Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Czar Kudzu

Recently I've noticed a trend where the government, apparently dissatisfied with normal channels, insists on coming up with some special means for accomplishing what the normal channels were always intended to do. I first started ruminating on this when various pundits and politicians began calling for a bailout and restructuring of Detroit's Big Three, a process that sounded to me remarkably like Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. Restructuring and refocusing a company while eliminating unsustainable obligations is the purpose of Chapter 11. So why reinvent the wheel? Why isn't the existing system adequate?

Then I started thinking about the Military Commissions Act, which created special tribunals to try accused terrorists. Did this mean existing courts were no longer adequate to protect society and dispense justice? And if they were adequate, why invent a new system of parallel courts?

(Actually, that last question might be a tad naive).

And we're always appointing someone "special envoy" to the Middle East or somewhere. Why do we need a special envoy? Isn't diplomacy, even (especially?) the most difficult diplomacy, why we have a State Department?

Remember when a year and a half ago, President Bush created a "War Czar?" The guy, Lt. General Douglas Lute, seems to have disappeared, but what was he supposed to do in the first place? If the Defense Department can't manage a war, what exactly is its purpose?

Then I read this excellent article in the Wall Street Journal on all our different "czars." President-Elect Obama is going to have (in addition to the usual Secretary of Energy) an energy czar; in addition to the usual Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, an urban affairs czar; in addition to the Secretary of the Treasury and a Council of Economic Advisers and a National Economic Council, an economy czar. And of course we have a drug czar and a Drug Enforcement Agency, the FBI apparently being inadequate to the task of fighting drug crime.

All the war on drugs duplication and the war's concomitant ongoing success (insert sarcasm emoticon here) makes me wonder: how high is the correlation between the severity of a policy failure and the amount of governmental duplication dedicated to it? Pretty high, I'll bet. Whether the correlation is also causal is debatable, but I have a theory: the more certain a policy is to fail, the more politically imperative it is for politicians to appear to assault the underlying problem with czars and commissions and special overseers. Then, when the inevitable failure occurs, the politician can say, "But look how much I was doing! No one could have done more."

In a sane world, we would simply end drug prohibition the way we sanely ended alcohol prohibition (after insanely criminalizing it). But because that route apparently is politically untenable, politicians have to do something to pretend they're really trying. So they create new positions and new departments. In politics, I suppose, the appearance of trying is almost as good as actual success.

Drug Czars, Special Envoys to the Middle East, War Czars... if duplication is predictive of failure, Obama's emerging org chart is less than comforting.

P.S. Here's some follow-up to my previous post, The True Price of the Dark Side.

First, here's the bipartisan "Senate Armed Services Committee Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody." Anyone still clinging to the fiction that Abu Ghraib was just a "few bad apples" should read this report, which makes plain that what happened at AG was ordered by the Bush Administration. You'd think a bipartisan Senate report proving the White House guilty of war crimes would be heavily covered in the mainstream media. You'd be wrong.

Second, here's some information on various flaming leftists -- such as 40+ retired Generals and Flag Admirals -- who are opposed to torture.

Third, here's a recent Washington Post op-ed by an Air Force interrogator, whose new book, "How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq," is available at your local bookstore. The article, which condemns torture on moral and practical grounds and is based on searing experience, is well worth reading.

Finally, a common thread I've noticed in many of the pro-torture arguments I've been receiving is a focus on the exception to the exclusion of the rule. I've noticed this tendency before in other contexts and it's always struck me as poor reasoning. A couple examples:

"I'm thinking about taking up judo. But who would win between a judo master and a karate master?"

I don't know that the question is wholly irrelevant to what art you might want to pursue. But are you planning on becoming a master? Do you think you might face unarmed combat against another master? If the answers are no and no, why is this question the foundation of the inquiry?

"I've written a manuscript. Can't I just send it directly to a publisher without an agent representing me?"

I know of at least one such success story (Judith Guest's "Ordinary People"), which proves that the un-agented route is at least possible. But is it *likely* to work? Does it make sense to try to get published in a way that almost never works, while ignoring the route that is proven most likely to work?

Similarly, when it comes to torture, proponents have a tendency to focus on the Ticking Suitcase Nuke in Manhattan scenario, something that so far as I know has never happened and the necessary facts of which are highly unlikely, while simultaneously ignoring the actual, demonstrated costs on torture, including false intel and a propaganda bonanza for our enemies.

In all cases, the thinking at issue strikes me as so tendentious that I suspect something subterranean is motivating it. As Dox might say (for those of you have read "The Last Assassin"): "This isn't really about hunting, is it?"

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The True Price of the "Dark Side"

In the course of researching my next novel, I just binged on three excellent documentaries: "Standard Operating Procedure," which examines the events at Abu Ghraib through photos, video, and interviews with many of the soldiers convicted of torturing prisoners there; Best Documentary Oscar-winning "Taxi to the Dark Side," which examines America's move to what Vice President Cheney called "the dark side" through the imprisonment, torture, and murder at Bagram Airbase of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver; and "Torturing Democracy," which examines the Bush administration's embrace of "alternative interrogation techniques" and the effect of that embrace on our democracy (available on the TD website either by DVD or as a free download).

Several things came to mind while I watched these documentaries.

First, what will be the continuing impact of these photos and videos--of Arab men being shackled, beaten, set upon by dogs, stripped, forced to masturbate, forced to mime homosexual acts--on jihadist recruitment? I'm not talking only about how many new suicide bombers these photos and videos will create; I'm talking also about the size and depth of the pool of sympathizers without whose support or at least acquiescence the bombers would be unable to function effectively. Whatever good might be accomplished by our overall efforts at counterterror, it's hard to imagine it'll outweigh the effect of what came out of Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and elsewhere.

Second, I was struck by how, in almost every photo and video of abuse, humiliation, and torture, the prisoners were hooded. It's well understood that covering a person's face is a highly effective way of denying his humanity (prisoners ascending the gallows or facing death by firing squad are hooded not as a mercy to the condemned, but as enablement to the executioner). Whatever "softening up" or security benefits the government believes might be accrued through hooding, the costs of the practice, in terms of increasing the likelihood of prisoner abuse, must be far greater.

Third, a thought experiment. If instead of American soldiers and Arab detainees, the photos and videos from Abu Ghraib were of American POWs and, say, Iranian guards, what would be the American reaction? Note the linguistic choices in the previous sentence, which would be automatic: Arabs are denied the dignity of being designated Prisoners of War. They're not even prisoners. They're merely "detainees" (I'm half-surprised we haven't started calling them "guests"). The Americans holding them are "soldiers"; were the shoe on the other foot, the enemy captors would doubtless receive the less exalted term, "guards." Would there be any debate about whether the practices revealed in the photos were "outrages upon human dignity," as prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and US law? Would we describe the practices as "abuse?" Or would they obviously, and rightly, be called "torture?" If Americans were taken against their will and spirited away by Iranian government forces, would we call the practice "rendering," or would we recognize it as "kidnapping?" Would we call the places to which Americans were secreted and where they were held without acknowledgment to their families or even to the Red Cross "detention centers?" Or would we call such a system a gulag?

Fourth, I marveled at the logical fallacy at the heart of our decision to "take the gloves off" and employ practices pioneered by the Spanish Inquisition (where waterboarding was known as the "tortura del agua," and sleep deprivation as the "tormentum insomnia"), and followed by the KGB, Communist Chinese, and North Koreans. All these illustrious forebears of ours employed the practices in question to elicit false *confessions,* yet we decided to employ them to elicit accurate *intelligence.* These are completely different goals, and I'm amazed that advocates of an embrace of such techniques could miss a point so fundamental. Call it your tax dollars at work.

It's common for rightists to justify America's embrace of the "dark side" by claiming that President Bush has kept the country safe. The claim strikes me as remarkably simplistic. If the temporal frame of reference begins on 9/11, and we ignore the unsolved anthrax attacks that came shortly after, and the geographical frame of reference is the territorial United States alone, then one might accurately claim America has been safe *up until now.* Whether the correlation between "the dark side" and our safety up until this point has a causal connection is far more debatable. Regardless, to me, "has kept us safe up until this point" has far too much the ring of Neville Chamberlain's "peace in our time." It also makes me think of a parent who seems to be an excellent provider because he's financing all those provisions on a dozen maxed-out credit cards. The temporary comfort he's afforded his family will inevitably be wiped out by the unpayable bill they're all soon to receive. Watching these documentaries, you can't help but feel that bill is out there, and that soon enough, it will be horrifically presented to us. Even if you believe "the dark side" offers benefits, and you're willing to ignore what the dark side has cost us in terms of our own ideals and our image in the world, that bill, when it comes, will represent the dark side's true price.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

America's Victory; California's Shame

I went out last night for a celebration dinner here in Tokyo and it was gratifying to hear so many Japanese at the tables around me talking about Obama (the name is easy to pronounce in Japanese -- there's a Japanese village called Obama in Fukui prefecture, and they were partying hard yesterday).

My greatest pride as an American has to do with our ideals: that we are all created equal, that America is the land of opportunity, that anyone can achieve anything in America if he or she is willing to work hard enough. Obviously the nation has frequently fallen short of that ideal. But yesterday we lived it, and damn, does it feel good.

But my pride in America was leavened by shame for my adopted state, California. There, by a margin of about two percent, citizens voted to amend the state constitution to prohibit gays from marrying. I wrote about this issue a few days ago and don't have much to add here. I'll just say that the discrimination Californians institutionalized today will prove brief -- no more than a single generation, because young people seem not to share their elders' antiquated views on homosexuality -- and that a decade or two from now, we'll look back at what happened in California today the same way we look back at the internment of Japanese-Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor, with the important difference that post-Pearl Harbor hysteria is relatively easy to understand, while the sources of the anti-gay hysteria that in the early 21st century motivated a prosperous and otherwise normal state to send a whole class of its citizens to the back of the bus will forever remain a mystery.

Back to the national election. No one can say for sure what kind of president Obama will be, but his judgment, temperament, and ability to put together a formidable campaign augur well. So does his refusal to deflect nonstop slurs without responding in kind. I hope that in defeat, Republicans will reflect on what cost them this election: a wholesale abandonment of principle, and the uselessness of baseless character attacks in obscuring that abandonment in the minds of a majority of voters. If Republicans can return to the arena once again confident enough of their principles to avoid campaigns based on demagoguery, America will be much the stronger for it, and so will the GOP.

But first the party has to emerge from denial. Here are a few items that might help.

First, as manifestly unqualified as I thought Sarah Palin was for national office, it seems things were even worse than I suspected. Yes, some of the news coming out now is score-settling. But not all of it. A party that tolerates this kind of candidate on its ticket cannot be taken seriously. One way by which we'll know how well Republicans are emerging from denial is whether Sarah Palin can make a serious run at the 2012 nomination.

During the last six weeks of the campaign, I received a fair amount of email from McCain backers who claimed the polls were wrong and McCain would be elected. I hope the people who made these claims will now reflect on the possibility that if they were mistaken about the polls, they might be mistaken on other matters, as well. And for anyone tempted to attribute Obama's landslide win to the ACORN bogeyman, you'd first have to explain how pre-election polls and the actual votes cast could track so closely. Surely ACORN is not quite so all-powerful as to have found a way to match up polling and actual votes.

Listening to President Bush's remarks after the election, I was struck -- not for the first time -- by the president's argument that "the most important responsibility of the US government is protecting the American people... this commitment will remain steadfast under our next commander-in-chief." I hope Bush's retirement will mean the end of this kind of inaccurate, dangerous, and hypocritical rhetoric. Inaccurate, because the Constitution doesn't provide for the importance of Bush's claimed "most important responsibility." In fact, what the Constitution requires the president to swear an oath to protect is the Constitution: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Dangerous, because in implying that the government might have to choose between protecting the people and protecting the Constitution, this kind of rhetoric creates an unnecessary temptation and a a possible excuse. Hypocritical, because the party of rugged individualism and personal responsibility ought not to demean itself by suggesting people are so in need of its protection that the Constitution comes second.

As for the ridiculous, militaristic, and unconstitutional notion of "our commander-in-chief," President Obama would do the country a service by telling America that he is not "our" commander-in-chief. America doesn't need a caudillo, pseudo or real, and the commander-in-chief fetish could very usefully be retired along with our outgoing president.

I'll spend the next four years rooting for the return of a principled Republican party, and, while, wishing our new president very well indeed, doing what I can to help keep him honest. He's demonstrated great promise, and, on FISA, also a willingness to break his promises. He'll need not just our support, but also our honest criticism.

But for the moment... what a day. And what a country.

P.S. With the election done and another novel deadline approaching, I'm going to try hard to get my blogging addiction a little more under control. We'll see if my efforts are successful. If you miss me, stop by my discussion forum and say hello. It's also a good place to find out the latest on Fault Line, including excerpts and contests, and on the Rain Fall movie, premiering in Tokyo on April 27th. Hope to see you there.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

No on Prop 8

If you don't know already, there's a ballot initiative in California, to be voted on this Tuesday, November 4, that would amend the California Constitution to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry. Here's the text:


Changes California Constitution to eliminate right of same-sex couples to marry. Provides that only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

Fiscal Impact: Over the next few years, potential revenue loss, mainly sales taxes, totaling in the several tens of millions of dollars, to state and local governments. In the long run, likely little fiscal impact to state and local governments.

I've written about this issue several times before. For anyone who wants more background, here are a few links: "Cynical or Clinical?," "Those Crazy Conservative Activists Again," "Homosexual Acts are Immoral?," "Activist Courts...?," and "Gay Marriage, Flag Burning, and Congress Again."

What's fascinating about opposition to gay-marriage is how unprincipled it is. I've heard every argument against preventing gays from marrying, and none of them, not even the ones based on the bible, holds up to logical scrutiny. Opposition to gay marriage is based on fear and ignorance, precisely the same kind of fear and ignorance that once led people to oppose interracial marriage -- indeed, the same kind of fear and ignorance that once led people to oppose integration generally.

If you oppose gay marriage, try to imagine that as strongly as you feel, that's just how strongly backers of Jim Crow felt in the 1950's and 1960's. Segregationists, who are now recognized as the racists they were, felt just as strongly about blacks marrying whites as you feel about two men or two women marrying each other. They had their arguments, as you have yours. And yet, looking back, we know they were wrong. When people look back at supporters of Prop 8, they'll recognize that Prop 8 supporters were wrong, too.

Here are some examples of the arguments and tactics put forth by pro-Prop 8 forces:

Eventually, gays will win the right to marry, just as blacks won the right to sit anywhere they wanted on a bus. Marriage equality will be both a consequence and a cause of society's increasing acceptance that homosexuality is exactly as abnormal, evil, destructive, wrong, and immoral as left-handedness. It's just a question of how long it'll take, and how much pain will be suffered in the meantime by gays who want nothing other than to share the basic human right to make a lifelong, legally recognized, publicly sanctioned, monogamous commitment to the person they love.

Here's something else to imagine: how you would feel if society denied you this basic right? Or if society told you you could have a few parts of it, but that you couldn't call it a marriage, because that word is special and reserved for people who are different from you?

A generation from now, your children or grandchildren will ask you how you voted on the current initiative to exclude gays from this fundamental right. You have a chance today to tell them you voted against it -- that you voted against fear and ignorance and discrimination and hate.

A handful of votes is going to make the difference on this one. Be one of those votes. And don't just make the right decision to vote "No" on Prop 8. Call a friend. Talk to a family member. Help them make the right decision, too. And, if you want to feel especially good about being on the right side of history, donate to the No on Prop 8 campaign. You don't need to live in California to donate (the Mormon Church has given about $20 million to pro-Prop 8 forces) and there are no limits on how much you can give. I've donated twice already, and just donated my next Tokyo speaking fee, as well. Why not do the same? You'll be proud you did, and your children and grandchildren will be proud of you, too.

The Myth of Equivalence

There's been a lot of lively conversation about the election on my website discussion board, some of which caused me to write the following post on the reflexive notion of political equivalence.

I have as little patience with people who suggest there's no big difference between the parties as I do with people who see their side as perfect and the other as the personification of evil. These stances seem dramatically different, but I would argue they're equally facile.

Part of what makes politics suck so much is that you have to get over the fact that neither side is doing, nor will ever do, what you think the country really needs (at least that's how it is for me). And then, within that disappointment, you have to decide which one is less worse, hold your nose, and vote.

But there's no logical reason to believe one side can't be *a lot* less worse. For reasons I've gone into at length elsewhere, at this point it's clear to me that the Republican party has been absorbed by people who make the Democrats seem a lot less worse.

Today I watched a video of Joe the Plumber trying to argue why a vote for Obama was the same as a vote for death to Israel. The guy who criticized Obama for tap dancing better than Sammy Davis Jr. was himself tap dancing like a madly inept politician. I couldn't help laughing at his hypocrisy... and then my laughter died away, because I thought, "Why the hell do I have to listen to this third-rate demagogue? Why do I have to engage his millimeter-deep opinions? Here's why: because the Republicans would rather scare people with this kind of crap than have a substantive conversation about which of our adversaries in the world we should talk to, and when, whether and how. The Joe the Plumber approach -- the "Appeasement!" "White flag of surrender!" "Death to Israel!" approach -- precludes that conversation, and we lose a lot because of it. When thoughtlessness drowns out thought, it's bad for America. And if there's one thing Republicans don't want you to do, it's think. That's why they try so hard to make you afraid.

I could go on. Okay, I will: there's no such thing as a completely socialist country, and no such thing as a completely capitalist one. But instead of having a real conversation about best practices -- that is, how much government involvement makes sense, where, why, and how -- the debate is stifled by this juvenile Republican horseshit of suggesting a 35% top marginal bracket is triple-distilled American capitalism and a 38% is the resurrection of Karl Marx. All at the very moment the government is buying up $250 billion worth of banks and getting set to operate them. We need a serious conversation on this and a dozen other subjects, and the reason the conversation can't happen is because Republicans insist on name-calling and fear-mongering instead.

As long as these tactics continue to work for Republicans, they'll keep using them, no matter how much damage they do to America in the process. This is why I think it's so critical that the Republicans be decisively turned out of power on November 4. There's no other way they'll abandon their current tactics, and return to their small government, fiscal responsibility, realistic foreign policy, respect-for-privacy principles. If they return to those principles, and make an honest, non-demagogic case for them, they'll have my vote again. Not before.

P.S. Scott​ Horto​n of Harpe​r'​s is one of the best blogg​ers,​ and best think​ers,​ aroun​d.​ Today​ he had two parti​cular​ly excel​lent piece​s on relat​ed subje​cts:​ "The New McCar​thyis​m," on the conti​nued degen​erati​on of the polit​ical right​;​ and "Best of the '08 Campa​ign V: North​ern Expos​ure," on Sarah​ Palin​'​s far-​out relig​ious belie​fs and radic​al polit​ical assoc​iatio​ns.​ The links​ on Palin​ are parti​cular​ly damni​ng,​ parti​cular​ly in light​ of her refus​al to answe​r quest​ions at even a singl​e press​ confe​rence​.​ Anyon​e inter​ested​ in facts​,​ trans​paren​cy,​ and indep​enden​t inqui​ry will enjoy​ these​ artic​les.​ If you feel you alrea​dy know Palin​ despi​te her newne​ss,​ her refus​al to relea​se her medic​al recor​ds,​ and her refus​al to answe​r quest​ions at even a singl​e press​ confe​rence​.​.​.​ well,​ facts​,​ trans​paren​cy,​ and indep​enden​t inqui​ry proba​bly aren'​t your bag anywa​y.


Monday, October 27, 2008

Rightwing Surrender Monkeys

God, how much cognitive dissonance can the right bear? Last week, al Qaeda endorsed John McCain, and now... now... the Bush administration is waving a white flag of surrender and appeasing the Taliban! Say it ain't so, George...

Today's Wall Street Journal reports that the Bush administration, with General Petraeus's support, plans to talk to elements of the Taliban, the group, you'll remember, that used to shelter al Qaeda. But I'm confused... isn't talking to your enemies appeasement and waving a white flag of surrender and all that?

Repeat after me:

When terrorists endorse Obama, it means they want Obama to win. When terrorists endorse McCain, it means they want Obama to win.

When Obama proposes incursions into Pakistan in pursuit of al Qaeda, it's naive and dangerous. When the Bush administration actually carries out such a policy, it's sending a tough message.

When Democrats propose talking to our enemies, it's waving a white flag of surrender and appeasement. When Republicans talk to our enemies, it's tactical.

Got that?

When a political movement is at home in the face of such massive hypocrisy, it has lost touch not just touch with its principles, but with reality, as well.

Define irony: the party of small government presides over a half-trillion dollar deficit and a ten trillion dollar national debt. For this state of affairs the party of personal responsibility blames everyone but itself. And the selfsame party's hacks then write books with titles like "Liberalism is a Mental Disease."

If I put these characters in a novel, no one would believe they were real.

Cynical or Clinical?

Of all the things I learned as a psychology major in college, possibly the most memorable -- and widely applicable -- was a joke. It goes like this:

A woman shows up at a psychiatrist's office. "How can I help you?" the psychiatrist asks.

"I'm dead," the woman tells him.

"Of course you're not dead," the psychiatrist assures her. "You're right here, talking to me."

"No, I'm dead," she insists.

So the psychiatrist ushers her into his office and spends hours trying to convince her that she's not dead. Finally, he gets her to accept that dead people don't bleed. Whereupon, he whips out a pin and stabs her in the back of the hand. The woman grabs her injured hand and watches in amazement as blood wells from the wound.

"Son of a bitch," she says. "Dead people do bleed!"

If this sounds familiar to you, it's because it's a perfect encapsulation of Republican ideology.

Ideology means a way of interpreting the world -- that is, a worldview. The concept is related to, but distinct from, policy. Policies are the means you choose to achieve a desired outcome, and the policies you favor will be driven by your ideology. For example, a CEO whose ideology is that people are best motivated by fear will implement a policy of screaming at his subordinates. A parent whose ideology is that experience is the best teacher will let his child make mistakes. "Money makes the world go round" is an ideology. Ditto, "All you need is love." In politics, "People are driven primarily by a desire for freedom" is an ideology. So is, "People are driven primarily by a desire for security."

Normal people develop their ideologies by interaction with the world. We learn from other people's ideologies (most of all, from our parents'), observe connections, make assumptions about cause and effect, test those assumptions, keep what is useful, reject what is useless. This process is both inevitable and desirable: the world is too big and complex to deal with in the absence of some sort of organizing framework.

But because we invest so much in the development of our ideology, it takes on a value independent of the facts the ideology is supposed to help us interpret. The best way to mitigate this danger is to be aware of it, and to continue to adjust our ideology to new data. People who are unable or unwilling to recognize the danger of an ossified ideology tend to be ineffective, and, in certain positions, dangerous. Facts, after all, are stubborn things. A deeply held belief that you can fly does nothing to suspend the operation of gravity.

I know plenty of people whose ideology differs from my own. Yet I can still engage them, and respect them, because they've arrived at their ideology by applying it to the facts of the real world (it's not a coincidence that the people I'm describing believe in science). Though our ideologies (and the policies that grow out of them) differ in various particulars, they are alike at the foundation: we believe in enlightenment values such as logic, empiricism, and rationality. In other words, our ideology is built on the assumed primacy of reason.

Which is why I feel so alienated from what the Republican party has become. It's not that I disagree with professed Republican policies; in fact, if I were willing to swallow Republican platitudes about small government and the like without first chewing, I might believe the party's ideology was a close enough match for my own. The problem is, the disparity between Republican platitudes and Republican practices has become so stark that the only way to make sense of the schism is to accept that the Republican party has abandoned reason as a fundamental organizing principle.

There's so much evidence of the Republican flight from reason that it's hard to know where to start. But al Qaeda's recent endorsement of John McCain is as good a place as any. I wrote about this development last week, and the angry responses I've been receiving have been in line with Republican talking points. What it comes down to is this: when a terrorist organization (Hamas) endorses Obama, it means the organization favors Obama. When a terrorist organization (al Qaeda) endorses McCain, it means the organization favors Obama.

A person whose worldview is predicated on reason will recognize that such a conclusion is "an argument that proves too much" -- that is, that they have structured their beliefs so as to arrive at the same conclusion whether the data is X or the opposite of X. A reasoning person will understand something is wrong here, and reexamine her premises. But Republicans are unwilling, or unable, to grasp the contradiction inherent in their position. Their worldview demands an outcome: "terrorists favor Obama" -- and they then fit the facts to conform to that worldview, ignoring elementary problems of logic along the way.

The McCain campaign's most recent set of talking points provides another fascinating example. You can argue that Obama is a socialist. But you can't argue that Obama is a socialist but that McCain -- who also just voted for a $700 billion financial sector bailout, including $250 billion to nationalize banks -- is not. Nor can you argue that Obama is a socialist, but that McCain's hero, Teddy Roosevelt, was not.

Although really, could any of the people who are fulminating about Obama being a communist, Marxist, or socialist actually define these terms if pressed? If you're one of the people who's been shouting that "Obama is a socialist," try this test at home: explain to yourself what socialism means. Name three countries that you would define as socialist, and explain how their system of government differs from that of the US in such a way that their system is socialist and ours is not. And if, after performing this test, you realize you don't have a good understanding of the term, ask yourself why you're so comfortable using it to justify your position. By the way, these private tests -- you don't even need to share the results -- are part of what it means to adhere to an enlightenment ideology.

Speaking of the "Socialist!" charge, part of what disturbs me about modern Republicanism is the way its adherents use labels, cliches, and other shorthand as substitutes for thought. Think about the following Republican talking points. Do they foster understanding? Or prevent it?

Terrorist. Communist. Marxist. Socialist. Arab. Muslim. Spreading the wealth around. ACORN. We're all Georgians now. I'll follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell. I'll be Hamas' worst nightmare.

If you haven't had a chance to read Robert Draper's "The Making (and Remaking) of McCain" in yesterday's New York Times Magazine, I highly recommend it. Here's the way a participant described the campaign's efforts to decide how McCain should respond to the news in September of impending financial calamity:

“We presented McCain with three options. Continue offering principles from afar. A middle ground of engaging while still campaigning. Then the third option, of going all in. The consensus was that we could stay out or go in — but that if we’re going in, we should go in all the way. So the thinking was, do you man up and try to affect the outcome, or do you hold it at arm’s length? And no, it was not an easy call.”

The lack of thought behind all those cliches is stunning. No wonder the campaign wound up bungling McCain's response to the crisis -- their verbiage buffered them so effectively from actual thought. If this is the way they engage with reality during the campaign, how might we expect them to govern?

The millimeter-deep labels are also part of what helps Republicans justify their hatred and bigotry. "Liberals hate real Americans that work and achieve and believe in God." (What's a liberal? What kind of hatred? Who are the real Americans? Etc). "Obama and liberals are anti-American." (What's a liberal? What does it mean to be anti-American? How are the two connected?). "Western Pennsylvania is the most patriotic, most God-loving part of America." (What does it mean to be patriotic? How is that quality found more in western Pennsylvania than anywhere else, and where, specifically, is it found less?)

"Who is Barack Obama?" is also a frequent refrain from McCain and Palin themselves and from their supporters. But how can you claim not to know a man who's been on the national stage for two years; who was vetted by both the press and the opposition research arm of the Clinton machine during a long, brutal primary campaign; who has written two books, one a memoir, the other an examination of his political philosophy; and who has given countless interviews, while simultaneously feeling you do know Sarah Palin, who almost no one outside Alaska had heard of until just two months ago, and who since then has refused to do a single press conference? A reasoning person would examine this "I don't know him, but I do know her" contradiction and seek to discover its true cause. A Republican, apparently, would not.

There's more. A reasoning person would recognize the contradiction in attempts to mock Obama for being a celebrity and for the "cult-like atmosphere" that surrounds him, on the one hand, and rightwing gushing over Palin's "starbursts" and "star power" and the like on the other. Ditto for the "Obama is The One" attacks, and the belief expressed by Palin supporters that she has been ordained as the Republican VP candidate by God, in part because God wants Alaska to be a refuge for survivors from the lower 48 during the End Days.

Then of course there's the right's spluttering rage about William Ayers and Jeremiah right. You can't argue that these relationships doom Obama by guilt by association while simultaneously ignoring the Palins' relationship with the Alaskan Independence Party.

Gay rights and marriage equality is another key area that exposes the Republican flight from reason. There isn't a single principled argument that can be leveled against letting gays marry as straights do, and Republican attempts to distinguish between anti-miscegenation laws of the Jim Crow era and anti-gay laws of today are incoherent. Recognizing that logic will not be an ally in their arguments against gay marriage, many rightists fall back on religion. But even here, there is no principled application. Recently on my discussion board, a poster opined that homosexuality was a sin because the bible says so. He was referring to Leviticus 18:22: "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable."

Citing an episode of The West Wing, someone asked him about Exodus 35:2, which provides, "For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it must be put to death." The poster's response? You have to be a biblical scholar to understand such matters, you can't cite a television show. In other words: facts don't count when they come from other than my preferred sources, and logic is suspended when its application would indicate an uncomfortable result. (I've received similar responses when I post clips from Comedy Central: rightists ignore the facts cited and profess shock that I would cite a comedy show to make a point).

True, I'm no biblical scholar. But I do know that if you articulate the principle that the bible is literally true and infallible, then you must be willing to apply that principle consistently, and forgo the right to cherry-pick the provisions you like and eschew the ones you don't. You don't need to be a scholar to understand this. You only need to adhere to the primacy of reason.

Some of the Republicans who've been responding to my posts have claimed polls showing the race breaking toward Obama are lies or don't matter. This is precisely the mentality I'm talking about. You can argue that the polls are somehow inaccurate, or that because of various fundamentals the polls will ultimately swing the other way. But saying without more that the polls are irrelevant (as, indeed, Palin herself has done) is a perfect example of a belief system so calcified that it's become impervious to facts. (Admittedly, I'm getting less of this now, with Obama's lead expanding, than I was a couple weeks ago. Which is encouraging: it suggests denial isn't necessarily an absolute condition, but rather something that's merely relatively impervious to facts.)

Probably the most telling litmus test of the Republican flight from reason is McCain's selection of Sarah Palin. You can argue that Obama lacks sufficient experience to be president. But you can't also argue that Palin's experience is adequate. I know, I know... all that Wasilla executive experience is what makes the difference. But how can time spent in Wasilla city hall count for something, and time spent in the Illinois senate count for nothing? Both of these things cannot be true, and a reasoning person will reexamine his premises rather than accept a contradiction. Reexamining premises, by the way, means inquiring more deeply into the nature of the jobs in question. Comedy Central did exactly that, and here's what they found:

By experience, by the way, I'm not only referring to Palin's scant time in government (that could arguably be an advantage), but to her lack of curiosity, and even, apparently, thought. Everything Palin knows about Iraq, she's had crammed into her during the last few weeks, and yet she's convinced that Obama's policy is a "white flag of surrender" (another one of the those substitutes for thought again). There's a term for people who adhere so confidently to an ideology in the absence of or in contravention of facts: true believer. I don't see how anyone who believes an ideology should be forged against facts can want another one of those in the White House.

I might feel sorry for Palin, but though her performance has been pitiful, she doesn't deserve pity. By her own admission, she didn't blink when McCain asked her to join the ticket. What level of narcissistic hubris is involved when someone (especially someone this inexperienced) doesn't even blink before accepting a responsibility like the vice presidency? If she were a layman who had without blinking agreed to perform heart surgery, or to repair a nuclear reactor, or to step into an air traffic control booth to direct landing planes, I wouldn't feel sorry for her -- I'd be outraged at the risk she imposed on my country, my family, and me, all in the name of her own blind narcissism.

There are so many more:

Palin accuses the mainstream media of wanting her to "shut up," while refusing to do a single press conference.

The right fulminates about The Angry Left, in the face of innumerable videos like these:

Cindy McCain claims that Obama is running the "dirtiest campaign in history." 'Nuf said.

John McCain claims to be running an honorable campaign even as his robocalls are being done by the same company that did the ones George Bush used in South Carolina in 2000 to make people believe McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock -- a campaign McCain denounced as deeply dishonorable.

McCain claims to be able to reach across the aisle, yet can't even look at Obama during a debate -- in fact, can't even bring himself to say Obama's name.

McCain and the rightwing echo chamber rant about ACORN and registration fraud "destroying the fabric of democracy," while ignoring actual voter suppression.

I'll save what might be the most obvious example of the Republican loss of its faculty to reason for last: the party that currently presides over a half-trillion dollar deficit and a ten-trillion dollar debt continues to claim to be the party of small government. Small government used to be the centerpiece of Republican ideology; today, it's a pathetic mantra, more akin to whistling past the graveyard than any species of coherent principle.

There are many more examples of the Republican flight from reason, and I'd welcome them from readers. Particularly from rightists, whose points, I expect, will unintentionally prove my own.

I disagree with many Democratic policies and with many aspects of Democratic ideology. But these differences are nothing compared to my alienation from a party composed of people who have rejected logic and reason as organizing principles of life. My primary concern in this election is to eject from government politicians who favor faith over facts. Once that goal is accomplished, I'll look forward to doing whatever I can to hold Democrats accountable (as I've already done with Obama and his betrayal of campaign promises on FISA). And I'll continue to encourage principled Republicans to purge the party of enlightenment-rejectionists and to return to the small government, balanced budgets, modest foreign policy, individual freedom ideology that characterized the party before it was hijacked by the current crew of flat-earthers, who have more in common with a religious cult than they do with a modern political party.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Al Qaeda Endorses McCain

Now that al Qaeda has endorsed John McCain, it'll be fascinating to hear McCain and his allies explain why America's #1 enemy has thrown its support to him. In case you don't remember, back in May McCain argued that Hamas had endorsed Obama, took these "endorsements" at face value, and concluded that McCain was therefore the better candidate.

The "Hamas endorses Obama" cry was taken up in many other rightist quarters, including the Wall Street Journal, and was a coordinated part of the McCain campaign narrative.

So I'm now looking forward to hearing McCain and his supporters explain how we should interpret the support McCain is receiving from al Qaeda. Whatever the explanation is, I'm sure it will be just the same as it would have been had al Qaeda endorsed Obama instead (where's an extreme sarcasm emoticon when you need one?).

My take on all the Hamas/Obama bullshit, BTW, is here. And, aside from its usefulness in exposing yet more stunning rightwing cynicism and hypocrisy, I'd say this latest "endorsement," of McCain this time, is -- and should be -- equally irrelevant.

But that's why I can't vote for today's Republican party. I try to apply my principles equally, and recoil from people who don't do the same.

Care about the Republican party? Want Republicans to return to principle? Then give them the shock therapy they need. Vote Democratic on November 4.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Thoughts on the Third Presidential Debate

Well, the snap polls are going heavily to Obama. This is not surprising. As I've argued before, the only definition of who "won" that matters is, who garnered more undecideds by virtue of his performance? By this measure, once again, Obama succeeded in his primary objective, which was to seem "presidential." And once again, McCain failed to create doubts about Obama, while managing, through his sarcasm, visible anger and disgust, and overall lack of graciousness, to look distinctly unpresidential himself. Obama's performance reassured undecideds; McCain's caused doubts. As went the first two debates, so went the third.

A few things struck me. First, how tactically inept McCain's team is. They loaded him up with a line they must have thought would be a real zinger: "I'm not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago." But all the line did was invite the obvious, much more powerful counterpunch, which has been the center of Obama's campaign narrative: "No, you're not Bush, but what you're proposing is eight years of the same old policies." They also fed him this: "Congressman Lewis hurt my feelings by comparing me to George Wallace, and Senator Obama should disown those remarks." First, who cares about the candidates' feelings? Second, Obama's campaign had already repudiated the remarks. Most importantly, more than anything else, McCain's introduction created an opening for Obama to discuss the negativity of McCain's campaign and the calls to violence his campaign has been inciting. Polls show that personal attacks (along with Sarah Palin) are killing McCain's chances, so why would McCain's people want to feed Obama a perfect segue into that very subject? I can only surmise that when they come up with these "zingers," they don't bother to think even one move beyond. They just want to throw that haymaker, heedless of how easy it is to duck and how badly it exposes their candidate to a straight right to the face in response.

By contrast, I can't help but admire how skillfully Obama and Biden goaded McCain into bringing up William Ayers directly. By repeatedly suggesting that McCain didn't have the cajones to say it to Obama's face, they forced him to either stay mum on Ayers, thus bolstering the "no cajones" narrative, or to bring Ayers up, thereby introducing a topic polls show is blowing up in McCain's face. Amusing, when you consider how many times in the first debate McCain accused Obama of not understanding the difference between a strategy and a tactic. Oh, I think Obama knows. Did you see how well-prepared he was to brush off the Ayers nonsense? He knew exactly what was coming because he manipulated his opponent into bringing it with him.

It was interesting to see how deeply moderator Bob Schieffer has drunk from the cup of false equivalency. "Senator Obama, you've said McCain is erratic and losing his bearings... Senator McCain, you've said Obama is disrespectful, dishonorable etc. Why are you both so negative?" As I've argued before, this "equivalency" is a chimera. First, and without even considering follow-on effects (we'll consider those effects in a moment), attacks on your opponent's patriotism and barely veiled accusations of treason ("Senator Obama would rather lose a war than lose an election," "Senator Obama's blind ambition always puts himself ahead of his country," etc.) are far worse than suggestions that your opponent is, for example, "erratic." Second, there's the question of the accuracy of the charges in question. Is "erratic" really an inapt way to describe the behavior of a man who "suspended" his campaign, whatever that meant in fact, and pledged not to show up for the first debate until Congress had passed bailout legislation, then de-suspended his campaign and showed up for the debate when Congress had made no progress? Under the circumstances, I'd call "erratic" charitable. Third, there's the danger of violence. Suggesting McCain is "losing his bearings" is unlikely to encourage anyone to take a shot at him. By comparison, suggesting that Obama pals around with terrorists... that he doesn't see America the way you and I do... that he's a radical who was taught and ghost-written by terrorists... is playing with fire. Meaning that fourth, McCain and Palin are complicit in the hateful calls to violence their campaign rallies produce. I see no such complicity in anything coming from Obama or Biden.

I guess it's all how you define "attack," though. Because at one point, McCain accused Obama of launching attack ads against McCain's health care plan. Presumably this hurt McCain's feelings as much as Congressman Lewis's condemnation of his campaign tactics. Presumably McCain was factoring in ads critical of his policies when he claimed Obama has spent unprecedented amounts on negative ads.

(Memo to McCain camp: when voters get turned off by attack ads, they're not thinking of attacks on the candidates' policies. They're thinking of attacks on the candidates' character. And rightly so.)

I couldn't help laughing when McCain blamed his negativity on Obama's refusal to do a series of townhall meetings. "If my opponent had only agreed to a format favorable to me [actually, I'd argue the second debate proved McCain was mistaken in this assessment], I wouldn't have had to resort to distortions and demagoguery!" I suppose this is the current Republican notion of personal responsibility.

For me, the most interesting aspect of the debate was McCain's inability to hide his anger, disgust, and sarcasm. The references to how "I admire Senator Obama's eloquence." The gratuitous, repeated mention that Obama hasn't traveled to South America: "Maybe if you'd go there, you'd understand better." The "I'm sure you're aware Senator Obama...". The constant mugging for the camera.

As I mentioned above, polls show that McCain's negativity is killing him. So either his people are in denial about what the polls show, or McCain simply can't help himself. Neither explanation makes me comfortable with the notion of a President McCain. Do you want in the Oval Office someone in denial, surrounded by others in denial (does that sound a bit... deja vu?). Do you want someone who can't stop himself from engaging in behavior that he knows is bad for him, who has that little control over himself? I don't.

At one point, Obama said the health of the economy is critical because never in history has there been a country whose economy declined and who maintained its military primacy. Fair enough, but I find troubling the notion that our economic health is important primarily because we need a healthy economy to retain military superiority. Surely there are more important reasons for a healthy economy than the maintenance of military strength? On the issue of Imperial America, Obama doesn't strike me as about Change at all.

Part of what consistently hurts McCain in these campaigns is how obviously nervous he is. Look how much he blinks. Blinking is a classic sign of nervousness, and is also associated with lying. Whether viewers are consciously aware of it or not, over the course of three debates and innumerable interviews, McCain comes across as either afraid of Obama or deceptive or both. Neither quality is something many people want to see in a president.

As a novelist, I can't help my fascination between the campaigns' respective grasp of effective communication, of text and subtext. When you're writing dialogue, "text" means what's actually said, which in art as in life is largely discounted; "subtext" means what's meant and actually communicated. Obama's people understand the distinction. Obama's text consisted of many things: discussion of his health care plan, his plans for the economy, etc. It was all in the service of his subtext, which was what he really wanted to communicate: "I'm serious. I'm presidential. I'm not a radical. You can trust me in the White House."

By comparison, McCain seems to believe text and subtext are the same. He believes that when he expresses contempt for Obama, viewers will be encouraged to feel contempt, too. In fact, the contempt text reveals an unhelpful subtext: angry, thin-skinned, insecure, cranky old man. Three debates, and McCain never once demonstrated that he or the people around him understand the distinction. If you think effective communication is an important skill in a president, McCain offers few grounds for confidence.

It'll be interesting to see whether Obama's lead will grow wider over the next twenty days. It'll be even more interesting -- and productive -- to see whether a crushing loss will result in a reformed Republican party. I see two general possibilities. First, enough Republicans will be persuaded by the results of the election to honestly grapple what's gone wrong with the party and to return to Republican principles, in which case the Republicans will be able to mount a worthy and capable challenge to President Obama in 2012. Second, a rump coalition will remain in denial, with Sarah Palin as their standard bearer. They'll come up with all manner of excuses for their loss, mostly having to do with the liberal media, voter fraud, and other such transparently lame excuses (with today's Republicans, personal responsibility is always for someone else). They'll nominate Sarah Palin in 2012, which I expect will produce another stunning Republican defeat. At that point, some portion of the denialists will begin to grapple with reality, in which case the Republicans will again have a chance to return to being a worthwhile political party, only in 2016 rather than in 2012. Either way, the longer they wait to honestly face their shortcomings, the worse off they will be, and the worse off America.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Here are some videos of recent McCain/Palin rallies. Look at the kind of hatred and anger they're appealing to and fomenting. Look at the kind of know-nothing, us vs. them, violent passions they stoke. Even as their supporters rant "traitor!" and "socialist!" and "terrorist!" and "off with his head!" and "kill him!" and other such slander and exhortations to violence, neither McCain nor Palin ever once admonishes anyone to cool down, these are *Americans* we're denouncing and threatening to murder.

Think about that for a moment. Not just the calumny of "terrorist" and "traitor" and the rest, but death threats, as well. Against a sitting United States senator and candidate for president. A fellow American. And not a word of protest from McCain or Palin.

A few questions:

What does it say about a party when it is attracts supporters like these?

What does it say about a candidate when he or she repeatedly encourages supporters like these?

Can McCain and Palin control the passions they're stoking? Or is it more likely that such passions, stoked, will lead to real violence?

If fascism comes to America, how will it sound? What will it look like? What will be its slogans?

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Why Do the Palins Hate America?

Imagine the reaction if Michelle Obama had belonged to a political party that advocated secession from America, a party whose founder ranted, "The fires of hell are frozen glaciers compared to my hatred for the American government... And I won't be buried under their damn flag... I'm not an American... I've got no use for America or her damned institutions." And imagine if Barack Obama had attended that party's conventions, even after swearing his oath of office to uphold the Constitution.

But wait, this has nothing to do with the Obamas -- it's all about the Palins! For seven years, Todd Palin was a member of this party -- the "Alaska Independence Party" -- and Sarah Palin repeatedly attended its annual conventions, even after she had been sworn in as Alaska's governor. The quotes above are from the party's founder, Joe Vogler. So where are Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and Peggy Noonan, the ardent defenders of America from the radicals who hate our freedoms and attack our values?

Maybe these patriotic pundits just haven't heard about the Palins and their connection to the Alaska Independence Party? Because if they knew, I'm sure they'd be upset. I hope someone will tell them so they can expose the Palins for the America-hating radicals they are -- terrorist appeasers who pal around with people who despise our country and hate our freedoms!

Please cut and paste or otherwise forward this message to every patriotic, country-first, red-blooded American you know -- I'm sure they'd want to know that the Palins have been palling around with people who hate America so much they want Alaska to be a separate country.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The VP Debate

Okay, just got done watching the vice presidential debate. A few thoughts.

As with last week's presidential debate, the main thing to remember in determining who won and who lost is that this whole thing was aimed at that small proportion of voters who are still undecided. Anyone who wasn't going to be swayed one way or the other (and that includes me) was, or at least should have been, irrelevant to the two campaigns. Keeping that in mind, we need to ask: What were the candidates' objectives for the evening? Were those objectives the right ones? And to what extent did the candidates achieve their objectives?

Let's start with Governor Palin. Given her recent disastrous interviews with Charlie Gibson and especially Katie Couric, and accompanying calls from prominent conservatives that she is embarrassingly unqualified and should step aside for the good of the party, Palin's primary objective was simply to come across as coherent and minimally credible. By the extraordinarily low standards set by her recent performances, I think she achieved this objective. But scrambling merely to avoid disaster doesn't leave much room to get anything positive done (does this sound familiar? Think treasury bailout...).

To put it another way: another "When Putin rears his head" moment, and the McCain campaign would have been dead and buried (as things stand, as I've argued before, I think the McCain campaign is merely dead). She didn't have one of those, and so managed to avoid catastrophe. So far, so good.

(Here are all the recent interview highlights, BTW, courtesy of TPM)

Her second, related objective, was to seem "presidential." That is, if you were undecided, would you come away from the debate believing Palin is ready to be president? Could you comfortably imagine her as president? Palin's objective was to get undecideds to answer these questions "yes." Did she?

I don't think so. Here's why.

When Palin went out of her way to correctly pronounce the names of foreign leaders like Achmadinejad and Kim Jung Il, it was in support of the "win undecideds by seeming presidential" objective, and was smart. But she spent far more time saying things like "Darn right, Joe six pack, soccer moms, I'm gonna speak directly to the voters, kinda, you may not like the way I answer questions, I'm from Wasilla, you know, bless their hearts, and I've been campaigning for like five weeks, doggonit, talkin' and wantin' and doin,' I want to speak to the American people without the filter of the mainstream media," and other such folksie, awe shucks, down-home, regular-girl verbal mannerisms and anti-condescending liberal elitist asides. None of which was in the least presidential. So what was it all about?

The "awe shucks" stuff was intended to fire up the base. And I imagine it did. The problem is, the base already believes she's their kind of gal and is going to vote for her because of it. So this second objective -- fire up the base -- was at best wasteful, because the base is already in the bag. They were baiting a hook for a fish that's already caught. The only thing that matters then, again, is how did "awe shucks" play to the undecideds?

Of course I could be wrong or I could be projecting, but I don't think the regular-girl schtick brings in the undecideds. Here, the low expectations she had created with her recent interview disasters worked against her. The essential problem is that Palin has set expectations so low that even if she exceeds them, people will still recognize it's not enough. Acting like a regular gal doesn't change that dynamic; it worsens it.

My sense is that at this point, outside the base, people don't believe Palin knows anything about foreign policy, the economy, or other national issues. I doubt they believe she's even given such outside-Alaska issues any thought. All of which made even her successful answers seem like well-executed rote recitations. As for the balance of her oratory, it was mostly repeated invocations of the evils of greed and corruption, promises to put the American people first, and lots of "John McCain is a maverick, a maverick, a maverick, the consummate maverick, we're a team of mavericks, John McCain takes on his own party, he does what's right for the American people, he'll take on his own party, he's ruffled feathers, John McCain knows how to win a war, he will know how to win a war, he will, he will...". In the absence of any substance, in the context of the expectations she's set, combined with the awe-shucks schtick and what felt to me like an overly chirpy, slightly manic persona, I think undecideds will come away feeling she was evasive, unclear, and unready. All of which is ultimately testimony to John McCain's judgment, or lack of it, in picking her to begin with.

Along these lines, her claim that "your plan for Iraq is a white flag of surrender" was red meat for the base. But did undecideds buy it? It also sounded a lot like the worst of George Bush, which played to the Obama campaign's objective of making McCain "more of the same." Were there any undecideds who felt that Palin even has the basis for such an opinion? Before being invited to be next in line for the presidency, Palin claimed only to have heard about the "surge" in Iraq on the news. Everything else she knows, she's learned in the last few weeks. Given the recency of her familiarity with these issues, Palin's chirpy confidence carries the whiff of a true believer. Again, I think undecideds will come away deciding the country has endured quite enough of that.

Also, "government isn't the solution, government is the problem" is the wrong message when the economy is cratering. It's dissonant with the galactic bailout her running mate supposedly suspended his campaign to try to support. People uninterested in such subtleties are already voting for McCain/Palin. People who distrust slogans unsupported by facts will now be more inclined to vote otherwise.

So again, Palin was given two mutually inconsistent objectives: bring in the undecideds, fire up the base. Worse, the McCain campaign clearly gave greater weight to the second one. You could see this in their choice of summation, which essentially came down to "freedom isn't free" and "the mainstream media is in the tank for the liberals." Who was that aimed at? Who found it persuasive?

Okay, now Senator Biden. His objective was simply to seem more presidential than Palin. Doing so required only that he demonstrate a greater command of substance and more gravitas, and avoid seeming to talk down to Palin lest he alienate women or otherwise win Palin a sympathy vote. For voters who've heard Biden can be a gasbag, he would get bonus points by being brief and down to earth. These weren't difficult objectives to achieve, and I'd say he achieved them handily through his command of the subject matter and calm, confident manner. The Obama campaign made a very smart move in directing Biden to go after McCain the way Biden did: doing so was calculated to diminish the top of the McCain/Palin ticket, of course, but more importantly, it implicitly emphasized that Biden is McCain's peer and equal. By contrast, again, when Palin delivered her "white flag of surrender" line, I can't imagine anyone outside the base felt she had any basis for her opinion.

There were a few small slips. Biden referred to himself as Joe Biden three times. To me, people who refer to themselves in the third person are as weird as people who whistle in public, and his doing so did tend to reinforce the gasbag hypothesis. He also had a tendency to use too many numbers and percentages. Doing so demonstrated a mastery of detail, I suppose, but sometimes the blizzard of numbers seemed to obscure the more fundamental point he was trying to make. My biggest disappointment was his failure to respond when Palin pointed out he once said he'd be honored to run with John McCain. This was a perfect opening for what I've argued should be one of the central narratives of the Obama campaign: What's happened to John McCain? Biden could have said, "I did say that, and I meant it. But something's happened to John since then. He's not the same man we all knew and admired in the senate." But in hindsight and from the sidelines, it's easy to come up with minor points like these. For purposes of analyzing whether Biden achieved his objectives, they're barely relevant.

I liked it when Biden attacked back on Palin's "maverick" perseveration. It exposed one of the key differences between them: Palin (like McCain) seems to believe that claims without evidence are credible. Outside the base, they're not. Biden responded with evidence. Doing so demonstrated his command of substance, and exposed her as a millimeter-deep lightweight glued to catch-phrases and talking points.

Needless to say, all of this is snap-judgment stuff. I think when the pundits weigh in and start dissecting Palin's various lies, mistakes, and distortions (Obama voted 93 times to raise taxes, voted against funding the troops, etc.), the initial sense that she's not ready will harden.

A thought about the moderator and rules of debate: would anything have been different if instead of Gwen Ifill, they had used a computer to flash the questions on a screen? If the answer is "no different" (and I think it is) -- that is, if the moderator's value-add is no more than reading questions off a pile of cards -- we might conclude that the rules were lame, or the moderator was useless, or both.

Overall, I think the best anyone could say for Palin is that she exceeded the stunningly low expectations her recent performances have established. I can't imagine that a material number of undecideds watched this debate and decided based on it to vote for McCain/Palin (I can, however, easily imagine it picking up some undecideds for Obama/Biden). So the best you can say is that Palin avoided making things much worse for her ticket. Which is another way of saying that in November, Barack Obama will be elected president.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Debate

Thanks for all the messages asking me what I thought of the debate. There's a ton of excellent coverage out there already, and I don't want to repeat the commentary you can find at The Daily Dish, Talking Points Memo, Eunomia, and lots of other places. So I'll offer just a few thoughts on matters I haven't seen touched on elsewhere.

I guess the first thing everyone wonders is, "Who won?" I'd have to give the evening to Obama, though not by a lot. My reasoning: Obama had to show that he was "presidential." I think he did. McCain, especially after the preceding week of bizarre drama queen antics, had to show he wasn't having some sort of a meltdown. I think he did. So both achieved their objectives, but Obama's objective was the weightier of the two because it's more likely to move the undecided middle, which at this point is all that really matters. McCain also had to demonstrate that he was vastly superior to Obama on foreign policy. Personally, I think Obama did better here, but even if you think McCain had the edge, foreign policy is supposed to be McCain's bread and butter, so an edge isn't enough.

I think McCain's refusal, or inability to make eye contact with Obama even once is going to hurt him a lot. Mostly people are interpreting his refusal to look at his opponent as contempt. That's a charitable interpretation, and regardless, not one that would attract undecideds to the candidate engaging in it. In fact, my take is that McCain was afraid to look at Obama -- afraid that if he did so, his emotions (fear, anger, whatever) would kick in and knock him off his game. However you want to interpret McCain's failure to make eye contact (or even to glance left at where Obama was standing), it's not going to bring undecideds his way, and will likely alienate many. Similarly, his constant "What Senator Obama doesn't understand" and related refrains must have felt good to him and will please people who plan to vote for him anyway, but likely came across at best as undignified and arrogant to undecideds.

McCain also had a tendency to say, "Trust me, I'll..." or "I promise, I'll...". After eight years of George Bush and in midst of an economic crisis, "Trust me" is a terrible way, indeed, a terrible phrase, to try to move the middle.

Substantively, I would have been disappointed if my expectations weren't already so low. If you think about the substantive differences that were aired, they were tiny compared to the possibilities. Both candidates seem to agree that Georgia and other former satellite countries should be admitted to NATO. Their differences over how and when are important, but not as important as the whole question of what NATO is for at this point, and the costs and benefits of admitting a country like Georgia. Similarly, they both agree that we should be free to make incursions into Pakistan, presumably without any word from Congress, and differ only on whether it's okay to say so out loud. Take a step back and you'll see that this is a hell of a small policy difference compared to, say, should the president be able to direct secret, unauthorized wars in the first place? And can clandestine wars not backed by overt policy even succeed regardless? Etc.

At one point Jim Lehrer asked the candidates if the current economic crisis would affect the way they would "rule" the country once elected. Given the Bush Administration's creeping monarchism, I would have liked one of the candidates to correct Lehrer on his odd diction. Neither did.

The biggest reason I think the evening was Obama's rather than McCain's comes back to brand. McCain was clearly at pains to bolster his Experience brand by emphasizing how long he's been around, how many foreign leaders he's known, how many countries he's visited, how many issues he's been involved with. All of which is fine and under the right circumstances could be advantageous. But as I've written before with regard to Hillary Clinton, this is the wrong marketplace into which to try to introduce a product branded as "Experience." McCain's people realize this, and as I wrote a few days ago, they're trying to respond to marketplace conditions by changing McCain's brand to "Change/Reform." But Change/Reform and Experience are dissonant brand claims, and McCain's own debate efforts undercut his effort to modify the brand. In this regard and in others, McCain is faced with the same conundrum, and making the same mistakes, that Clinton made during the primary. Here's what I wrote about Clinton's branding efforts back in January. The whole post applies equally to McCain today, but here's the main idea:

Part of what makes a brand powerful is internal consistency -- that is, consistency between the elements of the message, and between the message and the underlying product. Inconsistency, that is, dissonance, weakens a brand. In other words, for a brand to have power, its various elements must organically cohere. Volvo stands for safety. How would Volvo fare if the company attempted to include in its brand the idea of speed, handling, and thrills? Not well, because thrills and safety don't easily fit together in the consumer's mind. Reliability, on the other hand, is something that does cohere with safety, and therefore, conceptually, Volvo would have little trouble expanding its brand to make it mean reliability along with safety. But because Volvos are not, in fact, reliable, the extension wouldn't work -- there would be a disconnect between the brand and the underlying product...

But other things aren't equal, and experience isn't always the better brand to run on even when the claim to it is strong (note that George Bush Sr., the candidate of experience, was defeated by the young, inexperienced Bill Clinton in 1992). There's also the question of the suitability of "experience" and "change" as brands in the current market. And here, even if Clinton were the very embodiment of experience, she has the wrong brand for 2008.

"Experience" connotes establishment, status quo, the past -- not concepts likely to be favored in a market that has seen five years of catastrophic war in Iraq; the epic incompetence of the response to Katrina; a plummeting dollar; a nine trillion dollar national debt; etc. "Experience" suggests you might be part of the problems people now want fixed. By contrast, all the associations of "change" as embodied by Obama -- freshness, excitement, the new, the future -- suggest the product in question, rather than being part of the problems of the past, will instead be the agent for solving them.

Clinton has realized her "experience" brand is not nearly as well suited for the current market as Obama's "change" brand, and has therefore been attempting to make "change" a part of her brand, as well. You can see the results in her final pre-caucus Iowa television commercial. Note how many times she talks about how she'll be "ready on day one" -- to make "a new beginning." The message (which Bill Clinton has been broadcasting, as well), is that only the candidate with experience can bring about change. Logically, there's nothing wrong with this argument. But brands aren't driven by logic. They're driven by emotion, by unconscious associations, and the implicit question in the mind of voters ("if she's so experienced, why is she only getting around to changing things now?") cannot be satisfactorily answered by logic. In other words, "experience" and "change" are not elements that cohere under a unified, powerful brand. (For a hilarious take on the ultimate in Clinton rebranding, click here.)

At the same time, McCain's primary, and original, brand claim -- experience -- has been badly damaged by his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Here's just one of her recent performances:

Watch CBS Videos Online

(BTW, that claim about trade missions? Another... let's call it another falsehood.)

True, Obama has undercut his own core brand of Change by selecting Joe Biden, a six-term senator whose brand -- longevity, insider, experience -- is dissonant with Obama's. But my sense is that it's easier to yoke "experience" in the service of "change" than it is to do the reverse. Also, no matter who he adds to the ticket, Obama just looks and sounds like change (whether he actually represents such a thing is of course a separate matter). McCain, no matter who he adds, looks as though he's been around forever. Once again, in this marketplace, even if McCain hadn't done so much to dilute and distort his brand, he'd have the tougher sell. I think his debate strategy has made it tougher.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Brain Dead

"It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."

--Mark Twain

If you're part of the McCain team, here's what you're thinking.

You didn't know anything substantive about Palin before she was selected (why would you? She wasn't vetted). You meet her. You quickly realize she's bereft of even minimal acquaintance with defense, foreign policy, the economy, climate issues, domestic concerns, or any other area in which a president needs a firm grounding. You realize you can't let her out in public unscripted because she's so unready that a disaster is certain.

Your first response, therefore, is Oh, shit.

(Before denying anything in the above paragraph, you need to explain why, if Palin could exceed or even barely meet the press's and public's increasingly modest expectations, McCain's people won't take off the gag. That they're willing to pay a price for gagging her demonstrates they know removing the gag would be worse. Watch the Letterman clip below. He asks the eminently common sense question: even if McCain himself can't multitask and it made sense for him to suspend his campaign in response to the current economic crisis as he claims, why can't his vice presidential running mate campaign in his stead? If the quarterback can't play, where's the second string?).

You fight panic. You force yourself to think... think, damn it! And you realize -- hey, you don't need to make her an actual expert on any of those tough presidential subjects (and thank God for that, because true expertise in any, let alone all of these areas would be impossible in the time and circumstances available). What you need to do instead is just train her to seem like an expert. Sure, sure, you think, feeling better now, feeling like there's hope. It's like the difference between being a real martial artist, and being able to realistically bust out a few moves in front of the cameras on a movie set. Not that the second one is easy, but it's nothing compared to the first. That's the way to look at it -- she doesn't have to be an expert; she just has to play one on TV.

You're nodding now. Positive self talk. You can do this. This can be done. It's not like you have to pull it off for two years or anything. The election's on November 4, for God's sake... that's right around the corner. Look how long Bush and company kept the war in Iraq going by continually announcing new six-month milestones. If they can do that for six years, surely you can do this for six weeks.

But you're going to have to let her out at some point. No getting around that. Eventually, people are going to start asking what you're hiding, what you're afraid of. Whether you're running a campaign worthy of Vladimir Putin, whether this mystery candidate is really the Manchurian Candidate.

Panic starts to rise again. You beat it back. You grab a pencil and paper. Write it down, come up with a method. Plan the work, work the plan. Don't panic. Think. You can do it. The plan looks like this:

1. Push back "eventually" as long as possible. Inject as many smears about Obama's patriotism and as much bullshit about lipstick and kindergarten sex education as you can to obscure what you're really up to. Sure, McCain will take heat for turning the "Straight Talk Express" into the Bullshit Express, for sullying his alleged honor and integrity, but better that be the campaign narrative than incontrovertible proof that he selected a cipher to be a 72-year-old heartbeat away from the presidency.

2. Hide her. Force feed her everything she needs to know to avoid making a catastrophic mistake when she's finally allowed to open her mouth. Remember, you don't have to turn her into an expert, just someone who plays one on TV. Just enough to avoid that catastrophic mistake.

3. The preceding two points reinforce each other. The longer you hide her, the more you can improve her acting skills and the less the public expects. When "eventually" finally happens, you push her out in front of the press and public. At this point, you've been hiding her so long everyone's expecting her to be as vacuous as the icy void of space. Instead, she gets through her talking points without a major gaffe. The narrative then becomes, "She's not as clueless as we were expecting." You shrug and say, "What was the big deal? Told you we had nothing to hide."

Lower expectations dramatically, bone up her acting skills... with a whole lot of luck, you can get the two to cross on a graph. In the meantime, it's the political high-wire act of the century. But hey, they don't pay you the big bucks for nothing.

For a variety of reasons, it won't work.

First, there's the difficulty, noted above, of bringing someone like Palin up to speed even as a pretend-expert.

Second, there's the hostility the McCain camp is engendering even in the supine mainstream media. When you've been in the tank for your buddy John McCain as long as the MSM has, and he then repeatedly ignores your gentle hints that his statements are, shall we say, at odds with the factual record, making you look like co-opted, unappreciated fools, and he then turns on his erstwhile best buds and accuses them of not even being journalists, the backlash from the erstwhile best buds is going to get downright personal. And without the press to enable it, the narrative you're desperately trying to create -- "she's better than you thought!" -- won't take root outside the rightwing blogosphere.

Then there's the economy, the wars, Katrina, the whole Republican brand...

But wait, there's still more. Choosing Palin destroyed one of the ventricles of McCain's brand: his claim to experience. You can't build a brand on experience and then select a neophyte like Palin to be your understudy. So what McCain and Palin are now trying to do, fundamentally, is build a new brand, about Change and Reform, in under two months. This is a hell of a hard thing to do -- dot bombs in Silicon Valley spent millions on just such efforts, and I'm not aware of any that succeeded. And here, the task is particularly daunting because the packaging in which McCain and Palin are attempting to wrap themselves is so at odds with the facts of the underlying product (more on political brand dissonance here). John McCain not only looks like the establishment, this son and grandson of admirals and quarter-century-in-congress-and-the-senate politician is the establishment. Meanwhile, every one of Palin's claim to be a reformer, from "thanks, but no thanks" to the Bridge to Nowhere to selling the plane on eBay to firing the governor's cook to taking a paycut to believing in transparency in government has been proven false.

So abruptly changing the McCain brand from Experience to Change/Reform is as difficult a maneuver as Volvo suddenly abandoning "safety" in favor of "speed." A change like that is damn near impossible under any circumstances. When the underlying product doesn't support -- and in fact contradicts -- the new brand direction, sales will be a disaster. As the writing on the wall becomes increasingly clear, you might even see management begin to indulge in increasingly bizarre and desperate gambits: contradicting themselves again and again on the health of the company (or of the economy); more lying, even on trivial matters; lashing out at shareholders who criticize their plans (or at the press); trying to postpone or cancel shareholder meetings (or to hide from reporters); or suspend a campaign; or cancel debates; or run from TV appearances). Anything to avoid, or just delay, the inevitable rendezvous with reality.

Speculation: what we're seeing now is not just the wheels coming off the McCain campaign following serial collisions with the real world. McCain's recent pleas to suspend the campaign and cancel debates are evidence that the candidate's age is showing. Members of the media (before concluding McCain was just using them) used to laud McCain's remarkable vigor. But even if he was vigorous during the primary, at some point the relentless pace and grinding duration of a presidential campaign will take their toll. McCain's people know if he has even one senior moment, or one of the intemperate outbursts for which he's known, during a debate, all hope will be lost. I think they've been seeing more of such moments in private, and are now trying to find a way to get him some rest before he gets lost in public. And I'm not the only one wondering. Here's George Will and company; here's David Letterman's scathing mockery.

A significant percentage of the country will vote for McCain and Palin no matter what. Likewise, a significant percentage for Obama and Biden. The independent middle only needs to move a little one way or the other to swing the election. By definition, that middle is considerate. The more time they have to consider the monumental bullshitter that John McCain has become, and how frighteningly unready his understudy is, the more independents will break for Obama.

As with Obama's race with Clinton, when the general election ends in November, people will look back and realize it had been over for a long time already. What we're seeing now is the McCain campaign's fingers continuing to twitch long after the brain has died.