Sunday, August 31, 2008

I Hate TV News Channels, Part... I Lost Count

Okay, I don't spend all that much time vocalizing my contempt, but John Stewart got it right years ago.

Earlier today I saw an obviously partisan news anchor from a major cable channel toss softballs, no, really, marshmallows at a Presidential candidate. No cross-examination, no follow-up questions. He just tossed marshmallow after marshmallow, inviting the candidate to prattle, duck, weave, evade, mislead... whatever. But the anchor's partisanship isn't the real problem - if both candidates had to appear before the same anchors either this type of partisanship would have made the anchor look every inch the news-clown1 that he is, or to at least a modest degree he would have had to lay into both sides. The problem is that news anchors almost never lay into anybody they expect to ever want back on the show.

And to be fair to real news anchors, there's some of the same on the Daily Show (which, as I watch almost no commercial television, I almost never see). John Stewart traditionally treated John McCain with significant respect and deference. I somehow doubt that McCain would expect that to continue, given how much fodder his campaign provides for comedy, so I don't expect to see him on the Daily Show any time soon. And yes, it's unfair to hold up the Daily Show as the standard for news interviews. But despite its faults and comedic focus, at least they occasionally hold a politician's feet to the fire.

A "showdown" like Saddleback doesn't solve the problem because, again, there's no follow-up. I heard people talking about how McCain "won" because he answered difficult questions with irrelevant passages from his stump speech or with one-liners. Had he been expecting a tough cross-examination, or even one of modest competence, he would have been much less apt to try that and at the end would have been unlikely to have looked like a "winner". But if those were the rules, he would not have agreed to participate.

Television news media in this nation? Truly pathetic.
1. See the works of Phillip K. Dick, in which the news anchors had the honesty to actually put on clown suits before taking to the airwaves.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

And The Solution Is....

The insolubility (at least from the U.S./Georgian perspective) of the situation in Georgia has led to a lot of editorials that vary in emotion and tone, but say pretty much nothing. Today's entry by Jim Hoagland calmly fits the mold.
The question: Should the United States re-arm Georgia, and if so, at what level? That is, does Washington simply replace the U.S. weapons that Russian forces systematically destroyed in Georgia as a humiliating message for Americans? Or does the collapse of the Georgians this month mean that they need greater quantities and more sophisticated weapons to deter Russia in the future?

That may not present an agonizing choice for John McCain, given his muscular worldview and his sustained championing of Georgian links to the West and NATO. He will advocate riding to the rescue, although he is unlikely to call for an arms resupply while tensions stay at their current explosive level.
So we can expect lots of chest-thumping, but no real action, by McCain?

But seriously, how would McCain do more than chest-thump? How could we meaningfully rearm Georgia such that it could repel Russian forces or, as it had hoped, expel them from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, without creating a twenty-first century version of the Cuban Missile Crisis? Speaking geopolitically, why would it be wise, or even sensible to do that?
It makes little sense for Obama to try to out-hawk McCain on Georgia. He cannot do so convincingly. Instead, he must show how his sustained advocacy of diplomatic power can work in shoring up the fragile and imperfect democracy in Georgia.
What does Hoagland suggest, to achieve that? Oops. That's where the editorial ends.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Who Needs to Attack Palin?

Ed Kilgore sees danger for the Dems in launching attacks on Sarah Palin:
If I'm wrong and other Democrats are right, then Palin's obvious and laughable lack of gravitas and preparation for the vice presidency under a 72-year-old president will become apparent soon enough. But if I'm right and others are wrong, then focusing criticism of the choice of Palin on her qualifications could be a very large mistake, particularly in terms of women who might otherwise have little reason to support her, but who are sensitive to gender-based double standards. Credentials aside, Palin is very vulnerable because, like McCain, he's mainly "above party" because she dissents from Republican orthodoxy in Alaska from the Right. Both cultural and economic wingnuts love her passionately. And as I said in my last post, she crucially reinforces McCain's phony "maverick" image with her own phony maverick image.

Ignoring all that in favor of mocking her for what many Democrats are privately calling her "obvious" lack of credentials for the White House is a big and unnecessary gamble, and quite possibly a trap. We should all take pains to avoid it.
But who is going to waste energy attacking Palin? Really?

The minor scandal that is dogging her seems unlikely to take her down, and she'll prove for herself whether or not she has the gravitas to be a credible candidate for national office. As for the number of voters likely to be influenced away from McCain by Democratic Party attacks on her, no matter how well-founded? My guess is it's too small to matter. As for her thin record? I suspect it's enough that she defangs McCain's attacks on Obama. What more needs to be said?

A Kid Gloves Debate?

Apparently there are some who believe that Sarah Palin somehow disarms Joe Biden in the Vice Presidential debate. Others are correctly skeptical. So let's pretend for a moment that the election hinges on the least important debate. (You know, the one that Bentsen clearly won by clobbering Dan Quayle, propelling Dukais into the White House....)

Biden doesn't have to go into pit bull mode against Palin. At all. He's going to be going after the Bush/Mccain record, not Palin's. As for Palin, she'll be in the uncomfortable position of having to defend that record during the debate. And whatever happens in the debate, I doubt that she'll be of much use countering Biden in other contexts.

Even during the debate, Biden can still go after Palin, and I expect that he will. What if he gets into the nitty gritty of foreign policy issues, or even federal domestic policy issues? Even if Palin crams from today through the date of the debate, will she be able to keep up? I doubt it. There is a strong potential that Biden can be every bit the gentleman, yet still make Palin look completely unsuited to take over for McCain should something happen to him.

And then there's the question of how effective a public speaker or debater Palin will be. I suspect things would be different if I watched more commercial television, but to date I don't even know what her voice sounds like. Some conservative voices are unimpressed.

McCain Picks Sara Palin for V.P.

While her spammers are probably rejoicing (see the comments here), the pick seems a bit odd. They're going to attack Obama for being a celebrity, then choose somebody "modestly" featured in Vogue? A less modest reinterpretation circulating online:

They're going to attack Obama as having a light-weight résumé, but put Palin's significantly thinner résumé "a heartbeat away from the Presidency"? What gives?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Making Loud Noises....

Whatever you think of the Georgia conflict, who started it, the proportionality of the response, the excessive claims by both sides... we've now settled into a new status quo. Russia has recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and has made clear that it will militarily defend them from any effort by Georgia to reassert its authority over those territories. It wasn't difficult to see this coming - it was one of the things Russia warned the west about when it opposed the independence of Kosovo.

And now Russia has made its position clear. The Russian people support its actions, and it has no shortage of support within the territories themselves. The West is making angry noises, but Russia's not going to back down. Why not? It doesn't want to, it doesn't need to, it does not expect any serious consequence from its actions, and it fears looking weak-kneed if it backs down in the face of angry western chest-pounding. The Washington Post lectures,
Those in the West who persist in blaming Georgia or the Bush administration for the present crisis ought to carefully consider those words -- and remember the history in Europe of regimes that have made similar claims. This is the rhetoric of an isolated, authoritarian government drunk with the euphoria of a perceived victory and nursing the delusion of a restored empire. It is convinced that the West is too weak and divided to respond with more than words.
Perhaps the Post should take note, a "perceived" victory is one that doesn't exist in reality. Russia scored a bona fide military victory in Georgia. As far as the suggestion that Russia is wrong to believe that the West will not respond with anything more than words... why should it believe otherwise? More to the point, I think Russia is prepared for the possible imposition of some feeble economic sanctions, and doesn't much care. Who believes that the West is going to take action that might increase the price of oil and gas? (Strangely, I don't see any hands raised.)

The Post's ominous conclusion,
If nothing is done to restrain it, it will never release Georgia - and it will not stop there.
Ah, the glorious slippery slope. As it implied back when it opposed Kosovo's independence, its primary interest was in the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and so far there's no reason to believe that they have greater designs on Georgian territory. Nor does there appear to be any sign that Russia's about to invade any other nation. I realize that closing with ominous statements can seem compelling, but to transform the slippery slope from illogic the claim should be grounded in some sort of reality. What nation does the Post see as under imminent threat from Russia?

More to the point, what does the Post propose to do about it? Send in the Marines? Here's what their news department suggests is in the works:
"Sanctions are being considered and many other means as well," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in response to a question at a news conference.

"We are trying to elaborate a strong text that will show our determination not to accept (what is happening in Georgia)," he said. "Of course, there are also sanctions."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed such talk, noting that Kouchner had also suggested recently that Russia might soon attack Moldova, Ukraine and the Crimea.

"But that is a sick imagination, and probably that applies to sanctions as well. I think it is a demonstration of complete confusion," Lavrov told reporters in Tajikistan.
So the west is "considering" sanctions and mulling over what sort of condemnatory text will be strong enough. They sure know how to hit Russia where it hurts.... What about U.S. and U.K. diplomats?
"There is a Russia narrative that 'we were weak in the '90s, but now we are back and we are not going to take it anymore.' But being angry and seeking revanchist victory is not the sign of a strong nation. It is the sign of a weak one," said Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.

"Russia is going to have to come to terms with the reality it can either integrate with the world or it can be a self-isolated bully. But it can't be both. And that's a choice Russia has to have," Fried said.

* * *

"They are kind of giddy. They will need to sober up," said a senior U.S. official, insisting on anonymity because his remarks were diplomatically impolite. "When they sober up, they will see that it is not the U.S. that has done things to them; it's that they have done things to themselves."

Similarly, in a speech yesterday in Kiev, Ukraine, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said: "Today Russia is more isolated, less trusted and less respected than two weeks ago. It has made military gains in the short term. But over time, it will feel economic and political losses."
It actually seems like Russia, buoyed by high prices on oil and gas, is prepared to assert itself as a regional power, and fully expects to be able to act as such while continuing to engage and trade with the west. And when it comes to maintaining the flow of Russian gas into Europe, who do you think is going to blink first?

As you might expect, there's another way of looking at things. When I first read this editorial, my reaction was that it didn't really say anything that wasn't self-evident, and that the author was far too self-satisfied with the outcome. But I guess I was wrong.
For nearly two decades, while Russia sunk into "catastroika" and China built an economic powerhouse, the US has exercised unprecedented and unaccountable global power, arrogating to itself and its allies the right to invade and occupy other countries, untroubled by international law or institutions, sucking ever more states into the orbit of its voracious military alliance.

Now, pumped up with petrodollars, Russia has called a halt to this relentless expansion and demonstrated that the US writ doesn't run in every backyard. And although it has been a regional, not a global, challenge, this object lesson in the new limits of American power has already been absorbed from central Asia to Latin America.
But what of diplomatic isolation?
There has been much talk among western politicians in recent days about Russia isolating itself from the international community. But unless that simply means North America and Europe, nothing could be further from the truth. While the US and British media have swung into full cold-war mode over the Georgia crisis, the rest of the world has seen it in a very different light. As Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore's former UN ambassador, observed in the Financial Times a few days ago, "most of the world is bemused by western moralising on Georgia". While the western view is that the world "should support the underdog, Georgia, against Russia ... most support Russia against the bullying west. The gap between the western narrative and the rest of the world could not be clearer."
The conclusion is pie-in-the-sky, but consistent with the overall tone of the piece:
For the rest of us, a new assertiveness by Russia and other rising powers doesn't just offer some restraint on the unbridled exercise of global imperial power, it should also increase the pressure for a revival of a rules-based system of international relations. In the circumstances, that might come to seem quite appealing to whoever is elected US president.
Does he really believe that?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Oh, That Awful... Madonna?

The New York Times has concerns about campaign ad imagery:
This year’s presidential campaign has already been marked by far too much negative advertising, with coded racial images and sophomoric insults. It was outrageous when Mr. McCain’s campaign juxtaposed Mr. Obama with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears as part of its effort to denigrate him as a person, rather than debating him on this country’s huge problems.
So needless to say it goes on to describe the McCain campaign's "coded racial images" and, having acknowledged them, to excoriate those who accused the Obama campaign of raising the "race card"? Thus opening itself up to a barrage of "did not"-"did too" complaints from the campaigns and their supporters? Get real.

No, instead the New York Times hones in on the real devil of the campaign:
Madonna’s video is immeasurably worse. If she thought she was helping Mr. Obama by juxtaposing his image with that of Gandhi and Bono, she was wrong.

We do not subscribe to the “shut up and sing” notion that celebrities should stay out of politics — a position most often espoused by Republicans about stars who support Democrats. There is no room in decent discourse for comparing a candidate for president to Hitler.
As if Madonna was trying to help anybody but herself. Really. It isn't like we've been through all of this before, is it? It couldn't be Madonna fishing for lots of free media attention - and getting it - could it?

I have an idea! Let's lavish Madonna with media attention. That'll teach her.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Poor, Clueless McCain...

He doesn't know what his campaign staff is doing, and bears no responsibility for their conduct, or so says ABC:
"With all our problems, why is John McCain talking about the sixties, trying to link Barack Obama to radical Bill Ayers?," an announcer says.

The spot is incorrect in insinuating that John McCain himself has brought up Ayers - it is in fact McCain's campaign that has sought to use the Ayers association against Obama, and McCain spokesman Brian Rogers did so again upon learning about the ad.
McCain knows what his drones are doing. Obviously, if McCain doesn't want them to carry a particular message, he can order them to stop. Ordering his proxies to smear Obama doesn't remove any of the responsibility from McCain.

Columns We Won't See From Richard Cohen

The Richard Cohen line of thinking on Obama's choice of running mate is so... trite. And so easy. After describing Biden's good qualities - "Joe Biden is a gentleman", although "wrong on Iraq, he has been right on so much else", "he has been loyal - to his party and to his president," Cohen mind-reads Obama and tells us,
Biden's selection represents an implied admission by Obama that he lacks what Biden has: foreign policy credentials. In that sense, the Delaware senator does not make the ticket whole. Instead, he calls attention to what it lacks.
If you're going to trot out Republican Party talking points, at least have the honesty of doing so Kristol-style - just regurgitate them exactly as they were given to you:
McCain operatives were pleased by the Biden selection, which they considered, as one said to me, “a pick from weakness.”
The purpose of that talking point, lovingly embraced by Cohen, is to present any choice as being one that evidences weakness. Pick somebody whose strengths supplement your own, and your choice highlights your "weakness". Pick somebody without those strengths and the pick also only serves to highlight your "weakness". The best part is, it doesn't matter who you pick.

Let's run through some of Kristol's possible VP choices for McCain and imagine the columns Cohen won't be writing:
  • Tim Pawlenty - "Pawlenty's selection represents an implied admission by McCain that he lacks what Pawlenty has: health, youth, vigor, charisma. In that sense, the Minnesota governor does not make the ticket whole. Instead, he calls attention to what it lacks."

  • Mitt Romney - "Romney's selection represents an implied admission by McCain that he lacks what Romney has: an understanding of economics and the needs of business. In that sense, the former Massachusetts governor does not make the ticket whole. Instead, he calls attention to what it lacks."

  • "A woman"1 - "[A woman's] selection represents an implied admission by McCain that he lacks what [a woman] has: appeal to Hillary Clinton's supporters.2 In that sense, [a woman] does not make the ticket whole. Instead, she calls attention to what it lacks."

  • Joe Lieberman - "Lieberman's selection represents an implied admission by McCain that he lacks what Lieberman has: following his flip-flops and embrace of Bush's economic policies and the religious right, credibility with the political center. In that sense, the Connecticut senator does not make the ticket whole. Instead, he calls attention to what it lacks."

This is really quite easy - the sort of editorial you can phone in. But somehow I expect Cohen will be much more respectful of McCain's choice.
1. Kristol believes that women are fungible, and thus rolls "Meg Whitman, the former eBay C.E.O., Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, or Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska" into a single entry.

2. Kristol speaks of McCain's selecting "a woman, whose selection would presumably appeal to the aforementioned anguished Hillary supporters." If you take issue with the notion that all a woman could bring to McCain's campaign is appeal to Clinton's supporters, and you would be correct to take issue, you should take it up with Kristol.

Discouraging Candidates From Presenting "Tough Choices"

Anybody who reads the Washington Post's editorials knows that they're a huge advocate of Social Security reform, approaching the subject like Chicken Little - they'll run pretty much any piece about how the entire system is about to collapse on our heads. And Post readers also know that their unsigned editorials often appear to be unsigned because nobody with any sense of self-respect would want to attach their name to the piece.

Today, we get a twofer. Commencing with a whine about how candidates aren't willing to talk about fixing Social Security during a presidential election campaign, the Post devotes a paragraph to McCain's plan - or lack thereof. How he made a "no new taxes" pledge, followed by stating in specific relation to a possible payroll tax increase, "There is nothing I would take off the table," followed by a full retreat through a spokesperson:
"There is no imaginable circumstance where John McCain would raise payroll taxes," said spokesman Tucker Bounds. "It's absolutely out of the question." Except that it might not be. "Sen. McCain believes you can solve Social Security without raising taxes, but he also believes you can't start a negotiation with an ultimatum," said spokesman Taylor Griffin.
So what does the Post have to say about McCain's flip-flops on taxes, his complete lack of ideas, and his belief that you can fix deficits of all sorts with magic without raising taxes? Absolutely nothing.

Then then move to Obama, who actually has proposed measures to improve the future of Social Security. Yes, he's committed to increasing payroll taxes, but the tax won't be put into effect until the date of a projected shortfall between what Social Security takes in and what it pays out. Oh, the horror. The Post whines,
But surely President Obama could find some way to bring in money sooner without letting Congress fritter it away on other needs.
So they want Obama to start talking about... a Social Security lockbox? Right....

The Post then expresses that the additional Social Security taxes Obama would impose on the wealthiest taxpayers would be modest, describing that choice as "only sensible". They then complain that if imposed on all income as opposed to earned income it would be too high. Then they complain that even if the new tax is too high, it needs to be higher. No, wait, let's read between the lines: They're complaining that taxes also need to be raised on the middle class, but aren't honest enough to say that directly. Incredibly, they then offer these rhetorical questions:
So does Mr. Obama get credit for being brave - or foolhardy - enough to put out a tax proposal that is sure to be used against him? Does he get demerits for failing to be more specific, and more honest, about what will be required?
If you took the Post at face value, Obama would get credit for being brave. But if you read the Post's analysis, McCain gets kid gloves treatment for flip-flopping on payroll taxes and pretending that all budget woes can be fixed without tax increases. (If the author of this piece were more honest he might have noted that McCain's claiming to be able to do this while promising additional tax cuts.) Obama gets savaged for proposing a tax increase the Post deems inadequate.

Meanwhile, beyond the Post's lack of candor in relation to the new taxes it wants to impose on the middle class, the Post lacks the courage to share any specifics of what it believes to be necessary. The Post wants higher taxes? Who will pay them? What tax rates does it advocate? How will the "lockbox" work? The Post wants the new taxes to be implemented soon. When?
Or does it turn out, sadly, that the "textbook Washington campaign" he derided Clinton for running, in which "you don't present tough choices directly to the American people for fear that your answers might not be popular, you might make yourself a target for Republicans in the general election," has something to recommend it after all.
Republicans, nothing. If the Post's conduct is any indication, proposing any sort of tough choice makes you a target for mendacious unsigned editorials.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Good News for McCain - Hillary's Available

McCain is apparently upset that Obama didn't pick Clinton as his running mate.

Lucky for him, as he sees her as such a great choice, he can now choose her for his own campaign.

Will McCain run ads endorsing Clinton as "speaking the truth" if she turns her sights on him?
Addendum: Even better, McCain's picking Hillary Clinton will reassure Bill Kristol that the GOP doesn't have a "glass ceiling". Apparently, that's a huge concern for Bill....

Friday, August 22, 2008

Authoritarianism in Schools

Remember Joe Clark? The principal who made a lot of friends and enemies, patrolling his school with a baseball bat, locking the fire doors to keep out drug dealers, and expelling students who didn't meet his standards, whether or not they were disruptive or breaking school rules? George Will probably skipped that story (and the movie it inspired), but he loves the concept. Describing a boy who attends the American Indian Public Charter School, and dreams of becoming a doctor, Will describes,
Ben Chavis, AIPCS's benevolent dictator, told the boy that although he was doing well at school, he was not up to the rigors of AIPCS, which is decorated with photographs of the many students it has sent to the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. So the boy asked, what must I do?
Will doesn't fill us in on the answer to that question, perhaps because he deems it irrelevant. Yay authoritarianism!
AIPCS is one of six highly prescriptive schools Whitman studied, where "noncognitive skills" - responsible behaviors such as self-discipline and cooperativeness - are part of the cultural capital the curriculum delivers.... Students are taught to sit properly - no slumping - and keep their eyes on the teacher. No makeup, no jewelry, no electronic devices.
School uniforms, strict behavior codes, nothing particularly innovative there. Except as a charter school, it appears that the principal gets a couple of big advantages over public schools. He can serve a student body where the parents want that type of structured environment for their children and, as Will's anecdote indicates, he can kick out kids who don't toe the line, whatever their academic performance.

Will doesn't know anything about education, but he's essentially an authoritarian personality so it's no small surprise that this appeals to him. Except this is George Will - I suspect he was meekly following all of the expected behavior norms even without an authoritarian hand (at school) threatening him with dire consequences (or even modest consequences) for misbehavior. He has probably never understood why other kids couldn't toe the line, and appears to believe that authoritarianism is a universal cure-all for what ails our nation's inner city schools.

Yes, some kids will do well in an authoritarian environment, and some who might slack off or misbehave will learn to toe the line. The problem? Not all kids flourish in an authoritarian environment, and many well-behaved, smart kids will do better in an environment with less rigidity. And, as Principal Joe Clark discovered, public schools can't arbitrarily boot out any kids that can't adhere to the authoritarian model, or don't make good grades despite their cooperation.

After gushing over authoritarianism as a cure-all for public education, Will whines,
Unfortunately, powerful factions fiercely oppose the flourishing. Among them are education schools with their romantic progressivism -- teachers should be mere "enablers" of group learning; self-esteem is a prerequisite for accomplishment, not a consequence thereof.
What school did Will attend where self-esteem resulted from academic performance? Yes, there's some reinforcement there, but a lot of the kids I remember who had the highest self-esteem were mostly indifferent to academics.

Sure, Will can point to a single anecdote and allude to others he does not describe, as supporting an authoritarian model for schools, but has given no apparent thought to the reasons why this can work with a self-selecting population of students yet not carry over to the general population. And like the "self esteem" crowd, he would impose his model on everybody because his gut tells him that it would work, not because he has any empirical evidence to back up that idea.

Will illustrates how he'll grasp and endorse any idea, no matter how untested and perhaps even counter-productive, if it "feels right" to him:
AIPCS's 200 pupils take just 20 minutes for lunch and are with the same teacher in the same classroom all day. Rotating would consume at least 10 minutes, seven times a day. Seventy minutes a day in AIPCS's extra-long 196-day school year would be a lot of lost instruction.
As if children are wind-up toys who can work without interruption or break for the entire school day, save for the 20 minutes allowed for them to gulp down their lunches. As if there's an inherent superiority in avoiding a break between classes (how many schools give kids ten minutes as opposed to, say, five?) and having all subjects taught by the same teachers as opposed to subject matter specialists. As if there aren't other ways to switch off teachers - such as by having the kids stay in the room while teachers move between classrooms. It's a gimmick, but Will is so entranced with it that he doesn't realize that he's every bit as reactionary as the "high self esteemers" he deplores.

Public education can be improved with empirically tested models and data. Knee-jerk advocacy of untested models? It gets in the way of progress.

This Is About Right....

Paul Krugman observes,
So the Obama campaign is going all out on the issue of McCain’s multiple houses. Isn’t that kind of stupid? Yes, it is - and it was also necessary.
Mainstream media, j'accuse!

Equal Time?

I watch almost no commercial television, so I miss pretty much all the campaign commercials. (I know... poor me, right?)

So if you see a particularly unfair attack aimed at McCain, let me know and I'll consider giving it and its sponsor "equal time".

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The John McCain Playlist

John McCain says that his musical tastes are in something of a rut, so I figure we should help him expand his horizons. I think he might enjoy these:

Totally Unprofessional....

By any reasonable standard, the McCain campaign's response to his forgetfulness as to how many homes he owns is childish, whiny, grating, and totally unprofessional - at least by any standard other than political campaigning. Which I guess is the best his campaign can do.

The saddest part is not McCain's perpetuation of his gutter tactics - it's that, as in past elections, they seem to work.
Update: Apparently McCain's confusion arises from the fact that he doesn't own any homes. The number "zero" eluded him, but... well, whatever. In any event, that makes any criticism of his inability to remember the number "zero" an attack on Cindy McCain. Is anybody swallowing it?

A Strange Choice of Words

While informing us, "McCain unsure how many houses he owns," Politico states
In recent weeks, Democrats have stepped up their effort to caricature McCain as living an outlandishly rich lifestyle — a bit of payback to the GOP for portraying Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) as an elitist, and for turning the spotlight in 2004 on the five homes owned by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry.

You know what? From everything I've read, John Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kerry lived an outlandishly rich lifestyle. Mitt Romney and John Edwards seems to do the same. As do John and Cindy McCain. As does George H.W. Bush. Do I even need to keep listing names?

It's the funny thing about outlandishly rich people, particularly the self-indulgent outlandishly rich. You don't need to exaggerate to argue or establish that they live an outlandishly rich lifestyle. They almost always do. The surprise is finding the exceptional individual who does not.

Any person who owns so many homes that he can't keep count? He's living an "outlandishly rich lifestyle". (Similarly, any guy who buys the home next door to use as a guesthouse and to make more room for his BBQ parties....)

That's okay - it's his and his wife's money. When the Obamas are outlandishly rich, as is likely to eventually be the case, they'll probably live an outlandishly rich lifestyle as well. But let's not pretend that this is a caricature - it's the lifestyle the McCains actually live.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Whining About Bloggers

Is it just me, or are the pundits, media figures and politicians who spend the most time whining about bloggers - and here I mean bloggers generally, not specific bloggers or blog posts, or blog coverage of a particular story or event - typically... Not very bright, not very careful with the facts, not very honest, or some combination thereof?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

McCain Has To Run A Sleazy Campaign

It's fascinating to me how Republican hacks like David Brooks can find ways to excuse pretty much any bad conduct by the political right. Lately, right-wing pundits give us an interesting mix of editorials first defending McCain's campaign tactics as legitimate, and then suggesting that they are somehow not his fault because he's under the mind control of his campaign advisors. Today, Brooks seems to concede that McCain's campaign has gone dirty, but claims that poor John had no choice.

According to Brooks, if McCain tried to run a clean campaign on the issues he would lose. But no, he's not running a dirty campaign because he wants to win. He's running a dirty campaign because he can't win any other way.1 And that's your fault.

I could easily revise the opening of Brooks' editorial to make it less flattering:
On Tuesdays, Senate Republicans hold a weekly policy lunch. The party leaders usually hand out a Message of the Week that the senators are supposed to repeat at every opportunity. These messages come from political advisors and pollsters who believe that if their carefully constructed half-truths are repeated enough they will provide a political advantage.

John McCain loves these lunches with his gang of fellow ne’er-do-wells.2 Typical of his style, he cracks jokes, razzes the speaker and acts like nobody else in the room has anything important to say. Then he takes the paper with the Message of the Week back to his office. He then gives it to a staffer, typically commanding: “Here’s your message. Learn it. Love it. Live it.”
Brooks sees McCain as inclined toward frivolity, describing his pre-campaign personality as a "frantic and freewheeling style, which was unpredictable, untamed and, at some level, unprofessional." Brooks laments,
When McCain and his team set out to win the presidency in 2008, they hoped to run a campaign with this sort of spirit....

It hasn’t turned out that way. McCain hasn’t been able to run the campaign he had envisioned. Instead, he and his staff have been given an education by events.
The problems for McCain apparently started in the primary, where some reporters had the audacity to treat him like every other candidate they covered.
McCain started out with the same sort of kibitzing campaign style that he used to woo the press back in 2000. It didn’t work. This time there were too many cameras around and too many 25-year-old reporters and producers seizing on every odd comment to set off little blog scandals.
But according to Brooks, having failed to learn the lessons of his primary campaign which he won despite coming across as having "lacked focus", McCain attempted to extend his unsuccessful tactic into the general election.
McCain started his general-election campaign in poverty-stricken areas of the South and Midwest. He went through towns where most Republicans fear to tread and said things most wouldn’t say. It didn’t work. The poverty tour got very little coverage on the network news.
I think it's more accurate to say that the press did cover the "poverty tour", but that it didn't work because the public at large doesn't much care about issues of poverty, and it's pretty clear that McCain doesn't either. There may be courage in taking a "poverty tour" into the storm-damaged areas of New Orleans, particularly when your prior message to its residents verged on "Let them eat cake," but which voters did McCain hope to win over with his stunt? (Other than oil industry executives.)
McCain and his advisers realized the only way they could get TV attention was by talking about the subject that interested reporters most: Barack Obama.
This, of course, elides McCain's conduct during his primary campaign, in which he engaged in many direct and pointed attacks on Mitt Romney and his record. Those primary campaign tactics are consistent with McCain's present tactics against Obama.

Brooks' analysis then devolves into pure fiction:
McCain started with grand ideas about breaking the mold of modern politics. He and Obama would tour the country together doing joint town meetings.
As anybody who follows election campaigns can tell you, the person trailing in the polls always wants more debates; the person leading typically wants fewer. Where was Brooks in 2004, when G.W. tried to limit Kerry to two debates? Also, as should be obvious, this series of "town hall" debates would both avoid any substantive debate of the issues and effectively dictate a large part of Obama's campaign schedule. A win-win-win for McCain, so let's not pretend he had lily-white motives.
He would pick a postpartisan running mate, like Joe Lieberman.
I must have missed this tentative choice by McCain, as opposed to his playing around by refusing to deny others' speculation about his potential choices. Surely Brooks isn't simply making this up, and can source this claim? No, wait... you say he's making it up? I'm shocked.

And what, exactly, makes Lieberman "postpartisan"? The fact that he is aligned with McCain and the GOP on numerous issues? Was Zell Miller "postpartisan" as well? By Brooks' apparent definitions, and his apparent believe that a "postpartisan" choice would be so wonderful for the country, why doesn't he urge McCain to choose Lincoln Chafee?
He would make a dramatic promise, like vowing to serve for only one totally nonpolitical term.
Again, pure fiction. Even if McCain were inclined to do this it would only work against his campaign - the implicit message being, "I'm so old, I'll only run for one term so I don't end up dying or going senile while in office." But there's absolutely no reason to believe McCain has ever considered running for only a single term, let alone a single "non-political" term.
The issue is not closed, but G.O.P. leaders are resisting a cross-party pick like Lieberman.
More fiction. The issues were never open.
McCain and his advisers have been compelled to adjust to the hostile environment around them. They have been compelled, at least in their telling, to abandon the campaign they had hoped to run. Now they are running a much more conventional race, the kind McCain himself used to ridicule.
And yet Obama has so far managed to largely avoid engaging in McCain-style dirty campaigning. So Brooks is really telling us that when McCain realized he was unlikely to win on the merits he tossed all of his purported scruples and standards out the window. But only because they "had to"... to win. Which is all that matters, right?

What astonishes me is that there are still people who swallow this tripe. McCain hasn't been forced to do anything. He has chosen to embark on a low-road campaign. If Obama follows suit it will not be because McCain's slimy tactics forced him to do so - it will because he wants to win. The lesson here is how little it takes for McCain to shed his skin, and how readily hacks like Brooks will provide him with cover.
The man who hopes to inspire a new generation of Americans now attacks Obama daily. It is the only way he can get the networks to pay attention.
Nonsense. If McCain were to give a speech lamenting the conduct of the media and insisting that they cover specific issues, his statements would dominate media coverage of the campaign. If he were to deplore the media's coverage of personalities or campaign commercials and ask that they substantively look at the contrasts between himself and Obama on specified key issues, the media would dutifully follow his instruction. He doesn't, and he won't, because he loses on the issues.

As a result of McCain's sleaze-ball tactics, Brooks tells us, "A long-shot candidacy now seems entirely plausible." But that's nonsense. The proper question, before or after McCain went dirty, is "Why isn't McCain winning?"

Brooks closes by again "blaming the system" for McCain's conduct:
Both he and Obama had visions of upending the system. Maybe in office, one of them will still be able to do that. But at least on the campaign trail, the system is winning.
So why is it that Obama is still in the lead,3 despite not (yet) joining McCain in the gutter "system"?
Update: Matt Yglesias suggests that, as Brooks is a long-time McCain fanboy, we owe him the benefit of the doubt. Granted, what one hand giveth the other hand taketh away - the message Yglesias draws from the piece is "Brooks: McCain is an Unprincipled Sellout". But personally, I don't think the tone of the piece was "more in sadness than in anger". I think the piece follows the current "memo of the week", that attempts to distance McCain, the noble maverick former-POW straight-talker, from the tactics of his campaign. Brooks seeks to relieve McCain of both fault and responsibility for his campaign's decisions.

As for a "progressive blogosphere convention that everything David Brooks writes must be read in the most ungenerous way possible", I'm not sure that I'm part of that particular sphere, nor do I take my lead from it. My criticisms of Brooks probably started long before the "ungenerosity" of others. I'm also not one to hand out "benefit of the doubt" like candy. When was the last time Brooks made an error or dubious statement that did not inure to the benefit of the political right? The benefit of the doubt I give him is that I think he's smart enough to know exactly what he's doing. Thus, on those occasions when I take issue with his errors and dubious claims, I hold him responsible for his own words and actions.
1. This, apparently, is a very important distinction.

2. Note that it was Brooks who called McCain a "ne'er-do-well", not me. ("John McCain generally spends the lunches at a table with a gang of fellow ne’er-do-wells.")

3. has Obama leading nationally by 2.6%.

Why Isn't McCain Winning?

It seems like a fair question. A better question than, "Why doesn't Obama have an insurmountable lead?"

McCain had incredible advantages going into this race. He had (and has) many prominent medial figures in his corner, he has a reputation as a "maverick" and "straight talker" that has allowed him to avoid being tarred with G.W.'s record, he has a reputation for being strong on defense and national security, he has a long history of legislation he can point to as accomplishments. It was my opinion during the Republican primary, and I was far from alone, that he would be a strong Republican presidential candidate. Other than whining that Obama, also, is popular with the media, he tells us that Obama has none of his qualifications.

So why isn't McCain winning? Why can't McCain take and hold a lead?

Given that they are so happy to ask the same question about Obama, why don't prominent pundits or others in the media raise that question about McCain?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Obama Was Too Christian?

At least, that's what Bill Kristol is suggesting:
So while Obama talked of confronting evil, McCain spoke of defeating it. Obama took the view that evil is generally abroad in the world; McCain focused on radical Islam and 9/11. Obama claimed that all of us must be metaphorical “soldiers” against evil; McCain paid tribute to actual American soldiers. And McCain couldn’t resist saying again Saturday night that if he has to follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell1 to get him and bring him to justice, he’ll do so.
Now, I'll forgive Kristol for not being up on the teachings of Christ, but this was a quasi-religious forum. Which answers are more consistent with the Christian view of evil?
1. To the gates of Hell, yes, but not into Pakistan. Not that I would expect Kristol to remind us of the facts.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Problem Wasn't The Joke....

It was the serious stuff. I read that McCain defined "rich" as having an income of $5 million or more per year, and decided to check it out. That number was tossed out both as a joke and as a means of evading the question. McCain took great pains not to attach a dollar figure to the concept of "rich". But in evading a very simple question about the amount of wealth somebody should have before being deemed "rich", starting with his platitudinous opening, he did manage to say quite a lot:
Some of the richest people I've ever known in my life are the most unhappy.
A suggestion McCain can pass along to his "poor little rich boy" friends: they can send me their money and see which of us ends up happier.
I think rich is, should be defined by a home, a good job, an education, and the ability to hand to our children a more prosperous and safer world than the one that we inherited.
See? "Rich" has nothing to do with money.
I don't want to take any money from the rich. I want everybody to get rich.
Particularly given that we're applying a definition of "rich" that doesn't necessarily involve having any money.
I don't believe in class warfare or redistribution of the wealth. But I can tell you, for example, there are small businessmen and women who are working 20, uh, 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, that some people would classify as, quote, rich.
For example, if in addition to their business they have "a home, an education, and the ability to hand to our children a more prosperous and safer world than the one that we inherited", John McCain would define them as "rich".

McCain, of course, is deliberately conflating two separate issues - hours worked and income. My guess is that some of the people to whom McCain alludes are rich by any reasonable definition, while some are trying to keep struggling businesses afloat. But I'm guessing that there aren't many of them. We can also consider that there are rich people don't work at all, work minimal hours, or host an occasional $1,000/plate fund-raiser and spend the rest of the time bragging of their devotion to "charitable work". Would McCain have them pay more taxes than the guy who works 112 hours each week? Oh, let's not discuss that... to do so is "class warfare".
My friends who want to raise their taxes, who want to raise their payroll taxes. Let's have, keep taxes low, let's give every family in America a $7,000 tax credit for every child they have.
How would that tax credit improve on our current system of deductions? How would we pay for it? What benefits would it return to the economy? Why would we give such a tax credit to people who don't need it? Oh, you only said it because you think it sounds good? Well then, on to the next point:
Let's give them a $5,000 refundable tax credit to go out and get the health insurance of their choice.
Let's do a direct comparison - how much would it cost McCain to drop his insurance coverage from his Senate gig, and pick up a comparable private policy? Assuming he could even get insurance with his health history. Would that $5,000 cover the first month?
Let's not have the government take over the healthcare system in America.
An idea endorsed by exactly... none of the candidates. A comment inserted to mislead voters.

And then the joke:
So, so, so, I think if you're just talking about income, how about, $5 million.

So, no, but seriously, I don't think you can, I don't think seriously, that, the point is that I'm trying to make here, seriously, and I'm sure that that comment will be distorted, but the point is, the point is, the point is that we want to keep people's taxes low and increase revenues.
Well, then, how do you "increase revenues" without taxation?
And my friend, it was not taxes that mattered to America in the last several years. It was spending, spending got completely out of control. We spent money in the ways that mortgaged our kids' future.
Wait - you just said that the problem was that we need to increase revenues. Now you're saying that the problem is out-of-control spending? Which is it?
My friends, we spent $3 million of your money to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Now, I don't know if that was a paternity issue or a criminal issue, but the point is, but the point is, it was $3 million of your money.
A joke well-delivered. It got a laugh. It deserved a laugh, or at least a good natured groan. But McCain is aware that, even if we assume that his caricature is accurate and it's something we shouldn't be funding, we're not going to balance the budget by cutting this type of scientific research funding out of the budget.
It was your money. And you know we laugh about it but we cry. And we should cry, because the Congress is supposed to be careful stewards of your tax dollars.
So what are McCain's actual ideas, whether for balancing the budget or making Congress budget more responsibly?
So what did they just do in the middle of an energy crisis, when in California we are paying $4 a gallon for gas? Went on vacation for five weeks. I guarantee you, two things they never miss: A pay raise and a vacation.
Okay... and McCain's been around Washington for a long time, voting himself pay raises and taking long vacations. But what does that have to do with either balancing the budget or making Congress more responsible? What does McCain imagine that Congress will do during the next five weeks, assuming everybody comes back from their vacation and campaign activities?
And we should stop that and call them back, and not raise your taxes.
So they should come back, vote not to raise taxes, and then go back on vacation? Seriously - what does McCain hope to accomplish, particularly given his own attendance record?
We should not and cannot raise taxes in tough economic times.
Back to platitudes. When can we raise taxes? If the answer is "never", don't layer on the B.S. - just say that "We can never raise taxes, even when we're rolling in dough."
So it doesn't matter really what my definition of "rich" is because I don't want to raise anybody's taxes. I really don't.
He's happy to increase the financial burden on working families by taking away employer-sponsored health care in favor of inadequate "tax credits", but that's different from raising taxes, so let's not get into what it would mean to "raise taxes on the rich."
In fact I want to give working Americans a better shot at having a better life.
Which again has nothing to do with "the rich". But let's hear him out:
And we all know the challenges, my friends, if I could be serious. Americans tonight in California and all over America are sitting at the kitchen table, recently and suddenly lost a job, can't afford to stay in their home, education for their kids, affordable health care.
Yes, I can almost picture John and Cindy having such a discussion. First they would have to pick a home in which to have the discussion. But not one of the homes on the beach that John doesn't like. And then hop on Cindy's private jet to go to that home. And then the could sit down at their kitchen table and talk about the plight, oh, let's say some of the workers at Cindy's family beer distributorship. But make no mistake: John knows exactly what you're going through. Which is why they come up with such good ideas:
These are tough problems. These are tough problems. You talk to them every day, every day.
Right. You come up with those great ideas by talking about these issues every day. And those ideas are?
My friends, we've got to give them hope and confidence in the future. That's what we need to give them.
Well, as Edison said, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." And McCain's been working hard on this, so let's see what he has to offer:
And I can inspire them.
Ah - he's got the first 1% of the job covered for you!
I can lead, and I know that our best days are ahead of us.
Who could argue with that....

A Bit Late?

George Will advises the McCain campaign,
Furthermore, his populism subverts his strength - the perception that although he is an acquired taste, he is serious, hence incapable of self-celebratory froth such as "we are the ones we've been waiting for."
Right. He's completely incapable of self-adulatory froth - an entirely serious "American President Americans have been waiting for."
Americans suffer political astigmatism. They squint at Washington, seeing an incompetent cornucopia that is too big but that should expand to give them more blessings. Their voting behavior, however, generally conforms to their professed suspicion about unchecked power in Washington: In 31 election cycles since the restoration of normal politics after the Second World War, 19 produced divided government -- the executive and legislative branches not controlled by the same party.
Nineteen out of thirty-one... That's a whopping 61% of the time. And, you know, it couldn't be explained by something other than a desire to have the presidency and Congress controlled by different parties, such as an occasional expression of disapproval for the party holding the White House by voting for the other party in a midterm election. That's clearly not what happened in 1994 or 2006.

Will wants McCain to promise to veto theoretical legislation:
Two Democratic priorities in the next Congress would placate two factions that hold the party's leash -- organized labor and the far left. One is abolition of workers' right to secret ballots in unionization elections. The other is restoration of the "fairness doctrine" in order to kill talk radio, on which liberals cannot compete.
Yeah.... those are sure to be hot button issues with the electorate. After all, they are exceedingly important to George Will, and isn't that pretty much the same thing?
He should ask Obama to join him in a town meeting on lessons from Russia's aggression.
And he could expect to be told, "We already have a schedule for debates. Let's talk then." Really, Will intends this to take the form of grandstanding - with McCain trumpeting that after the candidates agreed to a debate schedule Obama wouldn't agree to toss out the agreement. I might worry that Obama would take him up on the offer, and draw a lot of attention to McCain's presumptuous behavior in relation to the conflict, as well as his close ties to lobbyists for Georgia. But what am I thinking - is George Will ever wrong.
McCain must convince voters that Obama's complacent confidence in the taming abilities of soft power is the effect of liberalism's scary sentimentalism about a dangerous thing, human nature, and a fiction, "the community of nations."
I would encourage McCain to make a campaign ad presenting that message, word-for-word. Perhaps Will will do the voiceover?
Until Russian tanks rolled into Georgia, it seemed that not even the Democratic Party could lose this election. But it might if McCain can make it turn on the question of who is ornery enough to give Putin a convincing, deterring telephone call at 3 a.m.
Right. Because any world leader who gives G.W. a big "F.U." is going to be cowed on the same issue by a 3 AM call from a septuagenerian who gets confused on foreign policy issues when he's awake.

History suggests that George Will detests McCain. "With friends like these...."

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Agreeing With David Frum....

Because, unsurprising, he didn't think things through:
George W. Bush's political opponents will surely revile him long after he's gone. But you can be sure of this: Just as the Bush presidency led Democrats to express an unexpected nostalgia for Ronald Reagan, the next Republican president can expect to hear from pundits and academics alike that he falls far short of the high standard set by the last one."
Absolutely, George W. Bush made the previous Republican President, George H.W. Bush, look like a genius.

Looking good in comparison to a disastrously incompetent President doesn't make you a great President - George H.W. Bush was adequate. But boy, does he look good by comparison. If the next Republican President makes us nostalgic for G.W., he would have to be a catastrophic disaster.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Protecting Democracy

The Washington Post offers a curious, unsigned editorial that is in my estimation unduly credulous of Mikheil Saakashvili. Although not entirely endorsing his claims, the Post conveniently drops from mention the dubious claim that Russia tried to bomb a BP pipeline. They don't share his discredited claim that the U.S. military was going to take control of Georgia's ports and airports - the type of overstatement that casts a shadow across anything he says and perhaps illuminates the type of self-delusion that could have caused him to believe that the U.S. military would back his venture even if everybody told him otherwise.
Part of the blame-the-victim argument is tactical - the notion that the elected president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, foolishly allowed the Russians to goad him into a military operation to recover a small separatist region of Georgia. Mr. Saakashvili says, in an article we publish on the opposite page today, that the facts are otherwise, that he ordered his troops into action only after a Russian armored column was on the move. If that's not true - if he moved first - he was indeed foolish, and if Georgian shelling targeted civilians, it should be condemned.
Now, normally I would be fully prepared to accept that Russia "moved first" or did something exceptionally provocative. And it's clear that Russia was prepared for Georgia's military action. But I am to believe that all of this occurred beneath the notice of the U.S. intelligence community and the U.S. military (including advisors posted in Georgia), and Saakashvili didn't feel obligated to inform them of his detection of Russian troop movements or even of his own intentions before initiating his military action. The Post is correct that the alternate version of events - the one consistent with the story given by the U.S. government, U.S. military, and U.S. intelligence - would make Saakashvili look foolish. And if Saakashvili's story is true, it makes the U.S. government, U.S. military, and U.S. intelligence look foolish.

So why not take a step back and give us an analysis of which side - which of the two allies - is most likely lying? And provocations or not, can we truly believe that either the U.S. or Georgia (so capable of detecting Russian troop movements) overlooked Russia's build-up? It seems far more likely that Saakashvili believed G.W.'s hype - and that either Russia would be cowed by the idea that the U.S. military would rush to Georgia's aid in the event that his incursion was repelled, or that the U.S. military would quickly force a Russian retreat. Which brings us to the rest of the editorial:
But if the charge is that the Bush administration encouraged Georgia's yearnings for true independence, the verdict surely is "guilty" - just as when the Clinton administration encouraged Georgia under Eduard Shevardnadze and as the first President Bush welcomed the freedom of Warsaw Pact nations when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Now we are told that Russia's invasion last weekend proves the improvidence of this policy: The United States should have helped Georgia to understand that it lies in Russia's "sphere of influence," beyond the reach of American help.
No. What it shows is that the United States should not be suggesting to small, weak countries that it will help them militarily when it does not intend to do so. It also shows that you can meet every standard the U.S. wants - build up a military you can't afford, send a huge percentage of your armed forces to support a U.S military action, create a "flat tax" structure consistent with various U.S. right-wing ideologies, etc. - and still not be important enough to merit military intervention. (And democracy's all about voting and economics, right? So we should overlook little transgressions that don't appear to much matter to the Bush Administration.)

But today, Fred Hiatt and friends don't like realpolitik:
At first blush, that may sound like common sense. What is Georgia to us, after all, far away and without natural resources? And yet, where would the logic carry us? Poland, too, used to be in Moscow's "sphere" -- and Hungary, Estonia, Lithuania, and on and on. Should they, too, bow to Vladimir Putin? Why not Finland, while we're at it? You can quickly begin to see the reemergence of a world that would be neither in America's interest nor much to Americans' liking.
With all due respect to the "slippery slope", failing to draw a line in the sand on the northern border of Georgia doesn't mean we won't draw a line in the sand somewhere - just not there. More to the point, where's the cry for democracy and freedom in Taiwan, where the U.S. constantly tiptoes around China's sensitivities? What about non-democracies gripped by humanitarian disaster - the Darfur region, for example. Now, I think it's obvious that Russia wanted this demonstration of force to serve as a warning to other nations on its border, but it's simply not the case that the United States can or should intervene militarily whenever a democracy is engaged in a political battle with... whatever classification we are giving to Russia's government this week. (If Venezuela's democracy is threatened, will the Bush Administration intervene to support it? Or celebrate.)
If a democratically elected Ukraine chooses not to join NATO -- and Ukrainians are divided on the question - NATO will not force itself on Ukraine. But if Ukrainians -- or Georgians, Armenians or anyone else - recoil at Russia's authoritarian model and choose to associate with the West, should the United States refrain from "egging them on"?
No, by all means, invite them to join the West, associate with the West, emulate the West.... Just don't suggest to them that their admiration for and emulation of the West is going to result in their falling under Western military protection in the event of an armed conflict with a neighbor - even one that doesn't have a large military force and nuclear weapons.
How, and how effectively, the United States can support those aspirations inevitably will vary from case to case and from time to time, and supporting those aspirations certainly won't always involve military force. But for the United States to counsel a "realistic" acceptance of vassal status to any nation would mark a radical departure from past principles and practices.
Except for Taiwan? No, really, we can support the aspirations of small democracies while making it clear to them that they can neither excessively provoke military powers on their borders, nor (as appears to be more apt here) see a large, juicy worm dangled by a military power, just across the border of a contested region, and expect us to get them off the hook if they have the poor sense to take the bait. The Post reports that the U.S. government instructed Saakashvilii to demonstrate restraint, and seems to accept that had Saakashvili listened this wouldn't have happened.

What the West should do is keep its promises to the young, weak democracies it wishes to foster. If the Post believes the Bush Administration misled Saakashvili into believing that the U.S. Armed Forces would rescue him in this sort of confrontation, that's where they should direct their scorn.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

One of Those Liberal-Conservative Things....

Richard Posner has written an essay questioning the "originalism" of the Heller decision. I found this assertion interesting:
If loose construction produces a conservative limitation on government, most conservatives will support it and most liberals will oppose it; and if it produces a liberal limitation on government, most liberals and conservatives will switch sides. The qualification in "most" is important, though. Scalia has voted to invalidate, on free-speech grounds, laws forbidding the burning of the American flag. That is loose construction - decidedly non-originalist in the narrow sense of his opinion in Heller - because burning is not speech; and it is a loose construction that produces a liberal outcome. Breyer concurred in a decision that allowed the Ten Commandments to be exhibited on the grounds of the Texas Capitol; and that was a conservative vote (and the swing vote in the case) by a liberal justice.
For flag burning, the question is implied, are libertarians liberal or conservative? You can argue that libertarianism is an offshoot of liberalism, but most libertarians seem inclined to describe themselves as conservative, and to be more comfortable with the Republican party. Yet Posner would place libertarians squarely in the liberal camp on the question of whether the government should have any say over what you do with your own property. If you put it in terms that hide the symbolic speech element, may conservatives would take the "liberal"/libertarian position that the government shouldn't be able to criminalize conduct tantamount to flag burning, provided you own the flag and comply with any applicable laws aimed and protecting the public. So what exactly is it that makes flag-burning laws "conservative" in nature? Is it inherently conservative to put symbols ahead of personal liberty?

Similarly, with the Ten Commandments, how is it inherently conservative to want them exhibited in public spaces? Would we expect non-Christian conservatives to hold the same position, even if symbols of their own religious beliefs are excluded? Is it inherently conservative to wish to erect public monuments to a specific religion or faith, in disregard or derogation of other faiths?

What Happened in Georgia

At least insofar as the start of the conflict, it's anybody's guess. Well, anybody's except Saakashvili's and, perhaps, a few people in the U.S. government. For now, it's denial time:
During a private dinner on July 9, Ms. Rice’s aides say, she warned President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia not to get into a military conflict with Russia that Georgia could not win. “She told him, in no uncertain terms, that he had to put a non-use of force pledge on the table,” according to a senior administration official who accompanied Ms. Rice to the Georgian capital.
It's hard to imagine that Saakashvili would ignore such a direct warning. It's really hard to believe this:
“This caught us totally by surprise,” said one military officer who tracks events in the region, including the American-Georgian training effort. “It really knocked us off our chairs.”
There are some understandably skeptical responses to that claim:
If the Pentagon and CIA were also caught flat-footed by Russia's response, as the McClatchy Newspapers' crack Washington bureau is reporting, then we have to ask: Why are we spending $55 bllion a year on intelligence? What are we getting out of it?

* * *

As easy as it is to believe that the CIA, etc., blew another huge event, I find it impossible to accept that not one of the 127 Pentagon advisors in Georgia, including Special Forces and intelligence contractors, were clueless about Tblisi's intent -- and preparations - to move into South Ossetia.
It is very difficult to imagine that the Georgians launched their attack against U.S. wishes. The Georgians rely on the United States, and they were in no position to defy it. This leaves two possibilities. The first is a massive breakdown in intelligence, in which the United States either was unaware of the existence of Russian forces, or knew of the Russian forces but — along with the Georgians — miscalculated Russia’s intentions. The second is that the United States, along with other countries, has viewed Russia through the prism of the 1990s, when the Russian military was in shambles and the Russian government was paralyzed. The United States has not seen Russia make a decisive military move beyond its borders since the Afghan war of the 1970s-1980s. The Russians had systematically avoided such moves for years. The United States had assumed that the Russians would not risk the consequences of an invasion.

If this was the case, then it points to the central reality of this situation: The Russians had changed dramatically, along with the balance of power in the region. They welcomed the opportunity to drive home the new reality, which was that they could invade Georgia and the United States and Europe could not respond. As for risk, they did not view the invasion as risky. Militarily, there was no counter. Economically, Russia is an energy exporter doing quite well — indeed, the Europeans need Russian energy even more than the Russians need to sell it to them. Politically, as we shall see, the Americans needed the Russians more than the Russians needed the Americans. Moscow’s calculus was that this was the moment to strike. The Russians had been building up to it for months, as we have discussed, and they struck.

* * *

By invading Georgia as Russia did (competently if not brilliantly), Putin re-established the credibility of the Russian army. But far more importantly, by doing this Putin revealed an open secret: While the United States is tied down in the Middle East, American guarantees have no value. This lesson is not for American consumption. It is something that, from the Russian point of view, the Ukrainians, the Balts and the Central Asians need to digest. Indeed, it is a lesson Putin wants to transmit to Poland and the Czech Republic as well. The United States wants to place ballistic missile defense installations in those countries, and the Russians want them to understand that allowing this to happen increases their risk, not their security.

The Russians knew the United States would denounce their attack. This actually plays into Russian hands. The more vocal senior leaders are, the greater the contrast with their inaction, and the Russians wanted to drive home the idea that American guarantees are empty talk.
The article elaborates that Russia has the U.S. over a barrel, as the U.S. needs their cooperation in its conflicts in the Middle East, particulary in relation to Iran.

Meanwhile, McCain is talking loudly and waggling a tiny stick. He's prepared to move forward with NATO membership for Georgia... "at the right time", whenever that is. (He's implicitly stating the obvious - It's not right now, or even at any future time we can presently predict.) He wants to boot Russia out of the G-8, as if that's going to happen. He seems to be admitting that the Iraq war has left the U.S. impotent in the Caucasus: "We don't have, I think, right now, the ability to intervene in any way except in a humanitarian, economic way, and do what we can to help the Georgians".

What we do seem to be getting is a lot of really silly analysis. For example, in The Jerusalem Post:
After the war, the status quo ante in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is no longer tenable and the policy choices facing Russia in the region - official annexation or recognition of their independence - would not be accepted internationally. Moreover, Russian troops can no longer be perceived as an evenhanded peacekeeping force, and this may bring pressure for their replacement with either UN or some other more neutral peacekeeping troops.

Internationally, Russia's use of force could in the long run completely undermine Russian credibility when it speaks against the use of force in Iran or condemns potential future confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah (in 2006, Russia condemned in the harshest terms Israel's "excessive use of force").

Finally, as Israelis know well, bombing and invading small countries never looks good on TV in the West, however justified it might be. In the court of public opinion, Russia has already lost, something the independent Russian media was quick to acknowledge. Some in the US are already calling for a American boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and that may perhaps be only the beginning.
In terms of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it seems pretty clear that Russia is mostly interested in excluding Georgian troops from those territories, wants a commitment that Georgia won't again attempt to subdue them by force, and won't be inviting in international peacekeepers. Evenhandedness? Who thought Russia was evenhanded before this flare-up of the long-simmering conflict? And what does it really matter? Few countries view Israel as "evenhanded" in its administration of the West Bank; that doesn't mean international peacekeepers will ever take over that role.

And gee whiz... Russia won't have credibilty when it criticizes other nations for the excessive use of force? As if it did in the first place? And people around the world will think of Russia as being a bully against weak neighboring states? That'll be a first....

This piece seems mostly designed to fill column inches:
In the meantime, could it be that Russia, petro-confident and irredentist, seeking to reverse the record of the past two decades, is careering toward another 1989 or 1991? Will it heed the lessons of the Soviet era? What will happen if it does not? Will the North Caucasus break out of Moscow's grip? Will the Far East turn into a Chinese colony? Will the West once again confront the prospect of Moscow's former satrapies suddenly becoming major nuclear powers? Will the specter of Russian "loose nukes" keep haunting the West?
It's written like the ending of a 1950's serialized cliffhanger. And Russia, we're told, may be in for a "hard landing" if it doesn't learn from the lessons of history:
A decade [after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan], there would be no more Warsaw Pact. Europe would be sending humanitarian aid to Russia. The Soviet military would be defeated in Afghanistan. What caused all that? We are still not quite sure.
I sure hope the Russians are taking notes.... (But if you really want silly analysis, turn to Richard Cohen, who apparently isn't even slightly interested in internal consistency. I'd do a "slash and burn" on it, but the pickin's are just too easy.)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Georgia On My Mind

My initial reactions are pretty much in line with Dan Froomkin:
Back in 2005, speaking before a crowd of more than 150,000 exuberant Georgians cheering "Bushi! Bushi!", President Bush made a promise to the people of that former Soviet republic: "The path of freedom you have chosen is not easy, but you will not travel it alone. Americans respect your courageous choice for liberty. And as you build a free and democratic Georgia, the American people will stand with you."

So where was Bush as Russia launched a major military attack against Georgia? Monkeying around with the U.S. women's volleyball players - and otherwise amusing himself at the Beijing Olympics.

This is not to suggest that Bush should have sent in the Marines. But his impotence in the face of such a gravely destabilizing move highlights not only his personal loss of stature, but how deeply he has diminished American authority on the world stage generally and, particularly, in the eyes of Russia.
and Josh Marshall, including the thought that those who essentially want us to go to war with Russia are insane. I am still wondering, did Saakashvili truly believe that the U.S. would back him up militarily? Because if he didn't, it's hard to make any sense of his decisions and tactics.

For more detailed perspectives on this conflict, check in with Eunomia or LGM. (Even if you don't agree with all the conclusions, you'll learn something.) Via, there's also this excited analysis of the conflict in the voice of a fictional "war-nerd". And there's this news roundup from more traditional sources.

Is Campaign Finance Reform Possible?

You can't have an election without a campaign finance outrage, can you? Last election cycle, the outrage was 527's. This time, it's bundlers.

Ah, the good old days, when bundlers supported G.W. and were given cute names like "rangers" or "pioneers". Then some people bundled for Edwards and were called... criminal suspects. (Oh, I know... I'm assuming that some straw donations collected by Bush's bundlers were conveniently overlooked, and I should instead assume the purest of motives and methods....) Now McCain has a bundling scandal, and the New York Times is calling for reform.
Last week, The Washington Post disclosed that Harry Sargeant III, a prominent McCain booster in Florida and part owner of an oil-trading company with business in Iraq, had rounded up thousands of dollars in small donations from Americans of Middle Eastern origin. Many had not made political contributions before, and were of relatively modest means. The Times followed with a report that at least $50,000 of this had been solicited from a single extended family in California, the Abdullahs, by one of Mr. Sargeant’s business partners, a Jordanian named Mustafa Abu Naba’a.

Though it is unclear whether any of this is illegal — including whether the law forbids foreigners from soliciting contributions — the McCain campaign hurriedly announced that it was returning the money raised by Mr. Abu Naba’a. It also promised to review the money raised so far - about $500,000 - by Mr. Sargeant.
What can we assume about bundlers? If they were solely interested in raising money for a candidate, they wouldn't have to stick themselves in the middle - between the donor and the candidate. It's reasonable to assume that they expect something, whether it's a starry-eyed wish for a photo op with a newly elected President, some form of quid pro quo somewhere down the line, or something in between.

The Times looks at the situation and notes that neither candidate wants to come clean about their bundlers. Obama apparently comes closer, and "is sponsoring legislation that would require disclosure of all bundlers who raise more than $50,000." The fact that McCain isn't all over that reform suggests how important bundlers are to his fund-raising, and how important it is to some of his bundlers that their names not be made public.

The Times continues, "That could be a useful addition to the law, but it is not enough." Right. Why not have complete transparency, and require full disclosure about all bundlers? No, that's too logical a direction to take.
What is really needed is an overhaul of the public financing system for presidential campaigns, which has not kept pace with the actual costs of running for office.
Here's a sad truth: the public financing system can't keep pace with the "actual costs" of running for office. No matter how much money you toss into the system, it's just a matter of time before one candidate or the other, perhaps both, find it inadequate.

You want to complain about increasing college tuition costs? Colleges have nothing on political campaigns. Or even gas prices. I have the following (unverified) figures for the cost of the winner's campaign in the last few Presidential races:
  • 1996 - $141.3 million (Clinton) out of $449 million total.

  • 2000 - $256.4 million (Bush) out of $649.5 million total.

  • 2004 - $457 million (Bush) out of $1,016.5 million total.
This election cycle looks like another bank breaker. Can you really expect public financing to keep up with that?

At this point, I think we need to be pushing for maximum transparency. It won't fix the system, but at least we'll get a sense of who's trying to buy the candidates favor.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

It's Like A Black Fly in Broder's Chardonnay

David Broder tells us how the candidates feel about the negative tone of the campaign:
"I'm very sorry about it," McCain said in a Saturday interview at his Arlington headquarters. "I think we could have avoided at least some of this if we had agreed to do the town hall meetings" together, as he had suggested, during the summer months.

Obama, in a phone interview yesterday from Elkhart, Ind., argued that "the classic tit-for-tat campaigning" of recent weeks "is part of the politics of the past that we have to move beyond." Ironically, having turned down McCain's proposal for weekly joint town halls, Obama argued that the formal debates, starting in late September, may refocus the campaign on real issues.
How is that ironic?

In any event, I think it's simplistic to suggest that if there were an exhausting series of "town hall meetings", the discourse would suddenly become elevated. I don't recall that, during their respective, seemingly never-ending series of debates, either the Republican or Democratic primaries were sunny and positive. Broder quotes McCain,
"When you have to stand on a stage with your opponent, as I've done in other campaigns, you obviously have a tendency to improve the relationship. . . . When you have to spend time with somebody, I think it changes the equation."
Why let facts get in the way of that?

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Campaign Ad Humor

I know that it's dangerous to run ads like these, because you're going to get an indignant response, "Can you believe he just compared himself to one of our great Presidents," as if that's the point. But you could still have some fun with the idea:
You know I respect you, but you're a newcomer to the Capitol. You've only been here a couple of years. I've been here working hard for decades. Sure, you're a celebrity. Everybody knows your name. They love you in France. Heck, they love you so much, they're probably going to put up a statue in your honor. [Chuckle] But does your standing up to George - opposing his war - really qualify you to be President?

No, Mr. Washington, it doesn't.
I appreciate your work for civil rights. Me, I've fought my entire life for equal rights for everyone. But aren't you being presumptuous? You did some good things as a lawyer back in Illinois, but you're trying to become commander in chief. These are troubled times, my friend, times of war. You've never been on a battlefield. You've never commanded soldiers. What makes you think that you can govern a divided nation and defend our way of life?

Sorry, Mr. Lincoln, I just don't think you're qualified.
You? President? You're kidding me, right? You write beautifully, I have to admit that. But you're inconsistent in your support for our nation's military forces. And you're always talking about civil rights and freedoms, but your policies make it hard for us to fight terror. You talk about "due process," "excessive bail," "probable cause" - admit it, you're soft on crime. If we do things your way how do we keep terrorist off our streets?

Sorry, Mr. Madison, your ideas are way too liberal.