Tuesday, September 30, 2008

the financial bill

I'm not a financial expert--and I wouldn't ordinarily blog on Rosh Hashana--but before Republicans are blamed for the collapse of the economy let me offer the following comments:

1. The bailout bill was defeated by a bipartisan vote. More Republicans voted against it, but the principal division was people who were nervous about their seats and people who weren't. More Republicans are nervous (with reason) and accordingly voted against it.

2. The bill is unpopular for good reasons. In a democracy it is understandably difficult to pass legislation which benefits, or appears to benefit, wealthy borrowers without doing anything much to help poorer borrowers in an equivalent condition. That the bill was flawed even in the eyes of its supporters (e.g., Paul Krugman) makes the case all the more difficult. If legislation is in fact as necessary as argued, it should be the best legislation available, and a better job should be done explaining it.

3. The whole notion that conservative economics are responsible for the real estate bubble is ridiculous. Both parties participated enthusiastically in the rush to deregulate and received large campaign contributions from the parties that benefited. Obama is if anything rather closer to the Wall Street crowd than McCain or his supporters, far more so than the Palin wing of the party which--whatever its faults--has never been accused of financial sophistication.

It is also fascinating to see McCain ridiculed for suspending his campaign while at the same time claiming that this is the largest financial crisis in 80 years. No doubt his interventions have been ham-handed, and Obama's coolness under pressure has presented a better political image. But image and coolness show few signs of resolving the crisis. Keith Olbermann quoted some baseball wag last night, to the effect that this is no time for reasoned discussion, the situation calls for panic. Doesn't this apply to his candidate, as well?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

ze'ev sternhell

As a moderate-to-conservative Zionist, I obviously don't agree with Ze'ev Sternhell about much, but he is one of the leading scholars on fascism in the world, and he is plainly nonviolent in his personal as well as political approach. The effort to kill him, apparently by sympathizers of the right-wing settlers movement, is thus cowardly and deeply disturbing. (There is some debate exactly how hard they tried to kill him: the newspapers suggested it was a relatively weak bomb, perhaps more intimidation, although Mabat [Israeli TV news] suggested it would have killed him if he had brought it closer to his body. Perhaps I made one of my not infrequent translation errors.) Sternhell himself seemed totally unfazed, although he did suggest this might be the beginning of the end of Israeli democracy, a slight exaggeration but not by much. The saddest part: Sternhell had just returned from France where, presumably, he maintains contacts that are useful in the study of European fascism. Now he can find it right at home.

Postscript: Sternhell's biography reveals that he is a Holocaust survivor and that he served in the Golani brigade, generally regarded as among the toughest in the Israeli army. One wonders whether his assailant can make either of these claims.

the first debate

I thought McCain landed more punches but Obama won on style--better prepared, more relaxed (McCain looked tired, as he did in Media, definitely needs some rest), and basically tied on the substance although it depended what they were talking about. Since Obama is ahead overall, and since this was a debate in his weaker substantive area, one would think it bodes well for him. But it's hard to predict voter reactions: if Obama was more didactic, McCain was more emotive, and the basic rule of politics is that emotions are stronger than logic (and negative emotions most of all). We'll see.

It will be interesting to see if McCain keeps going after Obama's inexperience in future debates. Most observers seemed to think this was his strongest point, particularly when he made a substantive assertion (on Iraq, Afghanistan, whatever) and Obama said, "yes John, I agree." The McCain strategy appears to be that people will prefer the teacher to the pupil, especially in difficult times. But the strategy also risks appearing mean and condescending: one wonders if Obama will come out with a "there you go again"-type remark and deflate McCain in one of their later meetings.

Not to be repetitive, but I think the debate also shows how the Republican ticket has been hurt by the failure to emphasize more specific reform proposals. Imagine if McCain had put together, in advance, a really detailed strategy for the Wall Street bailout--say, "I don't think we should spend a dollar until the people who caused this mess have been brought in to testify"--and contrasted it with Obama's middle-of-the-road approach. Instead, McCain has cultivated a tough-guy image on the bailout but has been disappointingly vague on the specifics, sacrificing a good opportunity to contrast his hard-nosed attitude with Obama's more cautious approach. (He could also point out that Wall Street contributions have gone disproportionately to Obama, which they have). But again, it's still early, and McCain's effort to recast the race as doer vs. talker may yet bear fruit.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

palin's touch

Your correspondent was privileged to attend the McCain-Palin rally in Media PA yesterday, although not nearly so privileged as his 13-year son, who--having long since learned to ignore his father in political situations--clawed his way to the rope line and managed to shake hands with the Great One herself, constituting plainly the most important event of his life and one likely to be remembered when the rest of us are long forgotten. I myself was left with reflected glory in the 10th or 12th row, but even this sufficed for a few observations:

1. Palin--You have to see her in person to see how thoroughly she dominates McCain and the remainder of his entourage. The bus arrives and several tired-looking grey suits ascend the portable stage, of whom we eventually discern that one is John McCain, one Joe Lieberman, one Arlen Specter (Pa's senior senator), and one Lindsey Graham, another veteran and McCain's best Senate buddy. Then a tall woman with long hair and a bright red jacket, looking like she just got out of the Health Club, ascends the stage with the best-looking husband and two of the best-looking kids this side of Fairbanks and the crowd goes absolutely wild. Cries of "Sarah! Sarah! Sarah?" and "You Tell 'Em Girl!" ring out over the (excessively dramatic) theme music. Mentions of her name attract at least three times the applause as her running mate. If one parachuted in from another planet, one would assume that the world was run by attractive women in bright-colored clothing while a race of short grey-haired men had been reduced to some kind of retainer status. When Palin sat down and McCain, the nominal candidate, started to speak at least three people turned away and started walking home. "I've heard enough," one man said, and headed for the exit.

2. The Crowd.--The crowd was larger and more enthusiastic than McCain's gatherings in the spring and summer, reflecting the Palin factor and perhaps the closeness to the election. But it remained a rather narrow grouping, almost entirely white and Christian, and heavily middle-to-lower middle class in origin. At times it could be nasty, as when one former Clinton supporter gave a talk about Obama's lack of patriotism and other American values (I found it interesting that it was a Democrat who spoke this way). But for the most part it was good natured and weirdly apolitical in nature, having the feel of a pep rally or religious revival rather than a political event, a feeling that the sea of red shirts [the attendees were asked to wear red] and regular musical intervals contributed to further. In fairness, Obama crowds that I have seen were just as narrow (albeit in the opposite direction), and the small group of protesters were even more sophomoric than the main attendees. Still I had the feeling of a group of regulars turning out rather than new voters being reached: the latter may well vote for McCain, but they weren't at the rally.

3. The Substance.--While the symbolism remains conservative (military bikers, references to Ronald Reagan, "God Bless the USA") it is striking how populist the campaign has become. McCain, in the most notable part of his speech, called for limits on the Wall Street bailout and protecting Main Street ahead of Wall Street. Palin talked about transparency and putting the Treasury Department online as she has apparently done in Alaska. I heard general references to low taxes but nothing specific about tax policy, spending reductions (other than earmarks), or new military programs, all of which would have been staples of Reagan- or even Bush-era conservative rhetoric. Part of this is no doubt strategic: the Republicans have decided to cast the election as action-vs.-rhetoric which requires that they too embrace the change mantle. Liberals will tell you that it is a case of moneyed interests posing as populists. But I had the opposite feeling: that an essentially right-wing populist movement effectively controls the party and is now posing as conservatives. Whether this is sufficient to win an election in the current climate is anyone's guess. But a lot more people remain culturally traditional than avant garde, and my guess is, whatever happens this year, the movement Palin and her supporters represent will grow stronger rather than weaker over the next ten years.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

another momentum change?

The polls have picked up a slight reversal of fortunes with Obama now back essentially where he was before the conventions (a two-or-three point lead) and McCain's convention bounce apparently used up. In itself this is not a particular cause for alarm: polls always go up and down and the number of undecideds remains unusually high. What may be of greater concern are the reasons, or apparent reasons, for the change.

The first reason is the dissipation of the "Palin effect," which is partially unavoidable but also reflects a missed opportunity by the McCain camp. After the convention I suggested that the Republicans had missed a chance to capitalize on Palin's popularity and announce a genuine reform agenda, including school choice, an overhaul of the tax system, new approaches to energy and health care, and other issues that might have created a wider, deeper change coalition. Instead, the Party chose a "resume" strategy, emphasizing the candidates' personal qualities and eschewing more detailed proposals Now, it seems, they are beginning to pay the price.

The second is the budding financial crisis, which has put the lack of a clear economic program in sharper focus, as well as calling attention to the failures of the Bush Administration.

What is frustrating about this is that the announcing of a reform agenda is usually one of the easiest things for a campaign. There are briefing books full of these things, and they don't have to make it through Congress--or have any realistic chance to--in order to influence an election. The problem, I think, is an internal one: McCain continues to campaign in the shadow of the hard Republican right that would likely be offended by one or more reform proposals. But with Palin at his side there is slim likelihood they would abandon him. What then is he waiting for?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

paglia on palin

Interesting post by Camille Paglia, Philadelphia's own iconoclastic postfeminist, on Sarah Palin in Salon today:

"Conservative though she may be, I felt that Palin represented an explosion of a brand new style of muscular American feminism. At her startling debut on that day, she was combining male and female qualities in ways that I have never seen before. And she was somehow able to seem simultaneously reassuringly traditional and gung-ho futurist. In terms of redefining the persona for female authority and leadership, Palin has made the biggest step forward in feminism since Madonna channeled the dominatrix persona of high-glam Marlene Dietrich and rammed pro-sex, pro-beauty feminism down the throats of the prissy, victim-mongering, philistine feminist establishment."

Not sure about the last sentence, nor how Paglia, who I believe has described herself as a bisexual who prefers women (something like that), would get on with Palin face to face. Still there's more than a grain of truth to her argument. Certainly younger women, forced to choose between the I'll-nurse-my-fifth-child-while-tearing-your-lungs-out approach of Palin and the don't-have-more-than-one-kid-and-do-it-after-tenure approach of the old-line feminists, may not find it much of a choice.

I'm also fascinated, although not surprised, by the Obamaite response. The Obama campaign encouraged a cult of youth and personality without articulating any substantial differences from the Clinton candidacy. Now they are complaining about McCain/Palin's lack of substance and their substitution of a vague "change" mantra for detailed policy programs. Maybe there's something to this criticism. But is their candidate really the one to be making it?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

western exposure

Another gem from the otherwise predictable Palin commentary, this one from Gerard Baker of the Times on Line (London), noting the difference between Southern and Western conservatism and the McCain-Palin ticket's identification with the latter:

"Hailing from Arizona and Alaska, the Republican ticket has a chance to rekindle a western conservatism different from the old Yankee paternalist sort or the Bible Belt version. They like their guns out there (some still kill their own food) and they are pro-life and deeply pro-America, of course. But at a time of grave challenges, the themes of economic freedom and opportunity, the resistance to the idea that government holds all the answers, could resonate with voters."

I would add another difference, which I think appears elsewhere in Baker's column: that the Palin brand of conservatism is far more optimistic and I suspect tolerant--note her lack of identification with the anti-gay cause and the ease with which she has so far glided off the pregnancy issue--than the Bush-Gingrich-DeLay version. One may argue that this is a mere difference of style, but style matters in politics: Reagan's morning in America was miles away from Pat Buchanan's decline of the west, even if they did agree on some issues. Of course, Reagan might lose today, and Obama is not without some style--or religious enthusiasm--of his own. But the change is palpable, and I think Democrats dismiss it at their peril.

Friday, September 05, 2008

republicans fourth night

I thought McCain did what he had to do. I think he was wise to eschew grand themes, which he wouldn't have done well anyway, and keep to the basics--let McCain be McCain, so to speak. I was particularly impressed that he began to steer the campaign toward a conservative reform agenda, including issues like school choice, worker retraining, and so forth, rather than simply attacking the Obama agenda (David Brooks has a good column on this in NY Times today). He may have sacrificed some applause lines in doing so, but he probably picked up some votes.

The question, of course, is how this will play--or even how long it will go on. As others have noted, the talk was largely discontinuous with the rest of the convention, which except for small hints in Palin's speech was largely devoid of specific proposals. There is also the problem of distancing one's self from a Government of one's own party, although McCain is better positioned for this than any other candidate, since no one really believes he likes Bush much and he hardly pretended to last night. And, of course, the Democrats have shared power in Washingtn for the past two years.

It will be very interesting to see what happens in the next couple of weeks. If the McCain camp reverts to ridiculing Obama without articulating a clear alternate vision, I think that any "bump" will disappear quickly and the election will begin to take on a 1992 or reverse 1980 character. If they can articulate such a vision, I think they have a real chance of winning, or at very least of creating a party that will be extremely competitive in future elections. Palin will be especially significant on this point. As I suggested in yesterday's posting, she is already too valuable to use as a mere attack dog. Indeed, as a working class woman untainted by Washington corruption, she may have more credibility as a reformer than the candidate himself. Is she up to this task, or is it already too late?

Thursday, September 04, 2008

republicans third night

Well I will be a little bit of an outlier on this one. I thought it was a great speech for Sarah Palin but less so for the Republican Party. The Palin part is the easy one. She's forceful, she's funny, fifteen minutes at the podium and nobody in their right mind is talking about dropping her from the ticket. If anything, they'd probably like to flip it, in four years if not today.

The problem is what it does for the Party. Palin is the best thing to happen to the GOP this year, maybe since Ronald Reagan. So why waste her time taking cheap shots that can be made just as well (OK, almost as well) by Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney? Sure, it was a great speech, but I think they missed a chance to redefine the election, to have her present an alternative vision of change--school choice, tax reform, embracing of new technologies rather than fear of them---that would cast the Republicans as the real party of the future and put Democrats on the defensive. There were hints of this, especially on the energy front, but they seemed to get lost in the one-liners and the partisan rhetoric.

Of course, there's still another night, and McCain (like Obama before him) may outline a more positive vision using the previous nights as a setup. Most candidates perform well in their acceptance speeches: with a free hour of television time, and no follow up questions, it would be difficult not to. But for now, the score is: Palin 1,000, GOP coming up to bat.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

republicans second night

A good start but (like the Democrats if not more so) a little unfocused. Bush used his time well and disappeared as intended. Fred Thompson very strong, where was he when he was running? Lieberman effective but for a narrow category of voters, most people who agree with him would vote for McCain anyway. He looked a little sad, a fish out of water, he should probably become an R already and give up the fence-sitting. Maybe the D's will decide for him.

Amazing the way the Palin story has taken over the convention. What is odd about this is that McCain was actually doing pretty well one-on-one: the enthusiasm for her (which I share) is a good thing but now risks drowning his message entirely. My guess is that she, and he, will come through with some pretty strong speeches and knock the thing back in the 3-to-5 point range which is basically where it was before all this started. But they will have to do something more than talk down Obama: give people a coherent reformist vision, including domestic as well as foreign policy issues, that stands as an alternative to Obama's rhetoric and casts the election as a choice of talk vs. action which is the party's best, if not only, story line at this point.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

back to the future? on state and national polls

The polls currently favor Obama by 4 to 6 points, a significant if not overwhelming lead, although they will likely close a bit after the Republican convention. But the Electoral College map remains very tight, with only a small shift producing a McCain victory. This is not an aberration, but an inevitable consequence of Obama's substantial lead in a number of large states (California, New York, Illinois) while McCain holds narrower, but still significant leads, in many of the smaller- and medium-sized ones.

No one wants to talk about it, but the divergence above raises at least some possibility of another 2000-like situation, with one candidate (more likely Obama) winning the popular vote and another (more likely McCain) winning the Electoral College. It's not likely, but it's far from impossible. Since a close election almost inevitably involves one or more disputed states--and there has already been talk of vote suppression, inflated vote totals, etc.--the potential for another Florida-style meltdown is equally real.

It's hard to plan for the unexpected, and obviously both sides will try to win the popular and electoral votes. But wouldn't it be responsible to give some advance thought to the problem? Perhaps to a compromise or coalition government rather than a repeat of the 2000 fiasco? As long as we retain the sectional divisions that we now have, this is going to be a real problem, and worthy of serious thought.

Monday, September 01, 2008

the palin pregnancy/republicans first night

Well a lot of gloating from Democrats over the Palin pregnancy, one of the few intelligent posts by George Lakoff at Huffington Post who notes that elections are largely about metaphors and Palin will probably be a stronger candidate than people think (not entirely clear when he wrote it). What I find most interesting is the irony. The Democrats, who are supposedly the party of the working class, have nominated two elitist snobs with elitist children who have elitist names and behave in elitist ways. The Republicans, who are supposedly the party of the elite, have nominated a working class woman with big hair and a jock husband and a pregnant teenage daughter. This may or may not make you a good candidate, but it's certainly a lot closer to the average American in 2008 than any of the other three candidates, and I suspect there'll be more support/sympathy than most observers suspect.

Not much to report about the GOP convention, postponed on account of bad weather . . . in Louisiana. Am I the only one who thinks this is an overreaction? Let's hope the storm clears and the show goes on tomorrow.