Archive for April, 2008

Ambinder: Superdelegates believe in witchcraft?

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

Marc Ambinder explains one of the major factors causing superdelegates to endorse Obama:

[B]ecause Obama will win (cross-reference the mathematical arguments), the party must draw hermetic circle around him as quickly as possible in order to avoid allowing any more of his magic to escape.

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Why Not to Wear a Tie Around John McCain

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

Christopher Hitchens is a fine writer, and on rare occasions, a reflective thinker – when he avoids hurling words as weapons and distorting facts like the fascist he must be in his heart of hearts. Today, he managed to avoid his militant fascist thought in discussing John McCain’s temper:

One reason that I try never to wear a tie is the advantage that it so easily confers on anyone who goes berserk on you. There you are, with a ready-made noose already fastened around your neck. All the opponent needs to do is grab hold and haul. A quite senior Republican told me the other night that he’d often seen John McCain get attention on the Hill in just this way. Not necessarily hauling, you understand, but grabbing. Again, one hopes that the nominee has been doing this for emphasis rather than as a sign that he is out of his pram, has lost his rag, has gone ballistic, has reported into the post office that he’s feeling terminally disgruntled today. (Or, as P.G. Wodehouse immortally put it, if not quite disgruntled, not exactly gruntled, either.)

Thomas Jefferson used to note of mild George Washington that there were moments of passionate rage in which “he cannot govern himself.” We often forgive what we imagine, to use Orwell’s words about Charles Dickens, are the moments when someone is “generously angry.” Yet how are we to be sure that we can tell the hysterical tantrum from the decent man’s wrath? The answer ought to be that we cannot know in advance of a presidency what causes people to become choleric, so anger management is yet another name—and yet another reason—for the separation of powers.

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A Moderate Reputation: Explaining McCain’s Changes of Heart

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

McCain
Image by Wigwam Jones.

The purest treasure mortal times afford
Is spotless reputation.
That away,
Man are but gilded loam or painted clay.
-William Shakespeare

John McCain has a reputation as an independent, a moderate and a maverick. This reputation is his greatest asset – far more important than his speaking ability or war record or anything else. It is the reason he was the Republican best positioned to keep the White House with the political tide clearly favoring the Democrats.

He built this reputation over many years by repeatedly taking stands against his party in the 1990s – on campaign finance reform, on tobacco legislation, and on pork spending – and in the early years of the Bush administration – on torture, on tax cuts, and on immigration reform – and by then staking his presidential campaign on the issue of Iraq against the political zeitgeist. But since his political near-death experience this past summer, McCain has either softened his opposition to the Republican Party line or embraced it, potentially destroying this reputation. The famous aphorism states: “Good will, like a good name, is got by many actions, and lost by one.”

So, there is a great deal at stake when the question is asked: Why did he change his positions?

For those who do not wish to give McCain the benefit of the doubt, the answer is obvious: he is pandering to win an election. For those who do wish to give McCain that benefit, the answer is less clear. Generally, the defenses of these changes in position range from denying there has been a change to explaining in various ways how the change shows consistency to a whole hodge-podge of other excuses.

As someone who was an admirer of Mr. McCain’s in 2000 and through the early years of the Bush administration; as someone who talked to and emailed all of my friends asking them to support McCain in his primary fight in 20001 ; as someone who believes that politicians are politicians even if their reputations are golden2 – I see three plausible and non-exclusive explanations for McCain’s change that are consistent with his appeal, his reputation, and his career.

1. McCain’s Last Chance for Glory

Coming into the 2008 race as the establishment candidate, McCain saw his last chance to become president slipping through his fingers, because of his unorthodoxy.  He who had once described himself as the unrepentant champion of lost causes, decided to reconcile himself to the Republican base and reject these initial stands, these bases on which his reputation was built. This is the explanation that both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have offered up:

“There was a time when some Republicans like John McCain agreed with me,” Obama said, of his calls to roll back Bush’s temporary tax cuts for the richest Americans instead of making those tax cuts permanent.

“There was a time when Senator McCain courageously defied the fiscal madness of massive tax cuts for the wealthy in the midst of a costly war,” Obama said.  “That was before he started running for the Republican nomination and fell in line.”

2. Unprincipled Moderation

McCain was never truly a conservative in the Burkean sense or a man of strong principles, but merely a political moderate who has been constantly seeking the center ground, no matter how far the center shifts. During the Reagan years, McCain comfortably held the right-center. After Bill Clinton’s election, McCain operated in the left center. In 2000, with a mainly pragmatic liberal consensus, McCain campaigned as a moderate liberal. As Bush pulled the country right, so McCain went – but this time with a bit of a lag. McCain’s response to Bush’s radicalism is to accommodate it. Now, running in a Republican primary, McCain has adapted – and running for president in the general, he will again. His “principled stands” were merely accidents of history, or perhaps occasionally orchestrated stands to enhance his reputation.

3. Manichaeism

McCain has always sought enemies in his career – and has organized all of his political positions by who he saw as the most serious enemy. The Soviet Union provided the first threat which ordered all of his political priorities, and so he entered Congress as a self-confessed ideologue, a “foot soldier” in the Reagan Revolution. He was a conservative Republican. With the fall of the U.S.S.R., he needed to find a new enemy. By the mid-1990s he settled on corruption in Washington. He backed campaign finance legislation to limit the influence of the lobbyists and big money contributors; he championed the Line Item Veto Act of 1996 to eliminate pork spending3 . Identifying another enemy he pushed to increase cigarette taxes to fund anti-smoking campaigns with the backing of the Clinton administration. When he launched his 2000 presidential campaign he said his goal was to “take our government back from the power brokers and special interests and return it to the people and the noble cause of freedom it was created to serve.” In a perfect encapsulation of his fervent yet ironic crusade, he compared his campaign to Luke Skywalker attacking the Death Star of special interests (including the Religious Right and the Republican establishment.)

After September 11, McCain had found a new enemy that was greater than the corruption of the political process and he was willing to put aside all of his domestic agenda to focus on the new enemy. So, McCain’s changes in position reflect his changing ranking of enemies.  He is willing to compromise all of his past positions because they are insignificant in the face of islamist extremism.

Concluding Thoughts

These are the three explanations that I have come up with consistent with McCain’s career, his character, and his politics. In the end, I think each explanation plays a role – but the dominant explanation seems to be the final one. It most fully explains McCain’s appeal, his reputation, and the timing of his changes. And frankly, it is the reason why I would be most wary of a McCain presidency now, at this moment in history.

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  1. I also was a fan of Bill Bradley. []
  2. This includes Barack Obama – my favored candidate this go-round. []
  3. A victory which was overturned by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 1998. []

Hillary’s No “Pansy”

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

The headlines – on Drudge and elsewhere – suggest a different intention behind North Carolina Governor Mike Easley’s use of the word “pansy” in endorsing Ms. Clinton. The Smoking Gun points out that the term is defined as “an effeminate youth” or “a male homosexual” – and takes Mr. Easley to task for using anti-gay language. That’s fair game.

But the clear suggestion of the headlines – ” NC Gov. Easley endorses Clinton…She’s No ‘Pansy’ ” – suggests that the governor was suggesting her opponent was a pansy.  With some context, it is clear he is suggesting precisely that: “North Carolina Governor Mike Easley today described the Democratic presidential candidate as so tough that she ‘makes Rocky Balboa look like a pansy.’ ”  However, he obviously was not intending to diminish Barack Obama specifically as a pansy, but all people when faced with this “tough woman”.

Just wanted to clear that up.

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Chaffee on Bush

Monday, April 28th, 2008

Lincoln Chaffee, former Republican Senator from Rhode Island, published the most damning piece I have read about his experiences with George W. Bush:

The man—and by that I mean the inner man, the essential man—seemed unequal to the awesome powers entrusted to him. I was worried about the damage he might do over the next few years, never mind in a second term, which seemed unthinkable at the time.

…something very disturbing came through for me in his demeanor and attitude in the Oval Office. I want to describe it as insecurity, but even that is not the right word.

Several times, the president went out of his way to remind me that he was the commander in chief. You don’t have to keep telling me that, I thought. I know who you are. Like others, I have been around people who are good at wielding power. They never have to tell you they are in charge. They just are, and you know it. What I saw and heard that day really unsettled me. I’m the commander in chief… I’m the president… I’m the commander in chief… It was unpresidential.

That September, as I watched the Twin Towers collapse in smoke and dust, I had a sinking feeling about the president’s capacity to respond wisely.

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Mourning Sharky

Monday, April 28th, 2008

(This photo, of a dolphin named K-Dog used by the U.S. Navy for hunting mines, is in the public domain.)

Two dolphins collided during a performance at SeaWorld this weekend, with the 30-year old female dying from the impact.

I’m pretty sure that if a human had died performing a similar stunt, it wouldn’t make me as sad as this story did. Oddly, I think this is a common reaction. Look at the other stories on the Local 6 News page – a woman killed in a boat collision; a woman shot for $1; one person fatally shot while sitting in a car. Yet the top story from the site is the dolphin accident.

I know why I don’t care much about any of these people and their unusual deaths: I don’t know them, and I hear about shooting and accidents every day. Maybe I should care more – but I think if I did, I would become emotionally exhausted. I also know that lurking underneath that excuse is a darker one.

I tend to assume that many – though certainly not all – people at least partially deserved their fate. The person shot in the car could have been an upstanding citizen, a father, a model human being. Or he could have been a pedophile, a terrorist, a gang leader, a murderer. Before I get weepy about the shooting, I need to know something of the story.

But with the dolphin, Sharky, I just feel bad – almost as if I am somehow responsible.

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Killing the United Nations

Monday, April 28th, 2008

Comments like these by Charles Krauthammer on McCain’s plan to create a League of Democracies1 make you realize what is at stake in the coming election:

“What I like about it, it’s got a hidden agenda,” Krauthammer said March 27 on Fox News. “It looks as if it’s all about listening and joining with allies, all the kind of stuff you’d hear a John Kerry say, except the idea here, which McCain can’t say but I can, is to essentially kill the U.N.”

It’s clear that McCain’s primary foreign policy instincts are Manichean, and that it seems likely that he would continue the worst of Bush’s policies, rather than following in the tradition of Dwight Eisenhower, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

It is only because of the contrast between the radical, ideological “conservatism” of the Bush administration that McCain’s policy positions appear reasonable today.

This “reality-based conservatism” of McCain’s led him to question the initial push to go into Iraq for a while; to stand against torture for a while; to reject Bush’s tax cuts in a time of war at first; to champion immigration reform for quite a while. But as he saw his last chance to become president slipping through his fingers, John McCain, who had once described himself as the unrepentant champion of lost causes, decided to reconcile himself to the Republican base and reject many of the principles he stood for.

Since his political near-death experience this summer, McCain has moderated his opposition to torture (refusing to extend its prohibition to the CIA), given up on immigration reform (focusing instead on cracking down on undocumented immigrants), stopped hinting to the press that he would withdraw from Iraq if there wasn’t sufficient progress (as was widely reported in the summer of 2007), embraced Bush’s tax cuts (after calling them irresponsible and regressive). Some have called this shifts part an indication of his conservatism in the tradition of Edmund Burke. But what these observers fail to understand is the radical nature of the Bush presidency.

Edmund Burke believed that we must balance accommodation to the reality of our times with our core values. He believed in gradual change and opposed sudden changes in policy – but he also stridently opposed the radicalism of the French Revolution which had a similar foreign policy to the Bush administration, seeking to export the values of liberty, fraternity, and equality through the force of arms2

The irony is that McCain’s defenders, including Jonathan Rauch, defend his accommodations to radicalism by invoking the immutable opponent of radicalism, Edmund Burke himself.

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  1. An idea which I believe could make a positive impact under certain circumstances. []
  2. As pseudoconservativewatch (an excellent Google find) explained:

    Edmund Burke invented the articulate philosophy of modern conservatism on the very basis of his critique of the French Revolution (see his Reflections on the Revolution in France). And yet in twenty-first century America, many who call themselves “conservative” are advocating a foreign policy of spreading principles of liberty and freedom to foreign countries in a manner hardly distinguishable from radical French revolutionaries. []

The Power of Story: 9/11 and the Averted Attack

Monday, April 28th, 2008

We understand the world through story. Fables, parables, fairy tales, religious accounts, myths, campaign narratives, history. These stories contain – beyond characters, plot, and style – truths about how the world works.

The fable of the ant and the grasshopper demonstrates how hard work pays off in the end; through Little Red Riding Hood, we learn of the dangers of the forest and the world at large; with the story of Abraham and Isaac, we see demonstrated the radical nature of faith. The truths in these stories are often subtle things – allowing differing interpretations, competing lessons, contrasting understandings. But with each telling, the story offers something complete – some understanding about the world and an implied prescription or proscription.

I wrote earlier about making an “emotional argument” – about making an argument based on that “great unconscious mass of our knowledge – the subtle hints, the forgotten information, the half-remembered, the projections based on our past experience” which we have not “analyzed and understood.” To make this kind of argument is to argue using story, using narrative, using myth. Every narrative contains an unstated understanding – and this is the emotional argument. Emotional arguments in a political context often have concrete policy implications – which is why we should pay close attention to the media and to the stories told by politicians.

Drew Westen struck a related theme in writing The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation in which he tried to explain how the Democratic Party has often failed to use emotional arguments to make their case – instead trying to argue dry policy. Mr. Westen describes the methods of a winning political candidate:

They tell emotionally compelling stories about who they are and what they believe in…. They run on who they are and what they genuinely care about, and they know their constituents well enough to know where they share their values and where they don’t…. They speak at the level of principled stands. They provide emotionally compelling examples of the ways they would govern, signature issues that illustrate their principles and foster identification.

What Mr. Westen realizes is that the Democrats have been losing election for the past twenty years (despite greater popularity for most of their positions) in a large part because they have disdained the value of story, and have neglected emotional arguments in favor of policy arguments.

What any informed citizen must realize is that the stories we tell each other form the baseline by which we judge the world. Just as we indoctrinate children by reading them fairy tales, telling them religious stories, and teaching them history, so we too are shaped.

I’m going to look at one concrete example of how one story has affected recent history, and how a change in emphasis in the story greatly changes it’s message.

September 11

The popular re-telling of the story of September 11 goes like this:

19 radical Islamic terrorists hijacked four places taking advantage of the freedoms of our society and our own technology, and launched one of the most deadly attacks in American history. Our national security apparatus was unable to do its job and protect us because it was unnecessarily constrained by laws protecting terrorists and criminals. These terrorists are only the harbringer of things to come – and there are many others inspired as these men are who want to kill us and destroy our way of life and who are willing to kill themselves in order to do so. As America is such a vast nation, it is impossible to effectively prevent an attack – there are too many targets, too many people, too many weaknesses. To protect ourselves, we must go on the offense and attack our enemies abroad; at home, we must give up certain liberties for public safety and allow the federal government, the police, the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA to protect us. We need to give the federal government whatever tools are necessary to allow it to protect us – and anyone who opposes this is – in effect, if not in intention – helping the terrorists.

Told this way, the story of September 11 leads us almost inevitably to simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and increasing secrecy and expanding police powers for the government at home. This story was used by the Republican Congressional leadership to push their position regarding the wiretap bill; it was used by President George W. Bush in the 2004 election, and was even largely accepted by his Democratic opponents – though they quibbled over particular measures; this story was invoked in ads against former Senator Max Cleeland the Democrats generally in the 2002; it has been used as a justification for policies and as a political weapon.

An informed citizenry

But with a slight shift in emphasis, the story of September 11 has a different message and leads to very different policy prescriptions. It is a story of how the federal government – powerless to protect itself or the American people – was instead protect by an assorted, diverse, random selection of informed citizens.

A group of radical fundamentalist Muslim terrorists decided to attack four prominent symbols of American economic, military, and political power: the two towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and either the White House or Capitol Building. Americans and people around the world watched in shock and with numbed horror as smoke billowed from the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, as people jumped from the buildings, as firefighters and police officers and emergency personnel ran into the buildings, into the fire. The attack was horrifying and unexpected. We watched transfixed as dust and ash transformed Lower Manhattan into an image out of some doomsday scenario. We barely noticed as, over Pennsylvania, a group of passengers on another hijacked plane learned of what had happened in New York and Washington, D.C. Armed with this knowledge, determined to act, they alone on that day foiled a potential mass casualty attack. There were no U.S. Marshals on the plane; there were no orders from the CIA or FBI. Instead, there was a random group of people who, once they were informed of the threat, acted to eliminate it.

It wasn’t our vast military that protected us on that day; it wasn’t the federal government, wiretaps, the FBI, the police. It was a group of informed citizens acting together, in the right place at the right time – and they were able to do what the government could not.

The implication of this history is clear: the federal government cannot be everywhere. But the best defense of our way of life, of our institutions, of our government, of our people is the American people themselves – properly informed.

Stephen Flynn, who deserves the credit for bringing to my attention this particular idea of the relevance of the story of United 93 wrote in a Foreign Affairs piece:

Americans should celebrate – and ponder – the reality that the legislative and executive centers of the U.S. federal government, whose constitutional duty is to “provide for the common defense,” were themselves defended that day by one thing alone: an alert and heroic citizenry.

The story of United 93 also raises a serious question that the 9/11 Commission failed to examine: might the passengers on the other three planes have reacted, too, if they had known the hijackers’ plans? The 9/11 Commission documents that in the years leading up to the attacks on New York and Washington, a number of people inside the U.S. government had collected intelligence suggesting that terrorists were interested in using passenger airliners as weapons. But because that information was viewed as sensitive, the government never shared it with the public. What if it had been widely publicized? How would the passengers aboard the first three jets have behaved?

The next president needs to embrace the United 93 story – and consider these questions – in order to reawaken the spirit of community and volunteerism witnessed throughout the nation in the months immediately following 9/11. If U.S. history is a guide, people will respond to the call to service. They only need to be asked.

Suddenly, with a change in emphasis based on the historical record we all know, September 11 is not about terror, but about the power of an informed and active citizenry, about community and volunteerism. This is the power of story to change how we see the world, to change the terms of the political debate.

What we need today – to change our course as a nation, as a clear majority of Americans want – is a politician who can change the stories that undergird our political conversation, who can transform the story of September 11 from one of terror to one pointing us to the beginnings of a solution, who can explain why we need health care reform by telling the story of America instead of citing statistics.

You all know who I think that is.

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Too Much Like a GQ Cover?

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

Key comment: “That was just underhanded…”

Obama comments on the way the press is covering him, but with good humor.

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The Recommended Caffeine Intake for a French Enlightenment Philosopher

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

A fun fact about Voltaire from Cracked.com:

Severe, deleterious caffeine intoxication sets in at 500 mg, so you’re going to have to slam a black venti with a Red Bull chaser to get properly wasted. Once you’ve risen to coffee-high nirvana, you’ll soon plummet to coffee-high hell. Symptoms of excessive caffeine usage include hallucinations, diarrhea, convulsions, vomiting and “confusion”…

Voltaire drank approximately 50 to 70 cups of coffee a day for inspiration. This level of caffeine intake is not recommended unless you happen to be a French Enlightenment philosopher.

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