Friday, December 21, 2007

Off The Reservation

In today's Washington Post, Eugene Robinson takes on Hillary's Bill problem: specifically, that Bill doesn't stay "on message" when he's campaigning on Hillary's behalf, and can't stop talking about himself in general. The implication is that Bill is a dubious asset as a campaigner and would be a unique problem if Hillary won the White House.

Personally, I take for granted that First Gentleman Bill would be unlike any presidential spouse we've known, that he would demolish the old-fashioned role that Laura Bush inhabits (I imagine her despising it), and good riddance to it. But I'm sure Bill gives campaign staffers agita at a grocery store in Iowa.

The Matt Bai piece I blogged about yesterday touched on the issue of "message discipline."
Hillary strives for tight discipline, whereas Bill is an improviser. Once I read a quote about George W. Bush, from someone who knew Bush in his Texas days (maybe from Karl Rove), that marveled at his message discipline--Bush was an amazingly talented politician, in this person's view, because whatever the question he was posed, he could drag the discussion back to the day's approved talking point(s). At some point, this virtue becomes a shortcoming: in a White House press conference or other venue where the questions are pointed and the issues are weighty, "message discipline" looks more like clumsily, slavishly, even stupidly parroting the same few stock phrases over and over. But I give Bush a little grudging credit for his parsing skills: in the recent saga of the Iran NIE (Iran is nowhere near being the rogue nuclear state of song and story) it was pointed out that in midstream Dubya began speaking not of the mullahs getting a bomb but of "acquiring the knowledge necessary" to have a bomb. You might not have noticed the shift in wording in real time, but it looms large in retrospect. So the man is capable of subtle shifts in phrasing, when his political carcass (or a felony charge) is on the line.

On the other hand, a Bill Clinton's improvising skill can serve to salvage the day's message, not just fuzz it up. I've forgotten some of the details, but there was a major televised speech during which Bill's teleprompter malfunctioned, and he didn't miss a beat. He understood his topic on the level of themes and ideas, not stock phrases.

Message discipline is what a politician needs if s/he lacks intellectual integrity. So you see why it's so highly sought after.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Media diary, December 19

Because I was running late this morning, I was in the car to hear part of BBC World Service on public radio. The program is celebrating its 75th anniversary and has been rebroadcasting clips from its early days. Today a BBC producer commented on what she learned from combing the audio archives. During the Second World War, BBC broadcasts were important not just to the British people but to the French Resistance movement across the Channel--for instance, BBC carried speeches and announcements by De Gaulle, in French. The letter V was a symbol of anti-Nazi resistance: I knew about Churchill often flashing the V for Victory hand sign, but also, French residents under occupation chalked V's onto sidewalks and buildings. In addition, BBC began tacking on, as an intro or outro, a short musical phrase played on a tympani: bip-bip-bip-bummm, bip-bip-bip-bummm. Dot dot dot dash--the letter V in Morse code.


Reflecting on the developing rivalry between Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, Slate posted a piece today about tensions between the LDS Church and the Southern Baptist Convention since about 1980. I was intrigued to learn that Mormons have converted a lot of Baptists and made serious inroads in heavily Baptists areas like Atlanta and Dallas. Evangelicals respect people who offer a testimony, and those clean-cut young Mormon missionaries certainly qualify.


Matt Bai has written a piece for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, dated December 23 but pre-posted on the Web, about Bill and Hillary Clinton--his past, her present and future, and their relationship to the Democratic Party.

It's worth a read. Bill Clinton is much more present and prominent in the article than Hillary; Bai interviewed Bill a few times for his recent book, and draws on that material. (Bai and Bill scheduled an interview more recently, but Hillary's campaign quashed it, and Hillary would not be interviewed herself.) I would have placed the emphasis in different places, but Bai engages a lot of the relevant issues for a party searching for a new identity.

Certainly, the legacy of Bill's presidency has a complicated relationship to Hillary's presidential prospects. Bai's notion is that among rank and file Democrats, Bill is personally very popular, but "Clintonism" (expressed both in his founding work with the DLC and in his White House tenure) is not universally popular in left circles. There's some truth there, but Bai overlooks the need for Hillary to stand on her own feet, regardless of Bill's continued popularity or lack of it. Bai quotes poll data that Bill's record reflects well on Hillary among voters. I had a "no duh" response to that: Hillary's political existence depends on Bill; it's not that he benefits her, it's that she wouldn't exist without him. The dilemma for Hillary's campaign is not just how to show him to best advantage, it's how heavily to deploy him in public.

Another of Bai's guiding theses is that Hillary's campaign is a referendum on Clintonism. I'm not so sure. I'm overwhelmingly conscious of the 2008 election as being a referendum on Bushism, and so are many rank-and-file Democrats, and we evaluate the contenders for their potential to defeat Bushism at the polls and in Washington over the next quadrennium.

I plead guilty to not appreciating what we had with Clinton-Gore when we had it; I made gruff Naderite noises in '96 after welfare reform, and in 2000 when the legacy of Clintonism seemed merely the effort to be all things to all people. Seven years later, I long for a government that is competent, innovative, fiscally responsible at home, morally responsible abroad--that respects the rule of law and balances ideology with merit and fairness. Clinton-Gore did a solid job of providing that kind of government. Moreover, they deserve a lot of credit for accurately diagnosing the American condition in the 1990s: most notably, the shift to a post-industrial information-based economy.

Yet I have trouble giving all that much credit to Clintonism as a philosophy of governing.
Bai discusses Clintonism as both a philosophy and as an electoral strategy. Both Clintons would attest that the former is irrelevant without the latter. Bai concedes that the Clinton style of campaigning was probably the only way to win in 1992, to exorcise the ghosts of liberals past, but he also seems to agree with Al From: "Just as Franklin Roosevelt saved capitalism by dealing with its excesses, Clinton saved progressive governance, and he saved progressive governance all over the world."

Maybe I came of age too late to understand properly, but I don't see much cause to regret the "overreaches" of liberal policy in the 60s and 70s. Did the Dems go astray in ensuring civil rights? Did they go too far in pressing the interests of women and environmentalists and labor unions? On the whole, I don't believe so. They got caught up in a culture war that was bigger than they were, and they suffered a backlash on civil rights, which perhaps they could have countered better but which in the long run was worth suffering for the sake of racial justice. (Even knowing what we know about the tenures of Nixon and Reagan and the Bushes, which of us would go back in time and BLOCK the Civil Rights Act?)

The Democrats' problem is more one of image and public perception. I'll concede that they may have been too closely identified with the poor rather than the middle class, a hangover from FDR and the New Deal when the country faced starvation and homelessness. Adjusting to postwar economic growth, Clinton helped the party change the frame, away from protection against poverty, toward access to opportunity. But mainly, due to the old internal party machinery (which is a different thing than the policies), the Democratic Party gave us an excess of dry, humorless technocrats as candidates. In an aside, Bai mocks Dennis Kucinich as having been "teleported straight from 1972." My main perception of Kucinich is he's a mousy little guy, reminiscent of Mondale and Dukakis and other also-rans, who lack that ineffable "want to have a beer with him" quality that Bush supposedly has in spades. I don't mock Kucinich for lacking that, I weep for myself and our politics that we place so much weight on that.

Bill Clinton has that charisma, and thank God he's also brilliant and an insanely hard worker. But the hallmark of his governance (Bai reminds me of the term) was triangulation: co-opting an issue near and dear to the Republicans (welfare, for example), acknowledging the problem, then proposing a more moderate and humane fix than the Goopers were offering. That may be a sound strategy much of the time, but not all the time. It strikes me reading this article that triangulation is probably an apt term for what Hillary has tried to do as a Senator regarding Bush's foreign policy: acknowledge his assumptions about Iraq's and Iran's treachery, and HOPE that he would act soundly and proportionately, although she had no leverage. The most charitable read on her votes is that she was suckered. Triangulation isn't appropriate when the other side doesn't play fair. It isn't compatible with being the principled opposition.

I wonder how old Bai is. It's worth being reminded that political renewal comes in constant cyclical waves, always with young people chafing at the assumptions of their elders. Today's insurgents will be tomorrow's establishment: From and his DLC still perceive themselves as the gatecrashers that they were in their heyday.

Friday, December 14, 2007

"A laundry bin full of jock straps at Shea"

I’ve been meaning to finish a couple of posts on politics and media and other serious respectable topics, but here’s an easy post to write: reaction to the George Mitchell report on steroids in baseball.

It bugs me a little bit, the increasingly undeniable evidence that a lot of top-flight players were juicing. Which makes me examine my assumptions: Why at this late date do I expect fine athletes to be persons of fine character? Why care about the purity of baseball statistics, when I don’t care about the purity of the exchange value of the dollar or anything else measured with numbers? To be shocked by Mitchell’s report is a sucker’s response. Ballplayers have always cheated one way or another, and if anything the incentives to cheat are rising as the amount of money at stake is rising. The margin between being an average player and a slightly above-average player, between being a bench player and a starter, or a setup reliever and a closer—these distinctions of apparent quality are not large; they are well within the margin of luck. But they also might be worth $10 million at contract time.

One thing that strikes me about the list of players is how many journeyman players there are on it. The typical steroid-taking player isn’t Barry Bonds, on a Promethean quest for immortality. It’s more someone like Todd Hundley, trying to manage injuries, trying for one breakout 40-homer season that will boost his status in the sport.

Another thing that strikes me: Without doing a rigorous analysis, a lot of players on the list are the sons of former big league players: Bonds, Hundley, Jerry Hairston Jr., David and Mike Bell, David Segui, Gary Matthews Jr. Bret Boone isn’t on the Mitchell list but has been named in steroid rumors. Jeremy Giambi has an older brother, Jason, also on the list, and Gary Sheffield has an older cousin, Dwight Gooden, who was a big league star. Maybe this doesn’t mean anything, but it might mean that the better connected a player was, the more exposure he’d had to the culture of pro baseball from an early age, the more likely he was to seek a strategic advantage through chemistry. In other words, the drugs work. Savvier players were more likely to use them.

I sure would feel better about baseball’s future if George Mitchell was in charge of the sport full-time, instead of Bud Selig. The wisest thing George Mitchell said yesterday was that he hoped the commissioner would not seek to punish every player named in the report. If anything, I wish Mitchell had said it more emphatically. The best use of this report (and Mitchell's vision for it, I'm sure) would be as part of a South Africa style truth and reconciliation process, speaking the truth and clearing the air, without meting penalties for infractions committed perhaps nine years ago and which were effectively condoned at the time. For his part, Selig immediately asserted his authority to punish them all, saying they would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

So one wonders whether the point of the exercise is to address the steroid problem or to make a show of toughness and improve public relations. I feel a sense of resignation about the problem, because of the incentives to dope, and because the doping athletes and trainers are always two steps ahead of the enforcers. Human growth hormone is a drug of current choice, largely because there is no effective test to detect it. Selig touted a plan for baseball to partner with pro football to develop a test of HGH. Of course, as I heard a radio host point out last night, this was a way for Selig to spread the blame—to remind people that other sports have this issue too. The NFL is probably seething to have its name read out at the press conference.

I don’t want this controversy to linger. I want MLB to put up a duly diligent and unbiased detection system, as a roadblock, but recognize that the problem won’t disappear overnight. Give amnesty to players who doped in the past. Sanction but don’t ban or demonize future violators.

And put Bonds, McGwire, and Clemens in the Hall of Fame. The 90s and early 2000s were the steroid era; let’s face it, perhaps regret it, but let’s don’t willfully forget those who excelled according to the standards and conditions of their era.

Ezra Klein posted briefly yesterday about this story, expressing bemusement that, in light of a long distinguished career, George Mitchell is getting so much attention for digging dirt about baseball players. A commenter at Ezra’s wrote:

George Mitchell is Exhibit A in why you should never stay in your current job out of loyalty to your co-workers when you are offered a promotion.

Bill Clinton was going to make Mitchell a Supreme Court justice and instead he stayed in the Senate to shepherd throught the Clinton health care plan.

Fast forward a few years, Steven Breyer is a Supreme Court justice and George Mitchell is poking around in a laundry bin full of jock straps at Shea. And I still don't have health care.

Nicely played Mr. Breyer. D'oh, Mr. Mitchell.

(Bringing it back around to policy and law at the end. Yay me!)