, they reveal quite a bit. For Rick Warren, his words reveal an understandable vainglory. Few pastors would turn down an invitation to give the invocation at a presidential inauguration; the honor is probably worth the heresy. Obama, in extending the invitation to Warren, is signaling that Warren’s views on gays and lesbians are not repugnant enough for him to be ineligible for the invocation job. In this Obama is saying that Warren represents a legitimate and reasonable point of view. We should not be fooled to think that this represents a solution of the problem. Setting up two opposing worldviews in legitimate contrast to each other is only the overture of a contest of values to come. At some point, the clash must and will occur.

Like the first president who invited a team of rivals to form his cabinet and tried impartially to referee opposing points of view, Obama is merely buying time in his equivocation. But a house undecided cannot stand. In taking a side but also embracing another, Obama is attempting the impossible and liberals are calling him out on it. It takes a while for political impartiality and argumentative elision to dissipate, but in time, the people - of diametrically opposing opinions, one should add - will demand an answer from their government. Both the Referee and the Great Equivocator are politicians playing the highest (or the lowest) arts of politics, but these tricks can only buy time. For better or for worse, the expectations of leadership shall be foisted on Obama. At some point, he will have to take a real and politically consequential stand on matters that divide our country.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Calm before the Storm

In recent weeks, President-elect Obama has shown himself to be a cautious pragmatist. In keeping Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his cabinet, he is signaling to his liberal base that there will be no precipitous pullout from Iraq. In selecting Senator Hillary Cinton to be Secretary of State, he has endorsed her aggressive campaign stance against negotiating with rogue-nations. We no longer hear about the windfall profit tax on oil companies that Obama had proposed during the campaign trail, and the next president is probably going to wait a while to repeal the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

Barney Frank said it best in response to Obama's claim that there is only one president at a time, “I’m afraid that overstates the number of presidents we have at the present time.” There is so much frustration against the Bush presidency, and so much pent up anticipation for what is to come that if they had their way, Democrats would have moved inauguration day to the day after November 4. Liberals looking for change are doubtless disappointed and even agitated, but this is an administration-to-be saving its ammunition for the battles ahead.

The perceived prudence of the president-elect must be viewed in the light of the fact that he has no authority to do anything now. (He is not even a Senator anymore.) All the power he possesses now comes from the law of anticipated reactions. Until he takes the oath of office, he has no formal authority, though he possesses more power now than he ever will. Some call it a store of good will; journalists call it a honeymoon. But this is power that will not persist; it will start to dissipate just as Obama hits the ground running. As he finally sits down to to take the presidential test, and the distance between hope and reality, rhetoric and action narrows, his honeymoon, like the law of all good things, will end.

That is why I do not expect the prudence ex ante to continue ex post. Now is the calm before the storm. Come January 20, there shall be a flurry of activity and a big stimulus package which would include, among other things, a big infrastructure program to rebuild roads and bridges around the country. There is so much pent-up anticipation for Obama to use his electoral mandate that he is likely to benefit from the restraint he is exercising (and the angst he is causing) now. This man who has proved adept at beating the Clintons at their game during the primary season will not likely repeat their mistake of frontloading his first 100 days with more than he can handle. His legislative agenda will not be cluttered, but it will surely be bold.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Was it Al-Qaeda?

Wrong question. So what if it was or wasn't? The world can hardly heave a sigh of relief if the terrorist attacks in Mumbai were not Al-Qaeda related, though it is likely that the reason why these attacks on foreign soil has caught the American media's attention is the distinct (and delicious) possibility that there is such a link. But we should not be in such a hurry to find connections when sometimes they are tenuous.

It seems likely that what happened in Mumbai was at least as domestically instigated as it was analgous to 9/11. But some journalists are already listing the parallels. Sure, the terrorists hit the Leopold Café, a favorite haunt of tourists, a train terminal, a Jewish cultural center in Nariman House, the Oberoi-Trident hotel, and the Taj Mahal hotel. These locations may give credence to the hypothesis that the terrorists were going after Westerners, but it is also possible that they were going after cosmopolitan locals embracing modernity.

I have nothing against a unified field theory of terrorism. There may well be one. For example, resentment may be a common denominator for all those who feel marginalized in the societies in which they live. Terrorism is a tragic story of society failing to accommodate its misfits; it is a bloody story of how the perceived losers of the game push back against the winners.

But, we should not miss the trees in the thicket of the forest. The terrorist attacks in Mumbai may also be a proxy for a conventional war between two nuclear rivals, Indian and Pakistan, and if this is so its causes are as much contextual as they are universal. Indian officials have already made public their suspicion of Pakistani or Kashmiri groups. In an effort to diffuse such suspicions, Pakistan is sending a top official of its spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, to help investigate the attacks. If Pakistan is in some way implicated, then the US response would be even trickier than it already must be because we used to be ex-President Musharraf's best friend.

Because the trees always complicate the view of the forest, the last thing America should do is to ignore context in favor of a slogan. But President Bush couldn't help himself in his first public statement about the attacks. "The killers who struck this week are brutal and violent, but terror will not have the final word," said Bush. The forces of good and evil are at it again, he would have us believe.

Islamic terrorism is not a global ideology but a franchise of organizations and cells addressing precise local concerns by leasing the name, methods, and ideology of Al-Qaeda in such places as Iraq, Somalia, the Phillipines, and now India. It is a confederation of franchises of the disenfranchised. Once we realize that we are fighting a Medusa with many heads, we will understand that Evil doesn't wear Osama Bin Laden's head; it is a condition wrought by imperfect institutions all around the world and men and women who rebel - with indiscriminate methods - against their systematic failures. There is no swift single method of decapitating this Medusa. We must address these heinous acts and the problems out of which they arose country by country, strugggle by struggle.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

On Delivering the Change that We Believed in

Short of revolution in which blood is spilt and heads roll, change is a rare thing in the evolution of civilization. American presidents have tried to mimic change rhetorically - the New Freedom, the New Deal, the New Frontier, the New World Order - but the truth is the whole point of a democratic system of election is to allow for peaceful change, which is to say that elections are designed to preserve continuity amidst change, which is to say that in the end we value continuity more than we do change. And so President-elect Barack Obama has correctly intoned that the nation has only one president at a time, indicating his resistance to taking responsibility when he has no authority, while also making a subtler point that while the torch passes and the persons change, it is the torch that matters.

We are allowed to dream dreams of change in a campaign, but when government starts, the flights of rhetorical fancy and fantasy must end. So we really shouldn't be surprised that President-Elect Obama's first crop of nominations are all veterans from the last Democratic administration. Whereas the Republicans have built up a cadre of accomplished officials and advisors having won 7 out of the last 11 presidential elections, Obama has no such luxury. He needs knowledgeable people as well as experienced politicos to get any job done. His ends may be different, but Obama's means will likely be strikingly similar to the men who have come before him. In every action since he was elected, Obama has proved Hillary Clinton right that you need experience to bring about change.

Campaigns may all be run on the message of change, but government is about continuity and Obama should not allow the symbolism of his campaign to interfere with the staffing of his administration. Nothing - short of revolution and a constitutional convention - starts on a clean slate. Washington is what it is, and he who presumes to be able to sweep in and replace the reality of sticky institutions and entrenched interests without the pradoxical aid of these institutions or interests has allowed the victory of an election to get to his head.

Having sounded the clarion call for change all year, the president-elects appears to be bracing for the trench-warfare ahead by surrounding himself with a team of capable rivals. Ours is a stubborn political system rigged against change - from hortizontal to vertical decentralization - that even united party control of government may not surmont. Individual by individual, interest by interest, institution by institution, nation by nation, President-elect Barack Obama will have to bring about change that we believed in.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Why We Must Overhaul "Support Our Troops"

This past week in America we celebrated Veterans Day. It is useful to recall what we were celebrating. Veterans Day used to be called Armistice Day, which commemorated the ending of World War I, which took place on the 11th month, the 11th day and the 11th hour in 1918. This armistice marked the end of war, the day "the troops" became veterans. Unlike “Support the Troops,” Armistice Day celebrates demilitarization and peace.

In 1954, the Eisenhower administration renamed Armistice Day to Veterans Day, to commemorate the veterans of all wars who have served our nation. The day became a reminder to the rest of the nation that even as our veterans' service has ended, our turn is up. Veterans Day is not Memorial Day, which is set aside to honor the dead, and there is much more work involved in honoring living veterans than in honoring the dead. Somewhere along the way we have confused the two.

Sadly, the living and the dead share one predicament: our nation honors their service with empty words. It is easy to chant “Support Our Troops,” as it is to sing praises of our fallen heroes; it is much harder to provide medical care for veterans. Praise and slogans are devices by which we can dispense with the obligation to look after those who have sacrificed so much for us. When we praise heroism, we celebrate a hero's sacrifice as a free gift to society that exacts no obligation on the part of the State to return the favor. It is not enough that we call our veterans’ service a sacrifice. Instead, we should reconceptualize their service as a contract by which our young men and women have offered to look out for us, and we in return have a correlative duty to take care of them when they return. Let us not just "Support our Troops," but instead Honor Our Veterans.

In our highly polarized politics, words that bring us together are rare to find. But sometimes in our search for unifying language, we end up only with propaganda, as is the case with “Support our Troops.” The slogan allows us to forget that before the troops were assembled, they were first civilians, and after the troops come home, they are veterans. We make rhetorical choices, and these choices have very real implications.

It has become commonplace in progressive punditry to highlight the difference between supporting the troops and supporting the war, but this distinction cannot be as sharply made as progressives would like. The reason is that "Support Our Troops” fixates our attention on our servicemen and women’s agency at the theater of war. After all, we can only "Support Our Troops" if they remain as troops. Keep them at war, because we can only support troops, not veterans; or so the slogans slyly insinuates. “Support Our Troops” focuses our attention on the here and now, not the fallout, the injuries, the adjustment that must happen later. To focus on "Supporting Our Troops" is to prioritize the needs of those who are fighting over those who have fought, focusing our attention on the war mission by personifying it in the men and women who fight it.

The call to "Support Our Troops" also implies a troop leader to whom our troops are subordinated, whose mission they must accomplish. A troop is a military unit (originally a small force of cavalry) subordinate to a squadron and headed by the troop leader, and cavalry soldiers of private rank are called troopers. So to "Support Our Troops" is to remember their position as soldiers at the bottom of the chain of command, not citizens of a democracy who happen also to hold the awesome power of electing their Commander-in-Chief. Why are we so quick to designate our brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers as the Commander-in-Chief would designate them – as troops – and not as our fellow citizens to whom the State owes an obligation? No wonder when individual members of a phalange drop out of war because of injury, the “Support our Troops” slogan doesn’t seem to apply to them. Well, the slogan tells us exactly why: rhetorically and actually, our concern is to "Support Our Troops," not honor our veterans. Saying so has made it so.

We are not a medieval principality and our troops are not serfs to the king. Those who fight for us are citizens who made a compact to serve their country and not their king, they are not just troops committed to a mission determined by someone higher up the chain of command. We the People are at the top of the chain of command. The Commander-in-Chief owes his commission to the very people he commands – this is the paradox and majesty of our democracy. “Support Our Troops” elides this subtle fact by focusing our attention on troopers and their subordination to the troop leader. The slogan coagulates the multitude of servicemen and women into a single monolithic unit, a phalange of warriors ready to do the president’s bidding. “Support Our Troops” does not serve the country; it is propaganda that serves the Commander-in-Chief.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Needed: Soul-Searching in the GOP

Politics doesn't stop at the end of elections. Even before Senator Obama has been inaugurated, Republican politicians are regrouping on the ashes of the McCain campaign, hoping to rise pheonix-like for 2012. In particular, Governor Sarah Palin is getting more media attention than the president-elect - and that is an achievement. For a vice-presidential candidate carefully kept within closed doors, Sarah Palin sure is making the interview rounds this week. Her ambition is startling to behold; as palpable as her newfound respect for Hillary Clinton is strategic. "I would be happy to get to do whatever is asked of me to help progress this nation," said Palin at the Republican Governors Association conference in Miami on Wednesday. She left little doubt that she would like to be asked to head the GOP ticket in 2012, and if asked she would gladly oblige.

Sarah Palin is here to stay, but Republicans will do well to replace her with a Bobby Jindal or a Tim Pawlenty. Not that she is too - and we have heard this charge used before against Hillary Clinton - polarizing, but that she represents a repudiated ticket. The American people have delivered a stinging rejection of the McCain-Palin ticket, and this post-election Palinmania is nothing more than the last grumblings of a nostalgic conservative base wishfully thinking that an authentic conservative such as Palin could have won this year. This is stubborn and out-dated thinking, an unproductive "what-if" counterfactual that will only hinder the Republican party's ability to move on.

The GOP must do a soul-searching post-mortem of the elections, and then exorcize all that contributed to their losing streak in the last two years. Looking to the past will be no help to the party's future. Instead GOP leaders should look to Obamcans for clues for how to navigate our new political era: moderate Republicans such as Chuck Hagel, Ken Duberstein, Paul O'Neill, William Weld, Susan Eisenhower, and Colin Powell can help massage the Party back to the middle when Sarah Palin will only drag the party back to the deep end. When once liberals had to fight to win back the Reagan Democrats, now conservatives must fight to win back the Obamacans. Over is the Age of Reagan; this is the Age of Obama.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Good Morning and Good Night in America



Now that the elections are over, journalists are trying to drum up interest in the transition, the court intrigue of impending appointments, the personalities of the new DC aristocracy. But most citizens would have none of it. While the punditry will keep up its obsession, the American people, Rip Van Winkle will go back to sleep. And that is not a bad thing. This is our democracy, where citizens are free to go back to their business once they have picked their new president, who should now be free for the next four years to exercise his own judgment on their behalf. We will reassemble again soon enough to judge him, but until then, we wish him good luck and godspeed.

Throughout the late 90s, it became fashionable to decry the disengagement of citizens, the solipsism of citizens living politics vicariously via television and bowling alone. This year we saw that the American people can be awoken and roused to action. When in crisis and dire need, we have demonstrated our ability to rise to the occasion to care, to engage, and to vote. Most times our message is divided and diluted, but once every generation We the People speak with a stikingly clear voice, commanding and responding to a new leader's call for change. This is America, where a revolution can happen every generation, where our covenant with each other is reaffirmed and its meaning redefined.

If we are ever to end the permanent campaign - the pox on American politics - we should embrace and endorse this aspect of representative democracy that permits citizens to go back to their own private affairs and allows our officials to conduct the nation's business. Ours is not a direct democracy in which citizens are asked to approve and to bless every governmental decision to be made; ours is a representative democacy in which the people choose to defer their opinions to the judgment of their elected representatives. This is the paradoxical luxury enjoyed by a democratic people who remain sovereign even as they are governed.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

What President-elect Obama should read

From Inside Higher Ed

The president-elect should read Preparing to be President: The Memos of Richard E. Neustadt (AEI Press, 2000), edited by Charles O. Jones. Richard Neustadt was a scholar-practitioner who advised Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton, and, until his passing in 2003, also the dean of presidential studies. Most of the memos in this volume were written for president-elect John Kennedy, when the country was, as it is now, ready for change.

At the end of every election, “everywhere there is a sense of a page turning ... and with it, irresistibly, there comes the sense, ‘they’ couldn’t, wouldn’t, didn’t, but ‘we’ will,” Neustadt wrote years ago, reminding presidents-elect that it is difficult but imperative that they put the brake on a campaign while also starting the engine of a new administration. Campaigning and governing are two different things.

Buoyed by their recent victory, first-term presidents have often over-reached and under-performed, quickly turning hope into despair. If there is one common thread to Neustadt’s memos, it is the reminder that there is no time for hubris or celebration. The entire superstructure of the executive branch — the political appointees who direct the permanent civil service — is about to lopped off, and the first and most critical task of the president-elect is to surround himself with competent men and women he can work with and learn from.

In less than three months, the president-elect will no longer have the luxury of merely making promises on the campaign trail. Now he must get to work.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Arc of a Pendulum

Not all elections were created equal.

In 1800, Thomas Jefferson took his newly formed Jeffersonian-Republican party to victory on an anti-Federalist platform, arguing convincingly that George Washington and John Adams (with the Alien and Sedition Acts) had over-centralized power in the federal government.

In 1828, Andrew Jackson stood against the National Bank and federal funds for internal improvements in his contest with John Quincy Adams. The election inaugurated Jacksonian democracy and an anti-Jacksonian Whig/Republican party that would, together, create the oldest surviving two-party system in the history of the world.

The central question at the ballot box in 1860 was not slavery, but the states' rights to secede in order to preserve the peculiar institution. This election was the purest expression of the Federalist and anti-Federalist debate of the Founding generation and it would establish the Republican party as the dominant party in American politics for decades to come.

In 1896, Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan told his fellow democrats as well as members of the Populist party that he would not allow the industrial north and the coasts to force the gold standard on silver supporters, mostly farmers in the agricultural south and midwest. McKinley relied heavily on finance, railroads, and industry for his support and cemented the Republicans as the party of business.

The era of hands-off goverment came to an end in 1932, when FDR would offer a new deal for the American people, promising the helping hand of government when before the people waited for the invisible hand of the economy.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan declared that government was not the solution to our problems but the problem itslf. The era of big government and of the welfare queen was over, as was the New Deal coalition.

Each of these elections heralded the first ("Revolution of 1800"), second (Jacksonian Democracy), third (Civil War), fourth ("System of 1896"), fifth ("New Deal"), and sixth (Reagan Revolution) party systems in American history. They were characterized by relatively high voter participation or turnout and an enduring switch in partisan loyalties. The issues may have changed, but the central axis of debate has always been the same in each of these critical elections: what is the proper and constitutional role of the federal government? The is a question as old as our constitution, and one that triggers an electoral revolution every 3 decades or so. In the grand sweep of history, there are no winners and no losers, just the arc of a pendulum.

This year, John McCain has campaigned on a message of cleaning up the corruption and pork-barrel spending in Washington and Barack Obama has campaigned on the promise of what citizens can do for their country and what government can do in return for them. Obama has chastized McCain for saying that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong" while McCain has condemned Obama for trying to "spread the wealth." More than any election since 1980, this is, once again, an election about whether government is the solution to our problems or the problem itself. "Yes, we can" implies "No, we haven't yet." If Barack Obama wins on Tuesday, the Democratic majority in all branches of government will likely chant, "now, we will."

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Can We Trust the Polls?

Which polls do we believe in when there is so much variance in the results? The polls are volatile now because we really don't have a good metric for assessing the elusive category pollsters call "likely voters," a category especially difficult to define in a year with so many new voter registrations are from demographics - youth (71%) and blacks (25%) - who have not typically turned out to vote in significant numbers.

As think-thanks and universities seeking a public profile are jumping on the polling bandwagon, as are new PR companies and media outlets with their own agendas, we are better off over-weighting the results from the gold-standard of the polling establishment, Gallup.

In only one time in the history of polling has a candidate won the election after trailing in the Gallup poll in the week before election. The candidate was Ronald Reagan. The reason why Reagan soared in the final week of October in 1980 was because of his strong debate performance. Without a similar event occuring in 2008, a reversal and repudiation of the polls would be unprecedented and improbable.

Forecasting science is more science than art or ideology. If politicians didn't believe in polls they wouldn't be commissioning them. It is the job of pundits to spin the interpretation of polls, as it is the job of partisans to manipulate the nature of the sample size. But if done well, polls can tell us rather precisely what we think. And since 1/3 of the electorate will vote before Nov 4, these polls are indicating how early voters are voting.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The State of the Presidential Race

1. A new WSJ poll shows Obama up by 10 points. Tucked away on p. 26 (Question 28a) of this report is a significant finding: when asked which two factors most bothered poll respondents about John McCain's candidacy, 34% thought that "his vice presidential running mate is not qualified to be president" and 23% thought that "he would continue George W. Bush's policies." Unbelievably, Palin has turned out to be a heavier mill stone on McCain's neck than George Bush. If Palin Effect > Bradley Effect, McCain shall be hoisted by his own petard.

(Palin is also a comedian's Nirvana. When asked by a third-grader today what the role of the VP was, she said: "They're in charge of the United States Senate." Priceless.)

2. CO + VA = FL or OH

It has come to that. A luxurious electoral map with many avenues to 270 for Obama, and a shrinking map for McCain. It has been a long time that a Democrat candidate has dared comtemplate electoral victory without FL or OH. Even as Obama is slightly ahead in both states, it now appears that he does not need them.

McCain on the other hand is trying to persuade Plumber Joes in PA to stick with him. Things are so dire that McCain is fighting for his political life in a must-win "battleground" state that has Obama up 11 points.

McCain is too focussed on a Karl Rovian state-by-state strategy. Granted the way to the White House is through the electoral college, but this conventional wisdom is really only relevant in close races such as in 2000 and 2004. McCain needs to narrow the national poll numbers so that he can regain competitive status in a a number of states (WV, MN, MT and ND - all of which have Obama up by at least 5 points now). That means move away from the pander-to-Plumber-Joe strategy. McCain is being blind-sighted by a piecemeal state-by-state strategy when Obama has wisely played (and been fortunate enough to be able to play) a 50 state strategy and a national message. Focused on the tree, McCain has lost sight of the forest.

3. If this will turn out to be a landslide electon (at least in terms of the electoral college), it will emerge because of the incredible voter registration effort and the ground turn-out operation of the Obama campaign. In the caucus states, in the West, and in the South, Team Obama is welcoming millions of people into political action. This is how he has established leads in places like NM, CO, and VA - not merely by changing the minds of existing voters, but the big gains are really coming from drawing unregistered or disaffected voters back into the public sphere.

For years scholars have debated the relative importance of high turnout and a maximally participatory democracy, with Bruce Ackerman at Yale arguing that low turnout during routine years are OK, as long as "We the People" turn out in huge numbers in critical moments in American history to fulfill their civic duty and to redefine the direction of national politics. 2008 may be one such year.

(Obama's lead is in the 18-34 age group, where he is outpolling McCain by over 30 points. None of these people were alive during the Vietnam war, when McCain earned his credentials as a patriotic war veteran. The Democratic party, in picking Obama over Clinton, representing the old Democratic parry, has registered its desire to move on from the debilitating debates over Vietnam, race, and labor relations. That is why McCain's war record isn't affecting Obama's lead, it is why the Ayers connection as well as the socialism charge have remained politically stillborn. These are old attacks tangential to the new direction of liberalism in our time.)

Tragically, McCain's best chance of turning all this around is to focus on voter supression.

4. There is also a darker tale to be told if Obama wins. The truth is much that is going on now would not have been possible without the formidable coffers of the Obama campaign and the emerging techniques of fundraising via the internet. If picking Palin was McCain's biggest mis-step this campaign season, watch out for an emerging conventional wisdom in a few weeks that a future presidential candidate who does not opt out of public financing will do so at his/her own peril.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Rehabilitation of Liberalism



Whatever happens at the polls in two weeks, the pendulum has swung back in Liberalism's direction. Economically, culturally, and ideologically, liberal answers are regaining legitimacy.

After all, even though the Democratic party nominated a liberal anti-war candidate over a more moderate establishment canditate this year, and the Republicans turned to a maverick with a reputation for bi-partisanship, the Democratic candidate is ahead in practically every battleground state that George Bush won in 2004.

How quickly times have changed. Whereas John Kerry was swiftboated in 2004, Obama (like Reagan) is developing Teflon powers as he continues to ride his surge in the polls despite stories about Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, and ACORN. When terrorism was issue number one, people preferred a Republican president; but when the economy becomes issue number one, people prefer a Democratic president.

This is why Sarah Palin's charge that "'spreading the wealth' sounds a little like socialism" isn't getting much traction. Spreading the wealth sounds like sharing the wealth, and these days such thoughts aren't all that unpopular. After all, the Bush administration's decision to obtain equity stakes in several private banks in return for a liquidity injection isn't exactly laissez faire.

Culturally, the country appears to have moved on from those culture wars we heard so much about just four years ago. Just this year, the California and Connecticut Supreme Courts' decisions to legalize same-sex marriage and the lackluster response from the conservative community indicates the shifting cultural tectonics. Abortion isn't such a hot button issue this year either. Anti-abortion Catholics have endorsed Obama in significant numbers. If anything, McCain's selection of a running mate who will not make an exception to her pro-life position for rape and incest reveals a campaign completely in illusion about where the country is culturally. McCain's contempy for the "health" exception for women will seriously damage his chances with women. (What is the point of picking Sarah Palin to try to attract Hillary Clinton's supporters only to repel them thricefold with a dismissive remark like that?)

We also see the ideological shift in cross-party endorsements for Obama. Breaking a century and a half year old tradition, the Chicago Tribune has endorsed Barack Obama. Christopher Buckley's defection is both substantially and symbolically powerful, as were the endorsements of Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar. And now Colin Powell has joined the bandwagon, characterizing Obama as a "transformational" leader. The last time we saw such language being used to describe a potential president was during the landslide and realigning elections of 1932 and 1980.

In the following days to come, Republicans will push back to insist that this is still a "center-right" country - as Karl Rove and Charles Krauthhammer have done - and they will try to remind Americans that Democratic control of all branches of government may not be a good idea. But if the result of the White House race is still unclear, no one doubts that the Democrats will strengthen their majorities in both the House and the Senate. Average Joe, the median independent voter has moved to the Left of Plumber Joe, the median Republican voter. It may be time to excavate "liberal" and "liberalism" from the dictionary of political incorrectness.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Third Debate

John McCain was at his best this third debate. He was fighting tooth and nail to change the game, and so the base loved it. But Obama's momentum is so strong now that pundits are losing their objectivity, and unwilling to concede that Obama really wasn't all that spectacular in this debate. He didn't slip up, but I'm not sure that his performance merited the 20 point victory that polls are assigning him. For better or worse, democracy and public opinion polls institutionalize herd-mentality. The stampede is headed Left.

Joe the Plumber was at the heart of his debate. Not Average Joe, mind you, but Plumber Joe; registered Republican white male voter living in Ohio. Yes, the precise demographic the McCain campaign is scrambling to retain as the Obama machine wages war all over the electoral map. Not content with a ten point lead in Virginia - a state that has not gone Democratic since 1964 - and a tie in North Carolina, now there is talk of the Obama campaign moving resources into West Virginia and back to Georgia. This is a relentless, aggressive, war machine looking not for a victory, but a routing. Forced to defend his base at every turn, Senator McCain has scarcely spent any time addressing or courting independents this election season. Cornered and embattled, the McCain campaign has not many ways left to 270. His fate is akin to threading a needle, as Karl Rove put it in the Wall Street Journal.

Contingency may well be all McCain can hope for now. The fundamentals are in place - an unpopular Republican president, an unpopular war, and an economic crisis - a toxic trifecta that even Karl Rove, Mark Hanna, and Martin Van Buren ("the magician") combined cannot make disappear.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

What McCain is Doing Wrong



This is a Democratic year, so an argument can be made that because John McCain is fortune's knave, he just has no chance this year.

But he's definitely not helping his cause. This is a time when Americans are looking at the plunging Dow Jones, their pocket books and their 401k accounts, and the McCain campaign is talking about Bill Ayers? This is suicide for the campaign, and when all is said and done, the Republican party will have to do some soul-searching about the role and influence of the culturally and obstinately conservative base in the party who have slung a millstone (together with Sarah Palin) around McCain's neck.

Playing to the base worked in 2004 when the culture wars were still alive. Ronald Inglehart showed us a long time ago that post-materialism is a privilege only for those who are not preoccupied with pocket book matters. But this is no time to worry about the rights of the unborn or the rights of the married - Sarah Palin's new tack. This is not even time to worry about Obama's alleged ties to a terrorist (amazingly, because four years ago this would have had maximal traction on an already swiftboated candidate).

Even though the country has unequivocably moved on (to other fears), at every point in this campaign, McCain has played to the culturally conservative base of the Republican party as if we were still in 2000 or 2004 - his performance at the Saddleback Faith Forum, his choice of Sarah Palin, his attacks on Obama's associations with Bill Ayers reveal a candidate petulantly locked in a different era. It is as if he has taken a principled stand not to run ahead of the political curve. This is foolish nostalgia, evidence of an ailing ideological empire refusing to innovate.

Why is McCain turning to the old tricks even as they are no longer effective? Perhaps there is a general (and historically repetitive) puzzle here to unpack: why do politicians turn to bankrupt strategies - there you go again, as Reagan so powerfully put it to Jimmy Carter in 1980 - even when these tactics have aged well past their prime? Because for better or for worse, every democratic politician is bound to an ideology that was once powerful and dominant enough to carry him/her into power but bound also to the fact that even the greatest ideology, like the greatest empire, must obey the law of gravity. Crying wolf usually works particularly well the first couple of times - indeed it creates a habit because it is initially rewarded with positive feedback. So politicians (and their political descendants) will keep crying wolf again and again, right up to and past the point of diminishing returns. A new wolf cry heralds a new era - change, we usually call it - and the cycle starts all over again. There is one constant however: what goes up must come down.

John McCain will do well to remember that the only reason why he emerged victorious in his party's primary contests was because his party calculated that the maverick from the senate was best positioned to cry a different tune in this election other than wolf. Only a maverick can postpone the law of gravity, but maverick McCain has not been. Paradoxically, just when the Republican party really needed a maverick, John McCain is faithfully towing the party line. All he has done so far has been to chant the same tune - we want victory in Iraq, no negotiation with terrorists, we want to lower taxes, we want to control spending, Obama is "that one." There you go again, Senator McCain. Stop crying wolf or you could be crying on November 4.

John McCain needs to be a New Republican, a real maverick if he is to have any chance at all of winning this election. He should think Eisenhower and (yes even) Nixon. Anything but Reagan and Bush.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Second Presidential Debate

Town halls meetings under the watchful eye of a moderator are great for one thing - they demand a little bit more substance from candidates than normal because they have been warned before hand that they will not be rewarded by applause but (enforced) silence. So there were a whole lot more frowns than there were any hoots in tonight's debate. Because both candidates were being closely watched, there were relatively less attacks, and more I-feel-your-pains. Both still pandered - neither would admit that the economy was in for it for a while before it would get better.

While Obama moved around less and looked straight into the eye of the questioner more often and for longer, McCain circled and wandered around the audience. Worse still, he seemed to lose his cool when Obama asked for follow-up time, and McCain protested only to testily quip "fine by me, fine by me." He needs to stop using "my friends" at every turn, because he does not pull it off the way Reagan would have or George W Bush does. Instead, McCain often sounded inauthentic and uneasy, even presumptuous. Obama on the other hand was warm, quick on his feet, and was particularly good when pivoting on the final question about what didn't he know to talk about uncertainty and leadership.

This was a must-win night for McCain, but he failed to deliver a breakthrough. He did have a new plan for the Secretary of Treasury to buy out bad mortgages, but it's unlikely to move minds now that the broad thrust of his economic policies are well known. Even Frank Luntz over at Foxnews found that more participants responded to Obama than to McCain, as did Soledad O'Brien over at CNN.

I don't necessarily think that Obama did that much better than McCain. The fact that elite opinions are starting to line up in forecasting an Obama victory suggest a momentum that is now indisputably in full swing. For better or for worse, democracy must live with the fundamentals of mass psychology - everyone wants to be on the winning team and herd mentality reinforces belief systems. Maybe there'll be an October surprise, but I suspect that the current economic crisis constitutes an October tragedy that far overshadows any possible surprise. The Obama campaign will love tomorrow's headlines.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Sarah Palin Will Not Debate

Obama supporters were surprised that Sarah Palin didn't trip up in her debate with Joe Biden; but they nevertheless thought that she was incoherent through most of it. Palin's supporters were thrilled that she came back after multiple setbacks with her interviews with Katie Couric with a slamdunk. We have become so divided as a nation that we can't even agree on which is night and which is day.

The reason, I think, is because Sarah Palin did not answer Gwen Ifill's questions. When a student refuses to take a test, we cannot meaningfully compare her performance with another.

Right at the outset of the debate, Palin announced her contempt for the debate format: "I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also." Palin's opponents cried foul, but her suppporters applauded her contempt of the media and Washington's rules.

Here was Gwen Ifill's first question: "The House of Representatives this week passed a bill, a big bailout bill ... was this the worst of Washington or the best of Washington that we saw play out?"

This was Palin's first non-answer: "You know, I think a good barometer here, as we try to figure out has this been a good time or a bad time in America's economy, is go to a kid's soccer game on Saturday, and turn to any parent there on the sideline and ask them, "How are you feeling about the economy?"

Biden did a classic debate pivot, but he did try to answer the question, saying "I think it's neither the best or worst of Washington, but it's evidence of the fact that the economic policies of the last eight years have been the worst economic policies we've ever had."

Consider Ifil's third question: "Governor, please if you want to respond to what he (Biden) said about Sen. McCain's comments about health care?" and Palin's putulant non-reply "I would like to respond about the tax increases."

Or Ifill's seventh question: "What promises have you and your campaigns made to the American people that you're not going to be able to keep?" Sarah Palin tried her hand at the pivot trick too: "I want to go back to the energy plan, though, because this is -- this is an important one that Barack Obama, he voted for in '05." By pivot I mean, tangent.

In her closing statement, Palin again made clear where her priorities were. "I like being able to answer these tough questions without the filter, even, of the mainstream media kind of telling viewers what they've just heard. I'd rather be able to just speak to the American people like we just did." Speak to the American people she did, but answer these tough questions she did not.

We should stop pretending that debates really happen in American politics; even the four organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates no longer qualify. Masquerading for debate, all we get are solipsistic televised addresses delivered to us in alternating segments. Last Thursday, Gwen Ifill was little more than a two-minute time keeper with no control of how Biden and especially Palin used their time.

Let us remember why we care for debates. Because meaningful exchanges between alternative voices stand at the heart of democracy. By controlling for question, we can see how candidates measure up to each other substantively. Instead, American politics today is deluged by speeches and not debates, assymetric communications in which politicians talk past each other rather than to each other.

Avoiding the questions and eschewing a debate may be good for a candidate but it is bad for democracy. And we should not allow Sarah Palin or any other candidate to tell us that democracy is only about connecting with people and not also debating the issues. Only demagogues insist on trading directly with the people without the watchful eye - Palin calls it the "filter" - of the media or a dissenting interlocutor. Democracy is best served by reciprocity and deliberation, not one-sided assertions to one's base with no follow-up questions.

While Palin connected last Thursday, she hardly debated. As supporter Michelle Malkin revealingly put it: "She was warm, fresh, funny, confident, energetic, personable, relentless, and on message." Seven ayes for style, an aye for substance, and nay to debate. The nays have it.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Palin Stops the Haemorrhage with her Winks

Sarah Palin succeeded tonight in stemming the haemorrhage she's caused her ticket. She was likeable. Very likeable, according to most conservatives who are heaving a collective sigh of relief. Tentative at first, one could almost hear her thoughts cranking up in each answering sequence when the prepared lines came back to her. At the crest of her thoughts, she was on message. (Though her debate coach apparently didn't care to correct her pronunciation of nu-cu-ler - but then neither did Bush's.) Dick Morris, Karl Rove, and Sean Hannity think Palin delivered a "shock and awe." Liberals will disagree, but they should remember that the meaning of eloquence is defined in partisan terms. (Explain the difference and you should win the nobel prize in American politics.)

Palin's relative success was to be expected to the extent that she didn't have to deal with follow up questions that would force her to deal with specifics, and she was free not to answer the questions Gwen Ifill posed; indeed she was free to stray. It is enough these days to deliver the punchlines, nevermind how you argued yourself there. That said, while Sarah Palin's winks may have trumped Biden's words for her supporters, there are significantly more Americans today who are looking for executive competence than (as was the case in 2000 and 2004) executive congeniality.

Biden was in attack mode tonight. He was probably told that he best direct his fire to McCain, not to the lady standing beside him. So in his restraint, Palin was afforded the space to deliver her homey punchlines. She tried the "there you go ahead line" (dwelling on the past) when Biden attacked Bush, but that didn't go very far because as Biden cleverly put it in reply, the past eight years is prologue.

Was this a game changer? Depends on who you ask, and where they set the goalposts. About 85 % of FOX viewers thought Palin won and about 65% of CNN viewers thought Biden won - surprise, surprise. Republicans sincerely believe it was a game changer, because the bleeding has stopped. Democrats don't think that Palin did anything to hurt Obama, so this debate won't bring a point of inflection. Both sides are right. (But I'll look at whether the now Obama-leaning states that Palin had once yanked away from the Democrats such as MI return to toss-up status in the next few days to see who was more right.) What we can safely say is that with the potential toxin on the McCain ticket now neutralized - because the calls for Palin to bow out from Republican ranks will now cease - the VPs will now recede to the background as they have for almost every other election cycle, as Obama and McCain will return to the foreground. Next stop, Nashville, TN. But let it be said that the concrete is quickly setting on the extant poll numbers.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

VP Debate Stakes

Sarah Palin is in serious danger of Dan Qualying herself. She doesn't know what the Bush doctrine is, she can't explain why her experience as Governor gives her foreign policy credentials other than Alaska's proximity to Russia, and now, we find out that she cannot name another Supreme Court decision other than Roe v. Wade that she disagrees with. Let's stretch ourselves well past the boundary of the benefit of the doubt and assume that Sarah Palin knows the answers, she's just not quick enough to deliver them on a moment's notice - yet I'm not sure whether it is an exoneration or an indictment of her that the only excuse for Palin's ignorance is her dullness.

Whichever it is, even conservatives have publicly questioned the wisdom of the Palin pick. As Charles Krauthammer wrote, "The vice president's only constitutional duty of any significance is to become president at a moment's notice. Palin is not ready. Nor is Obama. But with Palin, the case against Obama evaporates." McCain's repeated attack that Obama "just doesn't understand" in their first debate did not and could not work because it was an argument standing on stilts compared to his vice-presidential nominee.

If there is anything more dangerous in American politics than an intelligent anti-intellectual who insidiously stokes public opinion with the dark arts of demagoguery, it is an ignorant anti-intellectual who inadvertently energizes her base because of her seemingly unreflected positions on core conservative positions. If Palin doesn't resurrect her reputation in tomorrow's debate, McCain will pay dearly for what is increasingly being perceived to be his spectacular lack of judgement in picking her. For as things stand, Palin appears to be little more than a demographic place-mat for potential women and conservative voters, and a shrinking one at that. Hillary Clinton supporters are in asking in agony - THIS is the woman representing us as one of the four candidates fighting for occupancy in the White House? If Hillary Clinton put 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, Sarah Palin seems intent on welding it back to its originally pristine condition.

If Palin is not to remain the butt of every late night comedian's joke, then she must establish herself as a legitimate national political figure tomorrow night. She's surely going to be likeable, but will she be respected and can she resuscitate her professional reputation? Liberal women should take heed when they mock Palin - justified as they may be - for it says something about our society that it is enough for men like George Bush to be likeable and get elected, but congeniality, at this moment, might not be enough for Palin. The anti-intellectual strategy is a gendered strategy with assymetric payoffs to women and to men.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Senator Obama Doesn't Understand"

In the first presidential debate on Friday night, Senator McCain tried repeatedly to cast Senator Obama as a naive lightweight who does not understand foreign policy. Seven times, McCain laid the charge that Obama just doesn't get it.

-"Senator Obama doesn't understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy."
-"And, yes, Senator Obama calls for more troops, but what he doesn't understand, it's got to be a new strategy..."
-"What Senator Obama doesn't seem to understand is that if without precondition you sit down across the table from someone ..."
-"I don't think that Senator Obama understands that there was a failed state in Pakistan when Musharraf came to power."
-"If we adopted Senator Obama's set date for withdrawal, then that will have a calamitous effect in Afghanistan and American national security interests in the region. Senator Obama doesn't seem to understand there is a connection between the two."
-"Again, a little bit of naivete there. He doesn't understand that Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia."
-"Senator Obama still doesn't quite understand -- or doesn't get it -- that if we fail in Iraq, it encourages al Qaeda."

In schools, in the boardroom, even around the kitchen table, people tend to demonstrate their knowledge by proving what they think to be true rather than by attacking their interlocutors for their failure to understand. McCain was deploying a peculiar form of persuasion that we see often in our politics: he was trying to make a self-referential claim by an other-referential jab. By calling Obama naive he was trying to imply that he was not. Since it is bad taste in politics (as in real life) to be a self-professed know-it-all, it was, McCain probably thought, a classier act to simply dismiss Obama as naive and allow the conclusion that he understood foreign policy better to follow.

Yet this was exactly the failed strategy that Al Gore used against George Bush in their presidential debates in 2000. Although some pundits thought that Al Gore was scoring debate points, many viewers came away thinking that he was a condescending know-it-all.
Even the most artful rhetorician of our time, President Ronald Reagan, had to strike the right balance of tone and humor to successfully get away with his "there you go again" rejoinder. This well executed line in his debate with President Carter in 1980 was one of the defining moments of that campaign. But it gained traction only because there was a growing consensus in the electorate that the decades-long liberal formula for solving the country's economic woes was obsolete and in need of overhaul. "Do you still not get it" only works when the audience has already gotten it and moved on to newer solutions, leaving one's interlocutor alone in the dustheap of history.

The problem is that in 2008, Obama is not alone in his views. There are significantly more voters tired of George Bush's unilateralism, his hard-headed focus on the war on terrorism in Iraq, and his refusal to negotiate with rogue nations than there are voters who would prefer to stay his course. Unlike in 1980 when the country was moving to the political right, this year, many Independents will be apt to wonder if it is McCain who still doesn't get it.

Senator McCain would do well to remember that the primary season is over and he needs to stop speaking only to his base if he wants to narrow Obama's lead in the polls. The strategy of calling one's debate partner naive (a euphemism for a fool) does not often get one extra points from neutral bystanders, independent voters. If Republicans were, like McCain, exasperated on Friday night with their perception that Obama just wouldn't see the obvious, McCain probably appeared condescending to Independents with the forced grins by which he greeted Obama's alleged displays of naivete. McCain needs to stop harping on the charge that Obama doesn't get it but start proving that HE gets it - that many Independents and Democrats are looking to restore the country's relationship with the rest of the world, that there are many Americans who see the war in Iraq as a foreign policy tangent to the brewing problems in Afghanistan. Maybe Senator Obama doesn't get it. But do you, Senator McCain?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Cracks of Neo-Liberalism Appear

First we allowed the mortgage companies and banks to become massive oligarchies. Then we excused the shadow banking system of investment banks and hedge funds from the normal regulations other banks are subject to because we believed that the consequences of competitive (read greedy) behavior are natural and justified. Then these banks overextended themselves and by their oligarchic might are now in a position to seriously threaten the stability of the US and global economic system. So now the federal government must step in to buy up their rotten assets at a price higher than what they are worth, wait and hope that these prices go back up before they are returned to the market.

Secretary Paulson's solution is no more flawed than the excesses that brought us to where we are. It is surely argument by fait accompli, but it's central thrust is also compelling. The problem is no longer illiquidity but insolvency, and because some banks are (woefully) "too big to fail," government probably needs to step in. Yes, a bail-out socializes losses, but that is exactly the point of a bail-out. When in crisis, we don't point fingers, we find a solution first. Wall Street may be putting a knife to Main Street, but in the end Mr Jone's savings does depend on what happens to the Dow Jones.

Democrats are not the ones trying to torpedo the plan, now improved with some oversight provisions. They're OK with government intervention and regulation, of course. They even have the votes, but they don't want to go without consensus. It's rank-and-file Republicans who are crying foul and refusing to tow the presidential line. What a far cry from those halycon days when President Bush could snap his fingers and his party would dance for him. But right now, hard-headed ideologues are back at their game. Republican defectors in congress do not want taxpayers to be saddled with bad assets, and they certainly don't want government to own equities in these hitherto private banks. Why? Because they don't want liberals to have any excuse to rebuild the size and scope of the federal government they have so assiduously sought to dismantle in the last 30 years. Government is just bad news, for these folks, come what may. But experience has finally tampered George Bush; hard ideologue he is no more. "I'm a strong believer in free enterprise, so my natural instinct is to oppose government intervention. I believe companies that make bad decisions should be allowed to go out of business. Under normal circumstances, I would have followed this course. But these are not normal circumstances, " he told the nation on Wednesday night. One thing is for sure - a house divided cannot stand. The hegemonic days of neo-liberalism are coming to a close. Like it or not, regulation is back in vogue - just listen to the presidential candidates.

Let's talk politics. What's John McCain's potential value-add here? Bring Republicans back on board with the president? That won't do, for it would brand him as a lackey of the Bush team. It's not clear that he could even if he wanted to. He's always been the maverick to cross the aisle to the other side (be it to Kennedy or to Feingold) and not been the best at rallying his own crowd. That's what a maverick means - a good defector but not a a good uniter (of his base)- a campaign slogan Obama people could exploit. In any case, McCain's official position now is that he has no position. If he isn't going to take a position, surely he could have been remained indifferent while on the campaign trail?

As McCain has left the stump, Joe Biden and congresssional Democrats have continued on the attack. He is taking a gamble that the rate of deterioration of his poll numbers that probably would have happened anyway this week would have been steeper had he remained on the campaign than if he had taken a time out. I'm not sure this gamble will prove any wiser than his previous one, Palin.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

McCain's Campaign Suspension

Today the McCain campaign announced their candidate would suspend his campaign. He could be calling a time out when things aren't looking so good for him politically or he could be genuinely hoping to return to Capitol Hill to convince fellow Republicans to support President Bush's and Secretary Paulson's bailout bill. Ironically, McCain's decision to suspend his campaign (and even to postpone Friday's debate) is going to look more like a gimmick than an act of statesmanship because our logocracy craves words - even if they must be campaign words - in our hour of need.

The move certainly fits an emerging pattern. This is a campaign of high stakes, big moves and about-turns. The Sarah Palin pick was the first maverick move. This one is the second, and equally risky. They reveal a flailing campaign that believes that the electoral fundamentals tend too powerfully against them, and only big risk moves give them a chance to shake up the prevailing dynamics. Specific to what's on the table in Capitol Hill right now, McCain has to walk a very tight rope. A true maverick would not walk hand in hand with President Bush, but this tethered maverick will also have to pay for the sins of his president if financial collapse ensues.

41 days before election, every decision will be (and therefore is) seen as a political tactic. Some say McCain is hoping to cancel Friday's debate because he knows that he's not going to be able to score many foreign policy debate points at a time when everyone is thinking about Wall Street. But whatever McCain's intentions, privately, everyone in congress knows that the campaign suspension is a political stunt at least in the precise sense that nobody thinks that the presence or absence of John McCain will make or break a deal. If anything he could be complicating very delicate discussions. Congress is a legislative body of 535 individuals, led by committee chairpersons and party leaders. It's the leadership, specific committee chairpersons and members who are striking deals behind the scene. John McCain does not belong to any pertinent committee, so his role in all of this is comparatively trivial. And he knows it, if not he would not have been on the campaign road for most of the past year. Washington can do without one senator.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Paradox of Logocracy



A character in Washington Irving's 1807 work, Salmagundi, once described America as a logocracy, or a government of words. Words created this country, words constituted it, words are necessary in these trying and confusing times because they can calm markets and soothe nerves. But our logocracy was uncharacteristically reticent this past week. President Bush's two minute speech last Thursday - no questions allowed - offering nothing concrete was anything but an extended fireside chat. The aspirants to his job weren't particularly loquacious or substantive either. McCain proposed a sack and a commission, while Obama waited to offer a set of ambiguous principles. Bush, McCain and Obama were scrambling to catch up with events that have overtaken them because political and partisan scripts offer only simplistic and rigid cookie cutter solutions to a deliquescent reality. The truth was they didn't know what to say and they didn't want to be boxed in.

As our politicians have stood down, the expert bureaucrats have taken over. In our moment of need, our logocracy paused and some believe, rightly so. This is not the time for words, Secretary Henry Paulson seemed to be saying as he met privately with members of congress. As Paulson put it: ""We can spend a lot of time talking about how it happened and how we got here. But we have to get through the night first." Better well done than well (or nothing) said, the Treasury Secretary seemed to be saying.

That is not to say that Paulson's $700b proposal for the federal government to buy out the mortgage industry's bad loans has not met with criticism, and a rising tide of it. Democrats (and some Republicans) want something for Main Street in return for what Wall Street gets, but they won't get very much. In highlighting the severity of the situation to lawmakers, Paulson was hoping to preempt congressional obstructionism, implying that (Democratic) justice will stand in the way of efficiency. It also allowed him to avoid having to explain away the moral hazard of bailouts to fellow economic conservatives. Now is not the time for pointing fingers, crying injustice, or as Phil Gramm would put it, whining.

Can we trust the expert though? There is a pressing if frightening sense that we must, especially in an election year when being seen as obstructionist may be more politically damaging than doing something/anything. For this reason, congress will be pressured to settle for Paulson's fait accompli with some minor alterations. How ironic that in a moment of crisis we reject words as obstacles to action, but it is precisely in moments of emergency that democracy especially demands justification and assurance by way of words. This is the paradox of our logocracy.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

September Surprise!



Neither McCain nor Obama won their party's nomination because of their competence on the economy. Many Republicans wanted to reward McCain for his principled stand on the "surge" and many Democrats wanted to punish Hillary Clinton for her vote on the Iraq war. (Perhaps we need to think about the consequences of a really long campaign season when we pick candidates who may no longer be relevant a few months down the road - the alternative could have been Romney versus Clinton.) Well, the September surprise is here and both nominees are now scrambling to get ahead and on top of the new issue du jour. Obama has regained a slight lead, bolstered in no small part by his new flurry of negative ads and the McCain's gaffe on "fundamentals." More important, if the markets continue to tumble, this election isn't going to be close.

For these are among the worst economic conditions this nation has faced since the Great Depression. Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Lehman, and Merrill Lynch are the gold-standards on Wall Street! And if these weren't enough, we know that Wash Mutual, Goldman, and Morgan are also on the brink. And the Fed Reserve coming in to bail out AIG - now that's an admission of impending tragedy if ever there was one. This was not a confidence-boosting signal to Wall Street, and the Dow tumbled another 450 points on Wednesday. Equally unpersuaded, as I write, markets are falling hard in Asia.

This September surprise may turn out to be the agenda-setting event of this election. Not Iraq, not Bush, not Jeremiah Wright, not even lipstick. So dominant is this Issue Number One that barely any attention was given to the terrorist attack on the American embassy in Yemen today. This recallibration of national priorities is non-trivial. If it's the economy stupid, then it's a referendum on the Republicans, unless McCain can work some Rovian magic.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

What Hapened to "Nothing But the Truth?"

"Thanks but no thanks for that bridge to nowhere" is a crowd-pleasing one-liner that Sarah Palin has flaunted verbatim in countless speeches since her nomination accceptance address. But these are indisputable facts. 1. In 2006, she supported the bridge to nowhere. 2. She never said no thanks to the 230 million dollars promised by Congress, to be spent on something else. 3. By the time she said no, Congress had officially killed the ear-mark project. 4. She continues to support the larger of two bridges to nowhere (in Anchorage). So actually, Palin meant, "thanks, but no thanks; sure, why not." But then we have become so accustomed to imprecision and verbal infelicities that we have been quick to miss, and therefore exonerate, what is often deliberate omission and ambiguation calculated to deceive.

This is the same strategy George Bush frequently deploys. Consider these fateful words: “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Like Palin's statement, this line in the 2003 State of the Union address is calculated to deceive in this one sense: both Palin and Bush knew full well that there was another side to the story to be told that would qualify the certainty of their claims. Yet the use of declarative, unqualified, and unequivocal language insinuated such certainty. Because style not substance, omisson and not outright fabrication communicated such deceptions, both these statements are not formally false. But that is not to say that they were strictly dedicated to the truth.

Sarah Palin has told crowd after crowd that she put the Alaska Governor's plane on ebay. Formally true again - she did just that. But she sold the plane via a private broker, and one would not have thought that from the sassy way she performed that punch-line. Falsehoods beget more falsehoods. "You know what I enjoyed the most? She took the luxury jet that was acquired by her predecessor and sold it on eBay -- and made a profit!" John McCain declared in Wisconsin at a campaign stop last Friday. Well, the plane was sold at a loss.

Palin's supporters will want to give Palin the benefit of the doubt; it's routine politics they say. But isn't this exactly what irritated conservatives about Bill Clinton and his elastic relationship with the truth? If Palin's supporters say, lighten up; I say, as George Orwell said, "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." If American democracy was created by the eloquent penmanship of Thomas Jefferson, the careful argumentation of the Federalist Papers and the precise wording of the Constitution, American democracy may well see its end in the crowd-pleasing, hair-raising zingers our contemporary politicians so slickly feed us. Let us get back to basics. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help us God.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Sarah Palin Doesn't Know the Bush Doctrine



In her first interview to the national media on ABC yesterday, Sarah Palin fumbled, regained her footing, and prevailed.

GIBSON: Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?
PALIN: In what respect, Charlie?
GIBSON: The Bush -- well, what do you -- what do you interpret it to be?
PALIN: His world view.
GIBSON: No, the Bush doctrine, enunciated September 2002, before the Iraq war ...
GIBSON: The Bush doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?
PALIN: Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country. In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend.

Palin thought that the Bush Doctrine is the Bush Worldview. Incredible, true, and typical. This is the guttural politics as we have seen in the last eight years. Trust the guy, and you can trust his decisions. Nevermind geopolitics, forget strategy. Forget even "conditions on the round" (better read as "The Real World"). Just know the guy's worldview and you're all set. Yes the complex panopoly of US foreign policy can be understood through a cliff notes biography of the president.

[And by the way, the Bush Doctrine does not require that a threat to the American people be "imminent," only that it is credible in the foreseeable future, where "credible" and "foreseeable" are loosely defined.]

Cognitive heuristics - they are the bane of American politics. A cue here and a clue there is all we need these days to make the most important civic decision as Americans: vote for our president. Nevermind what the candidates' policies are; just know who they are as people. If he's a good guy, that's a good enough cue for us to vote for him. My chum in the White House. He'll take care of me, right?

Personalities, worldviews - these are cues; shortcuts for doing the hard political homework of scrutinizing exactly what McCain and Obama are promising us these days. Palin exemplifies a genuine belief that the responsibilities of citizenship are minimal. Just love your guy ("my guy" as she put it in her nomination acceptance speech), love your country and all will be good. She is the perfect political spouse!

Watch the video and notice her gingerly clenched fists initially, when she was fumbling to even understand Gibson's question. And then notice how tightly they were clenched as she found her footing. It was as if her body language was saying that "I may have slipped a little in the intellectual part of your question (the dreary part that dealt with facts and arguments), but I can more then compensate in kind with heart and conviction."

Why is this bad for democracy? Because good intentions aren't good enough. But then to someone who disagrees with me, there is a sense in which we are beyond reconciliation. For I prefer to speak in the publicly falsifiable language of arguments, while others prefer the inscrutable, but politically potent language of conviction.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lipstick Politics

American politics has degenerated from the gutter to the sty.

As if the Obama campaign hasn't been set back enough in the past week, he had to bring lipstick and pigs into the electoral equation yesterday. Whatever his intentions, he's going to set himself back by a few more days in a calendar that is counting down to November 4, and he has probably lost forever the halo that he does not play politics.

Obama tried to come out swinging this week, as he was urged, but he seemed to have crashed his hockey stick on his own shin. Why are Republicans so much better at attack mode, Democrats are wondering?

It doesn't even matter that McCain once used the same words against Hillary Clinton, because voters make associations with words, and right now, many (enough) potential voters have conjoined "lipstick" and "Sarah Palin" because of her oft repeated line that the difference between a pittbull and a hockey mom is lipstick. In this context, it was simply foolish for Obama to play with fire, or in this case, lipstick. At least in this round, Obama failed to discern the pulse of our politics, and the chain of conceptual and rhetorical associations (logical or implied) that constitute it.

"Lipstick on a pig" is a common colloquailism taken more literally than it should have been, Obama people say. Ah, but if you have to explain something in politics when the other side insists on playing visceral politics, you've already lost. It was too easy for a Republican or Independent voter to assume that Obama was mocking Sarah Palin. How ironic: a professor trying to embrace colloquailism, but succeedingly only in tying himself up in a politically incorrect knot.

The Obama campaign is brushing all this off as "swift boat politics," but the fact is they are struggling to move past the fog of lipstick and smelly fish. Swift boat politics works: but, as Obama is learning (and as the Clintons always knew), there is art even in the task of smear.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Monday, September 8, 2008

Whoever Said that VP Picks Don't Matter?

John McCain's campaign has turned a 7 point deficit into a 4 point lead according to the new USA Today/Gallup poll. This post-convention bump did not come from McCain's acceptance speech, which only received an "excellent" rating from 15% of those polled, compared to the 35% Obama received. The bump came from Sarah Palin. Here is the poll's most important result: before the convention, Republicans by 47%-39% were less enthusiastic than usual about voting. Now, they are more enthusiastic by 60%-19%.

The new McCain campaign message is that change is about reforming Washington, aided in no small part by a Number 2 that has developed/created quite a reputation for reform. This new configuration appears to be overshadowing Obama's definition that change requires a change in party control of the White House, because it has tapped into the anti-Washington sentiment felt among the Republican base.

Palin is running not as the back-up plan (as most vp candidates have), but as right-hand woman, and this is why Barack Obama took the risk of appearing unpresidential today by attacking Sara Palin directly himself. But Obama's response - "You can't just make stuff up" - sounded like a petulant kid crying foul rather than an effective counter-punch. As the campaign fumbles for a working riposte, it will become clear that the answer was always right before their eyes. By an ironic twist of fate, Hillary Clinton, though unsuccessful in her own presidential bid, has become the queen and kingmaker. Sarah Palin would not have risen from political obscurity into national prominence but for the schism generated by Clinton's candidacy within the Democratic party. Yet Joe Biden cannot perform the role of attack dog as viscerally as he would if Palin were a man, and so ironically, Clinton will have to be dispatched to play this traditionally vice-presidential role. The question is whether the media will give Clinton the time of day now that the primary season is decidedly over. It is becoming clearer that if Biden was a good pick, Clinton would have been a better one.

Safe for the October surprise still to be discovered, the tectonics of the match-up are now mostly settled. With the VPs now selected, two previously toss-up states have moved into the "leaning" category: PA has moved in Obama's direction because of Biden, and MO has moved in McCain's direction because of Palin. The only vice-presidential debate sceduled on Oct 2 will be more critical than the first of three presidential debates on September 26. There's been a lot of talk of Gallup polls conducted immediately after the conventions only getting it right fifty percent of the time, but less acknowledged is the fact that by the first week of October - the week the vp candidates shall debate - these polls have gotten it right almost every time since 1952. On October 2, Biden and Palin will have their one chance to get it right for their respective campaigns.

Friday, September 5, 2008

McCain's Testimonial to the Independent Voter

Even though he had one day less than Obama did in his convention (because of Gustav), McCain's convention bounce was equal to Obama's. 60 days to Election Day, a CBS poll reports that McCain and Obama are tied 42-42. Obama's lead on McCain with independents has shrunk from 6 to 3 points in one week.

Senator John McCain did this by speaking mainly to independents last night. After fumbling for months to find the right pitch to rally his base and still appeal to independents, McCain found his solution this week in the division of labor between Palin and himself. By picking Palin to energize the base, he could continue to be the maverick that he has always been more comfortable being.

Because independents care not for parties but for personalities, McCain's speech last night was a spoken personal statement to the American voter for his fitness for the Oval Office. This was less a speech about specifically where he would take America but a general speech about why he, not Obama, should take the lead. As such, there was very little policy substance in the speech, in contrast to Obama's speech in Denver. (Recall that the McCain campaign had forced Obama down the path of more detail in his acceptance speech because of the ongoing Republican charge that Obama, the celebrity, was all talk and no substance.) Deftly inserted in the middle and driest part of the speech, McCain quickly disposed of energy, education, the global economy, Georgia, Russia, and Iraq. But these were not the main focus of his speech.

Instead, McCain sought to (1) confess the failures of his party, (2) divorce himself from his party as much as he could, and to (3) reconstitute the frame used to describe him - that he is not a creature of his party but his own man.

(1) McCain divorced himself from his party and the failures of the Bush administration by rejecting the "constant partisan rancor" in Washington, and implicitly attacking some of his colleagues (together with Obama) as "people (who) go to Washington to work for themselves." In so doing, he conceded the failings of his party before his party - a crucial act of contrition that independents want to hear and the premise for the rest of his speech.

(2) Then he moved on to lay out his maverick credentials. Insofar as his party was guilty, he was the least guilty among them: so he repeated his attacks on pork-barrel spending bills, he reminded his audience that he defended the surge when most didn't, he boldly addressed the touchy issue of immigration when he declared that "the latina daughter of migrant workers" is God's child too. He gave notice to congressional Democrats that "change is coming" by way of his fiesty and reformist vice-president, and in so doing grafted his "maverick" status with the "change" message that has resounded throughout this election season. By mentioning "change" 10 times, the maverick of the Republican party was trying to wrestle away Obama's mantle and to declare it as his own.

(3) Having set himself apart from a damaged party, McCain focused the majority of his speech on building and reciting his personal ethos. McCain told us that "the party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan is going to get back to basics." What are the basics? It is the idea of a man and his love for his country. McCain invited his audience to judge him as an individual and as a patriot, and not a creature of his unpopular party. Thus the last part of McCain's speech focussed powerfully on his experience as a POW. He argued that age and experience have not tarnished him the way experience in Washington tarnished, say, Joe Biden. "I have the record and the scars to prove it; Senator Obama does not," McCain told us.

McCain's scars, according to him, are proof that he is a fighter, and a seasoned one. After the war, McCain wasn't his own man any more, as he put it, "I was my country's." "My country saved me ... and I will fight for her as long as I draw breath. So help me God." He invited the independent voter to join his crusade: "Stand up and fight ...we are Americans ... we never hide from history ... we make history."

If liberal patriotism is fueled by guilt of how the country has fallen short of its ideals and conservative patriotism is fueled by pride in American exceptionalism, McCain's call to fight for a better America combines both impulses that will prove appealing to independent voters. If McCain convinces enough voters that the City on a Hill is both a promise and a reality, then he will move into the White House next January.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Palin's Night

Today, Mitt Romney delivered a line that always predictably renders applause in a Republican audience - "there is evil in this world." Putin, Ahmadinejad and the Jihadists (as Giuliani likes to call them) are evil, we are not. There is something about liberal vacillation on this point which particularly irks the Republicans, and rouses them to chant "USA" to drown out the equivocating liberal voices. It is why the Republicans took such offense to Michelle Obama's statement that she was only recently proud of her country for the first time in her adult life. It is why the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth could not forgive John Kerry for taking the side of the enemy because of his involvement in the anti-Vietnam-war crusade.

If Republicans love their country, they hate their government. (And they would say that Democrats love their government and hate their country.) Mike Huckabee continued on Romney's leitmotif, chastising Obama for going abroad and bringing home corrupt "European ideas." This was Huckabee's pitch perfect line: "I didn't want to spend the rest of my life poor waiting for government to rescue me."

But the real story tonight was Sarah Palin's rigorous, sometimes cutting attacks at her "opponent" (preferring not to mention Obama by name). Her snide, sarcastic remarks at his self-made presidential seal, his two memoirs, the styrofoam columns at the Democratic convention, and his rousing oratory animated the crowd in a way that no speaker before her did tonight. Democrats are quivering now at the thought of someone who could actually vivify the Republicans when before they were disenchanted and unsure. She would give Biden a run for his money. Recall Palin's line about the difference between a hockey mom and a pittbull - lipstick. This unabashed Republican feminist had no qualms declaring that McCain was her guy. Palin gave a robust defense of all things good in the heart of America tonight, and the Republican base is now on fire.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Day One (Two) of the Republican Convention

President Bush, Senators Fred Thompson, and Joe Lieberman addressed the Republican convention tonight. This program was only recently put together. Thompson replaced former NYC Mayor Giuliani for tonight, presumably because there was no need for a moderate Republican if the campaign was already going to invite the Independent/Democratic Lieberman to the podium, and presumably because the Republicans are afraid of losing parts of the South they have taken for granted for the last 40 years (Thompson is a son of TN). The Republicans are taking the message of change quite literally, and Hurricane Gustav has revealed Team McCain's savvy ability to offer leadership by improvization. Given the circumstances, this was a great first night for them but the Republicans have a lot of catching up to do given new polls showing Obama's post-convention bump.

The video of John McCain did a great job of returning the attention away from Sarah Palin to the top of the ticket. (Perhaps the campaign should have announced or leaked the Palin decision and her full biography - glitches and all - earlier so that the media would have done all its digging by the start of the convention. Instead their coverage of Palin and her daughter so far this week has significantly crowded out McCain's message.) The video reminded us that this convention is about John McCain, and it was a fitting overture to Fred Thompson's speech, which highlighted McCain's biggest political asset - his character. Even though he was clearing his throat almost every minute, the lines were spot on. You might not agree with McCain on everything, Thompson told us, but you know you can trust him. Thompson reminded his audience that McCain was the original maverick (indeed the maverick that this same audience rejected in 2000) and used that idea to link McCain with Palin - a powerfully anti-establishment, anti-Washington narrative necessary for a tarnished Republican brand this election year.

If the Democrats were chanting "yes we can," implying that "no, we haven't yet," all of last week, Republicans tonight were chanting "USA, USA," implying that who we are and what we have achieved is worth celebrating. Both sides ought to think about what gets the base going, and how these war cries reveal the cleavage between the parties that any winning candidate to the White House must bridge. Joe Lieberman tried to help McCain do just that tonight, using a specifically designated portion of his speech to speak to Independents. But in this hyperpartisan era, I wonder how many minds he changed. This Zell Miller of 2008 will likely not receive any committee chairmanships next year, especially if Democrats get close to the magical 60 in the Senate.