"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
September 30, 2008
POLITICS: The Russian Border
Beldar, who really has been just far and away the best source on all things Palin, has a long, maps-and-pictures-filled post up looking at, yes, Alaska's proximity to Russia and what Gov. Palin's experience says about her as a potential Commander-in-Chief. I agree with this:
[N]o state governor has executive experience on these matters comparable to that which must be exercised by the POTUS. State governors are, however, executives, with experience running large organizations of a sort that mere legislators at any level - including U.S. Congressmen and Senators - don't acquire. That's part of the explanation for why America has so often elected state chief executive officers (governors) to become the federal chief executive officer (POTUS), often with salutary results
That goes to my longstanding point: no President is prepared for the entire job, but you have to have a base in one of the major parts of the job to avoid being overwhelmed by the learning curve, and in Gov. Palin's case, it's one of the two big ones (executive experience, the other being national security experience; Obama lacks both). Now, obviously Palin doesn't bring to the table the years of national leadership on national security and foreign policy issues that Reagan did, and one can fairly argue that governors with experience more comparable to Palin's - Woodrow Wilson had an almost identical resume when elected - were not smashing successes in the foreign policy/national security arena (these would include George W. Bush, Clinton, Carter, FDR, Coolidge, Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, and McKinley, of whom only the Roosevelts and McKinley had some relevant foreign policy/national security experience). On the other hand, unlike Obama, Palin is highly likely to have many months and probably years before she'd be called on to take the reins, and would I be concerned if Palin became the president in, say, the fall of 2010? Of course not, since the best possible training for the presidency is the vice presidency.
The Palin-Obama comparison also reminds me of a silly Dahlia Lithwick column comparing Palin to Clarence Thomas in light of Justice Thomas' views on affirmative action:
Like Thomas, Palin has been blasted for inexperience, and she has fought back with claims that she is not being judged on her merits, but on her gender, just as he felt he was inevitably judged on his race. While it's possible to assert that Sarah Palin is the most qualified person in America for the vice presidency, only approximately nine people have done so with a straight face. That's because Palin was not chosen because she was the second-best person to run America but to promote diversity on the ticket, even the political playing field, and to shatter (in her words) some glass ceilings.
What is amusingly naive, or would be if it wasn't so disingenuous, is the suggestion that running mates are chosen because they are actually the second-most-qualified potential president in their party, regardless of political considerations. This was arguably true of Dick Cheney, whose only political benefit was precisely the fact that he could very seriously have been argued to be the second-most-qualified potential president in the GOP. (And if McCain were choosing today on solely that basis, Cheney would still be the top choice). Other than maybe LBJ, who was in any event chosen for nakedly political causes, though, one is hard-pressed to find running mates who fit that description. Palin does, in fact, bring a good deal more to the ticket than just gender, ranging from things McCain doesn't have (executive experience, rock-solid social conservative credentials, being from far outside the Beltway and from a small town, and having lived most of her adult life in what is basically a blue-collar household, albeit one that by now is quite financially successful) as well as personal charisma (she's a natural at retail politics) and harmony with McCain's basic reformist drive and willingness to take on their own side. Add in the list of reasons why various other people were out of the running, and it's obvious that Palin was a more than plausible choice, which is one reason why the right side of the blogosphere was buzzing about her as a running mate for months before McCain made his choice.
(Another argument I sometimes hear is the issue of whether she was the most qualified woman in the GOP...there's a longer answer when you walk through particular candidates, but the easy answer to that one is this question: how many pro-life female governors are there in the GOP right now? I'm pretty certain the answer to that question is "one," and really the only pro-life female Senator is Elizabeth Dole, and the last thing we need is another Dole on a national ticket.)
Anyway, where Lithwick's column becomes openly contemptible is that she never even breathes the name Barack Obama. I can't imagine there's anybody over the age of 25 who seriously thinks Obama's the person in the Democratic Party most qualified to do the job, and certainly his campaign has never been shy about leaning on his identity as a substitute for things like experience, accomplishment, and leadership ability. Lithwick may have some hidden rationalization why the dynamic she describes doesn't apply to Obama, but she dares not advance it.
Obama has one and only one advantage over Palin: he's been on the campaign trail longer, and thus had more training by now in how to finesse questions he doesn't have a good answer to. That's it.
BUSINESS: Unmarked To Market
An SEC Press Release issued today offers a clarification that may relieve institutions that feel compelled to use "mark to market" or "fair value" accounting for debt securities as to which there is no liquid market (I'll try to just offer a neutral description here; other people at my law firm will no doubt be offering our clients more detailed advice on this topic). This is just one aspect of the credit crisis, but MTM has acted as something of an accelerant for the financial troubles of institutions holding mortgage-backed securities for which there is no active market. Some people, mainly on the Right, have argued that suspending MTM would give needed breathing space and eliminate the need for Treasury to step in as market maker and buy up MBS, while others have argued that loosening the accounting rules just conceals the problem and delays the day of reckoning.
Anyway, today's statement offers at least some clarification that companies need not be rigidly tied in to market prices where there's no market:
When an active market for a security does not exist, the use of management estimates that incorporate current market participant expectations of future cash flows, and include appropriate risk premiums, is acceptable...The determination of fair value often requires significant judgment. In some cases, multiple inputs from different sources may collectively provide the best evidence of fair value.
The statement goes on to note that distressed sales may also not be the best evidence of fair value and deals with other indicia of value such as broker quotes and methods of determining impairment of an asset (recall that unlike, say, the New York Stock Exchange, markets for debt securities do not necessarily have instantaneous public price reporting of all transactions). This is one example of how the regulators are now acting to use the tools already at their disposal rather than wait for Congress to give definitive guidance.
More analysis here.
UPDATE: McCain camp notes they've been pressing this issue since March. Fuller statement excerpt here.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 6:41 PM | Business | Law 2006-08 | Politics 2008 | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)
POLITICS/BUSINESS: The Day After
Well, the last couple of days could have gone better, couldn't they?
The Wall Street Journal has probably the best overview of Congress' failure. Lest anyone get the wrong idea from yesterday's post, which I will freely admit I wrote in a heat when emotions were very raw as the vote slipped away and the stock market collapsed (the credit markets are worse - LIBOR more than doubled overnight, which should frighten the bejabbers out of anyone who pays attention to this stuff), I do think there's plenty of blame to go around in both parties here (naturally, CNN and other media sources are blaming only the Republicans, ignoring who has a majority of votes in the House):
Let's start with the obvious: the credit crisis demands action (I'd love to take the purist free market position of letting lots of businesses fail, but while that makes sense in the case of any one enterprise, the credit/debt markets are like the atmosphere of the economy; if there's no atmosphere, things get uglier by multiples for lots of bystanders who didn't make any mistakes related in any way to the crisis. Here's one canary in the coal mine: the New York Sun, quite possibly New York's best newspaper. If you don't believe me, listen to Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma populist who is such a good friend to taxpayers that all four candidates in the presidential race have fallen over themselves seeking a share of credit for battles Coburn led). And more to the point, if any action is going to take place it has to be large, rapid, decisive, complex, unpopular, and unpleasant for principled people on both sides of the aisle.
Congress, of course, was basically designed specifically to not work this way, and by nature it attracts people who don't work that way. On some level you can't fault the House of Representatives for falling back, when pushed hastily to act on something that was clearly beyond most Members' understanding, on just representing popular anger against the bailout plan that was pouring in to their offices. (This is also why we generally don't put Congressmen or Senators on national tickets - we may have low expectations for legislators, but couldn't abide this sort of behavior in a President).
An aside: an awful lot of basic economics is just common sense expressed in equations, charts and terms of art, and is therefore easy enough for adults to understand if they think about it a little. As a result, there are a lot of people in Congress, at least on the GOP side and among moderate Democrats, who I would trust to understand the essentials of how the economy works.
Modern global finance, when you cut all the way to the gray matter of how the system operates, is another story. It's clearly not something a lot of conservative Republicans in Congress undertood, or that most Congressional liberals would even bother to try to understand. And we're stuck with one Presidential candidate who spent his whole life in public service and seems to think that profit motives are somehow a lesser calling, and another who has proudly boasted of turning away from the private sector and is obsessed with income inequality rather than how income and wealth gets created in the first place. Even the Harvard MBA in the White House is an oilman, not a finance guy. Quite simply, our political class is not equipped to handle this crisis. Now, the traditional conservative answer to that is to say, well, that's why we let the market sort this stuff out rather than entrusting politicians with things that, if they understood them, they wouldn't be politicians. But at this juncture, I'd rather trust the Goldman Sachs guy, Paulson, to come up with the answer (and as another aside, thank heavens Bush got a qualified Treasury Secretary on the third try after the two prior efforts to give the job to industrial CEOs).
House Republicans and John McCain
Whether House Republicans voted "no" out of ideological principle, responsiveness to angry constituents, fear of losing re-election, ambition to rise within the caucus, pique at Nancy Pelosi, or some combination thereof, they win no awards for courage or wisdom in a crisis. The GOP House leadership bit the bullet and came back on their shields; they can't be faulted for lack of courage but they were ultimately ineffective in whipping their own caucus.
I have noted a few times that I agreed on policy grounds with John McCain's decision to involve himself in the negotiations, and the record bears out that his involvement helped House Republicans improve the deal enough to get 60+ votes. Patrick Ruffini continues to argue that it was bad political strategy, and he's probably right that McCain neglected my rule that you never fight legislative battles you can't afford to lose. Either way, McCain did not, in the end, come up with enough House GOP votes to ensure passage. He bought into the process, and didn't deliver the final product.
As a matter of pure political theater, if I was running the campaign, the ideal resolution this week would be to have McCain, or better yet Gov. Palin, get the whip count from Roy Blunt of the most-wavering Republicans, and burn the phone lines to round up 12 House conservatives who voted against the bailout but could be persuaded to switch. Given suddenly softening public opposition to the deal after yesterday's market crash, this may yet be possible, and given that the holdouts include a lot of rural/small town Republicans, Gov. Palin may be just the person to speak their language (and promise to campaign in their districts and defend their decision). Then, hold a joint press conference hailing them as heroes for biting the bullet to switch their votes and save the economy and, while she's at it, explain to the media that she has learned as a Governor that being a doer matters more than being a talker. "Nancy Pelosi, here are the votes you couldn't deliver in your own caucus. Now, let's get beyond finger-pointing and do the people's business."
UPDATE: I see Tom Maguire has suggested nearly exactly the same thing.
House Democrats and Barack Obama
Leaving aside policy, Karl Rove pretty perfectly captures here the political and emotional dynamic on the House floor as the vote came down:
H/T. The question of the day is whether the failure of the bailout package was proof of Pelosi's and Barack Obama's incompetence or their deliberate choice.
On the incompetence front, well, most of you will remember how the whip operation worked when Tom DeLay was House GOP Whip and later Majority Leader: Republicans running the chamber basically never lost a floor vote because DeLay would twist arms until they snapped like twigs to get those last few votes, and would not bring a bill to the floor until he damn well knew he had those votes. The House is not the Senate; the minority has no formidable powers of obstruction. The majority gets what it wants, period. If you assume Pelosi wanted this to pass, you would think she could have used every procedural device and lever of influence in the book to make it happen.
But increasingly, it looks like this was deliberate and done to place the interests of blaming Republicans over the nation. Soren Dayton rounds up the damning evidence, including the fact that Pelosi never even had her Whip, John Clyburn, do his job and round up support. Then we get this, which even the New York Times couldn't find an excuse not to print:
Mr. Holtz-Eakin said Mr. McCain had made "dozens of calls" on the bill, some to House Republicans who opposed it.
H/T. Go back and listen to that list reeled off by Rove, and notice the presence of a lot of Obama allies, including Congressman Jesse Jackson jr, national co-chair of the Obama campaign and a frequent spokesman on Obama's behalf (Jackson's statement is here). (Obama's own Congressman, Bobby Rush, also voted No). Do we really think Obama could not have swayed Jackson's vote on this? Are there really not twelve House Democrats, not even in the Congressional Black Caucus - which voted heavily against the deal - who care what Barack Obama thinks? (If not, that bodes ill indeed for an Obama presidency).
In other words, neither Pelosi nor Obama raised a finger to make this happen, and their defenders must at best argue that they are so ineffective they could not have made a difference if they tried (I mean, if you can't buy William Jefferson's vote...). Barney Frank was bragging that he could persuade a dozen more Republicans if they'd give him the names, but three Massachusetts Democrats, Stephen Lynch, John Tierney and William Delahunt, all voted No as well, and Frank doesn't seem to have made any headway with them. Pelosi's speech laying into Republicans on the eve of the vote just seems the icing on the cake here.
Needless to say, deliberately contributing to the defeat of legislation they professed to support, solely for political gain, would not reflect well on Pelosi or Obama. But as little respect as I have for their competence, I can't look at their inaction and think they are really fools enough that they could have been trying to pass it and acted as they did.
That said, I do not think four years of this would be at all healthy for the conservative movement. (H/T Ace). I mean, it was fun to read and several of the individual factual pieces are worth repeating, but the overall theme and especially the flow chart just reeks of "truther"-style conspiracy theory.
I don't especially blame Bush for the vote failure - it's not like he has any political chits left to call in (how totally obvious is it that Bush would have been happy to head back to his ranch about three months ago?). Then again, if one of the lessons of Bush I was that you need to spend your political capital while it lasts, one of the enduring lessons of Bush II is that maybe you shouldn't spend it all and have nothing left for a rainy day.
September 29, 2008
POLITICS/BUSINESS: Delay For Its Own Sake
SECOND UPDATE: Well, the House has voted the bailout down 228-205, despite 66 Republicans (including basically the entire leadership) throwing in behind the bill despite their distaste for it; the Democrats lost something like 40% of their caucus. Seems to me that McCain, having gone all-in for this bill, now has to do Pelosi's job for her and locate the last 13 votes to get this done. We know Obama can't and won't, despite bragging that he deserved credit for the deal.
UPDATE: Looks like they are voting anyway and at last check, the House is about set to vote the deal down. Hold on to your seatbelts, folks.
So, the word just came down that the Senate will not vote on the bailout package until Wednesday night. House Republicans should refuse to vote on the deal until the ballots are cast in the Senate. And Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid should be ashamed of themselves.
Really, I had intended to write up a review of the progress made in the negotiations over the weekend, but it is just astonishing to me that we have not had votes in both Houses first thing this morning, and as the Democrats run the place, this is entirely their fault.
You may or may not agree that the bailout bill is necessary, but the Democratic leadership in Congress is supporting this bill on the publicly avowed theory that it is. And the reason why it is perceived as necessary is to shore up confidence in fast-paced credit markets. Yet not only did we have dithering last week driven by Democratic efforts to turn the bill into a Christmas tree of special interest favors like earmarked handouts to left-wing groups like Barack Obama's friends at ACORN and unrelated corporate governance provisions for the whole economy, but now the Democrats seem in no hurry to bring the bill to a vote.
I know it's hard to get this all written down and digested. (Which, by the way, is one reason all the extras should never have been piled on). But Members of Congress get paid to make decisions. They had all weekend and then some to evaluate the basic merits of the Paulson bailout plan. And every day, every hour that there's no deal, there are additional financial institution failures, further tightening in the credit markets, and uncertainty-driven losses in the stock market.
The reason why the Democrats want delay is extraordinarily simple: electoral politics. Economic uncertainty always plays against the party in the White House. The polls over the last week bear this out. Every day the agony is prolonged and more people lose money, it benefits Obama.
And of course we saw the contrasting reactions last week in the presidential race: John McCain dropped everything to go to Washington and help Republicans battle back, successfully, against all the Democratic add-ons (John Boehner: "if it were not for John McCain supporting me at the White House when I said whoa, whoa, time-out, they would have run over me like a freight train."), while nobody asked for Obama's help and he had no discernible impact on the negotiations. As a result of his decision to take action, McCain ends up more dependent on getting things actually done and delivering, a dynamic that's wholly alien to Obama, who has no experience with needing to get results.
Personally, unhappy as I am with the turn of events that brought the market to this point, I support the bailout. But House Republicans shouldn't let themselves get used to provide political cover for an emergency rescue operation if the Senate's just going to sit on it for another two and a half business days. They should refuse to play along with this effort and should not participate in any vote that doesn't include a simultaneous Senate vote.
September 28, 2008
BASEBALL: It Is Tempting To Just Propose A 161-Game Season
Another year, another grim defeat.
The Mets have now faced baseball's classic do-or-die game - win and advance, at least to a 1-game playoff or the next round of playoffs, lose and go home - for three straight years and lost each in excruciating fashion, losing on late inning homers in 2006 & 2008 and a first inning meltdown in 2007. This is not unprecedented in baseball history, of course - the Brooklyn Dodgers, for example, also did it three years in a row when they lost the pennant on late inning homers on the season's last day in 1950 and in the legendary playoff in 1951 and lost a 7-game World Series in 1952, plus they lost the Series in 7 in 1947, 5 in 1949, and 6 in 1953. If there's any consolation, most Mets fans were pretty numb by the time the ax fell.
Although the offense came up fairly empty, it was the bullpen in the end that was left to do the team in, and I found a sort of macabre justice in seeing the guys responsible for getting the Mets in this mess finish them off. I definitely want Schoenweis (and Heilman) gone next year, so we have a fresh group without the same ghosts, and I'm not thrilled about Ayala either, although he may just need a new season to get right again. With Schoenweis I argued all year that he was at least useful if used properly to face only lefties, but today he was brought in, the first batter was pinch hit for with a righty, and he served up the gopher ball that broke the camel's back. It's time to move on.
Oliver Perez was, ultimately, what you expect: in a big game he kept the team in the game but couldn't get past the sixth inning. That's who he is.
Endy Chavez really is an amazing glove man, and his great running catch against the wall in the top of the seventh brought back memories. I actually wondered down the stretch why he wasn't starting in right against lefties (like today) with Church in such a funk.
Random observation: Alfredo Amezaga was wearing enough lampblack to make a mask.
The broadcast team noted that Wright, Reyes, Beltran and Delgado were the first quartet of teammates to each appear in at least 159 games since the 1968 Cubs (another team not known for its strong finishes, the late-60s Cubs); those guys really did play their hearts out all year. The Mets entered this season with four major stars in their primes - Wright, Reyes, Beltran and Santana - and you could not realistically have hoped for more from them. They entered with three formerly major stars - Delgado, Wagner and Pedro - and got collectively what you tend to get with a group like that (one major resurrection, one effective but erratic and injury-shortened season, one wipeout). Perez was a bit off what you'd like but won a lot of big games, and the rise of Pelfrey offset the struggles of Maine. Brian Schneider gave the Mets the best you would have reasonably hoped from him...basically, this was a good team whose front-line players did about what they should have, but that just had too many holes, and the bulk of those in the bullpen. Management will still have that core next year, but it needs to do a better job of bringing in new relief arms and sorting through the pile of young players to figure out who is going to actually help.
Nice to see Ralph Kiner in the Shea booth one last time. You can tell Ralph's mind is still there, the words just don't come as cleanly as they used to.
I guess the upside is, I can say I was at the last Mets win at Shea.
September 27, 2008
BASEBALL: There Is Only One Johan Santana
I was out at Shea today, undoubtedly for the last time (even if they make the playoffs, I'm not going to be able to score tickets and the free time to go), and witnessed what was probably the second-best clutch, must-win pitching performance in Mets history, behind only Al Leiter's 1-hitter in the 1-game playoff in 1999. Santana was just amazing, not messing around but going right after hitters and thus keeping his pitch count low enough to go the distance on three days' rest to pull the Mets back into a tie. And unlike John Maine, who pitched an even more dominating game in precisely the same situation last season, Santana had only two runs to work with, and thus was facing the tying run at the plate all the way to his last pitch.
Amazingly, Santana now finishes with the best ERA of his career, albeit not the most impressive of his seasons given the switch to a lower-scoring league and park. He's clearly been the second-best pitcher in the NL this season, behind only Lincecum. Nobody can say Santana hasn't earned every dollar of his massive salary this year.
September 26, 2008
POLITICS: The First McCain-Obama Debate
I kinda hate writing up debates, given the extent to which posts get pored over for any sign of conceding that my side did anything but slaughter the opposition. That said, let's take on a few points about tonight's debate.
(1) This was a great debate. Fiesty, back and forth - there was too much crosstalk, but this was not just a stilted debate of the type that, frankly, you get when George W. Bush is involved. Jim Lehrer sounded old and wheezy but did manage to get the candidates to go after each other.
(2) If I had to use a word to describe Obama tonight, it would be "lawyerly" - he interrupted McCain repeatedly, he let nothing pass without a response. He was well prepared, didn't stammer as much as in past debates and had clearly worked on smiling rather than staring at his shoes when criticized. It was, in fact, a stronger presentation than his past debate performances, although as usual he had no memorable lines. Obviously there were a number of things he said that didn't hold water, but I'm not feeling energetic enough to wade into all that just yet.
(3) The upside for McCain is that he was highly energetic, and probably went a long way to dispelling concerns about his age. His effortless mastery of foreign policy and repeated and pointed dismissals of Obama's naivete were brilliant (Obama really doesn't know the difference between a tactic and a strategy), although on a number of occasions you could see that - betraying the fact that he was winging it - he was rushing to cover vast swathes of ground in a single answer without a prepared spiel. I suppose it was inevitable that he'd refuse to get sucked into the endless debate about the decision to go to war in Iraq. He eventually got good shots in on the surge but never quite cleanly explained how Obama was willing to lose the war. Probably the highlight for McCain was mocking Obama's idea that you could just disavow things said by Ahmedinejad once you've agreed to meet with him. McCain did start building the case that Obama's too far to the left to work across the aisle, but needs to ratchet that case up with specifics in the future.
(4) In general, I suspect this debate comes as a positive for both candidates, but isn't the game-changer the past 10 days of polling sugests McCain needs. Probably my biggest disappointment, among a couple of places where McCain let Obama off the hook, was failing to lay into him as he did in the speech here for Obama's obstruction of reforms McCain had pushed to head off a key element of the credit crisis two years ago. When Obama started to say anything at all about how we got into the credit crisis, the response should have been a "how dare you" moment, and McCain just let him slide. He may live to regret that.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:08 PM | Politics 2008 | Politics 2008 | Comments (15) | TrackBack (0)
POLITICS: What McCain Needs To Do Tonight
I had thought out in advance a week ago or more what John McCain needed to do tonight. But for better or for worse (in a macro sense, for McCain, probably worse) the financial crisis and McCain's decision to double down on getting a deal done in DC, followed by his unsuccessful game of chicken aimed at getting Obama to postpone the debate, has totally scrambled the situation and thrown everything into chaos. These kinds of structured Q&A debates aren't really either candidate's strong suit - Obama's better at staged speeches, McCain at wide-open forums - but in McCain's case, the advantage he has is that this is head to head, so he can have some effect on his opponent's performance.
Since he's had a bad two weeks in the polls, he has a greater need to move the needle than Obama does; the stakes are high. Beyond the general need to avoid major gaffes and serious no-nos (for McCain, having a 'senior moment' or doing something people see as racially insensitive, for Obama, hitting McCain for his war-related disabilities again or otherwise giving McCain a good reason to play the war hero card), here is what McCain needs to do.
(1) McCain needs to sell what he has been doing this week.
Foreign policy debate or no, the elephant in the room is the credit crisis, the negotiations in Washington, and McCain's brief suspension of his campaign. He needs to address, not necessarily at length but squarely, that he's been hard at work in DC and that a bipartisan deal will get done and will justify his decisions. (Implicitly it reminds people that McCain's been too busy to prepare for this debate, he's going in cold because he knows his stuff). If no deal gets done, this race is over, and McCain and everyone else know it.
Relatedly, McCain needs to be on the offensive in getting economic issues, including energy security and free trade, into this debate. One of the risks he's faced all campaign is that he'd be seen as a foreign policy guy with no real interest in domestic bread-and-butter issues; with those issues dominating the week's news, he needs to communicate that they are very much on his mind.
(2) McCain needs to punch Obama in the face.
Rhetorically, of course. Given the seriousness of this week's events it may be a bit riskier to do it tonight, but he needs to start and to do it in each of the debates. From McCain's perspective, you usually worry about coming off as mean, but people generally don't think John McCain is a nice man; they like and/or respect him because he's a scrapper who is willing to throw a punch and gets up off the mat when you hit him. And especially in the national security area, one of the largest concerns about Obama is his toughness; McCain wants the viewer at home wondering how Obama will stand toe to toe with Ahmadenijad or Putin.
Going after Obama very directly is good as well for the body language; Obama tends to stare at his shoes and look sheepish when he's criticized, and he's extremely thin-skinned and reacts badly to being directly criticized or called out on untruths. For example, Obama will claim that Bush and Maliki are following his plan for withdrawals from Iraq by mid-2010; McCain needs to hammer home that Obama's plan in fact called for complete withdrawal by March 2008.
(3) McCain needs to keep Obama off balance.
This much, he's already done; Obama has had his schedule and focus seriously disrupted this week. McCain thrives on chaos and crisis; Obama does not. McCain needs to keep rattling Obama, keep him out of his comfort zone of gauzy generalities, and force him to answer questions he hasn't thought through.
(4) McCain needs to raise doubts about Obama's staying power in Afghanistan.
The Democrats for some time now have followed a strategy of balancing dovish policies on wherever the U.S. is engaged in a hot or cold war with tough talk about other enemies we aren't confronting at the moment - hence, Democrats talked tough on Iraq in 1998 but not in 2002, or on Iran in 2004, but less so in later years as an actual confrontation became a possibility. But Obama's extended the tough talk to Afghanistan, where we are actually at war.
But once withdrawals from Iraq accelerate and Bush is gone, the anti-war movement's focus will inevitably shift to Afghanistan. If the fight there gets tougher, will Obama have the guts to take the position McCain did with Iraq in 2007-08 and double down for victory, or will he do what Obama did in that period? McCain has to draw that connection to show how Obama's faux-hawkishness will melt under pressure.
(5) McCain needs to start identifying Obama as an arch-liberal.
This is more an issue for the domestic policy debates but it needs to start tonight. At the end of the day, America is a slightly center-right country. McCain is a center-right candidate, the candidate for people who are a step to the left of George W. Bush; Obama is a far-left candidate, the candidate for people who are a step to the left of Hillary Clinton. Yet much of Obama's appeal is the fiction he started building in 2004 that he was some sort of centrist unity candidate. McCain has to shatter the remains of that illusion.
The face to face debates are the best time to drive that point home, both explicitly and through the issues. He can, for example, remind people that this time last year, Obama was promising liberal groups he would "slow our development of future combat systems." In 2004, simply by repeatedly calling John Kerry a liberal in the second debate, President Bush drove up by 6 points in one night the number of people who identified Kerry as a liberal.
Also, one bit of advice for Obama:
Obama needs to ignore Palin
Obama has a lot of trouble letting things go, and has shown a particular problem handling the prominence of McCain's running mate, which leads to lowering Obama's stature by reminding people that McCain's far more experienced and prepared than the two of them put together. Obama should deal solely with McCain.
POLITICS/BUSINESS: Some Straight Talk For House Republicans: Time To Lead From The Rear
The question of the day is whether House Republicans are going to support some form of bipartisan bailout deal. The Paulson plan is pretty much the only plan that is on the table with any conceivable chance of passing a Democrat-controlled House and Senate, period. There will undoubtedly be battles over what to add on to the basic bones of the Paulson plan, or whether to tinker around the edges of its structure, but while people debate the academic merits of plans laid out by Newt Gingrich, the Republican Study Committee, and others, we need to bear in mind that none of those plans has any chance of passing this Congress.
Nobody is threatening a filibuster of the Paulson plan in the Senate, and indeed I have not seen any sign of major organized opposition among Senate Republicans. As we all know from elementary school Civics, if Nancy Pelosi can get her caucus to line up behind the bill, not a single House Republican's vote is needed to pass it. The bailout remains massively unpopular and sets many bad policy precedents, and under ordinary conditions Republican intransigence would be the right and honorable thing to do: make the majority take responsibility for doing something unpopular, present a coherent alternative, capitalize at the polls, and replace as much of the unpopular plan as possible with the alternative after the elections.
These are not normal times. House Republicans need badly to come to grips with four very unpleasant realities, and to do so ASAP - and if ever there is a time for John McCain to lead them, this is it:
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(1) Congress Is Run By Cowards
As I said, the votes of House Republicans are in practical terms utterly meaningless. We have seen over the years innumerable occasions of both Democratic and Republican majorities in the House blithely bulldozing the powerless minority. But given the unpopularity of the Paulson plan at large and with the Democrats' base, to say nothing of the role of Congressional Democrats in creating this mess, Nancy Pelosi simply lacks the courage to have her caucus take ownership of the plan and vote for it. She is frozen by her fear. She cannot lead, and she will not lead. And nobody's even asking Barack Obama to step in and provide the leadership that is absent.
In normal times, her cowardice could be highlighted and run against. But today, if Congress is to act, the minority must take the wheel and lead. It's no answer to say the bailout is unpopular. Sometimes, the people need leadership, not followership; that's why voters elected leaders in the first place. If McCain and the House Republicans lead, the deal will get done. If they don't, it won't. It's that simple.
And the leadership squabble in the House GOP is precisely why we need McCain to lean on people. To understand John Boehner's posture you have to remember that
(1) Boehner's job as head of his caucus is in deep trouble anyway for reasons that predate this crisis.
(2) Pretty much everyone who is gunning for said job is against the bailout, and loudly so.
(3) They have a majority of the caucus behind them.
(4) If Boehner wants to keep his job he is not gonna get ahead of his caucus.
In other words, somebody needs to rally the GOP caucus, and it won't be its leader. You know how sometimes in children's books and cartoons and comic books, you have a character who has some really bizarre and sometimes irritating talent or superpower, and all of a sudden circumstances arise in which that character's unique talents are suddenly needed to save the world? That's where we are today. John McCain's signature talent as a legislator is his ability to get horrendous bipartisan legislation passed. Today, the nation needs some horrendous bipartisan legislation. It's time for McCain to get the House Republicans to follow him where their best political and policy judgment and their constituents are all telling them not to go.
(2) Psychology Trumps Policy
The point where I have reluctantly parted company with the Paulson plan's critics throughout this debate is the difference between looking at this as an issue of policy and looking at it as an issue of psychology. The primary importance of a deal, almost any deal, is its immediate effect on investor confidence, to prevent things like massive bank failures, a run on the money market funds and a freeze of the commercial paper markets, which would collapse the stock market and lead to Very Bad Things. Even if this might be the healthiest solution in the longest run, we are at the point of a potentially massive short-term system failure with huge real-world consequences for millions of Americans. Preventing that Worst Case Scenario by propping up investor confidence won't prevent a recession, but is nonetheless a critically important goal of national policy. Bear in mind that as the U.S. goes, so goes the world; you may recall that 1933 ushered in some developments with rather adverse consequences for our national security. In other words, the actual merits of a deal may be far less important than doing something quickly that reassures the markets. There's an old military saying that a bad solution today is sometimes better than a good one a week from now; or, as Chesterton put it, if a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly. Speed matters more than getting it right; and we can always push for additional pro-growth measures and scaling back of the worst add-ons later if the Democrats insist on larding the bill up with goodies. All the policy arguments in the world can't stop a herd of frightened investors from stampeding off a cliff, and will do us no good at the bottom.
(3) The Market Will Arrive Too Late To Help
The RSC and other proposals are premised on the idea that pro-growth policies can bring nervous private capital out from hiding. It's not gonna happen in time to prevent a meltdown, because people who invested in mortgage-backed securities before and ended up losing their shirts are just not going to ride in on a shiny white unicorn and start doing the same thing all over again, no matter how many tax incentives you give them, especially when so many of them are out of free cash right now. That may not be a rational answer but it's a realistic one: fear is a powerful emotion, and it can run wild for a long time before it exhausts itself.
And that means government needs to step in. Not because the market can't figure out the right prices for the MBS and related debt securities at issue, but because nobody who has enough money to invest to make the market liquid again is able to let go of the fear. Government does not invest wisely, and I have no illusions that it will do a great job of pricing the assets Paulson wants to buy. Yes, the Paulson plan is a blunt instrument that will undoubtedly proceed the way ham-handed government solutions always do. But the simple fact that government can mobilize a huge amount of cash quickly means it can fix the situation, for pretty much precisely the same reason why government can build armies and go to the moon. Government works best when what is needed is simply the unique economy of scale and the coercive power to move with great speed it brings to the table.
If you don't believe me, I suggest you spend the weekend hitting up investors for $700 billion to start your own hedge fund to invest solely in underperforming mortgage-backed securities. You may find it harder than you think.
Let me give you a rudimentary explanation of why rapid government action will work - not perfectly, but well enough to unfreeze the joints of the financial system. As anyone who has ever played Monopoly understands, the economics of the price of everything on the board changes when everybody is out of cash and in hock up to their eyeballs. But parachute one new player in who is flush, or better yet has a limitless line of credit, and that player can make serious profits in a hurry and at least temporarily keep the others on the board from going under when they hit street repairs or the luxury tax.
Paulson plans to buy up MBS (which I'm using here as shorthand) at some price that is maybe around the current market price, give or take, but in highly illiquid markets. And even if this means that the sellers of MBS are realizing their losses ASAP by selling at a steep discount, cashing out those losses and taking the charge to the balance sheet up front, that still has value that no private entity has the scale to provide on such short notice.
Let's say you are a bank. You hold $400 million face amount of MBS. Market price, to the extent there's one at all, appears to be $25, so your portfolio is worth $100 million on paper.
Suddenly Uncle Hank comes in with his bottomless debit card and says, you know what? I bet if I buy you out at $25 I can make a profit. And to extend or perhaps mix the Monopoly analogy, Hank buys out some of the inventory of everybody else on the board too. He buys Boardwalk for $150. He buys the railroads for $40 a piece, all four of them. He buys the orange set with the three hotels for $600. And in the end - getting us back to the MBS world - he'll make a profit on some of those when they pay at maturity at $100 or $70 or $45, lose his shirt on others, and maybe earn an average return of maybe $30, so he stands a good chance of making a profit simply because he was the only guy who could afford to take advantage of good buying opportunities at such an enormous scale. Uncle Hank hasn't outsmarted the market, he was just the only guy who could afford the risk.
But even if the taxpayer doesn't make a profit, the system will be able to function again without the uncertainty of having the balance sheet tied up in illiquid assets. Because your bank now has $100 million in cash, and can get out of the business of freaking out about your MBS portfolio and trying to figure out how much of the rest of your investments have to be called in to keep a cushion in case the bank next door holds a fire sale and the price drops to $10. Bingo - you can now go back to lending money.
The private sector can do this - but not with nearly this kind of speed. Which, when you consider why that's not happening, brings us back to our original point about this being a fundamentally psychological crisis - a mental recession, if you will, but one that's no less real for being mental. The government can bear larger risk and thus proceed without the fear that keeps private capital sidelined after a traumatic experience.
(4) Life Is Not Fair
If the markets go blooey over the lack of a deal, the fact that the bailout had been unpopular will not save the lack of a bailout from being even more unpopular. And Republicans will get the blame - because the media's already blaming the House GOP, because our guy is in the White House and will get tagged as the new Hoover, because all the political contributions to Democrats in the world, and all the explanations of how bad public policy was at fault, can't break the Republicans=rich people=free market=Wall Street link in the public mind. And with just five weeks until the elections, that will mean that economic disaster is followed by electoral disaster and quite possibly the end of the free market as we know it at the hands of the winners of that election.
Republicans can grouse about this but we know in our hearts it is true. Failure to act will be political suicide for the GOP. So in the end, it's not only about putting the nation first, but saving the party's political hide as well. It's time for the minority to lead.
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September 25, 2008
POLITICS: The Curious Incident of Reid and Pelosi In A Crisis
Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."
Holmes: "That was the curious incident."
In politics, actions speak louder than words, and inaction sometimes speaks even louder. With John McCain leaving the campaign trail to go to Washington to join the negotiations over the Paulson bailout bill, there's a fair debate about exactly how important his presence there is, as I will discuss below. But judging by the actions of everyone involved, there's no doubt that even his own Democratic colleagues recognize that Barack Obama is completely irrelevant to the process.
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As I noted yesterday, nobody really wants to support the bailout, but the White House and many in both parties on Capitol Hill feel it's necessary, and will back it if and only if a consensus bipartisan deal can be put together. John McCain, of course, has made a career in Washington of being the man in the middle who holds the key to precisely such sorts of bipartisan compromises.
The Democrats' Congressional leadership has zigzagged repeatedly on whether they want or need that help in building a consensus. Wednesday morning, we were hearing that Harry Reid was alternately begging for McCain's help and claiming he already had it to press Republicans unhappy with the deal into supporting it:
Media reports indicate congressional Democrats and Republicans alike are anxiously looking to Sen. John McCain for cues on his stance on the financial bailout package. Stories suggest the GOP nominee's stance on the legislation could prove decisive to its passage. ABC World News, for example, reported McCain "may hold the fate of the $700 billion bailout proposal in his hands. Even with Vice President Dick Cheney lobbying hard for the bill today, top congressional Republicans say if McCain does not support the bill, it will likely die" and "Democratic leaders have told the White House a deal without McCain on board will mean no sale. They say they fear McCain will, quote, 'demagogue' the bill and Democrats on the campaign trail." Roll Call adds, "According to a Democratic aide familiar with the discussions," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told Treasury Secretary Paulson "this week that 'if McCain didn't come out for this thing and come out for it quickly, it was going to begin bleeding Republican votes.' Democrats 'have a very real concern that opposition [from McCain] is going to drive away potential Republican votes,' this aide said."
McCain at this point was in the midst of negotiating with Obama a bland joint statement of the need for bipartisan consensus, without saying what it was they wanted consensus on. McCain had, shortly before the announcement of the Paulson plan last week, released his own bailout framework on Thursday the 19th (see here and here), which appeared to lean more in the direction of loans to shaky companies rather than purchases of their inventory, but hadn't firmly committed himself on the deal still being worked out between the White House and the Hill Democrats. But then Reid's call for help was echoed by a summons by Paulson, relayed through Lindsey Graham, that McCain's aid was needed:
Paulson then called, according to my sources, Senator Lindsey Graham, who is very close to John McCain, and told him: you've got to get the people in the McCain campaign, you've got to convince John McCain to give these Republicans some political cover. If you don't do that, this whole bailout plan is going to fail. So that's how, McCain, apparently, became involved.
That's the point at which McCain decided to "suspend" his campaign and return to Washington, even arguing that Friday night's debate in Mississippi should be postponed so as not to interfere with the negotiations in DC. After Obama refused to follow suit, Hill Democrats hastily scrambled to downplay McCain's importance. Barney Frank sneered that "McCain is Andy Kaufman in his Mighty Mouse costume - 'Here I Come to Save the Day,'" while Reid reversed course and said that neither McCain nor Obama would be helpful:
[I]t would not be helpful at this time to have them come back during these negotiations and risk injecting presidential politics into this process or distract important talks about the future of our nation's economy. If that changes, we will call upon them. We need leadership; not a campaign photo op.
Eventually President Bush invited both McCain and Obama to a joint meeting with both parties' Congressional leadership at the White House. The Democrats' insistence on McCain's unimportance didn't last any longer than Reid's original statement. Congressional Quarterly today reported that
McCain's unilateral decision to break off his campaign and return to Washington to push for action on a rescue plan scrambled the political world Wednesday but by Thursday was seen by some Democrats as a way to potentially help line up Republicans behind the final proposal.
With the economic news only getting worse each day, I call on the President, Senator McCain and Congressional Republicans to join us to quickly get this done for American families.
In other words, Reid recognizes the basic reality: McCain is a player in this debate and needs to be a part of any resolution.
what I've told the leadership in Congress is that, if I can be helpful, then I am prepared to be anywhere, anytime.
Neither Reid nor Pelosi has called for Obama to do anything; there has been no groundswell among Hill Democrats for Obama to get involved, and so far as I can tell, nobody is much discussing whether the plan being worked out does or does not satisfy Obama's "principles" or whether Obama's ultimate support or opposition will affect how they vote. And Beldar explains why that silence says everything about what Obama's own colleagues think of his usefulness in a crisis:
What's already abundantly clear in this crisis...without the need for any hindsight, is that Barack Obama has failed to lead.
Oh, well. At least they will get their gold coins with Obama's likeness on them. That's undoubtedly worth more than his leadership or his ideas.
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POLITICS: Stump The Veep
Like a lot of conservatives I was gnashing my teeth on two levels at the initial interview clip yesterday of Governor Palin, in response to a question from Katie Couric, not being able to name any examples of John McCain pushing for more regulation in his 26-year career - that's like if somebody running with Joe Lieberman couldn't name examples of him bucking his party. McCain may not be the knee-jerk hyper-regulator that many Democrats are, but he's built an extensive track record of pushing for more regulation in numerous different areas (e.g., campaign finance, health care), much too often in fact for my taste, and while you'd expect Palin to have focused more on boning up on policy than on her running mate's lengthy legislative record, it's not that hard a question.
If you watch the full(er) clip, though (and from the choppy editing it's still hard to tell how much ended up on the cutting room floor), you can see that what happened was that Palin was talking about a specific example of McCain pushing for more regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and Couric pressed her for other examples from McCain's legislative record specifically dealing with securities regulation:
H/T. Now as it happens, if you do your homework on this, it's not hard to find such examples; McCain voted for Sarbanes-Oxley, and voted against the 1995 Private Securities Litigation Reform Act (one of only four Republicans to do so) and the 1998 Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act (which passed 79-21), for example, and joined with Carl Levin to propose that if companies "don't account for their stock options as a cost in earnings reports, then they cannot claim them later as tax deductions." Of course, I can tell you those things because I'm a securities lawyer and I have access to Google; I'm not sure McCain would have all those examples at his fingertips offhand, much less Palin (indeed, I often find that people even in my business are surprised to hear that he voted against the PSLRA, and obviously Couric couldn't find them or she wouldn't have falsely stated as fact that McCain "almost always sided with the, less regulation, not more"). In that context, it's not much of a "gotcha" moment to demonstrate that Palin doesn't know chapter and verse on one of the more arcane corners of McCain's lengthy career. (Unlike, say, the time Barack Obama had to admit to a voter that he didn't know anything about the Hanford Nuclear site, the largest nuclear waste dump in the Western Hemisphere and a decades-long ongoing controversy). That said, she does need to get better at the essential skill of how to not answer a question she doesn't know the answer to.
Of course, most conservatives would challenge Couric's assumption that piling regulation on regulation is always a good thing, but Palin's not the top of the ticket here; McCain is, and you don't want to get off his message (the opposite problem bedeviled Mark Sanford earlier this summer when he got stumped trying to name ways in which McCain's economic plan differs from Bush - I'm sure Sanford could think of examples but he was unable to name any without highlighting the fact that they'd be things Sanford opposes).
Finally, note that as edited, Couric opens with a question about money paid by Freddie Mac to the former employer of McCain campaign strategist Rick Davis, in which he may arguably still have some financial interest. This might be a reasonable line of inquiry if she explained why this matters, i.e., McCain's much more extensive bill of particulars against Obama himself on this issue, but instead Couric presents the story as if the only issue is Rick Davis. (Video of McCain taking on Obama on this is below the fold; the McCain camp's full and formal response on the Davis story is here). Which is pretty much the argument in a nutshell for why people like Couric are not worth talking to at all.
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September 24, 2008
BUSINESS/POLITICS: How We Got Here
Daffyd ab Hugh at Big Lizards has an insanely long but comprehensive and comprehensible post on the nature of the current financial crisis and the Paulson bailout plan. (H/T Ace) As somebody who was familiar with a good deal of this stuff before it hit the front pages, I can vouch for the fact that this is a smart, clear, insightful summary. My main question about it is that Daffyd seems to assume that Treasury will be buying MBS at the low, distressed market prices now available, and I'm not sure we have assurances that is the case.
By the way, I was listening to the horrible Mets game rather than watching President Bush's speech tonight, but on paper at least the speech was a fairly clear layman's explanation of how the crisis developed. I know some conservatives wanted a more partisan finger-pointing speech, but Bush isn't running for office, he's trying to hold together fragile bipartisan support for a bill nobody likes. And he does seem to give credence to Daffyd's reading of how the bailout will operate:
[A]s markets have lost confidence in mortgage-backed securities, their prices have dropped sharply. Yet the value of many of these assets will likely be higher than their current price, because the vast majority of Americans will ultimately pay off their mortgages. The government is the one institution with the patience and resources to buy these assets at their current low prices and hold them until markets return to normal. And when that happens, money will flow back to the Treasury as these assets are sold. And we expect that much, if not all, of the tax dollars we invest will be paid back.
POLITICS: Should McCain Send Palin To Oxford?
Here's the state of play as I write. Bush and Capitol Hill Democrats are hammering out an agreement to, in essence, bail out financial institutions and possibly other companies that hold bad debt, mainly mortgage-backed securities. Pretty much everybody on all sides agrees that the bailout proposal stinks to high heaven and is a fundamental violation of everything conservatives believe in and everything liberals believe in, is likely to be hugely unpopular with the public, and in the short term at least will put a big crimp on federal finances. But lots of people on all sides believe that the markets will be stabilized by the deal and will really implode without it, wrecking the rest of the economy. Since markets are all about perception, that could end up being the case, which makes the deal or something very like it necessary. McCain proposed a plan of his own which is not too dissimilar; Obama hasn't proposed anything. So there aren't really a lot of alternatives on the table, and no good ones.
Given the general rule that nothing this bad happens in Washington if it's not bipartisan, the Democrats in the majority are deathly - and justifiably - afraid that if they agree to the deal, McCain and Congressional Republicans will run against it and crucify them. Republicans seem mostly resigned to support the deal in large numbers as long as the Democrats don't try to hang too many wish-list items on it and turn it into the Mother of All Pork Barrels. And of course, McCain has long experience being the last holdout in the middle whose views dictate the direction of a bipartisan deal. So Bush, Paulson, Reid, Pelosi & Co. actually seem to need McCain in Washington to do what he's done so often before, get in the middle of things and influence how a deal gets worked out that is just minimally acceptable enough for everyone to sign it. Obama's presence, by contrast, is mostly superfluous, since nobody really thinks he's a factor in what goes on in DC, and hot air is never in short supply anyway.
On the campaign trail, by contrast, Obama is benefitting in recent polls from the general sense that bad things are happening and somebody new might have better ideas; he clearly knows better than to spoil that by actually doing anything or having any ideas. Whereas McCain hasn't been able to get traction from the outside looking in, and doesn't really seem comfortable blowing the deal up, knowing the consequences. Accordingly, what McCain did today was announce that he's suspending his campaign over the next several days to come to DC to get a deal done before markets open on Monday, and call on Obama to do the same and to reschedule Friday night's debate in Oxford, Mississippi, the first one scheduled, focusing on foreign policy/national security. Obama has refused on both counts.
Which has led to the question of the day. McCain is needed in Washington; Obama's not - and neither is McCain's running mate, Gov. Palin, who obviously is not a Senator. Should McCain send her to appear on his behalf and debate Obama on Friday night?
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Such a debate might actually be a good thing for the nation: people are concerned about whether Obama or Palin, both novices in the area of national security and in their first terms in major political office, are ready to be Commander-in-Chief, Obama on Day One, Palin if anything ever happened to McCain. That readiness issue is one of the core uncertainties in a campaign where neither side has really yet closed the deal with enough undecided voters to win. As a matter of political strategy, the answer to that question seems to come down to two things: whether or not McCain thinks Palin is ready after just a few weeks of prep to go toe-to-toe with Obama on national security two days from now, and whether McCain thinks it's crucial to have the McCain-Obama debate on national security so McCain can expose Obama's glib blandishments in detail on the issue.
Let's walk through the decision tree of what happens if McCain sends Palin to Oxford to represent the campaign. Sending surrogates to campaign events is standard enough practice, but of course sending your subordinate to meet the other guy's #1 is regarded throughout the worlds of politics, international affairs, and business as fairly insulting, and usually ends up with a cancelled meeting. Obama would probably refuse to debate her, but then again he might not, and McCain has to make the call not knowing for certain what Obama would do, and considering the risks and rewards of both.
Potential upsides for McCain:
1. Expectations would be extremely low, especially if she's dropped into the debate on barely more than a day's notice - Palin's limited exposure to the media has re-created the circumstances before her Convention speech, in which she's being caricatured as totally ignorant and has a huge upside if she comes off well. We know from obervers of the 2006 Alaska Governor's race that Palin is an experienced and skilled debater, although of course you can't debate well if you aren't 100% up to speed on the subject matter. By contrast, while Obama is well-practiced at BS-ing his way through national security issues he plainly doesn't understand, he's actually not a very good debater away from his TelePrompter, where he tends to stammer a lot. If she's adequately prepared to stand toe to toe with the man universally hailed as the most golden-tongued speaker in the business, she wins just by not getting killed, and could devastate his campaign if she actually comes out his equal or better.
2. Palin has the element of surprise - Joe Biden's been preparing to debate Palin, Obama hasn't.
3. This would be a colossal television event, far more intensely watched than your usual political debate. Recall the huge ratings for Palin's Convention speech.
4. Obama can get awfully snippy when confronted and clearly doesn't respect Palin at all. He's already got a potentially bad rep for being dismissive of her, of Hillary, and of female reporters. The potential for him to aggravate the situation by sneering at her is high.
5. Obama's stature necessarily drops by talking to McCain's understudy.
2. Obama often says things about national security that can be easily dismantled by anyone versed in the issues, but that Palin, even if well-prepped on her own points, might not take him apart on if she's focused on hitting her own marks. McCain won't miss the chance to pounce if Obama again thinks Afghans speak Arabic or calls for a worldwide ban on fissile materials.
3. Nobody's thinking about national security this week. McCain would rather have this debate closer to the election when the Wall Street crisis is in the rearview mirror a bit.
Potential upsides for McCain:
1. After weeks of pushing the story that Palin is afraid of reporters, the media has to report that she was willing to face off against Obama and he was afraid of her.
2. Obama faces the possibility that he comes off as thinking debating Palin is beneath him, which plays into the issues above as well as more general problems with the image of him as simultaneously arrogant, full of himself and glass-jawed.
3. The media has prepped like crazy for Friday. They have hotel reservations in Mississippi. They won't be happy if there is no debate.
Honestly, I don't see one. The Obama camp would spin this as a gimmick, but everything that happens in campaigns is a gimmick. They would argue that McCain's afraid to debate Obama (he is apparently playing this now as "McCain can't multitask") but everybody already knows McCain's ready to be Commander-in-Chief, and all Obama does then is lower expectations for McCain entering the last two debates. The only loss is if Obama then argues that he doesn't need any debates at all on national security and refuses to reschedule a third debate, but that is unlikely to go well for him.
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September 23, 2008
BASEBALL: 100 Years Later
With the Cubs in New York on the 100th anniversary of their greatest moment here, it's worth a look at Tom Elia's post with a video tribute to the Merkle Boner.
POLITICS: A Tale of Two Vettings
In response to Stanley Kurtz's detailed story on Barack Obama's role in working with unrepentant terrorist and left-wing radical Bill Ayers to arrange the financing for a project that "poured more than $100 million into the hands of community organizers and radical education activists" under Ayers' dubious theory of treating left-wing political activism as "education" (a story I discussed at length here), Marc Aimbinder wants more details:
What "radical" ideas did Obama and Bill Ayres come up with to foist on the Chicago school system?
These are fair enough factual questions, although I think in this case Kurtz has already laid out a powerful case as it is that (1) Ayers is not a person who should be trusted to design this sort of project, (2) Ayers' theoretical approach to education pretty much guaranteed that he'd be pusing left-wing politics, and (3) the people who got the money were left-wing groups whose agendas most Americans would find to be outside the political mainstream.
But the mindset in Aimbinder asking them is deeply revealing of the contrast between how the media has approached the vetting of Sen. Obama and the vetting of Gov. Palin.
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Now, as reporters and commentators go, Aimbinder is one of the more fair-minded ones, but he's basically saying out loud here what the media has long been saying with its silence on many of the key aspects of Obama's background. The subtext of his questions is that the burden is on Kurtz and Kurtz alone, as a conservative journalist/pundit, to come up with the answers to these questions before the Ayers story merits anybody's attention.
Because Aimbinder's a reporter. If he wants answers, he can go get them himself.
As I noted earlier today and as readers of the conservative blogosphere know well, Kurtz has been rowing upstream for months now against a concerted effort by the Chicago machine to stonewall discovery of Obama's and Ayers' roles in the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. Reporters like Aimbinder and mainstream media outlets could have launched their own investigations; they could have put a daily drumbeat of pressure on Obama and his allies to release the records so we could have more answers to those questions. They didn't; instead, they sit back and wait for conservatives to deliver them a fully developed story in all imaginable detail, and shoot the messenger when the stonewall leaves gaps in the story.
Contrast this to the approach taken repeatedly to stories about Palin, as I showed in the case of her views on evolution, sex education, and book banning, or as Jim Geraghty now details here and here regarding payment for rape kits - the media is all too happy to repeat the top-line, 30-second-viral-ad charge against Palin, and then move on before there is time for the facts to come out. A vast number of these have been debunked (another prominent example was the false claim that she'd belonged to the Alaska Independence Party), yet they keep on coming too fast for the media to be bothered sifting the truth out; as long as somebody's willing to say it, it gets dumped into the national bloodstream. The level of detail and rigor required before stories about Obama can get printed or investigated gets stood on its head - report after report goes straight to the most damaging possible conclusion, and leaves it to the conservative media to get the facts relevant to stories the mainstream media's already reported. Charles Martin explains where the lefty blogs then pick this up. (H/T). The media only seems to take this approach to stories about Obama when it comes to flatly declaring McCain ads about him untrue without bothering to review the facts.
With Obama, the media bemoans the wickedness of spreading false stories about him. With Palin, the media has as often as not been the source.
And what do we get instead on Obama from leading organs like the New York Times? Yuval Levin has a hilarious post listing some of the Times articles the Obama/Times people point to as examples of the hard-hitting reportage the NYT has done on Obama:
-In Law School, Obama Found Political Voice [New York Times, 1/28/07]
Will the mainstream media report stories that are bad news for Sen. Obama? Of course they will, but they won't do the legwork unless compelled to do so by someone handing over a finished story on a silver platter. Just imagine how different the coverage of Gov. Palin would be if the same approach was taken to her.
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POLITICS: I Will Now Lower Your Opinion Of Ralph Nader
I know what you are thinking: that can't be possible! My opinion of Ralph Nader cannot go any lower! But behold:
H/T. I thought the highlight of this ad was the fact that Nader stares at the floor the whole time instead of the camera, or the fact that he thinks voters want a President who sits alone in a room talking to his parrot.
But that was before the part about the sex with the panda.
BASEBALL: No Relief In Sight
Among the solutions being mooted about for the Mets' ghastly bullpen problem is relying more on hard-throwing rookie Robert Parnell...if there was ever a mark of desperation, this is it. Parnell certainly throws hard, and it makes all the sense in the world to consider him for a relief job next season, but look at his career: the guy (1) has a 4.03 career ERA in the minor leagues, (2) has made a grand total of 8 appearances above AA ball, and (3) has made just 2 appearances as a reliever in his 94 games in the minors. In 151.2 IP this season over three levels, mostly at AA, he's averaging 0.83 HR, 3.92 BB and 6.94 K, none of those especially impressive figures.
You can make a live arm into a productive reliever even when he has a mediocre record like that, but if this is the best option the Mets have left to throw to the wolves right now, the situation is dire indeed (we saw graphically last night how this is not the time for a talented young pitcher's growing pains). John Maine's return, of course, would be welcome news, but at this point the only question is whether the bullpen's implosion takes the Mets clear out of the Wild Card race, or whether it continues to haunt them in the playoffs.
POLITICS: The Obama-Ayers Education Story
Today's must-read: after months of investigation, in which he had to weather all manner of stonewalling and intimidation by the Obama camp, Stanley Kurtz finally has the story, in today's Wall Street Journal, of Barack Obama's involvement in unrepentant former terrorist Bill Ayers' project to spread left-wing politics under the guise of 'education' in Chicago schools. Here's a flavor of Ayers' project:
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CAC translated Mr. Ayers's radicalism into practice. Instead of funding schools directly, it required schools to affiliate with "external partners," which actually got the money. Proposals from groups focused on math/science achievement were turned down. Instead CAC disbursed money through various far-left community organizers, such as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (or Acorn).
And of Obama's involvement in the activities of a group whose board he chaired:
Mr. Ayers founded CAC and was its guiding spirit....Mr. Ayers sat as an ex-officio member of the board Mr. Obama chaired through CAC's first year. He also served on the board's governance committee with Mr. Obama, and worked with him to craft CAC bylaws. Mr. Ayers made presentations to board meetings chaired by Mr. Obama. Mr. Ayers spoke for the Collaborative before the board. Likewise, Mr. Obama periodically spoke for the board at meetings of the Collaborative.
The Obama campaign has cried foul when Bill Ayers comes up, claiming "guilt by association." Yet the issue here isn't guilt by association; it's guilt by participation. As CAC chairman, Mr. Obama was lending moral and financial support to Mr. Ayers and his radical circle.
Kurtz makes some references in the article to the Obama camp's pushback, and discusses it (including reprinting the Obama campaign's full response) here, including completing the connection of the dots in Obama's involvement in setting up and funding Ayers' activities:
In the first year, 1995, Obama headed the board, which made fiscal decisions, and Ayers co-chaired the Collaborative, which set education policy. During that first year, Obama's formal responsibilities mandated close cooperation and coordination with the Collaborative. As board chair and president of the CAC corporation, Obama was authorized to "delegate to the Collaborative the development of collaborative projects and programs . . . to obtain assistance of the Collaborative in the development of requests for proposals . . . and to seek advice from the Collaborative regarding the programmatic aspects of grant proposals." All this clearly involves significant consultation between the board, headed by Obama, and the Collaborative, co-chaired by Ayers.
Bear in mind the timeline - this is precisely the time at which Obama was launching his political career (including a meeting at Ayers' home), signing a contract to support the platform of the Marxist New Party, representing ACORN as its lawyer, and receiving the support and active participation, in return, of ACORN and similar of left-wing groups as ground troops in his campaigns. Tom Maguire looks at how far back Obama's relationship with Ayers goes. I continue to be amazed that any civilized person could associate with this terrorist, much less allocate money to give him a role in educating children. But then, recall the words of the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America, writing in 2000:
Barak Obama is serving only his second term in the Illinois State Senate so he might be fairly charged with ambition, but the same might have be said of Bobby Rush when he ran against Congressman Charles Hayes. Obama also has put in time at the grass roots, working for five years as a community organizer in Harlem and in Chicago. When Obama participated in a 1996 UofC YDS Townhall Meeting on Economic Insecurity, much of what he had to say was well within the mainstream of European social democracy.
And of course, besides funding Ayers, Obama once in office was essentially letting groups like Planned Parenthood essentially write sex education bills - not a group as overtly outside the mainstream as Ayers, but consistent with Obama's overall Illinois record as a hard-core left-wing culture warrior looking to empower the whole menagerie of left-wing interest groups (headed by other "community organizers" just like Obama himself) with funding and sway over government. Kurtz, who has followed similar stories for years, explains how all of this is symptomatic of the broader left-wing cultural and educational program:
[T]he story of modern philanthropy is largely the story of moderate and conservative donors finding their funds "captured" by far more liberal, often radical, beneficiaries. CAC's story is a classic of the genre. Ayers and Obama guided CAC money to community organizers, like ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) and the Developing Communities Project (Part of the Gamaliel Foundation network), groups self-consciously working in the radical tradition of Saul Alinsky....
Of course, you don't go to a group like the Annenberg Challenge with an explicit promise to promote left-wing radicalism, and you don't pick Bill Ayers as the front man to deal with the donors. You pick someone smoother, less of a known commodity...you pick Barack Obama. In 1995, it was Obama's job to put a pleasant, respectable face on a fundamentally left-wing project.
Not much has changed since then, has it?
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September 22, 2008
BUSINESS/POLITICS: Monday Bailout Roundup
I tried over the weekend to do a more serious post with my analysis of the credit crisis and the bailouts, but basically there's just no way for me to get into this further without running afoul of my day job. At this juncture, given the limits on what I can write, the best I can offer my readers on the whole Wall Street/bailout issue is a roundup of links and what I can see and hear going around the political side of things:
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*Newt Gingrich, who is always worth reading even when he's wrong (and when Newt is wrong, he's often spectacularly wrong), has some very good questions about the big bailout, the $700 billion, no-strings-attached, no-oversight debit card being handed off to Treasury to create what blackhedd calls the First National Bad Bank of the United States. Blackhedd has his own questions and cautions about doing nothing here (more from McArdle on how close we came last week to a complete unraveling). I was on a call with McCain's economic advisor Douglas Holtz-Eakin last week and from what I can tell, McCain appears to be pushing a solution that doesn't involve Uncle Sam actually buying the underlying investments, although his proposal is likely to be moot once some version of Paulson's plan gets passed into law. There's no Obama proposal on the table to compare that to. Here is McCain today on the Paulson plan:
I think it is clear that Congress must act and must act quickly. I laid out my plan and my priorities last Friday. I spoke to Secretary Paulson over the weekend, and I've been looking at the plan the administration has put forth. I urge Congress to study this proposal carefully as they consider the remedy for this crisis.
*From a political perspective, Ruffini thinks Hill Republicans should take a hard line against the $700 billion bailout. The word I'm hearing is that the deal is being negotiated mainly between the Administration and House Democrats, and the GOP on the Hill is playing wait and see depending on what emerges, especially on the crucial issue of how much stuff the Democrats try to tack on. The 28% approval rating for the $700 billion bailout is not encouraging to anybody on the Hill who is contemplating supporting it.
*Kevin Hasset of AEI offers a good nutshell summary of the view, increasingly popular on the Right, of how Senate Democrats fed the flames by defeating a McCain-sponsored reform in 2005. McCain goes hard after Obama on the same line of reasoning. The Obama camp's counter-effort against Rick Davis is not much of a response, given that nobody can finish the sentence of "and that's why McCain...."
*Maguire is skeptical of efforts to blame mark-to-market accounting. Which side of that debate you are on depends on whether you think the current market prices are realistic, or whether they represent a 1-2 punch of illiquidity and irrational panic. If the latter, it makes more sense to suspend or ditch mark-to-market. Reasonable minds can and do differ on this. Relatedly, whether the underlying redemption value of the debt securities at issue is or isn't greater than current market value will go a long way to determine whether that $700 billion outlay by the Treasury actually ends up turning a profit, which is far from inconceivable.
*Of course, whenever you feel good about McCain, he goes and does something like recommend Andrew Cuomo for SEC Chair. There are more than a few reasons why McCain could scarcely have chosen a worse example for his bipartisanship shtick.
As I noted last week, the good things about McCain in a situation like this are that he's not prone to panic or freeze up in a crisis and that, having faith in the American economic system, he's likely to choose less draconian and counterproductive solutions in the long run than Obama. Nobody saw the whole current crisis coming, but as noted above McCain does get some credit for foreseeing and trying to head off parts of the problem. The bad news is stuff like this Cuomo nonsense, which I think he does just to butter up the mainstream Beltway press. Unfortunately, the current political climate makes it impossible for anybody who truly understands the problem to get elected, but other than Reagan I'm not sure we've had a president in modern times who really understood the economy, and the high-finance stuff was over Reagan's head too. The core advantage McCain has over Obama is that there are, in Reagan's memorable phrase, fewer things McCain knows that are not true.
*Obama's answer to the collapse of the housing market: "rebuild" one of the nation's fastest-growing cities!
*Now this, this is calm, mature governance, I tell ya.
UPDATE: The Blogometer rounds up blog reactions to the bailout, which represents the death of the free market, of fiscal conservatism, and/or of liberalism, depending who you listen to. The Club For Growth lines up against it.
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BASEBALL: Yankee, Go Home
I'm going to be frank here: I won't miss Yankee Stadium.
Yes, yes, in part that's a reflection of how I feel about the Hated Yankees. And yes, it's also colored by the fact that it's extremely inconvenient to get back and forth to Yankee Stadium from where I live in Queens, and that most of my experiences there over the years have been night games in the upper deck. And yes, I know that most of the nostalgia about any baseball park is about the memories of great moments there - that's as it should be - and Yankee Stadium has had more than its share.
But as to the structure itself, I always found it an unpleasant place to watch a baseball game, and of the six other big league parks where I've seen games (Shea, Fenway, Dodger Stadium, Citizens Bank Park, Camden Yards, and Tropicana Field) I can't seriously rate it ahead of any but the Trop, and there largely because of Tampa Bay's horrendous parking situation and some of the curious decisions made about its scoreboard. The clogged arteries at the heart of the stadium - the steep, narrow staircases leading to and from the higher decks - make entering and exiting the place slow, hot, crowded and claustrophobic. The interior of the stadium is dark and grim. Yankee Stadium lacks the intimacy of Fenway or the charm, bells and whistles and better sightlines of the newer parks, and isn't a family ballpark in the way that Shea is or a relaxed, sunshiney place like Dodger Stadium. Much as I despise the Yankees, their franchise has long deserved a better home.
POLITICS: Why, No, You Should Not Be Surprised...
...so I'm not linking to this to surprise you, if you were already quite sensibly expecting the Obama campaign and its chief strategist, David Axelrod, to peddle patently false, debunked smears directed at (who else?) Sarah Palin via purportedly independent outlets on the web that appear to have been designed to create deniability. I'm not pretending to be shocked because I'm not even slightly surprised.
Rusty has all the details, and is promising a followup with more.
Why bother linking, then? Well, it never hurts to document these things. And to remind everyone who always claimed to be against such things but now support the Obama campaign...well, this is what they do; it's who they are. This is Obama's "new politics," and really always was.
September 20, 2008
BASEBALL: End of His Rope
You know, Pedro Martinez may well not be done as a quality pitcher; I would not bet against him returning to a second act as a winner. But he has basically all but run out of things he can do to signal that he is done.
POLITICS: Factual Accuracy and McSame Syndrome
We stand today deep into the silly season of the 2008 presidential election; most of us have our dander up, and naturally some Obama partisans like Josh Marshall and Joe Klein have floated off on clouds of rhetorical overkill in an effort to push the idea that their opponent is somehow running an unusually dishonest campaign. Even aside from the partisanship, you have to be pretty willfully ignorant of history to think the 2008 race is at all exceptional in this regard, other than perhaps the degree of personal villification of one of the vice presidential candidates in a very short period of time. Now, personally I'm not as cynical as Jay Cost or Ross Douthat as far as saying "everybody does it, so what?," but...well, I look at the accuracy of claims made in advertisements, speeches, etc. under three general categories:
(1) Is it literally true? Does it say anything factually false?
One of the reasons I enjoy writing longer-form blog essays is the freedom to drill down to all the relevant context and explain a point even in light of all the facts, all the context, all the nuance. But in the real world of short-attention-span politics, with its 30-second ads and soundbites, we have to accept that #3 is a hurdle that even the best-faith politicians frequently fail, and where politicians who do try to give the full context can end up losing their audience or tying themselves in "I voted for it before I voted against it" verbal knots.
That said, you do need to be able to defend a claim on both ground #1 and #2. If a claim is literally true but conveys a totally false image, you are basically in the Bill Clinton "it depends what the meaning of 'is' is" position; if it is intended to convey something people believe but rests on fabricated facts, that's the Dan Rather "fake but accurate" defense. Either position is ultimately indefensible.
Let's look at two main examples of recent controversies and how they measure up, as well as examining what I refer to as "McSame Syndrome."
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I. The Obama Immigration Ad
The latest, hottest example, debunked here by Jake Tapper, with context provided here by Rush Limbaugh regarding his own statements quoted in the ad. In a nutshell, the Spanish language ad argues that Limbaugh is hateful and demeaning towards Mexicans and that McCain agrees with Limbaugh on immigration.
On the Limbaugh stuff, the ad is literally true in the narrowest sense - they quote actual sentence fragments uttered by Limbaugh - but as he notes, take them so wildly out of context as to be seriously false. But of course, Rush isn't the candidate, McCain is, so that's my main concern. Tapper walks through some of the attenuated efforts by the Obama to defend the factual accuracy of the ad, but its overall theme, which it supports with nothing in the ad, is that McCain is indistinguishable from border hawks like Rush on immigration issues. Which is so absurdly laughable and insulting to the listener's intelligence you hardly know where to start ... it's like running an ad against Joe Lieberman that says he takes his marching orders on foreign policy from Ted Kennedy. I mean, Rush was at the center of a coordinated effort by right-wing talk shows to block McCain's nomination in late January, and disagreement with McCain's more liberal immigration policies was the #1 reason for that. Everybody who pays even the remotest attention to politics knows this.
What it is symptomatic of, on the Obama side, is McSame Syndrome: the absolute refusal, in the face of any and all evidence, of Democrats and liberals to acknowledge that John McCain is not identical in all particulars to George W. Bush and other conservative Republicans. I explained on Monday why Obama's strategy has trapped him in this narrative, which he simply can't abandon even when it leads him to the absurd end of making McCain, of all people, out to be some sort of anti-immigrant extremist. Joe Biden's criticism of McCain for opposing embryonic stem cell research, which McCain has consistently supported, is another example of the same phenomenon. (See here for more of the same on McCain's regulatory record).
II. The McCain Sex Ed Ad
One of the major sources of hyperventilation against McCain is an ad he ran that, at the end of a litany of Obama's lack of accomplishments on education, accused Obama of supporting a bill that would teach sex education to kids as young as kindergarteners.
There's no question at this point that the ad was, in fact, literally accurate. Byron York walks through the bill's language and legislative history here, and shows fairly clearly that the effect of the bill was, in fact, to take existing rules about sex education for kids in the 6th grade and older and lower the age to kindergarten:
Illinois' existing law required the teaching of sex education and AIDS prevention in grades six through twelve. The old law read:Each class or course in comprehensive sex education offered in any of grades 6 through 12 shall include instruction on the prevention, transmission and spread of AIDS.
York also talks to a sponsor of the bill who basically admits that the language of the bill was, in fact, related to the purpose of the bill, and that Barack Obama's claim that the bill was really only aimed at teaching young children when to report inappropriate touching was not accurate:
When I asked Martinez the rationale for changing grade six to kindergarten, she said that groups like Planned Parenthood and the Cook County Department of Health - both major contributors to the bill - "were finding that there were children younger than the sixth grade that were being inappropriately touched or molested." When I asked about the elimination of references to marriage and the contraception passages, Martinez said that the changes were "based on some of the information we got from Planned Parenthood."
As York summarizes the results of doing actual reporting on the bill:
Obama's explanation for his vote has been accepted by nearly all commentators. And perhaps that is indeed why he voted for Senate Bill 99, although we don't know for sure. But we do know that the bill itself was much more than that. The fact is, the bill's intention was to mandate that issues like contraception and the prevention of sexually-transmitted diseases be included in sex-education classes for children before the sixth grade, and as early as kindergarten. Obama's defenders may howl, but the bill is what it is.
So, McCain's ad is literally accurate: he fairly described what Obama actually voted for. But is it a fair ad that gets at an essential truth? My initial reaction to the ad was that despite the factual accuracy it pushed the envelope a bit too far in this regard: Obama probably wasn't aware of the import of the actual language of the bill, one could legitimately have misunderstandings about what would be construed as "age appropriate" sex education at that age, he thought he was just voting for education about inappropriate touching, and the objectionable provisions were pulled before being passed into law. In essence, legislative negligence, but not any sort of deliberate effort to push teaching about sex on little kids.
But then...well, first of all, on the one hand we have the actual language of the bill, and all we have for the opposite narrative is Obama's after-the-fact rationalizations. Obama conveniently destroyed all his records from his time in the State Senate, and as is so often true of the memory hole that has swallowed his State Senate career, we seem to have no contemporaneous record of what he was saying at the time about the bill despite the fact that he was the chairman of the committee (York found it hard to even locate people who had served as his colleagues in the State Senate, a persistent problem in getting details about Obama's past prior to 2004 - Charles Krauthammer noted the near-complete absence of people other than Michelle Obama who stood up to testify from personal knowledge about Obama's life or work). Then I watched this July 2007 video of Obama from a Planned Parenthood event (H/T). The video is from an ABC News report at the time, entitled "Sex Ed for Kindergarteners 'Right Thing to Do,' Says Obama," - a title undoubtedly craftily planted many months in advance by the McCain campaign, kinda like the way McCain hypnotized the Washington Post into interviewing Frank Raines about his ties to Obama.
While ABC's title may itself be a bit tendentious, go and watch the video - after giving a fairly good Alan Keyes imitation, Obama laughs about the kindergarten issue but doesn't exactly deny it ("I didn't know what to say to him...but it's the right thing to do"), and launches directly into defending expanded sex education in some very broad terms, and promising to re-create at the federal level what he did in Illinois: "to provide age-appropriate sex education, science-based sex education in the schools." And note that he's doing this at an event by Planned Parenthood, a group whose mission has basically nothing to do with sexual abuse of kindergarteners and everything to do with the sex ed agenda, and which - as we saw from the York article - was basically driving the Illinois bill.
The essential truth? If you are a parent who thinks that groups like Planned Parenthood have been pressing for too much sex education in school (and a great many parents do feel that the government should not be pressing its view of sexual morals on children, and that sex education inherently conveys a message about morals if only by their complete absence), and you think Obama is the kind of guy who would support and encourage that through legislation, you are correct, and the Illinois bill is powerful evidence of that. If you think Obama won't be especially picky about ensuring that there are safeguards in that legislation to keep sex education confined to children who are at an age to be sexually active, the Illinois bill is powerful evidence of that, too. The most that can be said of McCain's ad is that it takes the plain language of the bill as evidence of an intent by Obama to do something, when we really lack any contemporaneous evidence one way or another of what Obama intended. And that, to me, is really #3 on my list (the omission of context) rather than the more serious problem with #2.
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BUSINESS: The Man To Read
I know I tend to link a lot to my colleagues at RedState, where I am currently one of the site's Directors; we have a tremendous and varied group of writers and thinkers on the site, and while I don't necessarily agree with any of them all the time, we have quite a number of people who are always worth reading.
But if there's one of my co-Contributors to the site who you really need to be reading regularly, it's Francis Cianfrocca, who writes under the pseudonym of "blackhedd." He's scary-smart about Wall Street issues he knows from personal experience, he's utterly unsentimental and willing to think outside the box, and unlike most people in the blogosphere, nearly everything he writes is 100% original content you can't get anywhere else. And he's been warning the rest of us about the falling sky in the credit markets pretty consistently since about June 2007. And unlike me, he's not hemmed in at all turns from writing about these issues (I have to avoid writing in any but the most general terms about my firm's clients, which includes almost everybody).
Here's his stuff just from the last week:
*The Fannie/Freddie bailout here.
*The non-bailout of Lehman Brothers here.
September 19, 2008
POLITICS: A Word About Accountability and Leadership
A lot of conservatives are up in arms about John McCain's call for the firing of Chris Cox as SEC Chairman due to the collapse of numerous Wall Street firms on his watch. There is a more than fair argument against McCain's position: that Cox is a smart, capable conservative and expert in the area who hasn't really done anything wrong, or at least hadn't until the recent move against short sellers (I don't buy that Cox is above criticism, but I don't think this mess is in any way his fault). But there is also a case to be made for the emerging McCain leadership style. As McCain explained today:
Dwight David Eisenhower, when he was commander and he was in charge of the largest military operation in history, the invasion of Normandy. He went to his quarters the night before the invasion and wrote out two letters. One of them sent a letter of congratulation, a messgae of congratulations to the brave Americans who landed in Normandy and made the most successful invasion and partly brought about the beginning of the end of World War II. The other letter he wrote out was his resignation from the United States army, taking full responsibility for the failure of that invasion.
That's McCain's view in a nutshell: you produce results, or you step aside, regardless of how well you performed your duties. You own your watch. It's a decidedly military outlook, as befits a man who spent so many years in the Navy. It's perhaps an odd way for McCain to approach leadership - in his book Faith of My Fathers, McCain movingly recounts the bitterness he inherited over how his grandfather was scapegoated unfairly by Admiral Halsey for a mistake Halsey himself made in steering the fleet too close to a storm, mistreatment that McCain ascribes as a possible cause for the elder Admiral McCain's fatal heart attack on his return from the war.
I don't, personally, think that this unforgiving, only-results-matter management style is the best possible way to run an organization in terms of motivating people, and neither is it really a good or fair way to treat subordinates, but it's one well-established leadership style, and it's been successful for plenty of people in business, the military, politics and sports. Certainly it's a sharp contrast to President Bush; while Bush has sacked a lot of people (including Harvey Pitt, his first SEC Chairman who was also just in the wrong place at the wrong time), he's nonetheless frequently found himself in trouble for leaving loyal but incompetent subordinates in place too long after they became obvious political liabilities. McCain is sending a message: the likes of Mike Brown, Alberto Gonzales and Scott McClellan will not be left in their jobs in his White House. Loyalty will give way to accountability.
On a purely political level, in the real world of politics, there's a case to be made about being unsentimental about letting people go when they represent a serious political liability. I wouldn't blame Bush in the least, for example, if he sacked Cox regardless of the merits of his job performance. Political leaders fight for a cause, and that cause is bigger than any one man. A politician who errs on the side of scapegoating people who through no fault of their own preside over disasters is going to do better in the long run than one who fights till the last dog dies for friends he can no longer afford. It's an ugly business but it must be played to win in the real world.
This is a management style that suits McCain, an old man who is likely to serve only one term and already has an impressive collection of enemies. It's a style that's also well-suited to McCain's running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin. One of the recurring themes in Palin's various jobs is that she fires a lot of people - people who don't agree with her policy goals, people who don't follow her orders, people who oppose her in public, people who are too close to corrupt interests or political foes. This is, again, a good way to make enemies who compile vendettas against you - it was her firing of an agency head who was publicly insubordinate that led to the 'Tasergate' investigation headed by a representative of the Obama campaign - but removing the people who are not 100% with you is the one best way to impose your will on an organization, a task that's famously difficult in large public bureaucracies. That was how Rudy Giuliani ran New York, and why he delivered results as an agent of change. A McCain-Palin Administration may not be the friendliest workplace, but the one thing it won't do is let the grass grown under its feet as far as holding subordinates accountable.
September 18, 2008
POLITICS: Don't Panic
If there's one lesson we should all bear in mind as fear stalks Wall Street and the presidential race keeps getting tighter as it races towards its conclusion, it is this: Don't Panic.
Now, the current crisis is not an illusion; at its core, it's about markets that valued assets one way and now value them as being worth considerably less, and that has all sorts of ripple effects when it threatens to close down major financial institutions or force the fire-sale liquidation of portfolios of billions or trillions of dollars worth of assets for which there may not currently be a liquid market. People have lost real money and real jobs, and serious people in business and government alike do need to think long and hard about how to contain the damage and reassess and rationalize government's regulatory roles going forward.
Now, John McCain has never been accused of being a financial whiz, but the one thing we can trust McCain not to do is panic in a crisis, or encourage anyone else to panic. McCain's survived three plane crashes, multiple bouts with cancer, the loss of a presidential primary campaign, five years in captivity, months on end in solitary confinement, countless hours of torture, being at the epicenter of a shipboard fire that killed 134 people, being named in a front-page scandal that killed multiple major political careers, being beaten by an angry mob, having one of his top legislative priorities torpedoed by his own party's base, standing stubbornly for a war nearly everybody had declared lost, and just a year ago found his presidential campaign broke, rudderless and declared dead by nearly everybody. Yet time after time after time, McCain picked himself up, dusted himself off, gritted his teeth, set his jaw, and refused to give up, whether that meant lying broken in a filthy cell as a young man or trudging on week after week to sparsely-attended rallies in the New Hampshire snow as an old one.
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Why that matters to today's news, of course, is that even as the headlines have been dominated by one ripple of the credit crisis after another, McCain has acknowledged the damage and the need for reform, but he has stubbornly refused to panic, and has urged the voters even in hard-hit communities not to panic either. Over and over he has insisted that underneath all the credit craziness, the fundamental foundation of the American economy - the labor force, the businesses, the old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity, the entrepeneurial spirit - is still strong and still the envy of the world. As McCain's economic guru, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, put it recently, "You shouldn't run for president by running from everything in sight and trying to scare people." (H/T) McCain himself has promised regulatory-agency reform that "consolidate[s]" the alphabet soup of regulators (e.g., Treasury, Fed, SEC, CFTC, OCC, FINRA, OFHEO, PCAOB, to say nothing of 50 state banking agencies, 50 state securities commissions, 50 state insurance commissions), but also warned against "a risk of overregulation and overreacting...Congress has a tendency to do that." His latest TV ad stresses this bedrock optimism, the can-do sense that we've been through worse and can beat this too:
But every time McCain has made this point, Obama and his campaign have flown into a tizzy. Obama seems to think it's a great selling point to attack McCain for trying to tamp down panic over the fundamental foundations of the economy. This is perhaps unsurprising; Obama's never had to stand his ground under fire for anything, so he doesn't understand why McCain is doing what he's doing or what value there could be in reassuring the public to hang in there. The signature feature of Obama's career, after all, has been a restless desire to move on to the next thing; even his survival of the long primary race against Hillary Clinton was all about simply running out the clock before his act wore too thin. But panic and 'malaise' is the last thing we need right now:
The palpable panic of Obama and the Democrats can best be seen in their aimless and economically illiterate lashing out to try to capitalize on the credit crisis after weeks of losing polling ground. Joe Biden thinks he can convince people to blame the Bush tax cuts for the credit crisis (!), or worse yet, he believes it himself. Obama himself can apparently barely even spell AIG and is voting 'present' on the bailout, yet he's still pushing to jack up taxes on all forms of investment, even months after admitting that he favored a capital gains hike even if it didn't bring the government any more tax revenue. Harry Reid gives an unhinghed speech calling the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act "financial weapons of mass destruction," ignoring the fact that Reid and Joe Biden voted for the Act in its final form, to say nothing of the fact that J.P. Morgan's purchase of Bear Stearns, Barclays' purchase of Lehman Brothers, and Bank of America's purchase of Merrill Lynch would all have been impossible without Gramm-Leach-Bliley's elimination of the archaic and artificial Depression-era barriers between commercial and investment banking. Then, Reid turns around and admits that "No one knows what to do." At this point, the whole lot of them look like Kathleen Blanco, the Democratic Governor of Louisiana who simply froze up in the crisis of Hurricane Katrina.
By contrast, the McCain camp has been steady - even as McCain has warned against the "moral hazard" created by bailouts, his running mate has acknowledged the real-world reasons why the Fed may have felt it necessary to throw a credit lifeline to AIG. McCain isn't pushing a radical expansion of government or a dire view of the state of the economy, just a promise to reform and modernize the way government works within its proper scope. He's being the one adult in the room.
Maybe this realism about the situation and steadiness in its face is one reason why McCain is now slightly more trusted on the economy than Obama, as a decisive plurality of voters share McCain's concern that the federal government will overreact.
McCain and Obama both want us to have hope for the economy. But somehow it seems that only McCain understands the lesson he learned in that long-ago POW camp - that you can't have hope unless you have faith.
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September 16, 2008
BASEBALL: Adam's Guts
The further we get into the fall, the more meaningful the state-by-state polls become. But it's nonetheless useful to bear in mind the hard numbers from past years to keep a realistic view of what the range of possibilties are in any given state. A few months back, I had gone through the Federal Election Commission website and put together a spreadsheet, which I'm only getting back around to now, tallying up all the votes for federal office (President, Senate, House) in the last four election cycles (2000, 2002, 2004, 2006) comprising two presidential elections, four House elections, and a full cycle and a third of Senate races. The chart below lays out the results.
Now, let's be clear: while the underlying numbers are actual votes cast, basically what I'm doing here is using a metric, not a statistic; I'm combining different types of votes over time in a way that's not scientific, but rather an effort to take disparate pieces of data and make them digestible. Obviously, there are a host of reasons why this isn't science: turnout is much larger in presidential years, some incumbents in the Senate and House run unopposed (although this is itself usually a sign of strength), a third of the Senate seats are counted twice here, gerrymandering affects House races, and of course, there's no fixed way to measure the relative probative value of 2006 results vs. 2000 results in measuring 2008's political terrain. That said, using three levels of balloting over four election cycles does help give us a large enough sample size to get a look at the real, underlying partisan makeup of particular states, and limit the distorting effects of individual personalities.
Here's the methodology. I present two sets of numbers: "raw" numbers that treat each of the four elections alike, and "weighted" numbers that give a larger weight to more recent results. For the raw numbers, I tallied up all votes cast for each of the two major parties (ignoring third party votes, for simplicity's sake) in presidential, Senate or House races in 2000, 2002, 2004 or 2006. For the Weighted totals, I weighted the votes by year as follows:
i.e., a vote for a House candidate in 2006 was worth twice the weight of a vote for the same candidate in 2002, and four times the weight of a vote for that candidate in 2000.
The final two columns attempt to combine the electoral vote weight of each state with its partisan composition in order to put the closeness of the state in the context of the reward for presidential candidates of swinging it, dividing the number of electoral votes by the square of the margin separating the two parties (the sum is then divided by 100 just for ease of the reader). The equation is:
Without further ado, here is the chart:
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A couple of things jump off the list:
(1) Yes, as we all know, Colorado and Pennsylvania are two of the really critical battlegrounds in 2008, and not only at the presidential level.
(2) Some states are genuinely competitive yet never become swing states at the presidential level. Maine has two Republican Senators because they are much more liberal than any national Republican; South Dakota has a Democratic Senator and at-Large Congresswoman because they are much more conservative than any national Democrat, and aren't running for Commander-in-Chief.
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September 15, 2008
Yes, apparently Gov. Palin requested federal funding to upgrade an airport servicing...a military installation!
Clearly, not a matter of any interest to the federal government.
BASEBALL: Cliff Dweller
One of the really remarkable things that has happened thus far this season is Cliff Lee - almost certainly the AL Cy Young Award winner - not just bouncing back from a horrendous 2007 when he posted a 6.29 ERA to toss an MLB-best 2.28 mark (and it's for real: a staggering 157-28 K/BB ratio and just 10 HR allowed in 210 IP), but racking up a 21-2 record for a team having a dismal year. The Indians are 72-77 (.483), a respectable but unspectacular 7th in the AL in runs scored but with a wrecked bullpen (Jensen Lewis leads the team with 8 saves). It's unusual for an ordinary pitcher to have such a great year, but doubly so to do it for a severely struggling team. For a comparison, CC Sabathia, who some people are touting for the NL Cy Young, posted a 2.16 ERA in 14 starts for the Indians between April 22 and July 2 (during which he pitched 3 complete games, two of them shutouts, and averaged 7.45 IP/start) - and went 6-5.
How hard is it to do this? Well, I looked at the all-time leaders in winning percentage, and Baseball-Reference lists 37 pitchers in the game's 133 year history who won 85% of their decisions. 8 of those pitched mainly in relief, which skews W-L records, 2 pitched for the 1884 St. Louis Maroons who dominated the Union Association (a 1-year league that was barely "major" in any sense) and 3 of those are this season. In other words, prior to this year, in 133 years of NL, AL, Federal League and 19th century AA seasons, it's been done by a starting pitcher only 24 times, only 21 times since the mound was moved back to its current distance in 1893.
Anyway, of the 24 prior starting pitchers to crack 85%, all but two of them pitched for teams that won 55% or more of their games. The only exceptions were Randy Johnson in 1995 going 18-2 for a Mariners team that won the division playing .545 ball and Mike Nagy, who went 12-2 for the 1969 Red Sox, a .537 team. Lee's accomplishment of reaching 20 wins while winning 90% of his decisions for a losing team is entirely unprecedented.
And yet, he might not be completely alone. One of the other two pitchers who will finish at or above an .850 winning percentage if he avoids losing over the season's final two weeks is Dice-K Matsuzaka, 16-2 for the powerhouse Red Sox, but the other is Tim Lincecum, who stands at 17-3 for a truly horrendous Giants team - they're playing .456 ball, but outside of Lincecum it's .395, as the team is 14th in the NL in Runs Scored and 10th in ERA.
In baseball, even after a century and a quarter, you truly can see something new every year.
POLITICS: Why Aren't The Candidates Talking About "The Issues"?
Over the last few weeks, in between devoting untold column-inches and airtime to anything and everything but actual issues, the mainstream media and liberal commentators (to the extent one can distinguish the two) have been complaining - as has the Obama campaign itself - that we have not had a discussion of "the issues" or "the real issues." To understand why this is happening, we have to understand three things:
1. What they mean by "the issues"
2. How we got where we are in terms of the political climate
3. Why that climate, combined with the nature and strategies of the two candidates, dictated that head-to-head clashes on particular domestic policy issues were going to take a back seat in this campaign.
As you will see, the net result is that Barack Obama has been hoist by his own petard. Obama made a deliberate choice in light of the political environment to run a campaign of broad themes rather than one with an identifiable issues-based core, and it's too late in the game for him to reverse that decision.
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I. "The Issues"
I think I've made this point before recently, but when you hear people on the center-left or Left talk about "the issues," what they mean is health care. Well, not only health care, but invariably what they have in mind - as you can tell from reading many years' worth of such complaints - are domestic policy issues that can be solved by some combination of federal government spending, federal government regulation, and federal bureaucracy. Thus, a Republican who gives a campaign speech about taxes, national security/foreign policy, the courts and social and/or law enforcement issues can still end up being denounced for "ignoring the real issues" or running on "distractions from the real issues."
For the most part, Republican campaigns on the national level have responded to these sorts of complaints by rejecting their premises: (1) that large, expensive federal government programs are the answer to what ails us and (2) that things like national security, taxes and social issues are not legitimate subjects for debate. On a deeper level, GOP campaign strategy in national elections - especially in successful Republican campaigns - has tended to do two things:
1. Focus on a few simple points about a few core issues.
2. Spend the rest of the campaign drawing contrasts on things like character, experience, personality and values.
As I've said many times before, ideas don't run for president; people do.
Journalists tend to sneer at this approach as if it's some sort of voodoo trickery on a gullible citizenry, but you don't have to view the voters as ignoramuses to recognize that the average voter quite rationally does not have the time or the resources to evaluate, say, two complex competing health care plans, especially when proposed by politicians who cite competing and conflicting statistics, factoids and anecdotes to support them. Nor do most citizens these days trust the media to adjudicate such disputes fairly. A successful campaign can at most widely communicate a handful of things about its views on the issues - when Bush ran in 2000, for example, pretty much everybody knew about his tax cut plan and that he wanted to toughen educational standards, and most people got the message at a general level about his support for missile defense and private Social Security accounts. This was his core message, the rest of which was details and background noise to the average voter. Beyond the headlines, voters tend to just rely on their background impressions of what the parties usually stand for. (Which is not to say the candidates can afford to ignore the need to flesh out answers on ever imaginable issue - there are still many people who vote on one or another single issue that flies below the surface of the main debate - but there just isn't a way to communicate your message on every issue to the great mass of voters).
With the core message set, much of the rest of the campaign ends up being a battle to convince voters that the candidates share the voters' values and worldview and are the kind of people who will do at least some of what they promise and handle the inevitable unpredictable crises. Sometimes, that means using positions on real issues to illustrate a point - that John Kerry was unable to take and hold a clear position on the crucial life-and-death issue of the Iraq War, that Michael Dukakis took such an unserious approach to crime that he supported prison furloughs for violent sex offenders, that Barack Obama is such an extremist on abortion that he even proudly opposed a bill designed to protect children born alive after an abortion. Those issue discussions are intended less to "debate the issues" than to reveal something in the outlook of the candidate that will permeate multiple issues. Voters who lack the means to weigh two sets of platforms end up relying on their own ability to take the measure of the men.
In short, there are perfectly valid reasons why presidential campaigns are almost never mainly about "the issues" in the sense that liberal journalists use the phrase. (What stories actually sell newspapers and get read or watched on TV tends to reinforce that fact). As I will discuss below, however, that's not the only reason why this race seems to be less about "the issues" than usual.
II. How We Got Here
The second key to how the McCain and Obama campaigns have approached "the issues" is recent history. Since the end of the Cold War, the American electorate has been pretty evenly divided - there are still more registered Democrats than registered Republicans, but there also tend to be more Republican-leaning independents, especially in presidential elections, than Democrat-leaning independents. Between 1992 and 2001, the conventional wisdom was that both parties needed to move towards the center to win at the presidential and statewide levels (even as House races were getting ever more polarized and ideological), but that the Democrats needed to move further, and had done so under Clinton. Most observers would agree that Bill Clinton, while unmistakably liberal on a number of issues, had in fact made some real, substantive moves to the center on issues like the death penalty, free trade and (grudgingly) welfare reform, whereas George Bush's moves to the center were milder and more rhetorical, notably on spending (when he accused the GOP Congress in 1999 of "trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor") and immigration.
That all changed after September 11. In 2000, Republicans had a mediocre year - Bush barely won election while losing the popular vote, and nearly all the close Senate races went to the Democrats - but did succeed in electing the second-most conservative President since Coolidge. In 2002 and 2004, though, Republicans consistently whupped the Democrats. Bush won the first national popular majority since 1988. Republicans won all but a handful of the contested Senate races. And they did so in large part by pummelling the Democrats on a consistent message of a few core issues - tax cuts, control of the courts, and of course the paramount importance of national security. The result was a commanding Republican position in the legislative and executive branches, and talk on the Right of a realignment.
As we all know, the political environment has been all downhill since then. While the 109th Congress was not without its accomplishments, most of the GOP's major legislative goals have gone down in flames since then, the 2006 elections were a rout outside of a handful of governors' races (Alaska, South Carolina, Minnesota, Florida, Rhode Island), various special elections have gone badly, opinion polls consistently showed major movement away from the GOP brand, and pretty much everybody thought that the Democrats would make major gains again in Congress in 2008 and that the presidential election was theirs to lose.
The question is why this happened. There's certainly evidence to support the argument that Republicans got beat on the merits on some issues. While Bush badly mismanaged and mishandled the rollout of his Social Security reform plan (I also blame the Terri Schiavo controversy, which sucked up crucial media oxygen at precisely the time when Bush should have been selling his plan), the fact remains that there's a lot of public resistance to anything that alters the entitlement programs. The Democrats successfully publicized and exploited issues where the GOP view was (unfortunately) out of step with public opinion, like embryonic stem cell research. And the agonizingly slow progress of the Iraq War was, for much of the past 4 years, a major drag on GOP political fortunes.
That being said, I believe - and I think many conservatives believe and more than a few Democrats would have to admit to themselves - that the bulk of the problem Republicans have faced in recent years is not about Republican ideas, but the people the party elected to office. The problem has been one of competence and integrity much moreso than ideology. I don't weep, of course, for the public officials who have suffered the consequences of their own failures in this regard, but you have to diagnose the problem.
This is not to say, of course, that all the criticisms on non-ideological grounds have been fair or well-founded, but that's another day's argument; the perception is a reality all to itself, and it's got enough foundation to it that it's no longer worth fighting over rather than try to move on from it with new leadership that has the credibility to fix the problem.
The Democrats were highly effective at deploying the "culture of corruption" theme in 2006, and Capitol Hill Republicans gave them a lot to work with. Of course, finding corruption in Congress is like finding sand in Saudi Arabia, and of course, there has been plenty of Democratic corruption in the same time period, but (1) Republicans were running the place and (2) a key part of the selling point of the GOP is being the faithful steward of the taxpayer. Republicans win by promising to stand for the general interest in less government against special interest governance that says government has to respond with a wheelbarrow of cash whenever anybody says they need it.
But to say that Republicans were punished at the polls more than Democrats would be for corruption, overspending and shady pork projects - in short, for fiscal hypocrisy - is to understand that voters didn't lose faith in Republican ideas; they lost faith in Republicans' willingness to execute them.
By the standards of two-term presidencies the Bush Administration has had remarkably few scandals centered on personal venality; most of the executive branch controversies have derived from disputes over policy and politics. But that doesn't mean Bush's image has been untouched. By failing to veto even a single bill produced by Congressional Republicans, Bush was part of the problem.
If the GOP Congress had an integrity problem, the Bush White House in its second term had a competence problem. Of course, there were things done poorly in the first term and things done well in the second, but broadly speaking voters in 2004 had rewarded a Bush team that accomplished a lot: a steady response to 9/11, the successful toppling of the Taliban and Saddam, a blizzard of complex new legislation, prevention of any further terror attacks, a booming economy.
But the second term has been marred by too many high-profile failures of competence. Hurricane Katrina, of course, was the signal failure from which Bush never recovered, and for the most part the Administration's problem was simply the fact of having put an unqualified guy in the job of FEMA chief and left him there. The Harriet Miers nomination was a failure of competence - another unqualified pick fairly tarred as cronyism - and if anything a failure to trust in the conservative ideology that helped her successor, Samuel Alito, pass the Senate. The various screwups by people like Alberto Gonzales and Scott McClellan had little enough to do with ideas, which happens when you appoint people who don't have any ideas (Slight digression: this is why Presidents should appoint people loyal to the President's policy agenda rather than personally to the President. The latter expect personal loyalty in return, the former expect to be judged on what they accomplish for the larger cause). And even the public disenchantment with the progress of the Iraq War was driven in significant part by the faction of conservative-leaning or "Jacksonian" voters who felt the war was repeating the failed half-measures of Vietnam.
To sum up, while Republican and conservative ideas took a few lumps over the past few years, there is little enough evidence to suggest that voters who believed those ideas actually lost faith in them; what they lost faith in, in larger numbers, was that Republican leadership in the White House and on Capitol Hill would, and could, carry those ideas into execution. The challenges for the two parties entering the 2008 elections, then, would be driven by the gulf between the enduring popular appeal of bedrock conservative ideas and the unpopularity of Republican leadership.
III. The More Things "Change," The More They Are Not McSame
So, the public was hungry for change from Republican leadership, but not necessarily hungry for the alternatives sold by the Democrats. (The abysmal popularity of the Pelosi-Reid Congress is surely some proof of this). How did the two parties approach this challenge?
For Republicans, the answer proved, after an agonizingly unsettled primary season, to be relatively simple: pick the candidate who could most easily distinguish himself from what went wrong. Running a campaign just on traditional GOP rhetoric wouldn't work because the voters didn't believe that Republicans believed it.
For a time, Republicans flirted with candidates who could run on executive competence, such as Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, but eventually the GOP lined up behind John McCain. McCain embodies a rejection across the board of everything that created the party's integrity problem. He's been a long-time critic of overspending in general (he opposed the 2003 Medicare bill) and pork barrel spending in particular. He's crusaded against the influence of big money and lobbyists - not always wisely, when you consider McCain-Feingold, and not always comprehensively (it should shock nobody familiar with politics that his staff still includes current and former lobbyists), but he's made his name trying to do things other people wouldn't. Republicans sustained a ton of damage from the Jack Abramoff scandal; McCain held hearings publicizing the story, making him a lot of enemies on top of his already extensive collection (Tom DeLay: "McCain has done more to hurt the Republican Party than any elected official I know of").
As for the competence issue, the simple fact that McCain was an early and persistent critic of Bush on so many fronts, most notoriously in his longstanding view that Bush needed to send more troops to Iraq, meant that the public was highly unlikely to just assume that electing McCain would be an uninterrupted continuation of the fumbles of the Bush second term.
Finally, even on the issues, McCain has dissented from Republican and conservative orthodoxy more times than anyone can recount, and done so specifically on issues like stem cell research where the public wasn't with the GOP. It's true, of course, that in many cases McCain's distancing act was at the margins of an issue and didn't put him all that close to agreeing with the Democrats, but that's fine; for voters who liked the GOP agenda more than the Democratic one but were uncomfortable with some of the specifics, McCain offers a way to buy in to less than the whole thing.
The very fact of McCain's moderation on a number of issues, however, creates two problems for him in running an issues-based campaign in the way that Bush did in 2000.
First, following the reasoning set out above, contrasts on the issues have to be crisp and stark - we saw in the Democratic primaries how much energy was wasted by Hillary and Obama comparing the microscopic distinctions between their respective health care plans. But because McCain has often sanded down the edges of the distinctions between his position and that of the Democrats, it's harder for him to draw out cleanly, without a lot of explaining, how he differs from them in where he stands. He's been able to hit Obama on some of the many issues where Obama's record is extreme to the left (e.g., abortion and taxes), but these are mostly not positive selling points for McCain.
Second, because of his many apostasies from party orthodoxy, McCain has always been at risk for re-opening old wounds with his own base if he talks too much about the areas where he's taken sides against President Bush or - worse yet, in the case of immigration - taken sides along with President Bush and the Democrats against the Republican base. This is one reason why McCain's campaign in the primaries was almost entirely devoid of discussions of domestic policy issues except to respond to the other candidates' attacks. McCain's been running ads lately that serve to blur distinctions with the Democrats by highlighting his positions on stem cell research and immigration, but again, these are efforts to remind swing voters of the separation between McCain and the rest of his party; they are not, in and of themselves, the stuff of a core issue platform.
As a result of these hurdles, McCain has struggled at times to come up with that ideal 3- or 4-bullet point-style agenda that a national campaign aspires to. His corporate tax cut plan is good policy but not terribly exciting - McCain has gotten traction attacking Obama's tax-hike plans but far less for his own relatively modest proposals for additional cuts. He dedicated a lot of his convention speech to school choice and other education reforms, but hasn't made a sustained pitch on that issue. He's been surprisingly vehement about free trade, but that's an issue where there's really no constituency demanding a change from the status quo in the direction McCain favors.
Still, by midsummer he had found a few core items to emphasize. #1 on the list is energy, on which McCain has joined with the Congressional GOP in hammering Obama and the Hill Democrats for opposing expanded domestic oil drilling and nuclear energy production. Typically of McCain's moderate record, he had to jettison his own prior opposition to offshore drilling to accomplish this, and signal his willingness to reconsider his position on drilling in ANWR, especially now that he's added the pro-drilling Governor of Alaska to his ticket (on nuclear he's been a long-time proponent). Energy is the one issue where a President McCain, if elected, can claim a legitimate mandate to get significant legislation passed early in his term. (You don't get a mandate you don't campaign for).
#2, improbably, has been Iraq, really the one issue McCain trumpeted ceaselessly in the GOP primaries into the face of the prevailing political winds, but which ultimately won him the respect of long-skeptical Republican primary voters. If anything, the surge in Iraq has been too successful, as voters are now less concerned about avoiding defeat there and the pace of victory has muddled McCain's message as even President Bush and Prime Minister al-Maliki now believe that U.S. troop withdrawals can proceed apace over the next 18 months or so. But McCain has visibly put Obama on the defensive repeatedly over their diametrically opposite positions on the surge and the fact that McCain's position, of the two, has been proven conclusively correct and Obama's conclusively wrong.
And #3, pork-barrel spending and earmarks. Pork is generally an inside-the-Beltway issue because what it says about the integrity of our government is outweighed by the small impact it actually has on the overall budget, compared to, say, the colossal size of entitlement programs. As a result, I've been skeptical from the outset of the value of focusing on earmark reform to the exclusion of more substantive issues. But McCain has been betting that with voter disillusionment with the GOP being driven largely by the integrity and competence issues discussed above, his best bet is to win people back by showing them that he's going to clean house.
McCain isn't the only one, however, whose ability or willingness to campaign on a crisply defined agenda has been impeded by the dynamics of the 2008 race. Voters are generically sick of Bush and mistrustful of Republican leadership, but that doesn't mean they've overnight embraced the agenda of the Democrats, much less the agenda of Barack Obama, the most left-wing presidential candidate since George McGovern and maybe since Henry Wallace.
One way to square this circle is the one Obama has chosen. It's a strategy with three parts:
First, campaign generically on "change." Voters who are unhappy with the status quo can identify Obama with "change" without having to have the uncomfortable conversation about whether Obama is proposing to change what they dislike about Bush in a direction they would support.
Second, run as the candidate of "new politics." Voters cynical about the loss of integrity by Republicans in Washington (and the perennial scandal problems of Democrats) can identify Obama as the man to rise above corruption by virtue of running a campaign that shows him to discard many of the things voters identify with a corrupt system.
Third, tie his opponent to Bush, with the "McSame" or "McBush" label. Argue at all turns that McCain is exactly the same as Bush.
It's not hard to see why this strategy was so successful in the early going, why it has worn badly thin since then, and why it has effectively precluded Obama from running on a concrete positive agenda. If Obama talks about an issue on which the main voter disagreement with Republicans is that they didn't keep their promises and Obama is promising the opposite, he loses the "change" argument; he also loses that mantle if he basically serves up issue proposals that sound like the same things Democrats have been peddling for decades, which on most issues aptly describes his policy proposals, few of which would have looked - or did look - out of place in the McGovern platform. If Obama talks about an issue where he disagrees with Bush and so does McCain - and there are plenty of those - he loses the "McSame" argument. "McSame" is fundamentally a weak argument because it's not credible in general, and all but the youngest voters know it - anybody who followed politics since 2000 will be left wondering who this Obama dude is to show up and tell them that after all those years of McCain pissing in Bush's morning coffee, he's really the same as Bush after all. It's also not specific to the causes of voter disenchantment with Bush. Obama basically ended up having his strategy outsmarted by GOP primary voters who correctly diagnosed the party's problem and turned to the man most likely to fix it. Throw in the many ways (I won't get into these here) in which Obama has abandoned his various "new politics" promises, and you end up with essentially an empty shell of a platform.
This is not to say that Obama has no issue agenda. His website will earnestly explain to you at length, albeit with some important details omitted, what he would like to do in office. He handed out a longer laundry list even than McCain in his convention speech. But beyond two issues he really has not driven home the sort of specific, concise and consistent message that would enable the average voter to recite from memory what he stands for. Go ahead, recite for me the 3- or 4-point plan that constitutes Obama's core message; most people can't do it even if they've been following this campaign fairly closely.
One of those two issues is ...wait for it...health care. Obama's plan is complex and basically a variation on the same "universal coverage" theme the Democrats have been pushing for 35-40 years, and we've had several demonstrations of the facts that (1) Democrats frequently lose national elections even when voters prefer their proposals on health care and (2) when Democrats actually get in power and try to enact their health care policies, they become a lot less popular. Still, it's something.
The other issue, the one that was really the centerpiece of Obama's primary campaign in differentiating himself from Hillary, was his unbending opposition to the Iraq War, including his opposition to the surge and his proposal for a complete withdrawal by March 2008. But even to a war-weary public it's hard to see how that's now anything but a net liability for Obama; certainly it's no longer an issue he can trumpet without some serious blowback.
Of course, Obama is also running on "the economy," but simply denouncing all bad things that happen is not the same as having a plan anybody understands.
I've long believed, and I think it's a general rule of thumb among political consultants, that you can't successfully roll out a new message after the conventions, and it's foolhardy to try. Obama got this far by campaigning at a high level of abstraction for "change," and even now the polls have him running close enough that despite the recent surge of momentum in McCain's direction he may yet win. But nobody should be surprised if neither candidate gets any more specific in identifying a core of concrete issues than what we have heard so far.
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September 14, 2008
BLOG: Cooperstown Travelogue
I had started writing this up when I got back from my vacation in August and got sidetracked - I'll just offer up a truncated version here.... we spent a week in Lake George and the last few days in Cooperstown making a pilgrimage to the Hall of Fame. It was the first time I'd been back since the inductions in 1982. The Hall seemed different in a number of ways, although it's always hard to tell how much of that is not being 11 years old anymore. There are a lot more Hall of Famers, now, of course - you can basically go by a set of panels that collect in one place the stars of the 70s, and by now the 80s collection is fairly well-stocked as well. When I was there in 1982, there was basically nobody there I'd seen play; now there are guys like Ripken and Boggs I remember as rookies, and even one guy (Kirby Puckett) who came to the majors, played his whole career, retired, got inducted in the Hall, and died since the last time I was there. Oddly, at random places there were a few shiny new plaques for Hall of Famers who'd been in a while - I guess guys like Ruth and Bob Feller needed their original plaques replaced at some point. (Odd promotion: they were advertising for 9/10 year olds to do a sleepover in the Hall itself, on its hard stone floors among the plaques. That seems very cool but also kinda ghoulish).
The Hall, of course, is a must-make pilgrimage for any serious baseball fan. It's still basically a museum you can cover in one day - although I got rushed through one or two sections because of the kids, we basically covered the whole place with hours to spare. (One thing that struck me in the equipment exhibits: Honus Wagner used a much thicker-handled bat than guys who played at or shortly after the same time, like Sam Crawford. Also, I hadn't known that in the 1880s they used color-coded uniforms, like today's NFL numbering schemes, to distinguish the different fielding positions). I also stopped in the day before at the library (it's only open M-F) - I'd still like to do a book someday if I get the free time, so I wanted to get a concrete sense of how research is done there and what's available. It's basically a one-room reading-room by-request operation, no public stacks at all, but nonetheless very user-friendly.
If I had one beef with the Hall, it's that the caliber of the stuff in the gift shop didn't match up to the souvenirs we got 26 years ago. Back then, we came home with, among others, a book collecting pictures of all the plaques and a punch-out book of cardboard replicas of actual old baseball cards of all the Hall of Famers. I went looking for similar things for my kids this time and came up empty, as too much of the selection was generic MLB merchandise.
We also took some time after lunch to check out a "Heroes of Baseball Wax Museum" down the street. This was a bit less of a serious fan site, but it was a fun mid-day diversion you can cover in an hour or so. The exhibits are eclectic - amidst the ballplayers there's George Costanza, a League of Their Own exhibit, Joe D and Marilyn, even George W and Rudy at Yankee Stadium after 9/11. But they also clearly made use of their unauthorized status to get a hookup with Pete Rose (they seem to have a fair bit of stuff that came from Rose himself) and an exhibit on Joe Jackson. Definitely worth seeing if you have kids.
Driving around upstate New York, you realize how many vast stretches of sparsely-populated greenery and farmland there still is in what people in the rest of the country still think of as a densely-settled urban state. After you've driven through stretches like that in New York, Pennsylvania, even Connecticut and western Massachusetts, and then compare them on the map to the size and scale of the whole rest of the U.S., you really start to appreciate how enormous this country is and how little of it looks like New York City and its immediate surroundings, where I have spent most of my life along with the Boston-Worcester area, northern New Jersey, and Washington DC.
A brief political note: we did see an Obama TV ad or two in Lake George, which struck me as odd since I couldn't see why he'd be advertising in New York (the closest neighboring state is Vermont). We saw a lot of ads for the incumbent Congresswoman, Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who was still ripping the Iraq War but solely on grounds that it costs money that could be spent in her District.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:37 PM | Baseball 2008 | Blog 2006-13 | Politics 2008 | Comments (13) | TrackBack (0)
September 12, 2008
POLITICS: Obama Walks Into A Minefield
Earlier today I discussed the Obama campaign's ridiculous attack on John McCain as being 'out of touch' because he doesn't send emails, despite McCain's lengthy legislative record - as extensive as anyone in Congress - dealing with high-tech, telecom and internet issues.
The obvious and unconcealed subtext of the ad was an attack on McCain being old and uncool compared to the web-savvy younger generation - a risky line of argument given the large number of old people who vote, but perhaps driven by Obama's need to raise money and enthusiasm among the young and the wired. (Leave aside what the use of email has to do with competence to be President).
But more than a few conservative bloggers immediately wondered whether there was perhaps a reason why McCain does not have a Blackberry or type out emails, and with a little Googling Jonah Goldberg and others have discovered the answer: McCain finds it too painful to type because of his war injuries.
You can read the details from Goldberg here and Allahpundit here, including the fact that McCain does dictate emails to his wife, he just can't type them himself. I won't repeat here Goldberg's point, with which I agree completely, about what McCain's wartime service does and doesn't mean for his qualifications for the presidency; but no matter what it means in the abstract, the fact remains that the Obama people have now gone on record mocking him for things he can't do because of injuries he sustained while being tortured in the service of his country. What imbeciles. And the greatest irony is that as they hit McCain for not being tech-savvy, they are the ones who didn't bother to Google this stuff before firing off their ad.
Jacob Weisberg's column from 2000 pithily ties together both reasons why this avenue of attack is nuts:
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Six months ago, no one would have pegged McCain as the most cybersavvy of this year's crop of candidates. At 63, he is the oldest of the bunch and because of his war injuries, he is limited in his ability to wield a keyboard. But McCain's job as chairman of the Senate commerce committee forced him to learn about the Internet early on, and young Web entrepreneurs such as Jerry Yang and Jeff Bezos fascinate him. Well before he announced his exploratory committee, McCain had assimilated the notion that the Web could be vital to the kind of insurgent, anti-establishment campaign he wanted to run.
Thanks to Fose and Gullett, the McCain campaign has become the most eager experimenter with Web advertising, Web organizing, and Web fund raising. "Even more impressive than the money is the way we can communicate with people," McCain said on the bus. "We can communicate with them eight to 10 times a day. You know how much it cost to communicate with someone eight times a day before the Internet? It's going to change politics."
I suppose it could be worse: Obama's other main line of attack today is that McCain is too out of touch to be President because he's a Senator. And questioning McCain's patriotism, which I suppose is a fair enough argument despite the Democrats' incessant shrieking when the topic comes up...but not a battle Obama is likely to win.
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POLITICS: Quick Links 9/12/08
Ah, what the heck: more campaign stuff, as well as a few random links:
*From the Colorado Senate race, which has tightened considerably from what had looked like a sure Udall win, an ad knocking Udall's support for Dennis Kucinich's "Department of Peace":
As Moe Lane points out, this was a fun ad but probably not an especially damaging one until the Democrat flipped his lid over it, responding - I kid you not - by complaining that "there is nothing in the Department of Peace legislation that authorizes the purchase of a van or that says one of the activities of the Department will be smoking marijuana in a smoke filled van."
Um, yeah. You run with that.
*Jake Tapper rips McCain over the education ad that accuses Obama of, among other things, supporting a bill in Illinois that would have required teaching explicit sex education to kindergardeners. Jim Geraghty defends the accuracy of the McCain ad here and here...typically the critics aren't dealing with Geraghty's points, but it's not an ad I would have run; even if Geraghty is right that the bill was dropped in large part precisely because its literal language would have extended anti-HIV education down to the kindergarden level, there's enough ambiguity in how that language interacts with the pre-existing statutory requirement of "age appropriate" instruction that it's not really a clean shot at Obama, and probably more trouble than it's worth once you get done walking through the language. My guess is that Obama, as is often true in these cases, was only working off a bill summary anyway and never bothered to read what the bill actually said, which is why he's so indignant about it.
*The NYT notices that Joe Biden is a "human verbal wrecking crew," collecting a number of Biden's more notorious gaffes since Obama picked him as his running mate (there have been every bit as many as expected - Biden's the most gaffe-prone politician I have ever seen, and that's considering some extremely stiff competition). I'd feel bad for how Biden's been the forgotten man in this campaign, but really, the guy's ego could survive a nuclear explosion. Watch the video of him asking the guy in the wheelchair to stand up:
His saving grace is that he doesn't stop talking after he pulls one of these - he reminds me of the old Bill James riff about Lonnie Smith, how other outfielders get flustered when they fall down in the outfield, whereas Lonnie does it so often he has a pop-up slide perfected for the occasion.
*Second poll in a week showing Republicans with an advantage on the "generic ballot" question (i.e., which party people prefer in the abstract). I honestly have trouble believing this - Republicans never lead in the generic ballot, at least not this far from Election Day, even in years when we are rolling to victory. The main thing is, we're not getting killed on this anymore. Relatedly, Capitol Hill Democrats are now worried and sharing a "sense of doom" that Obama may drag down Democrats across the ballot.
*Revisiting a tactic that didn't come off too well the first time when George Soros tried it, Obama is taking a shot at McCain as being too old to use email. Of course, unlike Obama, if you want to judge McCain's views on technology, you can look at his record. McCain spent seven years as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, during which he was continuously involved in debates, legislation and hearings on internet issues. In 1996, he blasted the Telecommunications Act as "nothing less than an elaborate influence-peddling scheme." In the 2000 campaign, he touted his work on the Y2K Product Liability Reform Act and the Internet Tax Moratorium Act; he has continued to fight against taxation of internet commerce. Obama may think he invented internet fundraising, but in 2000 McCain's primary campaign raised millions of dollars over the web, a fundraising surge that was essential to keeping his campaign afloat; at the time, he was on the cutting edge of such tactics. In 2002, McCain introduced the broad-ranging "Consumer Broadband Deregulation Act of 2002", a comprehensive bill that "would prevent localities from doing anything to interfere with the provision of any consumer broadband service by limiting local governments- rights-of-way compensation to 'direct and actual costs reasonably allocable to the administration of access to, or use of, public rights-of-way.'" McCain has continued to press for broadband access at high-tech forums during his presidential run, and chosen as chief economic advisers a pair of high-tech executives, Meg Whitman of eBay and Carly Fiorina of Hewlett Packard.
You can certainly raise issue with the substance of McCain's views on high-tech, but to suggest that the man is unfamiliar with the tech lanscape is...well, like so many of Obama's efforts to attack McCain, it depends on a certain suspension of disbelief.
*Tom Maguire: "Everything Barack Obama knows about public education he learned by working with an unrepentant terrorist and sending his kids to private school; Sarah Palin started in politics as a PTA mom." Of course, I agree that private schools are probably the right choice for Obama's kids. That just makes it all the harder for him to explain why they are not the right choice for other people's.
*Armando, of all people, tries to talk sense into hyperventilating lefty bloggers. It's truly a bizarro world when Republicans read the words of guys like him and Jerome (Vis Numar) Armstrong and nod along, but I guess the primary left these guys a little too clear-eyed about Obama.
*Andrew McCarthy goes to Wikipedia to establish the one thing Wikipedia is actually probative of - what the average person thinks - on the term "Bush Doctrine." Of course, I noted last night in the comments this 2003 post in which I distinguished the three different Bush Doctrines.
*"Do you read the New York Times?" This is hilarious - Taranto says the the NYT dispatch on this event was filed by...wait for it...Elisabeth Bumiller. The Times people's fixation on Bill O'Reilly is positively comical.
*Unlikely defenses for Gov. Palin from Mike Gravel and Rod Blagojevich. You gotta listen to the Gravel one, in which he doggedly bats back every effort by left-wing radio hosts to get traction against her. And memo to Blago: Cornelius from Planet of the Apes called, he wants his hairdo back.
*Not politics: a proposal for 2-year law school that's long overdue. And really, words cannot do justice to this video.
September 11, 2008
POLITICS/WAR: Talking Points Memo Does Not Understand The NATO Charter
TPM's David Kurtz headlines an excerpt of Gov. Palin's interview with Charlie Gibson tonight "Palin Foreign Policy: War with Russia." Kurtz is working off an alarmist ABC News headline "EXCLUSIVE: GOV. SARAH PALIN WARNS WAR MAY BE NECESSARY IF RUSSIA INVADES ANOTHER COUNTRY"
Unfortunately for Kurtz's effort to make Gov. Palin into Dr. Strangelove, his post includes a direct quote from the interview:
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GIBSON: And under the NATO treaty, wouldn't we then have to go to war if Russia went into Georgia?
As you can tell from Gibson's question, Gov. Palin has simply reiterated the central and foundational element of the NATO Charter. Article 5 of the NATO Charter, to which Gibson and Gov. Palin refer here, "states that an armed attack against one or more of the Allies in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.". Article 5 is the reason for NATO's existence, and of course it was originally drafted in 1949 precisely to deal with the situation of a Russian (then Soviet) invasion of the easternmost frontier of NATO, which is precisely what Georgia and/or Ukraine would become if their NATO membership is approved next year.
Funny, isn't it, how the Left loses interest in multilateralism and treaty obligations when it suits their purpose? No responsible American leader would offer a different answer to Gibson's question. Any other answer would simply be a declaration of intent to withdraw from NATO.
UPDATE: TPM boss Josh Marshall repeats this line of attack on Gov. Palin, and seems incredulous at the notion that a NATO member might be obligated to go to war if another NATO member is attacked. Seven years ago, NATO invoked Article 5 following the September 11 attacks; it was much noted at the time that this recognized that an attack on the United States was an attack on all NATO members.
How soon they forget.
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POLITICS: Narrowing The Field
With 54 days until the election and four debates still to go, a lot can happen; the presidential race could still end up getting badly away from either McCain or Obama. But now that we have the benefit of polling done entirely after the two VPs were picked and the two conventions held, it's possible to get a sense of what the playing field really looks like. On a national level, the race is still close, but looks much better for McCain, who leads by 2.5 in the RCP poll average; of the 9 polls listed, McCain leads in 6, Obama one, and two are tied, with all showing fewer undecideds than existed a month ago but only one poll giving either candidate 50% (the USA/Gallup poll showing a 54-44 McCain lead among likely voters - a result that would mean the race is effectively over if it was repeated in multiple polls, but which is apparently a serious outlier).
The race, however, will be conducted on a state-by-state basis, which sends us back to the Electoral College. You can run the polls yourself, but below the fold I will walk through what my gut is telling me after looking at those polls. The bottom line is that for all the talk of how Obama and McCain were map-changing candidates, this race now looks like it will go down to the wire in just a handful of crucial battleground states, with most of the Bush-Gore/Bush-Kerry red-blue patterns holding steady (the persistence of these patterns being good news for Republicans after the 2010 census, but that's another day's argument).
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The RCP map shows Obama up 217-216, with nine states up for grabs
I generally think that's correct as far as the states that RCP has moved into each candidate's column - those are states that are not going to be in play unless you get a big national movement. For example:
1. McCain largely burned his bridges long ago in Iowa, a 2004 Bush state, by his principled opposition to ethanol subsidies; he skipped the 2000 Iowa caucuses and finished a distant third there in 2008. Obama, by contrast, is one of the ethanol industry's largest recipients of cash and (perhaps not coincidentally) a booster of subsidies. Iowa launched Obama, and is likely to stay in his column along with politically similar Minnesota and Wisconsin, even though all three will end up being fairly close.
2. A surge of African-American voter turnout will make North Carolina closer, but I expect McCain to hold his turf there.
3. Florida may be close in the polls, but really it's been a steady Republican state. There were two anomalous factors that conspired to make it close in 2000: the popularity of Joe Lieberman on the ticket with older Jewish voters transplanted from the Northeast, and the early call by Fox and other networks for Gore that sent Republicans home in the panhandle before the polls had closed. Absent those factors, 2002, 2004 and even 2006 were all good Republican years in Florida.
When push comes to shove, I also expect Indiana - a rock-ribbed Republican state even in the Clinton years - and most likely Ohio and Virginia to stay home with the Republicans, close though all three will be, and while Obama has struggled in Pennsylvania (recall the "bitter" comment and his thumping in the primary there), I suspect that traditional party loyalty and Ed Rendell's machine will put him over the top at the end. As you will see as you walk through these maps, it's all but impossible for McCain to win without both Ohio and Virginia (and, obviously, Florida) - he's unlikely to swipe Michigan or Pennsylvania unless he's winning Ohio - and even more implausible for Obama to win without Pennsylvania. These are bedrock states of each party's path to victory.
If you add in those states to each side, that gives us a map with only five swing states, and a 260-238 McCain lead:
McCain has a lot of atmospheric help going for him in Michigan: Democratic mismanagement of the state government and the economy; the arrest and resignation of Detroit's Democratic mayor, who supported Obama; lingering bitterness over Obama's effort to avoid seating the Michigan delegation during his battle with Hillary. On the other hand, McCain got beat in the Michigan primary himself after his comment about jobs not leaving and not coming back was taken as a sign of undue pessimism about the economy. Fundamentally, though, Michigan is a Democratic state, albeit narrowly; it's still an uphill battle. If we assume Obama holds onto it, we get McCain 260, Obama 255, with only Colorado and Nevada (won by Bush twice), New Mexico (won by Bush and Gore), and New Hampshire (won by Bush and Kerry):
All four of these states seem legitimately too close to call if you've been reading the polls. There are individual factors at work. McCain's been popular forever in New Hampshire, site of his crucial primary victories in 2000 and 2008 (both of which depended on his popularity with independents) and the home of countless McCain town halls and bus rides over the years, whereas Obama fared poorly in the primary there. In Nevada, the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site is a flashpoint; McCain's support of the site and ambitious plan to build more nuclear plants, compared to Obama's unwillingness to embrace either, put McCain in a bind there. Colorado's been trending Democratic due to a large influx of Latinos as well as liberal Californians. Then again, the distinctly Western flavor of the McCain-Palin ticket could prove appealing over prolonged exposure in CO, NV and NM.
This is where things get really hairy, because there are three different combinations (McCain wins CO, or NM + NH, or NV + NH) that get us a 269-269 tie. I think we can all agree that this would be a terrible outcome for the nation, and would cripple the next president's ability to govern, just as the recount made it impossible for Bush, even before he took office, to even approach the "uniter, not a divider" tag he'd campaigned under; the Democrats were permanently estranged from him before Day One.
The first problem, if there's a 269-269 tie, is the "faithless elector" problem, i.e., some elector bolting sides to break the tie, a result that would create an enormous outcry. If we get past that, the 12th Amendment explains what happens:
The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in the case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President.--The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice.
We'll skip over here the part where some bizarre deadlock prevents the House from deciding, and Dick Cheney ends up the President...basically, the vote would come down to which party controls the most state delegations in the House, and at least at present, that's the Democrats by a margin of 2 or 3 states as of last count - I believe the most recent special elections swung them another state. I'm sure we'll all count more closely if it happens. Of course, that's the current Congress; I'm a little less clear on whether the current Congress or the one elected in November would tally the electoral votes...but assuming it's still the Democrats, this probably means Obama wins if it's 269-269.
Then we get the VP, picked by the Senate. The Senate currently has 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans, one Socialist, one member of the Connecticut for Lieberman party who has endorsed McCain-Palin, and a tiebreaking vote by Dick Cheney. My guess is that given Senatorial courtesies and the like, especially with Biden as the opponent, McCain would probably dissuade Republicans from putting up a fight to saddle Obama with Palin as his VP, another outcome that would be highly unstable and bad for the country.
Well, that was a long digression into the parade of horribles, but the bottom line is, McCain needs 270 to win, Obama probably needs 269. And at this writing, the single state most likely to swing that difference is Colorado. The odds are pretty good that the margin of victory will be one state, maybe two, that are decided by just a percentage point or two.
Fasten your seatbelts.
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WAR: Seven Years On
It never ceases to amaze me that we've gone this long without a followup attack. Oh, there have been major followup attacks against non-U.S. targets (Bali, Madrid, London), and a few random, unaffiliated crackpots at home (the DC snipers, the LAX shooter), but Al Qaeda and similar groups have been limited, for seven years now, to attacks in active theaters of combat, and don't have much to show for pouring all their resources into those theaters.
At the same time, we still haven't caught bin Laden, and can't even be sure to this day whether he's still alive or not. If you'd told anybody seven years ago that we'd go this long without being hit again and without catching bin Laden and Zawahiri, they would not have believed you.
I'll just post this one item worth reading, for the day, from Tuesday's NY Sun: with Musharraf gone and no further need to pull our punches to prop him up, U.S. troops under the command of Gen. Petraeus have now reportedly escalated to daily incursions into Pakistani territory. As has been true of operations in Pakistan for years now, our government and media can't afford to give us the whole truth about what's going on there, to avoid an unnecessary or at least premature collision backlash among Pakistan's radical elements. But I do find it encouraging that with Gen. Petraeus assuming the broader command of CENTCOM, we are finally accelerating the pace of operations in Pakistan proper.
September 10, 2008
POLITICS: Gasoline on the Fire
I was more than happy to leave Obama's "lipstick" comment be after yesterday - it was an amusing little example of Obama putting his foot in his mouth - other than to note that by calling it "swift boat politics" this morning he basically confirmed what I have been saying for years: "swift boating" means "accurately quoting a Democratic politician." Frankly, it was foolish for Obama to even respond this morning unless he was going to offer some sort of apology - anything else just prolongs the agony. To say nothing of the fact that any time the story is Obama vs. McCain's running mate, McCain wins.
But whether out of stubborn insistence on being right or a desire to keep those $5 donations pouring in from his activist base, Obama is not content to let the matter drop - he's on David Letterman tonight digging himself in deeper:
"What I like about this scenario is because they - the Republicans - demanded an apology," Letterman says, "so that means there had been a meeting at some point somewhere along the line (of) they got together and said, 'You know what? He called our vice presidential candidate a pig.' Well, that seems pretty unlikely, doesn't it?"
Now, as one of Vodkapundit's commenters points out, this is really considerably more insulting than calling Palin a pig. The latter is nasty and juvenile, but the former is dismissive, and really puts Obama back where he was when he was calling her the "Mayor of Wasilly" and refusing to acknowledge that she is a Governor.
This is why you do not put a rookie on the top of the national ticket. All Republicans have to do now is sit back and laugh.
BASEBALL: Just Laying Down A Marker
I hate to jinx the Mets, but I can't get around the feeling that last night's win was the one that iced this division race. Yes, it's just a gut feeling about momentum. Yes, the lead is 2 1/2 games with 18 to play. But there you have it.
POLITICS: Same Old Song
Back in February, Barack Obama sounded a familiar note in defending himself against charges that his campaign was "just words" - in fact, a note taken almost verbatim from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, also a client of David Axelrod:
In June, Obama tried a different inspiration on for size, swiping the structure of Mario Cuomo's famous 1984 Convention speech:
Just yesterday, Obama's "lipstick" remark came at the end of a riff he swiped from Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles. Obama has now admitted that he took the line from a friend but didn't know where it had originally come from.
If you followed the John Edwards campaign, you may have heard this Edwards riff on education:
Edwards criticized . . . the 5-year-old [No Child Left Behind] law, calling it a bad measure of how much children are learning. Children don't learn anything from taking tests, like those mandated by the law, he said.
Well, here's what Obama said yesterday:
Obama made another porcine reference in Lebanon, Va., last night, speaking about education reform.
Less pithy than Edwards' usage, but I'm guessing that this wasn't a phrase Obama picked up in Hawaii or Chicago, but rather from listening to John Edwards.
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Now, nobody really believes that most politicians write their own stuff, but remember that this is the same Obama campaign that thought it important to redirect attention away from Sarah Palin to her speechwriter. But of course, Obama has his own speechwriting team, and that apparently still doesn't stop him from serially recycling other people's words, which is pretty ironic given that Obama's words and "change" are supposed to be his big selling points.
I suppose it would be unfair to compare him to that other famous plagiarist, Joe Biden, since if you recall the 1988 race, what got Biden in trouble wasn't the comparitively venial sin (by politician standards) of plagiarism but the more serious one of fabulism - claiming details about himself from other people's lives (Ace and Dan Spencer explain this point in some detail).
But clearly, for all of Obama's famous eloquence in delivering speeches, original thought is not his forte. But I guess some people enjoy watching reruns and pretending it's something new.
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POLITICS: Not Good With Lipstick
You know, for a guy whose chief asset is his mouth, Obama sure has a way of stepping in things he really should know better than to step in, in this case the inevitable kerfuffle over whether the "lipstick on a pig" line is intended to refer to Sarah Palin. Ben Smith notes that "The crowd apparently took the 'lipstick' line as a reference to Palin, who described the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull in a single word: 'lipstick.'" To that extent, Ace's comparison to Obama appearing to give Hillary the middle finger in an appearance in the spring is on point - the crowd gets the thrill of seeing Obama be "tough" in a decidedly immature way by appearing to get rudely personal against his opponent, but Obama gets to angrily deny that he actually did what his supporters just assumed he was doing.
Was it actually deliberate, or just an unfortunate choice of words that people are taking the wrong way? Certainly the "lipstick on a pig" line is a common one that any number of candidates, McCain and Obama included, have used before. I don't see what in the "fish" reference is supposed to suggest that he was being deliberate. It's not like he was in the middle of a riff about Palin specifically at the time - he was talking about McCain. So it's possible he was just being stupid and not thinking through how some people would inevitably read the line. I don't rule out George Allen levels of stupidity at all.
Then again, Ben Smith notes that this is the very same day that Congressman Russ Carnahan, appearing on behalf of Obama, took a direct shot at Palin's record with the line "There's no way you can dress up that record, even with a lot of lipstick," which would appear to suggest that you have a concerted effort to make this one of today's talking points.
Well, nobody ever said that Obama was a master of diplomacy, anyway.
UPDATE: Let me just put it this way, after thinking this through a little further. I'm frankly embarrassed to be arguing that Obama intended to call Palin a pig (although I think we can agree that if that was what he intended to do, it was damned ungentlemanly of him, to put it mildly). But really, if I was on the other side of this one, I'd be at least equally embarrassed that my candidate was that big a damn fool to go and say this, no matter what he meant, knowing full well the context - his own and his supporters' hypersensitivity on matters of race, his ugly history with Hillary, the blowback that's already gone down over attacks on Palin that were seen as sexist. I'd be throwing things at my TV screen. If we give Obama the benefit of the doubt here, he just comes off looking like that much bigger a fool.
September 9, 2008
FOOTBALL/LAW: Facenda v NFL Films
BASEBALL: They Have His Number
Oliver Perez entered tonight's game with a 5.84 ERA this season, and 5.45 career, against the Nationals. That will go up considerably. You hate to go to the bullpen this early, given that with Wagner now out until late next season at the earliest, that's like getting on a bus with no brakes. This one's gonna be a long slog, even with the Mets having tied the game at 7 through 4 innings.
UPDATE: Nationals grab 8-7 lead, Beltran & Delgado homer to make it 10-8 Mets. What a seesaw.
Mets win 10-8! I am staggered that they made this stand up.
You know, looking at Luis Ayala's record before 2008 and with the Mets this season, you have to wonder what the Nationals were doing this year to screw him up so badly.
POLITICS: Wedges and Fables
One of the more popular fables retailed by the Democrats is that Republicans use social "wedge" issues that have nothing to do with the business of government to win elections, and Democrats do not. Now, I don't deny that Republicans often run campaigns that deal with social issues and the values of the candidates, and I'm not going to get into a long debate here about the relative degree to which social issues like abortion, crime, immigration, the death penaly, same-sex marriage, racial preferences, etc. do or do not have anything to do with the powers of government as they exist in the real world. But the idea that Democrats don't do this stuff, or that they don't sometimes succeed in prying off voters on "values" issues, is utter nonsense. They complain about it largely for two reasons: (1) Republicans tend to win more votes than they lose in most fights over social/cultural issues and (2) members of the national media who share Democrats' values like to believe that their positions on these issues are the only acceptable ones, and that it is only divisive to disagree with them, even if the people doing the disagreeing constitute a decisive majority.
The nomination of Sarah Palin as the Republican candidate for Vice President has produced a spate of efforts to drive a wedge between her and the voters on precisely these sorts of issues. In a few cases, there are fair arguments to be had: Palin is an uncompromising pro-lifer and supporter of gun rights, and obviously there are a lot of voters on each side of those issues. But several efforts to paint her as a social-issue extremist are, at best, seriously lacking in supporting evidence. Maybe something we don't know will come out, but on a couple of these it seems pretty unlikely from what we do know. Let's look at a few of those.
I. Book Banning
Democrats are claiming that Palin is some sort of fan of banning books. A list was circulated on the web purporting to show books she had had banned as Mayor of Wasilla, which even the Huffington Post described as "transparently fake" and Jesse Walker of Reason, also no fan of social conservatism, found to be basically a non-issue on the evidence we've seen. Taranto has a more comprehensive review today. The whole story amounts to Palin, when she first took office as Mayor in 1996, having had some abstract discussions about banning books with the librarian, who she later fired (one recurring theme in Palin's tenure as Mayor and Governor: she fires a lot of people). She told the town paper even back then that the discussion had been purely "rhetorical." (Here is the story written at the time - as an aside, notice how easy it is to find things said and done during Palin's early career in Wasilla, compared to how hard it is to track down anything said - let's not get into "done" - by Barack Obama between 1996 and his 2002 war speech?)
Let's face it: an awful lot of social conservatives in this country have had that conversation about, say, banning pornography, and in many cases about things that may be offensive for other reasons. It's one thing to have the idle conversation; it's another to actually put state power behind banning particular books, even if the "ban" just means not spending taxpayer money on them and even if you could boil the list down to the most patently offensive. Accepting that distinction is, in fact, part of the process of maturing from a rookie politician (which Palin was 12 years ago) into a responsible administrator. Absent any evidence that Palin ever lifted a finger to get any books banned, this is at most a charge that Palin has concerns about the state of our culture and has wished at times that we could do something about it. Do the Democrats really want to run against even that wish in the abstract? Maybe they do. But the charge that Palin actively supports banning books has nothing to support it, and you should not believe anyone who repeats the charge if they can't come up with evidence to support it.
II. Abstinence-Only Sex Education
A good many social conservatives, preferring not to surrender to the government the instruction of their children on matters of sexual morality, either don't like public-school sex education or insist that governmental instruction on sex should be limited to encouraging teenagers to not have sex (a/k/a "abstinence-only" sex education).
Now, as Megan McArdle reminds us, the main reason why abstinence-only education is ineffective is because sex education in general is ineffective - a point that if anything supports social conservatives' skepticism about the necessity of teaching sex in school:
Kids get pregnant because they have poor impulse control, hazy conceptions about the future, and possibly, parents who they are afraid will find birth control. None of these are problems that sex ed helps with.
In fact, as McArdle further notes, public behavioral education programs in general don't famously work all that well (so much for Obama hectoring us to abstain from driving on underinflated tires):
Do you believe that drug education reduces drug use? If you're reading this web site, I bet you don't, and you're right--the most famous program, D.A.R.E., has consistently failed to show any positive effects, something which is disguised by the program producers by constantly changing the curriculum so that whatever program just flunked a reality check isn't the same as the awesome new program they're using now.
A lot of Palin's critics jumped on her supposed support for abstinence-only programs like a starving man on a sandwich to justify their continuing interest in the pregnancy of her 17-year-old daughter. But they seem to have skipped the step of actually looking carefully at Gov. Palin's position - again, this LA Times piece comes from Walker's article at Reason:
In July of , she completed a candidate questionnaire that asked, would she support funding for abstinence-until-marriage programs instead of "explicit sex-education programs, school-based clinics and the distribution of contraceptives in schools?"
Again: if the Democrats want to characterize this position as outside the mainstream, we have to wonder what "mainstream" they have been bathing in.
Another issue on which there seem to be an awful lot of single-issue, litmus-test, nothing-else-matters voters on the left side of the spectrum is the teaching of "intelligent design" or other forms of "creationist" or quasi-creationist theories of the origin of species that refuse to accept the mostly-consensus scientific view of evolution. This tends to be a debate that leads off into a lot of linguistic dead ends (for example, modern evolutionary biology has moved on a good deal from Darwin), but as a general rule the debate tends to boil down to one of three positions: (1) ban the teaching of evolutionary biology - a position almost nobody supports anymore; (2) require the teaching of "intelligent design" alongside the teaching of standard evolutionary biology; or (3) ban the teaching of anything but standard evolutionary biology. I'll leave aside for now the merits of that debate, because yet again there's a bunch of smoke here with basically no fire.
During a 2006 gubernatorial debate in Alaska, Palin was asked if she supported teaching an alternative to evolution.
After the debate, Palin told the newspaper she would not push the state board of education to add evolution alternatives to the mandatory curriculum, nor would she base appointments to the board on the candidates' views on the issue.
Sarah Palin was questioned more closely about her views on creationism a couple of days after the debate. She then seemed to deny that she did want to introduce creationism into the school curriculum. Rather, she said that she didn't "think there should be a prohibition against debate if it comes up in class," but that it "doesn't have to be part of the curriculum". Religion was not "a litmus test", she added. She was more interested in gas pipelines. In her answers to personal questions, a degree of ambiguity persisted. She did believe in a creator, but "I'm not going to pretend I know how all this came to be". Her father had been a science teacher; they had had discussions when she was a child about "his theories" of evolution: "He would show us fossils and say, 'How old do you think these are?' "
As with the libraries issue, this wasn't a years-later effort to conceal her position, such as we've seen from Barack Obama's attempts to whitewash his votes and legislative proposals on guns or abortion; Palin was immediately making clear that this was basically just her personal view that she was not going to foist on anybody, and Palin has kept that promise. The bottom line is that Palin hasn't actually spent much effort on social issues in office. In Washington, she won't be able to avoid social issues, of course, and indeed her sincere convictions on issues like abortion are one of the major attractions of Palin's candidacy. But the relevant point on intelligent design, as with book banning and abstinence education, is that in 10 years in executive office she hasn't actually used state power to support any of the things she's accused of supporting.
It's usually not that hard to understand that distinction. Joe Biden can say that life begins at conception, but only an imbecile would call him "pro-life," because he doesn't want the government to do anything about it. For political purposes, the issue is how this all translates into public policy. And that's exactly where Palin's critics have come up empty.
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IV. Stem Cell Research
While we are at it, let's revisit an old favorite Democratic wedge issue, federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Joe Biden has just blasted McCain and Palin for opposing stem cell research:
"I hear all this talk about how the Republicans are going to work in dealing with parents who have both the joy, because there's joy to it as well, the joy and the difficulty of raising a child who has a developmental disability, who were born with a birth defect. Well guess what folks? If you care about it, why don't you support stem cell research?"
I don't know why Joe Biden thinks that, oh, say, Down's Syndrome is curable through stem cell research, but the Obama-Biden campaign "clarified" his statement by saying
We've heard not a dime's worth of difference between the McCain-Palin ticket and the Bush Administration on medical breakthroughs that millions of parents and doctors believe could save lives and transform the quality of life for countless Americans.
Now, as it happens, in this case Gov. Palin does apparently oppose federal funding for stem cell research. But you'd think that the Obama campaign wouldn't put out a statement on this that ignores the fact - widely noted in the press when McCain selected Palin a whole 12 days ago - that John McCain has voted to support such funding and continued to defend his support during the Republican primaries, in which his position on this issue was not popular. If Obama picked Biden as his running mate based on the knowledge he's acquired from years in the Senate, you'd think he'd at least be familiar with things that have actually happened in the Senate.
Now, I'd prefer that McCain - and, for that matter, Obama and Biden - came around to realize that the tremendous scientific progress on non-embryo-destroying stem cell research in the past two years (see here, here, and here) has essentially gutted the case for federal funding for embyronic stem cell research, at least for any purpose other than helping Democrats win elections. Indeed, I wonder at the scientific illiteracy of politicians who still support such funding, and wish more of them would come out where Gov. Palin has. The good news is that the McCain-Palin campaign website now talks up the alternatives, and recognizes the moral hazards:
As president, John McCain will strongly support funding for promising research programs, including amniotic fluid and adult stem cell research and other types of scientific study that do not involve the use of human embryos.
Where federal funds are used for stem cell research, Senator McCain believes clear lines should be drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress, and that any such research should be subject to strict federal guidelines.
[W]e call for a major expansion of support for the stem-cell research that now shows amazing promise and offers the greatest hope for scores of diseases - with adult stem cells, umbilical cord blood, and cells reprogrammed into pluripotent stem cells - without the destruction of embryonic human life. We call for a ban on human cloning and a ban on the creation of or experimentation on human embryos for research purposes.
I hope McCain comes around at some point to opposing wasting taxpayer money on embryonic stem cell research. In the meantime, the Obama campaign is trying to have a debate that, like the various efforts against Gov. Palin, ignores McCain's actual record and positions.
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September 8, 2008
POLITICS: The Organizer-Based Community
One of the major themes in the reaction on the Left to the Republican convention - and we have seen this directly from the Obama campaign as well as from left-leaning bloggers - is to scream bloody murder at Mayor Giuliani and Governor Palin for mocking Sen. Obama's experience as a "community organizer," mainly for the three years between his college graduation and his entry into law school, although Obama's subsequent career as a "civil rights lawyer" was largely a continuation of the same work, which really constitutes the entirety of his experience outside elected political office.
Now, when you launch a line of criticism in politics and the other side starts shrieking at you for having done it, one or more of three things is usually true:
1. You have done something genuinely outrageous, or at least something the other side genuinely views as outrageous.
2. You have hit a nerve and the other side is trying to delegitimize your argument rather than respond to it.
3. The other side misunderstands what you are talking about.
The Obama camp's furious response (see the end of this post for full quotes from fundraising emails by Obama's campaign) to the criticism levelled at Obama's time as a community organizer strikes me as a prime example of #2, although there's an element of #3 here as well. I suppose I understand why to some on the Left it feels like #1, but at the end of the day that's an argument that fails the John Edwards test. Sen. Obama has brought this line of criticism on himself, and if his career reminds people a little too forcefully of people the average voter despises, well, maybe that's something the Democrats should have considered before nominating him for President.
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I. What The Heck Is A "Community Organizer" Anyway?
The first point to make here is that Obama's defenders (and even some sympathetic voices on the Right) are, deliberately or otherwise, obscuring the meaning of the term "community organizer" by making it sound like this is precisely the same thing as the de Toquevillian/Burkean "little platoons" ideal of private institutions that exist alongside of the State - churches, volunteer associations, private charities.
None of that has anything to do with Obama's work experience, training or philosophy. If you go around in your own community and ask the guy who runs the soup kitchen, the woman who runs the battered women's shelter, the local priests, Protestant ministers and rabbis, the people who run the local Republican and Democratic party offices, the Knights of Columbus, Lion's Club, the Kiwanis, the Salvation Army... odds are that none of them describe their occupation as "community organizer." It's effectively a term of art, which apparently traces itself to a left-wing Chicago activist and theorist named Saul Alinsky, who memorialized his principles in the 1972 book "Rules for Radicals," which as you can guess from the title is not a book of rules for mainstream, bipartisan moderates. I had never heard the term before Obama, but I'd certainly heard of people who describe themselves in similar terms. They almost invariably operate in large cities with what are already large and intrusive governments - think of the PIRGs of the world (Obama was trained by NYPIRG, which, as Megan McArdle has explained from personal experience, is basically a Ponzi scheme). In essence, Naderites, not mainstream Democrats. In Obama's own words: "I used to be a PIRG guy. You guys trained me well."
But it gets worse: for those of us from places like New York, the term also evokes self-appointed "community leaders" like Al Sharpton who basically agitate not only for left-wing economic policies but also, among other things, against enforcement of the law against violent criminals. This association, as you can guess, is not a good one for most Americans. As it happens, though, it's one that dovetails with Obama's political alliance with Bill Ayers.
The common thread here in what the term quite reasonably evokes, and the critical way in which it differs from traditional private charity, is that the critical role of the "community organizer" is to lobby for taxpayer money or otherwise invoke the power of government. Go and read, for example, this review by John Judis at The New Republic of Obama's career as a "community organizer.". A sample of Obama's work:
[H]e began to focus on providing social services for Altgeld Gardens. "We didn't yet have the power to change state welfare policy, or create local jobs, or bring substantially more money into the schools," he wrote. "But what we could do was begin to improve basic services at Altgeld--get the toilets fixed, the heaters working, the windows repaired." Obama helped the residents wage a successful campaign to get the Chicago Housing Authority to promise to remove asbestos from the units...
(More here). "Community organizers" like Obama do not organize private charity and spend their own bread; they exist to agitate for the transfer of taxpayer funds and the private property of others through the machinery of the state. They are, in function, identical to lobbyists, differing only in the special interests for which they lobby and the method and amount of their compensation.
Now, the First Amendment protects our right to petition the government for redress of grievances; lobbying for the interests of laborers, tenants, the homeless, etc. is not bad in and of itself any more than is lobbying for the interests of large corporations, small businesses, farmers, trade associations, or ideological interest groups. Everybody deserves a voice. (Leaving aside for now Obama's bashing of lobbyists, of which I assume we will hear far less after he picked a running mate whose son is a Washington lobbyist).
But of course, if a lobbyist for big corporations is unsuccessful in bettering the lot of his client, he'll get fired. "Community organizers," being self-appointed, are not accountable to their clients; they can't be fired by the community or in any way judged on what they accomplish. As Judis notes, even Obama himself once was willing to admit that his days as a community organizer had accomplished nothing of any substance, his community no better off than it was before. A Mayor would have been fired for that, but there was nobody who could fire Obama.
The additional and related problem with Obama's brand of "organizing" (which he continued in law practice representing clients like the far-left group ACORN, see here and here), and why it ought to concern voters, is what it stands for ideologically: advocacy of the unvarnished Great Society liberalism that has been proven a failure and rejected repeatedly by the voters for the last 30 years, at times backed by Marxist or quasi-Marxist theories about 'institutional power dynamics' in lieu of a decent respect for free markets and individual enterprise. This sort of organized beggary is not, and has never been, a path out of poverty for any significant number of people. It's entirely proper to bring up that background, even if, as was done by Mayor Giuliani and Governor (and former Mayor) Palin, the chief point is to drive home the underlying reason why organizers never face real consequences for living politically in the 1970s - because Obama never had what a Mayor would have: constituents able to say "get real."
II. The Dog Whistlers
The half-sympathetic claim from some liberals is that by evoking images of troublemakers like Sharpton, whose National Action Network convention Obama addressed in 2007, the GOP is blowing a racial "dog whistle," i.e., using terms that will make voters think in racial terms. It is, as I have noted, probably true that for a significant number of Americans who are familiar with the operation of dysfunctional cities with a lot of "community leaders" and "community organizers," the association that comes to mind is a negative one, and one that may well remind them of some particularly odious left-wing activist who is, like Sharpton, black. That's unfortunate, regardless of the boy-who-cries-wolf nature of the charges of racism made by Obama and his supporters throughout this campaign; it would be better if racial lines of thinking simply never came up in elections.
But I would make four points here.
First, as I said before, apply the John Edwards test here and you'll see that complaints about the negative connotation of Obama's prior occupation are being deployed here as a sword to bat down legitimate arguments rather than simply a shield against unfair ones. Both parties frequently use terms with negative associations, whether tying John Edwards to "trial lawyers" or Mike Dukakis to the ACLU, or Dick Cheney or Mitt Romney to fat-cat CEOs. Obama's got baggage like everyone else, and it's unrealistic to expect Republicans to unilaterally refuse to press those vulnerabilities just because some voters may take it the wrong way.
Second, the Democrats devoted a large chunk of time at their own convention to playing up Obama's time as a community organizer to a nationally televised audience. Given how little there is to work with on his resume, maybe this is understandable. But really, if they believed then that "community organizer" was a racial dog whistle, they should have thought twice before blowing it at the top of their lungs for the better part of a week.
Third, of course, Obama largely brought scrutiny of this phase of his career on himself by demeaningly making out Sarah Palin as if all she had ever done was be Mayor of Wasilla. This was done, you may recall, not by Obama's surrogates but by the candidate himself. He should have expected some push-back on his own early career and how it compares unfavorably with her experience as Mayor.
And fourth, well, Barack Obama is not responsible for the fact that PIRG/ACORN-style "community organizers" strike a lot of Americans as not all that different from what Al Sharpton does, and he's not responsible either for the racial makeup of many big-city political machines in 21st century America (recognizing that the unappealing features of such machines are not actually race-specific but long predate the time when African-Americans were permitted to have any role in government or politics whatsoever). But it is true that Obama has spent virtually his entire career around urban political machines and left-wing community organizers, and has really never done anything to improve the image or break the power of either in communities that desperately need a fresh start from corrupt machine politics and Great Society policies. If that lack of moral courage on Obama's part means he starts to accumulate the negative baggage, racial and otherwise, of decades of failed urban policy and left-wing ideology, that is once again a built-in feature of the candidate and not one that Republicans somehow invented. And if you recall the primaries, well, it's not as if we didn't warn you against this guy.
III. The Pontius Pilate Fan Club
One of the more enduring features of the political Left, at least as far back as the days of "Make Love, Not War," is the effort to generate political slogans in the form of bumper stickers, often ones that condense the largest possible number of factual errors and logical fallacies into the fewest number of words. In the annals of ludicrous bumper stickers, however, few are quite as idiotic as the one currently being retailed in numerous quarters on the Left, from Kos to Donna Brazile to Open Left to really a who's who of lefty bloggers:
Jesus was a Community Organizer, and Pontius Pilate was a Governor.
This is mind-bending in its stupidity on any number of levels. For the pure cruel sport of it, let us actually take this bumper sticker seriously enough to count the ways:
1. Every time Obama is compared to John McCain's running mate instead of to McCain himself, that's a win for the GOP. Every. Single. Time. It just emphasizes that he should be running, at most, for Vice President.
2. Every State has a Governor. Most Americans have a general idea of what they do, and will not be persuaded by a bumper sticker to associate them with Pontius Pilate. I am not overly fond of my Governor, David Paterson, but I do not associate him with Pilate.
3. Pilate is best known to history as the man who decided that a crucial life and death decision was above his pay grade to make. Not really the image Obama wants to conjure up.
4. The hubris never stops - as my older brother put it, "just what the Obama campaign needs: more comparisons to Jesus." Most Americans have a pretty good idea what Jesus was about and are not easily persuaded to adjust that idea to make Him more like Barack Obama.
5. In point of fact, very little in the life of Jesus involved invoking state power to do anything - indeed, Our Lord was rather insistent that His Kingdom was not of this world, and tended to say things like "render unto God what is God's and unto Ceasar what is Caesar's." That's not to say that the teachings of Jesus are irrelevant to public policy and politics - volumes have been written on that subject - but simply that Jesus Himself was not at all in Obama's line of work, as anyone vaguely familiar with Christianity would know.
6. Pilate was not a Governor at all in the American sense; he was a colonial administrator. He wasn't elected by or accountable to the Jews the way Gov. Palin was elected by, and remains accountable to, the people of Alaska, among whom she more popular than any other Governor in the natoon.
To sum up: a slogan that is snotty, strategically and tactically self-defeating, illogical, and rests on mischaracterizations of Christian Scripture, basic civics, and the career of their own Presidential nominee....well played, indeed.
PS - Here are the Obama campaign fundraising emails I referenced, which at least have the virtue of pressing the one consistent theme of the Obama campaign: "give us money."
Why would the Republicans spend a whole night of their convention attacking ordinary people?
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September 7, 2008
BASEBALL: Second Most Valuable Met Carlos
If the Mets win this game tonight - I write this in the middle of the 4th inning - you will probably hear a little more of Carlos Delgado for MVP on the strength of a 2-RBI single off Cole Hamels to make this must-win game (the Mets nursing a 1-game division lead and this their last game against Philly after losing the first two in the series) 3-1 in the first and a long homer in the third to make it 4-2, answering a homer by Ryan Howard.
It's a nice sentiment for the importance of Delgado's comeback with the Mets, but don't believe it; he's still the team's 4th or 5th most valuable player, behind Wright, Reyes, Beltran and maybe Santana. Delgado does nothing that doesn't show up in the box score - he's at best mediocre in the field as a 1B, a liability on the basepaths, and his .346 OBP is OK but nothing special, 12 points below the average NL first baseman.
You can beat that to be MVP as a slow, slugging first baseman only if you are truly the league's preeminent slugger and RBI man. But Delgado is, entering tonight, 8th in the league (and third on the Mets behind Wright and Beltran) in RBI, fifth in the league in HR, and second on the team and not in the league's top 10 in Slugging. That's a heckuva season for a 36-year-old who spent the spring on the verge of being cut, but it's no MVP.
UPDATE: Delgado adds a HR in the fifth, another bomb off Hamels, and the crowd chants "MVP". I stand by my point, but man is his timing good right now.
September 5, 2008
BASEBALL: Go Time
Yes, I realize I have been terribly delinquent on the baseball side of the blogging ledger the last 2 weeks, being absorbed with the political conventions and the VP selections as well as having a lot of stuff going on outside the blog. It really doesn't seem like this should be it, but here we are: the last Mets-Phillies series of the season, 3 games at Shea, Mets up by 3 in the standings. Amazingly, the Mets have actually scored more runs than the Phils this year, 693 (4.95/game) to 676 (4.83/game), the margin being 5.08-4.74 on the road, so this is not solely a factor of Shea being more homer-friendly this season. So much for a team with only one reliable outfielder (Endy Chavez, batting .272/.311/.336, is second among Mets outfielders with 265 at bats), no regular second baseman (Damion Easley, batting .265/.318/.361, leads Mets 2B with 294 at bats) and a defense-first catcher being unable to keep up with the vaunted Phillies offense (go back and see my preseason preview on why the Phillies' offense is overrated, but please do not look at my preseason previews of the AL East and the two Central divisions while you are there....)
In marked contrast to last season, the Mets have thus far faced down their division opponents head to head. They are 10-5 against the Phillies, accounting for more than the margin of their lead in the division, and explaining why the Mets are 10 games over (32-22) vs the NL East, while the Phils are 4 over (29-25).
A sweep by the Phillies would erase all of that; a sweep by the Mets would effectively end the race, with Philly lacking the head-to-head matchups to repeat last year's late charge. It's a big weekend.
September 4, 2008
POLITICS: John McCain's Night
Last night was the fireworks at the GOP Convention, the high-wire triumph of Sarah Palin, the street fighting of Rudy. Tonight was the hard work: John McCain laying out his policy vision. So, what did I think?
John McCain is a great talker, but not a great speaker - he's the polar opposite of Obama, who gives a tremendous speech but does not converse and answer questions so well. Those of us who have grown to know McCain's speaking style well over the years did not have great expectations for this speech. This is his weak suit. He was inevitably going to be a bit of a letdown from Wednesday night.
Moreover, this was not the speech I would have written for McCain, were I advising him. He laid out his domestic policy vision, specifically in some cases (e.g., education, energy, trade, job training, business taxes), more vaguely in others (health care). But he didn't walk issue by issue through the differences between his mainstream positions and Obama's extreme positions. He explicitly distanced himself from the now-departed GOP Congressional majority, but he never explicitly explained the fact that he's very different as well from President Bush, and he never told the voters that the Democrats now control Congress, despite polls indicating that a good many voters don't even know that. He explained his support for the surge in Iraq, but he didn't contrast it with Obama's call for a complete withdrawal by March 2008. I don't think tonight was the night to attack Obama, but it was the night to contrast McCain's positions and record on the issues with Obama's. He missed that opportunity, and may regret it.
But as the saying goes, you disserve the reader when you review a book or movie you didn't see rather than the one that is actually in front of you. McCain's speech tonight, on its own terms, was OK, if rather long and not all that exciting. This was old-style pre-1960s patriotism, and elevating himself above partisanship as McCain so loves to do. I did really like his explanation that hyper-partisanship (which I, of course, don't disdain the way McCain does) isn't the problem but a symptom of a self-interested political class.
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He didn't have a fancy stage, but spoke in the midst of the crowd, in a setting more like the townhall meetings he prefers. That undoubtedly gave the Secret Service ulcers, especially when the rude and classless Code Pink protestors repeatedly interrupted his opening. Conservatives do not do this to liberal politicians; nobody interrupted Barack Obama. But dealing with people with no manners, no maturity and no decency is the cross borne by Republicans. Hopefully the audience at home gave McCain a break for the choppy intro, recognizing what vile people these are. We already learned that the folks who rushed the stage last night included a major Obama fundraiser. Charming. Fortunately, McCain handles hecklers well, and has long experience with them.
If last night had gone badly, McCain's section paying tribute to Gov. Palin might have seemed like propping her up, but at this point, it felt more like he was trying to get in on some of the crowd's unconditional enthusiasm for her. It may have gained him his biggest applause lines until his big finish.
I was pleasantly surprised that McCain dedicated so much of his speech to school choice and charter schools. (On the other hand, we heard nothing about entitlement reform).
McCain also played the experience card without being overtly obvious about it, simply laying out the foreign challenges and explaining that his years in the business enable him to understand how the world works. We could have used some contrast with Obama's ideas there, but so be it. He did pay tribute to the enduring accomplishment of the Bush Administration, the prevention of any real followup attacks after September 11.
Finally, McCain may not have given a great speech, but he ended spectacularly. Judging by their Denver Convention, the Democrats do not know how to end speeches anymore, not the way Teddy Kennedy did in 1980; Obama's strongest section was the homage to Martin Luther King, but he kept on going after that, and a week later I cannot for the life of me remember how his speech ended. Bill and Hillary's speeches each rambled on for several minutes after what should have been their endings. McCain's closing, after recounting the lessons he'd learned in Vietnam (and contrasting himself with Obama's self-absorption and self-aggrandizement for a life of decidedly mediocre attainments) was tremendous, and positively Churchillian, stressing the single thing about McCain that Republicans like the most, even for all his bipartisanship and his apostasies from conservative orthodoxy - he's a fighter. It may not read all that well on the page, but after the long hushed recitation of McCain's POW years, it stirred the crowd to its feet:
I'm going to fight for my cause every day as your president. I'm going to fight to make sure every American has every reason to thank God, as I thank him, that I'm an American, a proud citizen of the greatest country on Earth. And with hard work - with hard word, strong faith, and a little courage, great things are always within our reach.
I loved the fiesty delivery of the closing, how McCain stayed in his rhythm and did not stop for the applause but shouted over it, letting the roar in the hall build and break again and again. It's how you close a speech.
Time will tell if McCain made a good impression - he certainly didn't seem old or tired or crabby, and it takes little effort for him to seem presidential, but he did try the audience's patience. If they stayed for the ending, they got to see the sizzle after eating the steak.
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POLITICS: Shock and Awwwwww
It is, as I have said, so hard to be really objective about convention speeches - Republicans see one thing, Democrats another, and what really matters is the view of independent "swing" voters.
That said: man, was this a great night for Republicans. Could not possibly have gone better. I watched on CNN and the panel was just totally swept away, to the point where Campbell Brown was gushing about Gov. Palin and John King was anguishing over how CNN is harder on the Republicans than the Democrats. What a difference a day makes.
There were an awful lot of smiles tonight. Bill Clinton and maybe Brian Schweitzer were the only really happy warriors at the Democratic Convention; Obama's speech was almost wholly joyless (did you see him smile once?)
We started with Mitt Romney. Romney was....Romney: smart, tough, technocratic (few convention speeches use words like "largesse" and "moribund") and hard-hitting, but probably inspiring only to boardroom Republicans. Romney landed some punches, but I doubt many people watched him and thought "I really wish we'd nominated this guy." A good start to the night, but just a start.
Then, Huck. I had really hoped that Huck's mission in this convention would be to hit Obama, and hard, on his extremism on abortion. But I suppose with Palin on the ticket, they decided that that issue hardly even needed to be raised. Instead, we got a lot of Huck's blue collar background and folksy stories. And Huck tells a great story.
PS - Yes, Huck still hates Mitt, as you could tell in several little ways.
Then, Rudy, and Rudy came to fight. You know, of course, that I love Rudy. There's perhaps no more effective tool in political rhetoric than mockery, and there is much about Obama to mock; Rudy picked a few juicy targets and drilled them. The best riff was on Obama's "present" votes in the State Senate - words can't really capture Rudy's facial expression in mimicking Obama finding it "too hard" to make decisions. I swear I have laughed less at many standup comics than Rudy's takedown of Obama. And Rudy, who has always stressed the unique and important role of executives, emphasized over and over the superiority of Gov. Palin's experience as a Governor and even a small-town Mayor compared to Obama's time as a legislator. Rudy had the best nod to media-created rumors that the Republicans would dump Palin with his crack that Biden better have the VP job in writing.
Then, the star of the show: Sarah Palin. Yesterday's storyline may have been whether McCain goofed by picking Palin, but after the speech the talk is shifting to whether she's too tough on Obama. It was truly a tour de force of a speech, one that eliminates the notion that she's the deer-in-the-headlights Dan Quayle in a skirt. It's not the last test for Palin, but she passed the first test with flying colors.
Alaska Democrats have spent a good deal of the last week warning national Democrats not to underestimate the nation's most popular Governor, who got that way for a reason - but did they listen? Nooooo. And now they know why. Palin started slowly, and I personally would not have dwelt on her family so long, but Rudy was such a 'hot' act to follow that she had to get the crowd eating out of her hand first. The crowd in the hall, of course, has gone wild over Palin and needed little prompting to get in her corner. Other writers can express better than I the emotional impact of Palin's family. And then she moved in for the kill on Obama's disdain for small-town America and his rhetoric and fancy props where he ought to have accomplishments.
What impressed me most about Palin as a speaker was her timing. She didn't force things, didn't step on her applause lines, let the speech and the crowd build and come to her. The set of her jaw actually reminded me a bit of Bush after delivering an applause line, but of course she has her own unique sort of flair that Bush never did - I was positively bursting with confidence after Bush's convention speech in 2004, but I never have seen him control a crowd the way Palin did tonight. The McCain camp's strategy of hyping up expectations of how well Palin would do in the speech was richly rewarded. And McCain came out for a well-deserved victory lap over his selection of Palin after the audience got to see her for themselves.
It was a good night, one that could not have gone better. We shall see tomorrow how McCain himself closes out the convention now that the spotlight finally shifts back to the man at the top of the ticket.
September 3, 2008
POLITICS: What Gov. Palin Needs To Say Tonight
Tonight's speech at the Republican National Convention by vice presidential nominee Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is probably the most important convention speech in memory by a vice presidential candidate. Gov. Palin made a smashingly good impression with her initial appearance on Friday, but her relative inexperience combined with a ferocious left-wing/media assault on her and her family has left a lot of the public up in the air as to what to make of her. Obviously, she's enormously popular with Republican activists and hated by the cultural Left, and there is copious evidence that people in general and women in particular are upset at how she has been treated over the past several days (note: when Obama and his allies are turning off the likes of Lindsay Lohan, they are really playing with fire), but sympathy is one thing, and respect is entirely another. Tonight's audience will be looking to Gov. Palin to show them why they should respect her.
With that in mind, a few thoughts about what tonight's speech should look like. Gov. Palin has a lot of work to do to close the sale with voters who only first met her five days ago, whether they like her or not, and it's not going to happen all in one speech. It's important for a speech not to try to do too many things, lest it fail to accomplish any of them. For example, Barack Obama's race speech back in the spring was a smashing success, at least temporarily, because it had just two goals: redirect attention away from Rev. Wright, and let Obama speak movingly about a subject he cares deeply about. By contrast, Obama's convention speech really was not that impressive - Obama was trying to give out some of his patented rhetoric without looking too grandiose, he was trying to reassure people on national security, taxes and social issues, he was trying to prove he could get specific, he was trying to mend fences with Hillaryites...too many goals for one speech. Gov. Palin needs to focus on a few achievable goals.
1. Go light on the 'girl power' stuff. The key sound bites from her Friday speech, which most people who would be watching tonight have already seen on the news, were about the historic nature of her candidacy as a woman. That doesn't need to be repeated at any length. Palin's mere presence is enough to remind people of that history.
2. Go light on the mooses. It's hard for any politician to establish a clear identity with the public, let alone in less than a week, but the media blitz around Palin has already hammered home the basic nutshell: mother of five, small town girl, "hockey mom," pro-life and really means it, pro-gun, shoots moose. That's actually quite a lot of brand identity already built in, and some of it can be reinforced by her introduction. Gov. Palin doesn't need to sell people on why they should like a woman with that background (many will, some won't); she needs to sell them on why they should believe that a likeable, relatable woman is also ready to be the Vice President and, if necessary, the Commander-in-Chief.
3. Guns and abortion are Obama's problem. Relatedly, Palin's "pro-life, pro-gun" credibility is not going to be questioned - she needs to expand that issue profile beyond social issues, not worry about proving her bona fides. If she does get into issues like abortion and guns, it should only be to attack Obama's extremism on those issues. (I had assumed before the Palin nomination and the hurricane-shortened convention that Mike Huckabee would give the speech that tears into Obama's positions on those issues, but it is unclear now if Huck will even get his speech shown by the cable networks).
4. Stick to the broad themes on foreign policy. Gov. Palin won't prove herself an expert on national security in one prepared speech and shouldn't try. Leave the thorny issues like South Ossetia, Waziristan, Iran's nuclear program and the future of the Atlantic alliance to McCain, who has built decades of credibility on them. Gov. Palin can start the process of reassuring Republicans on her national security credibility by hitting a few marks on the most familiar questions - 9/11, terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan - and leave for later the process of fleshing out her views.
5. Sell her record as Governor. Traditionally, Governors, whatever their foreign policy experience or lack thereof, have sold themselves to the public as serious people by running on their record of accomplishment and showing how they have grappled with the issues that have come accross their desks. In Gov. Palin's case that means a heavy focus on energy policy, on which she is legitimately an expert from her time both as Governor and on the Oil and Gas Commission, and on battling corruption and wasteful spending. The Washington Post notes that "Palin is likely to emphasize her areas of policy expertise -- particularly energy and political reform -- rather than focusing on her biography or gender," and that's what it needs to be about. If Palin can convince voters that she is 100% ready on day one to deal with pocketbook issues, she is halfway home.
6. Show some steel. A convention speech is not the time or place to waste time rebutting the other side's attacks, whether personal or poilitical. Gov. Palin can probably best deal with the personal stuff by sitting down with someone like Barbara Walters or even Oprah (anybody appropriate to the task is in the tank for Obama, so why not someone who is open about it?). But the message does need to be sent in more general terms that she is accustomed to the brickbats that come with standing up to the establishment, that she can - in Harry Truman's words - take the heat in the kitchen, and that no matter what gets thrown at her, she won't back off or back down and will keep doing the people's business. Plus, a few well-timed Churchillian lines of that nature, ideally as the conclusion of the speech, will absolutely bring down the house in a convention packed with delegates who are just dying to put on a rousing show of support for a woman most Republicans feel is being unfairly slimed by a media that's been all too reluctant to do the same thing to the other side's presidential nominee.
That is her mission tonight.
September 2, 2008
POLITICS: More Than Just The Mayor
Leon Wolf over at RedState has a hilarious and spot-on post about Obama's (1) ridiculous claim that running for president qualifies him to be president and (2) insistence on comparing his record to Sarah Palin's record as Mayor of Wasilla while refusing to acknowledge that the woman is Governor of Alaska. As Leon notes, using Obama's own terms of comparison:
Interesting that you should claim that the total annual budget of your campaign is approximately $432 million a year, Mr. Former Harvard Law Student. The Alaska State Budget is roughly ten times that amount. Interesting that you should mention that your campaign employs 2500 individuals. The government of the State of Alaska (which Sarah Palin is Governor of - I hate to keep mentioning this, but you and your supporters keep forgetting it) has approximately six times that many. And, just in case you're forgetting, she's been doing it for longer than you've been running your campaign (which was not nearly always as large as it currently is).
Ed Morrissey makes a similar point.
Also on the campaign:
*David Brooks on why McCain likes Palin and the shortcomings of their combined ticket. Brooks is nothing if not a guy who knows McCain's mind. An excellent read despite the horrifying implication that Brooks thinks Robert Gates should have been McCain's running mate.
*Obama refuses to follow the lead of Bush, Kerry and Gore in releasing college transcripts. (H/T). Note that McCain also does not release his, although in his case there would not be much point, as he has freely admitted graduating in the bottom of his class. But Obama stands to be much more embarrassed if his grades do not match his reputation, or perhaps by his course selection.
*I cannot possibly offer you better advice on the Palin selection than to read Beldar, who is just way ahead of everyone else on this story, in part because he was an early advocate of a Palin selection and was doing his homework on her all summer. Among others, he explains the difference between a windfall profits tax and the oil company taxes Palin actually raised, which seem to deal more directly with the oil companies' business directly with the government; tells you everything you need to know about Gov. Palin's respect for her family's privacy; tells us about Palin's background as a debater; and revisits her role running the Alaska Oil & Gas Conservation Commission.
*I hope you watched Fred Thompson's barn-burner of a speech tonight (Fred was in fine form, although in a few spots he could have used a pause to get a drink of water). Unfortunately, I gather that most of the networks skipped the speech, or at least the first half of it. Which stinks, given that the GOP already shaved the first night off its convention. Of course, a fair amount of what Fred covered is well-known enough to people who read blogs, but it was still very well done, and even I learned something - I had not known that McCain opposed President Reagan's deployment of peacekeeping troops to Lebanon, a decision Reagan later described as the worst mistake of his presidency. (Lieberman's speech was solid and more directly aimed at swing voters, but of course his delivery is famously dry).
POLITICS: The Palin Chronicles, Part I
The great question of the week, which I am unfortunately only now getting around to starting to answer, is what to make of John McCain's selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Let's hit some of the early points here, with more to follow.
I really was unprepared for how euphoric my reaction was to McCain's choice, and there are really two reasons for that.
The first, which I touched on Friday - it seems so long ago now - was the way the McCain campaign pulled this whole thing off. Whereas Obama had built up suspense on his pick while leaking a 3-man 'short list', promised his supporters they'd be the first to know via text message, and then had to deal with a late-evening leak that trumped the 3am text message and left his announcement of Biden over the other two finalists broken up over two news days, McCain managed to stun everyone Friday morning, picking a candidate whose name had never made the veepstakes lists except as a dark horse and favorite of the blogosphere. It was clear that many of the leaks made beforehand had been deliberate misdirection, including the floating of Tim Pawlenty, the long-time favorite, the night before. One way that McCain maintained operational security on this was by using Pawlenty, Romney, Lieberman, Ridge, Cantor, etc. as his surrogates and traveling companions, but not Palin. It also turns out that the McCain's many houses came in handy in getting Palin in and out of Arizona for vetting unnoticed. The Democrats had been gearing up to attack a bunch of other candidates - Palin wasn't even on that "Next Cheney" website, and even though she actually has a lot in common with Cheney in terms of her upbringing, her public image is very much the opposite of what the Democrats have been looking to run against - and they were caught utterly flat-footed and forced to serially revise their plan to attack her. Obama's initial press release started by attacking her inexperience, the one place Obama can't afford to go, and also ripped her as being a tool of Big Oil, thus proving they hadn't even paid attention to her actual record in Alaska.
The sudden announcement of Palin swept Obama's convention speech right off the front pages instantly - for four days now, Palin and not the presidential matchup, has dominated the news. The choice of Palin was vintage McCain, the bold stroke, and you can't help but be impressed with how he carried it off; the man knows how to keep secrets and use timing to maximum effect. That kind of skill is very encouraging to watch.
B. Energy In The Executive
The second reason for the initial euphoria is that it's been such a long time since Republicans and conservatives have had something really exciting to cheer for. At the beginning of February 2005, we held the commanding heights of politics - a President freshly re-elected with the first popular majority since 1988, the largest GOP Congressional majorities in a century, democracy on the move in Iraq, Lebanon, Ukraine and Georgia, the possibility seeming at hand of legislative progress at home and victory over our enemies abroad.
We can discuss at another time how all that unraveled, but while there have certainly been victories along the way - most notably the stunning turnaround in Iraq since early 2007 and the 2005-06 confirmations of Justices Roberts and Alito - and had our share of fun with the Democrats' current leadership, nothing has come easily for Republicans and conservatives since early 2005. We've been engaged in a protracted rearguard action, a sort of political equivalent of the Chosin Resovoir, and chosen as our leader a man long mistrusted by the party. The mood on the Right for a long time now has been one of grim determination to ride out the storm and hold on for better days down the road. When it looked like Pawlenty, I spent most of Thursday night talking myself into the idea that it was wise for McCain to take the safe, don't-make-waves choice who would basically get out of McCain's way. But the selection of a VP nominee who is young, energetic, a fresh face from outside the Beltway, glamorous, and undeniably conservative on a fundamental cultural level is fun. McCain may be startlingly energetic for a man his age with his disabilities, but there's a level of enthusiasm that Palin brings to the trail that's already infectious. It really is difficult not to get swept up in that.
II. The X Factor
I have been thinking for a while that I wanted to see Palin on the national ticket in 2012, but as regular readers know, she wasn't my first choice for VP - my long list of "don'ts" included a few strikes against her, and in the days before the rollout, I backed Eric Cantor and viewed Palin as too much of a rookie for the national ticket. Had Palin run in the GOP primaries, I would certainly have opposed her on grounds of being insufficiently experienced to head the national ticket, as I did with 1-term Governor Mitt Romney. So, what to make of her as McCain's running mate?
I won't say that I'm unconcerned by her inexperience on national security matters; we really do know precious little of her views on those issues. Her main national security responsibility is commanding the Alaska National Guard troops tasked with important functions in the missile defense system, and it's a bit of a stretch to make that out as more than it is.
Palin will be inevitably compared to Barack Obama, given that so many of the criticisms leveled against Obama not only by Republicans but by fellow Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden have focused on his inexperience. There are certainly some similarities between Palin and Obama (and more between Palin and Tim Kaine, one of the finalists for Obama's running mate). But there are two very important distinctions between Palin and Obama.
A. Their #1 = Our #2
The first one is obvious: Obama is running for President, not Vice President. Given the vast gulf between McCain's and Obama's resumes, it's clear that the issue of experience, accomplishment and qualification requires Obama to change the subject at every possible opportunity. And now he is changing it to compare himself to Sarah Palin.
Obama has now gotten himself sucked in to comparing the Democrats' #1 to the Republicans' #2:
"My understanding is that Gov. Palin's town, Wassilla, has I think 50 employees. We've got 2500 in this campaign. I think their budget is maybe 12 million dollars a year - we have a budget of about three times that just for the month," Obama responded.
In so doing, he is comparing apples to oranges comparing his campaign in 2008 to Palin's record as Mayor of Wasilla in 1996-2002 back when Obama was just a State Senator, while completely ignoring her job as Governor. He is also, amusingly, claiming that he is qualified to be president based on...running for president. But even aside from that, the #1 vs #2 dynamic is precisely where McCain wants Obama:
"When they're comparing our vice presidential candidate's experience to their presidential candidate's experience and John McCain is just flying above it all," says one senior McCain adviser, "that's a good place for us to be."
The old saying we have heard in many a campaign is that the presidency is no place for on the job training; the vice presidency, by contrast, consists of little else. None of that is a reason to gamble on a complete cipher for the job. But that brings us to the second point: Palin's qualifications are clearly superior to Obama's because she is an executive. The presidency is fundamentally an executive job - this is a major part of why I originally backed Rudy, and only by invoking both a very long (25 year) career in Congress and an equally long (27 year) career in the Navy was McCain able to overcome the usual presumption that the GOP would pick an executive like Romney, Rudy or Huckabee. Obama, by contrast, was blessed to run almost entirely against a field of other Senators - only Bill Richardson among the Democratic field had ever been a chief executive.
As I have explained before at length, there are five types of experience that are particularly useful in preparing for the presidency: executive experience, national security experience, political (especially political leadership) experience, military service, and private sector business experience. No one of these is essential, but national security and executive experience are the two most important, and if you can't have anyone on the ticket who has done both, the next best thing is a ticket that combines an executive with a veteran national security hand - exactly what the GOP is running.
While Palin's resume in major public office is, like Obama's, relatively short, and her national security experience negligible at best, her experience is as a chief executive, the person to whom an entire state government reports, the person who gets the call when things go wrong, the person on whose desk the buck stops. The buck has never stopped with Barack Obama, or with Joe Biden for that matter. Obama has various bills he tries to take credit for (sometimes accurately), but he does not have the kind of record to run on that every governor has. We have had presidents before who were relatively short-tenured governors. Woodrow Wilson, for example, was elected with effectively the same resume as Palin - small-scale executive experience (his tenure as president of turn-of-the-century Princeton University is comparable to being mayor of a town of a few thousand people) followed by two years as a reformist, anti-machine governor. Wilson's presidency may not be the best role model (I have noted before that the public had no way of knowing what kind of Commander-in-Chief Wilson would be) but he did turn out to be a highly effective leader both in domestic legislative battles and in commanding American troops; Wilson's failings were more about his impractical ideas.
Obama's lack of any of the kinds of relevant experience is really staggering, and not at all like Palin. Nobody with a resume like Obama's has ever been elected president (Abe Lincoln, who had a relatively short resume as a legislator and to whom Al Gore audaciously compared Obama, had a good deal more private sector responsibility than Obama and had served in the military as a captain in the Black Hawk War. And Obama's no Abe Lincoln).
That's the difference between Palin as Governor and Obama as Senator. And the pattern repeats in their prior job experience. I regard Palin's two three-year terms as Mayor of Wasilla, like Obama's four two-year terms as State Senator from Hyde Park, as useful life experience (it helps to see how government interacts with the people at ground level) but not really a substitute for the necessary step of serving in major public office like being a Member of Congress or elected statewide as a Governor or Senator. But even then, Obama wasn't the guy responsible for Hyde Park (he has since tried to make a point of his not having "clout" in the State Senate); he was never in a leadership position in his party and until his last term in the State Senate he was (just as in the first two years in the US Senate before he stopped showing up so he could run for President) a member of the minority party. If anything, Obama's worked hard at avoiding being the guy who could be held responsible for anything that's happened around him his entire career (his presidential campaign has involved a seemingly endless series events, up to and including this weekend's barrage of attacks on Palin, in which Obama claims to have no responsibility for what his own subordinates do). Wasilla may be a small suburban town, but for two terms Sarah Palin was in charge of it.
III. Identity Politics
One obvious question about Palin is the gender issue: we she picked because she's a woman?
Look, Palin's record in Alaska is such that even if she were a man, she'd certainly have already made a sufficient impression to be marked as a rising star in the GOP. But I don't believe that McCain would have chosen her if she'd been male; he would have gone with a more veteran governor like Pawlenty or looked elsewhere. Republicans hate playing identity politics, but where elections are concerned, it's the world we live in, and the game the Democrats have played in this election; if they are going to nominate the icon of a group that makes up 11% of the electorate and could not possibly be more solidly Democratic, we may as well go after a group that makes up a majority of the electorate and includes a lot of swing voters. And, again: that sort of ticket-balancing calculus has always been the province of the bottom half of the ticket, the difference being that in years gone by the attention was more to geographic rather than demographic balance.
Does 2008 sound the death knell of the two-white-guys ticket that has been the staple of presidential politics since 1789? Maybe, or at least it will probably be a rarity in the future. Depending on how things turn out this November, it seems likely that the next Democratic ticket will include Obama and/or Hillary, and the next Republican ticket will include Palin and/or Bobby Jindal.
Totally random thought: if McCain wins, will Palin's idiosyncratic fashion - the glasses, the beehive hairdo - become a national trend? It has nothing to do with politics, just wondering.
IV. Be Careful What You Wish For
Finally, for now - I have to get separately to some of the other stories about Palin, many of which are being adequately covered over at RedState - I offer a word of caution to my fellow conservatives. Palin is undeniably an appealing person with bedrock cultural conservative credentials. She may well end up being the next great conservative leader. But once the initial flush of infatuation has worn off, we will be looking more closely at how she carries conservative policy goals into effect. And we have a long, long line of examples of public officials - Mike Huckabee, Condi Rice and Arnold Schwarzenegger come to mind - to remind us that an appealing personality and/or biography and the ability to sell some parts of the conservative message does not necessarily equate to someone who will build a record conservatives will be happy with.
V. The Secret Weapon
Finally, let's remember that at the end of the day, politicians are not just paper credentials and position papers. And probably Palin's greatest asset to the ticket is that she comes across as fundamentally a normal person. Of the four candidates on the national tickets this year, we are actually blessed not to have anyone of the Kerry/Gore variety - all four are to one extent or another likeable and/or charming people. But what you would not call the other three is normal - McCain is basically an action hero, a Jack Bauer/Han Solo/Indiana Jones figure, the kind of guy most Americans know more from the movies than from their day to day lives. Biden, for all his affability, is someone if you met him not knowing who he is, your first reaction would be "this guy must be a U.S. Senator." Obama, when you get him away from his cultic acolytes, his TelePrompter and his branded logos and trappings of grandeur, is at heart an academic. All of them really did have ambitions of public glory from an early age. But Palin has the rare Reagan touch of having fallen into politics rather gradually and backwards, and even Reagan was always to some extent a performer; Palin is probably the most relatably normal person on a national ticket I can remember, and maybe the closest to a normal person on a national ticket since Harry Truman. Obviously that, too, is not without its downsides; she has to convince people that she is ultimately capable of managing the superhuman demands of the job of the Presidency if needed. But don't underestimate what Palin's personality will bring to this race.
POLITICS: DNC Late Entries
I'm overdue to catch up on baseball blogging and still working on a piece on Sarah Palin...meanwhile, over the weekend we finished watching some of the Democratic Convention speeches I hadn't seen live. Quick thoughts:
*I really thought people had been eggagerating the malice in Michelle Obama's eyes when the Clintons were speaking, but they were not. Man, does she hate them, and she would not be a good poker player.
*Brian Schweitzer really is very good on the stump, and you could see that Bill Clinton, who knows political talent, was visibly impressed. Of course, the substance of Schweitzer's speech was nonsense, but that's beside the point. Frank Caliendo would not even need makeup to do a Schweitzer imitation. They could be twins.
*Bob Casey would have endorsed a grilled cheese sandwich if it was written on the TelePrompter. Talk about an empty suit.
*I suspect the Palin pick has the Democrats regretting all the "girl power" stuff surrounding Hillary's appearance.
*Chelsea really sounds just like her mother (well, you can tell she's younger, but that's it).
*Both Bill and Hillary had great closings to their speeches....and just kept on going.
*That interview a few months back where McCain said that the fundamentals of the economy were solid but a lot of people were hurting? The Democrats just could not get enough of the first half, and only the first half, of that sentence. They wanted to take it home and marry it.
*I really could not watch Mark Warner. His speech wasn't any livelier on paper. This line was priceless:
I spent 20 years in business. If you ran a company whose only strategy was to tear down the competition, it wouldn’t last long.
Yeah, and in the private sector if you collaborate with your competition, you go to jail.