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.

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.