Archive for December, 2007

The coverup of Benazir Bhutto’s death

Monday, December 31st, 2007

It seems clear now that Musharraf’s government is covering something up. Between this video broadcast by Sky News clearly showing a gunman shooting Bhutto, and the below video with another video and some investigative reporting, it is evident Bhutto was shot and Musharraf is now lying about it.

Found on Andrew Sullivan’s site.

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To be partisan

Friday, December 28th, 2007

Karl Rove & George Bush

par·ti·san

noun, [Origin: 1545–55; < MF < Upper It parteźan (Tuscan partigiano), equiv. to part(e) faction, part + -eźan (< VL *-és- -ese + L -iānus -ian)]

1. an adherent or supporter of a person, group, party, or cause, esp. a person who shows a biased, emotional allegiance; a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person; especially : one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance;

2 a: a member of a body of detached light troops making forays and harassing an enemy b: a member of a guerrilla band operating within enemy lines

In the past two weeks, a fight has broken out in the Democratic primaries between John Edwards and Barack Obama (with Paul Krugman and Hillary Clinton playing supporting roles for Edwards) over the best way to effect change. Edwards insists that in order to effect change, we must fight for it and demand it. He argues that those in power, who are benefiting from the current system, will not give up their powers or benefits easily. We, as the people, as the government, need to wrest the power from the powerful and end the corrupt system that does not benefit the majority of Americans. We need to force change upon those in power. As Krugman has put it, seconded by many Edwards supporters, and echoed in her way by Hillary Clinton: we need to be partisan, because partisan force is the only way to effect change. Obama has a different view on how to effect change. He says that lasting change comes from consensus – and that partisanship is one of the biggest obstacles we face in effecting lasting and significant change.

The conversation around the web

This back and forth has prompted one of the better public discussions in recent years – both substantial and interesting. Paul Krugman has attacked Obama as the anti-change candidate, for opposing health care mandates, for attacking John Edwards, and for talking about the problems with Social Security. Others have weighed in: the Street Corner Society, Michael Schwartz, Greg Sargent, Richard Baehr, John McCormick, Frank Rich (here, here, and here), David Brooks (here, here, and here) and Sam Sedaei.

The value of partisanship

Paul Krugman illustrates as well as anyone the value of partisanship. For a political minority, partisanship is the key to survival, and the only means of blocking change. Partisanship is, in essence, a defense. The problem with the Democrats from 1994 to 2005, and even with some Democrats today, is that they were trying to be non-partisan in an environment that demands steadfast opposition – that demands partisanship.

There is little doubt that from 1994 until the impeachment of Bill Clinton that the political environment was moving rightward; and after September 11, the country swung rightward again. During this time, Democrats continued to act on the assumptions that had served them well for the past few decades. Confident that the nation was behind them, they attempted to make reasonable compromises. In this, they made two errors: first, they assuming that the nation was still behind them, when on several important issues, it was not; second, they assumed that the people they were dealing with were reasonable. But the Republicans from the class of 1994 were ideologues. Bill Clinton saw this, and saw his presidency imperiled, he started triangulating – trying undercut the conservative agenda by adopting it. It was a brilliant strategy – but it failed in one key area. It left liberal Democrats to fend for themselves and undercut the partisanship that would be needed to effectively oppose and reverse the gains Republicans had made.

To this day, the Democrats have only made minor gains in their effectiveness to oppose Republicans. But, thankfully, the country has turned, and we are now faced with (another) historic moment.

Although as long as President Bush is in power, the Democrats must take a partisan strategy in Washington, those candidates running for President themselves should focus on the future, and on growing the Democratic party.

The flaw of partisanship

If partisanship is the best strategy for a minority party, because, by it’s nature it is biased and divides the population; it is not the best strategy for a majority party. To me, this is one of the key lessons of the past seven years of Rove-Bush. Despite tremendous advantages, Rove failed to turn September 11 into the defining conservative moment he sought because he never ceased to be partisan. By forcing the change they sought through again and again, by marginalizing moderates, by alienating liberals, Rove and Bush set a timer on how long any of the changes they sought would last and destroyed the possibility of a conservative realignment.

Barack Obama makes clear what he wants to do – and what it seems only he can do, based on polling data – to unite the country, to bring in liberals, libertarians, conservatives, and independents in order to face the serious challenges America faces. He wants to forge real change – which requires consensus and the judgment about when to stand firm and when to compromise.

After September 11, America united. George W. Bush, with his relentless partisanship, re-polarized the nation in the aftermath. In 2008, we need a president with the judgment to know when to fight and when to compromise. We need a president who can bring the country together to forge lasting change – not the short-term fixes that fall apart with every change of office. In 2008 we need a president who can bring the country together to face the issues of global climate change, terrorism, runaway executive power, extremism in the Middle East, a declining dollar, tremendous deficits, and escalating entitlement spending.

Partisanship can only take us so far. In 2008, we need Barack Obama.

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Edwards v. Obama: The closing arguments

Friday, December 28th, 2007

In the past two weeks, a fight has broken out in the Democratic primaries between John Edwards and Barack Obama (with Paul Krugman and Hillary Clinton playing supporting roles for Edwards) over the best way to effect change.  An excerpt from his closing argument in Iowa:

We need a president who will take these powers on and fight to get you your voice back, and your government back. We need a president who is going to fight every day to make sure that all Americans can find good jobs, save for the future, and be guaranteed health care and retirement security. We need a president who is going to lift up the middle class…

None of this is going to be easy. I hear all these candidates talking about how we’re going to bring about the big, bold change that America needs. And I hear some people saying that they think we can sit at a table with drug companies, oil companies and insurance companies, and they will give their power away. That is a fantasy. We have a fight in front of us. We have a fight for the future of this country. And the change we need will not happen easily. We need someone who is going to step into that arena on your behalf, someone who is ready for that fight. [my italics]

Obviously, Edwards has been emphasizing this time around that he is a fighter. He makes clear that he thinks change comes from fighting – that change must be pushed through and forced upon those who would oppose it. He believes the moment for force and fighting is now – in a rhetorical sense at least. The model he looks to is Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Obama’s closing pitch strikes a very different note:

It’s change that won’t just come from more anger at Washington or turning up the heat on Republicans. There’s no shortage of anger and bluster and bitter partisanship out there. We don’t need more heat. We need more light. I’ve learned in my life that you can stand firm in your principles while still reaching out to those who might not always agree with you. And although the Republican operatives in Washington might not be interested in hearing what we have to say, I think Republican and independent voters outside of Washington are. That’s the once-in-a-generation opportunity we have in this election.

For the first time in a long time, we have the chance to build a new majority of not just Democrats, but Independents and Republicans who’ve lost faith in their Washington leaders but want to believe again – who desperately want something new…

n the end, the argument we are having between the candidates in the last seven days is not just about the meaning of change. It’s about the meaning of hope. Some of my opponents appear scornful of the word; they think it speaks of naivete, passivity, and wishful thinking.

But that’s not what hope is. Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task before us or the roadblocks that stand in our path. Yes, the lobbyists will fight us. Yes, the Republican attack dogs will go after us in the general election. Yes, the problems of poverty and climate change and failing schools will resist easy repair. I know – I’ve been on the streets, I’ve been in the courts. I’ve watched legislation die because the powerful held sway and good intentions weren’t fortified by political will, and I’ve watched a nation get mislead into war because no one had the judgment or the courage to ask the hard questions before we sent our troops to fight.

But I also know this. I know that hope has been the guiding force behind the most improbable changes this country has ever made. In the face of tyranny, it’s what led a band of colonists to rise up against an Empire. In the face of slavery, it’s what fueled the resistance of the slave and the abolitionist, and what allowed a President to chart a treacherous course to ensure that the nation would not continue half slave and half free. In the face of war and Depression, it’s what led the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation. In the face of oppression, it’s what led young men and women to sit at lunch counters and brave fire hoses and march through the streets of Selma and Montgomery for freedom’s cause. That’s the power of hope – to imagine, and then work for, what had seemed impossible before.

That’s the change we seek. And that’s the change you can stand for in seven days.

It’s a longer excerpt because Obama’s idea is more complex, more subtle. It is to Edwards’s credit that he is able to take complex ideas and boil them down into a simple formula – and it is how he won so many court cases. Obama prefers to make his audience rise to the rhetoric, to make them work to understand him. And it has been a surprisingly effective formula so far.

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The Life and Death of Benazir Bhutto

Thursday, December 27th, 2007

Benazir Bhutto

As every news outlet is reporting, and as I am sure everyone already knows, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was killed this morning at Rawalpindi in Pakistan. She was shot twice at close range – once in the neck and once in the chest – by one of the two suicide bombers sent to kill her who had gotten through the security forces. President Musharraf is being blamed – directly or indirectly- for the assassination by many of Bhutto’s supporters. He was at her side in the hospital when she died – but is being blamed for providing inadequate security. The two had also been clashing since Musharraf made the deal with Bhutto to allow her to return to Pakistan.

Pay your respects.

Bhutto wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post shortly before returning to Pakistan which reads like the last note of a woman who knows she is going to die:

Extremism looms as a threat, but it will be contained as it has been in the past if the moderate middle can be mobilized to stand up to fanaticism. I return to lead that battle.

I have led an unusual life. I have buried a father killed at age 50 and two brothers killed in the prime of their lives. I raised my children as a single mother when my husband was arrested and held for eight years without a conviction – a hostage to my political career. I made my choice when the mantle of political leadership was thrust upon my shoulders after my father’s murder. I did not shrink from responsibility then, and I will not shrink from it now.

Shortly before she went back to Pakistan, she said that she believed she would be assassinated if she went back. In her autobiography, Daughter of the East, Bhutto said:

“I know that I am a symbol of what the so-called Jihadists, Taliban and al-Qaeda, most fear. I am a female political leader fighting to bring modernity, communication, education and technology to Pakistan.”

But despite the fact that she knew these extremists were after her, she said that she did not fear the threats of Baitallah Masood or other extremists, but rather the fringe elements of the Pakistani military.

It is an understatement to say that today is not a good day for Pakistan or for world stability.

Edit:

“I am not afraid,” Bhutto told TIME last month, “I am ready to die for my country.”

The Associated Press provides the best short summary of Bhutto’s life that I have read with the introduction:

The suicide attack that killed Benazir Bhutto cut short an epic life, one bathed in blood and awash with controversy.

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Frank Rich v. Paul Krugman

Monday, December 24th, 2007

Paul Krugman v. Frank Rich

I admit that I’m biased. I used to think that Frank Rich’s columns – in the period before he went behind the Time Select wall – were hysterical and often shrill. Though I generally would agree with the fundamental point he was making, I would find his style distasteful. I preferred Krugman’s polemicism to Rich’s because, while Krugman could also often be shrill, Krugman seemed to take strategic positions that I could appreciate while Rich was attempting to get at the cultural relevance of the matters at hand.

Each columnist positioned himself differently in the debate. Paul Krugman considered himself a gladiator in the arena fighting to advance his cause. His column was not supposed to be read as a means of understanding the news, but as a means of making the strongest arguments against Republican policies. Frank Rich was trying to analyze the news and the cultural moment and to inform his readers while writing partisan screeds against the current administration. 1 In the end, this is why I found Krugman’s partisanship more palatable than Krugman’s.

But times have changed. Now Krugman reserves almost as much bile for fellow Democrat Barack Obama as for the Republicans; and Frank Rich, while continuing to blast Republicans, has focused more on the analysis and moderated his tone.2

In the end, the disagreements between the two colleagues is not about a particular candidate but about each person’s approach to politics. Krugman is a partisan, through and through. He believes political gain comes from sticking with your base, attacking your enemies, destroying their positions, and forcing your way through. His approach is the perfect approach for a political minority trying to protect its interests, and it mirrors the Republican approach to governance since 1994 and especially during Bush’s time as president. No matter how many votes they received, the Republicans continued to govern as a minority party – purging dissidents within their ranks, refusing to compromise, obfuscating their true agenda, focusing more on talking points than on policy.  A strong majority party – such as the Democrats between 1932 and 1972 or the Republicans between 1980 and 2000 has a “big tent”, pulling in moderates and independents. A strong party focuses less on the weaknesses of the opposition and more on the strengths of its own positions, feeling confident that a majority of the country supports their honest positions. A strong party (because it already holds significant power and because it’s members, having won, are now faced with running matters) is more focused on governance than a minority party, which is focused on stopping what it opposes.  A strong majority party’s positions become more nuanced.  There is a place for the type of partisanship that Krugman venerates – and Krugman demonstrated the value of such partisanship from Bush’s election in 2000 until 2006. Krugman was the voice of opposition.

Frank Rich struggled during this time – because he could not seem to quite reconcile his position as an analyst and his outrage at the conduct of the current administration. He could see the cultural and political trends going against him, and tried to balance his opposition to the zeitgeist of his time with an analysis of the way things were headed.

But today, Krugman seems intent on ensuring that the Democratic party stays a minority party – eschewing the “big tent” politics that creates lasting political movements in favor of small-time, talking-point wins.

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  1. My objection here is not to a columnist writing to inform also offered his opinion, but to the tone of Rich’s opinions. []
  2. He has also written a number of columns very supportive of Obama. []

It Can’t Happen Here

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

Following the Ron Paul quote (quoting Sinclair Lewis), which I had heard before but never looked into, I came across Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here. (The quote doesn’t appear to be in the book which is part of Project Gutenberg. But it clearly is related to the book which illustrates the concept.)

The title comes from a character in the novel who, upon being told that one of the Senators running for president would impose a “real Fascist dictatorship”, exclaims:

“Nonsense! Nonsense!” snorted Tasbrough. “That couldn’t happen here in America, not possibly! We’re a country of freemen.”

Lewis’s novel tells the story of anti-intellectual, populist Southern politician (loosely based on Huey Long, who also inspired the Governor in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men) called Berzelius Noel Weinacht Windrip, or Buzz Windrip. Windrip rides to power on Christian values and patriotic fervor. One character observes of the charismatic politician:

“I don’t know whether he’s more of a crook or an hysterical religious fanatic.”

Lewis observes that the candidate speaks with soaring rhetoric, but few specifics:

He slid into a rhapsody of general ideas – a mishmash of polite regards to Justice, Freedom, Equality, Order, Prosperity, Patriotism, and any number of other noble but slippery abstractions.

In a review, the Boston Globe noted that Buzz Windrip wins because of:

his easy-going personality…massive cash donations from Big Business; disorganization in the liberal opposition; a stuffy, aloof opponent; and support from religious fanatics who feel they’ve been unfairly marginalized

After being elected, President Windrip opens large detention centers – Guantanamo on a larger scale1 – for enemies of the state, which is his label for supporters of the Constitution and traditional liberal democracy. He also creates a system of military tribunals to try these enemies of the state.

In another passage in the book, Lewis channeled today’s radicals – and John Edwards – in assailing the corporate political parties:

[T]he President, with something of his former good-humor [said]: “There are two [political] parties, the Corporate and those who don’t belong to any party at all, and so, to use a common phrase, are just out of luck!” The idea of the Corporate or Corporative State, Secretary [of State] Sarason had more or less taken from Italy.

I’m sure there are quite a few gems in this eerily prophetic work, but this is my favorite as the President Windrip explains why civil liberties, democracy, and the rest should be put aside for a time while the current Crisis is dealt with:

President Windrip’s first extended proclamation to the country was a pretty piece of literature and of tenderness. He explained that powerful and secret enemies of American principles – one rather gathered that they were a combination of Wall Street and Soviet Russia–upon discovering, to their fury, that he, Berzelius, was going to be President, had planned their last charge. Everything would be tranquil in a few months, but meantime there was a Crisis, during which the country must “bear with him.”

He recalled the military dictatorship of Lincoln and Stanton during the Civil War, when civilian suspects were arrested without warrant. He hinted how delightful everything was going to be – right away now – just a moment – just a moment’s patience – when he had things in hand; and he wound up with a comparison of the Crisis to the urgency of a fireman rescuing a pretty girl from a “conflagration,” and carrying her down a ladder, for her own sake, whether she liked it or not, and no matter how appealingly she might kick her pretty ankles.

The whole country laughed.

Looking at the book both through today’s Crisis, and the Crisis of 1935 – Great Depression and the opening rumblings of World War II – and comparing what this fictional Christianist Fascist did to what happened during both crises, one senses how easily republics can fail, and how fragile democracy is.

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  1. or if we were to stay closer to the period, like the Japanese internment camps []

Wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

As some of my previous posts attest, I have argued against Ron Paul. I’m not his biggest fan (because I disagree with him on many issues, and think many who are supporting him now would be unhappy with a Paul presidency). But it is on a morning like this that I am reminded of what a valuable politician he is.

Ron Paul on Fox News and Friends this morning:

“It reminds me of what Sinclair Lewis once said. He said, ‘When fascism comes to this country, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.’ I don’t know if that is a fair assessment or not, but you wonder about using a cross like he is the only Christian, or implying that subtly.”

The commentator from Fox News and Friends is totally flustered by this, sputtering about. It’s actually quite funny. Even if you disagree with Paul’s assessment it is far more enlightening (and entertaining) to discuss Huckabee as a Trojan horse for fascism than to debate Barack Obama’s kindergarten essays.

via Catholics for Ron Paul
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Huckabee v. Obama

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

Andrew Sullivan seems to be looking forward to a Huckabee-Obama match-up:

And that is why part of me, I confess, wants Huckabee to win. So he can lose. So the GOP can lose – as spectacularly and humiliatingly as possible. If we are to rid conservatism of this theocratic cancer, we need to start over. Maybe it has to get worse before it can get better.

Rich Lowry seems to believe Huckabee’s nomination would mean much the same thing as Sullivan does; but he isn’t looking forward to it.

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Flexibility as a principle

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

I was struck when coming across this passage in Jonathan Alter’s study of FDR’s Hundred Days:

“It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” For a politician with a reputation for being unprincipled, this was a masterstroke: flexibility as a principle! But it was a principle that, in the right hands, might change the world. In the years ahead, Roosevelt could not “admit failure frankly” – no president does. But he did come to embody the long-standing American spirit of innovation and pragmatism. For conservatives, “bold, persistent experimentation” was a generally bad idea; they believed in those days that the government tended to mess things up when it experimented or acted quickly. But the idea of trying one thing, trying another – above all, trying something – was central to Roosevelt’s success for the rest of his life. 1

Two brief observations: first, it seems counter-intuitive today to see the government or even liberalism as innovative and pragmatic as FDR did.  For FDR, he saw a problem and believed he should do what he could to fix it.  This meant borrowing from socialism, communism, even fascism.  In the end, the result of the many experiments in government during FDR’s tenure is a kind of hybrid state.  Those policies that worked and were popular stayed; those that failed are gone.  This type of experimentation seems to have gone out of liberalism and the Democratic party.2  Instead, there are ideological liberals who believe

Second, FDR showed how with a better candidate, Hillary could have played her cards differently.  She still is the front runner and the most likely person to win the Democratic nomination, but I think the past month or so has demonstrated that she is fatally flawed as both a candidate and as a politician.  As Andrew Sullivan observed in his news-making piece in The Atlantic, she practices politics from “a defensive crouch”, afraid to give her enemies anything to attack her with.  And so she avoids standing for anything of substance or even engaging in honest dialogue.

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  1. Pages 92-93 of Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment about FDR and his Hundred Days. []
  2. Politically, in time, this will end up as an advantage to Republicans as they have demonstrated a willingness to experiment with social programs. Of course, most of the Republican experiments are designed to undermine the programs themselves. []

Why I cannot support Ron Paul

Tuesday, December 11th, 2007

Ron Paul

John Derbyshire of the National Review came out in support of Ron Paul today – and he makes a persuasive case. The core of his argument is that a typical candidate will not be able to fix what is wrong:

Yet, more and more, I think we are heading for (or perhaps are in) some kind of systemic crisis, one that not even the meanest s.o.b. could do much about. A systemic crisis needs a systemic solution, and only Paul offers that, with his return to constitutional fundamentals…

If, however, you think that much of the underbrush that has grown up around our national institutions this past 40 years needs to by pulled up by the roots and burned, before it chokes the life out of our Republic, then Paul’s your man.

This is the only argument that could persuade me to support a Ron Paul, or even a Dennis Kucinich. 1 I too believe, along with Derbyshire, we are in the midst of a systematic crisis that has been developing since the presidency of Harry Truman at latest. I also believe that George W. Bush has accelerated this crisis immeasurably – to Bush’s credit. If it were not for the boundless arrogance and incompetence Bush has displayed repeatedly throughout his term, we wouldn’t have the same opportunity for reform that we have now. The many presidents who have made relatively responsible use of their power distracted the majority of Americans from the inherent systematic problems, and from the extra-constitutionality of the executive’s growing power. George W. Bush put these issues back on the agenda.

And it is the reality of George W. Bush, more than anything, that is fueling the candidacy of Ron Paul.

Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich are idealists rather than pragmatists. They have big ideas that inspire and they are uncompromising in their goals. Their dreams for America are pristine – and untouched by either politics or reality.2 But there is a simple reason that I cannot support a Ron Paul or a Dennis Kucinich – even if I believed that either one perfectly expressed where we need to end up as a nation, and even if I believed either Paul or Kucinich would be able to accomplish their goals and overcome the tremendous obstacles in their way. The simple reason is that radical3 change is rarely permanent and rarely good.

We are still dealing with the backlash from our first ideologically radical president, George W. Bush. By changing so much so fast Bush has created a backlash against everything he has done. This backlash looks a lot like Ron Paul – the opposite of Bush on many, many issues. If someone was able to merge the persons of Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul, they would be able to create an almost perfect anti-Bush who opposed the current president on every issue and whose every inclination tended the opposite way of the current cowboy in chief. But this is not enough – in fact, this politics of negation is precisely the opposite of what will solve America’s problems.

What America needs today is a president who will focus on restoring the processes and institutions that make America safe and that preserve liberty and the American way of life. We need a president who will be pragmatic and gradually win the support of the people for the long-term process that it will be to restore the Constitution and the system of checks and balances. Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich do not seem to have a long-term strategy for their goals, even if their principles are correct – rather they claim they are just going to accomplish their objectives. ((I know Kucinich has detailed plans, and I’m sure that Ron Paul has thought about these issues as well; but they both seem to believe that the major impediment to radical change is their own election. Governing is not so easy of a proposition, especially with entrenched interests defending each and every aspect of the system.) I don’t think the world works this way. More, I believe, if either of these men were faced with having to implement their agendas, they would begin hedging so fast and so furiously, they would make Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton look principled. I don’t mean this as a slight to either man. I believe both are intelligent enough to realize how difficult it would be to dismantle the IRS or create a single-payer health care system; and when faced with the prospect of having to accomplish these goals, they would naturally hedge their promises if not their principles. Politics is the art of compromise – and a practice where ideals are hard to reconcile with power.

As I have said before: this is why I support Barack Obama. Because I believe he is principled, yet pragmatic. I see in him both the arrogance and ambition needed to run for president, and the humility to see that the tasks before him are far greater than he can accomplish by himself. He is a political figure who transcends traditional political boundaries. Most important, he believes that process is paramount and is willing to base his campaign on bringing people together to fix the many broken processes that form the bedrock of a robust democracy.

Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich are likely good men with admirable goals; and it is their unflinching idealism which attracts so many. But it is precisely this which would cause them to fail and to create a backlash of the same sort that Bush has created with his policies.

Perhaps this isn’t the most inspiring campaign slogan, but I think it’s appropriate:

Barack Obama: All the change we can handle, and judgment we can trust.

Political courage is not only measured by the worthiness of one’s ideals, but by the sum of one’s actions.
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  1. I don’t think anything could persuade me to support Mike Gravel who strikes me as a loon. []
  2. I know I exaggerate, and Kucinich certainly has made compromises. But they still leave his agenda far from possible. []
  3. Meaning extreme. []