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.