Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Was HCR handled correctly?

I appreciate the sentiment here, but I really don't think any of this is right:
Meanwhile, nobody can seem to make a good campaign issue out of the fact that, for the first time ever, a law was passed that embraced at least in principle Ted Kennedy’s lifelong dream of universal health insurance. It was a weak and sickly stab at it, but it was a political triumph nonetheless. Why is this administration not getting credit for all it’s done, wonder the president’s most avid supporters. It’s because there’s nobody out there — including the president, apparently — who can connect these accomplishments in a coherent narrative in such a way as to command the respect of a public conditioned to believe that universal health insurance means that Stalin will rise from his grave in order to march your white-haired granny into hers.
I think Obama was effective in connecting HCR into a larger progressive tradition of progress and change. Remember all the stuff about how Teddy Roosevelt was the first president to pursue reform, and he was going to be the last? Reform has been getting more popular, in any event. The reason it isn't much of a campaign issue is because, well, it passed, and due to budget hawks it won't start in earnest for a few years. There's not much to campaign on yet, and people are more concerned about other things. I think there is a strong issue in forcing the GOP to come out in favor of repeal--a distinctly unpopular position among the public--but ultimately the economy is still issue #1. I think people are trying hard to improve that situation.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Is Barbour going to surge?

Tomasky makes the case for Haley Barbour as the next GOP nominee:
I think he has a real chance of becoming the GOP nominee. The corporate conservatives will love the guy, and on the Kulturkampf front, which is really where the GOP's collective heart beats these days, there's no one who makes such a stark contrast with the incumbent. He may be a harder sell in Iowa than someone like Tim Pawlenty, but if the contest drags out and the schedule groups several southern states together, lookout. I think this would be great as it is inconceivable to me that America could elect this man its president, but then again, a fair number of previously inconceivable things have already happened.
This is certainly a possibility, and he's probably the only one who could beat Romney with money and endorsements. But Barbour would have the same sorts of flaws as Huckabee--a specific appeal to coregionists and coreligionists and not much of anyone else--without Huck's advantages, or anything resembling charisma. I don't think Romney stands much of a chance of becoming president, as he'd be pretty easy to define as a typical politician and would have many of McCain's issues with his base if he got the nomination. Palin can't win because she's already been defined and hasn't done much to make people take a second look. Barbour would not have those base issues (probably) but I don't see how someone who can normatively be described as a lobbyist can actually become president. The definition practically makes itself. But you can never really know, I guess...

Yes, Russ, more of this

Lord knows I don't agree with Russ Feingold all the time, and his Naderish tendencies often drive me crazy. But the flip side of Feingold is that his principle can kick in at the right time sometimes, and it certainly has here:
Feingold said those who are looking to use the issue as a political wedge are guilty of "gutter politics" and "one of the worst things I've ever seen done in politics."

"In the end I believe in freedom of religion," he said. "If somebody owns property and it's within the zoning rules, if they want to build a house of worship that is a fundamental right. And I would make the point I am for freedom on this point, and freedom of religion is fundamental."
I still think this issue is a ridiculous, media-driven phenomenon that does involve an important principle that has, incidentally, already been upheld. The center is being built. The debate here is succeeding the event, not preceding it, which makes the entire thing pointless. The issue should be closed. But since we're still talking about it we might as well highlight instances of courage here. See also: high-ranking Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Life after Gates

Robert Gates announced his retirement yesterday, which struck me as very big news since the Defense Department is the country's largest bureaucracy, and Gates's initially controversial retention has turned out to be one of Obama's wisest staffing calls. It's worth noting that Bill Clinton's first two years were hampered by enormous problems with his pick for SecDef, Les Aspin, who wasn't quite ready for prime-time. Gates has been completely professional and classy throughout his term, and furthermore has supported ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell, has advocated for defense cuts like no one else in recent memory who held his office, and has conducted himself with great dignity and decorum. He will be missed, I assure you.

Since Hillary Clinton's name has been mentioned as a possible replacement, I figured I'd write a post saying why I don't think that's a very good idea. Unlike some progressives I thought the HRC appointment to State, as well as Gates's reappointment to Defense, were both excellent staffing moves. Clinton is something of a hawk, which I think paradoxically makes her a good chief diplomat because she doesn't see conflict as unimaginable. Gates is every inch the realist, which makes him a good Defense Secretary because he'd just as soon avoid a fight if possible. I think the hawkish Secretary of State/dovish Secretary of Defense combination is a good dynamic if you have the personnel to pull it off, ideally with the National Security Adviser mediating between the two (which we also have with James Jones). Gates has the credibility with the military to pull off his role, which is the real key ingredient here. I fear that a Defense Secretary Clinton would not feel she has that credibility, that she would have more influence toward hawkery in her (prospective) new office, and that she would feel the need to be even more hawkish in order to secure the military's trust. Plus, the dynamic of a hawkish SecDef/dovish SecState strikes me as one tilted invariably in the direction of Defense, as the Carter Administration showed (though National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski's own hawkishness could not have helped that dynamic).

So, who would be a better choice than Hillary? At this point, I think that Obama would have to pick a Democrat simply because picking another Republican for the job would really send a crappy message (much like Bill Clinton picking a Republican as his Defense Secretary in 1997) and also because there just aren't that many of the kind we need left in the GOP: the Gates faction is small and aging. Brent Scowcroft is 85 and is undoubtedly too old for the position, Chuck Hagel would be a possibility but I don't think he's really done much to earn it, as he never really showed guts in his Iraq "opposition" and that appointment really would signal that Obama just wants Republicans handling the military. So on the Democratic side the obvious choice would be Jim Webb, who would probably run the Pentagon just like Gates did, but I doubt Obama would sacrifice Webb's Senate seat. Also, he's not so good on DADT. Perennial Dem VP-consideree Sam Nunn would probably be a good choice, though he's not so young himself. Very Gates-like, and big on securing loose nukes, which is a plus. He'd probably be an easy confirmee too. I'd guess that former Gen. Tony Zinni would have to be another candidate too--he'd have the stature with the troops as well as a pretty solid record on military intervention, as an Iraq War critic from early on. Also, I'm pretty sure that the James Gandolfini character from In The Loop is based directly on him, so that's cool too. Honestly, I'm not sure who else would be considered for the job, but I'll feel pretty confident if I hear Zinni and Nunn mentioned prominently for the job and not so confident if Clinton's name gets tossed around a lot.

Since we're talking about the Cabinet, I think it would be a good idea for the Administration to make Chris Dodd the next Attorney General if Eric Holder decides to move on, as Dodd will be retiring next year. Dodd has been pretty irritating on some subjects recently (namely this and this), which is why he should never be made Treasury Secretary or Senate Parliamentarian. But the guy has always struck me as a pretty straightforward guy who cares deeply about civil liberties, and appointing him to the Cabinet (which is likely anyway, considering that Dodd and Obama are good friends) would be a decent way of mending fences with some of the progressives that have been frustrated on this particular issue.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Hey, I wonder what the top story is on Google News. What could it be? Oh, wait, it's exactly the thing I thought it was going to be, that I somehow hoped it would not be.

There's been a meme going around that Harry Reid is the progressive conscience who fought the Administration tooth and nail on health care and financial reform. I would hope this ends that rumor. There's the fact that he's wrong on this, that it won't win him any votes, and that he's backstabbing his party's leader that just make this so ugly. Would Mitch McConnell have shanked Bush like this ever? I think we know the answer to that. Now Obama has to respond or look weak. Plus, there's the fact that this keeps the story going that much longer. I'm just so disgusted with this. While Reid has proven a fairly adept majority leader in many respects he's been the opposite of a profile in courage on anything terror related. See also: Gitmo.

I guess I just need to remember that most of the personnel in the Democratic Party are the same people who were manning it from '01-'05, Reid included. Probably need a few more election cycles to pass before the party actually is led by people who have the right principles.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Short fuses

Linda Feldmann explains why the GOP's victories this year might not be so long-lasting:
But these numbers present a warning to Republicans: Voters may support them in November and give them big gains, but if they don’t deliver, they could be in trouble. This is particularly so if the Republicans take over at least the House and don’t accomplish much, they could be short-timers.

After all, it’s only been three-plus years since the Democrats took over both houses of Congress, and the pendulum has already swung sharply in the opposite direction.

“The public’s on a really short fuse nowadays,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “And it’s because times are bad. We’re at war, the economy is terrible.”

Democratic pollster Peter Hart, codirector of the NBC/WSJ poll, calls it a “JetBlue election.” “Everyone is frustrated,” Mr. Hart told NBC. “And everyone is headed for the emergency exit.”
This might explain why people are so down on a Congress that has been so productive. When action on the #1 priority is this tough to produce, people aren't going to give you as much credit when you tackle #2, #4, etc. But in the long term...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A theory on the media, as inspired by the Cordoba House story

So CNN did this poll on national sentiment on the Cordoba House, and it's not exactly what one would hope for in this day and age. Why this is more than a local issue continues to elude me. Republicans want it to be a national issue, and CNN is willing to oblige them as always. The news media's coverage of this is as typically awful as one would expect. I don't know if I'd go so far as to call them sociopaths, but there is something off about the way they cover news these days.

As someone who reads stuff in the blogosphere I frequently read anti-media missives (and I've even written a few myself). I don't know if any of these has ever really hit the mark in terms of what's really wrong with the media. At some point I guess it clicked for me. The problem isn't excessive objectivity, as being objective merely means going by the facts. The opposite term is subjective, which is not really a desirable quality in news, though it's getting more popular (Thanks, Glenn Beck!). Additionally, the problem isn't excessive balance, which isn't necessarily a problem since many debates have multiple sides that have valid arguments. The problem is excessive neutrality. Evidently, being neutral is a highly valued journalistic standard these days. I could provide examples but, honestly, neutralism is so dominant in journalism today that I'd have a much harder time finding articles not written in this way.

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of times where it's entirely proper to be neutral. I'm neutral in the carbon tax vs. cap-and-trade debate because I'm not an expert and both sides make decent critiques of each other. The concept of cap-and-trade is more compelling to me, but I am of the belief that simple concepts don't necessarily make the best solutions, so I remain neutral. There are lots of debates like that. There are also lots that aren't. The media, though, covers them all the same--in essence, the he said, she said approach that conveys data but lacks analysis. I suppose part of this is the courtier aspect of Washingtonians trying to move up in elite circles, but I think the real culprit here is the convergence of news and entertainment. Neutrality was never a journalistic value up until CNN started up, which makes sense since Ted Turner has always been at the convergence of news and entertainment. I often refer to Ed Murrow's takedown of Joe McCarthy here but I do think it's a good example of what journalism should do: it was entirely factual and balanced in the sense that Murrow treated McCarthy's contentions seriously, instead of attacking a straw man. But Murrow was not neutral at all. Nor was Cronkite when he questioned the Vietnam War, something inconceivable in an era when media personalities are fired for asking too many questions before a war starts.

You see, in entertainment, neutrality is a high value since you don't want to alienate potential customers. It's gotten to the point that you almost never see any political content in mainstream shows or films unless it's veiled (Aaron Sorkin is the biggest exception here that I can think of). But starting with Crossfire and going all the way through Larry King to Blitzer, John King and all the current gang at CNN, a new value system asserted itself. That Larry King was ever considered more than a male version of Oprah is exceedingly strange, but I wonder if he won't turn out to be the most influential media figure of our age when it's all said and done. I don't mean that in a good way. I don't know if this was Ted Turner's vision, but it wouldn't really surprise me if it was. The former sultan of AOL Time Warner has always been for mingling news and entertainment. He was, I suppose, the visionary whose vision was perfected with Fox News by Roger Ailes, and is now ascendant throughout the land. Data over facts is essentially what I think this comes down to. And look what it's gotten us.

*Updated to remove some tangential matter unrelated to the main topic.

He's the next Alan Keyes

Taegan Goddard:
In an interview with the Daily Caller, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) says he's "actively cultivating donors, staff and supporters so he'll be in a position to run for president in 2012 as a Republican if he decides to do so by early next year."

Said Santorum: "I'm going through the process of what someone who is seriously considering running would do, in order for when the time comes to decide, I'm in a position that I have a choice."
Or maybe he's the next Sam Brownback, owing to the both of them having weird and vaguely gay last names that create an ironic tension with their upfront homophobia, which lends a comical aspect to their public existence.

In any event, he's not going to win. Like Tim Pawlenty, he has no base. He can't win statewide in Pennsylvania, but he thinks the Alan Keyes route from failed statewide candidate to presidential candidate will work for him where it didn't for Keyes? I don't know what these guys really have to offer, but whatever it is, nobody wants it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mike Bennet wins!

Seems to have been a decent night for Democrats with today's primaries. I was particularly happy that Senator Michael Bennet has won a tough primary contest. Evidently this has become a rather silly intra-progressive fight, but the case for Bennet seems pretty simple to me:
  1. He's got a background running a big-city school system, which will be valuable for decades to come in crafting education policy.
  2. He's quite young for a senator. He's 45 right now, which means he'll ideally have about 30 years to gather seniority and become a force, which compounds reason one.
  3. He's already the incumbent, which gives him a bit of an advantage in a tough election year.
To me, this adds up to a pretty compelling argument. I've long believed that one of the big problems with Congress is that there are too many generalists and not enough specialists, and too many of those generalists are lawyers, which is a mentality that is fine enough when you need to know what the law is or how to read or write it, but that is suited terribly to solving public policy problems. I always go back to H.L. Mencken's argument about how lawyers apply so much energy to such trivial problems (like finding obscure loopholes) that it's the equivalent of the world's finest mathematicians all trying to find the precise odds on a long-shot horse in the Kentucky Derby. This isn't to say that lawyers can't see the big picture, but in my experience they aren't trained to, nor are they encouraged to. I like the idea of people with actual skill sets hanging out in Congress. Plus, Bennet's opponent struck me as a pretty slimy guy, so there's that too.

In any event, I'm happy that Bennet won, and I can only hope that he continues to serve Colorado for some time to come.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A theory on the debate on taxes

How out of touch is Washington? I don't think there's a clearer place to find the answer than on the debate about taxes. My sense is that there are roughly two groups of any numerical significance in America when it comes to taxes: let's call them the bristlers and the shruggers. The bristlers are the people whose neck hairs bristle when the word tax is uttered. The existence of taxes makes them angry. The shruggers are people whose reaction to taxes is a shrug. They don't like paying taxes and wish they could pay less, but they take the whole thing philosophically and realize that things like roads and bridges don't pay for themselves. It's wrong to view this as a Republican vs. Democrat fight, as I've met quite a lot of Republican shruggers in my day (though no bristler Democrats as of yet). The irony is that many of the bristlers, as we've constantly been reading, benefit enormously from tax-funded programs like Medicare and farm subsidies, but the entire bristler schema is based on an ignorance of government finance and a lack of self-awareness and empathy, so it's not that surprising. My guess is that the shruggers outnumber the bristlers by at least 4-to-1, give or take a few percent. In a normal polity, this would make the Rand Pauls and Mike Pences of the universe a small, laughable fringe, but it turns out that the bristlers are not normally distributed by geography, age, socioeconomic status nor ethnicity, and they all cut in ways that are politically advantageous to their cause. (There is another group of people who actually like paying taxes, but they are very uncommon outside of the wealthier part of the Democratic donor base in my observation.)

It would seem natural enough for the Democrats to become the party of the shruggers, but there are obstacles to that happening. For one, there are some Democrats who come from more bristler-heavy states, and they can't be seen as tax-friendly. There's the campaign finance issue, in which lots of rich bristlers hold undue influence over wealthy shruggers (such as, for example, Warren Buffett). So, you see self-proclaimed deficit hawks like Evan Bayh arguing for budget-busting regressive tax cuts because he represents a "red" state and even though he's not running for re-election, he'll probably run for governor of Indiana in 2012 and he needs to keep in good graces with the money men. It's crazy, but it makes sense according to its own crazy rules. Perhaps one could call it the David Lynch school of tax policy.

So you read something like this, and you just know that Ezra Klein is right, and that Democrats will not hold the line on the Bush Tax Cuts. It's just one of those disheartening episodes where you know the bad guys are going to win because the good guys aren't going to be able to count on the Blue Dogs to have their backs. I guess the only thing that softens the blow is the knowledge that there's now way the GOP will win this battle in the long run just based on the fundamentals. If our current course remains unaltered, we will eventually face a debt crisis that will require cutting spending and/or raising revenue. Democrats generally have no problem raising taxes if necessary, as the health care reform battle proved. Republicans, though, will never support actually cutting entitlement spending. They will definitely never support cutting defense spending. Doing the former would hurt their most voluminous constituency--seniors--and the GOP learned their lesson here after they tried to privatize Social Security and watched seniors vote big for Democratic congressional candidates in 2006. Even the most right-wing Republicans cannot even name where their oft-mentioned cuts will come from. What this means is that the Republicans elected this year will enter office with lots of talk about "cutting spending" but no agreed-upon targets or even proposals to take on numerous powerful interests that are pretty good at protecting themselves. Frankly, it sounds like Clintoncare to me, which failed because the lack of a plan led everyone to try to advocate for their own plans. Democrats interpreted the lessons of that experience correctly in 2007 and unified behind the Jacob Hacker-inspired plan that eventually passed. Evidently Republicans took the wrong lessons from Bush's Social Security loss, and forgot that wishy-washy election themes coupled with aggressive action after the election usually lead to big failures, and this really is a recipe for failure.

Friday, August 6, 2010

In this crowd, he sticks out like a sore thumb

Steve Benen is surprised that my fellow Serbian-American Sen George Voinovich (R-OH) is speaking sense on taxes. But the truth is that Voinovich has long been one of the few Republicans who has actually been a consistent voice of fiscal realism--what most Republicans honor in the breach is what Voinovich usually honors in the observance. It's the most noteworthy thing about the guy, as his wiki page correctly notes. He really is a penny-pinching fiscal conservative, which makes me think that his getting into office in the first place must have been an accident.

The Democrats actually have a fair shot of winning his seat, as the GOP unwisely ran Bush 43's former trade rep and budget director to replace Voinovich. It's a close race, one that might be helped by the state's Democratic Governor facing another oddly weak Republican candidate who can't stop talking about all the damn rednecks in his state. Still, the irony of one of the only actually fiscally responsible GOPers being replaced by a Bushite in a year when the Republicans are campaigning on the issue is a pretty biting one to me.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

I've always been a fan of Andy Griffith. He's a truly great actor who created one of the best TV comedies in history, right after turning in a complicated, brilliant, occasionally over-the-top and often terrifying performance in A Face In The Crowd, which is suddenly a movie that everyone is talking about. But it's really cool of him to have done this.

He's the political Steven Soderbergh

Scott Brown did one for them, and now he's doing one for himself.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Why liberals should not play the nationalist card

How bad is the domestic political situation in Israel? This bad:

Livni raps Israel’s cooperation with U.N. flotilla probe

JERUSALEM (JTA) -- Israel's opposition leader criticized the Netanyahu government for agreeing to cooperate with a United Nations probe of the Turkish flotilla incident.

That's right--Tzipi Livni, the center-left opposition leader in Israel, is criticizing the right-wing prime minister for being insufficiently nationalist and for going against the troops by allowing an investigation into the flotilla incident. This might well be opportunistic, is it was when domestic liberals in the U.S. were eager enough to try to score nationalist points when George Bush was trying to get the sign-off on Dubai Ports buying a chunk of the Port of New Orleans. I can certainly understand the motive for people who constantly get points scored against them on nationalistic grounds to toss a little bit back, and in some cases it might actually be merited. But this really is shitting in your own bed if you're not right-wing, when you think about it.

On the one hand, reducing security and foreign policy to national interests makes a lot of sense. I'm definitely of the opinion that we shouldn't go to war unless our interests are threatened in a very severe way that allows no other options. But there are a lot of people out there who want to fight numerous wars that are at best tangentially related to our interests, and those people have a lot of power. Operating as we are in a society that still harbors deep fears about terrorism and security, I simply don't have a lot of confidence that a purely realistic way of viewing foreign threats will be sufficient to stop needless wars because, in practice, it has been easy enough to convince people that it's better to shoot first in these sorts of situations instead of, I don't know, practicing restraint. But on the other hand, I don't think that it'll really be possible to destroy the neocons unless the rest of us are able to offer something to the public other than nationalism or realism. Liberals have by and large distanced themselves from the traditional liberal vision of global peace secured by international institutions, and considering the weakness of the U.N.'s structure I can totally understand that. But the course is invariably set: Plato's Republic tells us that law is a compromise between being able to steal and being stolen from without any recourse, and as the volume of global trade increases people who get ripped off are going to want to seek redress somewhere. If anyone wanted to make the argument that the financial crisis shows that it is necessary to have strong international institutions that can put pressure on countries (cough cough, Iceland) that could cause problems for everyone else, I think the argument could be pretty easily made. I'm not aware of any liberal politicians making that argument, though. It's a shame, not only because of our nation's history in supporting such ventures, but because the neoconservative model is so glaringly inadequate and contradictory that the internationalist model is practically ironclad by comparison. Free trade plus hypernationalism plus quasi-empire is no real reaction to the reality of globalization. Reviving that old liberal ideal strikes me as the only tool that could conceivably beat the neocons, just because it involves a different and more appealing vision than perpetual low-intensity conflict. You have to fight an idea with an idea, in my opinion. And liberal internationalism is a nice idea. I'm an optimist, and I'd like to think that an appealing ideal can beat grubby power politics when given a fair shot. It's been so long since anyone domestically articulated any of this that I'd be curious to see if the right could even form any reasoned arguments against it. I doubt they could.

I suppose my point here is that, while it is no doubt cathartic to be able to toss back a little nationalist rancor at the Netanyahus and Bushes of the world, it does more harm than good in the long run. It's well known that rightists often have an easier time of making real moves toward peace, as they can deliver the entire spectrum of public opinion, which the left alone often cannot do. By attacking from the left on nationalist grounds, Livni is denying Netanyahu any political space for independence from his right-wing coalition and is ensuring that he will have to continue to play to the settlement crowd in all things. I don't think Netanyahu is much more than a power-hungry hack, but Livni is proving herself no slouch in the power-hungry hack department. When the left plays the nationalist card, they lose. Evidently Livni didn't learn the example of her predecessor, whose bellicose nationalism helped him not at all against Bibi last year, and in fact set the stage for Israel's current predicament.

The Mosque will be built

It's always nice to see the bad guys lose:

After a protracted battle that set off a national debate over freedom of religion, a Muslim center and mosque to be built two blocks from ground zero surmounted a final hurdle on Tuesday.

The city's Landmarks Preservation Commission voted 9 to 0 against granting historic protection to the building at 45-47 Park Place in Lower Manhattan, where the $100 million center would be built.

Ultimately, I wonder how much of this "clash of civilizations" bullshit is due to so many of these old Tea Party dudes having had their thinking shaped by the Cold War. Compared to the Soviet Union, al-Qaeda is a pretty pathetic organization to be sure, but I think a lot of Cold Warriors assume that all Islam is somehow connected to radical, al-Qaeda-tinted Islam because, during the Cold War, most Communist Parties really were connected to Russia, either directly or indirectly. Sure, there were your Titos and Maos and Pol Pots who were independent of Russia, but something like the Italian Communist Party really was bought and paid for by the Kremlin, as were quite a few European labor unions and the like. That situation isn't remotely true of Islam, but old ways of thinking have a way of dying hard. Of course, all this is going to be very counterproductive to trying to convince Arabs that we really don't hate them.

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.