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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.

October 17, 2008

The Barack and Joe Show

I watched the final Obama-McCain debate. As usual, I found it hard to judge a 'winner', despite the fact that I used to debate myself and have judged debates. The problem is that when I was a debating judge, one used evidence, arguments, and coherence as major criteria. Personality traits, quirks, body language, etc, were not really factors to be considered, becoming significant only if they distracted from the major points.

But political debates are not like that. Because they are not an extended discussion focused on a single proposition but jump from topic to topic, the secondary criteria become far more important. It becomes more like a beauty contest, valuing style over substance.

Personally, I thought McCain did a lot better than he had in the past. He seemed more alert and feisty (perhaps a little too feisty at times) but he still gives the appearance of someone barely controlling his anger. Obama as usual seemed unflappable, even though he seemed on the defensive quite often. From what I read yesterday of what the professional pundit class said immediately after the debate, they seemed to roughly share my views.

So what are we to make of the immediate snap polls that show Obama a clear winner? (See here, here, and here.)

In the debates, viewers seem to be largely looking, not so much at issues, but how the candidates comport themselves, which is why the calm and collected Obama is wiping the floor with McCain. I think that what this reveals is not good news for McCain. I think that many people have made up their minds for Obama and their feeling that he had handily 'won' the debate simply reflects their sense that his performance affirmed their choice, that they had no second thoughts or regrets.

There is a good analysis by Joe Klein about how the professional pundit class simply has not caught up with the reality that the public's view of what is important has shifted drastically from what it was in the past, which is why they are caught flat-footed by events like these, not able to gauge the popular reaction.

Like almost everyone, I was startled by the starring role that Joe the plumber played in the debate. For those who haven't seen the video of the exchange between Obama and Joe that was constantly being referred to, here it is:

There have been suggestions that Joe was a McCain plant. His story seemed a little too conveniently suited to McCain's needs. A hard-working man, who after 15 years of putting in 12-hour days is finally able to buy a plumbing business that will provide him an income of $250,000, just the level at which Obama's tax plan raises taxes. He is now aggrieved that just as his hard work is paying off after all these years, he will be paying higher taxes to support poorer people who (by implication) are lazy good-for-nothings unwilling to work as hard as him. It tied in too neatly with what the McCain camp was saying.

DailyKos has done some research on plumber Joe and seems to find that rather than being your regular plumber thinking of starting his own business, three other businesses are owned in the same neighborhood by someone with the same name as him. He also does not have a plumber's license.

Furthermore he shares the same unusual last name as Robert Wurzelbacher, who is Charles Keating's son-in-law and also lives in the Cincinnati area like Joe. If you recall, Keating went to jail for defrauding investors in the savings and loan scandal in the 1980s. John and Cindy McCain were Keating's close friends and McCain was one of the Keating Five senators reprimanded for ethics violations for using his influence to help Keating.

It may be that Joe has no connections at all to Keating, and that Wurzelbacher is a common name in the Cincinnati area. I am sure that further inquiries will bring that information to light.

But while all very intriguing, for the purposes of the point I wish to make, it does not matter if Joe is a McCain plant or not. I had seen the exchange of Obama with Joe earlier this week and had been planning to write about it today. I thought the exchange was interesting and although Joe seemed to start and end the discussion as a McCain supporter, the way that Obama interacted with him was quite revealing about him and his policies.

It supported my view that these 'debates' should not be moderated at all but simply a free exchange between voters and the candidates so that we have more of these kinds of Joe-Obama discussions.

The voters could be selected randomly, like juries are, and they could ask the candidates anything they like and be allowed one follow up question, with the only restriction being a time limit for their questions to avoid speechifying. The only role for the moderator would be to keep tabs on the questioner's time.

I would not bother seeking out only so-called independents either. If people are genuinely uncommitted at this late stage, that means they have not really been paying attention. It should not matter if some of the people selected are rabid partisans out to 'get' the opposing candidate with difficult questions or throw softballs at their own or are even nutcases asking off-the-wall questions. How candidates respond to such people says a lot about them, and we are likely to learn a lot more about them in this format than from the current one that favors regurgitation of talking points and bits of stump speeches.

The trouble with having the present professional-journalist-as-moderator format is that these establishment journalists select questions about the kinds of things that they want to talk about and are drearily predictable. As a result, even the people offering up questions at these 'town hall' sessions tend to pose the kinds of questions that they think the moderators will like and thus select. No wonder these debates tend to be snoozers.

I think seeing more encounters like Obama and Joe (whether he was a McCain plant or not) would be far more interesting.

POST SCRIPT: Palin supporters

Al Jazeera interviews some of the people attending a Sarah Palin rally. Disturbing.


October 16, 2008

Sarah, mean and small

Like most people, I was startled by the choice of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate. My first reaction was that it was a bad choice, for reasons that I wrote extensively about earlier. (See list of 'Recent Entries' on the right.)

My misgivings with her were mainly because there are too many potential hazards with thrusting an unknown and unexamined person suddenly into the media spotlight. Although I have never been a fan of Joe Biden, his selection did not set off similar alarm bells because he has been around so long that there were unlikely to be any unpleasant surprises surfacing during the campaign

I also knew when her selection was announced that there was an ongoing ethics investigation ('troopergate') into Palin's attempts to fire her ex-brother-in-law and I did not believe that McCain would choose someone with something so potentially serious hanging over her head right in the middle of a campaign

It was not that I did not think she was competent for the position of vice president and potentially president. There are probably many unpolished gems among the population, who could turn out to be great leaders if given the opportunity. I simply did not know enough about her leadership qualities to make such a judgment.

But now the evidence is in. Subsequent events have made it pretty clear that far from being an uncut diamond, she is pure rhinestone, all flash and no substance. Her two interviews with people like Charles Gibson and Katie Couric, well-known for conducting celebrity-style interviews and hardly noted for their aggressive questioning, revealed someone completely out of her depth even in responding to boilerplate questions. She seems to be lacking in curiosity, and unable to string coherent thoughts together or even speak in understandable sentences. Since then she has retreated to the bosom of sycophantic followers, giving interviews only to people like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Hugh Hewitt.

She has not held a single press conference, an astonishing thing for someone who aspires to the second highest office in the land.

But what has really turned me off is that she has revealed personality traits that are unbecoming in a leader. They show that she is a petty, small-minded, and vindictive person, who has few if any scruples about attacking her perceived opponents, willing to sink to depths that are deplorable even by partisan political standards.

She seems to not care about truth and seems comfortable constructing an alternative reality to shield her from it. One sign was her willingness to repeat over and over again to her adoring fans the lie about her saying 'thanks but no thanks' to the 'bridge to nowhere', even after that assertion had been thoroughly documented to be false.

Another was her recent assertion that the troopergate report released last week completely cleared her of any hint of ethics violations when it explicitly stated: "Finding Number One of the report says: "I find that Governor Sarah Palin abused her power by violating Alaska Statute 39.52.110(a) of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act."

Such things are amazingly brazen and show a disconcerting disconnect either from reality or from truth. Is it any wonder that the Anchorage Daily News describes her response as 'Orwellian' and that it was "an embarrassment to Alaskans and the nation"?

The troopergate report also revealed a degree of startling degree of vindictiveness and abuse of power. The extent that she and her husband went to get her ex-brother-in-law fired, even to the extent of firing his boss for not firing him (which would itself have violated civil service rules), shows a creepy obsessiveness that is disturbing.

The newspaper went on "They had no sense that the power of the governor's office carries a special responsibility not to use it to settle family scores. They had no sense that legal restrictions might prevent the troopers from firing Wooten. They had no sense that persistent queries from the governor's office might be perceived as pressure to bend state personnel laws."

People who abuse their authority over others should never be put in a position of power.

Her casual use of language to suggest that Obama is some kind of dangerous and unknown person who 'palls around with terrorists' suggests a reckless disregard for the basic elements of decency. In watching those clips of her saying such things, one did not get the sense of someone performing a distasteful task because of orders from the campaign. She was acting like she thought it was perfectly acceptable, even enjoying it. She actually seems to revel in the muck.

It should also be remembered that the alleged 'terrorist' William Ayers, whatever his past, is still alive and living in Chicago as a professor of education at a university there. He is not some fugitive in hiding. Repeatedly and publicly calling him a terrorist in these inflamed times is to encourage some crazy person to try and harm him.

The Republican Party has a range of people from old-style establishment conservatives to right wing extremists. The establishment conservatives tend to value knowledge and expertise and know that one has to deal with reality. They clung on to their party even when George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Karl Rove systematically set about creating an alternative reality, manufacturing 'facts' to suit their needs, shredding the protections of the constitution, plunging the country into disastrous and immoral wars, crating skyrocketing budget deficits by massive tax giveaways to the rich, and using torture on prisoners.

But Sarah Palin has proved too much even for these loyal establishment conservatives. They see her as beyond the pale and one now sees a steady stream of them announce that they cannot support her and are either calling for her to be dropped from the ticket or saying they are going to vote for Obama, even as the rabid base calls upon her to increase her vicious attacks.

It is too late for McCain to drop her, of course. The two are now joined at the hip, for better or (more likely) for worse.

Sarah Palin has become the bridge to nowhere for the Republican Party.

POST SCRIPT: John Cleese on Sarah Palin

He finds her even funnier than the other Palin.


October 15, 2008

McCain's debate dilemma

It was no secret that the McCain-Palin campaign was in trouble two weeks ago. With the elections looming, they were stagnant in the polls. The Palin boomlet was gone and she was increasingly seen as a liability, firing up the base but alienating pretty much everyone else. McCain's stunt of 'suspending' his campaign to solve the financial crisis was widely viewed as at best erratic and at worst a pathetic attempt to gain attention.

As was predicted by many observers, the campaign tried to turn things around by going nasty, attempting to paint Obama as the 'Dangerous Other', the person who is 'not like us'. There were allegations by McCain and Palin that we don't really know who he is, that Obama has mysterious past that is unexamined, and that he has perhaps secrets that he wants to conceal.

These kinds of vague suspicion dropping are meant to create a canvas onto which people can project their own fears and phantasms. And the crowds at the McCain-Palin rallies and the third-tier pundit fringe in the media dutifully obliged. Obama is secretly a Muslim, Obama is an Arab, Obama is a terrorist (for some of the more deranged and ignorant, all three are equivalent), Obama is a radical, and so on. Of course, the fact that Obama is black was undoubtedly enough fire up the racist elements. .

Palin's comment that Obama 'does not see America like you and me' and has been 'palling around with terrorists' was a particular low point, inciting some people to yell out 'traitor'.

It is true that anybody in a crowd can shout out unpleasant things. It is the climate that the speaker sets up and how he or she responds that is significant. It is an unfortunate fact of life that it really does not take much talent to be a rabble-rouser. People have pent up latent hostilities and insecurities that they normally keep a lid on for fear of societal disapproval. But when a public figure seems to signal approval of such sentiments by silence and even encourages it in crowds, the top comes off and the hate spews out.

This is what we have seen in the last week or so. The response by the crowds at the rallies to this kind of incitement has been downright ugly, shouting epithets, and for many days McCain and Palin did not rebuke them.

But taking this low road does not seem to have worked. The polls have shown increasing levels of public disapproval of both of them, their support has dropped precipitously, and even their supporters in the establishment have voiced concern at the ugliness. Establishment conservatives are finding the campaign increasingly distasteful and counterproductive and are beginning to say so, further enraging the third-tier pundit brigade.

But even on this issue McCain is erratic. After a supporter at a rally last Monday asked McCain when he was 'going to take the gloves off' (i.e., be even more direct about these types of allegations) McCain responded to the delight of the crowd 'How about tomorrow?" It seemed like was signaling that he was going to be on the attack at last Tuesday's debate and no doubt many of his supporters tuned in hoping to see fireworks. Instead they saw a seemingly befuddled McCain whose main attack on Obama was that he supported an earmark request for a new projection system to replace the forty-year old one at the popular Adler planetarium.

This opened the door for the Obama campaign to gently taunt him and raise issues of cowardice. In an interview with ABC's Charles Gibson, Obama expressed surprise that McCain had not said the things he says in rallies to his face. Biden also chimed in that in his neighborhood if you had something bad to say about someone, you said it to his face.

When Gibson later told McCain about Obama's comments, McCain was clearly on the defensive and said that no one could accuse him of being a coward.

More recently, McCain has rebuked some of the people at some rallies who have raised these issues while at other times has repeated those insinuations, the switch sometimes occurring within the space of fifteen minutes. Then yesterday, McCain has again promised to be aggressive at tonight's debate.

It seems like either he is not sure what to do or is trying to keep Obama off balance, not sure what to expect.

So which McCain is going to turn up at tonight's debate? I am told that the format will be like the first, a more free-wheeling format that allows for more digressions and debate and allows the candidates to bring up issues not related to the questions.

His extremist supporters are expecting him to really sock it to Obama and if he doesn't they are going to be disgruntled, to put it mildly. But history indicates that revealing a nasty side with personal attacks in these debates is a losing proposition.

On the other, the fact that the Obama camp is taunting him with insinuations of cowardice must rankle McCain who likes to portray himself as a hero. The fact that McCain has a volatile temper and flies into uncontrollable rages is well known, although not publicly seen on the campaign so far. The possibility that McCain might be goaded into losing control must be causing some concern to his campaign managers. There must also be the fear that the Obama camp is trying to get him to take the bait and personally attack because they have a response ready.

So while there is a global financial crisis, two wars underway, major problems with health care to be addressed, and large numbers of people losing their homes, what we have is a psychodrama, worthy of a TV show, as to who will win the debate mind game.

We can pretty much expect that the Obama we will see tonight is the same one we have seen all along: cool and cerebral. He is not going to fire anyone up but he is not going to make a fool of himself either.

But which McCain will show up? The sometimes confused grandpa figure, constantly talking about earmarks and how he is a maverick? Or the sneering, disdainful, and arrogant figure, the person who earned the nickname McNasty?

Stay tuned.

POST SCRIPT: Obama = Lisa?

And now a Simpsons metaphor for the candidates.

October 09, 2008

Reflections on the debates

Here's an old joke:

There was this old man who had a favorite hunting story that he liked to tell over and over. Even though his friends and family had heard it many times, he was always looking for a suitable opportunity in any gathering to repeat it.

At one function, there was no break in the conversation that gave him the chance, so he took his walking stick and, when no one was looking, struck the ground hard with it, making a loud report.

In the startled silence that followed, he said "What's that? A gun shot? Well, talking about guns . . ."

Ok, so it's not a great joke. Not even a good one. I am terrible at telling jokes and don't even remember them shortly after hearing them.

The point is that that old joke suddenly popped into my head during the Obama-McCain debate, when McCain took whatever opportunity he got to go on about earmarks. It seems like it is his favorite topic, something that he works into every speech and interview, delighting in the details.

He went on about the three million dollar earmark that Obama, as part of the Illinois delegation, had requested for an 'overhead projector', implying that this for something you find in any classroom and was a boondoggle. It was actually for a projector for the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, to project the night sky onto the dome. It is the oldest planetarium in the US and whose current projector is forty years old. Those projectors are expensive.

But that was not my point. Sure, earmarks are not good budget practice. But they are not the worst things in the world. In fact, in the grand scheme of things within the US budget, they are rather small potatoes. If you get rid of every earmark, you would still have huge financial problems. McCain's seems overly obsessed with them even as we are talking of trillion dollar bailouts and while he wants to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts to wealthy people.

At some point, you begin to wonder whether McCain's focus on earmarks is a way to avoid talking about real budgetary issues. It seems to have become a gimmick, a way to score cheap points.

The debate itself was a rather boring, I thought. The candidates pretty much rehashed the same things they have been saying for a long time. I didn't think there was a clear winner but the snap polls all indicate that Obama won quite handily. (See here, here, and here.)

The format was awful. So far, only the first debate was a real debate. At times, both candidates seemed to want to break free of the rigid constraints and get more free-wheeling but the smug and self-important moderator Tom Brokaw (easily one of the most annoying people on network news, even worse than Gwen Ifill who moderated the vice presidential debate) kept reining them in, reminding them about the rules that had been agreed upon. His selection of questions was mediocre.

But if the candidates themselves wanted to change the rules in mid-debate, why shouldn't they be allowed to? (There was a great episode in The West Wing when at the beginning of a presidential debate, just after the moderator had read all the detailed rules about time limits and no cross-talk and the like, the candidates decided to chuck them and simply talk back and forth. Too bad that only happens in fiction.)

One item that irritated me was McCain's repeated claim that he knows how to get Bin Laden:

He has said this before, and at other times has also said that he knows how to end the war in Iraq. But if he does know how to do all these things, why has he not told President Bush? Surely, if he "puts country first" then he should have told Bush his secret plans a long time ago to get the country out of the current mess, rather than using it as a lure to get people to vote for him. What if he loses? Is he going to take his secret plans and sulk, refusing to share it with anybody, like a spoiled child? Why doesn't someone question him on the ethics of keeping it secret? It reminded me of Nixon's 'secret' plan to end the Vietnam war.

Meanwhile, last week, NBC news anchor Brian Williams and David Letterman had a surprisingly thoughtful analysis of the campaign so far and the vice-presidential debate (except for some nonsense midway about how great Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert are):

Part 1:

Part 2:

Letterman made a good observation about Sarah Palin taking everyone by surprise with her opening "Can I call you Joe" remark to Biden as they were being introduced. I too thought it a little odd but put it down to a mere affectation. Letterman thinks that she did this in order to set up her planned line "Say it ain't so, Joe" later in the debate. Since it has become clear that during the debate she was reading much of her responses from cue cards, that kind of set up for a 'zinger' would not surprise me.

POST SCRIPT: Train metaphor for candidates

One thing that struck me during the debate was that McCain looked and walked and talked like an old man. His allusions were dated. Some older people have an old-world style is graceful and charming and even reassuring. But McCain just comes across as out of touch and cranky.

electiontrains.jpg

(Thanks to a commenter at DailyKos.)

If you liked the train metaphor, then take a look at this one.

October 08, 2008

Obama and the Bradley effect

Will attempts by the McCain camp to paint Obama as some kind of sinister and dangerous figure work?

Analysts seem to feel that such smear campaigns can be effective at times. Recall the absurd situation in 2004 where John Kerry's actual service in Vietnam was ridiculed and called into question by the supporters of Bush and Cheney, both of whom were draft dodgers. Recall also the anti-gay marriage sentiment that seemingly played an important role in that same election.

So far, the normal hot-button issues of sexual orientation and abortion and guns have not played prominent roles in the campaign. This leaves race as the emotional issue that can be exploited. And rest assured it will be, along with all kinds of attempts to impugn the character of Obama using guilt by association.

In trying to run a smear campaign, the McCain campaign is hampered by its own baggage. For every attempt to paint Obama as an elitist, we have the McCains' dozen (?) homes, thirteen cars, and private plane, and the fact that the outfit that Cindy McCain wore at the Republican convention allegedly cost around $300,000.

If they bring up Rev. Jeremiah Wright, they have Sarah Palin's own associations with extreme religious groups, including the weird Rev. Thomas Muthee who blessed her gubernatorial campaign and who prides himself on being able to find witches and run them out of town.

For every Tony Rezko they can dredge up from Obama's past, McCain has his own Charles Keating and his campaign with lobbyists associated with the current financial debacle.

For every allegedly America-hating William Ayers, Palin's flirtation with the secessionist Alaskan Independence Party can be brought up.

Furthermore, Wright and Rezko and Ayers are now old news, their fifteen minutes of fame come and gone, and it is unclear if they will have a serious effect even if they are dusted off and polished to seem like new.

This leaves only race as a major factor to be exploited. And I am afraid it will be. Some months ago Jon Stewart interviewed Barack Obama during the primaries and asked him whether he had a secret plan to enslave white people if he became president. This got a laugh from Obama and the audience but like much of the humor in The Daily Show, it works because it is based on an uneasy reality.

There are undoubtedly some white people who are afraid of giving power to black people. They cannot hide from themselves the fact that black people have been treated atrociously in this country. They fear retribution and wonder if they should take the chance of putting black people in positions of authority. Such people will never vote for 'the black guy'.

We saw some of that sentiment expressed in the primaries, where the Appalachian regions went heavily against Obama and in favor of Hillary Clinton. This Al Jazeera report on racism in Kentucky is striking in the openness of those who think racially.

The question is how far the McCain campaign will be willing to go to grow the size of this group of people by stoking their racial animosities and fears. My sense is that they are willing to go to the very bottom of the sewer and will only desist if it seems to be not working or is backfiring on them.

When Obama's supporters urge him to go for the jugular in response, to take the attack to McCain and Palin, they are ignoring the delicate situation that he is in because of his ethnicity. He cannot take the risk of appearing to be the 'angry black guy'. He has to be passionate but not angry, forceful but not threatening. It is to his credit that he managed to do that so far.

Obama seems to be by nature a cool, cerebral and thoughtful person, and he has reinforced this perception by surrounding himself with solid establishment figures like Warren Buffett, Robert Rubin, and the like. Of course, this also opens him to the charge of being 'elitist', which has become a vague term to suggest that he is smarter than the rest of us and that this is somehow a bad thing.

Then there is the so-called 'Bradley effect' that says that in elections in which a black candidate runs against a white one, opinion polls tend to exaggerate the support for the black candidate because some white people are reluctant to tell posters they are voting for the white candidate for fear of being called racist.

The name comes from the 1982 race for California governor in which the black mayor of Los Angeles Tom Bradley was leading in the polls all the way to election day, and even in exit polls on that day, only to suffer a shocking defeat when the votes were counted. Subsequent studies revealed that white voters had voted for Bradley in smaller numbers than the polls had led one to expect. Some analysts argue that Obama needs a huge lead in the polls to compensate for the inevitable swing away from him on polling day.

Other analysts argue, based on subsequent congressional and gubernatorial elections, that the Bradley effect has largely disappeared over time. Note that they are not saying that race-based voting has disappeared. There are definitely people who will not vote for 'the black guy' because he is black. What these analysts are saying is that there is no evidence from recent elections that people are hiding their voting preferences from pollsters because of fears of being called racist, and so there is no significant, hidden, systematic racial bias in poll responses.

But there has been no presidential election where the Bradley effect has been put to the test. This election may well be the most heavily polled in history. Right now, Obama leads in the national polls by an average of about 6.0 points which, if it holds up, should be enough of a cushion for him, even if there is a residual Bradley effect at play. The results on election day will reveal to what extent the Bradley effect is still a factor.

POST SCRIPT: Evolutionists flock to Darwin stain!

It's a miracle and proof that Darwin's theory of evolution is true.

October 07, 2008

Brace yourself

Breaking news: Barack Obama is black.

It is quite remarkable how little salience that fact has had in the race so far considering that if he wins, the election of the first non-white president of the United States is an event of major historic significance. While his ethnicity is a complex one, he cannot escape (and has in fact wisely embraced) the shorthand description of being black. For his campaign to have insisted on accuracy would have been to draw attention to trivial questions of race and ethnicity that are at best distractions and at worst would make race too important an issue.

When Obama speaks in a debate or gives speeches or is interviewed, the fact that he is black is not the most prominent impression he makes, at least for me. It is just an incidental item that registers in the background, like that he is tall or slim. Obama is on his way to becoming the Tiger Woods of politics. Just as the latter is no longer 'the black golfer', Barack Obama has almost, but not quite, reached the stage of not being 'the black presidential candidate'. That is quite an achievement.

But the next month will see if he has made the complete transition to Tigerness. We are now entering the last stages of the presidential campaign, something I have been long dreading. With the McCain candidacy declining steadily in the polls and on a direct path to losing despite the Hail Marys thrown by them (selecting Sarah Palin and 'suspending' his campaign because of the financial crisis), you can expect them to now do desperate things.

By this I mean going well beyond the standard negative campaigning tactics of distorting your opponent's record, taking their statements out of context, impugning motives, and focusing on style in order to give misleading impressions. Those things have always been part of politics.

No, I expect them to go nuclear, throwing everything at Obama to make him into the stereotype of the dangerous black man, to seek to change his image from that of a Tiger Woods to more of a Dennis Rodman, to transform him in the eyes of white people from someone whom you would welcome into your home to the kind of person you cross the street to avoid.

The McCain camp has already telegraphed their disgusting strategy and Sarah Palin has started the process:

Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin on Saturday accused Democrat Barack Obama of "palling around with terrorists" because of his association with a former 1960s radical, stepping up the campaign's effort to portray Obama as unacceptable to American voters.
. . .
Falling behind Obama in polls, the Republican campaign plans to make attacks on Obama's character a centerpiece of candidate John McCain's message in the final weeks of the presidential race.
. . .
Palin's remark about Obama "palling around with terrorists" comes as e-mails circulate on the Internet with suggestions that the Democratic candidate is secretly a radical, foreign-born Muslim with designs against the U.S. — even though Obama is a native of Hawaii, a Christian and has no connections to Muslim extremists.

McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis (himself now under a cloud because of revelations of his lobbying links to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) spelled out how such character assassinations are done.

The premise of any smear campaign rests on a central truth of politics: Most of us will vote for a candidate we like and respect, even if we don't agree with him on every issue. But if you can cripple a voter's basic trust in a candidate, you can probably turn his vote. The idea is to find some piece of personal information that is tawdry enough to raise doubts, repelling a candidate's natural supporters.
. . .
It's not necessary, however, for a smear to be true to be effective. The most effective smears are based on a kernel of truth and applied in a way that exploits a candidate's political weakness.

(Thanks to BarbinMD for the link.)

Ironically, when Davis wrote the above, he was accusing those in favor of George W. Bush of using those very same dirty tactics against McCain in the 2000 Republican primary campaign when Bush was losing to McCain. Bush went on to win. Since McCain has now hired many of those very same Bush operatives to run his 2008 campaign, we should not be surprised to see a reprise of those tactics, now used by McCain against Obama.

One important factor in a successful smear campaign is the ability to create an 'echo chamber' for these slurs, to get it widely circulated in the media. The current financial crisis has been getting banner headlines and has been used to scare people into voting for this huge bailout. Given that financial issues are using up so much media airtime, it may be harder to get traction for this strategy. I suspect that people are more likely to be swayed by extraneous things when there are no major issues gripping their attention.

So will the McCain-Palin attempt at raising so-called character issues at such a time work? Or will it be seen as fiddling while Rome burns?

Frankly, I am not a good judge of whether raising extraneous issues will succeed. I don't have a good feel for the pulse of the people. I really should get out more.

While I am very cynical of the way the government serves mainly the interests of the rich and powerful and influential, I am usually more hopeful about the good nature and good sense of people in general over the long term. Each election time I think that people will not be swayed by trivialities and will vote on the basis of what truly will affect their lives. And while most are like that, unfortunately there do seem to be some people who can be swayed by such appeals to their fears and intolerance.

Whether those numbers will be enough to sway the outcome of this election is something I cannot gauge.

Tomorrow: More on racial politics

POST SCRIPT: And now, live, the vice presidential debate!

Saturday Night Live had its by now obligatory Sarah Palin parody with Tina Fey, with the bonus of Queen Latifah playing moderator Gwen Ifill.