Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Race Card

And so it begins. Of course race was going to become an issue this year. It was never possible that the first competitive African-American candidate for president, Barack Obama, would face no obstacle in terms of his racial eligibility for the Oval Office. The only question is how race would rear its ugly and inevitable head.

Already a pattern has emerged. The minority candidate is always accused of playing the minority card. Senator John McCain was quick to throw this accusation today. This was a response to Obama's claim the day before in Missouri in which he charged the Republicans for trying to scare voters by questioning his patriotism and "funny name" and by pointing out he doesn't "look like those other presidents on those dollar bills." The question of who really was playing the race card can only be answered in the eyes of the beholder. But let it be said that allusions to Obama's otherness have been made on both sides from earlier on in the campaign. In naming the "race card" at this particular moment in the campaign and not earlier, the McCain campaign is not just retaliating or reacting to Obama's actions or words, it is strategizing.

Remember when the Obama camp was accusing Hillary Clinton of playing the gender card? In some degree, Obama is getting the first taste of the medicine Hillary Clinton had to swallow during the primaries. Accuse a minority of playing a minority card, and s/he is dealt a double blow: supporting members of the majority are reminded of the candidate's minority status and his/her electability problem; at the same time, opposing members of the majority have their stereotype of a whining minority candidate reinforced. When Hillary Clinton was accused of playing the gender card, some of her supporters were reminded that there are some sexists out there who would never vote for her (the "polarizing," "unelectable" narrative about the Clinton campaign) no matter what, and so cast their votes in favor of Obama. At the same time, those who were already against her strengthened their view that she was a whining, sore loser.

Obama suffers an analogously double hit with the charge that he has played the race card. Independent general election voters are reminded that race is still a salient factor in American politics and some of these voters may see no value in throwing away their vote for an unelectable, polarizing candidate. At the same time, those opposed to Obama are vindicated in their belief that he is an angry race-baiter.

The dominant strategy for a majority candidate, then, is always to accuse a minority candidate of playing a minority (gender or racial) card. Whether or not the card is actually being played, it always benefits the majority candidate to say that it is. Remind enough people that that a minority is a minority, and the faithful lose heart, while the bigots (those who would reject a candidate purely on the basis of his/her minority status) gain ground.

For a majority candidate to not acknowledge his privilege and to deploy a strategy that is assymetrically available only to him is to engage in the lowest kind of politics. Race is already going to be an explosive issue this year without politicians stoking it. A gentleman acknowledges an underserved advantage when he posesses one. I urge the McCain campaign to take on Obama's campaign on higher ground.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Candidates, Fortuna, and Political Regimes

We like to think that we are agents of our will, autonomous individuals with the power to make our mark on and even write history. Political campaigns operate under the assumption that strategy matters. A wrong word, a lapel pin, a mole on the face, a former pastor, a wife's comment, even the use of a laptop - any of these can make or break a candidate.

And so, looking at the polls today, we might conclude that Obama has run a near-flawless campaign, and McCain has made one one mistake after another and has had the worst luck.

But elections are about fundamentals, and the life cycles of political regimes. Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter could have been consummate politicos in 1932 and 1980, but voters were just not prepared to give these men and the parties they represented a second chance.

The truth is not everything has gone Obama's way this year. He had to deal with Jeremiah Wright's, Michelle Obama's, and Jesse Jackson's poorly worded comments, for instance. Right now, he is still working on finding a cogent equivocation for how the "surge" in Iraq worked but that he opposed it when it was first proposed. But the point is that he nevertheless appears to have cruised through these problems.

I don't think the fact that Obama is probably a more artful politician than McCain explains the striking contrast in their fortunes as they now stand. It almost seems like McCain stumbles at every turn, and Obama can do no wrong. Even when it comes to justifying his initial opposition to the "surge," it seems like Obama's anti-war supporters have already decided that the good news came too little and too late. (As was Herbert Hoover's decision only in 1931 to provide direct government assistance to thousands of Americans without work; as was Carter's anti-inflation program in 1978. Incidentally, both Hoover and Carter, like McCain, were characterized as having been really unlucky too.)

In every election in which the electorate collectively sighs, "too little, too late," and the standard bearer of the incumbent party keeps running into what appears to be a string of bad luck, then his / their time is up. The question is, will 2008 be the last hurrah of the conservative regime founded by Ronald Reagan that is rapidly losing its legitimacy (as were the election years of 1928 and 1976 were for the regimes respectively founded by Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt), or is the country unequivocably ready to move on? Every political regime, liberal or conservative, like every empire, has its rise, its crest, and its demise. The relevant question is where does 2008 fit in the life cycle of the current conservative regime.

Strategic blunders may not have as much explanatory power as we think. After all, we are usually more forgiving of the boy who cried "wolf" once than when he did it thrice - the political impact of a blunder depends on whether or not our patience has been worn thin. Luck is the error term we put in an equation to explain what human will and actions fail to explain. What precedes both human will and luck are electoral fundamentals and the life cycle of political regimes.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Platitudes and High Drama in Berlin

Platitudes and drama make a great speech. Consider this: President Bush could have stood at Ground Zero on September 12, 2001 with a bullhorn and said almost anything, and he would still have received a standing ovation.

I wager to say the same was the case for John F. Kennedy when he delivered his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in 1963, and when Ronald Reagan spoke at the Brandenberg gate in 1987.

With the Brandenberg gate in the background and scores of people lining the Unter den Linden as if another American president or a European rockstar were in attendance, we had the makings of yet another scene of high drama that will be guranteed to make a grand Obama speech today. There is no risk that Senator Barack Obama will appear too presidential because the people, the landscape, the props demand it. (The same can be said for his upcoming nomination acceptance address planned in a stadium that will hold over 75,000 people.)

Barack Obama can say no wrong this day because he like all great orators from time immemorial has merely tapped into a public psychological fact that we guide and reinforce each other's rapture when we sit entranced before a speaker speaking before thousands. We love the mythological script of a single man, and his moment, and his rhetorical etching on the tapestry of history. It is a performance we yearn, and we love those that give it to us. Obama will get a bump in his poll numbers because Americans will catch a long awaited glimpse of what it will be like to have thousands of foreign faces staring adoringly at our president.

So most of us would have been impressed today, but the question is, how much more than if President George Bush had thousands before him in a historic landscape delivering his home-spun zingers about freedom and global unity?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The War on Memory

On the day President Bush announced the initiation of hostilities in Iraq back in 2003, he said:

"The terrorist threat to America and the world will be diminished the moment that Saddam Hussein is disarmed." Spectacularly wrong.

Because the assumption embedded within this statement (that Saddam possesed WMDs) turned out to be false, this statement is doubly inaccurate. Saddam Hussein did not verifiably possess WMDs at the moment at which the Iraq war began in 2003. In any case he is dead, but the terrorist threat to America has only increased, not diminished.

Today, Senator McCain called on Senator Obama to admit that the "surge" has "succeeded": "He (Obama) said he still doesn't agree that the surge has succeeded now that everybody knows that it has succeeded."

But, as Obama knows (and should argue) the success of a remedial action (the "surge") cannot justify a war that began with a flawed premise ("The terrorist threat to America and the world will be diminished the moment that Saddam Hussein is disarmed"). McCain is using orthogonal reasoning on an amnesiac media and public in equating the surge's success with the war's legitimacy.

But I do believe that McCain means what he says when he repeats one of his favorite applause lines: "When we adopted the surge, we were losing the war in Iraq, and I stood up and said I would rather lose a campaign than lose a war." For McCain, this is not about the legtimacy of the war anymore (that is George Bush's cross to bear), it is about leaving Iraq intact, and with dignity.

The Iraq problem is more complex than the antipodal positions of Obama and McCain suggest. Obama supporters want Bush punished, their skepticism about the war back in 2003 vindicated; as they rightly should. McCain supporters realize that for whatever miscalculations ex ante, there is a security situation that persists in Iraq that must be resolved rather than abandoned; as they rightly should. Caught in the middle are the American people and the troops, forced to initially accept the unilateral war-making power of the executive branch; yet cognizant that there are now genuine national and international security concerns should there be a precipitous American pull-out from Iraq. The only thing clear about this dissensus is the premise both sides accept but is now a distant memory in the heat of this year's election. George Bush was wrong, he created the Iraq problem, and now both presidential candidates are fighting about how best to clean up his mess.

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Battle of Leadership Definitions

The world is watching as Senator Barack Obama tours the Middle East and Europe, but the only audience he cares about right now, are American voters, and in particular those who are still not sure that he will make a better commander-in-chief than Senator John McCain will. Foreign audiences are merely another funnel through which a campaign message can be directed to domestic ears.

That is why Obama is bringing along a star-studded cast from the American media establishment to Europe to help him disseminate his message. Even before he arrived in Afghanistan, Obama's campaign had already received more attention from the media and foreign governments than the sum of attention that Senator McCain received when he visited Europe and the Middle East this Spring. Rightly or not, the media, the world, and liberals are hungry for a message that they have not heard from White House in a while. What remains to be seen is whether independent voters will take to the message.

What precisely is the take-home message the Obama campaign intends to transmit with these visits? Obama knows that he may or may not be perceived to be the the best candidate for dealing with terrorism; but he wants independent voters to know that even as a candidate for the presidency, he is already beginning to restore America's image abroad. That is why Obama had originally planned to speak at the Brandenberg gate in Berlin, to remind his audience of the historic relationship between Europe and America that has been compromised of late. His of course, is the liberal understanding of global leadership that prefers to negotiate from a position of mutual respect than from a position of strength. Obama wants to remind or convince us that the President is more than a Commander-in-chief but also an ambassador to the world; the President is more than the terrorism tsar but also a leader and role model to the free world. He is attempting to reconfigure (or return) an essentially realist, even macho conception of presidential leadership to a more idealist, cosmopolitan one because only on these grounds can he try to erode Senator McCain's perceived advantage on foreign policy among independent voters. If Obama can change the job description of the Oval Office to one that he will snugly fit, he wins.

For his part, Senator McCain will and must continue to resist this redefinition if he wants to keep probably the only trump card he wields in this election. This is why, for all the dangers of being associated with a third Bush term, Senator McCain is rearticulating the Bush understanding of presidential leadership, even to the point of caricature. In refusing to speak of a time table for withdrawal in Iraq when even the administration has ventured to consider a "general time horizon", McCain is proposing a return to ostensibly original commitments pure and unwavering (from which even President Bush appears now to be departing). This is the archetypically conservative perspective that holds that once started, America's missions aboard deserve our full and unmitigated support. Conveniently, this ideology which explains McCain's principled commitment to Iraq also melds with his campaign's claim that he is experienced and trustworthy, a strategy that incidentally was not productive for Hillary Clinton when she tried to play the "experience" card against Obama only because liberals do not assume the wisdom of President Bush's commitment to Iraq, and they certainly do not accept the conservative creed that tried and tested is always noble and worth preserving.

The reason this year's presidential election is historic is because more than any election in recent decades, it is about competing definitions of leadership and whether extant understandings of leadership are relevant or obsolete. The risks for Obama are not that he should appear too presumptiously presidential in these foreign visits, but that he should give Americans a preview of a type of presidential leadership they are not willing or ready to accept in our troubling times. McCain is hoping not so much to escape anti-Bush sentiments but to exploit them to say that while even this President flinched and wavered, he shall persevere. This shall be an election about the very meaning of leadership. Let the voters decide.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Commanders on the Ground

For years, President Bush has told us that troop levels in Iraq "will be decided by our commanders on the ground," and not by political figures in Washington, D.C. Deferring to the commanders on the ground has been a familiar refrain and deflecting strategy from the administration (and in every administration since the Vietnam war).

The two senators aspiring to be Commander-in-chief have already adopted this rhetorical prerogative: command when the decision is unpopular with one's supporters("I am the decider"); but defer to "commanders on the ground" when, as is usually the case, one still has some supporters to take the heat/fall.

Today, Senators McCain and Obama sparred on foreign policy. "Our commanders on the ground in Afghanistan say that they need at least three additional brigades," McCain said today in a town hall meeting in Albuquerque. In the latest phase of his evolving position in Iraq, Senator Obama now feels that his commitment to remove troops from Iraq within 16 months is dependent on "talking to the commanders on the ground."

Defer to the "commanders on the ground" is the new "support the troops." Nevermind exactly what the commanders want - after all, both Obama and McCain, with different (though converging) proposals for where the war in Iraq should go, are pledging to listen to the "commanders on the ground" - just purport to defer to them and it's all good. Nevermind that the "commanders on the ground" owe their jobs to the Commander-in-chief.

Deference to the "commanders on the ground" appears to be power delegated, but in fact it is only reponsibility shirked but power deployed. Such is the paradox of executive prerogative that is recalcitrant to reason and therefore to constraint: an awesome power that hides itself even as it is being exercised.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The AIP on OUPblog

I've started to blog at OUPblog and will continue to do so once a week through to the Fall elections. My first post is reproduced below:

In recent weeks, some political commentators have observed that Senator Barack Obama is all talk, but no substance. Where his supporters see an orator of the highest order, his detractors see only a smooth talker.

Flash back to the 1980s, and we had the same bifurcated response to Ronald Reagan. Whereas some saw profundity and deep meaning in his speeches, Reagan’s detractors heard only vacuous platitudes. Indeed, Reagan’s supporters even used the same words as some liberals do today to describe Obama’s “soaring oratory.” How did Reagan score with the Reagan Democrats? By being all things to all people. The Obamacans in this year’s elections are being swayed by a parallel strategy. Talk a lot, but mean nothing.

Consider Obama’s response this week in Georgia when he addressed charges that he had been “flip flopping” between his positions : “I’m not just somebody who is talking about government as the solution to everything. I also believe in personal responsibility. I also believe in faith.” the Senator sagely declared.

But who doesn’t believe in faith? Such rhetoric misses the point, ending rather than initiating debate - a strategy consummately deployed by President Bush in selling “Operation Iraqi Freedom” by exploiting our universal and creedal belief in liberty. The question is how we should balance our respect for the identity and autonomy of religious charities with our belief in the separation of church and state. And the question is whether freedom in Iraq can and should be bought with the sacrifice of our freedoms at home and the suspension of some of our constitutional principles. By design, Obama’s and Bush’s words elided these difficult, but pressing questions.

“I also believe in personal responsibility” are also coded words Obama’s speechwriters designed to woo conservative audiences without explicitly repudiating the liberal point of view that governmental programs are the other side of the rhetorical equation that ought to have been addressed. Reverend Jesse Jackson was understandably aggravated. Yet while Jackson has apologized for his crude verbal gaffe, we have yet to take Obama to task for his rhetorical sleight of hand because this is what we have come to expect from political candidates seeking the highest office of the land.

We are not going to face the complex problems of our time if our would-be leaders continue to take the rhetorical path of least resistance, to buy our assent without any content. To say nothing even when one talks a lot is to fulfill the rhetorical formula for, literally, empty promises. There were times in this election season when Obama rose above the anti-intellectual fray, just like there were times when Ronald Reagan and George Bush used the bully pulpit to educate rather than to merely seduce the American people. This year, when conservatives see in a liberal political candidate the same rhetorical flaws as what liberals saw in Reagan and George Bush, perhaps we will come closer to recognizing a systemic flaw in our political system, and it is the Anti-intellectual Presidency.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Washington Times on the AIP

Suzanne Fields, a conservative columnist, addressed The Anti-intellectual Presidency in her article in the Washington Times today.

And to be fair and balanced, David Zizzo had some unflattering things to say. Apparently, my argument is implausible because I use the word "loquacious." My point exactly, Mr Zizzo.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Defining a Flip Flop

Where the political middle is is usually the critical question for any election in a two-party system, but not so this year.

Now that Obama has captured the democratic nomination, he must move rightward to focus on the next fight. But Obama hasn't inched but has lunged rightward in recent days, talking about things that liberals do not usually like to address: faith-based initiatives, patriotism, FISA, etc.

What is unusual is that McCain is not returning the favor with equal fervency. In recent days, he continues to talk about signature Republican issues: tax cuts, free trade and foreign policy. He is scheduled to give a talk about immigration today, but it will not be about amnesty, but about security. Despite the three month lead McCain had on Obama on the general election, McCain is still playing his primary season strategy.

So, in another one of this election's firsts, both candidates are courting the right more intensely than they are wooing the left, revealing an unintuitive and peculiar assymetry of strategies. There is, therefore, something other than the traditional search for the middle that is going on. This year, the different elasticities of demand for each political candidate is powerfully shaping the race.

There are two assumptions that Obama's rightward shift reveals, in lexical order:

1. The Obama campaign has assumed that this rightward shift will not cost them their core supporters. That is to say, liberal demand for Obama is relatively inelastic.
2. The median voter in the general electorate is as far right from the median voter in the democratic nomination electorate as Obama's rightward shift calculates, and no more.
Lemma A: The more inelastic the liberal demand (1), the more it will not matter if 2 does not obtain.

1. appears to be a fair assumption. Whereas Senator John Kerry could not take his base for granted in 2004 - and that was why, incidentally, his flip flop became politically salient - Obama has got a firm grip on the younger, college educated, and black vote this year. Obama's Teflon powers against the media pale in comparison to the powers he wields with his loyal base - this is the critical comparative advantage he has over McCain, who is not lunging leftward because he does not believe that he has locked up his base (and he is probably correct); if anything McCain needs to address concerns that he has historically been a party maverick.

[What determines the elasticity of demand for a candidate? Not Obama's intrinsic pull factors but more systemic ones - the drastic depreciation of the Republican brand name and President Bush's unpopularity (not too dissimilar from what Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter had going against them in 1932 and 1980). Enough is enough, a majority of the electorate determined in the realigning elections of 1932 and 1980.]

And so a flip flop isn't as simple a thing as just an objective change in position; it is subjectively defined and predicated in part by the degree to which candidates' supporters forgive them for straying from their erstwhile positions. This year, it isn't so much where the political middle is but the difference in the degree of loyalty that voters have to McCain and Obama that will determine the results in November.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Reticence of our Fathers

In a speech at a naturalization ceremony at Monticello, VA, yesterday, President Bush said:

"As a statesman, Thomas Jefferson held all three top posts in the executive branch. He served as the first Secretary of State, the second Vice President, and the third President. Not bad for a man who hated public speaking. (Laughter.) It seems Jefferson got away with only delivering two public speeches during his presidency. I'm sure a lot of Americans wish that were the case today. (Laughter.)"

Jefferson was not a fan of public speaking, but his fear was less of making a fool of himself than of imitating a perceived monarchical practice. In this he was no exception to most 18th and early 19th century presidents, almost all of whom did not publicly campaign for office. The patrician presidents of the founding era believed that power sought was power illegitimate. Because George Washington laid down his sword after the revolution and quietly went home to Mount Vernon, and because he was wrenched "from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection," this man alone in the country's history received a unanimous vote of the electoral college. Gone is this era of presidential humility; in its place we find avarice, narcissism, and self-promotion - the keys to the contemporary White House.

Perhaps President Bush would not have been heckled this day had he taken his rhetorical responsibility and the Office from which his words would emanate more seriously.