Archive for September, 2008

The bailout and the end of McCain.

September 29, 2008

I’m intensely proud of my dear Gabrielle Giffords for voting against the bailout plan.

Leaving aside the wisdom of the plan for a moment, it seems worth asking: why did so many House Republicans rebel against party leaders and send the bill to defeat? Was it a genuine display of voting by “principle, not party”? Was it a genuine defeat for the GOP elite, or something more?

This Thursday exchange on Anderson Cooper’s CNN show may give us a clue:

ED ROLLINS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: If they’re not at the meeting, it’s not going to happen. I mean the bottom line is that this is a four-legged stool. The House Republicans are a different breed.
COOPER: What’s going on with them? What’s happening?
ROLLINS: Well, my sense, is they feel that Bush has led them down astray. That he’s gone in 116 days. They don’t care about the Treasury Department, they have no relationship there.
COOPER: Do they care about anything else and I include Democratic Congressmen in this as well, anything but getting reelected? But they’re all up for reelection.
ROLLINS: They’re all going (to) get re-elected, they’re all in safe districts. The one’s who’s going to lose seats are going to be open seats and maybe one or two of them lose.
At the end of the day, there’s a lot of people thinking about, how do we rebuild this party. And do we want to rebuild this party with John McCain, who’s always kind of questionable on the basic facts of fiscal control and all the rest of it, immigration.
And I think to the certain extent this 110 or 115 members of this study group are saying here’s the time to draw the line in the sand.

Never mind the dull interpretation Cooper quickly foisted on this information — that Republicans care more about “party” than “country,” which clearly hasn’t happened. Look at what Rollins is telling us:

1.) The vast majority of GOP incumbents aren’t worried about getting re-elected. They know they’re going to get re-elected. In other words, they probably didn’t vote against the plan solely in order to please their constituents, though I do think a strong element of old-time Western Republicanism — defined not merely by hatred of big government but resentment of big business — was there.
2.) They don’t care if John McCain gets elected. Rollins, who’s as far “inside” as an insider gets, very strongly hints that they may well not want him elected, and that sending the bill to defeat had something to do with that wish.

It was always rather unlikely that Republican leaders were going to be thrilled about electing a man who makes a selling point of his on-again, off-again loyalty to the party. Look at how often he mentioned how he’d “gone against his own party” during the first debate — why, he’d even gone against Ronald Reagan. Well, what better way to win over Republican voters than to tell them you’re better than Ronald Reagan?

So why was he nominated? It’s worth remembering that a year ago no one thought McCain had a chance and that he trailed every other major candidate. Fairly late in the race, in fact, he was running neck and neck first with Romney and then Huckabee. McCain only cinched the nomination after a series of endorsements from party celebrities. McCain’s success was baffling to a lot of people because, apart from that lisping New York Mussolini, he’d seemed like the least promising candidate. He wasn’t popular among the conservative base, he’d long since lost most of his appeal to liberals and independents, and his uneven temper was well known in Washington. So why McCain? And why, once the GOP had nominated McCain, did they give him his head and let him run a campaign so reckless that even the normally subdued big city newspapers are calling him a liar and a lunatic?

As political commentator Marvin Gelfand put it, when the Republicans nominated Goldwater in 1964 — a “losing year” for the GOP if there ever was one, no matter who the candidate was — “They were thinking, ‘Who can we throw away?'” And there’s no one Republican leaders would rather throw away than McCain, who’s been a pest and a gadfly — constantly threatening to bring in independents and swing voters and other dangerous folks — for the last seven years. It doesn’t matter that McCain’s claims to be a “reformer” are mostly bogus. The mere fact that he claims the reformer’s mantle — that he encourages voters to believe that reform can even be accomplished — weakens party unity and party loyalty. What’s more, he’s just crazy and unpredictable enough to turn on party leaders once elected and actually enact reform. McCain is a ticking time bomb of a candidate, and the last thing Republican leaders want is a president they can’t trust.

With the defeat of the bill — a bill McCain all but identified himself with, thus guaranteeing the scorn of its opponents if it passed and the scorn of its supporters if it lost — McCain’s campaign is virtually over. It’s all but certain now that he will suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of a relative newcomer to politics, and that his sway among Republicans will plummet to virtually nil after that (if you doubt this, ask any Democrat how often John Kerry comes to mind these days). His reputation, of course, will experience an eventual resurge (as happened with Goldwater). No matter what Obama’s presidency is like, more and more people will forget what they disliked about McCain and remember him as a straight-talking hero who was too honest for Washington. Defeat, indeed, is all but necessary to salvage McCain’s reputation for the future. As Evan Lisull put it: “The GOP realizes that it must throw this election under the bus. McCain, whose hero is Hemingway’s Robert Jordan, is fit perfectly for the tragic role. He relishes this.”

McCain, of course, will collude — quite unintentionally — in his defeat. Probably knowing, deep down, that he isn’t going to win, his behavior has grown more and more extravagant and bizarre. Rather than shiver with dread at the thought of an unstable monomaniac becoming the world’s most powerful leader, we ought to shrug off our fears and enjoy the show while we can. Political campaigns don’t get this entertaining very often.

Saturday Morning Quarterbacking: First Debate

September 27, 2008

Obama was magnificent in last night’s debate, staying laser-focused, sharp, and nailing his opponent on every last calumny (rightly, he didn’t even bother with the old “most liberal voter in the Senate” chestnut). Most remarkably, perhaps, he did all that without coming off as a jerk or resorting to imagine-there’s-no-heaven-it’s-easy-if-you-try rhetoric.

McCain probably did a better job of packaging his endless about-faces as principled-maverickism than he’s done at any other point in the campaign. But he doesn’t have the smoothness it would take to make that package totally convincing, and his weird facial tics didn’t help. Plus, it might be impressive that he’s been to Iraq and Afghanistan, but by the time he answered a question about accountability in Washington by recounting — ever so slowly — a story about General Eisenhower on the eve of D-Day, I was ready to slide off the couch.

Beyond that, I couldn’t help but notice how policy-wonkish the debate was. No one talked in the drearily abstract, vague terms I’ve come to expect from presidential debates — probably because the candidates are both senators. In what other debate in our time have the candidates bickered over what Henry Kissinger, of all people, thinks of their war plans?

Come to think of it, this’ll be the sixth presidential debate I’ve watched. How did this stack up against the others? Pretty well, as I recall.

1992. Watched it in fifth grade. Remember little except constant use of the word “gridlock.”

1996. My only memory is from a town hall meeting Clinton and Dole did on MTV. Both were asked where they stood on gay rights. Clinton gave a wonderfully expansive, generous, and short answer. Dole squeaked out a meandering society’s-got-to-have-standards answer, seeming punier with every word, until by the end he seemed ready to dry up and blow away in the wind.

2000. Remember the SNL parodies better. Gore’s constant sighing and eye-rolling gave future candidates a model for what not to do. (Gore’s handlers showed him the SNL sketch after the first debate, and he did better in the others, but that’s the one everyone remembers.) Bush, in my memory, is an almost total blank.

2004. Audiences were pretty divided, as I recall, but Kerry’s wet-blanket level-headedness didn’t have enough zing to overcome Bush’s surprisingly effective reduction of all issues to The War.

So far, Obama’s got the edge. McCain’s major advantage is that he talks in “real person” terms — stories, moral judgments, personal lessons. Obama, by comparison, sometimes seems airy. Bad as McCain was, I can vividly remember five or six things he said in the debate; with Obama, what I mainly remember is the conviction he puts into the start of every sentence: “Look…” “Listen…” “Now…”

Of Salon, Daley and Obama

September 20, 2008

From 2002, Charles Taylor’s account of a brutal 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed 739 people — more than died in the famous 1871 Chicago fire, more than died in the Oklahoma City bombing, and more than die in most hurricanes. The grim details speak for themselves:

Obviously, many of those people died. But even in death, the bureaucracy let them down. So many bodies came into the medical examiner’s office that eventually nine refrigerated meat trailers had to be set up in the parking lot to house the corpses. With the city’s 56 ambulances overworked, police had to transport bodies to the morgue (many in a state of decomposition), where they often had to wait an hour and a half to file their paperwork, thus delaying them from answering calls about elderly neighbors who had not been seen in a few days. The city finally offered parolees the opportunity to cut their parole time if they volunteered to move bodies.

“It was a classic case,” Taylor contends, “of how deciding to run a city like a corporation can put citizens’ lives in danger. … The Chicago city government operated exactly as a government is intended to operate when it’s following the entrepreneurial model. [Italics his.] When saving money takes precedence over providing adequate services, even in an emergency, then we can no longer expect government to do the basic job of saving the lives of citizens in danger.”

The villain of the story, in Taylor’s view — and he piles up more than enough evidence for most readers to agree with him — is Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley, son of that other Mayor Daley (“a bully,” Taylor calls him, considerably understating it), whose officials considered the deaths the “inevitable” result of an “act of God.” Unwilling to treat the heat wave as a crisis, they expressed the most appallingly callous attitude toward Chicagoans: “It wasn’t going to matter … I think the people were going to die anyway.” In fact, the story reads like a harrowing anticipation of the way the federal government threw away an entire city in the aftermath of an even deadlier natural disaster in 2005. Clearly, the Republicans have no monopoly on short-sighted autocrats.

Taylor was once Salon’s third movie critic, and his occasional political articles crackled with righteous indignation and gleeful, balloon-pricking spite. I didn’t often agree with him — he hero-worshipped Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton — but I always loved reading his stuff. While other Salon writers often seemed to be writing solely for an audience of the type of people who read Salon every day (a phenomenon only exacerbated by the introduction of Salon Premium), Taylor could be hard and unsentimental and angry in a way that was genuinely stirring. “The Chicago media regularly talked about the “debate” over what caused the deaths,” snarls Taylor. “But there was no debate: There was scientific fact and there were Mayor Daley’s efforts to cover his ass.”

Since the coming of new Salon EIC Joan Walsh (whose ignorant pronouncements blight the front page almost every day), political coverage has all but taken over the entire site. Taylor has been fired, replaced by an army of professional commentators. With the exception of the great Glenn Greenwald — still the most consistent critic of the Bush administration’s attack on constitutional liberties and everyone who’s letting it happen — their coverage has been blandly serviceable and inoffensive. Salon’s always been a frustratingly hit-and-miss site. Their coverage of the Democratic primaries was so aggressively pro-Clinton that one commenter rightly complained that, were Obama to win the nomination, Salon’s headline would read “Clinton loses nomination.” But there’s a real partisan blankness to the site now, a discernable reluctance to criticize the powerful.

Just compare Taylor’s piece with this truly repellent article by an ex-Daley speechwriter, Dan Conley. The article’s apparent subject is Chicago politics, but we’re left with little impression of what that kind of politics actually results in. We’re left with a vaguely uplifting picture of a kind of boys’ only club where everyone knows each other and likes each other and does favors for each other. To an insider like Conley, that’s “just politics.” In other words, No Big Deal. He seems to think that it’s just a charming local tradition, like eating a hot dog at a Cubs game. As for anyone who cherishes stupid ideals about government: “Chicagoans would respond that the true naif is anyone who thinks that citizens who are inactive in politics — who bring nothing to the table — should share equally in the largesse of government.” Read that last sentence carefully — Conley isn’t just talking about getting a few perks from a few harmlessly shady deals. He’s talking about getting any help from the government. If you “bring nothing to the table” — like all the Chicagoans who don’t happen to matter to the machine — then you’re not worth the trouble. Just like those 739 Chicagoans who it wasn’t worth the Daley machine’s trouble to save.

Inadvertently giving away more than he knows (“You’ll like it here (in Chicago),” Conley recalls Daley telling him on their first meeting. “There’s not a lot of partisan politics.”), Conley attempts to portray the Chicago mayor as, of all things, a principled believer in self-government:

Daley has strong beliefs about personal responsibility. He doesn’t believe that it’s the proper role of government to promise a solution for every problem — citizens have a responsibility to take care of their children, join block clubs, go to police beat meetings, run for local school councils and take ownership of their own communities. It’s a powerful message — one that defines him as a public servant and has made him an effective mayor for two decades — but it can be a difficult message to write without making the speaker sound like a scold.

In other words, shut up and quit pestering those who know better. Somehow one suspects this isn’t what Jefferson had in mind when he proposed dividing the counties into wards!

Conley hopes Obama learned from his time in Chicago. I hope he didn’t learn a thing; Obama’s refusal to stand up against the corruption of Illinois politics is the most troubling thing about him. It’s inaccurate to call him a “machine politician” — he wasn’t supported by Daley on his initial run for Congress and only got a rather reluctant endorsement late in the race when he successfully ran for the Senate — but he’s consistently failed to voice any criticism of Conley’s boys only club.

He certainly doesn’t have to worry about this being an issue in the campaign — the media doesn’t care since no concrete scandal’s attached, McCain’s running the most inept campaign in decades, and the left doesn’t seem to care about crooked political machines at all (perhaps thinking it something only right-wingers are vulgar enough to bring up). But Obama’s wonderfully eloquent speeches — the best of any politician since Reagan — rarely bring up genuine republican issues, the kind you found in the speeches of Lincoln, of La Follette, of Gene McCarthy. To do that, he’d have to attack genuine corruption — the kind that helped put him where he is today. Perhaps it’s too much to ask — but given the amount of, yes, hope we’re all investing in the campaign, I don’t think it is.

Wishful thinking…

September 13, 2008

You have no idea how much I’d pay for a version of this without the French translator gabbing away over the top. What I can hear of this interview with Hannah Arendt, the best political thinker of the last century, is tantalizing.

The illiberality of a liberal

September 12, 2008

I haven’t bothered reading Sean Wilentz’s The Age of Reagan, and I doubt I’ll get around to it anytime soon. Not that Reagan’s presidency doesn’t interest me, but I find Wilentz a singularly irritating writer. I’ve come across about three articles by Wilentz in the last couple of months, and I’ve read them out of perverse fascination. As far as I can tell, he’s written the same article several times, and no one seems to mind paying for it. The latest one, from Newsweek, is titled “A Liberal’s Lament,” and it certainly is useful for what it reveals. In short, we learn why so many Democratic “regulars” found the seemingly benign Obama so threatening.

These stories all cover the same ground; indeed, they read more or less the same. Democrats, we learn, were responsible for Everything Good Ever. Sidney Blumenthal, in his memoir of the Clinton years, posited that great “progressive presidents” were the source of everything good in America, and Wilentz subscribes to the same queasy hero-worship syndrome. Bill Clinton, we learn, “infuriated the left” with a bunch of policies that Wilentz thinks were No Big Deal. Then “the left” vengefully terminated Al Gore’s chances at the presidency with “Ralph Nader’s nihilism.” Then, of course, George W. Bush came along, and you can make up your own article from here. Then things got worse: Barack Obama showed up. 

Obama drives Wilentz to distraction. For one thing, he dashed Hillary Clinton’s chances at the White House, and Wilentz hero-worships the Clintons. Worse, Obama simply isn’t a team player. He’s no fun. He’s derided the Washington establishment which Wilentz apparently regards as sacred. He’s stirred up the rabble with all his unhelpful chatter about “hope.” Wilentz tries to justify his critique by reminding us of Obama’s dodgy friends in Chicago — no matter that Obama is associated with no misdeed; the mere suggestion of wrongdoing suffices for Wilentz as easily as it does for Hannity. Suffice to say, no fan of Harry S. Truman should go around chastizing politicians for their associations with crooked machines. 

Behind Wilentz’s historian’s mask — of reasonableness, detachedness, “objectivity” so-called — lies a good deal of plain outrage. Outrage at the fact that this clearly unworthy man is about to become a Democratic President, a personage S.W. is accustomed to regard with a most sanctimonious and forgiving eye. Clearly he can’t go on doing that if a fellow like Obama gets into office, though just why remains a mystery until just about the end of the article. As an expression of New Democrat despair, Wilentz’s article speaks for themselves, but I can’t resist quoting:

Some of his supporters have, whether wittingly or not, been candid enough to say, as Sen. John Kerry did last March, that Obama’s blackness is the rationale for making him president.

Note “the rationale.” “The.” Not the more ordinary “a.” Wilentz has just let us know that he can think of no other reason why this man should be allowed to be president. (Wilentz is also a critic of the Democratic Party’s post-’68 electoral reforms; such reforms, in his view, prevented Hillary Clinton from getting the nomination.)

For the left, community organizing trumps party politics and experience in government.

Note Wilentz’s eagerness to distance himself from “the left” — which apparently doesn’t include himself or the Clintons. As far as I can tell, what he really means is “bloggers.” 

During his four years in Washington, he has compiled one of the most predictably liberal voting records in the Senate—yet he presents himself as an advocate of bipartisanship and ideological flexibility. 

This would be unremarkable coming from a conservative critic, but it can’t help but sound bizarre coming from a professed “liberal” and “life-long Democrat.” Why should a liberal scowl at a liberal politician actually voting along liberal lines? Is that something to shrink from in the name of “bipartisanship”? Or is Wilentz’s complaint that Obama should “present himself” as an unapologetic liberal and cry up the virtues of the party? One wonders.

Most unforgivably of all, Obama fails to be a Real Man. Where Obama most decidedly fails to be a Real Man is in what Wilentz terms “the harsh and volatile realm of foreign policy.” He reminds Wilentz, in fact, of Jimmy Carter, whom Washington types invariably regard as the worst president ever. “An outsider and a decidedly non-imperial anti-politician,” Wilentz calls Carter — not a real Democrat, in other words. Just like Obama. 

Carter’s real failing in the eyes of Wilentz and his ilk was his utter failure to be a Cold War Democrat. With the Cold War, by all evidence, fading and retreating, Carter had the temerity to act as if a Democratic President had any business not starting a war. Obama, too, falls short in the warmonger sweepstakes: 

Then, suddenly this summer, Russia attacked Georgia—and Obama’s immediate reaction was to call for reasonableness and good intentions and urge both sides to show restraint and enter into direct talks. Unfortunately his appeal sounded almost like a caricature of liberal wishful thinking. It was left to his opponent, John McCain—whose own past judgments on foreign policy demand scrutiny—to declare right away the sort of thing that might have come naturally to previous generations of liberal Democrats (let alone to a conservative Republican): that “Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory.” Beyond the matter of experience, beyond how thoroughly the two candidates had thought through the situation, the difference highlighted how Obama still lacks a comprehensive vision of international politics.

Note that last sentence — “beyond how thoroughly (Obama) had thought through the situation.” For “beyond,” we can read “forget.” Like every other amateur warmonger — the reprehensible Robert Kagan comes to mind — Wilentz regards the actual facts of the Russia/Georgia confrontation as secondary. What matters is the need for America — and its potential president — to appear “strong.” For Wilentz, like Blumenthal, America is its presidents. Should the president ever appear less than a he-man, the entire country risks losing face. Faced with the prospect of a non-warmonger in the White House, Wilentz dares to hint that he just might prefer John McCain.

The first post.

September 6, 2008

Welcome to The Civic Spirit, a new blog devoted to res publica — the public thing.

The tone and general stance of this blog will become obvious enough before long, but until then, remember: Obsta Principii.