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Evidence of Incompetence

Wednesday, September 29, 2010
There's a fascinating debate going on over at Talking Points Memo. You might have heard that Barack Obama recently criticized liberals for being disengaged from the election. Obama's comments have sparked both rebuttals and counter-rebuttals. Blogging heavyweights like Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein have chimed in, arguing that civil libertarians have every reason to be outraged but other sorts of liberals really ought to be more understanding of the constraints liberal presidents have to operate under. Finally, I think Greg Sargent gets the closest to the truth when he notes that some of the criticism is tactical - that it is politically advantageous to fight the occasional battle on behalf of liberal causes even if you lose.

Here's my take on things. First, there is going to be some fall-off in enthusiasm after any election, particularly when the economy is still in the dumps. Not all of that can be laid at Obama's doorstep. Second, Obama's position on civil liberties is simply appalling - he is effectively consolidating the Bush agenda and undermining the republic. I will never forgive him for it.

Third, the White House's inability to recognize the political benefits of picking symbolic issues to take a stand on is simply stunning, and points to how imbecilic their political strategy is. From day one Obama has proved manifestly incapable to develop and implement a coherent messaging strategy. I've watched opportunity after opportunity pass by to put the Republicans on the defensive and to rally Democrats behind the administration, but they seem to have an allergy to partisan combat. It is this reluctance to battle against right-wing conservatism that is contributing to the demoralization of the Democratic party.

I've said it a million times, but liberals really aren't that hard to please. Pick a few substantive issues where liberal positions are generally popular and fight for them (the recent tax cut debate is a good example). Even if the Republicans obstruct and we don't get what we want, liberals will remember that you were with them when it counted. We don't expect you to fight to the death on every issues, but fight on something. Pick something, anything, about which you won't compromise. You won't be sorry.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:19 AM

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And For My Next Trick

Monday, September 27, 2010
As promised, my long-awaited change of subject:

We recently moved to another state. The process was a bit staggered, as first BH and then I had to go back and forth, but now we are both here and beginning the long and decidedly strange process of "settling in." The evolution of a house that one is living in into a home is a pretty strange one. The feeling of being "at home" is amorphous, but there are some sure signs that one has arrived. When one wakes up in the morning and knows where one is is one sign. Others include: being able to open the correct kitchen cabinet the first time, knowing where the light switches are, to be able to get around in the dark (or half-light). Remembering where to put your shoes or your keys or your wallet when you get home in another good one. These are tiny but profoundly important things that amount to "comfort." I'm not there yet, of course. I still have something of that spacey feeling you get when you're in someone else's house all alone. But I'm getting there.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:52 PM

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Where Do I Sign Up?

If someone credible challenges Obama in the primaries in 2012, sign me up to help them. I am officially off the boat.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:23 AM

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Structural Stupidity

Okay one more slightly dreary post about politics and then I'm going to change the subject. The recent tax cut debate is an excellent example of what's wrong with the country and with the Democratic Party. From a strict policy perspective, this is an easy call. There's been a massive increase in inequality over the last generation and the only way to balance the books is to tax the upper crust. Middle incomes have been stagnating for decades and the economy is depressed, so I can see the sense in continuing their tax cuts (although tax cuts don't have a great stimulative effect, at least it's something). Politically, this was as easy a case as Josh Marshall has been claiming - Republicans are weakened when they're perceived as the party of the rich and this vote was a great opportunity to do it. But the Democrats can't get it done, and the reasons why tell you everything you need to know about why the U.S. is in very deep doo-doo.

There are four explanations as to why Democrats wouldn't hold this vote - explanations which aren't mutually exclusive. I'll list them in order of worry. The first is that Democrats thought they could take the tax issue off the table - that if they held a vote they'd be attacked for raising taxes. Of course, they'll be attacked for it anyway, so this is a good testament about how politically incompetent a fair proportion of Democratic congressman are. There's at least a possibility that they could learn from their mistakes, but I'm not hopeful.

The second explanation is that Democratic congressman believe that loading goodies onto rich people is a substantively good idea. Which means they're functionally Republicans, suffering from cognitive capture, hopelessly out of touch, or some mix of them. Also not a good thing.

The third explanation is that they're corrupt. They don't want to alienate well-heeled interests because they want cushy job once they're out of office - something which is likely to happen in about 3 months. Corruption is hard to deal with, intractable even, but the country has had bouts of widespread corruption before so although a very bad thing it's not the end of the world.

The fourth is that Democrats don't want to vote against the interests of the wealthy because they're concerned about alienating wealthy interests. This is somewhat distinct from point four because it's a product of fear rather than greed. They are terrified of losing campaign contributions - almost all of which come from the wealthy, who are disproportionately conservative - and of negative attack ads by corporations and right-wing groups. They don't want to get buried in mud the week before the election, so they think they can insulate themselves or at least limit the damage by going along.

Which brings me to my ever-present obsession, campaign finance. I think at least part of this is all tied up in the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. The fact is that given the amount of money that is now going to flow through the political system, it is now a rational (if horrific) decision for Democratic candidates for congress to completely sell themselves to corporate power. If they don't they will be defeated, or at least buy themselves a very, very difficult race. If they do they might get yelled at by their liberal base, but with sufficient money and some clever maneuvering they can probably limit their chance of getting knocked off in a primary. So these Democrats are making the strategic decision to become Republicans on economic issues for all intents and purposes.

Which means that fixing the problem of the wealthy plundering the middle class is probably unsolvable. We now have a system in which corporations and wealthy conservative economic interests now have so many structural advantages that they are nigh-invincible. Combined with the de facto co-option of the media into this congregation of economically conservative interests, we will now be in something very like the situation of the 19th century: the differences between the parties will be cultural rather than economic, and those cultural cleavages will be exacerbated over time as a response to growing economic turmoil.

I'm not saying that this situation can NEVER be fixed. If the economy gets bad enough long enough something will change - there will be sufficient popular outrage that no amount of commercials will stop the political firestorm that will result. But I should emphasize that such a moment wouldn't necessarily result in another liberal bout of reform such as we saw in the early 1900's or the 1930's. There is plenty of historical evidence that such popular anger can be directed into right-wing channels (hence fascism), or that faced with the real possibility or reform the right will resort to dictatorship in order to preserve their privileges (as we've seen in Latin America time and time again).

I'm not saying the republic is doomed. We're not Rome in the 60's B.C. But the patient has been diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease, and if those of us who recognize the illness don't begin to pull ourselves together the prognosis could well prove terminal.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:45 AM

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America's Coming Ride on the Teabag Express

Saturday, September 18, 2010
My life has slowed down sufficiently that I can start to re-engage with the world around me. BH and I recently moved to a new state, so I have to get all re-registered to vote so I can go to war with those lunatics in the Republican Party this fall. I confess, I've seen some crazy stuff over the years, but the Teabagger takeover of the Republican Party might be the most alarming. It's easy to be cynical about it. A lot of Democrats are saying "those candidates are so wacky that there's no way they'll win." I wish that were true. They'll underperform compared with a more moderate candidate, but the fundamental dynamics of the election are so hostile to Democrats that quite a few of them get into office. From a political science point of view, this election is a major test whether the retrospective or median voter models of vote choice are accurate. Since I generally adhere to the former - the latter assumes that enough voters know a lot about issues and candidates - I think that we're have a substantial Teabag Caucus in Congress next year. What's also interesting is that in the past ideology hasn't played that much of a role in primaries, and establishment figures have generally been able to win because of their superior institutional support. What we're seeing now is a right-wing uprising in the Republican Party. The leadership has completely lost control. Well, the part of the leadership we're used to seeing anyway - I suspect that part of this is one faction of the Republican elite supporting and exploiting the teabaggers to win power within the party. God help us all. Even if the Democrats were to benefit from the nomination of all these loonies, we'd still have a major political party in thrall to a neo-fascist political movement.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:01 AM

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