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September 18, 2008

The Palin choice-12: The strange appeal of Sarah Palin

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

I want to end this longer-than-anticipated series of posts by returning to the original question of "Why?" but shifting it from why was she chosen to why so many people are enamored of her, given her obvious shortcomings.

There is no question that the selection of Sarah Palin has given a big boost to the McCain campaign. It has definitely enthused the party faithful. Whether this lasts and translates into changing actual voter preferences among the so-called independent or 'swing' voters is something that has to be awaited. There are already signs that her star is beginning to fade.

Conservative (and former Republican) John Cole explains his concern with what the Palin choice says about the direction in which the Republican Party is heading.

The depressing thing is that this has been the GOP platform for years now. Expertise is overrated. Gut instincts, being "tough," and being "decisive," and not "blinking" are all far more important than actually knowing things.
. . .
Look at the thorough disdain for science the GOP has displayed for the past few years. Amorphous morals trump reason and science, and then those morals are conveniently discarded or altered when it becomes inconvenient for the GOP (see: family values, David Vitter).

The funny thing about all this is that the new savior of the GOP, Sarah Palin, is the one who is finally waking everyone up to what the Republican party really is all about. They are not serious about foreign policy . . . They are not serious (or honest) about scientific policy. They are not serious about economic policy (other than cutting taxes). They are not serious about an energy policy (just drill, baby, drill).

They just are not serious about, well, anything.

And Sarah Palin is the distilled essence of wingnut. She has it all. She is dishonest. She is a religious nut. She is incurious. She is anti-science. She is inexperienced. She abuses her authority. She hides behind executive privilege. She is a big spender. She works from the gut and places a greater value on instinct than knowledge.

This disdain for knowledge and expertise is a troubling phenomenon. While the leaders of the country need not be scholars or policy wonks or experts in economic or military matters, that is a far cry from the absurd notion that common sense and gut instincts are sufficient for making major decisions. As another conservative Dan Drezner says: "Question to other GOP policy wonks: is it possible to support a candidate that campaigns on the notion that expertise is simply irrelevant?"

Even David Brooks, a reliable purveyor of conservative conventional wisdom, is having qualms about this tendency to view knowledge and expertise as somehow suspect and to praise ignorance as being a sign of being a 'real' person. .

This argument also is over what qualities the country needs in a leader and what are the ultimate sources of wisdom.

There was a time when conservatives did not argue about this. Conservatism was once a frankly elitist movement. Conservatives stood against radical egalitarianism and the destruction of rigorous standards. They stood up for classical education, hard-earned knowledge, experience and prudence. Wisdom was acquired through immersion in the best that has been thought and said.

People who call themselves conservatives in America have long ago abandoned those standards. So what exactly is Palin's appeal to the present-day conservative faithful? It cannot be merely her views on the hot-button culture war issues. While she can glibly recite the standard right wing talking points on taxes and abortion and guns, so could any of the other people who competed against McCain in the primaries or whose names were floated as vice presidential possibilities. Clearly it is something about her as a person that seems to excite the imagination of the party faithful.

Cole points out a telling portion of her interview with Charles Gibson that I too found troubling, when he questioned her about the moment when she was asked to be the vice presidential nomineee.

Charles Gibson, the interviewer, asked her if she didn't hesitate and question whether she was experienced enough.

"I didn't hesitate, no," she said.

He asked if that didn't that take some hubris.

"I answered him yes," Ms. Palin said, "because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can't blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we're on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can't blink. So I didn't blink then even when asked to run as his running mate."

This is, of course, absolute drivel. Surely any reasonable person would want to think it over before taking on such a major responsibility as the vice presidency, especially since there is no indication that she was required to make an immediate decision. At the very least her responsibility to the people who elected her governor should have given her pause. Why is she spouting nonsense about 'not blinking' and being 'committed to the mission' when the question posed to her did not require either of those things?

Like Cole, I was disturbed by this pride in the lack of thoughtful decision-making in a situation that did not require urgency. Palin takes pride in making instantaneous decisions, without weighing the pros and cons. It seems like steely-eyed, clenched-jaw determination and an unquestioning and overweening confidence in the rightness of ones instincts are what passes for leadership these days. She is proud of being 'wired' in this way so she never has to 'blink' when faced with a decision because her gut tells her exactly what to do. She presumably reacts the same way when asked whether she wants tea or coffee.

Cole then put his finger on the reason that Palin appeals to the faithful: "She is supremely self-confident to the point of not recognizing how ill-equipped she is to lead the country . . . [She is] George Bush in a dress." (my italics)

Cole remains cynical about the ability of his fellow conservatives to see through the phoniness. He thinks that they have been cheerleaders for George Bush for so long that they are unable to break from the addiction.

The Palin interview should be a gut-check for Republicans and conservatives who think the last eight years has been a perversion of conservative principles. I am betting most of them will not even put down their pom-poms, though.

POST SCRIPT: New Rules

Bil Maher is back with his New Rules where he comments on some of the issues raised in this series of posts.

September 17, 2008

The Palin choice-11: McCain and Obama on taxes

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

I have looked previously at where Sarah Palin stands on the issues. In this post I will examine McCain's positions. This is not easy to do since McCain has shown himself remarkably willing to change positions for the sake of expediency. Yesterday's Post Script of the Daily Show bio of McCain shows this.

McCain keeps saying that he is a 'maverick' but what that seems to mean to him is that he takes policy positions that serve the purpose of polishing his own image. If that requires him to criticize his own party when his own needs demand it, he does not hesitate to do so, but he rarely follows that up with any actions that actually goes against his party. Steve Benen has been keeping a running list of McCain's flip-flops. It is getting pretty long.

It is important to emphasize that changing one's position on an issue is not by itself bad. If the facts or circumstances change or one is presented with compelling new arguments or evidence, then one should review and revise one's stand. It is the reasons for the change that are important. With McCain, he often does not even bother to give any reason.

Although the campaign has become, as usual, focused on trivialities (lipsticks, pigs, and fish) and culture wars, the really important issues are those of war and peace and the distribution of income, wealth, and services in the country. The one-party/two-factions system that exists in the US requires both candidates to serve the interests of Wall Street and the wealthy. Both Obama and McCain have obliged. It is only at the margins that they differ.

Candidates who strongly favor the very rich (like McCain) prefer to talk in terms of 'averages' (in income or tax cuts), because that can mask huge differences between groups. You can give huge tax cuts to a few rich people and very small cuts to a large number of poor people and still claim that people are receiving a good 'average' tax cut. But what needs to be examined is how it breaks down in narrow income slices.

The Washington Post recently had the kind of political analysis that is worth reading. It analyzed how Obama's and McCain's tax plans would affect people in specific income groups. Such detailed breakdowns are far more useful than broad generalizations.

tax comparisons.jpeg

We see that McCain's policies are heavily skewed to benefit the very wealthy. McCain emphasizes how his policies would give everyone a tax cut and the average benefits would be larger than Obama's plan. That is true, but the graphic clearly shows that lower income groups get tiny tax cuts while the very rich get enormous benefits. Obama gives bigger tax cuts to the lower income groups (those earning below about $100,000), smaller tax cuts to those earning between $100,000 and $250,000, while the very rich have to pay more taxes.

BusinessWeek says:

The [Tax Policy Center] took a look at the various tax proposals put forth by the two candidates and estimated that Obama's plan would lead to a boost in aftertax income for all but the highest earners, while taking a smaller bite out of government tax revenues than would McCain's plans.
. . .
Under McCain's proposals, by contrast—including an extension of the Bush tax cuts for all taxpayers, a corporate tax cut, and a larger reduction in estate taxes than Obama would support—far more of the benefits would go to the top. If his plans went into effect in 2009, married couples in the bottom fifth of the population would see aftertax income go up just 0.2%, while those in the next quintile would see a 0.7% hike. But those in the top quintile would see a bump up in aftertax income of 2.7%.

There is no question that the Bush administration has favored fiscal and monetary policies that have favored the already well-to-do, while gutting the protections that poorer people depend upon. The Wall Street Journal points out that among wage earners, only professionals like doctors and lawyers made more in 2007 than in 2000. McCain's tax policies will enable the very rich to keep even more of their income, accelerating the inequalities that has been going on for some time.

Although Obama's tax plans are a less generous to the very wealthy than McCain's, for me, the biggest factor in favor of Obama is that he is unlikely to recklessly start another war or create international tensions, while McCain is, if possible, even more reckless than Bush.

POST SCRIPT: US-Pakistan clashes?

Lost in the coverage about the presidential campaign and the chaos in the financial markets has been this troubling story about tension between US and Pakistani forces on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan following an incursion into Pakistan by US forces on September 3 that led to the deaths of some villagers.

The BBC reports that a second attempted incursion was stopped because of Pakistan paramilitary troops firing on US forces:

Pakistan's army spokesman has made clear that its forces have been ordered to open fire if US troops launch another raid across the Afghan border.
. . .
Locals said seven US helicopter gunships and two troop-carrying Chinook helicopters landed in the Afghan province of Paktika near the Zohba mountain range.

US troops from the Chinooks then tried to cross the border. As they did so, Pakistani paramilitary soldiers at a checkpoint opened fire into the air and the US troops decided not to continue forward, local Pakistani officials say.


September 16, 2008

The Palin choice-10: The real McCain

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

One of McCain's successes is the way he has managed to cultivate and flatter the press so that they have been very gentle to him and taken his self-portraits of being an honorable, independent-minded maverick at face value, instead of portraying him more accurately as a self-aggrandizing panderer who shamelessly exploits his Vietnam experiences to hide his right-wing agenda and his reckless personality.

The real McCain is a much darker figure. To start to get a better idea of who he really is, watch this 'McCain in three minutes' video, produced by ABC News's Good Morning America.

The darker side of McCain has always been apparent although the media chose to turn a blind eye to it. The Keating Five savings-and-loan influence peddling scandal (which was not in the above video) is one such example of McCain's corrupt politics, quite at odds with his claim to be an opponent of lobbyists and corruption. The Phoenix New Times also details the shady history of the origins of his wife's family's fortune and his participation and benefiting from it.

Meanwhile, a London newspaper lays out the story of how McCain callously abandoned his first wife after she had been disfigured in a car accident, to marry the current one.

McCain has always had an explosive temper that suggests that he is unbalanced. Jeffrey St Clair describes one incident:

In 1992, Robin Silver and Bob Witzeman went to meet with McCain at his office in Phoenix to discuss Mt. Graham. Silver and Witzeman are both physicians. Witzeman is now retired and Silver works in the emergency room at Phoenix hospital. The doctors say that at the mention of the words Mount Graham McCain erupted into a violent fit. "He slammed his fists on his desk, scattering papers across the room", Silver tells us. "He jumped up and down, screaming obscenities at us for at least 10 minutes. He shook his fists as if he was going to slug us. It was as violent as almost any domestic abuse altercation."

Witzeman left the meeting stunned: "I'm a lifelong environmentalist, but what really scares me about McCain is not his environmental policies, which are horrid, but his violent, irrational temper. I think McCain is so unbalanced that if Vladimir Putin told him something he didn't like he'd lose it, start beating his chest about having his finger on the nuclear trigger. Who knows where it would stop. To my mind, McCain's the most likely senator to start a nuclear war."

This trait earned him the nickname 'McNasty' in high school and his casual hurling of obscene and ugly language at his wife and others are well known to those who work with him but largely hidden from the public. McCain also publicly made a vicious joke about Chelsea Clinton when she was still a teenager, a joke that was so mean that many major publications refused to publish it.

All these things reveal him to be a person of highly dubious character. Those supposedly religious people and Biblical literalists who like to claim that a candidate's personal character is the most important thing and who think that plastering the Ten Commandments everywhere and praying in schools is the answer to everything seem to have no problem with these revelations, revealing that their religion is one of convenience.

When confronted with any criticism, McCain and his campaign have pathetically resorted to using his prisoner of war experience to excuse anything, a kind of 'get out of gaffe free' card. Steve Benen lists all the times they have invoked his prison experience as a a shield. What is worse is that they simultaneously claim that McCain is reluctant to talk about it, although campaign and the Republican convention highlights that story at every opportunity.

Rudy Giuliani's shameless invocation of the events of 9/11 for his personal advancement was mocked by Joe Biden who said that his every sentence consisted of a noun, a verb, and 9/11. Replace '9/11' with 'POW' and we have a good description of John McCain's answers to awkward questions and criticisms. This trait has become so blatant that even Maureen Dowd (someone who never fails to portray Republicans as macho and decry Democrats as wimpy) became distracted from her usual pathetic obsessions with the Clintons to comment on it.

So it’s hard to believe that John McCain is now in danger of exceeding his credit limit on the equivalent of an American Express black card. His campaign is cheapening his greatest strength — and making a mockery of his already dubious claim that he’s reticent to talk about his P.O.W. experience — by flashing the P.O.W. card to rebut any criticism, no matter how unrelated. The captivity is already amply displayed in posters and TV advertisements.

McCain's prisoner of war experience is now becoming the butt of jokes and a target of cartoonists

John McCain also seems to be showing himself to be increasingly cranky as can be seen from the Time magazine interview. It seems like he is on a short fuse and I wonder how long it will be before his legendary temper and uncontrollable rage explodes in full view of the media.

The story of McCain's lack of awareness of the number of houses he and his wife own (we still don't know the exact answer. Four? Seven? Twelve?), his lack of knowledge of the make of car he drives (a Cadillac CTS), his $500 Italian shoes, and his fancy lifestyle has exposed the absurdity of his campaign trying to insinuate that Barack and Michelle Obama and his wife are 'elitists'.

If all that was not bad enough, John McCain is running a campaign that is so full of distortions and lies that Josh Marshall concludes that McCain is running the sleaziest campaign in modern history and is clearly unfit for the office he is seeking.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on McCain

Here is a biopic of McCain that accurately captures his opportunism.


September 15, 2008

The Palin choice-9: McCain's recklessness

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

When I first heard that John McCain had selected Sarah Palin, my initial hypothesis was that this was a desperation move, a sign that the campaign's internal analyses were suggesting that the seemingly close national polls were misleading and they were going to lose unless they did something to break out of the rut. It seems like that initial impression was right.

The Palin choice is being portrayed by media analysts as a sign that the McCain campaign felt they needed to solidify the campaign's right wing, evangelical base. Perhaps that is true. It is undoubtedly the case that that group seems very excited by the choice.

But the reports about last minute decisions suggest that there is very little coherence to their campaign strategy. After all, all the indications are that right up till the end, McCain had really wanted Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge but had been warned away from them, saying that this same base would revolt.

But Lieberman and Ridge are not very similar to Palin on social issues. So to lurch abruptly from them to Palin suggests that such policies don't matter at all to McCain, not if he risks losing because of them. It looks like McCain would risk putting the country in untested hands simply to salvage his chances of winning, which makes a mockery of his boast that he "puts country first".

As Kyle Moore says:

At the first sign of trouble, McCain abandoned his game plan and went instead with a high risk maneuver that thus far seems to have some pay off, but is coming with a high cost.

What does that say about how he’ll behave in the realm of foreign policy? Will he abandon any semblance of a safe and tested plan in favor of a high risk move that will put us and our families in danger? What about terrorism? In a McCain administration, I think that this indicates that instead of pursuing a smart and tough anti-terrorism policy, he would engage in a reckless and reactionary response that would only make us less safe and likely put us in another war.

We can discuss the lack of qualifications for Sarah Palin, and there are plenty, but the biggest problem is that it indicates that John McCain’s temperament and judgment is far below the standards necessary to serve in the Oval Office.

Steve Benen adds:

So, what are we left with here? John McCain met Sarah Palin in person once, for 15 minutes. Months later, he then talked to her on the phone for five minutes. Four days later, without a thorough background check, he invited her to be vice presidential nominee of the Republican Party.

Sensible people of sound mind and character simply don't do things like this. Leaders don't do things like this. Those fundamentally unsuited for the presidency do things like this.

Even David Frum, a conservative and former speechwriter for George W. Bush says over at National Review Online:

The longer I think about it, the less well this selection sits with me. And I increasingly doubt that it will prove good politics. The Palin choice looks cynical. The wires are showing.
. . .
I'd guess that John McCain does not have a much better sense of who she is, what she believes, and the extent of her abilities than my enthusiastic friends over at the Corner. It's a wild gamble, undertaken by our oldest ever first-time candidate for president in hopes of changing the board of this election campaign. Maybe it will work. But maybe (and at least as likely) it will reinforce a theme that I'd be pounding home if I were the Obama campaign: that it's John McCain for all his white hair who represents the risky choice, while it is Barack Obama who offers cautious, steady, predictable governance.

Here's I fear the worst harm that may be done by this selection. The McCain campaign's slogan is "country first." It's a good slogan, and it aptly describes John McCain, one of the most self-sacrificing, gallant, and honorable men ever to seek the presidency.

But question: If it were your decision, and you were putting your country first, would you put an untested small-town mayor a heartbeat away from the presidency?

Other Republican party stalwarts like Michael Murphy and Peggy Noonan are equally worried about what this choice says about McCain, as was revealed by their comments to MSNBC's Chuck Todd when they thought their microphones were off.

(You can read transcripts of the comments here.)

If anything, this entire episode confirms reports that McCain is hot-headed and reckless, a dangerous trait for a president to have. Furthermore, it reveals that these people are very unserious, caring little for policy, and viewing elections as entirely tribal feuds, appealing to the worst of passions, and further trivializing the process.

Now that the lightweight Palin has been picked, the McCain campaign is desperately trying to change the focus of the discussion. Their campaign manager is now saying that this election will not be about issues but about people.

I read that as a signal that we are now going to see a campaign based purely on culture wars (god, family, sex, abortion, race) and the politics of tribal resentments. It worked for the Republicans in 2004 on the issues of gay marriage and the ten commandments.

This time they are trying to sell the idea that McCain and Palin represent 'real people' who will bring change. This Tom Toles cartoon points out the hypocrisy of McCain campaigning as the agent of change. But will it work?

POST SCRIPT: Video of Palin pork

The hypocrisy of Palin/McCain on the earmarks issue:

And cartoonist Mike Luckovich gives his take.

September 12, 2008

The Palin choice-8: The vetting process

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

John McCain's campaign people surely must have been aware of the dangers of suddenly springing an unknown like Sarah Palin onto the national stage. If you are determined to do so, the way to minimize the chance of unpleasant surprises is to have a very long, exhaustive, and fairly open vetting process. But the trade-off for doing so is that you then cannot keep the process secret because too many people are involved and being questioned.

For reasons that are not clear to me, it seems like McCain wanted both a relative unknown and also for the announcement to be a big surprise, and these two things simply don't go well together. He apparently wanted to "shake up the ticket". The fact that Palin's name was kept to just a handful of close advisors suggests that the vetting process was cursory and hurried. As The Politico reports:

They met for the first time last February at a National Governors Association meeting in Washington. Then, they spoke again — by phone — on Sunday while she was at the Alaska state fair and he was at home in Arizona. . . . The fact that McCain only spoke with Palin about the vice presidency for the first time on Sunday, and that he was seriously considering Lieberman until days ago, suggests just how hectic and improvisational his process was.

The New York Times fleshes out what went on behind the scenes:

Mr. McCain was getting advice that if he did not do something to shake up the race, his campaign would be stuck on a potentially losing trajectory.

With time running out — and as Mr. McCain discarded two safer choices, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, as too predictable — he turned to Ms. Palin. He had his first face-to-face interview with her on Thursday and offered her the job moments later. Advisers to Mr. Pawlenty and another of the finalists on Mr. McCain's list described an intensive vetting process for those candidates that lasted one to two months.

"They didn't seriously consider her until four or five days from the time she was picked, before she was asked, maybe the Thursday or Friday before," said a Republican close to the campaign. "This was really kind of rushed at the end, because John didn't get what he wanted. He wanted to do Joe or Ridge.

It appears that they are doing the real vetting after they made the selection.

Aides to Mr. McCain said they had a team on the ground in Alaska now to look more thoroughly into Ms. Palin's background. A Republican with ties to the campaign said the team assigned to vet Ms. Palin in Alaska had not arrived there until Thursday, a day before Mr. McCain stunned the political world with his vice-presidential choice. The campaign was still calling Republican operatives as late as Sunday night asking them to go to Alaska to deal with the unexpected candidacy of Ms. Palin.

The shallow nature of the vetting process is becoming increasingly clear:

Representative Gail Phillips, a Republican and former speaker of the State House, said the widespread surprise in Alaska when Ms. Palin was named to the ticket made her wonder how intensively the McCain campaign had vetted her.

"I started calling around and asking, and I have not been able to find one person that was called," Ms. Phillips said. "I called 30 to 40 people, political leaders, business leaders, community leaders. Not one of them had heard. Alaska is a very small community, we know people all over, but I haven't found anybody who was asked anything."

The current mayor of Wasilla, Dianne M. Keller, said she had not heard of any efforts to look into Ms. Palin's background. And Randy Ruedrich, the state Republican Party chairman, said he knew nothing of any vetting that had been conducted.

State Senator Hollis French, a Democrat who is directing the ethics investigation, said that no one asked him about the allegations. "I heard not a word, not a single contact," he said.

A number of Republicans said the McCain campaign had to some degree tied its hands in its effort to keep the selection process so secret.

We don't know much yet about Palin and what we are learning is clearly not what the campaign intended as a first impression. But this decision and the process by which it was arrived tell us a lot about McCain and his campaign, and most of it is not good.

It has become a cliché to say that the first and most important decision that a president of president-to-be makes is the choice of the vice-president because he is putting the leadership of the country potentially in the hands of that person. Furthermore, the decision is his and his alone. It does not require consent of the US Senate and voters are not required to approve it during the primaries. So how that decision is made says something about how the candidate deliberates.

Perhaps the most pathetic attempts to put her in a positive light have been the statements that Palin has foreign policy experience because Alaska is so close to Russia! For sheer inanity, that probably beats the other statement by McCain that "[Palin] knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States of America." Really?

The way the Palin choice was made, irrespective of how well it turns out for McCain, indicates a certain recklessness that does not reflect well on his temperament. Cartoonist Mike Luckovich speculates on what the choice of Palin reveals about how McCain will select his cabinet.

It has become increasingly clear that the McCain camp is banking on the American public being stupid.

POST SCRIPT: How Palin was really selected (language advisory)


September 11, 2008

The Palin choice-7: Her background and positions on issues

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

What do we really know about Sarah Palin, apart from her family life? Here is a synopsis of some of her views.

The news website Alternet gives some background on Palin's political positions and history. We learn that:

  • Palin doesn't believe global warming is man-made.
  • Palin is the candidate of a powerful far right-wing cabal; her nomination seals their support for the little-wanted McCain.
  • Palin staunchly opposes abortion, even in cases of rape and incest.
  • Palin supports failed abstinence-only sex education programs.
  • Palin is under investigation for allegedly abusing her power as governor to help her sister in a messy divorce.
  • Palin has big money ties to Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, who has been indicted for political corruption.
  • During her time as mayor, Palin drove the town of Wasilla deep into debt.

The Progressive Review has more on Palin's views.

Palin also supports, against all scientific advice, allowing the public to kill wolves by shooting them from planes.

She also believes that we should teach creationism in schools, in addition to evolution.

Since Obama's pastor became a campaign issue, it is instructive to see what her pastors' views are and that can be seen here. She was baptized in the Assembly of God church in Wasilla that is Pentecostal and whose parishioners believes in speaking in tongues and whipping themselves into incoherent frenzies.

Although she speaks as someone who looks out for taxpayers, she got the state to pay her thousand of dollars in per diems for staying in her own home. In fact, Palin seems quite comfortable stating things that are flat-out contradicted by facts.

Her record as Mayor of Wasilla and her attempt to ban books from the public library and fire the librarian when she refused to go along can be seen here.

Her husband and her own past flirtations with the Alaskan Independence Party (whose founder has said "The fires of hell are frozen glaciers compared to my hatred for the American government" and "I won't be buried under their damn flag,") can be seen here and here.

Palin and her husband also had some failed business ventures.

Given all these negatives, Glenn Greenwald describes how Palin's supporters are trying to shut down criticism of her.

Palin herself has been shameless in her repeated lies about being a stalwart opponent of federal pork earmarks, especially the infamous 'bridge to nowhere', using the same words each time. She first supported it, then opposed it only after Congress cut off funds to build it, and yet still kept the money and used it for other projects.

In actual fact, under her governorship Alaska requested the highest per capita earmarks of any state. She is in fact just the kind of person that John McCain says he detests and thinks is ruining the country.

Steve Benen summarizes why Palin is wrong for the job and what this choice says about McCain.

What should be clear to anyone paying attention is that the McCain/Palin ticket is cynically hoping that people will overlook the facts and vote on the basis of bogus slogans and non-issues.

POST SCRIPT: Leave Sarah Palin alone!

Since Sarah Palin's policies and history cannot bear close scrutiny, the McCain campaign has gone into full victim mode, whining about how mean people are to her, and trying to pressure the media to treat her gently. A famous defender of another beleaguered woman has resurfaced to rescue her. (language advisory)


September 10, 2008

The Palin choice-6: McCain and women

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The reason that is bandied about the most for the Palin choice is that it was aimed at attracting women voters to the Republican cause, especially those Democrats who are allegedly so furious that Hillary Clinton did not get their party's nomination that they were looking for reasons to vote for McCain.

The good thing about McCain's choice of a woman as a running mate is that it reveals that he does not harbor any absurd beliefs that women are not capable of running the country. Thanks to his choice, whichever ticket wins in November will result in either a black president or a female vice-president and this, other things being equal, is a good thing.

On the other hand, the fact that Palin was a hometown beauty queen (Ms. Wasilla, pop: 7,000) and Miss Alaska runner-up (1984) does raise some disturbing questions, though about McCain and not her. There is nothing wrong in being physically attractive and looks and governing abilities are not mutually exclusive.

The problem is that McCain's first wife was a swimsuit model, whom he divorced after she was disfigured in a car accident to marry his present wife Cindy, an extremely wealthy heiress seventeen years younger than him and a Junior Rodeo Queen of Arizona in 1968. The fact that he now picks an attractive woman 28 years younger than him and whom he hardly knew to be his running mate seems to reveal an uncomfortable pattern of McCain as being a man who is more influenced by shallow considerations like looks than is perhaps desirable in someone seeking such a responsible office.

The fact that he has called Palin his 'partner and soul mate' is a little inappropriate for a man with his history. The Jed Report has picked up on some odd behavior by McCain when he first presented her as his running mate that will provide plenty of fodder for body-language aficionados. Watch.

It seems likely that the McCain's advisors became a little concerned about this and have said something to him because McCain has now started to talk about his wife more.

If, as has been widely suggested, McCain specifically wanted a woman to woo over the disaffected supporters of Hillary Clinton, there were other options. As Steve Benen points out:

I'd just add how striking it is that McCain had more capable women to choose from, but picked one who wasn't even a governor when he started his presidential campaign. Senators such as Hutchison, Dole, Snowe, Collins, and Murkowski were skipped over, as were more experienced governors like Lingle and Rell, as were "mavericks" like Todd-Whitman, as were cabinet secretaries like Rice, Spellings, and Chao, as were business leaders like Fiorina and Whitman.

McCain skipped over more capable women for a younger, less experienced woman he barely knows. This is supposed to impress women voters? Seriously?

This all comes back to the question: Why did he pick Palin? Although Obama and Clinton and McCain all occupy the narrow ideological spectrum demanded by the one-party/two-faction state that currently exists in the US, there is no question that Obama and Clinton are far closer to each other in their views than either is to McCain or Palin. Given the difference that exists between Clinton's and Palin's views on issues, thinking that the selection of Palin would appeal to Clinton's supporters is like thinking that Alan Keyes appeals to black voters.

Clinton supporters had already been moving to Obama. I have no idea about how women as a whole will react to what seems to me like blatant pandering by McCain. But a young woman whose views I respect told me some time ago that she was voting for Obama on the issues but really respected McCain as a person of integrity and principle. She stuck to this position despite my presenting arguments and facts that I thought clearly showed McCain to be a phony who was shamelessly using his war experiences to deflect attention from his policies and serious flaws as a candidate. But she is now absolutely livid about the selection of Palin, saying it revealed McCain to be a 'slimy and shallow manipulator'.

Although this is a sample of one and should not be given much weight, early polls seem to indicate that the selection of Palin, while firing up the conservative and religious base, is not having the intended effect. Andrew Sullivan says that the early results are not encouraging for McCain: "From this first snap-shot (and unsettled) impression, Palin has helped McCain among Republicans, left Democrats unfazed, but moved the undecideds against him quite sharply. I totally understand why." Joe Klein seems to find a similar result. But other polls suggest that white women have indeed moved towards McCain.

But events are still fluid and moving fast. We will have to wait until a few weeks have passed and the conventions fade into memories to see what the true situation is.

POST SCRIPT:A little Googling is a dangerous thing

On the day that Barack Obama clinched the number of delegates he needed to win the nomination, John McCain gave a speech that was widely ridiculed for its poor delivery. In addition, they made him stand in front of a green background that gave him a pasty look and the impression of his head being like a lump of dough bobbing around in a bowl of lime Jello. Since green (and blue) screen backgrounds are used in filming to project backdrops, there has been an explosion of video clips online that have taken his speech and changed the backdrop for humorous effect.

I was startled therefore when shortly into his acceptance speech last week, McCain was once again in front of a bright green background for about five minutes, suggesting another goof-up. But when the camera switched to a wide view, I realized that the green was the lawn in front of a mansion.

But why show a mansion as a backdrop? And whose mansion? For a wild moment, I thought that they might have decided to deliberately flaunt McCain's wealth by showing a picture of one of McCain's many homes but quickly dismissed the idea as absurd.

Josh Marshall was also puzzled by this and investigated and discovered that the mansion was that of Walter Reed Middle School in California. His hypothesis is that someone was asked to provide a backdrop of the Walter Reed Medical Center, googled just the name, came up with this image and used it without checking further. That explanation is consistent with the general sloppiness of the campaign.

Many news organizations have asked the McCain organization about the house but they refused to answer questions, reinforcing the impression that this was an embarrassing mistake. The middle school principal has also complained about her school being used for political purposes without her permission. (Josh Marshall has an update.)

September 09, 2008

The Palin choice-5: To close the age and health gap?

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Another possibility for the Palin choice is that perhaps she was selected to close the age and health gap between the McCain and Obama tickets.

There is no question that the Obama campaign just oozes energy (despite Joe Biden), while John McCain does not. McCain was born even before Obama's mother was, and it shows. Whenever Obama and McCain are shown together, McCain comes out looking the worse.

Obama projects the kind of youthful vigor that Americans like to see in public figures ever since TV started playing a big role in the 1960 election and kept their presidents constantly in the public eye. John Kennedy is the model for this (he carefully hid his serious health problems from the public) and it is no accident that George W. Bush spends a lot of time being seen hacking away at brush and riding bikes. These are deliberate image creating events, to show people that their leaders are fit and energetic.

These age and health concerns about McCain have so far been flying under the radar and mostly raised by comedians and cartoonists portraying McCain as a cranky old man. No one wants to be accused of ageism and only humorists can get away with raising this touchy subject. The Obama campaign has studiously avoided any direct mention of age, perhaps because it would be in poor taste and also might cause a backlash among the large percentage of voters who are elderly.

But lingering, low-level concerns about this issue undoubtedly exist. Polls have long shown that voters find McCain's advanced age (72) a bigger concern than Obama's ethnicity, and his multiple bouts with melanoma are well known. Reagan having Alzheimer's disease during the latter stages of his presidency have also raised concerns about electing the oldest first-term president ever.

So was Palin picked to compensate for this perceived age and energy deficit?

If so, it might have had the opposite effect. One consequence of the Palin pick is that the issue of age and health of McCain have now moved front and center, as people will undoubtedly start taking into consideration the odds that she will be asked to assume the presidency in the event of McCain becoming incapacitated. People are now consulting actuarial tables to figure out what are the chances that she will have to take over at some point. The age concerns have gone mainstream

Furthermore, being constantly seen next to the very young-looking and vibrant Palin is undoubtedly going to make McCain look really old, like he is her father or even her grandfather. For all these reasons, I had expected McCain to pick someone in their fifties or sixties, old enough to not make McCain look bad by comparison but young enough to appear dynamic. Palin went completely against that expectation.

While choosing a fresh face unknown to the nation does have some advantages, I have written before of the dangers involved in putting a novice onto the national stage. Another problem is that although Palin seems bright and able, she simply hasn't had the time to get up to speed on many issues.

Furthermore, she would not have as yet mastered the skill of seasoned politicians in being able to distinguish between those questions that call for a response that has been carefully scripted to be 'on message' and cater to targeted constituencies, and those which are outside the predictable and for which you have to learn the art of the 'non-response response', where you speak in bland generalities without really addressing the question. They also know how to filibuster, running out the clock by talking about extraneous issues without pausing and allowing the questioner time for follow-ups.

Really good politicians know how to subtly modify both classes of answers so that the answers seem fresh and not robotic. Furthermore, their families need to learn that they should be seen and not heard or when pressed, give similar non-answer answers. To engage with their questioners in a thoughtful way is to be avoided because it runs the risk of committing a 'gaffe'. Even the more seasoned Obama sometimes makes the 'mistake' of trying think a question through rather than giving a formulaic answer. It is a sad reflection on the state of politics that treating voters as intelligent is a bad thing politically.

The media love to focus on gaffes because they make news, are easy to understand and report, and don't require the hard work of analyzing policy positions. As a result, politicians make it a priority to avoid making any verbal missteps, even trivial ones. But even seasoned politicians can occasionally trip up and make the kinds of gaffes that the media will focus on, whether it is trivial or important. It is inevitable that Sarah Palin, simply because of the lack of time to prepare and however much a quick study she might be, will make some.

James Fallows, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, predicts that we are going to see her and the McCain campaign plagued with having to explain away one gaffe after another. One campaign operative even made the extraordinary assertion that she may only give set speeches and never take questions. The McCain campaign, by hiding her away from questions for so long has set the bar so low that even a marginal performance will be seen as effective.

I personally do not think she will make many gaffes because most journalists are drearily predictable, sticking to a very narrow range of questions and policy perspectives, and this makes it easy to prepare responses in advance. Her first interview is with ABC's Charles Gibson, who was identified by Glenn Greenwald back in May as a reliable water-carrier for Republican talking points, which probably explains why he got the interview.

This absurd media obsession with gaffes has arisen because we seem to expect our leaders to be able to immediately spit out answers to any and every question. But even for a president, very, very, few issues require a snap judgment, and those that do are usually fairly trivial. How ridiculous the situation has become can be seen by the fact that no politician can now say in answer to a question, "That is something that I will need to think about, gain more information, and consult with experts before I reach a conclusion", even though that would reveal a deliberate and mature thinker.

But McCain seems to think that making quick decisions is a good thing and takes pride in it, as if it were a competition.

"I make them as quickly as I can, quicker than the other fellow, if I can," Mr. McCain wrote, with his top adviser Mark Salter, in his 2002 book, "Worth the Fighting For." "Often my haste is a mistake, but I live with the consequences without complaint."

This adds further evidence to his reputation for recklessness.

The problem is that if he becomes president, he is not the one who has to live with the consequences of his hasty mistakes. We do.

POST SCRIPT: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac

Over the weekend, the government took a major step in bailing out these two mortgage giants, the latest development in the continuing mortgage crisis.

Economist Michael Hudson explains what happened and why

The next president is going to inherit a major headache caused by rampant, unchecked greed in the mortgage sector.

September 08, 2008

The Palin choice-4: Shameless double standards

(Although it may look on the surface as if this blog has become obsessed with Sarah Palin, it really is a chance for me to express some thoughts about politics in general, using her story as a hook. So I hope those who are sick of hearing about Palin will bear with me. For previous posts in this series, see here.)

By now, there cannot be a single person in the country who is not aware of the intimate details of the Palin family. We now know about Palin's unwed daughter's pregnancy, that this news was released by the McCain campaign to counter the rumor that this same daughter is the real mother of Palin's youngest child who was born in April with Down's syndrome, her husband's DUI conviction a long time ago, the messiness of her sister's divorce and their involvement with it, and other problems with the law. It has become a tabloid-style soap opera, putting things that should be private into the full glare of the national media spotlight, with promises of more lurid details to come.

It is important to keep in mind that none of these things reflect on Palin's ability to govern, though how she handled them in the context of her official duties is relevant and will reveal a lot about her. Of these, the 'troopergate' episode is the most troubling.

Even if the suspicion that Palin pretended to be the mother of her daughter's child is true, it is not by itself a big negative, even though it means she lied to the public. Devoted parents are willing to do extraordinary things to protect their children from harm and it will not be the first time that such subterfuges have occurred and will not be the last. If true and it was at her daughter's request, it would suggest that Palin was willing to risk her own career to protect her daughter from public disapprobation, surely an act that one can understand and empathize with.

This kind of thing was perhaps inevitable with the choice of a relative newcomer like Sarah Palin for such a high profile role, although the sheer speed and number and scale of the revelations has taken me by surprise.

You can get away with nominating a newcomer if you or anyone you trust and respect happen to have had a long and personal relationship with them and can vouch strongly for them. But there is no indication that McCain knew her well at all since he met her for just the second time the day before he formally announced his pick. There is no indication that any of his staff knows her any better, and since they apparently limited the selection process to a very small group of people, the chances of getting input from people with deep personal knowledge of Palin became remote.

What amazes me is the claim of Palin's supporters that all revelations about her is positive news and a cause for celebration because it shows 'family values' and her strong opposition to abortion. As some conservatives have pointed out, it is not a good thing for high schoolers to have children and this should not be celebrated the way that the McCain/Palin camp is doing.

As Lawrence Auster says disgustedly, conservatism for some has become a caricature, a one-note song about abortion that drowns out everything else:

All that the evangelical and Catholic conservatives care about is opposition to abortion. All that's required for them to be happy is an illegitimate or defective pregnancy, followed by birth. They have no vision of social order, no vision of an overarching good, but have reduced all goods to the good of avoiding abortion. Which means that they embrace every kind of disorder, so long as rejection of abortion is thrown into the mix.

Jon Stewart finds example after example of this kind of unprincipled somersaulting.

This is not a new phenomenon. The Republicans are demanding that McCain's Vietnam experience be treated like a religious talisman that must be venerated by all. But recall that John Kerry's purple hearts received in Vietnam were attacked in 2004 and trivialized and ridiculed by Republican convention goers wearing band-aids with purple hearts drawn on them.

Similarly, Glenn Greenwald in his usual thorough way has documented how John Kerry was portrayed by right-wing media commentators as a gigolo because he married a rich woman, the heir to a ketchup fortune. And yet, this year those same people are not calling McCain a gigolo for marrying a rich heiress to a beer fortune, whose money and family connections he has used to advance his career.

I have been impressed by the ability of some of the Republican party and its conservative Christian base to pivot so quickly, suddenly celebrating things like teenage parenthood that they would have normally been swift to condemn as incontrovertible evidence of the increasing sinfulness of the nation as a result of taking prayer out of the school and teaching evolution (see this cartoon). Now because the person whom they like has these things going on in her family, we are hearing paeans for them as being 'real people', that such things show that the Palins represent 'heartland values'.

I suspect that had McCain nominated someone who later was revealed to be a serial killer but who said he loved Jesus, opposed abortion, and favored policies that favored the wealthy, these same people would suddenly say that 'real Americans' have prison records and the ability to kill without compunction is just the kind of toughness we need in a national leader in order to deal with terrorists. They would also decry as wimps the Democratic candidates because neither had the gumption to shoot a man, just to watch him die.

More problematic is whether the McCain campaign knew all these things about Palin in advance. If they didn't, that reflects badly on McCain and his campaign for being so sloppy in their vetting process, and on Palin's judgment in not being aware that she must come clean because these things don't stay hidden for long.

If McCain did know, then it becomes mystifying as to why they chose her despite these problems and why they did not reveal them right at the outset instead of being pressured to do so by rumors. Again, this is Palin's private life but in such high profile campaigns the private inevitably becomes public and the way to deal with it is to reveal things voluntarily without being seen as forced to do so.

The campaign is a bit vague on whether McCain knew about the pregnancy issue before her selection:

Although the McCain campaign said that Mr. McCain had known about Bristol Palin’s pregnancy before he asked her mother to join him on the ticket and that he did not consider it disqualifying, top aides were vague on Monday about how and when he had learned of the pregnancy, and from whom.

Another conservative Byron York of the National Review adds this perspective:

I don't usually engage in these scenarios, but I'll do it here. If the Obamas had a 17 year-old daughter who was unmarried and pregnant by a tough-talking black kid, my guess is if that they all appeared onstage at a Democratic convention and the delegates were cheering wildly, a number of conservatives might be discussing the issue of dysfunctional black families.

When it comes to the kind of 'families practicing traditional values' normally loved and praised by evangelical Christians, the best example in the race is the Obama family. The only thing they are missing from being a Normal Rockwell painting is having a dog. The Obama children have been promised the latter after the election, whatever the result.

POST SCRIPT: Folsom Prison Blues

For those who might be a little puzzled by my allusion above to shooting a man just to watch him die, it was an excuse to give you the source of that famous line. You can never have too much of Johnny Cash.


September 05, 2008

The Palin choice-3: The danger of picking an unknown

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

One factor that the McCain camp may have used in selecting Palin may have been the sense that she was a fresh face that would generate interest in a way that a more familiar figure would not. The announcement of Palin certainly did that. It immediately shifted the discussion on Friday away from the hugely successful Democratic convention and Obama's excellent speech on Thursday to the topic of Palin. If that was a tactical goal of the McCain campaign, it succeeded.

But you live by the headline, you die by the headline, and the Palin announcement was itself almost immediately replaced by coverage of hurricane Gustav (hurricanes provide great visuals and human drama and will always trump political maneuvering) and the latter completely dominated news coverage over the Labor Day weekend. On my travels during those three days, whenever I briefly turned on the TV for news, they were having all hurricane all the time and no Palin. She did not even appear on the Sunday talk shows.

While fresh faces undoubtedly generate excitement, it is always dangerous to introduce an unknown figure into a major national campaign at such a late stage. The strong possibility exists that it will be followed by a string of embarrassing revelations about the person and family members, as has been the case here. This is not because she or her family is bad but because they are human.

All of us who have reached middle age, lived full lives, and have families have had things happen in the past that we might not think are big deals because we have lived through them, but if suddenly revealed to the world might prove embarrassing and have to be explained away. For almost all of us, what saves us is that nobody is interested in hearing about our past lives and no one is interested in finding out about them either.

But in the case of Palin, she is so new to the national scene that hordes of media are going to examine every tiny aspect of her past life to get a better idea of who she is. And they are going to find out things that she herself might have forgotten or wish would remain unknown. Palin and her family are going to be put under the microscope and I feel sorry for them because all kinds of information will come out now about them that will have to be explained away.

There will be well-meaning people who have known her in the past who will want to get their few moments of fame by recounting anecdotes about her, not realizing that these can be damaging. There may be people who dislike her for some reason or are jealous and have harbored grievances over things she did long ago, and will now relish the chance to get their revenge by revealing or even making stuff up. There will be those who will use her new high visibility to advance their own cause, like the Alaskan Independence Party (some of whose members want to put secession from the union to a vote) and to which Palin's husband once belonged and which she seems to have sympathies for.

Even if these stories turn out be false or malicious or exaggerated, fending them off is going to consume the energy of the McCain campaign. As these things come to light and have to be explained away, it will divert the campaign from its message.

The only way to avoid such embarrassments is to nominate an unmarried, childless, orphan who was an only child and preferably one whose hometown was obliterated by some natural disaster, taking with it almost everyone who knew the candidate in their formative years. The nominee should also preferably have in their adult years been a Trappist monk with its associated isolation and strong emphasis on being silent.

The advantage of having been in public life for a long time (like Joe Biden) is that although nobody gets really excited by the choice, almost all of your dirty linen has already been aired and you have survived, and people are likely to think that there is nothing new worth digging for in your distant past. Only deliberate leaks of new information by people seeking to scuttle your candidacy are likely to be damaging. If McCain had picked any of the well-known candidates in public life, there would have been far fewer problems.

For example, Rudy Giuliani has all kinds of things in his past like his extramarital affairs, his association with the corrupt Bernie Kerik, and even dressing in women's clothing. If he had been unknown and picked as the running mate and these things had then been revealed, he would likely have had to quit. But because these things were already well known before he ran for president, they would not have the same impact if he had been chosen as the running mate. His campaign for the presidency imploded because he was simply a terrible candidate.

By contrast, when Geraldine Ferraro was picked as Walter Mondale's running mate in 1984, newly revealed allegations about her husband's shady business dealings suddenly came to light and dogged the campaign. The same thing happened when somebody from the past revealed Thomas Eagleton's hitherto unknown shock treatment for depression after he had been selected as George McGovern's running mate in 1972.

So unless they commit new transgressions (like Larry Craig or John Edwards or Mark Foley), long-time public figures are a safe choice. But with Palin, everything about her and her family's life will be new. I hope she and her family is braced for the kind of close scrutiny that none of us would enjoy.

Next: How well was she vetted before being nominated?

POST SCRIPT: An odd speech

Though the first draft of Sarah Palin's speech was written by others even before she was selected and had to be rapidly modified because it was "too masculine" (whatever that means), it was very well-delivered. She is clearly comfortable in the spotlight, articulate, and knows how to engage her audience. She reads from a teleprompter much better than John McCain, whose speech on Thursday was more stiff and awkward.

I was, however, startled by the content of Palin's speech and its relentlessly harsh, mocking, smug, sarcastic, and ridiculing tone and the blatant falsehoods it contained which, although the crowd seemed to love it, has the danger of coming back to haunt her. Since she immediately followed an equally long and harsh speech by Rudy Giuliani, the entire 75 minutes that began at 10:00 pm seemed to be relentless Obama bashing at a largely schoolyard-taunt level, and made her seem like some kind of pit-bull, although she clearly relishes creating a tough image of herself.

The demeaning of the work of community organizers by the evangelical governor of Alaska was curious in a country where that kind of local civic activity is valued as good citizenship. As some have been quick to point out, it was after all Pontius Pilate who was a governor and Jesus who was a community organizer.

I was chiefly puzzled by two things: There was no real introduction to tell us about her (after Giuliani ended his speech, he simply walked off and she simply walked on) and her speech seemed to be aimed at the rabid partisans in the convention hall who were already her ardent supporters, not at winning over those undecideds who might have tuned in to the speech looking for her to give them confidence in her ability to serve as president if needed. As one commentator said: "Whoever the speech writer was, it became apparent rather quickly they were going for zingers, barbs, and clever one-liners, and not really thinking much about how the non-bloodthirsty segment of the viewing audience would feel about it."

I now know what happened. Giuliani's speech was to have been followed by another speech (presumably a warm introduction of Palin by someone who knows her well) and then a four-minute soft-focus biographical video telling her life story and emphasizing her achievements and qualifications. That positive and uplifting tone would have at least provided a welcome change after Giuliani and softened her image.

But what happened was that the media-loving Giuliani so relished his time in the spotlight that he added ad-libbed ridicule-laden applause lines to his vetted speech, causing him to run well over his allotted time, resulting in the introduction and biopic getting pulled at the last minute. Despite that, Palin still ended 15 minutes over the scheduled end.

Lesson: Never put an egomaniac before your main speaker in a tightly scheduled program.

September 04, 2008

The Palin choice-2: The experience question

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While the choice of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate is a poor one, I don't think the problem is Palin the person or her knowledge and experience. For all I know about her, Palin may well make an excellent vice-president (and president, if necessary).

I have never understood why people and the media are so obsessed with the experience argument. If there is any job for which relevant experience is unobtainable, it is the presidency of a country simply because the job is unique. What you are called upon to do in that job is unlike any other job you will ever have. The only kind of experience that is directly relevant, but which you can never get, is first being the president of some other country.

Furthermore, as president, you don't actually run the government or even the White House in any practical sense. Other people do all that and you have at your beck and call all the people you want for advice and actual implementation. The concrete skills that you need are not for being president but for running for the office. That requires the ability to raise a lot of money, run a good campaign, deal with the media, and speak well in public. Having prior experience in those areas definitely comes in useful during elections.

Palin already has run for governor and won, so she has some experience in this area, even though Alaska is not a big state in terms of population, ranking #47 among states. But she is being selected for vice-president and will join an already existing campaign the running of which is out of her hands, so that should not be a major problem.

What I find very odd is that some of her supporters are chortling that her lack of experience and knowledge on national and international issues cannot be used against her because Obama is also allegedly inexperienced. This argument does not make any sense. It was the McCain camp that was banking heavily on using the inexperience argument against Obama. By choosing Palin, McCain has effectively taken that argument off the table. Obama wins because he now does not have to even defend himself on the inexperience charge. All he has to do is watch while the McCain camp make fools of themselves arguing that she is more experienced than him. It is strange for McCain supporters to claim a victory for unilaterally disarming themselves. (See this cartoon.)

While I don't think experience should be a big factor in judging whether someone could be a good president, this does not mean that certain qualities are not preferred and even essential. There are things that I think a good president should have but those qualities can be developed over most kinds of life experiences. The important question is to what extent has her past life and work reveals that she has those qualities.

The qualities that a good president needs (which are independent of any polices or ideology) are many: have a commitment to uphold the constitution in spirit and letter, should have a commitment to the national and global interest over petty parochialism, be able to use evidence and reason in arriving at thoughtful decisions, be a good judge of people and situations, have a curious mind and be a quick learner, be humble enough to be able to ask for and take advice, be aware of the impact that one's words carry and thus be prudent in what one says, be aware of the power that one has and be cautious in exercising it, and be able to take the long view and think strategically while being flexible enough to make tactical changes when the contingencies of events demand them

Wasilla city hall.jpg
Photo courtesy of http://mudflats.wordpress.com

Whether she has had obtained enough experience, as the mayor of a tiny remote town of Wasilla (which, as humorist Dave Barry points out, has roughly the same number of houses as John McCain) and less than two years as governor of a state with a total population that is comparable to the city of Cleveland, to be able to step in and be president is somewhat irrelevant, except insofar as what her actions in the past reveal about the important qualities that are relevant to being president.

There is an interesting blog by someone living close to Wasilla that talks about life in that part of the word. This blog has suddenly shot up in popularity, becoming the go-to place to find out about Palin and her life. In one post the blogger describes the shock at hearing the news of Palin's selection and in another he describes the increasingly messy investigation into the abuse of power allegations against Palin.

In my opinion, there are hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, of people around the country who have many if not most those qualities and would make wonderful presidents. That is why the discussion as to whether someone is the 'best' person for the presidency or vice presidency is absurd. There is never a 'best' person. There are only better or worse people in terms of meeting those standards. President Bush has clearly demonstrated that he does not have most of the required qualities but Palin might. The problem is that we simply do not know.

The questions about whether she has the desired qualities may be answered as her life comes under scrutiny, but as yet the answers are unknown. McCain's statement that she is clearly the best person for the job is laughable on its face, and a sign of desperation. The interesting question I want to examine is how McCain came to pick her and what the selection says about him with respect to his own possession of the above qualities, and how this might affect the campaign.

In subsequent posts, I will break down this question into the various considerations that McCain and his team may have taken into account and see how she stacks up.

POST SCRIPT: Sarah who?

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are taken by surprise.

September 03, 2008

The Palin choice-1: Why?

Like almost everyone, I was stunned by John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. And like them, I am wondering which of the two extreme views of her nomination is true: that she is a bold choice that will give McCain victory in November or that she is terrible pick that will end up being a millstone around his neck and send him spiraling down to a defeat of historic proportions.

There has, of course, been enormous attention to this story. While I don't usually pay too much attention to the personalities of politics, preferring to focus on a few issues that are important to me, the exceptional nature of the choice has sucked me into the discussion along with everyone else, mainly to try and figure out what this pick reveals about McCain.

Since I knew I would traveling over the Labor Day weekend and would not have my laptop or internet access, I wrote most of my coming posts last Friday, the day on which her selection was announced, and Saturday morning. While driving during the long weekend, I only heard news headlines about the progress of hurricane Gustav and nothing about Palin, so I have had to time to mull over my initial reactions to McCain's decision. And my initial reaction that this was a bad choice has solidified.

(As is my usual style, whenever I feel that I need multiple posts to cover a topic, in order to create a coherent narrative, I first write out a skeletal outline of the entire series, which is then fleshed out, updated, polished, and edited before each daily posting. I now wonder if Palin might withdraw from the race even before my series ends next week, so I am preempting the completion of my series on the politics of food until the Palin series is over. That is how bad I think this development is for the Republican ticket.)

There are definitely many positives to her choice. But the problem is that each of those positives, aimed at achieving a particular result, are more than cancelled out by huge negatives that will prevent that result being achieved. The calculations involved are fairly obvious. So the question of interest is how McCain and his team did the same sums that I did and came out with a much different answer. What did they think was so positive about her that would compensate for these negatives?

Palin's name was not unknown to me. I had heard of her before this and had also heard the chatter that she was on his short list of candidates. But I had not given much credence to those reports because I first learned of her some time ago in the context of articles on the investigations into charges of corruption and abuse of power in Alaskan politics, highlighting senator Ted Stevens but also others including her. I knew that she and her husband were in the midst of a situation in which she was alleged as governor of the state to have exerted undue influence to get her brother-in-law (who was mired in a messy custody battle with her sister) fired from his job as a state trooper, going to the extent even of firing her Public Safety Commissioner because he did not carry out her wishes. Josh Marshall has an excellent synopsis of what has become called, inevitably, 'troopergate'.

There are reports that she is to be deposed in that court case soon and that she has claimed executive privilege to not release certain records to investigators and may face subpoenas as a result. She has hired a private lawyer to look after her interests, a sign that she may fear prosecution for actions that fall outside her official prerogatives.

Because of all this, I did not take her chances seriously. And this was even before I returned home on Tuesday morning, checked the news, and discovered that the whole thing had blown up into a full-throated soap opera. I thought that she was put on the list of candidates for the same reason that many such names are usually leaked, to satisfy narrow constituencies that their interests are being considered. I figured that McCain would be foolish to pick someone slap in the middle of being investigated for abuse of power. Why take on that aggravation when there are so many other people who won't come with all that baggage?

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.

Next: The experience question

POST SCRIPT: Political humor

Sarah Palin has her own blog!