Oct 31, 2008

Reports from Wonderland

"If [the media] convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning ... then I don't know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights" — Sarah Palin
As with a lot of her pronouncements, it hints at a broader truth, but backward: the first amendment protects the press's right to call out her negative campaigning, not her right to campaign negatively without press comment. It protects Obama's freedom to associate with whomsoever he pleases, not the person who sees guilt in those associations. It's like she went went "well I betcha the first amendment is involved in here somewhere" but before anyone could wield it against her, she flipped it inside out. You can't fake reflexes like that. From guilt to accusation in the blink of an eye; between those ears, a state of pure lawlessness. She truly is a remarkable creature.

Happy halloween!

It's getting ugly out there

Politico has a round up of some of the more scurrilous unprinted stories swirling around the campaign. Chief among the McCain rumors is the story about McCain behaving badly on a holiday to Fiji before his first run for president, insulting his fellow vacationers and insisting that they listen to him read aloud from the works of William Faulkner. According to the editor of the newsletter CounterPunch, "We posted it and then pulled it off after two hours, There seemed to be enough intimations that it's a phony. Faulkner was a huge problem. Hemingway, yes. But would he really read Faulkner?"

The reasoning seems sound to me. If McCain was going to read aloud from the work of one famous American writer drunk, it wouldn't be the one who indulged in splintered time frames and mucked around with narrative point of view. I can't wait to hear the counter-accusation about Obama on vacation in Hawaii forcing everyone to listen to him reading aloud the works of Maya Angelou.

Drunk Dialling for change

An Obama volunteer goes off-message.
Click and listen. 

Oct 30, 2008

Who I would vote for if I could vote

When I first heard Obama, on TV, giving an interview, back in 2007, I thought he sounded calm, smart, reasonable, psychologically grounded, and pretty much unelectable. People like that don't get to be president, I told myself. Don't go there. Well, we almost are there and its not just the fact that Obama is sprinkling his speeches with a little of the old glitter (hope, change, unity) that's making me step back a bit. The election is going to be over in a few days, and already I'm beginning to feel the wrench. I've been obsessing about this thing for over a year now, consuming poll and blogs like porn, watching TV around the clock, rabbiting on to my wife about what Obama did today or what he said today. "Its like living with a 17 year old girl," she told me once, as I nailed a new poster in place. "It's like Eliott and ET. When ET is happy Eliott is happy, when ET is sad, Eliott is sad."

I wish. According to aides, he has raised his voice twice in the last year. Twice. If I was enjoying a Vulcan mind-mild with the guy I would be flat-lining through the whole thing, rather than wobbling and veering and fretting and pacing. But it's true: I actually smile when he comes on TV. I can recognise his voice from two rooms away and will drop whatever I am doing to go and sit patiently in front of the TV to await instruction. Which is mortifying to me, obviously. I'm not normally in the habit of forming crushes on politicians. My phoniness-meter is as sensitive as the next man's. I think that all power corrupts, and absolute power etc etc. I believe that all politicians lie, even if they appear to be levelling with you. In fact, they lie most at exactly at the moment they tell you they're levelling with you. I think most appeals to 'integrity' and 'authenticity' are bogus.

So how did Obama get through? Why have I been trained like a gun dog on getting this man elective office? It certainly helps that I think he's right, 70% of the time. The recallibration of foreign policy. The progressive tax plan. The exhortations towards a green economy. The promise of transparency in government. But let's be honest: there are large swathes of policy on which I have little or no opinion. A federally-executed healthcare plan? From ten years living in this country, that my memories of the NHS are a rosy dream of bliss compared to the expensive monthly scam I am subjected to here. But is America simply too big a country to offer healthcare as a "right"? I have no idea.

What I do know is that Presidential campaigns are long for a reason: you get to see what a person is made of. How they conduct themselves in adversity. How they respond to triumph. Whether they have a game-plan or whether they're simply reactive creatures, pinballing off events. Over the last year, I have seen Obama resist the impulse to lie, or fight dirty, enough times to basically trust the guy. For most of the primaries and the general election campaign, he has seemed the only adult in the race — steady, calm, responsible. Sometimes, I think that in many ways he has already begun to lead this country. He has dominated the political agenda for the past year, elevated the tone of the debate, dictated much of Bush's recent foreign policy. He has had as much impact as one man can have on a country, without actually being elected president. Like iron filings milling towards a magnet, the country has already reorganised itself around him. When his opponents talk of his 'presumptuousness' they are picking up on something real, but it is not his presumption: it is the vacuum at the heart of this democracy that is already straining to fill itself. All we need to do now is vote for the guy.

Undecided about your pizza?

Still undecided? Try ordering some pizza. It's the easiest way to decided our vote according to a new poll from Domino's Pizza. It confirms exactly what we already knew: Republicans are greedy big spenders living on false credit, Democrats are experimental dilettantes, waited on by the underclass they purport to represent.


  • Spend more per order than other consumers.
  • They rely on credit cards to pay more than other consumers.
  • They tend to order two large pizzas at a time, and they're usually specialty pizzas.
  • They are more likely to order online, and more likely to pick up their orders.
  • Rely on delivery more than Republicans.
  • Pay cash more than other consumers.
  • Like more variety with their orders, opting for side items, chicken and beverages more than Republicans.

Slipping the queue

One of the more perplexing aspects of the whole Obama = Karl Marx/Bin Laden/Anti-Christ line of thinking is the poor regard it seems to exhibit for America and her democratic institutions. Put it this way: How many terrorists and/or communists have actually made it to the presidency in the past? Or even made it as far as the primaries? It's difficult enough getting through customs, let alone launching and maintaining a two-year campaign for the presidency. Something tells me most terrorists would have been found out by now. That's not the message being picked up by the lunatic fringe, though. America is ripe for the picking, according to them. Ascending to the highest office in the land is as easy as slipping the queue for the cinema. No wonder they are worried. How many times has America voted for a president only to find — doh! — that he actually turned out to be one of the country's sworn enemies? Has this ever happened, in any country, ever?

Oct 29, 2008

Down to The Wire in North Carolina

'Three cast members from The Wire next took the stage. A fiery Sonja Sohn (Detective Kima Greggs) told the large crowd, "When you look at The Wire, you see how institutions fail." Passionately, she advocated for Barack Obama because, in her view, he was the candidate who would not continue to ignore those who fall through the cracks. "He said to me, 'I am my brother's keeper,' y'all!" Sohn reminded the crowd. Seth Gilliam (Sargeant Ellis Carver) had a simple but clear message about the importance of voting and the importance of persuasion: "If you don't vote, who will? No one! Who knows your mother like you? No one! Who knows your father like you? No one!" The thoughtful and soft-spoken Gbenga Akinnagbe (Chris Partlow) went last, and had a personal observation shared with us offstage about his experience with the British health care system. He'd recently sprained an ankle, and the U.S. citizen merely waited an hour on a busy Saturday night in London. He was treated for free, "and all they wanted was my name." It was a stunningly blue, warm Sunday afternoon, and the party was on.' — fivethirtyeight.com.

What she cost him

Talking Points Memo tracks the 'Palin Effect' in terms of lost Conservatives, including: Chuck Hagel ("I don't believe she's qualified"), Peggy Noonan ("it is a mark against John McCain"), Scott McLellan ("this was not a country first pick"), Christopher Buckley ("what on earth can he have been thinking?"), George Will ("obviously not qualified"), Colin Powell ("I don't believe shes ready"), Christopher Hitchens ("A proud boastful ignoramus"), and Ken Aldeman ("not even close to being acceptable in high office").

My electoral predictions

Politico lays down. My prediction: Obama 353 electoral votes, McCain 185. Obama gets: Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada. McCain's fig-leaves: Indiana and Missouri. Popular vote margin: 52%-47%.

David Sedaris on those Undecided voters

'To put them in perspective, I think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”' — David Sedaris, The New Yorker

The devil you know

First President Bush compared Obama's willingness to engage in diplomacy with Iran to the "appeasement" practiced by Neville Chamberlian. Now the Pennsylvania Republicans have sent out an email to Jewish voters urging them "Many of our ancestors ignored the warning signs in the 1930s and 1940s and made a tragic mistake. Let's not make a similar one this year!"

So now Obama is both Hitler and Chamberlain. At this rate, he will have to appease himself. Maybe he could give himself Czechoslovakia in order to stop himself from invading it. Or invade it, then defeat himself in battle and declare a truce.

How does this relate to his links to the communist party? A right wing blogger elucidates.

"Anyone familiar with the history of communism knows enough to be terrified by utopian visions. Not long ago, Obama told Sunday worshipers in Greenville, South Carolina that they don’t have to wait for any Second Coming: “I am confident that we can create a Kingdom right here on Earth.” Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, et al. had ambitions on a similar scale, although I don’t recall them comparing themselves to God."

I think I am beginning to get the hang of this election. Any comparison to a historical bad guy will do, regardless of political orientation, as long as your audience have heard of them. Stalin. Genghis Khan. Freddy Krueger.

"I don't want a political label, but Obama bears traits that resemble the anti-Christ and I'm scared to death that uneducated people will ignorantly vote him into office."

It's good to avoid labels.

Robocallers walk out

"Some three dozen workers at a telemarketing call center in Indiana walked off the job rather than read an incendiary McCain campaign script attacking Barack Obama, according to two workers at the center and one of their parents. Nina Williams, a stay-at-home mom in Lake County, Indiana, tells us that her daughter recently called her from her job at the center, upset that she had been asked to read a script attacking Obama for being "dangerously weak on crime," "coddling criminals," and for voting against "protecting children from danger."

"They walked out," Williams says. "They were told [by supervisors], `If you all leave, you're not gonna get paid for the rest of the day." A second worker at the call center confirmed the episode, saying that "at least 30" workers had walked out after refusing to read the script. "We were asked to read something saying [Obama and Democrats] were against protecting children from danger," this worker said. "I wouldn't do it. A lot of people left. They thought it was disgusting."Talking Points Memo

Oct 27, 2008

If paradise were a batteground state

"What Satan wants to do is draw Jesus out, provoke him to an unwisely exasperated response, get him to claim too much for his own powers. What Jesus does is reply with an equanimity conveyed by the adjectives and adverbs that preface his words: “unaltered,” “temperately,” “patiently,” “calmly,” “unmoved,” “sagely,” “in brief.”

In response, Satan gets ever more desperate; he conjures up rain and wind storms (in the midst of which Jesus sits “unappalled in calm”); he tempts him with the riches of poetry and philosophy (which Jesus is careful neither to reject nor deify); and finally, having run out of schemes and scares and “swollen with rage,” he resorts to physical violence (McCain has not gone so far, although some of his supporters clearly want to), picking Jesus up bodily and depositing him on the spire of the temple in the hope that he will either fall to his death or turn into Superman and undermine the entire point of his 40-day trial in the wilderness. He doesn’t do either. He does nothing, and Satan, “smitten with amazement” — even this hasn’t worked — “fell.”

Toward the end, the poem describes the mighty contest in a metaphor that captures its odd and negative dynamic. Jesus is “a solid rock” continually assaulted by “surging waves”; and even though the repeated assaults result only in the waves being “all to shivers dashed,” they keep on coming until they exhaust themselves “in froth or bubbles.” The power Jesus generates is the power of not moving from the still center of his being and refusing to step into an arena of action defined by his opponent. So it is with Obama, who barely exerts himself and absorbs attack after attack, each of which, rather than wounding him, leaves him stronger. It’s rope-a-dope on a grand scale." — Stanley Fish, New York Times

Europe, that fabulous s**thole

"These policy changes will be the beginning of the Europeanization of America. There will be many more public policy changes with similar goals—nationalized health care, Kyoto-like global-warming policies, and increased education regulation and spending.... What can the Republicans in Washington to do to avoid the Europeanization of America?" — Wall Street Journal
I've heard a lot of this, recently: Americans fearfully invoking Europe as an example of How Not To Do It. Personally, I have fond memories of the place. Healthcare that didn't bankrupt patients. Schools without metal detectors. A world leader on environmental issues. A middle-class friendly tax policy. No major wars for half a century. What a dump. What a fabulous shit-hole.

Marxism for beginners

"The Republican argument of the moment seems to be that the difference between capitalism and socialism corresponds to the difference between a top marginal income-tax rate of 35% and a top marginal income-tax rate of 39.6%" — Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker
All this stuff about Obama's tax plan making him a "socialist" had me nervously checking my history. Maybe I'd missed something. Maybe I didn't know America as well as I thought. Maybe progressive taxation never caught on here. But no. It's as American as apple pie, first introduced by none other than McCain's personal hero FDR, along the lines suggested by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, the Ur-Text of Market Capitalism:—
"The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor... The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess... It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion."

Oct 25, 2008

Master of the minor-league emotions

'Newspaper cartoons may have never seen anything like it, but those dying falls contained uncanny echoes of the humdrum rhythm with which most of us live our lives. No rage, no tears, no self-pity, no punchline - just silent endurance of the slights and insults that Charlie Brown picks up in the course of a day, like moss. “I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel,” he confided, his silent fortitude indicated simply by a couple of parentheses on either side of his eyes, like a frown that had slipped. What Schulz did feels almost as revolutionary in its way as the invention of the close-up in cinema, since it allowed him fine-grained focus on all the minor-league emotions - chagrin, disappointment, melancholy, longing - that don't normally make it to the front of the class. Only Lucy lets rip, with screams that required a B5 pen - “AAAARRGHG!” - and a B3 for “maximum screams”' — from my review of Schulz & Peanuts: a Biography by David Michaelis in The Sunday Times

Oct 19, 2008

Racists for Obama

'So a canvasser goes to a woman's door in Washington, Pennsylvania. Knocks. Woman answers. Knocker asks who she's planning to vote for. She isn't sure, has to ask her husband who she's voting for. Husband is off in another room watching some game. Canvasser hears him yell back, "We're votin' for the n***er!" Woman turns back to canvasser, and says brightly and matter of factly: "We're voting for the n***er."' — Fivethirtyeight.com
Just when you think you pride yourself on having some sort of understanding of America, you hear something like that. This place is wild. Its not an unusual story, either.
“I wouldn’t want a mixed marriage for my daughter, but I’m voting for Obama,” the wife of a retired Virginia coal miner, Sharon Fleming, told the Los Angeles Times recently. One Obama volunteer told Politico after canvassing the working-class white Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown recently, "I was blown away by the outright racism, but these folks are undecided. They would call him a n***** and mention how they don't know what to do because of the economy.”

Oct 16, 2008

Winner: the man with the matte personality

Last night's was the first debate I felt tempted to give to McCain. He had the best zinger of the night ("If you'd wanted to run against president Bush you should have run four years ago") and for the first twenty minutes he was vigorous, spirited, aggressive without being rude. Obama's unflappability, for once, seemed forced.

Then came the question about negative campaigning. "Senator Obama has spent more money on negative ads than any political campaign in history" asserted McCain — by what inflation-resistant metric? — but the public weren't buying it. The CNN graph tanked at this point, never quite recovered. We were back with the needling, sarcastic, thin-skinned McCain of old. It was a big mistake to address the comments made by congressman John Lewis ("That, to me, was so hurtful."). Its never a good idea to try and wring an apology out of someone, and it left him open to Obama's sharpest jab of the night — about the public not caring about the hurt feelings of politicians.

I was most struck by Obama's ability to remove his ego from the room. I don't mean that he doesn't have an ego — of course he does — but that he has schooled himself, ruthlessly, in the art of removing his ego from proceedings, in the interests of getting things done/winning. It has given him a very fine instinct for when people are getting bored or irritated by politicians. Its quite something to rebut personal attacks, not because you want to set the record straight, but because you sense that people are simply not interested.

Think about how hard it is to do that. If someone attacks me, almost every cell in body is devoted to the task of rebuttal: Obama seems able to rise above it almost at will. And it's this egolessness is what makes him such a matte personality (and to some, flavorless) and such a superb communicator. Matthew Yglesias puts it well:
What Obama’s good at doing is redirecting conversations to things people care about. He’s good at conveying both with words and body language that when the subject shifts to something people don’t care about, that he’d rather be addressing the things people care about. He’d rather be talking about something else, but unlike McCain he’s not personally affronted that the other side criticizes him. It’s not about how he feels or what he wants but about what normal people want to hear about. By contrast, McCain’s key campaign theme is that McCain is awesome and that the government should spend less money, neither of which have anything to do with real problems in real people’s lives.

Oct 15, 2008

Them's fightin' words

"Speaking on St. Louis radio, McCains says Obama’s recent comments have “probably ensured” the former Weather Underground leader will come up in Wednesday’s debate." — The Page
Why on earth does McCain keep announcing his moves, ahead of time? Isn't this exactly what McCain reprimanded Obama for re Pakistan? Before the second debate he told everyone how it wasn't going to be a repeat of the first debate, this time he was going to "take off the gloves," and then footsied around the stage, gamely, for 90 minutes. On Monday, he declared that he would be "making news" with some new web ad about Bill Ayers that they he then forgot to buy airtime for. And now — for he third time — he's definitely going to bring up Ayers. No really. For sure, this time. He's absolutely, positively going to do it. Just you try and stop him.

The lords they are a-leaping

"Peers crushed the government's scheme to lock up terror suspects for 42 days, rejecting it by a margin of 191 votes.... Almost everyone involved in fighting terror eventually resisted the proposal: prosecutors, intelligence chiefs, lawyers - and even some senior police officers. Many such professionals are in the Lords, and yesterday they made themselves heard.

Evidence, or rather the abject lack of it, was the complaint rattling through the Lords debate. The authorities have not yet dealt with a single case where the current limit of 28 days has proved inadequate. Peers refused to surrender real liberties to a hypothetical threat. The barrister Lord Lester explained the peculiar nastiness of detaining suspects in advance of charge - a point where they have few protections, and lack knowledge of the case against them. Churchill called internment "odious", even in the blackest hour of wartime. Today's threat is real, but hardly compares with the blitz." — The Gaurdian

Oct 14, 2008

The rationalisations begin....

"We were ahead until the financial crisis began....We have the handicap of wearing the 'R' label this year.... " — Steve Schmidt, NPR
I love the way the some commentators on the right are beginning to talk of the financial crisis as if it were some natural disaster, or an act of God — some completely random event that interfered with an otherwise perfectly fair election. Its true that some things are beyond the control of government. Revolutions abroad. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. But a financial crisis precipitated by a mortgage meltdown? It would be rough justice to punish Gordon Brown, or Silvio Berlusconi for their handling of the American economy. But a two-term president who has been in power 8 years seems fair game to me. Ditto those who want to pursue the same agenda.

History suggests this isn't an irrational instinct on voters parts.
In the United States, voters replaced Republicans with Democrats in 1932 and the economy improved. In Britain and Australia, voters replaced Labor governments with conservatives and the economy improved. In Sweden, voters replaced Conservatives with Liberals, then with Social Democrats, and the economy improved. In the Canadian agricultural province of Saskatchewan, voters replaced Conservatives with Socialists and the economy improved.

Stewart on Congress

"Look at what they promised when they took over Congress. I've never heard such hardcore rhetoric. ''The era of the blank check is over! And we will send a sternly worded memorandum — nonbinding — to somebody at the White House. Not necessarily the inner executive circle, we certainly don't want to offend, but...'' And then they got in and were like, ''Really, you want to eavesdrop? Okay, we'll let this one go. But this is the last blank check! Unless you want another. But let me say this: The next one will not be blank, because we'll just write in the memo line. Can we write in memo? Would you be bothered by that?''

We were in this huge credit crisis, out of money. Then the Fed goes, We'll give you a trillion dollars, and all of a sudden Wall Street is like, ''I can't believe we got away with it!'' Can you imagine if someone said, ''I shouldn't have bought that sports car because it means I can't have my house,'' and the bank just said, ''All right, you can have your house. And you know what? Keep the car.'' ''Yeaaaaah, I get to keep the car! Wait, do I have to give the money back?'' ''No, it doesn't matter.'' ''Yeah, I'm gonna get another car! I'm gonna do the same thing the same way, except twice as f---ed up!''— Entertainment Weekly

Quote of the Day

"My friends, we’ve got them just where we want them" — John McCain today

Hitchens endorses, backhandedly

"The difference in character and temperament has become plainer by the day, and there is no decent way of avoiding the fact. Last week's so-called town-hall event showed Sen. John McCain to be someone suffering from an increasingly obvious and embarrassing deficit, both cognitive and physical. And the only public events that have so far featured his absurd choice of running mate have shown her to be a deceiving and unscrupulous woman utterly unversed in any of the needful political discourses but easily trained to utter preposterous lies and to appeal to the basest element of her audience.

The most insulting thing that a politician can do is to compel you to ask yourself: "What does he take me for?" Precisely this question is provoked by the selection of Gov. Sarah Palin. I wrote not long ago that it was not right to condescend to her just because of her provincial roots or her piety, let alone her slight flirtatiousness, but really her conduct since then has been a national disgrace. It turns out that none of her early claims to political courage was founded in fact, and it further turns out that some of the untested rumors about her—her vindictiveness in local quarrels, her bizarre religious and political affiliations—were very well-founded, indeed. Moreover, given the nasty and lowly task of stirring up the whack-job fringe of the party's right wing and of recycling patent falsehoods about Obama's position on Afghanistan, she has drawn upon the only talent that she apparently possesses.

It therefore seems to me that the Republican Party has invited not just defeat but discredit this year, and that both its nominees for the highest offices in the land should be decisively repudiated, along with any senators, congressmen, and governors who endorse them."

Oct 13, 2008

A new game-changer?

Nate Silver senses an impending electoral stunt from McCain. All the signs are there: an Drudge-reported uptick in the national polls. A new come-out-swinging tone ("I'll whip him in the you-know-what"). A test-the-water piece from William Kristol in the Times telling him to "fire" his entire campaign. A general feeling of ticklishness in the air. A flocking of the animals to the westernmost quadrant of the field....

Gordon Brown is enjoying himself

"The world is crashing around his ears and Mr Brown has to stop himself smiling too obviously. His chin is up. His stride has lengthened. His shoulders have straightened. He has even taken to cracking jokes, albeit of the gallows variety. When someone's mobile interrupted a speech, he chucklingly wondered 'if another bank has fallen'. Those who have spent time in conversation with him in recent days find the Prime Minister on remarkably relaxed form. He has become a fount of political aphorisms. 'An hour is a long time in politics,' he has been heard to quip, an updating of Harold Wilson's old saw, referring to both the dizzying speed of global events and the apparent reversal in his own fortunes... He is enjoying this crisis. In fact, he has probably never felt more alive as Prime Minister. That is quite a transformation for a man who, just a few weeks ago, was being taken for dead." — Andrew Rawnsley, The Guardian

Why it's good to be a late bloomer

"There is no evidence for the notion that lyric poetry is a young person’s game. Some poets do their best work at the beginning of their careers. Others do their best work decades later. Forty-two per cent of Frost’s anthologized poems were written after the age of fifty. For Williams, it’s forty-four per cent. For Stevens, it’s forty-nine per cent. The same was true of film.... Yes, there was Orson Welles, peaking as a director at twenty-five. But then there was Alfred Hitchcock, who made Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho—one of the greatest runs by a director in history—between his fifty-fourth and sixty-first birthdays. Mark Twain published Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at forty-nine. Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe at fifty-eight.

If you go to the Cézanne room at the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris—the finest collection of Cézannes in the world—the array of masterpieces you’ll find along the back wall were all painted at the end of his career. Galenson did a simple economic analysis, tabulating the prices paid at auction for paintings by Picasso and Cézanne with the ages at which they created those works. A painting done by Picasso in his mid-twenties was worth, he found, an average of four times as much as a painting done in his sixties. For Cézanne, the opposite was true. The paintings he created in his mid-sixties were valued fifteen times as highly as the paintings he created as a young man. The freshness, exuberance, and energy of youth did little for Cézanne. He was a late bloomer—and for some reason in our accounting of genius and creativity we have forgotten to make sense of the Cézannes of the world." — Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker

Oct 12, 2008

The Republican secret weapon

Old, Grizzled Third-Party Candidate May Steal Support From McCain

, meanwhile, has great fun with McCain's policy positions, as aired in the most recent debate:
It has nothing to do with independence from dogma, pragmatism, or flexibility. That might be a good description if McCain were proposing to be a fiscal hawk in one area while increasing spending in another. But he's not. In the last debate, he said: "We obviously have to stop this spending spree that's going on in Washington." And then, a few lines later, he proposed spending $300 billion to buy up bad mortgages. And he's still promising to balance the budget by the end of his first term, while enacting massive tax cuts. Likewise, he is not proposing to kick one country out of the G8 while trying to foster closer ties with another. He is proposing that we adopt both those policies towards Russia.

If I decide to be kind to one person and cruel to another, or to save money on some things but spend in another, that might (or might not) be evidence of pragmatism. But if I decide to be both kind and cruel to the same person, or to spend and save the same money, that's not pragmatism or "call-it-like-you-see-it independence from dogma". It's just incoherence. Likewise with McCain's policy positions: there is no such thing as a policy that gratuitously insults Russia while fostering closer ties with it, or that stops the spending spree in Washington and balances the budget while enacting huge new tax cuts and spending programs. To think there is is not a sign of refreshing independence. It's just confusion.

Oct 10, 2008

It's getting ugly out there

Josh Marshall:
So we have McCain today getting his crowd riled up asking who Barack Obama is and then apparently giving a wink and a nod when one member of the crowd screams out "terrorist." And later we have Sarah Palin with the same mob racket, getting members of the crowd to yell out "kill him."

The Washington Post:

McCain had said that racially explosive attacks related to Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, are off limits. But Palin told New York Times columnist Bill Kristol in an interview published Monday: "I don't know why that association isn't discussed more." One Palin supporter shouted a racial epithet at an African American sound man for a network and told him, "Sit down, boy."
Let's remember where this sort of things goes:
"As late as 1964, Falwell was attacking the 1964 Civil Rights Act as "civil wrongs" legislation. He questioned "the sincerity and intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, and others, who are known to have left-wing associations." Falwell charged, "It is very obvious that the Communists, as they do in all parts of the world, are taking advantage of a tense situation in our land, and are exploiting every incident to bring about violence and bloodshed."

Walking on thin Ayers

This Ayers stuff is beginning to annoy me.

"I do not need lessons about telling the truth to the American people," says McCain, never once pointing to the falsehoods Obama is alleged to have made, restricting himself instead to smoky conspiracy-theorising and tea-leaf reading: Obama hasn't told us the full truth. Whatever he's said... there's more..... I feel it in my bones. McCain knows this to be untrue — the whole episode was fully aerated during the primaries — which is why he never has the courage to confront Obama with his suspicions, either in the debates, or in a stump speech, even in an advert.

"Associations are important. They provide a significant insight into character," says Charles Krauthammer. They demonstrate Obama's "cynicism and ruthlessness." Really? In his Machiavellian efforts to serve on an a board dedicated to educational reform? In fact, they tell us very little about character, for the simple reason that these men are politicians: Obama's cursory contact with Ayers is no different from the nutjobs McCain has had cause to consort with over the years, not least G. Gordon Liddy, the former White House "plumber" and Watergate burglar.

On behalf of the Nixon administration he masterminded a break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist and managed a 20-year prison sentence only because his most far-fetched schemes (including kidnapping anti-war protestors and bombing the Brookings Institution) never came to fruition. Liddy's sentence was commuted by Jimmy Carter, and since that time he's built a career as a radio host. McCain has appeared on Liddy's show and congratulated him for his "continued success and adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great." Are we supposed to hold McCain accountable for this association?

The view from abroad

Martin Samuel, in The Times: "Sarah Palin is the queen of misinformation, delivered with faux folksiness as authentic as a three-dollar bill. She is not the pit bull in lipstick of popular myth; she is Deputy Dawg with a forked tongue, engaged in a war against intelligence. By any normal yardstick of political discourse - substance, accuracy, coherence - she is a bust...This (candidacy) shows how far we have come. Intelligence is now viewed as a threat."

Nick Curtis, the Evening Standard: "Armed, glamorous, and possessed of unfashionable opinions, Caribou Barbie briefly seemed an alluring alternative to dishwater politicians. But her flaky pronouncements this week have removed the mote - as her beloved Bible puts it - from our eyes. She's a bonkers, parochial creationist whose more ambition than substance, and her glasses aren't even that nice. What were we thinking?"

The Economist: Mr McCain and Ms Palin are not playing with fire. They are handing out fire to drunken, angry crowds. If someone's house gets burned down they will point to the fire-safety pamphlet that was free for the taking at the entry to their rallies. (Ms Palin: Sure, Mr Obama is not a terrorist but "This election is about the truthfulness and judgment needed in our next president.") Would you accept that as a defence?

David Usborne, The Independent: "Tall and languid as (Obama) is, it was still tough to see his heart. But languid is surely better than tottering....It is even possible that some viewers felt sorry for Mr. McCain. Sorry for a man who couldn't stop fidgeting when his opponent spoke, like a cocktail guest not sure if anyone at the party liked him."

The Daily Telegraph: "There will be many victims of the financial crisis, and one of the most prominent could be John McCain... (who) is finding it increasingly hard to make up ground on Barack Obama. But it was less their policies for dealing with economic calamity than their demeanor that provided the most noticeable difference between the two men during their second televised debate on Tuesday night. Mr. Obama appeared calm and confident; Mr. McCain seemed uncertain, tired, and tetchy. It felt, admittedly from afar, like the modern-day equivalent of the famous clash between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon."

Timothy Garton Ash, The Guardian: "The United States has been at war with itself in recent years. They call it the culture war. It has generated more hot air than most wars in history. John McCain has now turned to its red army tactics to rescue himself from impending defeat. (But) the world needs the United States to get over its cultural civil war, and get over it fast. Not that these moral, cultural, and social issues are unimportant... but they are also among the most private things. The central business of government is to provide public goods such as national and personal security, the regulation of markets so that free enterprise can flourish, the international development that is in all our national interests, and a clean environment using diversified, sustainable energy supplies. That's what the United States needs from its new president, and that's what the world needs from the United States."

Python bites Fox

Ode to Sean Hannity
by John Cleese

Aping urbanity
Oozing with vanity
Plump as a manatee
Faking humanity
Journalistic calamity
Intellectual inanity
Fox Noise insanity
You’re a profanity

Oct 9, 2008

The long shot in Ohio

"In 2004, it was unusual for volunteers to have persistent roles and responsibilities—both at the Kerry campaign and the independent field operation Americans Coming Together. That is the norm for electoral organizing campaigns, and perhaps organizing in general these days. In contrast, the Obama neighborhood team members are organizers themselves, sometimes working more or less as staff alongside the young FOs.

It is impossible to overstate how counter intuitive this slow-build approach was for Democrats. Even Regional Field Director for Southwest Ohio, Christen Linke Young—who I witnessed in 2004 pushing independently for just this strategy as an Ohio FO in Franklin County—said it was scary to take this patient approach:

"We had a whole month where, on our nightly calls with headquarters, we did not report our voter contact numbers. We only reported our leadership building. I definitely stayed on top of what our voter contact numbers looked like. But headquarters wasn't paying attention to how many voters we registered or how many doors we knocked that day—they were paying attention to how many one-on-one meetings we had, house meetings, neighborhood team leaders recruited, how many people we had convinced to come to this wonderful training in Columbus that we had. Yes, it was definitely scary to see how big our persuasion universe was and know that our first priority was not to just be tearing through that."

But Christen said the meticulous building has paid off: "And then last weekend we had 100 volunteers on Saturday canvassing—which is not something I ever would have thought was possible. And they knocked on 2,500 doors. And so you go: 'OK, it paid off, it worked.' We spent a month focusing on getting the pieces in place and now we can knock on 2,500 doors on the first Saturday in September. I'd love to count up how many canvasses we actually staged that day but I think most organizers had at least two canvasses—they were able to be in two places at once because they had recruited and trained leaders who could run their own canvasses and who could train other volunteers in persuasion." — Oxdown Gazette

Oct 8, 2008

The winner: that one

Oddest moment of the night — and there wasn't much else to make it memorable — was McCain calling Obama "that One." He did it in the oo-arrgh pantomime-pirate style he uses when he wishes to play to the gallery. But the gallery weren't rising to it, which left the comment just haning out there. "It's the way you talk about an annoying child, if you don't much care for children" says Hilzoy. It was weird.
"What the debate proved, I think, is that Obama is becoming more comfortable with the idea of himself as president of the United States, while McCain is becoming ever more crotchety at the prospect of defeat." — John Ludis

Oct 7, 2008

How you gonna trust, me or your own lying eyes?

"If McCain raises Rezko personally in the Tuesday debate, Obama must turn to him, face him, and say something like this personally. Everyone knows that Obama hates to do this, but, really, this is a test of strength. 'With all due respect, John, there is only one candidate here tonight who has been found guilty of public misconduct'." — Talking Points Memo
Possibly. McCain's dive into the mud feels too little, too late to me. People have been going over Obama's history with a tooth comb for the last 18 months and all they've come up with is that someone who sold him his house later got convicted of a felony. Andrew Sullivan:—
Voters have gotten to know Obama over the last year. What they've seen is something quite unremarkable: a gifted, cautious, gracious but very conventional politician. He remains very much the same, never panics, and doesn't seem in any way volatile. The last thing he appears to be is radical.
He has going for him the same thing Reagan had: a preternatural and unfakeable ease in his own skin. Carter hammered on about how dangerous a hawk Regaan was, and yet the person voters saw on TV in the debates, breezy and affable, bore no relation to the stick figure we'd just heard about. Psychologists have long observed that when it comes down to a competition between what we hear with our ears and what we see with our eyes, the eyes have it.

More important, though, is this: nobody wants to hear about any of this now. Its like hearing two doctors squabbling as they prepare to take out your kidneys. Points will go to the candidate who launches the least character attacks. Right now, that's Obama. He should keep it that way. The high road looks awfully attractive to a lot of Americans right now: at least it's not a ditch.

Oct 4, 2008

The New Yorker endorses

"The longer the campaign goes on, the more the issues of personality and character have reflected badly on McCain. Unless appearances are very deceiving, he is impulsive, impatient, self-dramatizing, erratic, and a compulsive risk-taker. These qualities may have contributed to his usefulness as a “maverick” senator. But in a President they would be a menace.

By contrast, Obama’s transformative message is accompanied by a sense of pragmatic calm. A tropism for unity is an essential part of his character and of his campaign. It is part of what allowed him to overcome a Democratic opponent who entered the race with tremendous advantages. It is what helped him forge a political career relying both on the liberals of Hyde Park and on the political regulars of downtown Chicago. His policy preferences are distinctly liberal, but he is determined to speak to a broad range of Americans who do not necessarily share his every value or opinion. For some who oppose him, his equanimity even under the ugliest attack seems like hauteur; for some who support him, his reluctance to counterattack in the same vein seems like self-defeating detachment. Yet it is Obama’s temperament—and not McCain’s—that seems appropriate for the office both men seek and for the volatile and dangerous era in which we live. Those who dismiss his centeredness as self-centeredness or his composure as indifference are as wrong as those who mistook Eisenhower’s stolidity for denseness or Lincoln’s humor for lack of seriousness.

The exhaustingly, sometimes infuriatingly long campaign of 2008 (and 2007) has had at least one virtue: it has demonstrated that Obama’s intelligence and steady temperament are not just figments of the writer’s craft. He has made mistakes, to be sure. (His failure to accept McCain’s imaginative proposal for a series of unmediated joint appearances was among them.) But, on the whole, his campaign has been marked by patience, planning, discipline, organization, technological proficiency, and strategic astuteness. Obama has often looked two or three moves ahead, relatively impervious to the permanent hysteria of the hourly news cycle and the cable-news shouters. And when crisis has struck, as it did when the divisive antics of his ex-pastor threatened to bring down his campaign, he has proved equal to the moment, rescuing himself with a speech that not only drew the poison but also demonstrated a profound respect for the electorate. Although his opponents have tried to attack him as a man of “mere” words, Obama has returned eloquence to its essential place in American politics. The choice between experience and eloquence is a false one––something that Lincoln, out of office after a single term in Congress, proved in his own campaign of political and national renewal. Obama’s “mere” speeches on everything from the economy and foreign affairs to race have been at the center of his campaign and its success; if he wins, his eloquence will be central to his ability to govern.

We cannot expect one man to heal every wound, to solve every major crisis of policy. So much of the Presidency, as they say, is a matter of waking up in the morning and trying to drink from a fire hydrant. In the quiet of the Oval Office, the noise of immediate demands can be deafening. And yet Obama has precisely the temperament to shut out the noise when necessary and concentrate on the essential. The election of Obama—a man of mixed ethnicity, at once comfortable in the world and utterly representative of twenty-first-century America—would, at a stroke, reverse our country’s image abroad and refresh its spirit at home. His ascendance to the Presidency would be a symbolic culmination of the civil- and voting-rights acts of the nineteen-sixties and the century-long struggles for equality that preceded them. It could not help but say something encouraging, even exhilarating, about the country, about its dedication to tolerance and inclusiveness, about its fidelity, after all, to the values it proclaims in its textbooks. At a moment of economic calamity, international perplexity, political failure, and battered morale, America needs both uplift and realism, both change and steadiness. It needs a leader temperamentally, intellectually, and emotionally attuned to the complexities of our troubled globe. That leader’s name is Barack Obama." — The New Yorker
The whole thing is worth reading.

Oct 3, 2008

One up for the Democrats

Was it just me or did they spend most of the time talking about McCain? Palin didn't seem to spend nearly as much time attacking Obama as I had expected. They had fundamentally different tasks, I guess: she was too busy shoring up her own credentials. She started strong, ducked and weaved and wandered, but over the long distance her peppiness wore incredibly thin: there were a lot of blank stares and circular paragraphs towards the end. Publius put it well:
Like her candidacy more generally, it was a sugar rush that fades quickly. It wasn’t so much that she had any truly trainwreck responses (though there was plenty of gibberish). It was that her mindless memorized cutesy lines and winks began to look like amateur hour in comparison to Biden’s command of facts and policy.
Biden started weakly but built to an impassioned, grave finish — respectful on the attack, but never letting the stakes slip for a second. I'm guessing that the most important person in prepping Biden was Obama himself: that slow, measured build has his fingerprints all over it. And who would have thought that it would be Biden who would play the gender card: his response about men knowing what it is to be single parents was the highlight of the evening — a beautiful moment. For all Palin's much-vaunted ability to connect with voters, it was Biden who was most moving.

CNN Biden 51 Palin 36
CBS Biden 46 Palin 21
Fox Biden 61 Palin 39

Oct 1, 2008

Someone stop me I can't help myself

I'm sorry. But I can't resist the latest gem from the Couric/Palin interviews. In their previous encounter, Couric quizzed Palin about her lack of foreign travel. Palin responded that her world-view had instead been shaped by what she read in the newspapers. So Couric followed up.

COURIC: And when it comes to establishing your world view, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this — to stay informed and to understand the world?

PALIN: I’ve read most of them again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media —

COURIC: But what ones specifically? I’m curious.

PALIN: Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me over all these years.

COURIC: Can you name any of them?

PALIN: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news...

Let's be charitable for a second and assume that she really does read many newspapers and magazines, but couldn't remember which ones. (I doubt it. Forgetting which newspaper you read is like forgetting your own name but whatever). The question now becomes: how come she couldn't even recall a single newspaper title even for the purposes of bluffing? USA today would have done. Or her local newspaper, The Juno Empire. It's like flunking "name a single American newspaper."

Let's be clear about this: there is nothing wrong with people being uninformed. It's tedious having to keep up with all the stuff that goes on in the world, or even just a fraction of it. So how do I make my way through the world every day without embarrassement? By not pretending to know more than I do. By knowing my limits and sticking within them. By relying on friends who are better informed than I am. But primarily I do it by not running for vice president of the United States.

Learning to trust the brainiacs

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the Wall street bail-out and have concluded that it will probably be the deciding factor in an Obama victory. Not because he was any more forthright on the subject than John McCain, or because democrats are traditionally viewed as a safer set of hands during an economic crisis, or because voters blame McCain for his deregulatory policies. No, Obama will win because few people I have listened to, read, met, spoken or listened to seems to have a clue what is going on.

Is the bail-out a good idea? Should there be an option reducing investments profits for the affected companies? Will there be an economic meltdown if nobody acts? Is this the end of civilization as we know it? Who in hell knows. All I know is that an issue has landed directly in the lap of the American voter that resists all attempts at easy digestion. The news shows have started to resemble those scenes in Apollo 13 where scientists shour ever-more incomprehensible reams of data at one another, while the anchors sit around scratching their heads. You get this? Nope. What about you? No idea. (Chris Matthews in particular has been getting a lot of gongs in our house for his candid incomprehension).

How does this help Obama? Because what the public is being forced to confront is the unappealing idea — much skirted by the Bush administration — that the average voter does not necessarily understand everything about how a country is run. Instead, we are being redirected by events towards leadership, any leadership, that keeps abreast of complexity, doesn't water it down, and tells us what is the best course of action. The crisis is one big nail in the coffin of phoney populism and a victory for the much derided notion of expertise. An election cycle that began with raucuous derision being heaped on elitism and its variants — a liking for Arugula, a Harvard education, a lousy bowling elbow — is ending with a grateful rush towards the brainiest guy in the room. Right now, that happens to be Obama.

Quote of the Day

"I want to apologise to my fans for screwing up again, and to promise them I'll sort myself out. And to say sorry to everybody else, just for boring them."— George Michael on his latest drugs bust