Sunday, March 7, 2010

An American Aristocracy

Decades ago, Louis Hartz wrote an opus on American exceptionalism - the idea that America is special because we were never marred by the disease of federalism that had plagued Europe - and without a confining social order, individualism and the American dream was born.

Watching the Oscars tonight, I wonder if we have an aristocracy that is even more powerful than all the peers of the realms that Europe ever had. Our aristocracy is not only insanely wealthy unlike the declining nobility in Europe (or the old money in our east coast), they also set the standards of beauty, morality, and even politics. When I watched the movie industry celebrate its own achievements, I was reminded that for all the human warmth and joviality of the event, the glitz and the glamour are the same escape we seek in our modern aristocracy as we found in the old.

Celebrities are not normal human beings. They are stars. Bright, shining gems far far away even though each perfomance they make seem to bring them closer and deeper into our own hearts. There were a lot of emotions shared last night, but I'm not sure that universal tears aside, an average American understands what it is like to receive or not receive an accolade to which they are not even remotely eligible and probably will never be.

They say a civilization can be judged by how it treats its dispossessed. But in a country such as ours where everyone is apparently middle-class, we are better judged by the cultural elite we have created. Our aristocracy serve the people like those in the Old World. Like the old aristocracy, they have taken upon themselves the noblesse oblige to dedicate themselves to the people. They have a duty to entertain, and it is their privilege to be loved in return. So our stars burn bright for as long as they are beloved by the people. Our aristocracy is not hereditary but quite temporary.

This is why is unclear whether Sarah Palin bestowed on Barack Obama an accolade when she called him a "celebrity" in 2008. Perhaps when now his star is no longer burning so bright, he will stop being an entertainer and become a President. Or perhaps, as the new electoral college, the media establishment will today insist, he must embrace his cultural milieu like the Gipper and Slick Willy, and give us a show.

Hartz was wrong. We did not inherit a European feudalism, but made an American one.

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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Ronald Reagan v. the Tea Party Movement

In 1966, Ronald Reagan won his first political campaign in a landslide victory against the two-term Democratic Governor of California, Edmund Brown. What is sometimes forgotten is that the preceding Republican primary had been a highly contested one. According to Reagan, it was "very bitter at times, largely because of the lingering split between conservatives and moderates in the state party." The intra-party attacks became so heated that state Republican chairman, Gaylord Parkinson, proposed the Eleventh Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican," a rule that Ronald Reagan obeyed ever since because the intra-party strife he experienced in his first political contest left him with a bitter taste in his mouth. Henceforth, his political career was dedicated to building coalitions and fitting as many people as he could squeeze under the Republican tent.

Forty years later, on the day on which Reagan would have celebrated his 99th birthday, Sarah Palin called on his memory when she delivered the keynote address at the first National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, TN, rehearsing a litany of bumper sticker lines that the Old Gipper would have approved. But Sarah Palin is no Ronald Reagan.

While like Palin, Reagan exuded charm and a common touch; unlike Sarah Palin and the general tenor of the Tea Party movement, he was not categorically, viscerally, or paradoxically anti-estabishment. While Sarah Palin has admitted to being a pittbull with lipstick, Ronald Reagan was no pittbull. He was as mellow and as measured as politicians came. He didn't feel dispossessed or victimized. And if he felt it, he never showed the one sentiment - even if it had been legitimate - that permeates the Tea Party Movement: anger. Red, hot, seething, Glenn Beck Fury.

Most illustratively, Sarah Palin and the Tea Partiers do not believe in the 11th Commandment. Next week, Palin is off to campaign for Texas Governor Rick Perry against his primary challenger, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson. Palin has already campaigned against Dede Scoozzafava running for election in NY 23, where she had supported Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman because he had "not been anointed by any political machine." At Nashville, she reiterated her support for intra-party competition: "Despite what the pundits want you to think, contested primaries aren't civil war. They're democracy at work, and that's beautiful."

Democracy at work - grassroots movements without the backbone of a machine - has too often, in a dominant two-party system such as the US is, meant politicians out of a job. To survive after the surge of populist disaffection at a recession has subsided and to be more than a spoiler in elections, the Tea Party Movement must, paradoxically, go mainstream. And it should take it from a icon they have wrongly called their own. Ronald Reagan pulled the various factions of the Right together under a large, fusionist electoral tent that delivered him to victory. Sarah Palin and the Tea Partiers are trying to do the reverse and (perhaps inadvertently) break this tent up in a battle for ideological purity. If Reagan helped to turn a movement into a winning electoral coalition for three decades, the Tea Partiers are exerting a centrifugal force on the Right that may well counter-balance the considerable anti-Democratic bias going into the 2010 elections.

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sarah Palin Goes Rogue in New York

Last Thursday, former Governor of Alaska endorsed Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman, over Republican Party candidate, Dede Scozzafava, in New York's 23rd Congressional District's special election.

This is a pre-book launching publicity stunt, leaving no doubt that Sarah Palin is Going Rogue. She has now erased all remaining speculation that she retains personal political ambitions, at least within the Republican Party.

Ironically, it is not Barack Obama who has become a self-centered celebrity, but Sarah Palin, who is wowing the conservative crowd with her personal, anti-party appeal. Celebrities are most popular when they stand beyond and outside party - consider the sharp dip in Oprah Winfrey's popularity when she campaigned for Obama - and this is exactly what Palin has done. On Facebook, she explained her endorsement of Hoffman:

"Political parties must stand for something. When Republicans were in the wilderness in the late 1970s, Ronald Reagan knew that the doctrine of "blurring the lines" between parties was not an appropriate way to win elections. Unfortunately, the Republican Party today has decided to choose a candidate who more than blurs the lines, and there is no real difference between the Democrat and the Republican in this race. This is why Doug Hoffman is running on the Conservative Party's ticket."

Palin must know that her support of the Conservative candidate will split the Republican vote, and could end up giving the election to Democrat Bill Owens. If she had wanted to play the endorsement game without stepping on anyone's shoes, she could have thrown in her support for the Republican candidates in the NJ and VA gubernatorial races, but she hasn't. Instead, she has become the Frankenstein maverick the McCain campaign created, biting the very hand that fed her. Here is how she concluded her Facebook note: "Republicans and conservatives around the country are sending an important message to the Republican establishment in their outstanding grassroots support for Doug Hoffman: no more politics as usual." Palin doesn't so much stand for Doug Hoffman as she stands against "the Republican esablishment," fanning the conservative sentiment that the Republican Party performed poorly in 2008 not because it had become too conservative but because it wasn't conservative enough. She left out, in her account of Reagan, that his 11th commandment was thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican. Hers is the anti-median-voter theory of elections, better read as the ideological theory of losing elections.

Palin is going to drive the legitimacy crisis of conservatism if she continues on this road. Harold Hotelling and Anthony Downs have showed us that in single-member districts moderate parties targeting median voters win elections. This is a mathematically provable proposition. That is why Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty are not yet weighing in on the New York race, because they are trying to do exactly what Sarah Palin is accusing the Republican Party of doing - blur the line between conservatism and Republicanism so that they can appeal to as many potential primary voters as possible should they choose to run in 2012. Ideologues (and celebrities) are too intoxicated by their ideas (or themselves) to care about winning elections, and Huckabee and Pawlenty want to keep that option open.

There was a time when liberals were proud to be liberals, and that spelt the beginning of liberalism's end. Pride and ideological purity drove liberalism's legitimacy crisis, as will be the case for modern conservatism's demise. Democrats, folllowing the lead of the "third-way" Bill Clinton, learned after the excesses of the War on Poverty not to stand on ideology alone - which is always extreme and uncompromising - but also on programmatic commitments that could appeal to the median voter.

Sarah Palin would not remember it, but there was a time, at the turn of the 20th century, when "conservatism" was a bad word coterminous with "stand-patting." She is in danger of recycling history, not that she cares, because she has a personal agenda, not an institutional one. She said it best herself - she is self-consciously Going Rogue. When a party allows those who do not care about winning elections to speak for its base, it courts trouble. Behind every anti-Republican establishment hurrah Palin provokes is a voter ready to Go Rogue on election day. Republicans, beware.

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Monday, July 6, 2009

In Defense of Sarah Palin

People love to hate Sarah Palin. I thought she was trouble on the McCain ticket, trouble for feminism, and trouble for the future of the Republican party, but I am troubled at the feeding frenzy that has continued despite Palin's express desire and efforts to bow out of the negative politics that has consumed her governorship.

The speculation about what exactly Palin is up to is itself revealing - for it comes attached to one of two possible postulations - neither of which are charitable. Either Palin is up to no good, or she is completely out of her mind. Even in surrender Palin is hounded. Either she is so despicable that post-political-humous hate is both valid and necessary or she is so dangerous that she must be defeated beyond defeat.

Even Governor Mark Sanford got a day or two of sympathy from his political opponents before he admitted to other extra-marital dalliances and referred to his Argentinian belle as his "soul-mate." Sarah Palin was accorded no such reprieve. Yes, I think gender is entirely relevant here.

Feminist scholars have studied the double-bind of woman political leaders for a while now. Women leaders are faced with a dilemma a still-patriachical political world imposes on them: women must either trade their likeability in return for male respect; or they preserve their likeability but lose men's respect for them in exchange. When it comes to women in positions of political power in the world that we know, they cannot be both likeable and respected. Unlike men, they cannot have their cake and eat it as well. This is not the world I like, but it is the world I see.

Let me draw an unlikely parallel to make the point. People love to hate another woman that we saw a lot of in 2008 - Hillary Clinton. Like Palin, she was to her detractors the she-devil to whom evil intentions were automatically assigned for every action. But unlike Palin, she was respected and feared - she was everything Sarah Palin was not. What Clinton lacked in terms of likeability she possessed in terms of respect (or at least reverent fear). No one underestimated Hillary Clinton, no one doubted her ambition. And of course, as Barack Obama put it in one of their debates, she was only "likeable enough." Clinton was respected as a force to be reckoned with, but she paid her dues in terms of likeability. Just like the Virgin Queen and the Iron Lady, she could only be respected if she surrendered her congeniality.

Palin stands at the other end of the double-bind. Where Palin was in need of respect she gained in terms of likeability. She was the pretty beauty queen loved and beloved by her base, unapologetically espousing a "lip-stick" feminism (in contrast to a grouchy liberal feminism). But what she enjoyed in terms of likeability she lost in terms of respect. If there was one thing her detractors have done consistently, it has been to mock her. She was the running joke on Saturday Night Life, and now, a laughing stock even amongst some Republicans who see her as a quitter and a thin-skinned political lightweight. Strangely enough, Sarah Palin is Hillary Clinton's alter-ego. Where Clinton is perceived as strong, Palin is seen as weak; whereas Clinton turns off (a certain sort of) men, Palin titillates them.

If we lived in a post-feminist, gender-neutral world, the two most prominent women in American politics, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, would not so perfectly occupy the antipodal caricatures of women trapped in the double-bind of our patriachical politics. That they each face one cruel end of the double binds tells us that the two women on opposite ends of the political spectrum sit in the same patriachical boat. So the next time liberals mock Sarah Palin, they should remember that they are doing no more service to feminism than when some conservatives made fun of Hillary Clinton's femininity allegedly subverted by her pant-suits.

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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, October 21, 2008

The State of the Presidential Race

1. A new WSJ poll shows Obama up by 10 points. Tucked away on p. 26 (Question 28a) of this report is a significant finding: when asked which two factors most bothered poll respondents about John McCain's candidacy, 34% thought that "his vice presidential running mate is not qualified to be president" and 23% thought that "he would continue George W. Bush's policies." Unbelievably, Palin has turned out to be a heavier mill stone on McCain's neck than George Bush. If Palin Effect > Bradley Effect, McCain shall be hoisted by his own petard.

(Palin is also a comedian's Nirvana. When asked by a third-grader today what the role of the VP was, she said: "They're in charge of the United States Senate." Priceless.)

2. CO + VA = FL or OH

It has come to that. A luxurious electoral map with many avenues to 270 for Obama, and a shrinking map for McCain. It has been a long time that a Democrat candidate has dared comtemplate electoral victory without FL or OH. Even as Obama is slightly ahead in both states, it now appears that he does not need them.

McCain on the other hand is trying to persuade Plumber Joes in PA to stick with him. Things are so dire that McCain is fighting for his political life in a must-win "battleground" state that has Obama up 11 points.

McCain is too focussed on a Karl Rovian state-by-state strategy. Granted the way to the White House is through the electoral college, but this conventional wisdom is really only relevant in close races such as in 2000 and 2004. McCain needs to narrow the national poll numbers so that he can regain competitive status in a a number of states (WV, MN, MT and ND - all of which have Obama up by at least 5 points now). That means move away from the pander-to-Plumber-Joe strategy. McCain is being blind-sighted by a piecemeal state-by-state strategy when Obama has wisely played (and been fortunate enough to be able to play) a 50 state strategy and a national message. Focused on the tree, McCain has lost sight of the forest.

3. If this will turn out to be a landslide electon (at least in terms of the electoral college), it will emerge because of the incredible voter registration effort and the ground turn-out operation of the Obama campaign. In the caucus states, in the West, and in the South, Team Obama is welcoming millions of people into political action. This is how he has established leads in places like NM, CO, and VA - not merely by changing the minds of existing voters, but the big gains are really coming from drawing unregistered or disaffected voters back into the public sphere.

For years scholars have debated the relative importance of high turnout and a maximally participatory democracy, with Bruce Ackerman at Yale arguing that low turnout during routine years are OK, as long as "We the People" turn out in huge numbers in critical moments in American history to fulfill their civic duty and to redefine the direction of national politics. 2008 may be one such year.

(Obama's lead is in the 18-34 age group, where he is outpolling McCain by over 30 points. None of these people were alive during the Vietnam war, when McCain earned his credentials as a patriotic war veteran. The Democratic party, in picking Obama over Clinton, representing the old Democratic parry, has registered its desire to move on from the debilitating debates over Vietnam, race, and labor relations. That is why McCain's war record isn't affecting Obama's lead, it is why the Ayers connection as well as the socialism charge have remained politically stillborn. These are old attacks tangential to the new direction of liberalism in our time.)

Tragically, McCain's best chance of turning all this around is to focus on voter supression.

4. There is also a darker tale to be told if Obama wins. The truth is much that is going on now would not have been possible without the formidable coffers of the Obama campaign and the emerging techniques of fundraising via the internet. If picking Palin was McCain's biggest mis-step this campaign season, watch out for an emerging conventional wisdom in a few weeks that a future presidential candidate who does not opt out of public financing will do so at his/her own peril.

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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Sarah Palin Will Not Debate

Obama supporters were surprised that Sarah Palin didn't trip up in her debate with Joe Biden; but they nevertheless thought that she was incoherent through most of it. Palin's supporters were thrilled that she came back after multiple setbacks with her interviews with Katie Couric with a slamdunk. We have become so divided as a nation that we can't even agree on which is night and which is day.

The reason, I think, is because Sarah Palin did not answer Gwen Ifill's questions. When a student refuses to take a test, we cannot meaningfully compare her performance with another.

Right at the outset of the debate, Palin announced her contempt for the debate format: "I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also." Palin's opponents cried foul, but her suppporters applauded her contempt of the media and Washington's rules.

Here was Gwen Ifill's first question: "The House of Representatives this week passed a bill, a big bailout bill ... was this the worst of Washington or the best of Washington that we saw play out?"

This was Palin's first non-answer: "You know, I think a good barometer here, as we try to figure out has this been a good time or a bad time in America's economy, is go to a kid's soccer game on Saturday, and turn to any parent there on the sideline and ask them, "How are you feeling about the economy?"

Biden did a classic debate pivot, but he did try to answer the question, saying "I think it's neither the best or worst of Washington, but it's evidence of the fact that the economic policies of the last eight years have been the worst economic policies we've ever had."

Consider Ifil's third question: "Governor, please if you want to respond to what he (Biden) said about Sen. McCain's comments about health care?" and Palin's putulant non-reply "I would like to respond about the tax increases."

Or Ifill's seventh question: "What promises have you and your campaigns made to the American people that you're not going to be able to keep?" Sarah Palin tried her hand at the pivot trick too: "I want to go back to the energy plan, though, because this is -- this is an important one that Barack Obama, he voted for in '05." By pivot I mean, tangent.

In her closing statement, Palin again made clear where her priorities were. "I like being able to answer these tough questions without the filter, even, of the mainstream media kind of telling viewers what they've just heard. I'd rather be able to just speak to the American people like we just did." Speak to the American people she did, but answer these tough questions she did not.

We should stop pretending that debates really happen in American politics; even the four organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates no longer qualify. Masquerading for debate, all we get are solipsistic televised addresses delivered to us in alternating segments. Last Thursday, Gwen Ifill was little more than a two-minute time keeper with no control of how Biden and especially Palin used their time.

Let us remember why we care for debates. Because meaningful exchanges between alternative voices stand at the heart of democracy. By controlling for question, we can see how candidates measure up to each other substantively. Instead, American politics today is deluged by speeches and not debates, assymetric communications in which politicians talk past each other rather than to each other.

Avoiding the questions and eschewing a debate may be good for a candidate but it is bad for democracy. And we should not allow Sarah Palin or any other candidate to tell us that democracy is only about connecting with people and not also debating the issues. Only demagogues insist on trading directly with the people without the watchful eye - Palin calls it the "filter" - of the media or a dissenting interlocutor. Democracy is best served by reciprocity and deliberation, not one-sided assertions to one's base with no follow-up questions.

While Palin connected last Thursday, she hardly debated. As supporter Michelle Malkin revealingly put it: "She was warm, fresh, funny, confident, energetic, personable, relentless, and on message." Seven ayes for style, an aye for substance, and nay to debate. The nays have it.

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Palin Stops the Haemorrhage with her Winks

Sarah Palin succeeded tonight in stemming the haemorrhage she's caused her ticket. She was likeable. Very likeable, according to most conservatives who are heaving a collective sigh of relief. Tentative at first, one could almost hear her thoughts cranking up in each answering sequence when the prepared lines came back to her. At the crest of her thoughts, she was on message. (Though her debate coach apparently didn't care to correct her pronunciation of nu-cu-ler - but then neither did Bush's.) Dick Morris, Karl Rove, and Sean Hannity think Palin delivered a "shock and awe." Liberals will disagree, but they should remember that the meaning of eloquence is defined in partisan terms. (Explain the difference and you should win the nobel prize in American politics.)

Palin's relative success was to be expected to the extent that she didn't have to deal with follow up questions that would force her to deal with specifics, and she was free not to answer the questions Gwen Ifill posed; indeed she was free to stray. It is enough these days to deliver the punchlines, nevermind how you argued yourself there. That said, while Sarah Palin's winks may have trumped Biden's words for her supporters, there are significantly more Americans today who are looking for executive competence than (as was the case in 2000 and 2004) executive congeniality.

Biden was in attack mode tonight. He was probably told that he best direct his fire to McCain, not to the lady standing beside him. So in his restraint, Palin was afforded the space to deliver her homey punchlines. She tried the "there you go ahead line" (dwelling on the past) when Biden attacked Bush, but that didn't go very far because as Biden cleverly put it in reply, the past eight years is prologue.

Was this a game changer? Depends on who you ask, and where they set the goalposts. About 85 % of FOX viewers thought Palin won and about 65% of CNN viewers thought Biden won - surprise, surprise. Republicans sincerely believe it was a game changer, because the bleeding has stopped. Democrats don't think that Palin did anything to hurt Obama, so this debate won't bring a point of inflection. Both sides are right. (But I'll look at whether the now Obama-leaning states that Palin had once yanked away from the Democrats such as MI return to toss-up status in the next few days to see who was more right.) What we can safely say is that with the potential toxin on the McCain ticket now neutralized - because the calls for Palin to bow out from Republican ranks will now cease - the VPs will now recede to the background as they have for almost every other election cycle, as Obama and McCain will return to the foreground. Next stop, Nashville, TN. But let it be said that the concrete is quickly setting on the extant poll numbers.

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

VP Debate Stakes

Sarah Palin is in serious danger of Dan Qualying herself. She doesn't know what the Bush doctrine is, she can't explain why her experience as Governor gives her foreign policy credentials other than Alaska's proximity to Russia, and now, we find out that she cannot name another Supreme Court decision other than Roe v. Wade that she disagrees with. Let's stretch ourselves well past the boundary of the benefit of the doubt and assume that Sarah Palin knows the answers, she's just not quick enough to deliver them on a moment's notice - yet I'm not sure whether it is an exoneration or an indictment of her that the only excuse for Palin's ignorance is her dullness.

Whichever it is, even conservatives have publicly questioned the wisdom of the Palin pick. As Charles Krauthammer wrote, "The vice president's only constitutional duty of any significance is to become president at a moment's notice. Palin is not ready. Nor is Obama. But with Palin, the case against Obama evaporates." McCain's repeated attack that Obama "just doesn't understand" in their first debate did not and could not work because it was an argument standing on stilts compared to his vice-presidential nominee.

If there is anything more dangerous in American politics than an intelligent anti-intellectual who insidiously stokes public opinion with the dark arts of demagoguery, it is an ignorant anti-intellectual who inadvertently energizes her base because of her seemingly unreflected positions on core conservative positions. If Palin doesn't resurrect her reputation in tomorrow's debate, McCain will pay dearly for what is increasingly being perceived to be his spectacular lack of judgement in picking her. For as things stand, Palin appears to be little more than a demographic place-mat for potential women and conservative voters, and a shrinking one at that. Hillary Clinton supporters are in asking in agony - THIS is the woman representing us as one of the four candidates fighting for occupancy in the White House? If Hillary Clinton put 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, Sarah Palin seems intent on welding it back to its originally pristine condition.

If Palin is not to remain the butt of every late night comedian's joke, then she must establish herself as a legitimate national political figure tomorrow night. She's surely going to be likeable, but will she be respected and can she resuscitate her professional reputation? Liberal women should take heed when they mock Palin - justified as they may be - for it says something about our society that it is enough for men like George Bush to be likeable and get elected, but congeniality, at this moment, might not be enough for Palin. The anti-intellectual strategy is a gendered strategy with assymetric payoffs to women and to men.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

What Hapened to "Nothing But the Truth?"

"Thanks but no thanks for that bridge to nowhere" is a crowd-pleasing one-liner that Sarah Palin has flaunted verbatim in countless speeches since her nomination accceptance address. But these are indisputable facts. 1. In 2006, she supported the bridge to nowhere. 2. She never said no thanks to the 230 million dollars promised by Congress, to be spent on something else. 3. By the time she said no, Congress had officially killed the ear-mark project. 4. She continues to support the larger of two bridges to nowhere (in Anchorage). So actually, Palin meant, "thanks, but no thanks; sure, why not." But then we have become so accustomed to imprecision and verbal infelicities that we have been quick to miss, and therefore exonerate, what is often deliberate omission and ambiguation calculated to deceive.

This is the same strategy George Bush frequently deploys. Consider these fateful words: “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Like Palin's statement, this line in the 2003 State of the Union address is calculated to deceive in this one sense: both Palin and Bush knew full well that there was another side to the story to be told that would qualify the certainty of their claims. Yet the use of declarative, unqualified, and unequivocal language insinuated such certainty. Because style not substance, omisson and not outright fabrication communicated such deceptions, both these statements are not formally false. But that is not to say that they were strictly dedicated to the truth.

Sarah Palin has told crowd after crowd that she put the Alaska Governor's plane on ebay. Formally true again - she did just that. But she sold the plane via a private broker, and one would not have thought that from the sassy way she performed that punch-line. Falsehoods beget more falsehoods. "You know what I enjoyed the most? She took the luxury jet that was acquired by her predecessor and sold it on eBay -- and made a profit!" John McCain declared in Wisconsin at a campaign stop last Friday. Well, the plane was sold at a loss.

Palin's supporters will want to give Palin the benefit of the doubt; it's routine politics they say. But isn't this exactly what irritated conservatives about Bill Clinton and his elastic relationship with the truth? If Palin's supporters say, lighten up; I say, as George Orwell said, "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." If American democracy was created by the eloquent penmanship of Thomas Jefferson, the careful argumentation of the Federalist Papers and the precise wording of the Constitution, American democracy may well see its end in the crowd-pleasing, hair-raising zingers our contemporary politicians so slickly feed us. Let us get back to basics. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help us God.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Sarah Palin Doesn't Know the Bush Doctrine



In her first interview to the national media on ABC yesterday, Sarah Palin fumbled, regained her footing, and prevailed.

GIBSON: Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?
PALIN: In what respect, Charlie?
GIBSON: The Bush -- well, what do you -- what do you interpret it to be?
PALIN: His world view.
GIBSON: No, the Bush doctrine, enunciated September 2002, before the Iraq war ...
GIBSON: The Bush doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?
PALIN: Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country. In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend.

Palin thought that the Bush Doctrine is the Bush Worldview. Incredible, true, and typical. This is the guttural politics as we have seen in the last eight years. Trust the guy, and you can trust his decisions. Nevermind geopolitics, forget strategy. Forget even "conditions on the round" (better read as "The Real World"). Just know the guy's worldview and you're all set. Yes the complex panopoly of US foreign policy can be understood through a cliff notes biography of the president.

[And by the way, the Bush Doctrine does not require that a threat to the American people be "imminent," only that it is credible in the foreseeable future, where "credible" and "foreseeable" are loosely defined.]

Cognitive heuristics - they are the bane of American politics. A cue here and a clue there is all we need these days to make the most important civic decision as Americans: vote for our president. Nevermind what the candidates' policies are; just know who they are as people. If he's a good guy, that's a good enough cue for us to vote for him. My chum in the White House. He'll take care of me, right?

Personalities, worldviews - these are cues; shortcuts for doing the hard political homework of scrutinizing exactly what McCain and Obama are promising us these days. Palin exemplifies a genuine belief that the responsibilities of citizenship are minimal. Just love your guy ("my guy" as she put it in her nomination acceptance speech), love your country and all will be good. She is the perfect political spouse!

Watch the video and notice her gingerly clenched fists initially, when she was fumbling to even understand Gibson's question. And then notice how tightly they were clenched as she found her footing. It was as if her body language was saying that "I may have slipped a little in the intellectual part of your question (the dreary part that dealt with facts and arguments), but I can more then compensate in kind with heart and conviction."

Why is this bad for democracy? Because good intentions aren't good enough. But then to someone who disagrees with me, there is a sense in which we are beyond reconciliation. For I prefer to speak in the publicly falsifiable language of arguments, while others prefer the inscrutable, but politically potent language of conviction.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lipstick Politics

American politics has degenerated from the gutter to the sty.

As if the Obama campaign hasn't been set back enough in the past week, he had to bring lipstick and pigs into the electoral equation yesterday. Whatever his intentions, he's going to set himself back by a few more days in a calendar that is counting down to November 4, and he has probably lost forever the halo that he does not play politics.

Obama tried to come out swinging this week, as he was urged, but he seemed to have crashed his hockey stick on his own shin. Why are Republicans so much better at attack mode, Democrats are wondering?

It doesn't even matter that McCain once used the same words against Hillary Clinton, because voters make associations with words, and right now, many (enough) potential voters have conjoined "lipstick" and "Sarah Palin" because of her oft repeated line that the difference between a pittbull and a hockey mom is lipstick. In this context, it was simply foolish for Obama to play with fire, or in this case, lipstick. At least in this round, Obama failed to discern the pulse of our politics, and the chain of conceptual and rhetorical associations (logical or implied) that constitute it.

"Lipstick on a pig" is a common colloquailism taken more literally than it should have been, Obama people say. Ah, but if you have to explain something in politics when the other side insists on playing visceral politics, you've already lost. It was too easy for a Republican or Independent voter to assume that Obama was mocking Sarah Palin. How ironic: a professor trying to embrace colloquailism, but succeedingly only in tying himself up in a politically incorrect knot.

The Obama campaign is brushing all this off as "swift boat politics," but the fact is they are struggling to move past the fog of lipstick and smelly fish. Swift boat politics works: but, as Obama is learning (and as the Clintons always knew), there is art even in the task of smear.

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Monday, September 8, 2008

Whoever Said that VP Picks Don't Matter?

John McCain's campaign has turned a 7 point deficit into a 4 point lead according to the new USA Today/Gallup poll. This post-convention bump did not come from McCain's acceptance speech, which only received an "excellent" rating from 15% of those polled, compared to the 35% Obama received. The bump came from Sarah Palin. Here is the poll's most important result: before the convention, Republicans by 47%-39% were less enthusiastic than usual about voting. Now, they are more enthusiastic by 60%-19%.

The new McCain campaign message is that change is about reforming Washington, aided in no small part by a Number 2 that has developed/created quite a reputation for reform. This new configuration appears to be overshadowing Obama's definition that change requires a change in party control of the White House, because it has tapped into the anti-Washington sentiment felt among the Republican base.

Palin is running not as the back-up plan (as most vp candidates have), but as right-hand woman, and this is why Barack Obama took the risk of appearing unpresidential today by attacking Sara Palin directly himself. But Obama's response - "You can't just make stuff up" - sounded like a petulant kid crying foul rather than an effective counter-punch. As the campaign fumbles for a working riposte, it will become clear that the answer was always right before their eyes. By an ironic twist of fate, Hillary Clinton, though unsuccessful in her own presidential bid, has become the queen and kingmaker. Sarah Palin would not have risen from political obscurity into national prominence but for the schism generated by Clinton's candidacy within the Democratic party. Yet Joe Biden cannot perform the role of attack dog as viscerally as he would if Palin were a man, and so ironically, Clinton will have to be dispatched to play this traditionally vice-presidential role. The question is whether the media will give Clinton the time of day now that the primary season is decidedly over. It is becoming clearer that if Biden was a good pick, Clinton would have been a better one.

Safe for the October surprise still to be discovered, the tectonics of the match-up are now mostly settled. With the VPs now selected, two previously toss-up states have moved into the "leaning" category: PA has moved in Obama's direction because of Biden, and MO has moved in McCain's direction because of Palin. The only vice-presidential debate sceduled on Oct 2 will be more critical than the first of three presidential debates on September 26. There's been a lot of talk of Gallup polls conducted immediately after the conventions only getting it right fifty percent of the time, but less acknowledged is the fact that by the first week of October - the week the vp candidates shall debate - these polls have gotten it right almost every time since 1952. On October 2, Biden and Palin will have their one chance to get it right for their respective campaigns.

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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Palin's Night

Today, Mitt Romney delivered a line that always predictably renders applause in a Republican audience - "there is evil in this world." Putin, Ahmadinejad and the Jihadists (as Giuliani likes to call them) are evil, we are not. There is something about liberal vacillation on this point which particularly irks the Republicans, and rouses them to chant "USA" to drown out the equivocating liberal voices. It is why the Republicans took such offense to Michelle Obama's statement that she was only recently proud of her country for the first time in her adult life. It is why the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth could not forgive John Kerry for taking the side of the enemy because of his involvement in the anti-Vietnam-war crusade.

If Republicans love their country, they hate their government. (And they would say that Democrats love their government and hate their country.) Mike Huckabee continued on Romney's leitmotif, chastising Obama for going abroad and bringing home corrupt "European ideas." This was Huckabee's pitch perfect line: "I didn't want to spend the rest of my life poor waiting for government to rescue me."

But the real story tonight was Sarah Palin's rigorous, sometimes cutting attacks at her "opponent" (preferring not to mention Obama by name). Her snide, sarcastic remarks at his self-made presidential seal, his two memoirs, the styrofoam columns at the Democratic convention, and his rousing oratory animated the crowd in a way that no speaker before her did tonight. Democrats are quivering now at the thought of someone who could actually vivify the Republicans when before they were disenchanted and unsure. She would give Biden a run for his money. Recall Palin's line about the difference between a hockey mom and a pittbull - lipstick. This unabashed Republican feminist had no qualms declaring that McCain was her guy. Palin gave a robust defense of all things good in the heart of America tonight, and the Republican base is now on fire.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Obama's Acceptance Speech, McCain's Pick

I didn't see the camera pan to the Clintons last night when Obama gave his speech. The Democratic party must have decided to put Obama centerstage and to move on from the 90s. Not so fast - the Sarah Palin pick means that Hillary Clinton's response (and attacks) will be more critical than ever in shaping what happens this fall.

Barack Obama delivered a preeminently political speech, not an oratorical performance, last night. He may have written most of the speech himself, but it was clear that he had taken the advice from pollsters and consultants to heart. He systematically went down a checklist of what he had to do: specificy what he meant by change, attack the Republicans, address social cultural issues, speak to independents, and most importantly, address the attacks that have come his way. He erred on the side of meat rather than bones in his speech so that the celebrity charge would lose some wind. Some fellow partisans may have wanted more oratory, but Obama did not think he had the luxury of thinking of the history books right now. He has to win first.

There was a new line of attack today that we might hear a little more of - the idea that it's not that John McCain doesn't care, it's that he allegedly doesn't get it.

John McCain came to his decision to pick Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate only recently - this decision will surprise even Republican insiders. This is change not only that we can believe in, but, as was intended, change that confounded everyone (as a Joe Lieberman pick would have been), showing the campaign's willingness and ability to think outside of the box and on their feet. In this sense, the maverick is back. But note that the Palin is a through and through conservative: pro-life, pro-guns, pro-drilling, anti-gay marriage. This pick doesn't look like a concerted bid for the independent voter more than it is a bait for the soccer moms.

This decision will no doubt annoy some female Republican senators who were passed over. The Obama camp should jump on this: picking an inexperienced person purely for her gender is everything Hillary Clinton would have fought against. Is it wise to elect a ticket in which Palin will only be a heartbeat away from the presidency? The McCain campaign saw the immense groundswell of support that still exists among women for Hillary Clinton, and saw an opportunity they could not pass. And so throughout the Democratic Convention, the Republicans overtly and unabashedly tried to court the Clinton supporters. The question remains however, whether or not Hillary Clinton supporters will go for any woman (especially a pro-life one), or if their support is non-transferable. Nevertheless, picking Palin this soon after Obama's acceptance speech also reveals the aggressiveness of Team McCain. They would not allow Obama's momentum to carry into the weekend without some Republican headlines.

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