Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Obama's speech was good, but this good? "Eighty-three percent of speech watchers approved of Obama's proposals, while 70% thought Obama shares the same priorities for the country as they do (up from 57% before the speech)." And it's not some DKos/FDL poll either...

The next few months should be interesting.

Worst album cover? Or greatest album cover?

I'm as confused as everyone else:

H/t: AV Club

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The terrible neocons

Doug really doesn't like them:

Neoconservatives have always annoyed me in a way that paleoconservatives don’t. Sure, George Will says a lot of stupid and factually inaccurate things about global warming, but he’s openly agnostic (“too indecisive to be an atheist”). Yes, Kathleen Parker wastes a lot of columns on superficial cultural crap, but she often explicitly criticizes Republicans for cowing to the religious right. With these two, at least, it appears that they are writing things that they actually believe themselves.

There’s something unbelievably arrogant about taking public positions that you secretly don’t believe because you think that the hoi polloi needs to believe in order to keep our society going. It makes my skin crawl. The neocons are the worst offenders, but the Village also feels, as a rule, that the public shouldn’t know the truth about everything. I believe this attitude is toxic and is a big part of what turns out public discourse into nonsensical babble.

It's no wonder that they've dominated conservatism recently, though. We're talking about a cohort that can't or won't level with its base on what they can realistically achieve taxes or scope of government issues. They lie to them all the time, without any seeming punishment for doing it. The neocons are just doing the same thing.

This does explain, though, why neocons still insist that Dick Cheney is a viable political leader. Even half of Republicans dislike the guy, but the neocons could care less what us sheep believe, because they know what's best for us. The neocons now are basically what the left was about thirty years ago, and I think it's no coincidence that most neocons were left-wingers thirty years ago. They combine everything that is loathsome in both political traditions. They are the sum of all sleaze.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Some 2010 optimism

I don't think that the Democrats are going to do very well in this year's elections, but I'll be damned if Daniel Larison hasn't been doing his best to keep me optimistic (by being pessimistic about his fellow conservatives' chances). And he's doing very well! In these posts, he explains why the GOP isn't terribly likely to reclaim the House or the Senate, using reason, historical parallels, and electoral realities to weave a pretty simple argument: that Obama isn't too unpopular outside the South, that there simply aren't too many seats actually in play, and that the GOP isn't well positioned to sell themselves as the nation's economic saviors. I think that Democrats have done an exceedingly poor job of keeping the focus on how much the Republicans suck and have let them advance their narrative inch by inch over the past year (no doubt due to some combination of fear, timidity, and uncertainty about the value of their contributions), but the Dems' best asset is that, no matter how unimpressive they are, the Republicans are worse. And that the unlikelihood of a Republican takeover will likely lead to disappointment and disillusionment among conservatives this year when the GOP doesn't win. In the long-term, Democrats need to figure out a way to replace their current complement of not-too-impressive seatholders with smart, accomplished leaders, but in the short-term, an improving economy and an energized White House will go a long way toward stalling the GOP's temporary advantages.

The spending freeze

From what I'm reading, liberals are freaking out and conservatives are unimpressed. President Obama might wind up getting it from both sides on this one. But looking at the figures, it seems pretty clear that even if you believe in Keynesian economics (as I do), and therefore believe in countercyclical spending and pump-priming, cutting $25 billion a year from the budget (starting next year!) isn't really going to bring the economy crashing down, necessarily. It's too small to do that. And if it prevents further action on slashing federal budgets for the moment, it might well wind up doing a net good for the economy, even from a Keynesian point of view. Once the economy recovers it will be important to revisit the deficit, but this looks to me like Obama trying to stave off pro-cyclical cuts, not initiate them, in order to keep the conservative wing of his caucus in line viz. the stimulus.

This looks like classic Obama to me: pressure from conservatives in Congress is building up to do something about the debt, and Obama has positioned himself between the left and the right deftly by coopting a conservative idea in a way that liberals might be able to live with, depending on how its done. He's calling the right's bluff, basically, and if successful he'll likely preserve his accomplishments while regaining support from the center. If Republicans reject his opening offer (which isn't entirely unreasonable of them to do, considering their position), he'll be able to say that he tried it and that the Republicans didn't even want to negotiate, because they're not serious in their complaints. That could be damaging, because it happens to be true. The real question seems to be whether he's going to be able to thread the needle rhetorically by distinguishing between (important, necessary) stimulus spending and (presumably unnecessary) discretionary spending. I have no idea if he will be able to do that--or to convince liberals that he's not gone Hoover all over them--but the dude is a clutch player and knows his way around a podium, so I wouldn't bet against him.

Ultimately, if this gambit works, he'll have humiliated and discredited the right. If not, he'll have pissed off a large chunk of his base for (next to) nothing. This interpretation does lend some credence to Andrew Sullivan's notion that Obama is getting ready to fight. I must say, though, that even though I think I understand why the administration is doing this, I'm not sure it's a good idea. Obama is acting as though he has infinite credit with his activist contingent and the base, and the truth is that I'm hardly sure that's earned. He could be opening himself up to a challenge from the left (perhaps from Howard Dean), which would not be successful but would be ugly. Most of the left are going to hear "spending freeze" and link it to the despised John McCain, and figure that Obama is doing a complete U-Turn on Keynesian economics, when it seems to me that the opposite is what is really happening. A lot of these folks just don't feel that he's achieved anything for them, or that he much cares about their concerns. I don't agree with either claim, but I suspect things would be different if Robert Gibbs had announced the WH's full support for the Senate bill and if Obama were ducking into offices on Capitol Hill to press Congressmen to vote for the thing. He might well back both. Still, considering that Obama is backing a deficit commission and a spending freeze, even though the former will almost certainly fail and the latter will not amount to much, it's not entirely unreasonable for progressives to feel like they're being leveraged for a bout of triangulation, much the way they were during the Clinton years. Whether all this sinks in will depend on whether Obama offers a strong defense of stimulus/jobs bill/spending in general in his State of the Union. Indeed, I suspect he will, and the left's outlandish anger at Obama for a spending freeze will likely make him more popular with the center, and should thus further damage the right. My guess that there won't even be any such freeze, that the Republicans will oppose it unanimously in order to prevent Obama from winning a victory on spending, but that they'll give Obama a bat and ball to attack the filibuster and the right's unseriousness on this issue. Possibly.

Sullivan has asserted repeatedly that Obama is running the government basically like George H. W. Bush did, which strikes me as true. But while there is much to like in this approach (though obviously the elder Bush lost in 1992 due to some extent to lukewarmness from the base), I think it's a cop-out to some degree. There's a thin line between independence and aloofness, between pragmatism and expediency. The image that Obama needs to leave us with is that of a Happy Warrior, instead of a burrowed technocrat. We'll see how Obama presents himself on Wednesday.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Supreme Court bleg

Count me as not terribly distraught about the Supreme Court's campaign finance ruling today. I don't buy the legal reasoning in the case, but ultimately the notion that you can somehow keep money out of politics is misguided. If it doesn't go to candidates, it goes to party committees or 527 groups or whatever. The old adage about politics and money being like water on pavement seems to apply.

The solution, as I see it, is not to try to trick the moneymen into not being able to do what they do, but rather to adopt policies to encourage a more egalitarian distribution of wealth. Campaign finance issues are a symptom of an inequal society, not a disease in and of themselves. It's unsurprising that John McCain (v. 1.0) and Russ Feingold are the big heavy-hitters on this issue, as both have (had, in McCain's case) demonstrated great earnestness but little vision about the reality of the problems facing our society along these lines. All this doesn't have to mean adopting radical redistribution through progressive taxation, as there are plenty of ways to improve the standing of the working and middle classes (such as easing union organizing restrictions). But it doesn't seem that Obama or the Democrats are particularly interested in exploiting the increasingly conservative direction of the Court, and not just on this. From Bush v. Gore to striking down voluntary desegregation codes, I'm pretty sure that the Democrats could mount a strong case for a more progressive judicial system when one considers the unpopular and conservative record of the Supreme Court's recent years. I'm not sure why they don't. It sure worked for FDR (and Nixon, on the other side).

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why she lost

She couldn't turn out the base:
Charles Franklin stayed up late crunching numbers and found that Scott Brown's (R) vote totals in Massachusetts were essentially identical, in aggregate, to those Sen. John McCain received in the 2008 presidential election.

But it was a very different picture for Martha Coakley (D). Her best town gave her only about 80% of Barack Obama's vote. Even in the towns she won, she was dramatically underperforming the Obama vote.

Fournier is up to his old tricks

Look, I realize that the Mass. election loss was bad news for Dems, but the pro-Republican brio with which this AP article is written would almost make Sean Hannity blush. I guess a Republican winning in Massachusetts means that every single Republican frame must be right? One would hardly realize that Obama is extremely popular in the state.

Liberal media, dammit!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Where did the Northeastern Republicans go?

This post by Ross Douthat seems to be making the rounds. His thesis: "Now, of course, both Bush and Gingrich are gone, taking the shield with them, and suddenly northeastern swing voters are willing to consider 'voting for a Republican candidate as a way of expressing frustration with the ruling Democrats.'"

Douthat's argument seems compelling considering recent events. After all, Brown is likely to be elected to the Senate and Christie became New Jersey's governor today. NE Republicans are on the rise! But if you look back during the Bush era--say 2004, the year that W got re-elected--Northeast Republicans weren't really doing too badly. held the governor's mansions in Maryland, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Even now, they still have Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut, though none of these will likely remain Republican after this year. (And New Jersey, of course, which will.) This is not to mention the four Republican Senators from the Northeast. Not all of these states have completely hapless Republican Parties, either--New Hampshire had a strongly Republican legislature until 2007. So did Pennsylvania.

The thing about all these Republicans, though, is that their appeal was tied up in that they were Northeastern Republicans--socially tolerant, fiscally conservative, uninterested in the culture wars. Scott Brown and Chris Christie have managed to sell themselves in this mold. I have strong doubts that either really fits it, but I suppose we shall see. But there was never any reason not to believe that the Olympia Snowes and the Jim Douglases couldn't rise again, because they never really died off. They are, though, little more than an appendage to the national Republican Party, and a countercyclical one at that, if one takes Ross's pattern seriously. But it's important to note that Snowe, Collins, Jodi Rell, and all the rest of them take extensive care to present themselves as nonpartisan and moderate. I don't think I've ever read Sue Collins refer to herself as a conservative. That sort of Republican can still win in New England, at least for a time.

Ultimately, I think that Douthat is extrapolating too much from these results. Christie and Brown had the fortune to run against candidates that were either terminally unpopular (Corzine) or laughably inept (Coakley). Few observers seem to believe that either of these Republicans could have beaten a stronger candidate, such as former New Jersey Governor Dick Codey or Congressman Mike Capuano. To be fair, there are no doubt plenty of weak Democrats whose election was due mostly to a favorable political environment in '05-'06, and it would not be surprising to me if moderate Republicans were able to beat those guys. Deval Patrick seems like one example of this trend. But Ross's argument here is strange and self-defeating. He believes that poor GOP fortunes in the Northeast are due to the fact that the GOP is dominated by the South, culturally speaking. But that won't change if the GOP picks up a few more congressional seats in the Northeast. If history repeats itself, 2010 will result in gains for the GOP and the resurgence of a party dominated by angry Southerners, a la Limbaugh (and Palin, though she's only Southern culturally), which will...destroy the GOP in the Northeast again, by his analysis. The problem with this sort of expansion is the underlying culture of the GOP, and the most logical narrative for the data is that the GOP is only able to do well in this region when it is leaderless and powerless and merely able to pick up Dem-leaning indies who are fed up with their leaders, and that once that period ends and the GOP's personalities and agendas surface, it loses any gains it makes. If the Republicans really wanted to take a stake in the Northeast, in good times and bad, they would have to seriously moderate the culture war stuff as well as their actual policies in any number of areas. They won't do this unless they absolutely have to, and it's not clear that they have to--not yet, anyway. After all, why should they try to convince the most liberal region in the country to back a conservative party for other than protest reasons? It makes no sense. So I doubt that Northeastern Republicans will really become a force in national politics. Instead, they will merely be a random countercyclical instrument of discontent, with a maximal range of the odd moderate governor's mansion and senate seat, and anything else will probably be lost when the political tides inevitably turn. Indeed, this already appears to be happening with the Democrats' recent gains in the South. Democrats managed to snag a few seats in places like Alabama, Mississippi and Texas over the past few cycles, but these conservative Democrats were really expressions of anger at the ruling Republicans and George Bush, and now they will be quickly disposed of by their constituencies.

With respect to Scott Brown in particular, I'm not quite sure what to make of him. Needless to say I agree with Andrew Sullivan here, and if Brown were actually proposing serious measures to solve "conservative" problems like spending and debt--I use quotes because they are everyone's problems, though not ones taken seriously by actual conservatives--there would be some reason to hope that something good would come of his election. But there isn't anything like that. Brown is right-wing on foreign policy and civil liberties, right-wing on taxes and spending, right-wing on banking and climate change, though he is somewhat moderate on social issues. I think it's entirely possible that Brown just ran both the smartest and the stupidest campaign ever in American politics--smart in that it was tactically sound, strategic, and featured flawless mechanics and messaging, but stupid in that his coalition is inherently untenable. He's assembled the far right teabaggers and independents together, but these are not the same groups and have vastly different expectations as to what his "change" should mean. If Brown does what he says he'll do--vote against the bank tax, against financial regulations, and against climate change--he'll lose the crossover indies he won thanks to his emotional appeals. If he winds up voting for one or more of these policies to remain viable in the general election, he'll alienate the teabaggers. Democrats will be out for Brown's blood in 2012--in fact, I'm guessing hungry Dems will enter the contest right after this year's midterms, if not before that, unofficially, slamming Brown for every unpopular conservative vote he takes, such as downing bank regs or against climate change. "Retaking Ted's Seat" will become a cause celebre among Democratic activists, and next time, nothing will be taken for granted. And in 2012, Barack Obama will be running for a second term against what will very likely be an insane wingnut (let's just say I'm not holding out hope for a sane Republican candidate like Mitch Daniels). Brown will have to shrink from that person's coattails, and the cycle will continue. But it should be interesting to see if Brown sticks to his guns. Since he's a career politician and not a crusader, I suspect he'll wind up supporting climate change at least, and figure that he'll be able to secure the nomination again as the incumbent from a challenge on the right. Should be interesting to watch.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Literally minutes after I diss Maureen Dowd

I see this poll:
Nearly two-thirds of people questioned in the poll say they have a moderate or great deal of confidence in the administration to protect the public from future terrorist attacks, up 2 points from August. Thirty-five percent say they have not much or no confidence at all, down 1 point from August.
I've become firmly convinced that hardly anybody in the media has a read on the actual center of public opinion. This isn't to say that there isn't some segment of the public that agrees with Dowd, but it's certainly not a majority of the country.

We hear a lot of talk these days about the changing media landscape but, truthfully, I think that what's really happening is that the media has gotten so disconnected from the public that most people don't even bother. It doesn't speak to them. If the national news media wants to have any future, they're going to have to figure out how to reconnect with the American public. Dumping useless blowhards like Dowd in favor of people who actually can understand what the public is thinking might help. At this point, though, I'm not sure that anybody but Barack Obama actually has a clue in terms of what the public wants to see from their leaders.

That Maureen Dowd column...

I have a slightly different take on this Maureen Dowd op-ed than Matt Yglesias does, though I largely agree with his take as well. Here's the offending passage:

No Drama Obama is reticent about displays of emotion. The Spock in him needs to exert mental and emotional control. That is why he stubbornly insists on staying aloof and setting his own deliberate pace for responding — whether it’s in a debate or after a debacle. But it’s not O.K. to be cool about national security when Americans are scared.

Our professorial president is no feckless W., biking through Katrina. He is no doubt on top of the crisis in terms of studying it top to bottom. But his inner certainty creates an outer disconnect.

He’s so sure of himself and his actions that he fails to see that he misses the moment to be president — to be the strong father who protects the home from invaders, who reassures and instructs the public at traumatic moments.

He’s more like the aloof father who’s turned the Situation Room into a Seminar Room.

To be honest, aside from the fact that she writes in one of the nation's prominent newspapers, there is never any particular reason to take Maureen Dowd seriously.

But I do think that this article reveals more about Dowd herself than it does about Obama, Matt Yglesias or "Americans" like myself. I don't think that Dowd wants an Eisenhower-like fatherly (really grandfatherly) figure of a president. I think that what you see here are two separate aspects of our news media's mentality at this point in time. The first point is that the news media largely disdains Obama because he couldn't give less of a damn about impressing them (hence the references to aloofness). He isn't running a permanent campaign. He doesn't have confabs with prominent journalists. He is more interested in governing than appearing that he's governing. In other words, after a gloriously exciting campaign, he's turned out to be the extremely rare political figure who turns out to be more substance than style. There's nothing exciting about playing golf and taking a subdued tack after a terrorist attack. I personally think this is a great, great thing. Ms. Dowd thinks otherwise. But I think that this accounts for a lot of the anger addressed at Obama from various quarters. He just doesn't give a shit about people like Maureen Dowd, and I tend to think Obama is right not to. But, unsurprisingly, this pisses off Maureen Dowd. I should stress that I couldn't find a place in the article where the connection to this theory was direct, but I kept getting that feeling when I was reading it.

The second point here is that Dowd, like much of the media, has an essentially condescending relationship with the American public. The argument that she makes here is basically that Americans simply can't handle a terror attempt. She thinks we Americans need constant reassurance from figures in authority, and that anything short of the political equivalent of getting permission to slip into our parents' bed when we get afraid is somehow a betrayal. This is certainly a debatable notion, albeit a cynical one (and, in my opinion, an inaccurate one). But the bizarre kick here is that she couches this in terms that make it seem like Obama's inability to offer it stems from Obama himself being too soft--at least, that's what the last line sounds like, though it's pretty much incomprehensible. I think that this might stem from the first point--that Obama isn't "tough" enough to face people like Dowd, therefore he's soft. But the argument that she's making for the rest of the piece is that Obama is too hard, too distant. At some point, this just becomes an uncomfortable journey into the inner life of Maureen Dowd, which seems brutal and scary enough that I don't think I need to say anything more about it.

In the final analysis, Dowd is something of a crank, and her columns are usually crankish. I suppose the bright side is that her influence seems to have sharply diminished over the past few years, as said crankishness has risen to the fore. What kills me is that, despite the Obama criticism, this column comes off as almost a right-wing parody of left-wingers--a supremely un-self-aware exercise in snobbery that insults the intelligence of most Americans (excluding Dowd and perhaps Times readers--she doesn't personalize this fear). It's irritating to me that this woman has any public profile at all. But what continues to amaze me is just how many mediocrities the Paper of Record gladly publishes in its op-ed page. I mean, when David Brooks and Frank Rich are among your better columnists, it might be time to clean house and find some fresh new voices.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Here's a question

About the Peoples' Choice Awards:
What is this proud, pointless popularity contest that seeks to reward popular things by informing them, thru Waterford crystal™ blobs, that they are popular? Don't popular things already know they are popular by virtue of other, more accurate measures, like ratings and ticket sales? Who would made such a thing? Holy shit Johnny Depp actually showed up for this?
Because, as Don Draper tells us, what we look for in advertising (and that is basically what award shows are) is something that tells us that what we're already enjoying is good for us.

At this point, though, our culture is so fractious that talking about "the people's choice" just seems pathetically aspirational. I mean, the most wildly popular shows on television don't get much more than 10% of TV viewers. But calling it "some peoples' choice awards" just doesn't have the same ring to it, I guess.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

If I ruled the world

This is from Sullivan: "A new heterosexual record in Israel - as a 50-year-old man gets an eleventh marriage license."

My entirely sensible (and therefore never-to-be-implemented) plan: three divorces and you're done. I could envision some problems occurring with this scheme, but I do think that on some level marriage should be an institution that actually expects some level of compliance with its stated vows. I think opening up domestic partnerships to straights who don't want that level of commitment is a good idea, though I've never particularly been fond of the "civil unions for all" argument. Unlike the marriage for straights, civil unions for gays position it does address the moral rather than the political issue of marriage equality, but it smacks of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I see domestic partnerships as an ancillary institution for gay and straight marriages, not an alternative one.

My other idea would be to make anyone under 25 ineligible for a marriage license. Maybe make a domestic partnership available to 18-24s, but not full-blown marriage. While someone who is 18 is technically an adult, there's still quite a bit of education--both formal and informal--and maturity that occurs after that time. Making a lifelong decision like this just out of high school can be disastrous. I've seen it go bad a few too many times not to think that people would be better off waiting a little longer. Of course, this plan will never be implemented either, but I suspect its ultimate results would be positive.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The liberal revolt isn't happening

More evidence. What I've been noticing these days is just how out of sync everyone in politics seems to be with what's actually happening in the country. On the left, you see MoveOn, Kos and Hamsher spearheading an anti-Obama movement from the left whose existence seems confined to the people who read their sites. On the right, you see politicians and media tripping over themselves to embrace the Tea Partiers, which makes sense inasmuch as they need those people, but yoking themselves to the TPs seems to be setting them up for disaster once the economy improves and people stop identifying with the fear of change that seems to be the only real unifying principle amongst that movement. (And I don't buy that spending stuff for a second--I agree with Andrew Sullivan when he asks where they were in 2005).

But I'm more interested in what's going on among the left, and I think there is an angle here that isn't being explored. The one unexpected thing that Obama hasn't done, really, is to run a permanent campaign. This badly annoys and frustrates political junkies, and it gives the impression to activists on the left that he's not doing much of anything for them. But most people aren't political junkies. My guess is that the Obama team simply doesn't think that the permanent campaign--thought to be an inevitable feature of politics in the '90s and '00s--matters as much as people think it does, and that actually producing results matters more. In other words, his team actually focuses on substance over style, in an ironic upturning of one of the central criticisms against Candidate Obama during his campaign. And I think this has sunk in with people, even if on an unconscious level. It's been ages, for example, since I've read anything about how Obama just reads from a teleprompter. Criticism of Obama has subtly shifted to a great extent. Even Republicans have realized that this guy isn't just an empty shirt.

I guess we'll see if this approach remains tenable, as Republicans haven't stopped campaigning ever since the inauguration, but I do think that the man knows what he's doing. And if I'm right, I suspect we'll see a shift in style as the midterms approach. I wouldn't be surprised if Obama lobs some strong attacks at the Republicans during the State of the Union, which might make it the first SotU worth watching in decades. After all, this is the guy who defended war while receiving the Nobel Prize. Imagine what he could do with a speech that is supposed to represent bipartisanship to some extent. Should be fun to watch.


Annie Leibowitz's picture of Tiger Woods:

I don't really have anything to say about this, but I do think that a number of people should have thought a little bit more about this one. This is Dukakis in the tank embarrassing here.

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.