Thursday, May 29, 2008

Obama's Uncle in Auschwitz

Either Obama is really lucky that Scott McClelland's book is occupying the media, or, as Hillary Clinton has argued, there is an Obama bias within the liberal media.

Obama's comment about his uncle being among the first American soldiers to liberate the prisoners in Auschwitz is no less incredible than Hillary Clinton's tale of being under sniper fire in Boston. (He meant great uncle, and the camp was Buchenwald.) Both tales are yarns that politicians weave in the heat of a story-telling moment, but the media has let Obama's mistake go with as much generosity as it was cynical with Clinton's.

Obama gets a pass because the media has bought his story that he transcends the old ways of Washington. Everything Hillary does, though, is more evidence that she is a dirty politician. Consider a more contemporaneous example, her Robert Kennedy remark. Now she shot herself in the foot with that comment for sure, but she certainly did not get a pass for that one. Here's the latest kitchen sink the lady flung, the media sung.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

McClelland's Controversial Platitudes

What's new about Scott McClelland's new tell-all book? Nothing, except that this book was written by a former Bush loyalist. And even this isn't all that new: there's been Paul O'Neil, Richard Clarke, George Tenet, etc; all of whom held non-trivial positions within the administration even though they were not as close as McClelland was to Bush.

A brief look at the book's chapter headings suggests that the content of the book is probably going to be nothing new:

The Permanent Campaign
Triumph and Illusion
Revelation and Humiliation
Out of Touch

We are officially in an era in which the obvious can still be controversial. The war in Iraq was sold with misleading reasons? Duh. Any one of these chapter headings could have been picked by a "liberal" blogger on the Daily Kos or a columnist on the New York Times. So What Happened is going to be less important for its content than its author. The debate is already centered on McClelland's credibility ("betrayal") because we've already heard its content regurgitated umpteen times by the "liberal media."

When it comes to White House exposes, anyone from the inside has an ax to grind (or some books to sell) and everyone on the outside is just ideologically biased. (Indeed, we needed a dog and pony show only to demonstrate that Scooter Libby had obstructed justice when almost everyone believed that he was instrumental to the outing of Valerie Plane's identity.)

So the media's hoopla and the hullabaloo will get us nowhere. We will never ascertain the truth (even if we correctly intuit it) because in our hyper-partisan era everything, even the obvious can be turned into unverifiable opinion. And as the media and pundits spend their time churning over motives, credibility, and the nitty gritty maneuvers of plausible deniability, the culprits in the White House will get off scot-free. Now that's a coup - the greatest accomplishment of the Bush administration is that it has succeeded in making the obvious debatable.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Obama's Geekish Anti-intellectualism

Obama's soaring rhetoric is a peculiar hybrid, blending the academic flavor of (unsuccessful) Democratic contenders Al Gore, Kerry and nomination competitor Hillary Clinton, and the soaring lyricism of winners Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Bush.

David Brooks at the New York Times recently wrote an interesting piece about the cultural ascendance of "geekdom." Brooks is certainly correct that a counter-culture of ascendant geekdom has been underway in recent decades, but the idea that Bill Gates got rich and thus got back is no new story. That's the geek life cycle.

But I'm more interested in how such socio-cultural phenomenon impacts politics. Brooks suggests that Obama is the "Prince Caspian of the iPhone hordes." He also paints President Bush as the anti-geek: "With his (Bush's) professed disdain for intellectual things, he’s energized and alienated the entire geek cohort, and with it most college-educated Americans under 30." How do we square these observations with the the narrative Hillary Clinton authored a few months ago that while Barack Obama recited fine poetry, she produced good prose? (One thing for sure is that Clinton appears not to have learnt the lessons of 2000 and 2004 when Al Gore and Kerry got lost in policy details in their speeches, whereas George Bush just sounded good keeping things simple.) So here's the puzzle: how is Obama's rhetoric poetic and allegedly substanceless, and yet also intellectual and persuasive to so many college-educated geeks?

It is no surprise that some "Obamacans" remember Ronald Reagan when they hear Obama speak. Reagan, like Obama, sounded like an intellectual lightweight to many democrats, just as he sounded erudite to conservative intellectuals. He did this by reaching for grand themes that would summarize his specific policy positions and this aggregating rhetoric passed for profundity among those that agreed with him ideologically. Obama, like Reagan, argues from first principles. He did this in his debates with Clinton, when he let her delve into policy details as he constantly came back to key principles: judgment, change, and unvarnished liberalism. And so while many in the media determined that he was a poorer debater than Clinton (as many in the media determined that Al Gore won most of his debates against Bush), the court of public opinion decided in favor of Obama (and Bush).

So is Obama intellectual or anti-intellectual? For better or worse, he seems to have settled on a median position between the two. After all, some think that he sounded too "professorial" in his speech about race following the Reverend Wright controversy at the same time that many Clinton supporters see him as an intellectual lightweight without the know-how to get things done in Washington.

At the very least, Brooks' claim that Obama is the champion of the geeks must be carefully moderated, because so much is going on inside the geek label. To be sure, Obama's supporters are younger and therefore presumably cooler than Clinton's supporters, but I'm not sure if they are necessarily more intellectual. Technological savvy is a weak proxy for political or intellectual sophistication; and the iPhone hordes are as much a class as they are a generation. As purely a matter of political style, Obama has tapped into the kind of poetic anti-intellectualism that brought Reagan and Bush into office. And at least for now, he continues to enjoy the accolade of a unifier because he has learnt to supply us with lofty, if sometimes vague, promises.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Fundamentally Dangerous

What is the warped logic that links Pastor John Hagee’s claim that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment on homosexuals in New Orleans with his now famous claim that the holocaust was part of God’s grand plan to create the state of Israel? It is simply the idea that God is in control. There is something elegant about this position because it admits of no troubling exceptions. Even evil, that nagging aspect of the human condition, can be explained away with the comforting idea that in the end, God knows what he is doing. Via backward induction, even the most heinous episodes of human history are justified. (Heterosexual suffering in New Orleans, and the death of 6 million Jews are, by Hagee's logic, necessary collateral damages en route to God’s perfect and uncontestable plan.)

This fundamentally pantheistic perspective may well be more defensible than other religious perspectives valiantly (if convolutedly) offered to explain away what philosophers of religion call the “problem of evil.” How could it not? A position that stakes an Archimedean point as a properly basic belief and reconstructs the world around it must at least exhibit the virtue of consistency. So the brand of Christianity that Pastor John Hagee represents is easily consistent with itself and even the problem of evil; but difficulties arise when it is forced to intersect with politics, when elegant answers that offend simply will not do. Some fundamentalist Christians probably agree with me; after all, for years they insulated themselves from politics, and it is only in recent years that political entrepreneurs on the Republican side were able to convince some Christians that involvement in politics would not sully their souls.

Even though fundamentalist and categorical language can be inspirational and therefore politically powerful (as George Bush found out), as a practical matter, a democratic politician attempting to galvanize a diverse spectrum of voters runs a risk of offending certain potential constituents when using such rhetoric. As a normative matter, she or he should not attempt to do so, because fundamentalist and categorical language dismisses alternative arguments and points of view. Because it ends, rather than promotes debate, there should be no place for it in a democracy.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Tit for Tat, All for Nought

Everyday in American politics, politicians from both parties engage in a rhetorical much ado about nothing. In another predictable round of feigned indignation and assigned motives, McCain and Obama have started a new round of grade-school debating.

These days, unendorsements matter more than endorsements. As Obama severed his ties with Jeremiah Wright, McCain in recent days repudiated Pastors John Hagee and Rod Parsley. Both are disingenuous of course: while Obama took his time to denounce his former pastor, McCain, up until he secured the Republican nomination was brazenly mending fences and courting those that he had just a few years ago called "agents of intolerance." All this bickering just to determine who is the pot and who is the kettle.

So why the flurry to reject an endorsement, to unendorse? The logic is analogous to what we know of of political ads. Everyone knows that negative ads work. What do negative endorsements have in common with negative ads? They both, when successful, suppress voter turn-out for the other candidate. They do this by engendering cynicism so that there's just no point to go out to vote.

Politicians do not want to change the system; they work it. And so a senator who once tried to reform campaign finance and another who has wrapped his campaign along the theme of change are now united in their respective efforts (if not personally, then at least via their campaign surrogates) to suppress turnout on behalf of their opponents. That after all, is the well-trodden path to the White House. And so tit for tat, all for nought.

Let it be said that "A pox on both their houses" as a response won't work. An independent candidate will still have to work the system, so it is the system that we must change. So let me propose the impossible, at least as a thought experiment. Imagine if we instituted compulsory voting in this country. All the campaign tricks used to suppress voter turnout for one's opponent immediately become irrelevant and impotent. The battle for the White House may not emerge completely into the light but at least some of the shadier tactics (think literacy tests in the past, think wedge issues for the present) will be snuffed out for good. Would that be such an unbearable incursion into our liberties?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Gender in 2008

If there are racists in the Democratic party, there are chauvinists within it too. Liberals are reluctant to concede this, but this nomination battle has forced the party of identity politics to confront its demons. Politics is about trade-offs and the Democratic party was placed in the unenviable position of picking either an African-American or a woman; even a "dream ticket" will not occlude the electoral choice that was ultimately made.

So, all things equal (and I concede this is a huge cateris paribus) a slim majority of today's Democrats will sooner have an African-American than a woman in the White House. Yes, Obama supporters will argue that Hillary Clinton is, independent of the fact that she is a woman, simply unlikeable - but this observation is itself endogenous to the claim I am making. This is the famous double-bind that all women leaving the private sphere to enter public life must face: they must either be strong and unlikeable (like Margaret Thatcher) or weak and likeable (like Laura Bush).

Is it fair, however, to suggest that the Democratic electorate is less racist than it is sexist? No, that conclusion would be going too far. But I will say that the institution of the American presidency is more gendered than it is raced. The presidency was intended to be a place for "energy," as the Federalist Papers put it; many of it greatest occupants have been generals and military heroes. The American presidency has been a preeminently masculine office, and I believe that time will reveal that we will sooner have a racial minority president than we would have a woman president.

Consider this: if Hillary were to become president, she would be addressed as "Madam President" and the country would be groping for an appropriate term for Bill (First Spouse?) These linguistic fumblings suggest the dramatic reconceptualization of the office that a woman president would entail. Imagine a commander-in-chief who would not, herself, be subject to the selective service but who would be ordering the generals around. It should come as no surprise than, and much to the chagrin of many feminists, that Hillary Clinton campaigned as a man for a masculine office from day one. She was merely following in the footsteps of Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher. By the way, even this strategy was another incarnation of the double-bind that she had to bear as a woman seeking a spot in a man's world.

So when Bill and Hillary Clinton were talking about the gender bias of the media this week they were both wrong in pinning the blame squarely on the media but right in noticing that this country as a whole is not as ready for a woman commander-in-chief than it is for an African-American president.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Emperor's New Words

In a speech delivered in Columbus on May 15, Senator John McCain proposed this:

"I will ask congress to grant me the privilege of coming before both houses to take questions, and address criticism, much the same as the Prime Minister of Great Britain appears regularly before the House of Commons." At first blush, this seems like an entirely benign idea.

I'm not sure the Senator understood exactly how radical his proposal is, and how thoroughly it would reconceptualize the rhetorical presidency. Thomas Jefferson was afraid that a personally delivered State of the Union address before congress so resembled a British monarchical Speech from the Throne that he ended the practice altogether. Until Woodrow Wilson, presidents did not venture into the chambers of congress, but instead sent written messages there.

McCain's proposal certainly stems from noble intentions: aspirations to bipartisanship and interbranch cooperation. Peculiar, because the British parliamentary style is anything but cooperative; it is confrontational, adversarial, and effective in large part because there are two roughly equal factions fighting it out in parliament.

The problem with importing the British idea into the American context is that our institutions are different and the hybrid system thus created might create more problems than the innovation was meant to solve. (The history of American governmental institutions can be read as a history of good intentions generating unintended outcomes: think of the electoral college, the McGovern Fraser reforms, superdelegates, etc.) Whereas the British have a separation of parties inside the House of Commons, Americans also have the separation of powers. Whereas the Prime Minister is a member of parliament, the president is the head of a different branch of government. Inviting the president into congress may not necessarily facilitate interbranch dialogue because the conversation will probably be one-sided. Yes, McCain intends, at least for now, for the president to "take questions," but who is to say that presidents would not seize the opportunity to deliver monologue after monologue to a hapless and often sychophantic congress (as is annually the case at the State of the Union Address where applause is interrupted only by platitudes.) McCain's proposal is a Trojan Horse for the Imperial Presidency.

The asymmetry of the rhetorical relationship between a president and members of congress should not be confused with the Prime Minister (as primus inter pares) and his backbenchers debating with the leader of the opposition party and the shadow cabinet. Let us not give the Emperor the keys to the Senate when, gradually and thus imperceptibly in the last century, he has already stormed into it.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Ghosts of Elections Past

After President Bush made his veiled attack on Senator Obama for offering to meet with “terrorists and radicals” yesterday, a firestorm of democratic response has ensued.

Even though Bush’s speech was made in Jerusalem, the Obama campaign decided that a swift and decisive riposte at home was called for. And even Hillary Clinton, who has differentiated herself sharply on this issue from Obama has resisted the opportunity to pile on, perceiving presumably, that Democratic voters will not forgive her for not closing ranks on an issue that could permanently cripple Obama’s fall campaign. This is no mean feat of self-restraint and political temperance. There are some revealed preferences and perceptions going on here.

Even though the Democrats are supposed to be irreconcilably locked in a bitter nomination battle, they all agree that the charge of appeasement and weakness in foreign affairs is their weakest link. It is why the Democrats picked a war veteran in 2004 to head their ticket (and why they are quick to respond today for fear of yet another successful “swiftboating”), why the Democratic congress has been slow to cut off war funding in Iraq, and why Hillary Clinton insisted on running as a war hawk from day one even though she knew that her base strongly desired otherwise. What Bush did in Jerusalem is a big deal to the Democrats, and they have decided that they cannot let it stand lest it becomes the overture and then the leitmotif of the fall campaign.

I wonder if the past is prologue or better left as epilogue. (If experience and history really mattered in politics, we would have seen more veteran politicians enter the White House: Chris Dodd and Joe Biden should have made it longer in the nomination fight; and Hillary shouldn’t be fighting for her political life.) A whopping 62% of Americans now think that going to war in Iraq was a mistake, and this number is only going to rise. At some point, this antsy, tentative, equivocating stance on the part of the Democrats is going to become counter-productive. If they cling on to the lessons of the past, they may never be ready to countenance the challenges of the future. The winds of change are scented with the fear of the ghosts of elections past.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

If Hillary Clinton does not drop out of the nomination race before June 7, Puerto Ricans could actually hold more sway in this year’s democratic nomination contest than voters in either Michigan or Florida, at least until the DNC’s credentials committee gets its act together. That is to say, by rule-making and enforcing fiat, the Democratic Party decided that voters in Puerto Rico will have a voice in the party’s nomination process; but as for voters and Michigan and Florida, not really.

Now, to be fair, voters in the two states are being punished because their state legislatures decided to move up their primary dates this year. (Why Iowa and New Hampshire should retain their first-in-the-nation status is something we have barely begin to question. Indeed, the DNC, in sanctioning Florida and Michigan have signaled that reform otherwise is out of the question.) But it is at the very least bizarre that the perpetrators of the "crime," the state legislators, are being punished indirectly, via their constituents.

Thus, citizens of the commonwealth who are not allowed to vote in US presidential contests will, on June 7, wield the awesome agenda-framing power of influencing which democratic contender goes up against John McCain. If there is not much that differentiates the power to choose between Obama and Clinton and the power to choose between Obama and McCain (other than the semantic difference that the former is a nomination contest and the latter is a formal election), then we have a very odd system indeed.

I wonder why we don’t challenge the rules and the rule-making authority of the two major parties. We somehow assume that electoral logic itself would be sufficient to regulate the parties. In our two-party system, we assume the Elephant will take on the Donkey when it neighs astray, and the Donkey will chastise the Elephant when it trumpets too loudly. This is a panglossian assumption (as Lou Dobbs, Jesse Ventura, and a growing number of Independents contend) and one that has not been argued for. There has not been enough theorizing about the precise constitutional status of political parties: whether they are public entities or private institutions entitled to make and enforce their private rules as they deem fit. Consider, for example, if the Democratic party had decided, as a matter of a new rule, that racial minorities would not be allowed to participate in primaries. The main reason why we dismiss this possibility is that the Democrats would simply be shooting themselves in the foot. But when was voluntary self-preservation a sufficient basis on which to regulate private institutions?

The curious thing is the two major parties have gotten away with being the most powerful private institutions in America, and yet they are also deeply entangled and embedded in our civic institutions and public sphere. We should start thinking about whether they should get away with as much as they do.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

To Rue the Rules

Amidst the electioneering of this season, it may be useful to step back to consider and examine the arbitrariness of the rules by which our political actors play. As Hillary Clinton would be the first to tell you, if the Democratic party had used a winner-take-all system in its nomination process, she would long have secured the nomination (with a bigger delegate lead than the one Obama has over her now.)

Rules are but man-made inventions that reflect that particular balance of power and political crisis at the precise historical moment in which they were crafted. The irony is that so often we take them as sacred wisdom, even though they create as many problems in time T+1 as they were created to solve problems at time T.

Consider, for example, the rule of proportional distribution of delegates in the Democratic party. Only four and eight years ago, the Democratic party was lamenting the lack of attractive candidates to put up against the Republicans. How quickly times change. Whereas Gore and Kerry were lackluster, the Democrats got exactly what they asked for in 2008 - two rockstar candidates heading two powerful factions within the party - but Howard Dean is probably regretting what he wished for.

Proportional representation, as opposed to winner-take-all, is supposed to be a more democratic system of nomination because it distributes delegates to all candidates in proportion to the vote they received in a primary as opposed to delivering all delegates to the winner of the primary (as is done in the Republican nomination). The problem with two rockstar candidates, especially in a proportional-representational system is that the more equally balanced their intra-party constituency, the more they threaten to pull a party asunder. It is no wonder that the Republicans tend to be a more orderly bunch. The Democracy is learning that democracy (understood and expressed in proportional representation) isn't all that it's cracked out to be.

In the end rules are not sacred, rather it is up to us to decipher at each moment in time who they arbitrarily favor and at what cost. More on Michigan and Florida's rule-breaking and the creation of superdelegates another time.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

What is Hillary Doing?

I don't want to add to the narrative that the Clintons just won't stop. That's unfair because all politicians campaign to win, and they only stop when they must. But it is nevertheless peculiar that we seem to be operating in two parrallel universes. In the mathematical one, Barack is close to wrapping the nomination up. In what others have termed a "psychological" war on the remaining unpledged superdelegates, Obama's Reverend Wright controversy has made the nomination race too close yet to call.

I think the real world is the mathematical one. Obama only needs about a third to half of all remaining unpledged superdelegates to go his way. So I join Dick Morris in saying that it is over. If so, then we need a reason for why Hillary is waging what others have deemed a psychological war with the remaining unpledged superdelegates. Surely, though she must not show signs of realizing it, she must know that her chances even with the Wright windfall are abysmal.

It is rather too sinister to think that Hillary Clinton is trying to ensure Obama's defeat to McCain in November, so I offer instead a slightly less cynical evaluation. Hillary Clinton simply wants to end on her terms: and that is to force Barack Obama to offer her the VP slot just like everyone knows that if she wins, she would be obliged, on pain of a repeat of 1968, to offer the slot to Obama. Now she'd probably not take it, but to secure her position as heir apparent in 2012/16, Obama must be forced to offer it. The psychological war isn't about winning the present nomination any more; it is to find a way to "concede" the present battle in order to win a future war. It is precisely at the point at which she threatens the dissolution of the Democratic party that she will pull back and stand behind Obama. At this brink, others will say that she has been maximally destructive; she will think she has been optimally positioned. Both sides will be correct.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Going New, Going Negative, Going to the White House

It continues to be assumed that Senator Clinton goes negative more often and more intensely than Senator Obama; I beg to differ because Obama has mastered the subtler skill of disguised negativity - and that's what gets a politician into the White House.

The theme of change is nothing but a coded repudiation of things past. We need change only if the status quo is corrupt and beyond repair. Woodrow Wilson declared a New Freedom, Franklin Roosevelt declared a New Deal, JFK inaugurated a New Frontier, and George H. W. Bush declared a New World Order. The message of change taps into and exploits the inherent energy embedded in the executive power; our "greatest" presidents have learnt to exploit the simultaneously destructive and creative impulses of the presidential office.

Obama's theme of change, then, is the age-old politician's attack on the corrupt ways of Washington. It is, among other things, a direct attack on the Clinton machine (and the enduring narrative that the Clintons would do anything to get what they want) and an implied attack on McCain's veteran status in the Senate.

What is new amidst this enduring pattern, however, is that Obama's attack on the old ways of Washington has historically been a message deployed by governors aspiring to the Oval Office: Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush. Obama has successfully appropriated this gubernatorial key to the White House only because of his recent move to Washington.

Because Hillary surrendered her key when she moved into the White House as First Lady, she had no choice but to play the less inspiring "experience" card. But, correspondingly, 2008 is make it or break it for Obama, because he will likely not be able to cry "change" again in 2012. And this is also why he would be ill-advised to pick Hillary Clinton as his running mate. For her part, Hillary could easily take up her "experience" card in 2012 or 2016 again, should she so choose.