Saturday, October 30, 2004
Everyone has seen or heard about the OBL tape, I'm sure. The real question that has us all in a tizzy is what the political impact will be. The conventional wisdom seems to be that any mention of terrorism or OBL helps Bush. It could certainly turn out this way, but it doesn't necessarily have to. Kerry has a real opportunity to damage Bush by reminding voters that the only reason Osama is still around to threaten them is W's incompetence. There is already a latent frame in place on this issue- such an attack dovetails nicely with the pre-existing Democratic critique. The fumbling at Tora Bora and the distraction of Iraq, the deliberate displacement of Osama for Saddam, the failure to adequate support homeland security- all of these points could be reinforced if Kerry uses the Osama reappearance to his advantage. So this event need not undermine Kerry's candidacy. In fact, it could clinch it.
In 1980, Reagan secured the Presidency when he asked Americans a simple queston: are you better off now than you were four years ago? The answer was obvious, and Carter was defeated. Kerry has a similar opportunity. The new question is: are you safer now than you were two years ago? The answer to both of these questions is the same, and both remind the voters of how the incumbent president has failed them. Bush has had over three years since 9/11 to make America more secure. Even if we spot him an extra year to get his policies in place, he has still failed. We are in as much danger, if not more
danger, than we were. There is only one place to allocate the responsibility. This is what we used to call in high school debate a decision rule: a principle that can be used for weighing arguments. Kerry has the chance now to enunciate one, and to provide hesitant voters with the rationale they are looking for. Let's hope he does so.
In Search of a Mandate
Friday, October 29, 2004
I have said repeatedly that Kerry is going to win this election. What I have not talked about it is what we do after he wins. We need to think about this now, because what Kerry says in the last few days of the election has an impact. The most effective Presidents have been the ones who have enunciated a clear agenda before the election and then attempted to implement that agenda after they have won. A lot of candidates avoid specific policy arguments because they think it might lose them the election. But if they don't, they win an election and have no way to govern.
Kerry has wisely made Bush's incompetence the centerpiece of his closing campaign. He needs to take that message and permute it into a positive agenda. I would describe this agenda as a "Restoration"- a restoration of the Clinton policies: fiscal discipline, international cooperation, and an emphasis on human capital investments. The looming fiscal and currency crises have to be confronted without gutting what is left of the social safety net. These issues not only have to be dealt with on the merits, but they are issues that provide and opening the opposition.
I think that, properly structured, this agenda could attract the support of Republicans in Congress. Not the leadership, of course, but the moderates. He should include people like McCain, Shays and the sort in his policy-making process. He should cultivate the few moderate Republicans in the House and Senate. Doing so will enable us to forge a working majority whatever the results on election night. The radcons are going to go ballistic on Kerry, but I think that the mods might be ready to have some influence in the political process again after being treated like bastard step-children the last few years. Right-wing extremism might be a positive benefit in driving the mods toward us. This is not only a reasonable legislative strategy, it will probably attract positive media coverage, send a message that Kerry wants a "national unity government," and also start a civil war in the Republican party. (The last will be a great show- I'll bring the popcorn)
Presidents are most influential with Congress the first few months of their term- they usually get the first couple of things they ask for. Kerry can and should push for his modest health care plan. But his primary emphasis should be on policies in which there is significant overlap between liberals, centrists, and reasonable Republicans. This is not only justifiable on policy grounds, it is also good politics. We can rally a political majority behind sane government and marginalize the extreme right. Which is where they belong.
On an unrelated note, I want it on the record that I never liked Rudy Giuliani.
Where Are We?
Thursday, October 28, 2004
All non-election topics are going to have to be postponed until after November 2nd. In the current climate, no one will read them anyway. But I do have a series of posts cooking about the intellectual foundations of conservativism: libertarianism, fundamentalism, neoliberalism, and corporatism. I also am going to write about objectivism, and what I think a sane conservatism would look like. And any other -isms I can think of.
As for the election, I have waded through the mass of stories in an attempt to discover what the dynamics of this race are in the last week. The first question is, who has the issues advantage? On the level of political debate, it appears Kerry has been advantaged by the story of the missing 380 pounds of explosives. His campaign should be able to tie this to the general pattern of Republican incompetence, but it is crucial that Kerry segues it back to domestic policy. That is the Democrat's bread and butter. Reminding voters of what is wrong with our economy and health care system is crucial if we are to win the "security moms." It's hard to tell how long the explosives story will last. The Bushies are spinning as fast as they can, but is unclear as of yet that they will be effective. But as long as the story keeps going, Bush will be unable to communicate his message.
There have been a ton of articles about the behavior of major constituencies. Are religious voters and white males falling away from Bush? Will Kerry do as well as he needs to with Blacks, Women, and Jews? The best guess is that there will be surprises and these groups will vote as they always have. But you never know, which is giving everyone acid reflux.
Where is the electoral college? Almost all of the national tracking polls show a tight race, with perhaps a slight movement in Kerry's direction. At the state level, there has been a lot of discussion about Hawaii and New Jersey, but we see this every year. There is a wacky poll in a state and everyone freaks out, and on election day the state performs just like we all thought it would in the first place. I expect the same to happen this time. Among the key battlegrounds, it looks like Kerry is ahead in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and has a chance in Colorado and Arkansas (I'm not sure if I believe the last). Meanwhile, Bush seems to be overperforming in Wisconsin and Iowa, which is worrisome. Florida is tight again. Who knows where that state is going?
The Democrats appear more worried about election fraud than Bush. The Bush campaign is actively engaged in voter suppression. A lot of Dems think that Kerry can't rely on Florida because Jeb will find a way to steal it. The fact that the Republicans are trying to project the voter fraud issue onto Democrats is only more confirming evidence that their key strategy is to keep blacks and new voters from voting. There is also the question about the voting machines. Scary stuff.
Perhaps neutralizing this phenomenon, and partly explaining it, is the question of Democratic turnout. All the polls suggest that turnout will be very high, and that the increased turnout will favor Democrats. There is extraordinary anti-Bush sentiment, and new voters appear to share it. If turnout, particularly minority and youth turnout, reaches record levels, it will certainly give Kerry the national popular vote. The question is, will it be enough to win the electoral college? If the spread is more than a point or so, I would say the electoral college is safe. Any less and things get dicey.
Finally, will there be an October Suprise? There is an "Al Quaeda" message that ABC is sitting on which looks suspicious. Will they publish it? I would guess that this missive will evantually get released- there will be too much pressure from Fox & Co., who will advance the story. There will then be another terror warning. I'm not sure if it will really have any impact, though- they've cried wolf one time too many.
So, as I began, where are we? It looks like Kerry has a bit of an edge. The Republicans are relying on distraction and voter suppression to cancel out high Democratic turnout and an issues advantage. Hmm. No wonder they look a little desperate.
Well I'll Be Damned.
Wednesday, October 27, 2004
This just goes to show that anything can happen. And usually will. Particularly this year. If the Boston Red Sox can come back from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Yankees on the road, and then go on to sweep the World Series and end the curse, then I can believe anything.
My posting has been a bit erratic the last few days. I am in the process of moving (great timing, I know). Oddly enough for such an intense race, there really hasn't been much specific to comment on. The outlines of the contest are basically set. All that is left is the GOTV. If there is going to be an October Surprise, then the hour grow late.
There is one article I think people should read. Paul Waldman
has been writing some interesting stuff over at the Gadflyer about the nature of American identity. There is this belief out there that the only "real" america is that of the South and Midwest. This is the latest manifestion of the old Jeffersonian anti-urbanism. I've spoken before about what usually defines the heartland- the area that is the center of economic, cultural, and political power. In the U.S., that is the greater New York metro area. For some reason, we have decided that the hinterland is the location of the real America. Like many Jeffersonian ideals, the principle is far removed from the reality, and is in some sense counterproductive.
I would like to tie Waldman's conversation about the real America with my earlier posts about the South. For most of American history, the South was "other." Somehow in the last generation it has become mainstreamed. The role of the old midwest (rural AND industrial) as the psychological home of the nation has been replaced by the most abberant region in the country. I'm not entirely sure how this transformation took place.
But we as liberals must begin a real effort to re-define what it is to be American. A large portion of politics is a question of definitions, and unfortunately that usually means defining yourself against some other group: whether it be Communists, Britain, Liberals, Cities, Slaveholders, Blacks, whatever. For Democrats, the OTHER is generally corporations. For Republicans, it is Liberals. What is lacking for us is a systematic attack on our other, and a coherent, positive statement of who we are.
One of the oldest questions in U.S. history is who "we" are. At first that included only Protestant men of English descent. Over time our notion of American cultural identity has steadily expanded to include many different religions and ethnic groups. Only African-Americans and Native-Americans have been consistently marginalized for their own special reasons (and even in the former I think there has been significant process in the last generation). Now since the old right-wing trick of elites is to play the proles off against eachother, the right has had to find some new groups to demonize. Immigrant-bashing is a loser politically because of the growing hispanic vote. Oppressing Muslim-Americans hasn't exactly helped them either. So they have decided to quit the pretenses and just come after us.
So we are left with the obligation to respond in kind. They are the ones who are representing values that most Americans reject. They are the ones who are outside of the mainstream. Our notion of "we" are the people at the bottom eighty percent. The people who worry about their futures and that of their children. The people who know what it is to suffer. We are the REAL America. And we should never let them forget it.
Tuesday, October 26, 2004
I am going to let it all hang out and give my official predictions for the Presidential election in a week. Hopefully any errors I make will be on the pessimistic side.
There are two basic strategies for calling this race. The first method is to look at national-level polling results and then apply those numbers to the state based on the 2000 results. So if Gore won a state by 1%, but Kerry does 2% better than Gore nation-wide, then we can estimate that Kerry will win by 3%. This is a historically-oriented model.
The second method would be to look at the state polls, and apply what we know about the nature of undecideds and the specific dynamics of this race to come up with an electoral college vote. I am not going to use this method, not only because it is very time consuming, but also because a) there is an underlying partisan structure to elections, and b) the state polls can be wildly divergent and unreliable. Also, I just don't know enough about the state polls to speak intelligently about them.
Okay, the major national polls are of two basic types: structural polls and horse race polls. Structural polls treat the election as a referendum on the incumbent, while horse race polls look at the current spread between the candidates. The structural polls are presidential approval, right-track/wrong-track, and generic re-elect numbers. The former has had Bush with average numbers around 49%- not so good. What is more revealing are the right track numbers, which average about 41% (Yikes!). Well over fifty percent view the country as going in the wrong direction, which always spells trouble for an incumbent. (The real question, how can the same voter think the President is doing an okay job AND that the country is going down the crapper?) A lot of pollsters think the key poll is the re-elect number ("do you think the President deserves to be re-elected?), which as best I can tell is about 46%, a number that crops up again later.
The horserace numbers can be analyzed one of two ways. If you are just comparing the two candidates, then Bush is right in this thing. The average of the major polls has Bush leading among likely voters by 2 points, 48-46. Among registered voters, it is a dead heat at 46%. On the other hand, since this is not an open seat race but a race with an incumbent President, I am going to employ a referendum model: Bush's numbers are the decisive ones. If we assume that the registered voter model is a better one (I expect Democratic turnout to be high) and that undecideds will break, say, 2-1 for Kerry, then it looks like Bush is going to lose 51-48, for a three-point Kerry victory.
The next step is to come up with an estimate of the electoral college vote. Here all I am going to do is add 2 points to Gore's margin in 2000. This means that I expect that Kerry will win all the states that Gore won, for a total of 260 electoral college votes. Adding three percentage points to Gore's numbers would flip Florida, New Hampshire into the Democratic column. I think Kerry could very well out-perform Gore in North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada. I think he will do worse in Tennessee, for obvious reasons. I am also going to give Kerry Ohio, even though this violates by basic method. Gore withdrew from Ohio while Kerry is hotly contesting it. And my gut just tells me that Kerry is going to take that state.
When you add New Hampshire, Florida, and Ohio to Gore's states, we have a grand total of 311 electoral votes (to Bush's 227). This is an underperforming electoral vote, since the electoral college tends to magnify the margin of the winner, but there you have it. It is still more than enough to win.
So my official prediction: Kerry wins 51-48 in the nationwide popular vote, and carries the electoral college 311-227. I am fully prepared to eat my share of crow come November 3rd. I just don't want to. I don't like crow.
The Election DOES Matter
Sunday, October 24, 2004
I have long had ambiguous feelings about William Grieder. Back when I was a little more of a neoliberal, I thought he was a nut job. The radicalism of the Bush Administration has pushed me a little closer in his direction, but I never thought I would become more
alarmist than he is. But here we are. In the Nation
, Greider suggests that the stakes of this election really don't matter that much. I couldn't disagree more.
The thrust of Greider's article seems to be that Kerry has not been sufficiently liberal. According to Greider, Kerry's moderate campaign has ducked the big issues like trade and the deficit. Furthermore, Greider expects that there is going to be a major meltdown in the next four years, so the winner of the 2004 election might be swallowing a poison pill.
I believe Greider's analysis is fundamentally mistaken. Kerry's moderation is the essence of his appeal. Kerry is the most liberal Presidential nominee since at least Walter Mondale. Who do want, Howard Zinn? Everyone knows that swing voters must be persuaded, and you can't do that with chicken little impersonations. The object is to win the election, remember?
The center-left character of Kerry's campaign also explains why this election must be won. We are not talking about the details of policy here. We are talking about the basic character of our democracy. This is the most radical, incompetent, and undemocratic administration in the history of the Republic. Kerry is the champion of moderate democracy in the face of extreme politics. A Bush victory will indicate that the U.S. republic is likely in its death throes. All right-thinking advocates of popular government must rally to Kerry. He is the last, best defense we have.
I made the mistake four years ago of trying to console myself with the possibility of a Gore defeat by thinking perhaps four years in the wilderness would provide the jolt needed to organize the Democratic Party. I was right, but at what cost? Who the President is matters. The future is not set- we have the capacity to shape. A wise steward could do a great deal to alleviate our present problems and avoid future ones.
The negative consequences of another Bush term are almost too great to contemplate. The superstructure of our democracy will continue be be torn down while its foundation continues to erode. If there is a financial crisis in the next four years, do you really want them to be the ones managing it? And I think there is a possibility that we could avoid the crisis, given responsible leadership. Another Bush presidency, however, would virtually guarantee a fiscal disaster. And how many lives might we save in Iraq by getting out sooner rather than later? How much more hated will America be in the world after "four more years." How little credibility will the U.S. have if our electorate re-appoints such a patently awful President
This election is about keeping faith. Keeping faith with ourselves, our democracy, with the truth, and with the world. This is an election we must and will win.
Giving Credit Where It Is Due
In the American Prospect this month, Robert Kuttner
conducts an extensive survey of recent works on the relationship between religion and democracy. He comes out in favor of a robust secularism, citing Jefferson as an important historical and intellectual influence. Long-time readers will know that I am no particular fan of Jefferson- I have generally ended up on the Hamilton side of the historical ledger. But the issue of religious liberty is one where Jefferson spoke with real and consistent force. Jefferson was convinced deist and the author of the Virginia statutes on religious liberty. I believe he even coined the phrase "wall of separation." So I am going to give props to Jefferson for this.
Moving on to the substance of the piece...
Kuttner's article raises a couple of interesting points. First, while there are more avowed secularists in this country than ever before, secularism as a whole is at one of its historical low points in this country. Second, the political base of support for separating religion and politics in this country does not come from "freethinkers." It came from dissenting Protestants (Baptists, particularly) and Catholics who feared that mainline Protestantism would impose its views on them. This coalition held up for a very long time, but in recent years right-wing Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants have become the most active foes of separation. I am beginning to think that the alliance had less to do with theology ("give unto Caesar what is Caesar's", combined with the individualistic character of Protestantism) than with power. Perhaps the only reason they ever supported secularism is because they thought they would be the victims any state-sanctioned religion. These days they are likely to be the beneficiaries.
Liberal securalists should learn from this experience that they have few reliable allies among people of faith. Of course some religious folks believe as a matter of principle that church and state must be divided. But the greater part would abandon us if the balance of forces were to change. It reminds me of Palmerston's comment: "A nation has neither permanent allies nor permanent enemies, but permanent interests."
It is vital that we broker alliances with devoted people of faith who stand outside the conservative Catholic/fundamentalist Protestant coalition. Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews are logical places to look. We will only be able to do so if we aggressively challenge the legitimacy of mixing church and state. Respect people of faith, of course- that can only win us credibility with those we are trying to persuade while perhaps defusing the animosity directed at us by our enemies. But our potential allies will never join us if they do not realize that their interests are as much at stake as ours.
A Note On Energy
I apologize for being a little inconsistent on my posting. I have had major computer problems, but I think they may now be resolved. It's late and I'm watching the Red Sox-Yankees game (can you believe this?), so I will just write for a few minutes. I promise there will be a real post tomorrow.
I just read Kos's note on rising energy prices
. Like him, I have been worried about the effects of China and India's industrialization on the global energy market. By coincidence, I had a very interesting discussion with an engineer for a manufacturing company tonight. He claimed that his company wastes enormous amounts of water and natural gas. They are deliberately wasteful because there is absolutely no incentive to conserve. This was a shocking statement highlighting the irresponsibility of corporate america and U.S. environmental policy. On the other hand, it was a very hopeful piece of information. If we can re-structure the incentives, perhaps we can squeeze enough efficiency out of the system to buy us time. Time we need to shift to a more sustainable environmental and energy policy.
Of course, at the same table someone said that the research on ocean currents indicates that climate change is so far advanced that we're all screwed. Sigh.
Learning From Conservatives
Saturday, October 23, 2004
Today I'm going to wrap up my discussion of conservative political philosophy. If the number of hits is any indication, people are tired of it anyway :)
If conservative ideas are so bankrupt, why have I wasted so much time on them? There are a couple of reasons. First, we now have a bunch of ready-made arguments to use whenever we meet one of these people. If you get into an argument with a right-winger, you pin down what sort he is pretty quickly if you ask the right questions. If he or she is "generic" conservative, you can have plenty of fun pointing out the contradiction. Beyond mere debating points, there is always the possibility you could persuade someone. I had a pseudo-libertarian friend that I hammered away at for years. Finally he turned into a good liberal democrat. (Hi Steve!)
These arguments are not just for debating, however. In strategic terms, it always helps to know your enemy. Having grown up in the deep South surrounded by conservative ideas, I feel I have a pretty strong grasp of the nature of my opponent. Sympathy and understanding does not mean you approve of a school of thought, but it sure helps figure out how to fight. In short, "know your enemy."
Finally, the flaws in conservative thinking provide instructive guidance of liberals. There are perfectly valid concerns that animate modern conservatism, concerns we should address if we are to fashion a new majority. Some might think that all the intellectual stuff is just mumbo-jumbo, but I think that ideas are the horse that pulls the political cart. If you read E.J. Dionne's Why Americans Hate Politics, you can see how intellectual debates rooted in real-world concerns paved the way for the conservative ascendancy. We have to take the intellectual challenge seriously if we are to prevail.
We need to learn from conservatism. Each form of conservatism has its potential contribution. Libertarians have an honorable commitment to personal freedom, and its errors warn us to beware of ideologies that do not carefully examine the consequences of their policies. Cultural traditionalists teach us about the power of nostalgia. It also suggests to us that our new modern world may not be as friendly to communal values that we hold dear. There may be a hard price to pay for our new world. Its intolerance also teaches us that we should never subscribe so wholeheartedly to our ideals that we exclude the views of others.
Corporatism demonstrates the dangers of intellectual rigidity. Just because something worked in the old days does not mean it will work now. Substantively, corporatism does have a valuable pro-growth focus. Liberals have been so concerned about distribution that we have taken prosperity for granted. This was perhaps permissible when the U.S. was in a position of unquestioned economic hegemony, but today we face many new challenges. A new liberalism need to devise a developmental strategy something like that of the Federalists and Whigs if we are to adapt to new economic conditions. This challenge will be much greater than in the earlier era given the detachment of the elite and division of corporate interests from that of the body politic, but it is a challenge we must meet if we are to preserve the American middle class.
Finally, neoconservatism has an admirable belief in the importance of spreading democracy and a useful respect for the importance of power in foreign affairs. But, like libertarianism, their methods are self-defeating. Neocons are probably right in asserting that a world of capitalist democracies provides the best avenue for U.S. security. They are wrong in their assumption that this world can be created by force, or that this vision will be consistent with U.S. dominance. Liberalism mus work out its own method of broadening the circle of democratic nations while accepting the limitations of our own strength. We must work with the democratic nations, and yes, lead them, but we cannot expect unquestioning obedience. We must use democratic means to achieve democratic ends.
What do all these conservatism have in common. They are all somewhat simple-minded, and do not have the intellectual rigor required of a genuine public philosophy. Conservatism is the ideology of intellectual fundamentalism. Each one takes an important idea and pursues it to the point of absurdity, neglecting every other consideration. It is this characteristic which both makes conservatism an intellectual failure and gives it such rhetorical force. The right is very good at constructing an argument because they have a simple idea to express. We liberals have a much tougher task because we appreciate the complexities of life. This is another hurdle we must overcome. I think we can. We have done so in the past. We just need to do the work.
But we can take out of the failure of conservative thought important lessons. A new liberalism must have a fair regard to individual liberty, particularly in ways of life which we dislike (you may not approve of guns or smoking or McMansions, but they are essential to others). We must create room for small town life in what is primarily an urban vision of the future. We must work out a coherent strategy for economic development rather than just re-distribution. We must devise a foreign policy that advances democracy without over-extension or backlash. And we must integrate these changes into a liberalism which can be enunciated clearly and speaks to deeply held aspirations. We need a New Liberalism.
The historic role of liberalism has been to adapt our core egalitarian convictions to historic change. We must transcend the liberalism of 1960 and 1980 because those eras are past. We need new solutions, or need to adapt old ones to the new circumstances. And as everyone now knows, we need to learn how to talk about the problems and our solutions in comprehensible ways. It is to this task I will turn in the following days.
Are the Election Forecasters Right?
Friday, October 22, 2004
I just got my copy of P.S. in the mail. This month the primary focus in the Presidential election, and it includes the official predictions of the most prominent election forecasters. Here are the results, with key variables included:
Abramowitz: approval ratings, GDP growth, length of time party has held the white house. Result = 53.7% for Bush. (Boo!)
Campbell: Labor Day trial heat poll, GDP growth. Result = 53.8% Bush. (Boo!)
Wlezien & Erikson: leading economic indicators, presidential approval, trial heats ( all of these are modified over the course of the year- and the LEI's, approval, and trial heats are all going downhill right now as far as Bush is concerned). Result = 51.7% to 52.9% for Bush. (Boo!)
Holbrook: perception of personal finance (weighted by economic news), presidential approval. Result = 54.5% for Bush. (Boo!)
Lewis-Beck & Tien: presidential approval, GNP growth interacted with incumbency, incumbency advantage, employment growth. Result = 50.1% for Kerry. (Yeah!)
Lockerbie: consumer perceptions of future economy, incumbent party has held white house 2 terms or more. Result = 57.6% for Bush. (Boo!)
Norpoth: primary vote for 2 candidates in New Hampshire, long-term partisan balance, electoral cycle (similar to whether then incumbent party has held the white house for 2 terms or more). Result = 54.7% for Bush. (Boo!)
So of 7 predictions, all but one thinks Bush will win comfortably. This is a little disconcerting (Boo!), so let's dig a little deeper, shall we? If you look carefully you should notice some things.
Almost all of these models use presidential approval and economic numbers. Both of these measurements are suspect. First, everyone uses the Gallup poll because it has been around forever and allows for intercomparability over time. Anyone who has paid attention to the last 2 cycles or read Ruy Teixeira's blog should know all about the problems with Gallup. As for the economic data, GDP is very unreliable these days because of the change in distribution. It used to be that a rising tide lifted all boats. Now GDP growth has a much weaker relationship to personal income or job growth- 3/4 or corporate revenue growth has gone to profits, not wage increases or new hires. So as a political indicator, GDP growth is dead, dead, dead. And you should note that the only model which takes employment into account shows a very narrow Bush defeat.
Finally, forecasting models are notoriously bad at capturing non-systematic events. Economics and popularity play a role in every election. But war, scandal, etc. are difficult to operationalize as numbers, and are not consistent influences from one election to the next. Political scientists hope these sorts of phenomena are captured by approval ratings, but now we are stuck with an unreliable measure of presidential approval.
So take these predictions with a pound of salt. Let's give these guys a break, though. There are all good people tackling a very difficult job with daring. It's just that I don't know anyone who really believes Bush is going to win 54-46 except maybe Bush.
is disgusting. These people are desperate and pathetic and have no place in a democracy. They should all be in jail. I have had it.
Who Will Check the Fact-Checkers?
Thursday, October 21, 2004
I watched the Lehrer News Hour last night, still the best news show on American TV. One of the segments was an interview with the prominent fact-checkers, who casually asserted that all politicians are liars. The guy from ABC claimed that there was a major imbalance in lies between the two candidates earlier in the campaign, but Kerry's recent statements about the draft, social security, and the flu have made him as gross a deceiver as Bush.
Part of me suspects that the reason ABC has said this is so they can cover their tracks. A week or so ago, Mark Halperin caught a lot of flak for stating the obvious: the political press should not create an artificial balance when there is in reality no such balance. What? The media should call a politician for distorting his opponent's record? What a concept! So the ABC reporter could have been trying to ease the right wing criticism by caving into their demands, i.e. asserting Kerry is as big a liar as Bush.
But let's just assume that the press isn't being a bunch of cowards (sure), but does in fact believe that Kerry is distorting Bush's positions and using scare tactics. Is this belief accurate? Let's tackle these accusations one at a time.
The Kerry campaign is claiming that Bush's Social Security Plan, which he will propose in January, will lead to a massive benefit cut. Now Bush has never said that he would cut benefits, so the press asserts that Kerry is distorting Bush's position. The Kerry explanation is that Bush has never mentioned how he intends to finance the transition of his plan, so there has to be big benefit cuts to pay for it. This looks suspiciously like the Republican claim that Democrats will have to raise taxes to pay for their programs, so I can see how the media could fall into a he-said/she-said scenario. However, there is an important difference between the Social Security and Tax Issues. There is now documented evidence that Bush is going to push privatization, and Kerry has said that if there isn't enough revenue for his policies, he will reduce the programs rather than raise taxes. So it appears that there is a difference between the two accusations, with the advantage clearly going to Kerry.
This is a very similar scenario to the that of Social Security. Bush has said over and over that he wants to preserve the all-volunteer force and doesn't want a draft. Kerry argues that Bush's policies will inevitably lead to a draft whatever the denials from the administration. So like with Social Security, Kerry is reading things into the Bush plan. However, Kerry has a concrete solution: to expand the current military by doubling the number of special forces, adding 2 new divisions He also wants to ease the burden on U.S. troops already deployed by bringing international troops into Iraq, accelerating the training of Iraqis, and closing the Iraqi border. The Bush strategy: keep doing what we are doing and hope for the best. Given the current Pentagon plans for a draft, and the patent overstretch of the military, there is certainly some evidence to believe a draft might be coming. Even if we take Bush on faith (always dangerous), his policy of pre-emption and targetting states that support terrorism certainly heightens the probability of more wars.
So is Kerry using scare tactics? Is he distorting Bush's record? Maybe a little bit, but there is certainly reason to doubt the administration's veracity on this issue.
The Kerry claim is that the irresponsibility of the President is threatening the health (and possibly lives) of the American people. The fact-checkers can say that the administration certainly wants to give more immunities, but there just isn't any vaccine available. So Kerry is just harping on this to make points, right? Wrong again. What Kerry is claiming is that Bush's lack of planning, fealty to drug companies, and resistance to real health care reform has led to an avoidable situation. So the press is clearly mistaken in saying Kerry is lying here.
So what is the score? One issue where there is a substantial justification for the Kerry attack (Social Security), one where there is a plausible reason with ambiguous evidence (Draft), and one where he is clearly in the right (Flu).
The Republicans? They have asserted that Kerry is the most liberal member of the Senate, is a flip-flopper, has voted against the troops, didn't deserve his medals, wanted to gut the defense and intelligence budgets, has no plan for Iraq or the War on Terror, will encourage terrorist attacks in the U.S., will give France a veto over our foreign policy, will raise middle class taxes, outed Mary Cheney, is sponsoring a government takeover of health care, etc. They have also said that Bush has not opposed importing drugs from Canada, is fully funding veteran's benefits & the No Child Left Behind Act, that the majority of his tax cuts were to the middle class, has not restricted civil liberties, among other things. All of these statements are indisputably lies.
So fact-checkers, get a spine and do your job.
Take a look at the interview with George Lakoff
in the Washington Monthly. This is great stuff- Lakoff is right on the money. It's very much in line with what I've been saying on this weblog, but Lakoff puts it in very succint and specific terms. Lakoff makes the crucial tie between building an organizational infrastructure and articulating a compelling political message. He also understand the importance of political symbolism- we shouldn't just be rattling off policy proposals.
I do differ with Lakoff on some points. Substance continues to be important because
of its rhetorical import. To be in favor of small business, local communities, and greater political participation are policy positions, but they have symbolic effects as well. By changing some of our political means, we can persuade voters that our ends are appropriate. Lakoff himself notes that Democrats have the natural political majority when it comes to policy. One of our strategies should be to emphasize substance in order to highlight Bush & Co.'s hypocrisy and deceit.
Also, I think it is a mistake to jettison the DLC. No, we should not sell out the corporations. But these people are intelligent, committed Democrats with a lot interesting policy proposals. Our aim should be to broaden our coalition, not start chopping off pieces of it.
Despite these criticisms, Lakoff sounds like required reading. Which is why I am going to go out and buy is book this week. If people are interested, I'll write a more comprehensive book review after I've done so.
The Southern Question, Part III
Tuesday, October 19, 2004
For those of you are interested in such things :) Kerry has retaken the lead in the electoral college and Bush's weekend mini-surge is apparently over. If it ever existed. The sky is not falling after all.
To return to my topic of the last few days.......
Yesterday I spoke in some vague generalities about how to cope with neo-fascism/Calhounism in the South. Today I want to get into specifics. In the past Democrats have relied on positioning in an attempt to move from social to economic issues. I think this approach failed because we failed to craft an overarching message that was compelling to working class Southerners. Issue statements are stale, dead things. It is necessary to animate those issues with a moving spirit- with a unifying set of themes.
I have argued that we should tar Bush and his cronies as un-American. Americans do not smear each other's reputations, impose their religious beliefs on others, shout down people who disagree with them, suppress the vote, throw people in jail without a trial, invade other countries, or deliberately wreck people's middle class aspirations. We do not stomp on the poor or unlucky or unpopular. I think most Americans, even our opponents, would concur with these basic sentiments. we have not always lived up to that noble vision of ourselves, but we have always pursued that vision. It is the America that we want to be, which in many ways is more important than any America that is.
How is it the Calhounites have made so much progress in the face of their underlying unpopularity? The biggest reason is that they 1) distract the voters and 2)misrepresent their and our positions. Everyone should have heard by now how uninformed most voters are about where the 2 candidates really stand. I think another method is that the Calhounites have simply mis-labelled themselves. The modern right calls itself conservative, when it is anything but. What is conservative about big deficits and imperialism? By claiming the name "conservative," the right has laid claim to an important and valuable American political tradition. We should strip them of that title- we should never, ever call them conservatives. I will try not to do so myself.
By basic argument is that we as liberal Democrats need to tie ourselves to the elements of U.S. history worth claiming. We need to rhetorically isolate our enemies. Hamilton & Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, the Roosevelts...these leaders are all ours. We will leave them with the racists and demagogues that they have emulated. We need to speak in very specific terms about where they intend to take the country. We must identify the America their policies are going to create- we must unmask them. Their vision of the future is so repugnant that I think most Americans will recoil in horror.
This strategy is targetted at the one part of the country that has always been the most benighted and poorly led, the South. We must go South, not at the head of armies, but armed with a message of renewal. White southerners have for far too long been deceived and impoverished. But this also means that we must take seriously the cultural values of Southerners- small towns, tradition, faith. Is there anything really wrong with these things? What is wrong with creating a space in America for this sort of life, as long as doing so does not compromise other visions?
My approach is partly substantive- Democrats need to reconsider our adherence to federal government bureaucracies, and treat small businesses with more consideration. But the main thrust is rhetorical. Democrats have failed to define ourselves or our opponents, so the right has done so for us. Liberals have to construct a narrative which speaks to the very real concerns of working class Americans, North and South.
The Southern Question, Part II
Monday, October 18, 2004
Yesterday I wrote about the difficulties posed for liberals by the Calhounist leadership of the American South. Today I want to discuss what we might do about it.
As Thomas Frank has pointed out, the class animosity of working class whites has been deflected to "cultural" issues rather than economic ones. This phenomenon is most common among white southerners. Clinton's proposed solution was to alleviate our problems stemming from social cleavages by moderating our positions on those issues as much as possible. By doing so, we could defuse the culture war and return to class politics, which naturally favors Democrats. This strategy was suggested as long ago as the 1960's by Ben Wattenberg. Clinton's effort failed for a number of reasons. Among these was Clinton's personal foibles, his failure to enunciate the "New Covenant" in a systematic and comprehensive way, the neglect of the Democratic Party's institutional apparatus and grass roots organizations, and the skill and determination of the "Republican Noise Machine" (David Brock's phrase).
The Clintonite strategy was aimed in large part at midwestern "Reagan Democrats," but also towards populist southern whites. This idea goes all the way back to the post-Reconstruction Populists. It failed then, and it has failed now. In part this is because the Democrats have fallen into a number of well-laid traps and stereotypes, but the cultural divisions are also very deep-seated and hard to overcome.
There is a similar example of a cultural divide in America, and this is the Catholic-Protestant split. It seems bizarre to say so today, but once anti-Catholic bigotry animated a large portion of the U.S. electorate. It went away in part because John Kennedy openly confronted it. He said it was simply anti-American. I think this is a good example for us.
The problem with Calhounism isn't just that it is mean-spirited, or oppressive, or simply wrong headed. It is also profoundly at variance with core American principles. Remember, Calhoun explicitly repudiated the Declaration of Independence. In a similar vein, the modern Calhounites have attacked Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, which are still almost universally supported by the voters. I believe we should follow Lincoln's instructive example- he tied himself tightly to American traditions and painted his opponents (Stephen Douglas and Jefferson Davis among them) as opponents of that tradition.
I believe that the problem of the South can only be met openly. We cannot win converts there by treating southern whites as lepers, or talking down to them. Doing so will only reinforce their present loyalties. No, we must finally, once and for all, divide the Calhounites from their political base by reminding white southerners that they are, first and foremost, Americans.
More in the morning.
The Southern Question, Part I
Sunday, October 17, 2004
I grew up in the South. I was born in South Carolina, and then lived in the Florida Panhandle, southern & western Georgia, and rural Tennessee. I didn't spend any real time in the North until I was 20 (I spent a year in D.C.), and it is only recently that I have really settled down here. Part of me will always be a Southerner. I think this background may help me understand what is going on down there in a way a lot of northern liberals can't. And it certainly has given me some insights into what the Republicans are like, and what they are capable of. You see, by all rights I should be one of them.
When I write about the South, I do so with some nostalgia and a great deal of sadness. When you read what I say below, I hope you remember that I do so "more in sorrow than in anger."
The legacy of slavery has bedevilled the United States throughout its history. Its effects have, of course, been felt largely in the South, where the institution was concentrated. But the consequences of slavery and its aftermath have distorted the entire history of this country. One could arge, as W.E.B. DuBois did, that the effects of slavery have been the chief obstacle to social justice in America.
You could say that the central challenge for liberals in this country is the South. If you set aside the South, liberals would have a large political majority. We would resemble very much our sister republics in Canada and Western Europe. But the existence of a "conservative" south has acted as a persistent break on social progress. Every time the left has attempted to advance social or economic justice, the conservatives in the North, who otherwise are in the minority, are able to win enough support in the South to block it.
The South is an obstacle to progressive change largely due to slavery. Because of slavery, the south became agrarian, and hence poor. As I have said many times, widespread poverty is no friend to democracy. Because of slavery, the white upper class has always been able to persuade poor whites to sabotage their own economic interests by pitting them against blacks or other unpopular minorities (jews, gays, catholics, immigrants, etc.). The agenda of this conservative political majority is very familiar: anti-urban, pro-corporate, pro-WASP, religious fundamentalism, imperialism, etc. The economic model is towards "extractive" growth (exporting natural resources), laissez-faire trading policies, and low-wage manufacturing by "creating a good business environment" (read: no unions, no regulation). Southern politics is characteristically viciously personal, elite-dominated, corrupt, and demagogic.
While the ideology and tactics of the southern right has remained essentially constant, its political tactics and party vehicles have changed. For the first sixty years of our history it tried with some success to dominate the Union from within (in the words of Shelby Foote), abetted by the 3/5 compromise. When this possibility was closed, the south sought secession. This effort failed, and the south spent a century as a political and economic backwater. It still provided crucial support to the Democratic Party, which remained its one avenue to power.
Everyone knows the story of what happened in the 1960's. The Democratic Party, which had captured the old liberal nationalist wing once so powerful in the Republican party, splintered on the shoals of civil rights for blacks. The South steadily re-aligned to the Republicans, and also came to dominate the Republican Party as thoroughly as it had dominated the Democrats before the civil war.
What we face to today is nothing less than the revival of Calhounism: the effort to "southernize" the country by mobilizing the South behind one political party, and then helping that party win a lock on political power. And we should remember that this southern leadership does not really serve the interests of its region: they have made the south poor, not rich. And the Calhounite leadership of the South has never had any real interest in preserving democratic institutions, respecting civil liberties, or even advancing growth. All that matters, all that has ever mattered, is accumulating socioeconomic and political power for the elite.
This group has always existed, but for most of U.S. history it was never able to get the reins of political power. The rest of the country would never stand for it. What has changed is that northern conservatism has been destroyed and permuted into southern conservatism. Old-line conservatives like Hamilton, Webster, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and even Taft were the hated rivals of the Calhouns, Davises, and Russells of the world. But that conservatism no longer exists. The South, led by Goldwater, Reagan, and now Bush, have re-molded to right along southern lines. And having done so, they now have within their sights the domination they always sought.
So when David Niewert
compares the contemporary Republican party to German and Italian Fascists, he is certainly on to something. But there is a closer example here at home: the white southern nationalist elite of the South. This is not a new enemy, it is a very old one in a new guise and with more power than ever.
We have identified the enemy, and he is mean. The problem is how to defeat him. I'll start writing about that tomorrow.
Something Other Than Debates, or Conservatives for Kerry
Friday, October 15, 2004
It seems that all I have been talking about lately is the debates. Which are now over. Now what do I do?
Well, I could critique George Will for his latest column
. Will smears the left as unprincipled and craven, but he does that all the time. Will is just beginning to bore me.
I could make fun of the latest suggestion that we should get rid of the electoral college
. But I have probably beaten that dead horse enough. All I have to say is: Dream On.
I could express irritation that the media is spending more time on the faux issue of Mary Cheney than the real issue of Bush's lie about the importance of Osama bin Laden.
Or I could tell you about my being threatened at gunpoint yesterday. I'm still a little freaked out by it, though. And I really can't see how it relates to politics.
Instead, I want to write about conservatives. Lately, several self-described conservatives are expressing doubts about whether they are going to vote for Bush again. Bob Barr (!), Andrew Sullivan
, Robert George
and others look like they might vote for Kerry, or at least won't vote for Bush.
I can think of several reasons why conservatives might be hesitant about voting for Bush. They fall into three major categories: competence, process, and substance. In terms of competence, Bush has been ineffective in reducing the size of the government and has made a mess of Iraq. So you can agree with Bush's aims but think he has been ineffective in pursuing them.
Secondly, Bush has abused the process of politics. He has marginalized the Congress, tried to suppress the vote, misrepresented the budget, lied about his enemies, smeared dissenters, stifled debate within his administration, and excluded American citizens who are not his supporters from even seeing him. In short, George Bush has no respect for the democratic process. Yesterday on Al Franken a swing voter said that he was voting against Bush for this very reason.
Finally, we can argue that Bush has sold out conservative principles. While he has been President, the budget deficit has exploded, spending has increased, new mandates have been imposed on the states, civil liberties have been curtailed, and we are engaging in an adventurous foreing policy that is some strange mix of idealism and imperialism. None of this sounds all that conservative.
The question is: what is a conservative to do? Movement conservatives (i.e. pseudo-fascists) lack all intellectual honesty and will vote the way they are told. But serious and thoughtful individuals who care about the republic and their own principles are left some disconcerting options. They could vote for Bush anyway, but then they are just sell-outs. If they stay home, they are neglecting their civic responsibilities. If they vote for a 3rd party, they are throwing their vote away (see my previous votes on this topic). They are also in effect casting a vote for one of the two candidates anyway.
I am going to suggest something revolutionary: vote for Kerry. Big surprise, right? Look at it this way. Kerry will pass the competence test, or at least is unlikely to be less competent that George Bush. And this policy is likely to be very moderate because of a Republican Congress. Kerry clearly has respect for a fair democratic procedure. So those 2 groups of conservatives should be able to rest easy. It is the last group that is tricky. I would suggest that to vote for George Bush is to actively betray your principles- better to vote in someone who will prevent their further corruption. Also, if Kerry has a Republican Congress (who you can vote for), the outcome will be similar to the later Clinton Administration: a cautious foreign policy, spending restraint, and only incremental social change.
In short, if you want a conservative policy outcome, and I mean a real
conservative outcome, then the best vote for you is Kerry for President and Republican for Congress. You need Bush out of there, and you can always vote for McCain in 2008.
So take the nasty tasting medicine. It's good for you.
All Over But The Crying
Thursday, October 14, 2004
George Bush is a beaten man. I watched the 3rd and final debate very carefully last night. On the surface, Bush did well. He stayed on message, was aggressive, and seemed confident and in command. But when the debate was over, I watched Bush walk over to Kerry with a look on his face I saw in his father 12 years ago. He is going to lose, and he knows it.
Why am I so confident? Because this was Bush's best performance, and he still lost. Kerry did what everyone thought was necessary- he spoke to the concerns of women, he was specific, and he hammered Bush on domestic policies. Kerry needed to be good, but instead he was sparkling- he was calm, presidential, human, and even visionary at times. I loved how he enunciated the theme of middle class populism (my pet subject). Kerry's statements on the assault weapons ban, choice, and particularly religion were golden. Somewhere Amy Sullivan is doing a happy dance, because Kerry said precisely what she has been wanting a Democrat to say for years. Oddly, I thought Kerry spoke much more personally and meaningfully than Bush did about faith. I liked how Kerry looked in the camera and spoke directly to the American people, and he was tremendously effective in his closing statement in painting a broader picture. It wasn't a perfect debate outing for Kerry, but it was close as I've seen in a long time.
Bush is going to lose this election. Kerry has passed the threshold of acceptability, and over 50% of the population thinks Bush is a failed president. From the beginning, Bush's only hope has been that Kerry would self-destruct or collapse under the weight of a negative attack. That strategy has failed. The last card Rove has to play is to steal the election, which he will try. But I think turnout is going to be too high for that to work.
Be happy. We are going to win this thing.
Wednesday, October 13, 2004
I have watched the second debate just in time to wait for the third, so I will comment on both.
The second debate has apparently been spun as a Kerry win. Substantively I think that's clearly accurate. But I was surprised by how well Bush did. I knew he had it in him :( He was consistently aggressive and kept his focus on Kerry's supposed flip-flops. I wish Kerry had responded more crisply to the 87 billion stuff, but I suppose he wanted to concentrate on Bush's record. Politically, I think it was a draw. I was worried that the press would spin that as a Bush win, so I would have been happy with a tie- a spin win is just gravy.
Having said all that, it turns out that Bush's angry performance turned off women. Perhaps I just didn't see that because I'm male. Where I thought Kerry was most effective was his response to the parental notification stuff at the end, when he decisively rebutted Bush's position and Bush just repeated what he had said earlier. And I agree with others that Bush flubbed the last question about making mistakes. Kerry also did a good job at empathizing with the audience. He's no Bill, but who is?
I never thought the town-hall debate was going to be critical. Frankly I don't expect it to have much more impact than the VP debate. It is this last debate is potentially decisive. Kerry has laid the groundwork by undermining Bush's position as a strong leader. Now he needs to seal the deal by explaining to people what he wants to do. Enter domestic policy. Kerry needs to do more than just attack Bush's record: he needs to speak in specific terms about what he wants to do. Health care, the economy, and the deficit are the key issues (the latter because it cuts into Bush's conservative base). It's fairly obvious what he needs to do, so I think he will.
Bush has the taller mountain to climb. He has little to show for his 4 years in office when it comes to domestic issues. His tax cuts have failed, the economy is weak, health care costs are rising, etc. I think it is a sign of desperation that the Republicans are returning to that "liberal, liberal, liberal" crap. Kerry will just respond with is his record (as he did in the first debate), and tie himself closely to the Clinton legacy. The tax & spend charge is tired. Kerry needs to rebut it more effectively, and call Bush on his lies from the first debate on domestic spending. But the fact that Bush has NOTHING positive to run on should be alarming to Rove & crew.
This is Bush's last chance. I think after tonight we will know who is going to win this election.
Tuesday, October 12, 2004
I still haven't watched the 2nd Presidential Debate, but I have it on tape and am going to do so today. In the meantime, there is a ton of juicy material to comment on from news sites this morning.
I am sure that everyone has already heard that the Sinclair Broadcasting Group is forcing its affiliates to air an anti-Kerry propaganda video (if you haven't, Josh Marshall
has a good discussion). This is a little different from Fahrenheit 9/11, since the latter was in the theaters and you could choose to go or not. The former is beamed directly into people's houses. Sinclair's course of action is only the latest and most blatant evidence that the concentration of media outlets, corporate domination of the Republican party, and ethical collapse of contemporary journalism is a threat to the health of our democracy. We have to stop these people.
There were so many appalling articles in the New York Times and Washington Post this morning I almost couldn't finish my coffee. The problems were of two kinds: the papers accurately reporting bad news, and shoddy reporting. On the first front, the New York Times reports that the Congress has passed a pork-laden extravaganza
and has failed to concentrate homeland security money in threatened states
. In case I haven't mentioned it, I live in New York (although I am not a native New Yorker). To say that I have some interest in homeland security money is putting it mildly. Both of these articles point to the continuing disfunction and lack of seriousness in our Congress. I wish I could blame it all on the Republicans, but I know that Democratic members of Congress are just as guilty. When this election is over, we need to start holding our allies accountable for what they do.
Another worrisome NYT article reports that a group of Catholic bishops is mobilizing against Kerry
. This just makes me sad. You would think that the church (any church) would realize that politics and religion just don't mix. A fair proportion of their parishoners are going to be driven away if they press this pro-life stuff, and the Catholic Church just can't afford any more defections. I also believe that this intervention betrays a real misunderstanding of the nature of democratic politics. A candidate's personal opinion has no necessary relationship to his political stance, because politics is not about imposing our personal conception of right and wrong. It is furthering the legitimate interests of ALL Americans. In this regard, Kerry is a more serious "pro-life" candidate than Bush. And the singleminded focus on procreation issues distorts the real core of Catholic doctrine. So this is a foolish move both from the point of view of a Cathloic and as a democrat (small D).
Now I will turn to shoddy reporting, courtesy of that fallen giant, the Washington Post. In two articles the Post demonstrates how it is becoming just another rag. In the first, the Dana Milbank
discusses the differences between Bush and Kerry supporters. According to Milbank, Bush supporters are more enthusiastic because Bush caters to his base, while Kerry's supporters are less committed to him because a)Kerry is reaching to the middle, and b) Kerry is just a vehicle for anti-Bush sentiment. To be fair, there is some truth to this. But I wish Milbank wouldn't wait so long to point out that Bush's crowds are screened so that only supporters can attend
. So it should be no surprise his audience is more enthusiastic. It would also be nice if Milbank noted that candidates that are consolidating their base in October are usually doomed candidates. I also think that after the first debate, much of the anti-Bush sentiment metastasized into pro-Kerry sentiment. Finally, I would dispute that there is any real difference at the moment between a moderate and liberal message, since liberals are mad about Bush policies, and so are swing voters, for very much the same reason: they are bad policies that have manifestly failed.
Even more disappointing, but less overtly political, is the Post piece on people returning home to spend time with their kids (see see here
). This is a classic "trend" piece familiar to anyone who has read Susan Faludi's Backlash. It notes a few isolated instances and personal interviews to suggest that American (women) are returning to 1950's mindset. There are two problems here. Now there may indeed have been a decline in work force participation by women, but I would guess it has more to do with the weak labor market than a return to the mythical golden age of 1955. And it is worthwhile to point out that the women didn't leave the home in the 1970's because they experiened a feminist converion. They got jobs because their husbands' wages has gone into decline. Given that middle incomes are not going up, this means that if women leave the work force, their family income goes down. This might be fine for high-income professionals that the Post article highlights, but it is disastrous for middle and working class families. A conservative might read this article with a fuzzy coccoon of nostalgia, but for someone raised by a single mother, this article reads like a bizarre mix of propaganda, insult, and upper class elite bias. But I don't know why I'm surprised- I have come to expect all these things from the Washington Post.
To change gears, there is an interesting article in Mother Jones
. Apparently corporate America is getting involved in voter mobilization. Now some liberals might find this a scary thing, but I find it quite comforting. Why? Well, first of all, liberals are at a handicap when politics is money-driven and advantaged when it is labor intensive. The more politics moves in the direction of mass mobilization, the better we will do. There is also the amusing fact that the white-collar voters corporations will try to mobilize are not even sure bets to vote Republican. It puts a smile on my face to think that IBM might be getting secret Democrats to the polls.
The last nit I have to pick is with David Brooks
. In today's op-ed, he suggests that the Bush and Kerry differences in foreign policy are also reflected in their domestic policies, and indeed reflect legitimate differences in their philosophical approach to politics. While Bush is focused on individual freedom, Kerry's emphasis is on security and cooperation. This is true as far as it goes, although Brooks typically infers that Kerry is not concerned with individual freedom (Hello! Patriot Act!). Brooks also suggests that the red states are more independent and "Goldwateresque." He neglects to mention, of course, that the red states are the ones sucking off the government teat at the expense of the blues.
But I really don't want to harp on such minor points. What really bothers me about this editorial is that it reveals conservatism's hypocrisy and undemocratic character. The "freedom" that Bush and Brooks laud is the freedom of the strong to oppress the weak. It is the state of nature in all its Hobbesian glory. What our opponents fail to realize is this simple fact: politics is a cooperative endeavor
. Politics only makes sense in the context of joint communal activity. An emphasis on individual liberty is important of course, but it serves a limiting function on what that community may do. Bush & Co. also fail to realize that liberty is not merely formal, it must be substantive. We must preserve the fair value and equal worth of liberty (I'm following Rawls here). Bush uses the words "freedom" and opportunity" but he takes no action to guarantee them for anyone who does not already have them. Bush's liberty in foreign policy is nothing more than American imperialism with a human face, and his freedom in domestic affairs is just more corporate cronyism.
Ah, it's good to be back.
George Will Strikes Again
Friday, October 08, 2004
I really don't have much to say about the 2nd Presidential Debate tonight. I don't think Bush will perform as badly as last time, so the press will likely spin it as a Bush win. I'm not too concerned, though, barring major Kerry gaffes. Kerry needs to demonstrate he is a human being and continue to hammer Bush on the competence/trustworthiness theme. This debate isn't nearly as crucial, however, because the 1st debate had the highest viewer audience and was focused on the crucial question of whether Kerry is a credible commander in chief. Which he did.
So instead of belaboring these points, I am going to take issue with George Will. Yesterday in the Washington Post he wrote an article
describing the source of the Democrats' hostility to the Bush presidency. Will argues that the Bush domestic policy agenda is striking at the heart of the Democrats' party apparatus: labor unions, the bureaucracy, trial lawyers, etc. He also echoes Grover Norquist in that the WWII generation, the Democratic Party's most reliable supporters, are dying off. Furthermore, the tax cuts limit the ability of the Democrats to deliver government spending, while the privatization will inculcate "individualistic" values that will turn voters irresistably to the GOP.
This article is typical of Will. Like David Brooks, he is a partisan shill who uses a comforting demeanor while he accuses his enemies of the most vile things. He is a master of ad hominems, and he never saw a logical fallacy he didn't like. He reminds me very much of a line from the old John Lennon song "Working Class Hero": "there's room at the top, they are telling you still/ but first you must learn how to smile as you kill." He is also a gigantic poseur, pretending to be a great intellectual when he is just a journalist with a bow tie.
But let's get to specifics. Will accurately portrays the Republican political strategy, which is really quite old: to de-fund the left and attack its institutional basis of support, thereby crippling the Democratic party's political effectiveness. What he fails to note is that this is an inappropriately ruthless strategy for a democratic people. The Republicans are implementing policies not based on their merits, and are not fighting their opponents on the plane of idea. No, what they are after is simply power. Their aim is not to defeat their enemies but destroy them. Will simply takes a pass on the legitimacy of this kind of behavior. So much for his admiration for Edmund Burke.
What is really insidious about the piece is that Will attributes to the Democrats
what the Republicans are guilty of. Will implies that the only reason the Democrats are opposed to the Bush domestic agenda is that it undermines the superstructure of their party. First of all, this neglects the aforementioned point: why are the Bushies trying to destroy the Democratic Party? Do they not believe in a 2-party system? Are they for a one-party state?
Second, Will insinuates that the Democrats have no substantive reason for opposing the Republicans. So of course they are only out for power. Of course, Will also ignores whether there is any substantive content in the Bush plan. Is it even possible that the Democrats are motivated by any higher motives? Might they think that the Bush agenda is irresponsible, cruel, and simply ineffective? Any examination of the Bush record, by the way, will indicate that there is not a single Bush policy that has delivered on its promised results. Not one. Look it up.
Will's politics is ultimately contentless. The parties fight for power, with no higher issues at stake. It should be no surprise that he believes this, since he is a "conservative," and they have abandoned any adherence to principle (or reality, for that matter). But the Democrats are not like the Republicans- there are real differences between the 2 parties. Democrats, as liberals, believe that government is about governing, that there is such a thing as the public good. And they are motivated by a simple belief that all people are equal, that they must be treated with equal concern and respect, and that every citizen should have an equal chance to fulfill their notion of the good life.
Conservatism used to stand for something too: tradition, order, restraint, and a healthy awareness of human frailty. It was a proud tradition, and a worthy political rival and partner to liberalism. But that was a long time ago.
One final note: I am going to be out of town for the weekend, so I will not be able to post again until Monday. So have fun watching the debate, and tell me how it went! I'm going to try and watch it on tape, but who knows whether I can get the bloody VCR to work.......
The Iraq Debate
Thursday, October 07, 2004
Like it or not, Iraq is apparently the central issue of the campaign. Sure Kerry might be able to leverage the administration's failures in Iraq into a broader discussion about Bush's deceit & incompetence. But Iraq will be on the minds of a lot of people when the pull the lever.
I wrote on Sept. 16 about the front end of the Iraq issue- whether or not we should have gone in. What I didn't talk about is what we should do now. The healthy debate I think is possible only in a Kerry Administration (boy do I like writing those words) is already underway on a few webpages. I may be premature, but I might as well throw my hat in.Max Speak
thinks that the Kerry approach has been a bit incoherent (he does apologize for agreeing with Bush, but still!). He suggests that the there is little likelihood of securing greater international cooperation even with a new President, that it will be difficult to train any more Iraqi troops or do it faster, and that any Iraqi government we help set up will be extraordinarily unstable.BTC News
, on the other hand, agreeing with Stanley Hoffman, thinks a U.S. withdrawal is inevitable- it is only a question of how disastrous and embarassing it will be. Iraq is likely to disintegrate no matter what we do (at least I think that is what he is saying- please correct me if I'm wrong).
And finally Sherle R. Schwenninger
of the Nation Magazine in an extended article points out that Iraq is now a major driving force in the War on Terror because it has synthesized religious fundamentalism and arab nationalism, which was always Al Quaeda's goal. Schwenninger believes that the U.S. must get out of Iraq, and must do so in a way that openly swears off any U.S. hegemony in the region to de-couple these two elements. We need to internationalize not just Iraq but our whole strategy in the middle east.
So where do I stand on all this. I don't just support the Kerry approach out of solidarity- I think his strategy is probably the right one. The U.S., burdened with this strategic disaster, needs to make one more big political and diplomatic effort to stabilize the situation. Creating a true democracy is probably too much to ask for- it was always a pipe dream, and is certainly out of the question now- but we might be able to create a rough stability in the country.
People are right to be skeptical about European assistance. It MAY be possible for Kerry to apply pressure and offer concessions to get them to change their minds, but it will be hard. But I don't think European troops
is what is necessary. We need are European resources certainly, but what is truly required are muslim
troops. We need to reframe the issue as one of preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq. None of Iraq's neighbors will benefit if there is a) a bloody civil war with the attendant refugee crisis and the possibility of a regional war, or b) the establishment of a Taliban-style regime, which would threaten all the secular regimes in the region.
So I think that in one sense the critics are right- we do need to get out. We just need to make sure someone else goes in. And Schwenninger' suggestion that we need to internationalize middle east is absolutely correct. To do so I think Kerry, as President, would have to openly repudiate the Bush policies and perhaps make a coded apology. But if we don't get any support either from Europe or the Middle East, then a unilateral and embarassing withdrawal is probably inevitable, however tragic.
It is time we remembered that U.S. leadership has always been most popular, most effective, and most noble in the context of building and leading international institutions. Now we have to do that for the middle east. Finally.
BZZZT! BZZZT! LIE METER OVERLOAD!
Wednesday, October 06, 2004
I have been watching politics for a while now, and I must say I have never seen so many distortion, deceptions, and fabrications in such a sort period of time. No, I'm not talking about FOX News, but the Vice-President of the United States. Wow!. I started out trying to count the lies, but after I hit double digits in the first quarter hour I just lost track. Atrios, Daily Kos and every other liberal blogger are jumping on all of them with dispatch, so I won't belabor the point. I just hope that the press will....aw, who am I kidding?
Okay, now to the specifics of the debate:
Style: Edwards is clearly a skilled debater. He was relentlessly on message and was a rapid counter-puncher. No he didn't respond to the 87 billion canard effectively enough, but nonetheless I thought he was excellent. Poised, clear, confident and upbeat- I don't have many real criticisms. Cheney on the other hand is such an eerily good liar that on occasion I found even myself wondering if he might be telling the truth. He really does play the stern father with brilliance. But as the debate wore on, he first got annoyed and then got bored. So I think that Edwards won on style.
Substance: On strict debating points, this was a rout. Edwards levelled several devastating attacks: the Bush flip-flops, the Republican fealty to corporate America, Cheney's abysmal voting record in the House, etc., etc. Bizarrely, Cheney never responded to any of these attacks, so they went unanswered. On the other hand, as I mentioned previously, Edwards was not quick enough in rebutting the 87 billion as well as some minor criticisms. And Cheney did get in some jabs- on Edwards' inexperience, and the whole flip-flopping stuff.
Politics: It's hard to say yet how this debate is going to play out. The expectations of Edwards were very high, but that doesn't seem to have played out in the media coverage. VP debates really don't matter much- their real purpose is to further the message of the ticket. I think that Edwards clearly enunciated the Democratic message (which is one of the reasons I like him), and I think Cheney lied very effectively on Bush's behalf. Politically I call it a slight Edwards advantage, but I doubt it will be consequential on election day.
On to the next debate.
Celebrity Deathmatch: Cheney-Edwards
Tuesday, October 05, 2004
What can we expect from the Cheney-Edwards debate? The consequences in this debate are a little lower than for the ones between Kerry and Bush, so we can look at them a little more dispassionately. One thing we can expect is for the two candidates to focus on the opposing Presidential nominee rather than each other. Their jobs are to act as advocates. This is where Edwards has a tremendous advantage- he's been defending his clients for years. Another advantage Edwards has is in the personality: Cheney is grumpy and scary, and Edwards seems nice. Finally, since the Republican attack is on Kerry's consistency, particularly on security issues, Edwards has both a responsibility and an opportunity to stick it to Cheney on this issue: after all, Cheney proposed all the cuts that Kerry voted for. And then there is Halliburton and the California energy crisis. Edwards probably won't be aggressively negative, but he will be waiting for Cheney to open himself up to those attacks.
It is not all roses and ice cream. I'm worried about the tremendously high expectations on Edwards. As we learned last week, expectations are crucial. I'm worried that the media will inevitably spin the story into a Cheney victory. And Edwards may not perform to the level we expect- in part because he has stumbled before, and also because he is bound to be nervous. I'm concerned that Cheney may be able to paint Edwards as too inexperienced.
But I like Edwards, and I think he will rise to the occasion. Remember, his job is defend Kerry, not himself, a fact which should ease some of the pressure. So my handicap on the contest: I give Edwards a 58.3% chance of a victory tonight.
On other notes, go check out BTC News
for an excellent post on the "tyranny of the majority" by the House Republicans. It just underlines what some of us have been saying the last couple of months: these people cannot be trusted with our democracy. And for a discussion on what we can do about it, read the Dean
interview on Mother Jones. Dean gives exactly the right strategy for Democrats- I really do think that Kerry should name him DNC chairman.
Strategies Foreign and Domestic
Monday, October 04, 2004
Which complex of issues should Kerry emphasize? The debate over whether Kerry should focus on foreign or domestic policy has attracted considerable attention, and presents a real strategic dilemma. Both sides have a strong set of arguments, and it think this is an issue that needs to be sorted out.. For the sake of this post, I will call those advocating a focus on foreign policy "hawks" and those who wish to concentrate on domestic issues "doves" (NOT to be confused with the traditional meanings of those terms. Most of the foreign policy advocates are pretty dovish.)
Okay, the hawks have forceful reasons for emphasizing foreign policy. Politically, they argue that the disaster in Iraq has a great deal to do with Bush's declining numbers. Furthermore, it is vital for any challenger in wartime to establish his commander in chief bona fides. The centrality of foreign policy in the last two weeks has coincided with Kerry's recovery in the polls. Why take the ball away from a player with a hot hand- stick to foreign policy, where Bush's incompetence has created a credibility gap. Talking about domestic issues gains nothing, since the Dems are going to get the liberal domestic policy votes anyway. Focusing on domestic issues might cost us some of those dissatisfied Republicans. Like it or not, Iraq is the THE political issue of the year, and we need to act accordingly.
The doves have some responses, though. Bush's decline has as much to do with the economy as anything else. The more the Democrats can shift the terrain to the economy and health care, the better they will do. It is unnecessary and a waste of strategic resources to focus on Iraq. We are never going to win on foreign policy, but we don't need to. All that is required is to pass the threshold of credibility, which Kerry's debate performance has done. If we continue to harp on Iraq, we are guaranteeing that Iraq and Terror will be the subjects in the voters minds when they enter the ballot box. That is not a recipe for a Kerry victory. Plus, the perception of Kerry's ambiguities rests solely on foreign policy issues- we can neutralize the flip-flopper charge by concentrating on health care and the economy.
So who has the better set of arguments? Both do. No I'm not waffling. Remember, elections are an act in public persuasion. To do so, a candidate needs to tie his criticisms together in a comprehensive whole. He (or she, one day) needs to paint an overall narrative, with each specific criticism fitting into the greater design. Kerry needs to focus both on Iraq and the economy & health care. Bush is a failure in both arenas in precisely the same way. In both cases, his neglect of detail, unwillingness to think through the issues, fealty to corporate interests, and sheer incompetence have led us to our current pass. What we need to do is make the voters realize that Bush's performance at the last debate was no fluke- his arrogance and ignorance is part and parcel of why he is a failure as a president.
Once that frame is established, all we have to do is explain how Kerry is different. Then we start measuring curtains for the White House.
Sunday, October 03, 2004
Wow it was fun watching the Republican spin machine throw a gear. It was better than cats. I flipped through all the major news shows this morning, and on each of them the Republicans and their proxies had desperation dripping from every pore. Except for David Brooks, who as usual was coolly monstrous.
The right has finally settled on three arguments, aside from the transparently stupid "global test" nonsense. The first is to concede that Kerry won on style, but to assert that Bush won on substance. But what they fail to realize is that what was so damning about Bush's performance was his lack
of substance. Hence the 30 minutes of material jokes. Relatedly, Brooks suggests that Bush's simpleminded rhetoric on Iraq was more "visionary." But of course being visionary doesn't help when you're incompetent, which the mess in Iraq and Kerry's repeated references to Tora Bora demonstrate.
Second, the Republicans try to say it really wasn't that bad, i.e. his stumbling is "folksy" and his saccharine comments about the people he talked to are effective. As to the latter, I really can't say- I have developed a real loathing of that rhetorical device. But on the former, well, folksy doesn't necessarily mean dumb. Which is what all these latte-drinking volvo-driving ivy-league attending journalists fail to realize (now THAT was fun to write!). In the real world, Americans want a President who doesn't look like a total moron.
Thirdly and lastly, the spinmeisters on the right have attempted to hold onto the flip-flopping charge. Look, I this is really quite simple. Kerry thinks that the Bushies had a decent idea and just screwed it up
. They botched the intelligence analysis, they botched the diplomacy, they botched Afghanistan, and they botched the peace. It's really that simple. It only looks like a complicated position because Kerry is being too nice.
None of this spin matters, though. The 48-hour cycle is over and has set in stone that Bush got his hat handed to him. The good guys finally won one, and the Bushies are in deep doo-doo. Now we just need to keep the pressure on. As as the Byzantine general Belisarius said, "never give the enemy a second chance at victory."
Saturday, October 02, 2004
I have never felt so severely the lack of cable. Given my manifest poverty, I simply cannot afford it. Usually I don't notice, given how much garbage is on TV. Unfortunately, I now have little capacity to judge the post-debate spin. I have to rely on internet sources, which while much more substantive aren't the prime sources of news for most voters.
Given that, it does appear that the spin from the debate is overwhelming anti-Bush and pro-Kerry. There is something delicious about the media monster that the Republicans have fostered turning on them. For years the right has avoided substance for style and substituted policy for "character." The right was confident in its ability to dominate those issues, which was necessary if they were to remain competitive (after all, people don't actually agree with Republicans on issues).
For most of the year, this strategy has worked on Kerry nearly as well as it worked on Gore. Kerry was a stiff, untrustworthy, elitist bore, nearly the same line they fed the press about Gore. Bush, on the other hand, was a strong, determined leader with the common touch and a clear vision of the future. And it was working.
Then we had the first presidential debate, and the press bias towards ties and haircuts turned its attention to the petulant and embarassingly ignorant presentation of Bush. Kerry, on the other hand, looked smooth and Presidential. The style issue has turned on Bush with a vengeance, and the Republicans are scrambling for another strategy or some way to salvage their old one.
I am certainly filled with schadenfreude at these events, but I hope that when all is said and done the press realizes that for years, they have done themselves and the public a disservice. Perhaps next political cycle they will take the time to familiarize themselves with the issues facing the country rather than which candidate tells better jokes.
But I doubt it.
Friday, October 01, 2004
I was very nervous all day yesterday, and even more nervous once the debate had started. Bush was hammering the flip-flop attack, and Kerry wasn't responding. Then everything changed. Kerry relaxed, and he was forceful and confident, even commanding. Bush's performance if anything deteriorated, when it became clear he had only a few scripted responses which he repeated verbatim over and over. He also seemed to forget what he was saying. Kerry had few verbal miscues, and was consistently on the offensive. Bush's repetition gave Kerry another chance to rebutt the waffling charge, which he did fairly well.
Overall, I think Kerry's performance was a little better than I expected, but not spectacular. He made some strong points, but he missed what I thought were some golden rhetorical opportunities ("I have seen the war on television" being the most memorable). Kerry had the advantage going in because expectations for him were so low and as the challenger he only needed to appear competent. Kerry won the debate in large part because Bush lost it. He appeared bored, irritated, and unfocused. Kerry seemd much more Presidential. And I won't even get into the shellacking Bush took on debating points. Regrettably that is not how these things are decided.
I was in a room full of Democrats last night, who hooted every time Bush spoke. But I wasn't interested in their perceptions- I was instead trying to look at the debate like a swing voter. Needless to say, it very hard to set aside my deeply held opinions about Bush. Clearly he stumbled, but what would they think in Peoria? I guessed that Bush's performance was weak enough to raise doubts in the heads of independents, and the overnight polling seems to indicate that this impression was correct.
I have been predicting all along that Kerry would perform well in the debate, and his poll standing would improve as a result. My chief concern was about the spin, but so far the spin is that Kerry won. So I think Kerry is now well-positioned for victory.
And just think, this debate was on foreign policy, Bush's supposed strong point. Can imagine what is going to happen when the topic is domestic policy? Ugly.