Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bush's memoir: a firecracker?

Doesn't look to be the case:
Matt Drudge appears to have scored an early copy of George W. Bush's memoir, Decision Points, though if his preview is any indication, the book's a snooze: Sections that Drudge highlights include a bone about how Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia almost walked out of Bush's ranch because he was so angry about Israel, until he saw a turkey and took it as a good omen. Drudge also says Bush reveals he gave an order to shoot down planes on September 11 and thought the plane in Pennsylvania had been shot down. Drudge adds that Bush rarely addresses his critics and steers clear of President Obama entirely.
How...banal. Doesn't really seem like someone you would want to share a beer with, does he?*

Then again, it's not all that surprising that Bush wrote a pretty dull book. It has a very dull title, after all, and most memoirs are dull because the people writing them are dull (U. S. Grant being a notable exception to both counts), which seems to be the tendency in politics. Obsessive personalities--which most politicians tend to be, in my reading and experience--are usually insufferably dull. It's funny to think that all those years people were arguing over Bush's faith, leadership style, accomplishments, and personality, the final truth is that Bush really doesn't have much of interest to say about himself.

This is actually one of my deepest points of disgust with the mainstream media, though it's one that I almost never hear anyone make: it's bad enough when journalists take spin at face value, or do a he-said-she-said thing with the two parties' approaches to policy, without any actual analysis. What annoys me most is how frequently the media totally buys into the candidates' public personae. Politicians almost always adopt a public persona that has some fixed points but leaves a lot of space for individuals to project their own beliefs, values, or fears into them. But in nearly every case, that is not anything like the real person. One of the my favorite aspects about Gore Vidal's Narratives of Empire series is that it tries to take a real look at what powerful people are really like behind all the rhetoric and stunts, and the usual conclusion is that they're boringly ambitious people without too much of an inner life (though this is not exactly his take on Lincoln). In nearly all those books, the high-ranking government officials are the least interesting characters in the narrative, by intention. I think it's easy to confuse the actor and the role in general, especially if part of the enterprise of politics is to deliberately screen the actor from public scrutiny, but I feel like it is the media's job to try to puncture that cloud, and I don't feel like they try that often. If wonder how things would have gone if the media had adopted the idea that George W. Bush is boring (which he always was), since ironically everything I've seen suggests that Al Gore is privately a very witty and entertaining person in real life.

*Will it ever be explained why the "having a beer with Dubya" thing became a thing when Dubya doesn't ever drink beer as a member of AA? I guess it can: Chris Matthews is an idiot.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Law school: a particularly raw deal

Ezra Klein says this article makes him happy not to be a lawyer, and I have to say I agree. Especially this graf:
There are the jobs at white-shoe firms that pay about $160,000 per year to recent graduates, and then there are the rest of jobs, which generally pay between $45,000 and $60,000. Almost no salaries are near the median or the average.
I know there are a lot of lawyers that are passionate about what they do, but my experience in college was that people who wanted to be lawyers were largely in it for the money. Frankly, though, if you want to make money, picking an overcrowded profession with high barriers to entry seems absolutely crazy. As this list proves, the best way to make big bucks is to pick a major with math in it:

Best Undergrad College Degrees
By Salary
Starting Median Pay Mid-Career Median Pay

Petroleum Engineering $93,000 $157,000

Aerospace Engineering $59,400 $108,000

Chemical Engineering $64,800 $108,000

Electrical Engineering $60,800 $104,000

Nuclear Engineering $63,900 $104,000

Applied Mathematics $56,400 $101,000

Biomedical Engineering $54,800 $101,000

Physics $50,700 $99,600

Computer Engineering $61,200 $99,500

Economics $48,800 $97,800

Computer Science $56,200 $97,700

Industrial Engineering $58,200 $97,600

Mechanical Engineering $58,300 $97,400

Building Construction $52,900 $94,500

Materials Science & Engineering $59,400 $93,600

It seems obvious why these majors pay off so highly: they're really, really tough! At Cal Poly, it was widely known that the College of Engineering had the second-worst GPA out of all seven colleges (Agriculture kept us from last), and the reason for that wasn't that all engineers are stupid, but that the coursework was really freakin' hard, even for brilliant people. I did a CS degree and even though I have a talent for it, it was still plenty difficult. And, honestly, CS is one of the easier degrees on this list. Something like aerospace engineering just scares people who have a visceral fear of equations taking up five whiteboards, which is something I can relate to. But if you can actually make it through a program like that (and most people probably can't) and endure the four-plus* years of brain pain, then you're pretty much assured of getting a well-paying job with decent stability. Contrast this with the law, where you spend four years at college, plus three years of law school, plus the time and money to pass the Bar exam so that you can actually get a job, and all for an entry-level position that pays about as much as a starting job that a Building Construction bachelor's degree can get you (not to mention the opportunity cost of not working for several more years) just makes the law school route seem like the worst of all possible worlds. Then again, a lot of people seem to think that being a lawyer means making huge cash being some sort of stylish bullshitter who never does any work, which only goes to show you that many people still make career choices based on television shows.

*Of course, hardly anyone finishes college in four years anymore. Personally, I worked toward my BS and MS concurrently and did them both in five, which was made possible by AP credits and summer classes, and taking full loads most of the time. Most college kids don't do that stuff, so it can typically take five-to-six years, unless you're a journalism major or something.

Update: I actually did consider being a lawyer for a time, as I have an interest in software patents. Probably should have made that clear. I might have had an easier time with a law career, given that I had a direction and some pertinent education that I could have applied to it, and I wonder whether law students who have a specific focus in mind--like, say, environmental justice--are better able to tailor their bachelor's degrees to what they want to do with the law, and are better equipped to find a job. Then again, it's generally the case that any sort of public interest profession doesn't pay too well, so my particular example might not be great.

Jon Stewart's "moderates" and right-wing "independents"

I rather liked Mike Tomasky's column on the Stewart/Colbert rally taking place in D.C. this weekend, but this misses the point:
Playing off a phrase known instantly in America and dating back to Louis Farrakhan's 1995 Million Man March, Stewart wants a "Million Moderate March". To get his viewers into the intended spirit he offered some samples of the sort of placards he'd like to see at his rally. In this age, when Tea Partiers march carrying placards of Obama wearing a keffiyeh or sporting a Hitler moustache, people know they should pay particular attention to placards; Stewart suggested that an emblematic one for his event would read: "I disagree with you, but I'm pretty sure you're not Hitler."

The conflict arises in the fact that this sober and earnest middle is not really Stewart's audience. Stewart's core audience is news-junkie liberals. It's people like National Public Radio host Terry Gross, who, in a recent live dialogue at Manhattan's venerable 92nd Street Y, thanked Stewart for being the last thing she sees at night, which permits her to "go to bed with a sense that there is sanity someplace in the world". It's young urbanites and students. It's the out-of-place blue fish swimming the waters of the vast, red, middle-American sea.
I don't disagree with the qualitative description here so much as I think it misses the point. Liberals tend to like the term "moderate", as we tend to see our agenda as straightforward and reasonable. Common sense, in the parlance of our time. The vast majority of self-proclaimed moderates seem to agree and usually vote for Democrats, which is probably why the term is anathema among conservatives. They tend to see moderation and liberalism as essentially interchangeable terms, and the nom de preference there is "independent", as in not bound to the mainstream dogma. Of course, that winds up meaning commitment to conservative dogma, since the conservative frame of analysis is not regarded as a frame at all. The idea that Bill O'Reilly is in any way independent seems silly to people like myself, and Stephen Colbert has gotten a lot of mileage out of pointing out the ridiculousness of that claim, but right-wingers accept it without irony.

In any event, I don't know if Tomasky's married couple is going to go all the way to D.C., but if they catch some footage of the rally on TV, perhaps it could help the Dems? I think so. I suppose it's possible that it could turn into another iteration of Paul Wellstone's funeral, as Tomasky suggests, but there seem to be some key differences: it's not taking place at a funeral, which made that sorry incident easier to propagandize, and Stewart should therefore have more control over what gets said there. There might be some racy signs out there, but I'm pretty sure it would be easy for liberals to go blow-for-blow over that specific charge.

Thanks, I needed a laugh

Lots of bizarre headlines and events over the past two years, but this is definitely the most bizarre:

Giuliani Mulls Another Bid

According to Politico, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is still considering another presidential bid and has consulted possible donors and other GOP insiders.

Said Giuliani: "The door's not closed."
The real-world equivalent would be like investing your money with Bernie Madoff now.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

My not-sinking heart

I was trying to think of something to say to this statement by Anne Applebaum (h/t Balloon Juice), but I mostly just snickered at it:
I don’t know about you, but my heart sank when I read about Jon Stewart’s Million Moderate March, planned for the Mall next weekend. My heart sank further when I learned that liberal groups, lacking any better ideas, have decided to take this endeavor seriously. It’s bad enough that the only way to drum up enthusiasm for a “Rally to Restore Sanity” is to make it into a television comedian’s joke. But it’s far worse that the “moderates” in attendance will have been bused in by Arianna Huffington and organized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Applebaum seems to be under the impression that Stewart is just Jay Leno, but of course Stewart is a satirist and not a hack. He has a point of view and speaks truth that is difficult to find elsewhere in the media. This whole argument is something that bugs me about the media in general. Look, I don't mind if the Villagers get upset when Alan Grayson starts yapping about how Republicans want you to die. That's fair enough. But it seems like literally any attempt by the Democrats to play politics is disdained by the chattering class. Going after the Chamber of Commerce, the megabucks outfit funding your opponents? Unfair. Bringing up Bush and Cheney to remind people of what they have to look forward to? Not classy. Personally, I don't see the problem posed by having popular political commentators holding a rally before an election. It's not like they bill themselves as journalists, or appear on a station with "News" in the name, which is more than can be said for other Washington rally-holders of note.

Rubio's future, considered

Taegan Goddard thinks that Marco Rubio's closing ad makes a good case for a future Rubio presidential bid. I can see how his biography would make for compelling campaign messaging, but I didn't think the ad was as good as Goddard did. It's not bad, but it seems very by-the-numbers to me, lots of flag-waving and old-timey pictures. I suppose we'll see. I am sure Rubio will make a presidential run in the future, but I think the premises of such a candidacy should be considered.

I doubt he would try to do it in 2012. He'd have to declare his candidacy almost contemporaneously with being sworn in, which would look really bad. So let's say 2016. I have no idea what the political situation will look like in 2016, but I do know that the Hispanic vote will be bigger and even more important than it is today. After the right went anti-immigrant in the mid-1990s, it went conciliatory in 2000 with immigrant-friendly George W. Bush. It's hardly impossible that history will repeat itself and the GOP will try to put a less-xenophobic foot forward in 2016. Putting Rubio out there will be smart from that perspective. But aside from the unanswered questions of race and religion (Rubio is Catholic), I think the basic premise of a Rubio candidacy would be his ability to win back the Hispanic vote. Considering that Hispanics went for Obama 2-to-1 after moving a bit toward Bush in 2004, it makes sense for someone like Rubio to run to try to win back some of the Hispanic vote, but after looking at a recent poll showing the typical Rubio lead, I was surprised to see he's only winning 38% of the Hispanic vote. Admittedly, this is a three-way race. He's winning more than the other two candidates. But this seems like roughly the percentage of Hispanics that voted for McCain, with a slight bump due to the dynamics of an off-year election that favors the GOP. That isn't really all that impressive for what is certain to be one of his biggest ostensible selling points.

Now, it's true that a decent amount of Hispanics are still undecided, and he might take a lot of those votes in the end. I don't know. But I think it's extremely relevant because it shows that Rubio is not pre-sold to the Hispanic community. He may or may not be successful with these voters in a national run, but he would not be able to merely assume their support. How does this differ from what any other Republican would have to do to win their support? Maybe he'd have an edge in persuasion with Hispanic voters, I don't know. The pertinent data do not seem to suggest it. Since the vast majority of Hispanics in Florida--home to one of the more conservative Hispanic populations in the country--are either voting for someone else or are still undecided with a week to go, it stands to reason that he'd have to work hard to earn their support in a prospective presidential bid. And it's entirely plausible to me that he'd have a hard time doing that. Rubio's support of the Arizona anti-immigration law seems to me like an extremely difficult hurdle to overcome. Maybe he needed to endorse it to get Republicans to back his nomination, but one has to suspect that it has much to do with the reason why his support among Hispanics trails his top-line polling numbers. It's true that he might well flip-flop to support comprehensive reform in a few years, but the whole episode suggests some cravenness at work that opponents could use against him. But it's not just immigration reform--other issues, like education and health care reform (strongly supported in the community) are extremely important to Hispanics. And then there's this enlightening reader-generated piece from TPM:
While the focus in CA has been on immigration and the Latino vote--and I agree it is a make or break issue in that community--it is not the only issue of importance to Latinos. PPIC has been doing an annual poll on environmental issues for at least 20 years. It has a massive sample size to regional and demographic sub groupings are statistically reliable--i.e., the margin of error is acceptable. I first noticed about sixteen years ago that the most environmentally concerned group in CA was not white, suburban women but was the Latino community---and by a significant margin! This pattern continues to this day. The Latino concern is about air and water pollution.
This is part of an article about Whitman-Brown and Fiorina-Boxer, and California Hispanics specifically, so I can't say for sure if this trend holds everywhere in the country. But it makes sense that it would! It isn't controversial to assert that many Hispanics work out of doors and suffer from the effects of pollution and global warming disproportionately, not to mention their prevailing Catholic bent and that denomination's emphasis on environmental justice. The TPM piece argues persuasively that Whitman's flip-flopping on California's own cap-and-trade system has cost her support among Hispanics. But Rubio doesn't support cap-and-trade, either, and his stances on environmental issues are typically Republican. Frankly, I'm not seeing a lot of plusses here. What we see is someone who disagrees with most Hispanics on the issues most important to them, and has little to offer other than the symbolism of his ethnicity. Can someone tell me how this isn't a repeat of Palin 2008? Wasn't she supposed to bring home the women voters who wanted Clinton to win? I have no idea how all this will play out, and I could well eat my words, but I see some significant downsides to the Republicans with respect to a Rubio presidential run that should keep it from happening.

It means that they're losing

Steve Benen notes the rise of Republicans rebelling against church-state separation, and asks an astute question before getting too hyperbolic:
But putting aside the fact that these unhinged Republicans simply have no idea what they're talking about, I have a related concern: what is it, exactly, they'd replace church-state separation with?
Liberals like to freak out about this stuff, and maybe I'm too sanguine about it. But I'm not that worried because there is absolutely no content to these rantings. There's no argument, no priorities, no solutions. I'm sure people like Buck and Angle believe what they're saying, but this all comes across as crude cultural signaling to me, with a certain desperation that seems to scream, "I don't know what I'm doing." And let's be honest: neither Sharron Angle nor Ken Buck is terribly bright, neither are very good politicians, and in a normal year neither one would be the nominee for anything. Fearing a secret plan from these guys seems perverse to me--not that I'm saying that we should not worry about having people with their sensibility in public office, but rather that they're more likely to ultimately make their causes more radioactive through their efforts than to make them more appealing.

I generally don't have much respect for the political abilities of George W. Bush, but I think his team was smart in the way they went about pursuing church-state synergy. They took a position that wasn't (and still isn't) all that popular, that there should be more cooperation between the church and the state, but spelled out what that would mean--like faith based initiatives--in a way that made most people either happy or indifferent. Of course this program was abused to some extent (and one hears stories about Focus on the Family writing government policy on reproductive rights, of course), and I think it wasn't really a great idea in the first place, since churches can already apply for federal contracts so long as they obey certain limitations. But Bush's initiative was sold in such a way that it sounded like a good thing to people who didn't know much about it. Money for religious charities is very politically appealing.

But the fact is that the concept of church-state cooperation has been losing steam. A recent poll showed broad unpopularity for the concept (though with some support for particular cases like religious displays on government premises). Hell, even most Texans don't like the broad concept of bringing religion and government together. Bush's administration seemed to understand this and tried to keep their agenda on this matter specific, as some of the concrete aspects of religion-state synergy are reasonably popular. But then there was the evangelical tone of Bush's administration, the increasing vitriol of the religious right, and the religious-inflected Bush wars, which together did great damage to the overall concept of breaking down the church-state wall. As America becomes decreasingly religious and increasingly secular on a personal level, one expects the religious right to become more desperate in maintaining its position, which only seems to contribute to the aforementioned secularism. What does all this mean? It means we're winning.

And for the record, there is a clarification that needs to be made here. The right has become conditioned to believing that "church-state separation" means "people of faith should not be in politics", which is something nobody really believes. It doesn't mean that one's faith (or lack thereof) won't affect one's politics. My faith certainly does. Ultimately, what we're talking about is the principle that religion alone shouldn't be the basis for public policy decisions.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What Brown can teach other Democrats

Ezra Klein finds a really hilarious closing ad by Jerry Brown:

Meg's closing ad is a bit less cheery.

I have to admit that I'm still surprised by how this race has turned out. Brown has turned out to be a stronger campaigner than I thought he would be, it's true. But what's helped him the most is that Whitman's megabucks and the associated huge ad buys have become a big-time problem for her. Brown is partly responsible for making an issue of it, but the thing is that while attack ads can be quite effective, there is a need for proportion in these kinds of things, and it's important to be wary of overkill. Whitman is a novice politico, and evidently thought that applying enough resources to her strategy would be enough to win. This has not remotely come to pass.

There is a lot to learn here, actually. Democrats tried for a time to hit the Chamber of Commerce for its highly partisan role in this year's elections, but evidently the complaints of David Brooks scared them off. The simple fact is that most of the money in politics pays for ads, and the enormous surge of Republican money has led to an increased capability to run lots of negative ads. Turning that into a liability might have made helped out the Democrats, as in, "Notice all those ads for X? They're being funded by outside groups, paying X's ad bills with money raised from sources they won't disclose. What happens if X gets to Washington, and those groups' bills come due?" My perception is that people say they're concerned about the deficit but that they're really worried about the state of the economy and the power of corporations over our politics. Too many Democrats seem to buy the media's perceptions of the public (which are indebted to the right's perceptions of the public) as infuriated over deficits, instead of taking these complaints with the grain of salt they require. Maybe it's different for someone with lots of training and experience in the software game, but my view of clients is that they usually know what they want, but they don't always say what they want, and it's part of your job to cut through the inexactitude. I think it's wise for politicians to view voters in the same way.

The military after Vietnam used to have as a mantra the saying, "You can't win a war with only air power." That seemed to go away after Desert Storm, when we basically won a war with air power. But it's true in war and in politics. I don't think you can win a campaign just with ads, and the Brown campaign managed to neutralize a pretty important asset to Whitman's team. If the other side is bombing you relentlessly, try to use that to bring together the other people on the ground against the common enemy. That's just common sense.

Additionally, if you're interested in California politics, this is a valuable piece from TPM.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

An auspicious occasion

Talking Points Memo is turning 10 in a few weeks. I'm definitely a big fan of the left-leaning site, which I feel is one of the few popular sites of its kind that isn't run by an obviously insane person. To be fair, most right-leaning sites are run by obviously insane people as well. But TPM is generally a great resource for both breaking news and commentary that has a perspective but doesn't overdo it like Fox.

Since I was a little bored I decided to utilize the Internet Archive to dial up the oldest version of TPM they had, from February 2002, since who isn't nostalgic for the early '00s? And I found a piece that made me laugh:

Are liberals hopeless suckers?

You better believe it.

Back in 1997 and 1998, as the presidential contenders were readying their engines, all Democrats pretty much realized that the nomination was Al Gore's to lose. But liberals were discomfited by Gore's centrism and casting about for some standard-bearer. Dick Gephardt decided he was that man.

Eventually, Gephardt decided that the Gore juggernaut could not be stopped and he stepped aside and endorsed Gore. But until then he pitched himself as the real Democrat, the Democrat who wasn't afraid to admit he was a Democrat (as Jim Fallows put it in this article), the Dem who still believed in the old time New Deal religion. Throughout the latter years of the second Clinton administration, looking toward the 2000 primaries, Gephardt consistently positioned himself as the leader of the party's liberals -- and signaled his stance by bucking the administration on some key votes.

I had just started working at the American Prospect -- the publication of liberal Democrats -- at the time and people had totally taken the bait.

Now, we're getting ready for 2004 and the lay of the land looks a little different. Gore wants to run again. Maybe Tom Daschle (though TPM feels confident this will never happen). And others. Now, Gephardt has decided he's going to run to the right of everyone else, as the one who doesn't believe in the same old tax and spend, who doesn't want to revisit the Bush tax cut, and so forth.

There are two possible explanations here. Either the Democratic party has lurched hard to the left in the last four years or Gephardt is a shameless opportunist...

And they say Bill Clinton's slick willie? That Al Gore's constantly reinventing himself?

I guess it's more hilarious since not only did Gephardt go from New Dealer to conservaDem to Bush's Democratic floor leader on the Iraq War, but since leaving politics he's become a particularly soulless corporate lobbyist. Marshall was even more right than he could have known.

California marijuana legalization in trouble? Also, what's up with majority budgets.

Nate Silver takes a look. I've already voted for it, as I'm convinced that 30 years of the Drug War have been a complete disaster for the country, filling our prisons with nonviolent (often non-)criminals while weakening our civil liberties. There isn't a general backlash against all these years of obvious failure and abuse because John Q. America doesn't think too much about this stuff since he doesn't use drugs and he doesn't think it affects him, but it certainly does. We pay to arrest, try, and jail these folks, of course. And the damage done to users, families, and communities is so unnecessary and stupid. Personally, I don't think marijuana really figures into this, since it's not intrinsically addictive and fairly harmless. But people still get arrested for it, so it's time to act.

Evidently the polls have tightened considerably. I don't know that it's doomed, though. If the drive is losing momentum now it might be too late to salvage it, but evidently Yes on 19 has a significant resource advantage over the No side, which is good (and was certainly not the case with Prop 8). There's still nearly two weeks to get the message out. My gut instinct is that it will pass, but I'm quite a bit less certain of that than I was a few days ago. Looking at the PPIC poll, it shows about the same margins for Brown and Boxer that other pollsters are showing (Boxer up by a handful, Brown up by about eight), but the actual levels of support look lower than other polls are showing. So it could be understating things across the board. I don't know.

This has all been precipitated by a PPIC poll showing the initiative losing momentum. Interestingly, the poll also shows the hugely important Prop 25--i.e. the one that will end the idiotic 2/3 state budget requirement--actually gaining support from last month. Prop 25 has been portrayed as an intensely partisan issue, which is true but defensible, in my opinion. It will basically destroy most of the leverage that state Republicans still have on our politics (the 2/3 rule for taxes will still apply, though, and that will be a lot harder to kill), but on little-d democratic principles it's hard to defend 1/3 of the legislature having so much power with practically zero accountability, since the Democrats get blamed for having to make really unsavory deals every year. Of course, Republicans don't want to give up this power and many of the California right-wing talk radio people (with some rare exceptions) are heavily against Prop 25. In spite of all this, it's interesting that 25 is actually getting a reasonable amount of Republican support--39% support to 45% opposition--and it's just mopping up with Dems and Indies. Perhaps this is due to the issue simply being impossible to spin, but I think the wording of the proposition is pretty strong, specifying the 2/3 rule for taxes will remain intact, with a dash of populism in the form of freezing pay for legislators if they don't deliver the budget on time. Not that it's actually likely to be necessary if a simple majority can pass it. Our long statewide nightmare might finally be ending, and the irony is that the scourge of our political system might well be ending it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Deficit Commission Folly

Chait posits why the Deficit Commission is leaning right:
In any relationship, the party that cares the least about winning an according has the upper hand. That's what you're seeing out of the deficit commission. Republicans don't care about reducing the deficit, so they'll only support a plan that consists entirely (or almost entirely) of spending cuts. If it fails, fine. Most Democrats do want to reduce the deficit, so at least a significant core of them are willing to sign off on a solution that's far from their ideal mix.
This is why I have not been too impressed with the notion of a bipartisan deficit commission in the first place. If Democrats want to do something about the deficit, they should do so with the majority they now have, possibly using reconciliation rules in order to circumvent a filibuster. (Admittedly, the Blue Dogs make that problematic.) I realize this idea goes back to Mark Schmitt's theory of how Obama often tries to draw in bad-faith opponents by involving them in the process, and that if they don't have any ideas it's apparent. But the critical ingredient for that to work is public exposure, which does not appear to be a factor in the deficit commission's deliberations.

Ultimately, little will come of this. Democrats will not vote for a plan with significant benefit cuts, and Republicans will not only not vote for anything with defense or spending cuts, but they will even demagogue the benefit cuts as well. The commission's report will most likely be ignored, which is fine from my perspective, as I'm just tired of politicians hiding from accountability by deploying the bipartisanship dodge. I want politicians to get used to actually wielding power and getting held accountable for it, not to look for cover behind a handful of ostensibly dealmaking Republicans who turn around and backstab when convenient, as in the healthcare debate. And while those of us in the know realize that bipartisanship is no guarantee of quality policy, I think lots of voters (especially low-information ones) do believe that.

Monday, October 18, 2010

And speaking of Christianity...

I just had to share this post about the Cold War changed Protestantism. Here's a list of the things that mainstream Protestant leaders advocated in 1942:

• Ultimately, "a world government of delegated powers."

• Complete abandonment of U.S. isolationism.

• Strong immediate limitations on national sovereignty.

• International control of all armies & navies.

• "A universal system of money ... so planned as to prevent inflation and deflation."

• Worldwide freedom of immigration.

• Progressive elimination of all tariff and quota restrictions on world trade.

• "Autonomy for all subject and colonial peoples" (with much better treatment for Negroes in the U.S.).

• "No punitive reparations, no humiliating decrees of war guilt, no arbitrary dismemberment of nations."

• A "democratically controlled" international bank "to make development capital available in all parts of the world without the predatory and imperialistic aftermath so characteristic of large-scale private and governmental loans."

Hard to believe, no? Then again, the politics of the WWII and the time immediately following the War are most radically different from our politics today in the area of foreign policy. Following WWII, public sentiment in favor of a pretty radical vision of internationalism was pretty robust to a far greater extent than it is today, outside of a very small sliver of the left. I don't think all of these ideas are good, though I think the seventh, eighth and ninth items are pretty blindingly obvious, items two and ten have indeed come to pass, though I'm not sure we'll be able to construct a universal system of money that works for everyone, considering how Germany has been quite empowered in the ECB, at the expense of Greece and the others.

What I think has been lost the most in liberal thought over the past few decades is a broader, more idealistic vision of foreign policy. Granted, a lot of the '50s- and '60s-era liberal idealism about the world was a bit utopian and excessive, and politically speaking, one-worldism isn't a winner at this point. But we currently have an unbalanced situation where the right often wins on the topic by invoking nationalism, and the left comes back with a watered-down version of the same nationalism. I don't suppose I need to get specific here, but simply saying "John Kerry's presidential campaign" really ought to be enough. I get the tribalism complaint but the inescapable trend of the past few millennia has been toward ever-larger "tribes" and with the technology advances of the past few decades I suspect it will continue. It has brought a number of benefits along with it, and while tribalism is a strong force I don't think it's an impossible one to overcome. And there is definitely a Christian basis for that.

Instant karma

Jonathan Haidt claims that the tea parties are really all about Karma:

Now jump ahead to today's ongoing financial and economic crisis. Again, those guilty of corruption and irresponsibility have escaped the consequences of their wrongdoing, rescued first by President Bush and then by President Obama. Bailouts and bonuses sent unimaginable sums of the taxpayers' money to the very people who brought calamity upon the rest of us. Where is punishment for the wicked?

As the tea partiers see it, the positive side of karma has been weakened, too. The Protestant work ethic (karma's Christian cousin) holds that hard work is a duty and will bring commensurate rewards. Yet here, too, liberals have long been uncomfortable with karma, because even when you create equal opportunity, differences in talent and effort result in unequal outcomes. These inequalities must then be reduced by progressive taxation, affirmative action and other heavy-handed government intervention. Such social engineering violates our liberty, but most of us accept limitations on our liberty when we agree with the goals and motives behind the rules, such as during air travel. For the tea partiers, federal activism has become a moral insult. They believe that, over time, the government has made a concerted effort to subvert the law of karma.

Listen, for example, to Rick Santelli's "rant heard 'round the world" on CNBC last year and its most famous lines: "The government is promoting bad behavior," and "How many of you people want to pay for your neighbors' mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills?" It's a rant about karma, not liberty.

There's a real crumb of truth to this. I think most people want to see the bad guys lose and the good guys win, and the notion of bailing out people with bad mortgages is not palatable to quite a few people in this country. Clearly, a lot of banks made a lot of bad bets, and some of the blame rests with them, but the tea party argument about mortgages is fair enough and hard to rebut. The sensible option is to start rolling back the numerous government programs that encourage home ownership (and, by extension, reckless betting by banks), starting by phasing out Fannie and Freddie. I have no problem with this, though it should probably wait until the housing market recovers.

But I simply cannot believe that the tea parties are motivated solely by karma. It is telling that Haidt brings up only two examples of his karmic betrayal: progressive taxation, which is so abominably anti-free market capitalism that it's only been championed by Adam Smith, who created the whole idea in the first place, and affirmative action, which has become such a nonentity in American life that few liberals are even willing to defend it anymore, and outside of some public universities and other organizations (such as the military), it's just gone. He obviously couldn't have said Medicare or Social Security since the tea parties like those programs, and it seems like quite a few tea types take advantage of them. Haidt's article includes this quote: "Or look at the political issue that most enraged the early tea partiers. Messrs. Armey and Kibbe state categorically that it was not Mr. Obama's stimulus bill that turned millions into activists; it was Mr. Bush's bank bailout." This is important because if the tea parties were motivated by some sense of karmic justice, they should have been absolutely infuriated with the arrogant banksters who nearly broke America. I have noticed very little of that sentiment with the movement, though I suppose their relative silence on financial reform is something, but I suspect they really believe the Fox-approved narrative that the Community Reinvestment Act of 1979 caused the crisis or whatever and see the bankers as free-market warriors. Say what you like about this view, but it is hardly karmic. The tea partiers were infuriated by the response to the crisis and not necessarily the crisis itself, or its architects. And then there was the BP oil spill, in which Republican sentiment in favor of a company whose recklessness caused an unforced environmental disaster was so intensely sympathetic to the disgraced BP leaders that some Republicans just couldn't keep their mouths shut.

I personally find this entire argument preposterous, but let's talk for a moment about the Protestant work ethic (a/k/a Karma's Christian cousin). Haidt makes this statement without any supporting argument, and I think it needs some. Karma is a pretty easy concept to understand on a fundamental level--you get rewarded for what you do right, you get punished for what you do wrong, and ultimately you get what you deserve. In Christianity, the big idea is that you get something you do not deserve. You are justified by your faith and not by your works, and it is pointed out many times that good deeds, while pleasing to God, have no real reward in God's eyes (cf. the story of Jesus and the rich young ruler, which I'm sure everyone is familiar with). There are many points of overlap between Christianity and Buddhism (and possibly Hinduism, though I know a lot less about that), but there are plenty of points of divergence as well. Karma is pretty clearly antithetical to the basis of Christianity in my reckoning. I'm not going to say that any version of Christianity requires a full-fledged belief in a left-liberal agenda, because I do not believe that, but for a believing Christian to say "We get what we deserve" should not be a comforting notion but a terrifying one, and even if one were to accept that, I think it's pretty hard to make the argument that the 43.6 million people in poverty have each done something to deserve that state, which is the inevitable conclusion of the idea of the inherently just free market that Ayn Rand preached, and that conservatives like Rand Paul vociferously agree with.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The mystery of Sharron Angle's competitiveness

I think this answers it: of the $14 million she took in last quarter, she already spent $12 million of it. That's a lot of dough to spend, and that might be why she's where she is. Evidently she and Harry Reid are about even on cash for now (excluding the massive spending by outside groups, of course).

No Mississippi

I just find the title of this piece hilarious:

GOPers Begging Haley Barbour Not To Run For President

For the record, the image in my mind is of Rove on bended knee right in front of Barbour. It amuses me. But seriously, it's definitely true that, despite the conventional wisdom, Obama isn't really that poorly positioned for re-election in 2012. His approval ratings are better than Clinton's and Reagan's were at equivalent points in their presidencies, and both won re-election decisively. By 2012, our involvement in Iraq should be at an end, our involvement in Afghanistan should be winding down, and there will have been more time for the victories on health care, Wall Street reform, etc., to sink in. There will be a lot to run on, and while a lot of liberals seem to think that the trends in 2010 are going to remain permanently it's worth noting that midterm elections are usually made up of fickle electorates that tend to just be blowing off steam. FDR knew that, and after 1937 he rarely tried to do any big domestic policy for the final two years of his terms since he almost always dealt with more conservative Congresses during those times. And it's worth noting that the Republicans winning the House and the economy failing to recover could make Obama's position even stronger, especially if they trigger a government shutdown that makes things worse.

This is hardly a sure thing, though, and the thing that tips me over the edge into the likelihood of this happening is the weakness of the Republican opposition. It's entirely possible that the Republican field will include Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, John Bolton, Newt Gingrich, Mike Pence and Haley Barbour, which seems like such a feast of venality, intemperance, intolerance and ignorance that it should just scare the hell out of independents. But it's pretty much par for the Republicans' course at this point. (Incidentally, that Tommy Franks Republican presidential bid seems not to have panned out so far. Maybe this is the year!) What interests me is that Republican leaders are apparently trying to pressure some prospective candidates from running at all, which doesn't seem like something that usually happens in these things. Sure, there was Bush clearing out prospective opponents in 2000, but there wasn't much of that in 2008 or 2004. I don't recall hearing Democrats trying to pressure Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton out of running, since neither was going to get the nomination the feeling must have been to let these guys do their thing and keep their (very small) followings in the tent. Sure, some (most?) people have negative associations of them, but most of them either aren't going to vote Democrat anyway or don't care that they are allowed to share the stage with the real contenders. Had it looked like Kucinich might have actually been able to somehow win the nomination in 2008, I'm quite sure elites would have tried to push him out of the running. Clearly, Republican bigwigs believe that Barbour could actually get their nomination in 2012, and the thought of a Confederate-loving Deep South governor running against the first Black president must really scare them. And I don't think their fears are misplaced in either case, as Barbour is sort of like Sharpton with a huge donor base, massive institutional support, and a pretty substantial regional advantage in one of the GOP's best regions that is likely to be underrepresented again among presidential candidates this upcoming cycle. I'm guessing Huckabee skips because of his record on policy, and Gingrich's faux-traditionalist cosmo-Catholic act seems less powerful to me than Barbour's legitimately traditionalist Baptist profile. I don't see him beating Obama, but getting the nomination seems possible. If I were Barbour, I sure as hell would run in this environment, prostrate Karl Rove or no.

In any event, for all our sakes we better hope that unemployment starts going down soon--Gallup has underemployment (unemployed + part-timers looking for full time) dipping by half a percentage point in two weeks, which is a trend that could stand to continue for a while.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The beginning of the end

Before liberals all start OD'ing on the Obama hate again, I saw something Tom Hilton shared over at Balloon Juice:

The Pentagon today instructed military lawyers to halt all open investigations and pending discharges of gay and lesbian service members under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which has prohibited them from openly serving.

The e-mail notice from the Defense Department's Judge Advocate Generals came in response to a judgment by Federal Judge Virginia Phillips Tuesday, ordering an immediate, worldwide end to the policy's enforcement.

This is real progress. The end is nigh.

DADT ruling to be appealed

Here, as I predicted. I guess they still think Congress will overturn it anyway, and they don't want to railroad Gates. Still, it's weird that they're turning down a fait accompli at a time they could use one. Gates is only going to be on the job for a few more months anyway, after all.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Reality on Obama and DADT

Here's how I see it: it's pretty clear that Obama made a deal some time ago with the top military brass, Bob Gates and Mike Mullen specifically--in exchange for their public support for ending DADT, the Administration would wait until the military's review to be over in December to push for change. When you read about the Administration not really pressuring Congress to get the repeal done last month, I suspect this is the reason. Without the buy-in of the brass, it doesn't really matter what the polling looks like: DADT repeal is going to fail. Let's be realistic here. The numbers for letting LGBT people serve openly were decent when Bill Clinton tried to push it in 1993, but the brass fought him tooth and nail and it never happened. December seems to be the price Obama agreed to pay for Mullen's and Gates's support, and it's a narrative that fits the facts unless you want to go the FDL route and assume that Obama secretly hates gay people. I do not.

Now, I do think that the nine-month review period seems agonizingly long and Obama should have tried to trim that. Maybe that's normal for government work, I don't know. But I don't think Obama will order Holder to drop the current case because if I'm right, that would basically involve him going back on the whole review promise that was made. Gates could make the whole process difficult if he wanted to, and I think his and Mullen's deliberatness is due to neither Gates nor Mullen not wanting to be seen as pushing a social agenda onto the military. Frankly, I could care less, but I'm not them, my job doesn't depend on my credibility with the military and I don't have to worry about any of those sorts of things. My strong feeling is that Obama's reticence here is the result of an agreement and not a lack of conviction. Maybe he could have gotten a better one, I don't know. But when I hear talk about executive orders and lawsuits and all the rest it seems beside the point. Sure, the guy has some tools to make it happen, but issuing an executive order or dropping the DADT lawsuit would present very real risks and preclude any other options. Doing things Gates's way has some downsides, but it doesn't rule out other avenues if the Senate continues its dickishness.

As for Andrew Sullivan's disparagement of Obama on gay rights, I totally understand where it's coming from but I think it's misplaced. No Republicans voted to proceed on the Defense Bill, and that's not because they all support DADT (Snowe, Collins and Brown publicly don't) but rather because ending DADT would give Obama a big win with his base, and they didn't want that to happen. Sue Collins's bullshit editorial more or less confirms the cynicism--she complains about not being able to offer amendments on the bill, but she voted not to proceed on the bill, which ensured she would be able to offer no amendments. It's not as if the bill were debated, her amendments were ignored, and Reid moved for cloture and final passage. No amendments can be considered at all if the vote to proceed is filibustered. Republicans unsurprisingly want other Republicans to win elections, and getting Democrats to yell at each other isn't a bad way of doing this. I understand everyone's frustration, but Obama simply isn't to blame for Republican cynicism. To blame Obama for any of this is to play right into the hands of a cynical party that just wants to win.

Doubling down

Check this out:
California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman (R) "contributed an additional $20 million to her campaign this week -- bringing the total she has spent so far on her run to $141.5 million," California Beat reports.

"The contribution only adds to an already record-shattering total -- no other American candidate has ever spent so much of his or own wealth in an attempt to get elected as the former eBay executive has."
I suppose this is a reminder that campaign finance laws can only go so far, as self-funders will always exist and will likely not be restricted from doing stuff like this. Then again, that she's spent over $100 million and can't capitalize on a good Republican year in the polls might well prove the axiom that self-funding is vastly overrated, since it tamps down donor involvement and volunteer enthusiasm. I guess we'll see.

$20 million is a big number, to be sure, but it's like a few hundred bucks to most people so why not spend it? Whitman is down in the polls partly because of some controversies of her own making but mostly because her message is a thin gloss over standard-issue Republicanism in a state that simply has little affection for it. Read this and tell me it doesn't reek of desperation. Had Brown personally called Whitman a whore she might have a point, but a five week-old voicemail by some aide is weak sauce indeed. Brown had already apologized already. If this is their "October Surprise" then they might as well throw in the towel. And the thing about Wilson using the term himself seems to negate the whole thing. Whitman seems to be under the impression that voters are deeply offended by nasty words, which might have been reality in 1987 or so, but even conservatives don't care any more since Fox News's biggest personality drops bleeped F-bombs quite frequently.

I guess in the end I don't get why Whitman is doing this. Her bold new direction for California is anything but, an amalgamation of yesteryear's buzzwords and Republican pablum. It mostly reflects someone who isn't terribly interested in policy and doesn't want to change much of anything too much. I guess she's conservative, so the latter is fair enough. But either this is a vanity campaign, or Whitman just wants to run for president and wants to use the California governorship as merely a stepping stone. She wouldn't be the first (most notably see Nixon, Richard M.), but at least people like Pete Wilson and, well, Brown himself circa 1975 actually bothered to show an interest in policy and act like they cared about the job. Whitman clearly doesn't, so maybe Whitman's candidacy is bolder than I thought!

Oh, and TPM commenter Rich in NJ has a pretty clever comment: "If Whitman would be willing to balance CA's budget with her own money, I might support her, otherwise, no." She probably couldn't do it by herself, but a gesture in this direction might have helped, who knows?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Centrism as the path of least resistance

Sue Collins's op-ed is as awful as others have said. I particularly agree with this. In between the self-righteous posturing about the bipartisanship of the "Gang of 14" (which was bipartisan but a double-victory for the right, since they got to keep the filibuster as well as their right-wing judges) and enough complaints about being picked on by both sides that brings out my inner Livia Soprano ("Poor you!"), we get nuggets like this:
During the past two years, the minority party has been increasingly shut out of the discussion. Even in the Senate, which used to pride itself on being a bastion of free and open debate, procedural tactics are routinely used to prevent Republican amendments. That causes Republicans to overuse the filibuster, because our only option is to stop a bill to which we cannot offer amendments.
This might sound fine to an uninformed person. I am not an uninformed person. Susan Collins was, for a time, a gettable vote on health care reform. She and other Republicans offered tons of amendments that were considered and even accepted in some cases, but she still filibustered and voted against the final bill. When you consider that Collins, like very other Republican, voted to filibuster the motion to proceed on the DISCLOSE Act--not even the actual bill, just the motion to consider the bill and offer amendments, her big sticking point--this whole argument is revealed to be a farce, and a poignant one, since Collins is sure to be primaried in a few years and all that undisclosed money is sure to work against her. Ultimately, Collins wants (and has) to stand with her party's filibusters or she's going to get primaried and/or lose plum committee assignments, but she has to come up with an argument for why she's blocking things she ostensibly agrees with. That is the path of least resistance, and she's characteristically running it.

Collins's version of moderation deeply annoys me, and this op-ed is clearly a pitch to the establishment for the idea of a GOP-led Senate. The idea that such a Senate would enact a moderate agenda seems ridiculous to me, but I don't think Collins would care all that much about what gets passed because there's no evidence she ever has cared before. There are different kinds of moderates in the United States, some see moderation as being in between the two parties, and others see it as more a sober, evidence-based sensibility than a set of positions per se. Collins's view of moderation, in view of her record, seems to define the term as the path of least resistance. She voted for the stimulus, sure, which would make her a Keynesian, except that she voted for the second round of Bush's tax cuts, which was such an extreme extension of supply-side logic that her colleague Olympia Snowe voted against it. These are radically different economic positions that Collins would have a hard time reconciling, if she ever cared to. The only thing in common with both was that a popular president proposed both ideas, and she presumably wanted to get in on the hot-hot inside dealing and influence-making that both occasions provided. Her position with the whole "Gang of 14" business--that the Senate should preserve the filibuster but allow votes on Bush's right-wing nominees--is the sort of "centrism" I'm talking about, one that is not based on either the principle of majority rule nor one that is opposed to judicial extremism, so much as a stance that sets out to maximize the power of the Senate and, incidentally, the pivotal members in the center (such as Ms. Collins). She's been on both sides of cap-and-trade and immigration reform as well, depending on the political climate. What shines through at every turn is someone who adapts to the political environment rather than someone who tries to shape it, someone who is more interested in holding power than wielding it to any constructive end. I personally don't believe that our political problems stem from "incivility" in any respect, so much as I think they stem from an excessively powerful business lobby that renders the notion of a public interest quaint, a media that sees cynicism as practically a sport, and a number of figures who mostly exist to shut down any attempt at a dialogue between different sides in the political debate. These are the real problems we have, not civility. Gilded Age politics, as a counterexample, were extremely civil and polite, as well as deeply corrupt and craven. Everyone agreed on everything because powerful people were owned by the same corporate masters. I don't think things are that bad yet, but it is worth noting the supreme idiocy of this whole notion and its holders. Either that, or it's just another flavor of cynicism.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Palin the Weak

I'm glad this year's primaries are over, if for no better reason than that the press will stop analyzing Sarah Palin's effect on particular races. In fact, her whole "Mama Grizzly" concept seems to have been a bust. Karen Handel couldn't even win a primary in Georgia without Palin's endorsement, Carly Fiorina is looking less and less competitive in California, and now two straight polls are showing the original Grizzly, Nikki Haley, not even above the margin of error in South Carolina. The sure winners she endorsed to up her batting average, like Fallin in Oklahoma and Branstad in Iowa, are doing better, but still. This is not good.

What Palin represents, ultimately, is the final stage in evolution for the conservative movement. The movement can no longer be considered a political movement, I believe, since it had little problem with Bush's frequent violations of their own self-stated principles during his reign, and the rank-and-file gave him huge support right up until the end. It's primarily a cultural movement at this point, and one which is holding an ever-diminishing amount of sway in modern America, despite their likely gains this year due to the recession and voter frustration. Palin offers an entirely cultural argument with some political points that don't add up to anything like a philosophy, and that don't contain anything resembling an argument. A lot of people characterize the whole Tea Party concept as racist, but I think the more accurate description is white nationalist. Many are full-on racists to be sure, but what motivates the Tea Party (and, by extension, many of the rest of conservatives) is fundamentally a cultural vision, partly historical but substantially invented, of an America replete with small-town values and a government that sticks out of your hair and all the rest. Needless to say that this is a predominantly white vision, but most conservatives I know aren't opposed to some diversity and don't actually hate minorities. They just generally see American history and cultural history as white-dominated and think this is simply part and parcel of American identity as well as their own identities, and they worried about being pushed out somehow. I see this notion as dubious, since minorities don't have near the level of wealth or success of white folks and that is not likely to change, but I understand it. It is only comprehensible through the lens of white nationalism, and if you start there, then most of the rest of it falls into place.

There is a small problem with all these chants about "taking our country back", which both is and isn't an innocuous phrase that partisans of either side can say: for the Tea Parties their country can't come back. It's gone forever. It's gone when over 80 percent of people in America are urban or suburban, when the fastest growing blocks of the public are young people with few of their hangups and Hispanics, who many of their candidates have gone out of their way to antagonize. This is not to mention the rapidly falling rate of people who practice a religion, as well as the rapidly rising percentage of people who support GLBT rights. America has already changed, and it's going to continue changing along roughly the same lines as it has been changing. The America of the '50s, or the '20s, or whatever other time period the right-wing pines for is simply gone forever, and the sooner they realize it and try to live in the now, with all its possibilities and perils, the better off they will be, and the better off we will all be. It's not like there aren't more productive things they could be doing that could really help us out, you know, by being a functional opposition party.

So, Palin is the ultimate distillation of the conservatives' mentality. She might well be able to elevate a candidate to win a nomination, but her poor record in this election shows the diminishing pull that she--and her movement--are having on our politics. I think the effect is pretty clear: when she gets involved in a contest, people tend to have second thoughts about it, even if the state in question is thoroughly conservative. When the dust settles, this will be clear. So who thinks she can win in 2012?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Obama-Clinton 2012? Shouldn't happen.

Today's buzz is over a possible Obama-Clinton 2012 ticket, with VP Biden taking over Clinton's job at State. It's been officially denied, of course. Tomasky offers a positive outlook on the potential pairing here, but I'm skeptical for a few reasons:
  • The fallout could make Obama look disloyal if Biden doesn't look as though he's done anything to deserve demotion.
  • A possible Blair-Brown situation between Obama and Clinton. Biden is a good VP in many ways, but one of them has to be a lack of an independent power base. Gordon Brown had one and was able to hamstring Tony Blair to some extent during their effectively joint reign, and Dick Cheney's power base probably made Bush more inclined to take old Darth more seriously. Putting Clinton in there means radically different power dynamics in the White House, which are pretty unpredictable as far as I can see.
  • Plus, seriously? Clinton has many talents and has done a fine job at State, but her managerial skills, particularly her ability to judge character and ability, have been proven to be poor (see: 2008 campaign). As far as the longer-term consequences go, setting her up as Obama's heir makes some sense from an electoral perspective, but it's not like Obama couldn't name his own heir any time he wanted to, and Democrats usually win when running younger, charismatic, outsider-type candidates instead of insidery, elder statesman types. Maybe that would be different with Clinton specifically, since she's iconic in a way that Kerry and Gore aren't. I don't really know.
Still, given all that, if she could get some ambivalent Democrats to definitely vote for Obama it is eminently worth checking out. None of this stuff is insurmountable and a lot of such a decision depends on the situation in 2012. This particular point, though, by Tomasky strikes me as off-base:
She would help rev up women and Latinos, and she's [sic] raise the comfort level on a second Obama term inside the Beltway establishment, which generally speaking likes her a lot and consider the Potus a little unproven as yet.
Actually, they hated her up until she won rural whites in Ohio, which showed that she can reach the holy grail of politics, or whatever. Anyway, this is not an argument for Clinton as VP, but rather for Mike Bloomberg as VP. I think that's a pretty lousy idea, since Bloomberg has no experience in the federal government and delivers pretty much nobody who wasn't going to vote Democrat already, but the Village's obsession with the man--to the point of imagining running mates for the guy!--along with his genuine skill leads me to believe that Obama might want to consider bringing him into the government in some way. Considering his talents are mainly for running large and unwieldy institutions with technocratic efficiency, and that is stature is decidedly independent, something like Secretary of Defense seems like an interesting idea to me. Of course, Bloomberg probably knows little about defense policy, but maybe the Villagers would assume that putting Bloomberg in the Cabinet equals seriousness about government or something.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

No matter how many parties we have, I will not invite Tom Friedman to any of them

I'd like to associate myself with this post by Jonathan Bernstein criticizing Tom Friedman's call for a third party. I just read the column myself and, considered along with David Broder's most recent column, I don't think a more poignant case for legacy media irrelevance has ever been made.

Friedman's column is especially infuriating. People like Friedman never say something like, "I generally prefer the Democratic platform and policies to those of the Republicans for reasons that are self-evident" because that would bring the insinuations of the dread liberal bias, even though it's clearly the perspective of the article. So every left-of-center voice in the media has to act like a completely independent maverick with no connection to the progressive movement or politics, and an active dislike of them is preferable. This is insane. And since saying, "Vote Democratic, because they would do a better job of fixing things, especially if those deficit-poseur Blue Dogs were purged" is not the thing a maverick independent can say (though it is pretty logical, I think), Friedman's solution necessarily has to be awkward. A third-party movement that duplicated the goals of the progressive movement would find itself directly at odds with the Democratic Party (see also, Green Party), and the same is true of a party that tries to duplicate the goals of the Republican Party. I guess Friedman wants some sort of "radical centrist" party, and this party of the elites (The Bloomberg Party, basically, 'cause that's what it is) presumably includes moderate hawkishness, fiscal conservatism and social liberalism, which is what the elites always say we voters want, but I've seen no evidence of it. I do think that there is an opening for the opposite of what the elites want--a dovish, socially conservative, fiscally liberal party--but presumably Friedman wouldn't want that at all.

Even if one grants Friedman's assumptions about the state of the two parties, it does not stand to reason that a third party is even the right way to go. Fixing the existing parties might well be the easier and better idea. But that's boring, and wouldn't make for a splashy column. Overwrought Roman references aside, Friedman's column mostly represents a desire by the establishment to drive the course of public policy. The problem is that the establishment has spent its last decade destroying its credibility at every turn--by embracing nearly every disastrous Bush policy they could find, from No Child Left Behind to Iraq to Social Security privatization (though they couldn't make that one happen on their own) so as to prove their independence from the left, without ever raising any concerns of which I am aware. Through all of this, they showed themselves to be concerned with maintaining access to power than exercising theirs responsibly. They have worked hard to make themselves irrelevant, and we see the results: now, major candidates simply don't talk to the media ever. And now they want to run the place?

Broder does it again

Everyone's favorite octogenarian columnist has a new (chronologically, not content, speaking) column up:
Before Boehner opened his mouth, Speaker Nancy Pelosi blasted him in a statement charging that "Congressional Republicans and Mr. Boehner have stood in the way of Democratic reform efforts in Congress for the last four years, and now they want to take America back to the exact same failed policies of the past that put the corporate special interests ahead of the middle class."

That is par for the course in this campaign season, and it represents the sort of reflexive partisanship that voters are understandably sick of. [...]

Many of the Republican leader's proposals are standard, and some that are not are questionable. But few who serve in the House, or observe it closely, would challenge Boehner's analysis of the dynamic that has made Congress a dysfunctional legislative body and Capitol Hill a hostile workplace. [...]

Boehner was a serious legislator for five years at the start of this decade as chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, before he became a floor leader for his party. His diagnosis of the problems in Congress offers a starting point for a cure. Let's hope the Democrats respond.
I should say I'm shocked, but really, I'm not shocked by anything that establishmentarians do anymore. Broder is probably not read by anyone outside of political junkies and political figures, and that probably makes it easier for him to believe that the reason Americans hate Washington is "reflexive partisanship" rather than, I don't know, a relentlessly networked and arrogant ruling class that cares only about its pet obsessions rather than real middle-class issues? I'm just speculating here, but the Republicans have been extremely partisan over the past two years and the voters seem likely to reward them for it. How does Broder explain this? I guess the thing about how Democrats have been shutting off debate is supposed to answer that, but it's not like conservatives have had much trouble getting their message out. And nobody even does debates in Congress anymore.

Of course, calling Boehner a serious legislator is wildly off the mark, as Steve notes here:
He is, as we talked about last week, almost a caricature of what's wrong with Washington insiders. Boehner first gained national notoriety in 1996, when the chain-smoking conservative congressman, shortly before a key vote, walked the House floor distributing checks from tobacco industry lobbyists.

More recently, Boehner has developed an unrivaled love of corporate lobbyists, with whom the GOP leader coordinates to try to kill jobs bills, Wall Street reform,health care reform, and energy legislation.

We're talking about a long-time Capitol Hill veteran who literally meets in smoke-filled rooms to scheme behind closed doors with powerful interests, most of which have hired his former aides for maximum influence and impact.

Is Broder out to lunch? I don't hate the guy nearly as much as most lefties seem to, though I've been more critical than not. At risk of being too mean, he's the best argument there is for a mandatory retirement age for media outlets. Why? I think it has to do with the messed-up way we as a culture view aging. Everyone knows about the justly famous "full retard" bit from Tropic Thunder, which is basically that movies about mentally challenged people tend to give them special powers of some sort or other--Rain Man being able to play genius poker, for example--because people feel bad about not really giving a damn about handicapped people and want to think that everything somehow evens out, that lacking the ability to connect with other people is offset by some other gift somehow. I think a lot of people figure that age automatically grants wisdom as a similar way of life compensating for the downsides of being old. Of course, people who actually spend time with senior citizens know that this is a complete stereotype, and it's far more common for the elderly to be more set in their ways and resistant to new ways of thinking than other groups. This is, of course, a generalization, but as a person with a background in the sciences I can tell you that most changes in scientific thinking didn't come about because of some bold new theory or because some visionary led the way--it's usually been because all the people who backed the old way of thinking died off. The debate over particle physics comes to mind, but there are many, many more.

My point is that Broder seems to have missed the past fifteen years of history, and he still thinks that the two sides are 1) willing to reconsider their ideologies and 2) that bipartisanship is an inevitable good. How do we fix the ideological gulf in this country? More talking, of course, among political elites! This is all just so sad that I feel bad laughing at the guy. He came from a time and place when both of those notions were true, and now they're pretty clearly not. But at least there's a decent excuse for why he says this stuff--he's stuck in his ways. The question is, what's the rest of the media's excuse?

Friday, October 1, 2010

No, Mike, the Blue Dogs really suck (a digressive post)

Mike Tomasky's recent blogging has been pretty erratic, especially this:
Politically speaking, let's face it, the best possible outcome from these elections for Obama is that the Democrats hold the House by a narrow margin, and the Blue Dogs D's have more power, which means no more big liberal legislation, which means he can maybe recapture the middle again by 2012. Unfortunately the middle in this country today is well to the right of where it was 15 years ago, let alone 30. But that's another subject and a longer battle, one liberals have obviously been losing for a long time.
I do not think any of this is true at all, and it makes me wonder if Mark Penn is guestblogging over there.

The reality is that big liberal legislation is not going to happen because, if the Democrats win, they will only hold the House by a few votes. The Blue Dogs will make the balance here, but that's sort of the situation already, and the relative proportion of conservative Democrats is likely to actually go down, even factoring in the expected losses. Nancy Pelosi got two votes more than she needed for health care reform despite having a nearly 80-seat majority, so it's impossible to imagine any major legislation occurring in the next Congress. Conversely, if the Republicans gain control of the House, it will likely be by less than ten seats, and successfully pushing the sort of highly ideological agenda they're envisioning (complete with government shutdowns!) seems equally as unlikely. Independents are leaning Republican due to the state of the economy and frustration with Congress. They still hate the GOP. How long will they tolerate that sort of nonsense? Probably not long, I would think.

This is not to mention the state of the Senate--one would hope that recent events would make every Democratic Senator realize the need to reform that institution's rules, but considering how image-obsessed and process-fixated most Democrats seem to be I highly doubt the bare Democratic Senate majority will muster up the will to stand up to the barrage of FNC/Limbaugh/Drudge attacks on the "Liberal power grab in defiance of the public will" blah blah blah. You just know it will happen, and considering they can't even stick together to vote for tax cuts on the middle class (!) I don't think the other thing is going to happen. The right time to reform these rules is at the beginning of a new presidential administration when the media will be obsessed over pageantry, cabinet choices, and so forth. Nancy Pelosi pushed through some pretty significant House procedural reforms of a similar magnitude during the Obama transition and nobody even noticed or cared. So maybe we shoot for 2013 for Senate reform? Perhaps. Especially if Obama treats Mitt Romney to the thorough ass-whipping that I wholly expect he will.

As for "capturing the middle", Obama's real problem is that a lot of Democrats are disengaged from the election. Some of those self-identify as independents, of course, which is why it's stupid to use centrist and independent interchangeably. But has the center really moved to the right in the last few decades? The Republicans certainly have moved to the right, but I haven't seen much evidence that what people actually believe has. If you define the center as "equidistant between what the two parties profess to stand for" then maybe this is right. If you define it as "those things that voters look for in a candidate" or "what assumptions voters make about the economy and social issues" then I think not. In fact, I think that the average American now is a lot more skeptical of free market politics than was the case during the Reagan era or, indeed, even five years ago. In fact, I suspect that Republican victories this year are part of the same phenomenon that propelled some very liberal Democrats to victory in the 1974 and 1976 elections, despite the public developing a huge conservative streak that had let Nixon win a big landslide in 1972--a crummy economy (and Watergate) led people to take out their frustration with the party in power, but after the dust settled, the mistrust in government that Watergate fostered played right into Reagan's hands. The fallout from the Wall Street collapse isn't all apparent yet, and many Democrats (Blue Dogs particularly) don't know how to channel it. But someone will. I still think that 2008 was the beginning of the end of laissez-faire, but that never meant that the transition would be smooth.

In any event, the whole post is pretty stupid. I'm not going to go the full DeMint and say that I'd rather have 20 real Democrats than a majority of sell-outs but, honestly, to see these people take such a weak-ass and out-of-touch stance on middle class tax cuts has admittedly radicalized me to the point where I think it's time to curb the Blue Dogs' influence. They seem to combine the worst of all possible worlds--the limited imagination and vision of moderate Republicans like Olympia Snowe and Sue Collins, the deficit hawk fraudulence and corporate ownership of conservative Republicans, and the fear and insecurity of much of the Democratic establishment. They're like a Frankenstein of fail. I can't think of the last time a major initiative or debate was headed by a Blue Dog, and that's not counting their antecedents in the DLC and the New Democrat Coalition. As far as the argument that we need them to hold the majority, my local Congressman right now is Jerry McNerney, a mainstream/progressive Democrat who has voted with the Democrats on all the big things in this Congress despite being in a classic swing district. He's facing a close race but he's got a good chance of sticking around, and my activities for OFA have introduced me to a lot of people who are grateful that he stood up for their priorities and are spending a lot of time trying to keep him in office. You're telling me that those people would even bother doing anything if he'd done the typical Blue Dog thing and voted against HCR and cap-and-trade? And without enthusiastic volunteers, what chance does any politician have?

The State of Israel

This is almost certainly true, though the last line makes the point too broadly:
Since the 2002 intifada, the Israeli polity has been experiencing an extended freakout akin to America's post-9/11 freakout, and Netanyahu is Israel's George W. Bush. It's naive to assume that Netanyahu is merely making a series of tactical errors in pursuit of a benevolent goal. It's equally naive to assume the same about the Palestinians.
Chait doesn't mention when Arafat walked away from Bill Clinton's peace negotiations in 2000. Was it because the right of return was so important to him, as he said? Or was it because Ehud Barak put his neck on the line for peace and Arafat knew he'd be able to take him down by walking away from the talks, thereby discrediting the Labor/Meretz peace faction in Israeli politics and ushering in a Likud government that would make a much more villainous foil for Arafat to use to enhance his personal power? Or at least to distract talk of his taking relief dollars and sending them to support the lifestyle of his high-living wife in Paris? There's a certain logic to this. It doesn't mean that actual Palestinians don't want peace, but knowing what I know about Arafat this level of cynicism is hardly excessive.

Chait has plenty of ideas I disagree with in his posts on Israel/Palestine, but I do feel like he does want what is best for Israel and America and he isn't completely blind to what's going on in the world. This sets him up from most self-stated pro-Israel writers. At he definitely brings up important issues in his writing.

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.