Sunday, August 31, 2008

palin and the pundits

Well the pundits are pounding Palin but the voters don't seem to have gotten the message. Rasmussen Reports shows her favorables higher than Biden, and further that the Democrats have virtually no "bounce" from their convention, showing the same 3-point lead they did before. Meanwhile the talk shows were all about her and Obama's "once in a century" speech is forgotten almost overnight. Of course it's much too early to tell what the long-term effect will be. But the initial response would seem to be: not so stupid.

Friday, August 29, 2008

palin for vp

Well, I could eat these words, but I think it's a good choice. Here's my thinking:

1. McCain is, at heart, an in-your-face western maverick who is most comfortable as an outsider. Palin is, at heart, an in-your-face western maverick who is most comfortable as an outsider. Whatever else its limitations--and however much ink is spilled about pandering to the "Christian right"--his campaign now has an unmistakable reformist theme that he is likely to be comfortable with.

2. Any woman who has five children and serves as Governor--let alone rises to the top in by all accounts the ultimate good-old-boy state-- almost has to be good. This may sound patronizing, but I think it's just common sense. I'm a Republican, and I can tell you, women don't get anywhere in the Republican Party unless they're about 3.7 times smarter than the men. If you're attractive, as Palin is generally thought to be, it's probably more like 6.7 times.

3. The parallels to Dan Quayle are ridiculous. Quayle's problem wasn't that he was young or handsome but that most people concluded that he was lightweight. Whatever Palin may be, she's plainly not trivial.

There is another reason that goes beyond the current election. Win or lose, a VP candidate becomes a de facto leader in the party once the boss departs the scene. Young, socially conservative women have for some time been the emotional engine of the Republican Party: the party is literally not viable without them. In much the same way that the choice of Obama marks a recognition of generational shifts in the Democratic Party, the choice of Palin represents the same for the Republicans. Somebody much like this will probably be the GOP candidate for President within the next few cycles. McCain may be a few years ahead of the curve: but is that really so terrible?

democrats fourth night

Well I guess that's why Obama's the nominee. Very well-crafted speech that responded to each of the principal criticisms of him (inexperienced, celebrity, weak on defense) and landed a few good punches on Bush and McCain as well. My main criticism is it might have been too defensive--look for the Republicans to jump all over his spend-without-tax proposals--and (that word again) diffuse: too much of a laundry list without a single coherent theme. And I still don't get what was accomplished by the outdoor venue or the weird window-like backdrop (was he planning to don his Superman cape and fly out after speaking)? Still, it was an assertive and for the most part successful effort to refocus on specifics and define the terms of his debate with McCain in the Fall.

The ritual poses after the speech gave occasion to focus how far Obama has come. If they were shown the pictures five years ago, ninety-five percent of viewers would have assumed Biden was the Presidential candidate and Obama the VP--if they recognized Obama at all. Nothing like this has opposed since Jimmy Carter, although that might not be the example I'd choose.

Still awaiting McCain's VP choice--rumors about Sarah Palin but none confirmed--and the related issue of positive and negative "bounce." If he does choose Palin it will knock Obama off the front pages very quickly. But that's not the principal goal--or is it?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

democrats third night

A further improvement but still weirdly unfocused. Bill Clinton very good, makes the case for a Democratic president clearly and forcefully, why can't anyone else do this? Maybe he can talk to poor people because he's the last Democratic candidatewho actually was one.

Biden OK on substance but too shrill. And how many times are we going to hear how all of the Democrats are McCain's friends? If they're all friendlier with McCain than Obama, why don't they vote for him?

The bottom line is it all rides on tonight's speech. The change of venue will either look brilliant, highlighting Obama's populist claims, or backfire, making him look still more of a celebrity without any real substance. Perhaps that's the reason he staged the "surprise" drop-by late last night. He looked just a little bit like a guest at somebody else's party. Was he?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

democrats second night

A little better, a little more forceful, but still too diffuse. Warner and Clinton gave perfectly good speeches but both talked about themselves a little too much. In fairness, I was taking out the garbage for part of the Clinton speech, so it may have been better than I thought--mostpeople thought she hit the target pretty well.

Part of the problem with conventions is that they have become so scripted--so anxious to avoid any controversy--that they are beginning to lose peoples' attention. There are so many blue signs against a blue background that it looks a TV studio rather than a convention floor . . . which, in a certain sense, it is. Perhaps a staged controversy, like the old Jewish man who used to insult Milton Berle in the middle of his routines, would attract more attention.

It is nice to see Joe Biden in the spotlight at last. I have always thought of Biden as something of a windbag, and indeed I had the privilege of walking out on his commencement speech a couple of years back, albeit more because I needed a bathroom break--he spoke for hours, or at least it felt that way--than because of anything he said. But he is a hard worker and has taken a lot of unfair hits in his personal and political life over the years. And he can't have been too confident of being chosen or he would have gotten a haircut before his appearance. Maybe he could transplant some of his locks to Obama, who has a Lincolnesque physique but, like Abe himself, looks just a little young for the job. Lincoln grew a beard, in part, to make himself look older. Maybe Obama could borrow one?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

democrats first night

I basically agree with Carville that it was a wasted opportunity. No big mistakes, but no overarching theme either, and too defensive, too much of the "sure he's from Hawaii and has a funny name, but he's a really good husband and father and a great guy, too." I'm a great guy also but I couldn't get elected to Congress.

When people seem hesitant there's usually a reason. For the Democrats I think it is the two campaigns that are at war with each other in the Obama camp. On the one hand there is Obama the conciliator who will reach across the aisle and create a new politics--Dukakis with charisma, or Carter for the 21st century, whatever. On the other hand there is the class warrior who will provide health care, fix the economy, and end a supposedly wasteful series of wars--the later Clinton campaign with a more pleasant face.

The two approaches are fundamentally contradictory, and I think that a lot of the inertia in the Obama campaign comes from the difficulty in choosing between them. It is possible to win while fudging such distinctions--indeed many of the recent winners, with the exception of Reagan, did exactly that. But Obama has not quite found the right balance, and the convention so far reflects that tension.

Monday, August 25, 2008

tel aviv in the summer

I hadn't gone to Israel in the summer for almost 30 years, and I quickly remembered why. It is hot and humid, especially on the coast, which is needless to say where most of the people have decided to live. The heat doesn't so much assault you as simply seep inside of you: the typical North American strategies, like wearing shorts or a T-Shirt, seem superfluous and if anything compound the problem, letting in more heat without allowing any back out.

One of the wonderful things in Israel is the national quality of stubbornness, one could almost say illogic, that persists no matter what else changes. I was reminded of this when our hosts, sensing that even tax professors could not stand three consecutive 8-hours days of tax policy, decided to take us to see the Roman ruins at Caesarea on the Mediterranean Coast. The entrance fee was 20 shekels, which the cashier announced must be paid in exact amounts since no spare change was available. This is, of course, mathematically impossible: assuming that four or more people pay exact change, by the fifth person one would necessarily have sufficient cash to change a hundred shekel note, or a fifty (assuming someone had used a ten) even sooner. There were seven or eight people in our tour group. Yet the woman insisted that no change could be made however many attended. Perhaps she got a commission on credit cards.

I have mentioned before the Israeli penchant for bumper stickers, which unlike those in less spiritual countries ("Obama Means Change," "McCain is McSame") tend to be addressed to the Deity or to no one in particular rather than attempting to influence immediate political behavior. In some cases these consist of Biblical or quasi-Biblical quotations ("Love your neighbor as yourself," "God will watch over us"), while others are whimsical ("Have you hugged your gas station attendant today?") or comical in nature; but almost never practical in import. Somewhat less light-hearted is the tendency toward graffiti and counter-graffiti, which seems especially prevalent in avant garde neighborhoods. Along Rothschild Blvd., in a rather fashionable area, were stenciled graffiti memorializing a young Arab who was apparently killed by security forces in the Gaza Strip. "May he be remembered for good," added one hand-written graffito. A few blocks later: "May his name and memory be erased."

Thankfully, neither the heat nor the controversy penetrated our conference room, which was efficiently air conditioned and where the sessions were conducted exclusively in English. Yet even here, I had occasion to focus on tolerance and its absence. Nearly all the participants, who hailed from a range of countries (Israel, Canada, Australia, even one Italian professor) were of a liberal, internationalist bent. One, an Israeli, had gone to Jordan to learn Arabic, while others had invested years in social justice, feminism, and similar causes. Yet when people spoke of conservatives or the right in their countries many had difficulty hiding their contempt. Perhaps this is the "tyranny of small differences," or simply human nature: we sympathize with people who are opposite from us but find it hard to accept those whose differences hit too close to home. But the contrast remained a telling one.

Or perhaps it is a matter of perspective. On the way home I changed planes in Frankfurt, where a burly policewoman told me to empty my pockets before entering the metal detector. "I'll do it when I'm ready," I snapped back. Was I tired from a midnight flight, or was there something about her German accent that bothered me when I had calmly done the same thing dozens of times before? Is this how Black people feel like at traffic stops, or Arabs at security checks? Next time I'm changing in London.

china, the olympics, and the leadership problem

Just back from a conference on tax and culture (!) at Tel Aviv University, at which one of the significant topics was (as always) the rise of China and its implications for the global tax system. The issue seemed especially pressing given China's performance at the Beijing Olympics, which (depending how you count) placed it in either first or second place among the world's sporting nations. The Olympics also served as a kind of two week infomercial for the new China, although there was some bad as well as good publicity regarding pollution, episodic violence, and the usual human rights violations.

I've blogged about China before, and like others I am duly impressed by the country's rapid economic progress and the open, even relaxed manner of many of its citizens--a bright contrast to the persistent pessimism that seems to infect so many in the West these days. But am I the only one to find it weird focusing on grown men and women who spend their entire lives in a swimming pool, while outside people are arrested because they requested a protest permit? Is this really the image that China wants, and is this really the kind of power that is likely to impress people in the more advanced nations?

I likewise remain to be convinced about China's impending world leadership. Leadership means more than numbers: the capacity to inspire, to innovate, to serve as a model for others. When we say that Germany challenged Britain for leadership in the early 1900s, or the capitalist and communist systems battled in the middle of the last century, we mean that leadership in a whole number of areas--ideological, technological, cultural--was or at least appeared to be at stake together with raw economic and political power. China may get to this point, but I don't think it is there yet, and in some areas it is not even clear to me that it is moving forward. Does anyone viewing these last Olympics really say, this is the kind of place I want to live in? Do they make people want to go to China, learn the Chinese way of doing things, and bring them back to their home country? Until they do China will remains statistically impressive, but it is difficult to call it a world leader in the sense that the term is historically employed.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

john edwards

I don't have much to add to this except two comments:

1. Why is this a news story? Edwards failed twice to get the nomination because people thought he was a smooth talker but rather shallow. Now people know for sure that he is a smooth talker but rather shallow. Why is this interesting?

2. People keep talking about the "hypocrisy" of Spitzer, Edwards, and others who campaign like the Virgin Mary but spend their time hanging out with real or functional prostitutes. But of course these are two sides of the same coin. People who learn to balance their self-righteousness with an ability to enjoy life--who learn, in short, not to take themselves too seriously--are likely to maintain this equilibrium for many years. People who don't, aren't. Men who treat their wives (and themselves) as some sort of celestial figures are uniquely susceptible to the appeal of bad girls like Rielle Hunter or Ashley DuPre, who provide a level of flattery and sexual experience that is likely to be missing in their real lives.

The role of the media deserves further comment. Commentators regularly complain that we have a culture of scandal and an insubstantial politics. But they cover the scandals and talk very little about the substance. So whose fault is it, and when is it going to change?

Friday, August 08, 2008

mccain, obama, and "negative" campaigning

There has been a predictable criticism of the McCain campaign for indulging in "negative" campaign tactics . . . and an equally predictable use of the same tactics by Obama supporters. What exactly is going on here, and who if anyone is to blame?

Negative campaigning is a little bit like fantasizing about other people's spouses: everyone says it's a bad idea but everyone does it, anyway. The inevitability flows from two related principles. First, emotions are as a general rule stronger than intellect, especially in the political field. (I was told this when I first got interested in politics, but didn't believe it, which is probably why I'm still a blogger.) Second, negative emotions are, with a few obvious exceptions, typically stronger than positive ones. People root for Batman, but the Joker gets all the awards.

I have always believed that the dividing line should not be positive and negative, which are in any event two sides of the same coin, but substantial and insubstantial. Attacks on Obama for (say) bumping fists or sounding like Paris Hilton are in the latter category and--although they are not necessarily illegitimate--are unlikely to decide the campaign on their own.

By contrast, attacks on Obama for his Iraq and energy politics are both appropriate and substantive in nature. The allegation is in both cases the same one: that the Democratic Party has a habit of ignoring substantive evidence which contradicts its deeply held beliefs and prejudices. Thus, the Party and its candidate appear to be suggesting that the surge has failed even though almost all neutral observers agree that it succeeded, and to be arguing that new drilling--the supply side of the energy equation--should be foresworn because it is unappealing for environmental (i.e., ideological) reasons. Neither of these makes much sense, and both of them have hurt Obama in the recent polling. Efforts to massage the facts--the surge was only partially successful, new drilling will take several years to hit the pumps--only make the evasion more obvious.

The objection to this strategy is particularly odd, since the Democrats' own principal allegation--that Republicans have ignored health, housing, and other crises that did not sit well with their own conservative philosophy--is essentially an opposite version of the same charge. This charge, like McCain's, has more than a little truth in it, and is a perfectly relevant argument on the campaign trail. In any event, the issue should be resolved not by the expert's rating of campaign technique, but by which side's arguments are more convincing, or (what amounts to the same thing) whose evasions are perceived as less dangerous: in short, the same way that all elections are resolved, and probably about how they should be.

china, u.s., human rights

The juxtaposition of the Beijing Olympics and the first in the new round of Guantanamo trials gives occasion to think about human rights and its place in the two societies. That the Olympics have raised questions about human rights in China will surprise no one who has spent time in the country. The cooperation of many western entities, who have agreed to implicit censorship on both external (e.g., Darfur) and internal issues as the price of coverage, is especially unsettling. Still, one suspects that the overall effect will be positive, attracting enhanced attention to these issues and encouraging those within China who are seeking a more open, humane society.

The Guantanamo story is more limited but arguably more depressing, given the rather higher expectations that obtain in an American context. The irony here is that the result--a 66 month sentence which, with credit for time served, would lead to release in less than six months--seems entirely reasonable or even lenient under the circumstances. Together with the acquittal on broader (conspiracy) charges, it suggests that the military personnel who sat on the panel took their jobs seriously and were largely fair-minded. But the precedent of a trial-but-not-really-a-trial remains a disturbing one. Equally disturbing is the suggestion that, once his sentence is over, the individual in question would not be released but would simply return to a different form of custody. This treatment, which is common in totalitarian states, is both legally and logically unnerving: if he is simply a prisoner, why is he being tried, and if a criminal, why should he not be released when his sentence is up?

I do not wish to overstate the parallel here, or to suggest that the Guantanamo trials are on the same scale as the violations of human rights in China or other countries. But there is no doubt such procedures damage our credibility in preaching the human rights gospel to other nations. This is of course not the only, or even the most important, factor to be considered: but it is not insignificant, either.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

mccain shows life

The McCain campaign seems to have picked up some as of late, albeit more from Obama's errors than from its own achievements. Two things account for this small, but perceptible, turnaround.

The first was Obama's overseas trip, which was supposed to highlight his foreign policy credentials, but ended up looking more like a victory lap. Whether or not he actually snubbed wounded troops, the image that remains from the trip is of thousands of cheering Germans, rather than of sober reflection--or indeed, any reflection--on foreign policy issues. That several of his supporters began referring to Obama as "acting President" or simply "44" contributed to this air of arrogance.

The second was McCain's new advertising campaign, which adroitly exploited this arrogance and played upon the growing sense of Obama as an A+ celebrity with B+ or perhaps C- achievements. Efforts to paint this campaign as dirty or "racist" in nature have predictably fallen flat, since the issue is Obama's attitude rather than his biology: that many African-Americans (e.g., Jesse Jackson) have noted a similar arrogance makes this response especially unconvincing.

One can argue that all of this is superficial and the election should be decided on issues rather than appearances. The problem is that Obama's appeal has not been based on the issues, on which his positions are rather predictable, but on the sense that he is somehow beyond them: that his election would supersede existing categories and usher in a new era of hope and enlightenment. If he loses this sense of superiority--if indeed it becomes a butt of jokes to be hurled against him--he loses a lot of the underlying logic for his candidacy. Should McCain eventually win, this week may be regarded as a turning point.