Friday, February 22, 2008

What Yglesias said

Boo-ya. Shazam, even.

Domestically, the Republican Party rests on the idea that government can only do harm, never good. Put them in office, put the anti-government party in control of the government, they are in a position to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. Vandalism. Drowning the baby in the bathwater.

On national security, the GOP runs on fear, so bad things happening (terrorism or war being waged on us or our allies) is good for them.

These are the stakes in 2008. We’ve arrived at a diseased, decadent place in our politics where the Republican Party has little to no incentive to make good things happen. Having a conservative party is inevitable, and having that party be healthy and responsible is desirable, but right now, for America's sake, the GOP needs a good solid period of wilderness exile.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Who's a maverick and who ain't

Last night the New York Times posted a story about John McCain’s relationship with lobbyists, notably a female telecommunications lobbyist who was seen in his company a lot circa 1999, the first time McCain ran for President.

The above seems like a weak summary of a 3000-word story, but really, there’s not that much more substance to it. A number of observers have remarked how odd the story is on the page, as a news story. It talks around two issues: whether McCain had an affair with this lady, and whether McCain’s sense of his own integrity matches up to his actions relative to political money. But it’s a lot of smoke, not much fire.

The inside-the-Beltway, inside-baseball aspects of it are of most interest to me. The story reflects a self-consciousness on the Times’ part about its and the press’s role in creating the image of McCain the Maverick; there’s an impetus, if not to contradict, at least to complexify McCain and address the media’s complicity in his rise. (See also Ryan Lizza’s recent New Yorker profile of McCain.) A sidebar to today’s controversy is that The New Republic has a story about the debate within the Times’ offices whether to print the McCain + lobbyists story or not -- they’d been working on it for well over two months. The McCain campaign says that the TNR’s reporting forced the Times’ hand, which rings plausible to me. TNR’s Gabriel Sherman says the story seemed dead just a couple of weeks ago, and Times managing editor Bill Keller basically dared Sherman to write the meta-story to a story the Times killed. This all could be the result of a game of chicken gone amusingly wrong.

About the sex angle, I don’t care and would just as soon not know if McCain had this affair or not, but GOP primary voters might not feel the same, and the Romney campaign, for one, was intensely interested in whether or when a McCain adultery story would hit. The ethics angle is more troubling, but a recap of McCain’s career as a so-called reformer is not especially timely. The timing is important, and it may have worked out ideally from McCain’s vantage: too late to affect the primary season, too early to affect the general election.

I almost, *almost*, feel sorry for the NYT. Buffeted by wingnut invective on one side, the challenge of the Internet on another, the legacy of Judy Miller, Jeff Gerth, et. al. on another, the Grey Lady really doesn’t know which end is up a lot of the time. I’ll be interested to see if the story has any lasting impact, and if so, whether the impact is positive or negative for McCain. Claiming to be the victim of a jihad by the New York Times may be just the thing to unify the Republican base behind him.

I suppose it will be a good thing if today marks a break in the fawning treatment that John McCain usually gets in the political press. Far from being a saint, McCain is vain, ill-tempered, has a warped view of foreign policy, and should never be given unsupervised access to nuclear weapons. A curious thing, though, is that I have enjoyed getting this more complex and nuanced view of McCain. I started to write “I like him more,” but that’s not exactly right. I’ll never vote for him, and I imagine I’d find him a blowhard. Ryan Lizza writes how hungry McCain is for human contact – he’s a people person, which the great majority of war heroes and conservative politicians are not, and I’d wager that combination accounts for 90% of the seductive effect he has on reporters; take away the POW experience and they’d find him to be a blowhard too. But McCain’s had an amazing life, he has undeniable wit and charm, and there is something compelling and maybe tragic in his elevation of values like honor and courage in the arena of Washington politics. Being a maverick, or just being perceived that way, in a job (GOP Senator) that brutally punishes mavericks, paradoxically gave him room to operate. After a poor start to his 2008 campaign, he caught a series of lucky breaks and “stumbled” (Ryan Lizza’s word) to the head of a party in crisis.

I don’t mean that McCain’s honor or integrity are unimpeachable; his actions fail to measure up to his words. The main thing to say is he doesn’t deserve the reputation of a maverick reformer; his ethical behavior as described in the Times story is merely run-of-the-mill for a US Senator. I remember the Keating 5 scandal better than most people; I had a job during the Bush 41 years that required me to bone up on the savings and loan meltdown. The Times story doesn’t mention it, but the media should make more of the fact that McCain’s campaign is not going to follow the “McCain-Feingold” campaign finance rules. For all this, I still find McCain somewhat sympathetic, if flawed. His self-righteousness and self-regard just give him a notable blind spot. As others have observed, McCain is not a good ass-kisser or vote-panderer. Also, the outrage I might otherwise feel about McCain’s alleged influence-peddling is tempered by the knowledge that he’s not a particularly good fund-raiser – his campaign was flat broke a few months ago, he’s had to scale back his operations substantially (a less luxurious Straight Talk Express, for one thing), and some of his campaign staff are working without pay (though the NYT spins this as an ethically sketchy gift-in-kind). He’s not Machiavellian, he’s just an egotist; he’s never surprised when people do him favors.


I wanted a writing exercise, otherwise I’d have outsourced all McCain-and-the-media commentary to Eric Alterman here.

Here, however, is an example of Dr. Alterman’s puffed-up and wrongheaded views about popular music. It just so happens that I’ve been listening both to Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Sweethearts of the Rodeo recently. Frankly, Sweethearts is a straight country record, and a fairly mediocre one. There’s not a thing about it that is more innovative than what Johnny Cash and others had done earlier in the 60s. It just happens to have been made by noted long-haired drug-taking hippie types. Gram Parsons is overrated, and Alterman has been taken in by the hype. Whereas on Everybody Knows Neil Young is doing something distinctive and new. People remember “Cinnamon Girl” and “Down By The River,” which are rock numbers, but the title track and “The Losing End” are closer to alt-country than the Byrds were. Experts may differ and so on, but Alterman is wrong to dismiss EKTIN’s importance so cavalierly.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Take Some Prisoners

A media diary for February 12.

Listened to an NPR story on the drive to work this morning, about the Mitt Romney campaign and the impact it may have on the Mormon Church. The reporter, Howard Berkes, interviewed a couple of Mormon women in Virginia who were phone-canvassing for Romney and were surprised by the anti-Mormon sentiment they encountered, which they don’t often encounter in everyday life. Mormons have mostly flown under the radar in recent years, but the Romney campaign exposed them to some unpleasant commentary, and the church is examining itself in response.

I thought it somewhat interesting -– my objection to Romney wasn’t that he was a Mormon per se, but then again I’m an avowed anti-Republican so would have objected to him in any case. If one of the Udall family made a run at the Democratic presidential prize, would I have misgivings? Good question. Frankly, the very fact of this report, that Mormons are so PR-conscious and eager to assimilate, is reassuring to me. (But how does image-consciousness jibe with those proselytizing kids on bicycles?) GOP primary voters, an evangelical-leaning group, have big problems with the LDS, some of them characterizing it as a cult. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is curious if Romney volunteers number a lot of Mormons (not a claim Berkes makes directly, but it is implied).


Let it be recorded that on this date, I agreed with Christopher Hitchens and Anne Applebaum –- The Archbishop of Canterbury messed up by advocating a “plural jurisdiction” in the UK that would accommodate some aspects of sharia law. I’m generally tolerant of religious pluralism, and I don’t favor the US’s policy toward the Mideast whose goal seems to be to “convert” Muslims, if not to Christianity than at least to Western-style democracy. But Muslims who emigrate to the US or western Europe should have to follow western legal norms. (My sense is that the majority are willing to follow those norms, and in fact those norms are part of their reason for emigrating.) I would allow for some civil contracts or disputes, like sharia mortgages, to be handled apart from the courts if both parties agree, but subject to the courts’ authority if parties cannot agree. But criminal law is criminal law. And internationally, I want western norms to apply. International law and Islamic fundamentalism will inevitably collide sometimes, and there should be sanctions against societies that practice honor killings, genital mutilation, and other forms of official misogyny.

In my personal (probably half-assed) theology, equality before the law is linked to monotheism. My attraction to God is all wrapped up in the notion of God’s love and regard being available to every person without prejudice, like inalienable human rights. And the reason to prefer one god to several gods is the notion of a unitary, impartial divine justice or authority.


Well, just to show the world hasn’t gone all topsy-turvy, I disagree with this Slate writer, a Berkeley-educated but LA-nurtured “liberal contrarian” who thinks there’s nothing wrong with saying that Chelsea Clinton is being “pimped out.” I don’t think “pimped out” has been rendered an innocuous phrase in the culture; it has a more specific and darker connotation than “pimp my ride” or whatever. There’s too much history of the Clintons being described in weird psychosexual terms, and Chelsea has been subjected to that as well as her parents. Remember “Janet Reno is Chelsea’s father”? Enough is enough. I understand that Hillary kind of wants to have it both ways with Chelsea, but look, lots of campaigns use family members as silent stage props. There’s no record of John McCain being said to “pimp out” his wife or children. I was sometimes a little uncomfortable with the John Edwards campaign’s uses of Elizabeth Edwards, but there was never a suggestion that she was a helpless pawn or in some kind of sexual thrall to her husband.

(That said, is Hillary’s campaign trying to turn the David Shuster brainfart to its advantage? Could be.)

Emotions are high in the Clinton-Obama race, as Obama has pulled slightly ahead in the delegate count, way ahead in the fundraising tally. Some of the blogosphere's energy and attention have been focused on the New York Times's op-ed stable: Paul Krugman, who seems to have an extreme animus against Obama, and Frank Rich, who returns the favor against Hillary. (We expect lame-ass armchair head-shrinking from Maureen Dowd, but hold Krugman and Rich to a little higher standard.) Rob at LG&M offers this discussion of the internet fury, and the worthiest sentiment there is from commenter Righteous Bubba: "I favor a take-some-prisoners approach." That's right, take some prisoners, because you may have to sue for a brokered peace in a short while. We all (almost all) say "Of course I'll support whoever turns out to be the nominee," but that disclaimer is often given in a perfunctory way, a la "... the express written consent of the Commissioner of Baseball." About 49% of us, effectively, are going to have to live up to that half-conscious promise.

Again, I'm for Obama, so discount this if you want, but in my view Hillary's campaign is the one that has been pushing the envelope in terms of campaign tactics. This stuff about the Florida and Michigan delegates is a little ominous; it foretells an ugly lawyerly struggle for the nomination extending deep into the summer and inviting appalling Karl Rove comparisons. I observed once, somewhere, that I have faith in Bill Clinton's party loyalty; that for all his ego and ambition, I don't think he will do anything to torpedo the Democrats in November. Some people say Hillary is the more ruthless competitor of the two of them.

High human drama. Hey, in spite of what Atrios says, maybe it will all come down to North Carolina, for once in Tar Heels' lives.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Fear of Flying, 2008

Atrios calls our attention this morning to these twinned Washington Post opinion columns by novelists Michael Chabon and Erica Jong. It’s a tense time in Democratland, this Super Tuesday eve, and things may get a lot more tense right after Super Tuesday. Atrios is pleading with us not to fall into the trap, which Jong and Chabon fall into, of believing that those who disagree with us are suffering from a character deficiency.

Jong’s tone is more-of-sadness-than-anger, but even without violent rhetorical lurches she manages to tie herself in knots. It’s not every writer who would endorse Hillary Clinton (as candidate) and Noam Chomsky (as a far-sighted political sage) in the same column. To square that circle, Jong has to cut Hillary a huge break: “Since she is a woman, she has to show she’s ready to be commander in chief.” Thus Hillary’s votes on Iraq and Iran don’t count against her.

Yet somehow Barack Obama’s not even being in the Senate during the 2002-2003 run-up to Iraq does count against him. Jong makes the astonishing argument that since (1) Colin Powell was a token African-American in the Bush Administration, and (2) Obama is obviously a token black as well (?!), therefore (3) Obama would have been taken in by Powell’s mendacious claims about Saddam’s WMDs. Jong writes, “I have nothing against [Obama] except his inexperience. Many black voters agree. They understand tokenism and condescension.” I’m sure “some of Jong’s best friends” would agree (and would understand condescension!), but “many black voters” are increasingly pro-Obama. It's been in all the papers, Erica.

Chabon, in the Post’s deliberate side-by-side arrangement, endorses Obama. Chabon does strike an off-putting note of exasperation with the “excuses” he hears people make for not being on the Obama bandwagon. And I would dispute somewhat his notion that We The People are to blame for our predicament in 2008, for putting Dubya into office and allowing our politics to be degraded. (So many things Bush has brought us — the DOJ scandals, warrantless wiretapping, Blackwater — were really never put to the public for our approval.) But Chabon writes about hope versus fear in the American electorate, echoing Obama’s quasi-religious rhetoric of transcendence and redemption, in a way that rings true to me. Best line: “[W]e can aspire as a nation to be more than merely secure or predominant.”

Yesterday I bumped into a neighbor of mine, a very decent and thoughtful guy. We were standing on a sidewalk having a semi-deep conversation about marriage and child-rearing and the complexity of modern life, and at a pause to catch our breath, he joked, “We have solved all the world’s problems here! What have we missed?” “War and peace!” I joked back, but to my surprise he actually gave me his thoughts on the subject. He is, in his own description, a moderate Democrat who has sometimes voted Republican, and he’s not sure what he’s going to do this election. He related something I didn’t know about him, that he gave up a job that he loved soon after the 9/11 attacks, because the job required frequent air travel, and he and his family were too worried about his safety. He’s pleased that the US removed Saddam Hussein, but very troubled that we haven’t caught Bin Laden. He hears the president of Iran spout crazy Holocaust revisionism, and feels that the US has to adopt a tough posture against that crazy Islamist state. He seems to value experience and gravitas in a political candidate. At the same time, he is not blind to the ineptitude of the Bush White House. I suspect my “moderate Democrat” friend will turn out to be a McCain Democrat, but he seems to be hovering somewhere over the turf Hillary Clinton has staked out on foreign policy, and not very near Obama’s turf.

I had a couple of partial responses to my friend: one being that Iran’s political system is complicated and diffuse, and Ahmadinejad cannot enact every crazy thought that enters his head. But I don’t dismiss the unsettling effect of 9/11, or the fear of a new terrorist attack. And I respect (and hopefully share) the humility my neighbor shows, in the face of ominous foreign policy questions whose answers are murky.

Still, I come down on the side of hope, which in Michael Chabon's schema, as well as the calculus of the present primary season, is the side of Obama. I'll strive to be humble and open-minded, and to trust the nominating process (which, thankfully, has delivered rough justice so far). If it comes to it, with the help of my budding feminist daughters, I'll support Hillary. But I think she's in a troubling state of denial about Bushism and is clearly pushing a politics of fear. Maybe my position comes down to “the valiant taste of death but once.” I'm less afraid of terrorism than outraged by torture and lies and all the rest. I prefer not to be preoccupied with my physical safety at the expense of my principles. Decency and tolerance are not luxuries.