Tuesday, December 30, 2008

C'mon, it was just a joke

So, Chip Saltzman is running for RNC Chair. While he's doing this, he distributes a CD that includes a song called, "Barack the Magic Negro." Initially, some Republican so-and-sos castigated him for his insensitivity, but this being the GOP it was only a matter of time before there was an inevitable couterreaction. The blogosphere has been awash in commentary about this (see these), but I'll say this: I get the feeling that this guy might lack the sort of racial sensitivity to bring culturally conservative Blacks and Latinos into the GOP fold.

I also love the idea that something can't be offensive if it's a joke. It's pretty asinine, and I thought we had moved beyond that. But now it appears that a circling of the wagons is in progress. After all, an authentic member of the tribe has been attacked! This aggression cannot stand. And this is ultimately what the right's obsession with "political correctness" is all about. They see it (whatever it is) as some sort of threat to their tribal identity. I'm not sure what PC means anymore, and I'm not sure what people aren't allowed to discuss these days. When Sarah Silverman is one of the most popular liberal comedians around I don't think there's too much that you just can't say about other folks. And I'm sure that it all differs somehow from, I don't know, the fact that proponents of a non-abstinence only sex ed regimen are shouted down by the right for wanting to teach kids to have sex? To conservatives, political correctness seems to mean anything they disagree with or that portrays them in a bad light. I guess it's sort of like the new "fascist."

So, will this wind up helping Saltzman? Probably. To back down now would be a sign of weakness. Not to hit back would not show resolve. This is the way that politics is played in today's GOP.

Monday, December 29, 2008


If the Republican Party wants to win again without significantly moving to the center...okay, wait, that's not possible. If they want to win without moderating on cultural issues then it stands to reason that they ought to moderate on economic and foreign policy issues, so doing things like trying to be more friendly toward conservative minorities makes sense. It also would make sense to try to consolidate the white working class vote by trying to win union support. After all, a lot of lunchpail unionized Democrats that happen to be pretty conservative almost always vote Democrat. Taking a more lenient line toward unions would be a potentially enormous boon to Republican fortunes. Plus, it's not really a matter of compromising small government ideology. It would require upsetting the moneymen that have bought the GOP in recent years, and that seems unlikely to happen.

All of this is by way of saying that you all should check out this Ezra Klein post on unions. It's not really the same topic, but it got me thinking.

Rick Warren

I don't much care for his style (fluffy "trust in Jesus and everything will get better" stuff, from what I've heard) and he's said some frankly inexcusable stuff about assassinating foreign leaders, but I've been rethinking this whole thing and I'm a bit bothered by the reaction to this little episode. As a leftist, I tend to believe that tolerance is important. It is important to tolerate guys like Warren who, by all accounts, operate in good faith and have different opinions and values. The fact that he is willing to do the same is encouraging.

I'm coming to this a bit late, but I recall reading a lot on various liberal blogs in response to the importance of tolerating opposing viewpoints by pointing out Warren's own intolerance. I concede the premise but not the point, because I do not think that one can defeat intolerance with more intolerance. Having a dialogue with cultural conservatives, giving one of them a symbolic role at the inauguration to show that they, too, have a place in Obama's America in a way that cultural liberals never did in Bush's, are things that give me a great deal of promise in Obama's ability to unite the country. I realize little of this helps if you are a gay person here in California who recently lost your right to marry. I don't have an answer for that.

Palin again

Conor frisks Victor Davis Hanson, and I make a comment to the effect that defense of Palin is linked to tribal affiliation with a (possibly illusory) Real America here. I find such a situation crippling to the sort of introspection that needs to be going on on the right these days. It seems to me that the circumstances that led to a Palin nomination that didn't result in a mutiny need to be fully assessed and owned up to by the GOP if they hope to move forward.

Basically, what the Palin pick tells us is that the Republican Party, by and large, doesn't care about effective government so much as fighting the pointless culture wars of yesteryear. It tells us that the Republican Party cares more about a person's actual qualifications for high office so much as that person's cultural qualifications--i.e. do they have enough "Real American" street cred? In the case of Palin and Bush, that seems to mean acting dumb. And, ultimately, it tells us that the bonds of tribal loyalty are so intense that the fact that it doesn't seem to matter whether Tina Fey's impression of Palin or Palin herself was the bigger parody of Palinism. The fact that Kathleen Parker got thousands of hate letters after suggesting that Palin be dropped from the ticket suggests that acceptance of Palin has hardened into Republican dogma. And Republicans these days seem unwilling to face up to the reality of what they've become or what got them there. This is not the sort of environment a party wanting to retool should want.

My guess: the GOP doesn't get back into the White House for sixteen years, at the earliest.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Cheney's version of the Divine Right of Kings

That is what we're talking about, right? Dick Cheney, the Vice President of the United States, believes that if the president does something to protect the American people, it cannot be illegal. One cannot help but remember Richard Nixon's related aphorism that if the president does it, it is not illegal. I suppose that paranoid right-wingers have made some progress in the past quarter century: instead of unbounded lawlessness from the "law and order" party, we now have easily evaded bounds on lawlessness. Not much, but with these folks you have to take what you can get.

What ever happened to, "my life before my liberty?" Or, as the New Hampshire state motto goes, "Live free or die"? If we aren't willing to shoulder a little risk to protect those things that we have always held dear then all is truly lost. The terrorists live by instilling fear into others. This is how they operate. I can't think of a better way of playing into their hands than basically by acting as Cheney would have us act.
Expanding on my previous post, it seems clear to me that Republicans aren't really bound together by shared ideology so much as by perceived tribal affiliations. It's why the base of the Republican Party will never give up on hopeless dolts like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, despite their ignorance and lack of skills, solely because they are "on the team" and attacks upon folks like these for their positions and acumen are seen, incredibly, as attacks on the great and good small-town regular folks of America. Whatever, guys. Hopefully these attention whores will get tired of their silly little games when people stop paying attention.

Basically, I agree with Conor here.

Why the right loses elections

Hat tip to John Cole for bringing this little bit o' Coulter to my attention:
Sarah Palin wins HUMAN EVENTS’ prestigious “Conservative of the Year” Award for 2008 for her genius at annoying all the right people.

Seriously? If by all the right people she means, "independent voters," then she's nailed it. Is this really the best they can do? This sort of thing is why I stopped identifying as a Republican.

I could see a possibility defending this if Palin had annoyed liberals by her brilliant, outside the box conservative thinking. I'll be honest when I say that some of the press she got was excessively bad, and that the media reported a few stories that turned out to be rumors in the end. But the fact remains that she couldn't answer basic questions about public policy. Basic questions. That conservatives excused her lack of knowledge of any SCOTUS decisions, or the Bush Doctrine, or of any periodicals while arguing that Obama was a lightweight tells you everything you need to know about the bullshit machine that calls itself movement conservatism.

Palin isn't the beginning of a new era of conservative thought, she is the end of conservative thought. She does nothing but spew bile at the 85% of us that don't live in rural small towns. Her pick was sexist and cynical, an attempt to win over hypothetical Hillary holdouts. She spent the past few months removing all doubt that she was a compelling national figure. All she did was attack, attack, attack, and that's why conservatives love her.

This is a cardinal difference between the right and the left. I can't remember the last left liberal that rose to fame solely because he/she annoyed conservatives. Michael Moore is the closest, but that was due more to liberals hating Bush than hating conservatives in general. I've never seen any prominent liberal pundit bestow any sort of notoriety on anyone else solely because that person annoys conservatives. The converse is not true: conservatives like Coulter and Palin rise to the top by saying nasty things about liberals and tout that as some sort of intellectual qualification to garner attention.

Sometimes, I wonder where the hate comes from. I guess I don't understand why a more egalitarian economic policy, a realist foreign policy and moderate social liberalism engenders so much hate from some quarters of the right. One can only conclude that many pundits on the right have some sort of derangement syndrome going on, and that the conservatives that patronize them share in that affliction. I can't even imagine a left-wing version of Ann Coulter--it certainly wouldn't be Moore, who has nearly zero footprint and influence these days, and who was always more interested in taking George Bush down a peg rather than merely angering conservatives. Indeed, Moore often went out of his way to say that there are plenty of decent conservatives and Republicans out there, such as on his Daily Show appearance right after Fahrenheit 9/11 came out. I highly doubt you will find anything similar in Coulter's canon.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The death of the Republican Party?

This is what I've been saying. Republicans can't rely indefinitely on regaining ground in the Plains and winning the South. Basically, by giving up on the Midwest (and presumably the Southwest, once the immigration debate starts up), they're allowing the Democrats to create such a robust electoral coalition that it is unlikely to be cracked for some time now.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Stocked cabinet

Now that we know the identities of the two final Obama cabinet members, I have to say that I'm impressed with the makeup of this crew as a whole, and it ought to be a good team for Obama to lead into battle. Hilda Solis interests me (and lots of union types love her already)--it seems like a good idea to put people like Solis and Tom Daschle into roles where they not only have skills but believe very deeply in the mission of the department in question. Something tells me that we'll see some big reforms on health care and labor law during this administration.

But I'm liking this team for now. A lot of the picks are particularly savvy--putting a pro-transit Republican as SecTrans is a sign that Obama's vision includes more public transit, and that he's interested in trying to reach out to Republicans on it. I also think that the cabinet strikes a good balance between experienced veterans (like Gates and Clinton) and fresh faces (like Solis, Tim Geithner and Arne Duncan). Most of the picks are technocratic, which is good, and the political picks (like Bill Richardson) are in positions that actually suit them pretty well. All in all, it's not exactly a left-wing cabinet, but there aren't any real troublemakers that I can see.

The way I see it, most of Obama's challenges are going to be in economic and foreign policy. And his teams in those respective fields should serve him well. Luckily, Obama has largely shut out the liberal hawks on his national security team--he's got a genuine progressive in Susan Rice at the UN, and realists Jim Jones and Bob Gates as National Security Advisor and Defense Secretary. Hillary Clinton is the exception, but her "tough" rhetoric during the primaries seems like more of a put-on than anything else, and if having her in the cabinet means co-opting the most high-profile liberal hawk so as to cut off that movement as a credible in-house insurrection, then so be it.

Obama's economic team is impressive as well. Geithner is a moderate who has come to see the light on big stimulus at this point. Larry Summers is another moderate who has become a strongly progressive voice on inequality. And Hilda Solis ought to be a strong advocate of organized labor. The only exception is Bill Richardson at Commerce, who often echoes New Dem sorts of ideas. Still, having one of them in the cabinet is unavoidable, and it's not as though their insight is never worth having.

So, all in all, I'm happy with how things have turned out with the cabinet. Only a month and two days left until they're in action!

Democrats trusted more on the issues

Proof, meet pudding. Anyone who still thinks that the Republican party can solve any problem, even the ones they profess to care about, is either delusional or on the Republican dole.

The (short-term) future of the GOP

The conventional wisdom about the Republican Party is that they'll move harder to the right after 2008. I agree with the CW. And I think that it will be a reasonably effective strategy in the short term. Check out this map of party control of congressional delegations:

Right now the Democrats have a soid advantage throughout the Midwest, the Northeast, the West Coast, the Southwest, and some of the Southern border states. In fact, when you look at a region like the Northeast, the Democrats control literally all of New England and all but three seats of New York (out of 29).

This makes sense, as the coastal areas are the Democratic base. However, there isn't nearly the same level of uniformity of Republicanness in the South. Partly, that's due to large populations of Black folks that vote Democrat, but there are still a fair amount of moderate white Southerners in the House. I suspect that social democracy won't sit well with these folks, and some of them (like Jim Marshall of Georgia, for example) will lose their seats if the Republicans make a point of resisting Obama's liberal agenda.

Now, I don't really think that this is a bad thing. It's just part of the cost of doing business, and I suspect that Democrats will win back Bill Jefferson's seat in Louisiana and gain Jim Gerlach's seat in Pennsylvania, for starters. But I would imagine that the GOP would pick up some ground in their base region.

However, the Senate is a bit different, and I think it looks likely that, unless the Democrats are a total disaster, they ought to pick up a few seats there. But I'd guess the Republicans win about 10 or so seats in the House, and that this would "prove" their strategy of returning to conservative principles. This would lead to a recurrence of the "one last heave" strategy (see Smith, John, of the British Labour Party) and someone like Sarah Palin gets the nomination and can't attract any voters outside the base.

It seems to me that the GOP needs not to secure its base, but rather to broaden its base. I do think that Black voters are a promising avenue for the GOP to pursue--they're culturally and socially conservative, for one, and a populist Republican like Huckabee might be able to peel them off. Would that be enough? I don't know. Then again, if history is any guide, an increase in Blacks voting Republican in the South would lead to an increase of Southern Whites voting Democrat, so back to the drawing board for the Repubs, I guess...
As it turns out, Joe Lieberman's shenanigans have made him something of a pariah in his native Connecticut. I'd be willing to bet that most of those 38% that approve of him are Republicans.

In Re Warren

I'm not sure I would have done what Obama did in inviting Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration. I'm not a Warren fan, to put it mildly. I'm not really even talking about his views on homosexuality. Quite frankly, if that were the only issue to deal with I'd defend the pick strongly. Just because someone holds a few stances that you disagree with doesn't mean that they should be shunned as an outcast, if they're held in good faith. In fact, I've often received good insights from people (like Joe Carter of Culture 11) whose views I often find maddening. This bullshit about disqualifying someone's every idea for believing differently then them should be left to the right wing. All this being said, it isn't clear to me that all of Warren's reactionary stances and rhetoric are held in good faith, and some of his statements (like his call to assassinate Ahmadinejad) are simply indefensible, on any moral or theological ground. And you don't have to shun people who disagree with you, but you don't have to provide them a platform either.

What I don't get is the notion that Obama having Warren deliver the invocation is somehow confers legitimacy on Warren. He's a bestselling author and a hero to millions. He's already plenty legitimate. And it's not as though religious folks decide who should lead them based on what Democratic presidents do. Warren is already legitimate. Engaging him is not the worst thing in the world, and I don't have an objection to him getting a reputation as being more moderate than, say, Pat Robertson because he is more moderate than Pat Robertson, on many issues. Not so much cultural issues, but you don't wish the Christian Right away.

Sooner or later, the left is going to have to come to terms with the fact that Obama really is the guy he said he was. He likes unity, he likes compromise, he likes people coming together. And I'm not any more wild about culture war politics coming from the left than I am when they're coming from the right.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

This is the most hilarious thing I've read in some time.

Conservative self-pity

Funny, back in the day, when conservatives were worried about liberals being in too much control over something, they infiltrated that something. Nowadays, they just throw pity parties. Take this piece by Erika Andersen at Culture 11, a generally good conservative site. I already left a comment there, but it strikes me that one of the problems why conservatives don't have as much success in academia is because, well, a lot of modern conservatism just doesn't care much about facts. You can't become a biologist while denying evolution, as the past 150 years of biological science draws on evolution. Conservatives tend to dominate business and econ departments at universities, and in the sciences and engineering the faculty (in my experience) tends to fall along liberal lines, though with a strong libertarian presence.

I will admit that there tend to be little other than liberals in liberal arts departments, in my experience, and universities ought to try to remedy that. But let's face facts: most conservatives don't have a college education. Many conservatives are anti-intellectual, a la Sarah Palin. Liberals, meanwhile, tend to value facts and reason. Admittedly, some tend to be excessively ideological, but that's going to be true of any political group. If the Republicans were to value facts and reason as well, and appeal to professionals and academics, that would be one thing, but a large part of conservative thought is that mainstream academic views--on economics and science, among others--are wrong. Another way of saying this is that conservatives disagree with conclusions on these subjects that are based on what we know and have been able to prove. What's more, they don't really offer compelling alternatives (like supply-siderism and intelligent design) that jive with what we know. Now, if conservatism were to be about balanced budgets, laissez faire, and reasonable skepticism of certain scientific theories, it would certainly merit a place in the discussion, as these are entirely debatable theories. But the reason why there aren't too many conservative public intellectuals these days is because so much of modern-day conservatism simply cannot be defended intellectually. In order to defend, say, supply-side tax cuts, you have to be willing to disregard virtually every teaching of modern economics and quite a few common sense arguments. In other words, you have to push aside inconvenient facts. And this is why there aren't as many conservatives in academe, and the ones that are tend to be heterodox--in economics, you tend to find faculty who are classical economists, which is not where Republicans are these days.
I largely agree with Matt Yglesias here about unions, especially this:
Personally, I was raised in a family that believed that in a just society people
who work hard at full-time jobs wouldn’t live in poverty and wouldn’t need to
rely on charitable handouts to feed their families. That means high wages and

I think a lot of the issues that conservatives raise about unions are generally pretty silly. The most common ones are that unions make American labor uncompetitive with other countries that are less union friendly and that they don't really represent the people they represent. The former is difficult to defend, as one could make the argument that excessive CEO salaries would have the same impact on competitiveness, no? No conservatives really complain about that sort of thing. And since unions are democratic it is definitionally impossible to say that union leaders don't represent labor interests: if they don't, they're voted out.

I must say that I'm a bit worried about passing EFCA. Unfortunately, there are a fair amount of moderate Democrats from conservative states who are wholly dependent on corporate contributions to keep their seats and, as a result, will vote against the act. I wonder if Obama would be able to induce such people to vote against the act but to vote for cloture. Because if he can do that, he can lose eight (or seven) Democrats but still win.

Thought of the day

Doesn't the fact that we overreacted wildly to 9/11--two wars, plus a "war on terror", the shredding of civil liberties, torture, and Rovian political toxicity--show uniquely that America has become so soft and weak that we cannot deal with any sort of national setback? Overreaction is very much a sign of weakness, and other nations have been victims of terrorism in a much more significant way than we have (e.g. Israel, India) and the continuing terrorist threat is, I would imagine, far more real and present there than it is here. We nearly tore our country apart after being hit once. If Israel had reacted historically to attacks like we have these past few years it would not have lasted a year as a nation.

One would hope that our reaction next time would be a bit more tempered: after all, after you get in a fight and get bruised a little you usually realize that it isn't the end of the world and you stop being afraid. Unfortunately, after the past few years I somehow doubt that we'll grow wisdom on these issues.

Why are we still listening to conservatives' every word?

At some point, hopefully, media personalities and bloggers will realize that conservative Republicans are pretty much irrelevant to the process from here on out and stop commenting on stuff like this. At this point, the key players in the next Congress are going to be moderate Democrats like Blanche Lincoln who might defect from the large Dem majority, and moderate Republicans like Sue Collins who will want to look more bipartisan to their voters. Contentious debates are going to be about whether members of those groups support Obama. Conservatives are going to oppose him every step of the way, but they are going to be proven irrelevant as a result.

On a related topic, I think removing the filibuster (or actually making people speak for 18 hours without a break) is a fantastic idea, and I doubt the Democrats would face much fallout for removing the filibuster as it is pretty indefensible and it's too inside baseball for most folks to care about. I doubt the public would punish the Dems, especially if it was in order to pass popular issues. I think the chief fallout from this strategy would be that it would end any sort of bipartisan comity and would make the atmosphere in Washington to be even more toxic and partisan than ever before. As a result, I think that the nuclear option should remain the nuclear option.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Even more torturing

I must say that the "ticking time bomb" argument in favor of torture is compelling to some degree, as Ezra does, but it's ultimately irrelevant. It requires, as a prerequisite, the absolute knowledge of a future act of terrorism, which is unlikely. It requires that one has held captive someone who knows significant information about the threat and can be cracked by torture, which is unlikely but also implausible, as it is difficult to verify that the information is good, so you have to have some quick way of verifying it. And wouldn't terrorists switch up their routine after one of their gang got caught?

In the field of computer science education, there is what is known as a "toy problem", which is a problem that is so simplified from anything you encounter in the real world that it is useless aside from instructional purposes. I think the 24 scenario fits this bill precisely, but since that show hammers its subject matter home so vividly, people figure it's based on reality. Only it isn't--it's entertainment produced by Hollywood for mass consumption. I can't tell you how many times I've heard this argument posited by conservatives as proof of the need for torture--I think the left equivalent would be that the Oliver Twist scenario illustrates the need for anti-poverty programs. My feeling is: when your chief argument in your favor is a fucking television show, your arguments must suck.

More torture

Is it unAmerican to suggest that there is some level of moral equivalency between what the terrorists do (e.g. torturing and killing innocent civilians) and what we have done in Iraq? Right-wingers scoff at such questions. I don't think that, even by the depraved standards of Bush's decisionmaking that America is really equivalent to al-Qaeda. However, I do think that we are, in many ways, on the same continuum as these psychos because of Bush's actions (as well as the nation's indifference to them) and rather than getting angry at the thought, we ought to come to terms with it and start fixing things.

What I do think it's reasonable to say is that America, by tacitly accepting such measures (and I agree with Kevin Drum here), has shown that we simply don't care about things like freedom, rule of law, and human decency. Maybe things are changing, and maybe this was a temporary lapse. I always worry about whether or not people are willing to die to protect civilization. Most people aren't even outraged when its tenets are violated. Have to stay alive to buy more shit, I suppose.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Torture President

It would not surprise me one bit if this were true. I would not be surprised if many on the right wanted torture as a way of settling scores for 9/11--in fact, I wrote something on this topic some months back. For all we hear about the "religious right", there is little actual Christianity there, but rather endless reserves of grievance and victimhood complexes. The point of these things is generally to buffer one's self from criticism when one knows they are wrong--i.e. outsiders can't judge us. There is little empathy in the religious right, and even the smallest slights are unforgivable. Why do so many on the right care about what tinpot dictators like Chavez or puppets like Ahmadinejad have to say? Because they're running down the flag, and instead of laughing at these idiots, the right just gets angrier.

Fundamentally, today's right wing persists largely on hatred of the left. The torture debate shows this clearly: early on, before it became obvious that torture was to become one of the right's major policy ideas, you saw guys like Glenn Reynolds denouncing the Abu Gharaib torturers. They changed their tune pretty quickly.

Dynasties left and right

Forgive me if I don't find the anti-dynastic stylings of Ross Douthat (among others on the right) to be entirely convincing. I find the "new blood" argument insipid, for one, as I don't think these folks have thought through the implications of their argument. Why shouldn't someone whose parents were politically successful have a shot at public office? It seems discriminatory otherwise. Of all the arguments against Hillary Clinton in the primaries, the dynasty one was least convincing: I was much more compelled by superior arguments. And that's the point: the reason why someone should or shouldn't be appointed to the Senate is because they would be the most effective possible Senator. I admit that there is some doubt as to whether Caroline Kennedy would, in fact, fulfill the one criteria, but it appears that most New Yorkers like the idea and that she would be able to handle the fundraising hurdles. Honestly, that's not too bad a start.

I'm not sure that I buy this whole line of reasoning since Douthat didn't seem to mind the idea of Jeb Bush running for the Senate from Florida. He didn't write anything critical about it that I recall. Why not? Well, because there's every reason to believe that Bush would be effective. Now, Bush is a more credible candidate for the Senate, to be sure, but if one were to actually believe in the "new blood" argument, or worries about too much power being concentrated in one family, then surely a family that has produced two Presidents of the United States, as well as a Governor of Florida, is a problem as well? Especially when you consider the sorry state of the Kennedy dynasty today: Teddy is ailing, his son Patrick is a congressman from Rhode Island more known for DUIs than laws, RFK Jr. is an idiot. Teddy still has great power and influence, but otherwise there's not too much going on there. The Bushes are far more powerful in the GOP relative to the Kennedys in the Democratic Party. Is there any reason why these sentiments aren't standard-issue conservative resentment of the Kennedys? And unless Caroline pays off David Paterson for the seat, I think the Blago reference is a red herring.

On the practical implications of a Bayh Dog caucus

Nate Silver tries to find the silver lining in the announcement of Evan Bayh's Blue Dog equivalent in the Senate, and then concludes that it might not work out after all. I must confess it makes me nervous. If Bayh wants to form a "centrist" political caucus, he's going to have to put some distance between himself and the Dem caucus in general. That means that the Bayh caucus will have to oppose some of Obama's agenda in order to be "bipartisan" and not just a moderate caucus to help out Obama. My guess is that they would pick one or two things to declare independence: first, the nomination of Eric Holder for Attorney General is a possibility, though somewhat unlikely as it's probably a done deal and Karl Rove is trying to bring Holder down. It's the wrong kind of bipartisan. Second, Obama's climate change regulation. That seems ripe for some blue doggery (i.e. watering down). Finally, there's card check. That seems like a possible target, but it's antipartisan in a way that would diminish the power of the Bayh Dog caucus.

Climate change seems like the likely target then. It's high-profile, the Bayh Doggers will come from states indifferent to the threat, and environmentalists just don't have the sort of power that unions have within the Democratic Party. But I suppose we'll just have to see.

Friday, December 12, 2008

GOP to auto workers: drop dead

About once every decade or so, the GOP decides that the way back to power runs through austerity. They talk about getting back in touch with small government principles, the usual shibboleths are pronounced, the names of Reagan and Goldwater are invoked. And it usually ends horribly.

I mean, Barry G. lost a humiliating defeat. Reagan won, but only after two bitter losses, after which he had to drop demands to kill social security and Medicare. Newt Gingrich's Medicare cuts and shutdown did him in, and since then small government sentiment has died down. Until now.

Then again, a belief that government should be small doesn't really apply to securing loans for businesses, does it? As usual, the Republicans have proven themselves to be the party of the rich and of parochial interests. The idea that mainstream politicians object to American workers being paid well is preposterous. Selling a bailout to the public is fraught, but allowing major businesses to fail for what? Union busting? is rather craven, and reflects that famous political instinct that has lost the GOP dozens of congressional seats in the past few years. If the big three go under, the Democrats will pin it on Republicans, and with good reason. But who needs the Midwest anyway?

The reading of public opinion here is telling. Sure, people like the idea of "small government" and they don't like the idea of bailing out rich people. But they don't like the effects of not bailing them out, either, and ten billion or so is not a huge price to pay for keeping half a million people in work for a while. One major problem with the right is that, in the absence of true visionaries, technocrats like Boehner are just mindlessly reapplying the old rightist dogma to a changing society. They stick to their mantras of how America is center-right blah blah blah, but with weak political instincts. They are not going to be trusted with anything for some time, I expect.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Blagojevich is arrested

...and Republicans already resort to douchebaggery. I wouldn't be bothered by this if it contained any substantive information about links between Blagojevich and Obama, but it doesn't--it's just more guilt-by-association crap. I guess those old campaign reflexes die hard. Still, it's not exactly a show of bipartisan comity...as if the Republicans ever believed in that and aren't going to try to steamroll Barack Obama out of the gate. Republicans have been tearing down Democrats for so long that it seems like they literally don't know how to do anything else. Where, exactly, does the hate come from?

In any event, it's pretty clear that Obama maintained his scruples here. Good for him. What I find hilarious is that a governor with little national profile (until now!) and a 4% approval rating thought he would be a serious contender for President! I guess he must feel himself a victim of circumstances to think that none of this is his fault. I guess the search for the Democratic George W. Bush is at an end.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Ambinder is right here

Like, literally nobody cares that Obama's picks aren't progressive enough. Aside from liberal interest groups who want more attention and more of a piece of the pie. I am inclined to agree: the "moderates" Obama has selected have indeed been radicalized by the moment, and guys like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner have been on the side of the angels for some time now. Similarly, it is entirely unclear to me that the Jones/Gates approach to foreign policy will be similar in any way to the Bush Administration's. Actually, I haven't minded Bush's foreign policy in the past two years or so. Not that it makes up for his many sins before that time...

Ambinder's explanation totally explains what's been going on. Others have made the case that having moderates pushing progressive policies is politically smarter than just having liberals do it. There seems to be logic to that. We'll see.

Bush, reconsidered

Steve Benen has an (unintentionally) funny bit of business about George W. Bush's reflections on his time in office. It reads just a bit like an episode of The Office, with Bush in the Steve Carell role.

When I think about Bush, all the talk about how he was a "strong" leader seems to be backward. From what I've read about the man, he's quite the opposite. He seems to be driven primarily by insecurity. He doesn't like surrounding himself with people who disagree with him, especially people like Colin Powell who have a greater stature than Bush. He never asks questions at briefings (such as the notorious FEMA briefing about Katrina) because he doesn't want people to think he doesn't know everything. He never admits mistakes because he sees admitting he was wrong as a sign of weakness, famously, but why? It doesn't really make sense: admitting you were wrong and promising that lessons have been learned is only human, and it is honest. People like it when you are being straight with them. They don't like being lied to, especially when the truth is opposite and clear to see.

In other words, it's one thing to lie that a rescue mission is underway after a plane goes down. People understand that that sort of thing is necessary to save someone's life by throwing the bad guys off the track, and then you can tell them the truth afterward. It's a little different if CNN shows that the plane is down and you deny it even after the rescue has happened so as not to diminish troop morale at losing a plane. The former is comprehensible, the latter just makes you scratch your head and wonder, why not just confirm what everyone knows? Who takes comfort from knowing that the government is telling the proles the best possible story, even though everyone knows it's false? It's just weird. Oliver Stone's W. evidently felt that Bush was always haunted by the specter of his dad, which would account for some of the insecurity. I tend to think that it was more than that, though. The fact that Bush lacks facility with words, that he's not exactly the brightest or most innovative thinker out there has led, I think, to quite a bit of insecurity in his character. It's why he was pushing to be continually referred to as a "strong leader" in 2004 and seemed so energized about the notion, and it's why he has seemed so absent and defeated during the past two years, in a sort of "I'm picking up my toys and going home" manner. Nowadays, nobody gives a damn about him and he's extremely weak. I'm sure it's killing him.

In a way, I feel almost sorry for George W. Bush. He seems like the kind of guy who simply cannot live with a mistake like the Iraq War. Unfortunately, instead of deploying that conscientuousness in the service of avoiding Iraq Wars, Bush is able to push it to the side quite easily. As a rich guy who has never really had to face the consequences of his actions--more accurately, who has had them shielded from him--he is easily able to push the consequences of what he does out of his mind, or shift them from other people. Unlike Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan, Bush was never a principled conservative. He (and his svengali, Karl Rove) were always more interested in gathering more power, and seemed to have few scruples about everything else taking a back seat. Maybe there were some vaguely-defined ideas to help "normal folks" out, but they did what was necessary to help themselves out first and foremost. What was Medicare Part D, if not an attempt to peel seniors off of the Democratic coalition? Ditto immigration with Latinos. One would be less cynical if these concepts weren't pitched to skeptical conservatives in exactly those terms.

In a sense, it is regrettable that Bush wasn't the figure he claimed to be, and the GOP is probably the worst off from the Bush years. A successful, center-right Bush Administration that reined in some of the extremists' worst tendencies might have kept the GOP in power and relevant for some time to come. Instead, Bush instituted a war on truth and reason largely because he could. He brought back the worst elements of McCarthyist thinking, once again as a power grab. You were either "with us" or a terrorist coddler. Democratic Senator Max Cleland was equated with bin Laden. John Kerry was the original Swift Boatee. He caused all the moderates to be stripped away from his party, leaving an ultra-right group of whackos consigned to the political bench for the forseeable future. It was all so unnecessary, in retrospect, as Bush was generally able to accomplish his goals even after the disaster of Iraq came into full focus. I remember a Roger Ebert review of Malice that noted that the film was the first to include a serial killer subplot just for atmosphere. Bush's time in office might be the first time that McCarthyism was employed just for the hell of it.

Why was such divisionism necessary? Because, quite simply, Bush was a mediocre man and a bad leader. He couldn't summon the strength to lead all the people of these United States on a grand purpose because he did not possess any such strength. He was only able to keep his opponents off balance for a while before everything crashed down on him. A lot of people were stunned when the Democrats didn't manage to win in 2004, but I think it was stunning that it was even close. Only three years after 9/11 George W. Bush won a narrow victory in a presidential election. It would have been like F.D.R. having undergone a nailbiter win over Tom Dewey in 1944. That Roosevelt won a crushing landslide while Bush narrowly won tells you that winning and holding political power has much to do with success and not so much with spin.

And that leads to one of the Bush Administration's singular insight: that you could distract people from a disastrous economy and war with spin! Clearly, these guys had a pretty low opinion of Americans. And, reassuringly, it was misplaced. But it's not unlike an oil company CEO trying to spin themselves out of a tanker crash that kills a thousand penguins. There's no play there. Despite attempts to blame liberals and the media for ignoring all the good news of Bushdom (attempts that will, no doubt, continue for some time to come), they predictably didn't work.

Great leaders unite, bad leaders divide. It is too early if Barack Obama will be a member of the former group, though it is not entirely implausible. For all the talk among Bush's inner circle of his having a Truman-like revival, the fact remains that Truman was unpopular because he made a few unpopular decisions that nobody remembers right now (is anyone still upset that he fired Doug MacArthur?) and are irrelevant in retrospect. There is a huge gulf between the two men: Harry Truman was a wise leader and a strong man who did what he thought was right even when it was unpopular, e.g. desegration of the military and firing MacArthur. Bush did unpopular things, but they were usually unpopular because of mistakes he made initially, like having an under-equipped force for invading Iraq or invading Iraq to begin with, and he refused to make things right when they were costly afterward.

And so it is clear for all to see that George W. Bush's inherent weaknesses were what did him in. One can talk about his intellectual deficiencies all day, but to my mind the characterological deficiencies are more damning. Even if he hadn't waged the Iraq War, it is inconceivable to me that Bush would have been a good president: between his gnawing insecurity and adjascent need to prove himself, his inability to see himself and his faults clearly, and his inability to lead anyone other than rabid ideologues who agree with him, we have seen a man who was compromised before he set foot in the Oval Office. It was only a matter of time before everyone else--save the delusional--figured it out. And we have. I don't know if George W. Bush is the worst president ever, but as a leader and a man I should say that we have scarcely encountered worse.

Does being pro-life have anything to do with abortion?

Larison's point is well taken here, but he's making the assumption that there is a strong Christian case to be made for his pro-life views. I am not entirely sure that's true.

I'm not saying that the views of pro-life Christians are in any way invalid. How would I know? What I am saying is that, having read my Bible pretty thoroughly, I never found any reference to abortion in the Good Book. Not only does Jesus not mention it, but neither does anyone else in the book. A lot of Christians these days make the claim that abortion is the greatest moral evil in today's society. I understand this view, and if one believes that life begins at conception then the logic makes sense. But nothing in the Bible actually says life begins at conception. The Bible does espouse something like an absolute pro-life stance in which every life is important and valued. Pro-lifers will make this claim to tie their views to their religion, but one could just as easily say that they are also pro-life, but that they believe that life begins at viability or some such. Pro-lifers would no doubt scoff at such logic, but since the Bible does not provide an operative metric for when life actually begins it becomes a matter of opinion.

None of this is to say that one side or the other is correct on this issue. I have my opinion, and other people have others. But I don't see abortion as a religious issue, per se, so much as a moral and philosophical issue. And I do believe that being "pro-life" in any sense is incompatible with a belief in capital punishment. If one believes that it prevents crime (without evidence!), one is engaging in a utilitarian argument rather than a deontological one, in which lives can be sacrificed for the good of the many. Not so much "every life is sacred" sentiment there. And while I don't believe a person has to be a complete pacifist to be regarded as pro-life I do believe that support of the Iraq War is difficult to square with any sort of pro-life value structure. If the watchword of the pro-life movement is that every life is sacred, then continued support for the war after it became clear that WMDs weren't there is not compatible with the broader principle of the sanctity of life. As the Iraq War morphed from "a war to make us safer" into "a war to make everyone free" into "a war we're fighting because Bush can't admit a mistake", pro-lifers said nothing. In the meantime, they still raged against the evil of abortion while fully grown people died every day so as to allow George Bush not to face the disaster he wrought.

I do consider Larison to be legitimately pro-life, but I find him to be the exception in conservatism today.

Mandates and referenda

We seem to be interested these days in talking about what the election means. As far as I'm concerned, the meaning is obvious: Democrats won more than half of the house seats out there, plus a lot of Senate seats, plus a new governor's chair and, oh yeah, the presidency. The Republicans won some state reps around Dixie and a handful of congressional seats in the South, but unless I'm mistaken, these seats don't really give the party much to work with on the question of where to go next. Three of the felled Dems--Nick Lampson, Don Cazayoux, and Nancy Boyda--were representing ultra-conservative districts that more or less "came home" after electing Democratic representatives in protest. (Why Lampson shrugged off a run at higher office is something of a mystery to me, but oh well.) The other two--Tim Mahoney and Bill Jefferson--were scandal-ridden incumbents in more Dem-friendly districts that the Democrats will presumably have another chance at in the next election cycle. Steve Benen gets it right:

Republicans have the smallest House minority in nearly two decades, and the smallest Senate minority in nearly three decades. They got trounced in the presidential race, and are now easily outnumbered in the nation's governorships. But they managed, with surprising difficulty, to hold on to a Senate seat in the deep South, while beating a scandal-plagued incumbent, currently under felony indictment, elsewhere in the deep South.

As silver linings go, this is rather thin.

Notice how none of these victories represented Republicans changing independent or Democratic minds. The only race where that might have happened--the Pennsylvania square-off between Republican Lou Barletta and Congressman Paul Kanjorski--turned out to be nothing to worry about. This isn't to say that all of the conservative folks in districts represented by new Democratic congresspeople have sworn off the GOP forever, and it is entirely possible that they will return home after an election cycle or two when the memories of the Bush years abate and Obama's agenda sinks in. Any such movement back, though, will almost certainly not be due to new big government programs, as the level of economic conservatism within the GOP base is vastly overstated. If Obama doesn't raise taxes on the middle class and the economy turns around I suspect that most people will like universal healthcare and stimulus just fine.

The GOP's best chance is that Obama pushes too hard on social issues--so much as to cause a backlash. I suppose Obama could screw up a national security or foreign policy decision pretty badly, but Obama won't do anything as bad as Iraq, and considering his canny cabinet selections so far, I'd say anything majorly bad is unlikely and there would be a fair amount of insulation between Obama and the consequences, between conservative types like Bob Gates and Jim Jones in the security apparatus. I know that Bill Kristol probably hopes the Iraq withdrawal will be botched or that a civil war will break out after we leave, so as to blame Obama and keep the neocon flag flying. I still think that the social issues present the greatest challenge--if Obama signs a Freedom of Choice Act that is too far "left", or repeals DOMA in a way that leads to widespread court challenges to force Nebraska to recognize gay marriages from Connecticut--the GOP would have another chance to reclaim those voters. Absent that, they'll have to reform.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A secular amendment to a secular constitution was passed partly in order to protect the integrity of spirit children

Maybe a cheap shot, but then again, so was Mormon opposition to Prop 8. Andrew Sullivan has a good primer on how it happened. In terms of American religions right now, Mormonism must be considered the most intolerant and, frankly, evil. There are many good Mormons, many decent Mormons, but the fact remains that this is an institution that treats homosexuals in the most deplorable fashion imaginable: forced "reeducation", outings to family and friends, excommunication. Not to mention the use of the political process to strip gays and lesbians of rights, as well as turning groups like the Boy Scouts into ideological fiefdoms.

I grew up with a lot of Mormons, and I know that they're generally good folks. If Mormons stand for this sort of business--and I suspect most will, as conformity is so ingrained in that culture--then I think a lot of stigmatization is a fair price to pay.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Gosh, the Republicans don't do tokenism well. The first step is: don't do it. This year, the Democrats had a choice between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, two extremely knowledgeable and accomplished presidential candidates who both happened to belong to groups that had never before been represented in the presidency. Obama managed to get it, and his race had some effect on the outcome, to be sure. But I keep hearing about Bobby Jindal as a Republican Obama, and it just doesn't fit. Jindal is not very charismatic. I've seen interviews with him--he comes off as a normal, likeable, decent guy, but he just doesn't give off the sort of energy you associate with a president.

Now, would Jindal do a better job than Mike Huckabee as president? I don't know. Better than Palin? Almost certainly. Better than Romney? Probably not. He's credible and smart, and he's not a WASP, so putting him on the ticket would be a good rebranding move for Republicans, especially if he decides to try to offer some conservative policy solutions that go beyond cutting the cap gains tax. But he's largely unknown to the country, he's in a party saddled with a crapload of Southern racists--he did win in Louisiana but only on his second try. And there is a story about an exorcism he performed in college, which would serve to turn the dude into a punchline. In any event, it's unclear to me why he draws so much interest, as he's the culturally conservative governor of a Deep Southern state who just happens not to be white. His record is, so much as I can tell, much thinner than Romney's, and it seems that Republicans still don't get it if they think that race was the only reason that Obama won this thing, and they'd be more advised to try to find somebody along the Sarkozy model in France than just another brother of another color...

Strategy vs. tactics, round 5000 and the future of the GOP

Ed Rollins has a perceptive piece on the GOP's attempts to build a "rightroots" to compete with the left-leaning constellation of Kos, HuffPo, etc., as a way to win again. As seems to be their stock in trade these days, the GOP seems to be confusing strategy with tactics. Creating an online presence is a good tactic to mobilize your activists, but it is not a strategy on how to move the party forward, nor will it attract new voters to the Republican Party. Nowhere do you hear young (orthodox) Republicans talking about bringing new voters into the party, nowhere, because doing so would upset the applecart of today's GOP. Bringing in Latinos would force the GOP to stand up to their base and ditch nativism, if it isn't too late. There simply isn't a group out there whose interests align completely with the GOP that isn't already in the Republican coalition--there aren't any Boll Weevils around for the taking. And adding new voters is going to necessitate changing something.

Which can't help but be a good thing. Modern-day conservatism is premised on two big and contradictory ideas: smaller government and a bigger military. This differs from the previous, Taft-era conservatism, which was dovish. There is a good reason for this: wars are expensive and require higher taxes. They bring about a lot of government encroachment into every sphere of life. Conservatives changed their tune largely in response to the enhanced threat of communism--in fact, anticommunism was more or less the driving idea of conservatism. Now communism is dead, but the GOP still follows the path of the hawk, more so than ever. And while social conservatism has always been factored into the equation, the addition of the religious right to the GOP coalition during the 1980s has pretty much eliminated any pretense to individual freedom on the part of the Republican Party. Right now, the GOP is a complete mess: there is simply no ideological thread animating all of these issue stances, and most of them are remnants of long forgotten ideological struggles whose utility has ended--and they now exist as objects to be worshipped rather than as tools of persuasion.

I'm not surprised that today's Republican leadership is desperately avoiding a "what went wrong?" discussion. And ditching the religious right is a recipe for disaster for the GOP. But Rollins is right when he revives the old lipstick on a pig metaphor. Sadly, I think it's going to take a few more tough losses before the GOP learns the right lesson.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Why did conservatives love Palin and hate Huckabee? A theory.

Ross Douthat tackles the question of why Mike Huckabee was hated by the conservative establishment, while Sarah Palin was beloved. Huck suggests it was looks over ability, Ross suggests it was Palin-bashing by liberals, and I agree with both, though even more with Huckabee. Palin was clearly a dolt from the beginning--ambitious on the level of Richard III but without two brain cells to rub together, Palin was a buffoon from the beginning of her time in the public eye. Huck looked silly from time to time, but he was obviously more qualified than Palin for high office. And that's why he didn't get it.

You see, Huck winning would have shifted the meaning of Republicanism by quite a bit. Huckabee had little love for the moneycon wing of the Republican Party and little love for the neocon wing, while being very much a proponent of sociocon enhancement in the party's establishment. Now, the grassroots of the GOP is predominantly Huck-loving and socially conservative, but the party's establishment is far more neocon- and moneycon-friendly. Huckabee clearly wanted to take the Republican Party in the direction of a European Christian Democratic party, which fuses social conservatism with moderate-to-liberal stances on domestic and economic issues. Since he was essentially mounting an offensive against the party establishment, the establishment fought him as hard as they could. It is regrettable that Huckabee didn't succeed in gutting his party's establishment--even if he'd lost the election (as he most likely would have) he'd have been able to remake the party in his own image after having engaged in some creative destruction.

Palin, on the other hand, is a blundering idiot. Her record isn't too different from Huck's, but it's obvious from watching her that she is stupid, so the same establishmentarians that objected to Huck's record saw someone they thought they could directly control and accepted her. It's not unlike how bureaucracies work in The Wire, in which smart and talented people are ostracized because they act independently of the bureaucracy, while incompetent morons (like Stan Valchek) are promoted because of their willingness to toe the company line. With Palin, folks like Bill Kristol saw a perfect blank slate that would appeal to the social conservative base, as Huckabee did, but because Palin was out of her element she would be easily moldable and reliant on folks like Kristol. The fact that she did immediately become the target of fundie love and liberal scorn only crystallized (sorry) the wisdom of the strategy. It might even have worked, had Palin been better able to fake some modicum of policy knowledge so as not to make her untenable to moderates. This was the fatal flaw in the strategy, though it was a bit unexpected as she at least seemed to know what she was talking about when she was in Alaska.

In short, Huckabee was rejected by the establishment because he threatened their control, and Palin was accepted by them because she didn't.

Senator Clinton forever

The Senate seems like a natural fit for Bill Clinton--he'd totally get immersed in the cloakroom culture of the World's Most Exclusive Club, and I would imagine he'd have a fair amount of experience to contribute to the national conversation. All things being equal Obama ought to have made Clinton U. N. Ambassador, as Clinton is generally beloved by the rest of the world, has lots of relationships with foreign dignitaries, and he wouldn't have to move. Clinton would have moved to Defense or HHS in my parallel universe, en route to a SCOTUS berth.

Still, this all seems like a good way of things shaking out, if Paterson made such an appointment. I'm not sure that Bill would want it, though. My sense is that he sees himself above mere politics these days.

What about Bob (Gates)?

Bob Gates will remain on as Secretary of Defense. Most of the big Democratic bloggers are offering a muted but positive response. Here's Steve Benen:

So, is this a good move or not? At first blush, it seems more than a little discouraging for Democrats. It's not, for example, "change" if the Defense Secretary under Bush is the same Defense Secretary under Obama. For that matter, the decision doesn't help dispel the notion that Democrats are weak on national security issues if Democratic presidents keep turning to Republicans to lead the Pentagon.

And yet, I'm not at all convinced that Gates is a poor choice. In fact, I've seen ample evidence that Gates is exactly who Obama needs at the Pentagon right now.

I don't buy the notion that picking Gates makes it look like the Democrats can't handle defense policy. I would buy that if Gates had stepped down and Obama had replaced him with another Republican, like Chuck Hagel. That would effectively say, "Hey, America, we don't have anyone who can handle this, so we're going with a Republican to keep us safe." But that is not what Obama is doing, needless to say. He's not searching high and low and finding a new Republican defense chief, he's keeping on a Republican who happens to have a temperament that parallels Obama's and who has done a good job.

It's just the sort of politically savvy but healing move that Obama has trademarked. And Gates is one of the rarest of all creatures: a Bush Administration official whose public image has actually gone up since serving in government. On any number of levels, retaining him is the right choice.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Tuesday afternoon abortion post

Daniel Larison has convinced me that the Freedom of Choice Act is a bad idea for now. In any event, this seems just a bit beside the point. The Court is pro-Roe, to be sure, and this is the sort of thing that would infuriate and energize the right while not necessarily providing any real benefits to the left. It's bad politics, especially when Roe is in little apparent danger, and while the pro-choice case would be strengthened by something as suitably democratic as a public law it seems like it ain't worth the cost.

I wonder how long the pro-life movement will persist in any recognizable form. People who think that movements last forever are sorely mistaken: they eventually end, either by accomplishing their objectives or not. I think it's safe to say that pro-lifers haven't really accomplished anything of substance--they've complicated the moral attitudes of many people toward abortion (as if it is a subject that doesn't naturally have that effect!) while enacting a few parental notification statutes in various states. The operative strategy of these groups is to legally ban abortion as they consider abortion to be murder--it follows logically to go for this approach, but just because tens of millions of people would like to be able to fly doesn't make it any more possible. And the pro-life movement is drawing more inward by pursuing the sorts of sweeping abortion bans that even significant swathes of pro-lifers in places like South Dakota reject. The course that they're on seems not to lead to anywhere promising.

More than anything else, it reminds me of Johnny Rotten's quest to destroy rock 'n roll by turning the Sex Pistols into a non-mainstream group that would push rock out of the mainstream by setting too strong an example to ignore, thus destroying rock. If I were in charge of the movement, I'd say it's time to focus on winning support for national parental consent and partial birth bans, which are popular and don't have particularly strong defenses (these mostly involve not wanting to "chip away" at Roe, as if there weren't already significant restrictions on abortion rights in America). That might be the strategy that pro-lifers wanted to use, but it seems like one more likely to win over new supporters, rather than losing them by making the movement more about ham-fisted bans that simply won't work even if enacted.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Enough already

The media seems determined to write the "Obama is angering liberals by appointing centrists to his cabinet" meme, despite there being not too much in the way of proof. Ah, the media--never let a lack of facts get in the way of a good story! Matt Yglesias says what needs to be said here. For my part, I could care less if he appoints left-wingers, right-wingers or even Ralph Nader to his cabinet. The cabinet doesn't really do anything aside from managing their respective bureaucracies, and they rarely even advise the president directly. Anyone who thinks that picking a "moderate" cabinet is a sign of President Obama's lack of commitment to a progressive agenda should actually look at, say, what his incoming Treasury Secretary and HHS Secretary have to say about the economy and healthcare. It ain't triangulation, that's for sure.

In the end, a lot of these people have moderate reputations, which is good. But what does it mean to be a moderate these days? In the 1990s, it meant Clintonism of the Bill variety. Nowadays, it evidently means believing in massive stimulus, fixing inequality and bold steps on healthcare. Liberals tend to be process-oriented in these things, I care mostly about results. If by election day, 2010, Obama has enacted Universal Health Care, gotten us out of Iraq, passed stimulus and turned the economy around, I would say that he has been successful. He should also do away with secret prisons and torture. He has pledged to do all those things. These are my metrics for his success. So far, I haven't seen any real reason to believe he will not do them. (The Clinton appointment is something I'm ambivalent on, but I'm willing to believe that Clinton's hawkishness was just pure tactics and that she'll be eager to work along the lines that her husband's administration used.)

Friday, November 21, 2008

David Cameron shoots self in foot

In the world of British politics something truly amazing is happening. Gordon Brown, the incumbent Labour PM, has substantially rehabilitated his political standing, while Dave Cameron, the Conservative who had been presumed to be the next PM in about a year or two, has probably blown his chances this week. The story is pretty simple: Brown was a dead duck about six months ago. Polls had the Tories up by double digits until Brown had a successful party conference and then managed to handle the financial crisis in a manner that instilled confidence. In six months, Brown has gone from a guy in danger of losing his party's leadership into the likely bet to remain in Downing Street after the next elections. Things have gotten even worse since Cameron tacked hard to the right on fiscal policy, which even British businesses oppose due to the crisis and fears of a depression. If Cameron loses next year, it will be a really surprising comeback story for Gordon Brown. One wonders what would happen to the Tories in that circumstance: after a few election cycles of getting their asses kicked for moving further and further rightward, the party nominates a centrist modernizer who, at a critical moment, panics and swings to the right. Would the Tories retain Cameron and move more to the left? Curious.

I'm beginning to suspect that the Republicans will follow the Tory model and struggle about, moving further to the right and swapping out leaders willy nilly for the better part of a decade. Brown is not as slick as Tony Blair, to be sure, but he will probably be remembered more favorable by history. One of the interesting subtexts of the movie The Deal, which focused largely on the relationship between the two men, was that Blair was pretty much a cynical opportunist who was largely interested only in power, while Brown was truly interested in the ideals of the party. Blair got the job because of his flash and his youth and good looks, and his excellent sense of timing. But his ambition, that overarching desire to make his mark, was what led him to support a disastrous war waged by an incompetent American president and it eventually wound up destroying his reputation and legacy. The thing that elevated him also destroyed him. It's not particularly profound or original. Brown, meanwhile, has always been more low-key and idea-oriented. His weakness has generally been an inability to read the public's mood, and he's more of an ivory tower type (he is an academic, after all). But it turns out that British people like the idea of a quietly competent technocrat right now. Cameron's main problem has been his flopping all over the ideological spectrum: he's gone back and forth between the center and the Thatcherite dead-enders, and he's back there now. England would be crazy to elect him now, as fiscal austerity from the government is a terrible way to deal with lean economic times.

I'm not exactly a fan of Tony Blair. I think his ambition to be a world-historic politician led to the War on Terror and the Iraq War, two boneheaded ideas that we will have to mop up for decades. Blair has paid the price for his sins, although some of it was visited upon his successor. Tony ought to have known better. Why he thought he should hitch his star to that of George W. Bush I'll never know. Anyway, this is a bunch of rambling. Check out The Deal, which is a really, really awesome movie. It's part of a loose trilogy on Tony Blair along with The Queen and another movie to come. They're all written by Peter Morgan, who is one of the few writers of political stories that I feel actually gets the ins and outs of politics, and I usually feel like I've learned something after watching his movies. He's also the writer of Frost/Nixon, which I will naturally be seeing. If you're not a fan, you should be.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

McConnell plus mass denial

I find this exceedingly odd. Why would Mitch McConnell take it personally that Democrats targeted his seat? And why would anyone expect that the GOP wouldn't target Reid in 2010? I guess Ted Stevens's emotionalism is rubbing off on everyone around him, like some sort of airborne pathogen. Besides, McConnell won, and it wasn't by like fifty votes. He won by 6%.

It does make him look more than a little weak, but the GOP is keeping him and Boehner on for reasons that defy comprehension. My suspicion is denial: most Republicans just don't want to face the amount of evil that their leadership has engaged in over the past decade, and I suspect that's why you're seeing Republicans talking feverishly about replicating 1994. But in 1994 the GOP had the following things going for them: they were not at a hugely disproportionate disadvantage on the economy. Bush 41 wasn't great, but he was better than the last Democrat in the office (Carter). The GOP was known for excellent stewardship of the military and the congressional Democrats were known for their corruption more than anything else. Plus, the country was still center-right back then. It isn't now. The only way the right is going to be back in power, short of reforming, is if Obama makes a mistake and/or is unable to turn the economy around. Basically, they have to hope that the man who ran one of the most disciplined campaigns in American History coughs up a play (or plays) so boneheaded it completely turns people off to the Democratic brand, and the most likely result of this would be the formation of a centrist third party rather than a Republican revival.

Mass denial. It makes sense. Center-right country. Not a mandate. Keep on a-sayin' it.

What the Huck? The GOP's establishment problem.

Why the GOP needs to nominate Mike Huckabee in 2012.

Over the past two weeks, the Republican Party has been conducting internal debates about the future of the party, and the fault lines have become perfectly clear. One one side are reformers like Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, David Frum and David Brooks, who argue that the GOP ought to adapt its approach to policy to try to appeal to the middle. Others, such as talk radio stalwarts like Rush Limbaugh, opt to return to the status quo ante--which is to say, how things were before Bush. As with the leadership of the British Labour Party in the 1980s and 90s, these folks believe that one more push will finally see the party successful. And the Labour Party example is instructive: they pushed in 1983. And then again in 1987. And then again in 1992. And they would have tried again in 1997, were it not for the arrival of a reform-minded leader by the name of Tony Blair who turned things around.

Now, of course, such analogies are crude and often abstract out so many details that they become little more than bromides. Nevertheless, the GOP must modernize in some respect. The public mistrusts them on virtually every issue on which there is polling: in the Clinton years, the Republican polling advantage on defense issues nudged 2 to 1. It's now even-up as a result of the Iraq disaster and the deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan, and if Obama manages to conduct a successful foreign policy and keeps America safe there is the real possibility that the Democrats will become the party that owns the defense issue going forward. With the Dems registering overwhelming advantages on every domestic policy issue and possibly foreign policy going forward, the GOP will have nowhere to go and no issue upon which to strike up an insurgency. How's that plan looking now, Rush?

So, reform is essential for future Republican success. But how to go about it? This is where the reformers diverge. Frum and Brooks, as well as Kathleen Parker, believe that social conservatives have become a drag on the Republicans' fortunes. Douthat, Salam, and Ramesh Ponnuru believe that the economic policies of the Bush years have become the chief culprit of GOP failure. And few mainstream conservative voices, aside from the exiled likes of Chuck Hagel and the ever-perceptive Daniel Larison, believe that the party's foreign policy has been the problem, and the neocons disbelieve this despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In fact, perhaps the theoretically easiest path to reform within the GOP would be to cut the neocons loose. After all, there aren't too many of them. And the "tax cuts for the rich so help me God" class of tax raiders, like Grover Norquist, are hardly numerous in number either. Polling suggests that fewer than half of Republicans believe that tax cuts are necessary at this point, and as much as a third believe in raising taxes to pay for the deficit. A third of the GOP dissents on the party's signature issue? What is going on here? Why do these small groups have all this power?

The answer is pretty simple: the tax raiders control the GOP's money spigot. Turning against these folks would make the Republicans further undermatched to the Democrats' new small-donor funding model. And the neocons (such as Bill Kristol) are, well, just there: they're well-known and well-connected, and they are prominent in conservative media. These two groups make up most of the conservative coalition, and they tend to be hostile to the party's evangelical wing. As someone who is sympathetic to that hostility I would like to agree with this analysis, but it's just wrong. These groups got John McCain the nomination after their preferred candidate, Mitt Romney, couldn't close the deal with voters. McCain ran a perfect conservative establishmentarian campaign, running on the "surge" in Iraq and foreign policy hawkishness in general, as well as concluding with ranting and raving about Obama's "socialism", presumably because he supports progressive taxation, as does most of the country and even McCain himself. McCain shied away from social issues--two states legalized gay marriage during the 2008 race and these developments were hardly mentioned--and he still lost. George W. Bush ran largely on social issues in 2004 and won. As someone who tends toward social liberalism I wish this wasn't true, but it is: there is simply no evidence that social conservatism is a loser for the GOP at this point. Now, there are some counterexamples to my thesis: the hateful Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-CO) was defeated in a House race this year, for example, in a generally Republican district. But McCain didn't emphasize social issues this year--in fact, he went out of his way not to give the impression that he was far more moderate here than he was, as part of a plan to win over disaffected Hillary Clinton voters from the Democratic primaries. It didn't work. Blaming sociocons, in other words, doesn't work. It's very, very difficult to make a direct case that they are responsible for the party's downfall.

The neocons and tax raiders, on the other hand, are directly responsible for the major failures of the Bush 43 years. One can draw a direct line from neocon ideology to Iraq. One can draw a direct line from the tax raiders' policies to the poor economy and rising wage inequality in America, not to mention rising debt and deficits. And one can squarely blame moneycons for the deregulation fetish that was the direct cause of the financial collapse this year. None of these arguments are really debatable, either. They are facts, and they are directly attributable to the flawed philosophies of the tax raiders and the neocons. Ditching these folks and their ideas and enacting reasonable, center-right policies rather than their radical drivel would be good for the Republican Party, and for America. All that the GOP needs is a George McGovern figure to do it.

Yes, you heard me right: the GOP needs a McGovern, which in this case means someone who will clean out the old establishment and the old hacks and lay the seeds for rejuvenation. Of course, McGovern didn't work out too well for the Democrats: he was a legendarily inept candidate, and the man he laid the way for was Jimmy Carter, who wasn't terribly apt himself. But McGovern changed the power structure of the Democratic Party in a beneficial way, and did away with the establishment for good. And right now the Republicans desperately need to clean house and find new establishmentarians with sounder ideas. The only way I can think of doing that would be by a grassroots revolt against the party elders, and I can think of only two conservative politicians who could theoretically pull such a thing off: Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. Palin is a non-starter here: she is almost unbelievably ignorant of public policy and political philosophy, nor does she have any sort of governing strategy or vision for the future.

Huckabee, on the other hand, does posess most of these things. He became something of a punchline this year because of his ignorance on any number of issues, it is true. Part of this problem, though, was no doubt due to inadequate preparation because Huck never thought he would be the nominee. On issues on which he is well-versed, such as faith, he is thoughtful, intelligent and persuasive. He could be a plausible Republican candidate against Obama in 2012, and while I somehow doubt he could win, he could perhaps fill the role of another evangelical candidate who never won but who radically reformed his party in his own image: William Jennings Bryan. Huckabee could expel the moneygrubbers and warmongers from the GOP fold and move the party toward a more reasonable course in those directions.

The only question that remains is: would he do it if given the chance? My answer is a qualified yes. Huck has shown a propensity to piss on the moneycon faction: calling the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group whose primary goal these days seems to be collecting scalps of insufficiently raiderish Republicans, the "Club for Greed" is a good indicator. His instinctual loathing of libertarians is another. Huck is not a Norquistian anti-taxer, and there is every reason to believe that he would be flexible in this area. He also publicly opposed the financial bailout this year, which should help him with Republican primary voters in 2012. Huck has supported the Iraq War for some time now, but he was notably one of the less rhetorically hawkish of the Republican candidates this year. His Foreign Affairs article was more similar to Barack Obama's than it was to Rudy Giuliani's. It's entirely possible that he's internalized the Bible's teachings on defense and war--more so than, say, Mitt Romney. And Huck starts out with plenty of enemies, which is so much the better for mounting an insurgency against the establishment. This is all undercut by the fact that Huck dropped many of his anti-establishment views upon becoming a real contender for the nomination. This is why the yes was qualified.

Let me be clear: I do not believe Mike Huckabee could assemble a successful coalition to win the presidency. Catholics hate his guts, which is why I think that he'd obviously pick Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal as a running mate. Huckabee might be able to appeal to some of the old Reagan Dems if he called for some real Republican reform, and he is reportedly interested in reaching out to black voters on socially conservative grounds, which is not a bad idea but one that wouldn't work in 2012 against Barack Obama. Huck would probably lose, but it would be a loss that would sew seeds of renewal down the road. Picking, say, Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney would mean that the GOP would keep trying to execute the tax raider/neocon playbook, and the Republican Party would only spend that much longer in the wilderness.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A rather objectionable poll

Every liberal who follows politics knows that Rasmussen is a conservative polling outfit. Truth be told, their national and statewide polling this election cycle was fairly accurate, but a lot of their "issue" polls are wretched, with leading questions and analysis that usually amounts to little more than right-wing spin.

Consider this poll. It shows that 48% of respondents believe that Barack Obama's Supreme Court picks will be either too conservative or just right. Eleven percent were undecided, and 42% said the picks would be too liberal. It seems to me that about 60% of the public is either in sync with Obama's self-stated principles on the rule of law and his political philosophy in general or just aren't that worried about it, and about 40% is concerned about the choices he would pick. All in all, it's probably not too much to worry about, as most people probably feel that the Court has moved pretty sharply to the right during the Bush years, and that adding another liberal justice or two might not be the worst thing.

But Rasmusen, of course, chooses to lead with the following headline: "42% Say Obama’s Picks for the Supreme Court Will Be Too Liberal." Nice work, Scott. It wouldn't bother me so much if the dude would just stop trying to be impartial. This is a poll as propaganda.

I guess being borderline illiterate isn't an obstacle to getting a book deal...

Sarah Palin, America's Hockey Mom and linguistic genius, gets $7 million for a book deal. Makes sense, considering that during the campaign she had absolutely nothing to say, and said it in the most excruciatingly meandering terms possible.

Summers will not cause a revolt

"As Ben Smith reports today, there's a lot of anxiety in Obamaland about giving the Clintons such a key role in his administration. "These guys didn't put together a campaign in order to turn the government over to the Clintons," a Democrat close to the Obama campaign tells him. If Obama brought Hillary aboard, then turned around and picked Summers, he could face a small-scale insurrection." -- Noam Scheiber
Scheiber is one of the savviest guys around, but this is just nonsense, and it reflects the eternal MSM tendency to try to mine Obama-Clinton tensions that simply no longer exist. So far, Obama has named several Clinton administration veterans to the White House staff. There has not yet been a netroots outrage. Picking HRC as SecState might well precipitate some unease among some Obama supporters who backed the Illinois Senator for enemy-of-my-enemy type reasons and just don't want the Clintons anywhere near power. Unfortunately, such thinking is just unrealistic: the Clintons are players, like it or not. Honestly, I'm not sure Secretary of State is the best role for Hillary, but I hardly think that a Clinton in the Cabinet amounts to "turning over the government," and shutting off all Clinton staffers from the White House severely depletes the talent pool one has to work with. So, I hardly think that Larry Summers is going to result in a netroots revolt. I would expect a muted but positive diary entry at DailyKos with generally respectful comments (e.g. "I'd prefer Paul Krugman, but Summers has been saying good things recently and he knows what he's doing").

Under different circumstances what Scheiber insinuates might be happening, but Obama won the nomination by appealing to the best in Democrats, and he did not shift radically to the center during the general election--he actually moved a bit left rhetorically on regulation and such once the financial crisis hit. The netroots is elated at having won and sincerely wants to give Obama a chance to enact his change. After eight demoralizing years, the left is tired of angrily fighting the power structure. And, honestly, Summers isn't that bad--his public statements and editorials in recent months have been pretty good from a progressive viewpoint, he knows what he's doing, and he's clearly aching to get back to Treasury. I say we let him.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A tale of two coalitions

"On the Democratic side of the coalition, the more conservative Blue Dogs of the majority are still far more liberal than the real conservative Democrats of the Clinton era, who, when they later changed parties, turned out to be among the most right-wing of Republicans." -- Mark Schmitt

Conventional wisdom regarding Barack Obama's prospects has been, as most Washington conventional wisdom is, deeply misguided. Pundits have been speculating at the odds of Blue Dogs halting the Obama agenda as occurred with Bill Clinton, but this scenario is painfully out of date. The Democratic Party, circa 1994, was a very different party than it is now. These days, when someone says "conservative Democrat" they are intended to mean a Democrat that is right-of-center on most cultural and social issues, but that is left-of-center on most economic and bread and butter issues. This is largely true. But a 1994 Blue Dog (or Boll Weevil) tended to be an actual political conservative who believed in cutting taxes on the rich, rolling the trade unions, and so on. There really aren't any of those left in the Democratic Party, as they've all gone to the GOP.

There's another dynamic at play now that wasn't in 1992. In 1992, the Democrats had been running Congress for about fifty years, and they just assumed they would run it forever. Conservative Democrats didn't really care too much for Bill Clinton and his agenda, and many no doubt figured that opposing it would help them in their home districts. There was, in other words, a rift between the Congressional-level Democratic Party and the Presidential-level Democratic Party. The latter was dominated by liberals that nominated folks like Mike Dukakis and Fritz Mondale, while the former was dominated by right-leaning Southerners. This schism, by and large, no longer exists, as is evidenced by Georgia Senate candidate Jim Martin tying himself to Barack Obama after pushing his election with Saxby Chambliss into a runoff. Thanks to the events of the past few years and the progressive infrastructure that has been built, there is much more of an "all-for-one" feel among Democrats these days, and there are only a few Boll Weevil-like Gene Taylors and Dan Borens stalking the halls. At the same time, moderate Republicans of the sort that would perpetually tease Bill Clinton with their support have generally been replaced with reliable liberal Democrats, and those few remaining might have more of a motivation to seem bipartisan and moderate considering the electoral shift of the past two elections rather than just waiting until being restored to power--a wait that would no doubt take a while.

The Big Tent loses another one

David Frum leaves National Review. The wages of anti-intellectualism are, well, not having intellectuals having your back. Considering that conservatism was born of an intellectual movement, and that core conservative ideas (like supply-siderism) are not exactly intuitive to the average Joe, I wonder how long conservatism can survive without some smart people coming up with smart ideas at the top of the tree. I suspect not long.

Obama and identity politics

Jon Chait's advice to Obama: avoid the social issues for now, and focus on the economy. It's not bad advice. Eventually, it's not going to be possible: when John Paul Stevens retires, social issues will come to the fore once again. Chait is further correct to state that the sort of identity/constituency politics that dominated Clinton's cabinet-picking is to be avoided. This being said...isn't that what the cabinet is for these days? It's not like most secretaries set policy--maybe Defense and Treasury do, but generally they implement plans laid down by the White House.

Basically, giving various constituencies a high-profile presence in the cabinet makes sense, but there has to be a minimum competency test at play here. I think Clinton passes that test, as does Janet Napolitano for Attorney General. They can do the job, and they make a key constituency happy. It's a two-fer. The problem we risk is picking someone who mollifies an interest group but can't do the job, or, even worse, passing over the best candidate (like Larry Summers) because an interest group doesn't like him.

All in all, though, I feel reasonably confident that Obama will make good appointments--look at the team he picked for the campaign!--and that he'll sidestep culture war landmines. I believe this because I believe that Barack Obama is way smarter than Bill Clinton, and way more politically savvy. Some might object to this statement. I challenge you all to find me some evidence of times during the Clinton years where the Administration actually was able to successfully move public opinion. We had a crime bill, but the Democrats didn't become "tough on crime" in peoples' minds. We had NAFTA, but a majority of Americans still consider themselves protectionists. And we all know how Clinton was able to sell health care reform. Obama has been much better at setting the agenda than Bill Clinton was, and Obama has done better at shaping public opinion so far.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Republican Conundrum

Very perceptive post by Ed Kilgore here. He examines why the GOP still seems to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that there is a hidden majority for right-wing ideas out there. Extra kudos to Kilgore for noting that politicians who actually tried to implement a conservative vision found themselves smacked around very quickly.

The thing about the Republican Party is that it draws many passively-willed people. It's a natural consequence of preaching about "old-fashioned family values": the people you attract are going to be people who don't much care for modernity, who don't really want to cause a fuss, and who don't have deeply thought-out political positions that go beyond that things used to be better. Just take the abortion issue: in the late 1970s, conservatives like Ronald Reagan and John Tower supported abortion rights, as did most protestants (though the religious right opposed abortion because of the feminist principles upon which it was based). Then Reagan changes his mind. And the GOP now largely opposes abortion rights. To be sure, there are many conservatives (mostly Catholic) who opposed abortion from the start, and it's not as though there aren't compelling pro-life arguments to be made that no doubt persuaded many thoughtful conservatives. Still, I see this as a clear example of my thesis: Republicans tend to be the sorts of people who fall in line with their elites. They tend more often to Messianism toward their leaders than do Democrats (this year being something of an exception), a la Reagan and Bush 43 after 9/11. They believe in strong leadership as being the path to implementing a conservative vision.

Unfortunately, even with strong leadership it hasn't happened. To continue the example, the pro-life movement hasn't accomplished any of its major objectives in 30-plus years. And yet, you don't hear widespread dissatisfaction with how the movement is serving its people. Movement types have become very adept at spiraling the blame outward. It's the liberal media's fault, of course. The liberals cheat to win. And so on. By feeding a deep and abiding sense of aggrievement they have distracted the rank and file from looking at just how abysmal their record has been.

Or is that really the case? I'm beginning to sense that there are an awful lot of conservatives out there who don't really care much about effective government. What is George Bush's approval rating among Republicans? It's still awfully high, the last time I checked. The GOP just doesn't care about whether things are run well, and the evidence of mainstream conservative revolt for most of Bush's term in office is proof of this. The fact that most Republicans were willing to elect, as vice president, a woman with little experience and no clue about national policy further underscores just how unserious today's GOP is about effective government. The Palin farce illustrates something rotten at the heart of the GOP--grievance has overpowered all else. It used to just be a tool to get conservatives to the polls, but nowadays a Republican can become the de facto face of the party by merely channeling banal resentments from the "real America" toward "fake America". And I thought that I would be spared more "two Americas" chatter after John Edwards doomed his career!

If the Republican Party is to survive, the party needs to change itself such that a Palin doesn't happen again. It needs to cultivate leaders that celebrate education and achievement, and reiterate that that's exactly what their party celebrates. It needs to speak to the fundamental notion that all Americans are real Americans, regardless of their skin color or where they live. The GOP cannot be a national party until it says these things. The old resentments need to die if conservatism is going to win any new converts, as a first priority. The GOP has fashioned itself as the redoubt of the embattled (White) middle class, and it has achieved some things on its behalf (like welfare reform). But the nation is changing, and unless the GOP largely drops all that tired Nixonian rhetoric, I believe it risks consignment to the dustbin of political parties who died off rather than readjust to change.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.