Sunday, March 29, 2009

To Regulate or Not to Regulate, that is American Exceptionalism

Government regulation of the market in American has always been either too invasive or too superficial, never just right. This tells us more about ourselves than the day-by-day report card of Obama's fledgling administration.

The Obama adminstration's firing of GM CEO Rick Wagoner seem to some to have been a power grab and an overkill; yet others feel that the administration's plan to help to buy up some of the toxic assets owned by banks will be too easy on the banks.

We swing between the extremes of excessive regulation and unfettered laissez faire - indeed we have majority factions within both major parties staunchly defending both extremes - because our country has never properly worked out the tension between the two.

Consider the last time an economic crisis of even greater proportions rocked the country. The New Deal and in particular the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA) represented an even greater power grab by the Roosevelt administration than the one Obama is being accused of today, including the right by the president to approve of a set of "codes of fair competition" for every industry regulating minimum wages and maximum weekly hours. The Supreme Court unanimously declared the NRA unconstitutional in 1936.

As a country born without the feudal baggage of the old world and one which has constructed the self-fulfilling myth of the American Dream, we have never had to fully confront the crisis of capitalism that industrialization provoked elsewhere. Even having experienced the Great Depression, we still have not found, and no politician has successfully articulated, a sustained national consensus about the relationship between the state and the economy. Our love-hate relationship with the federal government explains American exceptionalism, but it also the source of our current woes.

Because ours is a capitalist economy which concedes the value of government intervention and regulation, we must live with mixed (and hence often botched) solutions to our current economic crisis. We can neither nationalize the banks - and hence control how they are run including how executive compensation is structured, nor can we leave the banks alone - no politician would dare risk a depression on the heels of his/her inaction. In trying to find a compromise between market liberalism and political control of the market, we often end up achieving neither. So the Obama administration will alternately be accused of sleeping with Wall Street or witch-hunting it; decades after we have weathered the current crisis, we will still be debating whether or not what Obama did helped or worsened the problem. This is America, where we have a right, nay, a duty, to earnestly debate - as our Founders did - the necessity even of having a federal government at all.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Needed: Soul-Searching in the GOP

Politics doesn't stop at the end of elections. Even before Senator Obama has been inaugurated, Republican politicians are regrouping on the ashes of the McCain campaign, hoping to rise pheonix-like for 2012. In particular, Governor Sarah Palin is getting more media attention than the president-elect - and that is an achievement. For a vice-presidential candidate carefully kept within closed doors, Sarah Palin sure is making the interview rounds this week. Her ambition is startling to behold; as palpable as her newfound respect for Hillary Clinton is strategic. "I would be happy to get to do whatever is asked of me to help progress this nation," said Palin at the Republican Governors Association conference in Miami on Wednesday. She left little doubt that she would like to be asked to head the GOP ticket in 2012, and if asked she would gladly oblige.

Sarah Palin is here to stay, but Republicans will do well to replace her with a Bobby Jindal or a Tim Pawlenty. Not that she is too - and we have heard this charge used before against Hillary Clinton - polarizing, but that she represents a repudiated ticket. The American people have delivered a stinging rejection of the McCain-Palin ticket, and this post-election Palinmania is nothing more than the last grumblings of a nostalgic conservative base wishfully thinking that an authentic conservative such as Palin could have won this year. This is stubborn and out-dated thinking, an unproductive "what-if" counterfactual that will only hinder the Republican party's ability to move on.

The GOP must do a soul-searching post-mortem of the elections, and then exorcize all that contributed to their losing streak in the last two years. Looking to the past will be no help to the party's future. Instead GOP leaders should look to Obamcans for clues for how to navigate our new political era: moderate Republicans such as Chuck Hagel, Ken Duberstein, Paul O'Neill, William Weld, Susan Eisenhower, and Colin Powell can help massage the Party back to the middle when Sarah Palin will only drag the party back to the deep end. When once liberals had to fight to win back the Reagan Democrats, now conservatives must fight to win back the Obamacans. Over is the Age of Reagan; this is the Age of Obama.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The War on Memory

On the day President Bush announced the initiation of hostilities in Iraq back in 2003, he said:

"The terrorist threat to America and the world will be diminished the moment that Saddam Hussein is disarmed." Spectacularly wrong.

Because the assumption embedded within this statement (that Saddam possesed WMDs) turned out to be false, this statement is doubly inaccurate. Saddam Hussein did not verifiably possess WMDs at the moment at which the Iraq war began in 2003. In any case he is dead, but the terrorist threat to America has only increased, not diminished.

Today, Senator McCain called on Senator Obama to admit that the "surge" has "succeeded": "He (Obama) said he still doesn't agree that the surge has succeeded now that everybody knows that it has succeeded."

But, as Obama knows (and should argue) the success of a remedial action (the "surge") cannot justify a war that began with a flawed premise ("The terrorist threat to America and the world will be diminished the moment that Saddam Hussein is disarmed"). McCain is using orthogonal reasoning on an amnesiac media and public in equating the surge's success with the war's legitimacy.

But I do believe that McCain means what he says when he repeats one of his favorite applause lines: "When we adopted the surge, we were losing the war in Iraq, and I stood up and said I would rather lose a campaign than lose a war." For McCain, this is not about the legtimacy of the war anymore (that is George Bush's cross to bear), it is about leaving Iraq intact, and with dignity.

The Iraq problem is more complex than the antipodal positions of Obama and McCain suggest. Obama supporters want Bush punished, their skepticism about the war back in 2003 vindicated; as they rightly should. McCain supporters realize that for whatever miscalculations ex ante, there is a security situation that persists in Iraq that must be resolved rather than abandoned; as they rightly should. Caught in the middle are the American people and the troops, forced to initially accept the unilateral war-making power of the executive branch; yet cognizant that there are now genuine national and international security concerns should there be a precipitous American pull-out from Iraq. The only thing clear about this dissensus is the premise both sides accept but is now a distant memory in the heat of this year's election. George Bush was wrong, he created the Iraq problem, and now both presidential candidates are fighting about how best to clean up his mess.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

A Battle of Leadership Definitions

The world is watching as Senator Barack Obama tours the Middle East and Europe, but the only audience he cares about right now, are American voters, and in particular those who are still not sure that he will make a better commander-in-chief than Senator John McCain will. Foreign audiences are merely another funnel through which a campaign message can be directed to domestic ears.

That is why Obama is bringing along a star-studded cast from the American media establishment to Europe to help him disseminate his message. Even before he arrived in Afghanistan, Obama's campaign had already received more attention from the media and foreign governments than the sum of attention that Senator McCain received when he visited Europe and the Middle East this Spring. Rightly or not, the media, the world, and liberals are hungry for a message that they have not heard from White House in a while. What remains to be seen is whether independent voters will take to the message.

What precisely is the take-home message the Obama campaign intends to transmit with these visits? Obama knows that he may or may not be perceived to be the the best candidate for dealing with terrorism; but he wants independent voters to know that even as a candidate for the presidency, he is already beginning to restore America's image abroad. That is why Obama had originally planned to speak at the Brandenberg gate in Berlin, to remind his audience of the historic relationship between Europe and America that has been compromised of late. His of course, is the liberal understanding of global leadership that prefers to negotiate from a position of mutual respect than from a position of strength. Obama wants to remind or convince us that the President is more than a Commander-in-chief but also an ambassador to the world; the President is more than the terrorism tsar but also a leader and role model to the free world. He is attempting to reconfigure (or return) an essentially realist, even macho conception of presidential leadership to a more idealist, cosmopolitan one because only on these grounds can he try to erode Senator McCain's perceived advantage on foreign policy among independent voters. If Obama can change the job description of the Oval Office to one that he will snugly fit, he wins.

For his part, Senator McCain will and must continue to resist this redefinition if he wants to keep probably the only trump card he wields in this election. This is why, for all the dangers of being associated with a third Bush term, Senator McCain is rearticulating the Bush understanding of presidential leadership, even to the point of caricature. In refusing to speak of a time table for withdrawal in Iraq when even the administration has ventured to consider a "general time horizon", McCain is proposing a return to ostensibly original commitments pure and unwavering (from which even President Bush appears now to be departing). This is the archetypically conservative perspective that holds that once started, America's missions aboard deserve our full and unmitigated support. Conveniently, this ideology which explains McCain's principled commitment to Iraq also melds with his campaign's claim that he is experienced and trustworthy, a strategy that incidentally was not productive for Hillary Clinton when she tried to play the "experience" card against Obama only because liberals do not assume the wisdom of President Bush's commitment to Iraq, and they certainly do not accept the conservative creed that tried and tested is always noble and worth preserving.

The reason this year's presidential election is historic is because more than any election in recent decades, it is about competing definitions of leadership and whether extant understandings of leadership are relevant or obsolete. The risks for Obama are not that he should appear too presumptiously presidential in these foreign visits, but that he should give Americans a preview of a type of presidential leadership they are not willing or ready to accept in our troubling times. McCain is hoping not so much to escape anti-Bush sentiments but to exploit them to say that while even this President flinched and wavered, he shall persevere. This shall be an election about the very meaning of leadership. Let the voters decide.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Commanders on the Ground

For years, President Bush has told us that troop levels in Iraq "will be decided by our commanders on the ground," and not by political figures in Washington, D.C. Deferring to the commanders on the ground has been a familiar refrain and deflecting strategy from the administration (and in every administration since the Vietnam war).

The two senators aspiring to be Commander-in-chief have already adopted this rhetorical prerogative: command when the decision is unpopular with one's supporters("I am the decider"); but defer to "commanders on the ground" when, as is usually the case, one still has some supporters to take the heat/fall.

Today, Senators McCain and Obama sparred on foreign policy. "Our commanders on the ground in Afghanistan say that they need at least three additional brigades," McCain said today in a town hall meeting in Albuquerque. In the latest phase of his evolving position in Iraq, Senator Obama now feels that his commitment to remove troops from Iraq within 16 months is dependent on "talking to the commanders on the ground."

Defer to the "commanders on the ground" is the new "support the troops." Nevermind exactly what the commanders want - after all, both Obama and McCain, with different (though converging) proposals for where the war in Iraq should go, are pledging to listen to the "commanders on the ground" - just purport to defer to them and it's all good. Nevermind that the "commanders on the ground" owe their jobs to the Commander-in-chief.

Deference to the "commanders on the ground" appears to be power delegated, but in fact it is only reponsibility shirked but power deployed. Such is the paradox of executive prerogative that is recalcitrant to reason and therefore to constraint: an awesome power that hides itself even as it is being exercised.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

The AIP on OUPblog

I've started to blog at OUPblog and will continue to do so once a week through to the Fall elections. My first post is reproduced below:

In recent weeks, some political commentators have observed that Senator Barack Obama is all talk, but no substance. Where his supporters see an orator of the highest order, his detractors see only a smooth talker.

Flash back to the 1980s, and we had the same bifurcated response to Ronald Reagan. Whereas some saw profundity and deep meaning in his speeches, Reagan’s detractors heard only vacuous platitudes. Indeed, Reagan’s supporters even used the same words as some liberals do today to describe Obama’s “soaring oratory.” How did Reagan score with the Reagan Democrats? By being all things to all people. The Obamacans in this year’s elections are being swayed by a parallel strategy. Talk a lot, but mean nothing.

Consider Obama’s response this week in Georgia when he addressed charges that he had been “flip flopping” between his positions : “I’m not just somebody who is talking about government as the solution to everything. I also believe in personal responsibility. I also believe in faith.” the Senator sagely declared.

But who doesn’t believe in faith? Such rhetoric misses the point, ending rather than initiating debate - a strategy consummately deployed by President Bush in selling “Operation Iraqi Freedom” by exploiting our universal and creedal belief in liberty. The question is how we should balance our respect for the identity and autonomy of religious charities with our belief in the separation of church and state. And the question is whether freedom in Iraq can and should be bought with the sacrifice of our freedoms at home and the suspension of some of our constitutional principles. By design, Obama’s and Bush’s words elided these difficult, but pressing questions.

“I also believe in personal responsibility” are also coded words Obama’s speechwriters designed to woo conservative audiences without explicitly repudiating the liberal point of view that governmental programs are the other side of the rhetorical equation that ought to have been addressed. Reverend Jesse Jackson was understandably aggravated. Yet while Jackson has apologized for his crude verbal gaffe, we have yet to take Obama to task for his rhetorical sleight of hand because this is what we have come to expect from political candidates seeking the highest office of the land.

We are not going to face the complex problems of our time if our would-be leaders continue to take the rhetorical path of least resistance, to buy our assent without any content. To say nothing even when one talks a lot is to fulfill the rhetorical formula for, literally, empty promises. There were times in this election season when Obama rose above the anti-intellectual fray, just like there were times when Ronald Reagan and George Bush used the bully pulpit to educate rather than to merely seduce the American people. This year, when conservatives see in a liberal political candidate the same rhetorical flaws as what liberals saw in Reagan and George Bush, perhaps we will come closer to recognizing a systemic flaw in our political system, and it is the Anti-intellectual Presidency.

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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Defining a Flip Flop

Where the political middle is is usually the critical question for any election in a two-party system, but not so this year.

Now that Obama has captured the democratic nomination, he must move rightward to focus on the next fight. But Obama hasn't inched but has lunged rightward in recent days, talking about things that liberals do not usually like to address: faith-based initiatives, patriotism, FISA, etc.

What is unusual is that McCain is not returning the favor with equal fervency. In recent days, he continues to talk about signature Republican issues: tax cuts, free trade and foreign policy. He is scheduled to give a talk about immigration today, but it will not be about amnesty, but about security. Despite the three month lead McCain had on Obama on the general election, McCain is still playing his primary season strategy.

So, in another one of this election's firsts, both candidates are courting the right more intensely than they are wooing the left, revealing an unintuitive and peculiar assymetry of strategies. There is, therefore, something other than the traditional search for the middle that is going on. This year, the different elasticities of demand for each political candidate is powerfully shaping the race.

There are two assumptions that Obama's rightward shift reveals, in lexical order:

1. The Obama campaign has assumed that this rightward shift will not cost them their core supporters. That is to say, liberal demand for Obama is relatively inelastic.
2. The median voter in the general electorate is as far right from the median voter in the democratic nomination electorate as Obama's rightward shift calculates, and no more.
Lemma A: The more inelastic the liberal demand (1), the more it will not matter if 2 does not obtain.

1. appears to be a fair assumption. Whereas Senator John Kerry could not take his base for granted in 2004 - and that was why, incidentally, his flip flop became politically salient - Obama has got a firm grip on the younger, college educated, and black vote this year. Obama's Teflon powers against the media pale in comparison to the powers he wields with his loyal base - this is the critical comparative advantage he has over McCain, who is not lunging leftward because he does not believe that he has locked up his base (and he is probably correct); if anything McCain needs to address concerns that he has historically been a party maverick.

[What determines the elasticity of demand for a candidate? Not Obama's intrinsic pull factors but more systemic ones - the drastic depreciation of the Republican brand name and President Bush's unpopularity (not too dissimilar from what Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter had going against them in 1932 and 1980). Enough is enough, a majority of the electorate determined in the realigning elections of 1932 and 1980.]

And so a flip flop isn't as simple a thing as just an objective change in position; it is subjectively defined and predicated in part by the degree to which candidates' supporters forgive them for straying from their erstwhile positions. This year, it isn't so much where the political middle is but the difference in the degree of loyalty that voters have to McCain and Obama that will determine the results in November.

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Monday, June 30, 2008

Preemptive Rhetoric and Patriotism in Politics

Two things stood out to me about Obama's speech (in Independence, MO no less) about patriotism today, one on strategy, one on patriotism itself.

The strategy is a smart one, and indicative of a candidate in a commanding position. Obama knows full well what awaits him this Fall - attacks (disguised or otherwise) on his race, faith, patriotism. Rather than wait for it, he is attempting now to preempt their potency when they do inevitably come. (He has already done the same as regards race and faith.) Someone in a weaker position would have waited in vain in the hope that the inevitable would not come. Obama dares address patriotism because he believes he can handle the charge that he lacks it.

Let's talk content - of patriotism, specifically. Obama wrapped his speech in Americana - the revolution, the Declaration, Jefferson, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Mark Twain, astronauts, soldiers, the flag - even as he was saying something rather subtle about the relationship between patriotism and dissent. While the metamessage of Americana was necessary to diffuse the potential fallout from his comments about dissent, the perceived necessity for it suggests that perhaps the message was the metamessage. This rhetorical concession reveals something rather profound about patriotic sentiment that Democrats have yet learned to lucidly articulate (the key word being "articulate," as opposed to loosely imply via a list of Americana): that there is an uneasy and complex relationship between love of country and disagreement with government. History tells us, at least as far back as the experience of the anti-Federalists suggest, that victory trends toward those who choose not to wrestle with this complex relationship and to accept the prima facie inconsistency between patriotism and dissent. Obama's inadvertent rhetorical dressing (as is the fact that he has put his flag pin back on) conceded as much.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Yes We WERE Sexist, No We ARE Not

Everyone had only good things to say about Clinton and Obama in their private meeting with Clinton donors on Thursday evening, in preparation for their joint event in Unity, NH on Friday, where I expect things to go equally swell.

It has also become something of an unquestioned narrative that Obama needs to reach out to women, but it has not been said that this narrative is somewhat inconsistent with an earlier narrative, played between February and June this year, that Hillary Clinton was unfairly blaming the media and the Obama campaign for their sexist treatment of her. Now that the primary contest is over, all of a sudden, the cries foul of women between February and June were legitimate and real when before they were politicized and imagined.

Either Obama did something to offend women and therefore needs to make amends now, or he was completely above board and treated Clinton with respect during the campaign. The saccharine coverage of the political love-fest on the democratic side - even when there is acknowledgement that this is merely a marriage of convenience - is sweeping under the carpet the very complex issue of gender that this election has transiently brought into the foreground of our political consciousness. Why is it that pundits disagreed about the Clinton camp's charge of sexism while the race was still going on but everyone seems to implicitly endorse the claim that some of that was going on (in acknowledging that there are bridges to mend) now that the primary contest is over? At what point and under what conditions do subjective feelings of vicitimization become legitimate and honored?

I have little doubt that this curious dynamic will be analogously played out vis-a-vis race in this year's election: race is going to figure very prominently, but we will only admit it after the fact. For whatever reason, we don't seem to like to deal with a problem as it is happening to us; but it sure gives us psychic relief to flagellate ourselves after the fact.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dobson, Evangelicalism, and Political Language

James Dobson took offense at Senator Barack Obama's conception of political debate today: "I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will," said Obama.

Dobson disagrees: "Am I required in a democracy to conform my efforts in the political arena to his bloody notion of what is right with regard to the lives of tiny babies? What he's trying to say here is unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe."

Dobson and his allies should be free to frame their arguments in whatsoever form they want. But if they want to be convincing to those who are not already in their camp and who start off with different religious premises, surely it would be helpful to adduce arguments accessible to people of all faiths. This is the tribunal of "public reason" that is at the heart of democracy, and this is Obama's point.

That Dobson is taking offense even at the invitation to speak in publicly accessible language reveals that he is quite simply intolerant of the views of people of other or no faiths. Presumably, the non-Christian perspective is so irretrievably misguided that the Christian, by Dobson's view, doesn't even have an obligation to try to persuade her otherwise. It is at peast peculiar that the bible invites us to perform good samaritan acts - that is to act above and beyond what is morally required of us - but Dobson insists that it is too much even to ask of a Christian that she tried to persuade people of other faiths to the Christian point of view. But then evangelicalism probably means something else to Dr Dobson.

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New York Magazine on the AIP

Sam Anderson had a piece in the New York magazine about Obama's rhetoric and The Anti-intellectual Presidency this weekend.

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Trading Flip Flops

So both campaigns traded some flip flops last week: McCain on off-shore oil-drilling, and Obama on campaign finance.

McCain's public explanation: the price of oil today is far more than it was when he opposed off-shore drilling. Obama's public explanation: (i) his campaign is going to need the money to combat the 527 ads that Republicans will launch and (ii) his donors are grassroots supporters and not lobbyists.

As pots and kettles trade jabs on either side, it is worth noting that both presidential candidates are merely doing whatever they think they need to win. McCain is pandering on an issue that has election-year salience, and Obama is milking his unprecedented fundraising potential. McCain's drilling proposal exploits short-term anxieties only to fail to deliver long-term solutions. Obama will have us believe that he alone must be the exception to the change he is trying to bring.

In terms of the horse race, both flip flops will probably prove to be politically efficacious. Gas prices are a salient issue today, and a flip flop in the direction of majority opinion never hurts. Only because money is such an important resource in American politics - more important, by the way, than the pristine image of the crusader of change, so the Obama campaign has wagered - Obama's opportunistic switch is going to benefit more than it would harm him.
The truth is, we best expect no less from our politicians vying for the highest office of the land. Obama didn't win the nomination because of nobler tactics, but better ones. He had a superior ground operation in the caucus states and a fundraising machine that beat the hitherto finest team on the Democratic side, the Clintons. As we gradually discover that McCain is no more immune to the politics of insinuation and smear than Obama is above the use of political tricks, we should quickly learn the lesson that politicians are never above politics. Only when we become intelligent consumers of political theatrics will we cast our vote correctly - not for the noblest man, but for the one least likely to fail.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

War or Law Enforcement?

Senator Obama has made it clear that he views the threat of terrorism primarily as a matter of war, and not merely a matter of law enforcement. In this he has swerved rightward in anticipation of a general election where the median voter, who by the way is no longer in support of the war in Iraq, is still unable to see that the locution of war is precisely the premise on which guantanamo, wire-tapping, and all other executive excesses since Sep 11 were founded.

If we are at war, then we must do whatever it takes. The president inherits emergency powers, and the country defers to his executive discretion. Port or airport security are matters of relative insignificance. Guns take precedence over butter, heathcare, jobs, even sanity.

Surely it is at least debatable whether terrorism should be characterized and addressed as a matter of war or one of law enforcement, but in affirming or at least prioritizing the former, Barack Obama has capitulated to political tectonics with the same calculations which led his campaign to ban two muslim women in headscarves from a photo-op with their candidate this Monday. When even liberal bloggers evidence Obama's aggressive counter-terrorism approach and blithely distinguish the "good guys" and the "bad guys," no wonder that our national security debate continues to start off with the premise that a "September 10" mentality has been completely discredited, while a "March 17" (2003) mentality has not.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Tabula Rasa

Thus far in this campaign, the only media stories that have appeared to hurt Obama are those in which his character is called into question, especially via his association with people: Jeremiah Wright, Lewis Farrakhan, Tony Rezko or indeed his allegedly angry and anti-American wife. That's a pattern. When someone doesn't have a record, you look to the company he keeps for a heuristical guide to his character (which in turn becomes a crude predictor for presidential performance.)

In a two-man race for the presidency, all comparisons are relative, and the contrast with McCain could not be starker. Remember the alleged affair John McCain was said to have had with a female lobbyist? If not, that's my point exactly. People know John McCain, and he would never.

The McCain campaign knows that their guy is a well-known war hero. No one questions his Christian faith, and no one challenges his (or his wife's) loyalty to America. Many Americans, expecially the ones the campaign is targeting, do not know much more about Barack Obama other than he is young, black, and a good speaker. There is no more fertile ground for political gamesmanship than under conditions of uncertainty or ignorance.

So let it be said that even in this election year of firsts and change, novelty can also be a liability, and it is precisely novelty and more precisely, a novice, who will invite the politics of old. Because Obama's character study has not yet been written, s/he who sets it in ink will establish the historical record for years to come.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

McCain's Town Hall Proposal

Now why would Obama agree to McCain's proposal to hold a series of town hall meetings across the nation? Sounds a little like Hillary Clinton asking Barack Obama for more debates after the 22 they already had - the petitioner is usually the underdog trying to alter the momentum or rules of the game.

Candidates recognize that there are different speech genres, and that they fare better in some more than others. Hillary Clinton is a champion debater, John McCain excels in cosy conversational settings, and Barack Obama's rhetoric soars with the size of the crowd. Our political system selects for and privileges rhetors of the latter breed.

Not surprisingly, the Obama campaign counter-proposed "a format that is less structured and lengthier than the McCain campaign suggests, one that more closely resembles the historic debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas."

McCain knows that Obama draws out the crowds, so joint events will give him lots of free media coverage. Obama would be wise not to offer McCain a free ride right now, especially since he has just wrapped up his nomination contest and will do well to bask alone in the political limelight for a while as McCain has done in the last few months.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Obama's Uncle in Auschwitz

Either Obama is really lucky that Scott McClelland's book is occupying the media, or, as Hillary Clinton has argued, there is an Obama bias within the liberal media.

Obama's comment about his uncle being among the first American soldiers to liberate the prisoners in Auschwitz is no less incredible than Hillary Clinton's tale of being under sniper fire in Boston. (He meant great uncle, and the camp was Buchenwald.) Both tales are yarns that politicians weave in the heat of a story-telling moment, but the media has let Obama's mistake go with as much generosity as it was cynical with Clinton's.

Obama gets a pass because the media has bought his story that he transcends the old ways of Washington. Everything Hillary does, though, is more evidence that she is a dirty politician. Consider a more contemporaneous example, her Robert Kennedy remark. Now she shot herself in the foot with that comment for sure, but she certainly did not get a pass for that one. Here's the latest kitchen sink the lady flung, the media sung.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Obama's Geekish Anti-intellectualism

Obama's soaring rhetoric is a peculiar hybrid, blending the academic flavor of (unsuccessful) Democratic contenders Al Gore, Kerry and nomination competitor Hillary Clinton, and the soaring lyricism of winners Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Bush.

David Brooks at the New York Times recently wrote an interesting piece about the cultural ascendance of "geekdom." Brooks is certainly correct that a counter-culture of ascendant geekdom has been underway in recent decades, but the idea that Bill Gates got rich and thus got back is no new story. That's the geek life cycle.

But I'm more interested in how such socio-cultural phenomenon impacts politics. Brooks suggests that Obama is the "Prince Caspian of the iPhone hordes." He also paints President Bush as the anti-geek: "With his (Bush's) professed disdain for intellectual things, he’s energized and alienated the entire geek cohort, and with it most college-educated Americans under 30." How do we square these observations with the the narrative Hillary Clinton authored a few months ago that while Barack Obama recited fine poetry, she produced good prose? (One thing for sure is that Clinton appears not to have learnt the lessons of 2000 and 2004 when Al Gore and Kerry got lost in policy details in their speeches, whereas George Bush just sounded good keeping things simple.) So here's the puzzle: how is Obama's rhetoric poetic and allegedly substanceless, and yet also intellectual and persuasive to so many college-educated geeks?

It is no surprise that some "Obamacans" remember Ronald Reagan when they hear Obama speak. Reagan, like Obama, sounded like an intellectual lightweight to many democrats, just as he sounded erudite to conservative intellectuals. He did this by reaching for grand themes that would summarize his specific policy positions and this aggregating rhetoric passed for profundity among those that agreed with him ideologically. Obama, like Reagan, argues from first principles. He did this in his debates with Clinton, when he let her delve into policy details as he constantly came back to key principles: judgment, change, and unvarnished liberalism. And so while many in the media determined that he was a poorer debater than Clinton (as many in the media determined that Al Gore won most of his debates against Bush), the court of public opinion decided in favor of Obama (and Bush).

So is Obama intellectual or anti-intellectual? For better or worse, he seems to have settled on a median position between the two. After all, some think that he sounded too "professorial" in his speech about race following the Reverend Wright controversy at the same time that many Clinton supporters see him as an intellectual lightweight without the know-how to get things done in Washington.

At the very least, Brooks' claim that Obama is the champion of the geeks must be carefully moderated, because so much is going on inside the geek label. To be sure, Obama's supporters are younger and therefore presumably cooler than Clinton's supporters, but I'm not sure if they are necessarily more intellectual. Technological savvy is a weak proxy for political or intellectual sophistication; and the iPhone hordes are as much a class as they are a generation. As purely a matter of political style, Obama has tapped into the kind of poetic anti-intellectualism that brought Reagan and Bush into office. And at least for now, he continues to enjoy the accolade of a unifier because he has learnt to supply us with lofty, if sometimes vague, promises.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Tit for Tat, All for Nought

Everyday in American politics, politicians from both parties engage in a rhetorical much ado about nothing. In another predictable round of feigned indignation and assigned motives, McCain and Obama have started a new round of grade-school debating.

These days, unendorsements matter more than endorsements. As Obama severed his ties with Jeremiah Wright, McCain in recent days repudiated Pastors John Hagee and Rod Parsley. Both are disingenuous of course: while Obama took his time to denounce his former pastor, McCain, up until he secured the Republican nomination was brazenly mending fences and courting those that he had just a few years ago called "agents of intolerance." All this bickering just to determine who is the pot and who is the kettle.

So why the flurry to reject an endorsement, to unendorse? The logic is analogous to what we know of of political ads. Everyone knows that negative ads work. What do negative endorsements have in common with negative ads? They both, when successful, suppress voter turn-out for the other candidate. They do this by engendering cynicism so that there's just no point to go out to vote.

Politicians do not want to change the system; they work it. And so a senator who once tried to reform campaign finance and another who has wrapped his campaign along the theme of change are now united in their respective efforts (if not personally, then at least via their campaign surrogates) to suppress turnout on behalf of their opponents. That after all, is the well-trodden path to the White House. And so tit for tat, all for nought.

Let it be said that "A pox on both their houses" as a response won't work. An independent candidate will still have to work the system, so it is the system that we must change. So let me propose the impossible, at least as a thought experiment. Imagine if we instituted compulsory voting in this country. All the campaign tricks used to suppress voter turnout for one's opponent immediately become irrelevant and impotent. The battle for the White House may not emerge completely into the light but at least some of the shadier tactics (think literacy tests in the past, think wedge issues for the present) will be snuffed out for good. Would that be such an unbearable incursion into our liberties?

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Friday, May 16, 2008

The Ghosts of Elections Past

After President Bush made his veiled attack on Senator Obama for offering to meet with “terrorists and radicals” yesterday, a firestorm of democratic response has ensued.

Even though Bush’s speech was made in Jerusalem, the Obama campaign decided that a swift and decisive riposte at home was called for. And even Hillary Clinton, who has differentiated herself sharply on this issue from Obama has resisted the opportunity to pile on, perceiving presumably, that Democratic voters will not forgive her for not closing ranks on an issue that could permanently cripple Obama’s fall campaign. This is no mean feat of self-restraint and political temperance. There are some revealed preferences and perceptions going on here.

Even though the Democrats are supposed to be irreconcilably locked in a bitter nomination battle, they all agree that the charge of appeasement and weakness in foreign affairs is their weakest link. It is why the Democrats picked a war veteran in 2004 to head their ticket (and why they are quick to respond today for fear of yet another successful “swiftboating”), why the Democratic congress has been slow to cut off war funding in Iraq, and why Hillary Clinton insisted on running as a war hawk from day one even though she knew that her base strongly desired otherwise. What Bush did in Jerusalem is a big deal to the Democrats, and they have decided that they cannot let it stand lest it becomes the overture and then the leitmotif of the fall campaign.

I wonder if the past is prologue or better left as epilogue. (If experience and history really mattered in politics, we would have seen more veteran politicians enter the White House: Chris Dodd and Joe Biden should have made it longer in the nomination fight; and Hillary shouldn’t be fighting for her political life.) A whopping 62% of Americans now think that going to war in Iraq was a mistake, and this number is only going to rise. At some point, this antsy, tentative, equivocating stance on the part of the Democrats is going to become counter-productive. If they cling on to the lessons of the past, they may never be ready to countenance the challenges of the future. The winds of change are scented with the fear of the ghosts of elections past.

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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

What is Hillary Doing?

I don't want to add to the narrative that the Clintons just won't stop. That's unfair because all politicians campaign to win, and they only stop when they must. But it is nevertheless peculiar that we seem to be operating in two parrallel universes. In the mathematical one, Barack is close to wrapping the nomination up. In what others have termed a "psychological" war on the remaining unpledged superdelegates, Obama's Reverend Wright controversy has made the nomination race too close yet to call.

I think the real world is the mathematical one. Obama only needs about a third to half of all remaining unpledged superdelegates to go his way. So I join Dick Morris in saying that it is over. If so, then we need a reason for why Hillary is waging what others have deemed a psychological war with the remaining unpledged superdelegates. Surely, though she must not show signs of realizing it, she must know that her chances even with the Wright windfall are abysmal.

It is rather too sinister to think that Hillary Clinton is trying to ensure Obama's defeat to McCain in November, so I offer instead a slightly less cynical evaluation. Hillary Clinton simply wants to end on her terms: and that is to force Barack Obama to offer her the VP slot just like everyone knows that if she wins, she would be obliged, on pain of a repeat of 1968, to offer the slot to Obama. Now she'd probably not take it, but to secure her position as heir apparent in 2012/16, Obama must be forced to offer it. The psychological war isn't about winning the present nomination any more; it is to find a way to "concede" the present battle in order to win a future war. It is precisely at the point at which she threatens the dissolution of the Democratic party that she will pull back and stand behind Obama. At this brink, others will say that she has been maximally destructive; she will think she has been optimally positioned. Both sides will be correct.

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Saturday, May 3, 2008

Going New, Going Negative, Going to the White House

It continues to be assumed that Senator Clinton goes negative more often and more intensely than Senator Obama; I beg to differ because Obama has mastered the subtler skill of disguised negativity - and that's what gets a politician into the White House.

The theme of change is nothing but a coded repudiation of things past. We need change only if the status quo is corrupt and beyond repair. Woodrow Wilson declared a New Freedom, Franklin Roosevelt declared a New Deal, JFK inaugurated a New Frontier, and George H. W. Bush declared a New World Order. The message of change taps into and exploits the inherent energy embedded in the executive power; our "greatest" presidents have learnt to exploit the simultaneously destructive and creative impulses of the presidential office.

Obama's theme of change, then, is the age-old politician's attack on the corrupt ways of Washington. It is, among other things, a direct attack on the Clinton machine (and the enduring narrative that the Clintons would do anything to get what they want) and an implied attack on McCain's veteran status in the Senate.

What is new amidst this enduring pattern, however, is that Obama's attack on the old ways of Washington has historically been a message deployed by governors aspiring to the Oval Office: Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush. Obama has successfully appropriated this gubernatorial key to the White House only because of his recent move to Washington.

Because Hillary surrendered her key when she moved into the White House as First Lady, she had no choice but to play the less inspiring "experience" card. But, correspondingly, 2008 is make it or break it for Obama, because he will likely not be able to cry "change" again in 2012. And this is also why he would be ill-advised to pick Hillary Clinton as his running mate. For her part, Hillary could easily take up her "experience" card in 2012 or 2016 again, should she so choose.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Obama's "Bitter" Remark

"So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, and they cling to guns, or religion, or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

And thus Obama made his first major, even fatal campaign flaw of this election cycle. Nothing thus has far has pierced his Teflon hide; except perhaps the gnawing irritation of the Reverend Wright controversy for which he has failed to put away. But this “bitter” gaffe was solely his in the making, and it hit a historical nerve.

It did so because it is beginning to fit a damning narrative that has for too many election cycles consigned the Democrats to electoral defeat: the social crusader ostensibly championing the cause of minorities and labor out of noblesse oblige but exposed as an out-of-touch cultural and intellectual elite. Democratic party leaders and super-delegates remember all too well the noble intentions but foiled ambitions of Dukakis and Gore and the campaign ad featuring John Kerry windsurfing off Nantucket in 2004. Watch for the "bitter" problem, now temporarily drowned out because of the Wright noises, to resurface should Obama win the nomination.

Others may think that Obama will easily weather this storm, but his campaign decided to err on the side of caution. Revealingly, Obama finally relented and interviewed with FoxNews’s Chris Wallace, after 772 days of desisting, two weeks after Obama’s "bitter" comments, and a week after his primary defeat in Pennsylvania to Hillary Clinton. His campaign decided that he had to deal with his white working class problem, and where else to better reach this constituency than on FoxNews. There are resilient patterns in American politics: just about the surest way to lose an election is to allow oneself to be painted as an out-of-touch elite. And so the former law professor dutifully learned to enjoy waffles and to bowl.

Super-delegates thinking about Hillary Clinton’s “eligibility” argument will have to wrestle with the changing profile of the Democratic party’s base and whether they are content with appeasing core supporters among the latte-drinking college-educated liberal crowd. In 1988, 2000, and 2004, these supporters were not sufficient to deliver their champions into the White House. If 2008 is to prove to be a Democratic year, a litmus test I propose is whether Obama succeeds in unapologetically reconfiguring the Democratic party so that in effect, it takes the White House without the white blue-collar vote. Now that would be the audacity of hope.

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