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Entries for November 2008

November 28, 2008

The evil of the consumer economy

(Due to the holiday, I am reposting something from last year, updated and edited.)

Each year, the Thanksgiving holiday is ruined by the revolting attention that the media pays to the retail industry in the days immediately following Thanksgiving. They wallow in stories of sales, of early-bird shoppers on Friday lining up in the cold at 4:00am to get bargains, fighting with other shoppers to grab sale items, people getting trampled in the crush, the long lines at cash registers, the year's "hot" gift items, and the breathless reports of how much was spent and what it predicts for the future of the economy. The media eggs on this process by giving enormous amounts of coverage to people going shopping, a non-news event if there ever was one, adding cute names like "Black Friday" and more recently "Cyber Monday."

Frankly, I find this obsessive focus on consumption disgusting. In fact, I would gladly skip directly from Thanksgiving to Christmas, because the intervening period seems to me to be just one long orgy of consumerism in which spending money is the goal. The whole point of the Christmas holiday seems to have become one in which people are made to feel guilty if they are not spending vast amounts of time and money in finding gifts for others. There is an air of forced jollity that is jarring, quite in contrast to the genuine warmth of Thanksgiving. And it just seems to stress people out.

Since I grew up in a country where people were encouraged to be frugal, often out of necessity, I still find it disquieting to be urged to spend as if it were somehow my duty to go broke in order to shore up the retail industry and help "grow the economy." I still don't understand that concept. An economy that is based on people buying what they do not need or can even afford seems to me to be inherently unsustainable, if not downright morally offensive.

One of the few silver linings in the bleak outlook caused by the current financial crisis is that people are likely to cut back on their purchases. I know that this is supposedly 'bad' for the economy but perhaps we need to change the basis of our economy, to one in which services, rather than goods, are the drivers. For example, we should be more willing to pay people to repair things rather than throw them away and buy replacements.

There is a curious schizophrenic attitude one finds in the media to this consumption. On the one hand people bemoan the fact that the savings rate in the US is so low that the country has to borrow from overseas to meet its investment needs, that individual Americans are not saving enough for retirement, that they are living beyond their means because of easy access to credit, and that personal bankruptcies are on the rise. The current sub-prime mortgage debacle has been caused by people being urged to pay more for houses than they could afford, and now many face foreclosure and homelessness.

On the other hand, the media gleefully cheerleads when it is reported that people are going shopping, since this is supposed to be a 'consumer economy', and the stock market goes up when retail sales are high.

I don't get it. Apart from the fact that buying stuff other than to meet a direct need is simply wasteful, surely people must realize that we live in a world of finite resources, not just of fossilized energy but of minerals and other raw materials and even fresh water? Surely we should be cutting back on consumption so that we can leave something for future generations?

We are using up resources like there is no tomorrow and I am amazed that people don't see the disastrous consequences of this. It is not even a long-term issue since the resources crunch will start to manifest itself in around thirty years or so. I know that the 'end-timers', the rapturists and the like who think that the world is on the verge of coming to an end see this problem (and that of global warming) as nothing to worry about since Jesus will return very soon. But what about the others? Is it that religious people think that since we are special in the eyes of god, he will somehow pull a miracle out of his hat and save us from our profligate selves?

To me the long-term problem faced by the Earth having finite resources is so obvious that I am amazed that we are not doing anything drastic about it. Here is a suggestion to start. We begin by boycotting Black Friday, staying at home and enjoying a quiet day. We should also decide that we will only buy Christmas gifts for children under twelve years of age, and then too just a few simple things, rather than the expensive "must have" items that advertisers thrust on us. We must force a shift from a consumer economy to a sustainable economy

And we use the holidays mainly to spend time with people, enjoying the old-fashioned pleasures of socializing.

POST SCRIPT: Ball jointed dolls

Speaking of consumption, NPR a few months ago had an extraordinary story about a new fad that is sweeping the country: ball-jointed dolls.

These are very expensive, customizable dolls for which people pay hundreds of dollars and then thousands more for outfits and even physical parts. The owners, mostly middle-aged women, dress their dolls up, make up stories and lives for them, and take them to BJD conventions where they compare their own "children" with others.

People spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars buying just one BJD sight unseen off the Internet. At the convention, BJD owners shelled out hundreds of dollars for mind-blowingly beautiful Armani-esque wool-lined coats, black wraparound pocket dresses and garnet jewelry for their dolls.

For BJD fans, the dolls are worth the expense. When Jennifer Kohn Murtha starts talking about her doll Kimora, it sound like she is talking about a child:

"I have one 15-year-old girl who is my love," she says. "I have ordered for her a boyfriend who is a boxer and a physicist who will take good care of her. I've also ordered a vampire for her ... I couldn't resist."

November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving musings

(Due to the holiday, this is a repost from Thanksgiving of last year, edited and updated. The series on the future of the Repubican party will be continued later.)

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to that class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the traditions and history and culture of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have all the fond memories associated with the childhood experience of visiting my grandparents' homes for this occasion for a big family reunion, this holiday initially left me unmoved.

But over time, I have warmed to the holiday and it now seems to me to be the best holiday of all, for reasons that have little to do with its historical roots.

The first thanksgiving was supposedly held in 1621, sometime between September 21 and November 11, as a secular feast by the newly arrived pilgrims and was based on British harvest festivals. But this feast wasn't repeated and so cannot be considered the basis of the tradition. The modern thanksgiving tradition in an effort to unite a nation divided by the Civil War and began with Abraham Lincoln in 1863 declaring the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.

Commercial considerations have also been a part of the holidays with merchants being influential in setting the date. They want it close enough to Christmas so that people associate the holiday as a kick-off for that revolting shopping orgy, but not too close or people won't have a lot of time to shop. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to change Thanksgiving Day to the third Thursday in November so as to lengthen the Christmas shopping season, but that was rejected by Congress and the compromise date of the fourth Thursday in November was approved in 1941 and that has been the date since.

I personally would like to see Thanksgiving shifted a month earlier to the last Thursday or so in October, not to lengthen the shopping season, but because there is a long drought of holidays between Labor Day and Christmas, and this would fall nicely in the middle. The weather would also be better for traveling, and it would coincide nicely with a mid-term break for college students.

I mainly like the fact that the holiday has (still) managed to avoid being commercialized and merchandized to death. There are no gifts and cards associated with it. There are no ritualized ceremonies, religious or otherwise, that one has to attend. There are no decorations or dressing up. Although the holiday's roots lie in giving thanks to god at the end of the harvest season for bounties received, that thin veneer of religiosity can be easily discarded and it is now essentially a secular holiday so no one need feel excluded. The thanks that are offered are just for the good fortune of being with family and friends, and not overtly religious. Our family has traditionally celebrated it with friends, all of whom have different religious heritages but are now mostly secular. No prayers are said. We are just thankful for the opportunity to be together.

Thanksgiving is a time to get together with family and friends around that universal gesture of friendship, sharing food. And even the traditional menu of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, and pies, is such that it is not too expensive, so most people can afford to have the standard meal for a large number of people without worrying too much about the cost. And although there is much talk of anticipated gluttony, in practice this also seems like just a ritualized and familiar joke, and most people seem to eat well but not in excess. There is also no tradition of drinking too much and rowdiness.

Thanksgiving seems to symbolize a kind of quiet socializing that is a throwback to a simpler, less crass and commercial time. It remains mostly an opportunity to spend a day with those whom one is close to, sharing food, playing games, and basking in the warmth of good fellowship. How can one not like such a holiday?

The only catch with Thanksgiving is that it is immediately followed by the horror show known as the "Christmas shopping season" which involves a disgusting orgy of consumption and waste, with merchandisers and the government urging people to buy things they do not need for people who may not want them.

I sincerely hope that Thanksgiving does not also become corrupted by merchandizing the way that Christmas has. But in our the present spend-spend-spend, buy-buy-buy culture you can be sure that retailers are eyeing this holiday too and it will require great vigilance to prevent it from sliding down that particular slope.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

POST SCRIPT: Eddie Izzard on computers and Armageddon (language advisory)

November 26, 2008

The future of the Republican Party-7: Why don't the Christianists ♥ Huckabee?

Mike Huckabee, who saw himself as the real deal, is understandably peeved at the way he was treated by the very people who should have embraced his candidacy and been his most ardent supporters. A review of his just released memoir shows that he is willing to name names:

Many conservative Christian leaders — who never backed Huckabee, despite their holding similar stances on social issues — are spared neither the rod nor the lash. Huckabee writes of Gary Bauer, the conservative Christian leader and former presidential candidate, as having an "ever-changing reason to deny me his support." Of one private meeting with Bauer, Huckabee says, "It was like playing Whac-a-Mole at the arcade — whatever issue I addressed, another one surfaced as a 'problem' that made my candidacy unacceptable." He also accuses Bauer of putting national security before bedrock social issues like the sanctity of life and traditional marriage.
. . .
He calls out Pat Robertson, the Virginia-based televangelist, and Dr. Bob Jones III, chancellor of Bob Jones University in South Carolina, for endorsing Rudy Giuliani and Romney, respectively. He also has words for the Texas-based Rev. John Hagee, who endorsed the more moderate John McCain in the primaries, as someone who was drawn to the eventual Republican nominee because of the lure of power. Huckabee says he spoke to Hagee by phone before the McCain endorsement while preparing for a spot on Saturday Night Live. "I asked if he had prayed about this and believed this was what the Lord wanted him to do," Huckabee writes of the conversation. "I didn't get a straight answer."

I think Huckabee is justified in being angry at the way he was treated. But what was the problem? Why didn't all these religious right heavyweights rally around Huckabee who had enthusiastically supported all the social issues of the culture wars that they have been agitating for all these years, and had proven himself in the Iowa caucuses as someone who had strong appeal with Republican voters?

In his memoir, Mike Huckabee takes a stab at trying to answer this question, and in the process reveals the real fight that is going on within the Republican party over its future. The above review of his book finds Huckabee pointing a finger at what he sees is the problem within the Republican party.

In a chapter titled "Faux-Cons: Worse than Liberalism," Huckabee identifies what he calls the "real threat" to the Republican Party: "libertarianism masked as conservatism." He is not so much concerned with the libertarian candidate Ron Paul's Republican supporters as he is with a strain of mainstream fiscal-conservative thought that demands ideological purity, seeing any tax increase as apostasy and leaving little room for government-driven solutions to people's problems. "I don't take issue with what they believe, but the smugness with which they believe it," writes Huckabee, who raised some taxes as governor and cut deals with his state's Democratic legislature. "Faux-Cons aren't interested in spirited or thoughtful debate, because such an endeavor requires accountability for the logical conclusion of their argument." Among his targets is the Club for Growth, a group that tarred Huckabee as insufficiently conservative in the primaries and ran television ads with funding from one of Huckabee's longtime Arkansas political foes, Jackson T. Stephens Jr.

But the Christianist opposition to Huckabee is based on more than just their anti-tax purity. It is also based on their opposition to any government intervention to aid those less fortunate.

Next: Compassionate religio-conservatism versus brutal religio-conservatism

POST SCRIPT: Money as an incentive

It is an article of faith amongst low tax advocates that money is what motivates people and by taxing people more, they have less incentive to work. Thus the huge bonuses paid to some executives on Wall Street and big corporations are justified on the grounds that this makes them work harder.

MIT business professor Dan Ariely examines this myth by offering low, medium, and high bonuses to people for comparable work and found that:

The people offered medium bonuses performed no better, or worse, than those offered low bonuses. But what was most interesting was that the group offered the biggest bonus did worse than the other two groups across all the tasks.


November 25, 2008

The future of the Republican Party-6: The Huckabee puzzle

The clue to the real problem facing the Republican party lies in what happened to Mike Huckabee's candidacy when he ran for the Republican nomination in the last election. I thought that he had the perfect credentials for the party and was surprised that he did not do much better. He is a former two-term governor of Arkansas (1996-2007), showing that he has executive experience and the preferred rural Southern profile. He is an ordained Baptist pastor who worked as an actual minister from 1980 to 1992. He has been married to the same woman for 33 years and there has been no hint of personal sex scandals or even impropriety.

The scandals that he was involved in while governor tended to be the kind of fairly petty financial ones that politicians from smaller states tend to get embroiled in. In the hands of a determined prosecutor they can be blown up into a major issue (like Ken Starr did with Whitewater for Bill Clinton, Huckabee's predecessor as Arkansas governor) but more often are treated as business as usual and blow away.

He has all the right positions on social issues to appeal to the party's religious base, showing him to be a hard-core conservative. He believes in the inerrancy of the Bible and even favors amending the US constitution if necessary to reflect his belief that the country is founded on Christian principles. Austin Cline, creator of the excellent website About Atheism/Agnosticism, analyzes Huckabee's views on church and state relations and claims that his views make him a theocratic fascist.

At the same time he is affable, telegenic, has a sense of humor, plays bass guitar in a rock band, has an engaging personality, and can appear on programs like The Colbert Report and win over an audience that would not be at all sympathetic to his views. Even I, who disagree strongly with him on almost every position he holds and cannot imagine myself ever voting for him, find myself liking him. He seems thoughtful and intelligent and articulate, a persuasive spokesman for his positions. He looks like someone with whom you could seek common ground by having a civil and reasoned discussion, even while the two of you hold opposing views.

He should be the dream candidate of the religious and conservative right, having qualities that could appeal to centrist voters despite his right-wing conservative views. And yet, after getting a surprisingly big win in the Iowa caucuses, he failed to get the support, especially financial, that he was entitled to expect from religious leaders of the social values base that should have propelled his candidacy.

All the Christianists like Pat Robertson, James Dobson, John Hagee, Gary Bauer, Bob Jones, etc. found excuses to not support him and instead pledged their allegiance to pretenders like McCain, who not only has been hostile to them in the past, but gave lukewarm support to their pet issues. McCain is also twice married, a self-confessed adulterer, not overtly religious, and has been tainted with serious sex and financial scandals in the past.

These Christianists were even willing to support the cross-dressing Rudy Giuliani who publicly humiliated his former wife with his open affairs, supported women's choice on abortion, and had been the mayor of gay-friendly New York City, that den of iniquity that epitomizes the very opposite of the 'real America' that Christianists claim to represent.

Mitt Romney was also preferred by some of these conservative religious leaders, even though he is a Mormon and his commitment to their social issues was seen by many as a late conversion based on political expediency, and thus its genuineness was suspect.

Huckabee, who saw himself as the real deal, is understandably peeved at the way he was treated by the people who should have embraced his candidacy and been his most ardent supporters. As a review of his just released memoir reveals:

Many conservative Christian leaders — who never backed Huckabee, despite their holding similar stances on social issues — are spared neither the rod nor the lash. Huckabee writes of Gary Bauer, the conservative Christian leader and former presidential candidate, as having an "ever-changing reason to deny me his support." Of one private meeting with Bauer, Huckabee says, "It was like playing Whac-a-Mole at the arcade — whatever issue I addressed, another one surfaced as a 'problem' that made my candidacy unacceptable." He also accuses Bauer of putting national security before bedrock social issues like the sanctity of life and traditional marriage.
. . .
He calls out Pat Robertson, the Virginia-based televangelist, and Dr. Bob Jones III, chancellor of Bob Jones University in South Carolina, for endorsing Rudy Giuliani and Romney, respectively. He also has words for the Texas-based Rev. John Hagee, who endorsed the more moderate John McCain in the primaries, as someone who was drawn to the eventual Republican nominee because of the lure of power. Huckabee says he spoke to Hagee by phone before the McCain endorsement while preparing for a spot on Saturday Night Live. "I asked if he had prayed about this and believed this was what the Lord wanted him to do," Huckabee writes of the conversation. "I didn't get a straight answer."

I think Huckabee is justified in being angry at the way he was treated. But what was the problem? Why didn't all these religious right heavyweights rally around Huckabee who had enthusiastically supported all the social issues of the culture wars that they have been agitating for all these years and had proven himself in the Iowa caucuses as someone who had strong appeal with Republican voters?

Next: Why don't the Republican religious right leaders ♥ Huckabee?

POST SCRIPT: Who would you like to have been?

One of the positive developments during the election was the low visibility of Ann Coulter. Her shtick is always the same: say something outrageous to gain attention.

But here is a clip from the past where she and Al Franken discuss the question of which character from the past they would have liked to have been, and where Franken one-ups her shtick and makes her look silly.


Ann-coulter-al-franken - Click here for the funniest movie of the week

(Thanks to Ashali.)

November 24, 2008

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

(The series on the future of the Republican party will continue tomorrow.)

Yes, we can no longer ignore the signs that the Christmas season is upon us. Apart from the snow, Salvation Army bell ringers, and store decorations, the definitive event is the arrival of the whiners who claim that Christians are a persecuted group in America whose special holiday has become so secularized that they cannot even say "Merry Christmas" to others for fear of being set upon and beaten by the atheistic hordes who roam the streets looking to stamp out any sign of genuine Christian cheer.

Bill O'Reilly is as usual valiantly at the forefront of the defense of Christmas. His Fox News ally in the past John Gibson, however, has lost his show (probably as a result of an anti-Christian purge) and so no longer has a highly visible platform to show his love for Jesus.

But this year brings a new defender of the faith, one Daniel Henninger, and he has a startling new theory. He claims that the current economic crisis was actually caused by the War on Christmas! Yes, indeedy.

Henninger paints with a broad brush.

And so it will come to pass once again that many people will spend four weeks biting on tongues lest they say "Merry Christmas" and perchance, give offense. Christmas, the holiday that dare not speak its name.

This year we celebrate the desacralized "holidays" amid what is for many unprecedented economic ruin -- fortunes halved, jobs lost, homes foreclosed. People wonder, What happened? One man's theory: A nation whose people can't say "Merry Christmas" is a nation capable of ruining its own economy.

Of course, that is quite a leap and he labors mightily to get there from here. He first goes through the list of well-known proximate causes of the crisis such as shaky mortgage loans to unqualified borrowers, securitization of debts, failure of ratings agencies to exercise due diligence, yadda, yadda, yadda, all things by now familiar to anyone even faintly familiar with the crisis and discussed at length in this blog too.

So what has all that got to do with the War on Christmas, you ask? Be patient, he's coming to that. You see, all those factors that led to the crisis are merely symptoms of a deeper underlying malaise that is rotting the very moral fiber of the country and has led to all this bad behavior by the financial sector.

What really went missing through the subprime mortgage years were the three Rs: responsibility, restraint and remorse. They are the ballast that stabilizes two better-known Rs from the world of free markets: risk and reward.

Responsibility and restraint are moral sentiments. Remorse is a product of conscience. None of these grow on trees. Each must be learned, taught, passed down.

He then delivers the punch line, explaining that what caused people who would otherwise have been moral to abandon their principles was, among other things, their inability to say "Merry Christmas."

And so we come back to the disappearance of "Merry Christmas."

It has been my view that the steady secularizing and insistent effort at dereligioning America has been dangerous. That danger flashed red in the fall into subprime personal behavior by borrowers and bankers, who after all are just people. Northerners and atheists who vilify Southern evangelicals are throwing out nurturers of useful virtue with the bathwater of obnoxious political opinions.

The point for a healthy society of commerce and politics is not that religion saves, but that it keeps most of the players inside the chalk lines. We are erasing the chalk lines.

And he ends with a dire warning that this war on Christmas can only lead to the apocalypse, "Feel free: Banish Merry Christmas. Get ready for Mad Max."

One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. Laugh, because the whole argument is so patently stupid. Cry, because Daniel Henninger is not some random nutcase ranting at the internet equivalent of street corners. He is actually the deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and this drivel appeared in an opinion piece on November 20, 2008.

This seems to provide further evidence of the view among newspaper cognoscenti that the WSJ is a schizophrenic newspaper.

On the one hand, its news pages are respected for their solid and reliable news coverage. This is to be expected. After all, businesspeople, who are its target audience, have no use for fantasies. They need a realistic view of the way things are in the world if they are to make informed decisions.

On the other hand, its editorial and opinion pages seem to be under the control of people on the far fringes of loopiness.

Weird.

POST SCRIPT: Happy birthday, Origins!

On this day in 1859, the first edition of Charles Darwin's groundbreaking book On the Origin of Species appeared in print.

This is probably a good time to tell readers that my own new book THE CASE OF GOD v. DARWIN: Evolution, Religion, and the Establishment Clause will be published sometime in the middle of 2009.

The book looks at how the attempts to oppose the teaching of evolution in schools have themselves evolved due to the setbacks received in the courts. My book looks at the legal history of the trials and the role of religion in schools, starting with the Scopes trial in 1925 and ending with the Dover intelligent Design trial in 2005.

November 21, 2008

The future of the Republican Party-5: McCain opens the Pandora's box

One of Al Gore's biggest sins for which I will never forgive him is his putting into the spotlight the insufferable Joe Lieberman by selecting him as his running mate in 2000. Lieberman has milked his gift of prominence to the maximum so that it is now hard to avoid his smug, sanctimonious, and unctuous presence in the media.

John McCain is likely to suffer similar reproof among large segments of the population for his inflicting of Sarah Palin on the American public. She too has a grating personality, though in her case it is her snide and sneering tone mixed with her ignorant but pugnacious self-assurance that tends to irritate.

But in many ways, McCain's choice of Palin will do a lot more harm to the Republicans that Lieberman did to the Democrats, even though the latter actually campaigned against the Democratic candidate and provided cover for some of the most despicable allegations made against Obama. In the end, Lieberman represents just himself, a voting bloc of one, and will eventually disappear, most likely losing his next senatorial election in 2012.

But Palin does represent a large constituency that will not go away even in the event that she does, and this group has been newly energized by the Palin selection and their claim to power is what is going to cause problems.

McCain belongs more to the old-style conservative Republican wing of the party, does not seem particularly religious or enamored of the religion-based agenda of the social values bloc, and he probably saw that bloc in the subservient role it has traditionally played, which is to mainly turn up on election day. It is very likely that when McCain selected Palin, he saw her as bringing female and outsider and youth and energy credentials to the ticket, nothing more.

I think it is now obvious that the vetting of Palin prior to her selection to be McCain's running mate was cursory to the point of being almost non-existent. I am almost certain that he did not realize that the elevation of Palin would open a Pandora's box of expectations of the social values bloc of his party and did not anticipate the outpouring of religious fervor that would accompany her selection. For the first time, the religious base has had one of them be part of the top leadership. Now that they have got so close to the driver's seat, they are not going to return to the back of the bus. I think they will insist on a true believer as the next leader of the party.

This is where the battle lines are going to be drawn within the Republican party. What is happening now is that the culture wars that were used in the fights against Democrats is becoming a weapon to be used within the Republican Party, to determine who the 'real Republicans' are. The Southern strategy tactics of dividing the country on cultural issues that worked so well for the Republicans on the national level for nearly four decades, has now suddenly turned in on itself and is being used to divide up the party internally in order to see who will lead it and in what direction it will go.

This is why the jockeying for leadership within the Republican party will be interesting to watch, as various candidates try to keep their names in the public eye while at the same time trying to gauge which way the wind is blowing.

As is usually the case, the names of candidates from the previous election are being bandied about the most. Mitt Romney is the one who is most nakedly revealing his ambitions. But he is a Mormon and however much he and his church may protest that they are really just another Christian denomination, they are still seen by many Christians as not one of them, a little too out there, more like Scientologists and Wiccans. Furthermore his earlier softer stances on gay rights and a woman's right to choose may make his true-believer credentials suspect. For these reasons, I think that he has a tough road ahead of him to gain the Republican nomination.

Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who was short-listed as a possible vice-presidential candidate, might serve the bill. He seems to have the required positions on social issues such as abortion, gay rights and stem-cell research, though he does not seem to flaunt his religion, perhaps because of that famous Minnesota reserve.

But earlier in his career he had softer stands on abortion and stem-cell research and supported anti-discrimination laws against gays. He is also one of the few evangelicals to support actions to combat global warming, and these will hurt him with the true believers.

While Pawlenty should be acceptable to the social values base of the party, it is not clear if he gives out that special frequency signal that only true believers can hear that enables them to identify those who are truly one of them and thus support them enthusiastically.

Another rumored vice-presidential candidate Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal is also seen as a possibility for future party leadership. Does he have the required religious cred? He is the son of Indian immigrants and a Catholic convert from Hinduism and describes his conversion in a 1993 article.

He seems to hold orthodox, hard-line conservative Catholic views, which puts his in agreement with the evangelical social values voters on most of the issues dear to them. He is fervently anti-choice, anti-gay rights, and anti-embryonic stem cell research.

His youthful involvement with an exorcism might worry old-style conservative Republicans but will likely strengthen his religious credibility among the true believers, who see such nuttiness as signs of genuine faith, enough to overcome their misgivings about him being a former Hindu and the child of immigrants.

But the real clue as to the problems the Republican party faces lies in their puzzling response to the candidacy of Mike Huckabee.

Next: The Huckabee puzzle

POST SCRIPT: Hopeful signs of overcoming bigotry

Jed Lewis points out something important.

Let us remember when this election is in the history books that it wasn't just that majorities of white voters in states like Iowa and Wisconsin and Oregon supported Barack Obama for President, but it was also black voters in Tennessee who overwhelmingly stood up for Stephen Cohen, a white Jewish congressman who was challenged by Nikki Tinker, a black woman who ran a Jew-baiting primary campaign against him.

Tinker thought that black voters wouldn't support a white Jewish candidate, but they did. She ended up winning only 19% of the vote.

The elections of Barack Obama and Stephen Cohen (who supported each other in their primaries) may not mean that we have overcome. But they do show that we can. And eventually we will.

I really hope that this is a sign of the beginning of the end of stupid and vicious identity politics.

November 20, 2008

The future of the Republican Party-4: Palin's appeal

The radio show This American Life once had an amusing episode about how Americans of Canadian origin somehow immediately know if any person or thing is also Canadian, even if that fact is not at all obvious to anyone else.

David Rakoff . . . claims that there must be a chip in his head — or something like it — that automatically tells him when someone or something famous is Canadian. Lorne Greene? Canadian. The American space shuttle? It has a Canadian-built arm.

The religious right seems to have a similar sixth sense, an antenna that picks up the secret frequency sent out by those like them. While the rest of us were dumbfounded by the Palin choice for vice president and scrambled to try and figure out who she was and what she represented, they immediately sized her up as one of them and embraced her warmly. In the mere five days between her debut as the vice-presidential nominee and her acceptance speech at the Republican convention, she had become their darling on whom they pinned their hopes and dreams.

Palin is rural and attended the Pentecostal Assembly of God church in her hometown of Wasilla. Whatever one might think of their religious practices, such as getting into trances and speaking in tongues, one cannot deny that these are true believers. I know because I have relatives who are Pentecostals and they do not take their faith lightly. People who as adults belong to such churches are not your mere do-gooder Christians, those who value their church as primarily social organizations that happen to also give their lives some spiritual meaning. For these people, Jesus is real and present and speaking to them on a regular basis. The rapture and Armageddon are not some laughably goofy ideas but something they look forward to and pin their dearest hopes on.

So when during the campaign news stories and video emerged of Palin being prayed over by a witch-hunting priest who exorcised her of all demons, some of us were aghast at the idea of a political leader actively participating in such rituals, but the true believers were delighted at this evidence of genuine religion. After decades of being strung along by what they viewed as the false prophets of the Republican party, at last they had a true messiah, someone who would lead them to the promised land of a Christianity-based America. Her carrying to term of her Downs syndrome baby and even her teenage daughter's unwed pregnancy were seen as further evidence that she was not paying mere lip-service to anti-abortion views. (There were always suspicions that the leadership of the Republican party might well allow secret abortions for their own family members while publicly opposing it.)

So Sarah Palin was seen as the real deal for the religious faithful. At last, they had someone who was truly of them. It did not hurt that she was attractive too. This is why the present battle over the direction and leadership of the Republican Party is going to be rather bitter. It is currently being fought over Sarah Palin the person but the real underlying fight is over whether the large voting bloc she represents is going to continue to be in the top leadership of the party.

Those who oppose her point out that she was significantly responsible for the party's defeat in the last election.

There is evidence that Palin’s presence on the Republican ticket has hurt McCain with some voters. Fourteen percent of Obama's supporters say they once supported McCain, and the top reason given for their switch was McCain's selection of Palin as his running mate.

That is a huge number of defections, probably coming from the old-style conservative wing of the Republican party. For such people, these numbers are a compelling argument that in order to build a winning coalition again, the party has to go back to embracing traditional Republican values and not those of the social values bloc. Republican Kathleen Parker who was one of those old-style conservatives who defected from the party at the last election explains the problem.

Mainstream media conservatives are amazed that Palin and her supporters do not recognize what seems to them to be obvious, that she doomed the party and needs to fade away onto obscurity. They cannot believe that she is instead going in the opposite direction, raising her profile even more, giving a hectic round of interviews with all kinds of media outlets and raising the possibility of running for the presidency in 2012. Meanwhile Joe Biden, her counterpart who actually will become the vice-president, is totally ignored.

Palin is not being delusional in her seemingly feeling that she has a real chance of being the party's future standard bearer. It all depends on whose opinion you think should matter. A poll taken after the election found that 69% of Republican voters think Palin helped McCain, not hurt him. Furthermore,

Ninety-one percent (91%) of Republicans have a favorable view of Palin, including 65% who say their view is Very Favorable. Only eight percent (8%) have an unfavorable view of her, including three percent (3%) Very Unfavorable.

When asked to choose among some of the GOP’s top names for their choice for the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, 64% say Palin. The next closest contenders are two former governors and unsuccessful challengers for the presidential nomination this year -- Mike Huckabee of Arkansas with 12% support and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts with 11%.

Given that Palin clearly loves living the high life (her clothes shopping spree is a good clue) and relishes being in the media spotlight, you can be sure that with poll numbers like these within the party, she is not going to disappear into the Alaskan backwoods.

Brace yourself for the new reality series (or soap opera) that is going to last for four years at least: Sarah Palin, Republican sweetheart.

POST SCRIP: Eddie Izzard on Christianity


November 19, 2008

The future of the Republican Party-3: The social values bloc gets a top spot

There may be a little truth in the belief that culture war issues are losing some of their appeal, and that is a good thing. Looking back, we can see that the Southern strategy based on those culture wars was already losing some steam before the current election. In both the 2000 and 2004 elections the Republicans followed that same path and yet barely hung on to power. The mid-term elections in 2006 saw the Republican party lose its majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1992, and the presidential election year of 2008 saw the further deterioration of their support, resulting in even larger majorities for the Democrats.

But I don't think the issues around which the Southern strategy was built have disappeared or even largely diminished. What I think has happened is that the balance of power within the Republican party has shifted for two reasons in ways that threatens the coalition that had been created.

One reason has been increased demand for real power from the social issues bloc. The second has been the rise within the Republican Party of a third group that has upset the working arrangement that existed between the old-style conservative Republicans and the social issues voters. This group is the neoconservatives. Although they are not a large voting group, they have grabbed the ideological reins of the party away from the old-style conservatives. The rise in influence of the social values bloc and the neoconservatives has seen a huge diminution in the influence of the old-style conservative group that had always run the Republican party.

As I said earlier, the social issues voters formed the backbone of the Republican party electoral base but they never really controlled the party. If one looks at the Republican presidential tickets from 1968 onwards (Nixon-Agnew, Ford-Dole, Reagan-Bush, Bush-Quayle, Dole-Kemp, Bush-Cheney), none of them emerged from the social values base. All of them said they were religious of course, and they occasionally hobnobbed with the radical clerics such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson of the religious extremist Christianist groups, but they did not give the impression of being true believers. Many of them did not even go to church regularly or, if they did, went to mainstream, middle-of-the-road Christian churches, not the born-again, come-to-Jesus, snake-handling varieties. George W. Bush came the closest to paying at least lip-service to that role but even he does not seem like a true believer.

All of the candidates genuflected at the altar of opposition to abortion but apart from nominating conservative Supreme Court justices, they did not enthusiastically fight for the issues dear to the social issues voters. So after four decades of Republican leadership that ostensibly supported the positions of the cultural issues voters, a woman's right to choose is still not outlawed (although it has been severely curtailed), flag burning is still legal, gay rights have been steadily increasing, people of color are still immigrating to the US, illegal immigrants are not being detained and kicked out en masse, and the Ten Commandments and other religious symbols are still not allowed in the public square and in schools. One can understand the rising frustration of the social values voters.

It is with this background that we can understand why the choice of Sarah Palin electrified the social issues base of the Republican party. Here, for the very first time, was some who was just like them almost at the very top of their party hierarchy, just the proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency.

An interesting feature about the Palin choice is that in its aftermath most media attention focused on the concerns about McCain's age, and the danger that he might die in office leaving the nation with the novice Palin at the helm. So the ticket's supporters in the media tried to reassure us that McCain was in very good health, had good genes for longevity (his mother is still alive!), and that he would be a good mentor for Palin and would help her grow quickly into readiness for the job if the need should arise.

But many people in the party's social values base did not much like McCain. His heart did not seem to be into some of their passions and he seemed to be just the latest in a line of Republican pretenders who said he shared their values but would not really push their agenda once in office. What is less-well known is that his advanced age was seen by them as a good thing because they hoped he would die soon after taking office, leaving Palin in charge.

The enthusiastic crowds who started appearing at the McCain rallies after the Palin choice were her supporters, seeing her as more truly representing their interests than McCain. These people were hoping that soon after his inauguration, McCain would shuffle off his mortal coil and join that Big Maverick in the sky.

Next: Palin's appeal

POST SCRIPT: Eddie Izzard on James Bond


November 18, 2008

The future of the Republican Party-2: The Southern strategy takes hold

The coalition of old-style conservatives and social values voters held up because the former pandered to the latter by taking advantage of their relatively lower levels of urbane sophistication, by appealing to their vanity as being 'the real Americans', the people who epitomized the highest values of the country. Sarah Palin's Republican convention speech in which she quoted an unnamed writer who said "We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity" is an echo of that appeal. What she left out was that the author of that quote was an unreconstructed bigot by the name of Westbrook Pegler (1894-1969) whose other views are appalling.

Their lack of education was exploited by feeding them a diet of anti-intellectual rhetoric, appealing to the virtues of 'common sense' as superior to book learning. Again Palin's convention speech echoed that theme: "I was just your average hockey mom, and signed up for the PTA because I wanted to make my kids' public education better. When I ran for city council, I didn't need focus groups and voter profiles because I knew those voters, and knew their families, too." In other words, we don't need no fancy book learnin' and stuff like them latte-drinking, Volvo-driving, Birkenstock-wearing city slickers who think they are better than us. What we learn from our parents, our community, and the Bible is enough.

The old-style conservative Republican party leaders were largely of this supposedly despised educated urban class and did not, of course, believe any of this rubbish. There was no way that they were going to let these people actually run things. But the strategy required them to pander to this group and so they had to adopt a façade of being 'regular' folk. So one had the spectacle of the patrician, old-money, upper-class, Yale-Harvard educated Bush family from Connecticut adopting Texas and its down-home mannerisms for its own. George H. W. Bush famously declared his love for pork rinds as his favorite food and took to wearing cowboy hats and boots. It is not widely known that George W. Bush, now so closely identified with his rural Crawford ranch, bought it just before he ran for president as part of his campaign strategy, and assiduously cultivated his image of a plain-spoken rancher, a good-old-boy from rural Texas, with a history of drunken and riotous behavior who found Jesus and went straight, a plot line familiar to any lover of country and western songs.

By this means, the Republican party was able to cobble together a winning voting bloc that was divided according to social values rather than economic class. This enabled the wealthy ruling class, who were the leaders of both parties, to remain in power whichever party won.

The Southern strategy that led to Richard Nixon's wins in 1968 and 1972 also led to Ronald Reagan's victories in 1980 and 1984, George H. W. Bush's win in 1988, and George W. Bush's wins in 2000 and 2004.

It is telling that the only Democratic victories in that post-civil rights legislation period, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, involved candidates from the south, thus enabling them to partly neutralize the Republican Southern strategy since they could be portrayed in the south as 'one of us'. It should not be forgotten that both of them adopted elements of the Southern strategy, Carter playing up his 'just a simple peanut farmer' country boy image, and Clinton also emphasizing his down home rural small state roots.

Furthermore, there were exceptional circumstances in both those Democratic victories. In 1976 Carter undoubtedly benefited from Nixon having had to resign in disgrace, while in 1992 Bill Clinton became president with only 43% of the votes, since third-party candidate Ross Perot made that presidential election into a really wild race and got 19%.

So what has happened to the Southern strategy? Why did it fail in 2008? While Obama did speak about the Kansas roots of his grandparents (and Biden referred to his working class origins in Scranton, PA) he did not really try to obscure the fact that he was a highly educated product not only of urban America but of fairly exotic Hawaii and even foreign cultures. You did not see much of Obama shucking corn or drinking beers in small town bars or whooping it up at rodeos. The only attempt in that direction (bowling) did not go well and the campaign quickly reverted to showing him playing something he was good at (basketball) even though it is a sport that epitomizes urban living.

How was it that issues of abortion and gay rights and immigration and religion and guns failed to dominate this last election despite efforts to resurrect them as galvanizing issues? Even race was not a major issue even despite the presence of a black candidate. It is tempting to think that there has been a sea change in public sentiment that has made voters realize that all those issues are the distraction they always were. Is it the case that the Southern strategy is exhausted, at least on the national stage?

While it is tempting to think so, I am not so sanguine. I think there were other factors at play in the last election that were dominant which I will discuss in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Auto industry woes

The state of the US auto industry is a source for some concern. Although the administration and Congress rushed to bail out banks and other financial institutions, they seem to be very reluctant to bail out an industry that employs lots of working class people who actually make things.

This is a tricky issue. The failure of the auto industry will have major repercussions since there is a huge nationwide chain of suppliers and dealers reaching into every corner of the country who will be thrown out of work. This argues for a bail out.

On the other hand, the reason the US auto industry is in such deep trouble is because they are making products that not enough people want to buy and it is not clear how bailing them out is going to do anything other than delay the inevitable. As one analyst said, if a restaurant is in trouble because it sells lousy food at high prices, bailing it out is not going to solve the problem.

One suggestion that appeals to me (although I don't know how feasible it might be) is to use the bailout money to create some sort of health care system for the auto industry employees, taking that huge financial burden off the companies, thus enabling those companies to be more price competitive with foreign manufacturers based in countries which have a government-run single-payer health care system.

Then perhaps people will realize that the present US system of funding and providing health care is insane, and that the country as a whole should switch to a single-payer health care system. If the auto industry can be made to support it, it may have a chance.

November 17, 2008

The future of the Republican Party-1: The Southern strategy

Given the back-to-back defeats of Republicans in 2006 and 2008 that have resulted in the Democrats regaining control of the White House and both houses of Congress, there will be deep re-evaluation within the Republican Party about the direction in which they should go. Such evaluations, accompanied by vicious intra-party warfare, are normal for losing parties, especially if the defeats are big ones.

What made this year a little unusual was that the sniping started even before the election was over. The difference may have been due to the fact that this division was over the role of a person than the usual ones of issues or campaign strategy. Sarah Palin, a relative unknown until a few months ago, seemed to be the flashpoint for the early fighting, the dividing line separating the factions. But rather than focus on Palin the person, an admittedly fascinating topic that the media can't seem to get enough of, it may be more helpful to look at what she represents.

To see how the Palin phenomenon came about and why the warfare within the Republican Party is so vicious, we need to go back a little in history. Modern Republican politics has had at its core the 'Southern strategy'. This was developed following the bitter battles for desegregation in the 1950s and the early 1960s, many of them occurring in the South, that led to the golden age of civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial segregation in schools, public places, and employment. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited states from imposing any "voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure ... to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color." Congress was outlawing the practice in some which southern states were preventing otherwise qualified African-Americans from voting by having them pass literacy tests in order to register to vote.

These laws were seen as direct rebukes to Southern whites and in signing the second piece of legislation, president Lyndon Johnson is reported to have predicted "There goes the South for a generation." But the effects actually lasted even longer.

Richard Nixon pioneered the Southern strategy that won him the presidency in 1968 and 1972. It basically exploited the resentment of Southern whites against the Democratic-led civil rights legislation to seal Southern support for Republicans. Once they had secured that large bloc of electoral votes, they then used race and religion-based issues as wedges to divide the rest of the country along cultural fault lines to carve out winning majorities in the electoral college by bringing together two large blocs of people.

One bloc consisted of old-style conservative Republicans, the ones who used to be called 'Rockefeller Republicans'. They consist of people who are pragmatic, technocratic, and managerial in their outlook, and less ideological. They believe in the rule of law, a small but responsible and competent government, and a non-interventionist foreign policy. On economics they favor pro-business, lower-tax, fiscal policies and balanced budgets. On personal matters, they tend to oppose the expansions of social welfare programs and be somewhat libertarian in their outlook and believers in individual freedoms. They tended to be well educated and had a sense of noblesse oblige, that although possessed of a sense of entitlement that they were properly the ruling class, they had a responsibility for the welfare of people not as fortunate as themselves.

Allied with this group was the second bloc, those people for whom social issues were paramount, people for whom issues such as abortion, gays, guns, god, and flag were important. These people were always the rank and file of the party, the ones who existed in large numbers in parts of the country and gave it voting clout but they were never the leaders. They were the infantry and junior officer corps of the army, not the top brass. They were thrown the occasional bone to keep them satisfied and in line, but their main role was to get riled up at election time and come out in large numbers to vote for the Republican party. This was done close to election time by raising issues like flag burning, abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, immigration and border fences, and the Ten Commandments. After the election ended and the furor was over, it was scarcely mentioned that nothing much had actually changed on any of these issues, so that they could be resurrected the next election if needed.

So we saw campaign after campaign fought on issues of abortion, god, gays, guns, patriotism, xenophobia, pitting church-going rural people against the supposedly multicultural, non-patriotic urban populations, and setting less-educated working class urban people against supposedly effete sophisticates. And race was always a subtext.

Next: The Southern strategy takes hold.

POST SCRIPT: How right wing talk radio operates

This is a fascinating article by a former local station news director on how right wing talk radio manages to plug away in a coordinated fashion day after day on selected topics and thus controls the political conversation. (Thanks to Digby.)

These radio hosts exploit and perpetuate the sense of victimhood of their listeners.

To begin with, talk show hosts such as Charlie Sykes – one of the best in the business – are popular and powerful because they appeal to a segment of the population that feels disenfranchised and even victimized by the media. These people believe the media are predominantly staffed by and consistently reflect the views of social liberals. This view is by now so long-held and deep-rooted, it has evolved into part of virtually every conservative’s DNA.

To succeed, a talk show host must perpetuate the notion that his or her listeners are victims, and the host is the vehicle by which they can become empowered. The host frames virtually every issue in us-versus-them terms. There has to be a bad guy against whom the host will emphatically defend those loyal listeners.

This enemy can be a politician – either a Democratic officeholder or, in rare cases where no Democrat is convenient to blame, it can be a “RINO” (a “Republican In Name Only,” who is deemed not conservative enough). It can be the cold, cruel government bureaucracy. More often than not, however, the enemy is the “mainstream media” – local or national, print or broadcast.
. . .
[T]he key reason talk radio succeeds is because its hosts can exploit the fears and perceived victimization of a large swath of conservative-leaning listeners.

The audience for these shows is a lot more diverse than is commonly thought.

The stereotyped liberal view of the talk radio audience is that it’s a lot of angry, uneducated white men. In fact, the audience is far more diverse. Many are businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, academics, clergy, or soccer moms and dads.

These hosts actually do get daily memos about what to talk about and what point of view to take, so that a coordinated message can be promoted.

Conservative talk show hosts would receive daily talking points e-mails from the Bush White House, the Republican National Committee and, during election years, GOP campaign operations. They’re not called talking points, but that’s what they are. I know, because I received them, too. During my time at WTMJ, Charlie would generally mine the e-mails, then couch the daily message in his own words. Midday talker Jeff Wagner would be more likely to rely on them verbatim. But neither used them in their entirety, or every single day.

You really need to read the whole thing to see in detail how the system works.

November 14, 2008

Election analysis-7: The Obama campaign

While there may not have been much consistency in the McCain camp's strategy, there was no doubt about Obama's. Taking advantage of president Bush's abysmal approval ratings, the Obama campaign steadily plugged away at hanging Bush around McCain's neck. Bush has the unenviable record of being the most unpopular president in history. People were repeatedly reminded that Bush has been an awful president, who has got the nation stuck in two interminable wars while the economy soured, and that McCain represented a continuation of those policies while Obama represented a new direction.

While other issues have also been raised on the periphery, they have not been contradictory to the main message. Bush has been criticized for his tax cuts for the wealthy and McCain's present support for those cuts has been used to tie him even more closely to Bush. McCain has been linked to Bush's policies favoring big corporations. And who among us haven't heard hundreds of times the repetition of McCain's own proud statement from earlier days that he voted over 90% with Bush? We have also repeatedly seen the photos of Bush and McCain awkwardly embracing, with McCain in a subservient pose, further solidifying the image of McCain as a Bush acolyte.

McCain's desperate need to try and remove the Bush albatross from around his neck can be seen in his statement in the last debate that he was not Bush and that if Obama wanted to run against Bush then he should have run in 2004. That was a good line that got appreciative laughter from the audience but it also was a reminder of how successful Obama was in linking McCain to Bush. McCain at one point even tried to argue that it was Obama who would represent a continuation of Bush's policies, a truly pathetic attempt to separate himself from Bush.

McCain's attempts to emerge from Bush's shadow failed.

McCain has not been helped by his association with President Bush, the poll suggests. Fifty-four percent of voters think McCain would continue Mr. Bush's policies, and the president is extremely unpopular: his approval rating now stands at 20 percent, the lowest ever recorded for a president. His disapproval rating of 72 percent matches his all-time high, first reached last month.

McCain gave the Obama camp some additional openings. By picking Sarah Palin to be his running mate without proper vetting, McCain opened himself up to the charge of being reckless with the nation's security, lacking good judgment, and being impulsive. By 'suspending' his campaign during the financial crisis and even threatening to skip the first debate because of it, he opened himself to the charge of being erratic and incapable of keeping on top of multiple issues, and reinforced the image that he was impulsive.

All these things enabled the Obama campaign to raise questions about whether McCain had the required temperament for the office he was seeking. But unlike the changes in the McCain campaign strategy where new messages sometimes undercut the old, these multiple new charges against McCain could be layered on to the basic idea, without contradicting or distracting voters from the core message that McCain would represent a continuation of Bush's policies.

The Obama campaign was not perfect. But they were steady. They seemed to have a carefully thought out plan and they stuck with it. Even in the immediate post-Palin period when they lost their lead in the polls, they did not seem to panic but simply rode out that setback.

One could see the organization early on in the primaries where they skillfully pulled out a win in the Iowa caucuses based on sheer organization and grass-roots effort, seriously denting Hillary Clinton's image as the inevitable candidate. They stumbled badly in New Hampshire but learned enough from that to regroup and forge ahead.

Their success in winning the Democratic nomination was in carefully exploiting the delegate awarding rules for each state that were mostly based not on winner-take-all but on a district-by-district basis. By aiming to win even by a tiny amount all those districts which had an odd number of delegates, and avoiding big-margin defeats in districts that had an even number of delegates, they were able to rack up good delegate counts even when they were losing state voter totals overall.

Once they had the nomination, I think they realized that this was the Democratic Party's election to lose. Bush and the Republicans were so unpopular, and the two wars and the sour economy were such millstones around that party's neck, that as long as the Democrats stayed focused and calm did not make a big blunder, they would win. I think that the lack of traction of the Jeremiah Wright issue convinced the Obama camp long before the rest of us (including me) that race was going to be a relatively minor factor.

What was impressive about them was their message discipline. They stuck to their story whether the polls went up or down. In this they were aided by the fact that they kept the media focus on Obama and not on the campaign surrogates, and Obama is a very disciplined speaker. It was telling that even though I follow politics closely, and knew that Obama's close campaign advisors and managers were David Plouffe and David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, I had never seen them on TV or in YouTube clips until election night and had no idea until then what they even looked like. In contrast, I had seen McCain's campaign staff repeatedly all over the place.

The more surrogates that you have speaking for you, the more mistakes that get made and mixed messages that get sent and the public gets confused. The McCain campaign was overflowing with surrogates and pseudo-surrogates like Joe the Plumber and Tito the Builder, some of them saying outrageous things that drew attention to themselves rather than to the candidate they were supposed to be promoting.

It was after the selection of Joe Biden that the Democrats started going off-message since some media attention began to be focused on him. My impression of Biden is of a rather shallow man, someone who is not a deep thinker but wants to be thought of as profound and loves the sound of his own voice. Such people are liable to say stupid things in trying to impress audiences and this proved to be the case as he committed some gaffes here and there. But it was too late to help the McCain campaign. Compared to the Palin disaster, Biden, for all his faults, seemed like a brilliant choice.

POST SCRIPT: Mormons and California's Proposition 8

California's anti-gay proposition 8 passed due to support from blacks, Republicans, conservatives, and older people and Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons. A lot of the funding for the antigay effort came from the Mormons, even though most of them don't even live in California.

This has aroused renewed interest in that religion and why they might hate gays so much. This article describes how the Mormon religion arose from the fertile imagination of a person who mixed together three elements that were intriguing the people of his time.

November 13, 2008

Election analysis-6: McCain's last ditch attempts

The next attempt was to try and portray Obama as the dangerous and unknown 'other', the man with the mysterious past, who consorted with 'terrorists', had a strange and Muslim name, unusual and partly foreign family history, who had associated with a pastor who had called upon god to damn America, and so on. The McCain campaign did not identify Obama as the anti-Christ, but one can be sure that some of their fervid religious supporters were doing so. All these were attempts to portray him as someone 'not like us', "who does not see America as we do" (to use Sarah Palin's words), whose loyalties were suspect.

While this was a totally despicable tactic, another problem is that it was hard at this late stage to make the charge stick that Obama was a dangerous, wild-eyed, Marxist, Islamic, terrorist. After all, the country had seen him for almost two years and over twenty debates looking calm and self-assured and surrounded by establishment figures like Warren Buffett, responding with a steady hand to the financial crises and other issues as they came up.

Even strong McCain supporter Charles Krauthammer had to concede that Obama seems so unflappable that even if a grenade went off in the room he would still manage to complete his thoughts in a coherent way. Such coolness does not jibe with the idea of a wild-eyed radical.

The next-to-latest message, when it seemed almost certain that McCain was going to lose, was to argue that a divided government is good for America and since the Congress is assuredly going to be in Democratic hands, people should vote in a Republican president to thwart any action. 'Vote for a stalemated government' is not an inspiring message, to put it mildly. Furthermore, while it may have some appeal in good times when people don't want the government to mess things up, when times are seen as tough as they are now, people want things to happen and to have decisive action. They want things to change and stalemate and gridlock is the last thing on their wish list.

The very last message was a weird one that emerged at the end of the campaign. It was alleged by McCain and Palin that Obama was going to bankrupt the coal industry. Even I, who have the luxury of being able to follow politics fairly closely, was baffled by what they were getting at and had to do some digging to find out what was going on. It turns out that this is a piece of esoteric politics, involving some consequences of cap-and-trade greenhouse gas environmental policies. Furthermore, Obama's policies on this issue are similar to ones that McCain has supported in the past and for which he was also accused of bankrupting the coal industry.

Did the McCain camp really think that the state of the coal industry was an attention grabber in the last few days before the election? How many people would know or care about the workings of the coal industry? It was quite surreal. The only reason I could think of for bringing this up at this late stage was that he hoped it would get some votes in the coal mining Appalachian regions of Pennsylvania and Ohio, two states on which the McCain-Palin camp was pinning its hopes.

The problem for the McCain camp has been that each of these alternative messages seem to have been developed on the fly, not thought through, and not given much chance to take hold. If a new message did not produce quick results, it was summarily abandoned and a new message promoted. This rapid fire switching gave the impression of a campaign lurching from issue to issue and gave the Obama camp the opportunity to hammer home the message that McCain is erratic and impulsive.

Also, some of the messages contradicted each other and led to confusion, not a good thing when you are trying to define your opponent negatively. After all, how can you say that Obama is an arugula eating, country club, Hollywood-style, elitist celebrity, while at the same time that that he is a Marxist terrorist sympathizer? How can he be the faithful follower of a 'dangerous' Christian minister Jeremiah Wright while also being a Muslim? To successfully pull off such successful double lives would require Obama to have the skills of The Scarlet Pimpernel or Raffles.

It was not surprising that none of these scattershot attacks on Obama worked. If you seek to define someone negatively, it has to be done early in the campaign and have at least some basis in reality while your opponent is still a blank slate in the minds of voters. Once people have formed their own impressions, it is hard to change them.

It is telling that even at the end, the lack of experience issue was still the major concern that some people had about Obama, suggesting that it had always been the McCain's strongest argument. This charge had some factual basis and was introduced early enough to be a defining issue for many voters. But now those concerns were superceded by even greater concerns about Palin's lack experience.

McCain had problems from the start. Bush and the Republicans were deeply unpopular. The drop in violence in Iraq, rather than benefiting him as someone who had strongly supported the surge, had the effect of taking Iraq out of the news and becoming a non-issue. The economic crisis arrived at a bad time, focusing attention on his own admitted weak spot.

But when the history of this campaign is written, I suspect that the direct and indirect fallout from the Palin selection will loom large as the one single event that caused his campaign to lose focus and stumble.

POST SCRIPT: Palin and Africa - Getting even weirder

Remember the Fox News report quoting an anonymous aide to McCain who said that Sarah Palin did not know that Africa was a continent? Palin's followers were outraged by this leak and demanded the leaker be identified and punished.

Well, a McCain aide "Martin Eisenstadt" did admit to the leak but it turns out that his whole character is a hoax. He was also responsible for the false story that Joe the Plumber was related to Charles Keating, which I mentioned on my blog.

A knowledgeable commenter Samantha, who says she is a freelance reporter for the BBC and seems to know a lot about "Eisenstadt's" history, mentioned this hoaxer in a comment on this post. She has been following "Eisenstadt" and if you click on her name it will take you to some really interesting stuff where she interviews him.

What is still not clear from this latest story from the New York Times is what is the hoax: the actual story that Palin did not know that Africa was a country, or the claim that "Eisenstadt" is the leaker. The article is not precise on this.

November 12, 2008

Election analysis-5: The Obama as Marxist-Socialist gambit

The next lurch in the McCain campaign message came with Joe the plumber and the 'spreading the wealth' issue. The progressive tax code advocated by Obama has been long standing policy in the US, but abruptly became transformed into a symbol of socialism. Suddenly Obama became a Marxist, the one who wanted take money away from hard-working people and give it to shiftless loafers.

To work, this message depends on hiding the history of tax policy in the US and fostering the false assumption that the amount of one's income directly correlates with the amount of work one does, so that taxing rich people more and poor people less can be equated with taking money from hard working people and giving it to other people. It also has racial undertones since 'hardworking Americans' in this context is often code for white working class people, and 'other people' is code for people not willing to work as hard, which is code for welfare recipients, which is code for 'black'.

It was at this point that the McCain campaign descended into farce. I have seen campaigns in which ordinary people became symbols for points that the candidates wanted to make. But I have never seen a campaign where such people are plucked from obscurity and become transformed into actual spokespersons for the campaign, traveling along with the candidate to various events, appearing at rallies, and on TV to speak as surrogates on behalf of the campaign, as Joe the plumber and later Tito the builder did.

It was quite an amazing thing to see McCain and Palin depend so heavily on Joe the Plumber and the crowds chanting his name. Joe and Tito played the lead roles in a huge cast of characters characterized by first names and occupations. It became yet another joke with references sprouting to George the president, Dick the hunter, Ben the banker, and so on.

McCain again went overboard in his praise, describing Joe as "an American hero, a great citizen of Ohio and my role model." Someone he met for the first time a few weeks ago and whom he barely knows is now a 'hero' and his role model on the basis of a single question he asked Obama?

But apart from the absurdity of promoting people you have plucked out of the crowd into speaking for you, it also carries a risk. Like with Sarah Palin, there may be lots of things in such people's lives that may be embarrassing but you don't know about, and such political novices are also likely to commit huge gaffes. It did not help when Joe made the preposterous claim without a shred of evidence that Obama's election would bring 'death to Israel'.

It was also later revealed that Joe's family had to go on welfare on two occasions and he had to concede that the welfare system was what enabled them survive temporary adversity and raise themselves into the middle class. So he had personally benefited from the very policies that he now condemned as Marxism.

The attempt by the McCain camp to take Obama's 'spreading the wealth' response to Joe the Plumber and make into a major campaign weapon against Obama proved to be a total bust. The Joe the Plumber gambit seemed to indicate that there were no limits to McCain's willingness to debase himself. In its desperation to find a winning message, the campaign was becoming a joke.

The problem with this strategy is that McCain seemed to think that the views of the people in the immensely wealthy circle he moves in represent the views of most people. It turns out that most people are not as horrified at the idea of 'spreading the wealth' as McCain and Palin seem to think they are. This question has been repeatedly polled and the results are fairly consistent.

Across the nine times the question has been asked, a majority of Americans have agreed with the thought that money and wealth should be more evenly distributed. The current 58% who agree is one of the two lowest percentages Gallup has measured (along with a 56% reading in September 2000). Sixty-eight percent agreed in April of this year and 66% in April 2007.

In fact, one of the biggest champions of the progressive tax code is one of the conservative heroes, someone McCain likes to quote a lot, that well-known Communist president Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt also strongly supported the estate tax on inheritances, which the very rich in this country have been strongly campaigning to kill by calling it a 'death tax'.

The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective, a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.

The progressive income tax is as American as apple pie.

POST SCRIPT: Campaign withdrawal pains

The Onion News Network reports on the disturbing phenomenon of Obama campaign workers struggling to find new meaning for their lives.


Obama Win Causes Obsessive Supporters To Realize How Empty Their Lives Are

November 11, 2008

Election analysis-4: McCain-Palin as the agents of change?

The initial shock and euphoria that accompanied the Palin choice was followed by intense curiosity about this new star that had suddenly burst onto the political scene. But this was not all for the good. The focus abruptly shifted from Obama'a experience (or lack of it) to Palin's lack of experience. The concerns about Palin's readiness to be president also brought to the surface the latent worries about McCain's age and health. And the answers people were receiving were not reassuring.

Starting about a week after the Palin selection, McCain's poll numbers started to fall steeply and on September 17, Obama took the lead again and never relinquished it, steadily gaining with time.

Palin did not help matters by her own overreaching, especially her claims that she had said 'thanks but no thanks' to the infamous 'bridge to nowhere' and that the proximity of her state to Russia gave her some foreign policy credentials. The first claim was shown to be false and the second was widely ridiculed, always a bad sign. Her inability to speak and think coherently, or even in complete sentences without a script, and the campaign's careful shielding of her from the press resulted in her early luster rapidly becoming tarnished. Amazingly, she went through the entire campaign without giving a press conference.

Furthermore, McCain, as is his wont when defending his decisions, tended to go overboard in his praise, making absurd claims and opening himself up for ridicule as well. For example, he recently said of Palin in an interview with Don Imus that "she’s the most qualified of any that [sic] who has run recently for vice president." Really? More so that Dick Cheney? Or Al Gore? Or George H. W. Bush? Or even his best buddy Joe Lieberman, who was reportedly his own first choice before he was nixed by McCain's advisors?

Another example of going overboard was when McCain said that Palin "knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States of America" even as she babbles incoherently on that very topic.

Once the experience argument was seen to be not working anymore, the McCain camp struggled to find another winning message and it is their inability to stick with one new alternative message that has given the impression of them flailing around.

The first attempt was to try and co-opt Obama's successful theme of change which took advantage of the fact that people are well and truly sick of president Bush and think the country is headed in the wrong direction. McCain's careful cultivation of his own image as a maverick was hitched to Palin's outsider status and rural outdoorsy persona to create the idea of a pair of reformers, willing to buck the political system to bring much-needed reform in government. But trying to portray McCain and Palin as the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid agents of mavericky change was a hard sell when plenty of evidence existed of McCain warmly embracing Bush, both literally and in terms of policies.

Trying to co-opt the mantle of change was simply not working either.

Mr. McCain’s renewed efforts to cast himself as the candidate of change have apparently faltered. Sixty-four percent of voters polled said Mr. Obama would bring about real change if elected, while only 39 percent said Mr. McCain would. And despite Mr. McCain’s increased efforts to distance himself from President Bush, a majority still said he would generally continue Mr. Bush’s policies.

Given that Obama had for a year and a half been plugging away at the theme that he would bring about change and had been tying Bush around the neck of McCain, to try and reverse public perceptions at this late stage was an uphill task and the campaign looked around for some other message to try as well.

Next: Another new star is born: Joe the Plumber.

POST SCRIPT: The country music menace

In an article published in the journal Social Forces (Vol. 71, No. 1, September 1992, pp. 211-218), Steven Stack and Jim Gundlach report on a study on the effect of country music on suicide.

The abstract of the article concludes:

This article assesses the link between country music and metropolitan suicide rates. Country music is hypothesized to nurture a suicidal mood through its concerns with problems common in the suicidal population, such as marital discord, alcohol abuse, and alienation from work. The results of a multiple regression analysis of 49 metropolitan areas show that the greater the airtime devoted to country music, the greater the white suicide rate. The effect is independent of divorce, southernness, poverty, and gun availability. The existence of a country music subculture is thought to reinforce the link between country music and suicide. Our model explains 51% of the variance in urban white suicide rates.

So, country music lovers, don't say I didn't warn you.

November 10, 2008

Election analysis-3: The fallout from the Palin selection

Soon after the selection of Sarah Palin, it quickly became clear to almost everyone that McCain and his campaign team knew hardly anything about her and had not vetted her carefully before selecting her. This was extraordinary considering that McCain had sewn up the Republican nomination by early March, giving him about six months to carefully think about whom he wanted to be vice president. To wait until the last minute and impulsively do something so important seemed evidence of a lackadaisical approach to governing.

On election night, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, one of the reported four finalists to be McCain's running mate, was interviewed just after Obama had become elected. I knew the others in the running (Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge) and I could see why the campaign might not be excited about them, since they both seemed kind of dull and stodgy, not adding much to McCain's appeal. But I had never seen Pawlenty before and he seemed to me to have many of Palin's positives (youth and energy and ideology) without all of her obvious negatives.

Pawlenty spoke fluently and well about the issues that drove the campaign, and graciously about Obama. Furthermore he is an evangelical Christian and is solidly in step with their anti-abortion, anti-gay agenda, although in the early 1990s he was not quite as hard-line. As he spoke, I became increasingly mystified as to why McCain had overlooked him for Palin. Did McCain simply have one of those failures in logical thinking that often afflicts men when in the presence of an attractive woman?

I think that the Palin selection was the tipping point, the moment when news media and mainstream commentators began to question their earlier infatuation with McCain and started wondering about both his judgment and his temperament and his much vaunted experience. As doubts about Palin grew, sentiment shifted to viewing Obama, not McCain, as the reassuring person voters were seeking.

All told, 59 percent of voters surveyed said Ms. Palin was not prepared for the job, up nine percentage points since the beginning of the month. Nearly a third of voters polled said the vice-presidential selection would be a major factor influencing their vote for president, and those voters broadly favor Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee.

And in a possible indication that the choice of Ms. Palin has hurt Mr. McCain’s image, voters said they had much more confidence in Mr. Obama to pick qualified people for his administration than they did in Mr. McCain.

While a majority viewed Ms. Palin as unqualified for the vice presidency, roughly three-quarters of voters saw Mr. Obama’s running mate, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, as qualified for the job. The increase in the number of voters who said Ms. Palin was not prepared was driven almost entirely by Republicans and independents.

The campaign's attempts to suggest that she actually was highly experienced and capable were also not selling well. Despite their earnest attempts, most voters were simply not buying the idea that being the mayor of a small town in Alaska and governor of that state for two years counted as serious experience. While it could be plausibly argued that Obama did not have much experience either, he had at least been campaigning and constantly in the public eye for almost two years, debating other candidates in the hard-fought primary elections about two dozen times, and fielding numerous press conferences and other encounters with the public.

Over time, this high level of extended exposure had given the public a sense of familiarity with him that enabled them to form their own judgments of him, and they seemed to be reassured by his knowledge of the issues and his calm temperament. He also had the time to recover from unfortunate off-hand comments, such as his statement that some 'bitter' voters cling to 'guns and religion'.

One of the interesting lessons about the Obama candidacy is that it may actually be easier for another non-traditional candidate of the future (say a Hispanic or other ethnic minority or woman or gay or Muslim or atheist) to run for president than for vice president, because for the former you first have to spend a lot of time in the public eye during the primaries and people are able to size you up for themselves, while for the latter you are suddenly thrust onto the national stage and people do not have the time to become comfortable with the novelty features you bring. When running for president you have the time to try and overcome people's first impressions of you. When 30,000 voters were polled back in 2006 as to whom they would vote for in a then-hypothetical McCain-Obama contest, the only contests Obama won were in Illinois, Hawaii, and Washington, DC giving him a grand total of 28 electoral votes compared to McCain's 510, showing how much impressions of Obama have changed as a result of being constantly in the public eye.

So the electoral map went from this in 2006 to this on election day.

ecv-2006.png US_300.gif

The voters had no such alternative means of sizing up Palin and so her early missteps were image-defining events for her that seemed to indicate incompetence and ignorance, and she simply did not have time to repair the damage.

POST SCRIPT: Are people ready for the new sheriff?


November 07, 2008

Election analysis-2: The Palin mistake

I think it is true that vice presidents by themselves do not lose or win campaigns. It might be tempting for some McCain supporters to put all the blame for their loss on Palin, but that would not be fair. It is true that she did reveal herself to be out of her depth and made some serious missteps, but Dan Quayle faced similar doubts about his abilities and yet the Bush-Quayle ticket won quite handily in 1988, by a margin of close to 8 points, which these days would be considered a landslide.

But while Palin may not have directly been the main cause of the McCain loss, I think that she did contribute substantially in an indirect way, by derailing the McCain campaign theme of the importance of experience, and they never seemed to recover from that.

The process began with the Democratic convention August 25-28, with Obama's speech to a huge crowd at the football stadium in Denver bringing the Democratic convention to a rousing finale. Obama's poll numbers went up by five points and he had a 6 point lead by September 1, as he got the usual benefit of a week of highly choreographed convention puffery designed to put him in the best light.

For some reason, rather than viewing Obama's rise to a six-point lead in the polls at the end of August as the usual temporary boost arising from a smooth party convention, and waiting to see if it would be eclipsed by their own convention and bounce the following week, the McCain camp seemed to panic and feel that the election was slipping out of their grasp. And this led to the first, and I believe ultimately fatal, mistake from which the McCain camp never recovered.

They seemed to want to, with one single move, grab the headlines, erase the lead, and wipe out all the positive images of the Democratic convention and so, on August 29, they made the surprising announcement of Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate, announcing it the day after Obama's speech.

This tactic undoubtedly worked in the short run. It created a lot of anticipatory excitement for the Republican convention held September 1-4, and overshadowed the positive coverage of Obama's speech, just as they must have hoped it would do. During the week of the Republican convention and just after, McCain's numbers shot up rapidly to 48% by September 8, giving him a 3-point lead over the rapidly falling Obama, and a 9-point overall swing towards McCain in just one week.

How much of this was due to Palin and how much McCain might have got anyway simply due to the nature of convention bounces is not clear. But Palin undoubtedly helped. She clearly ignited the passions of the party faithful. Suddenly the Republican party rallies, formerly lackluster affairs struggling to draw big crowds, became boisterous and enthusiastic, with packed audiences cheering loudly.

It looked like they had hit on a winning combination: McCain's experience and Palin's looks and crowd appeal, all mixed in with her down-home outsider status. The two of them were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, going to ride into Washington, clean up the mess, and solve all the country's problems.

Looking back, this was the high point of the McCain campaign.

But as I wrote back on September 3 during the Republican convention, the Palin choice seemed to me like one of those ideas that seem brilliant at first and can be intoxicating but leave a long and deep hangover. It is one of the very few times when I have made a political prediction that turned out to be correct, so forgive me for quoting myself on it.

Someone once said that the most common last words expressed by reckless men before they do something stupid is: "Hey guys, watch this!" The McCain decision strikes me as exactly one of those ideas, something that looks bold and daring and exciting in the heat of a brainstorming session where a few people are trying to "think outside box" and make a stunning impression, but where all the negatives only show up in the cold light of day. It is then that you realize that there is a very thin line separating 'thinking outside the box' from 'being out of your mind'.

I think that this decision is going to haunt McCain. His and her ardent supporters are trying to put on a good face and saying that this move is a 'game changer'. I think they are right but not in a good way for him. It risks changing a narrow race into a blowout victory for Obama.

While the immediate aftermath of the choice and the McCain-Palin ticket's rise in the polls seemed to prove me wrong, later events revealed that the choice was indeed a mistake. While the initial response to the choice of Palin was tremendously positive, it turned out that the price McCain paid for it was too high because, as I pointed out at the time, by selecting Palin, he had unilaterally disarmed himself of the main arrow in his quiver, that of the message of greater experience which, while not exciting, seemed to have been working for him. McCain could no longer plausibly argue that experience is the most important factor in selecting a president because he had clearly not thought it that important in selecting his own vice president.

The Palin selection started what turned out to be an irreversible decline in McCain's fortunes because of the lack of a plausible alternative to the now abandoned message of experience.

Next: The Palin fallout

POST SCRIPT: Africa is a continent? Who knew?

Fox News tells us that Sarah Palin is planning to run for president in 2012. But more revealingly, it also reports on why the McCain camp did not want to have Sarah Palin give any press conferences and highly restricted her unscripted appearances.

So the McCain camp realized almost immediately that she could not handle the job but pretended she could. It makes a mockery of their campaign pitch that they were the ones who put country first.

This is going to get ugly. Palin supporters are taking names of those who are leaking damaging information about their idol, and vowing revenge.

November 06, 2008

Election analysis-1: Campaign fortunes and campaign coverage

Now that the voting is over, I want to compare the way that the two campaigns were run.

Some years ago, I read an analysis that looked at media coverage of political campaigns. The analysis found that when reporters covered candidates who were leading in the polls, they would say that the operation was going smoothly, staffers were cheerful, with all the elements working in concert to provide a winning message.

But the reports of losing campaigns invariably found lots of missteps, gaffes, disunity among staffers, money woes, and lack of a consistent and coherent message.

What was interesting was that these reporters' perceptions were mainly correlated with the candidate's standing in the polls, not any real differences in the facts of the campaigns. So when a losing candidate started to get ahead in the polls, suddenly his or her campaign became the smooth one and the previously smooth winning campaign became the target of innuendo about all kinds of internal problems.

Part of the problem is that a candidate who is behind almost always has to adapt by changing the tone or content of the message and/or reorganizing the campaign staff. While this is a practical need (since there is no point in continuing a losing strategy), such measures can be unfairly portrayed as implying that the campaign lacks direction or coherence or is disunited or as even panicking. A winning campaign, by contrast, does not need to make any major changes and can thus be seen as steady and assured and united.

I think this analysis largely holds up, which is why one should not take at face value all the reports that have emerged during the last weeks of the campaign about the disarray in the McCain-Palin campaign. They were trailing in the polls most of the time and thus received the usual pattern of treatment.

But while all these reports of infighting can be ignored, there is one objective fact that cannot be denied and that is that McCain has been guilty of not having a coherent message and being too willing to switch from one issue to another as the main theme of its campaign. Now that it is over, with hindsight, we can see more clearly the arc of the campaign that we could only dimly glimpse while it was still going on.

The campaign first seemed to think that experience was the winning issue for McCain. They hammered home the idea that McCain was the seasoned hand while Obama was the new kid, still wet behind the ears and not yet ready for the responsibility of being president in these supposedly dangerous times. This had the advantage of making what might have been a negative (McCain's age) correlate with a positive (age=experience).

They attempted to portray Obama as a lightweight and even an airhead, an elitist celebrity not to be trusted with the nation's highest elected position. Recall in the early days the relentless hammering of him as someone famous for just being famous, whose only ability was giving good speeches, and not having any real achievements to his name. This campaign reached its apex with the advertisement juxtaposing Obama with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

Even Karl Rove got into the act and contributed to this image, famously saying: "Even if you never met [Obama], you know this guy. . . . He's the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by."

Rove did not seem to realize (or care) that the picture he painted tended to remind people of his own former boss George W. Bush rather than Obama. Also it was rather strange to accuse Obama, someone who had to struggle up from a tough childhood, of being a country-club elitist when McCain is one of the wealthiest people in the country, owning multiple expensive homes and cars. Rove was overreaching and this must have been due to overconfidence in his ability to remake an opponent's image. After all, he managed to make John Kerry seem like a liar and coward about his Vietnam service while his own team of George Bush and Dick Cheney did everything they could to successfully avoid going to Vietnam.

Although the experience argument was not persuasive to me personally, I thought that it could well turn out to be a winning message. Ever since 2001, there has been a deliberate campaign to make people fearful for their safety in order to push through policies that would have never had a chance otherwise, and many people are still looking for a protective father figure to be the president. McCain fitted that persona better than Obama, especially early in the campaign. Even at the end of the campaign, when voters spoke positively about why they prefer McCain, they often brought up the experience factor.

Although a campaign focused on experience was not an exciting message and McCain is by no means a charismatic person, by relentlessly drumming that message of experience versus celebrity lightness, he steadily kept closing the gap, from the lowest point in his polling on June 29 when he was at 40% and 7 points behind Obama, to within just one or two points by the end of August. Things seemed to be going well.

Then he picked Sarah Palin to be his running mate

Next: The wheels come off the Straight Talk Express.

POST SCRIPT: Ballot issues

Sad to say, California's proposition 8 denying gays the right to marry passed, as did other anti-gay measures in Florida, Arizona, and Arkansas. Although I am confident that full and equal rights for gays are inevitable, these results will set the achievement of that goal back by a few years.

The good news is that young people rejected the ban by margins of 2-1. This makes me hopeful that in the future such measures will be supported only by die-hard religious people, and they will not command a majority.

On the abortion front, South Dakota defeated the attempt to ban all abortions except in the case of rape or incest and Colorado defeated their anti-abortion initiative that sought to define a person to "include any human being from the moment of fertilization." California's attempt to limit abortion also seems likely to be defeated.

Meanwhile, the state of Washington allowed physician assisted suicide and Michigan approved the medical use of marijuana, both of which are positive steps.

November 05, 2008

A new hopeful beginning

As someone who has been a keen observer of politics all my life, it is easy to become cynical at times. After all, I have seen in this country and others government after government, politician after politician, come into power on promises that they would create a more just and equitable society, and end up serving the interests of only the rich and powerful. It is easy to conclude that democracy has failed its promise and that the whole exercise is a waste of time.

But sometimes, very rarely, something happens that restores my sense of hope and inspires me to dream big again, to think that despite detours we are on the right road, that peace and equality and justice for all, everywhere in the world, may not be an impossible dream after all.

I have seen two things that I thought I would never see in my lifetime. The first was the peaceful transition to majority rule in South Africa. I thought that would never happen, let alone the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and his subsequent election as President of that country. I never in my wildest dreams thought that the Afrikaaners who ruled that country with a vicious grip would give up power without a bloody revolution.

The second impossible thing has now come to pass. A black man has been elected as president of the US. And even more improbably, someone with a strange, Muslim-sounding name and a foreign father, just seven years after the attack on the World Trade Center created a virulent strain of xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment in the country.

And yet, here we are today, with Barack Hussein Obama poised to become the 44th president of the United States.

As I have said many times, I am not expecting too much from Barack Obama. He seems by nature to be a cautious, thoughtful, centrist, which makes all the allegations during the campaign that he was some kind of secret Islamic-Marxist-terrorist-Nazi all the more laughable. He does not strike me as having a radical agenda for change.

But my expectation of caution is not entirely due to his personality and temperament. People like him face the crushing burden of being a 'first' (the first minority or woman) to occupy a position, any position, previously only held by white men. Such people are hesitant to take risks because they have very little room for error. If they mess up, it will be portrayed by many as due to the inability of the entire group that they are taken to represent. George Bush is easily the worst president in US history, a colossal failure by any standards, but that is not taken as evidence of the incapacity of white males to do the job. But let Obama be even a modest failure, and he will set back the cause of black people for several generations. He knows this as well as any other minority or woman who breaks through a barrier, and this will make him hesitant to take bold steps.

What may yet make him a great transformational leader despite these constraints is not his own inclinations but the fact that he is inheriting a country and a world that is in a serious mess, driven into the ditch by the most incompetent American president in history. Obama's essential pragmatism, exceptional organizational skills, and ability to select and keep competent people to be around him (well exemplified by the smooth professionalism of his campaign) may result in him being forced to take radical steps simply to solve the deep problems he inherits, especially those of two unwinnable wars, and a hollowed out economy that is incapable of supporting the imperial ambitions of its current leadership

In that he may be like Franklin Delano Roosevelt elected in 1932 just after the collapse of the stock market in 1929 and at the beginning of the Great Depression. He was by no means a radical either but set in motion sweeping changes largely because he had to, and he had the persuasive skills to convince people that these were things that absolutely had to be done.

Obama faces similar challenges. He also has impressive persuasive and inspirational skills, similar to Roosevelt. But will he rise to the challenge as Roosevelt did? Or will his cautious nature allow him to be swayed by all those political insiders who will try and immediately surround him and persuade him to continue roughly along the same road that we have been going on, tinkering only at the edges?

I hope that Obama will either seize the moment, or be seized by it, to rise to greatness.

But that question will be answered in the future.

Today, I just want to savor the moment.

POST SCRIPT: Ashali

On Monday night my daughter Ashali attended a Joe Biden rally in Philadelphia and ended up on the stage behind Biden. The event was broadcast on CNN and a video clip ended up on YouTube. You can see her below the letters 'BA' in Barack.

November 04, 2008

The internet election

Today the seemingly interminable campaign comes to an end. My feeling is that this was the first real internet election, where this medium dominated the process. The internet has been at the forefront of organizing, fundraising, news gathering and dissemination, and analysis. It has profoundly changed the dynamics of campaigning for good and bad, but mostly for the good.

The speed and unfiltered nature of the internet can lead to the propagation of wild stories about candidates that have no basis in fact, and this election had them in plenty. It had been both disturbing and amusing to read the wild stories that have circulated. But at the same time, the investigation of these stories and their debunking also took place rapidly.

In past elections, the last two weeks of a campaign were when all the really dirty tricks were pulled and laws bent or broken. Voters would get pamphlets and phone calls conveying scurrilous and false information about opposing candidates or there would be efforts at intimidating and otherwise suppressing the votes of supporters of opponents. Such things would start out largely local and small scale and by the time it became significant enough to reach the attention of the major media, it would be too late to investigate and debunk before the election, and after the election people were too tired and dispirited to care as much about things that were now moot.

But in the age of the internet, last minute smears are not as effective. Word quickly gets out as to what is happening locally and people can compare notes and do their own investigation and combat the smears almost in real time. So the window during which you can launch an unrebutted smear has become much smaller, down to just one or two days before the election.

To some extent, the major media has been complicit in its own demise by not realizing that they could still fill a vital niche by providing time for genuinely knowledgeable people to speak about topics. While the internet does allow for people to get direct unfiltered news, there is definitely a role for some filtering system that can bestow a seal of credibility to otherwise unknown people who have nevertheless important information to share. For example, when Terry Gross interviews people on her NPR radio show Fresh Air, I listen even if I don't know the person simply because I assume that she would not put a total crackpot on the air. I have reasonable confidence that the interviewees have been screened and do have something useful to say, even if I disagree with them.

But much of the mainstream media has instead devoted far too much time to people and things that properly belong on the internet, namely trivial news and instant commentary and opinion by people who don't know much more than you or me.

For example, in my hotel room when I was staying in Las Vegas, after being driven from the casinos by its noise and garishness, I decided to do what I only do when I am staying at a hotel, and turned on the cable TV news channels. I do this periodically to confirm to myself what a waste of time such programming is and it did not disappoint.

I watched CNN for about an hour or so. Both Anderson Cooper and Larry King spent an inordinate amount of time on the sad story of Ashley Todd, the young Republican campaign volunteer who made up a story about being assaulted by a black Obama supporter who carved the letter B on her cheek.

In that one hour of TV I must have seen her 'perp walk' (where an accused person is escorted by police from a building to a car with hands handcuffed behind her back) at least half a dozen times. What is the point? True, to make up a story of a black man assaulting a young white woman because of her politics during an election campaign in which race is bubbling to the surface was a terrible thing to do. But once it was clear that the whole thing was a hoax concocted by a seriously disturbed woman, the news element of the story was over. What remained was only of interest to psychologists. Why was it necessary to repeatedly humiliate her by showing the perp walk? Even though she did an awful thing, as a result of this repeated showing, my sympathies were with her. These perp walks are a form of voyeurism that we can do without.

The rest of the time on CNN was spent with a panel of four people (two Obama supporters and two McCain supporters) discussing (actually talking over and through each other) about the Todd case and its implications for the election, Joe Biden's statement about the danger of a crisis and its implications for the election, the infighting in the McCain camp and its implications for the election, and Sarah Palin's shopping spree and dismissal of fruit fly research and (you guessed it) its implications for the election.

In other words, it was a total waste of time. There was not a single substantive issue discussed in any way that would have enlightened the viewer or provided a deeper understanding of anything, not even historical context. Everything was discussed in terms of the political process here and now and what effect it would have on the voting. These 'analysts' love to pontificate on how 'the voters' would react to some trivial news when they have no better idea than you or me. The time would have been far better spent having someone knowledgeable talk about why people study fruit flies.

After watching for a little over an hour, I had had enough. What amazes me is that these talk shows continue to have an audience day after day! What do people watch them for? Any actual new information can be gleaned within the first few minutes introducing the topic. There seems to be hardly any time when a genuinely knowledgeable person on some issue is brought in and allowed to explain it in depth. And of course, one is forced to endure the repeated commercial breaks.

In the days before the internet I would be forced to watch such shows in the hope that between these gabfests they would have some actual news. But now I can find news about any topic with just a few clicks in a few minutes.

Which brings me back to the mystery of why people still watch these so-called 'news' shows now that the internet can satisfy their news needs. Is it for the gladiatorial nature of the verbal jousting, seeing it as an alternative form of competitive sports? Do people get pleasure in seeing 'their' team get the better of a verbal duel with the opposing team?

Is it to actually see what semi-famous people look like? I must admit that it is marginally interesting to see and hear people whose names were familiar to me only from reading things by them or about them. For example, I now know what Bay Buchanan looks like, for whatever that is worth. But that has only a fleeting novelty value.

There must be something about these shows that I am missing, that keeps viewers returning. But what is it? I am truly baffled.

POST SCRIPT: Christianity as crazy as Scientology?

Bill Maher discusses politics and religion with Jon Stewart.

Part 1:

Part 2:


November 03, 2008

Sarah Palin's 'Checkers' speech

Most people have probably heard a reference to Richard Nixon's 'Checkers' speech.

Just a few days after he had been selected by Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 to be the vice-presidential candidate on the Republican ticket, the New York Post ran a sensational article with the headline "Secret Rich Men's Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary." This allegation of having a lavish personal lifestyle paid for by others outraged many Republicans, and leaders in the party called for his removal and replacement with someone not tainted by gifts from influence peddlers.

Faced with his imminent ouster, Nixon made a bold gamble, going on nationwide TV (not so common in those days) on September 23 with a speech defending himself. With his wife Pat by his side, he said that he had accepted $18,000 from this group but that it had been used to defray political expenses and that none of the money had gone for his personal use nor had he done any favors for the people who had given the money.

He then explained that he was not a rich man, came from a poor family, and described how he and Pat had struggled all their lives. He then went through his family finances in extraordinary detail to show that they were just regular folk, barely making ends meet.

What I am going to do -- and incidentally this is unprecedented in the history of American politics -- I am going at this time to give to this television and radio audio -- audience, a complete financial history, everything I've earned, everything I've spent, everything I own. And I want you to know the facts.

First of all, we've got a house in Washington, which cost $41,000 and on which we owe $20,000. We have a house in Whittier, California which cost $13,000 and on which we owe $3,000. My folks are living there at the present time.

I have just $4,000 in life insurance, plus my GI policy which I have never been able to convert, and which will run out in two years.

I have no life insurance whatever on Pat. I have no life insurance on our two youngsters, Patricia and Julie.

I own a 1950 Oldsmobile car. We have our furniture. We have no stocks and bonds of any type. We have no interest, direct or indirect, in any business. Now that is what we have. What do we owe?

Well, in addition to the mortgages, the $20,000 mortgage on the house in Washington and the $10,000 mortgage on the house in Whittier, I owe $4,000 to the Riggs Bank in Washington D.C. with an interest at 4 percent.

I owe $3,500 to my parents, and the interest on that loan, which I pay regularly, because it is a part of the savings they made through the years they were working so hard--I pay regularly 4 percent interest. And then I have a $500 loan, which I have on my life insurance. Well, that's about it. That's what we have. And that's what we owe. It isn't very much.

And then came the famous part that is still remembered and gave the speech its name:

I should say this, that Pat doesn't have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat, and I always tell her she would look good in anything.

One other thing I probably should tell you, because if I don't they will probably be saying this about me, too. We did get something, a gift, after the election.

A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog, and, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore, saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was?

It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate that he had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the six year old, named it Checkers.

And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it.

That speech, though widely mocked now for its bathos, proved to be a political masterstroke and saved Nixon's career. Eisenhower was impressed and decided to keep him on and the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket went on to win in a landslide. You can see the video of the speech.

I was reminded of the Checkers speech when Sarah Palin spoke recently in response to the news that the Republican party had spent $150,000 to purchase clothes for her and her family from high-end stores like Nieman-Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. This charge of living a lavish life funded by others was seen as seriously damaging to the image that was being created of her as being a simple hockey mom.

In trying to defuse the issue and regain her 'just regular folks' image, Palin gave a watered down version of Nixon's speech in which she said:

Those clothes, they are not my property. Just like the lighting and the staging and everything else that the RNC purchased, I'm not taking them with me. I am back to wearing my own clothes from my favorite consignment shop in Anchorage, Alaska.

Let me tell you a little bit about a couple of accessories, didn't think that we would be talking about it, but my earrings — I see a Native Americans for Palin poster… These are beaded earrings from Todd's mom who is a Yupik Eskimo up in Alaska, Native American, Native Alaskan.

And my wedding ring, it's in Todd's pocket, 'cause it hurts sometimes when I shake hands and it gets squished…A $35 wedding ring from Hawaii that I bought myself and 'cause I always thought with my ring it's not what it's made of, it's what it represents, and 20 years later, happy to wear it.

The speech was not as well crafted as Nixon's because Palin does not have the gift for maudlin self-pity that he had. It also did not have the same level of detail, but otherwise was true to the spirit of Checkers. All that was missing was the mention of a puppy.

POST SCRIPT: Palin falls for a prank call

A pair of well-known Canadian pranksters call in to a radio show on which Sarah Palin was featured and, talking in an exaggerated Inspector Clousseau-like French accent, pretend to be the French President Nicolas Sarkozy. She fell for it and hilarity ensues. You can listen to the conversation here.

The Candian Press describes the call in detail in which 'Sarkozy'

identifies French singer and actor Johnny Hallyday as his special adviser to the U.S., singer Stef Carse as Canada's prime minister and Quebec comedian and radio host Richard Z. Sirois as the provincial premier. . . . Finally, he mentions a notorious Hustler video titled "Nailin' Paylin," describing it as "the documentary they made on your life."

The mind boggles. How could Palin possibly have thought that the French president would violate all protocol and interfere in the elections of another country and contact an American candidate for the vice-presidency via a radio talk show? Surely it should have been clear to her midway through the interview that the guy was pulling her leg?

At the very end, the caller tells her she has been pranked. One can't help but feel sorry for her.