Monday, June 30, 2008

Preemptive Rhetoric and Patriotism in Politics

Two things stood out to me about Obama's speech (in Independence, MO no less) about patriotism today, one on strategy, one on patriotism itself.

The strategy is a smart one, and indicative of a candidate in a commanding position. Obama knows full well what awaits him this Fall - attacks (disguised or otherwise) on his race, faith, patriotism. Rather than wait for it, he is attempting now to preempt their potency when they do inevitably come. (He has already done the same as regards race and faith.) Someone in a weaker position would have waited in vain in the hope that the inevitable would not come. Obama dares address patriotism because he believes he can handle the charge that he lacks it.

Let's talk content - of patriotism, specifically. Obama wrapped his speech in Americana - the revolution, the Declaration, Jefferson, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Mark Twain, astronauts, soldiers, the flag - even as he was saying something rather subtle about the relationship between patriotism and dissent. While the metamessage of Americana was necessary to diffuse the potential fallout from his comments about dissent, the perceived necessity for it suggests that perhaps the message was the metamessage. This rhetorical concession reveals something rather profound about patriotic sentiment that Democrats have yet learned to lucidly articulate (the key word being "articulate," as opposed to loosely imply via a list of Americana): that there is an uneasy and complex relationship between love of country and disagreement with government. History tells us, at least as far back as the experience of the anti-Federalists suggest, that victory trends toward those who choose not to wrestle with this complex relationship and to accept the prima facie inconsistency between patriotism and dissent. Obama's inadvertent rhetorical dressing (as is the fact that he has put his flag pin back on) conceded as much.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Yes We WERE Sexist, No We ARE Not

Everyone had only good things to say about Clinton and Obama in their private meeting with Clinton donors on Thursday evening, in preparation for their joint event in Unity, NH on Friday, where I expect things to go equally swell.

It has also become something of an unquestioned narrative that Obama needs to reach out to women, but it has not been said that this narrative is somewhat inconsistent with an earlier narrative, played between February and June this year, that Hillary Clinton was unfairly blaming the media and the Obama campaign for their sexist treatment of her. Now that the primary contest is over, all of a sudden, the cries foul of women between February and June were legitimate and real when before they were politicized and imagined.

Either Obama did something to offend women and therefore needs to make amends now, or he was completely above board and treated Clinton with respect during the campaign. The saccharine coverage of the political love-fest on the democratic side - even when there is acknowledgement that this is merely a marriage of convenience - is sweeping under the carpet the very complex issue of gender that this election has transiently brought into the foreground of our political consciousness. Why is it that pundits disagreed about the Clinton camp's charge of sexism while the race was still going on but everyone seems to implicitly endorse the claim that some of that was going on (in acknowledging that there are bridges to mend) now that the primary contest is over? At what point and under what conditions do subjective feelings of vicitimization become legitimate and honored?

I have little doubt that this curious dynamic will be analogously played out vis-a-vis race in this year's election: race is going to figure very prominently, but we will only admit it after the fact. For whatever reason, we don't seem to like to deal with a problem as it is happening to us; but it sure gives us psychic relief to flagellate ourselves after the fact.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dobson, Evangelicalism, and Political Language

James Dobson took offense at Senator Barack Obama's conception of political debate today: "I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will," said Obama.

Dobson disagrees: "Am I required in a democracy to conform my efforts in the political arena to his bloody notion of what is right with regard to the lives of tiny babies? What he's trying to say here is unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe."

Dobson and his allies should be free to frame their arguments in whatsoever form they want. But if they want to be convincing to those who are not already in their camp and who start off with different religious premises, surely it would be helpful to adduce arguments accessible to people of all faiths. This is the tribunal of "public reason" that is at the heart of democracy, and this is Obama's point.

That Dobson is taking offense even at the invitation to speak in publicly accessible language reveals that he is quite simply intolerant of the views of people of other or no faiths. Presumably, the non-Christian perspective is so irretrievably misguided that the Christian, by Dobson's view, doesn't even have an obligation to try to persuade her otherwise. It is at peast peculiar that the bible invites us to perform good samaritan acts - that is to act above and beyond what is morally required of us - but Dobson insists that it is too much even to ask of a Christian that she tried to persuade people of other faiths to the Christian point of view. But then evangelicalism probably means something else to Dr Dobson.

New York Magazine on the AIP

Sam Anderson had a piece in the New York magazine about Obama's rhetoric and The Anti-intellectual Presidency this weekend.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Trading Flip Flops

So both campaigns traded some flip flops last week: McCain on off-shore oil-drilling, and Obama on campaign finance.

McCain's public explanation: the price of oil today is far more than it was when he opposed off-shore drilling. Obama's public explanation: (i) his campaign is going to need the money to combat the 527 ads that Republicans will launch and (ii) his donors are grassroots supporters and not lobbyists.

As pots and kettles trade jabs on either side, it is worth noting that both presidential candidates are merely doing whatever they think they need to win. McCain is pandering on an issue that has election-year salience, and Obama is milking his unprecedented fundraising potential. McCain's drilling proposal exploits short-term anxieties only to fail to deliver long-term solutions. Obama will have us believe that he alone must be the exception to the change he is trying to bring.

In terms of the horse race, both flip flops will probably prove to be politically efficacious. Gas prices are a salient issue today, and a flip flop in the direction of majority opinion never hurts. Only because money is such an important resource in American politics - more important, by the way, than the pristine image of the crusader of change, so the Obama campaign has wagered - Obama's opportunistic switch is going to benefit more than it would harm him.
The truth is, we best expect no less from our politicians vying for the highest office of the land. Obama didn't win the nomination because of nobler tactics, but better ones. He had a superior ground operation in the caucus states and a fundraising machine that beat the hitherto finest team on the Democratic side, the Clintons. As we gradually discover that McCain is no more immune to the politics of insinuation and smear than Obama is above the use of political tricks, we should quickly learn the lesson that politicians are never above politics. Only when we become intelligent consumers of political theatrics will we cast our vote correctly - not for the noblest man, but for the one least likely to fail.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

War or Law Enforcement?

Senator Obama has made it clear that he views the threat of terrorism primarily as a matter of war, and not merely a matter of law enforcement. In this he has swerved rightward in anticipation of a general election where the median voter, who by the way is no longer in support of the war in Iraq, is still unable to see that the locution of war is precisely the premise on which guantanamo, wire-tapping, and all other executive excesses since Sep 11 were founded.

If we are at war, then we must do whatever it takes. The president inherits emergency powers, and the country defers to his executive discretion. Port or airport security are matters of relative insignificance. Guns take precedence over butter, heathcare, jobs, even sanity.

Surely it is at least debatable whether terrorism should be characterized and addressed as a matter of war or one of law enforcement, but in affirming or at least prioritizing the former, Barack Obama has capitulated to political tectonics with the same calculations which led his campaign to ban two muslim women in headscarves from a photo-op with their candidate this Monday. When even liberal bloggers evidence Obama's aggressive counter-terrorism approach and blithely distinguish the "good guys" and the "bad guys," no wonder that our national security debate continues to start off with the premise that a "September 10" mentality has been completely discredited, while a "March 17" (2003) mentality has not.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Clear and Present Thinking

The question of whether or not to lift the ban on off-shore oil drilling turns on a question of priorities: do we privilege the needs of present generations or those of the future?

If communism hopes for the future in a utopia that has not come and monarchy privileges the past as legitimate prologue to the present, democracy is like a petulant child who lives forever in the present. Take any poll today and a majority of Americans want the moratorium on oil drilling lifted; and they believe it is a matter of commonsense to advocate so. We want cheaper gas prices and we want it now. (Paradoxically, lifting the moratorium will likely not make a difference to gas prices today, and only by a couple of cents in several years.)

The tyranny of the majority is sometimes better read as the tyranny of the short-sighted. Because of this democracies (and democratic leaders) are more responsive than other political forms to shocks to the system, but this is achieved only at the price of being haplessly presentist.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


The magic number is no longer 2025 (or 2118). It's 270.

And the Obama campaign was quick to suggest different ways to get there, crucially, sans Florida and/or Ohio. That's a big concession, but a realistic one. It should also be said that David Plouffe's statements were probably also calculated to say, tentatively and experimentally (together with the campaign's hiring of Patti Solis Doyle for Chief of Staff for the VP), "we don't really need Hillary Clinton."

So when the Obama campaign (and the DNC) promises a 50 state strategy, they are really promising an unconventional campaign into the White House: one that will not obsess over FL and OH (as the last two elections have) and their demographics, but one that will look to opportunities in particular in GA and VA (with big African-American populations) and also in once Republican-leaning states such as ND, NM, NV, and MT. They will have the money to do it. So if the campaign gets it right, there is a distinct potential for a landslide here, one that the Democrats have not had since 1964. In 2008, the Democrats will not be waiting on either Florida (as in 2000) or Ohio (as in 2004) - that's unconventional, but not necessarily risky.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Tabula Rasa

Thus far in this campaign, the only media stories that have appeared to hurt Obama are those in which his character is called into question, especially via his association with people: Jeremiah Wright, Lewis Farrakhan, Tony Rezko or indeed his allegedly angry and anti-American wife. That's a pattern. When someone doesn't have a record, you look to the company he keeps for a heuristical guide to his character (which in turn becomes a crude predictor for presidential performance.)

In a two-man race for the presidency, all comparisons are relative, and the contrast with McCain could not be starker. Remember the alleged affair John McCain was said to have had with a female lobbyist? If not, that's my point exactly. People know John McCain, and he would never.

The McCain campaign knows that their guy is a well-known war hero. No one questions his Christian faith, and no one challenges his (or his wife's) loyalty to America. Many Americans, expecially the ones the campaign is targeting, do not know much more about Barack Obama other than he is young, black, and a good speaker. There is no more fertile ground for political gamesmanship than under conditions of uncertainty or ignorance.

So let it be said that even in this election year of firsts and change, novelty can also be a liability, and it is precisely novelty and more precisely, a novice, who will invite the politics of old. Because Obama's character study has not yet been written, s/he who sets it in ink will establish the historical record for years to come.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

To Thine Ownself be Generous, to others, Strict

At least since Brown v. Board, and certainly since Roe v. Wade, the country has seen the steady politicization of the Supreme Court. Justice is not what is, but what the balance of opinion of 9 women and men is. More precisely, for every issue being adjudicated, justice is whatever the 5th justice who signs on to a majority opinion is personally and ideologically inclined or persuaded to believe. In this, I am in some agreement with some cynical opponents of the court.

But Justice Antonin Scalia's dissent to Boumediene v. Bush yesterday was a little inconsistent with his own jurisprudential ideology, premised as it was on more than a hint of crystal ball gazing. It "will make the war harder on us," he wrote. "It will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed." Time will tell, but one would have thought that strict constructionists were more backward-looking in their faithfulness to what the Founders said and intended, and less forward-looking in deploying predicted consequences as a major guide to judical reasoning.

Here is the so-called "Suspension Clause" (Article 1, Section 9) of the constitution - "The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it" - the constitutional point of contention in Boumediene v. Bush. Lawyers and judges will continue to debate the meaning of "invasion," but it is interesting that the strict constructionists on the Court have had to expand the meaning of "invasion" beyond its normal reach to justify their dissent from the majority opinion.

So, did the Court overturn the elected branches today? Yes. Does this constitute inappropriate judicial activism? Yes, if the role of the Court is to endorse the decisions of the elected branches when they are (purportedly) consonant with public opinion; no, if one's understanding of the separateness and equality of branches is consistent with the Marbury v. Madison understanding that the Supreme Court shall be the final arbiter of the meaning of our constitution. These are debatable and more or less defensible positions. What is indefensible is when strict constructionists decide, willy-nilly, to soothsay into the future or interpret the meaning of words in the constitution as and when such maneuvers help them justify their position even as they deny others this luxury.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

McCain's Town Hall Proposal

Now why would Obama agree to McCain's proposal to hold a series of town hall meetings across the nation? Sounds a little like Hillary Clinton asking Barack Obama for more debates after the 22 they already had - the petitioner is usually the underdog trying to alter the momentum or rules of the game.

Candidates recognize that there are different speech genres, and that they fare better in some more than others. Hillary Clinton is a champion debater, John McCain excels in cosy conversational settings, and Barack Obama's rhetoric soars with the size of the crowd. Our political system selects for and privileges rhetors of the latter breed.

Not surprisingly, the Obama campaign counter-proposed "a format that is less structured and lengthier than the McCain campaign suggests, one that more closely resembles the historic debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas."

McCain knows that Obama draws out the crowds, so joint events will give him lots of free media coverage. Obama would be wise not to offer McCain a free ride right now, especially since he has just wrapped up his nomination contest and will do well to bask alone in the political limelight for a while as McCain has done in the last few months.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Clinton's Epilogue

Today, the general election for the president of the United States begins. But before we leave behind the primaries chapter of the 08 elections, we should take stock of some of its singularities and ironies.

Hillary Clinton's rally today was probably the biggest and most momentous send-off any campaign had ever thrown on behalf of a losing candidate for a party's nomination in the nation's history. Perhaps to some, it was even more self-indulgent than Clinton's victory speech after the South Dakota primary but for the fact that she also unequivocably endorsed Obama today. But to others, this was the Hillary Clinton they would have voted for.

What struck me about Clinton's concession speech was that it addressed gender as directly and as much as most of her campaign shunned it. It was as if she had decided that as a potential president, she would be president for all the people; but as vanquished candidate, she could at least be a symbolic footnote in women's march for equality. Ironically, Clinton today used the soaring rhetoric we have come to associate with Obama's winning style when she could have been better served to have deployed it more frequently before.

In her speech announcing her candidacy, Clinton focused on issues, not symbols: "This is a big election with some very big questions. How do we bring the war in Iraq to the right end? How can we make sure every American has access to adequate health care? How will we ensure our children inherit a clean environment and energy independence? How can we reduce the deficits that threaten Social Security and Medicare?"

In her concession speech today, she referenced women 23 times, compared to just three times in her announcement speech. To be sure, this is the constituency that Obama needs Clinton to deliver for him, but I also suspect that this is the real Hillary Clinton, the fiery feminist who subverted her identity, ironically, in order to break the nation's last glass ceiling for women. I wonder if things would have been different if Clinton's prologue and her play had sounded more like her epilogue.

Admist the rowdy cheers of this bitter-sweet day, Hillary Clinton's speech pattern reflects her own assessment that the success and failure of her candidacy had more to do with gender than with anything else.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Money Matters, Institutions Matter

The RNC has outraced the DNC by six times in its fundraising effort. According to the latest Federal Election Commission reports filed through the end of March, the RNC had $31 million in cash on hand, while the DNC had only $5.3 million. In absolute terms, this is dwarfed by the amounts Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama raised compared to John McCain, but this is my point exactly. These fundraising patterns are the institutional reflections of what is already manifest from this year's race: the Democratic party is far more candidate-centered than is the Republican party, and this could be a dangerous thing for the Democrats in the long term.

Candidates' fundraising efforts, and therefore the influence of candidates, exist in a zero-sum relationship with the efforts of their party. If the candidates are successfully appealing to a finite pool of donors, then usually the party is not getting much. This is a turnaround from what the Democratic party was in the 19th century: when once the candidate was the "faceless representative of the party," the party is now the creature of the candidate. If Democratic candidates in the 19th century were lacklustre, the rockstars of 2008 are siphoning off attention and money that were once owed to the party.

While the Democratic party waxes and wanes with the charisma of its leader, the Republican party, on the other hand, stands (relatively) independently on its own legs. And while the Democrats regroup and struggle to rebuild their party every election season, the Republicans have for the past decades and with the notorious help of Karl Rove been building their party and forging a more symbiotic relationship between their candidates and the party. No wonder that even though many Republicans were not a fan of McCain, they have closed ranks under the banner of the Grand Old Party. No wonder that while the Republican party transcends personalities to speak of conservativism and conservative issues and values, there is less talk of liberalism and the liberal platform on the other side, but a lot of talk of the internecine feud between Obama and Clinton.

Just like it took a while for the party to find a nominee to fill FDR's oversized shoes, excepting Hillary Clinton, it may be a while before the Democrats find someone to fill Obama's shoes in future elections. Rockstars prefer to occupy the stage alone, not on institutional platforms. As Democrats cheer their hero on this year, they may do well to plan for a future concert when their designated soloist may be in greater need of a backup chorus than appears this year.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

When Should Clinton Concede?

Tonight, right after results from South Dakota and Montana come in, hopefully not long after the evening news cycles; or very quickly in the next day or so.

In "reserving the right" to challenge the Credentials Committee's ruling this weekend, and setting Harold Ickes up as the angry Clinton partisan, Hillary's concession will appear particularly gracious according to the frame her campaign has already orchestrated.

And she will "win" while still relatively ahead. Before scores of superdelegates jump onto the Obama bandwagon tonight and tomorrow morning, she needs to end her candidacy before the electoral math finally places her chances at zero. In threatening to declare victory before Clinton formally concedes, the Obama forces are also trying to force her hand. She can't concede if she has unambiguously lost.

Now she'll still have some leverage, if she concedes today. 17 million voters selected her: so in or out of the race, she will have a voice leading up to the Democratic convention, in the selection (and possibly occupancy) of the VP, and the fall campaign.

And if I were her, I would "invite" the remaining superdelegates to endorse Obama in her concession speech. This would be the hardest thing probably that she'd be doing in her political life, but she should take advantage of this final opportunity for a gracious exit from the stage. (Though I will say that the longer she waits, the more likely she's holding out to get the VP position.) And thus she will begin the resuscitation of the tarnished Clinton brand, and the healing of the party.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Momentum and Party Unity

Remember a key word in primary and electoral contests, "momentum?" The reason why the Democratic Party wants to prevent the front-loading of the primary calendar is because of the fear that the initial contests would create an arbitrarily begotten momentum that generates a path-dependent outcome that later primary contests would not be able to unhinge. Hence the decisions to penalize Florida and Michigan. Yet momentum was hardly a problem this year, and party elders probably wished there were more. In contest after contest, states with demographics favoring either Obama or Clinton went predictably for each side. Even after Obama secured his commanding lead in pledged delegates, Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Puerto Rico went strongly in Clinton's direction. Contrast this to 2004, when the party came together very quickly behind John Kerry after he won Iowa and New Hampshire. Ironically, the party trying to prevent frontloading to minimize the impact of momentum is also the party eager to end its nomination process now. The Dems are learning that too little momentum, exacerbated by proportional representation, can be a bad thing.

It was this lack of momentum that has brought the fissures within the democratic party to the political foreground. This weekend, Obama supporters got an uncensored view of the serious disgruntlement felt by Clinton supporters as they jeered the proceedings of the party's Credentials Committee. Clinton's detractors are annoyed at her for not giving up as much as her supporters are agitated that she is not getting a fair hearing. So the nomination contest should be wrapped up in a few days, but Obama best not underestimate the problem he has on his hands. Yes, when things are not swiftly swept under the party banner/carpet (as the Republicans were apt to do this year) we discover that liberals can hate each other.

Whether or not the Democrats take the White House this year, the intramural conflict going on right now isn't just the contigent effect of the emergence of two rock-star candidates. The party is in trouble also because it is tripping over its own rules.